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Usually, it’s pretty easy to hear the rhythm in poetry, but describing that rhythm is another matter entirely. In this lesson, we’ll explore the process of scansion, which allows us to break down the rhythm of poetry using visual clues.

Definition: What Is Scansion?

Poetry has a unique music that sets it apart from other kinds of writing.

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It’s fairly easy to hear this music when a poem rhymes, but the sounds of poetry don’t depend on rhyme alone. Traditionally, a poem has what is called meter, a certain pattern of weak and strong syllables. However, not all poems follow such a pattern. Poetry that doesn’t use rhyme or meter is called free verse.Regardless of whether or not a poem uses meter, every poem contains weak and strong syllables, even if those syllables aren’t part of a larger pattern. These syllables can be grouped into units called metrical feet.

A metrical foot is simply an arrangement of weak and strong syllables. Just to be clear, when we say a syllable is strong, we mean it receives more emphasis than the syllable or syllables next to it. Not all strong syllables receive the same amount of emphasis.How do we find these metrical feet? Particularly in free verse, it can be difficult to focus on any sort of rhythm. Fortunately, there is a method called scansion that uses visual cues to show which syllables are weak and which syllables are strong. Once this is accomplished, we can use those visual cues to identify different kinds of metrical feet.

Scansion in Formal Verse

To ease into the process of scansion, let’s start with an example that uses meter. Here is the first stanza from Emily Dickinson’s Poem 254:’Hope is the thing with feathersThat perches in the soul,And sings the tune without the words,And never stops at all . .

.’Hear the pattern? Now we’ll use scansion so we can see the pattern. For our purposes, we’ll highlight to indicate which syllables are strong. Here we go!‘Hope is the thing with feathersThat perches in the soul,And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all . .

.’Now that the strong syllables have been pointed out, let’s talk about how to identify metrical feet. First, we have to ask ourselves if any arrangement of weak and strong syllables appears more than others. It’s best to start small, so we usually look for pairs of syllables first.In this example, the most common pair is an iamb, a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable. This kind of pair is the most widely used metrical foot in English poetry. Because the most common metrical foot in the example is the iamb, we would describe the meter of this poem as iambic.

What about the first line of the example, though? It doesn’t seem to follow quite the same meter that the other lines use. This is because this line uses something called metrical substitution, which just means switching one kind of metrical foot with another. Let’s look at that line again:’Hope is the thing with feathers .

. .’The first foot (‘Hope is’) is a trochee, which is a strong syllable followed by a weak syllable (the exact opposite of an iamb). There’s also an extra syllable (‘thers’) after the last iamb in the line (‘with fea’).

This extra syllable is known as a feminine ending, and it occurs often in iambic meters.

Scansion in Free Verse

Of course, scansion isn’t just used for metered poems. Although it’s a bit more challenging, it’s possible to pick out metrical feet in free verse. At this point, you may be wondering why anyone bothers to scan free verse.

To answer this question, I’ll borrow some terminology from music.Imagine you’re listening to an old jazz record (for example, ‘Kind of Blue’ by Miles Davis). Most jazz songs start with a noticeable melody, which is then followed by a series of solos.

These solos are improvised, which means that the person playing the solo is making it up as he or she goes along. However, these solos are still made of notes and rhythms, which can be written down on sheet music. Listening to a solo (or any piece of music) and then writing it down is called transcription.

So, in a sense, using scansion on free verse is like transcribing a jazz solo. By breaking down free verse into metrical feet, we get a better sense of the ‘notes’ and rhythms a poem uses, even if the poem seems improvised. Take, for instance, the opening lines of e. e.

cummings’s ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’:’anyone lived in a pretty how town(with up so floating many bells down)spring summer autumn winterhe sang his didn’t he danced his did.’Although there’s a rhyme between the first two lines (‘town’ and ‘down’), there isn’t any strict meter to be found in this poem. So let’s treat this poem as free verse.

We’ll use scansion to break it down one line at a time.Let’s start with the first line:’anyone lived in a pretty how town’Just like before, let’s start by looking for patterns in pairs of syllables. The two pairs at the end of the line (‘pretty’ and ‘how town’) are both trochees. That leaves us with the first six syllables of the line (‘anyone lived in a’). Fortunately, the six syllables can be broken into two groups of three that follow the same pattern. This pattern is called a dactyl, because it consists of one strong syllable followed by two weak syllables.Okay, now for the second line:'(with up so floating many bells down)’Phew.

Luckily, this line is a bit more regular than the last one. Once again, let’s look for pairs first. ‘with up,’ ‘so floa’ and ‘ting ma’ are all iambs. The last three syllables of the line (‘ny bells down’) form an anapest, two weak syllables followed by one strong syllable.

Okay. Onto the third line:’spring summer autumn winter’This one is also on the regular side. ‘summer,’ ‘autumn’ and ‘winter’ are all trochees. Still, the strong syllable, ‘spring,’ is just floating there by itself. Fortunately, there is a term for this phenomenon. Because this line is mostly made of trochees, the single strong syllable is called a tailless trochee.

However, if the line were mostly made of iambs, it would be called a headless iamb.All right. We’re almost there. Here’s the last line:’he sang his didn’t he danced his did.’This one’s a bit bumpy, so let’s look for pairs from left to right.

‘he sang’ and ‘his did’ are both iambs. The next two syllables are both weak (‘n’t he’), and there are only three left after that (‘danced his did’). We haven’t seen those patterns yet, so let’s trying look for something more familiar in these last five syllables.

Let’s say that ‘his did’ is an iamb. That leaves ‘n’t he danced’ as a group of three. Now that we have a mixture of weak and strong syllables, it’s safe to assume we’ve happened upon a metrical foot.

‘n’t he danced’ is made of two weak syllables followed by one strong syllable. We’ve seen that pattern before, right? It’s an anapest!

Lesson Summary

In summary, scansion is the process of using visual cues to show the weak and strong syllables in a line of poetry. Scansion can be used to figure out a poem’s meter, but it can also be used to get a better understanding of the many rhythms used in free verse. By identifying which syllables are weak and which syllables are strong, we can break lines into metrical feet.

Four common types of metrical feet are:

  • Iambs (weak, strong)
  • Trochees (strong, weak)
  • Dactyls (strong, weak, weak)
  • Anapests (weak, weak, strong)

Definitions From the Lesson

scansionpoetry
Meter a certain pattern of weak and strong syllables
Metrical foot an arrangement of weak and strong syllables
Strong syllable receives more emphasis than the syllable or syllables next to it
Scansion uses visual cues that show which syllables are weak and which syllables are strong
Iamb a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable
Metrical substitution means switching one kind of metrical foot with another
Trochee a strong syllable followed by a weak syllable
Dactyl consists of one strong syllable followed by two weak syllables
Anapest two weak syllables followed by one strong syllable

Learning Outcomes

Determine whether you can achieve these objectives after studying the lesson above:

  • Define scansion
  • Contrast meters and metrical feet
  • Find metrical feet in formal verse and free verse

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