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Pyrrhic

The term “pyrrhic” is used to refer to a metrical foot that contains two unstressed syllables. The foot is less common today than it was in classical Greek poetry. 

Today, scholars usually refrain from using the term “pyrrhic,” preferring to consider unaccented feet as part of the metrical feet around them. But, when it is used, it is most commonly found in formal poetry. The term is also sometimes known as a “dibrach.” Below, readers can explore examples of pyrrhic feet. 

Pyrrhic definition and examples


Pyrrhic in Poetry Definition

A pyrrhic is a set of two syllables in formal poetry. Unlike other metrical feet, the pyrrhic contains two unstressed or unaccented syllables. Also, unlike other feet, poets do not use them to construct entire poems. They generally create a very slow and dreary feeling when they are used.

Interestingly, Edgar Allan Poe once shared his opinion on the meter, saying that they are “rightfully dismissed.” He added that the existence of the pyrrhic… 

in either ancient or modern rhythm is purely chimerical, and the insisting on so perplexing a nonentity as a foot of two short syllables, affords, perhaps, the best evidence of the gross irrationality and subservience to authority which characterise our Prosody.

He rejected the foot, as have other poets throughout the history of English poetry. Despite this, there are examples to consider. The only times in which readers are likely to find pyrrhic feet in use are at the beginning or end of lines of verse and in addition to the use of other metrical feet.

Types of Metrical Feet 

The pyrrhic is one of the most unusual metrical feet. In order to spot it, it is important to understand what other patterns of syllables a poet might use in their verse. Consider the following types of metrical feet: 

  • Trochees: two beats, the first of which is stressed and the second is unstressed.
  • Iambs: two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second is stressed.
  • Spondee: two beats, both stressed.
  • Dactyl: three beats, one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.
  • Anapest: three beats, two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed.


Examples of Pyrrhic Meter 

In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred Lord Tennyson

‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’ is sometimes considered to be Tennyson’s most important literary accomplishment. The poem was written in dedication to a friend of the poet’s, Arthur Henry Hallam, who died at the young age of twenty-two. In “Section L” of ‘In Memoriam,’ also known as ‘Be near me when my light is low,’ the poet makes use of a commonly cited line that includes one pyrrhic foot. The first two stanzas of the section read: 

Be near me when my light is low,
      When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
      And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame
      Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
      And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Consider the second line of the section with the stressed syllables in bold: 

When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick. 

This line also provides readers with two examples of spondees. These are metrical feet that contain two stressed beats. This is not the only time that Tennyson uses pyrrhics in his ‘In Memoriam.’ For example, in the next line:

And tingle; and the heart is sick,

Here, the poet uses one iamb, a pyrrhic, another iamb, and then a spondee. Interestingly, the entire following line: “And all the wheels of Being slow” is made of iambs.

Discover more Alfred Lord Tennyson poems

The Garden by Andrew Marvell 

This is another commonly cited example of the pyrrhic meter. There are a few lines in this poem that contain pyrrhic feet. But, the entire poem is not written in this meter. Throughout this piece, the poet presents the beauty of a garden with skillful language. The speaker is walking in a garden and appreciating the overwhelming beauty of the trees, herbs, and flowers. As noted above, there are few, if any, examples of English-language poems written entirely in pyrrhic meter. Here are a few lines from Marvell’s ‘The Garden:’ 

Does straight its own resemblance find,

Yet it creates, transcending these,

Far other worlds, and other seas;

Annihilating all that’s made

To a green thought in a green shade.

In the final line of this excerpt, Marvell uses the following (note the use of accented syllables in bold): 

To a green thought in a green shade.

To a” and “in a” are unstressed syllables that are grouped together to form pyrrhics. 

Explore more Andrew Marvell poems

FAQs 

What is pyrrhic in prosody?

A pyrrhic is a set of two unstressed syllables in a poem. The use of pyrrhics is uncommon in English-language verse. More often than not, scholars consider unstressed syllables as a part of the established metrical feet around them. For example, attaching an unstressed syllable onto an iamb or a trochee. 

What does a “spondee” mean in poetry?

A spondee is a type of metrical foot that contains two stressed or accented syllables next to one another. Usually, readers will find spondees at the beginning or end of lines of verse. It is very unusual to find an entire line written in spondees. 

What are the types of meter in poetry? 

There are many different types of meter in poetry. They include iambs, trochees, spondees, dactyls, anapests, and pyrrhics. Sometimes poets choose to use only one of these types of metrical feet in their verse. But, more often, they utilize a combination of multiple metrical feet.


  • Accent: the word “accent” refers to the stressed syllable in a word. Metered lines of verse are made up of different groups of syllables.
  • Dactyl: one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. It is the opposite of an anapest.
  • Anapest: three-syllable sections of verse, or words. An anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed.
  • 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.
  • Dimeter: a specific arrangement of syllables in poetry. If a poem is written in dimeter, that means that the lines contain four syllables each.
  • Meter: the pattern of beats in a line of poetry. It is a combination of the number of beats and arrangement of stresses.


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