An alexandrine is a line of poetic meter comprising 12 syllables. Alexandrines are common in the German literature of the Baroque period and in French poetry of the early modern and modern periods. Drama in English often used alexandrines before Marlowe and Shakespeare, by whom it was supplanted by iambic pentameter (5-foot verse). In non-Anglo-Saxon or French contexts, the term dodecasyllable is often used.
In syllabic verse, such as that used in French literature, an alexandrine is a line of twelve syllables. Most commonly, the line is divided into two equal parts by a caesura between the sixth and seventh syllables. Alternatively, the line is divided into three four-syllable sections by two caesuras.
The dramatic works of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine are typically composed of rhyming alexandrine couplets. (The caesura after the sixth syllable is here marked || .) Note that in these examples, as in the vast majority of pre-20th-century French poetry, the pronunciation of the "e muet" follows rigid, indeed formal, rules: normally it is pronounced if followed by a consonant sound. Thus "partîm-euh cinq cents", "esclav-euh des Mores" and, still in the 20th-century verse of the Eluard extract, "perl-euh z-en placard".
Nous partîmes cinq cents ; || mais par un prompt renfort
Nous nous vîmes trois mille || en arrivant au port
—Corneille, Le Cid Act IV , scene 3
Baudelaire's Les Bijoux (The Jewels) is a typical example of the use of the alexandrine in 19th-century French poetry:
La très-chère était nue, || et, connaissant mon cœur,
Elle n'avait gardé || que ses bijoux sonores,
Dont le riche attirail || lui donnait l'air vainqueur
Qu'ont dans leurs jours heureux || les esclaves des Mores.
Even a 20th-century Surrealist, such as Paul Éluard, used alexandrines on occasion, such as in these lines from L'Égalité des sexes (in Capitale de la douleur) (note the variation between caesuras after the sixth syllable, and after fourth and eighth):
Ni connu la beauté || des yeux, beauté des pierres,
Celle des gouttes d'eau, || des perles en placard,
Des pierres nues || et sans squelette, || ô ma statue
In the comic book Asterix and Cleopatra, the author Goscinny inserted a pun about alexandrines: when the Druid Panoramix ("Getafix" in the English translation) meets his Alexandrian (Egyptian) friend the latter exclaims Je suis, mon cher ami, || très heureux de te voir at which Panoramix observes C'est un Alexandrin ("That's an alexandrine!"/"He's an Alexandrian!"). The pun can also be heard in the theatrical adaptations. The English translation renders this as "My dear old Getafix || How good to see you here", with the reply "Aha, an Alexandrine".
In accentual-syllabic verse, it is a line of iambic hexameter—a line of six feet or measures ("iambs"), each of which has two syllables with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. It is also usual for there to be a caesura between the sixth and seventh syllables (as the examples from Pope below illustrate). Robert Bridges noted that in the lyrical sections of Samson Agonistes, Milton significantly varied the placement of the caesura.
In Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene eight lines of pentameter are followed by an alexandrine, the eponymous Spenserian stanza. The six-foot line slowed the regular rhythm of the five-foot lines. After Spenser, alexandrine couplets were used by Michael Drayton in his Poly-Olbion.
A needless alexandrine ends the song
that like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.
A few lines later Pope continues:
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o'er th'unbending corn and skims along the Main.
As in the Spenserian stanza above, alexandrines are sometimes mixed with pentameter verse. Shakespeare used them rarely in his blank verse. In the Restoration and eighteenth century, poetry written in couplets is sometimes varied by the introduction of a triplet in which the third line is an alexandrine, as in this sample from Dryden, which introduces a 5-5-6 triplet after two pentameter couplets:
But satire needs not those, and wit will shine
Through the harsh cadence of a rugged line
A noble error, and but seldom made,
When poets are by too much force betrayed.
Thy generous fruits, though gathered ere their prime,
Still showed a quickness; and maturing time
But mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme.
Alexandrines also formed the first line of the couplet form Poulter's Measure (the second line being a fourteener) as exemplified in Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey's poem, Complaint of the Absence of her lover, being upon the sea (1547).
There is some doubt as to the origin of the name; but most probably it is derived from a collection of Alexandrine romances, collected in the 12th century, of which Alexander the Great was the hero, and in which he was represented, somewhat like the British Arthur, as the pride and crown of chivalry. Before the publication of this work most of the trouvère romances appeared in octosyllabic verse. There is also a theory that the form was invented by the 12th-century poet Alexander of Paris. The new work, which was henceforth to set the fashion to French literature, was written in lines of twelve syllables, but with a freedom of pause which was afterwards greatly curtailed. The new fashion, however, was not adopted all at once. The metre fell into disuse until the reign of Francis I, when it was revived by Jean-Antoine de Baïf, one of the seven poets known as La Pléiade.