Dactylic Meter in Poetry | Concept, Types, & Examples

Sasha Blakeley, Debbie Notari
  • Author
    Sasha Blakeley

    Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

  • Instructor
    Debbie Notari

    Debbie Notari received her Bachelor’s degree in English and M.S. in Education Literacy and Learning for Grades 6-12. Debbie has over 28 years of teaching experience, teaching a variety of grades for courses like English, Reading, Music, and more.

Learn the definition of a dactyl. Study double dactyls, dactylic tetrameter, and dactylic hexameter in poetry. See examples of dactylic meter and dactyl words. Updated: 11/19/2021

Table of Contents


Dactyl Definition

What is a dactyl? The term ''dactyl'' is an important part of poetry analysis. It is a type of metrical foot, which is a set of syllables that follow a specific pattern of stresses. A dactyl consists of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. The dactyl is often contrasted with another kind of metrical foot: the iamb. An iamb has one unstressed syllable and one stressed syllable. It is often found in Shakespeare's work. Dactyls, on the other hand, are much older: they were commonly used in ancient Greek poetry. Daktylos is the root word of ''dactyl,'' meaning ''finger.'' Because dactyls have three syllables, they are named after the three joints of the human finger.

Dactyl Words

Most dactylic hexameter examples are found in ancient Greek poetry. Dactylic meter tends to flow better in Greek than in English.

A sculpture of Homer, an influential Greek author and poet.

While dactyls can be formed in poetry by using up to three words, some individual words have a stressed-unstressed-unstressed syllable pattern. These are known as ''dactyl words.'' A dactyl word forms a dactyl all on its own.

Some examples of dactyl words include:

  • Bicycle (BI-cy-cle)
  • Typical (TY-pi-cal)
  • Elephant (E-le-phant)
  • Poetry (PO-e-try)
  • Murmuring (MUR-mur-ing)
  • Endlessly (END-less-ly)

This is just a small list; there are many examples of words in English and in other languages (''languages'' is a dactyl, too!) that follow the dactyl pattern.

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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
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Double Dactyls

A double dactyl is a specific kind of poem that makes great use of dactyls. These poems have to follow a number of very specific rules in order to qualify for the form. Before looking closely at the rules that govern these poems, it may be helpful to read a few examples, paying particular attention to the use of dactyls in each line:

Higgledy piggledy,
Bacon, lord Chancellor.
Negligent, fell for the
Paltrier vice.

Bribery toppled him,
Finished him, testing some
Poultry on ice.

- Ian Lancashire

Emily Dickinson
Liked to use dashes
Instead of full stops.

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

- Wendy Cope

Uranus, Uranus,
Herschel's discovery
axis inverted, past
Saturn it swings.

Who would have thought that the
solar constituent
also had rings?

- RP

These three poems are all perfect examples of the form, they have only minor variations, if any. It's extremely common to start double dactyls with the phrase ''higgledy-piggledy'' (though this is not something that the form requires) that the poems themselves are sometimes colloquially known as ''higgledy-piggledies.''

Characteristics of a Double Dactyl

Creating a double dactyl poem requires significant familiarity with dactylic meter. This is one of the most stringent and challenging poetic forms to master, as a double dactyl must abide by the following rules:

  • The poem should be humorous and usually describes an individual, though any subject matter is permissible
  • The poem must have two stanzas, each of which has four lines
  • The first three lines of each stanza must be made up of two dactyls (DUM-da-da DUM-da-da when spoken)
  • The fourth line of each stanza must feature just four syllables: one dactyl and then a final stressed syllable (DUM-da-da DUM)
  • The fourth and eighth lines of the poem must rhyme
  • The sixth line of the poem must be a single word made up of two dactyls

Sometimes, double dactyls will vary from these rules somewhat. For instance, some poems put their six-syllable word in the fifth or seventh line rather than the sixth. In the second example above, there is also a minor syllabic inconsistency: the final syllable of the third line is carried over into the fourth. This is such a small deviation that it does not disrupt the form, especially since the syllable pattern remains the same.

Dactyl Examples

Double dactyls are not the only kind of dactyl poetry to have been developed over the years. Dactyl examples are sometimes hard to come by in English-language poetry, however, because they are difficult to work with. Ancient Greek and Latin seemed to more naturally follow dactylic meter, making dactylic poetry more common in those cultures. The same is true of iambic poetry in English: it tends to flow naturally and easily fit around English word patterns. Despite the difficulty of adapting the dactylic meter to English, there are several good examples of dactylic meter in English poetry.

Dactylic Tetrameter Examples

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is one poet who wrote dactylic poetry. Dactylic tetrameter is difficult to write in English

An image of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What does dactyl mean in poetry?

The term dactyl refers to a metrical foot consisting of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.

For example, the word "poetry" is a dactyl.

What is an example of a dactyl?

There are many examples of dactyls in everyday speech. One of them is the word "everyday." Another example is the phrase "one of them!"

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