Scansion
SCANSION


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Home and garden of poet Emily Dickinson in Amherst, Massachusetts.


DEFINITION


Scansion is the analysis of a line of poetry for foot and meter. To "scan" a line of poetry means to analyze it rhythmically.


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Rules for scanning

When you wish to analyze the rhythm of a poem, you need to be able to distinguish between loud and soft syllables in words. Before we even begin to talk about lines of poetry, we have to talk about the basic building blocks of lines: individual words. Use the following rules to prepare yourself to scan poetry.

1. Place accent marks ( / ) in multisyllable words on the syllables that sound louder than other syllables.

All multisyllable English words have fixed accents. For example, the word "vocabulary" is pronounced in only one way, with two syllables pronounced more loudly than the other syllables:


vo  CAB  u  LAR  y

The pattern would look like this:

  _    /    _    /    _

 

To pronounce the word any other way would seem odd. For example, trying pronouncing the word in the following way:


VO ca  BU  la  y

 

This pattern sounds funny with this pronunciation:

  /    _    /    _    _


Now place accent marks in the proper places for the following words. You can check your work by clicking on the word to see if you are correct.

design

frontage

necessary

predicament


Now let's try working with a full line of poetry. The following line from a poem by Eugene Field contains several multi-syllable words with built-in accents:

  THE GINGHAM DOG AND THE CALICO CAT SIDE BY SIDE ON THE TABLE SAT.

Did you pronounce the words in the following way?

GING ham
 
CA li co


TA ble


2. Now place accent marks on important single syllable words (e.g., nouns and action verbs).

Which of the single syllable words would you consider important?

    THE GINGHAM DOG AND THE CALICO CAT SIDE BY SIDE ON THE TABLE SAT.

 

You will probably select the following single syllable words as important:

 

  THE GINGHAM DOG AND THE CALICO CAT SIDE BY SIDE ON THE TABLE SAT.  

 

Unimportant words are generally articles ("the," "a") and prepositions ("on," "with," "for").

 

the GINGHAM DOG and the CALICO CAT SIDE by SIDE on the TABLE SAT.

 


3. Finally, place short horizontal lines ( - ) above unimportant words (articles, prepositions) and unaccented syllables in multisyllable words. Thus the Field is scanned:

 

     -    /    -    /    -   -   /  -  -  /


    the GINGham DOG and the CAlico CAT

 


 /    -    /    -  -   /  -   /

SIDE by SIDE on the TAble SAT.

 

You are probably noticing a rhythmic pattern as you say this line aloud. You are just about ready to break the line into units (called "feet") and to give the line a fancy name. But first we have to learn the names of basic feet.

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Basic Feet

The basic unit used for counting accents in poetry is called a foot. Each foot has either two syllables in it or three syllables in it. There are four basic feet, two for two-syllable units and two for three-syllable units: the names are Greek because we trace one system of poetic scansion back to the Greeks. Even though their system (also used by the Romans) was quantitative and ours today is qualitative, we have retained their names. Here are the basic four feet:

iambic

trochaic

anapestic

dactylic


There are also two auxillary feet that are sometimes necessary to use in scanning a line of poetry:

spondaic

pyrrhic


If you feel that you need to complete your lexicon of feet, there are two more feet in addition to the above six, but they are used so infrequently in scansion, you really do need not to worry about using them. They are both three-syllable feet. They are called:

amphibrach

amphimacer

You can get along perfectly well doing scansion without knowing these two feet.


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Basic Meters

A number of feet in a line of poetry constitutes a meter. There is, theoretically, an infinite number of feet possible for any line of poetry, but poetry tends to be written in short rather than long lines, so we traditionally stop our line counts at eight. The following list represents the basic eight meters, each dependent upon the number of feet in the line:
monometer = a line of poetry with only one foot
dimeter = a line with two feet
trimeter = a line with three feet
tetrameter = a line with four feet
pentameter= a line with five feet (Shakespeare's favorite)
hexameter = a line with six feet (the French love it)
heptameter= a line with seven feet
octameter= a line with eight feet

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Handy definitions to remember:




For a handy guide to all matters poetic, use the Glossary of Poetics.

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Questions? Comments?

Send e-mail to georgek@stedwards.edu



Last updated: July 23, 2000

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