Featured Post

Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Metrical Complexity

[content warning: prosody]

I'm taking April off from Lorca. Since I can't exactly turn my brain off, I will be working a bit on prosody, with an eye toward my 2015 book project, a study of Spanish versification melding linguistic and literary perspectives, and integrating literary criticism and pedagogy, and addressed both to people who know Spanish and those who want to understand it from the point of view of English poetry.

Say the zero degree of metrical complexity is a situation in which the pattern wswswswsws... of the metrical pattern meets no resistance in its realization. I am thinking of lines like

"Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow"

Each foot is a phrase, each strong position is a content word of one syllable, each weak syllable is a preposition, etc...

This could be a kind of metrical joke, in a way. Most lines in the stanza are obviously more complex:

Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty's best--
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow--
I know their antique pens would have expressed
Even such a beauty as you master now.

So the metrical pattern is not a metrical norm, from which complex lines deviate; rather, it is an abstract pattern of positions. Lines that exhibit no tension will be extremely rare, as a consequence. Because of the short phrases of the tensionless line, the effect is not even smooth or mellifluous, but, on the contrary, a deviation from the normal average degree of metrical tension. These lines are even more unusual in Shakespeare than lines of enormous complexity. Hence, paradoxically, a line of no tension will exhibit an aesthetic tension of a sort.

If we can formulate metrical rules in precise linguistic terms, then we can see that lines with a high degree of tension are not a matter of breaking rules, or introducing variations or substitutions, but of following the rules exactly while keeping an eye on the mismatches between metrical patterns and other linguistic factors.

[So to review briefly: metrical tension will be caused by:

Any kind of mismatch between the metrical pattern of swsw and phrasal boundaries, word boundaries; heavier syllables in weak position; lighter syllables in strong positions; the resulting stress clashes; enjambment, etc... Verse without a lot of complexity will be fairly dull, but by the same token fairly difficult to write, since a good degree of complexity is more natural. For the same reason, it is unnecessary to read verse aloud in a way that unduly emphasizes the metrical positions.]

Excepting the Dryden through Johnson period, most canonical English poetry in iambic pentameter tends toward a high degree of complexity, as in Donne, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, or Yeats. Blank verse especially, and blank verse with a heavy degree of enjambment, even more. This blank verse tradition is one of the greatest poetic accomplishments I know of, comparable to the best Latin poet (Horace), and the development of the baroue sonnet in Spanish by Lope, Quevedo, and Góngora.


Vance Maverick said...

The highly regular line doesn't have to have short phrases. To return to my canonical example:

The children learn to cipher and to sing

The simplicity of the effect goes with his condescension to the children.

Vance Maverick said...

(ok, not perfectly regular, with "and" having only implied stress, not natural stress)

Jonathan said...

I prefer complex or simple to the concept of "regularity.? In other words, what is the degree of mismatch here? Regular lines, after all, are not statistically frequent.

This is not a particularly complex line, for sure, and the alliteration gives that naive air you note.

Do you think words straddling foot barriers are more complex iambic words that don't?

Vance Maverick said...

I think I got my habit of thinking of "regularity" from Dr. Johnson, but could be confused. I was definitely influenced by reading Saintsbury, who speaks in terms of "substitution" of alternative feet within a pattern.

What I really don't know, though, is how to scan the feet within a given actual line, i.e. mark their boundaries. Here we know the line is close to what's conventionally called five iambs, and we hardly need to do any substitution to bridge the gap. But without that knowledge, all I would hear is a pattern of stresses, more or less close to the "endecasillabo".

And given that I don't know how to hear the foot boundaries, no, I don't find that crossing them creates complexity.

Jonathan said...

So a line like

Behind, between, among, amid, before.

Would be different from

To heaven: heaving, steaming, frothy milk

Are you familiar with generative metrics? That's my framework here.

Vance Maverick said...

I get that conceptually, but what I hear is mainly trochaic words vs. iambic words. (Since weak-strong-weak is an exotic or imported foot in English, and "to" can't be a foot unto itself, yes, I get that at least the first foot there is broken.)

I don't know generative metrics, so I'm off to read.