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Arte Mayor

Arte mayor is a term used to describe a type of Spanish verse. It uses lines ranging in length between eight and fourteen syllables. Some sources describe arte major poetry as only that which has more than nine syllables per line. 

These lines that use arte mayor are usually divided up with the use of a caesura, or a pause in the middle, known as a caesura. The form is explored in more detail below. Depending on the poet, they may choose to use different numbers of beats, or syllables, per line. For example, a poem might use eight, twelve, or fourteen syllables per line, divided into groups of two or three beats. 

The form was used predominantly in the late 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. But, by the 16th it had fallen out of use entirely. The term “arte mayor” comes from the Spanish “versos de arte mayor” or “verses of greater art.” 

Arte Mayor pronunciation: ar‐te ma‐yor

arte mayor

Arte Mayor Definition

Arte mayor is a Spanish poetic form that uses between eight and fourteen syllables per line. There are, depending on the poet’s use of meter, pauses in the lines. These pauses can occur at any point in a line but, they are most commonly used (and most effective) when they are medial caesurae, or pauses in the middle of the meter. 

For example, after the sixth beat in a line of twelve syllables or after the seventh beat in a line of fourteen syllables. Twelve-syllable lines are, in fact, the most common. Often, writers used what is known as anapestic meter. This refers to the arrangement of beats in a line. An anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed. In the case of the twelve-beat lines, that means they would contain four anapests. Often common were eight-line stanzas that used the unusual rhyme scheme of ABBAACCA. 

Examples of Arte Mayor

Laberinto de Fortuna by Juan de Mena

This is the best-known and most commonly cited example of arte mayor poetry. It is generally referenced as the prime example of the form. This poem is divided into couplets, later referred to as “octavas de Juan de Mena.” The poem uses eight arte mayor verses. The poem also uses twelve-syllable lines, one of the most common patterns seen in arte mayor verse

The poem was finished in 1444 and references an examination of “fortune” through its title. It was written in order to support Álvaro de Luna, a Castilian political leader and a favorite of the King during this period. The poem satirizes corruption in the court and is, at points, directed at the King himself, asking Juan II to take action against the weakness in his court. Here is the first stanza in its original Spanish:

Al muy prepotente don Juan el segundo, 

aquel con quien Júpiter tuvo tal zelo

que tanta de parte le fizo del mundo 

quanta a sí mesmo se fizo del çielo, 

al gran rey de España, al César novelo; 

al que con Fortuna es bien fortunado, 

aquel en quien caben virtud e reinado; 

a él, la rodilla fincado por suelo. 

This piece is sometimes desired as a “vision poem,” one that contains similarities to one of the most popular and commonly read vision poems of all time, Inferno by Dante Alighieri. The speaker directs his words to “Fortune,” opening the poem by asking to see her home in order to better understand how she operates. 

Interestingly, the poem’s structure was also influenced by the “Wheel of Fortune,” or more precisely, three Wheels of Fortune, past, present, and future. The first two are accessible to the narrator while the other is still uncertain, as it is for all those reading the poem. 

Why is Arte Mayor Important? 

Arte mayor was an important poetic form that was prominent throughout the late-13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. It was used in a variety of literary works including in some of great importance. Today, it allows readers a way of understanding meter in a different way, illuminating what was important to poets of the past. 

Today, the form is uncommonly used. If it is, it’s used as a novelty with direct references back to Medieval Spain and the works of authors like Juan de Mena.


What is the difference between arte mayor and arte menor?

The difference between these forms is the number of syllables used in a line. Lines with up to eight syllables are described as “arte minor” while those with nine or more are arte mayor. 

What is arte menor in poetry?

A line of two to eight syllables in poetry can be described as written in arte minor. These lines were common in Spanish poetry during the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. 

Who wrote ‘Laberinto de Fortuna?’

‘Laberinto de Fortuna’ was written by Juan de Mena and finished around 1444.

Related Literary Terms 

  • Accent: the word “accent” refers to the stressed syllable in a word. Metered lines of verse are made up of different groups of syllables.
  • Alliterative Meter: a type of verse that focuses on alliteration as a way of creating a metrical structure. Alliteration is used rather than accents or rhymes.
  • Anapest: depends on three-syllable sections of verse, or words. An anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed.
  • Cadence:  the natural rhythm of a piece of text, created through a writer’s selective arrangement of words, rhymes, and the creation of meter.
  • Poetic Foot: a foot refers to a unit of meter in poetry. It is a grouping of stressed and/or unstressed syllables.
  • Meter: the pattern of beats in a line of poetry. It is a combination of the number of beats and arrangement of stresses.

Other Resources 

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