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P.Oxy XXI 2289, Sappho, from Oxyrhynchus Online.Focussed instruction in poetic meter is rare now outside of post secondary course work, so it is worth starting at the very basics. As a first step, we should get clear on what "poetry" is, and how we can recognize it. If you've ever looked at photographs of ancient poetry manuscripts such as the section of Sappho shown here, you can already see that poetry must be recognizable by something other than lines that don't make it all the way across the page. Poetry is differentiated from prose or normal speech by the use of rhythm to add intensity to specific ideas and images. There are many ways to produce that rhythm, mainly by aural effect, although now visual effects may also be used, as in "concrete poetry." Since at first poetry was exclusively an aural art, the visual effects will not be dealt with here.

When it comes to creating writing poetry for the ear as opposed to just the eye, the poet is spoiled for choice. In grade school most of us learn about the least subtle approaches, especially rhyme at the end of lines, usually in couplets (both lines end with the same rhyme) and quatrains (often alternating lines end with the same rhyme). A poet could also use alliteration of initial sounds as in tongue twisters, or in final consonant sounds, or even internal alliteration. Or they could use a refrain, a common feature of popular songs to this day. Ancient greek poets working in the epic genre used a combination of formulae (ideas and images), epithets (name phrases), and meter. Sappho and her colleagues used primarily meter.

Meter is the basic rhythm of a given poem as determined by the number of beats in a line. Each beat is part of a metron or foot, two surprisingly helpful technical terms. "Metron" refers to "measuring" which is how it can make sense to talk about the "measures of the poets." Even better is "foot," because it refers to the beat which you can literally tap with your foot as you recite a poem aloud. It will be the preferred term for a poetic unit used here. To take a quick practical illustration, consider these lines from Lewis Carroll's poem "You Are Old, Father William," which is written in anapests, with the beat on every third syllable:

"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;

As you can see, a beat falls on a syllable, and each foot must contain more than one syllable but only one beat. In the case of the bouncy anapest of this poem, every third syllable is stressed in each line, and the lines have either three or four feet. Sharp eyed readers will have noticed that the fourth foot of the first line is truncated, and this is allowed at the end of a line. Modern english has a "stress accent," meaning that in each word there is a syllable that is spoken more clearly and distinctly than the others. The stressed syllable is often what you can hear even in a very noisy room, for example. Modern english poetry that uses an explicit meter will have to arrange its stresses to match the beat. So in "Old Father William," each bounce or beat goes with a stressed syllable. Ancient greek and earlier forms of english use syllable length instead, where a long syllable lasts about twice as long as a short one.

For ancient greek, the rules for identifying syllables are mercifully consistent, and relatively simple because it does not have silent letters and most greek letters represent only one sound. The exceptions to the "one sound" rule represent double consonants: ψ, ξ, and ζ. There are just four rules to bear in mind:

  • there is one syllable per vowel and diphthong, i.e. ἄνθρωπος, ἄν-θρω-πος; οἶκος, οἶκ-ος
  • single consonants go with the next vowel, i.e. ἕβδομος, ἕβ-δο-μος
  • consonants that can't start a word, such as nasal followed by a dental (ντ, νδ) must be divided between two syllables, i.e. ἄνθρωπος, ἄν-θρω-πος; ἕβδομος, ἕβ-δο-μος
  • double consonants are split between syllables, i.e. θάλαττα, θά-λατ-τα
The identification of short and long syllables is also fairly simple, although potentially non-intuitive for english as a first language readers:
Short Syllables Long Syllables
• short vowels
• final οι or αι except in the optative
• ε, ο are always short
• α, ι, υ may be short
• long vowels
• diphthongs
• a short vowel + 2 or more consonants
• η, ω are always long
• α, ι, υ may be long
Whether α, ι, and υ are long is dictated by the usual spelling of the word, and by regular sound changes due to declension of nouns and conjugation of verbs. After some practice, it usually isn't necessary to resort to the dictionary to identify their length, because the meter itself will dictate what their length must be in context.

Epic Meter

The foundation for learning ancient greek poetic meter, including how to identify what meter is being used by scanning, is the study of dactylic hexameter. This is a reasonable place to start, because there is a great deal of poetry in dactylic hexameter to practice with that does not have textual problems that disturb the meter. As the "hexa-" part of the word tells us, epic poetry uses a meter based on six feet. "Dactylic" is from the greek word for finger, and is a mnemonic for the default shape of each foot, which is a long syllable (the thesis) followed by two short ones (the arsis): ¯ ˘ ˘.

The two plainest dactylic hexameter lines then can be represented as follows:

  1           2           3           4           5       6
¯ ˘ ˘   ¯ ˘ ˘   ¯ ˘ ˘   ¯ ˘ ˘   ¯ ˘ ˘   ¯ ˘
  1           2           3           4           5       6
¯ ˘ ˘   ¯ ˘ ˘   ¯ ˘ ˘   ¯ ˘ ˘   ¯ ˘ ˘   ¯ ¯

Since the last foot may end with either two short syllables or one long syllable, it is more common to represent that one with a combined short long syllable or an x, as below:

  1           2           3           4           5       6
¯ ˘ ˘   ¯ ˘ ˘   ¯ ˘ ˘   ¯ ˘ ˘   ¯ ˘ ˘   ¯ x

A syllable that can be long or short in a given meter is called an anceps, meaning literally "both-headed."

Throughout greek poetry, there are three basic types of feet, and they may all appear in epic, or any other poetry provided the meter being used allows it:

  1. spondee ¯ ¯
  2. dactyl ¯ ˘ ˘
  3. trochee ¯ ˘

As you can imagine, a poet who plodded along with line after line of just these two shapes would be tedious to listen to, and so there are several changes they can make within the confines of the meter to avoid this, and the same techniques are applied in other meters. A poet may:

  • replace any two short syllables with one long syllable, except in epic that switch is rarely applied to the fifth foot except to create particular emphasis; the effect is not subtle, which is probably why it is uncommon
  • place a diaresis or caesura in the third foot where a diaresis is when the end of a foot matches the end of a word, and a caesura is when the end of a word is in the first half of a dactyl, splitting the foot between two words
  • sometimes after placing a caesura in the third foot, the poet can set up a diaresis between the fourth and fifth foot to create a "shave and a haircut ending," which is called a bucolic diaresis; this is also not subtle, but more subtle than using a trochee in the fifth foot

While it is important for certain tasks to understand meter in a detailed way, more often than not the most a general reader needs to know is enough to recognize the meter being used. Reading aloud with consideration of accents and word meaning will usually come out correctly.

In the case of homeric epic, sometimes the poet found themselves at an impasse. They absolutely needed a long syllable or a short syllable, but the usual selection of ancient greek vocabulary could not provide. In that case, they resorted to three different tricks:

  • epic correption: scanning a long vowel or diphthong short when it is at the end of a word and before another word that starts with a vowel
  • synizesis: combination of a group of 2 or more vowels usually starting with an ε, into one long vowel
  • doubled consonants: whenever needed, μ, ν, λ, ρ, and σ could be doubled to lengthen a syllable

Some aeolic spellings can look like versions of these very techniques, and so it is quite possible they may have helped inspire these workarounds.

On top of all of this, homeric dialect specifically retains signs of a "w" sound, referred to as "diagamma" for its letter, ϝ. Aeolic still has this letter, and it tends to make any syllable it occurs in long. In homeric greek, a number of words have unexpectedly long syllables because they originally started with digamma, such as ϝῖφι, "force, strength" and ϝέργα, "deeds, works, acts."


All of this may make the task of scanning sound like an appalling task, and it can certainly seem that way if we start with a couple of lines presented with word spacing and punctuation like that we are accustomed to in english:

...οὔτε φυτεύουσιν χερσὶν φυτὸν οὔτ᾽ ἀρόωσιν,
ἀλλὰ τά γ᾽ ἄσπαρτα καὶ ἀνήροτα πάντα φύονται...

These are lines 108 and 109 from Book 9 of the Odyssey, which say:

...they neither sow a plant with their hands nor do they plough,
but indeed everything produces, untilled and unploughed...

It is difficult to scan when the text is viewed in this way because the word breaks can distract from the actual syllable breaks. Both lines include elisions, places where the apostrophe indicates a vowel has been dropped, allowing the two words to be run together. Without accounting for elision, it can be easy to misidentify caesurae and diareses. Being a still rather novice scanner myself, I have found the best way to scan lines is actually to strip the spaces first, getting a sense of what it would have been like for the original readers of the text. Word spacing and punctuation are actually very old inventions, but at certain times and places they were not commonly used, including the times from which copies of ancient greek poetry are preserved. So beginning then, with spaces and ellipses stripped:


Now break them up into syllables, not feet yet. Some of the syllable breaks are in slightly unexpected places due to the combination of syllabification rules and elision.

οὔ | τε | φυ | τεύ | ου | σιν | χερ | σὶν | φυ | τὸν | οὔ | τ᾽ἀ | ρόω | σιν,
ἀλ | λὰ | τά | γ᾽ἄ | σπαρ | τα | καὶ | ἀ | νή | ρο | τα | πάν | τα | φύ | ον | ται

Now, to show the feet:

1 2 3 4 5 6
οὔ | τε | φυ τεύ | ου σιν | χερ σὶν | φυ | τὸν οὔ | τ᾽ἀ ρόω | σιν
ἀλ | λὰ | τά γ᾽ἄ | σπαρ τα | καὶ | ἀ νή | ρο | τα πάν | τα | φύ ον | ται
¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯
¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ¯ ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘

You may be thinking that there is some funny business going on here, even taking into account the elision and the syllabification rules. There actually isn't, because this little snippet comes from Odysseus' colonizer's view of the island of the Kyklopes during his evening of storytelling to the Phaeacians. He is making a point of emphasizing that the Kyklopes don't have to work hard to live well, the land they live in is so rich. Line 108 scans rather simply, but 109 has a troublesome start, if we forget that Odysseus is emphasizing the richness of the land. So the second line contrasts, "but indeed...", "indeed" being my gloss for the particle γα, which is elided onto the beginning of the next word. The next foot is most likely a spondee to bring out the emphasis.

If all else fails and I am in a bit of a hurry, I do have a work around of desperation when scanning. In the case of dactylic hexameter, the minimum number of syllables is 12 and the maximum number of syllables is 18 – and I know homeric epic and most didactic poetry is in it. Even if I didn't know the poetry was homeric or didactic, if the number of syllables falls consistently within between 12 and 18, the chances are good it is dactylic hexameter. This method is not foolproof (in translation, as in life, nothing is), but it does provide a quick starting point if needed.

Sapphic Metre


  1. Of course you are welcome to skip this introduction if you don't need this information.
  2. This illustration is from POxy: Oxyrhynchus Online, an online database of photographs of Oxyrhynchus texts housed at Oxford University. The Oxyrhynchus texts come mainly from ancient garbage dumps in Egypt, which contributes to their often fragmentary condition. Not all papyri are as broken up as this (for example, the bit of the odyssey held at the metropolitan museum of art in new york), including many retrieved from ancient papier mache mummy cases.
  3. In concrete poetry, the rhythm may be achieved by physical word arrangement into symmetrical or repeating shapes such as waves. This is quite an old approach to poetry, although in its earliest version it typically included aural rhythm as well as visual rhythm. The most frequently cited early example to my knowledge is "Easter Wings" by George Herbert (1633).
  4. A refrain may also be labelled "chorus" which is quite strange at first glance, because a chorus is a group of singers – in origin, the group of singers who commented on the action in ancient greek plays. The key to the puzzle is the analogy between the main singer of a popular song who handles the verses, and the rest of the band that sings the refrain, often in a call and response format. An (in)famous example is "She Loves You" by the Beatles.
  5. Odd as it may feel to do it, it helps to read the poem out loud to really feel and hear the beats. You don't have to impose them, they fall naturally from the words themselves. A great way to convince yourself this is true is to read a poem like "You Are Old, Father William" without the line breaks between the stanzas.
  6. Sources for this information include the usual suspects, and the excellent paper Introduction to Greek Meter by William S. Annis at ΑΟΙΔΟΙ.org:
    • David A. Campbell's summaries in Greek Lyric Poetry, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1967.
    • Leonard R. Palmer, The Greek Language, Faber and Faber, London, 1980.
    • Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1920.
  7. I couldn't help but wonder why the ancient greeks didn't call a trochee a thumb, since our thumbs have two short joints of roughly equal length. It turned out that not the least of the reason is that their words for "thumb" would fail to have the same mnemonic effect. I can only find two, ἀντίχειρ, and ἀντιδάκτυλος, both referring to its opposition to the other fingers.
  8. For those inclined to heavy duty metrical analysis, caesurae are subdivided into two types. Caesurae that fall between the thesis and arsis are called "strong," and those that fall between the syllables of the arsis are called "weak."
  9. Since this description may not be at all transparent, the phrase "shave and a haircut" is itself an example of a bucolic diaresis in english. It comes from a short folksong coda many kids in the mid 1980s learned during music classes in southern british columbia, usually:
    Shave and a haircut, two bits
    Who was the barber, Tom Mix
    What did you sit in, a chair
    What did he cut off, your hair.
    I have to admit to being astonished by the background of this coda. Azizi Powell explains at her blog, pancocojams that in origin this is a call and response pattern from Sub-Saharan Africa that has since become an important part of Afro-Cuban music. That it is a call and response pattern also explains how students were expected to sing the coda: one person sang the first half, and every one else sang the second in response. Furthermore, "Tom Mix" was a real person, not just a made up name to fill up the line. See Azizi Powell's two posts for full details and references (1 | 2).
  10. There are of course also a few homeric words affected by internal digamma, but those are of no concern here.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:26:17