Introduction to Poetic Genres

        Most ancient poetry can be discussed in terms of genre, meter, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance.  In addition, narrative poems (which tell a story) and poetic dramas also have the features common to prose (plot, character, themes, images, dialogue, etc.).  Rhyme is produced when vowel sounds repeat, and may be "terminal" or "internal."  Alliteration is the repetition of consonants at the beginnings of words.  Assonance is the repetition of consonants within words.

Genre: usually a type of poem identified by its characteristic topics, meters, and/or techniques.

Meter: the "beat" of the words, described either quantitatively (long and short syllables) as in Latin and Greek hexameter, or by patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables as in Anglo-Saxon and English.  Meters count the "feet" or numbered subunits of each line: monometer (1 foot), dimeter (2 feet), trimeter (Dante's Divina Comedia), tetrameter (Petrarch's canzoni), pentameter (including most of Shakespeare's tragedies and Milton's Paradise Lost), hexameter (Homer and the choral portions of the tragedies), heptameter (called "fourteeners" when in couplets of English hymns), and octameter (can't think of any, but theoretically that line could just keep getting longer--see Walt Whitman & Allan Ginsberg). 

Feet: the meter we're counting can occur in several sets of repeating rhythm patterns within the line, and the Greeks named the patterns as if the words were "walking" in a dance:

            Iambic (two syllables, unstressed->stressed ["platoon"]);

                        iambos, the metrical foot (no other meaning of this word has been recorded)  

            Trochaic (two syllables, stressed->unstressed ["women"]);

                        trochaios, running (hear it)

            Dactylic (three syllables, stressed->unstressed->unstressed ["sacrifice"]);

                        dactylos, finger (three joints) 

            Anapestic (three syllables, unstressed->unstressed->stressed ["under the bed"]);

                        anapaistos, struck back (the dactyl reversed)

            Spondaic (two stressed syllables ["cold feet"]);

                        spondeios, from sponde´, ceremonial

            Pyrrhic (two unstressed syllables ["My way is to be-gin with the be-gin-ing"]).

                        pyrrichios, from pyrricheŻ, a warlike dance

 Development of Greek Poetic Genres:

Bronze-Age/Mycenean Period and ensuing "Dark Ages"--c. 1400-1100 and 1100-700

I.  Homeric Epic: a mixture of spondeic and dactylic hexameters; elite, noble audience in "megaron" or great hall; sung by solo poet/performer to strummed or plucked harp; topics hero songs, mainly Troy, deeds of gods and heroes, etc.; values extremely traditional/conservative)

Early Polis-period--900-700

II. Elegaic: (alternating hexameter and pentameter lines, pentameters broken into two 2.5 dactylic feet; elite audience mixed with bourgeois townsfolk in the megaron and in poleis or city-states sung by solo poet/performer to flute; topics serious public reflections on core values)

Mid- to Late-Polis period--700-400

III. Lyric:  choral and solo: (iambic meter introduced with varying line lengths and stanza constructions; mixed audience, often "as if overheard"; solo performers reflect on subjective experience, often challenging traditional values)

Some Greek Lyric Genres and Their Traditional Topics--

        Greek poets and philosophers who tried to explain poetry's rules stressed appropriate correspondence between all the attributes of a given poetic genre (meter, rhyme, diction, etc.) and the subject matter of poems written in that genre.  For instance, the light matter of love lyrics would never be dealt with in the rumbling, steady march of Homeric hexameter lines, and the "sharp iambics" of Archilochus' witty epigrams and satires would never be used to sing the praises of a god or city.  Exceptions sometimes arose, as in the "mock-epic" which used high style to satirize some low subject's pretentions to greatness (e.g., Dryden's "MacFlecknoe," which treats a rival poet's claims to be the "son of Ben Jonson" as if it were an imperial coronation of a fool by a bigger fool).

Divine Songs

hymn--Dionysus' "dithyramb and Apollo's "paean" plus many less formalized songs invoking the god's presence

Funeral Songs

threnoi--(Eng. "threnody")  funeral dirge (Tennyson, In Memorium)

Marriage Songs

epithalamia ("nuptial verse"--Edmund Spenser, "Epithalamion")

paraclausitheron ("before the threshhold" [of the bridal chamber] verse)--Spenser, some of "Amoretti" sonnets

hymenaeoi (hymn to god "Hymen" on bridal night)--Catullus (of course!), Sidney's Astrophel and Stella #69 ("I, I, O I may say that she is mine" = Io paen, the ritual cry of praise to the god)

Praise Songs

encomia (praise of famous man)--Surrey, "Wyatt resteth here" (also "euology" or "good words," now almost exclusively at funerals); Milton, "To the Lord General Cromwell," and countless graduation speeches for those given honorary degrees

epinicia (praise of athletes)--Housman, "To an Athlete, Dying Young"

Table Songs

skolia (celebration of aristocratic life)--Amelia Lanyer, "To Cooke-ham" from Salve deus rex Judeorum, Ben Jonson, "To Penshurst"

"anacreonatic" verse (from Anacreon--drinking songs)--Herrick, "His Farewell to Sack," and the source of the American national anthem, "To Anacreon in Heaven" (music by ?John Stafford Smith and lyrics by Ralph Tomlinson, ca. 1780s)

Work and Play Songs

various, informal--playground and jump-rope chants (see Iona and Peter Opie collections)