In English poetry, readers are used to accented and unaccented syllables or stressed or unstressed syllables. These are seen through metrical patterns like iambic pentameter and trochaic tetrameter. But, the metrical system used in Classical Greek and Italian poetry used long and short syllables. This refers to the time it takes to speak the individual words in a line. There are also a few interesting examples of English-language writers using or attempting to use quantitative meter.
Explore Quantitative Verse
Quantitative Verse Definition
Quantitative verse is a style of meter that focuses on the length of syllables rather than their strength. For example, syllables are described as “short” and “long” rather than “stressed” or “unstressed (also commonly described as “accented” and “unaccented).
This type of meter is also known as syllable-timed. It is common in languages like Greek, Italian, Latin, Hungarian, and more. Often, Classical Greek and Latin poetry utilize a specific form of quantitative verse—dactylic hexameter (explore this metrical pattern more below).
Characteristics of Quantitative Verse
- The use of dactylic hexameter is common.
- Used in syllable-timed languages rather than stress-timed.
- Common in classical Greek, Latin, and Italian poetry.
- Dependent on the length of syllables.
- Made up of long and short syllables rather than stressed and unstressed syllables.
What is Dactylic Hexameter?
Hexameter by itself refers to a line of poetry with six metrical feet. These feet are usually a combination of spondees and dactyls, especially when it comes to epic, quantitative verse. Dactylic hexameter refers to the use of dactyls within this pattern.
To break it down further, 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).
Examples of Quantitative Verse
Iambicum Trimetrum by Edmund Spenser
This is a famous example of a poet using quantitative verse in English-language poetry. The poem was written in 1579 as an experiment. It was composed within a letter shared between Spenser and fellow writer Gabriel Harvey. The narrator hopes that their verse will reach their lost lover within the piece. Here are a few lines:
Unhappy verse, the witness of my unhappy state,
Make thy self flutt’ring wings of thy fast flying
Thought, and fly forth unto my love, wheresoever she be:
Whether lying restless in heavy bed, or else
Sitting so cheerless at the cheerful board, or else
Playing alone careless on her heavenly virginals.
If in bed, tell her, that my eyes can take no rest:
When analyzed in accordance with stress-dependent meter, this poem is often described as conforming to the pattern of iambic hexameter (also used in Spenser’s sonnets). It also uses iambic heptameter (these lines are also known as “fourteeners” because they contain fourteen syllables).
Read more poems by Edmund Spenser.
The Aeneid by Virgil
The Aeneid is a famous example of an epic written in quantitative verse. Specifically in dactylic hexameter. This is the metrical pattern commonly used within Greek epics, like Homer’s Iliad (see the example below). Here are a few lines from the original Latin version of The Aeneid in which Virgil’s use of meter is evident:
Arma virumque canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs
Ītaliam, fātō profugus, Lāvīniaque vēnit
lītora, multum ille et terrīs iactātus et altō
vī superum saevae memorem Iūnōnis ob īram;
multa quoque et bellō passus, dum conderet urbem,
inferretque deōs Latiō, genus unde Latīnum,
Albānīque patrēs, atque altae moenia Rōmae.
Here is the translation of these lines in English:
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,
long suffering also in war, until he founded a city
and brought his gods to Latium: from that the Latin people
came, the lords of Alba Longa, the walls of noble Rome.
As is common within poetry translations, much of the meter is often lost. But, this translator, H.R. Fairclough, attempts to maintain the pattern of short and long syllables where possible.
The Iliad by Homer
The Iliad is a famous example of an epic poem written in dactylic hexameter, using quantitative meter. The use of rhythm and rhyme in epic poetry was critical to ensure that bards, like Homer, could remember each line. Here are the famous first lines from The Iliad in transliterated Greek (with the stresses indicated in the first line):
Me nin a / el de the / a pe / le i a / deo akh i / le os
oulomenēn, he muri’ Akhaiois alge’ ethēke,
pollas d’ iphthimous psukhas Aidi proiapsen
The long syllables are bolded, and the short syllables are unbolded. The third foot goes against the strictest form of the meter and appears as a spondee. This was not completely unusual, and many other substitutes of this kind can be found throughout The Iliad.
A quantitative poem is structured around the length of time it takes a reader to read the syllables in a line. They are described as long and short rather than stressed or unstressed.
Metered verse is poetry that conforms to a specific metrical pattern. For example, dactylic hexameter in quantitative verse or iambic pentameter in many English-language poems.
Accentual verse is a type of meter that is dependent on the number of stresses or accents in a line. A poet can use different numbers of syllables but has to keep the number of stresses or accents the same. For example, lines of verse might be ten, twelve, or fifteen syllables long but conform to the same pattern as long as the lines contain the same number of stresses (whether that be five, ten, etc.).
There are many types of meter that might be used in poetry. In English language poetry, patterns like iambic pentameter and iambic tetrameter are common. For example, Shakespeare uses the former in ‘Sonnet 130.’
Related Literary Terms
- 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.
- Alexandrine: a type of metrical line. It is most commonly refers to a line composed of twelve iambs.
- Asclepiad: a line of poetry that is built around a choriamb and that dates back to Ancient Greece. In Latin, it is written as “Asclepiadeus.”
- 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.
- Trochee: the exact opposite of an iamb, meaning that the first syllable is stressed and the second is unstressed.