or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


Now then. The trisyllabic metrical feet. As another moment's consideration will show, there must be eight: all short; two short plus one long in the first, second, or third position; two long plus one short in the first, second, or third position; and all long. They are, in order, the tribrach ("three short", like yesterday's dibrach), dactyl, amphibrach, anapest, bacchius, cretic, antibacchius, and molossus. This time I'm not etymologizing them all. Have at it, if you like.

Since most three-syllable words in English have one stressed and two unstressed syllables, and because the stressed syllable tends to fall at the beginning or the end (though there are plenty of exceptions, such as the amphibrachic "containment"), it stands to reason that the dactyl and the anapest are by some margin the most important trisyllabic metrical feet.

The anapest is what gives the limerick its characteristic canter:

There was an old woman from Sparta...

I just made that one up, and I'm not finishing it, because I have a suspicion the word "farter" would show up sooner or later.

"Dactyl", amusingly for a kind of foot, means "finger" in Greek; the dactyl is long-short-short, and the index finger, counting upwards from the knuckle, as one long and two short bones. A poem composed entirely of dactyls would have a waltz rhythm: One-two-three one-two-three one-two-three....

Just as the limerick is based on the anapest, there is a kind of light verse given over altogether to the dactyl, and it is called, rather unimaginatively, I'm afraid, the double dactyl. It's difficult to write, and appallingly difficult to write well, because it has a severely restrictive format: two verses, each consisting of three lines of two dactyls each followed by a line of a dactyl and a single stressed beat; the first line must be a pair of nonsense words, the second a person's name in double-dactyl meter (though this is open to a little flexibility), and one other line must consist of a single word also in double-dactyl meter. On top of all this, it must be amusing and, if possible, end with a bang. Here's what I consider the perfect example, the best ever written (by Joan Munkacsi):

Oedipus Tyrannos
murdered his father, used
mama for sex.
This mad debauch, not so
left poor Jocasta and
Oedipus Wrecks.

Lots more here.


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