In prosody, there are two terms that are used often to describe specific line endings in a piece of poetry: masculine ending and feminine ending. It may seem masculine and feminine endings are related to the cultural concepts of masculinity and femininity. It is not true. These terms are chiefly technical and are used to describe the poetic lines which end with either a stressed syllable or an unstressed one. If a line ends with a stressed syllable, it is called masculine.
Explore Masculine Ending
Masculine Ending Definition
A masculine ending occurs in poetic lines that end with a stressed syllable.
The ending of a metrical verse line on a stressed syllable is called masculine. In Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare, the regular iambic line, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” ends with the stressed monosyllabic word “day”. It is an example of a masculine ending. In poetry, masculine endings are common. Their use is independent of the meter used in a particular line. These endings can occur in iambic lines as well as trochaic lines. Consider the line “Life is but an empty dream!” from ‘A Psalm of Life’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This line is in trochaic meter with a masculine ending. Explore more poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Masculine Ending Meaning
The term “masculine ending” originated from French grammar (specifically French prosody). In French, a verse line that does not with a silent or mute “e,” “es,” or “ent” is called a masculine line. Its ending is stressed due to the absence of silent syllables. This concept was adopted in English prosody in the 16th century. In poetry written in the English language, masculine endings occur when a line does not end with an unstressed syllable or the last syllable is stressed.
Masculine Ending vs. Feminine Ending
When a verse line contains a long or stressed syllable at the end, it is called a masculine ending. In contrast, when the line ends with an unstressed syllable, it is called a feminine ending. Read these lines from one of the best-known poems of Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Raven’:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and wea-ry,
Over man a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tap-ping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”
In the first stanza of the poem, Edgar Allan Poe uses both masculine and feminine endings. The very first line contains a feminine ending, “wea-ry”. Line three follows the same pattern. Whereas, lines two, four, five, and six, end with the stressed words “lore,” “door,” and “more.”
Read more Edgar Allan Poe poems.
Examples of Masculine Endings in Poetry
They flee from me that sometime did me seek,
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.
In this excerpt from Wyatt’s lyric poem, the first, third, sixth, and seventh lines have masculine endings. All these lines are written in iambic pentameter and contain ten syllables each, except the third line, which contains nine syllables. These lines end with stressed, monosyllabic words “seek,” “meek,” “range,” and “change.” This lyric is about a speaker, who complains about a beloved who left him.
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
he slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die-to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
These memorable lines are delivered by Hamlet in Act 3, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s play by the same title. There is no masculine ending in the first four lines of the speech. It occurs from the fourth line onwards until line six. These lines contain the stressed syllables “sleep,” “end,” and “shocks” at their endings.
“Hope” is the thing with fea-thers –
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
One of the best-loved poems of Emily Dickinson, ‘Hope is the Thing with Feathers’ is the ideal example to understand a masculine ending. In this poem, Dickinson uses stressed syllables at the end of each iambic line. For instance, the first line ends with the disyllabic word “feathers” and its second syllable is stressed. Similarly, the last syllables of lines two, three, and four are stressed.
Read more Emily Dickinson poems.
I, being born a woman and dis-tressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
The opening lines from Millay’s Sonnet XLI explore the desires of one woman for a would-be lover. These lines end with strong, stressed words, mostly containing one syllable. For instance, the second, third, and fourth lines end with the stressed words “kind,” “find,” and “zest”. In the first line, the stress falls on the second syllable of “dis-stressed”. Therefore, all the lines have masculine endings.
Read more Edna St. Vincent Millay poems.
Why Do Poets Use Masculine Endings?
Masculine endings frequently occur in convention metered poetry. In rhymed verses, the lines end with words having similar sounds. In order to create a reverberance of the rhyme, poets try to structure the lines in a manner that there is a stressed syllable at the endings. Thus, the syllables stay longer in readers’ minds than unstressed syllables. Another reason for using masculine endings is that most conventional poetry is written in iambic meter. An iambic line always ends in an unstressed-stressed pattern.
The term “masculine ending” is related to prosody. It occurs when a line of a metered verse ends with a stressed or long sound, syllable, or word. For example, the trochaic line “Life is but an empty dream” ends with a stressed syllable “dream”. It’s an example of a masculine ending.
Masculine endings as the term say occur at the end of verse lines. It generally occurs when a line contains a stressed syllable at its end. Then the line is called masculine.
The purpose of using masculine endings is to maintain the meter of a verse line. For instance, if a poem is in iambic meter. Then the lines have to be masculine. However, it is not the case all the time.
The main distinction between the two is that a masculine ending occurs when a line ends with a stressed syllable and a feminine ending occurs when a line ends with an unstressed syllable.
Related Literary Terms
- Prosody: is the study of meter, rhyme, sound, and pattern of words in poetry.
- Scansion: is the technical analysis of the rhythm and sound pattern of a verse line.
- Meter: is the pattern of beats in a line of poetry.
- Iamb: occurs when two syllables are placed next to one another and the first is unstressed and the second is stressed.
- Trochee: is the exact opposite of an iamb, meaning that the first syllable is stressed and the second is unstressed.