Scansion: The analysis, typically using visual symbols, of poetic meter, the more or less regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables found in verse. Meter is typically described in one of the following three ways: by the dominant type of foot(a poetic line’s rhythmic unit, containing two or more syllables), the number of feet per line, or both.
Critics “scan” lines to determine a poem’s predominant metrical pattern and to discover deviations from that pattern. Scanning verse typically involves the following steps: (1) determining whether each syllable in a given line is stressed or unstressed, using natural speech patterns; (2) dividing each line into feet, which requires determining both the predominant type of foot and the number of feet per line; (3) indicating any major pause (caesura) in each line; and (4) determining the poem’s rhyme scheme, if any such scheme exists. Most critics also consider the identification of a work’s stanzaic structure to be part of the work of scansion.
Modern scansion was adapted from classical quantitative scansion, in which critics analyzed meter on the basis of the amount of time required to pronounce each syllable of a poetic line. Various combinations of long and short syllables made up a foot of quantitative verse, whereas various combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables make up a foot of accentual-syllabic poetry in English.
Three types of scansion exist in English — graphic, musical, and acoustic — but graphic is most common. The following marks are typically used in graphic scansion:│(separating one metrical foot from the next), ́ (indicating a stressed syllable), ̆ (indicating an unstressed syllable), and║(indicating a caesura).
EXAMPLES: Scansion of the first two lines of a sonnet by John Keats (written 1818; published 1848) indicates regular iambic pentameter, a meter in which unstressed and stressed syllables alternate, respectively, in each five-foot line of the poem:
Whĕn Í│hăve féars│thăt Í│măy céase│tŏ bé
Bĕfóre│my̆ pén│hăs gléaned│my̆ téem│in̆g braі́n… .
In the late nineteenth century, poets began to experiment with irregular meter, and contemporary poetry can be so irregular that scansion becomes a form of interpretation, making it difficult to be sure which syllables are stressed and leading different readers to scan the same lines differently. For instance, our scansion of a stanza from Derek Walcott’s poem “A Far Cry from Africa” (1962) is at points debatable, such as in the line “Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” We treat the “I” as unstressed, but you might read it as a stressed syllable:
Ăgáin│brútı̇̆sh nĕ│céssı̇̆│ty̆ wі́pes│ı̇̆ts hánds
Ŭpón│thĕ náp│kı̇̆n ŏf│ă dі́rt│y̆ cáuse,│ăgáin
Ă wáste│ŏf oŭr│cŏmpás│siŏn, ăs│wit̆h Spáin,
Thĕ gŏrі́l│lă wrést│lĕs wı̇̆th│th̆e súp│ĕrmăn.
Í whŏ ăm│poі́sŏned│wı̇̆th th̆e blóod│ŏf bóth,
Whére shăll Ĭ│túrn, dı̇̆│vі́dĕd tŏ│thĕ véin?
Í whŏ│hăve cúrsed
Thĕ drúnkĕn│óffı̇̆cĕr│ŏf Brі́t│ı̇̆sh rúle,│hŏw chóose
Bĕtwéen thı̇̆s│Áfrı̇̆că│an̆d thĕ Én│glı̇̆sh tóngue│Ĭ lóve?
Bĕtráy│thĕm bóth,│ŏr gі́ve│báck wh́at│thĕy gі́ve?
Hów căn Ĭ│fáce sŭch│sláughtĕr an̆d│bĕ cóol?
Hów căn Ĭ│túrn frŏm│Áfrı̇̆că│an̆d lі́ve?