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Excerpt from Paradise Lost

by John Milton
(Eve speaks to Adam)

With thee conversing I forget all time,


All seasons and their change, all please alike.
Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet,
With charm of earliest birds; pleasant the sun
When first on this delightful land he spreads
His orient beams, on herb, tree, fruit, and flower,
Glistering with dew; fragrant the fertile earth
After soft showers; and sweet the coming on
Of grateful evening mild, then silent night
With this her solemn bird and this fair moon,
And these the gems of heav'n, her starry train:
But neither breath of morn when she ascends
With charm of earliest birds, nor rising sun
On this delightful land, nor herb, fruit, flower,
Glistring with dew, nor fragrance after showers,
Nor grateful evening mild, nor silent night
With this her solemn bird, nor walk by moon,
Or glittering starlight without thee is sweet.

Dactylic Hexameter is a very important meter in Greek and Latin poetry. It is especially associated with
epic poetry, and so is referred to as "heroic". The very words "dactylic hexameter" often stand for epic
poetry.

Why Dactyl?
Dactyl is the Greek for "finger". [Note: The Homeric epithet for the goddess Eos (Dawn) is
rhododactylos or rosy-fingered.] There are 3 phalanges in a finger and, likewise, there are 3 parts of a
dactyl. Presumably, the first phalanx is the longest in the ideal finger, while the others are shorter and
about the same length, since long, short, short is the form of the dactyl foot. The phalanges here refer
to the syllables; thus, there is a long syllable, followed by two short ones, at least in the basic form.
Technically, a short syllable is one mora and a long is two morae in length of time.

Since the meter in question is dactylic hexameter, there are 6 sets of the dactyls.
The dactylic foot is formed with one long followed by two short syllables. This may be represented with
a long mark (for example, the underscore symbol _) followed by two short marks (e.g., U). Put together
a dactylic foot can be written as _UU. Since we're discussing dactylic hexameter, a line of poetry
written in dactylic hexameter could be written like this:
_UU_UU_UU_UU_UU_UU. If you count, you'll see 6 underscores and 12 Us, making up six feet.

However, dactylic hexameter lines can also be composed using substitutions for the dactyls.
(Remember: The dactyl, as stated above, is one long and two short or, converted to morae, 4 morae.)
A long is two morae, so a dactyl, which is the equivalent of two longs, is four morae long. Thus, the
meter known as spondee (represented as two underscores: _ _), which is also the equivalent of 4
morae, can substitute for a dactyl. In this case, there would be two syllables and both would be long,
rather than three syllables. In contrast with the other five feet, the last foot of the line of dactylic
hexameter is usually not a dactyl. It may be a spondee (_ _) or a shortened spondee, with only 3
morae. In a shortened spondee, there would be two syllables, the first long and the second short (_ U).

In addition to the actual form of the line of the dactylic hexameter, there are various conventions
about where substitutions are likely and where word and syllable breaks should occur [see caesura and
diaresis].

Dactylic hexameter describes Homeric epic meter (Iliad and Odyssey) and that of Vergil's (Aeneid). It is
also used in shorter poetry. In (Yale U Press, 1988), Sara Mack discusses Ovid's 2 meters, dactylic
hexameter and elegiac couplets. Ovid uses the dactylic hexameter for his Metamorphoses.

Mack describes a metrical foot as like a whole note, the long syllable as like a half note and the short
syllables as like quarter notes. This (half note, quarter note, quarter note) seems a very useful
description for understanding a dactylic foot.

Dactylic Hexameter

Last but certainly not least, The Odyssey is written in something with the tongue-twisting of "dactylic
hexameter." Try saying that five times fast. Waitmake that six times. Even though they look like
syllable soup, the two words "dactylic" and "hexameter" aren't actually too complicated.

Let's start with "hexameter." The "hex" in "hexameter" is the same as in "hexagon," which you might
remember is a six-sided shape. And the "meter" part is likewell, "meter," a unit of measurement. So
a "hexameter" is a poetic meter with six measures. (We're using "measures" here in the musical sense,
meaning the same thing as "bars.") Because measures or bars in poetry are known as feet, you might
as well just translate "hexameter" as "six feet."

OK, but what about the "dactylic" part? This comes from the Greek word "daktylos," which means
"finger." Why? Take a look at one of your fingers (but not your thumb). It almost certainly one long joint
followed by two short joints. (Well, Shmoop's fingersto be perfectly honestseem to have joints of a
pretty similar length, but work with us here.) A dactyl is a foot shaped like a finger: one long, or
accented, syllable followed by two short, or unaccented, syllables. (We're simplifying a little, but it's
close enough.)

From what we've already learned about the word "hexameter," can you guess how many of such feet
are going to be in a line? If you guessed "six," give yourself a pat on the back: you are almost
completely right. Why "almost"? That's because, in dactylic hexameter, only the first five feet are
shaped like fingers (LONG + short + short); the last foot is never shaped this way; it will be either:
(LONG + LONG) or (LONG + short).
Want some examples of dactylic words? "ELephant." "MURmuring." "MOCKingbird." "MUsical." Want to
hear what dactylic hexameter sounds like in English? Check out Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's
"Evangeline."

But for the most part, English isn't a great language for dactylic hexameter and translators don't
usually bother with it. When translators do work with meter, they tend to switch to the English's tried-
and-true iambic pentameter.
~ The rhythm of the Homeric poems is based on a strict yet flexible meter called the dactylic
hexameter. Each line contains six units or feet, each foot either a dactyl consisting of three syllables
(heavy-light-light) or a spondee of two syllables (heavy-heavy), except the last foot, which always has
two syllables and is either a spondee or a trochee (heavy-light). The Greek verse is measured by
quantity--the length of time it takes to say a syllable--while the English meter is based on stress, so the
line I have used is accentual. However, the length of each syllable is also important in the overall
rhythm of the English line. Here is the "Proem," the first ten lines of the Odyssey, first in a
transliteration of the Greek with a circumflex mark over the long syllables, then in my English version
with an accent mark over the metrically heavy syllables; lines in both passages are divided into feet
with the slash mark. If you wish, you can listen to me reciting the Proem in Greek and my translation of
it; the files are .mp3s of around 400 kilobytes apiece.

Tll m,/ Mse, of the / mn versa/tle and re/sorceful, who / wndered


mny a / se-mle,/ fter he / rnscked / Try's holy / cty.
Mny the / mn whse / twns he ob/srved, whse / mnds he dis/cvered,
mny the / pans in his / hert h / sffered tra/vrsing the / sewy,
fghting for / hs wn / lfe and a / wy bck / hme for his / cmrdes.
Nt even / s did he / sve his com/pnions, as / mch as he / wshed to,
fr by their / wn md / rcklss/nss they were / broght to des/trction,
chldsh / fols--they de/cded to / et up the / cws of the / hgh lrd
Hlios, / wh thn / tok from the / mn ther / dy of re/trning.
ven for / s, holy / daghter of / Zes, strt / thre to re/cont ths.
An understanding of such technical matters is admittedly more important for the
translator than for the reader. The rhythm is easy to hear, and it comes most alive
when the verse is read aloud. Then the variations on the basic rhythm take on full
value, and so do the formulaic repetitions, which resemble the repetitions in musical
compositions of all sorts, from songs to symphonies.