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’).