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Dactylic Pentameter

Dactylic pentameter is a metrical pattern that can be found in some examples of English language poetry. The term refers to lines that consist of five, or sets of syllables, per line with three syllables per foot.

The first of these syllables are stressed, and the following two syllables are unstressed. It would sound like: dum-DUH-DUH and each line would contain fifteen total syllables. 

Finding examples of dactylic pentameter in poetry is not common. The best-known examples, and those which scholars consider the most skillful, date to classical Latin and Greek elegiac couplets. At the time, poets wrote elegies with alternating lines of dactylic pentameter and dactylic hexameter.

Dactylic Pentameter pronunciation: dahk-til-ick pen-tahm-eh-tuhr 

Dactylic Pentameter definition and examples

What is a Dactyl? 

Before exploring the specific variation of dactylic pentameter, it is important to delve into the term itself:

A dactyl is a metrical foot, or set of syllables, that includes one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. It is the opposite of an anapest. The word “dactyl” originates from the Greek word “dáktylos,” meaning “finger”.

Why Do Writers Use Dactyls?

The dactyl is not the most common metrical form. In fact, it is often overlooked when students and newcomers to poetic analysis are considering what meters poets use. But, it can be used in important and powerful ways. For example, poets choose to use dactyls in lines when they want to emphasize something that’s particularly effective. It adds power and importance to a part of a line or a single word. 

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

Dactyl: / U U

It should be noted that dactyls are not often used consistently throughout an entire poem. Rather, a poet might choose to enhance their lines of iambic pentameter with the insertion of a few dactyls or anapests here and there.

Definition of Dactylic Pentameter 

A line of dactylic pentameter is fifteen syllables long. These fifteen syllables are divided into five sets of three. The three-syllable feet contain one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed.

Dactylic pentameter is more complicated than popular metrical patterns like iambic pentameter and trochaic tetrameter. This means that it is unlikely that readers are going to stumble upon a piece of poetry written in this form unless they are seeking it out on purpose.

Types of Dactylic Meter 

Besides dactylic pentameter, there are a couple of other forms of dactylic meter that readers should be aware of. These are:

  • Dactylic Hexameter: this is one of the two forms used in Greek and Latin elegiac poems. It is a line of six metrical feet, each of which contains three syllables. These syllables follow the pattern of a dactyl, meaning that they contain one stressed syllable and two unstressed syllables. This is a rare form of meter that readers are unlikely to find in their everyday pursuit of poetry. 
  • Double Dactyl: within this metrical form, the poet uses two quatrains made up of three double dactylic lines. This means that each line has two metrical feet of dactyls totaling six syllables per line. These are then followed by a fourth line that contains doctors and spondees. This is a specific form of poetry that writers use when they want to create something light-hearted and humorous. It is a somewhat complicated form and will likely challenge writers in their word choice. The form was invented in 1951 by Paul Pascal and Anthony Hecht. 

Examples of Dactyls in Poetry 

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking by Walt Whitman 

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ contains a few examples of dactyls. But, as noted above, the poet doesn’t use dactyls or dactylic pentameter consistently throughout the poem. Here are the first lines of the poem: 

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,

Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,

Out of the Ninth-month midnight,

Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,

With the stresses emphasized, take a look at the first line again: 

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking

Here, the poet uses two dactyls. They fall in the three syllables of “Out of the” and “endlessly.” The words “cradle” and “rocking” are trochees that break up the rhythm of the dactyls. This is a great example of how a line with ten syllables it’s not necessarily written in iambic pentameter or dactylic pentameter. There are several different qualifications that a line needs to meet in order to say that it is following a specific pattern.

Read more Walt Whitman poems


What does dactylic pentameter mean in poetry?

The phrase “dactylic pentameter” refers to a type of meter that a poem might conform to. The lines will contain fifteen syllables, each of which can be divided into five sets of three. Of these three-syllable metrical feet, the first syllable is stressed and the following is unstressed.

How many syllables are in pentameter?

There are a total of ten syllables in most examples of pentameter. But, if the poet is writing and dactylic pentameter or anapestic pentameter, the lines are going to contain fifteen syllables. This is due to the fact that each metrical foot contains one additional syllable than it does when the poet uses iambs or trochees

What is dactylic in poetry?

Dactylic is a word used to describe a type of metrical foot. A “dactyl” is a grouping of three syllables, the first of which is stressed in the following two of which are unstressed. It is uncommonly used in poetry, at least when it comes to structuring an entire poem.

Related Literary Terms 

  • Burns Stanza: named for Scottish poet Robert Burns who popularized its use. It is a six-line stanza form that uses a rhyme scheme of AAABAB, and lines of tetrameter and dimeter.
  • Hymn Stanza: uses a rhyme scheme of ABCB and alternates between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.
  • Iambic Dimeter: a type of meter used in poetry. It occurs when the writer uses two iambs per line of verse.
  • 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.
  • Monometer: a type of meter that uses single units of meter per line of verse. It could use a single iamb, trochee, etc.

Other Resources 

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