Hexameter is a metrical line of verses consisting of six feet. It was the standard epic metre in classical Greek and Latin literature, such as in the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid. Its use in other genres of composition include Horace's satires, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and the Hymns of Orpheus. According to Greek mythology, hexameter was invented by Phemonoe, daughter of Apollo and the first Pythia of Delphi.[1][2]

Classical Hexameter

In classical hexameter, the six feet follow these rules:

  • A foot can be made up of two long syllables (– –), a spondee; or a long and two short syllables, a dactyl (– υ υ).
  • The first four feet can contain either one of them.
  • The fifth is almost always a dactyl, and last must be a spondee.

A short syllable (υ) is a syllable with a short vowel and no consonant at the end. A long syllable (–) is a syllable that either has a long vowel, one or more consonants at the end (or a long consonant), or both. Spaces between words are not counted in syllabification, so for instance "cat" is a long syllable in isolation, but "cat attack" would be syllabified as short-short-long: "ca", "ta", "tack" (υ υ –).

Variations of the sequence from line to line, as well as the use of caesura (logical full stops within the line) are essential in avoiding what may otherwise be a monotonous sing-song effect.


Although the rules seem simple, it is hard to use classical hexameter in English, because English is a stress-timed language that condenses vowels and consonants between stressed syllables, while hexameter relies on the regular timing of the phonetic sounds. Languages having the latter properties (i.e., languages that are not stress-timed) include Ancient Greek, Latin, Lithuanian and Hungarian.

While the above classical hexameter has never enjoyed much popularity in English, where the standard metre is iambic pentameter, English poems have frequently been written in iambic hexameter. There are numerous examples from the 16th century and a few from the 17th; the most prominent of these is Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion (1612) in couplets of iambic hexameter. An example from Drayton (marking the feet):

Nor a | ny o | ther wold | like Cot | swold e | ver sped,
So rich | and fair | a vale | in for | tuning | to wed.

In the 17th century the iambic hexameter, also called alexandrine, was used as a substitution in the heroic couplet, and as one of the types of permissible lines in lyrical stanzas and the Pindaric odes of Cowley and Dryden.

Several attempts were made in the 19th century to naturalise the dactylic hexameter to English, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Arthur Hugh Clough and others, none of them particularly successful. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote many of his poems in six-foot iambic and sprung rhythm lines. In the 20th century a loose ballad-like six-foot line with a strong medial pause was used by William Butler Yeats. The iambic six-foot line has also been used occasionally, and an accentual six-foot line has been used by translators from the Latin and many poets.

In the late 18th century the hexameter was adapted to the Lithuanian language by Kristijonas Donelaitis. His poem "Metai" (The Seasons) is considered the most successful hexameter text in Lithuanian as yet.

Hungarian is extremely suitable to hexameter (and other forms of poetry based on quantitative metre), insomuch that if a student comes to a halt when reciting a poem s/he was supposed to learn, s/he can say "I'm stuck here, unfortunately the rest won't come into my mind," and it will be an impeccable hexameter in Hungarian: Itt elakadtam, sajnos nem jut eszembe a többi.

Itt ela | kadtam, | sajnos | nem jut e | szembe a | többi.

Due to this feature, hexameter has been widely used both in translated (Greek and Roman) and in original poetry up to the twentieth century (e.g. by Miklós Radnóti).[3]

See also


  1. ^ Pausanias, 10.5.7
  2. ^ Pliny the Elder, 7.57
  3. ^ Radnóti's poems with English translations, see the Fifth, Seventh or Eighth Eclogue, the seventh being the most famous, while the eighth is rendered into English in hexameter.


  • Stephen Greenblatt et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume D, 9th edition (Norton, 2012).
  • Pausanias. Description of Greece, Vol. IV. Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1918).
  • Pliny the Elder. The Natural History. Translated by John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. (London: Taylor and Francis, 1855).

External links


Aedesia (Greek: Αἰδεσία) was a female philosopher of the Neoplatonic school who lived in Alexandria in the fifth century AD. She was a relation of Syrianus and the wife of Hermias, and was equally celebrated for her beauty and her virtues. After the death of her husband, she devoted herself to relieving the wants of the distressed and the education of her children, Ammonius and Heliodorus. She accompanied the latter to Athens, where they went to study philosophy, and was received with great distinction by all the philosophers there, and especially by Proclus, to whom she had been betrothed by Syrianus, when she was quite young. She lived to a considerable age, and her funeral oration was pronounced by Damascius, who was then a young man, in hexameter verses.


Alexandrine is a name used for several distinct types of verse line with related metrical structures, most of which are ultimately derived from the classical French alexandrine. The line's name derives from its use in the Medieval French Roman d'Alexandre of 1170, although it had already been used several decades earlier in Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne. The foundation of most alexandrines consists of two hemistichs (half-lines) of six syllables each, separated by a caesura (a word break, though often realized as a stronger syntactic break):

o o o o o o | o o o o o o

o=any syllable; |=caesura

However, no tradition remains this simple. Each applies additional constraints (such as obligatory stress or nonstress on certain syllables) and options (such as a permitted or required additional syllable at the end of one or both hemistichs). Thus a line that is metrical in one tradition may be unmetrical in another.

Dactyl (poetry)

A dactyl (; Greek: δάκτυλος, dáktylos, “finger”) is a foot in poetic meter. In quantitative verse, often used in Greek or Latin, a dactyl is a long syllable followed by two short syllables, as determined by syllable weight. In accentual verse, often used in English, it is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables—the opposite is the anapaest (two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable).

The Greek and Latin words δάκτυλος and dactylus are themselves dactyls (and hence autological). The English word poetry is also a dactyl. A useful mnemonic for remembering this long-short-short pattern is to consider the relative lengths of the three bones of a human finger: beginning at the knuckle, it is one long bone followed by two shorter ones (hence the name dactyl).

An example of dactylic meter is the first line of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem Evangeline, which is in dactylic hexameter:

This is the / forest prim- / eval. The / murmuring / pines and the / hemlocks,The first five feet of the line are dactyls; the sixth a trochee.

Stephen Fry quotes Robert Browning's The Lost Leader as an example of the use of dactylic metre to great effect, creating verse with "great rhythmic dash and drive":

Just for a handful of silver he left us

Just for a riband to stick in his coat The first three feet in both lines are dactyls.

Another example: the opening lines of Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" (1859), his poem about the birth of his poetic voice:

Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking [a dactyl, followed by a trochee ('cradle'); then another dactyl followed by a trochee ('rocking')]

Out of the mockingbird's throat, the musical shuttle [2 dactyls, then a trochee ('throat, the'); then another dactyl, followed by a trochee]

. . .The dactyl "out of the..." becomes a pulse that rides through the entire poem, often generating the beginning of each new line, even though the poem as a whole, as is typical for Whitman, is extremely varied and "free" in its use of metrical feet.

Dactyls are the metrical foot of Greek and Latin elegiac poetry, which followed a line of dactylic hexameter with dactylic pentameter.

In Joyce's Ulysses opening chapter Buck Mulligan quips that his own name is a dactyl. Mull-i-gan.

Dactylic hexameter

Dactylic hexameter (also known as "heroic hexameter" and "the meter of epic") is a form of meter or rhythmic scheme in poetry. 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 Western classical poetry. Some premier examples of its use are Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, and Ovid's Metamorphoses. Hexameters also form part of elegiac poetry in both languages, alternating with dactylic pentameters.

Dactylic pentameter

Dactylic pentameter is a form of meter in poetry. The dactyl, which is made of a stressed (or long) syllable followed by two unstressed (or short) syllables, is repeated five times to create a pentameter line.

In classical literature, it is usually found in the second line of the classical Latin or Greek elegiac couplet, following a dactylic hexameter.

The meter consists of two halves, both shaped around the dactylic hexameter line up to the main caesura. That is, it has two dactyls (for which spondees can be substituted), following by a longum, followed by two dactyls (which must remain dactyls), followed by a longum. Thus the line most normally looks as follows (note that — is a long syllable, ∪ a short syllable and U either one long or two shorts):

— 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. Also, the line has a diaeresis, a place where word-boundary must occur, after the first half-line, here marked with a ||.

"Pentameter" is a slightly strange term for this meter, as it seems to have six parts, but the reason is that the two halves of the line, broken here by the ||, each have two and a half feet. Two and a half plus two and a half equals five. The two half-lines are each called a hemiepes (half-epic), as they resemble half a line of epic dactylic hexameter.

The pentameter is notable for its very structured quality: no substitutions are allowed except in the first two feet.

Eclogues (Dante)

The Eclogues are two Latin hexameter poems in the bucolic style by Dante Alighieri, named after Virgil's Eclogues. The two poems are the 68-verse Vidimus in nigris albo patiente lituris and the 97-verse Velleribus Colchis prepes detectus Eous. They were composed between 1319 and 1320 in Ravenna, but only published for the first time in Florence in 1719.


The adjective elegiac has two possible meanings. First, it can refer to something of, relating to, or involving, an elegy or something that expresses similar mournfulness or sorrow. Second, it can refer more specifically to poetry composed in the form of elegiac couplets.An elegiac couplet consists of one line of poetry in dactylic hexameter followed by a line in dactylic pentameter. Because dactylic hexameter is used throughout epic poetry, and because the elegiac form was always considered "lower style" than epic, elegists, or poets who wrote elegies, frequently wrote with epic poetry in mind and positioned themselves in relation to epic.

Elegiac couplet

The elegiac couplet is a poetic form used by Greek lyric poets for a variety of themes usually of smaller scale than the epic. Roman poets, particularly Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid, adopted the same form in Latin many years later. As with the English heroic, each couplet usually makes sense on its own, while forming part of a larger work.

Each couplet consists of a hexameter verse followed by a pentameter verse. The following is a graphic representation of its scansion. Note that - is a long syllable, u a short syllable, and U is either one long syllable or two short syllables:

- U | - U | - U | - U | - u u | - -

- U | - U | - || - u u | - u u | -The form was felt by the ancients to contrast the rising action of the first verse with a falling quality in the second. The sentiment is summarized in a line from Ovid's Amores I.1.27 Sex mihi surgat opus numeris, in quinque residat—"Let my work rise in six steps, fall back in five." The effect is illustrated by Coleridge as:

In the hexameter rises the fountain's silvery column,

In the pentameter aye falling in melody back.translating Schiller,

Im Hexameter steigt des Springquells silberne Säule,

Im Pentameter drauf fällt sie melodisch herab.

Epic poetry

An epic poem, epic, epos, or epopee is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily involving a time beyond living memory in which occurred the extraordinary doings of the extraordinary men and women who, in dealings with the gods or other superhuman forces, gave shape to the moral universe that their descendants, the poet and his audience, must understand to understand themselves as a people or nation.Another type of epic poetry is epyllion (plural: epyllia), which is a brief narrative poem with a romantic or mythological theme. The term, which means "little epic", came into use in the nineteenth century. It refers primarily to the erudite, shorter hexameter poems of the Hellenistic period and the similar works composed at Rome from the age of the neoterics; to a lesser degree, the term includes some poems of the English Renaissance, particularly those influenced by Ovid. The most famous example of classical epyllion is perhaps Catullus 64.

Homeric Greek

Homeric Greek is the form of the Greek language that was used by Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey and in the Homeric Hymns. It is a literary dialect of Ancient Greek consisting mainly of Ionic and Aeolic, with a few forms from Arcadocypriot, and a written form influenced by Attic. It was later named Epic Greek because it was used as the language of epic poetry, typically in dactylic hexameter, by poets such as Hesiod and Theognis of Megara. Compositions in Epic Greek may date from as late as the 3rd century BC, though its decline was inevitable with the rise of Koine Greek.

Iamb (poetry)

An iamb () or iambus is a metrical foot used in various types of poetry. Originally the term referred to one of the feet of the quantitative meter of classical Greek prosody: a short syllable followed by a long syllable (as in "above"). This terminology was adopted in the description of accentual-syllabic verse in English, where it refers to a foot comprising an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (as in a-bove).

Ilias Latina

The Ilias Latina is a short Latin hexameter version of the Iliad of Homer that gained popularity in Antiquity and remained popular through the Middle Ages. It was very widely studied and read in Medieval schools as part of the standard Latin educational curriculum. According to Ernest Robert Curtius, it is a "crude condensation", into 1070 lines. It is attributed to Publius Baebius Italicus, said to be a Roman Senator, and to the decade 60 CE – 70 CE. It includes at least two acrostic elements: the first lines spell out ITALICUS, while the last lines spell SCRIPSIT, taken together translating "Italicus wrote (it)."

Latin poetry

The history of Latin poetry can be understood as the adaptation of Greek models. The verse comedies of Plautus are considered the earliest surviving examples of Latin literature and are estimated to have been composed around 205-184 BC.

The start of Latin literature is conventionally dated to the first performance of a play in verse by a Greek slave, Livius Andronicus, at Rome in 240 BC. Livius translated Greek New Comedy for Roman audiences, using meters that were basically those of Greek drama, modified to the needs of Latin. His successors Plautus and Terence further refined the borrowings from the Greek stage and the prosody of their verse is substantially the same as for classical Latin verse.The traditional meter of Greek epic, the dactylic hexameter, was introduced into Latin literature by Ennius (239-169 BC), virtually a contemporary of Livius, who substituted it for the jerky Saturnian meter in which Livius had been composing epic verses. Ennius moulded a poetic diction and style suited to the imported hexameter, providing a model for 'classical' poets such as Virgil and Ovid.The late republic saw the emergence of Neoteric Poets, notably Catullus—rich young men from the Italian provinces, conscious of metropolitan sophistication, and looking to the scholarly Alexandrian poet Callimachus for inspiration. Catullus shared the Alexandrian's preference for short poems and wrote within a variety of meters borrowed from Greece, including Aeolian forms such as hendecasyllabic verse, the Sapphic stanza and Greater Asclepiad, as well as iambic verses such as the choliamb and the iambic tetrameter catalectic (a dialogue meter borrowed from Old Comedy).Horace, whose career crossed the divide between republic and empire, followed Catullus' lead in employing Greek lyrical forms, identifying with Alcaeus of Mytilene, composing Alcaic stanzas, and also with Archilochus, composing poetic invectives in the Iambus tradition (in which he adopted the metrical form of the Epode or 'Iambic Distich'). Horace was a contemporary of Virgil and, like the epic poet, he wrote verses in dactylic hexameter, but in a conversational and epistolary style. Virgil's hexameters are generally regarded as "the supreme metrical system of Latin literature."

Leonine verse

Leonine verse is a type of versification based on internal rhyme, and commonly used in Latin verse of the European Middle Ages. The invention of such conscious rhymes, foreign to Classical Latin poetry, is traditionally attributed to a probably apocryphal monk Leonius, who is supposed to be the author of a history of the Old Testament (Historia Sacra) preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris. This "history" is composed in Latin verses, all of which rhyme in the center. It is possible that this Leonius is the same person as Leoninus, a Benedictine musician of the twelfth century, in which case he would not have been the original inventor of the form.

Another very famous poem in Leonine rhyme is the De Contemptu Mundi of Bernard of Cluny, whose first book begins:

Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt — vigilemus.Ecce minaciter imminet arbiter ille supremus.Imminet imminet ut mala terminet, æqua coronet,Recta remuneret, anxia liberet, æthera donet.

(These current days are the worst of times: let us keep watch.Behold the menacing arrival of the Supreme Judge.He is coming, He is coming to end evil, crown the just,reward the right, set the worried free and grant eternal life.)As this example of tripartiti dactylici caudati (dactylic hexameter rhyming couplets divided into three) shows, the internal rhymes of leonine verse may be based on tripartition of the line (as opposed to a caesura in the center of the verse) and do not necessarily involve the end of the line at all.

The epitaph of Count Alan Rufus, dated by Richard Sharpe and others to 1093, is described by André Wilmart as being in Leonine hexameter.

On Translating Homer

On Translating Homer, published in January 1861, was a printed version of the series of public lectures given by Matthew Arnold as Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 3 November 1860 to 18 December 1860.

Arnold's purpose was to discuss how his principles of literary criticism applied to the two Homeric epics and to the translation of a classical text. He comments with disapproval on John Ruskin's 1860 review article "The English translators of Homer" in the National Review. He gives much space to comparing and criticizing already-published translations of the epics, notably

George Chapman’s Odyssey

Alexander Pope’s Iliad

William Cowper's Iliad

Ichabod Charles Wright's Iliad (vol. 1, 1859; vol. 2 was to appear in 1865)

F. W. Newman's Iliad (1856)He adds polite comments on William Maginn's Homeric Ballads (which first appeared in Fraser's Magazine, where Arnold intended to publish these lectures).

Arnold identifies four essential qualities of Homer the poet to which the translator must do justice:that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally, that he is eminently noble

After a discussion of the meters employed by previous translators, and in other existing English narrative poetry, he argues the need for a translation of the Iliad in hexameters in a poetical dialect, like the original. He notes the German translations of the Iliad and Odyssey into hexameters by Johann Heinrich Voss. He quotes English hexameter translations of short Homeric passages by himself and by E. C. Hawtrey and also surveys original English hexameter poetry, including

Arthur Hugh Clough, The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, EvangelineArnold reserved much space for the criticism of the recently published translation of the Iliad into a ballad-like metre by F. W. Newman. Newman took offence at Arnold's public criticism of his translation, and published a reply, Homeric Translation in Theory and Practice. To this Arnold in turn responded, with a last lecture, given at Oxford on 30 November 1861, afterwards separately published in March 1862 under the title On Translating Homer: last words.

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 8

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 8 (P. Oxy. 8) is a fragment of a poem of Alcman, written in Greek. The dialect is a mixture of Aeolic and Doric. It was discovered by Grenfell and Hunt in 1897 in Oxyrhynchus. The fragment is dated to the first or second century. It is housed in the Houghton Library. The text was published by Grenfell and Hunt in 1898.The manuscript was written on papyrus in a form of the roll (probably). The measurements of the fragment are 61 by 109 mm. The fragment contains seven hexameter lines. The text is written in a small neat round uncial hand.

Parallels between Virgil's Aeneid and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey

When writing the Aeneid, Virgil (or Vergil) drew from his studies on the Homeric epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey to help him create a national epic poem for the Roman people. Virgil used several characteristics associated with epic poetry, more specifically Homer's epics, including the use of hexameter verse, book division, lists of genealogies and underlying themes to draw parallels between the Romans and their cultural predecessors, the Greeks.


A spondee (Latin: spondeus) is a metrical foot consisting of two long syllables, as determined by syllable weight in classical meters, or two stressed syllables in modern meters. The word comes from the Greek σπονδή, spondḗ, "libation".

The spondee typically does not provide the basis for a metrical line in poetry. Instead, spondees are found as irregular feet in meter based on another type of foot.

For example, the epics of Homer and Vergil are written in dactylic hexameter. This term suggests a line of six dactyls, but a spondee can be substituted in most positions. The first line of Virgil's Aeneid has the pattern dactyl-dactyl-spondee-spondee-dactyl-spondee:

Ārmă vĭrūmquĕ cănō, Troīaē quī prīmŭs ăb ōrīsIn classical meter spondees are easily identified because the distinction between long and short syllables is unambiguous. In English meter indisputable examples are harder to find because metrical feet are identified by stress, and stress is a matter of interpretation.

For example, the first part of this line from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (in iambic pentameter) would normally be interpreted as two spondees:

Crý, crý! Tróy búrns, or élse let Hélen gó.

Theban Cycle

The Theban Cycle (Greek: Θηβαϊκὸς Κύκλος) is a collection of four lost epics of ancient Greek literature which related the mythical history of the Boeotian city of Thebes. They were composed in dactylic hexameter verse and were probably written down between 750 and 500 BC.

The 9th-century AD scholar and clergyman Photius, in his Bibliotheca, considered the Theban Cycle part of the Epic Cycle; however, modern scholars normally do not.

The stories in the Theban Cycle were traditional ones: the two Homeric epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, display knowledge of many of them. The most famous stories in the Cycle were those of Oedipus and of the "Seven against Thebes", both of which were heavily drawn on by later writers of Greek tragedy.

The epics of the Theban Cycle were as follows:

The Oedipodea, attributed to Cinaethon: told the story of Oedipus' solution to the Sphinx's riddle, and presumably of his incestuous marriage to his mother Epicaste or Jocasta.

The Thebaid, of uncertain authorship but sometimes attributed in antiquity to Homer: told the story of the war between Oedipus' two sons Eteocles and Polynices, and of Polynices' unsuccessful expedition against the city of Thebes with six other commanders (the "Seven Against Thebes"), in which both Eteocles and Polynices were killed.

The Epigoni, attributed in antiquity to either Antimachus of Teos or Homer: a continuation of the Thebaid, which told the story of the next generation of heroes who attacked Thebes, this time successfully.

The Alcmeonis, of unknown authorship: told the story of Alcmaeon's murder of his mother Eriphyle for having arranged the death of his father Amphiaraus (told in the Thebaid).

This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.