Anapest

Ever wondered why the poetry of Doctor Seuss (1904-1991) sounds so melodic? When reading his work, rhymes roll off the tongue, and verses seem to float across the page. Why is that? In part, it's because Doctor Seuss was a fan of writing in anapests. While not as popular as iambs or trochees, the anapest has a distinct rhythmic quality that distinguishes it from its peers. Used in humorous verse, It can be cheerful, light and buoyant; used in dramatic poems, it can be intense and suspenseful.

Anapest Anapest

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Contents
Table of contents

    Curious to learn more? Let's look at a basic anapest definition and then explore the meter in more detail. We'll also focus on the anapestic tetrameter, the most popular version of the meter, which was used many famous poets, including T.S Eliot (1888-1965) and William Blake (1757-1827). Finally, we'll look at some anapest examples and explore some critical poets that have used the unique stress pattern to great effect.

    Anapest definition

    What do we mean when we write poetry in 'anapest'? Let's start with a basic definition.

    An anapest (also spelt anapaest) is a metrical foot which contains two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable.

    For example, the word 'contradict' is anapestic (con/tra/dict).

    If this seems confusing at first, there's no need to worry. Let's recap what we mean by metrical feet and explore syllable stress patterns in more detail. Then, we'll return to this definition to make sense of it.

    Anapest meter

    To understand how the 'anapest' fits into our knowledge of poetry, let's first remind ourselves what 'metrical feet' are.

    A metrical foot is a collection of two or three syllables that form the meter of a poem.

    We can identify the 'type' of metrical foot based on which syllables the poet emphasises in a word. We refer to syllables that the poet emphasises as 'stressed' and syllables they don't as 'unstressed'.

    At first, it may seem peculiar that a poet stresses certain syllables. However, this is a perfectly natural part of human speech, and we stress certain syllables in daily conversation all the time.

    For example, let's look at the word 'understand'.

    • First, break the word down into syllables (un-der-stand)
    • Next, say the word out loud.
    • You should find that you emphasise the final syllable more than the other two (un-der-STAND).
    • This means that the first two syllables are unstressed, and the last syllable is stressed.
    • This makes 'understand' an example of an anapest.

    If you're still questioning whether we unconsciously stress certain syllables, try only emphasising the second syllable (un-DER-stand). See how unnatural it sounds? This is why perfecting meter is a huge concern for poets; it can have a considerable impact on the rhythm and melody of their work.

    After identifying the stress pattern in a line, we can decide its meter. Different combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables have different names. For example, one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable is known as a 'trochee'. Here are the most common combinations of stress patterns and their names:

    • Iamb: Unstressed/Stressed (da-DUM)
    • Trochee: Stressed/Unstressed (DA-dum)
    • Spondee: Stressed/Stressed (DA-DUM)
    • Anapest: Unstressed/Unstressed/Stressed (da-da-DUM)
    • Dactyl: Stressed/Unstressed/Unstressed (DA-da-dum)

    The meter we are focusing on today, 'Anapest', is underlined. As you can see, it consists of two 'unstressed' syllables followed by one 'stressed' syllable.

    The final step to identifying a meter is to count how many repetitions of a stress pattern there are per line. For example, if we counted an anapest three times in a line, we would refer to that line as 'anapestic trimeter'. If we counted four repetitions, we would call it 'anapestic tetrameter'. For reference, here's a list of the most common meters:

    • Monometer = one foot
    • Dimeter = two feet
    • Trimeter = three feet
    • Tetrameter = four feet
    • Pentameter = five feet
    • Hexameter = six feet
    • Heptameter = seven feet
    • Octameter = eight feet

    Today, we'll focus on anapestic tetrameter, the most popular meter involving anapestic stress patterns. Let's learn why this is the case and look at some examples of the meter.

    Anapestic tetrameter

    As we know, a line of anapestic tetrameter features four repetitions of an 'unstressed/unstressed/stressed' pattern. This means that the line can be said comfortably in one breath, making anapestic tetrameter a favourite of many poets who want to write with an anapestic stress pattern. Look at the first two lines of Clement Clarke Moore's (1779-1863) 'A Visit from St. Nicholas' (1823).

    'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

    Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse

    This poem contains four anapests per line, making it an example of anapestic tetrameter. You'll notice that the meter perfectly suits the gentle, soft tone of the poem.

    Moore's omission of the 'I' in the first line ('Twas instead of 'It was') shows that this was an intentional choice. 'It was the night before Christmas' doesn't have quite the same ring to it!

    In contrast, the extra syllable per anapest compared to iambs or trochees can make a verse in anapestic pentameter or anapestic hexameter hard to read. For this reason, anapestic pentameter and hexameter are extremely rare.

    Anapest, A Visit from St. Nicholas, StudySmarterFig 1. 'A Visit from St. Nicolas' has always been a universal Christmas favourite since its publication in 1823. Many know it by its more popular title, 'Twas the night before Christmas'. Here's former president George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush reading the story during the White House story hour (2002).

    The pleasant, rhythmic feel of the meter makes it a popular choice for humorous poems and children's stories. The gentle rhythm is easy on the ears, and the stress pattern creates lines perfect for rhyming. This often gives anapestic poetry a 'singsong' cadence, which aids memorisation. This is partly why 'A Visit from St. Nicholas' has been a festive favourite with children for hundreds of years.

    Did you know? Clement Clarke Moore helped shape the modern Christmas tradition. His poem, 'A Visit from St. Nicholas', had a considerable impact on the practice of gift-giving and changed the public image of Santa Claus to the version we know today.

    Anapestic tetrameter also creates a 'galloping' melody that many believe resembles the sound of a horse running (da-da-DUM). Some poets decided to take this quite literally. For example, Robert Browning's (1812-1889) 'How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix' (1845) tells the tale of three men on horseback. The use of meter perfectly mirrors the cadence of the horse as it races to save Aix from its fate.

    Anapest examples

    There are many other prominent examples of anapest within poetry. Let's explore some other famous works of literature.

    T.S Eliot - 'The Naming of Cats'

    The first four lines of T.S Eliot's 'The Naming of Cats' (1939) are written in almost perfect anapestic tetrameter.

    The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter, It isn't just one of your holiday games;You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatterWhen I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.

    Eliot wrote this poem as part of a larger collection called Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939). Anapestic tetrameter perfectly suits the lighthearted, playful nature of the poems, which are all focused on the thoughts, behaviours and psychology of cats.

    This collection of poetry was the inspiration for Andrew Lloyd Webber's (1948-) famous musical, Cats (1981).

    You'll notice that lines 1-3 begin with an iambic foot (unstressed/stressed) instead of an anapest. This helps to disrupt the cadence of the poem, preventing the melody from getting overly repetitive. This is typical of anapestic poetry, as many writers vary up their work by including other stress patterns.

    Doctor Seuss - The Cat in the Hat

    Anapestic tetrameter was also one of Doctor Seuss's most-used meters. Here's an extract from The Cat in the Hat that shows the meter in action.

    "But I like to be here. Oh, I like it a lot!"Said the Cat in the Hat to the fish in the pot.

    Similar to Eliot's poem above, Seuss's use of anapestic tetrameter makes The Cat in the Hat feel jolly and whimsical. The meter also emphasises the end rhymes' lot' and 'pot', making the verse more memorable. Perhaps this explains why many of us can still recall rhymes from our favourite Doctor Seuss books today!

    Lord Byron - 'The Destruction of Sennacherib'

    Lord Byron's (1788-1824) 'The Destruction of Sennacherib' (1815) is written entirely in anapestic tetrameter.

    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.

    Byron shows us that anapests are not reserved exclusively for comedic poems. Here, the meter makes the poem noticeably faster and more intense. As the unstressed syllables are typically said more quickly than the stressed syllables, the anapestic meter dramatically increases the pace of the poem.

    Much like in Browning's 'How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix', the anapestic tetrameter in 'The Destruction of Sennacherib' also mimics the sound of the horse's hooves, reflecting the war-like tone of the poem.

    Anapest poetry

    For some further reading, here's a list of poetry written at least partially using anapests!

    PoetPoemDate published
    T.S Eliot (1888-1965)Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats 1939
    Robert Browning (1812-1889)'How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix'1845
    Lord Byron (1788-1824)'The Destruction of Sennacherib'1815
    Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)'The Cloud'1820
    Doctor Seuss (1904-1991)'The Cat in the Hat'1957
    Doctor Seuss'Horton Hears a Who'1954
    Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863)'A Visit from St Nicholas'1823
    William Blake (1757-1827)'The Sick Rose'1794
    Edward Lear (1812-1888)A Book of Nonsense1846
    William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)The Wanderings of Oisin 1889
    William Cowper (1731-1800)'Verses supposed to be written by Alexander Selkirk'1782

    Anapest - Key takeaways

    • An anapest (also spelt anapaest) is a metrical foot which contains two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable.
    • An anapest is made up of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable (da-da-DUM).
    • Anapestic tetrameter is used for its gentle rhythm that gives poetry a lighthearted, 'singsong' quality.
    • The cadence of anapestic verse has also been compared to a gallop because the stress pattern mirrors the galloping of a horse's hooves. This can be seen in Lord Byron's (1788-1824) 'The Destruction of Sennacherib' (1815) and Robert Browning's (1812-1889) 'How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix' (1845).
    • Some famous examples of anapestic poetry are T.S Eliot's (1888-1965) Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939), Doctor Seuss's (1904-1991) The Cat in the Hat (1957), and Lord Byron's (1788-1824) 'The Destruction of Sennacherib' (1815).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Anapest

    What is an example of anapest? 

    Here's an example of anapest from T.S Eliot's (1888-1965) 'The Naming of Cats' (1939):

     

    The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
    It isn’t just one of your holiday games;

    What is anapest in English literature? 

    Anapest (also spelt anapaest) is a metrical foot which contains two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable.

    What is anapestic meter?

    Anapestic meter consists of several repetitions of an 'unstressed/unstressed/stressed' pattern.

    What is an example of anapestic rhythm?

    The rhythm of anapestic verse has been compared to a gallop, because the stress pattern mirrors the galloping of a horse's hooves. This can be seen in Lord Byron's (1788-1824) 'The Destruction of Sennacherib' (1815) and Robert Browning's (1812-1889) 'How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix' (1845).

    How to write anapestic tetrameter?

    In order to write anapestic tetrameter, the poet must complete four repetitions of an anapestic (unstressed/unstressed/stressed) stress pattern per line of verse.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Fill in the blank - If we counted an anapest three times in a line, we would refer to that line as ______.

    What is the most popular meter involving anapestic stress patterns?

    Anapestic tetrameter creates a 'galloping' melody that is said to resemble the sound of a horse running. Is this true or false?

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