Poetry Guide: Hexameter
Hexameter is a literary and poetic form, consisting of six metrical feet per line as in the Iliad. It was the standard epic metre of both the Greeks and the Romans, and was used in other types of composition too -- in Horace's satires, for instance, and Ovid's Metamorphoses. In Greek mythology, hexameter was invented by Phemonoe.
The hexameter has never enjoyed a similar popularity in English, where the standard metre is iambic pentameter; however, various English poems have been written in hexameter over the centuries. There are numerous examples of iambic hexameter from the 16th century and a few from the 17th; the most prominent of these is Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion (1612) in hexameter couplets. An example from Drayton:
- Nor any other wold like Cotswold ever sped,
- So rich and fair a vale in fortuning to wed.
In the 17th century the iambic hexameter, or 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 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 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.
See also: Dactylic hexameter
- Example in English by Coleridge
- Hexametrica, a tutorial on Latin dactylic hexameter at Skidmore College.