to Timothy Steele. His book, all the fun’s in how you say the thing was one of the first books on prosody I ever read. “Prosody is the study of the meter, rhythm, and intonation of a poem.” I was taught how to scan (determine the metrical “character” of a line of poetry”) from friends I met on the internet in the “earlier” days of the bulletin board system. There was one specifically who took the time to take me to a “black area” off a private bulletin board and run me through Alexander Pope, and spent the time to break down the confusion I suffered from too many badly taught English classes compounded by my very tin ear.
My approach to scansion is quite mechanical. I have “friends” on the internet who are much more natural than I am in their approach to prosody. Still, I have no reputation to uphold. I make no scholarly claims. The only claims I do make is that I occasionally attempt to write a good critique. So, in the interest of sharing information from people who know much, much more than I do, I’d like to introduce the interested student to Mr. Timothy Steele. Wikipedia him. Google him. Poets.org him. He’s an accessible instructor and there’s a lot of his technical information littering the web. They’re well worth reading.
Here are two of his technical pieces: one on rhyme and stanza and this piece on meter. If you’re going to do some broccoli reading (reading which is good for your head), this stuff won’t put you to sleep.
I also ran across this old document, notes really, from my “early days” of trying to figure this stuff out:
Basics of accentual-syllabic prosody
Lewis Turco, The Book of Forms,
1st count all syllables
2nd count stressed syllables
3rd count verse feet
- Every word in English two syllables in length or longer will have one strongly stressed syllable.
- The general rule for stressing words of a single syllable is this: Verbs and nouns generally take a stress: action words, subjects, or objects.
- verbs that we generally elide: “Have” (I’ve), “are” (you’re), “am” (I’m)
- articles (a, the)
- prepositions (of, to, on, in, etc.)
- coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for)
- certain pronouns such as “I” and sometimes “you,” which we tend either to use in an elision or merely to slide over
- In any series of 3 unstressed syllables in a line of verse, one of them, generally the middle syllable, will take a secondary stress through promotion and will be counted as a stressed syllable.
- In any series of 3 stressed syllables in a line of verse, one of them, generally the middle syllable, will take a secondary stress through demotion and will be counted as an unstressed syllable.
- Any syllable may be rhetorically stressed by means of italics or some other typographical ploy.
There are FOUR standard feet in English prosody:
(u = unstressed, / = stressed)
- iamb – 2 syllables – u /
- anapest – 3 syllables – u u /
- trochee – 2 syllables – / u
- dactyl – 3 syllables – / u u
- headless iamb – foot of 1 stressed syllable (/)
- tailless trochee – same
One can tell these two feet apart only from their position in a line of verse. They occur, for instance when the unstressed first syllable of an iamb is dropped in order to vary the rhythm of a line of verse, or when the unstressed 2nd syllable of a trochee is dropped for the same reason.
(For the most part, besides the double iamb, I have ignored the “minor” feet which have more than a single strong stress. At that point, I resolve to one of the more common feet.)
- spondee – 2 syllables – / /
- amphibrach – 3 syllables – u / u
- double iamb- 4 syllables – u u / / – equals 2 iambs in a line of verse. (Oliver, Rules, p. 27: There is something called the pyrrhic foot, which is composed of two light stresses. The pyrrhic foot appears in Greek and Roman poetry; in English verse it occurs only when immediately followed by a spondee, and the two feet together are called a double ionic.)
- double trochee – 4 syllables – / / u u
- amphimacer – 3 syllables – / u / – does not exist in English. It is either a headless iamb and an iamb, or a trochee and a tailless trochee.
- antispast – 4 syllables – u / / u – iamb followed by a trochee
- tribrach – 3 syllables – u u u – 3 unstressed syllables does not exist in English
- molossus – 3 syllables – / / / – 3 stressed syllables does not exist in English
- bacchic – 3 syllables – u / / – iamb & tailess trochee
- antibacchius (antibacchic) – 3 syllables – / / u – headless iamb & a trochee
- choriamb – 4 syllables – / u u / – trochee (choree) followed by iamb
- paeon – 4 syllables – in the following of 1 stressed, 3 unstressed combinations:
- / u u u
- u / u u
- u u / u
- u u u /
- epitrite – 4 syllables – in the following of 1 unstressed, 3 stressed combinations
- / / / u
- u / / /
- / u / /
- / / u /