We have lots of poets hanging around here, so this is probably second nature to y’all. It has to do with meter, the basic rhythmic structure of a poem. I could never get this right, okay?
The basic unit of measure in meter is a foot. A foot in this instance represents the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. The most common foot in English is the iamb, a short syllable followed by a long one. Shakespeare knew all about the iamb, because all of his sonnets were written in iambic pentameter, in other words, five iambs per line, ten syllables in total per line. Here are the first four lines of my favorite sonnet, #130, “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun,” with stress marked.
Easy peasy, right?
Now, other languages, specifically Latin and Greek, make it a little harder. Their poetry, such as Ovid’s Pyramus et Thisbe, Vergil’s Aeneid, or Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, are written in dactylic hexameter. A dactyl is a long syllable followed by two short ones. All well and good, right?
EXCEPT, a line of dactylic hexameter has two different kinds of feet, the dactyl and the spondee, which is two long syllables, and they’re mixed up. In music terms, a dactyl is a quarter note followed by two eighth notes, while a spondee is two quarter notes. So the feet are all the same length, but you have to figure out which are the long and short syllables.
The first indication I was going to have trouble with this was when I had to figure this out with the Aeneid. I was given this and told to scan it, i.e. mark the syllables.
I was completely lost. Then, I was looking through the Latin textbook and landed on the key to the whole thing: “The first foot is always a dactyl, the last foot is always a spondee, and the next-to-last foot is almost always a dactyl.”
So now, it becomes a math problem. I count the number of syllables in a line, figure the first three are a dactyl, the last two are a spondee, the three before the last two are another dactyl, then I just have to figure out how to split the rest up. There are fifteen syllables, the first three are a dactyl, the last two are a spondee, the next to last is most likely a dactyl. That’s 15 – 3 – 2 – 3 = 7, so I know there’s another dactyl and two more spondees. And I’m right:
Still got a C in the class, which was good enough to pass…