Dactylic Hexameter

Dack-till-ick hex-ahm-eh-tur

Dactylic hexameter is a historically important pattern of syllables in poetry. Lines of dactylic hexameter have six feet, divided into sets of three beats. 

E.g. An example of dactylic hexameter is the Latin first line of 'The Aeneid' by Virgil: "arma virumque canō, Troiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs."

The pattern follows a sequence of long-short-short, which can be written as “dum da da.” This specific sequence is known as a dactyl. The name ‘hexameter’ refers to the six feet, or measures, that are used in each line.

Dactylic hexameter is often associated with Ancient Greek epic poetry and was used by many famous authors, including Homer and Virgil. This type of meter is also known as the “heroic meter” due to its association with epic heroes and the legendary tales they star in. While it is not commonly used in modern poetry, many classic works can be found in dactylic hexameter.

Dactylic Hexameter Definition and Examples

Dactylic Hexameter Definition

Dactylic Hexameter is a poetic meter consisting of six metrical feet in each line, with each foot composed of one long syllable followed by two short syllables. It is most notably used in epic poetry and classical Greek and Latin work. 

This specific type of meter is used to create a sense of grandeur and is often used to describe heroic deeds or characters. 

Dactylic hexameter is also used to maintain a consistent rhythm throughout the poem and makes it easier for the reader to identify patterns and meaning within the poem. Additionally, it can be used to evoke emotion or create a dramatic atmosphere.

Example of Dactylic Hexameter in Poetry 

Incredibly famous classical works like ‘Metamorphoses’ by Ovid, ‘Aeneid’ by Virgil, and Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ all use dactylic hexameter. Here are a few specific examples of the metrical form in poetry: 

The Aeneid by Virgil 

Here are the first four lines of ‘The Aenied’ in the popular translation completed by A.S. Kline: 

I sing of arms and the man, he who, exiled by fate, 

first came from the coast of Troy to Italy, and to 

Lavinian shores – hurled about endlessly by land and sea, 

by the will of the gods, by cruel Juno’s remorseless anger,

The first line is a very famous example of dactylic hexameter. But, because it’s been translated from the original Latin, much of the metrical pattern is lost. The original first line read “arma virumque canō, Troiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs.” 

Why Use Dactylic Hexameter? 

Dactylic hexameter is an important poetic meter used in ancient Greek and Latin literature. It is an ancient poetic form that has been passed down for centuries and continues to be used by modern writers. The dactylic hexameter has a consistent, predictable structure that is used to create strong rhythms and dramatic effects.

Poets may choose to use the dactylic hexameter when they are looking to create a powerful effect or emphasize a particular theme. The meter creates a sense of grandeur and majesty, making it ideal for epics and other larger works of literature. It also creates a powerful sense of unity, as the pattern of long and short syllables creates a strong underlying rhythm that helps to tie together a work’s different parts. This helps the poet to ensure that the entire work reads as one unified piece.

The dactylic hexameter is also very versatile and can be used to express a wide range of emotions and themes. The meter allows for great flexibility and freedom, allowing poets to experiment with different word choices and phrasings while still maintaining the meter’s overall structure. This makes the dactylic hexameter a great choice for those looking to explore their creativity while still using a well-established poetic form. 

How to Use Dactylic Hexameter

In order to write in dactylic hexameter, you need to understand the structure of a line. Each line should have six feet, and each foot should contain either one dactyl or one spondee. Additionally, the last two syllables of each line should be short and unaccented.

When writing in dactylic hexameter, it’s important to make sure that each line is structured correctly. Pay attention to the number of feet in each line, and make sure that each foot contains either one dactyl or one spondee. Additionally, remember to end each line with two short, unaccented syllables for added rhythm and flow.


What is a dactyl? 

A dactyl is a poetic foot consisting of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. It is commonly used in dactylic hexameter, the predominant meter used in classical Greek and Latin poetry.

How many syllables are in hexameter? 

Hexameter has six metrical feet, each composed of an iamb, trochee, dactyl, or other metrical foot. 

What is the most common meter in poetry? 

The most common meter in poetry is iambic pentameter, which is a rhythm of five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables. It is often used for dramatic and lyrical pieces, and it is the meter Shakespeare used for his plays.

Related Literary Terms 

  • Accentual Verse: focuses on the number of stressed syllables per line rather than the total number of syllables.
  • Iamb: a metrical unit. It occurs when two syllables are placed next to one another, and the first is unstressed, or short, and the second is stressed, or long.
  • Poetic Foot: a foot refers to a unit of meter in poetry. It is a grouping of stressed and/or unstressed syllables.
  • Weak Ending: occurs when a poet ends a line with an unstressed syllable. Often, the syllable extends the metrical pattern beyond that which is used in most of the poem. 

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