Amphibrachs are always made up of three syllables, like anapests and dactyls are. In fact, amphibrachs often appear within anapaestic meter (in the same way that one might find a trochee in a line of iambs). Amphibrachs were often used in Latin and Greek poetic writing. Famously, amphibrachs are also used in limericks.
Definition of Amphibrach
Amphibrachs are sets of three syllables, they follow a pattern of unstressed, stressed, unstressed. They are rarely used as the sole metrical pattern in a poem. Instead, readers can find them featured in specific, important lines, and scattered throughout particularly musical poems, like ballads. They’re also common in children’s poetry, or that which seeks to entertain the reader and/or make them laugh. The word “amphibrach” comes from the Greek meaning “short on both sides.”
Amphibrach Words and Phrases
Below are a few three-syllable words and phrases that are pronounced as amphibrachs. These words and phrases all have one stressed syllable between two unstressed syllables.
- For breakfast
- Spoil something
- I’ll leave now
- Who thinks that
- Before I
- Run somewhere
- We’ll sleep now
Examples of Amphibrachs in Poetry
The Old Oaken Bucket by Samuel Woodworth
‘The Old Oaken Bucket’ is a narrative poem written during the Victorian period. This piece is one of many examples of poetry that includes amphibrachs in lines of verse. Consider this excerpt from the first stanza:
How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood,
When fond recollection presents them to view!
The orchard, the meadow, the deep-tangled wildwood,
And every loved spot which my infancy knew;
The wide-spreading pond, and the mill which stood by it,
The first line is a particularly good example. The phrases, “How dear to,” “my heart are,” “the scenes of,” and “my childhood” are all amphibrachs. This is an interesting example as it clearly conveys the rhythm. Readers should move steadily through the lines of verse, hearing the story as it plays out.
Meditations on the A30 by John Betjeman
‘Meditations on the A30’ by John Betjeman provides readers with another example of how a writer might use amphibrachs in lines of verse. Like most examples, this one is not consistently written in amphibrachs. Consider these lines from the second stanza:
She’s losing her looks very fast,
She loses her temper all day;
That lorry won’t let me get past,
This Mini is blocking my way.
The lines of ‘Meditations on the A30’ are also written in what is known as hypermetrical meter. This means that there are often one or more extra syllables at the ends of lines, making it hard to pin down the exact meter that Betjeman was trying to utilize.
Explore other John Betjeman poems.
The Ruined Maid by Thomas Hardy
Hardy’s ‘The Ruined Maid’ uses a female speaker to discuss her personal trauma—the fact that she’s been “ruined” in the eyes of society. She has little to no chance of marriage. Using the subtle implications of this maid’s life, Hardy points out the difference between the expectations placed on men and women, and by doing so he speaks up for women during a time when they could not speak up for themselves. Consider these lines from the first stanza:
O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?” —
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
In the fourth line, readers can find several amphibrachs with an iamb ending the line. “Oh didn’t” is one, “you know I’d” is another, and “been ruined” ends the poem with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. This is a common technique used in English poetry when a writer wants to use amphibrachs.
Read more Thomas Hardy poems.
O Where Are You Going by W.H. Auden
Auden’s ‘Oh Where Are You Going’ is a poem in the form of a ballad which predicts the fate humanity suffers due to indecisiveness. The poem consists of four stanzas, all of which are quatrains alternating between two voices. The ballad form is one of the most common places, in addition to narrative poetry, in which readers will find examples of amphibrachs. Here is the first stanza:
“O where are you going?” said reader to rider,
“That valley is fatal where furnaces burn,
Yonder’s the midden whose odours will madden,
That gap is the grave where the tall return.”
Consider the first line as an example. It can be separated into amphibrachs like “O where are” and “you going.” “That valley” and “is fatal” are two more examples from the second line. Again, these amphibrachs establish a very steady rhythm readers are meant to enjoy.
Discover more W.H. Auden poems.
Why Do Writers Use Amphibrachs?
Amphibrachs are a form of meter that is less commonly used in poetry. But, when a writer does include this syllabic pattern in their writing, it creates a very musical-sounding rhythm, one that appeals to those writing ballads. The up and down motion of the accents helps carry the reader from one word to the next, maintaining a steady and interesting rhythm. Like most metrical patterns, amphibrachs have fallen out of favor since the advent of the modernist movement. But, that doesn’t mean that there are no contemporary poets using this kind of meter today.
To write a poem in amphibrachic meter, you have to be prepared to write in sets of three syllables. To make it consistent, these syllables need to follow a pattern of unstressed, stressed, unstressed. You’ll likely have to make changes to the words you want to use in order to accommodate this pattern.
Meter is used to create rhythm and unity. It also provides poems with a specific structure that can make writing poetry more challenging. It’s not as common today as it was prior to the modernist literary movement.
The most common types of meter are the iamb and trochee. The first is a set of two syllables the first of which is unstressed and the second is stressed. The trochee is the exact opposite. Often, these two types of metrical feet are used together.
There are a few different types of meter that use three syllables. The most common is the anapest. It uses two unstressed beats followed by a stressed beat. There is also the dactyl. It’s the exact opposite. This means it contains on stressed beat followed by an unstressed beat. The amphibrach is another. It puts one stressed beat between two unstressed beats.
They are far less common than other metrical feet like the iamb, trochee, spondee, and dactyl. When they’re used, they often appear in ballads or in poems written in anapestic verse.
There is an example of an amphibrach in Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 18.‘ This poem is better known as ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?‘ The opening line has one in the second foot.
Related Literary Terms
- Accent: the word “accent” refers to the stressed syllable in a word. Metered lines of verse are made up of different groups of 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.
- Meter: the pattern of beats in a line of poetry. It is a combination of the number of beats and arrangement of stresses.
- Poetic Foot: a foot refers to a unit of meter in poetry. It is a grouping of stressed and/or unstressed syllables.
- Trimeter: one type of meter used in poetry, in which each line has three metrical feet.
- Listen: What is Meter in Poetry?
- Watch: Rhythm & Meter Explained!
- Listen: How to find poetic meter