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More on Scansion

If scanning a line of verse is difficult for you, do not fret.  As the cliché goes, practice makes perfect.  In this lesson, I’ll go over some of the tricks of scansion and offer some ways to more easily identify a line’s meter.

Take this opening line of one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, titled either “Sonnet 18” or by the first line:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Your first task should be to identify polysyllabic words that can only be pronounced in one way.  “Compare” and “summer’s” are two such words, an iamb and a trochee, respectively:

         ˘  /              /  ˘
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Saying “COMpare” or “sumMER’S” would sound awkward, as this is not how they are pronounced in normal speech.  We have another hint in “a,” which is part of the article-noun combination: “a summer’s.”  Nearly always, an article is left unstressed to allow accent to fall of the significantly more important noun (especially with a monosyllabic noun, though it holds true even for polysyllables).  We can apply this principle:

         ˘  /           ˘  /  ˘
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Looking at the last syllable, “day,” we can clearly accentuate it.  It is natural for a noun following such a weak syllable as “-mer’s” to be stressed.  Also, our voices tend to rise at the end of a question (though they don’t necessarily have to).  So we have:

         ˘  /           ˘  /  ˘     /
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

This leaves “Shall I” and “thee to.”  Already you should be noticing a pattern of iambs in the six syllables we have scanned so far.  Looking at these two feet, we have a possibility of either an iamb or a trochee in each, depending on which syllable we consider to be more important.  This is where looking at the entire line becomes necessary.

Let’s look at the third foot, “thee to,” first.  Is it truly important, rhetorically, to give the pronoun a stress?  No.  But neither is it important for the preposition, “to,” to receive stress.  However, given the content and the fact that this foot is surrounded by iambs, I consider “to” to be slightly more stressed than either “thee” or “a,” the syllables surrounding it.  Thus we can apply MCA and scan this foot as an iamb:

         ˘  /     ˘  /  ˘  /  ˘     /
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Note:  I am not in any way claiming that “to” should receive as much stress as “-pare” or “sum-,” nor am I saying that “thee” is as weak as “a.”  But since it is stronger than the syllables on either side of it, we scan it as a stress.

Now we only have “Shall I” remaining, which again is either an iamb or a trochee.  While it is perfectly acceptable--and often effective, as we’ll see in Lesson 2--to substitute a trochee for an iamb, there is no reason for it here, except to add a slight emphasis to the fact that the line is a question.  Because this is not a strong reason, the foot should also be scanned as an iamb.  So our finished scansion is perfect iambic pentameter, as we see when we add our foot divisions:

  ˘   / |˘  /  |  ˘  / |˘  / |˘     /
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Note:  There are often, as discussed, several possible ways to scan a given line.  So long as the scansion is logically justifiable, it is not “incorrect,” though in nearly all (I won’t say all, because as soon as I do, someone will find an exception) lines, there is a scansion that is “more correct” than any other.

Also Note:  When reading verse aloud, the reader may choose to stress syllables that might not normally be stressed (such as, in this example, “thee”).  In scansion, however, we must work only with the written words and apply the stresses as the words themselves suggest, regardless of how we might perform it in a reading.

All clear on that?  Let’s try another.  This is a line from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee”:

But our love it was stronger by far than the love

Once again we have a couple clues to get us started.  “Stronger” can only be logically pronounced as a trochee, and “the love” is another article-noun combination.  So we can start our scansion:

                       /  ˘               ˘   /
But our love it was stronger by far than the love

Now that we have these, we can look for other primary stresses.  The first instance of “love” seems to me to be a rather strong syllable in this line.  We can also look for short phrases that work like polysyllabic words in the way they can be pronounced.  “By far” is one such phrase; the emphasis tends to fall on “far.”  So our scansion so far looks like:

         /             /  ˘   ˘  /        ˘   /
But our love it was stronger by far than the love

Note:  Does “by” really receive an equal stress to “-ger”?  No.  But the heavier accents on “stron-” and on “far” overshadow both syllables so much that we can count them as unstressed.

No other strong accents exist in this line, and you’ll probably notice the two-syllable spaces between each stress, suggesting anapestic meter.  Before we jump to conclusions, however, we want to look for syllables that might receive MCA.  Because each unscanned syllable, save one, is bordered on one side by a strong stress, MCA is unlikely here.  Ignore “but” for now, and compare “our,” “it,” “was,” and “than” to the syllables on either side of them.  You should find that none of them feels strong enough to be equal to the stressed syllable, so we let them all remain unstressed:

     ˘   /   ˘   ˘     /  ˘   ˘  /    ˘   ˘   /
But our love it was stronger by far than the love

Now we have one syllable remaining.  Should “but” be stressed or unstressed?  Try reading the line aloud a few times, stressing “but” and leaving it unstressed.  As a conjunction, it is a ready candidate for MCA, however it does not seem strong enough to overpower “our” sufficiently for us to consider it stressed.  So we will leave it unstressed and add our foot divisions:

˘    ˘   / | ˘   ˘     / |˘   ˘  /  | ˘   ˘   /
But our love it was stronger by far than the love

And we see anapestic tetrameter.  Let’s try one more, again from Shakespeare.  This time we’ll look at the first line of the witches’ incantation in Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1:

Double, double, toil and trouble

This time we have three polysyllabic words as hints for where to begin, giving us an easy time of scanning 75% of the syllables:

/   ˘    /  ˘              /  ˘
Double, double, toil and trouble

The remaining two syllables should be easy for you.  Obviously “and” isn’t nearly as powerful as “trou-” and is probably weaker than “toil,” which is clearly stronger than the “-ble” that precedes it.  So we’re practically done, and just need to insert our foot divisions:

/   ˘  | /  ˘  | /    ˘  | /  ˘
Double, double, toil and trouble

And we have a very obvious trochaic tetrameter.  Trochaic meter, when written without substitutions, is often very easy to scan.  This is because it requires strong stresses to avoid slipping into iambic meter, to which the English language naturally leans.

I hope this helps you with your scansion.  If you’d like further practice, here are some more lines to scan:

Scansion Exercises 1.5
    1.  I went to turn the grass once after one       - Robert Frost, “The Tuft of Flowers” 2.  And we marked not the night of the year       - Edgar Allan Poe, “Ulalume” 3.  Good folk, I have no coin       - Christina Rossetti, “Goblin Market” 4.  As fair art thou, my bonnie lass       - Robert Burns, “A Red, Red Rose” 5.  And with the juice of this I’ll streak her eyes       - William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream 6.  A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want       - Percy Bysshe Shelley, “To a Skylark” 7.  Verse and nothing else have I to give you       - Robert Browning, “One Word More” 8.  Where the traveler’s journey is done       - William Blake, “Ah!  Sunflower”
Because this is very closely linked to Lesson 1, I don't think it should count as its own lesson. This is for those who are having trouble scanning poetry, though it still addresses only immaculate meter--since I haven't discussed substitutions yet.

I hope it helps.
Jmas Featured By Owner Nov 18, 2006
Just one issue (coming from someone who believes to know a tad about metrics): it is perfectly acceptable to belive, and often - in fact - believed so, that Shakespeare's Sonnet XVIII opens with a trochee, in accordance to the "accepted rules" of feet-substitutions.

So it can be either way, and there is reason to assume that Shakespeare began the first line of his famous sonnet with a trochee since it *does* strengthen the line as a question. Though not overruling the belief that the foot is an iamb, it is certainly - to my understanding - reason enough that highlighting the line as a question would qualify for a minor substitution that is within accepted rules.

Just my two cents. :) Also, be careful when you write down the name of The Scottish Play; last time I told someone on the cast "G.L. in M." a cast member's family member was killed. (No I don't believe in that superstition, it's just fun...)
Professor-Flare Featured By Owner Nov 18, 2006   Writer
I agree that it can be scanned either way, but for the purpose of example, and in isolation, I considered it an iamb.

I'll be covering substitutions in Lesson 2, which is about 75% complete at the moment. I'll try to revisit this line in it to clarify.

Thanks for pointing that out :)
Jmas Featured By Owner Nov 19, 2006
You're welcome. I highly await that next lesson, God only knows I could use some science in substitutions rather than do the trick myself.

Also, you might consider discussing the deeper properties of feet at some point, analysing the difference between all the various feet that slip into each other (mainly trysyllabic ones) - similarly to chords that all vary somewhat, but often unconsciously. Don't forget rising and falling. :)
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