Dactylic #atozchallenge


We have lots of poets hanging around here, so this is probably second nature to y’all. It has to do with meter, the basic rhythmic structure of a poem. I could never get this right, okay?


The basic unit of measure in meter is a foot. A foot in this instance represents the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. The most common foot in English is the iamb, a short syllable followed by a long one. Shakespeare knew all about the iamb, because all of his sonnets were written in iambic pentameter, in other words, five iambs per line, ten syllables in total per line. Here are the first four lines of my favorite sonnet, #130, “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun,” with stress marked.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

Easy peasy, right?

Now, other languages, specifically Latin and Greek, make it a little harder. Their poetry, such as Ovid’s Pyramus et Thisbe, Vergil’s Aeneid, or Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, are written in dactylic hexameter. A dactyl is a long syllable followed by two short ones. All well and good, right?

EXCEPT, a line of dactylic hexameter has two different kinds of feet, the dactyl and the spondee, which is two long syllables, and they’re mixed up. In music terms, a dactyl is a quarter note followed by two eighth notes, while a spondee is two quarter notes. So the feet are all the same length, but you have to figure out which are the long and short syllables.

The first indication I was going to have trouble with this was when I had to figure this out with the Aeneid. I was given this and told to scan it, i.e. mark the syllables.

Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris

I was completely lost. Then, I was looking through the Latin textbook and landed on the key to the whole thing: “The first foot is always a dactyl, the last foot is always a spondee, and the next-to-last foot is almost always a dactyl.”

So now, it becomes a math problem. I count the number of syllables in a line, figure the first three are a dactyl, the last two are a spondee, the three before the last two are another dactyl, then I just have to figure out how to split the rest up. There are fifteen syllables, the first three are a dactyl, the last two are a spondee, the next to last is most likely a dactyl. That’s 15 – 3 – 2 – 3 = 7, so I know there’s another dactyl and two more spondees. And I’m right:

Arma vir | umque ca | no, Troi | ae qui | primus ab | or is

Still got a C in the class, which was good enough to pass…

46 thoughts on “Dactylic #atozchallenge

  1. Which is why I could never be a poet. It’s a heckuva a lot more than putting words, even rhyming words, on paper. It is science and art combined.


  2. I had a heckuva time trying to work out that math problem. I was not successful. BUT, I spent three hours on google learning from a kiddies’ site all about the structure of a Shakespearean sonnet and really enjoyed that exercise. I don’t know whether I will start writing “real” poetry soon, but then, you never know. Thank you for sharing this information.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m a professional poet and have never bothered with dactyls and spondees, iambic pentameter well, it’s easier, lol. But I think people write in meter naturally and there is no need to think about it too much. Unless you are given a line to analyse, of course. Still have 4 books out published by Bloomsbury and Macmillan etc so… there you go. Relax! Just write! Hi, John. I am doing it again but mainly from the following website, my own (lizbrownleepoet) is getting the posts but only later in the day. http://www.poetryroundabout.com And I’m doing Z to A this year!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. John,

    You’ve rattled my brain. Not that I had much of one to begin with but seriously, it’s bouncing inside my head. I prefer to think of poetry as just pretty flowing words. This is way too hard for me to comprehend and it’s never going to be implemented, never! Thanks for the education all the same, though. You’re much smarter than me I can tell. πŸ™‚

    Check out my A2Z iPad Art Sketch of the day with the letter ‘D’!


    1. That’s really what it is, and as I tokld someone else, I doubt Shakespeare was that concerned with iambic pentameter, or Homer was with dactylic hexameter, when they were writing their works. They just knew it worked.


  5. Hi John- loved this … but think I got it right – without knowing why – however when I have time … I should come back – cheers Hilary – PS you made it fun … congratulations!


  6. Well, sounds like a dinosaur to me, pterodactyl, that is. I don’t understand math stuff, but I can count things when I write my poems. I know the iambs and the rhyme schemes I can read just fine, such as AA BB CC, etc. Dactylic and all, I’ve never even heard of. so thanks for the learning experience. πŸ™‚


    1. I think more is made of it than is really necessary. I don’t think Shakespeare was thinking “okay, five iambs per line” when he wrote all those plays or sonnets. He just felt it.


    1. They both come from the same word in Greek, daktylos, which means “finger.” Pterodactyl literally means “winged finger,” and, if you look at your finger, you see that it has a long section (from the palm to the first knuckle) and two short sections (between the knuckles).


  7. I used to know things like this, without researching them, but am thankful that I’ve forgotten them. My brain is filled up enough just trying to remember passwords! However, great post.


  8. Oh my goodness, I have a doctor appointment on the other side of town so I must fly, but not before I leave my HELLO here. So…. HELLO and dude… this one is not my fortey (don’t know how to spell either… sorry) either. Words and (big words) and I just don’t get along and they don’t stay in my head. If I were to write a book I’d be on the bottom shelf or the kids section.. hahahaha Have a great day and your posts are always intelligent and sometimes I don’t understand, but I do love to stop by and say, “HELLO MY FRIEND! HOPE ALL IS WELL”! You are one heck of a book of knowledge I must say! HAVE A GREAT DAY! hugs


  9. Then you have folks who are polydactyl, mostly cats or Chacoan Anasazi born 1000 years ago.

    I’m glad I stopped at haiku, with a dash of rock lyrics.


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