Definition of Anapest

An anapest is a metrical foot that consists of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. Words such as “understand” and “contradict” are examples of anapest, because both of them have three syllables where the accent is on the final syllable. Anapestic words are less common than other meters in English, such as words with three syllables where the stress is on the first syllable (dactyl), or words that have alternating stressed and unstressed syllables (trochee and iamb). Anapestic words are more commonly found in other languages, such as French (some words and phrases borrowed from French still contain the anapest in English, such as “engineer,” “haute couture,” and “art nouveau”).

The definition of anapest (also sometimes written anapaest) is identical to that of antidactylus. The word anapest comes from the Greek ανάπαιστος, or anápaistos, which means “struck back.” Anapest can be considered a reversed dactyl, a dactyl being a metrical foot consisting of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.

Forms of Anapestic Meter

Anapestic Trimeter: In this meter, there are three metrical anapestic feet, each of three syllables, giving each line nine total syllables.
Anapestic Tetrameter: This meter contains four metrical feet of three syllables in an anapestic form, comprising twelve syllables overall.
Anapestic Hexameter: Perhaps the least common of all of these meters, anapestic hexameter contains six anapestic feet of three syllables each, for a total of eighteen syllables per line.

Common Examples of Anapest

Some idioms in English are examples of anapestic meter, such as the following:

  • Get a life
  • In the blink of an eye
  • By the skin of your teeth
  • Get it out of your system
  • Feeling under the weather
  • Hit the nail on the head
  • At the drop of a hat
  • Costs an arm and a leg
  • In the heat of the moment
  • In the still of the night (song by Cole Porter)

The popular and playful poetic form of limerick often contains anapestic meter, such as the following famous verse:

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man,
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.”

Significance of Anapest in Literature

Anapestic meter has a particular sing-song, rolling feel to it, similar to the sound of horses trotting (in the popular film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” a character simulates the sound of horses by clacking coconuts together in an anapestic rhythm). Due to the fact that it sounds song-like, anapest therefore is popular in rhymes for children and comic poetry, while not as popular in more formal poetry. Some looser iambic pentameter also contains some examples of anapest interspersed with the regular meter, such as later works by William Shakespeare and some nineteenth century formal poetry.

Examples of Anapest in Literature

Example #1

ARIEL: Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.

(The Tempest by William Shakespeare)

This is an example in which William Shakespeare was writing in one meter, yet varies the rhythm from time to time. Generally, Ariel’s song is an example of trochaic tetrameter, most lines containing eight syllables with an alternating pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. However, Shakespeare varies this a bit in the lines “Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change” and also in the final line “Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.” The variation uses some anapest examples, which lends a slightly more melodic sound to Ariel’s song.

Example #2

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

(“The Destruction of Sennacherib” by Lord Byron)

Lord Byron’s poem “The Destruction of Sennacherib” is one of the best-known examples of formal poetry that employs the usage of anapest. This stanza is an example of anapestic tetrameter. This means that each line has four metrical feet, each of which is an anapest. Each line therefore contains twelve syllables. Though anapestic meter is often considered to be more light-hearted, this is a quite serious poem about the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s attempt to invade Jerusalem. Lord Byron intentionally used anapestic meter to mimic the sound of horses riding into battle.

Example #3

I have given no man of my fruit to eat;
I trod the grapes, I have drunken the wine.
Had you eaten and drunken and found it sweet,
This wild new growth of the corn and vine,
This wine and bread without lees or leaven,
We had grown as gods, as the gods in heaven,
Souls fair to look upon, goodly to greet,
One splendid spirit, your soul and mine.

(“The Triumph of Time” by Algernon Charles Swinburne)

In his poem “The Triumph of Time,” Algernon Charles Swinburne does not stick strictly to one formal meter. There are many examples of anapest throughout the many stanzas of the poem. We can see the anapest examples above, and also specifically in the line, “I have drunken the wine.” The poet’s variation between different meters creates very rhythmically complex lines, which is appropriate for the complex philosophical questions in the poem about the passage of time.

Example #4

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

(“A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clark Moore)

Clement Clark Moore’s well-known poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is a popular Christmas Eve tale read to children. The first few lines in particular are quite famous. Moore uses anapestic tetrameter throughout the poem, which means that each line has four metrical feet of three syllables in a rhythm of unstressed-unstressed-stressed syllables. Moore’s choice to use this meter led to a very memorable and light-hearted tale.

Example #5

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

(Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss)

Dr. Seuss used many anapest examples in his books for children. Primarily meant to entertain, Dr. Seuss’s choice of anapestic meter creates a songlike quality in many of his verses. It is relatively difficult to keep this type of meter running consistently in English. Therefore, though it may seem as though Dr. Seuss’s writing is simplistic, it is, in fact, quite impressive that he maintains this complicated meter throughout entire books.

Test Your Knowledge of Anapest

1. Which of the following statements is the best anapest definition?

A. A metrical foot with two stressed syllables followed by an unstressed syllable.
B. A two-syllable metrical foot with equal stress on both syllables.
C. A unit of meter with two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following words is an example of anapest?
A. Comprehend
B. Elephant
C. Sing-along

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following excerpts from works by Dr. Seuss does not contain anapest examples?

If we didn’t have birthdays, you wouldn’t be you.
If you’d never been born, well then what would you do?
If you’d never been born, well then what would you be?
You might be a fish! Or a toad in a tree!


One fish
Two fish
Red fish
Blue fish


And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?
“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
Then he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.

Answer to Question #3 Show

One comment

  • Very informative. Found the word anapaest in a crryptic crossword and now I understand what it means. Thanks

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