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What Is a Dactyl?

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  • Written By: Jim B.
  • Edited By: M. C. Hughes
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2016
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A dactyl in poetry refers to a short sequence within a line in which one long, or stressed, syllable is followed by two short, or unstressed, syllables. One example of this type of rhythm can be found in the English word "harmony." The dactyl is the basis for the rhythmic poetic technique known as dactylic hexameter, which features poetic lines containing six consecutive dactyls and one form at the end of the line known as a trochee. This construction was used often in classical Greek and Latin poetry, but has fallen out of favor due to the awkwardness of using it in English.

Rhythm is one of the most effective ways that poets have to convey their desired meaning to both readers and listeners. Each poetic line can be chopped up into rhythmic sections known as feet. These feet generally consist of either two or three syllables and include some combination of long and short syllables. A foot may use just one word or several words to achieve the rhythm. The dactyl is one of these types of rhythmic constructions.

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The dactyl is characterized by one long, stressed syllable to start the foot and then two shorter, unstressed syllables immediately following. Stressed syllables are often considered long because they are meant to be spoken at a slower pace than shorter syllables. As an example, one long and two short syllables are found in the word "devious." It is important to realize that forming this rhythm can also be achieved by a series of words. In the phrase "Under the tree," the first two words form a dactyl.

Poets can string a series of dactyls together to form the poetic construction known as dactylic hexameter. This type of poetry requires each line to be comprised of six dactyls. At the end of each line, there is a trochee, which consists of two long syllables. That makes 17 syllables for each line of poetry. As an example of one such line, consider the sentence, "Forward to Hungary marching as equals in bravery they went."

Dactylic hexameter was the favored type of construction used by classical poets like Homer and Vergil in Greek and Latin poetry. The rhythmic cadences of dactyls strung together had a stirring quality that suited their tales of wars and heroes. English structures made dactylic hexameter a more difficult task, and it fell out of favor for the iambic pentameter used by William Shakespeare.

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