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In poetry, a hendecasyllable is a line of eleven syllables. The term "hendecasyllabic" is used to refer to two different poetic meters, the older of which is quantitative and used chiefly in classical (Ancient Greek and Latin) poetry and the newer of which is accentual and used in medieval and modern poetry. The term is often used when a line of iambic pentameter contains 11 syllables.


In classical poetry

The classical hendecasyllable is a quantitative meter used in Ancient Greece in Aeolic verse and in scolia, and later by the Roman poets Catullus and Martial. [1] Each line has eleven syllables; hence the name, which comes from the Greek word for eleven. [2] The heart of the line is the choriamb (–   –). There are three different versions.

The pattern of the “Phalaecian” (Latin: hendecasyllabus phalaecius) is as follows (using “–” for a long syllable, “⏑” for a short and “⏓” for an “anceps” or variable syllable):

          ⏓   (where ⏓ ⏓ is one of – ⏑ or – – or ⏑ –)

Another form of hendecasyllabic verse is the “Alcaic” (Latin: hendecasyllabus alcaicus; used in the Alcaic stanza), which has the pattern:


The third form of hendecasyllabic verse is the “Sapphic” (Latin: hendecasyllabus sapphicus; so named for its use in the Sapphic stanza), with the pattern:


Forty-three of Catullus's poems are hendecasyllabic; for an example, see Catullus 1.

The metre has been imitated in English, notably by Alfred Tennyson, Swinburne, and Robert Frost, cf. “For Once Then Something.” Contemporary American poets Annie Finch (“Lucid Waking”) and Patricia Smith (“The Reemergence of the Noose”) have published recent examples. Poets wanting to capture the hendecasyllabic rhythm in English have simply transposed the pattern into its accentual-syllabic equivalent: –  |–  |–   |–  |–  |, or trochee/trochee/dactyl/trochee/trochee, so that the long/short pattern becomes a stress/unstress pattern. Tennyson, however, maintained the quantitative features of the metre:

O you chorus of indolent reviewers,
Irresponsible, indolent reviewers,
Look, I come to the test, a tiny poem
All composed in a metre of Catullus...

In Italian poetry

The hendecasyllable (Italian : endecasillabo) is the principal metre in Italian poetry. Its defining feature is a constant stress on the tenth syllable, so that the number of syllables in the verse may vary, equaling eleven in the usual case where the final word is stressed on the penultimate syllable. The verse also has a stress preceding the caesura, on either the fourth or sixth syllable. The first case is called endecasillabo a minore, or lesser hendecasyllable, and has the first hemistich equivalent to a quinario ; the second is called endecasillabo a maiore, or greater hendecasyllable, and has a settenario as the first hemistich. [3]

There is a strong tendency for hendecasyllabic lines to end with feminine rhymes (causing the total number of syllables to be eleven, hence the name), but ten-syllable lines ("Ciò che 'n grembo a Benaco star non può") and twelve-syllable lines ("Ergasto mio, perché solingo e tacito") are encountered as well. Lines of ten or twelve syllables are more common in rhymed verse; versi sciolti , which rely more heavily on a pleasant rhythm for effect, tend toward a stricter eleven-syllable format. As a novelty, lines longer than twelve syllables can be created by the use of certain verb forms and affixed enclitic pronouns ("Ottima è l'acqua; ma le piante abbeverinosene.").

Additional accents beyond the two mandatory ones provide rhythmic variation and allow the poet to express thematic effects. A line in which accents fall consistently on even-numbered syllables ("Al còr gentìl rempàira sèmpre amóre") is called iambic (giambico) and may be a greater or lesser hendecasyllable. This line is the simplest, commonest and most musical but may become repetitive, especially in longer works. Lesser hendecasyllables often have an accent on the seventh syllable ("fàtta di giòco in figùra d'amóre"). Such a line is called dactylic (dattilico) and its less pronounced rhythm is considered particularly appropriate for representing dialogue. Another kind of greater hendecasyllable has an accent on the third syllable ("Se Mercé fosse amìca a' miei disìri") and is known as anapestic (anapestico). This sort of line has a crescendo effect and gives the poem a sense of speed and fluidity.

It is considered improper for the lesser hendecasyllable to use a word accented on its antepenultimate syllable (parola sdrucciola) for its mid-line stress. A line like "Più non sfavìllano quegli òcchi néri", which delays the caesura until after the sixth syllable, is not considered a valid hendecasylable.

Most classical Italian poems are composed in hendecasyllables, including the major works of Dante, Francesco Petrarca, Ludovico Ariosto, and Torquato Tasso. The rhyme systems used include terza rima, ottava, sonnet and canzone, and some verse forms use a mixture of hendecasyllables and shorter lines. From the early 16th century onward, hendecasyllables are often used without a strict system, with few or no rhymes, both in poetry and in drama. This is known as verso sciolto. An early example is Le Api ("the bees") by Giovanni di Bernardo Rucellai, written around 1517 and published in 1525, which begins: [4]

Mentr'era per cantare i vostri doni
Con altre rime, o Verginette caste,
Vaghe Angelette delle erbose rive,
Preso dal sonno, in sul spuntar dell'Alba
M'apparve un coro della vostra gente,
E dalla lingua, onde s'accoglie il mele,
Sciolsono in chiara voce este parole:
O spirto amici, che dopo mill'anni,
E cinque cento, rinovar ti piace
E le nostre fatiche, e i nostri studi,
Fuggi le rime, e'l rimbombar sonoro.

Like other early Italian-language tragedies, the Sophonisba of Gian Giorgio Trissino (1515) is in blank hendecasyllables. Later examples can be found in the Canti of Giacomo Leopardi, where hendecasyllables are alternated with settenari.

In Polish poetry

The hendecasyllabic metre (Polish: jedenastozgłoskowiec) was very popular in Polish poetry, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, owing to strong Italian literary influence. It was used by Jan Kochanowski, [5] Piotr Kochanowski (who translated Jerusalem Delivered by Torquato Tasso), Sebastian Grabowiecki, Wespazjan Kochowski and Stanisław Herakliusz Lubomirski. The greatest Polish Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz, set his poem Grażyna in this measure. The Polish hendecasyllable is widely used when translating English blank verse.

The eleven-syllable line is normally defined by primary stresses on the fourth and tenth syllables and a caesura after the fifth syllable. Only rarely it is fully iambic.

A popular form of Polish literature that employs the hendacasyllable is the Sapphic stanza: 11/11/11/5.

The Polish hendecasyllable is often combined with an 8-syllable line: 11a/8b/11a/8b. Such a stanza was used by Mickiewicz in his ballads, as in the following example.

Ktokolwiek będziesz w nowogródzkiej stronie,
Do Płużyn ciemnego boru
Wjechawszy, pomnij zatrzymać twe konie,
Byś się przypatrzył jezioru.

In Portuguese poetry

The hendecasyllable (Portuguese: hendecassílabo) is a common meter in Portuguese poetry. The best-known Portuguese poem composed in hendecasyllables is Luís de Camões' Lusiads , which begins as follows:

As armas e os barões assinalados,
Que da ocidental praia Lusitana,
Por mares nunca de antes navegados,
Passaram ainda além da Taprobana,
Em perigos e guerras esforçados,
Mais do que prometia a força humana,
E entre gente remota edificaram
Novo Reino, que tanto sublimaram

In Portuguese, the hendecasyllable meter is often called "decasyllable" (decassílabo), even when the work in question uses overwhelmingly feminine rhymes (as is the case with the Lusiads). This is due to Portuguese prosody considering verses to end at the last stressed syllable, thus the aforementioned verses are effectively decasyllabic according to Portuguese scansion.

In Spanish poetry

The hendecasyllable (endecasílabo) is less pervasive in Spanish poetry than in Italian or Portuguese, but it is commonly used with Italianate verse forms like sonnets and ottava rima. An example of the latter is Alonso de Ercilla's epic La Araucana , which opens as follows:

No las damas, amor, no gentilezas
de caballeros canto enamorados,
ni las muestras, regalos y ternezas
de amorosos afectos y cuidados;
mas el valor, los hechos, las proezas
de aquellos españoles esforzados,
que a la cerviz de Arauco no domada
pusieron duro yugo por la espada.

Spanish dramatists often use hendecasyllables in tandem with shorter lines like heptasyllables, as can be seen in Rosaura's opening speech from Calderón's La vida es sueño :

Hipogrifo violento
Que corriste parejas con el viento,
¿Dónde, rayo sin llama,
Pájaro sin matiz, pez sin escama,
Y bruto sin instinto
Natural, al confuso laberinto
Destas desnudas peñas
Te desbocas, arrastras y despeñas?

In English poetry

The term "hendecasyllable" is sometimes used to describe a line of iambic pentameter with a feminine ending, as in the first line of John Keats's Endymion: "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever."

See also

The Italian hendecasyllable

The Polish hendecasyllable

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  1. Durant, Will (1944). Caesar and Christ. The Story of Civilization. 3. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 158.
  2. Finch, Annie. A Poet's Craft. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012, p. 410
  3. Claudio Ciociola (2010) "Endecasillabo", Enciclopedia dell'Italiano (in Italian). Accessed March 2013.
  4. Giovanni Rucellai (1539) Le Api di M. Giovanni Rucellai gentilhuomo Fiorentino le quali compose in Roma de l'anno MDXXIIII essendo quivi castellano di Castel Sant' Angelo. [S.l.: s.n.] Full text digitised by Bayerische StaatsBibliothek
  5. Compare: Summary [in:] Lucylla Pszczołowska, Wiersz polski. Zarys historyczny, Wrocław 1997, p. 398.