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Poetry Guide: Dactylic Hexameter

Dactylic hexameter is a form of meter in poetry or a rhythmic scheme. It is traditionally associated with classical epic poetry, both Greek and Latin, such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid.

A dactyl is a collection of three syllables, the first long, the other two short; thus, the ideal line of dactylic hexameter consists of six (hexa) metrons or feet, each of which is dactyllic. Typically, however, the last foot of the line is not a real dactyl, but rather a two-syllable spondee or trochee, i.e. the penultimate syllable is always long, the final syllable either long or short (such a syllable with optional stress is known as an anceps syllable).

In reality, it is difficult to arrange words in this meter, so poets may replace dactyls by spondees, which are feet with two long syllables. Traditionally, the fifth foot in a line is very often a real dactyl. About one line in 20 of Homer has a spondee in the fifth foot, and such a line is called "spondaic."

Accordingly, a line of dactylic hexameter can be diagrammed as follows. Note that - is a long syllable, u a short syllable, and U either one long or two shorts:

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

For example:

Down in a | deep dark | hole sat an | old pig | munching a | bean stalk

The "foot" is often compared to a musical measure and the long and short syllables to half notes (minims) and quarter notes (crotchets), respectively.

Excessive use of spondees can make the sound oppressive. Cicero's line

O for|tuna|tam na|tam me| consule | Romam
("o fortunate Rome born while I was consul")

has five spondees – only consule is a dactyl – and damned him as a poet.

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