Mnemonics for metre

I devised these mnemonics for my teaching of Greek metre and its Latin counterparts to students at Oxford since 1998.

My aim is twofold:

1) that the mnemonics should represent the Greek quantities (long or short durations) accurately in rhythmical form, using the natural stresses of English to coincide with long and short syllables,

2) that the names or eponyms of the metre and cola (patterns of long and short syllables) should if possible be incorporated, directly or as puns, into the mnemonics.

I have generally added rhyme into the mnemonics to help recall. Some nonsense seems inevitable, and can be positively useful for memorising if it seems amusing or puzzling.

There are two sections: A) Aeolic cola and stanzas, and B) Other metres. Metres are given more or less alphabetically in each section, together with analysis of quantities and standard abbreviations. Where one colon is a catalectic (shortened) or expanded version of another, e.g. Glyconics/Pherecrateans, or Dodrans/Ibycean, they are listed together. I use the standard symbols ∪ for a short position, − for a long one, and × for either long or short (anceps). A stress (thesis, footfall) may be indicated by a dot placed over the symbol, e.g. .

I have added some annotations for those who want to know more about the origins or implications of the mnemonics. The systems are authoritatively explained in M.L. West, Greek Metre (Oxford 1982); see also my chapter ‘Metre’ in The Edinburgh Companion to Greece and Rome. My own fuller ideas about metre will be published in my forthcoming book on Greek music and poetry; they have nothing to do with wise kangaroos, pictured above left, who are evidently debating the merits of leather shoes and boots (Doc Martins — or should that be Doc Miacs?).

The complete list of mnemonics is as follows (each section is in alphabetical order):

A. Aeolic cola/stanzas:

1. Adonaean 
2. Alcaics 
3. Aristophanean/Dodrans:: Ibycean      
    (Asclepiads: see Glyconic/Pherecratean)
4. Choriambic dimeter (+ Wilamowitzianus)
5. Eupolidean
6. Glyconic/Pherecratean::Priapean (+Asclepiad)
7. Hagesichorean / Diomedean
8. Hipponactean / [Diomedean]
9. Reizianum
10. Sapphics
11. Telesillean

B. Other metres/cola:

1. Anacreontics
2. Anapaests 
3. Archilochean
4. Cretic / Paeonic
5. Dactylic Hexameter:: Pentameter
6. Dochmiacs      
(Elegiac couplet: see Dactylic)
7. Enoplian OR Paroemiac
8. Galliambics
9. Hendecasyllables
10. Iambic trimeter::Limping iambics (scazon / choliambics)
11. Ionics
12. Lekythion/ithyphallic        
(Paroemiac: see enoplian) 
13. Penthemimer
14. Sotadean
15. Trochaic tetrameter catalectic

A. Aeolic cola and stanzas

1. Adonaean  (ad)

O for Adonis!                                                                 − ∪ ∪ −  −
Oh for a bonus!

‘Oh for Adonis’ – ō ton Adōnin – was the cry of women at the festival of Adonia, which honoured the untimely death of their beautiful young lord Adonis (no presumed relation to any person currently living with the same name or title).

2. Alcaics

All cakes depend on metrical expertise.               x −∪− x       −∪∪−∪−
Spoon out the flour – use accurate estimates,      x −∪− x       −∪∪−∪−
fold in the egg whites, then the egg yolk:               x −∪− x       −∪−−                   
baking a cake is a task for experts.                          −∪∪−∪∪    −∪− −

This handy recipe should soon be replaced by more solid fare e.g. the first stanza of Horace Odes 3.1.


Asclepiadic cola: see Glyconic/Pherecratean.

3. Aristophanean/Dodrans     (ar/dod)

Raising a wrist, a fun one                      − ∪ ∪ −  ∪ − −                  ar
Dodds never ran a mile.*                         − ∪ ∪ −  ∪ −                     dod
Totally pissed, a rum one,
That’s a Hellenophile.

These cola can be heard as variants of a) Pherecratean and b) Reizianum (see below), with the choriamb shifted to the beginning and middle respectively. No aspersions are intended to be cast on the athletic prowess of the great former Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, E.R. Dodds. The phrase ‘raising a wrist’ recalls, however, a similar dictum about the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, himself a noted Hellenophile.

Ibycean    (dodd)  

*But, to be keen, did it on the fly —                    − ∪ ∪  − ∪ ∪   − ∪ −      
ēri men hai te Kydōniai.

The Ibycean is simply a Dodrans with a dactyl inserted. This makes it sound like a run of dactyls, as with the final line of the Alcaic stanza (which has just one more longum at the end, so is simply an Aristophanean with a dactyl inserted). 

4. Choriambic dimeter (cho dim)

Each choriamb bleats like a lamb:                                 − ∪ ∪ −   − ∪ ∪ −
(Baa diddy baa, ha diddy ha).
Herr Wilamo-witz had a go —
His brand of dim…ends with a cho.                                  − − ∪  −   − ∪ ∪ −

The choriamb is a key element of all Aeolic cola. Choriambic dimeters are cola in their own right. The great German scholar Wilamowitz recognised that some cho dims started with anaclastic choriambs of different varieties. These variants, in which the stable element is the final choriamb, are sometimes called ‘Wilamowitziani’ (after the suggestion of Paul Maas). In tragic lyric they never consist of two choriambs in sequence, so it has been argued that they should simply be recognised as permutations of glyconic cola (q.v) with the choriambic element ‘shifted’ to the end (notated gl··).

5. Eupolideans    (eup)

If you must say Eupolidēnspare a thought for Eupolis.
Though the first four beats wreck the scene, half a line is good for this.
x       x        −         x          −       ∪    ∪        −   ⋮  x  x  −     x    −   ∪    −

6. Glyconic/Pherecratean (rhyme with ‘celebration’)      (gl/pher)

Songs that start with a Glyconic                       x x   − ∪∪ −∪∪− −                    gl
Often end Pherecratean.                                  x x   − ∪∪−  −                       pher
One leg like on a candlestick,
Two legs just for occasion.

Combinations and permutations of these cola, with internally expanded variants, are what constitute the so-called Asclepiadic metres popularised in Latin by Horace. An example of an expanded glyconic common in Sappho and Horace is: x x  − ∪∪ −  − ∪∪−  ∪−  (‘O navis referent in mare te novi’).

My friend John Birchall tells me that he was taught this metre in the 1970s by way of the mnemonic ‘Fourteen owls in a tree, owls in a tree, sang to a porcupine’. Memorable enough. One might want to vary the second choriamb by making that e.g. ‘Fourteen owls in a tree, ranged in a line, sang to a porcupine’. The challenge remains to get the words ‘expanded Asclepiad’ into a second rhyming line. I offer:

Fourteen   owls   in   a    tree,   ranged  on  a  deck, sang to a sleepyhead
Songs which, most would agree, work with an ek-spanded Asclepiad.

Priapean (= gl+pher)

Pindar’s noble Olympians  feature Prīapus? – oh, sure:
ariston men hudōr ho de  ⋮ chrūsos aithomenon pūr!

x  x   −     ∪   ∪   −   ∪   −   ⋮     x    x     −  ∪   ∪   −   −

The priapean colon has somewhat disreputable associations, as one would expect from its name (cf. Catullus 17), so it comes as a surprise to realise that it is the metre of the opening line of Pindar’s 1st Olympian Ode. I once got a class of non-Greekers to read the line using a phonetic nonsense transcription in English words as follows: ‘A wrist on, menu door, a deck, Roussos – aye, Tom  — anon, pure’.

7. Hagesichorean        (hag)

Hāgēsichorā – men out her:                           x  − ∪ ∪ − ∪ − −                      hag
The secret is out about her!

(Diomēdean aims to match it:                    ∪ ∪ − ∪ ∪ − ∪ − −
Double-short at the start to catch it.)

8. Hipponactean       (hipp)

Hipponactean – it’s a monster!                   x x  − ∪ ∪ − ∪ − −                    hipp
Hippowhats-ean?’ asks the punster.

(‘Diomēdean’ hardly cuts it:
Double-short at the start rebuts it.)   ∪ ∪ − ∪ ∪ − ∪ − −

Hipponax, who gives his name to the lyric colon, also composed in limping iambics (see B 10) which are sometimes also called Hipponacteans. The different context means that the reference of the terms are unlikely to be confused.
‘Diomedean’ is occasionally found to indicate a kind of hipponactean with a double-short opening. However, since that initial double short could be heard as a resolved long, it may be better to think of the Diomedean as a variant of the hagesichorean – hence the two different versions of the mnemonic in 7 and 8 above, one for each category (with the latter indicated as more dubious than the former).

9. Reizianum          (reiz)

All right, say a number                                    x  − ∪ ∪ − −                              reiz
for dancing a rumba.
Here’s one we agreed on:
ēlth’, ēlthe chelīdōn.

A colon named after the scholar ‘Reiz, teacher of Hermann’ (the mnemonic proposed by L.P.E. Parker).

10. Sapphics A (4 beats per line)

Cőnquering Sáppho’s nőt an easy búsiness:               − ∪ −  x  − ∪ ∪ − ∪ − −              Masculine ladies cherish independence.
Only good music penetrates the souls of
Lesbian artists.                                                                    − ∪ ∪ − −    [adonean]  

Sapphics B (correct rhythm, 3 beats per line)

ĺndependent métre is overráted:
What’s the use if nobody knows the verse-form?
Wisely, Sappho chose to adopt a stately
regular stanza.

Who can aim to capture the voice of Sappho?
Unsurpassed, she sings of a world of heartbreak:
Lengths of artful verse cannot hope to match her
glorious music.

I have argued for the latter being the correct rhythm of sapphics (following the great L.P. Wilkinson’s analysis in Golden Latin Artistry). Greek sapphics centre on the choriamb (with ictus on the first long), and the preceding syllable can be ‘swallowed’ (i.e. be light). Horace indicates similar emphasis by lavish use of sixth-syllable caesura in the Carmen Saeculare (e.g. ‘Phoebe silvarumque ⋮ potens Diana‘), a poem we know was actually performed (and possibly danced as well as sung).

11. Telesillean      (tl)

Joke: don’t tell a silly one:                x  −∪∪−  ∪−                               tl            
Walk: don’t do a hilly one.

B. Other metres and cola

1. Anacreontics          (anac)

Yes, Anacreon’s an artist                      ∪∪ − ∪ −  ∪ − −                            anac
but he clearly ain’t the smartest.
As a word, ‘Anacreontics’
has a whiff of orthodontics.
As a rule, avoid the colas
for the sake of healthy molars.

A light metre evolved from 2 ionic metra (see below) with anaclasis (swapping around of long and short elements). Regarding orthodontics, cf. Anacreon fr. 395.4: γηραλέοι δ’ ὀδόντες.

2. Anapaest

Anapaest is a beast                                                                    ∪∪−  ∪∪−      an
that has ceased to be fleeced —
now shaggy no more                                                                   −∪∪    −  −
in a heap on the floor.

The anapaestic metron is a double-anapaest, the elements of which can be resolved or contracted as indicated above. A common colon-length for anapaests in comic drama is the catalectic tetrameter i.e. four anapaestic metra with the last one truncated:

Anapaest is a beast that has ceased to be fleeced, now shaggy no more, on a blanket;
In a heap on the floor with a mouthful of straw, just waiting for someone to thank it.

3. Archilochean            (arch = en+ith)

This colon is Archilochean – really two contending:     x −∪∪  −∪∪−−  ⋮  −∪ −∪ − −
It sports a paroemiac key-in, thence a phallic ending.       [see paroemiac, ithyphallic below]

4. Cretic / Paeonic

What’s a paeon? I’m a paeon. European? Just a mo
That’s a cretic! What’s a cretic? How the cretic halts the flow.

−        ∪    ∪∪          −    ∪  ∪∪          −    ∪     ∪∪    −     ∪     −

5. Dactylic: Hexameter       (6da)

Everyone knows that Survive is a song by Gloria Gaynor.

−   ∪   ∪    −          ∪    ∪       − ⋮ ∪ ∪  −    −   − ∪ ∪    −   −

Pentameter   (5da: elegiac couplet = 6da + 5da)

How elegiac it is! – don’t you remember the words?

−       ∪∪    −∪∪ − ⋮  −      ∪   ∪      −     ∪   ∪      −

6. Dochmiacs     (δ)

a.  The wise kangaroos / prefer boots to shoes.  [trad.]  ∪  −  −  ∪  − ⋮ ∪  −  −  ∪  −  (δ ⋮ δ)

b.  That ol’ man river / He jus’ keeps rolling…              ∪  ⨰  −  ⨰  − ⋮ ∪   −   −

[Gail Trimble’s mnemonic, conforming to the only attested ictus: see M.L. West Greek Metre p. 115]

c.  The Cambridge Professor / of Greek History / won’t suffer dark black shoes:

∪        −      −       ∪   ∪∪   ⋮   ∪    −      −  ∪  −  ⋮   −       ∪ ∪     −        −        −     (‘dragged’)

He prefers to use                                −  ∪  −  ∪  −                              [hypodochmiac]

what every don should choose:      ∪  −  ∪  −  ∪  −                                 [kaibelianus]

Trainers are all the passion / in any colour or fashion.

−        ∪   ∪   −    ∪      ∪   ∪⋮    ∪ ∪∪    ∪∪     ∪    ∪∪

With acknowledgments to Prof. Robin Osborne for his inspiring choice of shoes.

d.  A dochmiac riff on Kaibel, eponymous inventor of the kaibelianus:

Kaibel caught the flu, and hacked till he was blue.              hδ /  kaib
His wife tried to scoff: ‘It’s only a cough –                              δ   /  δ
Hypochondriac! What’s wrong with your back?’                  hδ /  δ
Lying on his side, poor Kaibel replied:                                   hδ /  δ
‘Stop acting the cynic, and please call the clinic.                  δ   /  δ
Don’t think I’m not savvy – I’ll hack like a navvy                  δ   /  δ
And moan “Doc, me ‘ack is ’urting me back’.                     δ   /  δ

Elegiac couplet (or distich): see dactylic

7. Enoplian  (en)  OR  Paroemiac  (see West pp. 53, 195)

To the tune of the opening phrases of Mozart Symphony no. 40:

Never shout the enoplian metre:                  ∪∪ − ∪∪ − ∪ ∪ − −
to recite it is usually sweeter;
paroemiac also rehearses                             x − ∪∪ − ∪ ∪ − −
the proverbial ending of verses.

Enoplian is a vexed term,  indicating a metrical colon consisting of a central hemiepes (− ∪∪ − ∪ ∪ −) preceded by one or two elements and followed by a final syllable. Paroemiac does much the same, and takes its name from the way the second section of a dactylic hexameter (after the strong caesura) encapsulated some common proverbial sayings or paroimia.

8. Galliambics  (= 2 anac)

On a galley amber cables, in a blaze of amber light,
let a sailor, on the ocean, navigate the enemy night.

∪∪ −  ∪    −     ∪  − −  ⋮ ∪ ∪  −  ∪  ∪∪ ∪ −

There’s nothing particularly complicated about a metre that is just a combination of two anacreontic cola (see above), the second one catalectic (i.e. missing the last beat); what sometimes throws students is the way that the antepenultimate syllable of the second of the two conjoined cola is invariably resolved. The only famous ancient poem in this metre is Catullus C. 63. It’s important for this mnemonic to keep the first two syllables of each colon segment (e.g. ‘on a’ and ‘in a’) light and unstressed, otherwise there is a danger of it sounding like a trochaic tetrameter catalectic. By far the best use of the scheme in English is in Rudyard Kipling’s Mandalay: ‘By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,/ There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me…’

9. Hendecasyllables          (hendec)

With light héndecasýllables, Catullus        x x −∪∪ − ∪ − ∪ − −
called his lady to dinner with Fabullus.

Strictly speaking this is the Phalaecian hendecasyllable, named after the Greek poet Phalaecus of whose works we have only a few fragments.

10. Iambic trimeter     (3ia = pe + lk)       

x − ∪ − /  x  ⋮ − ∪ ⋮ −  /  x  −  ∪  −

In Greek iambics every verse falls into two:
a shorter segment intersects a longer one.
That’s why resourceful Aeschylus proposed to do
his rival in with “lost ’is bottle of oil” for fun.

The trimeter can be divided into a penthemimer (see below) and a lekythion, allowing the phrase lēkythion apōlesen (‘lost his bottle of oil’) to be substituted after the opening phrase, as done to humorous effect by the character of Aeschylus in Aristophanes Frogs.

Limping iambics (scazon / choliambics)  

x   −   ∪    −   /  x  ⋮   −    ∪   ⋮ −   /    x    −     −    −

Iambic verse has caught a limp from Hippōnax:
He’s knocked the metre out of step with three hard whacks.

The ‘limp’ results from the change of the penultimate element from short to long. The first element of the last metron can still be long (so – – – -), but is more usually found to be short, and is invariably so in Latin choliambics such as those composed by Catullus.

11. Ionics    (io)

∪∪ − − ⋮  ∪∪ − −     (2io ‘a minore’)

Clap a firm eye on a crewmate —
Dionysus ain’t for you, mate!                       [with anaclasis, i.e. Anacreontics]
’igh on ictus, high on accent?
Never fear if you’re a bacchant.                   [anaclastic]   ∪∪ − ∪  − ∪ − −

Unusually for Greek metre, Ionics tend to have specific associations: they may have sounded a bit like the exotic drumbeats of oriental cult, and became associated with the ecstasy of Dionysus and his bacchants. While this is less the case for Anacreontics, it is intensified in Galliambics, which are particularly associated with the ecstatic cult of the Great Mother.

12. Lekythion/ithyphallic         (lk/ith)

Round and round the rugged rocks             −  ∪ − x − ∪ −
ran the ragged rascal;                                     −  ∪ − ∪ − −
Leaky thongs he used for socks
in the falling darkness.

Paroemiac: see enoplian

13. Penthemimer       (pe)

Since strong caesuras                              x − ∪ − −
appeal to hearers,
some lines appear all

This colon forms the opening of an iambic trimeter line, up to the penthemimeral or ‘strong’ caesura.

14. Sotadean

This one is a real bugger – and that’s the kind of word you will find written in Sotadean metre, which doesn’t seem to know its arse from its elbow.

So tedious ¦when quantities ¦like this never¦ seem clear,  − − ∪ −   − − ∪ −   − − ∪ ∪   −−
So everyone¦ but Sotades¦ finds them all a¦ bit queer.           − − ∪ −   − − ∪ −   − ∪ − ∪   −−

15. Trochaic tetrameter catalectic       (4 tro)

Raise a  song for  Dionysus, hear the chorus answer back!
Here a trochee, there a trochee — every line a tetra-pack.

−      ∪   −     x     ¦   −     ∪   −     x   ¦     −   ∪  −    x  ¦  −    ∪   −

A complicated name for a simple, catchy rhythm, consisting of four trochees ( −  ∪ −  x ), the last one missing the final syllable. Its use by Archilochus (fr. 120) suggests that he was ‘leading off’ a dithyramb (a song to Dionysus) in this very metre, in exchange with a chorus. The same rhythm recurs centuries later in the Roman marching metre, the septenarius. Something similar is used in W.J. Turner’s poem ‘Romance’ with its memorable refrain: ‘Chimborazo, Cotopaxi — They had stol’n my soul away’.

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