Further Practice with Scansion


     Establishing which syllables count in the rhythm of a line begins with determining the actual number of syllables in the line and the placement of stresses among them. Although a dictionary can decide both of these matters in most cases, there are many ambiguous situations. To begin with, poets do not hesitate to stretch and compress syllables, especially where conversational speech permits of varying pronunciations. Contractions are one easy means of compression (th'other, will't please thee), but verse admits many contractions (technically called elisions) which find no counterpart in speech. Two adjacent vowels (even if separated by a liquid—l or r—by a nasal—n or m—and in rare cases even by punctuation) can be considered a single syllable:

Speech Contraction

Than are | new ben|efic'd min|isters, | he throwes |

[Note that an apostrophe marks one contraction since without it Donne's older readers would surely have pronounced the -ed of the participle as a separate syllable. However, the dropped e of beneficed is unmarked.]

Poetic Elision

Others | wits fruits, | and in | his rav|enous maw |

His ti|tle of Bar|rister, | on ev|ery wench |

Bastar|dy abounds | not in | Kings ti|tles, nor |
     (from John Donne, "Satyre II")

[Note that rav'nous, ti-tlof, ev'ry, and even bastard-yabounds can be pronounced thus, but some poetic license is involved.]

Fictive Elisions

Shortly (as | the sea) | hee will com|passe all | our land |
[Note that speech can justify he'll but not short-l'as and that the author clearly does not intend these pronunciations. They are metrical fictions.]
     (from John Donne, "Satyre II")

In addition to eliding syllables, poets sometimes expand them: ma-gi-cian==>ma-gi-ci-an. The endings -tion, -sion, and -cian can be either one or two syllables, and poets rarely feel obliged to remain consistent in handling a word's syllable count. Prayer may sometimes rhyme with sooth-sayer but at other times with fair, and fire can rhyme with hire or with higher:

               She bathes | in wa|ter, yet | her fire | must burn. |

            Free vent | of words | love's fi|re doth | assuage. |
                (Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis 94 and 334)

Like fire, fuel and cruel may be one syllable in one place and two in another, and puissance may be two syllables in one place and three in another. Note how Spenser employs two different pronunciations close together for metrical convenience:

But short|ly was | by Coyl | in bat|taile slaine: | [1 syllable: Coyl]
. . . [six lines omitted]
With whome | King Coy|ll made | an a|greement | [2 syllables: Coy-el]
     (The Faerie Queene 2.10.58-59)

After | all these | Elfi|cleos | did rayne, | [2 syllables: cle-os]
The wise | Elfi|cleos in | great ma|jestie | [1 syllable: clyeous]
     (The Faerie Queene 2.10.75)

But his | good squyre, | him help|ing up | with speed, | [1 syllable: squire]
With stedfast hand upon his horse did stay,
And led him to the castle by the beaten way.
Where man|y groomes | and squy|res rea|dy were | [2 syllables: squi-er]
To take him from his steed full tenderly.
     (The Faerie Queene 2.11.48-49)


Once a poet breaks free of end-stopped lines, to add variety to the texture of the verse, readers who understand the metrical paradigm and are attuned to perceiving it by ear and eye (even by finger-counting, as the old name for verse, numbers, implies) find themselves challenged to keep time, for one of the clearest guides in counting has been removed: the pause at line-end. A sense of vertigo may be produced by a long continuation of the experience. In a passage like the following, where Adam, having sinned, now tries to grapple with what is meant by the threatened punishment of "death," this vertigo suggests poetically the speaker's confusion:

                                But say
That death be not one stroke, as I supposed,
Bereaving sense, but endless misery
From this day onward, which I feel begun
Both in me and without me, and so last
To perpetuity: Ay me, that fear
Comes thundering back with dreadful revolution
On my defenceless head: both Death and I
Am found eternal, and incorporate both,
Nor I on my part single, in me all
Posterity stands cursed.
     (John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667), 10.808-818)

Sometimes long segments of a poem will urge a reader forward, as if in an imitation of eagerness, to break the bounds established by the line's limits. Milton often does this, creating what James Whaler has called "cross-rhythms," patterns of rhythmic organization beginning and ending within lines and creating a rhythm that competes with that of the lines themselves as in counterpoint. Spenser also does this occasionally, using enjambment to create competing patterns adorned with alliteration (bolded) as his lines are adorned with rhyme:

A while they fled, but soone retourned againe
With greater fury then before was fownd;
And evermore their cruell capitaine
Sought with his raskall routs t' enclose them rownd,
And overronne to tread them to the grownd.
But soone the knights with their bright-burning blades
Broke their rude troupes, and orders did confownd.
Hewing and slashing at their idle shades;
For though they bodies seem, yet substance from them fades.

As when a swarme of gnats at eventide
Out of the fennes of Allan doe arise,
Their murmuring shall trompetts sownden wide,
Whiles in the aire their clustring army flies,
That as a cloud doth seeme to dim the skies;
Ne man nor beast may rest, or take repast,
For their sharpe wounds and noyous injuries,
Till that the fierce northerne wind with blustring blast
Doth blow them quite away, and in the ocean cast.
      The Faerie Queene 2.9.15-16