The hendecasyllable is a line of eleven (11) syllables, used in Ancient Greek and Latin quantitative verse as well as in some medieval and modern European poetries.

In English verse Edit

The term "hendecasyllable" is sometimes used in English poetry to describe a line of iambic pentameter hypercatalectic (meaning, five iambic feet or ten syllables, plus an extra syllable at the end), as in the first line of John Keats's Endymion: "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever."

Because in a line of iambic verse the stress is always on the even-numbered syllables, a line of iambic pentametr with a Feminine ending or Feminine rhyme must contain eleven syllables.

In Italian verseEdit

The hendecasyllable (in Italian endecasillabo) is also used in Italian poetry. It has a historical role in Italian poetry, and a formal structure, comparable to that of iambic pentameter in English or the alexandrine in French.

The Italian hendecasyllable`s defining feature is a constant stress on the tenth syllable, so that the number of syllables in the verse may vary, equaling eleven in the usual case where the final word is stressed on the penultimate syllable. The verse also has a stress preceding the caesura, on either the fourth or sixth syllable.

The most usual stress schemes for the Italian hendecasyllable are stresses on sixth and tenth syllables (for example, "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita," Dante Alighieri, first line of The Divine Comedy), and on the fourth, seventh and tenth syllables ("Un incalzar di cavalli accorrenti," Ugo Foscolo, Dei sepolcri).

Most classical Italian poems are composed of hendecasyllables; for example, the major works by Dante, Francesco Petrarca, Ludovico Ariosto, and Torquato Tasso. They differ greatly in the rhyme system (from terza rima to ottava, from sonnet to canzone. In later poems, since 1800, hendecasyllables are often used without a strict system, with few or no rhymes at all. Examples can be found in Giacomo Leopardi's Canti. The effect of "endecasillabi sciolti" (loose hendecasyllables) is similar to English blank verse.

In classical verseEdit

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The classical hendecasyllable is a quantitative meter used in Ancient Greece in Aeolic verse and in scolia, and later by the Roman poet Catullus. Each line has eleven syllables; hence the name, which comes from the Greek word for eleven. The heart of the line is the choriamb (- u u -). The pattern (also known as the Phalaecian) is as follows (using "-" for a long syllable, "u" for a short and "x" for an "anceps" or variable syllable):

x x  - u u -  u - u - -     
(where x x is either - u or - -  or u -)

Another form of hendecasyllabic verse is the "Sapphic" (so named for its use in the Sapphic stanza), with the pattern:

- x -  x  - u u -  u - -   

Of the polymetric poems of Catullus, forty-three are hendecasyllabic. The metre has been imitated in English; the most important examples are by Alfred Tennyson and Swinburne and Robert Frost, cf. "For Once Then Something." In English, the long/short pattern becomes a stress/unstress pattern, although Tennyson maintained the quantitative features of the metre:

O you chorus of indolent reviewers,
Irresponsible, indolent reviewers,
Look, I come to the test, a tiny poem
All composed in a metre of Catullus...

For an example, see Catullus 1.


The Italian hendecasyllable
  • Raffaele Spongano, Nozioni ed esempi di metrica italiana, Bologna, R. Pàtron, 1966
  • Angelo Marchese, Dizionario di retorica e di stilistica, Milano, Mondadori, 1978
  • Mario Pazzaglia, Manuale di metrica italiana, Firenze, Sansoni, 1990

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