Sunday, December 11, 2011

Notes from Paul Fussell's _Poetic Meter & Poetic Form_

Excellent book. Highly recommended for purchase. It was recommended by Andrew Peterson at Hutchmoot, who received it from Jonathan Rogers. This is only a bare-bones outline. I will add more chapters soon.

CHAPTER ONE: The Nature of Meter

"According to other theorists (mostly romanticists), meter operates by inducing in the reader a state resembling hypnosis. Some argue that, since the beat in most accentual poetry is slightly faster than the normal heart beat, the apprehension of metered language physically exhilarates the hearer or reader: the heart beat, it is said, actually speeds up in an effort to 'match' the slightly faster poetic rhythm." (5)

Four phonetic qualities of a spoken syllable: (9)
***pitch (highness or lowness of the musical scale)
***length (length of time consumed by the utterance of the syllable)
***timbre or quality (fuzziness, hoarseness, sharpness)

Four Metrical Systems:
1. Syllabic
***Measures number of syllables per line w/o regard to stress
***Poetry of Romance and Japanese languages
***Restoration until 1740 English poetry
***Not a natural measuring system in a language so Germanic (accentual) as English

2. Accentual
***Only the accents are counted
***Poetry of Germanic languages (including Old English), & Modern English where syllables vary

3. Accentual-Syllabic
***Both accents and syllables are measured (metrical feet)
***Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson
***Committed to a sense of human limitation and order
***Most hostile to impulse, irregularity, and unrestrained grandiosity
***The syncope is often present (ev'ry, nat'ral, etc.)

4. Quantitative
***Measures durational feet vs. accentual feet
***Feet consist of "long" and "short"
***Sanskrit, Greek, and Roman poems
***Difficult for English because of accentual nature of this language

Three ways meter is a correlative of meaning: (12)

1. Distinguishes rhythmic from ordinary statement (impels toward formality/ritualism)
2. By varying from itself to reinforce emotional effects
3. By association and convention

"To 'translate' a limerick into, say iambic tetrameter, is to drain off the comedy: we must conclude that a great deal of the comedy inheres by now in the meter alone. (12-13)

Modes of poetry: lyric, narrative, dramatic, satiric
Kinds of poetry: elegy, song, sonnet, etc.

"According to John Crowe Ransom, a poem is an organism like a person, and, like a coherent person, the poem approaches to merit and even to virtue when its head, its heart, and its feet are all cooperating economically. The emphasis that we are going to bring to the feet ought not to seduce us into an overemphasis. It is true that great poems are great metrical achievements. But great metrical achievement alone does not make great poetry." (16)

CHAPTER TWO: The Technique of Scansion

Scansion - any system of representing more or less conventional poetic rhythms by visual symbols for purposes of metrical analysis and criticism.

Three types of scansion: (18)
1. The graphic (symbols)
2. The musical (eighth notes, rests, etc.)
3. The acoustic (i.e. machines such as the oscillograph, scientists, linguists)

"... graphic scansion is best for those who aspire to become not merely accurate readers but also intelligent critics of English poetry." (18)

"... in scanning we mark according to the sound of words, not according to their appearance on the page: thus in the third line here, we mark e'very- rather than e'ver-y-, for that, whether correct or incorrect, is the way we actually say the word." (19)

iamb : des-troy' ( - ' )
anapest : in-ter-vene' ( - - ' )
trochee : top'sy- ( ' - )
dactyl : mer'ri-ly- ( ' - - )
spondee : hum' drum' ( ' ' )
pyrrhic : the sea/ son- of-/ mists ( - - )

"A poem written prevailingly in iambic or anapestic feet is said to be in ascending or rising rhythm: the rhythm is so called because the reader is presumed to feel, in each foot, and 'ascent' from a relatively unstressed syllable to a relatively stressed one. The term is only useful if we keep in mind that it has no metaphoric or symbolic value : ascending rhythm does not, in itself, transmit a feeling of aspiration, levity, or cheer, nor does descending rhythm -- generated by prevailing trochees or dactyls -- necessarily transmit illusions of falling nor emotions of depression or gloom." (20)

Duple Feet (iambs, troches, etc.)
Triple Feet (anapests, dactyls, etc.)

"Foot divisions do not necessarily correlate to word divisions. Actually the foot is rather like a musical bar in that both foot and bar are arbitrary abstract units of measure which do not necessarily coincide with the phrasal units on which they are superimposed. The difference between foot and bar is that the bar always begins with a stress." (20)

"Because the concept of the foot is an abstraction, we will never encounter a pure example of any of the standard feet." (See text for good analogy of this. Page 21)

"The goal of what we are doing is enjoyment: an excessive refinement of terms and categories may impress others but it will probably not help us very much to appreciate English poetic rhythms." (21)

Discussion on feet found in Greek and Latin poetry: (See text for more info. page 22)
amphibrach - ' -
antispast - ' ' -
bacchic - ' '
choriamb ' - - '
cretic ' - '
epitrite - ' ' '
ionic a majore ' ' - -
ionic a minore - - ' '
mollossus ' ' '
tribrach - - -

Feet per line:

1 - monometer
2 - dimeter
3 - trimeter
4 - tetrameter
5 - pentameter
6 - hexameter
7 - heptameter
8 - octameter

Caesura: extrametrical pause, within the lines. (23)
***Corresponds to breath pauses
***Expressive counterpoint or poopsition
***Enforces the rhetorical sense
***Metrical fulcrum for rhetorical antithesis

"Favours to none, // to all she smiles extends" (Pope)

Medial caesura: middle of line
Initial caesura: beginning of line
Terminal caesura: end of line

Two antithetical uses of caesura:
1. Varied caesura placement - subtle prosodic device, device of variety "device for investing fairly strict meters with something of the informal movement - the unpredictable pauses and hesitations - of ordinary speech." (25)

2. Medial caesura - separate line into two halves, assert regularity of structure, "device for emphasizing formality of poetic construction and for insisting on its distance from colloquial utterance." (25)

Excellent example of Frost's use of caesura (p. 25)

Two types of contractions:

1. synaeresis (synaloepha) - poet joins to vowels to create a single syllable (i.e. disobedience -> disobed-yance)

2. syncope - omission of a consonant (i.e. hast'ning)

On the tension between natural prose rhythms and metrical law: "'One kind of energy in poetic language comes from the wrestling of abstract patterns with actual prose rhythms. The result is a compromise recorded in the scansion, which must therefore be sensitive to both opposing forces. Scansion should indicate, as far as possible, both the degree to which the natural prose rhythms are modified by the metrical law, and the degree to which the metrical law is forced to become amended by those elements in the prose rhythm that will not yield.'" (Joseph Malof - page 27)

Other scansion difficulties: (28)
1. difficulty of knowing the meter of a line and therefore forcing one as a result
2. knowing historical pronunciation
*Do not proceed a priori

Remember, the purpose of scansion is not to simply critique. It is to understand what is being said. (29)


  1. I know I wrote this down in my notes as a book to read, but I'd forgotten about it. Thanks for the reminder! This is super helpful and interesting. (seriously!)

  2. May I borrow this for my lit class? Please and thank you.

    When I saw the beginnings of this, I wasn't too thrilled because I am not into poetry. But when I began reading it, it resonated with me! I think, too, teaching literature has begun to open up my appreciation for poetry. I love Longfellow's "A Day of Sunshine." (Of course, I am taking it at face value. I haven't explicated it or anything. I just love it.)