Fun With Scansion

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on my blog about metrical poetry, specifically, the line in Romeo and Juliet, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” and how the scansion of the line could support the meaning of the words. (What can I say? It was a nice break from the usual posting about truly important things like underwear and cramps.) I don’t claim to be an expert on this subject by any stretch of the imagination, even though many long years ago, I wrote an article for LitKicks about villanelles, sonnets and meter, (appropriately titled “Villanelles, Sonnets and Meter”) but it is something that fascinates me.

Like many good English majors, I had to study forms of poetic meter in school, and the most telling exercise (I still think about it) was having to write a perfect Elizabethan sonnet. It was a pass/fail assignment — it either was 14 lines of iambic pentameter or it wasn’t. It was surprisingly difficult, mainly because it’s amazing how often we try to force words to scan the way we think they ought to, instead of using words that fit naturally within the flow. (I suppose we have to give the word “amazing” a limited definition in this context.) But I have found since then that when I read metrical writing, I scan things in my head, and if I were to be a stickler, I’d say that there are an awful lot of poems out there that, in terms of scansion, aren’t true sonnets.

What I mean is that an iamb is a heartbeat — ba-DUM — and there are many words and phrases that are iambic (oddly enough, the word “iamb” is not one of them — it’s a trochee), and when scanning a line of poetry, the natural rise and fall of the syllables is what counts. If you place the stress on the wrong syllables to make the lines scan, then it’s not working. So, for example, if you’re writing a metered line and you’re reading the word “desire” as “desire” just to make it fit, then you’re forcing the scansion instead of letting it work naturally.

To help clarify my point, I’ll scan Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII, which is one of his most famous. One of the myths surrounding Shakespeare’s writing is that everything he wrote was in perfect iambic pentameter, especially the sonnets (this particular form is named for him, after all), but does it really work? Based on my own reading of the poem out loud to myself, without paying attention to what the scansion should be, this is how I scanned it:

Shall I/ compare/ thee to/ a sum/ mer’s day?

Right off the bat, the poem doesn’t scan iambic. I came up with Spondee/Iamb/Trochee/Iamb/Iamb

So, from a pure scansion standpoint, this line is a mess. Certainly, I can read it as iambic pentameter, but it’s forcing it a little; I don’t read the syllables falling naturally into that pattern.

Thou art/ more love/ ly and/ more temp/ erate:

I had a little trouble with this line. The last foot reads to me like a pyrrhic (two unstressed syllables in a row), though it’s said that pyrrhics usually only exist in a spondee/pyrrhic pattern, so technically, I guess the stress can fall on the final syllable of the last foot, but reading it that way sounds kind of fake and forced to me.

Rough winds/ do shake/ the dar/ ling buds/ of May,

And sum/ mer’s lease/ hath all/ too short/ a date:

Sometime/ too hot/ the eye/ of heav/ en shines,

And of/ ten is/ his gold/ complex/ ion dimmed,

I keep debating with myself as to whether or not the third foot of this line is a spondee or an iamb. I think I’ve read it too much to come to a strong conclusion, so I’m calling it iambic.

And ev/ ery fair/ from fair/ sometime/ declines,

By chance,/ or na/ ture’s chang/ ing course/ untrimmed:

But thy/ eter/ nal sum/ mer shall/ not fade,

Nor lose/ possess/ ion of/ that fair/ thou ow’st,

Nor shall/ death brag/ thou wan/ der’st in/ his shade,

I’m a little iffy about this one, because just as someone who’s done a fair share of poetry reading out loud, I wouldn’t normally read two continuous lines that begin with the same word with the same vocal pattern, but in the end, I think it scans.

When in/ etern/ al lines/ to time/ thou grow’st,

So long/ as men/ can breathe,/ or eyes/ can see,

So long/ lives this,/ and this/ gives life/ to thee.

So that’s my take on it, anyway. Definitely not perfect iambic pentameter, but interestingly, I think that in each case where the meter scans differently, the places where the stress falls on the syllables emphasizes the meaning of the line. I guess this means that Shakespeare was pretty crafty. Go figure.

9 Responses

  1. Organic vs. MechanicalDo you
    Organic vs. Mechanical

    Do you think an occasional “flaw” in a poem’s meter makes it more organic, therefore, more appealing to humans?

    By the way, I read your blog entry about the famous “wherefore art thou” line. It was an eye-opener, because, I’ve got to admit, I always thought Juliet was asking where Romeo was, not why he was who he was. Do I have that right?

  2. I think a “flaw” or whatever
    I think a “flaw” or whatever you would call it makes the poem more interesting and avoids monotony. The same thing with rhyme. Some times avoiding a rhyme or making an almost rhyme makes the poem more interesting. But forced rhyme can sound bad to the ear.

  3. No. She’s asking why. How
    No. She’s asking why. How come she loves this fellow when their clans are at war; thus dooming her, him, everything. The essence of Shakespeare is the asking of why.

  4. Isn’t that wu-wei–the crack
    Isn’t that wu-wei–the crack in the pot that makes it beautiful? Anyways, I agree, but I think as well, in metrical poetry, the change has to be unexpected and/or meaningful.

  5. Sure, though it’s arguable
    Sure, though it’s arguable that with something that in a type of poem that relies so strictly on form, the point is not necessarily to be organic. I think that with anything that involves rules, breaking them is not so much a way of making things more natural, but rather to call attention to specific things. And in metrical poetry, breaking the meter grabs attention, and that makes it more interesting. Iambic pentameter is inherently very natural sounding, because everyday speech tends to follow a similar rise and fall pattern (though of course not exactly), which is why when it’s unrhymed, this meter is called blank verse.

    As for Romeo and Juliet, yes. In modern speech, it translates to “Why are you Romeo?” There are all kinds of other guys who she doesn’t care about who just as easily could be the son of her family’s sworn enemies, yet the one guy she thinks is cute, is, of course, the son of her family’s sworn enemies. I’m not sure how much her statement has to do with love — honestly, she’s a teenage kid and she just met him, so it’s probably something more along the lines of immediate infatuation (read: lust). In a way, the youth of the play’s protagonists adds to the tragedy. Not just because these young lives were lost, but because, seriously, weren’t we all total idiots when we were teenagers? When we “fell in love” when we were freshmen in high school, weren’t we sure that it was going to last forever and we’d just diiiiiiie if we had to be apart and dammit, our parents just didn’t GET it, right? In a way, to me, Romeo and Juliet is a classic “Oh, come on, you stupid kids” play. Certainly, circumstances were sad for the two, but they could’ve gotten older and done so much living. Instead they lost it all because they thought that getting into each other’s pants was the be-all and end-all of existence. In general, I don’t read Shakespeare as a romantic, and I don’t think of Romeo and Juliet as a heartbreaking love story.

    I also think that Shakespeare wrote far too many bawdy, irreverent and occasionally self-serving (Macbeth, anyone?) things to be boiled down to a statement such as “The essence of Shakespeare is the asking of why.” He was a genius, certainly, and wrote some truly amazing work, but I think that’s a little meaningless and head-in-the-clouds.

  6. I just saw West Side Story
    I just saw West Side Story again recently. Foolish teenagers! When will they learn?

    You know who stood out to me this time? That girl called “Anybodys” who they were always telling to “get a skirt.” Does she correspond to anyone in Romeo & Juliet?

  7. I haven’t seen West Side
    I haven’t seen West Side Story since I was 10, so I can’t say that I remember.

  8. Bill, I don’t think there was
    Bill, I don’t think there was a lesbian character in “Romeo and Juliet”, so the answer is probably no.

  9. it’s all organicI was
    it’s all organic

    I was thinking – in the mind of Shakespeare – Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet are the same play, same characters. War and power are the heroes, love and innocence are the victims. I think it’d be a mistake to judge Juliet by when I was a freshman. Simon Hart once said – I like children’s reactions to my paintings, because unlike adults, they’re honest.

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