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Double Dactyl

A double dactyl is a form of verse that uses eight lines, each of which contains two dactyls. These are arranged into two stanzas. 

The verse form was invented by Anthony Hecht and Paul Pascal in 1951. These same authors published the first collection of double dactyl poems titled:  Jiggery-Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls. There are a few other less-commonly read double-dactyl collections. These include: 

  • Centicore Poems, [Series] I; being, A Non-canonical Collection of Entirely Prejudiced Double Dactyls (1972)
  • Abbreviated Lays (2003)

The verse form has gone through several brief periods of use by other writers and within varied movements. The verse form is also sometimes known as “Higgledy Piggledy.” This phrase is also the title of one of the best examples of double dactyl poems (see below). 

Double Dactyl Definition and Examples


What is a Dactyl? 

In order to better understand the double dactyl poem form, readers should have a strong grasp of what exactly a dactyl is. It is one of several commonly used metrical feet and the one three-syllable foot that is most popular. 

A dactyl contains three syllables. The first is stressed, and the following two are unstressed. The phrase below includes the stressed syllables highlighted and dashes between each.

Hig-gled-y pig-gled-y

The dactyl is the opposite of the anapest (which contains three syllables but follows a pattern of unstressed, unstressed, and stressed).

Definition of Double Dactyl

The double dactyl is a rarely used verse form that requires writers to conform to several strict rules. These poems are often humorous and are written with the intention of making the reader laugh. (This is generally accomplished by making fun of the intended subject and through the use of nonsense language). There is an interesting juxtaposition within these short poems between the content and the rigid structure a poet is required to use. 

Characteristics of the Double Dactyl

Double dactyl poems are notoriously rigid in their structure. Below is a list of rules that double dactyl poems should conform to in order to be good representatives of the form: 

  • Double dactyls have two stanzas.
  • Stanzas contain three lines.
  • The first three lines are written in dactylic dimeter
  • The final line of each stanza is a choriamb. 
  • The last two lines must rhyme
  • The first line of the first stanza uses nonsense language and repetition
  • The second line of the first stanza includes the poem’s subject. 
  • One line, usually the second line of the second stanza, should be one double dactyl word. 


Examples of Double Dactyls 

Higgledy Piggledy by John Hollander 

‘Higgledy Piggledy,’ although not a well-known poem, is one of the better-known examples of double dactyls. This piece follows all the rules listed above as closely as possible. The first four lines read: 

Higgledy piggledy,

[…]

Twenty-third president

Was, and, as such,

The title is found in the first line. It also conforms to the rule that this particular line needs to use nonsense language. The following line includes the poem’s subject (Benjamin Harrison), as the rules state. The first three lines of both stanzas are written in dactylic dimeter. This means that they all contain two dactyls (for a total of six syllables). 

Double Dactyl Poem by Robert L. Robison 

This unusual poem is another good example of a double dactyl. It contains within its eight lines many of the rules for writing the exact form it demonstrates. Below is the second stanza: 

One sentence (two stanzas)

Hexasyllabically

Challenges poets who

Don’t have the time.

Within these lines, the poet mostly maintains the right number of syllables. But, close readers may note that a few extra beats appear here and there. 

Double Dactyls and Limericks 

Readers and scholars have often compared double dactyls to limericks. There are several similarities. These are listed below: 

  • Both follow strict/rigid structures. 
  • Both contain humorous content. 
  • Can use nonsense language in order to conform to the metrical rules. 

A limerick is defined as a humorous poem that follows a fixed structure of five lines and a rhyme scheme of AABBA. The first set of lines is longer and is written in anapestic trimeter while the second set of lines is in an anapestic dimeter. 

FAQs 

How do you write a double dactyl?

The double dactyl is a rather rigid verse form. It should contain two quatrains, use dactylic dimeter in the first three lines of each stanza, and use a choriamb in the last line. The first line should be a nonsense phrase and the second line is the subject. Often, the second line of the second stanza is a single, double dactyl word. 

What famous poet has a name that’s a double dactyl?

Interestingly, Emily Dickinson’s name is a double dactyl. Broken down into stresses and syllables, it looks like: Em-i-ly Dick-in-son. 

What is a dactyl poetry example?

The use of dactyls within English-language poetry is fairly common. But, finding a poem that’s written entirely in dactyls is nearly impossible. One of the commonly cited examples is The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Within this poem, the poet uses dactylic meter along with iambs and trochees

How do you write a dactyl?

A dactyl is a three-syllable section of a poem. It is one of several types of metrical feet. It contains one stressed and two unstressed syllables. The word “higgledy” is a great example. 

Is the word “elephant” a dactyl?

Yes, the word “elephant” is a great example of a dactyl. It contains three syllables. The first is stressed (“el-”), and the next two are unstressed (“le-phant”). 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Quintain: used to describe a stanza that has five lines. It is one of several stanza forms that a poet might choose from. 
  • Stanza: one of the most important fundamental elements of a poem. It is the unit of writing poems are composed.
  • Iambic Pentameter: a very common way that lines of poetry are structured. Each line has five sets of two beats, the first is unstressed, and the second is stressed.
  • Accent: the word “accent” refers to the stressed syllable in a word. Metered lines of verse are made up of different groups of syllables.
  • Amphibrach: a form of meter. It occurs when the poet places an accented syllable, or stressed syllable, between two unstressed or unaccented syllables.
  • Cadence: the natural rhythm of a piece of text, created through a writer’s selective arrangement of words, rhymes, and the creation of meter.


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