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What is scansion? How and why is it done?
SCANSION--the basics

This article consists of seven sections--

1. Introduction
2. What is scansion?
3. What are the steps in scansion?
4. What is the purpose of scansion?
5. What are the uses of scansion?
6. Miscellaneous comments
7. References


I have no pretensions of being a poet or an expert on poetry. I am just a serious student of the subject. This site, writing.com, has budding and aspiring poets; poem writers; small time poets; serious poets and poetic masters. All may find something of interest in this article. All are invited to send comments and queries and suggestions. I am thankful to Rooster Roo for giving me opportunity to dwell upon this subject in detail and share my thoughts with others.

The subject matter is presented in a practical, simple, down to earth manner, trying to avoid complicated or unnecessary details.


The best way to tell what is scansion is to state a few definitions or make a few definitional statements about it. It is not a mathematical entity defined by only one correct formula. The manner in which others have described or defined scansion would be helpful in understanding it fully.

The following statements about scansion explain its nature:

A. Scansion is the analysis of a line of poetry for foot and meter. To "scan" a line of poetry means to analyze it rhythmically.

B. When people speak of scanning poems, however, they usually refer to graphic scansion, which involves marking poetry's stresses, feet, and rhythmic breaks in a relatively simple way.

C. Scansion is the dividing of verse (lines of poetry) into feet by indicating accents and counting syllables to determine the meter of a poem. It is a means of studying the mechanical elements by which the poet has established his rhythmical effects. The meter, once the scanning has been performed, is named according to the type and number of feet employed in a verse.

D. The standard method of scanning is really quite simple. Words that receive a strong or moderate stress when spoken are stressed in scansion, whereas words that receive no stress or a slight stress are not stressed in scansion. Thus, this line by Browning, the opening line of "My Last Duchess", would be scanned as follows:

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,

THAT'S my / LAST DUCH / ess PAINT / ed on / the WALL
trochee / spondee / iamb / pyrrhic / iamb

E. Scansion is the practice of checking the rhythm of speech written in verse. On a very fundamental level the purpose of writing a speech in verse in the first place is not to be "poetic," but to give it a pulse that makes it easier to speak and easier to hear. The actual sound of lines written in verse can be comprehended more easily by a listener than prose, because in addition to the tones and pitches, rhythmic clues help convey the message. (It is also marginally easier to speak because there are no unintentional tongue twisters as are so common in prose). Scansion, despite the imposing sound of the word itself, is just the simple practice of checking the verse to be sure you understand its rhythm. As a matter of fact, the ominous sounding word ‘scansion’ can be safely substituted by the much simpler term "checking the rhythm."

F. Scansion: Describing the rhythms of poetry by dividing the lines into feet, marking the locations of stressed and unstressed syllables, and counting the syllables. Thus, when we describe the rhythm of a poem, we “scan” the poem and mark the stresses (/) and absences of stress (^) and count the number of feet.

SUMMARY—Scansion means: to scan a main or regular line of a poem by slowly reading it aloud to detect its rhythm; for this purpose, to identify the stressed and non-stressed syllables and note their arrangement; to describe such arrangement in terms of a particular type of foot; and, to count the number of feet in the line.


3.1. Reading the poem aloud—This is the first and most crucial part. It should never be missed. Reading the poem aloud is very helpful in understanding the rhythm. A poem that may appear on first sight to be rather haphazard may reveal itself to be in good rhythm when read aloud.

3.2 . Counting the number of syllables—The first step is to count as to how many syllables are there in the line. This can be tricky because people differ in the way they pronounce English. It is better to follow a standard dictionary. I would prefer a hard bound dictionary to an online one, though the latter may be handy in case of doubt or dispute. For those in US, it is better to follow a dictionary that follows US pronunciation. I have found the Random House Dictionary to be a good one for this purpose.

3.3. Denoting the syllables as stressed or unstressed.---Syllables can be of two types, stressed (accented) or unstressed (unaccented). Whether a syllable is stressed or unstressed is best determined by pronouncing it loud. When in doubt, try to speak the words aloud with one hand gently cradling your chin. In general, stressed syllables cause more chin movement than unstressed syllables.

Three methods are used to denote stressed or unstressed syllables:

a. By using symbols—

• The - indicates an unstressed syllable; the / indicates a stressed one.
• The u indicates an unstressed syllable; the / indicates a stressed one.
• The ^ indicates an unstressed syllable; the / indicates a stressed one.

b. By changing the case-- The stressed syllable is denoted by capitals.

c. By denoting sound-- DA indicates an unstressed syllable; DUM indicates a stressed one.

For purpose of illustration, let us take the opening line of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard":

"The curfew tolls the knell of parting day",

The arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables in above line is indicated below as per the five schemes described above--

- / - / - / - / - /

u / u / u / u / u /

^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ /

The CURfew TOLLS the KNELL of PARTing DAY,


Out of the different methods mentioned above, the most simple and obvious from the point of view of the ordinary user are the last two, since they avoid the use of special symbols. For the experts, the first is probably the easiest and most commonly used. The last has the special advantage that it denotes stress by invoking the soft and hard drum beats: DA DUM, DA DUM.

3.4. Identifying the repetitive rhythm —

When the line:

"The curfew tolls the knell of parting day",

Is written as:


It becomes clear that the pattern DA DUM is being repeated. It is obvious that the line consists of 5 sets, each denoted by DA DUM.

3.5. Identifying or naming the foot—

Each of the 5 sets mentioned above is called a foot. Thus we say that this line consists of 10 syllables or 5 feet of 2 syllables each. The DA DUM foot as described above is the famous iambic foot which is the commonest in English poetry.

A brief description of various feet is given below:

IAMBIC foot consists of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. It can be heard in such words as "because, hello, Elaine".

TROCHAIC foot is the opposite of iambic. It consists of an accented syllable followed by an unaccented one. Examples of trochaic words: answer, Tuesday, Albert.

DACTYLIC foot consists of an accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables. You can hear the dactylic beat in these words: beautiful, silently, Saturday.

ANAPESTIC foot consists of two unaccented syllables followed by an accented syllable. These words are anapestic: cavalier, tambourine, Marianne.

SPONDAIC foot consists of two accented syllables, such as ‘amen’.

PYRRHIC foot consists of two unaccented syllables.

3.6. Naming the meter—

The number of feet in a line of poetry constitutes a meter. The basic meters are eight, named according to the number of feet in a line:

monometer = a line of poetry with only one foot
dimeter = a line with two feet
trimeter = a line with three feet
tetrameter =a line with four feet
pentameter=a line with five feet (Shakespeare's favorite)
hexameter =a line with six feet (the French love it)
heptameter=a line with seven feet
octameter=a line with eight feet

It should now be obvious that the meter of the line

"The curfew tolls the knell of parting day",

Is iambic pentameter. The words meter and rhythm are often used interchangeably.


Scansion involves marking the rhythms of a poem to make the writer's technique visible. The main purpose of scansion is to identify and categorize a verse as belonging to a specific or particular type, much as a biologist can label an animal or plant as belonging to a certain species. In other words, scansion helps in analyzing, identifying and labeling the structure of the verse.


a. The main use is that using this method, the reader is able to more fully understand and appreciate a poem and also to recognize its literary worth. The essential characteristic of a poem, which is generally absent in prose, is the rhythm. A piece of prose can be an endless enterprise. A piece of verse has definite pauses indicated by line breaks, each line consisting of a regular arrangement of words as reflected in the feet and the syllabic composition of a foot. Such predetermined, specified arrangement renders a definite rhythm, allowing the verse to be presented in the form of a musical composition. In this sense, scansion may even be referred to as a measure of the lyrical or musical potential / quality of a verse. Scansion helps us realize how poets play with meter and rhythm to create meaning. It can sometimes help us see layers of meaning that we could not see or hear without scansion.

b. The knowledge of scansion helps in appreciating the constraints and need of a poet to use certain apostrphic contractions and to deviate slightly from the established conventions of grammar, syntax and sentence structure, but within the limits of poetic license, in the interest of maintaining the metric rhythm.

For example:

Love is an emotion that is unique,
It just cannot be kindled or be killed.
Coming from heart, it does not bear critique,
It has been as man’s strongest power billed.
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In the above, a lay reader might be tempted to comment that the fourth line is awkward or grammatically flawed. The connoisseur would, however, know that it is within the permissible limits of poetic license, necessitated by the requirements of rhyme, and, simply, to be understood as: "It has been billed as man’s strongest power".

c. Another use is that scansion can be used as a test to differentiate traditional or formal verse from non-traditional or non-formal or free or blank verse. The use of scansion technique is quite handy when it is to be ascertained whether a poem with apparent rhyme and rhythm is in meter.

d. The technique of scansion is invaluable to differentiate the writing styles of the masters of poetry. For example, the form known as iambic pentameter has become synonymous with Shakespearean sonnets.


6.1 METER V. PERFECTION--A discussion of scansion should not detract from the fact that though meter is an essential characteristic of classical, traditional poetry, it is but a means to an end and not the end itself. The ultimate beauty of poetry lies in depth, feeling and rhythm. Meter ensures rhythm. However, a poem devoid of depth, feeling and spontaneity (which may be described as the attribute that shows that the poem has flown from the heart), but perfect in terms of meter, would be like a house of concrete and steel, made as per architectural drawings, without any living beauty and aesthetics. That is why imperfections of meter are often found in the works of great poets. Such structural imperfections are, in a way, essential to bring functional perfection.

About 90% of all metered English verse is in the iambic form. As already mentioned, sticking to this or any other form, like a mathematical formula, would kill poetry. This is neither possible, nor desirable. Judson Jerome has estimated that 35%-40% or more of the iambic poetry in classical literature consists of feet that are variant, primarily trochees (DUM da), anapests (da da DUM), pyrrhics (da da), and spondees (DUM DUM).

6.2 NUMBER-BASED SCANSION—This is mentioned here just for the sake of enumerating this method. Some poets have used it by assigning numbers rather than symbols to syllables with varying degrees of stress, as per a four-tiered system, as follows:

1 = weak
2 = semi-weak
3 = semi-strong
4 = strong

6.3 RHYME-- Scansion is often considered to include, additionally, an analysis of the rhyme scheme. For this purpose, a letter is assigned to the last word of each line. For example, let us consider the first quatrain of Shakespeare's sonnet 147:

My love is as a fever, longing still a
For that which longer nurseth the disease, b
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill, a
Th' uncertain sickly appetite to please. b

The first line ends with "still," so we assign the value a to it. Because the second line does not rhyme with the first one, we assign it a value of b. Line three rhymes with line one, so it has the same value of a. The fourth line rhymes with the second, so it gets a b. The rhyme scheme here is, therefore, stated to be abab.

6.4 IMPORTANCE OF RHYTHM AND METER-- There is an inseparable relation between music and poetry. The major poetical characteristic that lends musical quality to poetry is rhythm. Rhythm and meter are closely related. The dictionary definition of meter is: rhythm as given by division into parts of equal time. The word meter comes from the word metronome, which is a device to measure beats within a definite time frame. It is used to set the tempo for a piece of music. Classic poetry, like any musical creation, has both rhythm and meter. The job of both music and poetry is to bring some sort of emotion to the reader or listener; to touch their hearts with the words the poet has written. We have all listened to a song and suddenly realized we are crying. Such power over our emotions, which is the hallmark of good poetry, is enhanced if the poetry has rhythm.

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M C Gupta
1 June 2006
© Copyright 2006 Dr M C Gupta (mcgupta44 at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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