Summary · Division into syllables · The syllable and Italian syllabism · The bill of quantities and its problems · Diphthong, triptych and hiatus within
words: examples of dieresis and syneresis
· Diphthong, triptong and hiatus between
words: examples of dialephe and sinalephe
· The caesura · Isosyllabism and anisosyllabism Articles
Metrics of poetry

The division into syllables

How to divide a verse into syllables

Cupids (Allegory of Poetry), François Boucher, 1760

The fundamental principle, in all regular Italian versification, which is looked at in relation to the definition of the measure of a verse, is based on the syllable, or rather, on the number of syllables. But what is a syllable, how is it defined? And how is it identified? But above all, how is metrication carried out?

Poetry, Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée

The syllable and Italian syllabism

A syllable is defined as the rhythmic unit of the spoken chain, namely the minimum element, in sound and meaning, which under normal conditions (i.e. when it consists of at least one vowel, accompanied by a consonant or a semi-consonant) can be pronounced alone.

💡 Did you know? The semiconsonant refers to the /i/ or /u/ that do not have a syllabic value but have an evident consonantal articulation (a greater obstruction in pronunciation) that obliges them to join the tonic vowel they precede to form a syllable; a similar definition, but bearing in mind a lesser consonantal articulation (and therefore a lesser obstruction), is given of a semivocal, the /i/ or /u/ that join instead to the tonic vowel they follow.

Obviously, this reality is not an original fact, but rather a consequence of the transition from Latin to Italian and therefore from a quantitative to a qualitative vocalic system (no longer linked to duration but to the degree of opening of the sounds). Thus, the distinction between two series of syllables, all of which are equal in their rhythmic-temporal development, lies precisely in their number. In this case, we speak of syllabic isochronism: two words will be perceived as having the same length when they have the same number of syllables (and not of phonemes, of single letters).

But this form of syllabism, i.e. measurement by syllabic number, is valid for single words, but not so for verses. In the metrical sphere, in fact, two verses are said to be 'long equal' when, within their syllabic series, the last tonic syllable is in the same position, regardless of whether it is the final one in an absolute sense or is followed by one or more atonal syllables.

On the basis of this specification, we distinguish three different types of 'output' and thus of verse: if the last tonic is followed by only one atonal syllable, then the output is flat and the verse is called flat (or paroxytone); if the last tonic is not followed by any atonal syllable, the output is truncated and the verse is called truncated (or oxytonic); finally, if the last tonic is followed by two atonal syllables, the output is called saggy (or proparoxytonic). There are very few occasions in which there are more than two atonal post-tonic syllables: at most, these are cases of deliberately bizarre metrical exercises.

The greater frequency of flat exits in the texts of our poetic production has led Italian syllabicism to adopt them as a basic parameter for the categorisation of verse measures. Thus, only one atonal syllable is ever added to the last tonic syllable in order to obtain the total number of syllables in the verse and thus define its length, regardless of how many actually follow.

If the last tonic syllable of a verse is the tenth, and thus counting only one further syllable after it, one will then have an endecasyllable (regardless of whether the tonic in question is the last or is followed by one or more atonal syllables).

💡 Did you know? This method of syllabic computation derives from the French-Provençal metric tradition, from which the Italian one differs, however, for a strictly terminological factor, relating to the nomenclature of the versal measure typologies (the importance given to the last tonic syllable alone means that what in an Italian poetic text is considered as an endecasyllable, in an analogous French text is instead a decasyllable) and to that of the 'exits' (truncated and flat - sdrucciola does not exist, given the absence of sdrucciola words in French - are respectively indicated as masculine and feminine).

Dante, in his De Vulgari Eloquentia (book II), had already employed the principle described above to classify the individual metrical lengths, taking a further step with the proposition, on the basis of this categorisation, of a macro-subdivision into parisyllabic and imparisyllabic verses, without hesitating to express a value judgement and stating that more suitable for the 'high' style are the imparisyllabics (especially the endecasyllable and the septenary, (especially the endecasyllable and the septenary, sometimes in combination with the quinario, in perfect coherence with what was happening in contemporary poetic production, but excluding the novenary from this choice), as opposed to the parisyllables discarded for their rhythmic 'roughness' (later reinstated, and interspersed with the imparisyllables, in the metrical genres of poetry for music - such as the ode-song - and in imitations of classical metres).

The bill of quantities and its problems

If the subdivision into syllables presents no problems when each vowel is divided by at least one consonant, so that each of them corresponds to a syllable, the operation becomes more complex when two or more vowels are encountered, whether this occurs in spoken language or in prose writing, or in poetry. Indeed, especially in the latter context, and for two basic reasons: first of all, metrical computation is not a possibility to be realised or not, but a necessary intervention in the study of a text in verse; secondly, in the purely poetic textual space, syllabic phenomena often take place that are mostly extraneous to traditional writing practice: the figures of dieresis and syneresis, dialephe and sinalephe.

We speak of dieresis when a vowel nexus is divisible into two distinct and separate syllables. Syneresis indicates the exact opposite case: a normally bisyllabic vowel nexus is reduced to a single syllable.

Synalepheme is the interverbal fusion of the final vowel of a preceding word and the initial vowel of the word that follows. Conversely, dialephe is when, in the absence of this contraction, the two neighbouring vowels form autonomous syllables.

Allegory of Nature as Mother of Art, Jan Sanders van Hemessen

Diphthong, triptych and hiatus within words: examples of dieresis and syneresis

Starting from vowel nexuses within words, the pair of tonic vowel and atonal vowel is usually considered bisyllabic when it is at the end of the verse, monosyllabic when it is within the verse itself. This is true both when the vowel is at the end of a word and when it is followed by a consonant or an entire syllable.

In other words, dieresis occurs when the tonic-atonal vowel pair occurs at the end of the verse, while syneresis occurs when it occurs within the verse.

In general, the division or otherwise of the vowel pairs, and thus the occurrence or otherwise of dieresis or syneresis, is due to a properly etymological factor, whereby we tend to separate into two syllables that pair of vowels which, having become monosyllabic in Italian, was instead bisyllabic in Latin.

Conversely, vowel sets derived from Latin diphthongs or from syllabic nexuses formed by consonant + L + vowel that develop a semiconsonant /i/ (also known as iod) are conceived as unitary.

The nexus of an atonal vowel (a, e, o) and a tonic vowel (e.g. in paese, leone, soavi) or vowel pairs divided by a semi-consonant /i/ (gioia, noia) are always bisyllabic (but in the latter case, especially in Two-Thirds-century poetic texts, the nexus is often reduced to a monosyllable, in imitation of Provençal in which the corresponding joi and enoi constitute a single syllable).

Finally, there are two outcomes for atonal-only vowel nexuses: if the first atone is a vowel other than /i/ and /u/, then the pair is bisyllabic (as in Be | a | tri | ce); on the contrary, it is inseparable (in the same Joy and Boredom, so we have gio | ia and no | ia; or again, lin | gua, per | pe | tua - but the same applies when the semiconsonant /u/ is paired with a tonic vowel, as for example in guer | ra).

However, it will be useful to remember that, for all the cases listed, there are exceptions (the use of diaeresis instead of syneresis and vice versa).

Diphthong, triptong and hiatus between words: examples of dialephe and sinalephe

Looking now at the level of interverbal relations, the preponderant use in poetic writing is that of the synalephe. It must be stressed, however, that vowel contraction between words is an aspect that pertains exclusively to the rhythmic-metrical sphere, i.e. to the construction and measurement of the compound verse, and does not affect the vowels concerned in any way (which remain, rather, clearly present in the reading). In this respect, the synalepheme differs from the figures of elision (fall of the final vowel), apheresis (fall of the initial vowel) and crasis (fusion of two identical vowels into one).

Not strictly Italian, but present in some illustrious examples (starting with Pascoli) is the synalepheme between verses, better known as anasinalefe or episinalefe. It is based on the Latin sinafia, which was used in classical poetry to link together lines or parts of verse that are normally separated from each other.

Much rarer is dialephe, towards which Italian poetry moves in the opposite direction, limiting its application and even making it unworkable in some very precise conditions: after a tonic vowel or after a tonic-atonic nexus, after some monosyllables such as che, ma, se, o, between an atonic and a tonic vowel, between two atones, after a slippery word.

In general, the poetic tradition of Petrarch and the Petrarchists makes very careful use of dialephe, and so up to the 16th century and in the following centuries, including the 19th century. It was more common, however, in the earlier poetry of the 13th century and in Dante. However, a relative likelihood of finding dialephe is either after monosyllables such as da, chi, né, after e coordinativa and o avversativa and vocativa: in the latter two contexts the reason is of an etymological nature, since the poet has the possibility of recovering, graphically (ed, od) or only virtually (without bringing back the graphic sign and thus without imposing it in the pronunciation), the original consonant -t (ET, AUT).

Poetry and poets, Francisco de Goya

The caesura

The internal structure of a poetic line is not only subdividable and describable in terms of syllables, but another element contributes to the definition of its intrinsic organisation: the caesura.

Si tratta di una 'pausa' la quale, a seconda della funzione che svolge rispetto alla fisionomia versale, può essere metrica, se interviene a mettere in luce gli emistichi, ossia le 'parti'. che compongono il verso nella sua intera lunghezza (lo si può notare soprattutto nei cosiddetti 'versi doppi', cioè formati da due emistichi della stessa misura distinti, appunto, dalla cesura); o ritmico-sintattica quando, cadendo intorno alla metà della serie sillabica, contribuisce a indicare la cadenza e l'intonazione del verso (un esempio può essere l'endecasillabo il quale, a seconda che abbia la quarta o la sesta sillaba toniche, assumerà un andamento ascendente o discendente).

It is a 'pause' which, depending on its function with respect to verse physiognomy, can be metrical, if it highlights the hemistichs, i.e. the 'parts'. It can be metrical, if it helps to highlight the hemistichs, i.e. the 'parts', that make up the whole length of the verse (this can be noticed above all in the so-called 'double verses', i.e. formed by two hemistichs of the same measure, distinguished, precisely, by the caesura); or rhythmic-syntactic when, falling around the middle of the syllabic series, it contributes to indicate the cadence and intonation of the verse (an example can be the endecasyllable which, depending on whether it has the tonic fourth or sixth syllable, will assume an ascending or descending trend).

Using the position of the syllable near which the caesura occurs as a criterion, and taking the endecasyllable as a model, three different types of caesura are identified: masculine, lyric, and Italian.

The masculine caesura, which is more common, occurs when the pause falls after the fourth tonic syllable, usually the final syllable of a truncated word; the lyrical caesura, on the other hand, marks the boundary of the first hemistich closed by a flat word with the tonic in the third position and the atonal in the fourth; finally, the Italian caesura, so called because it is particularly frequent in Italian poetry, occurs after a flat word with the tonic in the fourth position and the atonal in the fifth.

Isosyllabism and anisosyllabism

The perception of versal measures described above has not always been univocal over time. A large part of the Italian poetic tradition up to the present day (taking into account, however, the anomalies of twentieth-century free versification) has developed under the sign of isosyllabism, i.e. a vision built on the basis of the strict correspondence between type and number of syllables in which, therefore, every excess (hypermetry) and every defect (hypometry) are to be considered deviations from the norm.

However, in ancient Italian poetry (and, in general, in medieval Romance poetry), the fundamental character of composition coincided with the construction and reproduction of a solid rhyme scheme, in which versal measures - given a basic type of verse - could freely oscillate from one quantity of syllables to another without the difference being perceived, either in terms of variation or irregularity. Such is the principle of anisosyllabism: the primacy given, in the hierarchy of metrical elements, to the rhyme over the exactness of the syllabic number.

💡 Did you know? Despite the fact that anisosyllabism was a widespread tendency in early compositions, it is nevertheless mostly used in so-called 'jester' versification, which developed on the fringes of high style lyric poetry, or in the popular verse of the 14th-15th century cantari. There are, however, illustrious examples, such as the didactic poetry of northern Italy with Giacomino da Verona, and Guittone d'Arezzo in the song Gente noiosa e villana.

By Vincenzo Canto
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