English Literature


Shiken premium Upgrade Banner

The Beauty of Dactyls in Poetry

Have you ever been mesmerized by the musicality of a poem and questioned its structure? Consider ‘Higgeldy Piggeldy’ by Ian Lancashire - a delightful poem that not only entices us with its words but also showcases a distinct poetic form. Can you identify what kind of poem this is?

'Higgledy piggledy, Bacon, Lord Chancellor. Negligent, fell for the Paltrier vice. Bribery toppled him, Bronchopneumonia Finished him, testing some Poultry on ice.'

Observe the words and their rhythm. Do you notice something intriguing? This poem exemplifies a double dactyl, a unique form with a strict structure of dactyls. Now, what exactly are dactyls?

The Meaning and Purpose of Dactyls

A dactyl is a poetic foot used to measure the rhythm in a poem. It consists of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. The sound of a dactyl is often described as 'dum-da-da' or 'tum-ti-ti'.

To identify a dactyl, one must first understand the distinction between stressed and unstressed syllables in English.

Stressed and Unstressed Syllables Explained

Stressed syllables are usually louder, longer, and have a higher pitch. They also have prolonged vowel sounds and are pronounced with more emphasis. In contrast, unstressed syllables are softer, shorter, and have a lower pitch. They have shortened vowel sounds and are pronounced with less emphasis.

In this article, stressed syllables are displayed in bold font, while unstressed syllables are in normal font. Each foot is divided by a space ' ' and each syllable is divided by a hyphen.

For example, the first syllable in 'apple' is stressed, so it is written as 'App-' and the last syllable 'le' is unstressed, so it is written as '-le' - 'App-le'.

Notable Examples of Dactyls

In the English language, there are many words with a dactylic rhythm, such as 'basketball' = 'bask-et-ball' and 'alphabet' = 'alph-a-bet'.

One of the most famous instances of dactyls in English poetry is Lord Alfred Tennyson's ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1854). According to Michael Rifenburg, the dactyls in this poem create a mesmerizing state that conveys the futile nature of the charge while also establishing a march-like rhythm.

Here are a few stanzas from the poem. Can you spot the dactyls?

'Half a league, half a league,Half a league onward,All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.'

Another enjoyable example of dactyls is in the song ‘America’ from the musical 'West Side Story' (1961). These dactyls contribute to a lively and upbeat tone in the chorus.

'I like to be in America,Okay by me in America,Everything's free in America.'

Nursery rhymes also utilize dactyls to create an energetic and playful tone. In ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’, the repeated use of dactyls gives the rhyme a bouncing rhythm.

'Hickory dickory dock.The mouse went up the clock.The clock struck one.The mouse went down.Hickory dickory dock.'

Dactylic Rhythms in Poetry

Dactyls are a type of metrical foot that contribute to the overall rhythm and structure of a poem. Poems may use dactyls in various ways, depending on the length of the lines and the number of feet per line.

Some poems solely utilize dactyls, while others incorporate them only in certain lines. Below are some examples of dactylic rhythms.

Dactylic Dimeter

A dactylic dimeter is a line of poetry with two feet.

For instance, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ features a dactylic dimeter in the first two lines of the second stanza.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!Was there a man dismayed?'

Double Dactyl

A double dactyl is a cheerful and lively form of poetry that follows a specific structure of two quatrains.

Double dactyls, a form of poetry, consist of three lines of dactylic diameter followed by a dactyl and a spondee. The final two spondees must rhyme with each other. A spondee is a metrical foot with two stressed syllables, such as "bus-stop". Additionally, to the strict structure, the content of a double dactyl also adheres to the following rules:

  • The first line must be nonsensical.
  • The second line must contain a proper noun, such as a place, name, or institution.
  • The sixth line must include a unique word that is not used elsewhere in the poem.

An Introductory Guide to Understanding Dactyls and Other Ternary Feet in Poetry

Dactyls, anapests, and other ternary feet are key elements in understanding the structure and rhythm of poetry. These metrical feet add a unique flow to a poem, creating a sense of abnormality and altering the natural intonation of words. Let's explore different types of ternary feet and their usage in poetry.

The Double Dactyl in Action

Poet Wendy Cope provides an example of a double dactyl in her poem, using the nonsensical phrase "higgledy-piggledy" to start off the rhythm. In this case, "Emily Dickinson" serves as the proper noun and "idiosyncrasy" as the unique word.

Dactylic Pentameter: Five Feet of Flow

One type of ternary foot commonly found in poetry is dactylic pentameter, which consists of five metrical feet. Poet Stan Galloway's "Angels' First Assignment" is entirely written in this meter, creating a flowing sense to the narrative as the speaker contemplates their request.

An excerpt from the poem reads as follows:

  • Were you the same angels posted beside the new tomb
  • With the body of Jesus the new Tree provided again for us?

Here, the dactylic pentameter is evident in the line "post-ed-be-side-the-new-tomb-with-the-Bo-dy-of-Je-sus-the-New-tree-pro-vi-ded-a-gain-for-us."

The Grandeur of Dactylic Hexameter

Dactylic hexameter, on the other hand, involves six feet per line. This meter was commonly used in ancient Greek poems and has since diminished in English literature. However, some poets have attempted to revive its use, such as Arthur Hugh Clough and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

An excerpt from Longfellow's "Evangeline" showcases dactylic hexameter in the following lines:

  • This is the forest primaeval. The murmuring pines
  • And the hemlocks, bearded with moss, and in garments green,
  • Indistinct in the twilight, stand like Druids of eld,
  • With voices sad and prophetic, stand like harpers hoar,
  • With beards that rest on their bosoms.

Here, the first line reads, "This-is-the-for-est-pri-me-val-The-mur-mur-ing-pines-and-the-hem-locks." It's important to note that this line contains six feet but only five dactyls, as the final foot is a spondee.

The Power of Dactyls in Poetry

Dactyls have a unique impact on poems, creating a sense of abnormality and altering the natural intonation of words. This effect can evoke emotions, such as unease in Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade", or create a lively, upbeat tone in children's rhymes and patriotic songs. In poems written in dactylic hexameter, dactyls may resemble the epic poetry that commonly used this meter, as in Longfellow's "Evangeline."

Defining Dactyls in Different Languages

Dactyls can sometimes be confusing, as other metrical feet may appear similar. However, in languages like ancient Greek and Latin, a dactyl is a long syllable followed by two shorter syllables. An example from Virgil's "Aeneid" reads "ar-ma-vir-um-que-ca-no" ("I sing of weapons and men").

Other types of ternary feet include anapests, which are the opposite of dactyls, consisting of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. Although there are several types of ternary feet, dactyls and anapests are the most common in poetry.

Exploring Other Types of Ternary Feet

In addition to dactyls and anapests, there are other types of ternary feet that add a unique rhythm to poetry. These include:

  • Tibrach: a foot made up of three unstressed syllables, with a sound resembling "ti-ti-ti" or "da-da-da". An example can be found in the phrase "he and me".
  • Molossus: a foot with three consecutive stressed syllables, producing a "tum-tum-tum" or "dum-dum-dum" sound. This type of meter is commonly found in Latin and Greek literature, such as the word "audiri".
  • Amphibrach: a ternary foot with one stressed syllable sandwiched between two unstressed syllables, creating a "ti-tum-ti" or "da-dum-da" sound. An example can be found in the word "ancestral", with the stress falling on the second syllable.
  • Amphimacer or Cretic: an opposite to the amphibrach, featuring two stressed syllables surrounding an unstressed syllable. The words "common thought" demonstrate this meter, with the stress on the first and third syllables.
  • Bacchius: a foot consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by two stressed syllables.

Understanding these different types of ternary feet can enhance your appreciation for the rhythm and structure of poetry.

The Significance of Dactyls in Poetry

If you're a fan of poetry, you may have come across the term dactyl. This rhythmic pattern, featuring one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones, can be found in the carol ‘No Small Wonder’ by Paul Edwards (1986), with lines such as ‘when-day-breaks the-fish-bite at-small-flies’. Its opposite, the antibacchius, has two stressed syllables preceding an unstressed one. A prime example of this is the word ‘bare-footed’.

It may seem daunting to remember all these technical terms, but understanding the etymology of dactyls can make it easier. The ancient Greek word ‘daktulos’ translates to ‘unit of measurement’ or ‘finger’. In poetry, dactyls represent a unit of rhythmic measure, resembling a finger with a long bone followed by two shorter ones. In terms of syllables, this translates to one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones.

There are various forms of dactyls, including the dactylic hexameter, often used as a tribute to ancient epics. Depending on how they alter the usual intonation of words, dactyls can evoke sensations of uneasiness or joy. Knowing the origin of the term 'dactyl' can make it easier to remember its meaning compared to other ternary feet.

To sum it up, dactyls are a type of metrical foot with three syllables and a specific stress pattern. Their significance in poetry lies in their ability to create different effects, and their etymology can be helpful in recalling their meaning. As Michael Rifenburg (2005) puts it, dactyls possess a hypnotic rhythm, making them a valuable tool in the art of poetic expression.

Join Shiken For FREE

Gumbo Study Buddy

Explore More Subject Explanations

Try Shiken Premium
for Free

14-day free trial. Cancel anytime.
Get Started
Join 20,000+ learners worldwide.
The first 14 days are on us
96% of learners report x2 faster learning
Free hands-on onboarding & support
Cancel Anytime