Double Dactyl Verse

Patty-cake, patty-cake,
Marcus Antonius,
What do you think of the
African Queen?
Duties require my
Presence in Egypt.  Ya
Know what I mean?               -Paul Pascal

Today we take a look at another comic form, the double-dactyl 
(or Higgledy-Piggledy) poem. Developed in 1961 by poets Paul Pascal, 
Anthony Hecht, and John Hollander, the double-dactyl is one of the 
most specific verse forms, in terms of its rules: it is composed of 
two quatrains, each built of three lines of dactylic dimeter 
( / - - / - - ) followed by a choriamb ( / - - / ); 
the final syllables in each quatrain rhyme; the first line 
is repetitive nonsense (commonly “Higgledy-Piggledy), 
the second line is the poem’s subject (typically a proper name), 
and at least one line in the second quatrain has to be 
composed of a single word (and one that the poet has never seen 
before in another double-dactyl poem, for that would be cheating).

Emily Dickenson
Liked to use dashes
Instead of full stops.
Nowadays, faced with such
Critics and editors
Send for the cops.                    -Wendy Cope

To a novice, this may seem needlessly difficult—but the rigidity 
and challenge of the verse structure is actually a kind of literary game: 
can the poet contrive a sensible description of the subject within such 
constraints? Meanwhile the 3-beat meter creates a lively rhythm, 
and the single-word line a surprise that can serve as a second 
punch-line all by itself:

Heyerdahl Heyerdahl
Gained notoriety 
Sailing his raft.
Some now believe that this
Theories are daft.                   -Robin Pemantle

Higgeldy Piggeldy
Sergei Rachmaninov
Wrote his concertos for
Handspans like wings.
Few realistically
Can pianistically
Play the damned things.          -Robert Mink

Polysyllabic rhymes are not required in this verse form, 
but if the poet can throw them in, all the better, 
as they naturally add to the humor. W.S. Gilbert knew this 
all too well, and frequently featured them in the comic 
operas he wrote. Speaking of which—

Gilbert & Sullivan,
Musical satirists,
Hardly sublime,
Would have approved of their
Names being used in this
Ludicrous rhyme.                    -Robin Pemantle

You can read more of Robin Pemantle’s Higgledy-Piggledy at 

As with any comic form, some audiences will laugh and others won’t; 
and comic verse is no different. And the audience for it may be small: 
the jokes rather depend upon people recognizing the historical 
personages named in the poems. Here are a few by Roger Robinson, 
who’s written a host of verses featuring classical subjects (read more 
of his work at

Philip of Macedon
Formed up the phalanx and
Harried the Greeks;
Murdered, he missed out on
So it’s his son of whom
All the world speaks.

Pitiful Tantalus
Stole food and drink from the
Table of Zeus;
So, he was punished with
Torture of sustenance
Just beyond use.

Tyrian purple, a
Highly-prized dyestuff in
Ancient world times,
Came from a mollusk, the
Murex (M. trunculus)
Made crimson lines.

And finally, one more classical subject, completed with a pun 
(this one is by Joan Muncaksi):

Oedipus Tyrannos
Murdered his father, used
Mama for sex.
This mad debauch, not so
Left poor Jocasta and
Oedipus Wrecks.

5 responses

  1. Okay, readers, add your own! Here’s mine:

    Cadit quaestio
    Justice John Roberts has
    Ruled on Obamacare
    (Lib’rals relax)
    Balking at calling it
    Stated it counts by the
    Power to tax.

  2. Okay, so the first line of that one wasn’t really nonsense. So here’s another try:

    Fluzeda Luzeda
    Ancient Methuselah
    Certainly had a few
    Stories to tell.
    When he departed he
    Took with him also the
    Era as well.

  3. […] 10% divided between purely trochaic verse, anapestic verse ( –  – / ) , and the rarer dactylic verse ( / –  – , which results in rhymes that are easily perceived as comic). But I do have for […]

  4. […] Higgledy piggledy (/~~/~~) […]

  5. […] between trochaic, anapestic, and a fraction of percent to dactylic (mostly comic verse, like the double dactyl form). To my knowledge, not a single poem has ever been published in sustained Amphibrach—so I wrote […]

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