Scansion of a Poetry BA English Honours

Scansion: It is the 4th unit of the BA English core paper 1; the syllabus issued by the BBMKU and VBU University. Students have many doubts about this unit. In this article, we try to explain to you, what is scansion? how to scan a poem? what are the requirements for the scansion?

Table of Contents

Scansion Meaning

Scanning: A scanning system is a way of finding metric patterns for poetic lines. In ancient poetry, these patterns were based on the different lengths of each vowel sound, and in English poems, they were based on the different emphasis placed on each letter. In both cases, the meter is usually a normal foot. Over the years, many different programs have been developed to mark the scanning of the poem. The following are symbols, their names and their uses to scan a verse in a verse and sometimes in prose.


SymbolName of the symbolPurpose
/The acute accentMetrically stressed syllable
UThe breveMetrically weak syllable
|A single lineDivision between feet
||A double lineCaesura or pause in the line
^A restexpected but not actually present

Types of Metres

There are mainly four types of Metres:

  1. Syllable-Stress or accented syllabic metres
  2. Strong-stress meters
  3. syllabic metres
  4. Quantitative metres

1. Syllable-Stress

A foot can be described as a basic unit of a metre, or in other words as a group with a combination of a
strong and one or more weak syllables. A foot with ‘weak-strong’ syllables is called an ‘iamb’. For example, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold”. When a pattern of ‘strong-weak’ syllables comes in to picture it is called trochaic metre, an example is ‘Tell me not inmournful numbers.” And if a foot comes with ‘weak weak-strong’ syllables it is called an anapest. “Break, break, break/ on thy cold gray stones, O Sea!” is an example of anapestic tetrameter. When put in reverse order, i.e. two weak syllables preceded by one strong syllable, the foot is called a dactyl. Apart from iambic, trochee, anapaest and dactyl other feet like spondee and Pyrrhus also sometimes occur as substitutions in a passage of verse.

a. Iambic metre

With rav/ished ears
The mon/arch hears
Assumes / the God
Affects / to nod.
And seems / to shakes / the spheres.
by Dryden.

The stanza above is in iambic dimetre as it has only two feet, however, the last line of the stanza has three feet and therefore it is iambic trimetre. The rhyme pattern as is apparent is abba. lambic pentametre is considered to be the most common in English poetry. The two distinct kinds of verse in which iambic pentametre generally occur are blank verse and heroic couplet. Blank verse is any verse comprised of unrhymed lines all in the same metre, usually iambic pentameter. It was developed in Italy and became widely used during the Renaissance because it resembled classical, unrhymed poetry, e.g.

Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death unto our world, and all our woe
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
-Paradise Lost: Milton

Heroic Couplet is a couplet of two lines of iambic pentameter with the same end rhymes and forming a logical whole-it was Chaucer’s favourite metre-and came into vogue in poetic drama in the 17th century, but in the 18th century, in the hands of masters like Dryden, Pope, and Johnson, it became for many years the dominant English verse form. In the Neo-classical period, the heroic couplet consisted of a couplet of end-stopped lines which formed a short stanza, and substituted for the Greek and Latin heroic hexameter,

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.

Metre in poetry contains one or more feet in a line and thus we have different classifications of metre on
the basis of the number of feet in a line:

  • One-foot line is called monometer.
  • Two-feet-line is called diameter.
  • Three-feet line is called trimester.
  • Four-feet line is called.tetrameter.
  • Five-feet line is called pentameter.

similarly, six, seven, and eight feet lines are called Hexa, Hepta, and Octameter.

b. Trochaic metre

May thou/ month of/ rosy/ beauty,
Month when/ pleasure/ is a/ duty,
Month of/ bees and/ month of/ flowers,
Moth of/ blossom/ laden/ bowers...

The stanza above is an example of a trochaic tetrameter as it has four feet in each line.

c. Anapaestic metre

I am mon/arch of all/ I survey,
My right/there is none/ to dispute;
From the cen/tre all round/ to the sea
I am lord/of the bird/ and the brute

The above stanza is an example of anapaestic trimetre, however, the first foot of the second line is an iamb. The iambic substitutions are common in the verses with an anapaestic metre.

d. Dactylic metre

Touch her not scornfully
Think of her mournfully.
Gently and humanly;
Not of the remains of her
Now is pure womanly.

The above stanza is a dactylic dimetre. The rhyme scheme followed is aaaba.

e. Amphibrachic metre

There are words like ‘eternal’ in which the stress falls on the middle syllable. Such are called the amphibrachic foot. Look at the following line which shows the use of amphibrachic metre:

O hush thee,/ my babie/ thy sire was/ a knight.

What is to be noticed here is that the last foot of the line is an iamb.

2. Strong-stress meters

In the middle of the 19th century, with Walt Whitman’s free verse and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ extensive metrical innovations, the traditional prosody was challenged. Antecedent to the syllable-stress metres was the strong-stress metre of Old English and Middle English poetry. Strong-stress verse is measured by the count of stresses alone; the strong stresses are usually constant, but the number of unstressed syllables may vary
considerably. The systematic employment of strong-stress metre can be observed in the Old English epic poem Beowulf (c. 1000) and in William Langland’s vision-poem, Piers Plowman (‘A’ Text, c. 1362):

In a somer sesun // whon softe, was sonne
I schop me in-to a schroud // a scheep as I were;
In habite of an hermite // un-holy of werkes
Wende I wydene in this world // wonders to here.

These lines illustrate the structural pattern of strong-stress metre. Each line divides sharply at the caesura // or medial pause; on each side of the caesura are two stressed syllables strongly marked by alliteration.
Strong-stress verse is indigenous to the Germanic languages with their wide-ranging levels of stressed syllables and opportunities for alliteration. Strong-stress metre was normative to Old English and Old Germanic heroic poetry, as well as to Old English lyric poetry, With the rising influence of French literature in the 12th and 13th centuries, rhyme replaced alliteration and stanzaic forms replaced the four-stress lines. But the strong-stress rhythm persisted; it can be felt in the anonymous love lyrics of the 14th century and in the popular ballads of the 15th century.

“Lord Randal” can be comfortably scanned to show a line of mixed iambic and anapestic feet; it clearly reveals, however, a four-stress structure:

O where ha' you been, // Lord Randal, my son?
And where ha' you been, // my handsome young man?
I ha' been at greenwood; // mother, mak my bed soon,
For I'm wearied wi' huntin', // and fain wad lie down.

A number of 20th-century poets, including Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden, have revived strong-stress metre. The versification of Pound’s Cantos and Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943) shows the vitality of the strong stress, or, as they are often called, “native,” metres.

Syllabic metres

Most of the English poetry is carried by the strong-stress and syllable-stress metres. Two other kinds of
metres must be mentioned: the purely syllabic metres and the quantitative metres. The count of syllables
determines the metres of French, Italian, and Spanish verse. In French poetry the alexandrine, or 12-syllabled
line, is a dominant metrical form:

O toi, qui vois la honte où je suis descendue,
Implacable Vénus, suis-je assez confondue?
Tu ne saurais plus loin pousser ta cruauté.
Ton triomphe est parfait; tous tes traits ont porté.

Stress and pause in these lines are variable; only the count of syllables is fixed. English poets have experimented with syllabic metres; the Tudor poet Sir Thomas Wyatt’s translations from Petrarch’s Italian poems of the 14th century attempted to establish a metrical form based on a decasyllabic or 10-syllabled

The long love that in my thought doth harbor,
And in my heart doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretense
And there encampeth, spreading his banner.

Most ears can detect that these lines waves between syllabic and syllable-stress metre; the second line falls into a pattern of iambic feet. Most ears also discover that the count of syllables alone does not produce any pronounced rhythmic interest; syllabic metres in English generate prosody more interesting to the eye than to the ear.

Quantitative metres

Quantitative metres determine the prosody of Greek and Latin verse. Renaissance theorists and critícs
initiated a confused and complicated argument that tried to explain European poetry by the rules of Classical
prosody and to draft laws of quantity by which European verse might move in the hexameters of the ancient
Roman poets Virgil and Horace. Confusion was compounded because both poets and theorists used the traditional terminology of Greek and Latin prosody to describe the elements of the already existing syllable- stress metres; iambic, trochaic, dactylic and anapaestic originally named the strictly quantitative feet of Greek and Latin poetry. Poets themselves adapted the metres and stanzas of Classical poetry to their own languages; whereas it is not possible here to trace the history of Classical metres in European poetry, it is instructive to analyze some attempts to make English and German syllables move to Greek and Latin music. Because neither English nor German has fixed rules of quantity, the poets were forced to revise the formal schemes of the Classical paradigms in accordance with the phonetic structure of their own language.

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