Dactyls and Trochees

Spread the love

In his book, The Art of Poetry, Hugh Kenner offers the following excerpt as an example of dactylic verse (dactyls are poetic feet that have three syllables with a [DAH-dih-dih] rhythm):

Just for a handful of silver he left us,

Just for a riband to stick in his coat


In Lawrence Zillman’s The Art and Craft of Poetry, we find this example:

Warriors and chiefs!  Should the shaft or the sword

Pierce me in leading the hosts of the Lord,


Zillman also offers the following excerpt as an example of trochaic verse (trochees are feet that have two syllables with a [DAH-dih] rhythm):

Why so pale and wan, fond lover?

Prithee, why so pale?

Will, when looking well can’t move her,

Looking ill prevail?

Prithee, why so pale?


Finally, Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry Handbook gives this as an example of trochaic verse:

Earth, receive an honoured guest;

William Yeats is laid to rest

And I could give many, many more examples.


They are all wrong.  It is not merely difficult to sustain trochaic and dactylic rhythms in English (as Zillman admits), it is impossible to do so at any length.  There are many reasons for this, and the following practical tests will give you some first-hand experience in looking for them.

Repeat each of the following lines of monosyllabic nonsense aloud three or four times, starting slowly and gradually speeding up until you are reading it as rapidly as you can without stumbling.  Once you see what the line consists of, continue to speak without bothering to look at it.  Then pause for a moment before you attempt the next line so that you can make a fresh start.

zip boom zip boom zip boom zip boom zip boom . .  .

boom zip boom zip boom zip boom zip boom zip . . .

Both lines are made up of pairs, but there is nothing to call attention to that fact except for the words themselves; nonetheless, you probably read them as pairs with a slight stress on the second monosyllable in each group.  What is more, you may have found yourself changing from the “boom zip” pattern in the second line to a “zip boom” pattern.  This is probably—in part—the influence of the long quantity of “boom” as compared with the short quantity of “zip.”  (Quantity is the time taken to pronounce the syllable.)  This is all really interesting because a pattern is established that doesn’t depend upon the meaning of the words in any obvious way.

Now read the following nonsense lines in the same manner.  Don’t start out reading in groups—let that develop if it will—and don’t let the first line put you off!

  • 1)  cave dog on with horse in cat bear or by . . .
  • 2)  with cave on bear in horse or cat by dog . . .
  • 3)  cave with bear on horse in cat or dog by . . .
  • 4)  cat runs bear laughs dog swims pig eats horse jumps . . .
  • 5)  runs cat laughs bear swims dog jumps pig eats horse . . .
  • 6)  pink red blue big tall small up in on cow duck pig . . .
  • 7)  red fox brown dog, black bear white pig blue bird . . .
  • 8)  runs fast swims hard jumps high throws far crawls low . . .
  • 9)  cat runs bear laughs dog swims pig cow horse duck . . .

Notice that the randomly assorted monosyllables in (1) are difficult to read rapidly, but the preposition/noun combinations in (2) are likely to be read as pairs with a slight stress on the noun of each group.  (3) shows the tendency to reassert the preposition/noun structure even when we begin the series with a noun.  That the same sort of thing is true of noun/verb groups is shown by (4) and (5).  (6) shows that the grouping principle applies to groups of three items if they simply belong to the same category.  (7) shows that these principles apply to adjective/noun groups.  (8) shows that they apply to verb/adverb groups.  Finally, (9) shows that once a rhythmic pattern is established there is a tendency to continue it for the rest of the line as long as no other pattern opposes it.

What does this mean for English poetry?  It suggests that natural groups created by relatedness and habitual order govern the rhythms of English in a system that is largely independent of the tonic accents, those born by the words, as in [im-PORT-ance], [IN-cre-ments], or [ex-PIRE].  (Something like this must be so or we couldn’t have lines of monosyllables in poetry!)  Since English phrase structure is made up of groups such as “the pig” and “in the car,” it may actually train us to read words in groups, groups in which the stresses fall on the most important words:  nouns and verbs.  The prepositions tend to have short quantity, and that may also help to explain our preference for the patterns we have seen.  However that may be, such grouping is now largely independent of the meaning of the larger utterance.  Thus, iambs [dih-DAH] and anapaests [dih-dih-DAH] are a natural part of the language’s syntax, but trochees [DAH-dih] and dactyls [DAH-dih-dih} are not.

Now let’s go back and look at the examples we began with:

[JUST for a ] [HAND-ful of] [SIL-ver he] [LEFT us],

[JUST for a] [RIB-and to] [STICK in his] [COAT].

I have marked the supposed dactylic three-syllable groups and their stresses.  Notice what happens to the article/noun—preposition/noun—and subject/verb groups.  This reading is clearly wrong, one created by paying too much attention to the tonic accents and too little to the syntax (caused, perhaps, by reading mechanically, starting at the first syllable).  Let’s take another run at it, this time, paying attention to the syntax:

JUST [for a HAND] [-ful of SIL] [-ver he LEFT] us

JUST [for a RIB] [-and to STICK] [in his COAT]

Someone might object to the fact that this version divides words, putting syllables of the same word into different groups, but our next step should dispose of that objection.  Apply the exaggeration test.  Read both versions out loud, exaggerating the stresses and leaving a slight pause between the feet.  (Please note that such a rigid reading is far too inflexible—and that applies to both versions—but it does provide a useful test to help us see what the underlying pattern is.)  I have begun each line with a monosyllabic foot [DAH].  Such feet are always stressed, and it makes sense to stress “just” in both lines because it the important qualification:  “it was JUST for this!”

Here are the other examples, each marked for two readings, the first dactylic or trochaic, the second anapaestic or iambic.


[WAR-iors and] [CHIEFS! Should the] [SHAFT or the] SWORD

[PIERCE me in] [LEAD-ing the] [HOSTS of the] LORD


WAR [-ors and CHIEFS!] [Should the SHAFT] [or the SWORD]

PIERCE [me in LEAD] [-ing the HOSTS] [of the LORD]



[WHY so] [PALE and] [WAN, fond] [LOV-er?]

[PRI-thee,] [WHY so] PALE?

[WILL, when] [LOOK-ing] [WELL can’t] [MOVE her],

[LOOK-ing] [ILL pre] -VAIL?

[PRI-thee,] [WHY so] PALE?


WHY [so PALE ][and WAN,] [fond LOV] -er?

PRI [-thee WHY] [so PALE?]

WILL, [when LOOK] [-ing WELL] [can’t MOVE] her,

LOOK [-ing ILL] [pre-VAIL?]

PRI [-thee WHY] [so PALE?]



[EARTH, re] [-CEIVE an] [HON-oured] guest:

[WILL-iam] [YEATS is] [LAID to] rest.


EARTH, [re-CEIVE] [an HON] [-oured GUEST:]

WILL [-iam YEATS] [is LAID] [to REST].

Some of the failures of the trochaic readings are egregious, especially those in the lines beginning:  “Will, when looking . . .” and “Earth, receive . . . .”  In the first we have a construction that could be rewritten:  “Will looking ill prevail when looking well can’t move her?”  In the poem, “Will” and “looking” are separated by the “when” clause, and a distinct pause is needed both before and after it to allow the reader to make sense of the question.  In the second, “Earth” is an apostrophe, an address to the inanimate earth, and it functions like “John” in the statement:  “John, receive and honored guest.”  Once again, a definite pause is needed.

Now, perform the exaggeration test, look at the phrase structure, look at the way the pauses created by the punctuation are handled, and look even at the way in which the words are divided.  There is no doubt that the supposedly dactylic lines are really anapaestic lines with an initial monosyllabic foot, and that the supposedly trochaic lines are iambic with an initial monosyllabic foot.  (Unwillingness to accept monosyllabic feet may be part of the problem!)  There are no—can be no—extended passages of dactyls or trochees in traditional English verse.


Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’intrate.   What follows is pretty dense, but you may find it interesting.

Many, many years ago I worked out a method of analyzing the structure of poems by paying attention only to the kinds of syntactic relationships discussed above.  I looked at the “article/noun,” “noun/verb,” and other possibilities as “directed links” in a “directed series,” the sort of sequence to be found in ordinary utterances.  Each component of a link was given a syntactic weight, and the series I proposed began with the lowest weight and proceeded to the highest:  1) conjunction, 2) preposition, 3) determiner, 4) modifier, 5) nominal, 6) auxiliary, 7) modifier, 8) verb, 9) determiner, 10) modifier, 11) nominal, and 12) interjection.  As you can see, this is basically an outline sketch of the ingredients of a fully developed simple sentence.  To apply these weights to the first line of Shakespeare’s 73d sonnet we would have

4       5      2     5       5         6       2   5      8-8

That time of year thou may’st in me behold

“That” is a modifier and has a syntactic weight of 5; “time” is a nominal (noun or pronoun) and has the syntactic weight of 5; “of” is a preposition and has the syntactic weight of 2; etc.  “Behold” is a verb and has two syllables, so each syllable is given weight 8.  If we think that this may be iambic pentameter (as it is), we look to see if there is movement in pairs of weights from low to high, and what we find is [4 5] [2 5] [5 6] [2 5] [8-8].  To put the “direction” into the directed links, the “greater than” sign is used.

4>5     2>5     5>6     2>5     8>-8

Obviously, rules were necessary fit the tonic accents into the system and to take care of matters such as question-asking, so I developed a series of emphasis, promotion, and demotion rules.  For example, there are emphasis rules to deal with stress.  Every syllable bearing a tonic accent is underlined (and underlining is also used to mark the syntactic/pragmatic emphasis on monosyllabic interjections, monosyllabic question words in a question, monosyllabic words in an order, and monosyllabic words added for emphasis).  Further, syllables preceded by a hyphen are regarded as very weak unless they bear tonic accents.  With these additions, stress can be treated in the same system with the aid of the rules.

Rule E1.  Syllables of less syntactic weight are linked to syllables of more, e.g. [10>11], [2>5], [5>6], etc.  (This rule must be modified later in the system to admit dactyls, trochees, amphimacers, etc.)

Rule E2.  Hyphenated but not underlined syllables are linked to any following syllable, e.g. [-4>3] and [-4>-4].

Rule E3.  Any non-underlined syllable is linked to the following underlined syllable, regardless of weight, e.g. [4>4].

Rule E4.  Underscored syllables are not linked to any following syllable regardless of syntactic weight, e.g. [4 5].  (This rule must be modified later in the system to admit dactyls, trochees, amphimacers, etc.)

We can apply these rules to “The Destruction of Sennacherib.”  First, we mark in the syntactic weights and the stresses:

3    5-5-5          8          10     2   3   5       2   3    5

The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold

And this gives us the following directed series:

3>3>-5     -5>8>10     2>3>5     2>3>5

I’m not going to go further into the rules (which made the completed system pretty complicated) but I will note that it dealt easily with sentences ruled “unmetrical” by the first version of the Keyser-Halle theory, such as:

How many bards gild the lapses of time?

The results, which match those of our intuition, are:

[HOW] [MAN] [-y BARDS] [gild the LAPS] [-es of TIME]

And if there is a pragmatic stress on “gild” the system deals with that as well.

In dealing with poetic structure we must always remember that any analysis must take account of the syntactic structure represented by the links, the lexical stresses created by the tonic accents, the rhetorical and pragmatic stresses that emerge from our intentions as speakers, and the expectations created by the metrical pattern.