Hexameter, as noted above, was commonly used in the composition of epic poems. It was also used in classical Greek writing, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The metrical form has its origins, according to Greek mythology, with the daughter of Apollo, Phemonoe. In English language poetry, poets use hexameter along with trochees or iambs. Creating, for example, iambic hexameter.
Hexameter refers to a line of poetry that has six metrical feet. In classical hexameter, these feet are usually a combination of spondees and dactyls. In English poets, poets usually use iambs and trochees for a total of twelve syllables.
A spondee is a set of two syllables, both of which are stressed or accented (written as – -). A dactyl is a set of three syllables. The first is stressed, and the second and third are unstressed (written as -uu).
Today, it is uncommon to find classical hexameter in English-language poetry. This is mainly due to the differences between Greek, Latin, and English. English is a stressed-timed language, meaning that its syllables last for different amounts of time, but there is a constant average time between stressed syllables. Other languages like German, Dutch, Russian, and Norwegian are all stress-timed.
Greek, Latin, and Hungarian are just a few examples of languages that are syllable-timed languages. This means that roughly, each syllable takes up a certain amount of time (uninfluenced by stresses or accents). It’s these syllable-timed languages that are better suited for hexameter.
Despite this, it is fairly common to find examples of poems written in iambic hexameter. These examples date back to at least the sixteenth century. Sometimes, these metrical lines, also known as alexandrines, were used rather than heroic couplets.
Characteristics of Classical Hexameter
Poets who wrote classical poems in hexameter utilize the following rules:
- The first four feet of a poem can use spondees or dactyls.
- The fifth foot is always a dactyl.
- The last foot (the sixth) of a line is always a spondee.
- Poets also used examples of caesura and enjambment to break up the patterns.
Examples of Classical Hexameter in Poetry
The Iliad by Homer
The Iliad is a famous example of an epic poem written in dactylic hexameter. Homer’s epics were initially shared in the oral tradition. This means that they were recited, chanted, and sung aloud without a written text to refer to. The use of rhythm and rhyme were critical in order to ensure that bards, like Homer himself, could remember each line. Here are a few lines from The Iliad in English:
Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles, Peleus’ son,
the accursed anger which brought the Achaeans countless
agonies and hurled many mighty shades of heroes into Hades,
Here are the three lines of that excerpt but converted into Greek, using English letters:
mēnin aeide thea pēlēiadeō Akhilēos
oulomenēn, he muri’ Akhaiois alge’ ethēke,
pollas d’ iphthimous psukhas Aidi proiapsen
It’s far easier, by sounding out this transliterated version, to note the poet’s use of rhythm. The first line, for example, when separated out into feet is:
Me nin a / el de the / a pe / le i a / deo akh i / le os
The long syllables are bolded, and the short syllables are unbolded. The third foot goes against the strictest form of the meter and is a spondee. For one’s reference, here is the original Greek version of the three lines:
μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
The Aeneid by Virgil
This is another well-known epic example of dactylic hexameter. The Aenied was written in the style of Homer (but in Latin) and picked up, in a sense, where the poet left off with The Iliad. It follows Aeneas, a Trojan, who, along with a few others, escapes the walls of Troy. Here is the first line in English and Latin:
I sing of arms and the man, who first from the shores of Troy
The transliterated version reads:
Arma vi|rumque ca|nō, Trō|iae quī| prīmus a|b ōrīs
Another great example is this line from Canto VIII:
quadrupe|dante pu|trem soni|tū quati|t ungula| campum
Here, the poet uses five dactyls to emphasize the sound of horse hoofs moving through a field.
One of the best-known examples of hexameter is the opening line from Homer’s Iliad. In English, it reads: “Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles, Peleus’ son.” The Greek original, in English letters, reads: “mēnin aeide thea pēlēiadeō Akhilēos.”
In poetry, hexameter refers to a line that contains six metrical feet. Lines of hexameter usually use dactyls and spondees. Or metrical feet that contain either one long and two short syllables or two long syllables.
Iambic hexameter is the most common form of hexameter that readers might find in the English language. It occurs when a writer uses six sets of two beats in a line. The first syllable in each foot is unstressed, and the second is stressed.
Homer, like other classical Greek and Latin poets, used dactylic hexameter. Today, it is uncommon to find verse written in this style, in part due to the nature of the English language.
Related Literary Terms
- Accent: refers to the stressed syllable in a word. Metered lines of verse are made up of different groups of syllables.
- Accentual Verse: focuses on the number of stressed syllables per line rather than the total number of syllables.
- Cadence: the natural rhythm of a piece of text, created through a writer’s selective arrangement of words, rhymes, and the creation of meter.
- Dactylic Pentameter: a metrical pattern that can be found in some examples of English language poetry. The term refers to lines that consist of five, or sets of syllables, per line with three syllables per foot.
- Heroic Couplet: a form of poetry commonly used in epics and narrative poems. It is composed of a pair of rhyming lines that are written in iambic pentameter.
- Epic Simile: a long poetic comparison that uses like or as and which goes on for several lines. It grows more complicated and reveals its meaning as the lines progress.