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A Rational Guide to Verse
or, Scansion Made Simple



Part Three:  Shakespeare

Vocabulary you will use

Here is a glossary of the most common terms used in metrical analysis.  To discuss your work with other people, you will need its vocabulary of analytical terms.  These words will help you describe the components and structures of verse.

Scansion

Scansion refers to the markings you use to indicate foot divisions and syllable lengths.  You "scan" a verse by marking its scansion.

Meter

Meter is the quantity of feet on a line.  Three feet is trimeter, four is tetrameter, five is pentameter, six is hexameter, seven heptameter, and eight octameter.  Longer lengths are possible but uncommon.

Stanza

A stanza is a group of lines.  Two lines is a couplet; three is a tricet; four a quatrain.

Blank verse

When every line of a stanza is written in the same meter, the result is called blank verse.  Blank verse usually does not rhyme.

Feminine ending

A line that concludes with a short syllable is said to have a feminine ending, because an unstressed syllable is supposedly a "weak" way to end a line.

Caesura

Caesura is a fancy word for "pause."  A caesura is not a special kind of pause.  "Caesura" is merely a more elegant word.

Foot names

Feet are called different names depending on their syllabic arrangement.  Every English foot contains one long syllable plus one or two short syllables.  Other feet are theoretically possible but are not supported by natural English usage.  The following is a complete list of English feet.

Name of foot Length Arrangement Example
Trochee
Iamb
L + s L - s
s - L
target
guitar
Dactyl
Anapest
Spondee
Amphibrach
L + s + s L - s - s
s - s - L
L - L
s - L - S
mannequin
irrespect
seedpod
controller
Pyrrhic s + s Neither if it

Feet that are the same length may be used in the same line.  For example, an "iambic" line may contain both iambs and trochees, because these are equal to each other (L + s).  A "dactylic" line may feature dactyls, anapests, or spondees, because these are all equal (L + s + s).  But a line with iambs and trochees cannot feature dactyls or anapests, and vice versa, because they are not equal in length.

Amphibrachs do not mix with dactyls or anapests, although they are technically the same length.  English listeners are biased to perceive stress as the start or end of a foot.  Next to a dactyl or anapest, an amphibrach will be perceived as an iamb (or trochee) plus an unrhythmical short syllable.  Amphibrachic verse contains only amphibrachs and spondees.

A pyrrhic can only be used with a spondee to form a double foot.  A pyrrhic contains no stress, and it is too short to be equal to any other foot.  Therefore, a pyrrhic cannot function independently as a rhythmic unit, and must be used with a spondee.

Rhythm

Rhythm is the timing of a line.  Rhythmic timing is defined by the most prevalent foot.  For example, if a line contains more iambs than trochees, its rhythm is "iambic."  If trochees outnumber iambs, the rhythm is "trochiaic."

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