Poetry Guide: Anapaest
An anapaest or anapest is a metrical foot used in formal poetry. In classical quantitative meters it consists of two short syllables followed by a long one (as in a-na-paest); in accentual stress meters it consists of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. It may be seen as a reversed dactyl.
Here is an example from Cowper, a line with three anapaestic feet :
- I am out of humanity's reach
Because of its length and the fact that it ends with a stressed syllable and so allows for strong rhymes, anapaest can produce a very rolling, galloping feeling verse, and allows for long lines with a great deal of internal complexity. The following is from Byron's The Destruction of Sennacherib:
- The Assyrian came down like a 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.
An even more complex example comes from Yeats. He intersperses anapests and iambs, using six-foot lines (rather than four feet as above). Since the anapaest is already a long foot, this makes for very long lines.
- Fled foam underneath us and 'round us, a wandering and milky smoke
- As high as the saddle-girth, covering away from our glances the tide
- And those that fled and that followed from the foam-pale distance broke.
- The immortal desire of immortals we saw in their faces and sighed.
The mixture of anapaests and iambs in this manner is most characteristic of late 19th century verse, particularly that of Swinburne in poems such as The Triumph of Time and the choruses from Atalanta in Calydon. Swinburne also wrote several poems in more or less straight anapaests, with line-lengths varying from three feet ("Dolores") to eight feet ("March: An Ode"). However, the anapaest's most common role in English verse is as a comic metre, the foot of the Limerick, of Lewis Carroll's poem The Hunting of the Snark, Edward Lear's nonsense poems, T. S. Eliot's Book of Practical Cats, and innumerable other examples.
Apart from their independent role, anapaests are sometimes used as substitutions in iambic verse. In strict iambic pentameter, anapaests are rare, but they are found with some frequency in freer versions of the iambic line, such as the verse of Shakespeare's last plays, or the lyric poetry of the 19th century.