Quantitative Versification

Quantitative Versification


(metric versification), versification based on a regular succession of long and short syllables. Quantitative versification is used in languages in which the length and brevity of vowels is phonemically important. It was most highly developed in Arabian and classical verse.

In classical quantitative versification the unit of length is the mora: a short syllable (ں) equals one mora, and a long syllable (—), two. The repeated group of long and short syllables is called the foot. Among the most important feet are the three-unit (three-mora) iamb (ں -), the choree, or trochee (- ں), and the tribrach (ں ں ں); the four-unit spondee (- -), dactyl (- ں ں), and anapest (ں ں -); and the five-unit bacchius and antibacchius (ں - -, - - ں), the amphimacer (- ں -), and the four paeons (- ں ں ں, ں - ں ں, ں ں - ,ں and ں ں ں -). Other major feet are the six-unit molossus (- - -), the choriamb (- ں ں -), the antispast (ں - - ں), and the two ionics (ں ں - - and - - ں ں) and the seven-unit epitrites (ں - - -, - ں - -, - - ں -, and - - -ں).

Each foot has a strong point (the arsis or ictus, which is usually a long syllable), and a weak one (the thesis, usually a short syllable). In pronunciation the strong points are emphasized by a rhythmic stress, the phonetic character of which is not quite clear. The short three-unit feet (and sometimes the four-unit feet) tend to occur in pairs (dipodies) in which one of the feet has an intensified rhythmic stress.

As a rule, a line of verse consists of identical feet from which it derives its name—for example, dactylic hexameter (six feet) and iambic trimeter (three dipodies). However, feet of equal length can replace each other in a line. For example, in dactylic hexameter a dactyl (- ں ں) may be replaced by a spondee (- -). If the tempo of pronunciation is changed, feet of unequal length may be interchangeable: in iambic trimeter, an iamb (ں -) may be replaced by an accelerated spondee (- -) or even by an accelerated dactyl (- ں ں) or anapest (ں ں -). Thus, within the limits of a constant measure, the foot, there may be an extraordinary wealth of metric variation. The metric variety of verse is also increased by the use of a movable caesura—a pause between words that cuts through one of the middle feet and divides a line into two half-lines, one with a descending rhythm (- ں ں …) and the other with an ascending one (ں ں - … ).

Quantitative verse was used in epics and in drama. Lyric poetry also used logaoedics—verses with a more complex structure and changeable feet. In logaoedics the periodic repetition of feet occurs not within a single line of verse but within a group of lines, the strophe (for example, the alcaic and the sapphic strophes), which is sometimes very long and extremely complex (the choral lyrics of the ancient Greek poet Pindar, for example).

Quantitative versification developed in classical literature in very ancient times, when poetry was still inseparable from music. It received its theoretical development when verse became an art form independent of song, and it survived as long as the length and brevity of syllables were distinguished in Latin and Greek. In the Middle Ages it gave way to syllabic and tonic versification, although by tradition Greek and Latin verse continued to be written in quantitative meters for a long time. The authentic sound of classical verse cannot be reproduced in tonic versification. In translations that preserve the form of the original it is customary to use stressed syllables to convey rhythmic stresses and unstressed syllables to convey the weak parts of feet.


Denisov, la. Osnovaniia metriki u drevnikh grekov i rimlian. Moscow, 1888.
Crusius, F. Romische Metrik, 2nd ed. Munich, 1955.
Snell, B. Griechische Metrik, 2nd ed. [bk. 1]. Göttingen, 1957.
Metryka grecka i tacinska. Edited by M. Dtuskija and W. Strzeleckij. Wroclaw, 1959.


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Psalmodists experimented with quantitative versification and classical stanzaic forms, either strictly imitated or adapted to the accentual nature of English.

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