Scansion in Poetry: Definition & Examples

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  • 1:15 Scansion in Formal Verse
  • 3:06 Scansion in Free Verse
  • 7:00 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Davis

Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.

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. 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 feathers
That 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 feathers
That 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 winter
he 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'

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