Scoping with 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.
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.