What is a double dactyl?

A double dactyl is a kind of short, witty poem that has strict rules governing its construction. It is also known as a "Higgledy Piggledy." ("Higgledy Piggledy" is pronounced "HIG-ul-dee PIG-ul-dee," by the way, not "HIG-leh-dee PIG-leh-dee.")

The form was invented in the 1960's by Anthony Hecht and Paul Pascal while they were residents at the American Academy in Rome.


The rules for double dactyls can be overwhelming if you aren't already familiar with the form, so let's take a look at three examples before listing the rules outright.

Here's a double dactyl by Jim Moskowitz about a character on the television show Babylon 5:

Boom-chucka Boom-chucka
Susan Ivanova
Second banana on
Babylon 5

Known for her prophecies
"No one gets out of this
Station alive!"

The following double dactyl was written circa 1993 by Alex Chaffee about Václav Havel, who had just been elected the president of the new Czech Republic:

Havelly pavelly,
Federal president
Finally quit.

Now they'll be joining the
Global community,
Lickety split.

Guy L. Steele, Jr., famous Lisp expert and author of Common Lisp: The Language, wrote a number of rather technical double dactyls in the 1970's. His double dactyls about Lisp are, frankly, out of my depth, but if you're feeling spunky enough, visit the URL listed in the information section for the ride of your life. Here's a double dactyl from Steele that I like:

I often have wondered in
What kind of orbit a
Planet proceeds in a
Tesseract space?
Dizzying spacemen in
Trans-solar chase.


As with limericks, much of the humor in a good double dactyl comes from following the rules of the form with the utmost fidelity.

Roger L. Robison wrote a self-referential double dactyl that serves as a great, if cryptic, introduction to the form:

Long-short-short, long-short-short
Dactyls in dimeter,
Verse form with choriambs
(Masculine rhyme):

One sentence (two stanzas)
Challenges poets who
Don't have the time.
Here's a detailed list of rules for constructing a double dactyl:
  • The entire poem is a single sentence.
  • There are two stanzas of four lines each.
  • All lines except lines four and eight are two dactylic metrical feet in length.
  • The first line is usually a rhyming nonsense phrase. For example, "Higgledy piggledy."
  • The second line often, but not always, introduces the topic of the poem. If you are writing about a person, it helps if the name of the person you are writing about is naturally in the form of a double dactyl. For example, "Hans Christian Andersen."
  • One line within the second stanza (often the sixth line) is a six-syllable, double-dactylic word, usually an adverb or adjective. For example, "Parthenogenesis."
  • The fourth and eighth lines are not double dactyls. Instead, these lines consist of one dactyl plus a stressed syllable. (That makes a choriamb, for those of you keeping track at home.)
  • The fourth and eighth lines rhyme with one another. Given the special form of the fourth and eight lines as mentioned in the preceding rule, it follows that the final, rhyming syllable of these lines must be a stressed syllable. (Trivia: a rhyme on a stressed syllable is called a masculine rhyme, which is the term Robison used in the double dactyl shown above.)

More information about double dactyls

Double Dactyls
Words & Stuff -- Everything Higgledy-Piggledy
Guy L. Steele, Jr.'s double dactyls
The definitive double dactyl reference is Jiggery-Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls, Anthony Hecht and John Hollander eds., Athenaeum New York, 1967.

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