Scansion annotates the lines, ensuring that the reader is aware of which beats are stressed or unstressed and where all the pauses are. Through the use of scansion, a reader can better understand how meter and rhythm are used and how they influence a poem. Scansion can also be used to analyze a poem’s broader structure. For example, how many lines there are and what the rhyme scheme is.
Definition of Scansion
Scansion refers to how a poem can be broken down into its parts. Specifically, so that the reader can analyze the meter, but, it can also be used to take a closer look at the rhyme scheme and the structure of the stanzas. Sometimes, scansion is known as “scanning.” When scanning, a reader notes where the stressed and unstressed syllables are divides them into their metrical feet, and takes note of where any important pauses are.
If you have never read a poem before, using scansion to figure out which beats are stressed and which are unstressed, and then how many there are per line, is a great way to get a handle on what metrical pattern the poet chose to use (or if they chose to use one at all).
Examples of Scansion
Consider these lines from Poe’s famous poem, ‘Annabel Lee.’ In this piece, he uses a combination of iambs and anapests. The following lines start the final stanza of the poem. In each line, the pauses between metrical feet have been indicated with a /, and the stressed beats are in bold.
For the moon / never beams, / without bring / ing me dreams
Of the beau / tiful Ann/ abel Lee;
And the stars / never rise, / but I feel / the bright eyes
Of the beau / tiful Ann / abel Lee;
In these lines, the first line of the excerpt uses four anapests, something that’s quite unusual in poetry. Often, poets find it challenging to use anapests or dactyls regularly. Earlier on in the poem, readers can find examples of how Poe combined anapests and iambs. For example, the first two lines which read:
It was ma /ny and ma /ny a year / ago
In a king/dom by/ the sea/
In the second line, the poet uses one anapest, followed by two iambs.
Read more Edgar Allan Poe poems.
‘Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening’ is one of Frost’s best-loved poems. This is in part due to the content, but it has a lot to do with his use of rhyme and rhythm. Those who are familiar with poetry will likely easily recognize his use of iambic pentameter in this piece. Consider this line from the beginning of the poem:
Whose woods / these are / I think / I know.
His house / is in / the vil / lage though;
He will / not see / me stop / ping here
To watch / his woods / fill up / with snow.
The pattern of iambs works to give this poem a sing-song-like pattern. The poem reads smoothly and peacefully throughout without any major interruptions. It helps convey the same sense of peace that the speaker feels standing outside at night, looking at the woods, and contemplating death.
Discover more Robert Frost poems.
Dickinson’s best-loved poem is a great example of what’s known as common meter. The poem is written in alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. For example, when scanning, one stanza can be written as
We passed / the School, / where Chil / dren strove
At Re / cess – in / the Ring –
We passed / the Fields / of Gaz– / ing Grain –
We passed / the Sett– / ing Sun —
This pattern is often found in ballads and used in church hymns. Although there are some moments in which Dickinson breaks the pattern, it is fairly consistent throughout.
Read more Emily Dickinson poems.
‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is a famous Tennyson poem that uses dactyls, one of the least common types of metrical feet. This makes scanning the poem more interesting as well as more necessary. Its likely readers will find themselves surprised by Tennyson’s use of meter, considering how uncommonly dactyls play a prominent role in poetry. Consider these lines:
Half a league, half a league
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of death
Rode thesix hundred.
Forward, the Light Brigade!
‘Charge for the guns!’He said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode thesix hundred.
Tennyson does not use dactyls throughout this piece, but there are a number of them. Plus, considering his use of refrains, he ends up using dactyls quite often. In these lines, readers can also find examples of trochees and iambs.
Explore more Alfred Lord Tennyson poems.
Why is Scansion Important?
Scansion is important when one is seeking to gain a better understanding of what a poem’s about and why the writer has used a certain meter. It’s helpful for students of all ages to break down the lines and try to work out which beats are stressed and which are unstressed.
A set of two syllables, the first of which is unstressed or short and the second of which is stressed or long.
Meter is the arrangement of unstressed and stressed beats in a line of poetry. It follows certain patterns or not be used at all.
Related Literary Terms
- Poetic Foot: a foot refers to a unit of meter in poetry. It is a grouping of stressed and/or unstressed syllables.
- Meter: the pattern of beats in a line of poetry. It is a combination of the number of beats and arrangement of stresses.
- Cadence: the natural rhythm of a piece of text, created through a writer’s selective arrangement of words, rhymes, and the creation of meter.
- Sprung Rhythm: a rhythmic pattern used in poetry that mimics natural speech.
- Hymn Stanza: uses a rhyme scheme of ABCB and alternates between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.
- Watch: Rhythm & Meter
- Watch: Scansion 101
- Listen: Rhyme Scheme, Rhythm, Repetition
- Watch: The Pleasure of Poetic Pattern