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What Is an Anapest?
In poetry, an anapest is a metrical foot consisting of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. You may be familiar with anapests from the limerick, a comedic form written in anapestic trimeter. The anapestic meter can work well in poems with regular rhyme schemes since the last syllable of each anapest is stressed. The accent on the last word of each line will further emphasize any end rhyming.
The word “anapest” comes from the Latin anapaestus, which is derived from the Greek anápaistos, or “struck back”—a reference to how the anapest is a reversed dactyl. On that note, you’ll sometimes hear anapest called “antidactylus.”
How Is Meter Measured?
In the poetic meter, a foot is a basic unit of measurement. Feet measure rhythm using stressed and unstressed syllables. An anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable in a metrical foot. Other types of metrical feet include:
- Spondee: Two stressed syllables
- Pyrrhic: Two unstressed syllables
- Iamb: One unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable
- Trochee: One stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable
- Dactyl: One stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables
Metrical patterns are defined both by how many stressed and unstressed syllables are in a foot, and how many feet are in a line. For example, verse written in iambic pentameter features five iambs, anapestic tetrameter consists of four anapests, dactylic hexameter is made up of six dactyls, and trochaic tetrameter consists of four trochees.
4 Examples of Anapest
In English, we have to speak words out loud to determine where the emphasis is placed. Say the word “unaware” out loud, and you’ll notice that the first two syllables are unstressed and the last is stressed (an accented syllable)—this is an example of anapest in a single word.
Once you feel comfortable with the anapest, practice reading some anapest examples aloud. The stressed syllables of each anapest are underlined to help you identify them.
1. “The Sick Rose” by William Blake (1794)
1 O Rose | thou art sick.
2 The invis | ib le worm,
3 That flies | in the night
4 In the howl | ing storm:
5 Has found out | thy bed
6 Of crim | son joy:
7 And his dark | secret love
8 Does thy life | destroy.
This short poem by William Blake is written in anapestic dimeter (two anapests per line), with substitutions made in every line except the seventh. The poem begins with a hailing spondee (“O Rose”), followed by an anapest. In the second and third lines, an iamb (note that “the in” is pronounced as one syllable) is followed by another anapest. The forth line flips this pattern, beginning with an anapest and ending with an iamb. Lines five and eight follow the anapest-iamb pattern as well, while line six is written in iambic dimeter.
2. From “The Destruction of Sennacherib” by Lord Byron (1815)
The Assyr | ian came down | like the wolf | on the fold,
And his co | horts were gleam | ing in purp | le and gold
This excerpt comes from a poem written almost entirely in anapestic tetrameter (i.e., each line consists of four anapests).
3. From “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore (1823)
’Twas the night | before Christ | mas, and all | through the house
Not a crea | ture was stir | ring, not ev | en a mouse
In this excerpt from a famous holiday poem, the first two lines are written in anapestic tetrameter. Since the last syllable of each line is emphasized, the rhyme (“house”/”mouse”) further stands out, giving the poem a sing-song quality.
4. From Henry VI by William Shakespeare (1592)
You made | in a day | my lord, | whole towns | to fly.
Shakespeare is famous for writing in iambic pentameter, but his lines are occasionally interspersed with anapests, such as this one, spoken by the Duke of Gloucester in Act II Scene 1 of Henry VI. Anapests make a good substitution for iambs, since they both contain an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.
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