Sapphic stanza

The Sapphic stanza, named after Sappho, is an Aeolic verse form spanning four lines (originally three: in the poetry of Sappho and Alcaeus, there is no word-end before the final Adonean).

Classical Greek and Latin

The form is two hendecasyllabic verses, and a third verse beginning the same way and continuing with five additional syllables (given as the stanza's fourth verse in ancient and modern editions, and known as the Adonic or adonean line).

Using "-" for a long syllable, "u" for a short and "x" for an "anceps" (or free syllable), and displaying the Adonic as a fourth line:

- u -  x  - u u -   u - -
- u -  x  - u u -   u - -
- u -  x  - u u -   u - -
- u u - u


While Sappho used several metrical forms for her poetry, she is most famous for the Sapphic stanza. Her poems in this meter (collected in Book I of the ancient edition) ran to 330 stanzas, a significant part of her complete works (and of her surviving poetry: fragments 1-42). It is not clear if she created it or if it was already part of the Aeolic tradition; according to Marius Victorinus (Ars grammatica 6.161 Keil), it was invented by Alcaeus but then used more frequently by, and so more strongly associated with, Sappho.

Other poets

Sappho's contemporary and countryman, Alcaeus of Mytilene, also used the Sapphic stanza.

A few centuries later, the Roman poet Catullus admired Sappho's work and used the Sapphic meter in two poems, Catullus 11 and Catullus 51. The latter is a rough translation of Sappho 31. Sapphics were also used by Horace in several of his Odes, including Ode 1.22:

Integer uitae scelerisque purus
non eget Mauris iaculis neque arcu
nec uenenatis grauida sagittis,
Fusce, pharetra...


The man who is upright in life and free
of wickedness, he needs no Moorish spears
nor bow nor quiver heavy with envenomed
arrows, Fuscus...

Modern adaptations


Though some English poets attempted quantitative effects in their verse, quantity is not phonemic in English. So imitations of the Sapphic stanza are typically structured by replacing long with stressed syllables, and short with unstressed syllables (and often additional alterations, as exemplified below).

The Sapphic stanza was imitated in English, using a line articulated into three sections (stressed on syllables 1, 5, and 10) as the Greek and Latin would have been, by Algernon Charles Swinburne in a poem he simply called Sapphics:

So the goddess fled from her place, with awful
Sound of feet and thunder of wings around her;
While behind a clamour of singing women
Severed the twilight.

Thomas Hardy chose to open his first verse collection Wessex Poems and other verses 1898 with "The Temporary the All," a poem in Sapphics, perhaps as a declaration of his skill and as an encapsulation of his personal experience.

Change and chancefulness in my flowering youthtime,
Set me sun by sun near to one unchosen;
Wrought us fellowly, and despite divergence,
Friends interblent us.

Rudyard Kipling wrote a fine tribute to William Shakespeare in Sapphics called "The Craftsman". He hears the line articulated into four, with stresses on syllables 1, 4, 6, and 10 (called a 'schoolboy error' by classical scholar L. P. Wilkinson, arising from a misunderstanding of Horace's regularisation of the 4th syllable as a long and his frequent use of the 5th-element caesura in his Sapphics). His poem begins:

Once, after long-drawn revel at The Mermaid,
He to the overbearing Boanerges
Jonson, uttered (if half of it were liquor
Blessed be the vintage!)

Allen Ginsberg also experimented with the form:

Red cheeked boyfriends tenderly kiss me sweet mouthed
under Boulder coverlets winter springtime
hug me naked laughing & telling girl friends
gossip til autumn

Isaac Watts penned "The Day of Judgment" subtitled An Ode Attempted in English Sapphic (here are the third and fourth stanzas):

Such shall the noise be and the wild disorder,
(If things eternal may be like these earthly)
Such the dire terror, when the great Archangel
Shakes the creation,

Tears the strong pillars of the vault of heaven,
Breaks up old marble, the repose of princes;
See the graves open, and the bones arising,
Flames all around 'em!

Australian Classicist and poet John Lee wrote a Sapphic stanza about the impossibility of writing Sapphic stanzas in English:

Making Sapphics isn't that easy, shackling
Our reluctant language with trochees. Since you
First begot them, songstress of Lesbos, keep them.
I'll never write them.

(the poem exists also in a Latin version).

The Australian poet John Tranter has also written a poem ("Writing in the Manner of Sappho") in two Sapphic stanzas about the difficulty of writing Sapphics in English:

Writing Sapphics well is a tricky business.
Lines begin and end with a pair of trochees;
in between them dozes a dactyl, rhythm
rising and falling,

like a drunk asleep at a party. Ancient
Greek — the language seemed to be made for Sapphics,
not a worry; anyone used to English
finds it a bastard.

The Oxford classicist Armand D'Angour has created mnemonics to illustrate the difference between Sapphics heard as 1) a four-beat line (as in Kipling) and 2) in the (correct) three-beat measure, as follows:

1. Four-beat:
Conquering Sappho's not an easy business:
Masculine ladies cherish independence.
Only good music penetrates the souls of
Lesbian artists.

2. Three-beat:
Independent metre is overrated:
What's the point if nobody knows the dance-form?
Wisely, Sappho chose to create a stately
regular stanza.

Other languages

The Sapphic stanza has been very popular in Polish literature since the 16th century. It was used by many poets. Sebastian Klonowic wrote a long poem, Flis, using the form.[1] The formula of 11/11/11/5 syllables[2] was so attractive that it can be found in other forms, among others the Słowacki stanza: 11a/11b/11a/5b/11c/11c.[3]


  1. Lucylla Pszczołowska, Wiersz polski. Zarys historyczny, Wrocław 1997, p.77.
  2. Stanisław Sierotwiński, Słownik terminów literackich, Wrocław 1966, p.258.
  3. Wiktor Jarosław Darasz, Mały przewodnik po wierszu polskim Kraków 2003, p.145-146.

External links

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