Scansion: The Trisyllabic Foot

The trisyllabic foot is a poetic foot made up of three syllables instead of two.


The first trisyllabic foot we will cover here is the Anapest. An Anapest is a trisyllabic foot in which the first two syllables are unstressed and the 3rd syllables is stressed.


Ariel, from William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”, gives us two anapest’s back to back in line 402: “But doth suffer a sea-change”


A few phrases that illustrate the nature of an anapest are: Get a Life, In the blink of an eye, by the skin of your teeth.


The next trisyllabic foot we will cover here is the dactyl. The dactyl (like the trochee to the iamb) is the inverse of the anapest.


A dactyl is a trisyllabic foot in which the 1st syllable is stressed and the 2nd and 3rd syllables are unstressed.


Here is an example of dactyls from “Evangeline” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven?

List to the mournful tradition still sung by the pines of the Forrest”


In Shakespeares verse, anapests and dactyls are rare; even more rare are amphibrachs. Amphibrachs are trisyllabic feet in which the 1st and 3rd syllables are unstressed and the 2nd syllable is stressed.


Dr. Seuss made use of amphibrachs much more readily than Shakespeare. Here is an example from ’If I ran the Circus’:

“All ready to pull up the tents for my circus. I think I will call it the Circus McGurkus.”


A trisyllabic foot, as rare if not more rare than the amphibrach is the amphimacer. An amphimacer is a trisyllabic foot in which the 1st and 3rd syllables are stressed and the 2nd is unstressed.


Four very famous names in Shakespeares writing give us perfect examples of amphimacer: Capulet, Montague, Romeo and Juliet, are all amphimacers.


It is important to keep in mind that amphibrachs, amphimacers, anapests and dactyls are more about feel and flow in a line of iambic pentameter than they are about the strict scanning of a line.


For example: In Romeo and Juliet, during prince Escalus’s speech, line 67 reads: “By the old Capulet and Montague”.


This line is written in perfect iambic pentameter. If we scan it, every foot is an iamb and there are five iambs in the line.


If we scan the line in strict iambic pentameter, we sacrifice the flow and natural rhythm of the line.


But if we allow the words ‘Capulet’ and ‘Montague’ to have the FEEL of an amphimacer, it restores the natural flow, without altering the scansion.


When scanning text, this rule of feel and rhythm applies across the board.


Feeling the rhythm and flow of a line of text is more important than emphasizing the scansion.


In fact, the end goal is for the scansion to disappear beneath the intentions, tactics, discoveries and changes.


The scansion should be thought of as a tool that supports your work as a storyteller and not about how good you are at reading verse.


Once we understand the rules of scansionand the purpose of those rules in supporting the images and experiences of the character, then we can break the rules, even forget the rules and allow the language to take flight.

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