Metrical Variation in the Double Dactyl Stanza

It is generally agreed that the "lighter" the verse, the greater the call for metrical regularity, the clerihew, a non-metrical form, being an obvious exception. Much of the wit--and the soul--of light verse resides in this metrical regularity. How much fun is lost when a limerick doesn't scan? Where is the delight in a double-dactyl that rides awkwardly through its lines?

The double dactyl stanza, created in the 1960s by Paul Pascal and Anthony Hecht,1 required that the first line be nonsense syllables [e.g. "Higgledy-piggledy," hence the form's alternative name], that the second be a proper name [Emily Dickinson, Theodore Roosevelt, etc.], that one line, usually the sixth, consist of a single didactylic word, and that the catalectic (shortened) fourth and eighth lines rhyme. Such verses were discrete comments on the person named. Adapting the stanza to longer narratives in rendering Shakespeare and nursery rhymes and tales into dactyls, I waived the nonsense syllables and (usually) the proper names, and regularized the sixth line as the place for the requisite didactylic word. But sustaining the form through several stanzas runs the risk of lapsing into doggerel.

Annie Finch argues that "dactylic meter . . . can be modulated as subtly and fruitfully as any other meter in English."2 On the other hand, Timothy Steele argues that "triple meters . . . have not the suppleness and capacity for fluid modulation that iambic measures have, nor do they tolerate the range of variations that the texture of iambic verse can absorb."3 In other words, dactylic meter can withstand only limited variation before it becomes something else or simply "dissolves" (to use Steele's word). The double dactyl stanza offers a convenient testing ground for exploring the modulations possible within dactylic meter, especially since the very shortness of the dactylic dimeter line itself imposes a higher degree of regularity on the meter than would a longer line.

In dactylic dimeter [ / - - | / - -], the first and fourth syllables of the line must carry stresses, so an inverted initial foot (common practice in iambic) is precluded. Though substitution of a trochaic foot might occasionally be effective, especially in the flow of a longer narrative,4 the line cannot absorb an extra syllable (except in the case of natural elision) without effectively adding another beat and thus fundamentally changing the rhythm. However, additional stresses may occur if they are rhetorically natural and dramatically appropriate, and if they supplement but do not dominate the two necessary stresses. In lines such as "Ferdinand passes the / trial set by Prospero," the second line likely scans [ / / - | / - - ], as does "Sack-addled Caliban," while in "[he,] having seen how his / bibliomania / led to distress, drowns his / book in the sea," the third line scans / - - | / || / -. Despite the variations, these lines read clearly as dactylic. John Hollander presses the meter even further in his lines on the sinking of the Andrea Doria: "As I sit writing these / Non-navigational / Verses a--CRASH! BANG! BLURP! / GLUB!... (end of quote)" (Jiggery-Pokery, 57).

Meter must respect normal rhetorical stress, but as Steele notes, "trochaic and triple meters run against the natural rhythms of English," and "the poet who adopts [them] must pound out the beats to maintain the meter. Further, the reader is almost inevitably asked to override at points natural rhetorical stress for the meter's sake" (241). Often, as in any other meter, normally unstressed syllables can be "promoted" to receive a stress, though usually a light or secondary one {"In the beginning"}. This is likely to happen with greater frequency in dactylic because English does not easily lend itself to line after line of initial stresses. However, while the momentum of an established rhythm can carry such promotion, a stress in either of the following two syllables upsets it beyond recognition {"In the first place"; "In fairness"}, and one cannot in good conscience (or good ear) read "in lieu of" as "in lieu of."

While some words have various accepted pronunciations {e.g. behemoth, behemoth; Australopithecus, Australopithecus, Australopithecus; or differing British and American pronunciations}, it is at least infelicitous to violate normal stress in order to force a word into didactylic--to expect "anachronistically" to be read or heard as "anachronistically" or "historiography" as "historiography" or "potentialities" as "potentialities."5 On the other hand, context (dramatic emphasis) can legitimize a stress on negative prefixes, so one can likely get away with "unnecessarily" rather than "unnecessarily" {"Why would she tell him so / unnecessarily / where she was going..."} or "discontinuity" rather than "discontinuity" {"John throws a damnable / discontinuity / into the wooing..."; here alliteration too reinforces the metrical choice}.6 Hollander uses "unsuitability" and "unjustifiable," and Christopher Wallace-Crabbe "unmetaphysically" (Jiggery-Pokery, 86, 106, 61). This works, however, only if the word without the prefix has the stress on the first syllable, but not if it has the stress on the second; hence "elasticity" allows "inelasticity," but "intentionally" does not allow "unintentionally."

Once a clear dactylic rhythm is established, momentum can also influence how the lines are read. Read in isolation, the line "he hears them prophesy" would likely be heard as iambic trimeter, but in context--"Awed by their mystical / ineffability, / he hears them prophesy / he will be king."--the rhythm is so insistent that it is easy to override that "natural rhetorical stress" and so read and hear the line as dactylic. Likewise, "Is she afraid that she" might well be read or heard in isolation as - / - / - /, but in its context--"Why such exactitude? / Is she afraid that she / might be beset by a / terrible jinx...?"--it is easily dactylic.7

Sometimes dramatic emphasis can be indicated where appropriate by italics, especially when rhetorical stress would normally dictate otherwise. In my rendering of Merchant of Venice, for example, Shylock is ready to take his pound of flesh when Portia turns the tables on him by arguing: "since he's endangered a / citizen's life / he stands in forfeit of / life and estate...," and Little Red Riding Hood concludes: "Would that such provident / instrumentality / came to our rescue when / things go awry." Stressing "our" forces a metrical variation without seeming to compromise the rhythm even if the line is heard with a heavier stress on the third than on the fourth syllable [ / - / | ^ - - ], because of the clear dactyl in the final foot. The same variation occurs in the second line of "Drunken Borachio / boasts of John's villainy." But the amphimacer [ / - / ] seems to work in the first foot more successfully than it does in the second; in "Hearing that Birnam Wood / marches to Dunsinane...," a stress on "Wood" does compromise the meter [/ - - | / - /] and the reader is "asked to...override natural rhetorical stress for the meter's sake."

But consider the lines "she admits loving him, / he loving her." Though they are quite irregular dactyls, the rhythm seems to accommodate them without a problem. I would scan them / - ^ || / - ^ | / || ^ - | /, so that in addition to the primary stresses on the first and fourth syllables [she, lov-, he, her] there are three secondary stresses. The metrical variation here reflects the natural rhetorical stresses of the dramatic situation; compare the lines' elliptical parallelism with the conversational exchange: "I love you." "And I love you".

As with other meters, though perhaps more pronounced in dactylic dimeter, other devices are particularly helpful in allowing rhythmical variation: sound patterning (assonance, consonance, alliteration; long vs. short vowels), elision {e.g. the slighted second syllable in "Katherine is married and / taken to bed."}, enjambment vs. end-stopped lines, and especially the placement of caesuras within lines. Caesuras can appear effectively anywhere in the dactylic dimeter line, as in these examples (* indicates the relevant line):

Placing a caesura before the last syllable in iambic is rare, but the double dactyl lends itself beautifully to such placement, setting up as it often does the initial stress of the following line. Such a caesura occurs five times in two successive stanzas in my rendering of Richard III (in which "Off with his head!" serves as a refrain):

Tewksbury witnessed his
slaughter of Edward, whose
widow thereafter he
took to his bed.
Anyone faulting such
should have known better; 'twas
off with his head.

He had his brother and
then his two nephews all
killed in the Tower, or
so it is said.
Hastings and Stanley, who
balked at his crowning, heard
"Off with his head!"

Even two caesuras can be effective in the short lines of dactylic dimeter, as in "*Claudio, smitten, asks / Pedro as proxy to / court lovely Hero..." or "Portia, disguised as a / barrister, argues for / *mercy, not malice, but / he is unmoved." or "Riding Hood takes a step / *closer, and horror! the / look in those eyes..." In these instances too alliteration (or assonance) [Pedro/proxy; mercy/malice; closer/horror] reinforces stress.

Rigid meter in sustained narrative easily becomes doggerel, so variation is advisable even in triple meters. Even if, as Steele argues, such variation is comparatively limited, subtle and fruitful modulation is possible, as these examples have shown. Where one draws the line between bending meter and dissolving it is of course finally subjective--matter for the ear and for art.


1In the introduction to Jiggery-Pokery, ed. Anthony Hecht and John Hollander [Atheneum, 1966], Hecht discusses the origin of the form, which made its first public appearance in the June 1966 issue of Esquire.

2 "Dactylic Meter: A Many-Sounding Sea," in An Exaltation of Forms, ed. Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes [U of Mich P, 2002], 69.

3All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing [Ohio U P, 1999], 244-5.

4Conventionally, trochees are avoided in the double dactyl; there are none in Jiggery-Pokery. But by way of illustration, in the lines "Meanwhile, Antonio / urges Sebastian to / rise up and murder his / brother the king," dropping "up" wouldn't seriously disrupt the meter. However, if there is any stress on the final syllable of the line, the meter drifts to iambic trimeter {"fears that her husband lacks" [/ ^ ^ | / ^ '] becomes "fears her husband lacks" [/ ^ / ^ /]. A trochee in the second foot is also possible (e.g. dropping "his" from the lines "[he,] having seen how his / bibliomania..."), though it risks weakening the impact of the catalectic fourth and eighth lines.

5These examples, alas, all occur in Jiggery-Pokery: "anachronistically" in Eric Salzman's verse on Moses Maimonides (51); "historiography" in Hollander's "No Play" (68); and "potentialities" in Hecht's "It Never Rains..." (40).

6Steele discusses a similar phenomenon with disyllabic words, including negatives, of "indeterminate accent" (All the Fun, 91-3).

7Steele notes that "some might suggest that the pulse of the verse may also contribute to bringing these feet into conformity with [the established] rhythm," but that he is "reluctant to accord meter independent power to override natural speech stress" because it becomes too easy "to justify all kinds of sloppy writing." He does concede, however, that "as a poem develops, meter may assume a power, albeit very limited, to mold speech stress" (All the Fun, 79). I would argue that this is more likely to occur in dactylic dimeter, and that even if one were to read a line such as the examples just given with "natural speech stress" at odds with the dominant dactylic rhythm, that deviation would be so apparent as to prompt a rereading which would easily bring the line into conformity with dactylic, something not normally the case with iambic meter. But this is true only if the speech stress is itself flexible; it cannot succeed if words are wrenched out of a naturally strong speech rhythm (e.g. "at the start of the race").

Jan D. Hodge grew up in small town Michigan and taught for 32 years at colleges in Illinois and Iowa before retiring. His poems have appeared in North American Review, New Orleans Review, Iambs & Trochees, South Coast Poetry Journal, Western Wind, and elsewhere, and his essay "Taking Shape: The Art of Carmina Figurata" in An Exaltation of Forms [U of Mich Press, 2002]. His collection The Bard Double-Dactyled was recently published by Morningside College Press.

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