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Is there a foolproof or "rigorous" way to accurately and repeatably perform scansion in English poetry? It seems highly subjective at times.

For example, I can pretty easily grasp the iambic tetrameter in Frost's Whose woods these are I think I know, but can't follow the spondee / iambic / anapest / iambic in his Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

My understanding is that you can't just look up the words in a dictionary and determine which syllables are stressed and which ones aren't to perform scansion. The stresses in the line are relative to each other and "stressed" syllables in scansion may appear unstressed in a dictionary pronunciation guide.

Is it really up to the reader to "hear" the poem correctly to perform scansion? Are there any linguistic computer algorithms that "hear" the words in order to perform scansion?

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

My feeling is that much poetry in English should not be analysed with spondee/iambic/anapest/trochee notation. Just figure out which syllables need to be accented:

Twó róads divérged in a yéllow wóod.

Why put an accent on the word "two"? In my opinion, it's actually completely optional for the scansion of this poem. However, "two" is an important word for the meaning of this poem, and fits fine with the scansion, so accenting it works fine.

But if you ask why should the second syllable of "yellow" belong in an iambic foot with "wood" rather than with the first syllable of "yellow", my answer is that this is a distinction grandfathered from the analysis of Greek poetry and is completely irrelevant to how you would read the poem in English.

UPDATE: listening to Robert Frost read this poem, I would say the accented syllables are:

Two róads divérged in a yéllow wóod,
And sórry I cóuld nót trável bóth,

whose first line is different from what you had. I would take this as fairly good evidence that the division is subjective. (The second line is either iamb/anapest/spondee/iamb or amphibranch/iamb/spondee/iamb, but I don't think there is any way of deciding between these two possibilities.)

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Thanks for the feedback. I read some more about scansion today. It seems my desire to have a repeatable (across multiple people) or algorithmic way to perform scansion is a pipe dream and that any two professional practitioners likely will come up with different schemes for complex poems (excepting one like Stopping by Woods..). The source I got the spondee/iambic beginning from said Frost specifically chose spondee to make Two and Roads to each stand on their own. – Jason Waldrop Oct 18 '11 at 23:51
I have thought more about this problem. Specifically, I like your demonstration of the metrical ambiguity of line two. Personally, the amphibranch/iamb/spondee/iamb rendering seems more natural to me, but I can hear the other metric as well. – Jason Waldrop Oct 19 '11 at 15:12
To address the OPs comment on Frost specifically choosing a spondee for this line, when the first line (nearly) repeats, in his reading Frost uses a spondee instead of an iamb the second time: "Twó róads divérged in a wóod, and Í / Í tóok the óne less tráveled bý", To understand why he changed the scansion, you have to figure out the metaphorical meaning of the poem and realize that the change highlights it. Clearly not an algorithmic process. – Peter Shor Oct 24 '11 at 20:36

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