Examples of Dactyl in Poetry

A dactyl is a metrical foot in poetry consisting of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, as in the word poetry. For example: wonderful, happily. The word “dactyl” comes from the Greek word daktylos meaning “finger,” since a dactyl’s long and short syllables resemble finger joints. Dactylic meter is when dactyls are strung together in lines of poetry. An example line in dactylic hexameter (six dactyl feet per line) is: “This is the forest primeval”.

Dactylic meter was common in Greek and Latin poetry. In English poetry, it creates a musical, singing quality to the lines. Longfellow’s “Evangeline” and Homer’s “The Iliad” are two famous examples of dactylic meter. Not every foot in dactylic verse has to be a perfect dactyl. Poets sometimes substitute spondees (two stressed syllables) or trochees (stressed-unstressed) for variety. But the overall meter is based on the dactyl foot.

Examples of Dactyl

Here are some common examples of words that demonstrate the dactylic metrical foot:

  • Wonderful
  • Happily
  • Merrily
  • Mysterious
  • Beautifully
  • Magenta
  • Meditate
  • Glorify
  • Elegant
  • Memory
  • Emperor

Examples of Dactyl in Poetry

Example#1

“Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks”

The aforesaid line demonstrates the dactylic poetic foot. The stressed and unstressed syllables follow the pattern of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. The use of dactylic meter creates a singing, rhythmic quality that evokes the tranquility of the forest scene Longfellow describes. By repeating dactylic feet in the lines, Longfellow establishes a flowing, musical rhythm.

While the full poem is not completely dactylic, Longfellow relied on the repetition of dactylic meter, interspersed with other feet, to maintain the lyrical form. These opening lines featuring dactylic rhythm are a famous example of vivid, immersive scene-setting using both rich language and evocative meter. The combination allows the reader to clearly picture the “forest primeval” at the start of the narrative poem.

Example#2

“The Eagle” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

“He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands”

The first line contains two dactyl feet: “He CLASPS the” and “crag with CROOKED”. The stresses fall on the first syllables “CLASPS” and “CROOKED”, which then follow the dactylic pattern of being succeeded by two unstressed syllables. Similarly, the second line opens with the dactylic foot “Close to the”, where “Close” takes the stress. The repetition of these dactyls gives the lines a rhythmic, swooping texture, emulating the soaring flight of the eagle through the air.

The strong stresses combined with the unstressed syllables create a dynamic tension and fluidity that captures the powerful and graceful movements of the bird. Through skillful use of dactylic meter, Tennyson evokes the regal bearing and conquest of heights and loneliness by the eagle.

Example#3

“Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll

“‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.”

The opening line establishes the dactylic rhythm with two dactyl feet – “‘TWAS BRILL” and “SLIthy TOVES”. We can see the characteristic long-short-short syllable pattern. “Did GYRE and GIMble in the WABE:” Two more playful dactyls feature here: “Did GYRE and” and “GIMble IN”. Carroll perfectly balances adherence to the dactylic rhythm with inventive imaginary vocabulary. “All MIMsy WERE the BORogoves,” The strangeness continues with another pair of dactyls stressing unexpected syllables in unfamiliar words: “All MIMsy WERE” and “BORogoves”.

Example#4

“The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s

“Half a league, half a league, half a league onward”

The opening line consists of three dactylic feet with the stress on the first syllable of “HALF”, “LEAGUE”, and “ON”. The repetitive dactyls create the fast galloping rhythm suited to the subject – a brave cavalry charge into battle. The meter mimics the speed and movement of the charge.

Example#5

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, The furrow followed free”

This line contains three clear dactyls in “The fair breeze blew”, “the white foam flew”, and “The furrow followed”, with the stressed syllables falling on “fair”, “white”, and “furrow”. The lilting rhythm evokes the swaying movement of the ship at sea.

Example#6

“The Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“By the shores of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water”

Two dactyls feature here in “By the shores” and “shining Big”. The singsong, rhythmic meter echoes the lapping of the waves by the lake. The repeating dactyls evoke the lapping of waves on the shoreline in a soothing yet lively cadence. As the epic poem recounts the Native American legend of Hiawatha by lake Superior, the dactylic meter seems to mimic the water’s constant motion. The easy flow joins the scenes and actions together in a fluid way that is fitting to the subject matter involving Gitche Gumee, or “Big-Sea-Water” in the Ojibwe language.

Example#7

“Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

“Come, my friends,
’tis not too late
to seek a newer world”

This line contains three dactyls in “Come, my friends,” “’tis not too late,” and “to seek a newer.” The stressed syllables fall on “Come,” “’tis,” and “seek.” The rhythm propels Ulysses’ call for further exploration and adventure beyond the known world.

Example#8

“Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll

“And the mome raths outgrabe”

This line has two dactyls in “And the mome” and “raths out.” Carroll’s nonsense words exhibit the characteristic dactylic stress pattern and create a playful, whimsical rhythm and cadence. The meter evokes the creatures’ lively cries and calls.

Related Terms

Spondee – A spondee is a poetic foot consisting of two stressed syllables. It often is used as a substitution within dactylic hexameter for metrical variation. An example of a spondee would be “heart beat”.

Trochee – A trochee is a poetic foot consisting of one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable. In dactylic verse, a trochee is sometimes substituted for a dactyl to change up the rhythm. An example trochee word is “final”.

Examples of Dactyl in Poetry
Examples of Dactyl in Poetry

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