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Scoping with Stress

Patrick Gillespie and I had an interesting conversation in the comments to this Wednesday’s post, and he convinced me I need to clarify what I wrote about speech vs metrical stress.

Before getting to the interesting stuff, a word about the terms of English prosody: they’re Greek. They’re Greek because early prosodists wanted to show that English verse had as firm a cultural footing as anything classical, but they don’t mean about English poems what they meant about Greek or Latin poems. Classical Greek and Latin prosody was quantitative, meaning that lines were arranged according to the duration of syllables, and even that was nothing like what we mean by long and short vowels. The quantity of many syllables was fixed—that is, was either short or long no matter what its context, but some did vary according to well-understood rules. Well, we ain’t got no quantities.

Instead, English is a stress language. When we applied the terms of Classical prosody to our language, an iambic foot, instead of a short syllable followed by long one, becme a relatively more lightly stressed syllable followed by a relatively more strongly stressed syllable.

And here is where scope begins comes in, for that “relatively” applies only within the boundary of the foot, and because the normal pattern in English is for adjacent syllables to differ in stress, however slightly, one syllable in any group of 2 or 3 normally carries distinguishably greater stress than the other(s). That syllable has the metrical stress in that foot, and its position determines the foot’s kind.

(Without that “normally” I’d have just declared pyrrhics and spondees illusory, and some days I nearly think they are—the tendency to vary stress in English speech is so strong that when people speak in a monotone, we worry about them. I worry about prosodists who spot more than one or two in a random 1000 lines.)

Let me stress again (heh)—the scope of metrical stress is the foot. Whatever happens in the rest of the line, one names a foot according to its syllable count and the position of its most strongly stressed syllable, and though they may all be weakly or strongly stressed in the line, within the foot one will have at least some slight stress relative to the rest.

That “whatever” needs more treatment. Take line 11 from “Design”:

What brought / the kin/dred spi/der to / that height,

“to” carries metrical stress because it’s a little bit heavier than the second syllable of “spider,” but I claim that “that,” the unstressed syllable of the next foot, carries more stress than “to.”

Now let’s make a change:

What made / the kin/dred spi/der climb / that height,

Two words changed; it’s still iambic pentameter; not a single metrical stress has changed — but now the line has 5 clear speech stresses, whereas before there were 4. Speech stress is a property of syllables in a line; metrical stress is a property of syllables in a foot.

Another version:

What brought / the kin/dred spi/der to / climbing,

Of course, the line is now well and truly broken, but look what happened in that fourth foot: since “climb” is strongly stressed in the last foot, “to” is no longer promoted to metrical stress. Instead, the last syllable of the noun “spider” gets slightly more stress, at least as I hear it. Metrical stress is still local: that is, there is still one syllable in the foot that is a little heavier than the other, but it’s a different syllable. And we’re down to four speech stresses again.

I wrote in the previous post that “rhythm in a metrical poem is the dance between speech-stress and meter,” and I know my little demos above can’t prove that. But I hope they do show at least that metrical stress and speech stress are separable.

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5 comments

1 Patrick Gillespie { 01.16.09 at 9:06 pm }

Mike, it’s a pleasure to exchange comments with someone who enjoys the subject as much as I do – and from whom I can learn something.

2 Mike { 01.17.09 at 1:50 pm }

Patrick, the pleasure is mutual.

3 Mary Alexandra Agner { 01.18.09 at 3:07 pm }

Er, well, I always use the stresses to define the feet in a line. How do you define the feet if you aren’t using the stresses? (Syllables don’t sound like fun.) Especially given a heterometrical poem?

4 Mike { 01.18.09 at 5:12 pm }

Mary, it’s certainly possible to write purely accentual verse in English, but if you want to write accentual/syllabic verse, whether iambic pentameter or dactylic dimeter or whatever your particular poison, you have to count syllables, too, and pay attention to the pattern made by the ordering of stressed and unstressed syllables.

Not that writing perfect pentameters will get you published. Trying to write them has, I think, made me more alert to the work done by other poets, and I hear a more complex line than I used to in writers like Frost and Larkin and Hecht.

And it actually is kind of fun. Spoken English does have a kind of iambic feel to it (though the “naturalness of IP is a load of crap), and your ear gets better and better as you work with it. At West Chester a few years ago I was talking with Rhina Espaillat about playing mandolin at open mics, and I happened to say “My job is playing music I don’t know.” She jumped on it: “That’s a perfect iambic pentameter line and I’m going to steal it.”

I used it first.

On the other side, as a reader, I’m not sure how much it matters unless you’re intending to do some metrical analysis. There may be some rhythmic subtleties you might miss, especially if you don’t read much metrical verse aloud, particularly in IP … but I can’t get exercised about it.

Hetmet’s a good topic for a later post, but basically the same things apply — nothing wrong with writing accentual verse, but in reading or analysis of accentual/syllabic meters it’s possible to miss things, even be fooled, if you don’t count the syllables, too.

5 Patrick Gillespie { 01.18.09 at 10:35 pm }

//the “naturalness of IP is a load of crap//

Well, I don’t have a vested opinion on this, but I *have* read some interesting material. I”m not sure about the term “natural”, but I *have* read compelling arguments for Iambic Pentameter (if only meters are at stake) as being the most suited to the English language. IP avoids the monotony of Tetrameter or Trimeter and doesn’t lose the ear the way longer meters do. These things can and have been tested. But, as I say, my interest is purely scientific.

Curiously, every language seems to have its ideal line length – Latin, Greek, French, German. Hmmm… now I’ve made myself curious. I’m going to have to look this up.

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