The study of versification can claim to be the oldest and most enduring branch of English literary criticism. The language and methodology of George Gascoigne's 'Certayne Notes of Instruction concerning the Making of Verse or Rhyme in English...' (1575) might superficially seem to have little in common with Paul Kiparsky's 'Stress, Syntax and Meter' published, exactly four centuries later, in 1975. But both share the same objective of determining how the stress patterns of ordinary language can be organised into the phenomenon known as metre. Consult T.V.F.Brogen's excellent bibliography English Versification 15701980 and you will find that hardly one of the four hundred years between these essays passed without someone writing something about the metres of English poetry. Such proliferation is both intriguing and depressing. Intriguing because each of these studies will, if only by implication, be grounded upon the phenomenal status of the poetic line, and this testifies to the claim that poetry, like non-poetic language, is founded upon a shifting yet self-perpetuating concept of a langue, a system, a grammar: for the sentence, substitute the line. It is depressing because for all the precision, ingenuity, innovation and scholarly foot-slogging (no pun intended) exhibited in these writings the majority of them suffer from a severe case of self-limitation. For all the time and effort spent in inventing newer and more accurate ways of documenting the stress pattern of the iambic pentameter only a small percentage is given to examining such questions as why poets might or might not want to use the pentameter as the appropriate vehicle for what they want to say and why some of them felt the need to violate the abstract norms of this structure in order to allow them to free the syntactic or metaphoric dimensions of language for a more productive engagement with life.
I shall attempt to justify this criticism by briefly examining the encounter between the ancient science of prosody and the twentieth-century techniques of linguistics.
The encounter began in 1951 with the publication of a monograph by G.L.Trager and H.L.Smith. Their structural-linguistic description of English phonology and morphology identified four discrete levels of stress (primary, secondary, tertiary, weak), pitch (highest, high, normal, low) and juncture (internal, and word-, phrase-, clause-terminal). Trager and Smith did not refer specifically to poetry but their model provided the basis for what has come to be known as linguistic metrics. In studies of metre since the sixteenth century the unit of measurement of the poetic line had been the foot, itself composed of the theoretically indivisible unit, the syllable. This system derived from the study of classical, quantitative metres, with the principle change being that each foot was in English principally determined by the stress or accentual value of its syllables rather than, as in Latin and Greek, the length of time taken to pronounce it. An iambic pentameter consists of five iambic feet with the higher stress falling upon the second syllable of each foot. Trager and Smith offered a potential challenge to this model because if there were four degrees of stress and pitch it might be possible to identify an 'unstressed' syllable at say the fifth syllable of a line with a higher stress value than the supposedly 'stressed' syllable at the second. This would not mean that the line is no longer iambic, rather that prosodists must reexamine their perceptions of what an iambic pattern actually is. Consider the following pentameter from Book IV of Milton's Paradise Lost describing Satan's contemplation of Eve.
Such pleás / ure tóok / ?he sérp / ent tó / éehóld.
This is a traditional scansion of the line, dividing it into five iambic feet. No-one would quarrel with the contention that each even syllable is more prominently stressed than those immediately preceding and following it, but does this inflexible binary opposition of unstress-stress give us an accurate account of its full rhythmic movement? If we conflate Trager and Smith's distinction between pitch and stress and convert their four types into a numerical gradation from 1 to 4, a reading of the line might well appear as follows:
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