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A catalectic line is a metrically incomplete line of verse, lacking a syllable at the end or ending with an incomplete foot. One form of catalexis is headlessness, where the unstressed syllable is dropped from the beginning of the line.

Making a meter catalectic can drastically change the feeling of the poem, and catalexis is often used to achieve a certain effect. Compare this selection from Book III of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" with that from W. H. Auden's "Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love". The first is in trochaic tetrameter (a trochaic dimeter in ancient terms, as a Greek trochaic metron is a doubled 'trochee'), and the second in trochaic tetrameter catalectic (or headless iambic tetrameter).

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.
--H. W. Longfellow
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

--W. H. Auden

A line missing two syllables is called brachycatalectic.

Ancient and Musical Use[edit]

Catalexis was common in Greek and Latin meter, and also in ancient Sanskrit verse.[1] Catalectic endings are particularly common where the rhythm of the verse is dactylic ( – u u ), trochaic ( – u ), or anapestic ( u u – ); they tend to be associated with the end of a strophe or period, so much so that it can almost be said that acatalectic forms cannot end a period.[1] In classical verse, the final syllable of a line always counted as long, so that if a dactyl ( – u u ) is made catalectic, it becomes a spondee ( – – ).

Ancient poetry was often performed to music, and the question arises of what music accompanied a catalectic ending. A few ancient Greek poems survive with authentic musical notation. Four of these are by Mesomedes (early 2nd century CE). The Sphinx employs a form of anapestic dimeter and its catalectic form, the paroemiac. Secondary sources of Mesomede's poems To Helios and To Nemesis are in a catalectic meter known as apokrota "sonorous." In each case, in place of the missing short element of the text (i.e., missing syllable) one often finds lengthening signs. In two cases in To Helios, this appears to be a three-note melisma.[2] It is possible ancient use of catalexis indicated some form of melody or continued singing in place of the missing syllables.

In ancient Greek drama, catalectic meters may have been associated with a male aulete or had some other special use. For example, of Menander's surviving plays, almost all are in iambic trimeters. He changed the meter in one long scene in Misanthrope to 15-syllable catalectic iambic tetrameter recited to an aulos accompaniment.[3]

Poem 25 by Catullus is in iambic tetrameter catalectic. Of Catullus' extant 114 or so poems and fragments, this meter appears only the one time.[4]

Venantius Fortunatus' hymn Pange lingua is in trochaic tetrameter catalectic—the meter of the marching chants of the Roman armies.[5] The hymn is one of the oldest with surviving musical notation.

As Greek meter is often used to describe musical phrasing, some famous themes include:

  • The slow movement to Haydn's Surprise Symphony (spondaic dimeter catalectic)
  • The theme of Weber's Rondo brillante in E-flat (anapestic tetrameter brachycatectic)
  • The slow movement of Beethoven's 7th symphony (alternating acatalectic and catalectic dactylic tetrameter)
  • Ducktales opening song uses this.

In all these cases, the catalectic "syllable" represents a held note (in which a player may choose to introduce or withhold a "breath"). It is a place where the metrical melody is subject to harmonic reinforcement.

See also[edit]


Fenton, James. "An Introduction to English Poetry". New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002. ISBN 0-374-52889-6

Harmon, William. "A Handbook to Literature". Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2005. ISBN 0-13-134442-0

  1. ^ a b West, M.L. (1982). "Three topics in Greek metre". Classical Quarterly Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 281-297.
  2. ^ West, M.L. (1992). Ancient Greek Music. Oxford: Oxford. pp. 209, 302–308.
  3. ^ Comotti, G. (1975). "L'aulo ghingras in una scena menandrea del mosaico di Discuride". Quaderni urbinati di cultura classica. xx: 215–23.
  4. ^ Wikibooks:The Poetry of Gaius Valerius Catullus/Meters Used By Catullus#
  5. ^ Norberg, D. (1988). "Le "Pange lingue" de Fortunat pour la Croix". La Maison-Dieu. 103: 71–79.