The Metrics of Ausias March in a European Context

By Duffell, Martin J. | Medium Aevum, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

The Metrics of Ausias March in a European Context


Duffell, Martin J., Medium Aevum


Of the 128 poems attributed to Ausias March (1397--1459) all but three are entirely in lines of ten syllables up to and including the last accented syllable. March was the first poet whose surviving work was composed in Catalan, as distinct from a Catalanized Provencal or a Provencalized Catalan. Any influence on his metrics must inevitably come from verse in another language. In the hundred years before March's birth some of the most famous poets in France, Italy, Castile and England composed major works in decasyllabic lines.(1) It is, therefore, not surprising that some writers, such as Pages, Bohigas and Ramirez, have suggested that March's metrics shows signs of foreign influence.(2) This article examines whether there is any evidence in the structure of March's lines that they were influenced by foreign models of the late thirteenth or the fourteenth century. It is of necessity an exercise in comparative metrics.

Metrists of different languages observe different conventions for counting the syllables in a line and naming metres. French, Catalan and, more recently, Portuguese metrists count syllables only as far as the last accented syllable in the line, and name metres accordingly. March's metre is, therefore, a decasyllabe, decasil.lab or decassilabo. Italian and Castilian metrists, on the other hand, count the syllables to the last accented syllable and add one, whether following unaccented syllables are present or not, and call the same metre an endecasillabo/endecasilabo. To add to this confusion, English metrists count pairs of syllables in the same type of line and call it a pentameter.

In this article I shall use the shorthand X(I) to refer to a line in any language containing ten syllables to the last accent. I shall also employ the French convention of describing a line (or hemistich) by the arabic numerals to the last accent, followed by F (feminine) or M (masculine) to indicate the presence or absence of a following unaccented syllable. To denote accented and unaccented syllables I shall use the binary digits I (accented) and O (unaccented), since these two digits are visually as dissimilar as possible.

In my discussion of metre I shall adopt Jakobson's terms, verse instance for an actual line of verse, and verse design for the abstract pattern on which verse instances are based.(3) It should be noted that almost all verse contains tension between verse instances and the verse design, that is limited non-correspondence, usually in the earlier parts of the line.(4) A verse design may specify that a certain syllable in verse instances should be accented (I) or unaccented (O); it may also specify that a particular syllable may be either. To describe such an indifferent syllable in verse design I shall borrow a convention from contract-bridge notation and represent it as x (in individual verse instances it will of course be I or O, not both). The formula for the verse design of a X(I) in this notation is basically:

design: x x x x x x x x x I (O) Just as it is difficult for the reader to be sure at first glance whether there are nine xs in the above design, so there are psychological and rhythmical reasons why a poet cannot rapidly or easily produce a series of lines on such a basic formula. Verse, as Gross notes, is low-grade musical material.(5) Other examples of low-grade musical material are percussion and dancing. Metrics might well be renamed word-dancing, and I shall from time to time use dancing as an analogy to verse. A poet cannot produce a rapid series of ten-syllable units for the same reason that a tap-dancer cannot dance a rapid series of tens, without getting nines and elevens mixed up with them. Psychologists have long known that there is a limit to the number of degrees (of taste, e.g. sweetness or salinity) or stimuli (e.g. taps or syllables) that humans can recognize rapidly.(6) That number is always within the range 5--9, and is most commonly 7; thus people of most cultures identify a small number of discrete colours in the rainbow which is in reality a continuum of light wavelengths. …

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