Dactyl (poetry)

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Metrical feet and accents
Disyllables
˘ ˘pyrrhic, dibrach
˘ ¯iamb
¯ ˘trochee, choree
¯ ¯spondee
Trisyllables
˘ ˘ ˘tribrach
¯ ˘ ˘dactyl
˘ ¯ ˘amphibrach
˘ ˘ ¯anapaest, antidactylus
˘ ¯ ¯bacchius
¯ ¯ ˘antibacchius
¯ ˘ ¯cretic, amphimacer
¯ ¯ ¯molossus

A dactyl (/ˈdæktɪl/; Greek: δάκτυλος, dáktylos, “finger”) is a foot in poetic meter. In quantitative verse, often used in Greek or Latin, a dactyl is a long syllable followed by two short syllables, as determined by syllable weight. In accentual verse, often used in English, it is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables—the opposite is the anapaest (two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable).


An example of dactylic meter is the first line of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem Evangeline, which is in dactylic hexameter:

This is the / forest prim- / eval. The / murmuring / pines and the / hemlocks,

The first five feet of the line are dactyls; the sixth a trochee.

Stephen Fry quotes Robert Browning's The Lost Leader as an example of the use of dactylic metre to great effect, creating verse with "great rhythmic dash and drive":[1]

Just for a handful of silver he left us
Just for a riband to stick in his coat

The first three feet in both lines are dactyls.

A dactyl is like a finger, having one long syllable followed by two short syllables.

Another example: the opening lines of Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" (1859), his poem about the birth of his poetic voice:

Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking [a dactyl, followed by a trochee ('cradle'); then another dactyl followed by a trochee ('rocking')]
Out of the mockingbird's throat, the musical shuttle [2 dactyls, then a trochee ('throat, the'); then another dactyl, followed by a trochee]
. . .

The dactyl "out of the..." becomes a pulse that rides through the entire poem, often generating the beginning of each new line, even though the poem as a whole, as is typical for Whitman, is extremely varied and "free" in its use of metrical feet.

Dactyls are the metrical foot of Greek and Latin elegiac poetry, which followed a line of dactylic hexameter with dactylic pentameter.

In Joyce's Ulysses opening chapter Buck Mulligan quips that his own name is a dactyl. Mull-i-gan.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Stephen Fry (2006), The ode less travelled: unlocking the poet within, Gotham, p. 84, ISBN 978-1-59240-248-9