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When you think of popular poetic meters in English literature, hexameter likely isn't the first that springs to mind. In Ancient Greece, dactylic hexameter was revered as the epic meter; in France, iambic hexameter enjoys nationwide fame as the 'Alexandrine' verse. However, English-speaking poets have always been far more inclined to work with tetrameter and pentameter than their six-footed metrical cousin.

Aside from the selection of fantastic poetry that we'll look at, it's a meter we rarely get the chance to see. Why is that? Let's find out! But first, let's get back to basics and look at a basic hexameter definition and some examples of hexameter in poetry.

Hexameter definition

How do we define 'hexameter'? Here's a basic definition.

A hexameter is a line of poetry that contains six metrical feet.

If this doesn't make sense to you yet, don't worry! Let's recap what we mean by 'meter' and 'feet' to understand better how hexameter fits in with our existing knowledge!

Recap: meter and feet

What is a poetic 'meter'?

A meter is how we describe the pattern of beats (syllables) in a line of poetry. It is the fundamental rhythmic structure of a verse.

The first step of finding the meter is to look at the number of syllables in a line. Once we've done that, we identify which syllables the poet emphasises. We call these emphasised syllables 'stressed' and those that aren't 'unstressed'.

At first, the idea of stressing particular syllables may seem strange. However, you'll be surprised to learn that every word we use daily has a natural stress pattern that we apply without even thinking!

For example, let's look at the word 'trouble'.

  • First, split the word into syllables (trou-ble)
  • Then say the word aloud.
  • You should find that you naturally stress the first syllable (TROU-ble).
  • This means that the first syllable is stressed and the second syllable is unstressed.
  • Therefore, 'trouble' has a 'stressed/unstressed' pattern.

If we stressed the second syllable first (trou-BLE), the word would sound unnatural. Try saying it out loud to see for yourself! This explains why poets care so much about their poetic meter. If the meter isn't perfect, the poem's rhythm isn't quite right, and the verse doesn't feel 'smooth' to read.

We can group different combinations of stressed/unstressed syllables into categories of metrical feet.

A foot consists of two or three syllables. It is the simplest rhythmic unit in a line of poetry. Feet combine to make the overall rhythmic structure of the poem, known as a meter.

We have different names for different mixes of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable is known as an 'iamb'.

Here are some of the most common combinations of metrical feet and what we call them.

  • Iamb: Unstressed/Stressed (da-DUM)
  • Trochee: Stressed/Unstressed (DA-dum)
  • Spondee: Stressed/Stressed (DA-DUM)
  • Anapest: Unstressed/Unstressed/Stressed (da-da-DUM)
  • Dactyl: Stressed/Unstressed/Unstressed (DA-da-dum)

Let's look at some words and see which categories they fit into.

Let's go back to the word 'trouble'. We know that the first syllable is stressed and the second syllable is unstressed (TROUB-le). This means that 'trouble' is an example of a trochee (stressed/unstressed)

What about the word 'basketball'? This one's trickier, as it contains three syllables (bas-ket-ball). Say it aloud, and you should find that you stress the first syllable and leave the last two unstressed (BAS-ket-ball). Referring back to our list of categories above, this makes 'basketball' an example of a dactyl (stressed/unstressed/unstressed).

Let's learn in more detail how this information relates to hexameter.


We now know that syllables make up feet, and feet make up a meter. We can identify the meter based on how many repetitions of metrical feet there are in any given line. Three feet per line is known as 'trimeter', four feet per line is known as 'tetrameter', and five feet per line is known as 'pentameter'.

That means a line with six feet is known as a 'hexameter'!

It doesn't matter which types of metrical feet the line contains; as long as there are six of them, the line is known as hexameter.

Six dactyls are known as dactylic hexameter, six trochees are known as trochaic hexameter, and six iambs are known as iambic hexameter.

Here's how hexameter fits in with other meters:

  • Monometer = one foot
  • Dimeter = two feet
  • Trimeter = three feet
  • Tetrameter = four feet
  • Pentameter = five feet
  • Hexameter = six feet
  • Heptameter = seven feet
  • Octameter = eight feet

Hexameter example

To better understand hexameter, let's look at some examples of different stress patterns. For clarity, stressed syllables are always bold and underlined.

Here's a line from 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood' (1807) by William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

'The things / which I / have seen / I now / can see / no more.'

Wordsworth's verse contains six instances of an unstressed/stressed pattern, making this an example of iambic hexameter.

Hexameter is a rare meter in the English language. This is because it can't easily be said in one breath, making it uncomfortable to read.

For example, the excerpt from Wordsworth's poem reads more like prose than poetry when taken out of context. Depending on the poet's intentions, this can be both an advantage and disadvantage of writing in hexameter. If the meter is used sparingly, it can disrupt the reader's comfortable rhythm, allowing the poet to emphasise a specific line or create a particular effect. Used incorrectly by an inexperienced poet, it can appear jarring and frustrate the reader.

Here's an excerpt from Reginald Heber's (1783-1826) 'Holy, Holy, Holy' (1826).

'Holy, / holy, / holy! / All the / saints a / dore Thee,

Casting / down their / golden / crowns a / round the / glassy sea;'

This verse contains six repetitions of almost perfect 'stressed/unstressed' metrical feet. As a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable is trochaic, we know this verse is in trochaic hexameter.

Trochaic stress patterns are powerful because each foot begins with a stressed syllable. This makes each repetition of 'holy' sound authoritative and energetic, as though the poet is chanting while worshipping God.

Dactylic hexameter

Here's a basic preliminary definition of dactylic hexameter to get us started.

Dactylic hexameter is a poetic meter consisting of six repetitions of a 'stressed/unstressed/unstressed' pattern.

While not a popular choice in modern poetry, dactylic hexameter was the defining meter of traditional Greek and Latin epics.

An epic poem is a long form of narrative poem detailing the extraordinary deeds of heroic individuals.

The use of the meter in epic poetry was so important that dactylic hexameter is often referred to as 'epic meter'. Homer's famous poems The Iliad (762 BCE) and Odyssey (725–675 BCE) made used the meter to great effect.

Remember! Ancient Greek poems were designed to be spoken aloud, not read. The oral tradition in Ancient Greece was extremely sophisticated. Researchers believe poetry was accompanied by music and that the words would have been spoken in such a way as to highlight the melodies within the verse.

Hexameter Homer StudySmarterFig 1. - Homer, the famous ancient Greek poet, wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey in dactylic hexameter.

Dactyls are a popular choice of meter for poems that tackle profound subject matter like death, war, and defeat. It's rare to see joyous, celebratory poems written in a dactylic meter because the falling stress pattern (DA-da-dum) makes the verse sound heavy and serious. This made it the perfect meter for Ancient Greek poets, who used the meter for the weight it added to their heroic tales.

The meter is rarely used in English, aside from a few notable exceptions like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's (1807-1882) Evangeline (1847). Let's look at an excerpt from the poem to see how dactylic hexameter looks in action.

'This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,'

Longfellow follows in the footsteps of the Greek poets before him with his epic narrative.

The opening lines of this poem are primarily written in dactylic hexameter, with the only exceptions being the one-syllable gap between 'gar' and 'green' and the trochaic ending to each line. You'll notice that the mythical language mirrors the mythological tales in the Odyssey and Iliad.

You'll also notice that dactylic hexameter doesn't have the natural melodic quality that ballads in iambic or trochaic often contain. Even for a renowned poet like Longfellow, making perfect dactylic hexameter sound beautifully rhythmic is nearly impossible. A poet wanting to write in the meter must be willing to accept and make use of its unusual cadence.

Ever wondered why dactylic hexameter sounds so unconventional to us but was used so readily by the Ancient Greeks?

The first and most prominent reason is that the meter doesn't work rhythmically with the English language. The cadence of hexameter relies on each syllable being spaced apart equally. In contrast, English language speakers naturally shorten unstressed syllables to maintain a regular interval between each stressed syllable.

To prove this, say the word 'murmuring' aloud. You may notice that you pronounce the first stressed 'mur' more than the second 'unstressed 'mur'. (mur-muh-ring instead of mur-mur-ring). By blending the final two unstressed syllables together, they can be said more quickly, but this also makes dactylic poetry sound unnatural to English speakers.

Some languages more suited to dactylic hexameter are Ancient Greek, Lithuanian, German, Latin, and Hungarian.

Iambic hexameter

How do we define iambic hexameter? Here's a simple definition.

Iambic hexameter is a poetic meter consisting of six repetitions of an 'unstressed/stressed' pattern.

Much like dactylic hexameter, iambic hexameter is used infrequently in English poetry compared to alternatives like pentameter and tetrameter. Instead, iambic hexameter France's leading verse, where it is referred to as 'Alexandrine'.

Alexandrine is a French verse form consisting of a 12-syllable iambic line with a pause in the middle.

Alexandrine became a recognised verse form in France midway through the sixteenth century and was firmly established by the seventeenth century. Much like dactylic hexameter is the chosen meter for the epics of Ancient Greece, iambic hexameter is the meter of choice for the epics of France, leading to Alexandrine verse being labelled the heroic verse of France.

Some attempts have been made to recreate Alexandrine verse in English poetry, most notably within Michael Drayton's (1563-1631) Poly-Olbion (1612). The final lines of each stanza in Percy Bysshe Shelley's (1792-1822) 'To a Skylark' (1820) are also written in Alexandrine verse:

'Higher / still and / higher
From the / earth thou / springest
Like a / cloud of / fire;
The blue / deep thou / wingest,

And sing / ing still / dost soar, / and soar / ing ever / singest'

In this poem, Shelley sings to a skylark and describes its pure, gentle beauty and grace. The first four lines of the stanza are written almost exclusively in trochaic trimeter, with only the last being in iambic hexameter. Compared to the trochees, which give the poem a sense of excitement and urgency, the hexameter slows the poem down.

Why Shelley does this is open for debate. Perhaps he wanted his poem to build momentum more slowly. Perhaps the iambic hexameter serves to ground the speaker back on Earth after his spiritual, metaphorical journey with the skylark. What do you think?

Hexameter in poetry

For further research, Here's a list of poems containing hexameter!

PoemPoetPublication dateType of hexameter
The IliadHomer762 BCEDactylic
The OdysseyHomer725-675 BCEDactylic
The Aeneid Virgil19 BCDactylic
EvangelineHenry Wadsworth Longfellow1847Dactylic
Amours de VoyageArthur Hugh Clough1849Dactylic
'The Bothie of Toper-na-fuosich'Arthur Hugh Clough1848Dactylic
'To a Skylark'Percy Bysshe Shelley1820Iambic
Poly-Olbion Michael Drayton1612Iambic
'Holy, Holy, Holy'Reginald Heberearly 1800sTrochaic
'Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood'William Wordsworth1807Iambic
'The Wanderings of Oisin'W.B Yeats1889Anapestic
'The Convergence of the Twain'Thomas Hardy1912Iambic

Hexameter - Key takeaways

  • A hexameter is a line of poetry that contains six metrical feet.
  • Different combinations of syllables make up a metrical foot, and metrical feet make up the meter of a line.
  • Dactylic hexameter is the defining meter in Ancient Greek and Latin epics. It's known as the 'epic meter'.
  • There have been some notable attempts to apply the unconventional dactylic hexameter to English poetry, most notably in Longfellow's Evangeline (1847).
  • Iambic hexameter is a popular meter in French poetry, known as 'Alexandrine' verse.

Frequently Asked Questions about Hexameter

A hexameter is a line of poetry that contains six metrical feet.

An example of trochaic hexameter can be found in Reginald Heber's Holy, Holy, Holy (1826). 

'Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee'

An Iambic hexameter is a line of poetry that consists of six repetitions of an 'unstressed/stressed' pattern.

There are between 12 and 18 beats in a hexameter, depending on the metrical foot used.

'This line is in iambic hexameter.'

'This poem is an example of trochaic hexameter.'

'I like to write poetry in hexameter'.

Final Hexameter Quiz

Hexameter Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


How many metrical feet are in a hexameter?

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A metrical foot is made up by counting the number of _______ in a line

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A 'stressed/unstressed/unstressed' pattern is known as a what?

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Show question


A 'stressed/unstressed' pattern is known as a what?

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Show question


Dactylic hexameter was the preferred verse in the epics of which two languages?

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Ancient Greek and Latin.

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The Iliad (762 BCE) and Odyssey (725-675 BCE) are written primarily in which meter?

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Dactylic hexameter.

Show question


In Ancient Greece, dactylic hexameter is known as what?

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Epic meter.

Show question


Who wrote 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood' (1807)?

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William Wordsworth.

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How many syllables are in a line of perfect dactylic hexameter?

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How many syllables are in 'Alexandrine' verse?

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The 'Alexandrine' verse originates from which country?

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Identify the stress pattern in the following line: 

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee

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The line is follows a trochaic stress pattern.

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Identify the stress pattern in the following line: 

'The things which I have seen I now  can see no more.'

Show answer


This line follows an iambic stress pattern.

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Which of these poems was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley?

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'To a Skylark'.

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Two of the most famous examples of dactylic hexameter can be found in the Iliad (762BCE) and Odyssey (725-675 BCE). Who wrote these poems?

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The Iliad  and Odyssey  were written by Homer.

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