The metre of Greek and Roman Epic Poetry. This metre was also adopted by Hellenistic poets in their boucolic Idylls (for example Calimachus or Theocritus).While the first five feet may be either Dactyls or Spondees, the third and fifth feet are rarely Spondees and the last foot is always a Spondee. In Virgil and later poets the last word is always either disyllabic or trisyllabic. The Caesura is normally on the 3rd or 4th foot. In pastoral poetry there is an additional Diaeresis (called "Boucolic Diaeresis") at the end of the 4th foot. The metre consists of six dactylic (-^^) or spondee (--) feet (the last being always a spondee), by the following scheme:

 - ^ ^ | - ^ ^ |  - : ^ : ^ | - : ^ ^ |  - ^ ^ | - -

 -  -  | -  -  | (- :   -  )| - :  -  |( -  - )| - -

* - stands for a long or stressed vowel, ^ stands for a short or unstressed vowel, : stands for a caesura, ( ) mark a rare occurance.

Example (in Latin):

  -       - |-    ^ ^|- :  ^ ^|-      -  |- ^ ^ |-   -
Class(em) aptent taciti : sociosqu(e) ad litora torquent

(Virgilius, Aen. 4, 289)

Let's take a random line of Latin poetry.
impulerit. Tantæne animis cælestibus iræ?
Knowing that it's in dactylic hexameter, we know a few absolute rules about this line:
  1. The line will have six feet.
  2. Each foot will be either a dactyl (-^^) or a spondee (--).
  3. The last two feet will be a dactyl and a spondee (-^^|--).
  4. The very first syllable will be long (-), no matter what the first foot is.
Here's what we have now:
|-                            |-  ^ ^  | - - |
|impulerit. tantæne animis cæl|estibus | iræ?|
Right out of the gate, we need to look for elisions. Elision is the process of "leaving out" the last sound of a word and combining it with the first sound of the next. You elide two words if:
  • the first word ends in a vowel or the letter m AND
  • the next word begins with a vowel or the letter h.
Do we have any elisions in this line? Yes indeedy: "tantæne" and "animis" are going to elide. Here's how the line looks now:
|-                              |-  ^ ^  | - - |
|impulerit. tantæn(e) animis cæl|estibus | iræ?|
How do the remaining syllables scan? Let's find out.

A syllable is long if:
  • it's a diphthong (like æ or oe);
  • it's a vowel followed by two consonants (even if the second consonant is in a different word);
  • it's long by nature (the i in pueri, the i in hi).
Let's see what syllables we can mark long:
|-      -    -  -        | -   - |-  ^ ^  | - - |
|impulerit. tantæn(e) ani|mis cæl|estibus | iræ?|
From here on in, the line scans itself. Everything that we haven't marked as long is short. Final product:
|-  ^ ^|-    -| -     ^ ^| -   - |-  ^ ^  | - - |
|impulerit. tantæn(e) ani|mis cæl|estibus | iræ?|
Tune in next week for Elegaic couplets.

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