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

The Tools

The 4B4V tutorial consists of several elements. Besides orientation tabs like this one, you will find back on our homepage a Poem workbox, a List of Poems, and a Glossary.

The workbox is the stage or gym where you interact with poetry, and where the real learning by trial-and-error takes place. In the box appears whatever text you select from the List of Poems to its right, searchable by Title, Difficulty, Type, or Author . As you move the cursor just above a line of verse in the workbox, 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, 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.  Use the broom icon to the left in order to sweep a discarded scansion away for a fresh start.

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 orientation 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 squares will open above it. Locate your cursor in the square beside each line of verse, type in the lowercase letter corresponding to the end-rhyme’s place in the rhyme scheme, and when you’ve marked the whole poem for rhyme 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, 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: the challenge of interpretation belongs to you, and properly follows the analytic work of scansion.

Because the richest prosodic effects arise 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 intentional prosodic accidents; 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 workbox 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.  Be aware, however, that 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) you’ll have to reconstruct it from scratch.