Masculine and feminine endings
Masculine ending and feminine ending are terms used in prosody, the study of verse form. "Masculine ending" refers to a line ending in a stressed syllable. "Feminine ending" is its opposite, describing a line ending in a stressless syllable. This definition is applicable in most cases; see below, however, for a more refined characterization.
- Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
- Life is but an empty dream!
- For the soul is dead that slumbers,
- And things are not what they seem.
- Life is real! Life is earnest!
- And the grave is not its goal;
- Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
- Was not spoken of the soul.
The final stressless syllables, creating feminine endings, are -bers, again -bers, -nest, and again -nest The final stressed syllables, creating masculine endings, are dream, seem, goal, and soul.
In couplets and stanzas
Poems often arrange their lines in patterns of masculine and feminine endings, for instance in "A Psalm of Life" every couplet consists of a feminine ending followed by a masculine one. This is the pattern followed by the hymns that are classified as "87.87" in standard nomenclature (for this system see Meter (hymn)); an example is John Newton's "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken":
- Glorious things of thee are spoken,
- Zion, city of our God;
- He whose word cannot be broken
- Formed thee for his own abode;
- On the Rock of Ages founded,
- What can shake thy sure repose?
- With salvation's walls surrounded,
- Thou may'st smile at all thy foes.
Here is a German example, from Goethe's verse:
- Dämmrung senkte sich von oben,
- Schon ist alle Nähe fern;
- Doch zuerst emporgehoben
- Holden Lichts der Abendstern!
Relation to verse feet
The distinction of masculine vs. feminine endings is independent of the distinction between iambic and trochaic feet. For instance, the Longfellow and Newton examples above are written in trochaic tetrameter; the feminine endings occur in the full octosyllabic lines, with perfect final trochaic foot; and the masculine endings occur in the truncated seven-syllable lines, with an exceptional final monosyllabic foot. In contrast, the following poem by Oliver Goldsmith is written in iambic tetrameter; the masculine endings occur in ordinary octosyllabic lines, whereas the feminine endings occur with a ninth, extrametrical syllable:
- When lovely woman stoops to folly,
- And finds too late that men betray,
- What charm can soothe her melancholy,
- What art can wash her guilt away?
- The only art her guilt to cover,
- To hide her shame from every eye,
- To give repentance to her lover
- And wring his bosom, is—to die.
Lines ending in two stressless syllables
Particularly in unrhymed verse, there occur lines that end in two stressless syllables, yet have the syllable count of lines with uncontroversial masculine endings. Consider the following four lines from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, written in iambic pentameter:
- And even for that do I love you the more.
- I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
- The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.
- Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
The first of these, with ten syllables, has an uncontroversial masculine ending, the stressed syllable more. The last line, with eleven syllables, has an uncontroversial feminine ending, the stressless syllable me. The second and third lines end in two stressless syllables (tri-us, on you). Having ten syllables, they are structurally parallel to masculine lines, even though they do not end in stressed syllables.
The metrist Marina Tarlinskaja (2014, 124) proposes to classify cases like Demetrius or fawn on you as masculine endings (her example is "To sunder his that was thine enemy", from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet). Thus for Tarlinskaja, "syllable 10 in masculine endings can be stressed or unstressed".
There remains a further logical possibility, an eleven-syllable line ending in two stressless syllables. In actual verse, such lines are rare at best, as Tarlinskaya notes ("syllable 10 in feminine endings is always stressed.)"
The terms "masculine ending" and "feminine ending" are not based on any cultural concept of "masculinity" or "femininity". Rather, they originate from a grammatical pattern of French, in which words of feminine grammatical gender typically end in a stressless syllable and words of masculine gender end in a stressed syllable.
- "Twilight sank down from above/Already, all near things are far;/Yet first is raised high/the evening star's fair light." The full text of Goethe's poem is given, for example, at .
- "Even" was often a monosyllable for Shakespeare; cf. poetic usages such as "e'er" for "ever", "e'en" for "even(ing)". For discussion see Coye (2014:22).
- OED, cited below
- Coye, Dale (2014) Pronouncing Shakespeare's Words: A Guide from A to Zounds. Routledge. Cited passage is viewable on Google Books at .
- Tarlinskaja, Marina (2014) Shakespeare and the Versification of English Drama, 1561-1642. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.
- "Feminine", in The Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Downloaded 12 October 2010.