Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning

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william-shakespeare[First, if you came to this post looking for information on Shakespeare & Iambic Pentameter, the symbols used and how to scan Shakespeare, take a look at my Guides to Iambic Pentameter in the Categories Widget or simply click on the link – among other posts you will find my scansion of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. I notice that some users find this post looking for information on Haiku and “scanned Haiku”, take a look at my Guide to Haiku. If there’s specific information you are looking for, feel free to ask in the Guest Book and, given time, I’ll post an answer. This blog is for everyone. Please, please say Hello.]

[Second, this is a review I wrote on Amazon a while back. The full title of the book is: Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning: A Study in Generative Metrics (Studies in Comparative Literature). The author is M.L. Harvey.]

Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning

This is the first book this reader has read from the series “Studies in Comparative Literature” and the twentieth in the series. It is clearly not written for the causual reader who wishes to deepen his or her appreciation for the poetry of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Shelley, or Browning. It is what it claims to be–a study in generative metrics, with the emphasis on “study”.

From the first page, the reader will be left with the distinct impression that he has walked into the middle of an ongoing conversation. The author of the book, M.L. Harvey, assumes an acquaintance with prior material and the reader is well-advised to become acquainted with that material. Mr. Harvey has other matters to attend to and proceeds quickly with his own elaborations. If the reader (as I did), chooses not to read from Halle and Keyser’s “English Stress, Its Form, Its Growth, and Its Role in Verse” (an earlier exegesis on which some of Mr. Harvey’s own ideas build) then the footnotes are central. Read them all. They are hardly asides, being more often essential to Mr. Harvey’s contentions.

This is not slight material and the reader may often wish the editors had treated Mr. Harvey’s material with similar energy. Mr. Harvey, for example, uses `W’ to denote a weak stress and `S’ to denote a strong stress along with a variety of other symbols including `N’,.’Z’, `a’ and `b’, all of which are mercifully explained in a glossary of terms. The problem arises when these symbols are meant to be placed above their relevant syllables. In some instances, it is difficult to discern which syllable they are being placed above. I found myself sometimes trying to decipher Mr. Harvey’s intentions. In one or two instances, the symbols referred to by Mr. Harvey were missing in the relevant example, or the shorthand he apparently used in preparing the manuscript was not converted to its appropriate symbol.

The thrust of Mr. Harvey’s book is to create a kind of metrical unified field theory for each of the poets considered. Mr. Harvey refers more than once to the empirical support for his conclusions, including laboratory’s in which a number of readers were apparently given material to read (presumably poetry). Based on their reading habits (and presumably his own and those of his peers) a fairly reliable pattern can be discerned as to how English speaking readers scan a line. There is safety in numbers, but this approach is also problematic and reveals a central difficulty. Such research reveals how -twentieth century- readers (including Mr. Harvey) scan a line, but cannot reveal how a sixteenth or seventeenth century reader might have scanned a line, let alone the poets, for whom context was also a consideration. Although it is not clear, Mr. Harvey seems to propose, in a passage called “How to Scan a Line”, that his rules, derived from observed patterns of scanning, can in turn be used to “objectively” scan a line.

An oddly conspicuous example of where this method can go wrong, is one he returns to repeatedly. Mr. Harvey, for example, finds that the line: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” contains two anapests followed by two iambs. Because, in his opinion, a stressed syllable occurs in the third and sixth position, the line must adhere to the abstract pattern “WWSWWSWSWS”. This conclusion is almost unanimously counter to the accepted reading of this line by Shakespearean scholars, and by inference, Shakespeare himself. Although a modern reader (the nub of the problem) would read this line as containing two anapests, one need only refer to the most recently published examination of the complete sonnets (an outstanding book by Helen Vendler called “The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets”) to see where and how Mr. Harvey’s methods can go wrong. Ms. Vendler writes: “It is the iambic prosody that first brings the pressure of rhetorical refutation into Shakespeare’s line: `Let -me- not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments.’ [Ms. Vendler italicises “me”] The speaker says these lines schematically, mimicking, as in reported discourse, his interlocutor’s original iron laws.” The context of the line [it is not clear that Mr. Harvey’s methods of scanning take into account the dramatic context of any one line] contradicts his methods. Another example he chooses comes from Lear: “Bids the winds blow the earth into the sea”. He again reads this line as beginning with two anapests. Given the context of the line, it is more likely and more accepted (according to sixteenth and seventeenth century habits of speech and prosody) that the line is iambic throughout, the first foot being trochaic and the second a spondee. This is a reading that can be applied to many of Mr. Harvey’s double anapests and one which argues that his `rules’ (such as the successive S constraint) need further refinement. It is this reader’s experience, for example, that a spondee in the second foot, while creating a minimal stress, paradoxically serves to further enforce the stress value of the fourth position, often imparting to that position the highest stress of any other syllable. In Lear’s line above, “blow” would therefore receive the greatest stress of any syllable in the line, a reading which, contextually at least, makes more sense.

A more egregious example of misreading, due to changes in habits of pronunciation and even to present day differences between the continents, comes when Mr. Harvey examines Milton. Words like “contest” and “blasphemous” and “surface” (all taken from Paradise Lost) were still accented on the second syllable. “Which of us beholds the bright surface.” (P.L. 6.472 MacMillan. Roy Flannagan Editor.) Mr. Harvey, offering an example of a “very rare `inverted foot'” (the credit for its recognition he gives to Robert Bridges) gives the following line: “Of Thrones and mighty Seraphim Prostrate (P.L. 6.841) In fact, Robert Bridges and Mr. Harvey are both mistaken in reading the fifth foot as inverted and one need not be a seventeenth century scholar to recognize it. Webster’s International Dictionary: Second Edition, in fact, provides the following pronunciation key. (pros [stressed] trat [unstressed]; formerly, and still by some. Esp. Brit., pros [unstressed] trat [stressed]). Any laboratory of Americans, nearly without fail, would also misread this line, and so the danger of overwhelming empirical evidence!

This misreading (due to changes and differences in pronunciation), along with contextual misreadings, is symptomatic and reveals the flaws yet to be ironed out by Mr. Harvey. For the time being, his methodology fails to take into account context, as demonstrated by the sonnet, as well as changes in pronunciation, as demonstrated by his extracts of Milton, and therefore can still only be used as a semi-reliable presentation of how these individual poets created and scanned their lines. Rather than using Mr. Harvey’s methodology (if such should be the temptation) the modern reader of these poets is still advised to purchase a well-annotated edition where the proper scanning of a line is a concern.

robert-browningThat being said, I do not wish to discourage anyone from reading Mr. Harvey’s work. Objections like those mentioned in this review are inevitable when dealing with something so subjective and changeable as the pronunciation of the English language. Mr. Harvey’s undertaking is not an enviable one and the objections so far raised are less than his successes. Mr. Harvey’s reasoning is, for the better part, solid and insightful. In fact, to be fair, one should spend as much time sampling his successes. This, however, would only restate what is already well-stated by Mr. Harvey. Most notably, he convincingly answers (in this reader’s opinion) why poets prefer iambic verse to trochaic verse-no mean feat and a question which clearly fascinates Mr. Harvey.

4 responses

  1. Dear Up, I’m from the Amazon classical-music discussion groups, masquerading there as Piso Mojado, who started out to be a flamenco guittarista and somehow became wet floors.

    I like your poems, especially the two lines about … breeze / and in the palm of their leaves. Your reviews look solid, and Muldoon gets what he deserves. I remember one of Randall Jarrell’s about Kenneth Patchen, I think it was. Doesn’t matter. Something like “In his new book, Mr Patchen hints — and when Mr. Patchen hints, the hogs come in from miles around.” That’s my kind of barnyard critique, although I can’t read much of Jarrell’s own things, his reviews send me rolling across the floor. One poor bugger wrote one poem to each North American songbird: “I wonder, didn’t he like any bird enough to write two? No matter, it can seldom have been done so well.”

    I’d like to hear about your gods. I’ll tell you mine, Some may surprise, most won’t, they’re so long ago. I run a century behind on most things, on fumes. We started with Yeats, whose best are enough known. Auden wrote some of Yeats’s best, second half of “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”, even catches Yeats’s own voice, like the oracle’s other, possessed voice. Uncanny. I like a lot of Frost, though tiring of Foxy Grandpa sometimes, which Ernie Kovacs caught to the life … “Mah layhtest po-hemmm … thuh Tightell aloannn took meh … seven yeahs … ” Pound is even foxier. Eliot yes, oddly the plays, and a few Audens, but those few a lot. Did you ever hear of … Robinson Jeffers (test, tie-breaking question)? Enough for starters. Do you know Donald Hall’s ventriloquist’s book, “Remembering Poets”? (Thomas, Eliot, Pound, Frost).
    I mildly like haiku 17s and that other one with a few more.
    I share your distrust of tradducciones … same as sins … but a few work, and one or two are very beautiful. I’ve tried Hesse and Rilke myself.

    Piso Vinagre de Mojado y Cerveza Fria once known in the world as the half-Welsher Edgar Self

  2. Your verbosity is matched only by my weariness!

    Thank you for your note, though. I’ll have more to write after resting up.

    I’ll say this: I think that Haiku are an acquired taste. I don’t have any pretense or ambition in writing them. They are poetry though and give a poetic mind some expression from day to day – apart from the demands of longer poetry.

    I guess they’re becoming my diary.

  3. Pingback: On a Definition of Poetry « PoemShape

  4. Valuable info. Lucky me I discovered your web site accidentally, and I am shocked why this coincidence didn’t happened in advance! I bookmarked it.

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