Scansion

  • Scansion is the term we use to describe an analysis of poetry to determine the meter (rhythm) the spoken words should assume.

    Meter and rhythm in poetry are just as important as they are in music.  Just as a composer uses the meter to tell the performers how fast or slow the song should be sung and how long each note should be held, a poet uses meter to tell the speaker what accent to place on each syllable.

    The first step in identifying the meter of a line of poetry is to break it into syllables.  We'll use a line from Romeo and Juliet as an example:

    But soft!  What light through yonder window breaks?  becomes

    But - soft - what - light - through - yon -der - win - dow - breaks

    Let's count the number of syllables.  There are ten in this line of poetry.  You may be wondering why that matters--it's pretty simple.

    Meter in poetry is measured by specific units called feet.  Poetic feet are either two or three syllables.  Each foot has its own pattern of syllable stresses:

    Poetic Foot      Syllables Stress Pattern
    Iamb

    2

    - /

    Trochee

    2

    / -

    Spondee

    2

    / /

    Anapest

    3

    - - /

    Dactyl

    3

    / - -

    Take a look at our example again.  Our line of poetry is ten syllables, so let's assume that it is composed of one of the two-syllable feet.

    But soft | what light | through yon | der win | dow breaks

    If our assumption proves correct, then we have FIVE units in this line.  That's called pentameter (penta being the suffix meaning five).  But which foot do we have?  Look for any words that are polysyllabic (have more than one syllable).  We have two, yonder and window.  What is the stress pattern here?  *Note that for visual purposes I will use green text for stressed syllables and blue for unstressed syllables.

    YON der  WIN dow

    We've figured out four syllables of our line of poetry, so now let's put those in with the rest of the line and move forward and backward until the rhythm is clear:

    But soft | what light | through YON | der  WIN | dow breaks

    It appears that we have a pattern of unstressed, stressed.  Let's try saying the whole line with these stress patterns and see if it works:

    But soft | what light | through YON | der  WIN | dow breaks

    So, we have five feet of unstressed, stressed--or, five iambsThis is a line of iambic pentameter.  By the way:  one foot is called monometer, two feet, dimeter, three feet, trimeter, four feet, tetrameter, five feet, pentameter, six feet, hexameter, seven feet, heptameter, of eight feet, octameter.

    A word of caution:  poets (especially Shakespeare) often create "new" words by shortening old ones or creating contractions to make their meter fit.  Be prepared for this!

    For another example, let's consider Shakespeare's sonnet #18, better known by its first line, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

    Shall I com - pare thee to a sum - mer's day
    Thou art more love - ly and more tem - per - ate
    Rough winds do shake the dar - ling buds of May

    Step one--how many syllables do we have in each of these lines?  That's right--ten.  That pretty much tells us it's not going to be anapestic or dactylic, barring some poetic creativity.  Let's begin by breaking the lines into pairs of two syllables:

    Shall I | com pare | thee to | a sum | mer's day

    Thou art | more love | ly and | more tem | per ate

    Rough winds | do shake | the dar | ling buds | of May

    Step two--find any polysyllabic words and identify their stresses.  I see several:

    • comPARE
    • SUMmer
    • LOVEly

    ...to name a few.  Let's put those in place and see how things look.

    Shall I | com PARE | thee to | a SUM| mer's day

    Thou art | more LOVE | ly and | more tem | per ate

    Rough winds | do shake | the DAR | ling buds | of May

    If you go through and check each line, guess what--you will have five feet each of unstressed, stressed.  That's iambic pentameter again.

    What about this snippet from Dr. Seuss' Yertle the Turtle?

    And today the Great Yertle, that Marvelous he

    Step one--how many syllables?

    And to - day the Great Yer - tle, that Mar - ve - lous he

    Our answer is twelve, which makes things interesting.  Twelve is evenly divisible by two and by three.  We can't eliminate any of the feet as options.  Let's move on to the polysyllabic words (Yertle and marvelous).  In both those words, the first syllable takes the stress.

    And to - day the Great YER - tle, that MAR - ve - lous he

    What happens if we try to break this line of poetry into pairs?

    And to | day the | great YER | tle that | MAR ve | lous he

    It's not pretty, is it?  If this was correct, we'd have at least one iamb and one trochee--so that tells us we need to try the line in groups of three syllables instead.

    And to day | the great YER | tle that MAR | ve lous he

    Look at that.  A pattern's emerging.  We have two feet with stressed syllables at the end.  Check your chart--those feet are called anapests.

    And to DAY | the great YER | tle that MAR | ve lous HE

    We have four anapests, so that makes this line of verse anapestic tetrameter.


    Keep in mind that not all lines of verse will always behave perfectly.  Sometimes you will have a line of iambic meter with one anapest or spondee thrown in at the end of the line, for example.  You should also know that some languages have different naturally occurring rhythms.  The English language lends itself particularly well to iambs.  Other languages do not--hence some of the "stranger" feet like the double-stressed spondee or the even-rarer double-unstressed Pyrrhic foot.