Anapests and dactyls are literary devices commonly used in poetry, limericks, and songs. In this post, you’ll learn what they are and why you might want to use them in your own writing. We’ll also look at some examples of each.
Stressed vs. Unstressed Syllables
To understand what anapests and dactyls are in poetry, you must first understand what stressed and unstressed syllables are. A stressed syllable is the sound that you emphasize, as seen in bold in these examples:
PI-zza, LA-zy, a-LONE, MEM-o-rize, un-CER-tain
Unstressed syllables, therefore, are the sounds that aren’t emphasized. They are in bold in the following examples:
be-HEAD-ed, be-CAUSE, BEAU-ti–ful, de-AC-ti–vate
The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables creates rhythm in poetry.
What Is an Anapest in Poetry?
An anapest is a metrical foot consisting of three syllables (also called an anapestic meter). The first two syllables are unstressed (uu), and the last syllable is stressed (/). So, we follow an unstressed/unstressed/stressed (uu/) pattern, like da-da-DAH-da-da-DAH. This pattern creates pleasing rhythms and is commonly seen in children’s books, limericks, and poetry.
Here are some examples of anapests in three-syllable words:
Here are some examples of anapests used in everyday phrases:
The As-SYR-ian came DOWN like the WOLF on the FOLD,
And his CO-horts were GLEAM-ing in PURP-le and GOLD;
And the SHEEN of their SPEARS was like STARS on the SEA,
When the BLUE wave rolls NIGHT-ly on DEEP Ga-li-LEE…
Both of these examples are written in anapestic tetrameter (four anapestic meters in a line [uu/uu/uu/uu/]) to maintain a pleasing rhythm.
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What Is a Dactyl in Poetry?
A dactyl is the opposite meter of an anapest. To create a dactylic meter, you still use three syllables, but the pattern is reversed: stressed/unstressed/unstressed (/uu). We follow a DAH-da-da-DAH-da-da rhythm. Dactylic meters are often used for serious or intense works, such as epic poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Here are some dactyls in words with three syllables:
Again, except for the endings, these lines follow a dactylic meter.
Anapests and dactyls are literary devices you can use in your writing. Keep in mind that anapests create a lighthearted and upbeat rhythm while dactyls have a more somber and serious tone. To practice these devices, try some poetry writing exercises.