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Epic poetry is one of the most celebrated and enduring poetic forms. A central ingredient of epic poetry is a type of metrical foot known as the dactyl. If you’re looking to expand your knowledge of classical poetry, learning the definition of dactyl and how dactyls have been featured in the Western poetic canon will serve you well.



What Is a Dactyl?

A dactyl is a type of metrical foot found in poetry. In Greek or Latin quantitative verse, a dactyl is defined as a metrical foot consisting of a long syllable preceding two short syllables. In accentual verse, which is more common in English language poetry, dactyls are metrical feet which consist of a stressed syllable (or accented syllable) followed by two unstressed syllables (unaccented). The word dactyl comes from the Greek word daktylos (or dactylus) which means “finger.” The opposite of a dactyl is an anapest which consists of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable.

3 Types of Dactylic Meter

There are many different types of poetic meter found in poetic forms. Metrical schemes are classified by the type of poetic foot they employ and the number of feet per line. Dactylic meter employs dactyls as opposed to iambic or trochaic, which center around iambs and trochees respectively. Dactylic rhythms are most often found in elegiac poetry from classical Latin and Greek poets. Dactylic verse is rarer in English poetry, as the scansion is harder to maintain in the English language. Here are some of the most famous types of dactylic meter.

  • Dactylic pentameter: This metrical pattern consists of five feet per line with three syllables per foot.
  • Dactylic hexameter: A line of dactylic hexameter consists of six metrical feet with three syllables per foot. Elegiac poetry is built around dactylic verse in couplet form. An elegiac couplet generally alternates between a dactylic line in pentameter and one in hexameter.
  • Double dactyl: A double dactyl poem is a humorous and often absurd poetic form consisting of two quatrains made up of three double-dactylic lines and a dactyl spondee fourth line. The spondee at the end of the first quatrain must rhyme with the spondee that closes the second quatrain.
Billy Collins Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry
Billy Collins Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry
Judy Blume Teaches Writing
Malcolm Gladwell Teaches Writing

Examples of Dactyl

Before we get into poetic examples of dactylic verse, let’s look at examples of dactyl in everyday English words. Some words that qualify as dactyls include “mockingbird,” “casual,” “partially.” Some common idioms that open with a dactyl include “under the weather,” “actions speak louder than words,” and “ace in the hole.” An excellent example of dactyl in English literature and poetry is:

“The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1854)

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.

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