For Better For Verse:

Link to U.Va. English Department

How to Scan

Moving your cursor over the line of verse, mark each highlighted syllable as a stress or a slack. Ah, but 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 as ways the line might be spoken. 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 or equal stress. 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. Have the courage of your vocal convictions; don’t succumb too obediently to metrical singsong’s dictation.

Once you’ve thus transcribed your reading of the line, check it for conformity to 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!) 

Time now to click on the arrows icon to the right and see how you did. If all’s well, enjoy your green light and proceed to the next line.  But you may have encountered trouble: a red cross usually indicates a technical mistake in following the rules of thumb; a yellow asterisk means you’re in technical compliance but may have overlooked a nuance that’s worth listening harder for. In either case, sweep your scansion clean with the broom icon to the left of the line, and 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 six kinds of feet: 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 right next to the arrows 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. Recall as well 4B4V’s bias towards rising (slack-to-stress) feet.

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, or 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, recall that blessed are the meek: it not seldom happens that a promoted stress (where you bully a line’s apparent reading into metrical conformity) unlocks a surprising insight.