International Journal of the Classical Tradition

, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 73–84 | Cite as

Robert Frost’s Hendecasyllabics and roman rebuttals

  • John Talbot


“For Once, Then, Something” (1920) is the only poem Robert Frost ever composed in a classical meter: it is written in phalaecean hendecasyllabics. What led him to depart, in that single instance, from his declared commitment to native English meters? So far no scholar or critic has ventured to say. This paper offers an explanation, and points to a greater subtlety in Frost’s engagement with Latin poetry than is usually proposed. Frost’s poem is, among other things, a response to hostile critics. Scholars of Catullus—and Catullus was Frost’s favorite Roman author—have pointed to a link between hendecasyllabics and the poetic mode of rebuttal to one’s critics. That poets in the English tradition understood this link can be demonstrated by adducing two hendecasyllabic poems of Tennyson’s: “Hendecasyllabics” (1863), in which the poet fires back at his magazine reviewers, and “The Gentle Life” (1870), in which he attacks his leading critic. An ardent admirer of Catullus, Tennyson naturally turned to the hendecasyllabic as the appropriate vehicle for such a response. I argue that by casting his own retort in hendecasyllabics, and by emulating other stylistic features in Catullus’ hendecasyllabics, Frost places himself within this tradition.


Verse Classical Tradition Prose English Verse Colloquial Language 
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    Only after I had written this article was I pleased to discover that Helen Bacon had made a similar observation in “In- and Outdoor Schooling: Robert Frost and the Classics,”The American Scholar 43:4 (1974), 640–649. She notes further the similar connotations of the Latinludo, ludere.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Talbot
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EnglishBrigham Young UniversityProvoUSA

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