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I'm reading the book La chanson de geste by Jean Rychner. In a certain passage, the expression "epic caesura" ("césure épique" in the French original) appears, which I don't understand. This is my translation from French to English. In the sentence the metrical conditions that the formulas used in the chansons de geste must meet are being established (italics mine):

[...]; that is to say that the metrical conditions which they must satisfy are, for the first hemistich, to count four or five syllables (epic caesura), and, for the second, to count six or seven syllables and to end on such an assonance.

I don't understand what epic caesura means in this particular context. Trying to research this meaning on the Internet, I have found the "French alexandrine" article on Wikipedia which mentions it:

These early alexandrines were slightly looser rhythmically than those reintroduced in the 16th century. Significantly, they allowed an "epic caesura" — an extrametrical mute e at the close of the first hemistich (half-line), as examplified in this line from the medieval Li quatre fils Aymon:

o   o    o   o  o   S(e)   o  o   o o     o S
Or sunt li quatre frère | sus el palais plenier

o=any syllable; S=stressed syllable; (e)=optional mute e; |=caesura

But I don't understand what this explanation of epic caesura has to do with my previous quoted text. In the Wikipedia example I see an alexandrine with two hemistichs of 6 syllables (counting syllables as in French metre). What has this to do with the expressions "five syllables (epic caesura)" referring to the first hemistich and "seven syllables" referring to the second hemistich in my first quoted text? This epic caesura was only used in alexandrines in the chansons de geste or it could be also found in decasyllabics (French metre)?

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2 Answers 2

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To understand what an epic caesura is, I need to explain some French pronunciation, and some of the rules of traditional French poetry.

In French, many words end in a "mute e". These are not generally pronounced today (except in regional French). However, in the 14th through the 19th centuries, they were pronounced except when the following word started with a vowel, in which case they were elided.

In traditional French poetry, alexandrines are lines of twelve syllables, divided after the sixth syllable by a caesura, which is generally a natural pause in speaking. The sixth syllable must be stressed, which means it cannot be a mute "e" (In French, all vowels except a mute "e" can be stressed, and the last syllable that's not a mute "e" in a phrase is stressed). Further, there must be a natural break after the sixth syllable, so the sixth syllable must be at the end of a word unless the next word starts with a vowel, in which case the word containing the sixth syllable can end in a mute "e" (which isn't pronounced because of the following vowel). As an example, here are two lines from Baudelaire's poem L'albatros:

Le Poète est semblable | au prince des nuées
(The Poet is like | this prince of the clouds)

Ses ailes de géant | l'empêchent de marcher.
(His giant wings | keep him from walking.)

The only reason that the first hemistich above can end with the word semblable, which ends with a mute "e", is because the next word, au, starts with a vowel, and this prevents the mute "e" from being pronounced.

So, for example, the line

Il y avait un aigle | qui volait sur la lune.
(There was an eagle | who was flying on the moon.)

would not be acceptable in traditional French poetry. You would need to start the second hemistich with a vowel, as in:

Il y avait un aigle | enragé par la lune.
(There was an eagle | enraged by the moon.)

However, in the 12th and 13th centuries, the rules of meter in French poetry were looser—the above line would have been allowed, and it is called an epic caesura (une césure épique). More specifically, you were allowed to end a hemistich with a mute "e" which was pronounced, as long as the preceding (naturally stressed) syllable was the sixth syllable in the line. The mute "e" didn't even have to end the word, so for example

Il y avait des aigles | qui volaient sur la lune.
(There were some eagles | who were flying on the moon.)

would also have been acceptable. You can think of alexandrines with an epic caesura either as having an "extrametrical" or "supernumerary" syllable that isn't counted (this is the way the English and French wikipedia articles on the alexandrine seem to analyze them) or as having seven syllables, the last being a mute "e", in the first hemistich. This second analysis is what the text you are reading seems to use.

You asked whether epic caesuras were allowed in decasyllables as well as alexandrines. Many of the chansons de geste were written in 4+6 decasyllables (where lines are ten syllables divided by a caesura after a four-syllable hemistich). Epic caesuras, where the first hemistich ended with a mute "e" after the stressed fourth syllable, were indeed allowed in these.

You also asked what the "formulas" were in the book by Rychner. Rychner explains:

La formule exprime donc une idée simple dans les mots qui conviennent à certaines conditions métriques. Dans le cas du décasyllabe épique coupé 4 + 6, les formules remplissent le plus souvent un hémistiche ; c’est dire que les conditions métriques auxquelles elles doivent satisfaire sont, pour le premier hémistiche, de compter quatre ou cinq syllabes (césure épique), et, pour le second, de compter six ou sept syllabes et de se terminer sur telle assonance.

The formula thus expresses a simple idea in words that conform to certain metrical conditions. In the case of the epic decasyllable divided 4 + 6, the formulas most often fill a hemistich; that is to say the metrical conditions that they must satisfy are, in the first hemistich, to count four or five syllables (epic caesura), and in the second, to count six or seven syllables and to end in a certain assonance.
Jean Rychner (1955). La Chanson de geste: Essai sur l'art épique des jongleurs, p. 147. Geneva: E. Droz.

So the formulas are stock phrases that the poet can use to fill a hemistich. If a formula has four syllables (or if it ends in a mute "e", five syllables), then the poet can just use it whenever he needs to express some idea, which he may want to do repeatedly. It will conform with the meter of the poem, as phrases in French are automatically stressed on the last syllable (unless it's a mute "e", in which case they are stressed on the second-to-last syllable). Repeated phrases like this, Rychner says, are often found in poetry from oral traditions, and they help the bards to remember the poems:

Et, poursuivant le double but d’une versification facile et d’un style héroïque, ils se firent une diction formulaire et une technique de son emploi, et cette technique des formules, conservée dans ses plus petits détails, parce qu’elle fournissait à l’aède des matériaux adaptes à la versification qu’il n’aurait jamais pu trouver lui-même, prit le relief des choses traditionnelles.

And, pursuing the double goal of easy versification and heroic style, they came up with a formulaic diction and a technique for its use, and this technique of formulas, conserved in its smallest details, because it provided to the bard materials adapted to versification which he would never have been able to find himself, took on the shape of tradition.
Jean Rychner (1955). La Chanson de geste: Essai sur l'art épique des jongleurs, p. 147. Geneva: E. Droz.

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  • I know that the final -e was pronounced at those times. But, from my understanding of French metre, one must count the syllables until the last stressed one: counting this way, the first hemistich would have 6 syllables.
    – Charo
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 20:26
  • @Charo: The first hemistich would be illegal in more recent French verse (certainly by the 15th century, but probably earlier). When the chansons de geste were written, it was pronounced with seven syllables, and called an epic caesura.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 20:31
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    Yes, there were 7 syllables, but you should count only the six first ones because the last one is unstressed. In this sense, it's an hemistich of 6 syllables.
    – Charo
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 20:40
  • It has an extra syllable (the mute "e") in it which was pronounced. This would not have be allowed in French verse from the 15th century on, when a mute "e" could only end a hemastich if the following word started with a vowel (meaning that the mute "e" was not pronounced).
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 20:42
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    Ah, @PeterShor: I now understand what Rychner is saying. A decasyllabic is 4+6 from the point of metre (French metre), but a formula that fills completely the first hemistich really has 4 syllables if there is not epic caesura or 5 syllables if there is epic ceasura, that is if the last stressed syllable in the hemistich is the penultimate one. In the same way, a formula that completely fills the second hemistich really has 6 syllables if it ends in an stressed syllable or 7 syllables if the last stressed syllable in the hemistich is the penultimate one.
    – Charo
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 16:19
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Here’s a bit more context for the passage from Rychner you asked about, with my translation. Rychner is discussing “formulas”, that is, “expressions that are regularly used under the same metrical conditions, to express a particular idea”.

La formule exprime donc une idée simple dans les mots qui conviennent à certaines conditions métriques. Dans le cas du décasyllabe épique coupé 4 + 6, les formules remplissent le plus souvent un hémistiche ; c’est dire que les conditions métriques auxquelles elles doivent satisfaire sont, pour le premier hémistiche, de compter quatre ou cinq syllabes (césure épique), et, pour le second, de compter six ou sept syllabes et de se terminer sur telle assonance. On voit tout de suite pourquoi les formules du premier hémistiche sont plus constantes que les formules du second : elles échappent aux exigences de l’assonance.

The formula thus expresses a simple idea in words which suit particular metrical conditions. In the case of the epic decasyllable divided 4 + 6, formulas usually fill a hemistich; that is, the metrical conditions which they have to satisfy, for the first hemistich, are to consist of four or five syllables (epic caesura), and, for the second, to consist of six or seven syllables and to end with a particular assonance. We now see why formulas for the first hemistich are more consistent than formulas for the second: they avoid the requirements of the assonance.

Jean Rychner (1955). La Chanson de geste: Essai sur l'art épique des jongleurs, p. 147. Geneva: E. Droz.

So Rychner is saying that the “epic decasyllable” is normally divided by a caesura (pause) into two hemistichs (half-lines), the first of four or five syllables and the second of six or seven. When the first hemistich consists of five syllables, the fifth syllable (the one just before the caesura) must be a schwa, and in this case the caesura is known as an “epic caesura”.

Rychner says that a “formula” typically fills one or the other of the hemistichs. He gives the example “Le cheval broche” (the spurred horse) which has five syllables and so fills the first hemistich of a decasyllable so that it ends with an “epic caesura”. This formula, Rychner says, is often paired with another formula expressing the idea “des éperons” (of the spurs), selected according to the requirements of the assonance, for example, La Prise d’Orange, line 1835:

Le cheval broche | des esperons tranchanz

The spurred horse | of the sharp spurs

Note that “broche” has two syllables (“bro-che”), because in Old French the final “-e” was still pronounced in ordinary speech, and so counted as a syllable in poetry unless elided with a following vowel. Even in modern French, where final “-e” is often omitted in ordinary speech, it is still pronounced in poetry and song (see Wikipedia).

So “epic caesura” refers to the pause in an epic line, where the first hemistich has an extra syllable, which must be a schwa. If the line is a decasyllable, then this means the first hemistich has five syllables rather than the usual four, and if the line is an Alexandrine, then the first hemistich has seven syllables rather than the usual six.

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  • "The cheval broche" has 4 syllables in French metre, so this verse is a standard 4 + 6 decasyllabic. Should I ask another question about counting syllables in French metre?
    – Charo
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 10:28
  • Yes, this seems to be the root of the problem! In French poetry the -e ending is pronounced, and (unless elided with a following vowel) counts as a syllable, even if it would be silent in ordinary speech. And of course the chansons de geste were written in Old French where the -e was pronounced in ordinary speech as well as in poetry. Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 10:38
  • Yes, I repeat: I know that final -e was pronounced in Old French. But look, for instance, at page 53 of this PhD thesis. The author is analyzing hemistichs of 6 syllables (Le pelegrinage de Charlemagne is composed in 6+6 alexandrines and is also in Old French, of course). One example of 6 syllables first hemistich is "L'emperere de France".
    – Charo
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 10:54
  • As I have already said, the reason is that, in French metre, in each hemistich you must only count syllables until the last stressed one.
    – Charo
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 11:00

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