Definitions

hexameter

hexameter

[hek-sam-i-ter]
hexameter [Gr.,=measure of six], in prosody, a line to be scanned in six feet (see versification). The most celebrated hexameter measure is dactylic, which was the meter for most Greek and Latin poetry. In dactylic hexameter each foot may have a long syllable followed by two shorts, except the last, which has only two syllables, the first being long; any of the first four feet may have two long syllables. The origin of the dactylic hexameter is not known, but it appears first, and in its purest form, in Homer. Classical epic poets thereafter, including Vergil, used this meter, and it was extended to didactic and satirical literature, as in the works of Lucretius and Martial. In modern languages the only possible substitute for the quantitative differences that were essential to classical meters is in the stress accent; hence we have a noticeably singsong effect when English dactylic hexameter is read aloud. One of the few examples of its use in modern languages is in Longfellow's Evangeline: "Thís is the fórest priméval. The múrmuring pínes and the hémlocks." A famous dactylic hexameter in English prose is in Isa. 14.12: "Hów art thou fállen from héaven, O Lúcifer, són of the mórning!" The alexandrine is the only important modern hexameter.

Verse form that is the most popular measure in French poetry. It consists of a line of 12 syllables with a pause after the sixth syllable, major stresses on the sixth and the last syllable, and one secondary accent in each half line. It is a flexible form, adaptable to a wide range of subjects. It became the preeminent French verse form for dramatic and narrative poetry in the 17th century and reached its highest development in the tragedies of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine.

Learn more about alexandrine with a free trial on Britannica.com.

Hexameter is a literary and poetic form, consisting of six metrical feet per line as in the Iliad. It was the standard epic metre in Greek and became standard for Latin too. It was also used in other types of composition -- 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.

In the late 18th century the hexameter was adapted to the Lithuanian language by Kristijonas Donelaitis. His poem "Metai" (The Seasons) is considered the most successful hexameter text in Lithuanian as yet.

Several attempts were made in the 19th century to naturalise the dactylic hexameter to English, by Henry Wadsworth 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 William Butler 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

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