Tuesday, May 08, 2007


Many beginning prosodists treat metrical variations as though they were vermin: find them, identify them, then ruthlessly exterminate them. But variations are neither good nor bad in themselves; they are only prosodic tools. All that matters is how they're used and whether they work. When you've noticed that Shakespeare's

What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?
What wheels? racks? fires? what flaying? boiling?
In leads or oils? what old or newer torture
Must I receive, whose every word deserves
To taste of thy most worst?

is not perfectly regular, your analysis has only begun, not concluded. Too often, though, I see "critiques" which are little more than lists of metrical variations, as though they were spelling errors, and the critic had performed some regulatory action by ferreting them out. I usually respond with some reference to Milton's

Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death[,]

since critiquers are a tad hesitant to claim either that every other word must be stressed or that Milton didn't know what he was doing. (They may think, "If only he'd had access to The Gaz," but they aren't quite brave enough to say it.)


Nic Sebastian said...

As a beginning prosodist who has lost patience with the overweening ambition of beginners in other fields before now, I'm thinking that it's usually good to thoroughly know the rules before you bend them. That some beginner "vermin! vermin! kill! kill! KILL!" may not be totally out of place, in that context...?

And tell Barbara to come clean. Either you are her husband or her aging eccentric uncle. There can be no other explanation.

RHE said...

Why, I just found out Barbara was really an Esme.

I think the point, Nic, is that they aren't "rules" in the sense you imply. Finding a variation is not finding a flaw or a violation. Recognition is important, since it helps you understand how a line should be said, but approached with censoriousness (i.e., variation=error), reading as though you were Cato the Censor, is counterproductive.

Nic Sebastian said...

Point taken. Thanks!

Esme B J Lee said...

I don't have any friggin' uncles thank you very much, heh.

But I do respect RHE's knowledge of things that are metrical.

And, just to be clear, I am metrically challenged. Yes I am an esme. And a red head. And a work-a-holic. And now I am shutting up.


Anonymous said...

I think the line from The Winter's Tale calls for accentual scansion:

what WHEELS? RACKS? FIRES? what FLAYing? BOILing?

whereas the famous line from Milton remains subdued to accentual-syllabic. As does 99.9% of Shakespeare. The rather unusual accentual scansion of the Winter's Tale line would have been nailed down in rehearsal, no doubt. One would have expected:

What wheels, what racks, what fires, what flaying, boiling?

Shakespeare is playing off that expectation, violating it in a way to give the line an unexpected kind of force, I would like to think. But this is a looseness in his IP practice, rather than an abandonment of IP, I figure.

Alternative scansion:

what WHEE-uls? RACKS? FI-ers? what FLAYing? BOY-oll-ING?

Hexameter! -- hey, if you're gonna have dissylabic "fire," you might as well go whole hog.

RHE said...

I don't think I suggested, or meant to suggest, that Sh. had abandoned IP in his line. They wouldn't be variations if there weren't a norm to vary.