A catalectic line is a metrically incomplete line of verse, lacking a syllable at the end or ending with an incomplete foot. One form of catalexis is headlessness, where the unstressed syllable is dropped from the beginning of the line.
A line missing two syllables is called brachycatalectic.
Poems can be written entirely in catalectic lines, or entirely in acatalectic (complete) lines, or a mixture, as the following carol, composed by Cecil Frances Alexander in 1848:
- Once in Royal David's city (8 syllables)
- Stood a lowly cattle shed, (7 syllables)
- Where a mother laid her Baby (8 syllables)
- In a manger for His bed: (7 syllables)
- Mary was that mother mild, (7 syllables)
- Jesus Christ her little Child. (7 syllables)
Blunt and pendant catalexis
It has been argued that catalexis can be divided into two types. (Here "x" stands for an anceps syllable.)
- (a) When a line with a pendant ending such as trochaic (– u – x) is made catalectic, the result is a line with a blunt (or "masculine") ending (– u –).
- (b) When a line with a blunt ending such as iambic (x – u –) is made catalectic, the result is a line with a pendant ending (u – x).
- Good King Wenceslas looked out, (4 beats, blunt)
- on the Feast of Stephen, (3 beats, pendant)
- When the snow lay round about, (4 beats, blunt)
- deep and crisp and even; (3 beats, pendant)
Another example is the children's song Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, of which the first stanza ends as follows:
- Here we go round the mulberry bush (4 beats, blunt)
- On a cold and frosty morning (3 beats, pendant)
In all of these songs, when they are set to music, there is a lengthening of the penultimate syllable in order to equalise the two lines. However, there is not enough evidence to tell if a similar phenomenon occurred in Ancient Greek.
In languages which use quantitative metres, such as Latin, Ancient Greek, Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit, the final syllable of any line is anceps, that is, indifferently long or short. According to one view dating back to ancient times, even if the final syllable is prosodically short, it counts as long because of the pause which follows it (see brevis in longo). Thus any line ending – u –, when catalectic, becomes – x.
- | x – u – | x – u – | x – u – | x – u – |
- | x – u – | x – u – | x – u – | u – – |
In classical Arabic, the most commonly used metre, the ṭawīl, has normal and catalectic forms as follows:
- | u – x | u – x – | u – x | u – u – |
- | u – x | u – x – | u – u | u – – |
- | – u u – | – u u – | – u u – | – u u – |
- | – u u – | – u u – | – u – |
Catalexis in Greek poetry
Catalexis was common in Greek and Latin meter, and also in ancient Sanskrit verse. Catalectic endings are particularly common where the rhythm of the verse is dactylic ( – u u ), trochaic ( – u ), or anapestic ( u u – ); they tend to be associated with the end of a strophe or period, so much so that it can almost be said that acatalectic forms cannot end a period. In classical verse, the final syllable of a line always counted as long, so that if a dactyl ( – u u ) is made catalectic, it becomes a spondee ( – – ).
Ancient poetry was often performed to music, and the question arises of what music accompanied a catalectic ending. A few ancient Greek poems survive with authentic musical notation. Four of these are by Mesomedes (early 2nd century CE). Secondary sources of Mesomede's poems To Helios and To Nemesis are in a catalectic meter known as apokrota "sonorous." In each case, in place of the missing short element of the text (i.e., missing syllable) one often finds lengthening signs. In two cases in To Helios, this appears to be a three-note melisma. It is possible ancient use of catalexis indicated some form of melody or continued singing in place of the missing syllables.
In ancient Greek drama, catalectic meters may have been associated with a male aulete or had some other special use. For example, of Menander's surviving plays, almost all are in iambic trimeters. He changed the meter in one long scene in Misanthrope to 15-syllable catalectic iambic tetrameter recited to an aulos accompaniment.
Catalexis in Latin poetry
Catalexis in music
Venantius Fortunatus' hymn Pange lingua is in trochaic tetrameter catalectic—the meter of the marching chants of the Roman armies. The hymn is one of the oldest with surviving musical notation.
As Greek meter is often used to describe musical phrasing, some famous themes include:
- West, M.L. (1982). "Three topics in Greek metre". Classical Quarterly Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 281-297; p. 281.
- L. P. E. Parker (1976). "Catalexis". The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1976), pp. 14-28; p. 15.
- M. L. West, "Three topics in Greek metre", The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 2 (1982), pp. 281-297; p. 287.
- L. P. Elwell-Sutton (1976), The Persian Metres, p. 87–88.
- L. P. E. Parker (1976). "Catalexis". The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1976), pp. 14-28; p. 14.
- W. Wright (1896), A Grammar of the Arabic Language, vol. 2, p. 364.
- L. P. Elwell-Sutton (1976), The Persian Metres, p. 87–88; Thiesen, Finn (1982), A Manual of Classical Persian Prosody, p. 18.
- West, M.L. (1982). "Three topics in Greek metre". Classical Quarterly Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 281-297.
- West, M.L. (1992). Ancient Greek Music. Oxford: Oxford. pp. 209, 302–308.
- Comotti, G. (1975). "L'aulo ghingras in una scena menandrea del mosaico di Discuride". Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica. xx (20): 215–23. doi:10.2307/20537744. JSTOR 20537744.
- Wikibooks:The Poetry of Gaius Valerius Catullus/Meters Used By Catullus#
- Norberg, D. (1988). "Le "Pange lingue" de Fortunat pour la Croix". La Maison-Dieu. 103: 71–79.