Learn more about Dactylic hexameter
Dactylic hexameter (also known as "heroic hexameter") is a form of meter in poetry or a rhythmic scheme. It is traditionally associated with classical epic poetry, both Greek and Latin, such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid.
The meter consists of lines made from six ("hexa") feet. In strict dactylic hexameter, each of these feet would be dactyl, but classical meter allows for the substitution of a spondee 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 frequently a dactyl (around 95% of the time in Homer). The sixth foot must be a spondee. Thus the dactylic line most normally looks as follows (note that - is a long syllable, u a short syllable and U either one long or two shorts):
- - U | - U | - U | - U | - u u | - -
As in all classical verse forms, the phenomenon of brevis in longo is observed, so the last syllable can actually be short or long.
Hexameters also have a caesura, usually a word break, in one of several normal positions: 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), or rarely after the first syllable of the fourth foot. The first possible caesura that one encounters in a line is considered the main caesura.
In addition, hexameters have two bridges, places where there very rarely is a break in a word-unit. The first, known as Meyer's Bridge, is in the second foot: if the second foot is a dactyl, the two short syllables must be part of the same word-unit. The second, known as Hermann's Bridge, is the same rule in the fourth foot: if the fourth foot is a dactyl, the two short syllables must also be part of the same word-unit.
Hexameters are frequently enjambed, which helps to create the long, flowing narrative of epic. They are generally considered the most grandiose and formal meter.
An English example of the dactylic hexameter:
- Down in a | deep dark | hole sat an | old pig | munching a | bean stalk
The "foot" is often compared to a musical measure and the long and short syllables to half notes (minims) and quarter notes (crotchets), respectively.
 Homer's meter
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. Homer's hexameters contain a far higher proportion of dactyls than later hexameter poetry. These early examples of hexameters are also characterised by a far less rigid following of the principles that the authors of later epics almost invariably adhered to. For example, Homer has spondaic fifth feet (albeit not often), whereas many later authors virtually never did. Also, there are exceptions to Meyer's Bridge and Hermann's Bridge in Homer (rarely), but there are almost none in Callimachus, a later author.
Additionally, words are often altered in form to allow them to fit the hexameter, typically with a dialectal form - ptolis is an epic form used instead of the Attic polis wherever it is necessary for the meter. On occasion, the names of characters actually seem to have been altered; the spelling of the name of Homer's character Polydamas, Pouludamas, appears to be an alternative rendering of the metrically unviable Poludamas ("subduer of many"). However, in spite of the occasional occurrence of exceptions in early epic, most of the later rules of hexameter composition have their origins in the methods and practices of Homer.
 Latin hexameter
The hexameter came into Latin as an adaption from Greek. Latin is by nature a more spondaic language than Greek, and this, with other characteristics, caused the Latin hexameter to take on distinct Latin characteristics, with classical writers adopting a more rigid set of conventions and practices than earlier Latin writers. The earliest example of the use of hexameter in Latin poetry is that of the Annales of Ennius, which established the dactylic hexameter as the standard for later Latin epic. Later Republican writers, such as Lucretius, Catullus and even Cicero, wrote their own compositions in the meter and it was at this time that many of the principles of Latin hexameter seem to have been established that would govern later writers such as Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and Juvenal. Virgil's opening line for the Aeneid is a classic example:
"Arma virumque cano, qui troiae primus ab oris": dactyl, dactyl, spondee, spondee, dactyl, spondee.
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 a line:
- his verbis: "o gnata, tibi sunt ante ferendae
- Aerumnae, post ex fluvio fortuna resistet."
- (Annales 1.42f)
Additionally, metrically long syllables, those occurring at the beginning of a foot, were generally not expected to coincide with the natural stress of a word. Indeed, in the first few feet of the meter, they were expected to clash, and in the final few feet, they were expected to resolve and coincide. In the following example of Ennius's early Latin hexameter composition, metrical weight ("ictus") falls on the second syllable of the word urbem, although the first is naturally stressed:
- certabant urbem Romam Remoramne vocarent.
- (Annales 1.86)
Classical Latin poets also avoided placing a large number of word breaks at the ends of foot divisions (particularly towards the end of a line) because such an arrangement breaks a line up and places unnecessary emphasis on the metre; the placement of a single syllable word at the end of a line; the placement of a sense break in any position other than the main caesura, and particularly in the last two feet; and the placement of the main caesura in any position other than the third foot.
Later accomplished epic poets, such as Virgil, appear not to have violated any of these rules unless for some specific effect. In the following line of the Aeneid, for instance, the sea is said to have retreated ("to have dragged back its foot") and the caesura in the line is forced back to the fourth foot; the sense of tension in the line is increased as the reader expects a break in the third foot that does not come, and the poet creates a literal illustration of what he is describing:
- impediunt, retrahitque pedem simul unda relabens.
- (Aeneid 10.307)
 External links
- Introduction to the dactylic hexameter for Latin verse.
- Reading dactylic hexameter, specifically Homer.fr:Hexamètre dactylique