Definition of Anapest

Anapest is a poetic device defined as a metrical foot in a line of a poem that contains three syllables wherein the first two syllables are short and unstressed, followed by a third syllable that is long and stressed. For example: “I must finish my journey alone.” Here, the anapestic foot is marked in bold.

Difference Between Anapest and Dactyl

Anapest is known as antidactylus, since it is a reverse pattern of dactyl meter. The difference is that anapest consists of three syllables, where the first two are unstressed and the last one is stressed, in an unstressed/unstressed/stressed pattern. However, dactyl is the opposite of this pattern. It is a metrical foot that consists of three syllables wherein the first two syllables are stressed, and the last one is unstressed, such as stressed/stressed/unstressed pattern.

Examples of Anapest in Literature

Example #1: The Destruction of Sennacherib (By Lord Byron)

“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast
And their hearts but once heaved, and forever grew still!”

Byron has written this poem in anapestic tetrameter pattern, which consists of four anapests in each line. In this extract, anapests are marked in bold. The entire poem has the same pattern, where the first two syllables are unstressed, followed by a third stressed syllable.

Example #2: Verses Supposed to Be Written by Alexander Selkirk (By William Cowper)

“I am monarch of all I survey,
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea,
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
Oh, solitude! where are the charms

Better dwell in the midst of alarms

I am out of humanity’s reach,
I must finish my journey alone,
Never hear the sweet music of speech
They are so unacquaintted with man,
Their tameness is shocking to me…”

This poem shows examples of anapests and iamb combinations. And at some places, iambs are substituted by anapests. The poem is written in anapestic trimeter in each line, which means there are three anapests in each line.

Example #3: ‘Twas the Night before Christmas (By Clement Clarke Moore)

” ‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care…
While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads…
had just settled our brains for a long winter‘s nap…
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky…
with the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.”

This poem is a perfect example of anapest, which runs throughout the poem. Most of the lines are following anapestic tetrameter. Like in the first line, there are four anapests. However, three anapests are also used in other lines.

Example #4: The Cloud (By Percy Bysshe Shelley)

“May have broken the woof of my tent’s thin roof,
The stars peep behind her and peer;
And I laugh to see them whirl and flee,
Like a swarm of golden bees,
When I widen the rent in my wind-built tent…
Are each paved with the moon and these…
And the Moon’s with a girdle of pearl;
The volcanoes are dim, and the stars reel and swim,
When the whirlwinds my banner unfurl
Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof,
The mountains its columns be.
The triumphal arch through which I march
When the Powers of the air are chained to my chair…
While the moist Earth was laughing below.”

This poem is also a very good example of anapest. Each long line has three anapests (anapestic trimeter) followed by shorter lines with two anapests (anapestic dimeter). It is lending rhythm and regular beats to the poem.

Function of Anapest

It helps create artistic lines with a regular meter in a poem. Since anapest ends in a stressed syllable, it makes strong rhyming lines that create music in a poem. It plays a very important role in poetry, and the most common role in verse is that of a comic meter, which is, the foot used in the limerick for comical effects.

6 comments for “Anapest

  1. Dylan Sanborn
    October 21, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    I believe some of these examples may contain erroneously marked portions:
    (bold portions marked via [ and ])

    Ex#1 ” That host [with] their ban[ners] at sun[set] were seen: ”
    Gives quite an awkward cadence to the line as the points of the sentence are left unstressed.
    If I may propose, perhaps ” That [host] with their [ban]ners at [sun]set were [seen]: ” may be more correct? It seems more likely that the poet has lead the line with an iamb, followed by three anapests.

    Ex#2 ” My right there is none to dispute; ”
    This line just doesn’t note any anapestic feet, so I thought I’d touch on it; I believe it to be (like the example above) an iamb with two anapests. I.e. “My [right] there is [none] to dis[pute]”.

    Ex#2 ” Oh, soli[tude]! where are the [charms] ”
    This line, I believe, either mimics the above examples in leading with an iamb (thus reading “Oh, [sol]itude! [where] are the [charms]”) or has three unstressed syllables before a stressed final (which would be rendered as you have displayed).

    Ex#3 “While vi[sions] of sugar [plums] danced in [their] heads”
    Is as those above “While [vi]sions of [sug]ar plums [danced] in their [heads]”

    And many more.
    I don’t mean to come off as rude; I just saw one and thought I would comment, but going down the list it seems there are quite a few things I would point out. If you would be willing to update the examples, I would be willing to write them out correctly and send them through email (I hope that doesn’t sound too presumptuous).

    • Etienne Lunetta
      November 17, 2015 at 9:39 pm

      I saw the same; there are many examples in the following lines. Thank you for making the comment.

    • Diane Clifford
      February 3, 2016 at 12:11 pm

      It doesn’t seem rude at all. It seems like a thoughtful correction. Perhaps that’s because I would scan the lines more as Dylan Sanborn has. It all makes for a useful and enlightening discussion.

  2. December 5, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    In the section of this article comparing anapest to dactyl I found an error. It claims a dactyl is composed of two stressed syllables followed by one unstressed syllable. However, a dactyl is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.

  3. Fawzi
    January 3, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    Richard is right
    Wiki says, a dactyl is ” a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables”

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