Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Scansion for Beginners

"There is no escape from metre;  there is only mastery."

         - T.S. Eliot

    Scansion is "the metrical analysis of verse".  How difficult is this to learn?  Too tough for most MFAs and English graduates, it seems, but in truth, not vexing at all.  Indeed, it can be taught to squirrels and summed up in four words:


     Meter involves counting.  We'll be counting either stresses or, mostly, patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables called "feet".  In speaking of "syllables" we'll often use the speaker's definition rather than the dictionary's.  Some syllables will be mashed together, such that "naive" can be one syllable ("elision") or two ("hiatus").  Semisyllables such as "-le", "-ion" or "-er", lacking a drawn out vowel sound, may or may not count as [full] syllables.  "Little fashion faker" might be anywhere from three to six syllables.  Don't let this confuse or intimidate you, though;  it gives you the flexibility to use whichever enunciation is more convenient for you.

     What syllables are stressed?  Among monosyllabic words nouns and verbs tend to be accented, pronouns and modifiers are a coin toss and other types (e.g. articles, prepositions, conjunctions, etc.) tend to be unaccented.  Listen to the speaker carefully.  For longer words consult a dictionary. 

     With rare exceptions (e.g. "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn's Brooks is in bacchic monometer), English verse is written in one of five cadences:

Iambic        Trochaic    Dactylic    Amphibrachic    Anapestic
de-DUM        DUM-de      DUM-de-de   de-DUM-de       de-de-DUM
review        market      spectacle   revisit         interrupt

     For example, here we see a line¹ of iambic verse:

The rain | in Spain | falls main|ly on | the plain.

     This brings us to our first key word:  "Simply".  If a poem doesn't have many more of this rhythm than facsimiles of it then we've got the wrong base rhythm.  For example, one misguided soul mistook Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Moriturus" for iambic, despite the paucity of actual iambs:

Aware of the flight
Of the golden flicker
With his wing to the light;
To hear him nicker

And drum with his bill
On the rotted window;
Snug and still
On a gray pillow

     Let "Keep It Simple, Stupid" be our guideline.

     Because the line about the rain in Spain has five iambs we call it iambic pentameter.  This is the most popular meter in English poetry because we tend to alternate between stressed and unstressed syllables ("Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!") and because that is how much an average person can say in one breath.  Other measures are monometer (one foot per line), dimeter (2), trimeter (3), tetrameter (4), hexameter (6), heptameter (7) and octameter (8).  Thus, we might see trochaic octameter like this:

Once up|on a | midnight | dreary, | while I | pondered, | weak and | weary

    ...or amphibrachic tetrameter like this:

The lake, it | is said, nev|er gives up | her dead when

    An observant reader might be wondering about some of these examples.  Is the "on" really stressed in "on the plain"?  Isn't the first syllable in the word "never" accented?

    The key word "Scan" suggests seeking.  In this case, we're looking at the position of the stress in our pattern.  For dactyls (DUM-de-de) and trochees (DUM-de) that is the first position.  For iambs (de-DUM) and amphibrachs (de-DUM-de), the second.  For anapests (de-de-DUM), the third.  The rule is that we can add or delete accented syllables but we cannot move them [without creating a stumble or drawing attention].  In other words, as long as we have either a stress where we expect one or no stresses at all, everything is fine.  For example, in iambs the default stress falls on the second syllable.  Thus, we can "substitute" a foot with two stresses (DUM-DUM, called a "spondee";  e.g. "baseball") or one with no stresses (de-de, called a "pyrrhus";  e.g. "in a").  In this way we can drop a stress thus:

The rain | in Spain | falls main|ly on | the plain.

    ...creating 3 iambs, a pyrrhic foot, and another iamb.  Not a problem.  Similarly, we can add stresses to the existing one thus:

The lake, it | is said, nev|er gives up | her dead when

    There is a stress at the second syllable of every foot so we're fine here. 

    Consider this well known line:

To be | or not | to be, | that is | the quest | ion
To | be or | not to | be, that | is the | question
    The eleven syllables may create confusion, as does the rhythm itself.  In isolation and ignoring the extra syllable for now, the line works better as trochee than as iamb.  As a trochaic line, there are four trochees and a spondee.  No problem.  As an iambic line, there are 3 iambs, a serious stumble as the (de-DUM) order is inverted into trochee (DUM-de), and then another iamb.  Ergo, this line is clearly trochaic, right?

    Not so fast!  The key words "Scan Poems" combine to warn you that you need to look at the entire poem, not just one line in isolation.  This one line from "Hamlet" comes at the critical turning point of an hours-long iambic pentameter play.  The stumble is intentional here, to draw the listener's attention to this moment.  This is extremely rare this late in a line but it shows us that if anyone hands us a line and asks about the meter our only correct response is:  "Please show me the whole poem."

     (Others say the actors would emphasize "is", making the foot iambic.)

To be | or not | to be, | that is | the quest | ion

    Unlike the "to be or not to be" [hypermetrical] line with an extra syllable, we may see [hypometrical] lines missing unaccented syllables.  If these come in the middle of the line we call it a "lame" foot, usually involving a pause--often marked by punctuation. Note the second line of the Shakespearean snippet:

The best | of men | have sung | your at | tributes,
Breasts, | lips, | eyes, | and gold | en hair!

     A line with a syllable missing from the beginning is called "acephalous" or "headless".

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright

    Is the syllable missing from the front or end?  Only by reviewing the whole poem can we answer.

Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame | thy fear|ful sym|metry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art.
Could twist | the sin|ews of | thy heart?
And when | thy heart | began | to beat,
What dread hand? And what dread feet?

What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And wat|ered heav|en with | their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did He | who made | the Lamb | make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame | thy fear|ful sym|metry?

     Sure enough, we find six lines of perfect iamb and no lines of trochee.  Ergo, the poem is iambic, as are all the lines in it.  Thus, we know that the line "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright" is acephalous (i.e. missing a syllable at the beginning) rather than catalectic (i.e. missing a syllable at the end).

    Because lines often take a while to find their rhythm we can add or subtract unstressed syllables and even put in inversions (e.g. "that is" in an iambic poem) as long as we do it earlier than the halfway mark--preferably in the first foot.  Thus, the end of a line is a far more reliable indicator of the base rhythm than the beginning.  This brings us to our last grouping of key words:  "Scan Poems Backwards".  Consider the first section of Lord Byron's "Bride of Abydos":

Know ye the land where cypress and myrtle
Are emblems of deeds that are done in their clime,
Where the rage of the vulture, the love of the turtle,
Now melt into sorrow, now madden to crime?
Know ye the land of the cedar and vine,
Where the flowers ever blossom, the beams ever shine;
Where the light wings of Zephyr, oppress'd with perfume,
Wax faint o'er the gardens of Gúl in her bloom;
Where the citron and olive are fairest of fruit,
And the voice of the nightingale never is mute;
Where the tints of the earth, and the hues of the sky,
In colour though varied, in beauty may vie,
And the purple of Ocean is deepest in dye;
Where the virgins are soft as the roses they twine,
And all, save the spirit of man, is divine?
'Tis the clime of the East; 'tis the land of the Sun -
Can he smile on such deeds as his children have done?
Oh! wild as the accents of lovers' farewell
Are the hearts which they bear, and the tales which they tell.

     As with William Blake's "Tyger", some of the later lines will reveal the meter (this time as being anapestic tetrameter):

Are the hearts | which they bear, | and the tales | which they tell.

     However, if you try to scan those first two [hypometrical] lines from their beginnings to their ends you might get totally confused and discouraged.

Know ye the land where cypress and myrtle
Are emblems of deeds that are done in their clime,

    You avoid this frustration by scanning backwards.  Where "[x]" marks the missing syllables, after that unwieldly first line you have ones like this:

[x] Are em|blems of deeds | that are done | in their clime,

[x] [x] Know | ye the land | of the ced|ar and vine,

    Only after you have scanned the whole poem backwards can you see what happened in that "unscannable" first line:

[x] [x] Know | ye the land | where cyp|ress and myrt|le

    This odd line contains an anapest missing both of its unaccented syllables, a full anapest, an anapest missing one syllable, a fourth anapest and, for luck, an extra ["hypercatalectic"] semisyllable at the end.  Mystery solved!

    In addition to syllables missing from the start of the line ("acephaly"), occasionally punctuational pauses can replace unaccented syllables.  Here, commas take the place of unstressed syllables, creating single-syllable ("lame") iambic feet:

The best | of men | have sung | your at | tributes,
Breasts, | lips, | eyes, | and gold | en hair!

    Note that a poem can be heterometrical (i.e. having more than one meter), usually sharing the same cadence.  For example, T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" has, in addition to extra syllables ("anacrusis") before some lines, no less than four iambic meters:  trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter and heptameter (as we'll see in "Scansion for Intermediates").  In fact, alternating between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter is so familiar that it is actually called "common meter":

Amaz|ing grace, | how sweet | the sound
that saved | a wretch | like me.
I once | was lost | but now | am found,
was blind, | but now | I see.

    If a poem will not scan into any of these patterns don't give up until you have counted the beats in each line.  If there is a pattern in the number of beats you may have accentual meter, the precursor of the accentual-syllabic meter we've been discussing so far.  Many songs are in accentual meter, including Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven", which varies--often alternates--between tetrameter and trimeter, just as "Amazing Grace" does but with beats, not feet.

If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now,
It's just a spring clean for the May queen.

     Obviously, Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Moriturus" (mistaken for iambic earlier) is accentual dimeter.

 If I could have
Two things in one:
The peace of the grave,
And the light of the sun;

     Note that, like many songs, accentual poems, too, can be heterometrical, as in this poem often misidentified as free verse:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

     Two beats per line, then one, repeated four times.  That's a pattern.  That's meter.

     Of course, if you remove the intraphrasal linebreaks (i.e. if you decurginate the poem) you have simple accentual trimeter:

So much depends upon

a red wheel barrow

glazed with rain water

beside the white chickens.

     Poetry is about what you hear, more than what you read.

     Bear in mind that "Scan Poems" can also mean practice your scansion, which is excellent advice. 

     For a slightly more detailed beginner's guide, along with a test, please click here.

     I hope you have found this helpful.

Learning Poetry -  2. Basic Scansion (in three minutes)


¹ - As we will discover in the next installment, "Scansion for Intermediates", we will be using the word "line" when the term "stich" would be more accurate.

Appendix A:

       You may wish to copy and paste this useful chart into a word processor and print it out in a courier font:

==================  Meter Types ================== 

 Beat   Name
   uu = Pyrrhic (aka Dibrach)
   uS = Iamb
   Su = Trochee (aka Choree)
   SS = Spondee
  uuu = Tribrach
  Suu = Dactyl
  uSu = Amphibrach                          Metres:
  uuS = Anapest                      Monometer = 1 foot
  uSS = Bacchic                        Dimeter = 2 feet
  SuS = Amphimacer (aka Cretic)       Trimeter = 3 feet
  SSu = Antibacchic                 Tetrameter = 4 feet
  SSS = Molossus                    Pentameter = 5 feet
 uuuu = Proceleusmatic               Hexameter = 6 feet *
 Suuu = First paeon                 Heptameter = 7 feet
 uSuu = Second paeon                 Octameter = 8 feet
 uuSu = Third paeon
 uuuS = Fourth paeon    * Hexameter is aka "alexandrine" if iambic.
 uuSS = Ionic a minore
 SuuS = Choriamb                       
 SSuu = Ionic a maiore                       Stanzas:                 
 SuuS = Antispast                       2 lines = couplet
 SuSu = Ditrochee                       3 lines = tercet
 uSuS = Diiamb                          4 lines = quatrain
 uSSS = First epitrite                  5 lines = cinquain
 SuSS = Second epitrite                 6 lines = sestet or sixain
 SSuS = Third epitrite                  7 lines = septet
 SSSu = Fourth epitrite                 8 lines = octet or octave
 SSSS = Dispondee                      
uSSuS = Dochmios

   "S" = Stressed (or, more accurately, "long" in the original Greek)
   "u" = unstressed (or, more accurately, "short" in the original Greek)


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1 comment:

  1. loved ur effort..it helped me alot...but want few questions with solution so that i can solve and check


Your comments and questions are welcome.