Roman Jakobson

Roman Jakobson (1896-1982): linguist, structuralist, semiotician and, according to David Lodge, 'one of the most powerful minds in twentieth-century intellectual history'. If critical guides and anthologies of critical essays are a reliable index, Jakobson's most significant contribution to the relation between linguistics and literary studies occurred in his 'Closing Statement' delivered at a conference on stylistics at Indiana University in 1958. The proper title of this much reprinted and discussed essay is 'Linguistics and Poetics' (1960), and it is important for two reasons. It brings together the techniques and objectives of the Eastern bloc linguists, structuralists and Formalists, the groups with which Jakobson is most readily associated, with the less easily definable methods of Anglo-American New Criticism. It can also claim to be the most precise and comprehensive attempt, within this broad international and cross-disciplinary context, to arrive at a scientific definition of poetry. Its dealings with the double pattern are as we shall see at once enlightening and problematic. Jakobson's argument is difficult to summarise, but the following quotation holds the key.

The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis selection into the axis of combination.

It is upon the relationship between these two axes that post-Saussurian linguists have based their investigations of the precise functional properties of the langue and the parole. The selective axis also encompasses the designations of the paradigm, similarity and metaphor and the combinative those of the syntagm, contiguity and metonymy, and the two axes work in the following way.

When we construct a sentence—the basic organisational unit of any parole—we draw both upon the rules and conventions of the syntagmatic chain, in basic terms grammatical rules, and upon the more flexible dimension of paradigmatic choices available at each stage in this process. For example, in 'His car moved along the road', the syntagmatic chain consists of a main verb 'moved along', two nouns 'car' and 'road', and a pronoun and connective 'his' and 'the'. If we wanted to offer another version of the same message we could maintain the syntagmatic structure but make different choices from the selective-paradigmatic axis at each stage in the combinative sequence. For instance, 'The man's motor vehicle progressed along the street'. The only substantive difference occurs in the substitution of street for road, suggesting as it does an urban environment, and indeed such changes as the above are generally made in order to clarify the message. In this context we might substitute 'sped' for 'moved' or 'progressed' to indicate that the car is moving faster than we would normally expect.

So far we have not made use of the metaphoric element of the paradigmatic axis, and we might do so by stating that 'His car flew along the road'. This is an, albeit unexciting, metaphoric usage because although we have maintained the conventions of the syntagm ('flew' is a verb) we have also drawn upon an unexpected choice from the paradigmatic-selective axis. Cars do not fly, but since the flight of birds and aeroplanes is generally associated with degrees of speed and unimpeded purpose we have offered a similarity between two otherwise distinct fields of perception and meaning. We have used the relation between the two axes to move beyond the mode of clarifying the event and have intervened as an active perceiver, and offered an impression of the event—the movement of the car reminds us of the progress of a bird or an aeroplane. Such a shift in perceptual status has been designated, by Emile Benveniste, as a distinction between histoire (objective) and discours (involving the participation of the perceiver in the account of the event). To return to Jakobson's formula, we have also engaged in the poetic function. By 'equivalence' he means the relation between the imperatives of the syntagm and the choices available within the paradigm, and by 'projects' he claims that the usual conventions of non-poetic language have been subtly disrupted by the imposition of the axis of selection upon the axis of combination. In short, we don't expect the relation between a car and a road to involve flight, but by drawing upon an apparently unrelated context of active verbs we have created a productive tension between linguistic usage dominated by the progressive logic of the syntagm (we expect 'cars' to 'move' or 'progress' along the 'road') and the purposive, and indeed poetic, use of the paradigmatic bag—a car flying along the road gives emphasis to the perceiver's imaginative use of the selective axis.

We should now consider the relation between the metaphoric dimension of the paradigmatic-selective axis and the metonymic dimension of its syntagmatic-combinative counterpart. Metonymy had usually been considered by conventional literary theorists to be an element or subdivision of metaphor, but Jakobson regarded it as a dimension of the progressive logic of the syntagm. A metonymic version of our sentence could be 'His wheels moved across the tarmac'. Here an element has been substituted for the whole (wheels for car, tarmac for road). This might seem metaphoric but in effect we have only deleted one element of the original word for another. To have metaphorically selected or substituted one for another we might have replaced 'wheels' with 'his last refuge' or 'his heart's delight' which tells us something about, at least in our view, the man's relationship with his car but is not directly related to its physical or contextual dimensions.

Jakobson does not claim that by giving emphasis to the syntagmatic-combinative axis we will always construct metonymic effects. Rather he cites metonymy as one example of how the logic of the combinative axis will restrict and delimit the choices available from the paradigmatic bag. He associates this compositional imperative with prose. However, when he says that 'in poetry, where similarity is superinduced upon contiguity, any metonymy is slightly metaphorical and any metaphor has a metonymical tint' (49), Jakobson's point is that the poetic function draws upon the two axes in a way that deliberately and selfconsciously foregrounds the interrelation between them. So when we read genuine poetry we become uncertain about the balance between the logical and the irrational, the flatly informative and the wildly imaginative.

As a way of concentrating attention on the inherent structure and condition of poetry Jakobson's proposition resembles the theories of such Anglo-American New Critics as William Empson and Cleanth Brooks who respectively identified 'ambiguity' and

'paradox' as the definitively poetic uses of language. It could similarly be submitted to the danger of removal from its object, since if a prose sequence were disguised as a poem it might be possible for a competent reader to suggest that it possesses a poetic blend of metaphor and metonymy. For instance figurative reference to the human conditions of 'disguise' and 'possession' in the previous sentence could, potentially, be turned into a version of the poetic process defined by Jakobson. It would seem that any attempt to specify the inherent qualities of poetic language is insufficient without an accompanying and acceptable verification of its target. And this is what Jakobson provides:

The principle of similarity underlies poetry; the metrical parallelism of lines, of the phonic equivalence of rhyming words prompts the question of semantic similarity or contrast...Prose, on the contrary, is forwarded essentially by contiguity. Thus for poetry, metaphor, and for prose metonymy is the line of least resistance.

(Fundamentals of Language, 1956, 95-6)

What Jakobson means is that the formal element of the double pattern provides a method of foregrounding or framing the metaphor-metonymy tension; and since its prosodic or metrical identity is a feature it does not share with prose we find ourselves with a formidable definition of the poetic.

Even Jonathan Culler, a critic who has submitted the New Critics Empson and Brooks to the merciless procedures of structuralist scepticism, respects the validity of Jakobson's thesis.

As Jakobson has stressed, in poetic discourse equivalence becomes the constitutive device of the sequence, and phonetic or rhythmic coherence is one of the major devices which distances poetry from the communicative functions of ordinary speech.

Both Jakobson and Culler invoke the double pattern as the signal to the reader to engage with the complex and intrinsically poetic intensifications of meaning.

But there are a number of problems with this formula that remain unresolved. When Jakobson claims that formal structure 'prompts' the question of semantic complexity does he mean (i) that there is a causal relation between the deployment of metre and sound pattern and the resulting blend of metaphor and metonymy, or (ii) that this formal framework operates as a contextual signal for the reader to concentrate on and centralises linguistic effects that might just as easily be found in prose?

If we examine the examples used by Jakobson in the 'Linguistics and Poetics' essay and, more significantly, in his other much debated interpretive pieces we will find that he favours (i). In his famous (1970) analysis of Shakespeare's 129th sonnet he describes how the grammatical parallelism of the text effectively organises its complex metaphoric-metonymic shifts between mortal instinct (metonymic) and the notion of life as a mirror image of heaven and hell (metaphoric). His anatomical division of the text into grammatical structures and strophes is grounded upon his awareness that the fundamental organising principle of the sonnet, that which effectively governs the interaction between grammar and semantics, contiguity and similarity, is the abstract structure of the sonnet itself. In theory, the syntactic and stylistic structures identified by Jakobson might well be possible within a text that does not adhere to the prosodic formula of three pentameter quatrains concluding with an heroic couplet, but in fact there is a 'cogent and mandatory unity of its thematic and compositional framework'. What he means by this is that it is impossible, or more accurately incorrect, to regard any of the signifying structures of the sonnet as immune from each other. For instance, when he considers the phonological parallelism of the final couplet he is also aware that the repetition of /e/, heaven / heevn/—men /men/—hell /hel/, draws upon and intensifies the broader thematic subject of the sonnet and that the position of each phoneme within the syntactic structure cannot be fully analysed without giving equal attention to the fact that this structure is organised by the abstract formula of the iambic pentameter.

Jakobson's analysis of the sonnet is a practical demonstration of the thesis of 'Linguistics and Poetics':

In poetry, any conspicuous similarity in sound is evaluated in respect to similarity and/or dissimilarity in meaning... In referential language the connection between signans (signifier) and signatum (signified) is overwhelmingly based on their codified contiguity. The relevance of the sound-meaning nexus [in poetry] is a simple corollary of the superposition of similarity upon contiguity.

He refers here specifically to rhyme, but this model of analysis extends to all systems of organisation which foreground the materiality of the signifier—metrical sequences, alliteration, assonance, etc. His central claim is that in Saussurian terms the parole (event) of the poetic text draws upon two separate dimensions of the langue; the first will involve techniques and formulations that will feature both in poetic and non-poetic texts— syntax, grammatical deviation, the stylistics of metaphor-metonymy; the second will consist of abstract formulae—metrical sequences, line lengths, rhyme schemes—which are founded not upon the syntactic or semantic designation of words but upon their material existence as signs. The genuinely and definitively poetic effect is achieved when these two systems are seen to interact. However, Jakobson does not attempt to provide a set of descriptive formulae which account for the possible types of interaction, the way in which these will be affected or determined by different verse forms or different historical periods, and the role of the reader in responding to, processing and classifying these clashes between distinct compositional and signifying codes. He does cite individual examples and it is from these that we can consider how his essay functions as a nexus for a series of otherwise distinct strategies and fields of interpretation.

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