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The Metamorphoses

The Metamorphoses


by Ovid

Analysis: Writing Style

Fluent, Virtuosic; Poetry in Dactylic Hexameter

Ovid has left behind the largest body of work of any Roman poet, and The Metamorphoses is one of the longest surviving Roman poems. To be able to write as much as Ovid did, a poet pretty much has two options: either have low standards and the ability to churn out endless garbage, or be a master for whom excellence is effortless. Ovid is definitely a master. He can generate perfect lines of poetry like it's nobody's business; at the same time, he has a wide vocabulary, a brilliant sense of metaphor, and vast learning – which he doesn't hesitate to show off.

Bearing in mind that the Metamorphoses is a poem, it might be interesting for you to know a little bit about its poetic meter. Nowadays, not all poems have meter, of course, and even in antiquity there were various prose authors who were considered poets because of the excellence of their style and imagination (Plato was one of these). All the same, when writing epic poetry – which is what Ovid set out to do in The Metamorphoses – the rules were inflexible: you had to use a poetic meter known as "dactylic hexameter." Try saying that five times fast.

Or wait, make that six times. Why six times? Well, here's the deal. Even though they look like Syllable Soup (this product never caught on the way "Alphabet Soup" has), the two words "dactylic" and "hexameter" actually mean something. Just to be tricky, let's start with "hexameter." The "hex" in "hexameter" is the same as in "hexagon," which you might remember is a six-sided shape. And the "meter" part is like…well, "meter," a unit of measurement. So a "hexameter" is a poetic meter with six measures. (We're using "measures" here in the musical sense, meaning the same thing as "bars.") Because measures or bars in poetry are known as feet, you might as well just translate "hexameter" as "six feet." Not that hard to remember, is it?

OK, but what about the "dactylic" part? This comes from the Greek word "daktylos," which means "finger." We might as well just translate "dactylic" as "fingery." So far so good? Good. Now take a look at your finger – any finger except for your thumb. You will probably notice that it has one long joint followed by two short joints. That's the basic reason for calling this meter dactylic – are you ready for this? It's made up of FEET that are shaped like FINGERS: one long syllable followed by two short syllables. From what we've already learned about the word "hexameter," can you guess how many of such feet are going to be in a line? If you guessed "six," give yourself a pat on the back: you are almost completely right. Why "almost"? That's because, in dactylic hexameter, only the first FIVE feet are shaped like fingers (LONG + short + short); the last foot is never shaped this way. It will be either: (LONG + LONG) or (LONG + short). To illustrate this meter in action, let's just take our handy-dandy translations, "fingery" (LONG + short + short) and "six feet" (LONG-short):

"Fingery | fingery | fingery | fingery | fingery | six-feet"

Pretty neat, huh? Of course, thousands and thousands of lines in that rhythm would start to get pretty annoying, so the ancients allowed you to plug in a (LONG + LONG) in exchange for any one of the first five feet. (This usually happened in only the first four.) This allowed a wide range of rhythms to achieve a variety of poetic effects and keep things interesting. To learn more about dactylic hexameter and the different ways it could be used by poets, check out this website. Unfortunately, this meter does not come through in most English translations of the work, but maybe this explanation gives you a sense of the complex artistry that went into producing Ovid's poem.

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