The Meter of Homer: Dactylic Hexameter
English meter, is based on an accentual rhythm: that is the rhythm of the meters is determined by
the arrangement of stressed, or accented, and unstressed syllables into certain patterns, e.g.
Ancient Greek poetry, however, like the spoken forms of the ancient language, was based on a
quantitative meter -- that is the rhythm of the poetry was created by arranging words in such a
way that a pattern was formed of the long and short syllables (i.e. of the syllables that take a
relatively longer or shorter time to utter).
For their epic poetry the Greeks used the dactylic hexameter -- a meter that is fairly flexible in
the hands of a good poet, even though it is governed by complex rules.
The dactylic hexameter is a meter consisting of 6 metrical units -- called feet or metra -- the fifth
of which mush be a dactyl (L S S), the sixth of which is usually a spondee (L L) or a trochee (L
S), and the first four of which may be either dactyls or spondees. (To indicate the possibility of a
foot being either long or short -- "common", to use the technical metrical -- we use a sign
consisting of a long mark over two short marks or, here L:SS.)
The pattern of the dactylic hexameter meter may be represented as follows:
L L:SS / L L:SS / L L:SS / L L:SS / L S S / L L:S
Thus the poet who would write in this meter is confined to a line of 13 to 17 syllables, which
must be arranged according to this strict pattern.
The pattern of the first line of the Iliad is as follows:
L S S L S S L L L S S L S S L L
Me nin a ei de, the a, Pe le i a do A chil le us
of the wrath, sing, goddess, of Peleus' son Achilleus
In English poetry this meter is well enough demonstrated by an example taken from the
introduction to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Evangeline.
This is the / forest primeval, the / murmuring / woods and the / hemlocks
Of course, since our English accent is one of stress, this meter becomes a bit sing-songy, which it
definitely is not in the Greek.
This material has been used for many years by Professor Tom Sienkewicz in his courses at Howard University and
at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. If you have any questions, you may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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