Grammar And Metre

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The interplay between verse and other strata of linguistic patterning is such a vast subject, that here I can do little more than indicate the vastness of it, and touch upon one subject of particular importance and interest: the relation between grammatical units and metrical units.

Verse can interact with linguistic patterning on many different levels.

To give a complete account of this interaction, we should have to consider separately the different levels of linguistic organization-phonology, grammar, graphology, etc. - in relation to verse structure. We should also have to give attention to other foregrounded patterns, such as formal parallelisms. Furthermore, we should need to examine the manner of interaction between patterns. Briefly, one linguistic pattern may either be congruent with another, or may cut across it.17 As it is usual for linguistic patterns to coincide rather than to be at odds with one another, the second circumstance is the more interesting one. Here is a pronounced instance of syntax and verbal parallelism cutting across the line-divisions of verse:

I wish a greater knowledge, than t'attain The knowledge of myself: a greater gain Than to augment myself: a greater treasure Than to enjoy myself: a greater pleasure Than to content myself.

[Francis Quarles, Christ and Ourselves]

This can be contrasted with the congruity of formal pattern and verse pattern displayed in most examples of verbal parallelism quoted in §5.2.2 above.

7.5.1 Enjambment

We have seen (§7.2.4) the significance of the relationship between syntactic units and rhythmic measures. There is even more to be said about the relationship between syntactic units and verse lines. Commonly a distinction is drawn between 'end-stopped lines', in which the last syllable coincides with an important grammatical break, and 'run-on lines' in which there is no congruity of this kind. For the second case, in which there is a grammatical overflow from one line to the next, we may use the term enjambment, which, however, by rights refers more especially to a grammatical overlap between couplets. Of the two relationships, congruity is treated as the normal, and enjambment as the marked, or abnormal, state of affairs. Enjambment is therefore like metrical variation in setting up a tension between the expected pattern and the pattern actually occurring. A parallel in music is provided by syncopation, the playing off of the expected rhythm against a rhythm caused by the displacement of accent. Another musical analogy is frequently used: that of counterpoint, the independent movement of two melodic parts.

It is not merely the tendency for patterns to reinforce rather than resist one another that makes the end-stopped line the norm. Enjambment is most frequently discussed in connection with heroic couplets and blank verse; and, as we saw in §7.2.4, the pentameter, if it is metrically regular, ends with a silent stress. A pause (a deliberate silence), however, is appropriate only at a grammatical boundary of some importance. Thus enjambment in a pentameter creates a conflict between the metrical system, which demands a pause, and the grammatical system, which resists one:

His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear'd arm

Crested the world: his voice was propertied

As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;

But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,

He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,

There was no winter in't; an autumn 'twas

That grew the more by reaping; his delights

"Were dolphin-like: they show'd his back above

The element they lived in: in his livery

Walk'd crowns and crownets; realms and islands were

As plates dropp'd from his pocket.

[Antony and Cleopatra, V.ii]

We would be tempted to laugh at a schoolboy Cleopatra who read these lines in the metrically regular way, with a silent stress at the end of each. Instead, we assume that a skilful reader will in this, as in most other respects, obey the dictates of 'prose rhythm'. However, the metre receives some compensation for the loss of a stress. It is unusual not to have a major grammatical break (e.g. between clauses) every few words, so that where enjambment occurs, such breaks are almost bound to occur either in the preceding line, or in the following line, or in both. These breaks require pauses, making up for the silent stress omitted at the end of the line. One disturbance of the metrical movement therefore tends to rectify the other: a reader is held up by an unmetrical break before the end of one line, but makes up for it by a headlong swoop into the next.

When enjambment becomes more than an occasional device, it becomes almost impossible for a listener to follow the line-divisions of blank verse without a text in front of him. The disorientation is complete if the hallucination of an end-stopped line is created where actually none exists. For example, the clause 'an autumn 'twas / That grew the more by reaping', which is 'straddled' between two lines, would have made an acceptable pentameter. Such ghost lines are not infrequent in Shakespeare's later dramatic blank verse.18

As Roger Fowler points out,19 enjambment is really a matter of degree - of the degree of grammatical cohesion between the end of one line and the beginning of the next. The solidity of the bond can be roughly measured by asking what is the smallest grammatical unit to which the end of the one line and the start of the next belong? A hierarchy of four grammatical units, word, phrase, clause, and sentence suffice for the purpose.20 The most extreme form of enjambment occurs when both are part of the same word: Thomas Campion's 'Ever perfect, ever in them-/Selves eternal' [Rose-cheek'd Laura, Come] is an example. A less extreme form of cohesion occurs when both are part of the same phrase, though not of the same word: 'my sons/Invincible' [Paradise Lost, VI].21 The most common and least startling form of enjambment is that in which the end of one line and the beginning of the following one belong to different phrases, but are part of the same clause (for example, when the line-division occurs between subject and predicate). There are several examples of this in Cleopatra's speech: one is 'his delights / Were dolphin-like'.

We may describe enjambment as the placing of a line boundary where a deliberate pause, according to grammatical and phonological considerations, would be abnormal; that is, at a point where a break between intonation patterns is not ordinarily permitted.22 Such a break most frequently coincides with a clause boundary or sentence boundary. There are some places within the clause, however, at which an intonation break is appropriate; for instance, after an initial adverbial phrase like Cleopatra's 'For his bounty, there was no winter in't'. This does not, then, count as enjambment according to the definition I have just given. As punctuation marks generally indicate places where a pause is allowable, the identification of enjambment by the absence of end-punctuation is a rule-of-thumb good enough for most purposes.

7.5.2 The 'Verse Paragraph'

One of the important functions of enjambment is its role in building up expansive structures known as verse paragraphs. This term has been applied to successions of blank verse lines which seem cemented into one long, monumental unit of expression. To the skilful construction of verse paragraphs is attributed much of the epic grandeur of Milton's blank verse. In describing these structures, it is difficult to avoid architectural meta phors: one thinks of a multitude of assorted stone blocks interlocking to form a mighty edifice.

The verse paragraph is neither a unit of syntax nor a unit of verse: it is rather a structure which arises from the interrelation of the two. To see this, let us examine a famous passage in which Milton writes of his own blindness, from the beginning of Book III of Paradise Lost:

Yet not the more Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt Clear spring, or shady grove, or sunny hill, Smit with the love of sacred song; but chief

Thee, Sion! and the flowery brooks beneath, 30

That wash thy hallowed feet, and warbling flow,

Nightly I visit, nor sometimes forget

Those other two equalled with me in fate,

So were I equalled with them in renown,

Blind Thamyris, and blind Maeonides,

And Tiresias, and Phineus, prophets old:

Then feed on thoughts, that voluntary move

Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful bird

Sings darkling, and in shadiest covert hid

Tunes her nocturnal note. 40

The essence of the verse paragraph is an avoidance of finality. But what does 'finality' mean? In prose there are various degrees of syntactic finality (end of phrase, end of clause, etc.), leading up to the absolute finality of the end of a sentence. In verse there is also the metrical finality of a line-division. In blank verse, a point of complete rest is only reached when a sentence boundary and a line boundary coincide. If either occurs without the other, some structural expectation is still unfulfilled; the reader has, as it were, arrived at a halting-place, not a destination. Perhaps we may refer to the various kinds of medial stopping place as 'points of arrest', reserving the term 'point of release' for the ultimate point of rest: the coincidence of line-end and sentence-end.23 The verse paragraph can then be seen as the piece of language intervening between one point of rest and another.

What is remarkable about Milton's style of blank verse is first of all the length of his verse paragraphs - indeed, rarely outside Miltonic blank verse does the unit extend far enough to make the term' paragraph' applicable. The piece quoted is evidently only an excision from the middle of one of these units of expression, for although it constitutes a complete sentence, it begins and ends at a point of metrical incompleteness - i.e. in the middle of a line. It is also worth noting how Milton deprives the reader of the comfort of relaxing at intermediate stopping places. This is partly brought about by the frequency of enjambment (in this passage, lines 26, 27, 29, etc.), with its corollary, the placement of heavy breaks in the middle of the line. Thus when the metre bids the reader pause, the syntax urges him on, and vice versa.

Another factor is the Latin syntax of the periodic sentence, protracted by parentheses, lists, and involved structures of dependence. A particular contribution to the onward-thrusting movement of the language is the way hi which anticipatory structure sets up syntactic expectations which are kept in suspense over a long stretch of verse. For example, 'Thee, Sion! ...' at the beginning of line 30 above requires completion by a transitive verb which is not supplied until the third word of line 32:' Nightly I visit'. A more striking illustration comes at the very beginning of Paradise Lost, quoted below. Thus three factors - medial sentence boundaries, enjambment, and periodic syntax - combine to provide the tension, the unstaying forward impetus of Milton's blank verse, and (to revert to the architectural simile) make up the cement with which these massive linguistic structures are held together.

Often in Milton's blank verse, as in that of the later Shakespeare, enjambment is so frequent that the line-divisions can scarcely be followed by the ear unaided by the eye. Yet the blank verse mould, I feel, must be continually felt beneath the overlapping syntax: otherwise one misses the effect of criss-crossing patterns, the counterpoint in which lies so much of the power of this kind of verse. Without a feeling for the underlying pentameter scheme, moreover, one fails to appreciate the relaxation of a resolved conflict when the poem at length is brought to a 'point of release'. This profoundly satisfying effect can be likened to that produced by the perfect cadence at the end of a Bach fugue. Sometimes, as in the first twenty-six lines of Paradise Lost, the release of tension is enhanced by an uncharacteristic sequence of end-stopped lines, the last of which, in addition, is (also uncharacteristically) a regular pentameter free of metrical variation :

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste Brought death into the world, and all our woe,

... What in me is dark, Illumine! what is low, raise and support!

That to the heighth of this great argument I may assert eternal Providence, And justify the ways of God to men.

It is clearly wrong to talk of this as a return to the 'norm' in any statistical sense of that word, for there are more run-on lines than end-stopped lines at the beginning of Paradise Lost. Indeed, here the concept of norm and deviation as applied to verse pattern is turned on its head: the irregularity becomes the rule, and the reversion to end-stopped lines becomes telling hi contrast.

I may seem to have devoted more attention to an individual poet's style here than is justified. But of course, the Miltonic maimer, far from being restricted to Milton, is a wide-ranging influence in English poetry.24 Besides, this brief study of Milton has revealed deeper applications of notions like deviation, variation, and defeated expectancy: applications not limited to Milton and those who wittingly or unwittingly come under his influence. It would be instructive, for example, to investigate enjambment and resolution in the work of a poet like T. S. Eliot, who expressly repudiates the Miltonic manner.

For discussion

Study in detail the versification of any piece of poetry, by undertaking: [a] a rhythmic analysis, with alternatives where necessary, in terms of measures with stressed and unstressed syllables, pauses, etc. (Musical notation can be applied to selected passages.) [J] an account of verse form: measures or feet, lines, stanzas, etc.

[c] an account of the relation between [a] and [£>].

[d] an account of the relation between verse form and grammar.

Examples suitable for this purpose are Chapter 3, 2[a], [fc], and [c] (pp. J3-4); Chapter 4, 2[6] (pp. 70-1); Chapter 6, 2[a], [6], 3[a], [i] (pp. 100-102).


1 h. gross, Sound and Form in Modern Poetry, Ann Arbor, 1964, 3.

2 See the survey of some modern opinions in r. fowler, '"Prose Rhythm" and

Metre', Essays on Style and Language, ed. r. fowler, London, 1966, 82-3; also his 'Structural Metrics', Linguistics, 27 (1966), 49-64. In this development Eastern European prosodists have anticipated the thinking of scholars in the West. See the discussion of the Russian 'formalists' in r. wellek and a. warren, Theory of Literature, London, 1949,173-4. A most thorough and interesting theoretical and practical study of metre is s. chatman, A Theory of Meter, The Hague, 1965. Many of the points made in this chapter are to be found in Chaps. 2 and 5 of Chatman's book.

3 See, for example, r. wellek and a. warren, op. cit., 171, referred to by r. fowler, op. cit., 82-3.

4 The distinction between stress-timing and syllable-timing has been made by Daniel Jones, David Abercrombie, and many other phoneticians. See m. a. k. halliday, a. mcintosh, and p. strevens, The Linguistic Sciences and Language Teaching, London, 1964, 71-2.1 call the unit of rhythm a 'measure' rather than a 'foot', to distinguish it from the 'foot' of traditional prosody (see §7.3.2).

5 'Musical scansion' has a long and rather unfortunate history, beginning with s. lanier, The Science of English Verse, New York, 1880. More recently, phoneticians have placed the parallel between musical rhythm and speech rhythm on a sounder basis. See w. jassem, Intonation of Conversational English, Wroclaw, 1952, 41; d. abercrombie, 'A Phonetician's View of Verse Structure', in Studies in Phonetics and Linguistics, London, 1965, 16-25.

6 On silent stress, see abercrombie, loc. cit.; halliday, mcintosh, and strevens, loc. cit.

7 e. pound, A.B.C. of Reading, London, 1951, 198-9.

8 See d. abercrombie, 'Syllable Quantity and Enclitics in English', op. cit., 26-34.

9 w. jassem (op. cit., 38) is the author of this example.

10 On the practical and illustrative value of nursery rhymes for students of English rhythm, see j. d. o'connor, 'Fluency Drills', English Language Teaching, 6, 3 (1952), 90-1.

11 w. nowottny, The Language Poets Use, London, 1962, 108-11.

12 gross, op. cit., 90-1. However, I would disagree with Gross's explanation of this as a blend of accentual and accentual-syllabic metre. (Gross's version of the rhyme, and that with which I am most familiar, has dog instead of doggy. When it was quoted in class, however, my students insisted on the emendment to doggy, which they took to be the authentic version. This increases the regularity of the metre, and so makes the illustration more convincing.)

13 d. abercrombie, 'A Phonetician's View of Verse Structure', 25. The scope and wording of Abercrombie's categories have been slightly altered to fit them into the present discussion.

15 Translation by j. n. clark hall: 'The road was paved, the path guided the men together . . . each corslet glittered, hard and linked by hand, the gleaming rings of iron clinked in their harness' (Beowulf and the Finnesburg Fragment, rev. edn, London, 1950, 36).

16 The orthodox system of metrical analysis for Old English poetry is readably summarized in j. r. r. tolkien, 'Prefatory Remarks II: On Metre', in clark hall, op. cit., xxviii-xliii. A persuasive application of'musical scansion' to Old English poetry is that of j. c. pope, The Rhythm of Beowulf, New Haven, 1942.

17 A revealing study of these two relationships between metre and formal patterns (both grammatical and lexical) in Old English poetry and elsewhere is found in r. quirk, 'Poetic Language and-Old English Metre', Chap. 1 of his Essays on the English Language, London, 1968.

18 f. kermode (Introduction to The Tempest, Arden ed., London, 1958, xvii) uses the phrase ' straddled lines', quoted by fowler, op. cit., 90.

20 On a hierarchy of units in grammar, see halliday, mcintosh, and strevens, op. cit., 25.

21 This example is from fowler, op. cit., 89; the preceding one I owe to Michael Randle.

22 On the correspondence between units of intonation ('tone-groups') and units of grammar, see halliday, mcintosh, and strevens, op. cit., ji. A more detailed and technical study of this problem is to be found in a. mcintosh and m. a. k. halliday, Patterns of Language, London, 1966, 111-33.

23 'Arrest' and 'release' are used in roughly these senses by j. mch. Sinclair, 'Taking a Poem to Pieces', in Essays on Style andLanguage, ed. r. fowler, 72.

24 Two valuable studies of Milton's verse technique and language are s. e. sprott, Milton's Art of Prosody, Oxford, 1953: and c. ricks, Milton's Grand Style, Oxford, 1963.

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