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Dactyl (poetry)

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Metrical feet
˘ ˘ pyrrhus, dibrach
˘ ¯ iamb
¯ ˘ trochee, choree
¯ ¯ spondee
˘ ˘ ˘ tribrach
¯ ˘ ˘ dactyl
˘ ¯ ˘ amphibrach
˘ ˘ ¯ anapest, antidactylus
˘ ¯ ¯ bacchius
¯ ¯ ˘ antibacchius
¯ ˘ ¯ cretic, amphimacer
¯ ¯ ¯ molossus
Number of feet per line
one Monometer
two Dimeter
three Trimeter
four Tetrameter
five Pentameter
six Hexameter
seven Heptameter
eight Octameter
See main article for tetrasyllables.
v · d · e

A dactyl (Gr. δάκτυλος dáktulos, “finger”) is a foot of metrical verse .

Classical DactylEdit

In quantitative verse, such as Ancient Greek or Latin, a dactyl is a long syllable followed by two short syllables, as determined by syllable weight. Dactyls are the metrical foot of Greek elegiac poetry, which followed a line of dactylic hexameter with one of dactylic pentameter.

Dactyl in EnglishEdit

In an accentual-syllabic verse as in English, a dactyl is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables—the opposite of an anapaest (two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable).

The word "poetry" is itself a dactyl, as pointed out in the New York Times Crossword Puzzle (Will Shortz, ed.) for May 31, 2006. A useful mnemonic for remembering this long-short-short pattern is to consider the relative lengths of the three bones of a human finger: beginning at the knuckle, it is one long bone followed by two shorter ones (hence the name "dactyl").

An example of dactylic meter is the first line of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem Evangeline, which is in dactylic hexameter:

This is the / forest prim- / eval. The / murmuring / pines and the / hem locks,

The first five feet of the line are dactyls; the sixth a spondee.

Stephen Fry quotes Robert Browning's The Lost Leader as an example of the use of dactylic metre to great effect, creating verse with "great rhythmic dash and drive":[1]

Just for a handful of silver he left us
Just for a riband to stick in his coat

The first three feet in both lines are dactyls.

Another example: the opening lines of Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" (1859), his poem about the birth of his poetic voice:

Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking [a dactyl, followed by a trochee ('cradle'); then another dactyl followed by a trochee ('rocking']
Out of the mockingbird's throat, the musical shuttle [2 dactyls, then a trochee ('throat, the'); then another dactyl, followed by a trochee]
. . .

The dactyl "out of the..." becomes a pulse that rides through the entire poem, often generating the beginning of each new line, even though the poem as a whole, as is typical for Whitman, is extremely varied and "free" in its use of metrical feet.

Dactylic hexameterEdit

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Evangeline")
THIS is the / FORest pri/MEval. The / MURmuring / PINES and the / HEMlocks,
BEARded with / MOSS, and in / GARments / GREEN, indis/TINCT in the / TWIlight,

Double dactylEdit

Like its opposite, the anapest, dactylic meter has a rollicking, sing-songy feel that can be used to comic effect in light verse. Those possibilities have given rise to a relatively new verse form, the Double dactyl.

Dactylic rhymeEdit

Because any two words (and therefore any two lines of poetry ) will rhyme only if their final stressed syllables have the same vowel sound, two lines written in dactylic meter will rhyme only if their third from last syllables rhyme (with the following two syllables sounding identical). That unusual type of rhyme, which is neither masculine nor feminine, is called dactylic rhyme.


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