First Steps

Note: This page and its companion, “How It’s Done: Lyric Meters” present some of the poetic and instructional wizardry that David Money brought to the inaugural Inter Versiculos workshop in Michigan in 2011.


“Observe what Vergil and Ovid do.”DKM

First steps: Dactylic Hexameter
  • The caesura is the heart of the line
  • Write half lines, hemistiches, uneven halves: 2 ½ + 3 ½
  • 5th and 6th foot are inflexible, a dactyl and a spondee
  • SVOR – Subject, verb, object, rubbish (adjectives, adverbs, etc.)
  • Find the right position for key words and leave gaps that are easy to fill
  • Beware unintended elisions and the two consonant rule: syllable ending with short vowel plus m will either elide or become long by position
  • Check everything

Tricks of the Trade I:
Hexameter lines
  • The end of the line is the hardest; do it first
  • End the line with a two or three syllable word
  • Work from both ends towards the caesura
  • No monosyllables at the caesura
  • Short syllables ending in a vowel:
    • Feminine and neuter plurals, short -a
    • Ablative of third declension –e, -que
  • Short syllables ending in a consonant:
    • Verbs ending in –it, -at, -et, -tur
    • Nouns ending in –us, -ur
  • Nunc is a convenient word for a monosyllabic gap, but don’t overuse it
  • An arsenal of adverbs and other ‘rubbish’:






Tricks of the Trade II:
Extended hexameter poems

Things to consider:

  • Variety in:
    • Pauses (punctuation)
    • End stopped lines vs. enjambment
    • Dactyl-spondee ratio in the first four feet
    • Ending type (i.e. 2 and 3 syllable words in the last two feet; only a very occasional monosyllable)
    • Caesura
    • Break at the end of the 4th foot
  • Elisions:
    • Fewer better than more
    • Avoid harsh elisions: long syllable or diphthong elided by short syllable is “horrid”
    • Don’t overdo elisions in the last two feet
  • Elegant endings: coincidence of ictus and accent: “The ictus of the 4th foot is where the hexameter gathers its strength and comes alive again after the caesura.”

Group Process: Writing Dactylic Hexameter

Voci musarum rimas granaria praebent.
Barns offer openings to the voice of the muses.

Elegiac Couplets: The Basics
  • One hexameter followed by a pentameter
  • Pentameter divides evenly: 2 ½ + 2 ½
  • Second half of the pentameter is metrically non-negotiable: 2 dactyls and one final syllable
  • End of the pentameter is the hardest. Start there
  • The last word should be two syllables
  • Get the last word right; work backwards
  • Avoid elision in second half of pentameter
  • The couplet is a unit,
  • The end of the couplet is the point: make it punchy, make it count