Dactylic hexameter

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Dactylic hexameter (also known as "heroic hexameter" and "the meter of epic") is a form of meter or rhythmic scheme in poetry. It is traditionally associated with the quantitative meter of classical epic poetry in both Greek and Latin and was consequently considered to be the grand style of Western classical poetry. Some premier examples of its use are Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, and Ovid's Metamorphoses. Hexameters also form part of elegiac poetry in both languages, the elegiac couplet being a dactylic hexameter line paired with a dactylic pentameter line.


A dactylic hexameter has six (in Greek ἕξ, hex) feet. In strict dactylic hexameter, each foot would be a dactyl (a long and two short syllables), but classical meter allows for the substitution of a spondee (two long syllables) in place of a dactyl in most positions. Specifically, the first four feet can either be dactyls or spondees more or less freely. The fifth foot is usually a dactyl (around 95% of the time in Homer).

The sixth foot can be filled by either a trochee (a long then short syllable) or a spondee. Thus the dactylic line most normally is scanned as follows:

–⏕ | –⏕ | –⏕ | –⏕ | –⏑⏑ | –X

(Note that = a long syllable, = a short syllable, = either one long or two shorts, and X = anceps syllable.)

Hexameters also have a primary caesura—a break between words, sometimes (but not always) coinciding with a break in sense—at one of several normal positions: After the first syllable of the second foot; after the first syllable in the third foot (the "masculine" caesura); after the second syllable in the third foot if the third foot is a dactyl (the "feminine" caesura); after the first syllable of the fourth foot (the hephthemimeral caesura).

Hexameters are frequently enjambed—the meaning runs over from one line to the next, without terminal punctuation—which helps to create the long, flowing narrative of epic. They are generally considered the most grandiose and formal meter.

An English-language example of the dactylic hexameter, in quantitative meter:

Down in a | deep dark | dell sat an | old cow | munching a | beanstalk

The preceding line follows the rules of Greek and Latin prosody. Syllables containing long vowels, diphthongs and short vowels followed by two or more consonants count as long; all other syllables count as short. Such values may not correspond with the rhythms of ordinary spoken English.

In Greek[edit]

The hexameter was first used by early Greek poets of the oral tradition, and the most complete extant examples of their works are the Iliad and the Odyssey, which influenced the authors of all later classical epics that survive today. Early epic poetry was also accompanied by music, and pitch changes associated with the accented Greek must have highlighted the melody, though the exact mechanism is still a topic of discussion.[1]

The Homeric poems arrange words so as to create an interplay between the metrical ictus—the first syllable of each foot—and the natural, spoken accent of words. If the ictus and accent coincide too frequently the hexameter becomes "sing-songy". Thus in general, word breaks occur in the middle of metrical feet, while ictus and accent coincide more often near the end of the line. The first line of Homer’s Iliad—"Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles"—provides an example:

μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος

Dividing the line into metrical units:

μῆνιν ἄ | ειδε, θε | ά, Πη | ληϊά | δεω Ἀχι | λῆος
mênin á | eide, the | á, Pē | lēïá | deō Akhi | lêos
dactyl, dactyl, spondee, dactyl, dactyl, spondee.

Note how the word endings do not coincide with the end of a metrical foot; for the early part of the line this forces the accent of each word to lie in the middle of a foot, playing against the ictus.

This line also includes a masculine caesura after θεά, a break that separates the line into two parts. Homer employs a feminine caesura more commonly than later writers: an example occurs in Iliad I.5 "...and every bird; thus the plan of Zeus came to fulfillment":

οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
οἰω | νοῖσί τε | πᾶσι, Δι | ὸς δ’ ἐτε | λείετο | βουλή,
oiō | noîsí te | pâsi, Di | òs d’ ete | leíeto | boulḗ,

Homer’s hexameters contain a higher proportion of dactyls than later hexameter poetry. They are also characterised by a laxer following of verse principles than later epicists almost invariably adhered to. For example, Homer allows spondaic fifth feet (albeit not often), whereas many later authors never do.

Homer also altered the forms of words to allow them to fit the hexameter, typically by using a dialectal form: ptolis is an epic form used instead of the Attic polis as necessary for the meter. Proper names sometimes take forms to fit the meter, for example Pouludamas instead of the metrically unviable Poludamas.

Some lines require a knowledge of the digamma for their scansion, e.g. Iliad I.108 "you have not yet spoken a good word nor brought one to pass":

ἐσθλὸν δ’ οὐτέ τί πω εἶπας ἔπος οὔτ’ ἐτέλεσσας

Here the word ἔπος was originally ϝέπος in Ionian; the digamma, later lost, lengthened the last syllable of the preceding εἶπας and removed the apparent defect in the meter. A digamma also saved the hiatus in the third foot. This example demonstrates the oral tradition of the Homeric epics that flourished before they were written down sometime in the 7th century BC.

In spite of the occasional exceptions in early epic, most of the later rules of hexameter composition have their origins in the methods and practices of Homer.

In Latin[edit]

The hexameter came into Latin as an adaptation from Greek long after the practice of singing the epics had faded. Consequentially, the properties of the meter were learned as specific "rules" rather than as a natural result of musical expression. Also, because the Latin language generally has a higher proportion of long syllables than Greek, it is by nature more spondaic. Thus the Latin hexameter took on characteristics of its own.

The earliest example of hexameter in Latin poetry is the Annales of Ennius, which established it as the standard for later Latin epics. Later Republican writers, such as Lucretius, Catullus and even Cicero, wrote hexameter compositions, and it was at this time that many of the principles of Latin hexameter were firmly established, and followed by later writers such as Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and Juvenal. Virgil's opening line for the Aeneid is a classic example::

Arma vi|rumque can|ō, Trō|iae quī| prīmus a|b ōrīs
"I sing of arms and the man, who first from the shores of Troy..."

As in Greek, lines were arranged so that the metrically long syllables—those occurring at the beginning of a foot—often avoided the natural stress of a word. In the earlier feet of a line, meter and stress were expected to clash, while in the later feet they were expected to resolve and coincide—an effect that gives each line a natural "dum-ditty-dum-dum" ("shave and a haircut") rhythm to close. Such an arrangement is a balance between an exaggerated emphasis on the metre—which would cause the verse to be sing-songy—and the need to provide some repeated rhythmic guide for skilled recitation.

In the following example of Ennius's early Latin hexameter composition, metrical weight (ictus) falls on the first and last syllables of certābant; the ictus is therefore opposed to the natural stress on the second syllable when the word is pronounced. Similarly, the second syllable of the words urbem and Romam carry the metrical ictus even though the first is naturally stressed in typical pronunciation. In the closing feet of the line, the natural stress that falls on the third syllable of Remoramne and the second syllable of vocārent coincide with the metrical ictus and produce the characteristic "shave and a haircut" ending:

certā|bant ur|bem Rō|mam Remo|ramne vo|cārent. (Ennius, Annales 1.86)
"they were disputing whether they should call the city 'Roma' or 'Remora'."

Like their Greek predecessors, classical Latin poets avoided a large number of word breaks at the ends of foot divisions except between the fourth and fifth, where it was encouraged. In order to preserve the rhythmic close, Latin poets avoided the placement of a single syllable or four-syllable word at the end of a line. The caesura is also handled far more strictly, with Homer's feminine caesura becoming exceedingly rare, and the second-foot caesura always paired with one in the fourth.

One example of the evolution of the Latin verse form can be seen in a comparative analysis of the use of spondees in Ennius' time vs. the Augustan age. The repeated use of the heavily spondaic line came to be frowned upon, as well as the use of a high proportion of spondees in both of the first two feet. The following lines of Ennius would not have been felt admissible by later authors since they both contain repeated spondees at the beginning of consecutive lines:

hīs ver|bīs: "ō| gnāta, ti|bī sunt| ante fe|rendae
aerum|nae, post| ex fluvi|ō for|tūna re|sistet." (Annales 1.42f)
"with these words: 'o daughter, tribulations must first be borne by you;
later your fortune will rise again from the river.'"

However, it is from Virgil that the following famous, heavily spondaic line comes:

mōnstrum hor|rendum, īn|fōrme, in|gēns, cui| lūmen a|demptum. (Aeneid III.658)
"a huge, shapeless, horrendous monster, whose light [i.e., its eye] had been removed"

Virgil and the Augustan poets[edit]

By the age of Augustus, poets like Virgil closely followed the rules of the meter and approached it in a highly rhetorical way, looking for effects that can be exploited in skilled recitation. For example, the following line from the Aeneid (VIII.596) describes the movement of rushing horses and how "a hoof shakes the crumbling field with a galloping sound":

quadrupe|dante pu|trem soni|tū quati|t ungula| campum

This line is made up of five dactyls and a closing spondee, an unusual rhythmic arrangement that imitates the described action. A similar effect is found in VIII.452, where Virgil describes how the blacksmith sons of Vulcan "lift their arms with great strength one to another" in forging Aeneas' shield:

illī in|ter sē|sē mul|tā vī| bracchia| tollunt

The line consists of all spondees except for the usual dactyl in the fifth foot, and is meant to mimic the pounding sound of the work. A third example that mixes the two effects comes from I.42, where Juno pouts that Athena was allowed to use Jove's thunderbolts to destroy Ajax ("she hurled Jove's quick fire from the clouds"):

ipsa Io|vis rapi|dum iacu|lāta ē| nūbibu|s ignem

This line is nearly all dactyls except for the spondee at -lata e. This change in rhythm paired with the harsh elision is intended to emphasize the crash of Athena's thunderbolt.

Virgil will occasionally deviate from the strict rules of the meter to produce a special effect. One example from I.105 describing a ship at sea during a storm has Virgil violating metrical standards to place a single-syllable word at the end of the line:

...et undīs
dat latus;| insequi|tur cumu|lō prae|ruptus a|quae mōns.

The boat "gives its side to the waves; there comes next in a heap a steep mountain of water." By placing the monosyllable mons at the end of the line, Virgil interrupts the usual "shave and a haircut" pattern to produce a jarring rhythm, an effect that echoes the crash of a large wave against the side of a ship. The Roman poet Horace uses a similar trick to highlight the comedic irony that "Mountains will be in labor, and bring forth a ridiculous mouse" in this famous line from his Ars Poetica (line 139):

Parturi|ent mon|tēs, nās|cētur| rīdicu|lus mūs,

Another amusing example that comments on the importance of these verse rules comes later in the same poem (line 263):

Nōn quī|vīs videt| inmodu|lāta po|ēmata| iūdex,

This line, which lacks a proper caesura, is translated "Not every critic sees an inharmonious verse."

Silver Age and later heroic verse[edit]

The verse innovations of the Augustan writers were carefully imitated by their successors in the Silver Age of Latin literature. The verse form itself then was little changed, as the quality of a poet's hexameter was judged against the standard set by Virgil and the other Augustan poets, a respect for literary precedent encompassed by the Latin word aemulātiō.[2] Deviations were generally regarded as idiosyncrasies or hallmarks of personal style, and were not imitated by later poets. Juvenal, for example, was fond of occasionally creating verses that placed a sense break between the fourth and fifth foot (instead of in the usual caesura positions), but this technique—known as the bucolic diaeresis—did not catch on with other poets.

In the late empire, writers experimented again by adding unusual restrictions to the standard hexameter. The rhopalic verse of Ausonius is a good example; besides following the standard hexameter pattern, each word in the line is one syllable longer than the previous, e.g.:

Spēs, deus, aeternae statiōnis conciliātor,
sī castīs precibus veniālēs invigilāmus,
hīs, pater, ōrātis plācābilis adstipulāre.

Also notable is the tendency among late grammarians to thoroughly dissect the hexameters of Virgil and earlier poets. A treatise on poetry by Diomedes Grammaticus is a good example, as this work (among other things) categorizes dactylic hexameter verses in ways that were later interpreted under the golden line rubric. Independently, these two trends show the form becoming highly artificial—more like a puzzle to solve than a medium for personal poetic expression.

By the Middle Ages, some writers adopted more relaxed versions of the meter. Bernard of Cluny, for example, employs it in his De Contemptu Mundi, but ignores classical conventions in favor of accentual effects and predictable rhyme both within and between verses, e.g.:

Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt — vigilemus.
Ecce minaciter imminet arbiter ille supremus.
Imminet imminet ut mala terminet, aequa coronet,
Recta remuneret, anxia liberet, aethera donet.
(I.1-4: These are the last days, the worst of times: let us keep watch.
Behold the menacing arrival of the supreme Judge.
He is coming, he is coming to end evil, crown the just,
Reward the right, set the worried free and give the skies.)

Not all medieval writers are so at odds with the Virgilian standard, and with the rediscovery of classical literature, later Medieval and Renaissance writers are far more orthodox, but by then the form had become an academic exercise. Petrarch, for example, devoted much time to his Africa, a dactylic hexameter epic on Scipio Africanus, but this work was unappreciated in his time and remains little read today. In contrast, Dante decided to write his epic, the Divine Comedy in Italian—a choice that defied the traditional epic choice of Latin dactylic hexameters—and produced a masterpiece beloved both then and now.[3]

With the New Latin period, the language itself came to be regarded as a medium only for "serious" and learned expression, a view that left little room for Latin poetry. The emergence of Recent Latin in the 20th century restored classical orthodoxy among Latinists and sparked a general (if still academic) interest in the beauty of Latin poetry. Today, the modern Latin poets who use the dactylic hexameter are generally as faithful to Virgil as Rome's Silver Age poets.

In modern languages[edit]

In English[edit]

Many poets have attempted to write dactylic hexameters in English, though few works composed in the meter have stood the test of time. Most such works are accentual rather than quantitative. Perhaps the most famous is Longfellow's "Evangeline", whose first line is as follows:

This is the | forest pri | meval. The | murmuring | pines and the | hemlocks

Poets who have written quantitative hexameters in English include Robert Bridges.

In German[edit]

Dactylic hexameter has proved more successful in German than in most modern languages. Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock's epic Der Messias popularized accentual dactylic hexameter in German. Subsequent German poets to employ the form include Goethe (notably in his Reineke Fuchs) and Schiller.

In Lithuanian[edit]

The Seasons (Metai) by Kristijonas Donelaitis is a famous Lithuanian poem in quantitative dactylic hexameters. Because of the nature of Lithuanian, more than half of the lines of the poem are entirely spondaic save for the mandatory dactyl in the fifth foot.

In French[edit]

Jean-Antoine de Baïf elaborated a system which used original graphemes for regulating French versification by quantity on the Greco-Roman model, a system which came to be known as vers mesurés, or vers mesurés à l'antique, which the French language of the Renaissance permitted. In works like his Étrénes de poézie Franzoęze an vęrs mezurés (1574)[4] or Chansonnettes he used dactylic hexameter, Sapphic stanzas, etc., in quantitative meters.


  1. ^ Cf. Alan Shaw's 1997 essay Some Questions on Greek Poetry and Music. Electronic Book Review. 1 March 1997. Retrieved 19 May 2017.
  2. ^ E.g., the younger Pliny, in referring to an orator who prided himself on not attempting to rival Cicero, replied, Est enim ... mihi cum Cicerōne aemulātiō, nec sum contentus ēloquentiā saeculī nostrī; nam stultissimum crēdō ad imitandum nōn optima quaeque prōpōnere. ("I do attempt to emulate Cicero, as I am not content with the eloquence of our age; I think it's idiotic not to imitate the best examples.") –Letters I.5.12–3
  3. ^ Raffa, Guy P. (1995). "Dante's Beloved Yet Damned Virgil". In Alighieri, Dante (ed.). Dante’s Inferno, The Indiana Critical Edition (Indiana Masterpiece Editions). Indiana University Press. p. 267. ISBN 0253209307. Retrieved 2019-07-25.
  4. ^ See, for example, Au Roi.

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