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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Blog #22: Catalexis and Feminine Endings

There is now about a month before poetry bee! Are you prepared?

   In poetry we have to learn a lot of fancy-sounding words, like catalexis, the first item on our list of things to go over in this blog. Why do we have so many difficult words to pronounce in our study of poetry? Because we borrowed them from the Greeks, who were the first to give names to the various technical aspects of poetry. The words are really not that hard if you say them a few times.

     You might want to say that word over five times before you start reading about what it means—cat-a-lex-is. Sometimes a poet may vary the lines of his poem by subtracting or adding a syllable in the last foot.  If a syllable is subtracted from a trochaic or dactylic foot (both are kinds of feet we have gone over in a previous lesson), the line is termed catalectic.


   ⁄    ˘   ⁄     ˘        ⁄      ˘     ⁄

Oh for boyhood’s time of June,

      ⁄     ˘         ⁄  ˘     ⁄     ˘         ⁄

Crowding years in one brief moon,

      ⁄     ˘     ⁄    ˘     ⁄    ˘      ⁄

When all things I heard or saw,

    ⁄     ˘      ⁄   ˘         ⁄    ˘     ⁄

Me, their master, waited for.


    In class, I told you of a way to remember this difficult term catalectic. We have (actually we had—the creature just died years ago) a cat that roamed the neighborhood. One day its leg got caught in a trap and now in place of the leg there was a barely-visible stump. Ever afterward, the cat walked around with three feet. The cat didn’t seem aware that it only had three legs. Sometimes, in fact, when it wanted to scratch itself, we could see the stump moving back and forth, but, of course, to no effect. So, here is the way you can remember the term catalectic—it’s a line of poetry with a syllable chopped off. 

    The above scanned lines were taken from a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, pictured above. Each line has four feet, and with the exception of the last foot, each foot is trochaic ( a trochaic foot, you will remember, has a stressed–unstressed pattern, written  ⁄  ).  Notice that the poet has subtracted an unaccented syllable from each of these trochaic lines, so that the last foot only has a stressed syllable (written ⁄ ).  These lines are called catalectic because the last foot is imperfect; that is, these catalectic lines are missing the unstressed syllable. A trochaic line that is not missing a syllable at the end would be called acatalectic.

    If a poet adds a syllable to an iambic or anapestic line, the line is said to have a feminine ending.  The first of the following two iambic lines written by Emily Dickinson has a feminine ending:


 ˘  ⁄  ˘   ⁄     ˘        ⁄      ˘     ⁄  ˘

If I can stop one heart from breaking,

 ˘         ˘     ⁄    ˘     ⁄

I shall not live in vain


    I now want to say just say a few things about John Greenleaf Whittier. Whittier was a 19th-century American poet that lived around the same time as Emily Dickinson. Whittier was a Quaker, and if you know anything about the 19th-century Quakers, you know that they were social reformers. The Quakers worked to reform prisons, promote social justice and end slavery. Whittier himself was an ardent supporter of the abolitionist (anti-slavery) movement before the Civil War, and in fact wrote a host of anti-slavery poems. 


   We have a treat waiting for us in the poetry bee when you will hear musicians set the poetry—at least one that you have memorized—to music. Do you know that poetry has music in it? One important element of poetry is its rhythm, or meter. For that reason, poetry can be easily set to a melody. From very early in man’s history poets wrote poems with music in mind. The Psalms of David, for example, were originally meant to be sung, and in many churches today they still are, only to Western music, not to the original Hebrew melodies which have been lost. The Classical Greek poems The Iliad and The Odyssey were also originally sung by a kind of minstrel with a lyre or some such instrument.

    In our modern day, poetry is still being set to music. Randall Thompson, a classical composer, for example, put many of Robert Frost’s poems to music, including “The Pasture,” “A Girl’s Garden,” and “The Road Not Taken.” Christina Rossetti, William Cowper, Isaac Watts, John Newton, Joseph Addison, and many others poets wrote some of their poetry as hymns to be sung in the church. The words that they wrote are often called “lyrics” to distinguish the poem from the music.

    Musicians, however, do not identify the rhythm of poems in the same way that poetry is scanned. You will remember that the ballad stanza contains stanzas of four lines each, the first and third being iambic tetrameter, and the second and fourth lines being iambic trimeter.   When a hymn appears in ballad stanza, we do not identify it as such. Nor do we identify the meter as iambic tetrameter/trimeter. We call the meter common meter, or just use the initials C.M. Other common meters in music are long meter (L.M.) which consists of four lines of iambic tetrameter, and short meter (S.M.), which consists of four lines in which the first, second and fourth lines are iambic tetrameter, and the third line is iambic trimeter.

    If two poems have the same meter, they can also share the same melody, although the mood of the melody may be appropriate for one but not the other. One of the most famous American patriotic songs is “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” written by Samuel Francis Smith. The melody of this American song is also used for a patriotic song of another country, namely Britain, in its “God Save the Queen.” Because both songs have the same meter, and both are patriotic, the melody fits both lyrics very appropriately in rhythm and mood.

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