The Usage And Effects of Scansion in Poetry

Scansion in poetry simply means to separate the poem (or a poetic form) into feet by segmenting the different syllables based on length. Scansion is also frequently referred to as ‘scanning’. Scansion describes a poems rhythm through things how lines or verses are broken up into feet, indicating the existence of syllable patterns (stressed or unstressed), counts and meter.

Here is an example of Scansion in poetry.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers by Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.

In Dickinson’s poem, stressed syllables are used often. The fact that the poem follows a stressed and unstressed syllable pattern means that is makes use of iambic tetrameter with an alternating iambic trimeter and that the rhyming scheme is ABAB.

Types of Scansion

In literature, there are three different types of scansion: graphic, musical and acoustic. The most commonly used being graphic. In order to develop a strong understanding of graphic scansion, it is first necessary to explore the symbols in poetry that are used when scanning.

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Syllables can either be stressed or unstressed. To say that a syllable is stressed means that it is naturally given stronger emphasis when it is spoken. Unstressed syllables receive less emphasis when said out loud. In poetry, a foot is a collection of stressed and unstressed (or accented and unaccented) syllables that are either repeated or used in a specific sequence in order to create the meter. A caesura, on the other hand, is an extended pause in the middle of a line of a poem.

Caesura can be either feminine or masculine. The feminine version occurring after an unstressed and short syllable, for a softer and less abrupt pause.

The Use of Caesura in Poetry

Caesura, by definition, is “the rhymical pause in a line of poetry.” It will often be seen in the middle of a sentence, but it can also be found at the start or at the end. Sometimes it will include punctuation, other times it will not.

Writers of poetry will indicate these pauses with a symbol that looks like this: ǁ

If a caesura occurs at in the middle of a line, it is known as medial. If it occurs at the start of the line, it is known as initial, and if it occurs at the end of a line it is called terminal.

Caesura Poetry Example

This excerpt, taken from Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism contains one of the most famous caesurae even written in English literature: to err is human; ǁ to forgive, divine.

Some foreign writers, some our own despise;
The ancients only, or the moderns prize.
Thus wit, like faith, by each man is applied
To one small sect, and all are damn’d beside.
Meanly they seek the blessing to confine,
And force that sun but on a part to shine;
Which not alone the southern wit sublimes,
But ripens spirits in cold northern climes;
Which from the first has shone on ages past,
Enlights the present, and shall warm the last;
(Though each may feel increases and decays,
And see now clearer and now darker days.)
Regard not then if wit be old or new,
But blame the false, and value still the true.
Some ne’er advance a judgment of their own,
But catch the spreading notion of the town;
They reason and conclude by precedent,
And own stale nonsense which they ne’er invent.
Some judge of authors’ names, not works, and then
Nor praise nor blame the writings, but the men.
Of all this servile herd, the worst is he
That in proud dulness joins with quality,
A constant critic at the great man’s board,
To fetch and carry nonsense for my Lord.
What woeful stuff this madrigal would be,
In some starv’d hackney sonneteer, or me?
But let a Lord once own the happy lines,
How the wit brightens! how the style refines!
Before his sacred name flies every fault,
And each exalted stanza teems with thought!

The vulgar thus through imitation err;
As oft the learn’d by being singular;
So much they scorn the crowd, that if the throng
By chance go right, they purposely go wrong:
So Schismatics the plain believers quit,
And are but damn’d for having too much wit.

Some praise at morning what they blame at night;
But always think the last opinion right.
A Muse by these is like a mistress us’d,
This hour she’s idoliz’d, the next abus’d;
While their weak heads, like towns unfortified,
Twixt sense and nonsense daily change their side.
Ask them the cause; they’re wiser still, they say;
And still tomorrow’s wiser than today.
We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow;
Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so.
Once school divines this zealous isle o’erspread;
Who knew most Sentences, was deepest read;
Faith, Gospel, all, seem’d made to be disputed,
And none had sense enough to be confuted:
Scotists and Thomists, now, in peace remain,
Amidst their kindred cobwebs in Duck Lane.
If Faith itself has different dresses worn,
What wonder modes in wit should take their turn?
Oft, leaving what is natural and fit,
The current folly proves the ready wit;
And authors think their reputation safe
Which lives as long as fools are pleased to laugh.

Some valuing those of their own side or mind,
Still make themselves the measure of mankind;
Fondly we think we honour merit then,
When we but praise ourselves in other men.
Parties in wit attend on those of state,
And public faction doubles private hate.
Pride, Malice, Folly, against Dryden rose,
In various shapes of Parsons, Critics, Beaus;
But sense surviv’d, when merry jests were past;
For rising merit will buoy up at last.
Might he return, and bless once more our eyes,
New Blackmores and new Milbourns must arise;
Nay should great Homer lift his awful head,
Zoilus again would start up from the dead.
Envy will merit, as its shade, pursue,
But like a shadow, proves the substance true;
For envied wit, like Sol eclips’d, makes known
Th’ opposing body’s grossness, not its own.
When first that sun too powerful beams displays,
It draws up vapours which obscure its rays;
But ev’n those clouds at last adorn its way,
Reflect new glories, and augment the day.

Be thou the first true merit to befriend;
His praise is lost, who stays till all commend.
Short is the date, alas, of modern rhymes,
And ’tis but just to let ’em live betimes.
No longer now that golden age appears,
When patriarch wits surviv’d a thousand years:
Now length of Fame (our second life) is lost,
And bare threescore is all ev’n that can boast;
Our sons their fathers’ failing language see,
And such as Chaucer is, shall Dryden be.
So when the faithful pencil has design’d
Some bright idea of the master’s mind,
Where a new world leaps out at his command,
And ready Nature waits upon his hand;
When the ripe colours soften and unite,
And sweetly melt into just shade and light;
When mellowing years their full perfection give,
And each bold figure just begins to live,
The treacherous colours the fair art betray,
And all the bright creation fades away!

Unhappy wit, like most mistaken things,
Atones not for that envy which it brings.
In youth alone its empty praise we boast,
But soon the short-liv’d vanity is lost:
Like some fair flow’r the early spring supplies,
That gaily blooms, but ev’n in blooming dies.
What is this wit, which must our cares employ?
The owner’s wife, that other men enjoy;
Then most our trouble still when most admir’d,
And still the more we give, the more requir’d;
Whose fame with pains we guard, but lose with ease,
Sure some to vex, but never all to please;
‘Tis what the vicious fear, the virtuous shun;
By fools ’tis hated, and by knaves undone!

If wit so much from ign’rance undergo,
Ah let not learning too commence its foe!
Of old, those met rewards who could excel,
And such were prais’d who but endeavour’d well:
Though triumphs were to gen’rals only due,
Crowns were reserv’d to grace the soldiers too.
Now, they who reach Parnassus’ lofty crown,
Employ their pains to spurn some others down;

And while self-love each jealous writer rules,
Contending wits become the sport of fools:
But still the worst with most regret commend,
For each ill author is as bad a friend.
To what base ends, and by what abject ways,
Are mortals urg’d through sacred lust of praise!
Ah ne’er so dire a thirst of glory boast,
Nor in the critic let the man be lost!
Good nature and good sense must ever join;
To err is human; to forgive, divine.