[Byron Society home page]
Byron Society Technical Page
by Dr. C.G. Oakley
Everybody knows what rhyme means, but I am always amazed at how little people
know about scansion, even those who should know better. This is just as
important as rhyme. So if you are one of these then listen up: you might
Scansion or metre means the rhythm formed by the syllables in a
line of poetry. The verb to scan in this context means working out what
the metre is (often a fruitless exercise in the case of Byron Society poetry).
Traditionally, English poetry consists of metrical verse, which means
that the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is regular. Looser forms
are (i) accentual verse, where the number of stressed syllables per line
is regular; (ii) syllabic verse where the number of syllables, stressed
or not, is regular and (iii) free verse or vers libre where there
is no definite scansion. Here we consider only metrical verse.
The unit of metre is the foot or measure.
Types of feet:
S = stressed syllable; U = unstressed syllable.
An iamb or iambus: US.
An anapest: UUS.
A dactyl: SUU.
A spondee: SS.
A pyrrhic: UU.
A trochee: SU.
An amphybrach: USU.
A tribrach: UUU.
A choriambus: SUUS.
Common foot groupings in metrical verse:
Tetrameter: each line consists of four feet. Most commonly iambic
tetrameter; four iambs per line, e.g. Byron's The Giaour :
Who THUN-d'ring COMES on BLACK-est STEED?
Anapestic tetrameter, four anapests per line, e.g. Byron's The Destruction
The-a-SSYR-ian came DOWN like the WOLF on the FOLD
Pentameter: each line consists of five feet. Most commonly iambic
pentameter; five iambs per line, e.g. Shelley's Adonais :
He HAS out-SOARED the SHAD-ow OF our NIGHT
Iambic pentameter is the dominant verse form in the English language. Unrhymed
iambic pentameter is known as blank verse. Shakespeare's plays, Milton's Paradise
Lost, Wordsworth's Prelude and Tennyson's Idylls of the King
are all written in blank verse.
Hexameter: each line consists of six feet. A line in iambic hexameter,
or having twelve syllables is known as an alexandrine, apparently
because some French author wrote a poem about Alexander the Great using this
metre. The second line of this couplet by Pope is an alexandrine:
A needless Alexandrine ends the song,
That, LIKE a WOUN-ded SNAKE, drags ITS slow LENGTH a-LONG.
Special types of stanza:
Couplets: rhymed consecutive pairs of lines. Called closed if the
sentence ends on the second line; called heroic
if they are in iambic pentameter.
Terza rima: alternating groups of three lines, with rhymes aba bcb cdc,
etc., normally iambic pentameter. Used by Dante in The Divine Comedy.
Quatrains: four line stanzas. Ballad form means iambic verse with
the the second and fourth lines rhyming. These have three feet, whereas the
first and third lines have four feet. An example of this is Coleridge's Rime of
the Ancient Mariner (which can also be viewed as couplets in iambic
heptameter). Envelope form means quatrains in iambic tetrameter with a
rhyme scheme abba. Elegiac stanzas or heroic quatrains means
iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme abab
Ottava rima: eight lines of iambic pentameter, with rhymes abababcc.
This is the verse form of Don Juan and The Vision of Judgement.
Spenserian stanzas: eight lines of iambic pentameter followed by an
alexandrine, with rhymes ababbcbcc. So named because this was the verse
form of Spenser's The Faerie Queen. Also used by Byron in Childe Harold's
Haiku: a Japanese verse form consisting of unrhymed syllabic triplets
of five, seven and five syllables.
Yes, but does the Byron Society pay any attention to any of this?
Occasionally. Whereas almost all of the poetry given here is rhymed, some is
metrical as well. Note especially
Couplets in iambic tetrameter:
Treacle by Danny Henrey; Doggerel
attributed to Shelley.
Non-heroic quatrain in iambic pentameter:
To Evening by Danny Henrey; A charming (if
somewhat abusive) idyll, based on Matthew Arnold.
Haikus by Danny Henrey. Various musings.
Couplets in iambic decameter:
- Zelda in Zürich, by Raymond Paretzky; a
poetry-loving zebra seeks enlightenment from the overlord. No, really.
Unclassified but metrical form: