Dactylic Meter

A dactyl is one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. It is the opposite of an anapest and therefore is used in moments that are more powerful and forceful than the breezier anapest. The word “dactyl” originates from the Greek word “dáktylos,” meaning “finger”. This is in reference to the short and long bones of the human finger. Dactyls often appears in Greek and Latin verse.

The meter looks like this when the scansion is written out:

Dactyl: / U U

Here is an example of dactylic verse from the first line of  ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The meter is not made entirely of dactyls, but a number of lines are. Take a look at these three lines from the poem:

    /   U   U        /   U   U

Half a league, half a league

  /   U   U        /   U   U

Half a league onward,

  /   U   U        /   U   U

All in the valley of death

 

Why use a dactylic meter?

It is uncommon for English language writers to make use of this metrical form for any prolonged period. This is due primarily to the way the emphasis is arranged. More often than not a line when spoken or read does not lend itself to the pattern.

The dactyl’s basic nature of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed means that poets can use it to place the emphasis exactly where they want it to go. If part of a phrase, such as “Light” in “Light Brigade!” is the most important, the lines will be arranged to reflect that.

Other examples of dactylic meter include Walt Whitman‘s ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ and Robert Browning‘s ‘The Lost Leader’.

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