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Here's the poem "The South" by Langston Hughes scanned by me (a non-native English speaker):

The lazy, laughing South
With blood on its mouth.
The sunny-faced South,
Beast-strong,
Idiot-brained.
The child-minded South
Scratching in the dead fire’s ashes
For a Negro’s bones.
Cotton and the moon,
Warmth, earth, warmth,
The sky, the sun, the stars,
The magnolia-scented South.
Beautiful, like a woman,
Seductive as a dark-eyed whore,
Passionate, cruel,
Honey-lipped, syphilitic—
That is the South.
And I, who am black, would love her
But she spits in my face.
And I, who am black,
Would give her many rare gifts
But she turns her back upon me.
So now I seek the North
The cold-faced North,
For she, they say,
Is a kinder mistress,
And in her house my children
May escape the spell of the South.

Is my scansion accurate? If not, I would love corrections with explanations.

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  • 2
    Scansions are subjective. If you give three people the same poem, you may get three different scansions. Your scansion is perfectly fine, but others would be, too—you could easily put two stress in the line "with blood on its mouth. or three stresses in the line "And in her house my children.
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 14, 2022 at 10:42
  • Thank you for your comment, @PeterShor!
    – user392289
    Aug 14, 2022 at 10:58

1 Answer 1

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Here goes. My reading is different from yours in a few places:

|  x   ´ | x     ´   |  x   ´    |      
| The la | zy, laugh | ing South |

|   x    ´    |  x  x   ´     |
|  With blood | on its mouth. |

|  x   ´  |  x  ´  |  x   ´    |
| The sun | ny-fac | ed South, |

|    ´    ´     |
| Beast-strong, |

| ´ x |  x    ´     |
| Idi | ot-brained. |

| x   ´      |  ´  x  | ´     |
| The child- | minded | South |

|    ´   x   |  x  x  |   ´     ´   |  ´ x  |
| Scratching | in the | dead fire’s | ashes |

| x  x |  ´   x  |   ´    |
| For a | Negro’s | bones. |

|  ´  x  |  x   x    ´   |
| Cotton | and the moon, |

|    ´    |    ´   |    ´    |
| Warmth, | earth, | warmth, |

|  x   ´  |  x   ´   |  x    ´    |
| The sky,| the sun, | the stars, |

|  x   x  ´ |  x    ´  |   x    ´   |
| The magno | lia-scen | ted South. |

|   ´  x  x  |   x  x |  x  ´  |
| Beautiful, | like a | woman, |

|  x ´  |   x  x  | x   ´  |    ´     ´   |
| Seduc | tive as | a dark | -eyed whore, |

|  ´  x   x   |  ´ x   |
| Passionate, | cruel, |

|  ´  x   x     |  `  x     ´ x   |
| Honey-lipped, | sy phi | litic— |

|   ´   x |  x    ´    |
| That is | the South. |

|  x  ´  |  x   x   ´    |  x      ´   `  |
| And I, | who am black, | would love her |

|  x   x    ´   |  x  x   ´   |
| But she spits | in my face. |

|  x  ´  |  x   x   ´    | 
| And I, | who am black, |

|   x     ´  |  x   ´ |  x   ´  |   ´   |
| Would give | her ma | ny rare | gifts |

|  x   x  |   ´    x  |   ´  x |  ´   x  | 
| But she | turns her | back u | pon me. |

|  x  ´  | x   ´  |  x    ´    |
| So now | I seek | the North— |

|  x   ´    |  ´ x  |   ´    |
| The cold- | faced | North, |

|  x   ´   |   x   ´   |
| For she, | they say, |

|  ` x |  ´  x  |   ´   x   |
| Is a | kinder | mistress, |

|  x   x |  ´    ´   |  x   ´   x  |
| And in | her house | my children |

|  ´   x |   ´   x  |   ´    x |  x    ´    | 
| May es | cape the | spell of | the South. |

Here are the points of departure:

  • With blood on its mouth. Prepositions are rarely stressed in English.
  • Faced I read as two syllables, not one. Both times the word occurs, the line seems smoother that way.
  • Scratching in the dead fire’s ashes. It would be really odd to stress the preposition here, I think.
  • While For a Negro's bones gives you a nice catalectic trochaic line, I don't think a stress is syntactically or semantically warranted on for.
  • Cotton and the moon. Conjunctions are not usually stressed unless semantically significant, and here I think it's just a conjunction, not meriting an augmentative emphasis. I.e., it's just joining together a list, not expressing wonder or surprise, as would be the case in ¿¡ You ate all the cake and all the ice-cream ?!
  • The magnolia-scented South. Why the stress on mag? That's not how the word is pronounced.
  • Beautiful, like a woman. That seems unlikely to me.
  • Seductive as a dark-eyed whore. I can see the argument that the line reads better with a half-stress on the as, but I think a pyrrhic balances out the spondee at the end.
  • Honey-lipped, syphilitic. I think a stress on lipped both runs counter to how I'd expect to hear the compound word being pronounced, and throws the line off-kilter rhythmically.
  • That is the South. H'm, you could argue for a stress on is, but I think one on that makes better sense.

Note the preponderance of I statements in the list. That's how I'd scan the poem. I wouldn't go as far as @PeterShor and say that "scansions are subjective", but I do agree that scansion is an act of interpretation, and as such, not entirely objective. There is, however, a vast middle ground between subjective and objective; interpretations can be argued for and/or over, but some are clearly better than others.

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  • 3
    Thank you so much for your answer, verbose! It’s also great to see you here after so long.
    – user392289
    Feb 5, 2023 at 12:11
  • 2
    Great to be back! Thanks for your kind words.
    – verbose
    Feb 5, 2023 at 16:49

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