A Twelve Point Guide to Alexandrines

The story of the most celebrated verse form in French literature

By David Christoffel 26 October 2018

© Monika Rittershaus / OnP

On the occasion of the production of Berenice, David Christoffel reflects on the alexandrine, a verse form that has haunted French literature for centuries. An investigation carried out in the company of the composer, Michael Jarrell and Valérie Beaudoin, member of Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle).


In the voice of Sarah Bernhardt declaiming the verses of Phèdre by Racine, we hear vibrato with the disturbing amplitude of an actress furiously possessed by her role. We also notice an extraordinary balance between strict metre and a fervent determination to bring fully to life the madness of a character who persists with an ardent but forbidden love.    


Certain journalists at the time even detected a spectacular case of autohypnosis, as the musicologist, Céline Frigau Manning, has recently stated. The force of the alexandrine comes not merely from the incantatory power of regular verse forms, it also resides in the richness of vocal timbres, for, above and beyond the number of syllables, metre is also a question of the choice of vowels.   


Sarah Bernhardt’s voice can also be heard as the emblem of an era in which the phonograph could only record the voice if the actor made an effort to project: a period in which emphasis was the prerequisite of declamation and which today has vestiges in slam.

In the voice of Julien Delmaire, we can hear the will to tear himself away from everyday speech, the desire for a continuous stream of expression or the quest for poetic dignity, perhaps even a new academism.


Before slam, with different although equally varied motives, a certain poet-mathematician went to lengths to reinstate the alexandrine. As an oulipien, Jacques Roubaud considered constraint as a force and “free verse” as an oxymoron. In La Vieillesse d’Alexandre (1978), he distinguishes three types of attack on verse: “undermining the principle of continuity (Rimbaud’s last texts, Corbière), undermining the principles of concordance of syntax with metre (“crossing over” and “rejection”); undermining identity within the segments constituting a line of verse (hemistiches)1.”


But while Rimbaud was sitting Beauty on his lap only to find it bitter and to curse it, metrical poets continued to debate whether the regularity of the alexandrine was a question of the number of syllables or of feet. Just as music gains by not allowing rhythm to be reduced to the mere question of note values, so poetry promises a wealth of possibilities on perceiving that metre cannot be reduced to rhythm.   


To be able to count up to twelve, one needs a sort of audible alarm: rhyme. Louis Becq de Fouquières gave it practically the status of a metronome: “Rhyme is the characteristic of the unit of measure; it is what concludes, by an acoustic effect, the duration of the phrase. The ear, which counts the impacts it perceives and groups its acoustic sensations, is thus alerted to the fact that it has heard all twelve sounds of the line of verse and that the melodic phrase is terminated2”.    


This idea was contested by Victor Delaporte who gives counter-examples of several alexandrines whose beauty is pleasing to the ear without resorting to the charm of repeated sounds: “À vaincre sans peril, on triomphe sans gloire” (To vanquish without peril is to triumph without glory) or “J’aime le son du cor, le soir, au fond des bois3” (I love the sound of the horn, in the evening, deep in the woods).


So what therefore would be the criterion of a beautiful alexandrine? Should it be able to give grace to everyday twelve-syllabled utterances, such as “Monsieur le Président Directeur Général” or “Attention à la marche en descendant du train”. (Please mind the step when descending from the train).


The more regular the metre, the more menacing the threat of destruction. The lovely music of verse risks slipping into cacophony: “Readers accommodate themselves to rhymes be they brilliant or simple; if the lines are good, they will admire the whole. But for pity’s sake, do not startle them with miserable rhymes right in the midst of well-chosen, sonorous rhymes. It creates the effect of a superb sonata by a great master, churned out on a barrel organ with a cylinder full of broken teeth: it clashes, it screeches, it irritates4”.


When, in 1988, Roubaud made a study of the punctuation in the first 1000 lines of Bérénice, he was aiming “to identify the rhythmic structure of the alexandrine and examine its internal organisation in a global and statistical manner”, explains Valérie Beaudouin for whom “a line of regular verse has value only because it is surrounded by lines that are less regular”.


Given that rhythm works also through the use of different vowel sounds, one must transcribe Racine into the phonetic alphabet (the line “Cet amour est ardent, il le faut confesser[1]” (This love is ardent, it must be confessed) becomes “(s ɛ)(t a)(m u r)(ɛ)(t a r)(d ã t)(i l)(l ə)(f o)(k ɔ̃)(f e)(s e)” in order to express numerically the richness of sound offered by the variety of vowels in the different syllables. Valérie Beaudouin’s5 theory went so far as to demonstrate, for example, that 12% of the lines have an [a] in first position, 16% in 5th position and only 8% at the end of the first hemistich. These calculations regarding Racine's work as a whole have allowed us to verify the fact that regular verse form is a tool for creating contrast, “in the same way that, within the structure of a line, the positions that are stressed are so because their neighbours are unstressed.”


Valérie Beaudouin’s aim was in fact “to identify the relationships between rhythmic structures and semantic structure”. This statistical study succeeded in demonstrating that in Racine’s plays, taken as a whole, versification is much more regular when treating the theme of death than the theme of love. In other words, love induces a loss of stability in prosody.    

1. Jacques Roubaud, La Vieillesse d’Alexandre, Paris, Ivréa, 2000 [1978], p. 38.
2. Louis Becq de Fouquières, Traité général de versification française, Paris, Charpentier, 1879, p. 29.
3. Cité par Victor Delaporte, De la rime française : ses origines, son histoire, sa nature, ses lois, ses caprices, Lille, Desclée, de Brouwer et Cie, 1898, p. 25.
4. Victor Delaporte, op. cit., p. 173.
5. Racine, Bérénice, vers 421.
6. Valérie Beaudouin, Mètre et rythmes du vers classique. Corneille et Racine, Paris, Honoré Champion, 2002.    

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