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Rhythm, Meter, and Scansion Made Easy

http://server.riverdale.k12.or.us/~bblack/meter.html
I created this page as a quick reference for my students when studying rhythm. The sources
I cited below were very helpful, especially X.J. Kennedy's book.

rhythm: the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line.
meter: the number of feet in a line.
scansion: Describing the rhythms of poetry by dividing the lines into feet, marking the
locations of stressed and unstressed syllables, and counting the syllables.

Thus, when we describe the rhythm of a poem, we scan the poem and mark the stresses
(/) and absences of stress (^) and count the number of feet.
In English, the major feet are:
iamb (^/)
^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ /
The falling out of faithful friends, renewing is of love

trochee (/^)
/ ^ / ^ / ^ / ^
Double, double toil and trouble

anapest (^^/)
^ ^ / ^ ^ / ^ ^ /
I am monarch of all I survey

dactyl (/^^)
/ ^ ^ / ^^
Take her up tenderly

spondee (//)
pyrrhic (^^)

Iambic and anapestic meters are called rising meters because their movement rises from
unstressed syllable to stressed; trochaic and dactylic meters are called falling. In the
twentieth century, the bouncing meters--anapestic and dactylic--have been used more often
for comic verse than for serious poetry.

Spondee and pyrrhic are called feet, even though they contain only one kind of stressed
syllable. They are never used as the sole meter of a poem; if they were, it would be like the
steady impact of nails being hammered into a board--no pleasure to hear or dance to. But
inserted now and then, they can lend emphasis and variety to a meter, as Yeats well knew
when he broke up the predominantly iambic rhythm of Who Goes With Fergus? with the
line,
^ ^ / / ^ ^ / /
And the white breast of the dim sea,
A frequently heard metrical description is iambic pentameter: a line of five iambs. This is a
meter especially familiar because it occurs in all blank verse (such as Shakespeares plays),
heroic couplets, and sonnets.
Pentameter is one name for the number of feet in a line. The commonly used names for line
lengths are:
monometer one foot pentameter five feet
dimeter two feet hexameter six feet
trimeter three feet heptameter seven feet
tetrameter four feet octameter eight feet

The scansion of this quatrain from Shakespeares Sonnet 73 shows the following accents
and divisions into feet (note the following words were split: behold, yellow, upon, against,
ruin'd):
^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ /
That time | of year | thou mayst | in me | be hold |

^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ /
When yel | low leaves, | or none, | or few, | do hang |

^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ /
Up on | those boughs | which shake | a gainst | the cold, |
^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ /

Bare ru | in'd choirs | where late | the sweet birds sang |
From this, we see the rhythm of this quatrain is made up of one unaccented syllable
followed by an accented syllable, called an iambic foot. We also see there are five feet per
line, making the meter of the line pentameter. So, the rhythm and meter are iambic
pentameter.
Yes, thats all very lovely, but why do we study rhythm? People have a basic need for
rhythm, or for the effect produced by it, as laboratory experiments in psychology have
demonstrated, and as you can see by watching a crew of workers digging or hammering, or
by listening to chants and work songs. Rhythm gives pleasure and a more emotional
response to the listener or reader because it establishes a pattern of expectations, and
rewards the listener or reader with the pleasure that comes from having those expectations
fulfilled, or the noted change in a rhythm, as in the Yeats example.

An argument might be raised against scanning: isnt it too simple to expect that all language
can be divided into neat stressed and unstressed syllables? Of course it is. There are infinite
levels of stress, from the loudest scream to the faintest whisper. But, the idea in scanning a
poem is not to reproduce the sound of a human voice. A tape recorder can do that. To scan a
poem is to make a diagram of the stresses and absence of stress we find in it. Studying
rhythms, scanning, is not just a way of pointing to syllables; it is also a matter of listening
to a poem and making sense of it. To scan a poem is one way to indicate how to read it
aloud; in order to see where stresses fall, you have to see the places where the poet wishes
to put emphasis. That is why when scanning a poem you may find yourself suddenly
understanding it.

In everyday life, nobody speaks or writes in perfect iambic rhythm, except at moments: a
HAM on RYE and HIT the MUStard HARD! Poets dont even write in iambic very long,
although when they do, they have chosen iambic because it is the rhythm that most closely
resemble everyday speech.

And even after this lengthy discussion of rhythm, it must be stated that most poems do not
employ the same rhythm throughout. Variety in rhythm is not merely desirable, it is a
necessity. If the beat of its words slips into a mechanical pattern, the poem marches robot-
like right into its grave. Very few poets favor rhythms that go a TROT a TROT a TROT a
TROT for very long. Robert Frost told an audience one time that if when writing a poem
he found its rhythm becoming monotonous, he knew that the poem was going wrong and
that he himself didnt believe what it was saying.

Sources:
Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. Macmillan Publishing
Company, 1986.
Kennedy, X.J. Literature. Scott, Foresman, and Company, 1987.


Can you scan these poem excerpts?

The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berrys cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.
--Emily Dickinson

Bats have webby wings that fold up;
Bats from ceilings hang down rolled up;
Bats when flying undismayed are;
Bats are careful; bats use radar;
--Frank Jacobs, The Bat

You know that it would be untrue,
You know that I would be a liar,
If I was to say to you
Girl, we couldnt get much higher.
Come on, baby, light my fire.
Try to set the night on fire.
--Jim Morrison, Light My Fire


















Rhythm and Meter in English Poetry
http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/meter.html
English poetry employs five basic rhythms of varying stressed (/) and unstressed (x)
syllables. The meters are iambs, trochees, spondees, anapests and dactyls. In this document
the stressed syllables are marked in boldface type rather than the tradition al "/" and "x."
Each unit of rhythm is called a "foot" of poetry.
The meters with two-syllable feet are
IAMBIC (x /) : That time of year thou mayst in me behold
TROCHAIC (/ x): Tell me not in mournful numbers
SPONDAIC (/ /): Break, break, break/ On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
Meters with three-syllable feet are
ANAPESTIC (x x /): And the sound of a voice that is still
DACTYLIC (/ x x): This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and
the hemlock (a trochee replaces the final dactyl)
Each line of a poem contains a certain number of feet of iambs, trochees, spondees, dactyls
or anapests. A line of one foot is a monometer, 2 feet is a dimeter, and so on--trimeter (3),
tetrameter (4), pentameter (5), hexameter (6), heptameter (7), and o ctameter (8). The
number of syllables in a line varies therefore according to the meter. A good example of
trochaic monometer, for example, is this poem entitled "Fleas":
Adam Had'em.
Here are some more serious examples of the various meters.
iambic pentameter (5 iambs, 10 syllables)
That time | of year | thou mayst | in me | behold
trochaic tetrameter (4 trochees, 8 syllables)
Tell me | not in | mournful | numbers
anapestic trimeter (3 anapests, 9 syllables)
And the sound | of a voice | that is still
dactylic hexameter (6 dactyls, 17 syllables; a trochee replaces the last dactyl)
This is the | forest pri | meval, the | murmuring | pine and the | hemlocks
What is rhyme and meter (in poetry)?
"Rhyme" in poetry means the shared sounds or ends of words in the lines. I can give you some
examples but they are not necessarily from poems!

A typical rhyming pattern would be something like this:
"I don't want to see a ghost,
That's the thing that I fear most,
I'd rather have a piece of toast"
(Des'ree lyric- sorry it was the best example I could think of!)

So "ghost", "most" and "toast" have the same last syllable (the "st" sound). This would be called a
syllabic rhyme but so long as you specify how it rhymes, you probably don't need to include the full
technical term in your essay!

I stole this from wikipedia, it may help:

syllabic: a rhyme in which the last syllable of each word sounds the same but does not necessarily
contain vowels. (cleaver, silver, or pitter, patter)
imperfect: a rhyme between a stressed and an unstressed syllable. (wing, caring)
semirhyme: a rhyme with an extra syllable on one word. (bend, ending)
oblique (or slant/forced): a rhyme with an imperfect match in sound. (green, fiend; one, thumb)
assonance: matching vowels. (shake, hate) Assonance is sometimes used to refer to slant rhymes.
consonance: matching consonants. (rabies, robbers)
half rhyme (or sprung rhyme): matching final consonants. (bent, ant)
alliteration (or head rhyme): matching initial consonants. (short,ship)

Basically, if you read the lines aloud and there is any sort of similarity in sound, even if the words
aren't spelt similarly then there is probably an element of rhyme in the poem.

Meter is all about the rhythm a whole line in a poem makes. You can measure the rhythm by looking
at the number of syllables in a line. Clapping or tapping the line out according to each syllable might
help you do this.

The most common type of poetic meter is called the "Iambic Pentameter". Shakespeare uses it a lot.
The rhythm always goes: "da Dum da Dum da Dum da Dum" so there's a short, light syllable followed
by a heavier one.
So an example would be:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
(da Dum da Dum da Dum da Dum da Dum)

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
(da Dum da Dum da Dum da Dum da Dum)

Usually meter is used in poetry to attract readers- we all like an easy, sing song style kid's story. The
natural rhythms our ear hears are easier to listen to and more enjoyable than irregular rhythms. So if
the poet is using a regular meter pattern, they are probably trying to draw the listener in. If they are
using an irregular meter, they may be deliberately creating an awkward or jarring rhythm to make the
listener/reader stop and consider the message behind the poem. Or they may be trying to create a
feeling of unease or upset.

Hope that helps you and wasn't too complicated!