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What Is Hexameter?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

Hexameter is a poetic meter in which each line of a poem contains six feet, as indicated by the prefix “hexa-” in the name for this meter. Each of these feet can be expressed in a number of different ways, though a fairly consistent format is typically used and each foot tends to consist of either two or three syllables. The way in which each of these syllables is stressed, however, can greatly impact the flow of the work and usually indicates the exact nature of the format. Hexameter was widely used in Greek poetry and epics, especially with dactylic feet, though some iambic works have been written in English.

The term “hexameter” refers to the number of feet found in each line of a poem, much like other terms such as “pentameter” or “heptameter.” A poem written in iambic pentameter, which is quite popular in English writing from the Elizabethan and Victorian eras, would have five feet per line and each foot would be written in the iambic style. Greek poetry and epics were often written in dactylic hexameter, which means that each line has six feet and each foot consists of a dactyl.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

These other descriptive terms, “iambic” and “dactylic,” indicate how each foot in a line of poetry is constructed. In English, these refer to stressed or unstressed syllables, though in Greek poetry they refer to long or short syllables. Dactylic, for example, refers to each foot of a poem consisting of a dactyl, which is a single long or stressed syllable followed by two short or unstressed syllables. An iamb, on the other hand, used in iambic poetry has only two syllables, the first being short or unstressed and the second being long or stressed.

Dactylic hexameter, which was used in many Greek works, has six feet per line of the poem and each foot has three syllables. Ancient Greek legend told that hexameter was created by the Greek god Hermes, who was the god of poetry in Greek culture. Iambic hexameter, also known as “alexandrine,” was used in English during the 17th century, though it has never been as popular as iambic pentameter. Such works consist of 12 syllables in each line, unlike the 18 syllables found in a dactylic hexameter line, and often include spondees, two stressed syllables together, to break up the iambic rhythm.

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