Example Scansion: W. B. Yeats, "After Long Silence"

Here is a fully worked-out example. To begin, click on "Show Poem" to view the unscanned poem. Then click on "First Line" to see the scansion of the first line, and so on. (Alternatively, you can click on any line in the poem to jump to that scansion.) At any time, click on "Show Poem" to view the scansions you have already seen in context.

If this is bewildering, go to the Map and try the First Tutorial. Remember the Reference and Glossary lists.

Line One:

^/ | / x | / / | x (/)| x /
Speech after long silence; it is right,

This first line is the hardest one in the poem to scan. (Why does he do that?)

In iambic pentameter, a nine-syllable line must have a "defective foot." The most common position is the beginning -- as here, except that here it's followed not by a normal iamb but by a trochee, which is quite unusual in the second position in the line. So the poem begins rhythmically off-balance, agitated, which catapults it into emotional intensity. To put it another way, the abruptness which the line describes is also acted out by the rhythm.

"It" is marked as a "promoted stress." (See Reference, Promoted Stresses.) Yet in this case it might almost as well be heard as a full stress. Notice that the antecedent of "it" is not (as it seems to be) "speech" or "silence," but the whole later clause, "That we descant . . ." -- that is, the whole second half of the poem. To make this clear when reading aloud -- to make the ear hold onto "it" long enough to connect with its antecedent -- one might well emphasize this little word, giving it a normal stress.

Line Two:

/ / | x / | x / | x / | x /
All other lovers being estranged or dead,

Aside from the spondee and anapest substituting for the first and fourth iambs, notice the general rhythmic shape of this line: beginning with careful hesitation, gathering speed, then coming to an abrupt halt on "dead." So the sound of the line plays out the same mixture of advance and retreat that the characters in this dramatic situation must be feeling: old lovers meeting again, half as strangers, after a "long silence," a smaller version of which has just interrupted their conversation.

These judgments of "fast" and "slow" are notoriously tricky in printed verse; different readers disagree. Here, though, some concrete details justify us in describing the line's effects in terms of velocity. One is the ponderous opening spondee; Yeats didn't have to say "all" -- "those" or "our" or even "the" would have made sense, without calling as much attention to themselves. The three successive front-stressed, two-syllable words -- trochaic words that counterpoint the iambic pattern -- hasten across the foot boundaries. And there's that monosyllabic stone wall at the end, "dead."

A note on one word: "being" is often (usually?) two syllables, the first one stressed. The way Yeats uses it in many other poems makes it clear that in his Irish dialect of English it was monosyllabic. (By the way, this is how metrics provides evidence to linguists studying dialects or language history.)

Line Three:

x / | x / | / / | / x | x /
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,

This line is fairly easy to scan: the three polysyllables get their dictionary stresses, the noun at the end gets one, and the adjective "hid" ( = hidden) gets another. The rest of the syllables are slack, and the five feet are all normal iambs except for one trochee. In comparison with the previous two lines, this looks pretty regular. Yet it's still unstable: the first two words are ambiguous in stress (a dictionary might mark the first syllable of "unfriendly" as a secondary stress, and also the second syllable of "lamplight"), and the final run of acentually clearer monosyllables is complicated by that one trochaic inversion.

This is a case where the scansion looks clearer than the line's rhythm really sounds. Scansion is just the beginning of rhythmic analysis, and this tutorial points out some directions you might take beyond scanning the lines.

Line Four:

x / | x / |x / | x / | x /
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,

The first four lines display a steady progression toward regularity. The meter gains confidence as the speaker does, in the course of this awkward conversation. This may be a good place to point out that regular meter does not mean "sing-song" or neutral rhythm. (See Reference, rhythm and meter.) Hear how the line is drawn together along a string of n sounds, sprinkled symmetrically with two t's and two d's (which are phonetically similar to n; feel what happens in your mouth when you say "den" or "net"). If you take any of the pleasure in the sound of language that poetry offers and depends on, this kind of patterning -- which doesn't happen by accident -- is likely to make you linger, even as the unfolding sense of the sentence (this poem is all one sentence) pushes you forward. That double feeling of being driven and slowed (see Reference, counterpoint) is a rather direct experience of time; and controlling such experiences is exactly the job of prosody.

Line Five:

x / | x / | x / | x / | x /
That we descant and yet again descant

Your dictionary will tell you that "descant" may be a noun (DES-cant) or a verb (des-CANT), and the syntax tells you that here it's a verb. Notice how the repetition contributes to the feeling that we've finally arrived at complete regularity in the meter -- that is, complete agreement between the line's own rhythm and the metrical norm. This helps tell us that the speaker is arriving at his point.

This poem uses few metaphors, but "descant" is one. What is Yeats comparing to what? Ponder your dictionary's definition of the noun (it's rarely used as a verb, as it is here); and notice also how the metaphor is confirmed by "theme" in the next line.

The line would have the same sense if "yet" were omitted. This makes the word, technically, an expletive. Why did Yeats insert it? (1) He just wanted to emphasize "again." (2) He needed a stressed monosyllable to fill out the metrical pattern. What's wrong with these two explanations?

A note on "descant":

In case you don't have a dictionary handy, it's a musical term: a "descant" is a high, ornamental melody played along with a theme. It comments on or decorates the theme. To "descant" is to play or invent such a melody. So the old lovers' conversation is devoted to ornamenting the "supreme theme of Art and Song."

Even beyond its treatment of speech as music, this is a complicated metaphor. Their conversation elaborates on the topic of Art and Song, but what they say could also be seen as an evasion of the topic, which is silently understood between them. And that topic, in turn, is an extremely abstract version of -- and therefore perhaps another evasion of -- the real theme of their talk, which is the personal relation between them. In the choice of this one word, Yeats has characterized both what they're talking about (he never gives us a direct quotation), and what they're not saying -- which, as so often, is what they mean.

Line Six:

x / | x x | / / | x / | x /
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:

After regularity, a notable variation -- only one substitution in the line (if you count it as a "rising Ionic" rather than a pyrrhic and a spondee), but a very striking one. The internal rhyme of "supreme" and "theme" makes it even more emphatic.

Notice also how much power can reside in a mark of punctuation: the colon at the end tells us to expect . . . what? We know that what's coming will disclose "the supreme theme of Art and Song," so it's pretty important. But the poem doesn't seem to have given us much of a clue on those large topics, so it's mysterious. Importance plus mysteriousness equals suspense.

Both the fulcrum indicated by the colon, and the progression in the meter (from near-chaos to regularity to elegant variation), combine to make us aware of our exact position within the structure of the poem: we have arrived at the climax, the ending, the "point."

Line Seven:

/ x x |x /|x / | x / | x /
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young,

You can feel (and even see in the scansion) how out-of-kilter the line is, like a shaky old man; and correspondingly, how heavily the line leans against its strong last word. We've gone back nearly to chaos again, and now everything depends on the precarious balance between age ("bodily decrepitude") and youth, between "wisdom" and . . . what?

Notice how age gets all the polysyllabic words -- at least until the very end of the next line (and the poem), when one more three-syllable adjective will show us youth through the eyes of age. How often do prosodic details constitute "point of view," in the sense in which we use that term in speaking of fiction?

Line Eight:

x / | x /| x / | x /| x (/)
We loved each other and were ignorant.

How can a little word like "and" not be marked as a promoted stress? Why does it get a "real" stress -- that is, why would we (or the poem) actively emphasize a mere conjunction?

Ask yourself exactly what "and" means here. Is the conjunction of "loved each other" and "ignorant" a paradox? Does it change the meaning of "loved," or of "ignorant"? Would "but" make more sense? Does "and" imply something like "therefore"? How does this affect your sense of the line as completing the opposition that was begun in the previous line? (Decrepitude is to wisdom as youth is to ignorance . . . But is ignorance the opposite of wisdom? And how does "love" fit in?)

The merely promoted stress on the final syllable, on the other hand, underscores how the line -- and with it the poem -- trails off at last, back into silence and perhaps the weariness of age.