1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hexameter

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HEXAMETER, the name of the earliest and most important form of classical verse in dactylic rhythm. The word is due to each line containing six feet or measures (μέτρα), the last of which must be a spondee and the penultimate a dactyl, though occasionally, for some special effect, a spondee may be allowed in the fifth foot, when the line is said to be spondaic. The four other feet may be either spondees or dactyls. All the great heroic and epic verse of the Greek and Roman poets is in this metre, of which the finest examples are to be found in Homer and in Virgil. Varied cadences and varied caesura are essential to this form of verse, otherwise the monotony is wearying to the ear. The most usual places for the caesura are at the middle of the third, or the middle of the fourth foot: the former is known as the penthemimeral and the latter as hepthemimeral caesura. There are several more or less successful examples of English poems in this metre, for example Longfellow’s Evangeline, Kingsley’s Andromeda and Clough’s Bothie of Tober-na-Vuoilich, but it does not really suit the genius of the English language. In English the lack of true spondees is severely felt, even though the English metre depends, not, as in Greek and Latin, on the distinction between long and short syllables, but on that between accented and unaccented syllables. The accent must always (or it sounds very ugly) fall on the first syllable, whatever may have been the case in Greek and Latin—Voss, Klopstock and Goethe have written hexameter poems of varying merit and the metre suits the German language distinctly better than the English. The customary form of hexameter in English verse is exemplified by Coleridge’s descriptive line:—

“In the hex | ameter | rises the | fountain’s | silvery | column.”

Several modern poets, and in particular Robert Browning, and Lord Bowen (1835–1894) have used with effect a truncated hexameter consisting of the usual verse deprived of its last syllable. Thus Browning:—

“Well, it is | gone at | last, the | palace of | music I | reared.”

It is not sufficiently observed that even the classic Greek poets introduced considerable variations into their treatment of the hexameter. These have been treated with erudition in G. Hermann’s De aetate scriptoris Argonauticorum. The differences in the hexameters of the Latin poets were not so remarkable, but even these varied, in various epochs, their treatment of the separate feet, and the position of the caesura. The satirists in particular allowed themselves an extraordinary licence: these hexameters, from Persius, are as far removed from the rhythm of Homer, or even of Virgil, as possible, if they are to remain hexameters:—

Mane piger stertis. ‘Surge!’ inquit Avaritia, ‘heia
Surge!’ negas; instat ‘Surge!’ inquit ‘Non queo.’ ‘Surge!’
Et quid agam?’ ‘Rogitas? en saperdam advehe Ponto.’ ”

It is also to be noted that various prosodical liberties, due originally to the extreme antiquity of the hexameter, and long reformed and repressed by the culture of poets, were apt to be revived in later ages, by writers who slavishly copied the most antique examples of the art of verse.

See Wilhelm Christ, Metrik der Griechen und Römer, 2te Aufl. (1879).