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  • Tennyson's Alcaics:Greek and Latin Prosody and the Invention of English Meters
  • John Talbot

"The grandest of all measures," Tennyson called the classical alcaic meter; but could it be brought over grandly into English?1 Other Greek and Latin lyric meters had been Englished with some success. The sapphic, for instance: dozens of English sapphics from the sixteenth century onward attest to its virtual naturalization into the English tradition.2 But the alcaic—which packs three different and complex metrical patterns into its four lines—had proven more difficult, and only a handful of poets had dared to hazard an English version.

Tennyson not only attempted it but also applied himself as no previous poet to making the alcaic a vehicle of serious poetic expression in English. On and off, over the course of forty years, he explored the possibilities of the English alcaic in a series of remarkable poems running the gamut from strict accentual-syllabic copies to freer, more innovative adaptations. The freest of these deserves to be seen as a new English stanza form in its own right. Together the five alcaic poems not only cast light on the subtlety of Tennyson's response to the classics but also constitute an important and neglected chapter in the history of classical and English literary relations.

No synoptic study of Tennyson's alcaics and their relation to their Greek and Latin models has hitherto appeared. The purpose of this paper is to fill that void by examining first Tennyson's Greek and Latin [End Page 200] models, then some instances of English alcaics before Tennyson, and finally Tennyson's own versions of the alcaic.

I. Tennyson's Greek and Latin Models

Tennyson's ancient models for the alcaic were of two kinds: the Greek (principally those of Alcaeus) and the Latin (principally those of Hor-ace). The difference mattered to him. In a note introducing his 1865 poem "Milton: Alcaics," he took pains to stress that his poem belongs to the Greek variety: "I have no doubt that an old Greek if he knew our language would admit my Alcaics as legitimate."3 This just twelve years after he had pointed to a very different source—Horace's Latin—as the metrical model for another poem, "The Daisy." Appreciating the distinction between Tennyson's "Greek" and "Horatian" alcaics requires some understanding of the difference between the ancient varieties.

The alcaic strophe is a Greek invention, dating from the late seventh or early sixth century B.C., and named for Alcaeus of Lesbos, the first poet known to have used it. His contemporary and compatriot Sappho also used the meter, but only one fragment of hers, five lines long, has survived.4 Alcaeus's text has fared better. Among his surviving fragments roughly a dozen are written in alcaics, and though they rarely run to longer than three or four stanzas, they suffice to convey some idea of the ways the strophe could be used in Greek.5

What was the stanza's metrical pattern? The foremost authority on the Lesbian alcaic, D. L. Page, describes the meter like this (where anceps or indeterminate quantities are represented by "x"):6

x - u - x - u u - u-x - u - x - u u - u-x - u - x - u - x- u u - u u - u - x [End Page 201]

First two lines, anceps, cretic, anceps, element - u u - u; third line, anceps, cretic, anceps, cretic, anceps; fourth line, element - u u - u - prolonged to - u u - u u - u , anceps.7

This is of course not the only way of analyzing the pattern. A grammarian writing in the fourth century A.D., for example, saw the first two lines as based on iambs and heroic dimeters; the third as based on epitretes; and the fourth as a heroic dimeter followed by a trochaic dimeter.8 Other critics have treated the anceps at the beginning of lines 1-2 as an anacrusis, with the result that the rhythm is basically trochaic;9 still others have seen lines 1-2 as iambic/choriambic, line 3 as iambic, and line 4 as dactylic/choriambic.10 Among the virtues of Page's analysis, though, is the...


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