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Homer and heroic hexameter

On the importance of form and meter in poetry.

An epic poem is the birthplace of legends. The epicentre of tragedy, they are long narrative poems that generally chronicle a time existing outside the bounds of living memory wherein extraordinary swift-footed men and women shaped the mortal world by their grapples with gods and monsters, with creatures of legend, with morality and truth.

There are some agreed-upon determinants of an epic. For instance, it begins in media res, as the tenth year of the Trojan War in the Iliad. Its setting is vast and use of epithets rich, covering rosy-fingered dawns and wine-dark seas. Arguably, the most prominent feature of the epic is not divine intervention in the form of golden apples, nor heroes stamped pious from their first appearance — no, the foremost feature of the epic is its structure. 

In the past, works of literature were able to be distinguished as epics because of the nature of their form and poetic meter. Indo-European epic poetry — such as the Vedas, the Iliad, and the Odyssey — historically placed a lot of emphasis on the poetic meter and line consistency. Ancient Greek and Latin poems were all written in dactylic hexameter — which has also come to be known as heroic hexameter. It is, technically, impossible to conceive of an epic poem that is not composed of in hexameters as the very rhythm of the hexameter signalled the epic nature of the poem.

To break it down, a dactylic hexameter has six feet and permits either a dactyl (one long syllable followed by two short syllables) or a spondee (two long syllables). Scholar Samuel Elliott Bassett identified thirty-two possible arrangements of dactyls and spondees and stated that Homer used every one of them in the Iliad. “There are seventeen places where a word may end,” he wrote, “and Homer makes a word end at every one of these places.” 

In specific relation to the Iliad and Odyssey, and the Greek dactylic, the hexameter is a powerful instrument. It is used to concentrate the listener’s attention on concrete details by varying the information flow by circumventing the repetition of identical rhythm and phrase-type. Homeric verses, interestingly, do not contain words whose shapes are traditionally dactyls and spondees; but, instead, only when merged into complete lines and spoken aloud do they yield six-dactyl rhythms. In the time of Homer in Ancient Greece, epics were performed in song with the accompaniment of a lyre, which allowed for such deviation. However, a line’s syntactical phrasing and quantitative rhythm are commonly out of step by a syllable or two due to human error and differences in pronunciation and accents. In step with tradition, the completion of a word is only required in the last syllable of a verse as the rest of the feet are enjambed for narrative form. Hence, rhythm and phrasing are always predictable. The closing cadence for this is distinctive: the sixth foot, at least in the case of Homeric hymns, always calls for a dactyl. 

Bassett referred to each verse resembling a suspenseful adventure that lasted a few seconds before reaching a temporary resolution and beginning anew — much like the theory of creation stemming from the Indo-Aryan Vedas wherein every beginning and end signifies the start of a phase, only to be destroyed and reborn over and over again in unending repetition. The heroic hexameter accommodates a significant amount of rhythm and phrasing, ensuring that the substitutions of spondees and dactyls cause the structure of the spoken word to be more engaging.

Is it strange, then, that heroic hexameter only applies to certain kinds of epics? Old English, German, and Norse epic poetry utilise alliterative verse as the primary structural principal and do not employ a discernible rhyme scheme. Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian long-form poetry use terza rima — an Italian verse invented by Dante Alighieri for The Divine Comedy, consisting of tercets wherein the first and third lines rhyme with one another, the second rhyming with the first and third of the following tercet — and ottava rima — introduced by Giovanni Boccaccio in The Decameron, wherein each stanza contains eight iambic lines with the first six alternating in rhyme scheme and ending on a couplet. Ancient Sumerian epic poetry, such as the epic of Gilgamesh, used no form of distinguishable poetic meter nor did their lines have consistent lengths but instead focused the source of their rhythm on repetition. 

On the other hand, the existence of mock-epics, also known as mock-heroics, suggest the historic ridicule placed on the elevated stature of heroic verse. Lord Byron used his signature ottava rima to pen the sixteen-thousand line satirical poem Don Juan in all the extravagance of Teseida. It is interesting to note that Don Juan was first widely disapproved of and reduced to unnecessarily provocative and immoral — but later was celebrated for its artistic brilliance — for its structure and form, for its exploration of every topic of human life, with German writer Goethe going as far as calling it a work of “bondless genius.” 

Hence, the form and structure of a work are essential in its eventual outcome and reception. There are certain maps predetermined rhyme schemes and poetic meters lay out for us to follow, ‘x’ marking the spots where we offer up explanations of tragedy, draw up epic catalogues, invoke divine intervention into haplessness. Epic poetry offers us lessons about individual honour, about heroism and cruelty, about our inherent autonomy in a world dictated by gods. But it also presents us with the importance of consistent poetic meter, with the evolution and differences separate languages and cultures place on form; and, if nothing else, with a better place to start.

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