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  • Scansion

    The scanning of verse, that is, dividing it into metrical feet and identifying its rhythm by encoding stressed syllables (stresses, ictus) and unstressed syllables (slacks). Conventional English graphic notation is:

    • unstressed syllable or slack, an upwards-curving quarter circle, usually the breve but here represented by a tilde ~;
    • stressed syllable, an ictus, here the acute accent ';
    • double-stressed syllables, two acute accents ' ', used to distinguish between primary stress and secondary stress;
    • hovering stress, the circumflex ˆ;
    • the boundary between metrical feet, the virgule /;
    • and a cæsura, the double bar | |.

    Other notations, such as the musical and the acoustic, are less employed in the study of poetry. Paul Fussell, in his classic Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, revised edition (McGraw-Hill, 1979), recommends that the metre of a poem be represented by letters of the alphabet, separated by spaces, with a concluding exponent signifying the line length in feet. Enlaced pentameter quatrains, for example, would be coded abba5 (22-23).

    To simplify, scanning has at least three steps, the first two technical, and the third aesthetic.

    1. Infer the poem's theoretical metrical form (say, that it is a sonnet, villanelle, quatrains, etc.) and the basic rhythm (iambic pentameter, anapestic dimeter, etc.), and encode it on the text. This is the base scansion, and it insists on a steady beat.
    2. Speak the poem as if it were ordinary speech and superimpose on the text a parallel group of codes for its conversational rendering. This is the natural scansion, and it resists a regular beat.
    3. Compare the two scansions and isolate the differences between them. Choose, difference by difference, according to how you read the poem's content. For example, if the poem is a dramatic monologue, empasize the rhythms of speech (cadence); and if the poem is song-like, playful, or musical, impose the theoretical base scansion more often than not. By imposing the base metrical scansion, that of the poetic form, you will often de-stress naturally-accented syllables, stress slack syllables, extend the syllables in a word (e.g., pronouncing "actual" as ‘ak-chew-el’ rather than ‘ak-shal’), or delete syllables from a word by elision (e.g., pronouncing "ever" as ‘ere’).
  • Scheme

    Figure of speech that varies the order and sound of words. Examples include alliteration, assonance, chiasmus, and rhyme.

  • Scop

    The name for an Old English poet-singer.

  • Septet

    A seven-line stanza. See also Rhyme royal.

  • Sestet

    A six-line stanza, or the final six lines of a 14-line Italian or Petrarchan sonnet.

  • Sestina

    A poem consisting of six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoy, where the words ending the lines of the first stanza are repeated in a different order at the end of lines in each of the subsequent five stanzas and, two to a line, in the middle and at the end of the three lines in the closing envoy. The patterns of word-repetitions are as follows:

    1 2 3 4 5 6
    6 1 5 2 4 3
    3 6 4 1 2 5
    5 3 2 6 1 4
    4 5 1 3 6 2
    2 4 6 5 3 1
    (6 2) (1 4) (5 3)

    Examples are Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Complaint of Lisa," and "Sestina", W. H. Auden's "Paysage Moralisé" and Donald Hall's "Hang it all, Ezra Pound, there is only one sestina." Sir Philip Sidney's "You Gote-herd Gods, that love the grassie mountaines" is a double sestina.

  • Sick verse

    Mordant, black-humoured or horrific works such as Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," Robert Browning's "‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’," and Robert Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee." This term was popularized by George Macbeth's anthology Penguin Book of Sick Verse (1963).

  • Silent stress

    A noticeable pause or musical rest with all the value of a beat in highly rhythmic verse. An example is the caesura that appears at the end of the first lines in (spoken-aloud) nursery rhymes such as

    Ding dong bell,
    Pussy's in the well

    (Philip Davies Roberts, How Poetry Works: The Elements of English Poetry [Penguin, 1986]: 22-23, 33).

  • Simile

    A comparison made with "as," "like," or "than."

  • Singlet

    A one-syllable foot.

  • Sextain

    A stanza or poem or six lines:

  • Skeltonic verse

    Short, roughhewn lines in variable-length stanzas reusing a small number of rhymes, popularized by John Skelton.

  • Slack

    Unstressed syllable.

  • Sonnet

    (Italian, "little song")

    In the Renaissance, a brief song or lyric of indeterminate rhyme scheme, but also a 14-line poem patterned on forms popularized by Petrarch, Wyatt, Surrey, Spenser, and Shakespeare. Samuel Johnson (1755) glossed his definition, "It is not very suitable to the English language, and has not been used by any man of eminence since Milton."

    • Caudate sonnet: codas or tails are added to the 14-line poem. An example is John Milton's "On the New Forces of Conscience under the Long Parliament."


    • Curtal sonnet: a short sonnet devised by Gerard Manley Hopkins that maintains the proportions of the Italian form (6:4.5 to 8:6), substituting two six-stress tercets for two quatrains in the octave (rhyming abc abc), and four-and-a-half lines for the sestet (rhyming dcbdc), also six-stress except for the final three-stress line. Examples are his poems "Peace" and "Pied Beauty."


    • English (or Shakespearean) sonnet: the Englished form of the Italian sonnet, developed by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey with three quatrains and a concluding couplet, with the scheme abab cdcd efef gg .


    • Italian: a fourteen-line poem with two sections, an octave (eight-line stanza rhyming abbaabba), and a sestet (six-line-stanza rhyming cddc ee), an Englished variant of the Petrachan. Examples include Sir Thomas Wyatt's "Whoso List to Hunt, I Know Where is an Hind" and John Donne's "If Poisonous Minerals, and If that Tree."


    • Petrachan: a fourteen-line poem with two sections, an octave (eight-line stanza rhyming abbaabba), and a sestet (six-line-stanza rhyming cdcdcd or cdecde). Examples are John Milton's "When I Consider How my Light is Spent" (typical of his practice, this sonnet does not divide its thought between the octave and the sestet) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee," and William Wordsworth's "The World is Too Much with Us."


    • Reverse sonnet: a comic form invented in Wilfred Owens' sonnet "Hand trembling towards hand," which starts with the couplet rather than ending with it.


    • Sonnet redoublé: fifteen sonnets, of which the last consists of all the repeated lines linking the other fourteen sonnets, in the same order in which they have appeared.


    • Sonnet sequence: a group of sonnets sharing the same subject matter and sometimes a dramatic situation and persona. Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and W. H. Auden have written among the greatest sonnet sequences.


    • Spenserian sonnet: a fourteen-line poem developed by Edmund Spenser in his Amoretti that varies the English form by interlocking the three quatrains, abab bcbc cdcd ee


    • Stretched sonnet: one extended to sixteen or more lines, such as George Meredith's "Modern Love."


    • Submerged sonnet: a sonnet hidden inside a longer poetic work, such as lines 235-48 of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.


    • Tail rhyme: a stanza that has an extra short line (a tail, a tag) that rhymes with another such line. Cf. bob and wheel.

    See also Corona.

  • Spasmodic School

    P. J. Bailey, Sydney Dobell, Alexander Smith and other late Romantic, early Victorian minor poets.

  • Spenserian stanza

    The unit of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, consisting of eight iambic-pentameter lines and a final alexandrine, and having the rhyme scheme ababbcbcc, or two interlaced quatrains overlapping with a concluding couplet. Later examples are Robert Burns' "The Cottager's Saturday Night," John Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes," Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Adonais," and Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Lotos-Eaters."

  • Spondee

    A metrical foot consisting of two accented syllables / ' ' /. An example of a spondaic word is "hog-wild." The di-spondee / ' ' ' ' / is a Classical Greek and Latin metrical foot.

  • Sprung rhythm

    A metrical system devised by Gerard Manley Hopkins that has 1-to-4-syllable feet, each starting with a stressed syllable (sometimes a foot by itself), where the spondee replaces the iamb as a dominant measure, and where rests and multiple non-stressed syllables can be discounted in scansion. His own verse illustrates its use, but there have been almost no imitators.

  • Stanza

    (Italian, ‘a stopping place’)

    A group of verses separated from other such groups in a poem and often sharing a common rhyme scheme.

  • Stichomythia

    (Greek ‘line-speech’)

    Dialogue in alternate verse-lines.

  • Stress

    A syllable uttered in a higher pitch than others. The language determines how English words are stressed, but sentence structure, semantics, and metre can alter that encoding.

  • Strophe

    (Greek, ‘turn’)

    The section of a Greek ode sung when the chorus turns from one side of the orchestra to the other.

  • Sublime

    The main characteristic of great poetry, Longinus held, was sublimity or high, grand, ennobling seriousness.