Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The meaning is in the verse: introduction

What this series is about

Lena Levin. Shakespeare's sonnet 18. 20"x20". Oil on linen.
This post opens a two-months long introduction into rhythmic qualities of English verse, with a particular focus on the English iambic pentameter and Shakespeare's verse. If you have ever wondered what makes a poem a poem (as opposed to prose), what are the general laws that govern Shakespeare's verse, what does it mean that the meaning can be "in the verse" (as opposed to just in its language), what is the poem's rhythm and how it relates to its language, its time, and its author, and, more generally, how to read a poem, this series is for you.

My own, urgently personal, interest in poetic rhythms derives from a belief that they hold a key to rhythmic qualities of painting, one of the painting most mysterious and intriguing effects. Rhythms in poetry, albeit incredibly complex, are far better studied and understood than rhythms in painting. There are, of course, lots of differences between poems and paintings, but I feel like there are general rhythmic laws that lie far deeper than any differences, and that's what I am after, ultimately.

Lots of data for this series will come from books and papers that are barely accessible to a reader without some statistical and linguistic background; but my plan is to make this series readable to anyone interested in poetry and where its melodies come from. Want to help me? Please ask questions if anything (anything at all) sounds obscure and hard to understand.

The first example

To start with a bang, here is one of the most well-known sonnets in the history of English verse, Shakespeare's sonnet 18:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date: 
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimmed; 
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest: 
  So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
  So long lives this and this gives life to thee. 
Click here to listen to David Tennant reading this sonnet.

This poem has its own individual rhythm, created by the interactions on all levels of language:


  • Phonological word stress, and the distribution of monosyllabic and longer words within the poem. This is how word stress is distributed in line 8 (stressed syllables are in CAPITAL letters), so you can see how unstressed and stressed syllables regularly alternate, creating the general "beat" of the line:
By CHANCE or NATure's CHANGing COURSE unTRIMMED
  • Phrasal accent, which strengthens or weakens stresses on different words depending on their prominence within a sentence or a phrase; in the same line, three of the stressed syllables are "stronger" because of their positions in the overall structure of the phrase (they are shown in bold below):
By CHANCE or NATure's CHANGing COURSE unTRIMMED

  • Grammatical constructions, which determine intonational and semantic units both larger and smaller than the lines, separated by pauses: 
And EVEry FAIR || from FAIR | sometime deCLINES, ||
By CHANCE \ or NATure's CHANGing COURSE \ unTRIMMED

  • Internal properties of particular words: grammatical words, like pronouns or auxiliaries, weaken or lose their stress more easily to fit the overall melody than lexical, "content" words, but there are also more intricate differences: for example, gives in the last line is naturally "weakened", but Death in line 11 is unavoidably stressed, creating a sequence of two stressed syllables (DEATH BRAG) and nearly "breaking" the eternal lines.

Iambic pentameter 

But all the peculiarities of the individual poem emerge against the background of a general formal law, the metric structure of iambic pentameter. In the most abstract form, this means that each line contains exactly ten syllables, and even syllables are "strong" while odd syllables are "weak". In other words, a line comprises of five bisyllabic units, and the second syllable in each unit is "stronger" (more likely to be stressed) than the first. Return again to this line:

By CHANCE or NATure's CHANGing COURSE unTRIMMED.. 

In this line, the iambic pentameter is implemented in its ideal form: each even ("strong") syllable of the line receives the word stress, and all odd ("weak") syllables are unstressed. This is the general beat of the sonnet, the baseline on which (or rather, on deviations from which) its particular rhythm and melody are based. Had all lines been exactly like that, the poem would have been extremely monotonous and dull, so there are lots of deviations from this abstract metric scheme in the poem's specific, individual rhythm.

There are several levels of mediation between the general metric scheme and the rhythm of an individual work:


  1. First of all, there is the language, and its natural metric tendencies. Some languages aren't suited for metric schemes based on word stress in general, and for iambic pentameter in particular; those that do allow for this type of poetry, do it in slightly different ways, and this determines variations in how the iambic pentameter of an individual language differs from its most abstract scheme. 
  2. Then, there is a history of how an individual tradition of iambic verse emerged and evolved, which plays a prominent role in how it sounds and feels in a certain epoch: which deviations feel like "breaking" the verse, which are easily accommodated, etc. 
  3. The accepted variant of iambic verse may depend on the genre of poetry in which it is employed (e.g. love poetry is one thing, and comedy is another).
  4. And last but not least, there are individual rhythmic qualities of poets, and their own rhythmic evolution (e.g. Donne's rhythms differ from Shakespeare's rhythms, and the rhythms of young Shakespeare differ from those found in his more mature work).
I will discuss all these levels in detail later in this series. For now, let's return to our first example. 


Looking for meaning in the rhythm

In what follows, I took the liberty of marking up the sonnet to indicate how its own rhythmic structure relates to the abstract iambic pentameter:

Shall I comPARE thee to a SUMmer's DAY?
Thou art more LOVEly and more TEMperate:
Rough WINDS do SHAKE the DARLing BUDS of MAY,
And SUMmer's LEASE hath all too SHORT a DATE:

Sometime too HOT the EYE of HEAVen SHINES,
And OFTen is his GOLD comPLEXion DIMMED;
And EVEry FAIR from FAIR sometime deCLINES,
By CHANCE or NATure's CHANGing COURSE unTRIMMED;

But thy eTERNal SUMmer shall not FADE
Nor LOSE poSSESSion of that FAIR thou OWEST;
Nor shall Death BRAG thou WANDer'st in his SHADE,
When in eTERNal LINES to TIME thou GROWEST:

So LONG as MEN can BREATH or EYES can SEE,
So LONG lives THIS and this gives LIFE to THEE.


  • "Strong" (even) syllables which unambiguously receive word stress are printed in CAPITAL letters, "weak" (odd) syllables which are unambiguously unstressed, are in italics. In this "area" of the sonnet, its abstract meter and its specific language coincide and support one another, creating the overal rhythmic structure.
  • The blue font indicates syllables that are in "strong" positions, but cannot be stressed under any circumstances because of their linguistic nature; unavoidable "dips" in the overall rhythmic structure; these give the sonnet its variety and melody. As you see, there are quite a lot of such "dips": the poem easily maintains its rhythm even with these stresses "missing". 
  • The red font indicates syllables which are lexically stressed, but are in the "weak" positions (i.e. they would be unstressed in an "ideal" iambic poem). There are only two cases like that: one, in line 3 ("Rough winds"), easily adjusts itself to the rhythm of the sonnet, because monosyllabic adjectives naturally weaken their stress before monosyllabic nouns: the stress on "rough" in this context is likely to be weakened even outside the context of a poem. The other one, though, Death in line 11, is undoubtedly much more prominent: this deviation is easily audible and sounds like Death's attempt to "break" the poem intended to protect the poet's beloved from him.    
  • Finally, I highlighted the syllables which can be both stressed and unstressed depending on the intended meaning (or rather, the intended information structure of the meaning): blue indicates syllables where the rhythm suggests no stress, and red shows syllables stressed by the verse as it were. 
It is in this latter, highlighted, "domain" of a poem that the verse dictates the meaning. I believe the most interesting point comes in line 9, thy eTERnal SUMmer: in a natural, prosaic reading, based on language alone thy would be unstressed, making it into a weak, relatively insignificant possessive pronoun, subordinated to the noun phrase. But the metric scheme suggests stressing this pronoun, which makes it as semantically prominent as the adjective, as though putting a comma after the pronoun; as though eternity is a natural consequence of association with thou of the sonnet. This is a completely different semantics, and this is exactly how David Tennant reads the line, following the verse rather than the language.  

Another clear case of the verse dictating how exactly the overall sentence should be read and understood is in the last line of the sonnet. I will leave it to you, though, to think about how it works out here. 


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