S is for Scansion


Today’s word is something that is easy to explain but difficult in practice – at least for me!


“The analysis of the metrical patterns of a poem by organizing its lines into feet of stressed and unstressed syllables and showing the major pauses, if any. Scansion also involves the classification of a poem’s stanza, structure, and rhyme scheme.”

Source: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/glossary-terms

What does it look like when we scan a line of verse? Check out this sample form Shakespeare’s Hamlet:


Here, the syllables have been marked as either stressed (/) or unstressed (u). The initial pattern of unstressed/stressed syllables tells us that we have a series of iambic feet. Most of the play is written in iambic pentameter (groups of five iambic feet), but here we see a break in that pattern. Following the semicolon, the iambs are interrupted by a dactyl (stressed, unstressed, unstressed) and a trochee (stressed, unstressed). This interruption to the normal meter must underscore the fact that Hamlet is about to chew on some serious stuff.

While I have no trouble counting beats, pauses, and identifying rhyme scheme (when it exists), where I’ve always struggled in scansion is knowing when a syllable should be stressed or unstressed. Sometimes, it’s obvious. But sometimes it depends on context.

For those who practice scansion, how have you sharpened your skills?


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