A dactyl (//; Greek: δάκτυλος, dáktylos, “finger”) is a foot in poetic meter. In quantitative verse, often used in Greek or Latin, a dactyl is a long syllable followed by two short syllables, as determined by syllable weight. In accentual verse, often used in English, it is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables—the opposite is the anapaest (two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable).
|˘ ˘||pyrrhic, dibrach|
|¯ ˘||trochee, choree|
|˘ ˘ ˘||tribrach|
|¯ ˘ ˘||dactyl|
|˘ ¯ ˘||amphibrach|
|˘ ˘ ¯||anapaest, antidactylus|
|˘ ¯ ¯||bacchius|
|¯ ¯ ˘||antibacchius|
|¯ ˘ ¯||cretic, amphimacer|
|¯ ¯ ¯||molossus|
The Greek and Latin words δάκτυλος and dactylus are themselves dactyls (and hence autological). The English word poetry is also a dactyl. A useful mnemonic for remembering this long-short-short pattern is to consider the relative lengths of the three bones of a human finger: beginning at the knuckle, it is one long bone followed by two shorter ones (hence the name dactyl).
- This is the / forest prim- / eval. The / murmuring / pines and the / hemlocks,
The first five feet of the line are dactyls; the sixth a trochee.
- Just for a handful of silver he left us
- Just for a riband to stick in his coat
The first three feet in both lines are dactyls.
Another example: the opening lines of Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" (1859), his poem about the birth of his poetic voice:
- Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking [a dactyl, followed by a trochee ('cradle'); then another dactyl followed by a trochee ('rocking')]
- Out of the mockingbird's throat, the musical shuttle [2 dactyls, then a trochee ('throat, the'); then another dactyl, followed by a trochee]
- . . .
The dactyl "out of the..." becomes a pulse that rides through the entire poem, often generating the beginning of each new line, even though the poem as a whole, as is typical for Whitman, is extremely varied and "free" in its use of metrical feet.
Dactyls are the metrical foot of Greek and Latin elegiac poetry, which followed a line of dactylic hexameter with dactylic pentameter.