elegiac poetry

elegy

[el-i-jee]

Meditative lyric poem. The classical elegy was any poem written in elegiac metre (alternating lines of dactylic hexameter and pentameter). Today the term may refer to this metre rather than to content, but in English literature since the 16th century it has meant a lament in any metre. A distinct variety with a formal pattern is the pastoral elegy, such as John Milton's “Lycidas” (1638). Poets of the 18th-century Graveyard School reflected on death and immortality in elegies, most famously Thomas Gray's “An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard” (1751).

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A dactyl (Gr. δάκτυλος dáktulos, “finger”) is a type of meter in poetry. In quantitative verse, such as Greek or Latin, a dactyl is a long syllable followed by two short syllables, as determined by syllable weight. In accentual verse, such as English, it is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables -- the opposite is the anapaest (two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable).

The word "poetry" is itself a dactyl, as pointed out in the New York Times Crossword Puzzle (Will Shortz, ed.) for May 31, 2006. 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.

An example of dactylic meter is the first line of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem Evangeline, which is in dactylic hexameter:

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.

A modern example is the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds":

Picture your self in a boat on a river with
tangerine tree-ees and marmalade skii-ii-es.

Written in dactylic tetrameter, the verses of the song have the rhythm of a waltz. The word "skies" takes up a full three beats. Dactyls are the metrical foot of Greek elegiac poetry, which followed a line of dactylic hexameter with dactylic pentameter.

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