What Is Scansion in Poetry? How to Recognize and Use Scansion

The flowy, figurative words in a poem tell a story. But beneath the descriptive language, the mechanics of a poem dictate how it should be read. Scansion breaks down the anatomy of a poem. It’s a method of deciphering the metrical pattern that propels the words.

What Is Scansion?

Scansion marks the metrical pattern of a poem by breaking each line of verse up into feet and highlighting the accented and unaccented syllables.

In poetry, a foot is the basic unit of measurement. Each foot is made up of one stressed syllable and at least one unstressed syllable. The syllabic arrangement in each foot and the number of feet in a line determine the poem’s meter and affect the rhyme of the poem. There are many types of feet in poetry, including trochee, iamb, spondee, dactyl, and anapest, all of which have a different combination of stressed and unstressed syllables.

What Is the Purpose of Scansion?

Understanding the structure of the poetic form allows a reader to understand a poem on a deeper level. This analysis of verse, or prosody, also allows a reader to:

  • Determine the meter of a poem by dividing a line into feet and noting the syllabic pattern of each foot
  • Determine the type of line by its length in feet: monometer (one foot), dimeter (two feet), trimeter (three feet), tetrameter (four feet), pentameter (five feet), hexameter (six feet)
  • Understand how a poem’s rhythm contributes to its meaning
  • Map out the natural rhythm of free verse and blank verse
  • Figure out how a poem is meant to be read aloud

How Is Scansion Marked in a Poem?

A graphic scansion visually marks the syllabic rhythm and feet in a line of poetry. A simple scan of a poem might simply bold or underline the stressed syllables. More formal scansion places a graphic representation to denote the feet and stresses in a line. The most common symbols used to scan a poem are:

  • Wand: A wand—represented as “/”—is placed over a strong syllable.
  • Cup: A cup—represented as “u”—is placed over a weak or unstressed syllable.
  • Foot boundary: A boundary mark—represented as “I”—separates the feet in a line of verse.
  • Caesura: A break in speech, either between feet or phrases, is marked by “II.”

2 Examples of Scansion in Poetry

Here are two examples of how poetry is scanned to identify the meter and how many feet each line contains:

1. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
In this excerpt from Shakespeare’s play, these lines represent iambic pentameter—a line of five feet with an unstressed and stressed syllable in each foot.

twelfth night by Shakespeare verse

2. Hope Is the Thing With Feathers by Emily Dickinson
In this poem, the scansion reveals that the meters in the first line and third line are iambic tetrameter and the meters in the second line and fourth line are iambic trimeter.

hope is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson verse