THE GREEK DACTYLIC HEXAMETER


A Practical Reading Approach

Reading Greek verse is an acoustic matter and cannot be defined by the elaborate treatments in traditional grammars. Many people who read a dactylic line grammatically have no ability to read it aloud at a proper reading speed, so they miss the musicality of the poetry completely. Reading dactylic verse sensitively and pleasurably does take effort and some practice, but the initial rules to be followed are few and simple.

The traditional academic approach to reading the dactylic hexameter has been graphic rather than acoustic. It sets out in terms of long and short diacritics prescriptive patterns which a writer of Greek verse might posisibly use in writing neo-Epic Greek poetry. But this information is drawn from existing verse patterns, and there is no evidence that Homer or any self-respecting Homerist would have produced dactylic lines from any pre-set pattern marked out on papyrus sheets. The sound of a dactylic line was ringing in the poet's acoustic mind as a rhythm with pattern and variations and served as an esthetic base onto which words could be fitted in a mosaic-style of configuration.

Long and short marks above the vowels in a printed Greek text are clearly not the way to go about reading the hexameter. To read fluently you have to absorb the sound of the dactylic lines as they re-sound in your ears. But before practicing and hearing the rolling sound of this great poetic line, you have to find a way to "read" the syllables, just as you learned to read the letters of the alphabet before you could "read" the words.

Here is a minimal highly compacted statement about reading dactylic versification.



Definitions of Length

I:       Greek verse is length-based and involves Duration of the syllable rather than Stress. The accent marks are not Streses, so the system of pronunciations which we learned in our first Greek course must be erased from mind before we can read consider reading verse. The accent diacritics actually represent musical pitches which were later converted or misunderstood as stress. Stress in Greek is the enemy of the musical art of Greek poetry.

II:       Length means a long vowel, which is (somewhat) longer than a short, perhaps up to 1.6x, while a vowel marked with the pitch diacritic Circumflex is always "overlong" or about 2x duration.

III:       Pitches should not be tried until the lengths are comfortably read at a normal reading speed. But for later information: The "Accents" are musical pitches, or just lilting of the voice.

Acutes are raised up, I suggest a musical fourth which can be raised or flatted at will.

Everything not marked and also the diacritic marked graves are to be maintained at a comfortable voice base-level. Determine this first for your own voice and use, setting a proper range.

A circumflexed vowel is double length with two segments, one raising (acute) and then over and down, which will sound more or less like Swedish as a starter.

Determining "Length"

The length of the vowels in lines of Greek poetry is not defined for the purpose of identifying dactylic and spondaic feet in the process of traditional scansion. It is an integral part of the language and defines the pronunciation of Greek as it is read aloud.The short and long vowels (also the overlong marked with the pitch accent Circumflex) are significant sound items (phonemes) which are basic building sounds in the structure of the Greek language. We must read these as lengths or Durations, the Long being about twice as long as the Short, and the overlong somewhat longer. Reading the Durations correctly and making this a part of the normal reading of ancient Greek, which should always be read acoustically, produces the metrical cadencing of the lines of verse automatically. The metrical pattern emerges from reading by itself, but there are some things which have to be said first about exactly what constitutes a short or long vowel, as the ''carrier" of a syllable.

Vowel Length is clear for eta and omega, for the other vowels it must be guessed at first and then defined for use by familiarization with actual verse patterns. In other words, we have to read dactylic lines correctly (as below) and we will eventually remember the vowels which are long or short from our acoustic experience. This is a matter for the ear not the eye, and the old system of marking in Scansion over the text in pencil must be forgotten as fruitless and obsolete. We know the length of vowels from use in metrical texts, which was the way our Grammars determined length in the first place.

I:       A single vowel can be short (a e i o u), while the e-vowel comes in two long grades as e-psilon (short) and eta (long). The vowels " a i u " can be long or short, which can be determined: a) from the dictionary generally or b) if the vowel has a Circumflex accent in which case it must be long, or c) from the logical patterns of the verse itself, as described below.

II:       A short vowel is pronounced long before two or more consonants, whether in one word or across a word break. This can be seen as a kind of compensatory lengthening of a vowel before several double stop-consonant closures, actually a way of preserving the vowel's sound identity. (The traditional definition of length as by nature = phusei or by position = thesei "convention" is unnecessary and confusing.)

III:       This lengthening also happens across a word break or before the double consonants "z" and "x" (zeta = dz ---- xi = ks --- psi = ps).

IV:       Diphthongs, which are vowels joined with consonantal "i" or "u" so as to be pronounced as one syllable, are pronounced long. But Diphthongs followed by another vowel are pronounced short.

V:       A circumflexed vowel will always be long. The acute accent may indicate vowel length in certain positions but the rules for this are too complex to consider here.


Remember that "Rules" are merely observations on the way vowels are found to occur in a matrix of authentic Greek metrical texts. It is important to become aware of these vowel length Classifications, which can be used to correct the reading of a line which comes out metrically and acoustically "wrong". But for serious reading of poetry at a reasonable real-time reading rate, appealing to Rules may be less a help than a hindrance. If you grasp their general purport, especially the lengthening of a short vowel before two consonants, that can serve as background for a more useful approach to Greek poetry, as in the following chapter on Patterns.

Logical Patterning

There are logical patterns to most configurations of data, and the dactylic hexameter is no exception. If we observe the following statements about verse, and are prepared to follow them with a bit of intelligent guesswork, we can start reading Homeric lines right away. Reading more lines will establish in our memory an acoustic pattern, which in turn confers an intuitive sense of what a line should sound like as we read the words. But best start with these formal statements now, later they will become an unconscious part of the reading process.

1)       There are only two patterns in the Homeric dactylic line, the dactyl (- uu) and the spondee (- -). These are the patterns on which the hexameter rests, hence they are appropriately called 'feet'.

The Greek word dactylos means "finger", so used here because a finger has one long bone and two shorts. The spondee or "libation" might have been better named "thumb" with two long bones, but there is no native word for thumb in Greek, so anti-cheir as a new word ("opposite-the-hand") was invented and persists into Modern Greek.

2)       Every line starts with a long syllable.

3)       This long will be followed by either another long (spondee), or two shorts (dactyl).

4)       So proceeding to a second foot, we start again with a long.

5)       If the next vowel is a short, then there will be another short (dactyl), and then as we enter into the next new foot, we start again with a long.

6)       Any short must either be preceded by a short, or followed by a short, and then followed by a long as start of a new foot. Two shorts must be preceded by a long.

7)       About one verse in fifty will end with two spondees (- - - -), often with serious or emphatic connotation. This metrical possibility must be kept in mind when reading Sect. 9) below. Incidentally the final spondee in a line may have its last vowel shortened ( - u).

8)       Rather than concentrate solely on spotting the longs, watch for the shorts (e psilon and o micron) which will often supply a valuable clue. Watching for shorts is good when long-watching does not give a properly ringing line.

9)       The "acid test" for a good line will be the acoustically unmistakable final cadence of - u u + - - (long short short + long long), or dactyl followed by a spondee. This has a distinctive ring and marks most dactylic lines. When this pattern (- uu + - -) does not appear, you can generally assume that you have read the line wrong. Go back and check everything with the above statements. But...... consider Sect. 7) above.

10)       Fear of saying it wrong will often block a good reading of a dactylic line. One must go ahead a try it out, listen to the sound and see if it rings true. After getting a few dozen lines to ring right, the bad one will stand out as unsatisfying, somehow metrically inept and in need of acoustic repair.

11)      When a line has been read well, and you feel sure of the rhythmical pattern, repeat it aloud until it is virtually memorized. This will put into your memory bank a good pronunciation of all the words with correct vowel length, even for words where you had to make a guess. Remember that vowel length is deduced from poetic usage, not from magic markings in the dictionary!


If unsure about your musical ear, put down the Homer for a few minutes and listen to a recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, noting the careful cadencing and minor variations of the fairly regular patterns. This is pretty much what the dactylic line is doing, but in music we expect it whereas in Greek verse we are still thinking of doing it by the rules.

Would you consider memorizing and counting out the measures and up-beats/down-beats, as "one-and-two-and three-and....." before playing the record of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony? Studying music, weren't we taught that way as kids, counting out beats mechanically to the exclusion of hearing the melody line? Music as well as verse can be blocked by an insensitive and wrong-headed approach.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris