Definition of Dactyl

A dactyl is a metrical foot with one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. For example, the words “typical” and “elephant” both demonstrate the dactylic stress pattern. In Greek and Latin verse, which use a different understanding of meter that relies on the length of syllables rather than their stress pattern, a dactyl is a long syllable followed by two short syllables.

A dactyl is opposite to an anapest, which is comprised of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. The word dactyl comes from the Greek word δάκτυλος (dáktylos), which means “finger.” If you think of your finger joints, the definition of dactyl is easy to remember: the longest bone in a finger is first, followed by two shorter bones.

Common Examples of Dactyl

There are plenty of words in English that are examples of dactyl:

  • Poetry
  • Difficult
  • Mockingbird
  • Alphabet
  • Trivial

Many English idioms also begin with a dactyl example (though often end with a trochee), such as the following:

  • Actions speak louder than words
  • Under the weather
  • Sleep with the fishes
  • Chink in one’s armor
  • Apple of discord
  • Ace in the hole

Also, some nursery rhymes include dactylic lines, including the following:

  • Over the river and through the woods
  • Hickory, dickory, dock
  • Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo

Types of Dactylic Meter

Dactylic is not so common in contemporary poetry, though there are a few forms that have been used in literature.

  • Dactylic Pentameter: This type of meter has five metrical feet and three syllables per foot, for a total of fifteen syllables per line. Classical Latin and Greek elegiac couplet examples contained alternating lines of dactylic pentameter and dactylic hexameter. This form is quite rare in English, though Example #5 below shows an exquisite example of dactylic pentameter.
  • Dactylic Hexameter: Dactylic hexameter contains six metrical feet with three syllables per foot, for a total of eighteen syllables per line. Again, this type of line was common in classical literature, but is rare in English.
  • Double Dactylic: This is a poetic form purposely invented to be light and nonsensical. In a double dactylic poem there are two quatrains, each of which has three double-dactylic lines (i.e., two metrical feet of dactyls, and thus six syllables per line) followed by a dactyl-spondee fourth line. The two spondees that end the quatrains must rhyme in this form. Proponents of this form include poets Paul Pascal, Anthony Hecht, and John Hollander. They also ruled that some word that is itself double-dactylic must never have been used in any other double dactylic poem (the words “Indianapolis,” “psychopathologist,” “geopolitical,” “non-confrontational,” and “microbiology,” all count as double-dactylic words). Example #4 is an example of a double dactylic poem.

Significance of Dactyl in Literature

There are a few forms of meter which feature the dactylic pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables prominently, as we saw above. However, unlike iambic and trochaic meter, which both have alternating unstressed and stressed syllables, dactylic meter is much more difficult to maintain. The pattern is more unusual in English, and creates such as sing-song pattern that it does not often sound appropriate for serious subject matter. For example, in the Disney animated version of Cinderella, the fairy godmother sings a nonsense song as she’s working her magic with the dactylic repetition of “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.” It was a much more common form in classical literature, in which the dactyl was a pattern of long and short syllables in Greek and Latin. Dactylic lines were a key part of elegiac couplets.

Examples of Dactyl in Literature

Example #1

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

(“The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” contains excellent examples of dactyls, though most of the lines only begin with a dactyl and end with trochee. The lines that can be considered double dactylic in the above excerpt are, “HALF a league, HALF a league,” “‘FORward, the LIGHT Brigade!,” and “‘CHARGE for the GUNS!” he said” (with the accent pattern in capitalized letters).

Example #2

In the hexameter rises the fountain’s silvery column,
In the pentameter aye falling in melody back.

(“The Ovidian Elegiac Metre” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the above elegiac couplet as an instructive tool for English speakers. He wanted to show the way the meter worked, though the lines are not made solely of dactyl examples. Indeed, both lines of the couplet begin with dactyls: “IN the hexAmeter RIses the” and “IN the penTAmeter.”

Example #3

Just for a handful of silver he left us,
Just for a riband to stick in his coat—
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
Lost all the others she lets us devote;
They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,
So much was theirs who so little allowed:
How all our copper had gone for his service!
Rags—were they purple, his heart had been proud!

(“The Lost Leader” by Robert Browning)

Robert Browning also does not continue with dactylic meter the whole way through his poem, “The Lost Leader,” but we can see some nice example of dactyl throughout. For example, in the first line we see three dactyls followed by a trochee: “JUST for a HANDful of SILVer he LEFT us.” Each line begins with an example of dactyl in this stanza.

Example #4

Higgledy piggledy,
Bacon, lord Chancellor.
Negligent, fell for the
Paltrier vice.

Bribery toppled him,
Finished him, testing some
Poultry on ice.

(By Ian Lancashire)

Ian Lancashire’s short poem is a great example of a double dactylic poem. He includes all the necessary elements, such as the nonsense words to begin the poem, the unique double-dactylic word (in this case, bronchopneumonia in the sixth line, which is where it is usually placed in this type of poem), the rhyming spondees, and the two quatrains.

Example #5

Are you still standing there east of the Garden of Eden, or
were you relieved by the flood that revised our geography?
Cherubim tasked with protecting the Tree of Life, surely you
saw when that tree was returned to us lifting our Lord on it.
Were you the same angels posted beside the new tomb with the
body of Jesus, the New Tree, provided again for us?

(“Angels’ First Assignment” by Stan Galloway)

Stan Galloway’s poem “Angels’ First Assignment” is one of the few perfect examples of dactylic pentameter in English. Indeed, it is one of the few poems to take on quite serious subject matter in completely dactylic meter. We can analyze any one of the lines and see that it contains fifteen syllables exactly, the stress falling every third beat: “ARE you still STANDing there EAST of the GARden of EDen, or.” Particularly impressive is his insistence at using dactyl examples to end the lines, where most writers would finish with a stronger and/or shorter beat such as a spondee, trochee, or iamb.

Test Your Knowledge of Dactyl

1. Which of the following statements is the best dactyl definition?
A. A metrical foot of two long syllables followed by a short one.
B. A poetic foot of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable.
C. A metrical foot with one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following English words is an example of a dactyl?
A. Excellence
B. Existence
C. Acceleration

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following is an double-dactylic word in English?
A. Classification
B. Counterintuitive
C. Psychosomatic

Answer to Question #3 Show

4. Which of the following lines contains dactylic meter?
A. “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary”
B. “Cannon to right of them, / Cannon to left of them”
C. “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”

Answer to Question #4 Show

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