First Steps

“Observe what Vergil and Ovid do.”

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’:

    nec
    heu
    ita
    ubi

    non
    ac
    hic
    ibi

    haud
    nunc
    paene
    mox

    o
    iam
    illic
    saepe

    semper
    namque
    iamque
    subito

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