A dactyl is a metrical unit that consists of one stressed or accented syllable followed by two unstressed or unaccented syllables. It is the opposite of an anapest.

Facts About Dactyls

  • It is uncommon for English-language writers to make use of this metrical form for any prolonged period.
  • Natural speech patterns do not match with the arrangement of syllables in a dactyl.
  • The word “dactyl” originates from the Greek word “dáktylos,” meaning “finger.”
  • They’re common in Latin and Greek verse.

Dactyl Example #1

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is a famous example of dactylic meter. It is a historically important poem that tells of the incredible bravery of the British cavalry during the Battle of Balaclava. Here are a few lines from the piece:

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!

If the first lines were written with the scansion noted, they would look like:

   /   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

It’s also important to note how difficult it is to write an entire poem in dactylic meter. Even in the above excerpt, there is an example where the pattern breaks, and the poet ends a line with a stressed syllable (seen in line three and the word “Death”).

Dactyl Example # 2

The Lost Leader by Robert Browning

‘The Lost Leader’ is another good example of how a poet uses dactylic meter in their work. The poem expresses the poet’s disillusionment with William Wordsworth, who he initially idolized. Here are a few lines that exemplify dactylic meter:

Just for a handful of silver, he left us,

Just for a riband to stick in his coat—

Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,

Lost all the others, she lets us devote;

They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,

So much was theirs who so little allowed:

How all our copper had gone for his service!

The stressed syllables in the first two lines look like this:

Just for a handful of silver he left us,

Just for a riband to stick in his coat

Once you have an understanding of how the stresses are used, it’s helpful to reread the poem focusing on emphasizing those syllables.

Other Dactylic Poems to Explore