Redundancy In Poetry

In noting the applications of the various kinds of semantic redundancy in poetry, we may start with devices of lesser importance - those involving redundancy.

8.2.1 Pleonasm

In circumstances of functional communication, pleonasm, even more than other forms of semantic redundancy, is regarded as a fault of style. Generations of rhetoricians and composition teachers have frowned on solecisms like 'The reason is because .. .' and 'a villainous scoundrel'. Yet pleonasm has humorous uses, as in the following passage in which Touchstone harangues a peasant:

.. . abandon the society of this female; or, clown, thou perishest; or, to thy better understanding, diest; or, to wit, I kill thee, make thee away, translate thy life into death!1 [As You Like It, V.i]

For the serious poetic use of pleonasm, which is rather rare, we turn to the Old Testament. The passage quoted earlier from the Song of Deborah and Barak (§5.2.1) is a particularly striking example; another one is this verse from Ecclesiastes:

I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive. ~ [4:2]

The semantic parallelism characteristic of the Psalms is also a form of pleonasm. For hints on the function of this kind of redundancy, we may return to the discussion of repetitiveness in §§5.2.1 and 5.2.3.

In more recent times, when poets have aimed at tautness of expression as opposed to prolixity, pleonasm has been censured in poetry, as in other fields of communication.

Away! - there need no words nor terms precise, The paltry jargon of the marble mart.

[Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, IV, 50]2

The padding out of a line of verse by such means as the conjunction of quasi-synonyms words and terms in this passage is usually considered a culpable form of redundancy.

8.2.2 Tautology

Like pleonasm, tautology is a device of limited usefulness in literature. Hamlet is one of the few literary works in which I have noticed its calculated use. When Hamlet is questioned by his companions on what he has learnt from the Ghost, he replies, after some prevarication,

There's ne'er a villain dwelling in all Denmark But he's an arrant knave.

To which Horatio, the paragon of good sense, replies:

There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave To tell us this.

Hamlet's statement, if not a complete tautology, is something so close to it as to reveal no information worth having. His use of this cryptic response matches the popular use of tautology in the remark 'I know what 1 know', which by its very vacuity of sense conveys the information that the speaker means to keep his knowledge secret. This use of tautology is ironical: the cloak of idiocy hides the speaker's true thoughts and feelings. It is in this respect different from the genuine idiocy of Polonius's comment

For to define true madness, What is't but to be nothing else but mad?


Yet even this, from the dramatist's point of view, has an ulterior motive: the depiction of a combination of foolishness and pedantry in Polonius's character. Thus the lack of cognitive content does not necessarily go with a lack of significance; in fact, the vacuity of tautology can be an indirect means of conveying information about character and state of mind.

8.2.3 Periphrasis

Periphrasis is far more common in poetry than pleonasm and tautology, although it has some resemblance to them in that it involves saying more than is warranted by the amount of meaning communicated. The principle of economy of expression discourages the use of periphrasis in most communicative situations. It is difficult to find a general explanation of its popularity in poetry, but no doubt part of the matter is the purely technical value of periphrasis as a routine licence in any lengthy poem taxing to a versifier's ingenuity. Particularly in epic poetry, it is a convenience for the poet to have various ways of referring to the same thing, especially if that thing is of key significance in the poem. One thinks of the many synonyms for 'sea', 'battle', and 'warrior', in the Old English epic Beowulf. According to the requirements of metre, the Anglo-Saxon poet often makes use of longer, periphrastic expressions, such as gomen-wudu ('game-wood') for 'harp'; hilde-sctl ('battle-seat') for 'saddle'. Especially characteristic of early Germanic poetry are kennings, or periphrastic compounds which incorporate metaphors, like swan-rad ('swan's riding-place', ='sea') and mere-hengest (' sea-horse', =' ship)'. An interesting parallel in later literature (dramatic, not epic) is the variety of periphrases for 'crown' in Shakespeare's history plays: 'this golden rigoP (= 'ring' or 'circle'), 'this inclusive verge of golden metal', 'the circle of my glory', 'the imperial metal circling now my head', 'this golden round', 'the round and top of sovereignty'. Such designations, whether in Beowulf or Shakespeare, must be attributed not merely to metrical convenience and ' elegant variation' for the avoidance of monotony, but to the poet's desire to elaborate a themati-cally important concept, by throwing the emphasis now on one, now on another of its facets, thus deepening its symbolic and emotive significance. Groom, from whom the list of Shakespearean periphrases is taken,3 suggests that 'the notion of royalty and its appurtenances was so august that the word "crown" was often too poor for the occasion, and a phrase had to be invented'.4

The connection between periphrasis and dignity of expression is an important one, especially evident in eighteenth-century poetic diction. In the nature poetry of that period, it was common, as we have seen in §1.2.3, f°r aspects of nature to be denoted by phrases such as woolly care ('sheep'), busy nations ('bees'), feather'd choirs ('birds'), no doubt partly because the dignity of poetry was conceived to be incompatible with such com-mon-or-garden words as birds and bees. A more positive justification of this periphrastic heightening has been offered by Tillotson,5 who suggests that it expressed the eighteenth-century scientific perception of order in creation, by assigning each species, each element, etc., a general title ('nation', etc.) and a particular epithet which singles out a salient property of the species - for birds, tunefulness or featheredness; for bees, industry; etc.

The reverse side of this linguistic propriety shows itself outside poetic language in euphemism - an alternative, often roundabout mode of expression used in preference to a blunter, less delicate one. Euphemistic periphrases abound in areas of social taboo: 'the smallest room', 'gone to his last rest', 'in the family way' are examples. They are not entirely absent from poetry: Victorian nicety in referring to childbirth seems to be reflected in this description from Tennyson's The Marriage of Geraint :6

another gift of the high God

Which, maybe, shall have learn'd to lisp you thanks.

More to the taste of the present age is an anti-euphemistic vein which shows itself when a taboo subject is described by means of a jokingly indelicate periphrasis, often a figurative one: kick the bucket for 'die', etc.

This appears to spring From a complementary, and equally deep-rooted tendency in the human mind: the urge to overcome one's fear by turning its object into a matter of familiarity and fun. A literary example is Mer-cutio's railing acceptance of his death-wound in Romeo and Juliet [Hl.i] : 'A plague o' both your houses ! They have made ivorm's meat of me'.

We do less thanjustice to periphrasis if we think of it as the substitution of a longer synonym, or semanticallv equivalent expression, for a shorter one. Poetic periphrases are almost always descriptions, rather than definitions; and descriptions - particularly figurative descriptions - can give a heightened imaginative appreciation of the object described. No one would ever claim that another periphrasis from Romeo and Juliet -

Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day

Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.. .

could be replaced without severe loss by the simple declaration ' Morning is come'.

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  • josphine
    What is semantic redundancy in oral literature?
    2 years ago
  • jarno
    What is redadancy in poetry?
    2 years ago

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