Poetic License: An Introduction to Greek (and Latin) Meter

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The study of Greek poetry is not easy without at least a basic understanding of the Greek meter. Annis (2006) rightly states that scholars have a tendency to become over focused on the meter within a poem but for the those beginning their study of Greek poetry it is an essential point of comprehension. By understanding the meter of Greek poetry one can also appreciate the creation of the text and the art of the poets involved.

The Poet Sappho

First of all there are a few words that must be defined:

Prosody: Prosody is the study of the elements of a poem including meter, rhythm and intonation.

Meter: Meter is the definitive pattern established fir a verse.

Greek Meter

Unlike in English poetry, the Greek meter is based on patterns of long and short syllables.

A long syllable is represented by a macron “―”

A short syllable is represented by a “U”

A syllable which can be long or short is represented by “U

The length of a syllable is most easily identified in Epic verses. Note that syllable length in meter is determined by the line not the word.

When discussing Greek poetry one must comprehend the basic unit of time, which is in this case a mora. Shorts syllables are one mora and long syllables are two morae. Beyond two morae the one divides them up in a number of ways which form time division patterns forming the fundamental blocks of Greek verse. These are called feet. For instance:

3 Morae

iamb  =           U― (eg. describe or include)

trochee =      ―U (eg. picture or flower)

tribrach =     UUU

4 Morae

spondee =     ― ― (eg. enough)

dactyl =         ―UU (eg. an-no-tate)

anapest =      UU― (eg. com-pre-hend)

5 Morae

cretic =          ―U―

bacchius =    U― ―

6 Morae

choriamb =  ―UU―

ionic =           UU― ―

Some Common Meters

The Hexameter

The Hexameter is the oldest of the Greek Meters. In epic hexameter two short syllables can be replaced by one long syllable but not the other way round. For more information regarding replacement see Halporn et.al (1980).

There are too many variations and rules to include in an introduction so let us look at two of the more common and simpler meters to get an idea of the use of morae, feet, syllable length and use.

Dactylic Hexameter

Also known as heroic hexameter, the dactylic hexameter is traditionally association with epic poetry in both Greek and Latin. It was hence considered the Grand Style of classical poetry. It is used in both of Homer’s works, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and in Virgil’s Aeneid. It also appears in Hesiod’s works.

Works and Days of Hesiod

Dactylic Hexameter is made up of six dactyls ―UU with the last foot appearing as an anceps syllable (a syllable which can appear either short or long). A dactyl never appears in the last foot. The last foot hence takes the form of a spondee ―― or a trochee ―U. It appears as:

―UU ―UU ―UU ―UU ―UU ―X

A caesura occurs in the middle of the hexameter within the third foot, either after the first long or short syllable. A caesura is a break where a word ends in the middle of a foot. It occurs as a naturally falling slight pause. It is generally indicated by a bar, |. So the third foot will appear as ―|UU or ―U|U. For more information on the Caesurae and Bridges I suggest reading Annis 2006.

Here is an example of Dactylic Hexameter in the  Odyssey 1.1:

ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ

―   U  U ― U U ―  U  |  U  ―   U  U ―   U  U ―  ―

Iambic Pentameter

The Iambic Pentameter is commonly used in traditional verse and drama. The word Iambic refers to the type of foot being used (U―). Pentameter indicates that there are five of these feet. In English we see these Iambic morae in words like trapeze where the stress is laid on the last syllable. So a typical Iambic Pentameter would look like this:

U― U― U― U― U―

Poets have had a tendency to vary their use of the iambic pentameter but keeping the iamb U― as the most common foot.  However the second foot is almost always U―. The first foot though often changes through the reverse of syllables to become ―U. We see examples of this inversion in modern languages like in Shakespeare’s Richard III 1.1:

Now is the winter of our discontent

―    U   U  ―  U  U ―   ―  U  ―

Further Reading:

Halporn, J.W. et.al The Meters of Greek and Latin Poetry (1980)

Dale, A.M. Lyric Metres of Greek Drama (2010)

If you are interested in a detailed study of Greek  scripts and how to learn them, have a look at THESE RESOURCES.

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One thought on “Poetic License: An Introduction to Greek (and Latin) Meter

    GraecoMuse Turns One « GraecoMuse said:
    October 13, 2012 at 12:51 am

    […] Poetic License: An Introduction to Greek (and Latin) Meter – 08/03/12 […]

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