Scansion

Scansion” is the process by which we assess and assign a meter to a poem or section of a poem, and although it was first defined to assess what was going on in ancient Greek and Latin poetry (which were much more regular in their meters), it applies just as well to free verse, and will equip you with quite a precise way of talking about poetic meter. Scansion involves breaking a line of poetry into feet. A foot of poetry can have two or three beats to it, but is always defined by the place in the foot that receives the stress. For example, you are probably familiar with the iamb, a two-beat foot with the stress on the second beat [ /΄ˇ/ ]. The opposite is the troche, a two-beat foot with the stress on the first beat [ /΄ˇ/ ]. A side note: most first names are troches [Ja’ son], and all US Presidents have trochaic first names except Barack Obama’s: [ba rack’]). A two-beat foot in which both beats seem stressed is a spondee [ /΄΄/ ] ; the opposite, a two-beat foot with no stresses, is called a pyrrhic  (though some poetry critics deny this foot actually exists) [ /ˇˇ/ ]. Three-beat feet include the anapest, two unstressed followed by a stressed beat [ /ˇˇ΄/ ], the dactyl [ /΄ˇˇ/ ], a stressed followed by two unstressed beats. Emily Dickinson’s name contains two dactyls, as Emily Cope observed in her awesome poem “Emily Dickinson,” which is composed entirely of dactyls:

 

Higgledy-piggledy
Emily Dickinson
Liked to use dashes
Instead of full stops.

 

Nowadays, faced with such
Idiosyncrasy,
Critics and editors
Send for the cops.

It’s one thing to be given a single word and be asked what kind of foot it exhibits (something you should prepare to do on the exam) and another to look at a whole stanza or a whole poem and do the same thing (this assessment of the poetic meter is the scansion). What you want to do is look at multiple lines of the poem, and mark stresses over the syllables that seem like they need to be stressed because they are important to the meaning, since not all syllables of a word, especially the long ones, are as important as others: nouns and verbs are more important than prepositions and articles, for example, and syllables within words should be stressed (at least when you are starting out) in the same way they would be if you were speaking them aloud. It’s a process related to figuring out where to put a hyphen in a word if you need to split it up between two lines of text, which I’ve just realized may not even be taught in school anymore since the advent of word-processing software that does this for us. Ok: you want to group letters together into syllables in such a way that you keep long-vowel sounds consistent (you wouldn’t hyphenate “spider” as “spid- / er” any more than you would pronounce it with a short vowel sound).

Start with the words you’re positive about, and move through the text marking it up until you feel confident that you’ve located a pattern. The following is the short medieval poem “Westron Wind” we read during the first week of class:

 

 Westron wind, when wilt thou blow?

The small rain down can rain.

Christ that my love were in my arms

And I in my bed again.

 

Since the poem is about how badly the speaker wants the wind to blow (possibly he’s out in a sailboat during a calm and can’t get home), there’s a good chance “wind” and “blow” are stressed. Add the fact that it’s raining to this horrible calm, and I would stress “rain,” “down,” and “rain” in the second line. “Christ” sounds like an exclamation (so stress it), and if he’s thinking of the joys of home, probably the third line puts stress on “love,” “arms,” and probably “in” (because that’s where she ought to be); and in the fourth line “bed” and some part of “again” are stressed (probably the second syllable for finality). The rest is murky. In the first line, it might depend on the medieval pronunciation of “westron” (some versions of the poem spell it “western,” which is helpful); and the choice between “when” and “wilt” might depend on whether you think the speaker is stressing time or trying to will the wind into blowing (the second line could be paraphrased, ‘look the rain is doing something, why can’t you, Wind?’). So you need to figure out a pattern to help yourself with the murky bits. Start with the parts you know best. The last line suggests an ascending stress (iamb, anapest, iamb), and so does the third, if you make an exception for the interjection at the start (troche, iamb, iamb, iamb). Since the first line now looks like it may also have four stresses (somewhere in “westron,” “wind,” [“when” or “wilt”], and “blow” and the second could probably also have three, that gives us a 4-3-4-3 quatrain. You name the meter after the number of feet (half the number of beats), so this would be a tetrameter/trimeter quatrain.

 

When a given foot deviates from the pattern that the majority of lines follows, we call that instance a modulation, and we can specify the type of inversion from the norm that it indicates. So, in a generally iambic poem like this one, the “Christ that” foot at the start of the third line is a trochaic inversion. I suspect “rain down” is a spondee, too, another modulation from the norm (a spondaic inversion). Imagine for a moment that the poem started, “O Westron Wind, when wilt thou blow?” with all the appropriate punctuation – this sounds like normal iambic meter, and our job would have been substantially easier. But it’s the curious poems like this one that call for scansion. This whole poem is short, brief, and melancholy; the meter’s contortions help us see how much the sailor wants the wind to blow.

Westron wind, when wilt thou blow?

The small rain down can rain.

Christ that my love were in my arms

And I in my bed again.

 

You might also think about it this way: realizing how the meter of a poem acts can help you decide how its speaker ought to be listened to. The meaning of the speaker’s sentences has to contend with the rhythm the poem creates, and these can either underscore (amplify) his or her words with artistic effect, or undermine them by consistently getting the reader to stress the wrong words (this can also be an effect of lineation). So, for “Westron Wind,” the unexpected spondee in the second line focuses your attention on the futility the speaker feels as even the rain has more volition than he does (he can only sit and wait for the wind, while the rain can make him as wet as it likes); similarly, the trochaic inversion in the third line serves to underscore the feeling behind his exclamation (which in the medieval period would be near blasphemous! Unless you assume this is actually a prayer, in which case it’s all good and he probably won’t be executed).

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