Alcaeus lived around 600 BC. Nevertheless, this kind of verse was important in classical poetry and can be found, along with variations, throughout history, for example, within Horace’s Odes. During the Renaissance, the alcaic verse spread around Europe, becoming especially influential in England and France.
Definition of Alcaic
The alcaic stanza uses a specific syllable count and dactylic meter. The stanzas are four lines long, making them quatrains. There are five long syllables in lines one and two and four in the third and fourth lines. These stanzas are also noted for the use of an unaccented syllable at the beginning of the first three lines.
Who Was Alcaeus?
Alcaeus was a Greek poet who is best remembered for his creation of alcaic verse. He was included on a historically important list of nine lyric poets that was created by Hellenistic scholars. Also on the list are Pindar of Thebes, Sappho of Lesbos, and Simonides of Ceos, along with many others listed as either choral or monodic lyric poets. They all lived during the 5th, 6th, or 7th century BC.
Alcaeus may have, at one point, been Sappho’s lover. There is a record of the two exchanging poems. They associated with one another and entertained the same groups of friends. Today, his poetry is collected in ten books. He wrote everything from drinking songs to love and political songs.
Here is an example of one of Alcaeus’s drinking songs. It exhibits several of the qualities associated with Alcaic poetry.
Let’s drink! Why are we waiting for the lamps? Only an inch of daylight left.
Lift down the large cups, my friends, the painted ones;
for wine was given to men by the son of Semele and Zeus
to help them forget their troubles. Mix one part of water to two of wine,
These lines were translated from Ancient Greek by Andrew M. Miller. The poet uses short sentences throughout this piece with a clear and direct meaning. It doesn’t take a great deal of interpretation, especially as a contemporary of Alcaeus, to know what he was trying to say.
Examples of Alcaic Poems
Milton by Alfred Lord Tennyson
This is the best-known example of an English poem that uses alcaic stanzas. The poem is about John Milton, one of the great English writers throughout the history of the language. Tennyson uses the following four lines at the beginning of the poem:
O mighty-mouth’d inventor of harmonies,
O skill’d to sing of Time or Eternity,
God-gifted organ-voice of England,
Milton, a name to resound for ages;
Here, readers should note the number of syllables per line, eleven in the first two lines, eight in the third, and ten in the fourth. Tennyson also has the correct distribution of stressed syllables in this poem.
Read more Alfred Lord Tennyson poems.
Ode by Horace
In the following ode, readers can find mainly alcaic stanzas. Horace wrote:
How close the realm of dusky Proserpine
Yawned at that instant! I half glimpsed the dire
Judge of the dead, the blest in their divine
Seclusion, Sappho on the Aeolian lyre,
This stanza is part of a poem in which the poet imagines meeting Alcaeus and Sappho in Hades. He directs his words to Sappho and then goes on to speak to Alcaeus, saying:
Mourning the cold girls of her native isle,
And you, Alcaeus, more full-throatedly
Singing with your gold quill of ships, exile
And war, hardship on land, hardship at sea.
The original Latin version of the second stanza looks like this:
Sappho puellis de popularibus
et te sonantem plenius aureo,
Alcaee, plectro dura navis,
dura fugae mala, dura belli!
His translation of the stanza style into Latin is something readers can find in his third book of odes and was an important part of his verse.
Are Alcaic Stanzas Used Today?
Today, it is incredibly uncommon to find examples of poems that specifically and intentionally conform to the patterns of alcaic stanzas. In fact, stanzas that are overly structured and feature complex metrical patterns are uncommon in general in contemporary poetry.
Since the time of the Romantics, writers have steadily been drifting away from strict metrical patterns and rhyme schemes. If a writer used this kind of stanza today, it would certainly be unusual, and readers would need to consider why exactly they would want to connect their poem back to this ancient style of writing verse.
Alcaic Stanza and Sapphic Stanza
Commonly connected to the alcaic stanza is the sapphic stanza. The latter is named for Sappho, a contemporary of Alcaeus, who also lived on the Greek island of Lesbos. She is far better-known than he is and is commonly associated with lesbian verse. In fact, her home on Lesbos and the popularity (and scandal) of her verse are why the word “lesbian” exists as it does today.
Sapphic verse was originally unrhymed sets of four lines, but as the pattern was used more and more frequently, it became tied to the rhyme scheme of ABAB. Here is an example of Sappho’s writing:
The Anactoria Poem by Sappho
‘The Anactoria Poem’ is a widely read love poem in which Sappho uses the story of Helen of Troy to speak on the nature of beauty. The speaker asserts that she and her lover care for the same things, things that are worth admiring. Here are the first four lines:
Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers,
others call a fleet the most beautiful of
sights the dark earth offers, but I say it’s what-
ever you love best.
These are a few of the things that some people find beautiful. The speaker, who may be Sappho, suggests that she and her lover, Anactoria, do not feel the same way. The only time something is truly beautiful to the speaker is if Anactoria thinks it is.
Read more of Sappho’s poetry.
Today, it’s quite common to find scholars comparing Alcaeus’s contribution to classical literature to Sappho’s. When speaking about the two, David Campell wrote:
If we compare the two, we find that Alcaeus is versatile, Sappho narrow in her range; that his verse is less polished and less melodious than hers; and that the emotions which he chooses to display are less intense.
It is clear that there are parts of both styles of verse that appeal to critics and scholars, as is the case with most poets and styles of writing. Alcaeus once wrote about himself that he was more centered in reality and life, and Sappho was more ephemeral or celestial in the verse she wrote.
Alcaic verse is important because it was an influential form of Greek poetry and inspired the creation of later verse forms. It was also utilized by later poets and studied for its unique use of meter.
Alcaeus is known for his important contributions to classical poetry. He’s well-regarded for his pioneering alcaic verse. This specific form became influential, especially for poets like Horace. He is also remembered for his love, political, and drinking songs.
Some of the most important poets of Ancient Greece were: Sophocles, Sappho, Pindar, Aesop, Hesiod, Homer, Aeschylus, Alcaeus, and Aristophanes.
The word “alcaeus” comes from the Greek Ἀλκαῖος or Alkaios, meaning “strong.” It is most commonly known as the name of a famed Greek lyric poet.
Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem, ‘Sapphic’ is an example. The first four lines read: “So the goddess fled from her place, with awful / Sound of feet and thunder of wings around her; / While behind a clamour of singing women / Severed the twilight.”
Related Literary Terms
- Alazon: one of the three traditional characters in Greek comedy. They have an inflated sense of worth and often boast.
- Parrhesia: the use of direct, emotionally honest language in one’s discussion of a topic. It has its roots in Ancient Greece.
- Lyric Poem: a musically inclined, short verse that speaks on poignant and powerful emotions.
- Ode: a formal lyric poem that is written in celebration of dedication. They are generally directed with specific intent.
- Watch: Greek Lyric Poetry: Works of Sappho, Pindar, and Aeschylus
- Listen: Sappho of Lesbos: The Female Poet of Ancient Greece
- Listen: Poetry from Ancient Greece