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We previously had a question asking Were all of Shakespeare's plays fully in iambic pentameter?, but of course, it wasn't just Shakespeare who used iambic pentameter; it became the prevalent metre in English poetry and drama around the middle of the sixteenth century.

In French poetry and verse drama, the French alexandrine was the dominant metre from the 17th through the 19th century.

Is there any linguistic or other verifiable reason for this difference in preferred metre? Note: I don't believe it has anything to do with heartbeat.

  • There are really two parts to this question: iambic and pentameter. To answer the first, nobody can write iambic verse in French; the language simply does not allow it. To speculate about the second, there is lots of English poetry with 8, 10, and 14 syllables per line, and all of these work fine. And in French, the decasyllable was apparently dominant before the alexandrine supplanted it. The fact that the two languages eventually settled on 10 versus 12 syllables may have been just chance. – Peter Shor Jan 10 '18 at 23:18
  • @PeterShor I think you have the starting point of an answer, especially if you can expand on why "nobody can write iambic verse in French", i.e. differences between the natural rhythm of English and French. – Christophe Strobbe Jan 11 '18 at 14:17
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There are two parts to this question: why does English use iambic meter while French doesn't, and why does English have 10 syllables in each line of iambic pentameter, while French has 12 syllables per line in an alexandrine. To answer the second question first, it may be pure chance that French settled on 12 syllables per line, while English settled on 10. There are lots of English poems in iambic meter with 8, 10, or 14 syllables per line, and they all work fine. And the dominant meter in French was the decasyllable before it was displaced by the alexandrine in the 17th century.

The reason that French doesn't use iambic meters is because it's almost impossible to write iambic poetry in French.

Before I can explain any further, I need to say something about stress patterns in English and French and some of the rules that govern alexandrines.

In English, every word has some accented syllables, and poetry has to accommodate these. You can emphasize words by using stress, but these emphases fall on top of the phonemic stress patterns already present within the words. In French, there is no stress pattern associated with the words; the stress accents are associated with phrases, and always fall on the last syllable of every phrase. (Except for mute e's, which are never accented. Most of these are pronounced in songs and poems, but not in usual speech.) So if a word is pronounced alone, its last syllable always has an accent, but if it's in the middle of a phrase, it probably won't.

The alexandrine has 12 or 13 syllables in every line, depending on whether they end with a mute e. The lines are divided into two halves (hemistiches) of 6 syllables each. There is always an accent on the 6th and 12th syllables of each line, and there usually is one other accented syllable in each hemistich. To give an example, from Baudelaire's Chant d'automne (Autumn Song), the first two lines are:

Bientôt nous plongerons // dans les froides ténèbres;
Adieu, vive clar // de nos étés trop courts!

Shortly we will plummet // into the cold darkness;
Farewell, vivid brilliance // of our summers too short!

Here I've tried to choose words that have the same number of syllables to translate the French, and I've bolded the accented syllables in French and the corresponding syllables in English.

For an entirely English illustration, here is Roy Campbell's translation of the first two lines into iambic pentameter, followed by my translation of the first two lines into an English version of the French alexandrine.

Soon into frozen shades, like leaves, we'll tumble.
Adieu, short summer's blaze, that shone to mock.

We will soon be engulfed // by the cold and the dark.
Dear summer, fare thee well! // Your visit was too short.

Note that this last line would be iambic hexameter if you put stress on the words fare and was. But you probably wouldn't do it in an alexandrine. When reading alexandrine poetry, there is a strong tendency to parse it so exactly two syllables are stressed in each hemastich (although this isn't always possible). Similarly, when reading iambic poetry, there is a strong tendency to put some stress on every other syllable, even those (like was in the example above) that wouldn't be stressed ordinarily. And again, this isn't always possible.

So to get a line of iambic verse in French, it needs to consist entirely of two-syllable phrases. This is quite a bit shorter than French phrases usually are. Lines of iambic hexameter are quite rare in French poetry. The penultimate line of part I of the above poem, Chant d'automne is one. Baudelaire quite deliberately wrote it as iambic hexameter, and I am sure it took some effort his part:

Pour qui? — C'était hier l'é; voici l'automne!

For whom? — It was yesterday summer; look here: autumn!

(Again, I'm bolding the English corresponding to the accented syllables in the French.)

Edit: I've had a few more thoughts about why alexandrines came to be dominant in French poetry. French poetic meters are generally composed from parts with an even number of syllables, almost always 4, 6, and 8. Decasyllables are broken into 4+6 syllables, while alexandrines are broken into 6+6. Thus, in some sense, alexandrines are more symmetric, and this may be more pleasing. (Although maybe I'm wrong about this, since decasyllables were more dominant for several centuries, although alexandrines also quite common during this period.)

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I'm adding my own answer to complement Peter Shor's.

In an interview, the Shakespeare scholar Kenneth Muir talks, among other things, about his translations of Racine and Corneille. When asked how he translated the alexandrines, Muir responds that he translated them into pentamers:

I decided that alexandrines would not be taken by an English audience, that rhymed verse is suspect and has been ever since Dryden's day, really. And I think that blank verse [is the thing where] most people are at home in.

When asked, "Have you ever thought (...), when you were translating from French tragedy ... Did you get anywhere near seeing why the alexandrine became as it were the "natural" form of expression in French verse, whereas only a ten-syllable line is the national expression in English? What is it to do with the nature of the languages?" Muir responds:

Muir: Oh, it's, I think, for example, the way you stress E's ...

Gardner: E's, that lengthens out the line ...

Muir: Yes, and it's also the whole scansion of a French alexandrine; it's quite different.

Philip Gardner (one of the interviewers) points out that there are occasions when French verse comes very close to English, e.g. some of the poems in Théophile Gautier's Émaux et Camées. Apparently, in some of the poems, the stresses fall exactly where you would expect them in English octosyllabic lines.

Although this is interesting, it lacks some detail and precision.

  • An important difference between English and French is that English is a language with stress-timed rhythm, while French has syllable-timed rhythm.
  • Another relevant feature of French is that word stress is always on the last voice vowel, while word stress in English varies.
  • Thomas Pavel also points out that the

    silent vowels (voyelles muettes) (...) were audible in classical French versification, which defined the verse by the number of syllables it contained, the silent ones included.

  • Pavel also states that "according to many specialists in prosody, it [the classical French alexandrine] didn’t require a definite metrical pattern."
  • However, this does not mean that no metric pattern can be detected by attentive readers or listeners.

When Richard Jones compared four English translations of Racine's Phèdre—by Richard Wilbur, R.C. Knight, Robert Lowell and Margaret Rawlings—he found that they all used pentameters. This corresponds with what Kenneth Muir said.

Whereas French counts the number of syllables per line, English counts the number of feet per line. Gretchen McCulloch points out in her article "The Language of Poetry" that the importance of stressed syllables in English is illustrated by limericks. In a limerick, the number of stressed syllables per line is 3, 3, 2, 2, 3, respectively, but the number of syllables can vary.

The above does not imply that English verse drama couldn't use anything else than iambic pentameter or that French verse drama couldn't use anything else then alexandrines, but it shows that the both languages' "affordances" (Gretchen McCulloch's term) make the opposite less likely.

  • Strictly speaking, Shakespeare's iambic pentameter doesn't really define a strict metrical pattern, either. A large fraction of his lines have a trochaic or similar substitution somewhere in them. – Peter Shor Jan 17 '18 at 13:20
  • @PeterShor Having "trochaic substitution somewhere" does not imply that the basic pattern isn't iambic pentameter. That basic pattern is there. – Christophe Strobbe Jan 17 '18 at 13:24
  • There's a basic pattern to French alexandrines, as well: stresses on the 6th and 12th syllables of each line, that coincide with the ends of phrases. This differs from iambic pentameter in that it doesn't specify the position of every single stress. The Pavel article seems to downplay the importance of this pattern in creating a rhythm, I think because he's trying to promote Robert Marteau's blank alexandrines, that don't have the stresses on the 6th syllables. But his article, without actually saying anything technically wrong, conveys the wrong impression. (Continued.) – Peter Shor Jan 24 '18 at 13:19
  • You say "this does not mean that no metric pattern can be detected by attentive readers or listeners." In fact, I suspect you have to be a very attentive listener to hear the rhythmic pattern in Marteau's blank alexandrines. But in classical alexandrine verse, for somebody (me) who has only a moderate knowledge of French, the meter is roughly as apparent as it is in iambic pentameter. – Peter Shor Jan 24 '18 at 13:19

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