Scansion is the process of marking the stresses in a poem, and working out the metre from the distribution of stresses. The verb is to scan. 'Mark' can be taken to mean both 'notice' and 'annotate', the latter often done with a u for an unstressed syllable and a slash, /, for a stressed one.

Patricia Beer's poem 'The Conjuror' might be taken as an example. The first line has stresses falling thus: "aRRIving EARly AT the CEM e TERY", or u/u/u/u/u/, which sets up a clear pattern, | u/ | u/ | u/ | u/ | u/ |, an iambic pentameter. The next has clear stresses on "one", "clock", "looked" and "round", which is only four at first glance, but there is also a lighter stress on the "for" at the start of the line, particularly as the following "the" is less stressed. With x being used as a 'missing' syllable - like a rest in music - this line can be scanned as | x/ | u/ | u/ | u/ | u/ |, still maintaining the iambic pentameter. The third line, however, introduces a variation, holding back its first stress for an extra syllable - "at the last sparks", which can be scanned | uu | // |, after which the iambs pick up again until the end of the stanza.

What this process achieves is a diagrammatic representation of the metrical effects of a poem. To see Beer's first stanza displayed thus

| u/ | u/ | u/ | u/ | u/ |
| x/ | u/ | u/ | u/ | u/ |
| uu | // | u/ | u/ | u/ |
| u/ | u/ | u/ | u/ | u/ |

demonstrates its regularity and variations, and helps a reader or listener understand why those "last sparks" are so central to this stanza - the moment of irregularity within what is otherwise regular makes them stand out for the ear.

By contrast, scanning Alan Brownjohn's 'Incident on a Holiday' reveals that, although he largely eschews a regular foot, he does maintain a five-stress line in the first stanza, and in most of the poem, thus giving the poem something of the irregular rhythms of prose, while the accentual metre simultaneously keeps a form of regularity.

Some poems, such as D J Enright's 'Dreaming in the Shanghai Restaurant', avoid even accentual regularity. Note, though, that this poem about agreeable balance makes a kind of music out of the sentences, often balanced agreeably around a semi-colon, instead of the syllables that scansion measures.

How to use this term

Edwin Morgan's 'Song of the Loch Ness Monster' presents a great challenge to most attempts at scansion.

Related Terms


Related Poems

The Children's Archive

This part of the Archive is full of poems chosen specially for children. Meet old favourites and make new discoveries.

Support The Poetry Archive
The Poetry Archive depends on donations from public bodies and private individuals. Find out how you can contribute to the work of the Archive.
Search for a poem or a poet:

My Archive

Create lists of your favourite poems and poets and share them with friends.

Browse all poets by name

View all poets

Browse all poems by title

View all poems

Glossary of poetic terms

View full glossary