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Dactyl in Poetry: Definition & Examples

Dactyl in Poetry: Definition & Examples
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  • 0:01 Poetic Rhythm & Feet
  • 0:26 The Fabulous Dactyl
  • 1:06 Dactyls in Poetry: Tennyson
  • 1:41 Dactyls in Poetry: Longfellow
  • 2:28 Double Dactyls
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
Every line in poetry has some sort of beat, unless it is intentionally written without one. In this video lesson, we will learn about the dactyl, a metrical beat consisting of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.

Poetic Rhythm and Feet

Most poetry has a rhythm to it. It's got moments of stress and moments of release, moments of emphasis and de-emphasis. These moments come from the words poets choose and the natural stress on certain syllables in those words.

Poets can manipulate these stresses in their work through the use of feet. A foot is a group of syllables with a specific pattern of stress and unstress. There are many different feet that poets use, but we're going to concentrate on just one in this lesson: the dactyl.

The Fabulous Dactyl

A dactyl is a three-syllable foot in a line of poetry. A dactyl foot always follows the pattern of one stressed syllable, followed by two unstressed syllables. Let's look at a fabulous example: the word 'fabulous.'

Try saying the word out loud a few times - 'Fabulous.' 'Fabulous.' You can hear that we stress the first syllable, but we don't stress the final two. This is an example of the dactyl. There are many other words that are dactyls, too. 'Bicycle' is a dactyl. So is 'melody.' In fact, so is the word 'poetry.'

Dactyls in Poetry: Tennyson

Let's look at how a few famous poets have used dactyls in their work. Let's start with the British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson and his poem The Charge of the Light Brigade. Tennyson starts this poem off with a few dactyls. The first two lines read,

Half a League,
Half a League.

Now, Tennyson isn't using any words which are dactyls, obviously; all three of these words have one syllable. But speak the whole line to yourself: 'HALF a league, HALF a league.' Now you can hear that one stressed syllable is followed by two unstressed syllables, and the same pattern is repeated. There's our dactyl!

Dactyls in Poetry: Longfellow

Another famous example of dactyls comes from the American poet Henry Wadsworh Longfellow. Let's look at his poem Evangeline. The first line of the poem reads:

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

This actually isn't all dactylic meter; it's a combination of dactyls and another poetic foot called spondee. Where dactyls are patterns of one stressed and two unstressed syllables, spondee is a pattern of two stressed syllables, with no unstressed syllables between them.

Try reading this line out loud:

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

In this line of poetry, we see four dactyls and one spondee.

Double Dactyls

Some poets enjoy using a strict poetic form called the double dactyl, usually for humorous poetry. The double dactyl is awfully difficult to write because it has so many rules. First, double dactyls must have two stanzas. Second, a double dactyl poem has eight lines and six of the eight have six syllables, or two dactyls. The fourth and eighth lines must have four syllables each and they have to rhyme with each other. Finally, one line (usually the sixth) must contain a single dactylic word.

Got all that? Let's look at an example. Here's a double dactyl by English poet Wendy Cope:

Higgledy-piggledy
Emily Dickinson
Liked to use dashes
Instead of full stops.

Nowadays, faced with such
Idiosyncrasy,
Critics and editors
Send for the cops.

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