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Dactylic

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Dactylic

Dactylic rhyme is a common technique in poetry that uses dactyls to create rhythm and flow within a poem. In this article, we will look at what a dactyl is and the origin of the term, what the term dactylic means, what dactylic rhyming is, the different types of dactylic meter and then what the term anapaest means. We will also look at some examples of poetry throughout so that we can better understand the terms in relation to the concepts they represent.

What is a Dactyl?

A dactyl used in accentual verse in poetry is a three-syllable metrical pattern, consisting of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.

A dactyl used in quantitative verse in poetry is a three-syllable metrical pattern, consisting of a long syllable followed by two short syllables.

The definition of a dactyl varies depending on what type of verse is being used.

  • Accentual verse derives its meter from a stress pattern on syllables. A dactyl is a three-syllable pattern of stressed-unstressed-unstressed syllables in accentual verse.
  • Quantitative verse derives its meter from the length of syllables. In quantitative verse, a dactyl is a three-syllable pattern of long-short-short syllables .

In English poetry, accentual verse is almost always used. Quantitative verse is mostly relevant in dactylic rhyme when analysing Greek or Latin poetry.

An example of a dactyl is the word 'poetry'. The first syllable is stressed, followed by two unstressed syllables, po-e-try. This contrasts with another three syllable word such as 'confusion', where the emphasis is put on the second syllable, con-fu-sion.

Can you think of any other three syllable words that have this dactylic pattern? Here are some examples:

  • Heavenly: Heaven-en-ly
  • Destiny: Des-ti-ny
  • Basketball: Ba-sket-ball
  • Stammering: Sta-mme-ring
  • Symmetry: Sy-mme-try
  • Destitute: De-sti-tute

A dactyl is a popular feature of poetry. It is considered a foot and should not be confused with a pterodactyl, the extinct flying reptile!

Origin of Dactyl

The word Dactyl comes from the Greek word dáktylos, which translates to 'finger'. The length of the three syllables is supposed to correspond to the three joints of the finger. Just like the first syllable in a dactyl is the longest (in quantitative verse), the first bone in your finger is the longest!

Remember: Length of syllable is only considered in quantitative verse, not in accentual verse.

Dactylic, Picture of a hand, StudySmarterThe three bones in a finger refer to the three syllables in a dactyl. - freepik (fig. 1)

Examples of dactyls in Literature

Shakespeare makes use of dactyls in many of his plays. Claudius' line in Act III Scene 1 of Hamlet (1609) demonstrates the usefulness of dactyls in creating memorable phrases.

Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go.

There are four stressed syllables present here: Mad, great, not and go. Shakespeare often uses prosodic features like dactyls to create a sense of rhythm like this. Here is another example of his use of dactyls, in Act V Scene 1 of The Tempest (1611):

Merrily merrily shall I live now.

Is there anything noticeable about the rhythmic nature of this line?

The use of dactylic metrical patterns / feet creates a musical quality. This is useful for plays, which emphasise the auditory experience.

Dactylic, Theater, StudySmarterDactylic metrical patters are used in the theatre to create musical and rhythmical qualities. - freepik (fig. 2)

Dactylic Definition

The term 'dactylic' can be used either as an adjective or as a noun and is used to refer to something that contains or uses dactyls.

'Dactylic' can be used as an adjective when describing something like rhythm or a poem that contains dactyls. For example, "the poem has dactylic rhythm."

'Dactylic' can also be used as a noun, when referring to a particular verse or line of a poem that has dactyls in it. For example, "the poem has a dactylic verse."

Dactylic Rhyme

Dactylic rhyme is simply rhyme that uses dactyls. The use of dactyls in poetry can come in different forms. To understand these forms, let's first explore some examples.

Examples of dactylic rhyme in poetry

One of the most popular examples of Dactylic rhyme can be seen in 'Evangeline', an epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It follows a young girl Evangeline's search for her lost lover.

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,

Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight ...

[...]

This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it

Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman?

In this example, every first syllable is clearly followed by two unstressed syllables. Each line contains six dactyls and ends with a trochee.

A trochee is a metrical pattern (or foot) of one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable.

The use of dactyls adds a rhythmic nature to the poem. Try reading the example aloud and see if you can hear the rhythmic pattern

The rhythm of the poem helps bring the imagery described by Longfellow to life.

Another example of dactylic rhyme can be seen in 'Angels' First Assignment' by Stan Galloway:

Are you still standing there east of the Garden of Eden, or

were you received by the flood that revised our geography?

Cherubim tasked with protecting the Tree of Life, surely you

saw when that tree was returned to us lifting our Lord on it. Were you the same angels posted beside the new tomb with the

body of Jesus, the New Tree, provided again for us?

This is an example of dactylic pentameter, where there are five dactyls (five sets of three stressed / unstressed / unstressed syllables) per line.

It is rare to find serious poems that only make use of dactylic meter throughout because of that musical, nursery-rhyme effect it often has on the euphony (or pleasantness) of the poem.

Dactylic Meter

Dactylic meter is when a poem follows a rhythmic structure that uses dactyls (a three-syllable foot consisting of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables).

There are types of dactylic meter other than dactylic pentameters. A poem's dactylic meter depends on the number of dactyls per line. Here are some other dactylic meters:

Dactylic Dimeter

If a poem is described as having dactylic dimeter, it has two dactyls per line. Dactylic dimeter can also be known as double-dactly.

Double dactylic rhyme

In 1951, Anthony Hecht and Paul Pascal invented a new verse form called the double dactyl. It follows dactylic dimeter. Here are the features of a double dactyl:

  • It consists of two quatrains - both quatrains have three double-dactyl lines followed by a shorter dactyl / spondee combination. A spondee is a foot of one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable.
  • The first line must be a nonsense phrase.
  • The second line a proper place / name.
  • The sixth line is a single double-dactylic word that has not been used before in any other double-dactyl poem.

Here is an example of a double dactyl poem - 'Higgledy Piggledy Juliet Capulet' by Anthony Hecht:

Higgledy piggledy Juliet Capulet cherished the tenderest thoughts of a rose:

"What's in a name?" said she, etymologically,

"Save did all Montagues

stink in God's nose." .

This is a humorous subversion of Juliet's famous line in Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' - "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" (Act II, Scene 2).

Another example is 'Tact' by Paul Pascal:

Patty cake, patty cake,
Marcus Antonius,
What do you think of the
African queen?"
"Gubernatorial
Duties require my
Presence in Egypt. Ya
know what I mean?"

This double dactyl poem continues the theme of humour found in this poetic form, by comically transforming the story of Antony and Cleopatra.

Both examples follow the rules of double dactyls:

Double Dactyl RulesHiggledy Piggledy - LancashireTact-Pascal

Three double-dactyl lines are followed by a shorter dactyl- spondee pair.

Paltrier vice ... Poultry on iceAfrican Queen...Know what I mean?

The first line must be a nonsense phrase

Higgledy PiggledyPatty cake, patty cake

The second line a proper / place name

Bacon, Lord ChancellorMark Antony

The sixth line is a single double-dactylic word that has not been used before in any other double-dactyl poem.

Bronchopneumonia
Gubernatorial

Dactylic Trimeter

Dactylic trimeter is similar to dactylic dimeter but has a difference in the amount of dactyls. If a poem is described as having dactylic trimeter, it has three dactyls per line.

Dactylic Pentameter

Dactylic pentameter is when there are five dactyls per line in a poem. We saw this earlier in the example we looked at of 'Angels' First Assignment' by Stan Galloway.

Dactylic Hexameter

If a poem is described as having dactylic hexameter, it has six dactyls per line. This is the most common dactylic meter used in poetry and is well known for its prevalence in epic poems (such as Iliad and the Odyssey).

A good way to remember the types of dactylic meter is to remember your shapes. Apart from dactylic dimeter, the names for the other types of dactylic variations are related to the names of shapes. For example, the 'tri' in dactylic trimeter is the same as in 'triangle,' so we know that dactylic trimeter has three dactyls per line. The same patter can be seen in dactylic pentameter (pentagon) and dactylic hexameter (hexagon).

Anapaest

Another key term that's useful here is anapaest. This is the opposite of a dactyl in poetry.

An anapaest is a metrical pattern / foot of two unstressed syllables and a final stressed syllable.

Here are some anapaest words:

  • Understand: Un-der-stand
  • Contradict: Con-tra-dict
  • Interject: In-ter-ject
  • Overcome: O-ver-come

Let's look at some examples of anapaests in poetry to compare the impact of dactyls and anapaests rhythm.

Below is an excerpt from Clement Clarke Moore's 'A Visit from St. Nicholas' (1823):

'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house,

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

Compare the unstressed start to this poem with the stressed start: 'This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks' in 'Evangeline'.

Both have that same sense of rhythm, but perhaps the stressed effect of dactyls creates a sense of urgency that is less visible in the opening lines of 'A Visit from St. Nicholas'.

Why Use Dactylic Rhyme?

The primary benefit of dactylic rhyme is that it creates a rhythmic, musical sound that can have a useful effect.

  • For example, Cinderella's fairy godmother uses the dactylic phrase 'bibbity-bobbity-boo' which has the effect of giving the spell she is casting a 'magical-sounding' quality. Similarly, the nursery rhyme 'hickory dickory dock' makes use of dactyls to create that auditorily pleasant rhythmic sound that is fun for children to recite.

Creates a break / pause / lilting effect

  • This can help slow the poem down, leading to an easier listening experience. Dactyls can therefore be used by poets to slow down or speed up the sense of movement in a poem.

Creates dramatic effect which is useful in writing epic / tragic poems

  • Dactylic hexameter is known as the 'meter of the epic' because the rhythm of dactyls adds a sense of importance to the words. Tragic poems such as 'Evangeline' and epic poems such as 'the Iliad' both sound more grandiose because of the use of dactylic rhyme.

Dactylic Rhyme - Key Takeaways

  • A dactyl used in accentual verse in poetry is a three-syllable metrical pattern, consisting of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.
  • A dactyl used in quantitative verse in poetry is a three-syllable metrical pattern, consisting of a long syllable followed by two short syllables.
  • Dactylic meter is when a poem follows a rhythmic structure that uses dactyls. A poem's dactylic meter depends on the number of dactyls per line.
  • The opposite of a dactyl in poetry is an anapaest.
  • The primary benefit of dactylic rhyme is it create a rhythmic / musical sound, creates a break / pause / lilting effect, and creates dramatic effect which is useful in writing epic / tragic poems

References

  1. Fig. 1. Image by valuavitaly on Freepik
  2. Fig. 2. Image by vectorjuice on Freepik

Frequently Asked Questions about Dactylic

An example of a dactyl is 'po-e-try'. It is a three syllable word where the first  stressed syllable is followed by two unstressed syllables.

There are three syllables in a dactylic foot: stressed-unstressed-unstressed.

Dactylic meter is when a poem follows a rhythmic structure that uses dactyls (a three-syllable foot consisting of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables).

The term 'dactylic' is used to describe something such as rhythm or a poem that contains dactyls. A dactyl is a three-syllable metrical pattern where a stressed syllable is followed by two unstressed syllables.

In poetry, dactylic refers to a three-syllable metrical pattern where the first syllable is stressed and the next two are unstressed. This creates rhythm and accentual verse within poetry.

A dactylic foot (otherwise known as a trochee) is one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. A dactylic foot is often used at the end of a line or verse in poetry.

Final Dactylic Quiz

Question

True or False: A dactyl used in quantitative verse in poetry is a three-syllable metrical pattern, consisting of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.

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Answer

FALSE - A dactyl used in accentual verse in poetry is a three-syllable metrical pattern, consisting of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.

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Question

Which of these is an example of a dactyl



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Answer

Contribution

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Question

The word 'dactyl' comes from the Greek word 'dáktylos', which translates to...?

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Answer

finger

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Question

What is the difference between quantitative verse and accentual verse?

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Answer

Accentual verse in poetry derives its meter from the stress placed on syllables, quantitative verse in derives its meter from the length of syllables.

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Question

How many dactyls per line are there in dactylic hexameter?

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Answer

Six

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Question

Dactylic hexameter is a meter used primarily in what type of poems?

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Answer

Sonnets

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Question

What meter does the double dactyl verse form follow?

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Answer

Dactylic dimeter

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What is the opposite of a dactyl?

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Answer

An anapaest

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Question

Fill in the blanks: An anapaest is a metrical pattern/foot of ___ unstressed syllables and a final stressed syllable.

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Answer

two

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Which of these examples is an anapaest?

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Answer

Complicate

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Question

What effect does the use of dactyls have on the nursery rhyme 'hickory dickory dock' that makes it fun for kids to recite?

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Answer

The use of dactyls creates an auditorily pleasant rhythmic sound that makes it fun for children to recite. 

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Question

Which of these is what makes dactylic rhyme useful in writing epic/tragic poems?

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Answer

The rhythm created with dactyls can add a sense of importance and grandiosity to particular words.

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Question

Which of the words in this line of poetry are stressed syllables? Is this dactylic rhyme or anapaestic rhyme:


’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse

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Answer

Stressed syllables: 

’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse

It is anapaestic rhyme (2 unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable)

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Question

True or False: Dactyls can be used by poets to slow/speed up the sense of movement within a poem. 

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Answer

True

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Question

Which of these words is defined as 'a foot of one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable'. 


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Answer

Spondee

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What is a dactyl?

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Answer

A dactyl used in poetry is a three-syllable metrical pattern.

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What is a dactyl in accentual verse?

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Answer

A dactyl used in accentual verse consists of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.

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Question

What is a dactyl in quantitative verse?

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Answer

A dactyl used in quantitative verse consists of a long syllable followed by two shorter syllables.

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Question

How does the term 'dactyl' relate to a human finger?

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Answer

The term 'dactyl' comes from the Greek word dáktylos to mean 'finger.' The three syllabled of a dactyl relate to the three joints of a finger.

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What does dactylic mean in relation to poetry?

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Answer

If a poem is dactylic, it has dactylic rhythm and has a dactylic stress pattern.

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What is a trochee?

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Answer

A trochee is a metrical pattern where one stressed syllable is followed by one unstressed syllable.

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What is another term for trochee?

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Answer

Dactylic foot

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What does dactylic dimeter mean?

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Answer

There are two dactyls per line

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What does dactylic pentameter mean?

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Answer

There are five dactyls per line

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Question

What does anapest mean?

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Answer

An anapest is a metrical pattern of two unstresse syllables followed by a stressed syllable.

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