Teaching Poetry Meter in High School English: Identifying Meter in Poetry by Doing the Scansion of Poems

Teaching Poetry Meter in High School English: Identifying Meter in Poetry by Doing the Scansion of Poems
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Key Points

Have the following objectives in mind when teaching poetry meter:

  1. Students should be able to define rhythm, meter, and foot. Meter is the basic scheme of stressed and unstressed syllables. A foot is two or more syllables that make up the smallest unit of meter in a poem. Rhythm is the combination of adherence to and deviation from the standard meter. If poems were basketball teams, the fast break style of offense would be the meter and me dunking the ball in your face would be the rhythm (I can dream, can’t I?).
  2. Students should figure out the scansion of poems and be proficient at identifying meter in poetry. It would be nice if they could do it without whining and asking that traditional teenager entitlement question, “Why do I gots to do this?” but they won’t. Tell them poets are masters of words. Masters of words pay attention to the rhythm and flow of writing and speaking. If they want to be masters of words, they should study how masters of words do this. If that doesn’t suffice, just tell them it will be on the test.
  3. Students should be able to analyze how meter and rhythm affect a poem’s theme. This requires thought. Be careful.
  4. Students should be able to apply their knowledge of meter and use it with purpose in their own writing. This indicates mastery. Any student who can do this should be given an ‘A’.

Mastering Identification

It helps to know the different types of meter. I have provided a near brilliant list of common feet and line lengths in the rhythm and meter in poetry study guide. Read it. It may change your life!

An excellent method for identifying meter in poetry is determining the scansion of poems. Determining the scansion of poems, however, is not an exact science. I recommend, after doing a few easy ones, putting an ambiguously metered line of poetry on the board and letting students argue over it. When students swear at each other, brandish swords, or shoot pistols into the air, stop the argument and let them know they’re both right. I’m sure you and the superintendent will have a nice chuckle over the incident once you explain the lesson. Here’s how to do scansion.

  1. Write a line of poetry on the board. Separate each foot with a straight line. Mark each unstressed syllable with a smile above it; mark each stressed syllable with a line above it. I strongly recommend you do this as a class. Feel free to liven it up with dancing. Before I give you an example of scansion, I need to confess that I do not have the capabilities of writing the smile with this particular program, but if I did, it would look like the symbol above this ‘Š’. Since you all know what a straight line looks like, I won’t show you that. Instead, I’ll italicize the unstressed syllables and embolden the stressed ones in the following line.
    • You blocks! / You stones! / You worse / than sense / less things! (Julius Caesar, Act I, scene i)
  2. After marking the scansion, identify the meter. If you identified the example as iambic pentameter, give yourself a pat on the back. If you missed it, scold yourself mildly.

Poems for Teaching Poetry Meter

If you’re like me, you probably can’t get enough of identifying meter in poetry. Here’s a list of poems and meter types to make this the best English class ever.

  1. Iambic Pentameter: Any sonnet, English or Petrarchan, will do, as will all of Shakespeare’s plays. If you’re the non-sonnet type, try an ottava rima or a rhyme royal.
  2. Iambic Tetrameter: Instead of five feet, tetrameter has four. “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell is a fine example.
  3. Iambic Trimeter: You’ve probably figured out that trimeter has three feet per line as in “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke.
  4. Iambic hexameter: This has six lines and is referred to as an Alexandrine. The Spenserian Stanza consists of eight lines of iambic pentameter and one Alexandrine. “There is a Pleasure in the Pathless Woods” by Lord Byron is a fine example.
  5. Variations of iambs include the pyrrhic, spondee, trochee, anapest, and dactyl. When you come across scansion examples in class that don’t quite fit the iamb, throw out these words and your entire class will think you’re a genius.

Let me know how your adventures in poetry meter, identifying meter in poetry, and determining the scansion of poems goes by leaving me a comment.

Click here for a complete semester curriculum map for freshman English with lesson plans and links.

This post is part of the series: Teaching Sound Devices and Form in Poetry

Use this list of poems and lesson ideas for teaching sound devices and form in poetry.

  1. Poems For Teaching Onomatopoeia
  2. Poems for Teaching Stanza Form in Poetry
  3. Poems For Teaching Meter in Poetry
  4. Alliteration in Poems for High School Students
  5. Poems for Teaching Sound Devices in Poetry