Fourteener (poetry)

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In poetry, a fourteener is a line consisting of 14 syllables, which are usually made of seven iambic feet, for which the style is also called iambic heptameter. It is most commonly found in English poetry produced in the 16th and 17th centuries. Fourteeners often appear as rhymed couplets, in which case they may be seen as ballad stanza or common metre hymn quatrains in two rather than four lines.

The term may also be used as a synonym for quatorzain, a 14-line poem, such as a sonnet.


Poulter's measure is a meter consisting of alternate Alexandrines combined with Fourteeners, to form a poem of 12 and 14 syllable lines. It was often used in the Elizabethan era. The term was coined by George Gascoigne, because poulters, or poulterers (sellers of poultry), would sometimes give 12 to the dozen, and other times 14 (see also Baker's dozen).[1] When the poulter's measure couplet is divided at its caesurae, it becomes a short measure stanza, a quatrain of 3, 3, 4, and 3 feet. Examples of this form are Nicholas Grimald's A Truelove; Lord Brooke's Epitaph on Sir Phillip Sydney; Nicholas Breton's Phyllis in the Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse.[2]

In the early 17th century, George Chapman famously used the fourteener when he produced one of the first English translations of Homer's Iliad. Two centuries later, in his "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," John Keats expressed his appreciation for what he called the "loud and bold" quality of Chapman's translation, which he implicitly contrasted with the more prestigious but more tightly controlled heroic couplets of Alexander Pope's 18th-century translation, thereby using one type of fourteener (a sonnet) to comment on the other (iambic heptameter).

Samuel Johnson in his Lives of The English Poets comments upon the importance of fourteeners to later English lyric forms saying "as these lines had their caesura always at the eighth syllable, it was thought in time commodious to divide them; and quatrains of lines alternately consisting of eight and six syllables make the most soft and pleasing of our lyric measures".[3] These quatrains of eight and six syllables (or more loosely, lines of 4, 3, 4, and 3 beats) are known as common meter.

C. S. Lewis, in his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, castigates the 'lumbering' poulter's measure (p. 109). He attributes the introduction of this 'terrible' meter to Thomas Wyatt (p. 224). In a more extended analysis (pp. 231–2), he comments:

The medial break in the alexandrine, though it may do well enough in French, becomes intolerable in a language with such a tyrannous stress-accent as ours: the line struts. The fourteener has a much pleasanter movement, but a totally different one: the line dances a jig.

The poets Surrey, Tuberville, Gascoigne, Balassone, Golding and others all used the Poulter's Measure, the rhyming fourteener with authority.[4]


  • Four of the poems included by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings are written in fourteeners: "Galadriel's Song of Eldamar," in the chapter "Farewell to Lórien"; the "Lament for Boromir" in the chapter "The Departure of Boromir"; and two in the chapter "Treebeard" -- Treebeard's song of "The Ent and the Entwife"; and the lament of the Ent Quickbeam for his rowan trees. The last of these features internal rhyme.
  • Queen Marina of the video game Dragon Quest XI speaks exclusively in fourteeners.
  • The Gravemind from the Halo Trilogy speaks in acephalous fourteeners:

Now the gate has been unlatched, headstones pushed aside;
Corpses shift and offer room, a fate you must abide.

Who have so leaden eyes, as not to see sweet beauty's show,
Or seeing, have so wooden wits, as not that worth to know?

  • Sidney's friend, the translator Arthur Golding, was extremely fond of fourteeners:

Now have I brought a work to end which neither Jove's fierce wrath,
Nor sword, nor fire, nor fretting age with all the force it hath
Are able to abolish quite. Let come that fatal hour
Which (saving of this brittle flesh) hath over me no power,
And at his pleasure make an end of mine uncertain time.
Yet shall the better part of me assured be to climb
Aloft above the starry sky. And all the world shall never
Be able for to quench my name. For look how far so ever
The Roman empire by the right of conquest shall extend,
So far shall all folk read this work. And time without all end
(If poets as by prophecy about the truth may aim)
My life shall everlastingly be lengthened still by fame. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 15.984-95, tr. Golding)

Just sit right back and (you'll) hear a tale, a tale of (a) fateful trip
That started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship.

  • The children’s book Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae is entirely composed in iambic heptameter:

Listen to the swaying grass and listen to the trees
To me the sweetest music is the branches in the breeze

  • Graeme Base's The Sign of the Seahorse is entirely in iambic heptameter, the first lines being:

Above the ragged reefs they soared, exquisite and serene,
Through slanting shafts of sunlight, tiny jewels of blue and green.

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville Nine that day;
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

  • Robert Southwell's most famous poem "The Burning Babe" is in rhyming fourteeners:

As I in heavey winter's night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow.

I know it's been two years but see the Tribe was never falling
Would have tried for singing but that stuff was not my calling
The mic is in effect so you know I'm never stalling
Walking through the door and all them suckers started hauling

Poulter's measure[edit]

Good ladies, ye that have your pleasure in exile
Step in your foot, come take a place, and mourn with me awhile,
And such as by their lord do set but little price
Let them sit still, it skills them not what chance come on the dice.


  1. ^ Attridge, Derrick. The Rhythms of English Poetry. p.93. Longman: New York
  2. ^ Boultom Marjorie, The Anatomy of Poetry, Routledge and Kegan, London, 1953
  3. ^ Johnson, Samuel, Lives of the English Poets—Dryden, 1779 ISBN 0-460-01770-5
  4. ^ Schmidt, Michael, Lives of the Poets Weidenfeld & Nicolson, The Orion Publishing Group, 1998

External links[edit]

  • Examples of Poulter's Measure of Thomas Wyatt and others [1]