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.