Meter, Gender, and Control:
Yeats' Iambic Struggle in "When You Are Old and Gray" (A Scansion Deep Dive, Part I)
Whether or not we accept The Canterbury Tales as truly in iambic pentameter (Suzanne Woods makes an interesting argument otherwise), the indisputable iambic dominance—actually, hegemony is a more apt word— over English-language poetry stretches at least as far back as Milton’s Paradise Lost. Ever since, the metrical power of iambics has bolstered and enabled a violent social system of racist imperialism, authoritarianism, capitalism, patriarchy, and religious oppression. It is no accident that the meter in which all this occurred over the past 350 years is iambic, the meter I have come to associate with the energy of the mind, rather than another meter such as anapestic or trochaic. But that is a topic for another time.
Just as the mainstream of nineteenth and twentieth-century English-speaking society struggled to evolve out from under the weight of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, so did some of the most metrically skilled and aware poets of the time struggle under the weight of iambic meter. Insofar as metrical poetry combines metrical patterns with meaningful words, the linguistic scansion and prosodic analysis of iambic poetry can offer a revealing window into the underlying dynamics of such struggles. Yeats’ “When You Are Old and Gray,” for example, can be read as a rhythmic embodiment of the poet’s ambivalence towards the threatening force of female-rooted power. To apply the process I call “deep scansion”—developed out of my earlier work on “the metrical code” — to this poem is to trace Yeats’ journey from wary awareness, to acknowledgment, to a final desperate need to control the potentially undermining threat to the patriarchal order embodied in the older woman who sits by the fire. The ensuing conversation between the prosodic and denotative levels of “When You Are Old and Gray” clarifies the internal processes of Yeats’ poetic language, leading to a new understanding that both problematizes and enhances the haunting poignancy of this much-beloved poem.
I grew up reading and loving this early Yeats poem, swooning and creaming over it with my mother and sisters, never thinking twice about its meter. Then the poem came up recently in a discussion in the Poets Cafe. “It’s iambic,” somebody wrote, and I agreed of course. But when I started scanning it, within two lines I recognized that this poem and I needed to schedule a long intimate scansion date