Hendecasyllable

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A hendecasyllable is a line of verse containing eleven syllables. Hendecasyllable is pronounced with the main stress on the first syllable and a secondary stress on the fourth syllable - HEN-deck-er-si-ler-berl, IPA: /ˈhɛn dɛk ə ,sɪl əb əl/. The adjective from hendecasyllable is hendecasyllabic, pronounced with the main stress on the penultimate syllable (i.e., the last syllable but one) and a secondary stress on the second syllable - hen-deck-er-si-LAB-ik, IPA: /ˌhɛn ,dɛk ə sɪl ˈæb ɪk/. Hendecasyllabic is also used as a noun as well as an adjective - see further below. (Hendeka (ἑνδεκα) is the Ancient Greek word for 'eleven', and there is a Greek word hendekasullabos (ἑνδεκασύλλαβος) meaning 'eleven-syllabled'.)


Few poems in English are written entirely in hendecasyllables, but there are some, for example, Hendecasyllabics by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), Hendecasyllabics by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), and For Once, Then, Something by Robert Frost (1874-1963). Here are the opening lines of Frost's poem:

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven, godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.

Although poems composed entirely of hendecasyllables are rare in English, many poems have the occasional hendecasyllabic line. In particular, in blank verse (i.e., unrhymed iambic pentameters) an extra unstressed syllable is sometimes added at the end of the line, producing a line of eleven syllables with a feminine ending - see further blank verse. The first four lines of Hamlet's famous soliloquy (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1, lines 56 ff.) are all hendecasyllables of this kind:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles


Poems composed entirely of hendecasyllables, though rare in English, are common in certain foreign languages. Much Italian poetry, for example, is written in hendecasyllables, most famously Dante's epic poem La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy) and the sonnets of Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) (1304-1374).

Hendecasyllabic lines are also common in Greek and Latin poetry, and many of the quantitative metrical schemes used by such lyric poets as Sappho (6th century BCE), Catullus (?84-?54 BCE), and Horace (65-8 BCE) involve lines of eleven syllables with very distinctive rhythms. Perhaps the best known example is Catullus' love poem beginning:

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis.

(Translation: Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love; and let us count all the mutterings of over-strict old men as worth no more than a farthing.)

In counting the number of syllables in each line of Catullus' poem remember that in Greek and Latin poetry when a word ending in a vowel is followed in the same line by a word beginning with a vowel, the first word has its final vowel elided.


Notice also that the quantitative rhythms of Catullus' poem (| ¯ ¯ |¯ ˘ ˘ |¯ ˘ |¯ ˘ |¯ ˘) are mirrored in the stress rhythms of Frost's poem. (The same is true of Tennyson's and Swinburne's Hendecasyllabics.)

Some authorities distinguish between hendecasyllable and hendecasyllabic (when the latter is used as a noun), insisting that only an eleven-syllabled line with the same rhythmic pattern as that of Catullus' poem (i.e., the Phalaecean metre) can properly be called a hendecasyllabic.