Poem Without A Main Verb By John Wain Analysis

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First published 1969 Fifteenth impression 1991


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'There is not perhaps any Figure of Speech so pleasing, as the metaphor', wrote the eighteenth-century linguistic thinker, James Harris. "Tis at times the Language of every Individual, but above all is peculiar to the Man of Genius.'"j" Although backed by the testimony of Aristotle, this statement is of less interest to us than the exercise in stylistic comparison, suggestive of Queneau, which precedes and occasions it. A vulgar utterance ('Don't let a lucky Hit slip; if you do, be-like you mayn't any more get at it') is set against an affected one (' Opportune Moments are few and fleeting; seize them with avidity, or your Progression will be impeded'), and both are contrasted with Brutus's expression of the same idea through his metaphor of taking a tide at the flood. Besides having 'intrinsic elegance', says Harris (ibid., 197), such language as the third flatters the reader by leaving him 'to discover something for himself'.

More than metaphor is involved in the study of poetic language, and even so outstanding a philologist as Harris was deaf to the poetry of Chaucer ('so uncouth', p. 468), but it is nevertheless interesting to see linguistics and criticism, nearly two hundred years ago, taking a few modest steps to 'knit hands'. How near is this Miltonic figure to a full realization in our own times? The American scholar, Richard Ohmann, tells us scathingly that for all the progress in linguistic theory critics have retained their old benighted subjective habits: 'the most serviceable studies of style continue to proceed from the critic's naked intuition, fortified against the winds of ignorance only by literary sophistication and the tattered garments of traditional grammar. Especially damaging is the critic's inability, for lack of a theory, to take into account the deeper structural features of language, precisely those which should enter most revealingly into a stylistic description.'J

t Philological Inquiries (London, 1781), 186. ^ In Word, 20 (1964), 426.

We may or may not think it just that Ohmann should thus berate the critics, as we may or may not agree with how he assesses the potentiality of specific current linguistic theories; we must surely admit that the critics have a case in counter-claiming that much of the recent linguistic work on literature has been too elementary or trivial or laboriously irrelevant to merit their serious consideration, and at best too much preoccupied with the style of the most startlingly idiosyncratic writers. But it is beyond question that in recent years linguists have been turning their attention increasingly to literary texts, and in ways that are of increasing interest to critics, making possible, as Ohmann says, a ' refinement in the practice of stylistic analysis'. In these developments Geoffrey Leech has played a notable part, and for some years now his work has been in demand from editors of symposia in linguistic stylistics. In the present volume, however, he achieves something that is beyond what a symposium can by definition even attempt: a single mind, sensitive and well-read, applying a single view of linguistic structure discursively and in some depth to the analysis of a wide range of English poetry. His book will therefore be of immense value not only to the students of English literature for whom it has primarily been written but also to more senior readers: the critics who wish to see something of what linguistics is coming to offer their discipline; and Mr Leech's fellow linguists who cannot fail to profit from his example.

And so, like his previous successful volume, this book is greatly to be welcomed in the series in which it appears. As our language and literature have come to be studied more and more on a world-wide basis, there has arisen an acute need for more information on the language and the ways in which it is used. The English Language Series seeks to meet this need and to play a part in further stimulating the study and teaching of English by providing up-to-date and scholarly treatments of topics most relevant to present-day English - including its history and traditions, its sound patterns, its grammar, its lexicology, its rich variety in speech and writing, and its standards in Britain, the USA, and the other principal areas where the language is used.

University College London August, 1968

randolph quirk


This book is designed as an introductory course in stylistics for students of English, and is based on my own experience of teaching the subject to first-year undergraduates. Although it is 'introductory' in the sense of'starting from scratch', it does not pretend to give a general survey of current approaches to the study of literary style; instead, it aims at developing one particular approach, from introductory generalities down to the practical details of textual interpretation. What I hope will emerge from these pages, in outline, is a general scheme for the discussion of the language of literary texts, and a framework of reference on linguistic matters for anyone interested in the interpretation of poetry.

I emphasize that the linguistic and critical aspects of literary studies are here regarded as complementary, the first being a tool of the second. One of my motives for writing this book is an impatience with those who, whether as linguists or as critics, have by intolerance or lack of imagination fostered the view that the two disciplines of literary criticism and linguistics work against, rather than for, one another. It is my hope that this book may help to clear away some of the fog of misunderstanding, as well as providing for a real teaching need in university English courses.

The first two chapters are perhaps noticeably easier than the others; they cover ground which will be familiar to many students of English, but are a necessary preparation for the more carefully analytic approach of later chapters.

Passages of poetry for further discussion are suggested at the end of each chapter. My intention is that these should be treated quite freely, according to the needs and temperament of individual teachers or students. It should perhaps be pointed out that a thoroughly fruitful discussion of each example requires some knowledge of the poem's background - biographical, intellectual, social, etc. They cannot, therefore, be compared with textbook exercises for which the textbook itself is a complete preparation. Ideally, the discussion of each piece should be preceded by background ex position in much greater detail than my occasional explanatory notes can provide.

My debt to Randolph Quirk is far larger than that which a writer conventionally owes to his editor; he has given unfailing encouragement and guidance on all matters, from the most general issues of theory to the most practical points of presentation and typography. I am also very grateful to Frank Kermode, head of my department, for his interest and advice; to John Chalker and Frank Fricker for valuable comments from a literary viewpoint; to Sidney Greenbaum for a thorough reading of the book in typescript, and for summarizing for my benefit an article in Hebrew by U. Oman; also to Roger Fowler for a detailed critique of Chapter 7; and to my father-in-law George Berman for kindly acting as proof-reader. What I owe to Winifred Nowottny through her book The Language Poets Use will be plain from almost every chapter of this one; but in addition I have a more personal debt to her, having been under her tutelage as a student at the University of London, and having had the unforgettable pleasure of attending the lectures upon which she later based her book. To other colleagues in the English Department of University College London I am grateful for giving me the benefit of their specialist knowledge on various points of literary appreciation.

Finally, I acknowledge, without too much shame, the help of The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations by J. M. and M.J. Cohen as a hunting-ground for suitable illustrations.

University College London gnl

August, 1968


We arc grateful to the following for permission to reproduce copyright material: George Allen & Unwin Ltd and the Viking Press Inc for an extract from The Gift of Tongues by Margaret Schlauch, Copyright 1942, Margaret Schlauch; author and author's agents for an extract from Epigram: On His Hooks by Hilaire Belloc; The Bodley Head and Random House Inc for an extract from 'The Sirens' from Ulysses by James Joyce; Curtis Brown Ltd and Curtis Brown, New York for Letters from Iceland by W. H. Audcn and Louis MacNeice, Copyright © 1937 W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, renewed 1965 W. H. Audcn; Jonathan Cape'Ltd and Harcourt, Brace & World Inc for an extract from 'Lessons of the War: 1. Naming of Parts' from .<4 Map Of Verona by Henry Reed; J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd and New Directions for extracts from 'From Love's First Fever to her Plague', 'Fern Hill', 'Ceremony after a Fireraid','Vision and Prayer','A Grief Ago','This Bread I Break'from Collected Poems by Dylan Thomas, Copyright 1939, 1946 by New Directions, 1945 by Trustees of the Copyrights of Dylan Thomas, and from Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, Copyright 1954 New Directions; Faber & Faber and Harcourt Brace & World Inc for 'seeker of truth' poem 3 of 73 Poems and 'pity this busy monster, manunkind' from Selected Poems 1923-1958 by e. e. cummings (American title Poems 1923-1954), Copyright 1944 by e. e. cummings, and for extracts from 'East Coker', 'The Waste Land', 'The Hollow Men', 'Marina', 'The Love Song ofj. Alfred Prufrock' from Collected Poems 1909-1962 by T. S. Eliot; Faber & Faber and Oxford University Press Inc for 'Prayer before Birth' from Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice; Faber & Faber and Random House Inc for 'Bantams In Pine-Woods' and 'Metaphors of a Magnifico' from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, Copyright 1923, renewed 1951 by Wallace Stevens, for 'The Wanderer' and 'A Summer Night' by W. H. Auden from Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957-, Grove Press Inc for'Oread' by Hilda Doolittle from Collected Poems, Copyright © 1957 by Norman Holmes Pearson; The Trustees of the Hardy Estate, Macmillan & Co. Ltd and The Macmillan Companies of Canada and New York for' In the Study' and' Ah, Are you Digging on my Grave' from Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy, Copyright 1925 The Macmillan Co; Macmillan & Co. Ltd for 'Poem Without a Main Verb' from Weep Before Cod by John Wain; author, author's agents and the Estate of the late Mrs Frieda Lawrence and The Viking Press Inc for an extract from 'Snake' from The Complete Poems of D. H. Laurence, Vol. 1 (edited U.S.A by Vivian De Sola Pinto and F. Warren Roberts), Copyright 1923,1951 by Frieda Lawrence; MacGibbon & Kee and New Directions for 'The Right of Way' from Collected Earlier Poems by William Carlos Williams, Copyright 1938 William Carlos Williams; The Marvell Press for 'Toads' from The Less Deceived by Philip Larkin; The Executors of Alice Meynell for' The Rainy Summer' by Alice Meynell; Harold Owen, Chatto & Windus Ltd and New Directions for an extract from 'Strange Meeting' from The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, Copyright © 1963 Chatto & Windus; The proprietors of Punch Publications for a limerick, © Punch; author, author's agents and Holt, Rinehart & Winston Inc for 'Grass' from Cornhuskers by Carl Sandburg, Copyright 1918 by Holt, Rinehart & Winston Inc, 1946 by Carl Sandburg;

author, author's agents and The Macraillan Co of New York for 'Easter 1916' Copyright 1924, The Macmillan Co., 1952 by Bertha Georgie Yeats, for 'Leda and the Swan', Copyright 1928 by The Macmillan Co., 1956 by Georgie Yeats, for4 An Irish Airman Foresees His Death', Copyright 1919 by The MacmiUan Co., 1946 by Bertha Georgie Yeats, from The Collected Poems of IV. B. Yeats.


Foreword v

Preface vii

Introduction i o.x The 'lang.-lit.' problem I

0.2 A descriptive rhetoric 3

0.3 Poetic language and'ordinary'language 5

0.4 A possible misgiving 6

Notes 7

1 Poetry and the Language of Past and Present 8

x.i Varieties of English usage 8

1.1.1 Dialects 8

1.1.2 Registers: usage according to situation 9 1.2 Linguistic convention in poetry 12

1.2.1 The trend of conformity 13

1.2.2 The function of archaism 14

1.2.3 Poetic language and 'poetical' language 15

1.2.4 Grand, middle, and plain styles 16

1.2.5 The routine licences of verse composition 17 Examples for discussion 19 Notes 22

2 The Creative Use of Language 23

2.1 The escape from banality 23

2.2 Two meanings of'creative' 24

2.3 The qualities of prose in poetry 25

2.4 Degrees of linguistic audacity 29 Examples for discussion 33 Notes 35

3 Varieties of Poetic Licence 36

3.1 Anatomy of language' 37

3.1.1 Three main levels: realization, form, semantics 37

3.1.2 Phonology and graphology 39

3.1.3 Meaning and significance 39

3.1.4 Ancillary branches of linguistics 40

3.2 Types of deviation 42

3.2.1 Lexical deviation 42

3.2.2 Grammatical deviation 44

3.2.3 Phonological deviation 46

3.2.4 Graphological deviation 47

3.2.5 Semantic deviation 48

3.2.6 Dialectal deviation 49

3.2.7 Deviation of register 49

3.2.8 Deviation of historical period 51

3.3 Conclusion 52 Examples for discussion 53 Notes 54

4 Foregrounding and Interpretation 56

4.1 Foregrounding 56

4.1.1 Foregrounding in art and elsewhere 56

4.1.2 An example 58

4.2 Interpretation 58

4.2.1 The subjectivity of interpretation 59

4.2.2 The 'warranty' for a deviation 61

4.3 Parallelism 62

4.3.1 Parallelism as foregrounded regularity 62

4.3.2 How much regularity? 64

4.3.3 Patterns of identity and contrast 65

4.3.4 The interpretation of parallelism 67 Examples for discussion 69 Notes 71

5 Verbal Repetition 73

5.x Schemes and tropes 74

5.2 Formal repetitions 76

5.2.x Free verbal repetition 77

5.2.2 Types of verbal parallelism 79

5.2.3 The functions of verbal parallelism 84

Examples for discussion 86

Notes 88

6 Patterns of Sound 89

6.x Sound patterns within syllables 89

6.2 Sound patterns in relation to stress 91

6.3 'Music'in poetry 93

6.4 The interpretation of sound patterns 95

6.4.2 Onomatopoeia 96

6.4.3 Varieties of onomatopoeia 97 Examples for discussion 100 Notes 102

7 Metre 103

7.1 Rhythm and metre 103

7.2 The rhythm of English 104

7.2.1 The measure: the unit of rhythm 106

7.2.2 Which syllables are stressed? 107

7.2.3 Pauses 107

7.2.4 Syllable length 108

7.3 Metre and the line of verse 111

7.3.1 English metre as rhythmic parallelism x 11

7.3.2 The'foot'of traditional prosody 112

7.3.3 The line of verse 114

7.3.4 Some numerical aspects of metre 115

7.3.5 Accentual metre 118

7.4 The interaction of rhythm and verse form 119

7.4.1 Defeated expectancy 119

7.4.2 Metrical variation 121

7.5 Grammar and metre 122

7.5.1 Enjambment 123

7.5.2 The 'verse paragraph' 125 For discussion 128 Notes 128

8 The Irrational in Poetry 131

8.1 A logical view of meaning 131

8.1.1 Some types of semantic oddity 131

8.1.2 Definition and description 134

8.2 Redundancy in poetry 136

8.2.x Pleonasm 137

8.2.2 Tautology 137

8.2.3 Periphrasis 138

8.3 Absurdity in poetry 140

8.3.1 Oxymoron 140

8.3.2 Paradox 142

8.4 Beyond reason and credibility 143 Examples for discussion 144 Notes 146

9 Figurative Language 147

9.1 Transference of meaning 148

9. x.i Synecdoche 150

9.1.2 Metaphor 150

9.1.3 Metonymy 152

9.2 Aspects of metaphor 153

9.2.1 How to analyse a metaphor 153

9.2.2 Simile and metaphor 156

9.2.3 Notional classes of metaphor 158

9.2.4 Extended metaphor 159

9.2.5 Compound metaphor and mixed metaphor 159

9.2.6 Symbolism and allegory 161 Examples for discussion 164 Notes 165

10 Honest Deceptions 166

10.1 Hyperbole and litotes 167 jo.i.i Hyperbole 167

10.1.2 Litotes or rhetorical understatement 168

10.1.3 The uses of hyperbole and litotes 170

10.2 Irony 171

10.2.1 The mask of irony 171

10.2.2 Irony and metaphor 173

10.2.3 Innuendo 174

10.2.4 Irony of tone 176 Examples for discussion 179 Notes 182

11 Implications of Context 183 11.1 Licences of situation 184

XI.1.1 Rhetorical question 184

11.1.2 Apostrophe 185

11.1.3 Routine licences of situation 186

11.2 The given situation 187

11.3 The'world within the poem' 189

11.3.1 The introduction of inferred situations 191

11.3.2 Words of definite meaning 193

11.3.3 Fact and fiction 195

11.3.4 Impossible situations 197

11.4 Situation and action 199

11.5 Conclusion 201 Examples for discussion 202 Notes 204

12 Ambiguity and Indeterminacy 205

12.1 Kinds of ambiguity 205

12.2 Puns and word-play 209

12.2.1 Technical variations 210

12.2.2 In defence of the pun 212

12.3 Open interpretation 214

12.3.1 Sources of multiple and indeterminate significance 215

12.3.2 The analogy of visual arts 217

12.3.3 Seeking the optimal interpretation 220 Examples for discussion 221 Notes 223

Conclusion 225

Notes 227

Suggestions for Further Reading 229

General Index 233

Index of Sources of Examples for Discussion 239

To the Memory of my Mother, Dorothy Leech


As a name for what this book is about, stylistics is perhaps unfortunately pretentious; but there is no convenient alternative for it. I mean by'stylistics' simply the study of literary style, or, to make matters even more explicit, the study of the use of language in literature. When we discuss 'style', we often have in mind the language of a particular writer, a particular period, a particular genre, even a particular poem. My plan, on the other hand, is to disregard these limiting factors and to investigate the general characteristics of language, and especially the English language, as a medium of literary expression.

Such a course of study, one may claim, is central to those subjects in a modern curriculum ('English', 'German', 'Latin', etc.) which have as their titles the names of languages. What is entailed in these subjects, in the case of English almost as much as in the case of foreign or dead languages, is the study of language as a complement and aid to the study of literature. We generally suppose that the literature cannot be examined in any depth apart from the language, any more than the language can be studied apart from the literature. In the case of foreign languages or the English language of remote periods, this assumption is not difficult to justify, for it is obvious that a literary work cannot be properly understood without a thorough knowledge of the language which is its medium of expression. But there is a deeper reliance of literary studies on linguistic studies than this. Most critical discussions of literature revolve, at some stage, round appeal to linguistic evidence - that is, the evidence of words and sentences which actually occur on the printed page, in literary texts. The type of critical activity known as 'practical criticism' or 'explication de texte' relies more heavily on linguistic evidence than others. In addition, much of the basic vocabu lary of literary criticism ('metaphor', 'figurative', 'antithesis', 'irony', 'rhythm', etc.) cannot be explained without recourse to linguistic notions. As a meeting-ground of linguistic and literary studies, stylistics is the field within which these basic questions lie.

All too often it is felt that the studies of language and literature, in English departments and elsewhere, pursue divergent paths, each under its own momentum, and fail to cohere within a single discipline. The problem of integration, which, for short, has been called the 'lang.-lit.' problem, has been aggravated in modern times by the decline of the teaching of rhetoric,1 and of the whole tradition of education enshrined in the classical 'Art of Rhetoric' and 'Art of Poesy'. What these manuals sought to do was to teach self-expression and literary composition through precept and the observation of the practice of great orators and writers. They combined a chief function of prescription (i.e. telling the student how to perform a task) with a lesser function of description (i.e. describing how it has been done successfully in the past). Nowadays, the emphasis has come to fall more and more on the descriptive aspect of literary studies - on the detailed explication of texts - rather than on the teaching of composition. Still surviving representatives of the rhetorical tradition today are the standard manuals of literary technique and of composition. These can be useful as reference books, but without the support of some more solid theoretical foundation and a deeper understanding of language, they cannot provide the kind of insight which the present age requires.

There is an interesting parallel today between the decay of traditional rhetoric and the decay of traditional grammar - both inherited from classical times. Traditional English grammar, as taught in schools, has been mainly prescriptive, like traditional rhetoric: that is, it has tended to lay down fixed rules as to what is 'correct' and 'incorrect' English. Now, partly through the growing influence of the discipline of general linguistics, this dogmatism has been broken down, and people have become more interested in what grammatical usage actually exists, rather than what usage 'ought to' exist; in other words, descriptive grammar has been replacing prescriptive grammar. None the less, a certain gap is felt in the educational system, for many schoolteachers who have lost confidence in the traditional grammar have not so far found a teachable replacement for it. In the same way, I believe, a void exists at university level in the study and teaching of stylistics. It is true that general linguistics, as a vigorous and developing field of study, has roused the interest of literary scholars, and that students of linguistics have been turning their attention more and more to the study of language in literature. But there has been much failure of com-

munication, and the goals of literary and linguistic scholars, in approaching literary works, have often seemed too wide apart for fruitful co-operation.

Moreover, when a traditional body of theory falls into disrepute, the subject itself seems to suffer a similar eclipse. Just as many people today see no point in teaching grammar, so there is a tendency amongst some literary scholars to underestimate the importance to literary studies of such subjects as versification and rhetorical figures, and to treat them as matters of 'mere technique'. It is worth while observing that poets themselves have generally taken ' technique ' very seriously : ' Let the neophyte know assonance and alliteration, rhyme immediate and delayed, simple and polyphonic, as a musician would expect to know harmony and counterpoint and all the minutiae of his craft.'2 This advice from Ezra Pound to the would-be creative writer might be addressed with equal fitness to any student of literature.

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