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Friday, September 8, 2017

"The Circus Animals' Desertion" by W.B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” can be found here [link]

the contextual nature of meter in English


Trigger warning: this post is about scansion and meter. Results may vary.


I want to take a look at one line of verse – at one syllable within the context of one line of verse. It offers what is to me a curious moment within meter in English. The conclusion I will draw from this little excursion is so fundamental it is barely worth being a conclusion. Still, it is a conclusion important enough that it merits being made every now and then. And I do come upon arguments about meter or prosody that fails to hold to this rather fundamental idea. Besides: in the least, everyone needs to see it a first time.

That line of verse is found in the opening stanza of Yeats's "The Circus Animals' Desertion."

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last being but a broken man
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,

Iambic pentameter, the rhyme irrelevant to the discussion. So that we are all on the same page with the scansion, which is not irregular by any means, let me set it out.

i SOUGHT / a THEME / and SOUGHT / for IT / in VAIN,
i SOUGHT / it DAI / ly FOR / six WEEKS / or SO.
may BE / at LAST / being BUT / a BROK /en MAN
i MUST / be SAT / isfied WITH / my HEART, / al THOUGH
WIN ter /and SUM /mer TILL /old AGE / be GAN
my CIR / cus AN / i MALS / were ALL / on SHOW,

I believe all would agree to this reading. The only real variables are the "maybe" of line 3 (which can be: MAY be / at LAST) and perhaps the "satisfied with" on line 4 (reading it: be SAT / is FIED / with my HEART), though I tend to consider the latter a less satisfactory reading. Both speak in their own way to where I want to go, but I want to focus on another word.

That is, the word "animals" in the final line. In natural speech (as you find it in a dictionary) its stress lies on the first syllable, with stress decreasing toward the third, the vowel of which, in pronunciation, is voiced as a schwa. Say it to yourself and it is probable (or at least possible) that you will say it with the word descending in stress with each syllable (as opposed to one stressed syllable followed by two equally "unstressed" syllables). And yet, within the verse, that third, least stressed syllable is used in a position of stress within the metrics of the line.

You can, in reading the line out loud, give the syllable stress. Though, it seems to me, the more stress given to that third syllable, the more affected the pronunciation seems to be, and the more that pronunciation gets pulled away from the vowel being sounded as a schwa, a sound that all but requires an unaccented syllable. But, there is an alternative reading. When I read the line, it is my natural reading to speak the third syllable not as stressed but with a slightly lower stress than the preceding and following unstressed syllables – and yet the line remains in my ear iambic.

To be clear, I am not arguing here that stressing the third syllable is an incorrect reading. I am only arguing that it is possible to read the line with the last syllable as lower in stress than those around it without damaging the metrics of the line. As I speak the line, I still hear the syllable as functioning as a "stressed" syllable, even though the syllable as I annunciate it has the lowest stress in the line. Rather than being marked through being stressed, the syllable is marked simply as being "different in stress than the surrounding level of unstress."

This is not a rare event. Let me give you a couple more that I found while reading Wordsworth's Prelude (the 1850 version). There are many examples to be found there; I'll offer but two. First, the word "family" in the fourth line, here.

How Wallace fought for Scotland; left the name
Of Wallace to be found, like a wild flower,
All over his dear Country; left the deeds
Of Wallace, like a family of Ghosts,
To people the steep rocks and river banks (I.214-18)

Second, the word "inn-keeper" in the fourth line here.

How sometimes, in the length of those half-years,
We from our funds drew largely; – proud to curb,
And eager to spur on, the galloping steed;
And with the cautious inn-keeper, whose stud
Supplied our want, we haply might employ (II.95-99)

Indeed, it is difficult to put any false emphasis on the "-er" of "inn-keeper" without sounding affected or artificial.

All three cases are the same basic situation. There is a three syllable word whose stress lies upon the first syllable, with the subsequent syllables descending in stress within natural speech. Because that word is followed by another unstressed syllable, a syllable that marks the beginning of a new iamb (and it is important to recognize that the expectation of iambs has to have been established before the line in question), the third syllable in the word is pressured into performing as a stressed syllable. Were the line to be written without "were," as quadrameter

My circus animals all on show

the natural stress of "all" would force the "-mals" syllable into a state (in terms of meter) of unstress.

my CIR / cus AN / imals ALL / on SHOW

In the line as written, however, the syllable following the "-mals" syllable is unstressed and holds the unstressed slot in the expected iambic rhythm. The reader is thus invited by the greater context to read, and more importantly to hear the "-mals" syllable as an "stressed" syllable. Yet, I say, it is not necessary to the reading to actually stress the syllable. You can read it as a lower stress without disrupting the meter. All that is necessary is that the syllable sounds different in terms of stress from the syllables that surround it (two unstressed syllables, each of which establishes the beginning of a new iamb). That and that the iambic tempo is maintained, not letting that last syllable get slurred.

Again, I am not arguing that the line must be read that way, only that it can be so read, without disrupting the metric rhythm.

Now, it is tempting – and I was so tempted – to posit the idea that the unstressed syllables in a line of verse create a kind of base line which the other syllables need only vary from to accept the quality of being "stressed." However, that is a false idea, and the same line offers demonstration as to why. That is with the word "on" in the final foot. When I pronounce the phrase "on show" naturally, both words are stressed, with the greater stress put on the first syllable.[FN] As such, the final three syllables in the line are three stressed syllables.

My CIRcus ANimals were ALL ON SHOW

Yet, you can read the line, especially if reading it expressively, with the stress on "on" being higher than the stresses spoken with "all" and "show," and when doing so the iambic rhythm is not broken for the same reasons it is not broken with "animals": the stress put on "on" is different than the stress put on "all" and "show," thus permitting the central syllable to distinguish itself as being different in terms of stress than the syllables to either side of it. Where with "-mals" the syllables to either side were establishing themselves as the unstressed syllables in their iambs, here the surrounding syllables establish themselves as the stressed syllables, thus asking the central syllable to mark itself as "different than stressed," a difference that can be annunciated either through decreasing or increasing the level of stress.

There is a degree that a baseline is being established; but, it is not established such that all the unstressed syllables in the line form the baseline, or even that all the stressed syllables form the baseline. The baseline exists only in the moment, created by the two syllables to either side of the variant syllable. In the case of "-mals," the two surrounding syllables, as read within the expectation of iambic meter, create a momentary unstressed baseline, from which the "-mals" syllable need only vary to successfully mark itself as other than unstressed. Likewise, the "on" is surrounded by two stressed syllables situated in to stressed slots in the meter, and the "on" need only vary, in either direction, to be different than the surrounding "stressed" syllables, thus maintaining the iambic rhythm.

Admittedly, more than with the other examples, the reading of "on show" may be more dependent upon individual or local speech habits as to whether or not the "on" gains natural stress, making "on show" two stressed syllables. But, again, the question is not whether either reading is correct or incorrect; it is only whether the reading is possible, whether it can be had without disrupting the rhythm. I argue it can.


The conclusion to be drawn from this little demonstration is not hard to find in books on meter: that is, meter in English is not based on quantitative values inherent to the syllables; rather, meter is a relative event, established through context.

This is where English meter and classical Greek meter are fundamentally different. In classical Greek the vowels in words are measured by their length: a long vowel is annunciated twice as long as a short vowel. Changing vowel length in a word meant you were saying a different word. Classical Greek meter is based upon the length of vowels. An iambic foot in classical Greek meter is a foot created out of a syllable with the short vowel followed by a syllable with a long vowel. Since vowel length is fixed in the words, the words could only fit into a metered line where the long and short syllables of the word matched up with the long and short syllables of the meter.

English meter is based (primarily) on stress, and stress varies; as such there is no necessary one-to-one coordination of syllables between how the word is pronounced and how the meter runs. If English were based on fixed quantities, the word "animal" could only fit in a / ´ - -/ slot. It could not have been used as Yeats used it.

For the simplest example, consider one syllable words. Is the word it stressed or unstressed? In classical Greek, the answer would be provided by the word itself, through whether the one syllable word contains a long or short vowel. In English the answer depends on its context. In the first line of "The Circus Animals's Desertion" the "it" is stressed.


If there was no "for" in the line, the "it" would be unstressed.


The status of stress is not created by the word itself, but by the context within which the word sits.

It might be asked, is not the first syllable of the word animals a fixed quantity? The answer, actually, is no. It is still fixed by context, but that context is carried by the word itself: there is a relationship between the first two syllables of stressed-unstressed. The stress is not inherent to the syllable "an-," as is demonstrated by the word antique.

If English meter is constituted by relative quantities and not fixed quantities, then meter cannot be found within the words themselves. Rather, as demonstrated with the word it, meter is established not in the immediate event but across context. As seen in the discussion above, that context can be created across words in a line. It can also be established across lines. There is an example of such to be found in the second Wordsworth excerpt above if we but take out the comma:

And eager to spur on the galloping steed;

What is the meter of that line? It obviously fits the iambic reading established in the Prelude.

and EA / ger TO / spur ON / the GAL / loping STEED

But it also fits a dactylic reading.

and / EA ger to /SPUR on the / GAL op ing / STEED

It is false to say that a line on its own has meter. Such language is the language of fixed values. Rather, it might be better said the line implies a meter – in this case, two meters. The actual meter by which to read the line is established only in context. You read a line of verse

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,

and it implies a meter of iambic pentameter. But that reading – the reading that the verse is iambic pentameter – can only be affirmed by continuing reading.

I sought it daily for six weeks or so.

A second line that fits the predicted form. Remember also, any line of formal verse could also be a line of free verse, sculpted by context into a less formal prosody. Meter is not inherent, it is established and maintained.

As more examples, take a look back at our stanza from Yeats. Four of the lines could be used in a four stress, accentual meter.

i SOUGHT it DAIly || for six WEEKS or SO.
i MUST be SAtisfied || with my HEART, alTHOUGH
WINter and SUMmer || till old AGE beGAN
my CIRcus ANimals || were ALL on SHOW,

Of course, such a rhythm must be established in the reader's ear for the reader to hear the rhythm.

The first line of the verse

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain

could even be recast by context as a three stress line.

i SOUGHT a theme || and SOUGHT for it | in VAIN

Though such an endeavor might begin to sound less like meter and more like shaped verse.

Now northerly, now westerly I strayed,
With wanderlust, and foolishness the same –
I sought a theme and sought for it in vain.

It is to note that the commas play a role in controlling the sound of the lines, which is an example of how rhythm is established in context – an important example in that that context includes something other than the words themselves. It is also important to note I don't 100% buy my own effort, here. If you had come upon the text without any other information, would you read it as I attempt to cast it? In the first line it is difficult to put stress upon the "-ly" syllables, even within a run of unstressed syllables. But the three unstressed syllables in a row seem to push for the center syllable to be stressed. The question then: is my effort imperfect? (Could I find other lines that would strongly and insistingly establish the desired shape?) Or does the ear naturally want to put a stress in the middle of the three unstressed syllables (if as an inverted stress like above)? Or does my ear naturally want to make that stress only because most of this post has been about iambs, and the rhythm is now stuck in my head? This also gets us to the question of whether sprung rhythm is a natural rhythm in English or one forced upon the text. Which gets us to the question of even if sprung rhythm is artificial, is that necessarily a bad thing if it makes for an interesting aural effect? More questions follow, which is why I'll stop with that single, fundamental thought: meter is not a fixed quantity, but a relative quality.




Note: Here is a thought. If meter in English is entirely relative, then is the basis of meter not to be found in the ideas stress or unstress, but in the relationship between the two? That is, rising, falling, or unchanged?

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