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Anacrusis

Anacrusis occurs when the poet includes an extra unstressed syllable at the beginning of a line of verse. This unstressed syllable is not part of the metrical pattern.

An example of anacrusis is a poem that’s written in iambic pentameter and has a line with an extra unstressed syllable at the beginning. This means that two unstressed syllables would line up next to one another. Poets do this intentionally. It may help them set the tone for a particular line or signal a change from one speaker, idea, or setting to the next.

Anacrusis pronunciation: ahn-uh-croo-suhs

Anacrusis definition and poetic examples


Anacrusis Definition

Anacrusis is a term used to describe a variation of the meter in poetry. It occurs when the poet uses an unstressed syllable at the beginning of a line. This might be in addition to another unstressed or stressed beat. Some scholars are unsure that readers should even be concerned with this phenomenon. This is explained in more detail below.

Does Anacrusis Exist?

For some scholars, anacrusis is a useless term, one that labels something that doesn’t actually exist. They believe that the addition of an unstressed syllable is an integral part of a metrical pattern. It can’t sit outside the pattern. It’s up to individual students and readers to decide how they want to consider these extra syllables.

Anacrusis and Catalexis

Anacrusis is often studied in connection with catalexis. The latter refers to the metrical foot at the end of a line of verse in which a syllable is missing. This is usually the last syllable of a stanza or the entire poem. It’s especially effective if the reader expects the line to end with a stressed beat and an entire syllable is missing. This may create a feeling of absence or expectation as if something different is about to happen.

In comparison, anacrusis is another way that poets alter the expected meter of a poem. But, rather than taking a syllable away, it adds an unstressed syllable. This can have a similar effect to catalexis, especially if the reader expected a stressed beat at the beginning of a line.

Anacrusis and Acephalous

Also related to anacrusis is acephalous. It is the opposite of catalexis. When used, the poet removes the first syllable from the metric pattern. It’s important to be able to tell the difference between when a poet removes a syllable and when they add an extra one into a line of verse, especially if one wants to fully understand a writer’s metrical choices.

Anacrusis and Acatalectic

Finally, there are acatalectic lines. These lines are complete. This means that they do not add or take away syllables from the original pattern. If a poem is written in iambic pentameter is in an acatalectic line is as well.

Examples of Anacrusis in Poetry

The Tyger by William Blake

‘The Tyger’ is one of Blake’s best-known poems. It also provides readers with an interesting example of anacrusis. The poem is written in trochaic tetrameter. This means that most of the lines contain four sets of two beats, the first of which is stressed and the second of which is unstressed. But, there are a few moments when this shifts and the first line of the verse becomes unstressed. Consider this stanza:

When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

The poet starts with a stressed syllable in the first, third, and fourth lines. Either “When” or “Did.” But, this isn’t the case for the second line. Here, Blake uses “And,” an obvious unstressed syllable. This is a very simple and effective way to change up the rhyme scheme. It also occurs in the third stanza. These lines read:

And what shoulder, & what art,

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand? & what dread feet?

Here, Blake uses “And” at the beginning of the two lines. This helps to emphasize the steady beat of the poem, one that’s often been compared to hammering on an anvil.

Explore more William Blake poems.

Why is Anacrusis Important?

Anacrusis is one of several metrical techniques that poets use when they want to vary the meter in their verse. It’s not uncommon to find breaks in a usually steady metrical pattern. When they occur at the beginning of a line, especially if an extra syllable is added, it becomes important to figure out why. It’s likely due to the poet looking for a way to make that line stand out and signal to the reader that it’s different somehow.

Anacrusis in Music

In music, anacrusis refers to a brief introduction or set of notes that precede the first beat in music. That is the first beat that isn’t its own phrase or line. This is anything not considered part of the initial phrase or section. It’s also not connected to a previous phrase. It was taken from poetry as a way to describe this specific metrical or tonal occurrence.

FAQs

What is anacrusis in music?

In music, anacrusis is an upbeat. This means that it prepares the listener’s ears for the next downbeat. It’s also known as a pick-up.

How do you recognize an anacrusis?

In poetry, the best way to find an example of anacrusis is to scan the poem or figure out which beats are stressed and unstressed. This will help you determine the pattern. For example, if it’s written in iambic pentameter, etc. Then, see if any syllables stand out at the beginning of lines.

Why do poets use anacrusis?

Poets use this literary device when they want to start a line with a different emphasis. If the reader is expecting a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable but instead gets an initial unstressed syllable, it can greatly shift the impact of the line.

Do all writers use anacrusis?

No, anacrusis is a metrical device used when a poet has already established a meter. Poets who aren’t writing in a specific meter or never do won’t have any use for this literary device.

Is anacrusis a useful literary device?

While anacrusis can have a specific and interesting effect on a line, it’s not a literary device that’s going to change one’s entire poem. It has selective effects on a piece of writing.


Related Literary Terms

  • Poetic Foot: a foot refers to a unit of meter in poetry. It is a grouping of stressed and/or unstressed syllables.
  • Scansion: the analysis of a poem’s metrical patterns. It organizes the lines, metrical feet, and individual syllables into groups.
  • Trimeter: one type of meter used in poetry, in which each line has three metrical feet.
  • Iamb: a metrical unit. It occurs when two syllables are placed next to one another, and the first is unstressed or short, and the second is stressed or long.
  • Anapest: two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed.
  • Dactyl: one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. It is the opposite of an anapest.
  • Elision: the removal of part of a word to shorten it. This might be an unstressed syllable, consonant, or letter from a word or phrase.


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