Enchiridion of Metrics
Erling B. Holtsmark
|§5.1 Dactylic Hexameter|
At last -- after all that labor -- we come to our first real look at scansion.
We'll begin with an examination of the dactylic hexameter, the relatively straightforward meter primarily of Greek epic poetry (e.g, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey). It consists of a patterned alternation of short (◡) and long (--) syllables. Below are the relevant sigla:
The 'ideal' pattern of the dactylic hexameter looks as follows :
There are five intital metra of dactyls (-- ◡◡) plus one final metron (-- x) that in any given line must be either a trochee (-- ◡) or a spondee (-- --). The anceps (x) in any generalized metrical pattern simply means that in any given actual line of poetry in that meter the anceps (x) position will be either short (◡) or long (--) -- if you will, the anceps (x) never enjoys ontological status.
In the case of the first five metra (-- ◡◡), each of these may also have its two shorts ( ◡◡ ) replaced by, or contracted to, a long ( -- ) and end up as a spondee (-- --) rather than a dactyl (-- ◡◡). The opposite is never the case: the initial long ( -- ) of the dactyl never 'resolves' into two shorts ( ◡◡ ). Thus, here are some possible shapes of the dactylic hexameter:
Although the final metron of the hexameter always is either a spondee or a trochee, it should be 'thought of' as a spondee, the extra 'beat' being given over to a pause. That is to say, one generally does not speak of a trochee as being part of a dactylic hexameter, all evidence to the contrary! When the final syllable of the hexameter in fact is short it is therefore thought of as lengthened and so marked, and this particular 'license' is known as brevis in longo (an abbreviation for syllaba brevis in elemento longo).
It is now our task to fit each line of Homeric poetry in one of the acceptable shapes of the dactylic hexameter. We are hugely aided here by knowing ahead of time what the meter is (later we will do exercises with choral odes where you have to determine what the meter is!). So, let's take three lines at random and analyze them as follows:
A. Iliad 1.323
B. Iliad 1.378
C. Iliad 1.522
Now it is your turn to try out this exercise on the following three lines from Iliad 1: