For Better for Verse: An interactive learning tool that can help you understand what makes metered poetry in English tick.

Link to U.Va. English Department

Instructions

What’s For Better for Verse for? It’s an interactive on-line tutorial that can train you to scan traditionally metered English poetry. Here you can get practice and instant feedback in one important way of analyzing, and developing an ear and a feel for, accentual-syllabic verse. That’s the kind of verse that remained standard in English during the half millennium from Chaucer’s age until the time of Hardy, Yeats, and Frost about a century ago — and it remains alive and well with some of the best poets active today. By choosing among texts that range metrically from the straightforward to the intricate, you can sharpen your skill at taking an x-ray of the architecture of verse. This inner structure arises from the interplay of meter (the bones of a poem) with rhythm (its flesh); of abstracted, regular pattern with the pulse of felt, voiced meaning.

We’ll turn in a moment to how this metrical radiology can illuminate the life in poems. First a few words of orientation to the site.

THE TOOLS

The 4B4V tutorial consists of several elements. Besides the general Help overview you’re now reading, you will find back on our homepage a Poem workbox, a List of Poems, and a Glossary.

The black workbox is the stage or gym where you interact with poetry, and where the real learning of trial-and-error takes place. In the box appears whatever text you select from the List of Poems to its right. As you move the cursor just above a line of verse, the space above each syllable glows. Click once over a syllable to mark it as stressed, twice as unstressed (slack); a third click clears the air for a fresh start. Once you’ve marked each syllable to reflect your reading of the line — and we’ll get soon to some guidelines for doing that — cursor over to the right of the box and click the first icon (arrows). A green, red, or yellow light will let you know you’ve scanned the line correctly, incorrectly, or somehow problematically. If at first you don’t succeed, this is the place to try, try again.

Moving the cursor directly across the verse line highlights the printed syllables one by one. By clicking within the text you can divide the emerging pattern of stresses and slacks into the constituent units that prevail in English metrics: iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, spondee, pyrrhic. (Feel free, at any point in this overview or anywhere else on the site, to look up unfamiliar terms by clicking the Glossary tab above.) These are called feet, as you’ll be reminded when you cursor to the right and click on the middle icon (footprints) to see how you did with this part of the exercise. Once you’ve gotten the green light here, click on the last icon (triangle) to open a drop-down menu from which to identify the meter of the scanned line: e.g., iambic tetrameter.

Stress and foot patterns are interdependent. But sometimes you’ll want to concentrate visually on just one of them, so at the bottom of the Poem workbox are checkboxes that permit you to toggle your stress or foot marks on and off. Next to them a third checkbox lets you light up the caesuras, or strong mid-line pauses, within the text. These can fall between feet or within them, in a sometimes complex overlay on the meter proper. To keep things manageable, 4B4V doesn’t test you for caesura but gives it away for free.

We do, however, offer you practice in plotting a poem’s rhyme, using standard notation such as abba, aabbcc, etc. Click the Rhyme tab in the lower left corner of the workbox, and a column of highlighted boxes will open above it. Locate your cursor in the box beside each line of verse, type in the lowercase letter corresponding to that verse’s place in the rhyme scheme, and when you’ve marked the whole poem click the bottom checkbox to see how you did. Your computer’s Tab key will facilitate descent from line to line as you enter your letters. Note: for a stanzaic poem (see Glossary), where the recurring pattern of meter and rhyme begins again with each new stanza, the rhyme scheme begins again too: not abab cdcd efef for a three-quatrain poem, therefore, but abab abab abab.

A couple of other features adorn the Poem workbox. Sometimes next to the green check a lightbulb icon will turn on. Clicking this will take you to a note that discusses oddities or beauties of the line in question. Occasionally the note will press beyond appreciation of the poem into matters of interpretation. This is inevitable, because interpretive understanding plays a key role in the way any reader hears (and thus scans) a given line. But 4B4V keeps this interpretive aspect to a minimum, for the very good reason that the challenge of interpretation belongs to you.

Because the richest challenge arises where the actual rhythm of a line diverges from its normative meter, there is one more feature, which 4B4V displays only once your scansion of the full text is correct. At that point a Syncopation checkbox appears next to the others down below. Try it, and you’ll see the poem’s rhythmic discrepancies brought out in new color. These are the poem’s planned prosodic accidents, its signal idiosyncrasies; and with luck you’ll find that reflecting on these knots of stress leads to what Emily Dickinson called “internal difference, / Where the Meanings are.”

A tab just above the box will open a cross-referenced Glossary containing brief definitions of some traditional terms that prove handy when discussing versification analytically – when, in other words, you want to describe to your professor or your friend what technically underlies a given poetic effect. Many of these terms are pretty arcane, thanks to their derivation from ancient classical poetics. Prosody’s outlandish terminology is sometimes charming, sometimes annoying; in the final analysis, it matters because it’s the vocabulary that just about everybody interested in versification, including the poets, has learned to use. A click on the Poem tab will take you back to the workbox; shuttling back and forth should let you build up your vocabulary as your scansion wits grow stronger. The Help tab that brought you here remains accessible at all times, whether you want to review this introduction or to consult a given section by clicking on one of the subtitles at the top of this page.

In cases where 4B4V provides further resources on a given poem, you will also find a Resources tab beside the others. Click there to find, e.g., a short bibliography of scholarly critical treatments of the poem, or an audio clip that you may open in order to hear it read aloud. Listening to a vocal performance will probably help you most in the early stages of the tutorial. In later stages you’ll find more profit in saying a poem out loud yourself. Learning to hear your own reading analytically and with precision forms a key step in the process of learning to scan. By the end of the process, if all goes well, you should be hearing metered poems with your eyes, so to speak, and uttering them in your mind.
WHAT IS SCANSION?

How is scansion done? Why does it count? Sophisticated consideration of these questions occurs in the list of books that is accessible through the Resources subtitle above. Several of these books lay out more thoroughly graduated systems of scansion than the one introduced here. In 4B4V we keep things simple: for us scansion means a two-stroke engine for marking the patterning of syllables on which traditional metrics in English is based. In the binary system we use here a syllable either is stressed or it’s slack, period. For our purposes a foot is iambic or it’s anapestic, trochaic or dactylic, spondaic or pyrrhic, and that’s that. Moreover, it’s by preference either iambic or anapestic: 4B4V subscribes to the view that verse in English privileges rising feet, i.e, feet that move like the iamb and anapest from slack to stress. (This view has consequences for certain folk or comic rhythms that some prosodists treat as trochaic or dactylic instead. As issues like this arise in particular poems, look for lightbulb notes that outline what’s at stake in choosing between two plausible scansions of a line.) We think that erring on the side of bluntness and rule fosters a confidence in basic and intermediate scansion that will let you join a fancier, subtler prosodic conversation once the work you’ve done here has prepared you for it.

RULES OF THUMB

How do you know where the slacks and stresses fall? Mainly, you listen. You say the verse out loud, more than once, paying attention to the pattern of emphases as you go and considering alternative patterns that occur to you. Stress is expressed vocally in a number of ways: accent, pitch, volume, duration, or a combination of these. And stress is relative, not absolute: whether a syllable is a slack or a stress depends on how you hear it in relation to neighboring syllables that take more or less stress than it does. Keep the best faith you can with what the verse says: the plain sense of statement or query or command. Listen too for what it implies about what it says: how it insists or coaxes, beseeches or mocks. Then test your provisional line reading against scansion’s basic rules, which you may consult at any time by clicking on the Rules of Thumb subtitle at the top of this page. (You should expect to do this often while getting started!) The rules:

1. Locate any polysyllabic words and mark their stresses, as given in a dictionary.

2. Mark the stressed monosyllables. These will be most (but not always all!) of the following: nouns, main verbs, adjectives and adverbs, interjections, interrogative pronouns; and rhymes.

3. Mark the rest of the syllables slack. These will be unstressed syllables within polysyllabic words and most (but not always all!) of the following monosyllables: articles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, relative pronouns.

4. Perform the score you just wrote, by playing it back to yourself. That is, read your scansion out loud and check it by ear against your provisional reading, negotiating between the two as needed, and adjusting your scansion marks to reflect any changes of mind. This two-way double-check can be hard work at starting, and is likely to entail some frustrating practice: you’re now on your own, in a zone just past the rules, where odd things can and will happen. But cheer up! The listening that this stage involves is the very skill 4B4V is designed to help you hone. It’s what you came here to practice. Don’t stress out, stress in.

Time now to click on the arrows icon and see how you did. A red cross usually indicates a technical mistake in following rules 1-3 above; a yellow asterisk means you’re in technical compliance but probably have overlooked a nuance that’s worth listening harder for. In either case, try again till the green light goes on.

The next job – one involving the eye more than the ear – is to group your scanned syllables into poetic feet. Remember that 4B4V recognizes only the six kinds of feet already listed above. Here they are again, this time alphabetically (as in the Glossary): anapest, dactyl, iamb, pyrrhic, spondee, trochee. Gather the syllables into repeating units of the same foot where possible; where that won’t work, be sure at least that each foot you’ve indicated is one of our permitted six. After getting the entire line distributed into feet, check the result by clicking the footprints icon. If the shoe doesn’t fit (sorry), remember that traditional metrics gives the poet a license to drop slack syllables at either end of a line (called catalectic) or to add them in feminine endings; and try a different grouping of syllables with these options in mind.

Once you’ve gotten the green light on the footprints for several lines running, it should be apparent what the poem’s dominant foot is. On this basis you can proceed with confidence to the last icon and name the meter that structures each line as you go. Any red crosses that pop up at this point are likely to be due to your unfamiliarity with the names, which will, never fear, eventually stick in your mind; or else to a larger pattern of variation in the length of lines as they constellate into a stanza. What won’t change, except in a handful of poems written as prosodic stunts, is the prevailing foot. That’s the metronome the whole poem marches, skips, and dances to.

Sometimes discerning what the prevailing foot is can serve you as a key that will open up the syllabic scansion of a tricky poem faster than will sheer toil over the syllables alone. In such cases it may help if you switch over temporarily to scanning for feet, then return to scanning for stress; move back and forth between the two scansion levels until the prosodic x-ray comes into focus and a clear meter emerges. Generally speaking, when you can’t decide whether to obey the meter or flout it, be meek: it not seldom happens that a promoted stress (where you bully a line reading a bit into metrical conformity) unlocks a surprising insight.

WHY SCAN?

Thus far the what and the how of prosodic study. Saying why you should devote some hours to such preliminary study — and it will be a matter not of a few minutes but of some hours, spread across days on your own schedule, since not even enthusiasts tolerate very much of this stuff at a single sitting – takes us back to where this overview began. When you learn to scan, you are learning something that anglophone poets from the 14th into the 20th century learned before you. To some extent they learned it by analogy to the classical Latin and Greek versification drilled into nearly all of them at school; in every wider and finer sense, however, they learned it by osmosis, through a process of total immersion in poetry they loved. The poets absorbed their English metrics right off the page, the way a tap dancer picks up a lick on a street corner or a fiddler fingers a riff at a harvest supper. Because, being poets, they had an extraordinary ear for word music, they learned its unwritten rules fast; having mastered them, they took the art in new directions that blazed trails in literary history.

Practicing scansion won’t make you a poet. What it will do, though, if you’ll let it, is transform your approach to the reading of poems. There is simply no better way for readers to get an inside line on what versecraft is about. While our commanding topic here is the interplay of rhythm with meter, listening hard for that will tone up your attention to other aspects of the soundtrack poetry rides on too. Good poets coordinate their metrics with other patterns of sound like consonance and anaphora that you should cultivate an ear for. Robert Frost grasped memorably a paradox underlying our entire project here: “The possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited meter are endless.” Limited meter, endless possibilities; the two are entwined. As with the computer you’re working at, accentual-syllabic prosody is a binary system that poets have ramified into virtually analog complexity. The sky’s the limit. Better yet, the brain is. On that theme let’s give Dickinson the last word: “The Brain — is wider than the Sky.” Nor did she stop there:

The Brain is just the weight of God —

For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —

And they will differ — if they do —

As Syllable from Sound —


TWO TEST CASES

The founding premise of 4B4V is that scansion is learned by doing, that practice makes perfect, that it’s by repeatedly bumping into walls that you learn where the path lies and solve the maze. So it’s time to send you back to the tutorial itself, with an advance look at the two tiniest poems it contains.

Here come two epigrams in couplets, nearly the shortest form that a complete poem may take. Each example is a joke that turns on something most verse shares with most humor – repetition – and each example depends for its punch on the set-up that is furnished by a title just about as long as the poem itself. First, Robert Browning’s genial Victorian mischief in a “Rhyme for a Child Viewing a Naked Venus in a Painting of ‘The Judgement of Paris’”:

He gazed and gazed and gazed and gazed,

Amazed, amazed, amazed, amazed.

Only three words make up the whole poem, stuck as it is on the goggle-eyed boy who is transfixed to see, in plain view, what 19th-century society kept ostentatiously hidden. Browning’s obsessive verbal repetition performs a prosodic slapstick routine: the clownish exaggeration of helpless stupefaction. The boy’s outward state of absorption and inward state of wonder explain each other with a completeness whose formal sign is the rhyme sound. That one sound recurs not just once across the two lines but seven times. And each time it carries the extra burden of a rhythmic stress that strictly corresponds to the mesmerized automatism of the iambic tetrameter:


            u    /      u    /      u    /      u    /

            He gazed | and gazed | and gazed | and gazed,

            u   /    u   /    u   /    u   /

            Amazed,| amazed,| amazed,| amazed.
            

This bemused poem about an intense shock to a tender mind leaves room for only one kind of change, which is the thrilling, or drilling, intensification of repetition itself. The refusal of Browning’s epigram to change plays a little joke on us. It highlights — by stubbornly disappointing it — our expectation that poetry should so arrange its recurrences as to make a difference.

Turn now to a poem of exactly the same size and form that puts change much more pointedly on the agenda. Alexander Pope wrote it early in the 18th century and called it an “Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness” – a prince who entertained courtiers at his palace in the London suburb of Kew:

I am his Highness’ dog at Kew;

Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

Line 2 springs an ambush that is all the more effective for the polite reader’s having been lulled by line 1 into an attitude of relaxed condescension. Even line 2 trots out like a star pupil in obedience school:


            u  /    u    /   u     /     u  /

            I am | his High|ness' dog | at Kew;

             u     /     u    /      u    /     u   /

            Pray tell | me, sir, | whose dog | are you?
            

So regular is the gentle iambic rhythm that Pope’s ventriloquizing feint has insulted the reader by calling him a son of a bitch before he knows what’s hit him. This is one of those poems – or jokes – that elicits a double take. The real finesse of its taunt comes out when we return to the scene of the crime, halfway through line 2, dust off the magnifying glass, and replay it in an altered, sharper scansion. Try it this way:


            u     /     u    /      /    u     u   /

            Pray tell | me, sir, | whose dog | are you?
            

The slight change this scansion introduces after the comma-marked caesura — transposing the next slack and stress by a trochaic substitution in the 3rd foot– puts the bite on the reader in a subtly new way. Stressing “whose” rather than the metrically anticipated “dog” expands the impertinence of Pope’s jest immensely. Since we are both here in service at court, Sir, says the cute doggie, and since each of us, Sir, wags his well-fed tail in the king’s livery one way or another, then it goes without saying, Sir, that we’re both dogs; and the question then becomes, Sir, just who is it you do your tricks for, anyhow? The simplest of shifts in stress registers a tonal change as pungent as the angling of an eyebrow in a closeup. “What mighty contests rise from trivial things,” Pope marveled at the start of his most famous poem The Rape of the Lock. We could do worse than embrace that principle as our motto here in 4B4V.

These two gems, with a few others not much bigger, are found among the Warming Up cluster in our List of Poems. You might open these in the Poem workbox as first fingering exercises with which to practice the scansion and feedback tools you will then use in attempting other poems in that cluster. Two other clusters, Moving Along and Special Challenge, will offer more interest as you reach the point where an increase in difficulty does indeed feel interesting rather than intimidating. Our clusters do no more than indicate general levels of challenge. You’re free at any point to try any poem in 4B4V you like. So if you prefer working sequentially on poems of similar kind – sonnets, say, or ballads – you’ll find the titles sorted according to Type in the List of Poems. The default order for the List is alphabetical by title. You may return to a given poem as often as you please. But once you’ve put a new poem in the workbox, your former scansion whether partial or complete is erased, and in order to see it again (unless you’ve saved it as a screen shot on your computer) you’ll have to reconstruct it from scratch.

Tools

In the black Poem workbox appears whatever text you select from the List of Poems, which is searchable by alphabetical order, by difficulty level, and by verse type. As you move the cursor just above a line of verse in the workbox, the space above each syllable glows. Click once in this space to mark a syllable as stressed, twice as slack, a third time to clear the space. Once you’ve marked each syllable, click the first icon to the right (arrows). A green, red, or yellow light will let you know you’ve scanned the line correctly, incorrectly, or somehow problematically.

Moving the cursor directly across the words highlights syllables one by one. By clicking within the text you can divide the stresses and slacks into the feet that make up a line of metered English verse: iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, spondee, pyrrhic. Clicking the middle icon to your right (footprints) will show how you did with this part of the exercise. Once you’ve gotten the green light here, click on the last icon (triangle) to open a menu from which to identify the meter of the scanned line.

In order to focus on one aspect of scansion at a time, use the Stress and Foot division checkboxes at the bottom of the workbox to toggle your markings off and on. A third checkbox toggles occurrences of a Caesura, or strong mid-line pause, within the entire text. (You can’t alter these caesura marks; they’re free gifts to your curiosity.)

Click the Rhyme tab in the lower left corner of the workbox, and a column of highlighted squares will open. Locate your cursor in the square beside each line of verse, type in the lowercase letter corresponding to that verse’s place in the rhyme scheme, and when you’ve marked the whole poem click the bottom checkbox to see how you did.

Next to the green stress check by certain lines a lightbulb icon will turn on. Clicking this will open a note that discusses oddities or beauties of the line in question. Once your scansion of the full text is correct, and only then, a Syncopation checkbox appears next to the others down below. Clicking it brings out in new color the poem’s rhythmic discrepancies.

Three tabs above the workbox are always available for navigation. A hot-link cross-referenced Glossary provides brief definitions of prosodic terms. The Help tab will let you consult the introductory Overview or shorter sections like this one, which are keyed to the subtitles at the top of this page. Click the Poem tab to return to the workbox.

Where 4B4V provides further resources on a given poem, you will also find a Resources tab beside the others. Click there to find, e.g., a select bibliography of scholarship on the poem, or an audio clip that you may open to hear it read aloud.

Resources

Adams, Stephen. Poetic Designs: An Introduction to Meters, Verse Forms, and Figures of Speech (1997)

Attridge, Derek. Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction (1995)

Baker, David, ed. Meter in English: A Critical Engagement (1996)

Baker, Nicholson. The Anthologist (2009)

Booth, Mark. The Experience of Songs (1981)

Caplan, David. Poetic Form: An Introduction (2007)

Empson, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930; rev. edn 1947)

Finch, Annie. The Ghost of Meter (1993)

Forrest-Thomson, Veronica. Poetic Artifice (1978)

Fussell, Paul. Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (1965)

Gross, Harvey. Sound and Form in Modern Poetry (1964)

Hartman, Charles O. Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody (1980)

Hobsbaum, Philip. Metre, Rhythm and Verse Form (1996)

Hollander, John. Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse (1981; rev. edn 1989)

Kirby-Smith, H. T. The Origins of Free Verse (1996)

Lanier, Sidney. The Science of English Verse (1880)

Perrine, Laurence. Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry (1956, rev. 12th edn 2007)

Saintsbury, George. A History of English Prosody (1906)

Steele, Timothy. Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (1990)

Rules of Thumb

1. Locate any polysyllabic words and mark their stresses, as given in a dictionary.

2. Mark the stressed monosyllables. These will be most (but not always all!) of the following: nouns, main verbs, adjectives and adverbs, interjections, interrogative pronouns; and rhymes.

3. Mark the rest of the syllables slack. These will be unstressed syllables within polysyllabic words and most (but not always all!) of the following monosyllables: articles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, relative pronouns.

4. Perform the score you just wrote, by playing it back to yourself. That is, read your scansion out loud and check it by ear against your provisional reading, negotiating between the two if necessary, and adjusting your scansion marks to reflect any changes of mind.

Why Scan?

When you learn to scan, you are learning something that major poets from the 14th into the 20th century learned before you. To some extent they learned it by analogy to the classical Latin and Greek versification drilled into them at school; in every wider and finer sense, however, they learned it by osmosis, through a process of total immersion in poetry they loved. The poets absorbed their English metrics right off the page, the way a tap dancer picks up a lick on a street corner or a fiddler fingers a riff at a harvest supper. Because, being poets, they had an extraordinary ear for word music, they learned its unwritten rules fast; having mastered them, they took the art in new directions that blazed trails in literary history.

Practicing scansion won’t make you a poet. What it will do, though, if you’ll let it, is transform your approach to the reading of poems. There is simply no better way for readers to get an inside line on what versecraft is about. While our topic here is, nearly exclusively, the interplay of rhythm with meter, listening hard for that will tone up your attention to other aspects of the soundtrack poetry rides on too.