A Guide to Poetry #1: On Metrics #4: Classical prosody

Greek and Latin

As previously mentioned, classical metres counted metre quantitatively, the length of time it took to say a syllable defining whether it was heavy or light. This is comparable to a musical measure, the long and short syllables being analogous to whole and half notes.

The basic unit in Greek and Latin poetry is a mora, which is defined as a single short syllable. A long syllable is equivalent to two moras. A long syllable contains either a long vowel, a diphthong, or a short vowel followed by two or more consonants (elision and correption could mix things up a bit though).


The most important Classical metre, used by Homer and Virgil both (as well as in Horace’s satires and Ovid’s Metamorphoses) and supposedly invented by the god Hermes. The classical hexameters are lines of six feet, the feet in the line arranged thus:

1. dactyl(/spondee) 2. dactyl(/spondee) 3. dactyl(/spondee) 4. dactyl(/spondee) 5. dactyl 6. spondee(/trochee)

The dactylic hexameter, also known as the heroic hexameter,is easily the most frequently used and famous form of Classical hexameter and is considered the ultimate metric measurement, really. Hence why the spondees above are in parenthesis, though it enjoys preference in the sixth foot, and would have been far more common in Latin than Greek in the first four feet, due to the higher percentage of long syllables and hence more spondaic nature of Latin. The fifth foot was very, very rarely a spondee in Homer, but later hexameter poets never used anything but a dactyl.

The initial syllable of each foot is called the ictus, the basic “beat” of the verse. There is usually a caesura after the ictus of the third foot. The opening line of the Aeneid is a typical line of dactylic hexameter:

Armă vĭ | rumquĕ că | nō,|| Troi | ae quī | prīmŭs ăb | ōrīs

(“I sing of arms and the man, who first from the shores of Troy…”)

Six feet, with the third foot split by the caesura after the masculine ictus. The caesura can also appear after the feminine second syllable in the third foot, if the third foot is a dactyl. Alternatively, you might see it after the first syllable of the fourth foot or after the first syllable of the second foot, these two often occurring together in a line (with the first being considered the main caesura), which breaks it into three separate units.

As the Greek epics grew out of an oral tradition, the dactylic hexameter probably evolved from song styles. The Homeric poems arrange words in the line so there is interplay between the metrical ictus and the natural, spoken accent of words, which in the hands of a lesser poet (everyone?) might result in the poem becoming too sing-songy. But the poem should have a natural rhythm, so reinforcement is necessary. Balancing these concerns is what led to the aforementioned rules concerning the correct placement of the caesura and breaks between words – in general, word breaks occur in the middle of metrical feet, while accent and ictus coincide only near the end of the line. (Obviously this is all primarily useful to you as a devourer of information, but might provide you as an English language poet with both context and ideas.)

Hexameters came to Latin via imitation and translation of Homer, long after the practice of singing the epics had faded, so the properties of the metre were learned as “rules” rather than as a natural result of musical expression as in the Greek. It was, as mentioned, more spondaic, too; all of which contributed to a more recognisably Latin hexameter. By the time of Virgil, the influence of the great Republican rhetoricians like Lucretius, Catullus and even Cicero, all of whom used hexameter, caused Augustan poets to approach the metre looking for effects that could be exploited in skilled recitation. Get onto this line from the Aeneid, lad:

quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum

That means “a hoof shakes the crumbling field with a galloping sound,” and the five dactyls followed by a closing spondee imitates the action described.

The form survived well into the Latin Silver Age, but by the Medieval period it had become regarded as little more than an academic exercise. Petrach’s Africa, composed in dactylic hexameter, is borderline pretentious and fairly obscure, whereas Dante’s Divine Comedy, which he chose to write in Italian, in terza rima and in hendecasyllable, was and is the real deal.

As it relies on the regular timing of phonetic sounds, dactylic hexameter has never enjoyed any revivals as English, a stress-timed language that condenses vowels and consonants between stressed syllables, and likewise Romance languages, became predominant. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Arthur Hugh Clough and a few others in the 19th century did try to bring it back, without much success. An example of an English imitation of dactylic hexameter from Longfellow’s Evangeline (marking the feet in the first line):

/ ˘ ˘ / ˘˘ / ˘˘ / ˘˘ / ˘˘ / /

This is the | for-est pri | me-val. The | mur-muring | pines and the | hemlocks

(dum diddy | dum diddy | dum diddy | dum diddy | dum diddy | dumdum

dactyl dactyl dactyl dactyl dactyl spondee

Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,

Stand like Druids of old, with voices sad and prophetic,

Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.

Iambic hexameter, also known as the English alexandrine, enjoyed more success in English, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, the latter seeing it as a substitution in the heroic couplet and as one of the types of permissible lines in lyrical stanzas and in the Pindaric odes of Cowley and Dryden. Here’s Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion (1612), written in couplets of iambic hexameter:

Nor any | other | world like | Cotswold | ever | sped,

So rich | and fair | a vale | in for | tuning | to wed.

Late in the 18th century, the hexameter was adopted by Kristijonas Donelaitis for his Lithuanian language poem Metai (The Seasons). William Butler Yeats used a loose ballad-like six foot line with a strong medial pause. The 20th century also saw Sri Aurobindo make use of hexameter for his Savitri. An accentual six foot line is often used in Latin translations into English.

Dactylic pentameter

This was a line of verse made up of two equal parts. Each part contains two dactyls followed by a long syllable (also known as a longum, a long syllable that isn’t part of a metrical foot), which counts as half a foot. So, the number of feet add up to five in total (though they at first appear to add up to six – compare with grammatical vs poetic syllables in Italian and Spanish poetry). Spondees can take the place of the dactyl in the first half, but never the second, and the long syllable at the close of the first half ends a word, giving rise to a caesura. So:

Dactyl(/spondee) dactyl(/spondee) long-syllable || dactyl dactyl long-syllable

Dactylic pentameter was never used in isolation and always followed a line of dactylic hexameter in an elegiac distich or an elegiac couplet, forms of verse used for elegies and other tragic or solemn Greek verses. It was also used in love poetry, which was even sometimes light or cheerful.

Hendecasyllable (again! Again!!)

The eleven-syllable hendecasyllable was used in scolia, in Aeolic verse such as the Sapphic stanza,and later by Catullus. It was always composed of four trochees with a dactyl in the middle. The heart of the line was the choriamb (a foot that goes long, short, short, long; in other words, a dactyl and the first syllable of the third trochee). Here is the hendecasyllabic line:

Long + short | long + short | long + short + short | long + short | long + short

And here it is again, with the choriamb emboldened:

Long + short | long + short | long + short + short | long + short | long + short

Sapphic stanza

The Sapphic stanza is composed of three hendecasyllabic lines followed by an “Adonic” line, which is made up of a dactyl and a trochee. The second foot in the hendecasyllable can also be spondaic, meaning the forth syllable, the one immediately prior to the choriamb, is an ancep, or a free syllable. Here is the hendecasyllabic once more, with the ancep emboldened, in a Sapphic stanza:

Long + short | long + short | long + short + short | long + short | long + short

Long + short | long + short | long + short + short | long + short | long + short

Long + short | long + short | long + short + short | long + short | long + short

Long + short + short | long + short

It has been adapted to English more successfully than, say, the dactylic hexameter. Algernon Charles Swinburne imitated it in a poem he simply called Sapphics:

So the | goddess | fled from her | place with | awful

Sound of feet and thunder of wings around her;

While behind a clamour of singing women

Severed the twilight.

Swinburne, notice, hasn’t attempted to maintain the quantitative measurement, like Tennyson did in his “indolent reviewers” (see the Spanish hendecasyllable section above). He also isn’t using the “English hendecasyllable,” the iambic pentameter with a short final syllable, of, say, Keats, which would be marked thus:

A thing | of beaut | y is | a joy | for-ev | er

So… there are sort of at least three hendecasyllabic attempts in English*. Here is an experimentation in Sapphic stanza by Allen Ginsberg:

Red cheeked boyfriends tenderly kissed me sweet mouthed

under Boulder coverlets winter springtime

hug me naked laughing & telling girl friends

gossip til autumn

It doesn’t quite work though, unless you stress the second syllable of the word “cheeked.” The dactyl isn’t bad, though – “friends tender.” I’m sort of new at this, though.

* Remember Shakespeare doing sex changes on his lines by adding an extra unstressed syllable to a line of iambic pentameter, rendering it female? Sure you do:

To be | or not | to be || that is | the ques | tion.

Is this also a hendecasyllable? It would be if it were the norm, rather than a variation on iambic pentameter.


Another form of Aeolic metre, like the Sapphic stanza, in that it is built around a choriamb. It may be described as a glyconic (look this up!) that has been expanded with one (Lesser Asclepiad) or two (Greater Asclepiad) further choriambs. Using x to denote an anceps (free syllable):

x x - ˘ ˘ - - ˘ ˘ - ˘ - (Lesser Asclepiad)

x x - ˘ ˘ - - ˘ ˘ - - ˘ ˘ - ˘ - (Greater Asclepiad)

It is named after and attributed to Asclepiades of Samos. Asclepiads were used in Latin by Horace, Catullus and Seneca, and examples in English verse would include parts of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia:

Here wrong's name is unheard, slander a monster is;
Keep thy sprite from abuse, here no abuse doth haunt
What man grafts in a tree dissimulation?

...and W.H. Auden's In Due Season:

Springtime, Summer and Fall: days to behold a world

Alcmanian verse

This is a verse consisting of dactylic tetrameter, or four dactyls, named for the Archaic Greek poet Alcman.

In English (and German), it is sometimes used to refer to dactylic tetrameters counted qualitatively, or to poems that strictly imitate Horace, who wrote some poems in the Alcmanian strophe, a couplet consisting of dactylic hexameter followed by a dactylic tetrameter a posteriore; so called because it ends with a spondee, thus resembling the last four feet of the hexameter, distinguishing it from the dactylic tetrameter a priore, where a spondee substitutes for a dactyl in the first line.

An example of dactylic tetrameter in English would be The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds:

/ ˘ ˘ / ˘ ˘ / ˘ ˘ /˘ ˘

Picture yourself in a boat on a river with

tangerine trees and marmalade ski-ii-es

Bastard Scouse cheats, wish I could carry half an iamb through an entire dactyl! Which is a sentence I wouldn’t know how to begin a week ago, so I think we’re making progress.

Next: Now we’ve thoroughly covered Western types of metrics and prosody, we’ll start looking at verse forms. I try to write a sestina!


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Laurence Thompson

Laurence Thompson is an English writer. He is almost certainly drunk.

12 thoughts on “A Guide to Poetry #1: On Metrics #4: Classical prosody”

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