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What is Scansion?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Scansion is a word which is used both to refer to the study or scanning of verse to determine its meter, and to the meter itself. Scansion is an important part of the analysis of any verse works, because it provides clues to how the work should be read. Many poets spend a great deal of time on scansion, finding the perfect arrangements of words to create a desired mood or sound in their finished pieces. Scansion doesn't require any major skills; after reading this article, you should be able to pick up a piece of verse and think about its scansion, although you will not have the experience of years of study which can help inform your critical opinion on the piece.

The meter of a poem refers to the rhythm of the verse as it is read. Some poetry has an extremely regular, precise meter; the poetry of Shakespeare is one such example. Other verse works have meter which is more complex or difficult to work with; the work of William Carlos Williams, for example, may not readily appear to have a meter, but it does. You can identify meter when you read a piece aloud; even if you have not been trained, you may find your voice falling into a pattern as you read a piece, and reading aloud is one way to identify the scansion patterns in a verse composition.

When people analyze the scansion of a poem, they often break it up into “feet.” Each foot is a line in the poem, and each foot will have a specific scansion. In the work of Shakespeare, for example, the scansion is typically iambic, alternating strong and weak stresses. The rhythm of “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day,” for example, goes ba-BUM ba-BUM ba-BUM ba-BUM ba-BUM, illustrating a classical scansion form known as iambic pentameter, meaning that there are five iambs in each foot.

When people look at the scansion of a poem, they may use special mark-up tools around the syllables in the poem to identify them as strong or weak, creating a pattern which can be used to learn about the scansion of the poem. Scansion is one reason poetry and verse compositions are so difficult to translate, because in addition to translating the meaning of the piece, the translator must also try to capture the scansion, which is created with carefully chosen words and syllabic stresses.

If you have ever composed verse yourself, you know how frustrating scansion can be. It can be extremely difficult to find the ideal words to use in a verse composition, not only because you are searching for the perfect meaning, but because you want to find a word which scans correctly, causing the finished product to be harmonious to the ear of the reader or listener.

You can also identify scansion in other places. Many political speeches, for example, have a specific scansion which is designed to capture listeners and send a clear message about the topic. Scansion also appears in prose works; you may have noticed that some authors have a more fluid writing technique which makes their work easier to read, and this is partly due to carefully planned scansion.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon118245 — On Oct 13, 2010

Very helpful piece on scansion; much needed.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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