Ionic meter

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The ionic (or Ionic) is a four-syllable metrical unit (metron) of light-light-heavy-heavy (‿ ‿ — —) that occurs in ancient Greek and Latin poetry. Like the choriamb, in Greek quantitative verse the ionic never appears in passages meant to be spoken rather than sung.[1] "Ionics" may refer inclusively to poetry composed of the various metrical units of the same total quantitative length (six morae) that may be used in combination with ionics proper: ionics, choriambs, and anaclasts.[2] Equivalent forms exist in English poetry.

Examples of ionics[edit]

Pure examples of Ionic metrical structures occur in verse by Alcman (frg. 46 PMG = 34 D), Sappho (frg. 134-135 LP), Alcaeus (frg. 10B LP), Anacreon, and the Greek dramatists,[3] including the first choral song of Aeschylus' Persians and in Euripides' Bacchae.[4] Like dochmiacs, the ionic meter is characteristically experienced as expressing excitability.[5] The form has been linked tentatively with the worship of Cybele and Dionysus.[6]

An example of pure ionics in Latin poetry is found as a "metrical experiment" in the Odes of Horace, Book 3, poem 12, which draws on Archilochus and Sappho for its content and utilizes a metrical line that appears in a fragment of Alcaeus.[7] The Horace poem begins as follows:

Miserarum (e)st nequ(e) amori dare ludum neque dulci
mala vino laver(e) aut exanimari
metuentis patruae verbera linguae.
u u – – u u – – u u – – u u – –
u u – – u u – – u u – –
u u – – u u – – u u – –
"Those girls are wretched who do not play with love or use sweet
wine to wash away their sorrows, or who are terrified,
fearing the blows of an uncle's tongue."


The anacreontic | u u – u – u – – | is sometimes analyzed as a form of ionics which has undergone anaclasis (substitution of u – for – u in the 4th and 5th positions). The galliambic is a variation of this, with resolution (substitution of u u for – ) and catalexis (omission of the final syllable) in the second half. Catullus used galliambic meter for his Carmen 63 on the mythological figure Attis, a portion of which is spoken in the person of Cybele. The poem begins:

Super alta vectus Attis celeri rate maria
Phrygi(um) ut nemus citato cupide pede tetigit
adiitqu(e) opaca silvis redimita loca deae,
stimulatus ibi furenti rabie, vagus animis
devolsit[8] il(i) acuto sibi pondera silice.

The meter is:

u u – u – u – – | u u – u u u u –
"Attis, having crossed the high seas in a swift ship
as soon as he eagerly touched the Phrygian forest with swift foot,
and approached the shady places, surrounded by woods, of the goddess,
excited there by raging madness, losing his mind,
he tore off the weights of his groin with a sharp flint."

Ionic a minore and a maiore[edit]

The "ionic" almost invariably refers to the basic metron ‿ ‿ — —, but this metron is also known by the fuller name ionic a minore in distinction to the rarely used ionic a maiore (— — ‿ ‿). Modern metricians generally consider the term ionic a maiore to be of little analytic use, a vestige of Hephaestion's "misunderstanding of metre"[9] and desire to balance metrical units with their mirror images.[10]

Polyschematist sequences[edit]

The Ionic and Aeolic meters are closely related, as evidenced by the polyschematist unit x x — x —‿ ‿ — (with x representing a syllable that may be heavy or light).[11]

The sotadeion, named for the Hellenistic poet Sotades, has been classified as ionic a maiore by Hephaestion and by M. L. West.[12] It "enjoyed a considerable vogue for several centuries, being associated with low-class entertainment, especially of a salacious sort, though also used for moralizing and other serious verse."[13] Among those poets who adopted it was Ennius.[14]

In English[edit]

In English poetry, Edward Fitzgerald composed in a combination of anacreontics and ionics.[15] An example of English ionics occurs in lines 4 and 5 of the following lyric stanza by Thomas Hardy:

The pair seemed lovers, yet absorbed
In mental scenes no longer orbed
By love's young rays. Each countenance
Às ìt slówlý, às ìt sádlý
Caùght thè lámplíght's yèllòw glánce,
Held in suspense a misery
At things which had been or might be.[16]

Compare W. B. Yeats, "And the white breast of the dim sea" ("Who will go drive with Fergus now?" from The Countess Cathleen) and Tennyson, "In Memoriam," "When the blood creeps and the nerves prick" (compare pyrrhic).


  1. ^ James Halporn, Martin Ostwald, and Thomas Rosenmeyer, The Meters of Greek and Latin Poetry (Hackett, 1994, originally published 1963), pp. 29–31.
  2. ^ Halporn et al., Meters, p. 125.
  3. ^ Halporn et al., Meters, p. 23.
  4. ^ Graham Ley, The Theatricality of Greek Tragedy (University of Chicago Press, 2007), 139, citing the work of Dale (1969).
  5. ^ Ley, The Theatricality of Greek Tragedy, 171; Edwards, Sound, Sense, and Rhythm, p. 68, note 17.
  6. ^ Ley, The Theatricality of Greek Tragedy, 139, citing the work of Dale (1969).
  7. ^ Paul Shorey, Horace: Odes and Epodes (Boston, 1898), p. 346.
  8. ^ The text is uncertain: see Kokoszkiewicz, K. "Catullus 63.5: Devolsit?", The Classical Quarterly, Volume 61, Issue 02, December 2011, pp 756 - 758.
  9. ^ Kiichiro Itsumi, "What's in a Line? Papyrus Formats and Hephaestionic Formulae," in Hesperos: Studies in Ancient Greek Poetry Presented to M. L. West on his Seventieth Birthday, OUP, 2007, p. 317, in reference to Hephaestion's description of Book IV of the Sapphic corpus as "ionic a maiore acatalectic tetrameter."
  10. ^ J. M. van Ophuijsen, Hephaestion on Metre, Leiden, 1987, p. 98.
  11. ^ Halporn et al., Meters, p. 25.
  12. ^ Hephaestion on Metre, pp. 106f.
  13. ^ West, Greek Metre, pp. 144f.
  14. ^ Frances Muecke, "Rome's First 'Satirists': Themes and Genre in Ennius and Lucilius," in The Cambridge Companion to Roman Satire (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 36.
  15. ^ Edwards, p. 79.
  16. ^ Thomas Hardy, "Beyond the Last Lamp" (1914), lines 8–14, as scanned by Edwards, Sound, Sense, and Rhythm, p. 80. The line "Held in suspense a misery" is a choriamb; the rest is iambic.

External links[edit]

  • Ionics, in Erling B. Holtsmark's Enchiridion of Metrics