Academic journal article Style

Rhyme, the Icons of Sound, and the Middle English 'Pearl.'(Rhetoric and Poetics)

Academic journal article Style

Rhyme, the Icons of Sound, and the Middle English 'Pearl.'(Rhetoric and Poetics)

Article excerpt

Since Socrates's dialogue with Cratylus, thinkers about language have rejected mimetic theories of language meaning that dictate a consistent relationship between sounds and verbal sense. While such ideas have continued to appear in various guises,(1) Ferdinand de Saussure definitively demonstrated that discursive meaning in language is produced not by phonetic qualities but by an intricate network of phonologic contrasts.(2) In consequence, Jacques Derrida observed that meaning is found not in the signs themselves but in the gaps between the signs, and, on the basis of Saussure's proof, he defined "grammatology," a science of the arbitrariness of the sign, which "Saussure saw without seeing" (43).(3) But neither Saussure nor Derrida is much concerned with an important question posed by their demonstrations: if the verbal sense does not reside in, and in fact little regards, the fascinating intrinsic qualities of the sounds that are so elaborately produced and processed by the complex mechanisms of speech and hearing, do these qualities lack determinate semiotic value?

Poetry supplies one answer; as has often been stated, it employs sound qualities in ways that ordinary language does not. That should not be taken to mean, however, that in verse the sounds themselves directly and systematically serve the verbal sense. The continuing assumption that in literature sound always subserves sense, expressed most influentially with regard to rhyme by William K. Wimsatt, Jr. and by Jurij Lotman (esp. 36, 120),(4) fails to acknowledge the noncontingent richness of the patterned sound continuum. The value of sound in poetry is much more than its imitative support of the verbal sense, and it does not lie in a mysterious fusion of sound with meaning in an objective icon. Nor do the prosodic patterns simply provide a bass undertone to the verbal sense produced by the sounds; instead, they organize a separate semiotic system with independent sign value.

An obvious objection is that the reader or hearer of poetry processes the values of a sign at one time; they are conveyed simultaneously, so all must serve under one banner, which in the case of language must be the verbal sense. But the semiotic theory of C. S. Peirce makes clear that, while the interpretant, the third member of the triadic sign that he postulates (sign, object, interpretant), indeed will unify sign values, the objective values do not coalesce.(5) A corporation logo, for example, can offer verbal identification of a company - in Peirce's terms a symbol - together with an identifying design - an icon.(6) The company intends the interpretant to translate the sign values of name (symbol) and design (icon) into a single agreeable experience uniting the artistic image and its associations with company recognition, but the two remain objectively distinct. Comparably, the experience of a poem will produce an interpretant that joins the symbolic sense of the words (produced by phonologic contrasts) with the iconic pattern of the sound (produced by phonetic qualities).

An associated objection is that verbal sound alone has no independent value. Wimsatt states that "[t]he music of spoken words in itself is meager, so meager in comparison to the music of song or instrument, as to be hardly worth discussion. It has become a platitude of criticism to point out that verses composed of meaningless words afford no pleasure of any kind and can scarcely be called rhythmical - let them even be rhymed" (165). The argument I present in response to Wimsatt in a recent article is, put briefly, that we may grant that the sounds of poetry cannot exist independently of verbal sense without saying that they are wholly in the service of that sense. Poems without sound would be about as poor as poems without verbal meaning. As I asserted, "the sound patterns of poetry and the verbal meaning have a symbiotic relationship of mutual dependence and independent semi-otic value" ("Rhyme/Reason" 24). …

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