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Scansion in Poetry

by Suzette Richards

Scansion: n. Metrical scanning; way a verse scans.  It is the method or practice of determining and graphically representing the metrical pattern of a line or verse—dividing it into metrical feet. Metre lends a musical element to a poem and by performing scansion we can visually represent the rhythmic element.

Verse (a literary device): The literary term ‘verse’ is used to refer to a single line of poetry composition. A metrical writing line is known as verse. The word can however, also refer to a stanza or any other part of the poetry.

SINGLE SYLLABIC WORDS AND ROOT WORDS

The biggest issue poets seem to have is to determine which single syllabic words are stressed. The following rules are a general guide, but there can be exceptions.

1. Content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) are stressed, eg earth, time, ball, see, seen, loud, soft, fast, slow, up, there, etc.

2. Structure words (pronouns, prepositions, articles, conjunctions) are unstressed, eg I, he, she, it, we, of, in, on, at, the, a, and, but, no one, if, etc.

3. Auxiliary verbs are unstressed. The primary auxiliary verbs in English are: to be, to do, and  to have. The modal auxiliaries are can, couldmay, might; must; shall, should; will, would.

4. Negative auxiliary verbs (don’t, can’t, weren’t, mustn’t) ARE stressed. Eg

‘we don’t see anymore’

This might pose a problem when a prescribed metre (eg iamb) needs to be met, ie a negative auxiliary verb, followed by the verb as this would lead to two stressed syllables in a row. This could be overcome by rearranging the words to suit the metre and employing enjambment to aid the grammatical flow of the line(s).

Let’s consider a line of poetry and break it down into syllables, and show the syllables with stress. From my poem, With Fresh Eyes (page 182): ‘when going out your door’. There is only one word in this line with more than one syllable, namely going: the root word go; and the suffix -ing. It has two syllables in the word with the stress on the first half of the word. Whether it is stressed or not, is based on the root word—in this case it a verb and, therefore, a stressed syllable.

NB Some words retain the same syllable count in plural and/or past tense, as well as certain negative auxiliary words; others don’t. The rule of thumb is that if it is not distinctly pronounced, it does not count as an extra syllable—‘half syllables’ (indistinctly pronounced syllables) are ignored. For example:

queue [1]/queues [1]; boil [1]/boiled [1]; BUT: defend [2]/defended [3]; it’s, can’t, don’t, I’ve, I’d, weren’t, you’re, you’ve, mustn’t [all 1 syllable each].

HOWEVER

wouldn’t [2] (pronounced ‘wood-nt’), couldn’t [2] (pronounced ‘cood-nt’).

These two contractions are both 2 syllables in poetry, and just like when we use prefixes and suffixes, the root word is stressed and the contraction -n't is unstressed.  

Now look at the line ‘a dicey business it could be’. It has two words with more than one syllable, namely ‘dicey’ and ‘business’—each having two syllables (the stressed syllables are in boldface): dicey and business. The word business has only two (and not three syllables) because one does not pronounce the ‘i’ in ‘business’.

Where you need to adjust the syllable count or grammar, you may use an apostrophe to take the place of the discarded word. For example, in the poem, I used the apostrophe to adjust the syllable count per line: ‘As we’ve become accustomed t’ crime’. Ie, I have abbreviated to crime to read: t’ crime, effectively using this poetic device to blur the word to and, thus, it doesn’t count towards the syllable count.

IDENTIFYING SYLLABLES FOR THE PURPOSE OF PERFORMING SCANSION

Please note that scansion doesn’t always follow the rules of pronunciation, for example, ‘astound’ is pronounced ‘uh-stound’, but scans ‘as-tound’.

The pronunciation of certain words differs in American and British English and it might affect where the stress falls in polysyllabic words. Syllable counts as well as stressed vowels may vary from one app to another on the Internet. The word ‘deleterious’, for example, would be written in a British English dictionary as deleter’ious, with the stress on the second ‘e’. However, per the American based app, www.howmanysyllables.com, it scans as follows:

Del-e-te-ri-ous: Primary syllable stress ‘-te’ and 2nd syllable stress ‘del-’.

Certain words might contain a stressed syllable AND secondary syllable stress, for eg ra-di-a-tor (‘ra’ stressed syllable, ‘a’ secondary stressed syllable). However, when reading a verse, certain unstressed words might fall in line with the metre and as a result, are stressed when read out loud—this is especially true of limericks where it lends a rhythm to the poem which is peculiar to that poetic form. Some poetic forms are based on very strict syllabic rules, for example, the double dactyl.

It is imperative to perform scansion of your work to ensure that a word such as ‘ring’ is not forced rhymed with, eg ‘purring’, as they DO NOT RHYME.

The following poem was inspired by: ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’  ~J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

‘Seeing with fresh eyes’ has been attributed to Marcel Proust: ‘The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new lands but in seeing with fresh eyes.’ It generally means seeing familiar things as if you have never seen them before. 

WITH FRESH EYES

As we’ve become accustomed t’ crime,

we don’t see anymore—

a dicey business it could be

when going out your door.

 

You step into the busy road.

You don’t keep on your feet,

there’s no knowing where you’ll end up;

whom you might come to meet.

 

With fresh eyes, you now see the World—

inspiration abound.

When reaching out to fellow man:

A joyous spirit found.

 

1. Separate prefixes (un-; pre-; re-; etc) and suffixes (eg, -ing, -ous, etc)—certain past tense and plural, etc, from the root words, for example:

re-wind; joy-ous; kiss-es.

Certain past tense and plural do not affect the syllable counts: see 2 below.

 

2. Divide two consonants that are next to one another (at the 1st and 2nd, if more than one consonant following one another), for example:

ac-cus-tomed—3 syllables; BUT: wound-ed—2 syllables (‘woon-did’)

Never split 2 consonants that make up only one sound when pronounced together and are not the same letter (ie ‘ff’), eg th, sh, ph, ch, gh & wh.

 

3. Divide words with long sounding vowels (as in ‘line’) BEFORE the consonant, for example:

a-ges (pronounced ages—2 syllables), re-sult, i-vy, a-bound

 

4. Divide words with short sounding vowels (as in ‘mill’) AFTER the consonant, for example:

striv-en, met-al, riv-er, mod-el, spir-it, an-y, bus-y

 

5. Words ending with ‘-ckle’: Divide right BEFORE the ‘-le’, for example:

fick-le, trick-le, tack-le

 

6. Words ending with ‘-le’ (but not ‘-ckle’): Divide the word BEFORE the preceding consonant, for example:

 am-ple, stum-ble, bi-cy-cle, ris-i-ble, etc

METRICAL SCANNING

Hyphenate all the syllables in polysyllabic words. Let us consider another example from my poem, With Fresh Eyes:

 

A joyous spirit found. 

1.  Here we have 2 words that contain more than one syllable: joyous and spirit.

Hyphenated: joy-ous; spir-it 

 

2. Capitalise the stressed syllables in all polysyllabic words and say it out loud. You should hear the first syllable stressed. (For this exercise, the first word in the sentence has not been capitalised in order to avoid confusion.)

a JOY-ous SPIR-it found

 

3. For single syllable-words, capitalise all nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

a JOY-ous SPIR-it FOUND

See the pattern? An unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.

ta DUM; ta DUM; ta DUM

This pattern is called ‘iamb’. A unit of a particular pattern is called a ‘foot’.

 

4. Replace the hyphens with vertical bars to designate each foot.

a JOY|ous SPIR|it FOUND|

 

5. Count the feet (metrical units) between the vertical bars.

There are 3 iambic feet here, so a line like this is called an iambic trimeter:

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