A Meditation on Dactylic Hexameterlisten

"...forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit..."

This is dactylic hexameter. This is the meter I learned about
back when I first studied Virgil, much longer ago than I'll tell you.
I tell of a lesson that failed; I sing of a student who stumbled.
"This, even this, one day, will be helpful for us to remember...."
That's what the poet said, anyway.

Think of a scratchy recording, a thirty-three rpm relic,
and under the scratches and crackles, a basso declaiming Evangeline:
"This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks"—
that was to show us the meter of Arma virumque cano—
and beating it out on the table,

the hand of an elderly teacher, her finger-joints lumped and arthritic.
Think of old Longfellow's poem, unread now for so many decades.
Think of old classrooms, old desks, old textbooks with fray-cornered covers.
Feel the great age of the Latin, and all this antiquity pressing
on us who were girls of sixteen.

Soothing old rhythms and sounds, but the road where they led me dead-ended.
English is different from Latin, and stresses are different from long-marks.
Scattered and careless, I fumbled the Latin idea of duration.
(Lord, how I cringe when I think of the ways I misscanned the Aeneid,
misunderstanding the sound of it.)

A wonder it happens at all, that young people learn from old epics.
So many ways of mishearing the rustle of papery voices.
Still, there are fragments that stick; we look for them later and find them.
"Tears of things": now that I've shed them, the line that most comes to me lately—
memory speaking in dactyls.

by Maryann Corbett

Maryann Corbett's poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Able Muse, kaleidowhirl, Nimble Spirit Review, The Raintown Review, Strong Verse, Whistling Shade, and The William and Mary Review. She and her husband live in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she works as a legal-writing adviser, editor, and indexer for the Minnesota Legislature.

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