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What Is Dactylic Hexameter?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
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  • Last Modified Date: 22 August 2016
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Dactylic hexameter is a particular type of meter, or rhythmic pattern, typically found in Greek and Latin epic poems, such as the works of Homer and Virgil. It is a structure that is fairly difficult to perfectly fit into English writing or verse, though it has been used by some poets in English writing as well. Dactylic hexameter consists of six feet per line of a poem, and each of these feet usually contains a “dactyl;” a dactyl is one of more words that create a single stressed or long syllable, followed by two unstressed or short syllables.

There are many different meters commonly used in poetry, often based on the language in which a poem is written. Among these, dactylic hexameter is one of the oldest meters and was used primarily in epic poetry in both Greek and Latin languages. Homer utilized dactylic hexameter for his poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Virgil used the form in The Aeneid. This particular metric scheme was popular because when read properly it creates a natural rhythm and flow to the work that is almost song-like and pulls the listener along through the work.

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The basic structure of dactylic hexameter begins with each line of the poem being broken down into six feet, or metrons. Each of these feet is then divided into syllables: either long and short syllables for Latin and Greek or stressed and unstressed syllables for languages like English. In any type of verse referred to as “hexameter,” there are six of these feet per line, while verse called pentameter would have five feet per line. In dactylic hexameter, each of these feet is typically constructed using a dactyl, though this is not necessarily a requirement and a foot can use a different structure.

A dactyl, which comes from the Greek word for “finger” or “toe,” is a particular structure in which the foot consists of a long or stressed syllable, followed by two short or unstressed syllables. The word “poetry,” for example, is a dactyl as it consists of a stressed syllable, pronounced “poe-” that is followed by two unstressed syllables, “-e-” and “-try.” This is called a dactyl, or finger, because it resembles the structure of a finger, which consists of a long bone at the base and two shorter bones toward the tip.

The dactyl does not have to be a single word in dactylic hexameter and multiple words or parts of a word can be used to create this structure. These can also be switched for other foot structures, such as a “spondee,” which comes from the Greek word for “libation” and was a structure often used in drinking songs. This consists of two long or stressed syllables together, and the second long syllable effectively takes the place of the two short syllables. The last foot in dactylic hexameter also does not typically contain a dactyl but uses an “anceps” for the final syllable, which is always read as a long syllable.

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