Dactylic hexameter (also known as "heroic hexameter") is a form of meter in poetry or a rhythmic scheme. 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 classical poetry. The premier examples of its use are 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 is always a spondee, though it may be anceps. 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)
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 primary caesura — a break in sense, much like the function of a comma in prose — at 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); after the first syllable of the fourth foot; or after the first syllable of the second foot (the latter two often occur together in a line, breaking it into three separate units). 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 language example of the dactylic hexameter, in quantitative meter:
As the absurd meaning of this example demonstrates, quantitative meter is extremely difficult to construct in English. Here is an example in normal stress meter (the first line of Longfellow's "Evangeline"):
Full article ▸