Scansion: The Feet Upon Which English Poetry Walks

        When analyzing a poem's "scansion" (AKA, "scanning the text"), you usually are interested mainly in the dominant meter of the poem.  Most English poets write in fairly regular meter until the Metaphysicals (Donne and Herbert, especially like to mix up the meters).  At first, just ignore the occasional deviant foot and look for the dominant meter, rather like the key signature in which a piece of music is written.  [Ee.g., a Bach solo cello suite in D-minor [#2] occasionally may have passages in which the composer uses "accidental" sharps and flats to shift the somber and introspective melody into a grim minuet or two after the solemnity of the sarabande.]  After that, you may find that much closer inspection of the scansion will reveal ways in which the poet married the meaning to the meter, or divorced them, perhaps in the variants from the dominant meter.  As with all claims about significant patterns in literature, your argument will be strongest if the pattern is wide-spread and consistent rather than only a local aberration.  

Iambs,  Trochees, and Spondees--The Two-syllable Feet:  You probably remember that an "iamb" is a "da-DUM," a two-syllable foot with the stress on the second part, like "por-TRAY" or "an-TIQUE."   A "trochee" (trochaic...) is a reverse iamb--a "DA-dum" like "BRAIN-dead" or "SPLEN-did."  A spondee is two accented syllables, a rarity in English but often produced by two adjacent single-syllable words that modify each other and would be phrased together, as in Sylvia Plath's memorable description of her cut thumb (in "Cut"): "thumb stump." 

You can see a particularly masterful spondee amid the iambs and trochees of Shakespeare's sonnet #19, line 13:

Yet do'   thy worst',    old' Time',     de-spite'    thy wrong'.

The line scans "iamb, iamb, spondee, iamb, iamb."  So it's not perfect "iambic pentameter," but that perfectly functional "imperfection" is the spondee that literally stops time, slowing the sentence in its middle, as line 14 will do with an anapest that splits the verb phrase:

"My love shall in my verse ever live young." 

Of course you could jam line 14 into an iambic straight-jacket, but "in my verse" deliberately divides the verb phrase "shall live" to name the place where love shall live.

Anapests and Dactyls--The Three-Syllable Feet:  The three-syllable feet are the "anapest" (which, confusingly is an example of a dactyl--AN-a-pest) and the "dactyl" (itself a trochee, eh?).  An anapestic foot drops the accent on the end like "chev-ro-LET" or "rock-and-ROLL."  A dactylic foot follows an accented syllable with two lesser syllables like "AN-a-pest" or "BU-da-pest" or "FOR-tu-nate."

There are others, but these will enable you to scan most of the verse we're reading in 211.  Click here for help with terms to describe meter, the terms for counting poetic "feet."  Click here for help with terms to describe stanzas, a poem's larger line groupings, usually established by rhymed line groups or rhetorical stages.