Intonation and Iambic Pentameter

By Cooper, John R. | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Intonation and Iambic Pentameter


Cooper, John R., Papers on Language & Literature


While history has not been kind to Roman Jakobson's claiming all of poetics as a branch of linguistics (350), it would seem a priori that the study of meter and verse rhythm could use the support of linguistics, since meter is so technical a subject and apparently so clearly based on objective features of language. Indeed, in recent decades, most of the scholarly analysis of English poetic meter has been the work of linguists. Unfortunately, most it has been of limited value to the student of poetry. Much of the linguistic analysis of meter in English was a spin-off from Chomsky's generative grammar, his attempt to find the deep structures that determine whether an utterance is grammatical, and more immediately on Chomsky and Halle's generative treatment of English accenting in The Sound Pattern of English. Beginning with the work of Halle and Keyser, first in their 1966 article on Chaucer and more thoroughly with their 1971 book, English Stress: Its Form, Its Growth, and Its Role in Verse, generative metrists confined their attention to iambic pentameter and attempted to give an account of it that would predict metricality, that is, whether a given line of putative iambic pentameter was metrical or not. Although the original Halle-Keyser system was criticized and subsequently modified, in its method and aims it can represent the whole body of generative metrics.

The Halle-Keyser account described an iambic pentameter line as a sequence of positions defined as W or S for "Weak" or "Strong." Each of these positions was to be filled with a single syllable. The simplest line was one in which every W position was filled with an unstressed syllable and every S with a fully stressed one, but the Halle-Keyser system recognized a limited set of variations on this pattern that were to be applied cyclically. That is, it presented a series of "correspondence rules" which represented, when read in order, increasing complexity in allowable lines. Ultimately, when the rules were applied, the only way that a line would be unmetrical would be when a "stress maximum" was in a W position. A stress maximum was defined as a fully stressed syllable between two weak syllables in the same syntactic constituent and the same verse line. From the first, critics of Halle and Keyser pointed out that their model identified passages of prose as acceptable iambic pentameter.(1) Other linguists, notably Kiparsky, attempted to develop better generative models than the Halle-Keyser model, but, as Derek Attridge has pointed out, the generative metrical theorists have still not succeeded in developing a model that will describe only metrical lines (The Rhythms 50).

It could be said that the question posed by Halle and Keyser, namely, how does a competent English speaker recognize that a given line is metrical or not, is of limited critical interest, but the Halle-Keyser system was also, as we have seen, a system of increasing metrical complexity, so that one could decide not only the whether a given line of iambic pentameter verse was metrical or not but, if it was metrical, with what degree of complexity its regularity was realized, and this might appear to be a more interesting question for the student of literature. In this too, however, the generative approach has been of limited value. It is true that lines that take the greatest advantage of the allowable exceptions to the basic pattern seem intuitively more complex, to fit the pattern with greater difficulty. We have not, however, advanced very far in the analysis of a line of verse by determining its complexity. Generative metrists have not attempted to account for the relative value, either culturally or aesthetically, of simplicity and complexity--why, that is, a poet should choose a more or a less complex line or even a nonmetrical one.(2) Moreover, the concept of complexity is one-dimensional, whereas iambic lines differ from each other in many ways for which anyone interested in the analysis of poetry may want to account--for example, in pace, in the degree of stressing of syllables on and off the beat, where the main accents fall, and how the syntactic structure fits the verse line. …

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