Acephalous means it doesn’t conform to the broader meter. This type of line occurs when the writer chooses to change the pattern. They are deliberate variations in the chosen pattern. Most commonly, writers change the pattern when they want to use a word that doesn’t fit it. In other examples, a writer might drop the first syllable in order to draw attention to a particularly important line or change the overall sound.
Definition of Acephalous
The word “acephalous” is used to refer to a line in which the poet removes the first syllable, thereby changing the meter. For example, using iambic pentameter throughout a poem until the last line when the first unstressed syllable is removed. This means the first syllable is stressed instead. In this example, the stressed syllable could be used to emphasize something, plus readers will hopefully notice the change and be able to sense that something has happened.
Often, readers can find this literary device in the concluding lines in hymns. But that’s not the only time it’s used. Sometimes, when removing the first syllable in a line, the writer is able to create a tone change or make it clear to the reader that something has changed. Acephalous lines are also common in anapestic meter.
The word “acephalous” comes from the Greek for “without head.” This alludes to the fact that the first syllable is removed.
Examples of Acephalous Lines in Poetry
To am Athlete Dying Young by A.E. Housman
‘To an Athlete Dying Young’ by A.E. Housman is one of the best examples of a poem that makes use of an acephalous line. The poem describes the death of a youthful man who is celebrated for his glorious passing and remembered for his loss, rather than his athletic achievements. It was included in Housman’s best-known collection, A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896.
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
In this first stanza, the speaker considers his memories of a young athlete who died. The first and second lines are written iambic tetrameter. This means that they contain four sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. But, in the third line of this stanza, there is an example of an acephalous line. It reads: “Man and boy stood cheering by.” The word “Man” is stressed, followed by “and,” which is unstressed. There are a total of seven syllables in this line. Here is another example:
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.
The first line drops the first syllable once more with “Eyes” as a stressed syllable and “the” as an unstressed syllable, making a total of seven syllables.
Read more A.E. Housman poems.
Trees by Joyce Kilmer
‘Trees’ is another commonly cited example of a poem with an acephalous line. The piece was written in February 1913 and was first published in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. The poem has become well-loved due to its accessible simplicity and has been frequently included in popular anthologies of modern poetry. Below are the final two couplets that make up the poem:
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
All the lines, except one, are written in iambic tetrameter. The eleventh line of the poem, which reads: “Poems are made by fools like me,” drops the first syllable. This means that it begins with a stressed syllable, “Poems,” which is followed by “are,” an unstressed syllable.
Explore Joyce Kilmer’s poetry.
Below are a few of the most common metrical feet. Readers might find any or all of these used in acephalous lines.
- Trochees: two beats, the first of which is stressed, and the second is unstressed.
- Iamb: two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second is stressed.
- Spondee: two beats, both stressed.
- Anapest: three beats, two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed.
- Dactyl: three beats, one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.
Common Metrical Patterns
Below are a few of the patterns readers might see when scanning poetry. The most common of these, at least where acephalous is concerned, is iambic tetrameter.
- Iambic pentameter: composed of five sets of two beats, the first of which is stressed or accented and the second of which is unstressed.
- Trochaic tetrameter: composed of four sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is accented.
- Iambic dimeter: composed of two sets of two beats, the first of which is accented and the second of which is not.
- Iambic tetrameter: composed of four sets of two beats, the first of which is accented and the second of which is not.
- Trochaic trimeter: composed of three sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is accented.
- Iambic trimeter: composed of three sets of two beats, the first of which is accented and the second of which is not.
Why Do Writers Use Acephalous Lines?
Poets most commonly use acephalous lines when they want to signify the conclusion of a poem written in the hymnal or ballad form. ‘Trees’ is a great example. By dropping a syllable, the poet informs the reader that the poem is coming to its conclusion. Plus, when a line suddenly begins with a stressed syllable rather than an unstressed syllable, it’s clear that something is different. This might help the writer draw attention to a particularly important line or idea.
Acephalous is a word used to describe a type of line in poetry. It refers to those in which the first syllable has been removed. These lines are also known as headless lines.
In prosody, acephalous refers to the treatment of a metrical line. If the writer cuts off the first syllable (found in all other lines), that line is an acephalous line.
Iambic pentameter is a common metrical pattern. It occurs when a poet structures a line of verse in a certain way. The syllables are divided into five sets of two beats. The first of which is unstressed, and the second of which is stressed.
It is pronounced: uh-seh-foe-luss
Catalexis refers to the removal of the final syllable from the last foot in the final line of verse.
Related Literary Terms
- Acatalectic: refers to a line of poetry that has a complete number of syllables in the final foot.
- Accent: refers to the stressed syllable in a word. Metered lines of verse are made up of different groups of syllables.
- Accentual-Syllabic Verse: a type of accentual verse in which the writer uses the same number of syllables within each line.
- Scansion: the analysis of a poem’s metrical patterns. It organizes the lines, metrical feet, and individual syllables into groups.
- Hymn Stanza: uses a rhyme scheme of ABCB and alternates between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.
- Ballad: a kind of verse, sometimes narrative in nature, often set to music and developed from 14th and 15th-century minstrelsy.
- Poetic Foot: refers to a unit of meter in poetry. It is a grouping of stressed and/or unstressed syllables.
- Watch: Scansion 101
- Watch: How to Find Poetic Meter
- Listen: What is Ballad Meter?