But, the word ‘alexandrine’ has historically been used to refer to several types of lines that are related. For example, in one part of the world, an alexandrine might contain twelve syllables, separated by a caesura, and be perfectly metrical. But, in another, there could be other constraints. In some traditions, there are additional restrictions on what makes an alexandrine, and these are usually concerned with the arrangement of stresses. Sometimes lines with twelve, thirteen, or fourteen syllables are called alexandrines. They may or may not use a caesura.
Alexandrine pronunciation: Ah-lex-ahn-dryn
History of the Alexandrine
The metrical structure of an alexandrine is derived from the French alexandrine. Or a twelve syllable line that has a medial caesura, or a pause in the middle, separating the first six syllables from the second six. It divides the line into what are known as hemistichs. This form of writing was popular for two centuries, between the 1600s and 1800s, in France. It was incredibly influential and allowed other languages and countries to develop their own variations.
In France, the alexandrine first appeared in the poem, ‘Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne,’ a piece that details a fictional expedition made by Charlemagne. It was written in 1170 and from then on, slowly started becoming the go-to meter for French medieval poets. In the 16th century, after a period of decline, the alexandrine was popularized once more. Poets like Jean-Antoine de Baïf, Pierre Corneille, Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, who wrote lyric poetry, comedy, and narrative poetry, respectively, reintroduced the form.
Definition of an Alexandrine
An alexandrine is a metrical line that is usually composed of twelve syllables with a pause, or caesura, in the middle. This separates the line out into six syllables, with a pause, and then another six syllables.
In English poetry, the word “alexandrine” refers to lines that are written in iambic hexameter. The verse is accentual-syllabic and does not use the caesura regularly, although there are many examples in which a pause can be found.
Iambic hexameter refers to the arrangement of stresses in a line as well as how many there are. An iamb is a particular kind of metrical foot. It is made up of two syllables, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. If the line is in hexameter, that means there are six of those unstressed/stressed pairs in a line, making for a total of twelve syllables. This is the traditional number associated with alexandrines.
Examples of Alexandrines
Fifine at the Fair by Robert Browning
‘Fifine at the Fair’ by Robert Browning is an example of a poem that is written almost entirely in alexandrines. This is incredibly rare, far less commonly used than iambic pentameter or trochaic tetrameter. Here is the first stanza as an example:
O trip and skip, Elvire! Link arm in arm with me!
Like husband and like wife, together let us see
The tumbling-troop arrayed, the strollers on their stage,
Drawn up and under arms, and ready to engage.
While the vast majority of the poem is written in alexandrines or in iambic hexameter, readers will be able to find a few moments in which the pattern shifts. Browning might include or exclude a syllable in a line. This can be done in order to make a line feel different from those preceding and following it. Or, it might’ve been necessary for the content.
Discover more Robert Browning poems.
To a Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley
‘To a Skylark’ is an example of a poem that includes alexandrines but is not completely written in them. The first four lines of each stanza are written in trochaic trimeter, meaning that a stressed syllable comes before an unstressed (trochaic). Additionally, each of the first four lines has three of these beats (trimeter). Unlike the other four, but consistent with the rest of the poem, the fifth longer line of each stanza is written in iambic hexameter. The last line of each stanza is an alexandrine. This is a common feature in English poetry. Here is the first stanza as an example:
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
The last line is visually and metrically longer than the others. Because this is repeated throughout the poem, it helps with the overall rhythm. It also allows the poet to conclude the stanzas with a single, more dramatic line.
Read more Percy Bysshe Shelley poems.
‘The Convergence of the Twain’ by Thomas Hardy is another poem that utilizes alexandrines at the end of stanzas. The first two lines of each stanza are written in iambic trimeter. This means the lines contain three sets of two beats, unstressed and stressed. The final line of each three-line stanza is an alexandrine, meaning it is written in iambic hexameter. The difference between these two metrical patterns is quite clear in the following two stanzas:
In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
The third line of each stanza is twice as long as the first two lines. This allows the poet to create a very clear pattern that some readers might find similar to the movement of waves. This is meant to evoke the sea, something intimately related to the content.
Explore Thomas Hardy’s poetry.
Edmund Spenser is known to have used the alexandrine in his sonnets. He also used them in what’s now known as a Spenserian stanza. These stanzas are written with eight lines of iambic pentameter and one final line of iambic hexameter.
A line of alexandrine poetry is easy to write. It should have a total of twelve syllables, split in half with a pause. The words should be arranged as iambs. For feet that contain one unstressed and one stressed syllable.
An alexandrine line has six metrical feet. These add up to a total of twelve syllables. Usually, half of these are accented, and the other half are unaccented, creating iambs.
Often, poets used alexandrines to add a long line to the end of stanzas. These sometimes add more detail than the shorter lines or are used to make transitions more dramatic. A poet might also be looking to create a very specific kind of rhythm.
Related Literary Terms
- Alcaic Stanza: a type of lyrical meter thought to have been invented by Alcaeus, a writer from Mitylene.
- Hymn Stanza: uses a rhyme scheme of ABCB and alternates between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.
- Iambic Pentameter: a very common way that lines of poetry are structured. Each line has five sets of two beats, the first is unstressed, and the second is stressed.
- Meter: the pattern of beats in a line of poetry. It is a combination of the number of beats and arrangement of stresses.
- Poetic Foot: a foot refers to a unit of meter in poetry. It is a grouping of stressed and/or unstressed syllables.
- Cadence: the natural rhythm of a piece of text, created through a writer’s selective arrangement of words, rhymes, and the creation of meter.
- Rhythm: refers to the use of long and short stresses, or stressed and unstressed, within the writing.
- Read: Fifine at the Fair by Robert Browning
- Listen: Types of Poetry
- Watch: 12 Poetic Forms You Should Try