A feminine ending typically occurs in a line that ends with an extra unstressed syllable or simply, has an unstressed syllable at the end. In prosody, this term is applied to the verse lines, which contain an incomplete foot. The final stressed syllables are dropped for the poetic effect. In those cases, feminine endings occur and enhance the meaning of the lines or the sound effect. In contrast to a masculine ending, this type of ending generally acts like an open door that keeps the metrical flow intact.
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Feminine Ending Definition
In prosody or the study of sound and meter in poetry, the ending of a metrical verse line with an unstressed syllable is called a feminine ending. The extrametrical syllable or the unstressed syllable at the end of a line makes the line ending feminine, as in the case of the first line of ‘Sonnet 20’ by William Shakespeare:
A wo/-man’s face/ with na/-ture’s own/ hand pain-[ted,
Some words having feminine endings include “plea-sure,” “trea-sure,” “fa-shion,” etc. In music theory, the term feminine ending or feminine cadence is applied to a phrase or movement that ends in an unstressed note or cadence. Therefore, this term has a similar meaning in both prosody and musicology.
Meaning of Feminine Ending
The term “feminine” came from French grammar, in which the words of feminine grammatical gender end with a silent “e,” “es,” or “ent.” Whereas French words of masculine grammatical gender do not end with a silent or mute syllable. From this technical distinction, the term came into poetry. In prosody, the lines which end with an unstressed or short syllable are called feminine. In the opposite case, the lines are termed masculine. There is no connection between the conventional concept of femininity with this prosodic term.
Examples of Feminine Endings in Literature
Feminine Endings in the Works of William Shakespeare
To be, or not to be from Hamlet
To be,/ or not/ to be,/ that is/ the ques-[tion:
Whe-ther/ ’tis nob/-ler in/ the mind/ to suf-[fer
The slings/ and ar/-rows of/ out-rage/-ous for-[tune,
Or to/ take arms/ a-gainst/ a sea/ of trou-[bles
And/ by op/-pos-ing/ end them./ To die/—to sleep,
No more;/ and by/ a sleep/ to say/ we end
The heart/-ache and/ the thou/-sand natu/-ral shocks
In many plays by William Shakespeare, we can find the use of feminine endings. The Bard used both endings in order to heighten the dramatic effect. For understanding the significance of any literary devices and metrical stylizations, his plays are a go-to-resource.
Consider these lines from one of his greatest tragedies, Hamlet. It is important to note how he uses feminine endings in the first four lines of the soliloquy. These iambic pentameter lines have an additional syllable at the end that are unstressed. In the next lines, Shakespeare uses masculine endings, meaning the lines end with stressed syllables. These lines do not contain any additional syllables at the end. Hamlet’s soliloquy is an example of the usage of feminine endings in blank verse, as well as, in iambic pentameter.
All the world’s a stage from As You Like It
All/ the world’s/ a stage,
And all/ the men/ and wo/-men mere/-ly play-[ers;
They have/ their ex/-its and their/ en-tran/-[ces;
And one/ man in/ his time/ plays ma/-ny parts,
His acts/ be-ing/ sev-en/ a-ges./ At first/ the in-fant,
Mew-ling/ and pu/-king in/ the nur/-se’s arms;
Similarly, in this famous speech, ‘The Seven Ages of Man’ from Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It, readers can find the use of feminine endings. It occurs in the second and third lines. Both of these lines end with extra syllables (marked in italics): “play-ers” and “en-tran-ces”. This ending gives these lines a different cadence than the rest of the lines that end with stressed syllables or have typical masculine endings. There are some other metrical variations that enhance the sound scheme of the whole speech.
In Shakespeare’s sonnets, there are a number of instances where we find iambic pentameter lines ending with an additional, unstressed syllable. Shakespeare uses these endings coupled with their counterparts, masculine endings in his sonnets. Read the following lines and mark their endings from ‘Sonnet 26,’ also known as ‘Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage’:
Lord of/ my love,/ to whom/ in vas-sal-[age
Thy me/-rit hath/ my du/-ty strong/-ly knit,
To thee/ I send/ this writt(e)n/ em-bass-[age,
To wit/-ness du/-ty, not/ to show/ my wit:
In the lines quoted above, readers can find the extra syllable “-age” at the end of lines one and three. These lines contain feminine endings. The rest of the lines contain stressed syllables at their end. These have masculine endings. One can also note that the lines with feminine endings rhyme and the masculines lines also end with the same rhyme. In the first case, the rhyme is called a feminine rhyme, and in the latter, it is called a masculine rhyme.
In the same manner, Shakespeare uses feminine endings in the following lines from ‘Sonnet 87’ or ‘Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing’:
Fare-well!/ thou art/ too dear/ for my/ pos-ses-[sing,
And like/ e-nough/ thou know’st/ thy es/-ti-mate,
The char/-ter of/ thy worth/ gives thee/ re-lea-[sing;
My bonds/ in thee/ are all/ de-ter/-mi-nate.
The first and third lines of this sonnet have feminine endings. They end with a similar rhyme as well. In contrast, the second and fourth lines contain the perfect ten syllables to make them iambic pentameter lines without any hypermetrical endings.
Out through/ the fields/ and the woods
And o/-ver the walls/ I have wend-[ed;
I have climbed/ the hills/ of view
And looked/ at the world,/ and de-scend-[ed;
I have come/ by the high/-way home,
And lo,/ it is end-[ed.
This beautiful nature poem depicts the impact of changing seasons and love. In the first stanza quoted above, the second, fourth, and last lines end with the same unstressed syllable, “-ed”. Thus, these lines have feminine endings.
Read more Robert Frost poems.
Spring and Fall by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Már-ga/-rét, áre/ you gríev-[ing
O-ver/ Gol-den/-grove un-leav-[ing?
Leáves like/ the things/ of man,/ you
With your/ fresh thoughts/ care for,/ can you?
Ah! ás/ the heart/ grows old-[er
It will come/ to such/ sights cold-[er
This poem is addressed to a young girl named “Márgarét”. It is about the deep-rooted fear that we carry throughout our lives, that of our own mortality. This poem is written in a combination of feminine and masculines endings. For instance, the first two lines end with an extra syllable, “-ing” and the following lines end with the stressed syllable, “you.”
Explore more Gerard Manley Hopkins poetry.
Why Do Writers Use Feminine Endings?
From the examples, readers can assume the purpose of using feminine endings. Writers generally use this type of endings to complement masculine endings. In poetry, the common type of ending is masculine. Therefore, the usage of an unstressed syllable at the end of verse lines is regarded not as a generalization, but as a stylization. The presence of an extra syllable at the end of a verse line makes it open-ended like a door half-shut. Additionally, the use of stressed and unstressed syllables in consecutive line endings adds a variation to the rhythm.
In poetry, feminine endings occur when a verse line ends with a hypermetrical syllable or unstressed syllable. Let’s say, a poem is in iambic tetrameter, which means the lines have four iambs each—a total of eight syllables. If there are nine syllables in a particular line and the last syllable or the ninth syllable is short or unstressed, the line is said to have a feminine ending. For example, this iambic tetrameter line, “Glorious things of thee are spok-[en”, contains a feminine ending.
In iambic pentameter, there are a total of five iambs or ten syllables per line. An iamb consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Suppose, there are eleven syllables in a line that is in iambic pentameter and this extra syllable (eleventh syllable) is unstressed. In that case, the line has a feminine ending. For instance, this iambic pentameter line, “A woman’s face with nature’s own hand paint-[ed”, contains a feminine ending as it ends with an extra, short syllable “-ed”.
In French poetry, a feminine ending occurs in a verse line in which the final syllable does not have a silent syllable, such as a mute “e.” The term “feminine” is applied in English prosody to designate a line ending with an unstressed syllable. It comes from French grammar in which the words of the feminine gender end with a silent or mute syllable.
The major difference between these two types of prosodic endings is that a masculine ending occurs when the final syllable of a verse line contains a stressed syllable. In contrast to that, a feminine ending occurs when the final syllable is unstressed or short.
Related Literary Terms
- Prosody: is the study of meter, rhyme, and the sound scheme of words in poetry.
- Meter: is the pattern of beats and arrangement of stresses in a line of poetry.
- Feminine Rhyme: is a type of rhyme that is made up of two unstressed syllables.
- Masculine Rhyme: occurs when the final stressed syllables of verse lines rhyme together.
- Masculine Ending: occurs when the final syllable of a metered verse line is stressed or long.
- Iambic Pentameter: is a common meter in poetry in which there are a set of five iambs or iambic feet.
- Watch: Feminine Endings in Shakespeare
- Explore: 10 Important Elements of Poetry
- Read: How to Understand Shakespeare’s Sonnets