lie abed

Syllabic verse

Syllabic verse is a poetic form having a fixed number of syllables per line or stanza regardless of the number of stresses that are present. It is common in languages that are syllable-timed such as Japanese or modern French or Finnish, as opposed to accentual verse, which is common in stress-timed languages such as English.

Syllabic verse in English

Dylan Thomas' "In My Craft Or Sullen Art" is an example of syllabic verse in English: it has seven syllables in each line, but no consistent stress pattern.

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Syllabic poetry can also take a stanzaic form, as in Marianne Moore's poem "No Swan So Fine", in which the corresponding lines of each stanza have the same number of syllables.

No water so still as the
dead fountains of Versailles." No swan,
with swart blind look askance
and gondoliering legs, so fine
as the chintz china one with fawn-
brown eyes and toothed gold
collar on to show whose bird it was.
Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth
Candelabrum-tree of cockscomb-
tinted buttons, dahlias,
sea urchins, and everlastings,
it perches on the branching foam
of polished sculptured
flowers--at ease and tall. The king is dead.

When writing syllabic verse, there is some flexibility in how one counts syllables. For example, diphthongs may count as one or two syllables depending on the poet's preference.

A number of English-language poets in the Modernist tradition experimented with syllabic verse. These include Marianne Moore, Dylan Thomas, Louis Zukofsky, Cid Corman, and Leo Yankevich.


In languages like Spanish and Japanese all syllables are pronounced with nearly the same length and nearly the same stress, and syllabic verse is conventional. In English, unstressed syllables are much weaker and shorter than stressed syllables, and English speakers adjust the timing of unstressed syllables so that there is always the same amount of time between one stress and the next. This means that an English speaker tends not to notice the number of syllables within a line of verse unless a stilted manner of recitation is adopted. The conventional pattern of accentual and accentual-syllabic rhythmic English verse is appreciated as poetry. Robert Wallace compares counting the number of syllables in a line as the equivalent of counting letters.

Syllabic verse in French

See French poetry

The modern French language does not have a significant stress accent (like English) or long and short syllables (like Latin). This means that the French metric line is generally determined by the number of syllables. The most common metric lengths are the ten-syllable line ("décasyllabe"), the eight-syllable line ("octosyllabe") and the twelve-syllable line (the so-called "alexandrine").

Special syllable counting rules apply to French poetry. A silent or mute 'e' counts as a syllable before a consonant, but not before a vowel (where "h aspiré" counts as a consonant). When it falls at the end of a line, the mute "e" is hypermetrical (outside the count of syllables).


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