Scansion, or the process of marking the metrical patterns of a line of poetry, is not nearly as difficult as it sounds, especially if you are a naturally rhythmic person.
Before we get into actually deciphering stressed and unstressed syllables, let’s take a look at the symbols we’ll use to mark these:
´=stressed syllable (represented here by UPPERCASE letters)
˘=unstressed syllable (represented here by lowercase letters)
This is basic, to be sure, but enough to start with.
Now, a good way to start “scanning” a line of poetry is to look for the multi-syllabic words (that’s not nearly as difficult as it sounds–just find the words in the line that have two or more syllables). Let us take, for instance, the first line of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1849 poem, “Annabel Lee”:
It was many and many a year ago,
The first multi-syllabic word is, of course, “many.” Now say it out loud to determine where the stress is placed. “MAN-y.” The stress is placed on the first syllable. We mark this out as such:
mánў (or MANy)
To find the rest of the stressed and unstressed syllables in the line, start keeping a moderate beat: snap your fingers, clap your hands, tap your toes, kick a drum even–it doesn’t matter as long as you’ve got a steady beat going (four steady quarter-notes, for those of you who are musically inclined). Start your beat (snap your fingers, clap your hands, etc.) on the first syllable of “many”–the word that starts with a stressed syllable. Now say the rest of the line to your beat…what you will find is that the stressed syllables will appear with every new snap of your finger, clap of your hands, etc. So we find that the rhythmic pattern in the Poe line is (starting with the first “many”):
…MANy and MANy a YEAR aGO,
What about the first two words in the line, you might ask? You can find these rhythms a couple of ways, but again, the easiest is to use your steady beat. You will find that in order to keep the above rhythm working throughout the rest of the line, the first two syllables NEED to both be unstressed; otherwise, the rhythm is thrown into disarray. Just try to start the “downbeat” (or the first stressed syllable) on “It” or “was,” and you will find that you will not get far without stumbling. Make “It” and “was” both unstressed, however, and leave the first syllable of “many” stressed, and your rhythm works perfectly fine.
So let’s look at the first stanza of “Annabel Lee”…I’ll give you the first four lines; see if you can’t keep up the “beat” and scan the other two lines for the appropriate stressed and unstressed syllables:
It was MANy and MANy a YEAR aGO
In a KINGdom BY the SEA
That a MAIDen there LIVED whom YOU may KNOW
By the NAME of ANnabel LEE;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
What you’ll find is that all of the stressed syllables will ALWAYS be found when you clap your hands.
So, if you’ve got rhythm–even the slightest bit!–you can perform scansion with ease!
Now that we’ve figured out how to find the metrical patterns, let’s now discuss how to classify them.
There are many different types of “metrical feet,” or measurements that we use to classify the various types of “beat patterns,” if you will. For example, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (˘´) is called an iamb. Here are the different types of metrical feet (these are divided up into the number of syllables in the foot, 2 (“disyllable”), 3 (“trisyllable”), and 4 (“tetrasyllable”):
˘˘ pyrrhus (aka dibrach)
´˘ trochee (aka choree)
˘˘´ anapest (aka antidactylus)
´˘´ cretic (amphimacer)
´˘˘˘ primus paeon
˘´˘˘ secundus paeon
˘˘´˘ tertius paeon
˘˘˘´ quartus paeon
´´˘˘ major ionic (aka double trochee)
˘˘´´ minor ionic (aka double iamb)
˘´´´ first epitrite
´˘´´ second epitrite
´´˘´ third epitrite
´´´˘ fourth epitrite
Now, how often will you have to know and apply knowledge of metrical feet such as the cretic and the antispast? Probably never. You will most certainly be required to know of the iamb, however, as it is the metrical foot found most commonly in the poetry and plays of William Shakespeare.
For example, we see that this line from Romeo and Juliet:
But SOFT! what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS?
that there are FIVE sets of iambs (hence the term iambic pentameter, from the Greek meaning [essentially], “a meter of five iambs”). Because Shakespeare wrote the majority of his poems and plays in iambic pentameter, his lines are actually among the easiest to scan because you already know what you’re looking for (i.e., five sets of iambs).
In the end, what importance does this play in actual life?
Well, probably none, unless you make literary study and criticism your trade. Otherwise, once you get those fingers snapping and the poetry a-beating, it’s just plain fun!*
[*NOTE: “Fun” is, if nothing else, a terribly subjective term, I’m afraid…:)]