Ancient Rhythmicians and Modern Prosodists: Searching for the Location of Meter
Steven J. Willett University of Shizuoka, Hamamatsu Campus
2-3-2 Nunohashi, Shizuoka Prefecture
Hamamatsu, Japan 432
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Email: Steven J. Willett
Meter is measure, and what it has measured in the western poetic tradition for the last 2,800 years is not in serious doubt. We can trace with great linguistic precision the evolution of Indo-European syllabic meters into the fully-developed quantitative versification of Greek and Latin, follow the breakdown of quantitative versification in the third century CE when the phonemic distinction between long and short syllables is lost and then map the Great Resyllabization of south European verse as it mutated from the ruins of Classical metrics into the standard repertoire of Romance verse forms. The same analysis can be done for Germanic and Slavic versification. The initial results of this work in the relatively young science of comparative metrics are contained in Mikhail Leonovich Gasparov's Ocherk istorii evropeijskogo stixa, originally published in Russian in 1989 and now available as A History of European Versification in a brilliant translation by Gerry Smith and Marina Tarlinskaja. <1> It is the first attempt at a comprehensive synthesis of an enormous mass of research stretching from Sanskrit to verse libre, and covers all the principle Classical, Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages. If any book can be called "indispensable" to everyone in our field, Gasparov's gift to usas I like to call itqualifies. The findings of comparative metrics set out by Gasparov can be supplemented with over two millennia of diverse secondary evidence, including statements by the poets themselves concerning their rhythmic intentions, musical settings to poetry, observations by competent literary critics, writings of ancient rhythmicians and metricists, verse inscriptions and translations. Although difficult to interpret and often conflicting, much of it corroborates what the diacritical study of comparative metrics has told us. There two sources, comparative metrics and literary historiography, unite to give us a reasonably clear picture of the formal conventions that underlie versification at virtually every chronological stage of its development.
Having said all of that, what have I said?
On the empirical level, it is obvious that those who write on the theory of versification as opposed to narrow technical analysis should have a solid grasp of the complete western tradition, beginning with Greek and Latin. Critical writings on theoretical metrics are strewn with errors that stem from a narrow provincial knowledge of English and widespread ignorance of Classical, Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages. I cannot of course detail all these, but typical examples are the claims that (1) unrealized beats occur at the ends of the short lines in common measure, (2) metrical feet are not experiential, (3) the caesura is not a metrical phenomenon and (4) English is a stress-timed language. All are factually, and quite demonstrably, false. Let's briefly review the claims in order. (1) Whether unrealized beats exist or not, comparative metrics shows that common measure evolved from the medieval Latin goliardic 7d+6f line with a tendency to trochaic rhythm. In English the dactylic ending at the midline pause changed to masculine, while each hemistich acquired an unstressed syllable at the start to create a rough iambic meter. The second hemistich then became the shorter three-stress line when the meter evolved into oral folk poetry and, as Gasparov notes, lost some of its accentual-syllabic clarity, turning into a 4-3-4-3-stress dol'nik <2>. Since the even lines of common measure spring from a three-stress hemistich and always contained three stresses in origin, they cannot be considered truncated four-stress lines, thus they never ended with unrealized beats. (2) A large body of evidence from linguistics and cognitive science validates the concrete existence of prosodic feet as the source of metrical feet. On the grounds of historical linguistics, A. M. Devine and Laurence D. Stephens argue in their magisterial The Prosody of Greek Speech that "the rhythmic structures of Greek verse reflect, arise from and already exist in the rhythms of Greek speech and are not in principle the result of mapping the rhythms of Greek speech onto extraneous patterns, that is onto temporal patterns of nonlinguistic origin."<3> Prosodic feet are, they demonstrate, the basic constituent of the rhythm of the Greek language (as in many other languages) and provide the basis for metrical feet. On the grounds of cognitive science, Fred Cummins and Robert F. Fort at Indiana University have in their recent experimental work established strong evidence for the reality of the metrical foot as a well-defined unit in the production of speech.<4> (3) Whether the caesura is a metrical reality depends on definition and poetic tradition. In English poetry the caesura is widely considered nothing more than a pause created by the syntax, and thus a matter for oral declamation, but in Classical poetry it is a word boundary that intersects the metron and constitutes a crucial rhythmic fact to which the Greeks were acutely sensitive, as Devine and Stephens document in their earlier study Language and Metre: Resolution, Porson's Bridge, and their Prosodic Basis .<5> In Russian accentual-syllabic poetry, or syllabo-tonic poetry as they like to call it, the caesura is a word break that occurs at the same position in the line throughout the poem, often coinciding with a slight syntactical break.<6> It significantly affects the rhythm by forcing a stress on the following ictus to reestablish the rhythm after the break. Marina Tarlinskaja has even argued that the English caesura is not properly a pause but, like Russian, a word boundary that regularly occurs at the same position in the line, where it produces effects similar to those of Russian: the end of the first hemistich behaves metrically like line-end and the beginning of the second hemistich like line-beginning. And finally, (4) all experimental attempts to find stress-timing in unconstrained English have proven futile. Cummins and Fort in fact offer direct phonetic timing data in support of more varied, music-like rhythms in human speech than simple stress-timing. The elimination of stress-timing eliminates the explanatory rationale for many expressive effects that are supposed to result from collocations of stressed or unstressed syllables.
What do erroneous claims like these tell us? First, many attempts at a general theory of rhythm are torqued around modern English poetry, often quite contemporary, because the authors don't know any other languagesoften not even Old and Middle English. That vitiates their claim to generality ab initio whatever other value the theories may have. Second, universal assertions, such as the nonexistence of the metrical foot, often founder on lack of familiarity with comparative metrics, historical linguistics and modern cognitive science. Theories built even partially on such assertions share the logical consequences. Third, any comprehensive theory must apply equally to the meters of all poetic traditions or abandon its claims to comprehensiveness.
But to remain exclusively on the empirical level of rhythm is, in certain respects, rather like taking up residence in Edwin A. Abott's Flatland as a square. Flatland, you may remember, has only two dimensions, and social status is determined by shape. Squares appropriately are professors. If a sphere came down to visit us, and talked about the incredible romance of many dimensions, we should hardly credit it. Yet a slight shift of our gaze upward from the strictly measurable to the larger, overarching aesthetic domain reveals immediately some of the many problems with traditional metrics so forcefully detailed by Richard D. Cureton in his recent work.
From the gravamen of Cureton's critique, two issues stand out in particularly sharp relief. Rhythm, he maintains, is persistently misidentified with, and therefore reduced to, a linear pattern of linguistic elements: syllables, stresses, tones, morae, phrases and the like. The formal patterns of conventional metrical analysis have not, however, succeeded except in local and sporadic ways in relating meter to specific semantic, iconic, rhetorical and esemplastic values. We lack, in short, a robust heuristics to show how meter means. Not having that, we also lack a key pedagogical rationale to justify repositioning versification at the heart of poetics. The heap of metrical commentary grows like a vast hill of shifting sand that supports nothing. The second issue follows from the first. Literary historiography tends to treat poetic texts, and assign them importance, according to external philosophical and cultural concerns rather than internal poetic language. Since we cannot relate the language of poetry transparently to these contextual concerns, our literary histories can include poetry only by reducing poetic achievement to artistically peripheral concerns. That deals a further devastating blow to pedagogy by encouraging teachers to present chronologically disparate poetry in an ahistorical vacuum or, more commonly, to teach only contemporary poetry.
One response to this confusion has been the attempt to construct a temporal theory of rhythm employing a more-or-less close analogy with musical theory. The absence of semantic referentiality in music makes the project attractive because it permits the critic to free rhythm from its subservient role either as a mere intensifier of the narrative, dramatic and meditative paradigms that are thought to constitute a poem or as a signifier of aesthetic difference from prose. Both these roles reduce rhythm to an epiphenomenon of mimesis.
I propose to examine some of the difficulties attendant on the attempt to locate poetic rhythm in a musico-temporal experience. I do so in a cooperative, not a destructive, spirit to advance our discipline by helping to clarify, point and tighten the most useful elements of temporal theories. A hard attack leads to a hard defense. Here are my objections in rank order of increasing seriousness.