the basics of
"Meter is a form of rhythmic cognition."
-- Harvey Gross
|back to 397 revised week
You may want to read the discussion of iambic meter & scansion before you try to scan any poems, or you may want to work at it for a while and then come back to the discussion to see if it helps. Either way, do read this material carefully at some point.
Quick Reference / Syllabic Meter / Accentual Meter
Getting started scanning
Meter = measure.
Syllabic meter = only syllables are counted
Accentual meter = only stressed syllables are counted
Modern accentual meter is usually a half-way point between free verse and a tighter meter. Numbers of syllables per line will vary, but the number of strong stresses will stay the same. Sometimes lines may have different numbers of syllables, arranged in a pattern that repeats, but more often the lines are the same length.
Syllable-stress meter = counts both syllables and stresses
and describes them as falling in 'feet.'
Caesura = strong pause in a line, usually punctuated
There are four basic meters in English poetry:
Iambic = taDUM taDUM (a single foot is an iamb)
Iambic meter is by far the most common in English language poetry, and it is the only one you need attend to in this class.
Other metrical feet, used as substitute feet in one of the above meters, include:
Spondaic = DUM DUM (two stresses in a foot) (a single foot is a
These sometimes occur together in a “double iamb” = tataTUMTUM,
counted as 2 feet
The length of the line is measured in metrical feet.
monometer = one foot (rare) dimeter = two feet
Thus, a line five feet long, in iambic meter, is called iambic pentameter,
while a line four feet long, in iambic meter, is called iambic tetrameter.
These are the two most common lines in English language poetry. Lines of
any length and meter, however, can be described by this system.
Because syllabic meter cannot be heard in English, many writers on prosody dismiss it as a phantom relying secretly on accentual-syllabic meter. It is true that mere syllable count alone will not provide any audible rhythm to the poem. The spoken rhythms of syntax, and the way phrases or sentences break across the lines, provide the rhythm we hear in many syllabic poems.
In Thom Gunn’s “My Sad Captains” (in your earlier handout) note the forceful syntax, the variable number of stresses in each line (from 2 to 4) and the phrasing of the line endings. Though it sounds conversational, even discursive, Gunn’s poem has a light, but definitely present, metrical affect. Notice how the stresses shift around, don’t occur at predictable locations in the line: sometimes close together, sometimes separated by little clusters of unstressed syllables. The caesurae also shift around, some lines having none, so the lines don’t become mechanical in their rhythm.
Writing Normative Syllabics
Any poem in which each line has the same number of syllables can appear to be written in normative syllabics. However, if the line also has a regular pattern of stresses it may in fact be in a more common syllable-stress meter. If, for example, you find a poem has ten syllables in every (or nearly every) line, it may be iambic pentameter; or if every line has eight syllables, it may be iambic tetrameter.
Since the difference between syllabic and syllable-stress meter is that syllabic meter does not count stresses, the point of using syllabics is to exploit that difference. In other words, allow your lines to have different numbers of stresses. Use syntax to create an affective rhythm, as the sentence cuts across the (inaudible) syllable count. Take care with your diction and with how you place caesurae and you can create lines that sound longer or shorter, slower or faster, though each one has the same syllable count. Study the opening lines of "My Sad Captains," for an example, and the other syllabic poems in your handout.
Normative syllabics offer a mid-way point between free verse and syllable-stress metrical verse. The fixed line length provides a constant frame to work in, while retaining the syntactical freedom that makes free verse so attractive. Try poems in several line lengths.
from Virginia Britannia -- Marianne Moore
Pale sand edges England’s Old
This poem uses a pattern in which the corresponding lines of each stanza have the same number of syllables. This is called quantitative syllabics. Moore herself did not call her verse syllabic: she emphasized instead the construction of a stanza and spoke of her poems as made of stanzas. Notice her precise phrases in intricate relation to the line. Individual words are brought to the surface of our attention, as are the duration of vowels and the sounds of words. The poem has a rhyme scheme, after all. Notice how the speed of the lines is controlled by syntax, then cut across by the line-end. We are not required to hear all the line-ends (or wouldn’t hear them, if the poem was being read to us) but we do see them all. The shaped stanzas of Moore’s poems create a kind of visual rhythm and visual wit, which is underscored by the rhyme, assonance and consonance, the isolated words (Dominion, deer-/track, brick) and the alliteration of (wild) parishioner and parson.
The affect as we read line-by-line is analytical. In contrast, the sense of the stanza is accumulative. Moore works by detail. We don’t know as we begin the poem that we are looking at a particular thing--only by accrued detail and the final line do we come to realize we are looking at a single grave (John Smith’s, as we learn in subsequent stanzas). All this method is made possible, plausible, and witty by the meter, which is both arbitrary and exacting, simple and complicating.
Accentual verse is the oldest, the original meter of English, and unlike syllabics it is easily heard. Its difference from syllable-stress meter is that we don’t count syllables, only strong stresses. So, exploit its principle qualities: keep your stress count constant per line but let the number of unstressed syllables vary. Syntax will still be important, as will the relationship of sentence to line, but in accentual verse you also have a metrical beat, a line-length we can hear. As in all forms, placement of caesurae will help control the pace and rhythm of your lines.
In class we will look at some accentual lines from William Butler Yeats’ “Easter 1916”and practice scanning this kind of verse.
Notes on Iambic Meter
We have three kinds of stress in our language. Semantic stress is that marked in a dictionary to indicate accepted pronunciation(s). This is a binary system of relatively more or less stress -- only slightly complicated by acknowledgment of secondary stress in polysyllabic words. For example: you might mark this word one of two ways:
árbitráry -- marking both stresses as if they were equal, orGrammatical stress is used to convey meaning in a sentence. It falls on the stressed syllables of the most important words. It is not codified in the manner of semantic stress, but it is recognizable and fairly consistent among different speakers. The fact that it can shift in context is part of what makes it useful.
He dránk his wíne. can become Hé drank his wine. Shé drank his whisky.Rhetorical stress is even more variable, and serves to convey certain kinds of unstated meaning, governed by context, as in:
She drank his whísky? if she is someone who never drinks whiskyAll these kinds of stress may play a role in the creation and deciphering of metrical stress, and in the relationships between meter and spoken rhythm in a poem or line.
How many levels of stress should you mark in scansion? Two? three? four?
The fundamental fact about meter is that it is a binary system. Meter does not concern itself with the absolute measurement of stress (as would, for example, a linguist trying to precisely record the individual performance of a poem). Meter concerns itself only with relative stress. Does this syllable receive more or less stress than the syllables on either side of it? To answer yes and mark a syllable as stressed does not mean that you hear all metrically stressed syllables as equally stressed. In
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sungrammatical stress causes most of us hear more stress on MIStress and NOTHing than we do on eyes, like, or sun. A few readers may even hear rhetorical stress on MY, which thus demotes mistress to two unstressed syllables and gives the line a reversed first foot. In either case, force of stress is not equally distributed throughout the line. These variations in the level of stress can be confusing when you are learning to scan. For some, the confusion is lessened if at least three levels of stress are marked: heavy stress, milder stress, and unstressed. For others, this only adds to the confusion. Use whichever system suits you, but remember that what you are looking for is relative stress in a binary system of less and more.
Related to the question of how many kinds of marks to use when scanning is the question of the spondee. Some prosodists argue that there is no true spondee in English, that in every apparent spondee we hear more stress on one syllable than on the other. They make the same argument for the phyrrhic foot, and for the "double iamb" when a phyrrhic is followed by a spondee (- - / / ) and counted as two feet.
OK, so whether you acknowledge the spondee or the double iamb may depend on whether you want to use a more or a less sensitive system for recognizing stress. It may also depend on whether you want to mark the meter and assume a reader can hear how strongly the unstressed syllable fights for recognition, or mark the stress you hear there and assume a reader can hear the slight dominance of the metrically-reinforced syllable. In Wordsworth's line, for example, is it
No MO | tion HAD | she NOW,|| no FORCE or
No MO | tion HAD | she NOW,|| NO FORCE
that best helps you hear the emotion and prepare for the poem's
Variation in the level of stress falling on each metrically stressed syllable generally increases as the line lengthens.
The four-beat (iambic or accentual) line of song, ballad, children's verse, comic verse, and the like, almost always employs a strict mutual reinforcement of syntax and stress. Stressed syllables are strongly stressed, unstressed syllables are much weaker. In some cases, the tune or chant to which the words belong may be needed to locate the patterns, but once a pattern is established it enforces itself. Stress and its opposite are rarely confused.
Even in high-art verse, tetrameter retains its relation to song
and to fixed rhythms, especially when it occurs in a quantrain stanza. Even
in stichic forms, like continuous couplets, iambic tetrameter sounds less
conversational, less ample and fulsome, than iambic pentameter. (The other
reason is that the longer line provides more room for modifiers, dependent
clauses, and etc., to modulate both idea and syntax.)
On quantity or duration:
Poets who have tried to write in a quantitative meter in English have mostly made quantity and stress coincide, which makes it a moot point. On the other hand, hearing quantity instead of stress in lines where they don't coincide is yet another way to go wrong when first learning to scan, and the frequency of that mistake illustrates the importance of quantity or duration as a variable in the line's sound. In other words, though quantity can't be the basis of meter in English, the quantity or duration of vowels remains an extremely important factor in the effect a line achieves. This line is from Theodore Roethke, a 20th c. American poet:
She slowed to sigh, in that long interval.Though "long" receives no metrical stress, it is longer in duration than the last three stressed syllables: that, in, and val. Learning to hear the modulations of duration playing with and against the meter is one measure and one pleasure of a "good ear" for English verse. Robert Pinsky has written about this example from Thomas Campion:
Now winter nights enlargeIt scans like this:
Now WIN | ter NIGHTS | enLARGEbut it is easy to hear that all stressed syllables here are not alike. Notice how little prominence the first syllable of 'winter' receives: not only is 'win' a shorter syllable than 'now,' it's even shorter than its own second syllable, 'ter.' Compare 'win' to 'nights' and 'large' and you begin to understand why that first line has such a sense of swelling and crescend--an affect we cannot account for by meter alone.
On Scansion: How to do it, Why do it
A) Remember that you are scanning relative stress in a binary system of less and more. See discussion of levels of stress.
B) Since expressive and conventional substitutions are most common at the beginning of the line, it often helps to scan the line in reverse: look at the last couple of feet first... but don't be fooled by hypermetrical syllables (extra unstressed syllables at ends of lines) and feminine rhymes.
The most common variations at the beginning of the line are:
C) If you are unsure of a metrical pattern, say the line aloud with heavy overemphasis on the stressed syllables. Performing them as rap may help. For example:
And TROUBle deaf HEAVen WITH my BOOTless CRIES is wholly mechanical
pattern, with virtually no reference to spoken English--modern or Elizabethan.
D) Look at the meter of the poem not just individual lines. Context helps in interpreting metrical phenomena. In a tetrameter context we would probably scan:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now as LOVEliest | of TREES, | the CHER | ry NOW
while the same line in an iambic pentameter context might look headless, like this:
x LOVE | liEST | of TREES,| the CHER | ry NOW
Here you can see the principle of relative stress at work
as that secondary stress on the last syllable of loveliest gets promoted
and demoted. However, no context, metrical or otherwise, can change the
relative value of the two stresses within the word. In other words,
it can never be scanned loveliEST.
E) When faced with variations, substitutions, and multiple metrical possibilities, choose the simplest explanation. For example, if you find this line in an iambic pentameter poem, the second scansion makes more sense than the first one.
F) In poems of consistent iambic pentameter, a quick glance at the placement of caesurae may provide an introductory clue as to whether the lines before you tend more to the formally regular or more toward the rhythms of thought or speech.
G) Looking at the meter of the whole poem also means considering what kind of poem it is. Is it a short lyric, perhaps a song, whose meter is consistently patterned from stanza to stanza? Or is it closer to speech stress, using what the Elizabethans called "strong lines" of rough meter? In the latter sort of poem you must understand the syntax and the expressive speech of the poem in order to scan it -- meter and meaning illuminate each other in a manner more dramatic than lyrical. When we read this stanza by Thomas Campion:
When to her lute Corinna sings,
we know almost without looking that its second stanza will follow the same pattern: Iambic tetrameter in short couplets, masculine rhyme, first and last lines beginning with a reversed foot, the others regular. Set to music, the stanzas of this short lyric could easily be sung to the same repeating tune. The stanzas of John Donne's "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day" also follow a metrical pattern: corresponding lines in each stanza have the same number of feet and a predictable rhyme scheme. But to read these lines, let alone scan them, we must fully understand them; and, sometimes, to fully understand them we must figure out how to scan them:
Study me then, you who shall lovers be
These lines adhere not to a repeatable tune, but to dramatic speech:
we find their stresses much as we find them in Shakespeare's blank verse.
Yet there is more to reading meter here than fitting our tongues around speech.
The stanza plays many things off against each other, including long and short
lines, masculine and feminine rhymes, speech stress and metrical pattern.
Note in line 3 that the need to reach a stressed, masculine rhyme instructs
us how to speak the line. Similarly and more significantly, the need to end
the last line on a stressed rhyme tells us we cannot place grammatical stress
on are. We must read that line, as John Hollander says, as if it were
parallel to the phrase "things which are hot" (Vision 53). And what
do we get when we do? We discover that the poet is not re-begot of things
which don't exist: but that he is re-begot of things which are nothingness.
H) "Iambic poems tend to resolve passages of rhythmic complication in strongly iambic lines, anapestic poems resolve on anapestic lines, and trochaic poems on trochaic lines." Charles O. Hartman. A good example of this principle at work is in the opening lines of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116.
Let me not to the marriage of true mindsTraditonally, the opening lines of a poem announce and establish its meter. In these opening lines, trochaic and (possibly) spondaic substitution threaten to unseat iambic pentameter altogether. We are drawn out of conflict in the nick of time by the perfectly iambic third line. The fourth line retains that regularity and trumps it: there the iambic finally becomes emphatic enough to take over the rhythmic rhetoric of the poem.
Proponents of the spondee, such as Annie Finch, argue that scanning a spondee at the end of line 1, and another created by rhetorical stress on not in line 2 is the best way to show this rhythmic and emotional conflict. If you scan with three levels of stress, as I have done, you can make the rhythm visible in another way: by noting the mounting stress at the end of each of those first two lines. In the phrase of true minds each word receives more stress than the one before it. A similar effect is achieved in line two.
Lines three and four, however, move quite differently. Toward the end of line three, the unstressed syllables become notably weak and retiring. In line four, even stressed syllables fade away toward phyhrric, magnifying the remaining three strong stresses. After a disturbing entrance the poem is getting down to business, true; but has not relinquished its grand certainty. Line five comes back with a declaration and another rising rhythm in which very weak and very strong syllables march emphatically on our ears.
Finch makes an argument for inclusion of a phyrrhic foot a couple of lines later. Is it
IT is | the STAR | to EV | ry WAND | ering BARK or
It is | the STAR | to EV | ry WAND | ering BARK ?
Finch argues that "[t]he first foot is not a trochee; to scan it as such would obscure the earnest, hopeful, thwarted stretch of the second syllable towards a stress, and the consequent increase in energy that finally accompanies the awaited stress on 'star.'" (Baker 72) Others argue that what she is talking about is a rhythmic affect distinct from meter, though one of its effects. This line of thought would have it that we must first recognize the difference between meter and rhythm in order to feel the tension between them.
Of course, except when pressed for a scansion we are free to hear and adore such affects and effects with no necessity to make up our minds about their ontological status.
This little poem achieves its metrical affects specifically through a contrast and tension between metrical affects: that's easy to see, and to hear. Does it alternate trochaic and iambic couplets? Or does it alternate complete iambic lines with headless ones? Trochaic lines often drop the last, unstressed syllable, in order to end on a strong syllable. Iambic lines often drop the first, unstressed syllable in order to begin on a strong syllable. Both these tactics are more common in tetrameter than in pentameter poems, and both are common in the era of this poem. So where does that leave us?
The rule of thumb that says to use the simplest explanation would favor a description of headless iambs. But does that tell us anything that helps us to read the poem? One of the first things I noticed when I scanned the poem is that in the center couplet meter is secure: metrical and grammatical stress are in perfect agreement. No mistake can be made about the meter and yet no particular affect within the lines is achieved by meter. In the first and third couplets, the first line of each couplet is secure in its stresses (though we may hear a small rhetorical tug on not), even though we can't tell if the line is trochaic or iambic. In each of those couplets, however, the second line begins with a flex of metrical muscle. In line two, only meter guides the voice to stress in. In the last line, meter and rhetorical stress coincide to make love the most rhythmically important word in the poem.
So Hartman's rule of thumb in this case would suggest that since
the decisive metrical affect is trochaic, those lines and the entire poem
should be described as trochaic. Whether or not you agree with that description
of the poem's base meter, the important thing is that looking for metrical
stress, distress, and resolution, guided us to the poem's key word, its theme,
and its sense of internal order and expression. Note how many images, how
many lines of loss, hardness and coldness are balanced against the structural
force of that last love. Whether or not Richard Crashaw considered
his poem trochaic or iambic will always be unknown; that he made a poem
whose message is in its meter is a certainty.
Optional: For discussion of metrical variation in tetrameter couplets, see Anne Finch's
Unequal Fetters & Letter to Daphnis You'll need your Back button to get back to this page.
I) Remember that some historic sense helps in scansion. The trisyllabic foot is conspicuously absent in the Shakespearean sonnet line, for example; but the inverted foot, at strategic points of rhythmical tension, is often very much present. In Augustan verse, trisyllabic substitution is virtually forbidden -- they used instead the trick called syncope, a device by poets could make extra unwanted syllables disappear in order to keep their strictly syllabic line intact.
Correct scansion also requires a knowledge of how English pronunciation has changed over time. In Elizabethan English, “heaven” is one syllable. Thus we scan Shakespeare's line:
And TROUB | le DEAF | HEAVEN with | my BOOT | less CRIES
not as the wholly mechanical:
And TROUB | le deaf HEAV | en WITH | my BOOT | less CRIES
The correct scansion helps us to identify the line’s rhythmic (and
hence emotional) signature: the unusual inverted foot in the third position.
The incorrect scansion, based on modern pronunciation, requires us to pass
over “deaf” too lightly, reducing its impact and reducing the affect of its
assonance with “heaven.” The correct scansion also sets us up for a
punch on “bootless,” with the stressed syllable coming after two unstressed
J) Some lines (or poems) are hard to scan because they in fact fall in between syllable-stress (accentual syllabic) and accentual meter. Some lines may scan easily as iambic (or some other s-s meter), in others the distribution of stresses may be more irregular. Again, a knowledge of the history of meter can help you decide if you might be dealing with a hybrid--or if you’re just having trouble scanning. You might expect this metrical ambiguity, for example, in the years before syllable-stress became the norm--say, from Chaucer through the early Renaissance. You would not expect it following that, among the Elizabethan, Jacobean, or Augustan poets.
With the Romantic period (late 18th through early 19th centuries) came a new attitude toward meter. Lines became rougher, substitutions more frequent, triple feet and double iambs more common. Reversed feet began to show up in odd places. Keats, for example, often reversed the last foot of a line. In other words, the old native syllable-stress meter of English was reasserting itself. Poets were still counting stresses, but they had a markedly more casual attitude toward the placement of stresses and number of unstressed syllables allowed into a line.
By Victorian times, some poets began to go farther, consciously experimenting with alternative metrical concepts, most of which boiled down to a movement back toward strong stress poetry. In this era are several strong poets who for metrical and other reasons became the foundations of Modern poetry: Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson..
Thus, when we arrive at the modern era, the abandonment of meter
by many strong poets should be no surprise. Nor should a continuing confusion
as to what is metrical and what is not. Once vers libre was invented
in the 1890s in France new verse movements proliferated. While some have
written verse that is truly and entirely nonmetrical, far more poets (to this
day) write a nominally “free” verse that is loosely iambic, with uneven line
length and unrestricted substitutions and variations. Which of such poems
are worth analyzing metrically is a question that continues to vex.
Getting started scanning
Back to Top