What Is Anapest?

An anapest is a unit of poetic meter formed when two unstressed syllable precede a stressed one.  Common anapestic phrases are as follows:

  • Get a life.
  • At the drop of a hat

Unlike a unit of iambic meter, which contains two syllables, an anapest has three. Anapest is the inverse of a dactyl, which begins with a stressed syllable and has two unstressed beats after it. Of the main metrical patterns — the others are iambs, trochees, dactyls, and spondees — anapest is the least common in the English language, perhaps because the sound produced by this meter has a nursery rhyme sound that is unsuitable for serious poetry.

In fact, Dr. Seuss, the children’s book writer, often used anapest, as this example illustrates:

Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!

There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.

And the magical things you can do with that ball

Will make you the winning-est winner of all.

Examples of Anapest

Anapest Example 1. “I must finish my journey alone.” This line of anapestic trimeter is from William Cowper’s “Verses Supposed to Be Written by Alexander Selkirk.”

Anapest Example 2. “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house/Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

Anapest Example 3. “There once was a man from Nantucket. . . .” Most limericks are written in anapestic meter.

Anapest Example 4. You have brains in your head./You have feet in your shoes.” — Dr. Seuss, writing in anapestic trimeter.

Anapest Example 5.  George Gordon Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” is written entirely in anapestic tetrameter.


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