Full reference: Jahn, Manfred. 2002. A Guide to the Theory of Poetry. Part I of Poems, Plays, and Prose: A Guide to the Theory of Literary Genres. English Department, University of Cologne.
Date: August 2, 2003
This page: http://www.uni-koeln.de/~ame02/pppp.htm
Project introductory page: http://www.uni-koeln.de/~ame02/ppp.htm
To facilitate global indexing, all paragraphs in this section are prefixed 'P' for 'poetry'. If you quote from this document, use paragraph references (e.g., P2.1) rather than page numbers.
P1. Rhythm and Meter
P2. Rhyme, verse sequence, stanza
P3. Semantic analysis of poetry
P4. Minima Rhetorica
P5. An interpretation of Robert Graves, "Flying Crooked" (1938)
P6. Poetry websites
P1.1. Poetry vs prose. Give us a concise definition of poetry. Can't think of one off the cuff? Well, admittedly, it is always difficult to define a phenomenon in isolation. Asked in this manner, the question has little direction or purpose. So let me rephrase the question, seemingly making it a more difficult one. Let us try to define poetry in contradistinction to prose. In other words, let us aim at a 'differential definition' whose purpose is to bring out the specificity of poetry and whose validity (i.e., success or failure to differentiate as intended) is easily tested.
Obviously, on a printed page a poem looks different from a prose passage (a page from a novel, say). In a poem, the individual lines seem to be relatively independent units (and it is no accident that lines of poetry are identified by a special term: verse). Prose, in contrast, is not made up of verses. In a prose text, it does not really matter whether the lines are short or long. Apparently, then, what we have isolated is a 'sufficient condition' (if this text is written in verse then it must be poetry), possibly even a 'necessary condition' (if this is poetry then it must have verses). Indeed, some recent approaches (see reference in P6) use these conditions as their basic assumptions. The following account, in contrast, builds on a more traditional approach which recognizes an essential poetical quality even in the absence of versification. Consider the three short passages quoted below. They may all look like prose, yet the truth is that only one of them is prose, while two of them come from poetical texts whose versification has been suppressed (credit goes to Raith 1962: 15 for inventing this experiment). Nevertheless, many people will be able to spot the difference and identify which is prose and which is poetry.
Most people are reasonably confident to state -- correctly -- that the first two items are poetry and that the last item is prose. (The first one is the beginning of Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan"; the second is a line from Shakespeare's Hamlet, a play which is largely written in verse, and the third is the beginning of the novel Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.) Apparently, then, the visual impression that poetry is written in verse, though useful as an initial differentiation, is not enough. Indeed, many theorists assume that the true differentiating criterion is not a visual but an auditory one. But how can that be? Because, reading a text, one pronounces it mentally. Reading the three passages cited above, many people note that the poetical passages have a certain 'rhythm', and this is what interests us in the following. The prose passage from Woolf's novel, in contrast, has no such rhythm; it is 'rhythmically free'.
P1.2. Of course, we cannot just go on introducing new terms -- verse, rhythm -- that are themselves in need of definition. Let us therefore stipulate the following definition of 'rhythm':
This is quite a general definition, as it must be, since rhythm is a very general phenomenon. For instance, the definition covers cases like the sequence of tides (high tide, low tide, high tide, low tide ...), the seasons of the year (spring, summer, autumn, winter), the rhythm of breathing (breathing in, breathing out, ...); the rhythmic contraction and expansion of one's heart (systole, diastole) etc. Note that in all of these examples, rhythm is indeed characterized by (i) elements, (ii) groups, and (iii) iterations.
In the following, we are combining Wertheimer's principles of grouping (a Gestalt-theoretical approach, see Jackendoff 1983: ch. 8.1 for a more detailed account) with the traditional study of verse also known as prosody. As an exercise, identify the elements, the groups, and the iterations in the examples given above.
P1.3. It is no accident that the following lines (and virtually thousands more in the corpus of English poetry) are all identical in one specific feature. Which?
Answer: These lines are all identical in length. Not length as measured by number of letters or number of words (as is misleadingly suggested by item five -- note that item three has nine words, not ten); no, it is the number of syllables: the lines are all exactly ten syllables long. And when one reads these lines (either mentally or out loud) one notices that they tend to break down into smaller groups of syllables.
Poetical rhythm of this sort is called 'meter' (fr. Greek 'measure'), and a line (or verse) that is rhythmical in this manner is said to be 'metrical'.
P1.4. A poem's meter can be brought out by using a technique called scansion, a kind of enforced metrical reading. In order to 'scan' a line of poetry, make one radical assumption: assume that a syllable can be either stressed or unstressed, and nothing else. To scan a line means to assign to each of its syllables either zero stress or maximum stress. Suppose, for a moment, that an unstressed syllable sounds like a weak "da" and a stressed one like a strong "DUM". Now take the sequence "da-DUM" and repeat it a few times (you'll get the hang of it). What you get is clearly rhythmical. Next, take a group of syllables that go like "DUM-da-da", and iterate that. An unmistakable rhythm, a bit like a waltz, but different from the one before. Take one that goes "da-da-DUM". Another kind of rhythm. Take one that goes "da-DUM-da-da". There are many more syllabic patterns -- thirty-two exactly -- that can be created by combining up to four stressed and unstressed syllables, and an expert prosodist can all identify them by name. (I am not an expert prosodist, but da-DUM is an 'iamb', DUM-da-da is a 'dactyl', da-da-DUM is an 'anapest', and da-DUM-da-da is a 'second paeon'.) In the following, however, we will focus on just the four most frequent metrical patterns (see Bonheim 1990: ch 18 for the full list).
If you are interested in a bit of critical reflection, consider a limit case. Take the single syllable "DUM" and iterate it. Do you get a rhythm? The obvious answer is "No" (Why?). A less obvious but interesting alternative is to say "It depends". Explain, if you can, but perhaps you will have to wait until P1.12. Para P1.7 and its note on the term 'beat' might also be pertinent.
P1.5. Rather than continue with "da" and "DUM", which would be a bit silly, we will now introduce a notation which amounts to exactly the same thing but looks more distinguished and more scholarly. Following a suggestion by Bonheim (1990), we will henceforward use a lower-case "o" for an unstressed (zero stressed) syllable, and a "1" for a stressed one. (Dedicated prosodists use a variety of special characters for this, but "o"s and "l"s have the advantage of being easily displayed in all kinds of formats, including HTML.)
P1.6. Apart from assigning stress patterns, scansion evidently also involves counting syllables. Counting syllables is an ability that comes intuitively and automatically (possibly, an all-too easy way out, I admit). Let us just note in passing that the number of syllables in a word is usually equal to the number of vowels (or vowel clusters) in a word. Scanning individual words, we see, for instance, that "compare" has a stress pattern of o1, "practice" one of 1o, and "feminine" one of 1oo. Note, however, that stress patterns may vary both contextually and historically. Hence, sometimes one has the option of either pronouncing a syllable or of swallowing it ("interesting" could be 1oo or 1ooo). Some speakers stress "harassment" on the first syllable, some on the second (= 1oo or o1o). In ordinary pronunciation, a word like "rattlesnake" has a strong stress on its first syllable, no stress on the second syllable, and a kind of 'medium stress' on the third syllable. In scansion, as was stipulated in P1.4, we are forbidden to use medium stresses, so the third syllable of "rattlesnake" must either be upgraded to full stress or downgraded to zero stress. Hence the scansion of "rattlesnake" could be either 1o1 or 1oo (whichever, as we shall see in P1.9, is more suitable in a given context). As a general rule, any word in a sentence (including 'function' words like articles and prepositions such as the, in, to, etc.) can receive maximum stress (This is the man -- This is the man -- This is the man -- This is the man).
P1.7. Here is how one determines whether a line is 'metrical':
P1.8. The four most common feet consist of two or three syllables of which one is stressed.
Many prosodists also allow for (at least) two limit-case feet which serve strictly local functions only: the spondee (11) and the pyrrhic (oo) (see also 'mixed meter', P1.13, below). It is obvious, however, that neither of these 'feet' allows repetition as a rhythmical group. Moreover, we will soon introduce a distinction between scansion and recitation (P1.14, below) which removes the need for exceptional feet such as these -- usually, they are just ad-hoc fillers touching up local irregularities.
P1.9. For a simple exercise (more difficult ones will soon follow), determine, by scansion (P1.4), the type of foot used in Lewis Carroll's "Mad Gardener's Song":
He thought he saw an Elephant,
That practised on a fife;
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
"At length I realize," he said,
"The bitterness of Life."
He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The middle of next week.
"The one thing I regret," he said,
Is that it cannot speak!"
If you do it right everybody will hear that Carroll uses an iambic meter throughout. It seems sensible, too, that "Rattlesnake" (cf. discussion in P1.6), in the given context, should be stressed 1o1, not 1oo. Note that, in the approach used here, scansion always attempts to establish a regular rhythmical sequence. Theoretically, in line 1, one could easily stress the two occurrences of "he" and leave "thought" unstressed. As a consequence, however, one would then be forced to stress "an", and "Elephant" would come out as o1o -- a horrible idea!
P1.10. In order to describe a metrical line one indicates (i) type of foot and (ii) number of iterations.
In combination, type of foot plus metrical length yields categories like 'trochaic dimeter' (1o 1o), 'iambic pentameter' (o1 o1 o1 o1 o1) etc. The iambic pentameter, in particular, stands out as the most popular line in English verse literature, and you do not have to look far in this script (hint, hint) to find a suitable example of it.
Of course, it is always sensible to query definitions -- do you see the problem that comes with the notion of a 'monometer'?
P1.11. Poetic licence. Sometimes a poet intentionally deviates from ordinary language usage or pronunciation to create or maintain a regular meter. Specifically, poetic licence provides two standard tricks for gaining and losing a syllable.
Example of an expansion:
But came the waves and washèd it away (Spenser)
Example containing two contractions:
And moan th'expense of many vanished sight
Then can I grieve at grievances forgone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er (Shakespeare).
Editors often signal expansions by using a gravis accent mark (`), and elisions by using an apostrophe mark (').
Some expansions (as in a learned man, a crooked leg) (be careful not to mispronounce these words), and many contractions (like don't etc.) are in ordinary use and do not constitute a case of poetic licence. There are, however, a number of typically poetic contractions: o'er (over), e'er (ever), e'en (even) -- pronounced like or, air, Ian.
P1.12. Both a pause and the absence of a pause can be used for metrical purposes.
I have a litt-le step--son of on-ly three years old o 1 o 1 o 1 o 1(!) o 1 o 1 o 1
As Poe (1969 : 141-2) argues, the caesura after "stepson" takes the place of a missing stressed syllable.
For reasons best known to prosodists, a hypermetrical line does not count as an irregular line.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . (Shelley, "Ozymandias")
Know ye the land where the cypress and myrtle
Are emblems of deeds that are done in their clime --
Where the rage of the vulture, the love of the turtle
Now melt into softness, now madden to crime? (Byron, "The Bride of Abydos")
Again it was Poe who pointed out that the lines of the Byron poem have a 'wraparound meter' (Poe did not, of course, use the term 'wraparound'). At any rate, they are not as irregular as they may seem at first glance (Poe 1969 : 144-47).
P1.13. Using the metrical potentialities of elision, expansion, caesura, cadence, hypermetrical lines, and enjambement, many seeming irregularities can simply be explained away. There comes a point, however, when a line cannot be regarded as truly regular any longer. Hence a certain amount of rhythmic variation has to be tolerated even within the reduced framework of scansion.
Mixed meter is governed by what R. Wells has termed the 'principle of maximization' (qtd Ludwig 1990: 55).
Useful but nonstandard terms would be 'endogenic feet' vs 'exogenic feet' (insider/outsider feet). Hence, the principle of maximization could be rephrased as, When scanning a line use as many endogenic feet as possible. Examples:
And a wealthie wife was she (P2.7)
Hint: The problem areas are "And a wealthie" in item 1 (why not simply scan this line as a trochaic tetrameter?), and "and a" in item 2.
P1.14. Scansion vs recitation. Scanning is not the same as reciting. Scansion attempts to establish the metrical basis (or 'metrical grid', Ludwig 1990: 47) of a poetical line. Reciting a poem aims at reading it for sense and effect; scansion is an enforced metrical reading which sounds (intentionally) monotonous and boring. Although sense clearly overrides predominant meter (Smith 1961: 24), a reciter must have a conception of the metrical grid on which a poem has been fashioned; and, sense permitting, s/he will take good care to let this rhythm be perceived.
P1.15. As an example, consider the following lines:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky (Wordsworth)
Smith (1961: 23) argues that the first line should be stressed o111o1o1, pointing out that "The three stressed syllables, heart leaps up, are like three strong bounds, and we feel the delight of the poet". Well, possibly. But are we talking of scanning or of reciting? Scansion of the two lines, as any reader can verify, is regularly iambic. How a reciter actually reads those lines is a different matter altogether. The first thing a reciter will throw overboard is the scansion restriction concerning zero stress and maximum stress (o's and 1's, P1.4). When scanning you do not recite, and when reciting you do not scan: it is really as simple as that. Failure to recognize this basic distinction has resulted in a host of pointless controversies in the history of prosody.
In this context, consider the following argument by M.H. Abrams, the general editor of the reputable Norton Anthology. Abrams quotes the initial quatrain of Shakespeare's sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
"It is perfectly possible", Abrams says, "if one crushes all one's sensitivities, to read the first line of this poem as a mechanical iambic pentameter [...]. But of course nobody ever reads it that way, except to make a point; read with normal English accent and some sense of what it is saying, the line should probably form a pattern something like this [...] [indicating a stress pattern of 1oooo1oo11, MJ], which is neither pentameter nor in any way iambic. The second line is a little more iambic, but, read for expression, falls just as far short of pentameter. Only in the third and the fourth lines do we get verses which read as well as scan like five iambic feet" (Abrams 1986: 2550-51).
Abrams argues for replacing scansion by "reading for expression". Make up your mind whether you want to accept this argument -- if you do you can tear up this section. The odd thing is that Abrams is quite right initially. True enough, it would be absurd to recite Shakespeare's lines as a "mechanical iambic pentameters"; it is true, too, that if one did read them in this manner one would probably do it "to make a point", namely to establish the poem's meter. So far so good. Once we accept Abrams's conclusion, however, we find ourselves in a corner. Surely, pronouncing line number one as "LET me not to the MARRiage of TRUE MINDS", as Abrams suggests, will not exactly thrill an audience. There is really no sensible reason why a recital should be restricted to using full or zero stresses exclusively. Worse, line 3 supposedly "read[s] as well as scan[s] like five iambic feet", hence has a stress pattern of "Which ALters WHEN it ALterAtion FINDS", followed by "Or BENDS with THE reMOVer TO reMOVE". Well, if that rendering doesn't crush "all one's sensitivities" then I don't know what does. Finally, consider line 5 of the same poem, which runs "O no, it is an ever fixed mark". Should the word "fixed" be rendered as one or as two syllables? Virtually every scholar, including Abrams (I think), would expand it, make it into two syllables (P1.11), and rightly so. But on what basis does one come to that decision; on the basis of reading for expression or on the basis of scansion?
P1.16. Hopefully, bearing in mind the foregoing discussion, you are now in a position to explain and resolve the well-known metrical problems of the following lines, also from a sonnet by Shakespeare (Chatman 1970: 328). (This should not be too difficult.)
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate (Shakespeare)
P1.17. Here are some more scansion exercises, but be warned, they are not quite as easy as the examples cited earlier.
Swift of foot was Hiawatha;
He could shoot an arrow from him,
And run forward with such fleetness,
That the arrow fell behind him.
(Longfellow, "The Song of Hiawatha")
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
(Tennyson, "The Charge of the Light Brigade")
If thou be'st borne to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee.
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me
All strange wonders that befell thee,
Lives a woman true, and fair.
(Donne, "Go and catch a falling star")
There was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger!
Hints: if the Donne poem poses a problem consider that one line of it was used for illustrating one of the most common feet (P1.8). If you find that the limerick seems to be slightly irregular -- it is -- try to establish its predominant meter on the basis of the concluding three lines.
P1.18. Poets often enjoy playing with exotic metrical effects. Given the concepts and strategies introduced here, comment on the following games and experiments.
HEAR the sledges with the bells --
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars, that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells --
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
(Poe, "The Bells")
There was a merry passenger,
a messenger, a mariner;
he built a gilded gondola
to wander in, and had in her
a load of yellow oranges
and porridge for his provender;
he perfumed her with marjoram
and cardamom and lavender.
(J.R.R. Tolkien, "Errantry")
P1.19. Historical shift of emphasis. Historically, 'early' poetical texts tend to conform strictly to metrical rules, while more 'modern' texts (roughly, from the middle of the 19C onwards) allow increasing degrees of variation and irregularity. The development towards increasing freedom is typified in the 19C concept of 'sprung rhythm' and the 20C concept of 'free verse'.
I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's
dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air
(Hopkins, "The Windhover")
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table
(T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock")
Can you give me a precise description?
Said the policeman. Her lips, I told him,
Were soft. Could you give me, he said, pencil
Raised, a metaphor? Soft as an open mouth,
(Barry Cole, "Reported Missing")
Although these texts exemplify a gradual loss of metrical (i.e., syllabic) rhythm, and begin to sound more and more like ordinary prose (well, some of them do), they still use elements like visual versification, cadences, and regular pauses that might be constitutive of a different kind of poetical rhythm. To my knowledge, little has been done in this area of prosody.
P2.1. Like rhythm, rhyme is a sound-oriented poetical feature.
There are two main exceptions:
P2.2. Further common distinctions concern the position of rhymes and the number of syllables involved.
P2.3. Rhymes have a variety of functions: they emphasize the end of a line; they help memorize verses; and they link and bind verse sequences. For an analysis of complex rhyming patterns, ordinary lower-case letters (with the exception of 'x') are used to represent rhyming lines, and the letter 'x' represents a non-rhyming line. The two most common and basic rhyming patterns are alternate rhymes and embracing rhymes:
A rhyming pattern such as xaxaxa (clearly a variant of an alternate rhyme) consists of a verse sequence of six lines of which the second, fourth and sixth rhyme (Carroll's "Mad Gardener's Song", partially quoted in P1.9, provides an example). Occasionally, one adds an indication of the lines' metrical length so that the general formula for the stanzas of the "Mad Gardener's Song" becomes x4a3x4a3x4a3.
P2.4. The following standard verse-sequence patterns have acquired proper terms:
I am his Highness' Dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, Sir, whose Dog are you? (Pope)
An hour of quiet shortly shall we see;
Till then, in patience our proceeding be. (Hamlet V.1.291)
Longer verse sequences (whose possible rhyming patterns are too varied to be listed here) include quintets, sestets, septets, octets, and nonets.
P2.5. As was pointed out above (P1.13), the most popular type of verse sequence in English as well as European dramatic literature is the blank verse.
If it assume my noble father's person,
I'll speak to it, though hell itself should gape
And bid me hold my peace. (Hamlet)
P2.6. Verse sequences usually accumulate in larger structures called stanzas:
P2.7. Some types of poems such as ballads, limericks and sonnets can be defined on the basis of their formal features.
There lived a wife at Usher's Well
And a wealthie wife was she;
She had three stout an stalwart sons,
And she sent them o'er the sea.
P2.8. Meter and rhyme are culturally determined patterns. For a type of poem that is based on a different set of formal features consider the haiku:
Here is a haiku by Moritake, a 16C poet, translated by Babette Deutsch:
The falling flower
I saw drift back to the branch
Was a butterfly.
As Deutsch comments, "the poem refers to the Buddhist proverb that the fallen flower never returns to the branch; the broken mirror never again reflects" (qtd Gwynn, Condee and Lewis 1965: 143).
Mastery of Japanese haiku poetry is usually credited to the 17C poet Matsuo Basho. Here is one of his haikus (qtd Encyclopaedia Britannica s.v. Basho):
On a withered branch
A crow has alighted:
Nightfall in autumn.
Perhaps Basho's most famous haiku is the one cited in the opening scene of Edward Bond's Narrow Road to the Deep North (a play on the life of Basho):
Silent old pool
(A more popular version, which falls slightly low on syllables, goes "Pond/Frog/Plop".) In the early 20C, the 'imagists', a group of English and American poets, made occasional use of the form. Best known is the following haiku by Ezra Pound:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Some useful web links to the art and history of haiku writing can be found at dir.yahoo.com/Arts/Humanities/Literature/Poetry/Haiku/ .
P2.9. Strange as it may seem, the haiku has recently been revived in the form of 'internet haikus' or 'error-message haikus', thematizing a malfunctioning computer component or program:
Yesterday it worked
Today it is not working
Windows is like that
Out of memory.
We wish to hold the whole sky,
But we never will.
First snow, then silence.
This thousand dollar screen dies
The Tao that is seen
Is not the true Tao, until
You bring fresh toner.
A file that big?
It might be very useful.
But now it is gone.
How would one analyze the effectiveness of these poems? (A difficult exercise, I think; perhaps concepts such as parody, system intertextuality [(Broich and Pfister 1985: ch. III] and/or epiphany [N3.3.10] might prove helpful.)
P3.1. Types of poems. British and American Classical Poems is a carefully annotated and lovingly illustrated anthology of poetry in which the poems are arranged not, as is usual, by author or historical sequence but by text types. Among their sixteen types, editors Herrig, Meller, and Sühnel include "Ballads", "Narrative Poems", "Dramatic Monologues", "Short Lyrics and Songs", "Pastorals", "Sonnets", "Elegies", "Odes", "Reflective Verse and Verse Essays", "Epigrams", and "Nursery Rhymes". Some of these types of poems are defined by formal criteria (sonnet -- a 14-line poem), some by pragmatic criteria (Nursery Rhymes -- poems for children), and some by semantic criteria (Pastoral -- a poem set in idyllic rural surroundings [often identified as "Arcadia"] and revolving around the life of shepherds and shepherdesses).
P3.2. Regarding the type of discourse presented by a poem, the most useful distinction is that between lyrical poems and narrative poems (cp. this project's genre taxonomy in I2.
Note that this is not intended to be a watertight division; indeed, many poems have both lyrical and narrative features, or lyrical and narrative passages. Still, it is usually possible to determine a dominant orientation, especially in the sense that a narrative passage can work in the service of a lyrical poem, or else a lyrical passage in the service of a narrative poem (cp. Chatman's notion that text types "can operate at each other's service", 1990: 8).
P3.3. Regarding the person or subject who utters the poetical text, modern theoretical and analytical discourse is very circumspect in its use of the terms 'author' and 'speaker'. Like all texts, poems have a communicational structure involving senders and addressees (compare D2.1 and N2.3.1 on the definition of these terms in drama theory and narratology, respectively).
The speaker's communicational partner is, logically enough, a hearer or more generally an addressee. The addressee may be present, named, and 'overt'; often, however, s/he is absent, nameless, indeterminate, or imaginary (cf. the rhetorical figure of apostrophe P4.5). In an act of self-communication, the speaker's addressee is, of course, the speaker him- or herself.
Even though speakers and authors are here treated as distinct 'textual roles', they may, of course, share certain characteristics; indeed, biographical and other text-external evidence may add considerable substance and meaning to a poem. In this case it is clearly legitimate to use the terms 'speaker' and 'author' side by side.
Finally, we, i.e. 'real' readers, are the author's and the poetical text's external addressees.
P3.4. Whatever you may think of 'political correctness' in general, interpretive discourse must decide on which politically correct pronoun to use for referring to a text's speaker. Since a generic 'he' is clearly out of the question, most scholars today follow what has become known as 'Lanser's rule' (1981: 166):
Note, Lanser's rule originally applies to narrators in fictional narrative texts (N3.1.3).
P3.5. The basic assumption guiding all analyses of meaning is that texts are coherent. A random collection of words such as "The king of and is" does not constitute a (meaningful) text, and neither does a random collection of sentences that may be meaningful in isolation. In fact, let us assume that coherence is the feature that separates texts from 'non-texts':
It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly a shot rang out. The maid screamed. Suddenly a pirate ship appeared on the horizon. While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas, a boy was growing up. (Charles Schulz, You're Out of Sight, Charlie Brown)
And wow he died as wow he lived,
going whop to the office and blooie home to sleep and biff got married and bam had children and oof got fired,
zowie did he live and zowie did he die (Francis Fearing, "Dirge")
Words and sentences must cohere if we want to speak meaningfully: describe something, tell a story, argue a point, or convey a message.
P3.6. Most approaches toward an analysis of thematic coherence use the concept of 'isotopies' proposed by the French structuralist A.J. Greimas.
Thematic analysis usually begins with an attempt to collect expressions that constitute an isotopy -- either by co-reference or common set membership. Titles, repetitions, parallelisms, oppositions and contrasts are important pointers to central isotopies. Hopefully, when all relevant themes have been identified, the inter-thematic links (which are also isotopies) will ultimately constitute a text's global message.
P3.7. Exercise. In P3.5, a stanza from Fearing's "Dirge" was cited as an example of a (coherent) text. Establish the main levels of isotopies in this text and relate them to the title of the poem. Note that the somewhat unusual occurrences of "pow", "wow", "biff" etc. also constitute a recurrent thematic level. Where do these 'words' come from, what do they 'mean', and how are they related to the other themes of the poem?
P3.8. Consider the following programmatic poem by William Wordsworth, a poet of the 'Romantic' era.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began,
So it is now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
Or let me die!
The Child is Father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
Highlight the text's isotopically related expressions. For instance, find the co-referential expressions identifying the speaker's various states of existence. How is the theme of "when my life began" (line 3) taken up again in the poem? Is it related to larger themes that are linked by a common semantic denominator? What is meant by "The Child is Father of the Man" (line7)? Technically, this is a paradox, a seemingly nonsensical statement. To explain a paradox, you will have to show that what the speaker means is not at all nonsensical. Finally, what is the meaning of "natural piety" in the last line? If you cannot relate it to anything that has been mentioned before your interpretation is not yet finished.
P3.9. Read Spenser's sonnet "One day I wrote her name upon the strand", and present a thematic analysis. Hint: begin by marking and drawing connecting lines between all expressions that designate, broadly, a medium of language. Find one or more parallels for "washed it away". Identify the themes of life and death (remember that opposites are important pointers to isotopies); note the link between these themes and make a list of all textual allusions to them as they occur in the text. After a while, your copy will be marked by a crisscross of lines of correspondence which goes to show (a) that Spenser's sonnet is a highly coherent text and (b) that your thematic analysis is on the right track. Finally, adding up all themes, formulate a concise statement that summarizes the message of the poem and might serve as a title.
P3.10. Using the concepts of thematic analysis, let us finally turn to imagery, a central subject in both literary analysis and linguistic theory (Jakobson 1987, Ortony, ed. 1979, Lakoff and Turner 1989, Fauconnier and Turner 1998). The following approach combines classical 'comparison theory' (Levinson 1983: ch. 3.2.5) and Greimas's theory of isotopies.
Typically, a rhetorical comparison presents an unexpected or even unlikely introduction of B, seemingly making the text incoherent. Facing an apparent rupture in textual coherence, the reader's task is to establish an isotopy that supplies the missing link, usually by guessing a suitable tertium comparationis.
P3.11. Rhetorical comparisons come in two forms: as 'similes' or 'metaphors':
My love is like a red red rose
That's newly sprung in June:
My love is like the melodie
That's sweetly played in tune. (Burns)
The speaker's "love" (this is the woman he is in love with, not the emotion as such) is here compared to, first, a rose, and then a "melodie". Regarding the first simile, how is a woman like a plant (a seeming incoherence)? The ensuing line "That's newly sprung in June" suggests that the tertium comparationis (and the linking isotopy the text intends to establish) is something like freshness -- the woman I love, the speaker suggests, is as fresh as a rose. Note that in another context the tertium comparationis of the identical simile might well be beauty, thorniness, or dangerousness.
For more recent directions in 'metaphor theory', which also includes a treatment of simile and metonymy (P4.4), see Ortony, ed. (1979), Lakoff and Johnson (1980), Levinson (1983: ch. 3) [pragmatic approach; critique of 'comparison' and 'interaction' theories], Lakoff and Turner (1989), Fauconnier and Turner (1998), and the special issue of Poetics Today 20.3 (1999).
P3.12. Exercise on coherence and imagery.
P3.13. Exercise: (a) Present an isotopical analysis of the metaphor "my leaves and flowers" in Yeats's poem, below; (b) Sum up the poem's overall message in one sentence.
THE COMING OF WISDOM WITH TIME
Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth. (W.B. Yeats)
The following brief survey of classical rhetorical figures is based on Korte and Jahn (1985), a 10-page brochure still widely used at the English Department of the University of Cologne. When we compiled that handout, our main sources were Abrams (1981), Holman (1977), Preminger (1975), and Shipley (1971); we also consulted some standard dictionaries such as Webster's Collegiate and the Shorter Oxford English. For our main organizational principle of grouping the figures by their dominant linguistic effect we are indebted to Plett (1975). A more recent standard handbook is Lanham (1991). For an excellent internet source see Harris (1997) at www.uky.edu/ArtsSciences/Classics/Harris/rhetform.html
P4.1. Phonological figures (sound-oriented figures)
P4.2. Morphological figures (word-oriented figures)
P4.3. Syntactical figures (arrangement figures)
P4.4. Semantic figures (meaning-related figures)
(A dead metaphor is an unoriginal metaphor, one that is in common use, e.g., You are the apple of my eye.)
P4.5. Pragmatic figures (speaker-hearer related figures)
P4.6. Exercise: Identify the rhetorical figures used in the following items. (Don't bother about alliterations and parallelisms, these are almost always present.)
1. The things which I have seen I now can see no more. (Wordsworth)
2. Alone, alone, all, all alone,/ Alone on a wide wide sea! (Coleridge, Ancient Mariner)
3. For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky/ Lay like a load on my weary eye. (Ancient Mariner)
4. George the First was always reckoned/ Vile, but viler George the Second. (W.S. Landor)
5. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. (Keats, "Ode On a Grecian Urn")
6. Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;/ And Conrad cries out Oh! Oh! Oh! ("The English Struwwelpeter")
7. I wasted time, and now doth time waste me. (Richard II, V.v)
8. The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,/ The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes. (Eliot, "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock")
9. In every voice, in every ban,/ The mind-forged manacles I hear. (Blake, "London")
10. and it seems to me you lived your life/ like a candle in the wind.
11. Rain, rain go away, Come again another day.
12. It's the little things that make us bigger. (Advertisement)
13. Noise is the one thing you can't close your eyes to. (Advertisement)
14. Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York. (Richard III, I.1)
15. Where the bee sucks, there suck I. (The Tempest, V.1)
16. Lies have short legs. (Proverb)
17. Then, England's ground, farewell; sweet soil, adieu, / My mother and my nurse that bears me yet! (Richard II, I.iii)
18. A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on. (S. Goldwyn)
19. Small birds on stilts along the beach/ Rose up with piping cry. (O. Nash)
20. I think I exist; therefore I exist, I think. (Graffito)
21. Little Big Man. (Film title)
22. Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds/ Or bends with the remover to remove. (Shakespeare, sonnet 116)
23. Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall. (Measure for Measure, II.ii)
24. They have committed false reports; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders. (Much Ado About Nothing, V.i)
25. The worst is death, and death will have its day. (Richard II, III.ii)
26. For you and I are past our dancing days. (Romeo and Juliet, I.v)
27. Antony: You wrong this presence; therefore speak no more./ Enobarbus: Go to, then; your considerate stone. (Antony and Cleopatra, II.ii)
28. We have seen better days. (Timon of Athens, IV.ii)
29. The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,/ the solemn temples, the great globe itself,/ Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve. (The Tempest, IV.i)
30. Not presume to dictate, but broiled fowl and mushrooms - capital thing! (Dickens, Pickwick Papers)
P4.7. Solutions (only figures other than alliteration and parallelism).
1. Polyptoton. 2. Tautotes, anaphora, epanalepsis, geminatio. 3. Chiasmus, simile. 4. Polyptoton. 5. Paradox. 6. Onomatopoeia, geminatio. 7. Chiasmus, personification. 8. Anaphora, epiphora, personification. 9. Metaphor, inversion. 10. Figura etymologica, simile. 11. Geminatio, apostrophe, assonance. 12. Paradox. 13. Synesthesia. 14. Pun (sun/son), metonymy (Duke of York). 15. Chiasmus, polyptoton. 16. Personification. 17. Apostrophe, metaphor, hendiadioyn, paradox, pun ("bears": sustains/gives birth to). 18. Paradox. 19. Metaphor (stilts = legs). 20. Chiasmus. 21. Oxymoron. 22. Figura etymologica (twice). 23. Antitheses, chiasmus, inversion. 24. Pleonasms. 25. Anadiplosis. 26. Periphrasis. 27. Ellipsis (I'll be your ...), metaphor, enallage. 28. Litotes. 29. Climax; metaphor (cloud-capped towers); pun (globe/Globe Theater [D4.2]), antithesis. 30. Ellipsis.
The butterfly, the cabbage white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has -- who knows so well as I? --
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.
P5.1. At first glance, this seems to be an 'animal poem', basically describing the flight characteristics of a common butterfly (a "cabbage white", 1). Later in the text, the flying-animal isotopy is taken up again when the butterfly's manner of flight is compared and contrasted to that of "the aerobatic swift" (9). The poem's title adds an evaluative slant by calling the butterfly's flight "crooked"; later lines add to this derogatory judgment by using the term "idiocy of flight" (2), and describing the animal as lurching about (7) in the manner of a drunkard. "Flying straight", in contrast, is termed an "art" (4) and clearly marked as a positive opposite to "flying crooked". The level of isotopy isolated so far suggests that the butterfly's way of flying is aimless, instable, inept, and haphazard.
P5.2. And "yet" (5), though less noticeable at first, the poem also increasingly foregrounds certain redeeming qualities in the butterfly's way of flight, which is also a way of life. Already in line 2, the butterfly's "idiocy of flight" is accompanied by "honest", an unexpectedly positive term. In line 7, the butterfly is granted a "just sense of how not to fly", and when the speaker finally compares the butterfly and the swift, the concluding oxymoron of the butterfly's "flying-crooked gift" (15) surprisingly privileges the butterfly's erratic behavior over the mastery, artfulness and elegance of the swift. Overall, the poem's strategy is to reverse not only first impressions but also the 'natural' value judgments inherent in expressions like crooked, straight, art, mastery etc.
P5.3. The poem's point is notably supported by syntactic and rhythmical formal features, mainly through a technique known as "expressive form". Most of the lines of the poem contain semantic or rhythmical stumbling blocks, reversals, and inconsistencies, imitating the erratic nature of the butterfly. For instance, line 2 is not linked either syntactically or isotopically to its preceding context. Line 7 offers the highly unusual collocation "here and here" in place of the more common "here and there". Lines 7-8 throw an incoherent polysyndetic list at the reader: "by guess/ And God and hope and hopelessness". The significant exception, of course, is "Even the aerobatic swift" (9), a metrically fluid line which formally imitates the elegant and smooth flight of the swift.
P5.4. The speaker's involvement in all this is already implied in his [P3.4] evaluative mode of description. Of course, there is also a striking parenthesis -- "who knows so well as I?" (5) -- which indicates that the speaker is not at all interested in a "neutral", objective or scientific account of the behavioral patterns of butterflies (so much, then, for its being purely an animal poem; but very few animal poems are pure in that sense anyway). One notes, too, that the butterfly is referred to not by the normal neuter pronoun but by "he", a rhetorical strategy that personifies the animal and makes it the speaker's counterpart. What the speaker is really concerned with, then, is a philosophical reflection on a style of living which he observes in the butterfly and which he, for bad and good (in exactly that order), recognizes in himself. Intriguingly, the speaker then fails to specify more explicitly what, for him, the flying-crooked gift might be. Indeed, it is this gap that makes Graves's poem so stimulating and thought-provoking. Clearly, what it lets the reader become aware of is that language-encased values are not final judgments and that it is not always the straight-and-logical way that leads to a goal, that provides the impulse for an artist to produce a piece of art, or for a scientist to make a discovery.
Colin Burrow's Virtual Classroom Page at Cambridge University. Contains a course on practical criticism, case study of a Shakespeare sonnet, a glossary of terms, and a quiz.
Rudolf Brandmeyer's poetry page at the German Dept. of the U of Duisburg, Germany. Text is all German, but references are international; detailed intro to the theory of verse (rather than of meter), overview of poetic forms, sample interpretations (termpapers, in German), large classified list of poetry websites.