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Herbert's Metrics

The Metrical Organization of Memoriae Matris Sacrum

The overall design of the poems in Memoriae Matris Sacrum is intricate, as illustrated in the following chart:

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Poems 1 and 19, the first and last poems of the sequence, are linked structurally, metrically, and thematically; they alone of the poems are composed of four elegiac couplets, the first poem announcing the poet's decision to memorialize his mother, the last completing the commemorative sequence. The odd-numbered Latin poems are written in elegiac couplets, with the exception of Poem 7, which is written in dactylic hexameter, the meter of the first line of an elegiac couplet. The Latin poems "interleaved" [End Page 180] between these dactylic poems are written in a range of Latin lyric meters, giving the sequence the quality of order with variety. Herbert keeps the Greek poems (Poems 14-18) in a subordinate sequence, the elegiacs given a structural place as the opening (14) and closing (18) poems. The three internal poems have meters that derive from Greek drama (15), lyric (16), and pastoral (17). In Poem 16, the poet wishes that he had the hundred eyes of an Argos so that he could lament his mother fully, and the nine meters of the collection indeed allow Herbert many different ways to commemorate his mother. By using meter as an organizing principle for his collection, Herbert follows the precedent of Catullus and Horace.

Glossary of Terms and Symbols Used in Greek and Latin Metrics


A space in a metrical line that allows either a short or a long syllable (X).


A short syllable (∪).

Brevis in Longo.

A short syllable in the place of a long (). The last syllable in a poetic line, even if short, is considered to be long.


A pause in the meter caused by the ending of a word within a metrical unit. Such pauses often emphasize the syntactical units of a line of verse. See dactylic hexameter and iambic trimeter in the section below on "The Meters Used in Memoriae Matris Sacrum."


A pause in the meter caused whenever the end of a word coincides with the end of a metrical unit. .. indicates where diaereses occur in particular meters.


A metrical unit consisting of a long syllable followed by two shorts (— ∪ ∪ ). A spondee (see below) may substitute for a dactyl.


Occurs whenever a vowel or a diphthong at the end of a Latin word (including final vowels or diphthongs followed by an "m") is succeeded by a word beginning with a vowel or an "h" (initial "h" is [End Page 181] never regarded as a consonant). Such syllables are slurred or absorbed into the initial vowel or diphthong of the succeeding word and are not included in the scansion.


A metrical unit. In dactylic meters, a foot consists of a dactyl or a spondee. ǀ indicates the end of a foot.


A half-line of verse.


A short syllable followed by a long syllable (∪ —).


A long syllable (—).


A metrical unit of two long syllables (— —) that may substitute for a dactyl.


A stanza of poetry. (See "Alcaic Strophe" and "Iambic Strophe" below.)


The substitution of two short syllables for one long syllable. Resolution is common in iambic meters.

The Meters Used in Memoriae Matris Sacrum

Herbert used nine different meters for the poems in this sequence. The meters are here described in alphabetical order.

Anacreontic (Poem 16): This meter is attributed to Anacreon, a sixth century B.C.E. poet, who wrote elegant lyrics on wine and love. His poetry was much imitated by succeeding poets using his meter and themes well up until the fourteenth century in Greek and thereafter in vernacular poetry. Sidney, Spenser, and Herrick were among those influenced by the publication by Stephanus in 1554 of a collection of anonymous anacreontic poems. Poem 16 is an imitation of the first four lines of Poem 29 in the collection of anacreontic poems. The scheme is:

∪ ∪ — ∪ — ∪ — [End Page 182]

Alcaic Strophe or Alcaic Stanza (Poem 6): This meter is believed to be the invention of Alcaeus, a seventh- to sixth-century...