Literary Stylistics:
Workshop Notes no. 5

The Sounds of Poetry II

Sections on this Page:

Halliday's Phonometric Approach
Metrical Systems
Other Sound Features

Some Terms on This Page

(The important key words are indicated with asterisks)

accentual-syllabic* accentual metres affricate alliteration* alliterative metre aspirate assonance* caesura consonance*
consonant* consonant cluster diphthong duration end-stopped line enjambment feminine rhyme fricative half rhyme
imperfect rhyme juncture liquid long syllable masculine pause rhyme nasal onomatopoeia para-rhyme
plosive quantitative metre rhyme* run-on line short syllable sibilant silence silent beat silent stress
speed of articulation syllabic metre triphthong unvoiced voiced vowel length*      

Halliday's Phonometric Approach

In the previous workshop notes, I said that Halliday's phonometric metrical system might be criticised by some linguists and literary scholars for its dependence on only two degrees of stress. But as I said in the workshop, the degrees of stress in spoken language are conveniently reduced in the articulation of poetry to only two significant units. There may of course be more than just two degrees of stress when one phonetically analyses the oral reading of a poem, but we seem to psychologically recognise only two significant degrees, and this is what ultimately counts in the analysis of poetry.

A stronger challenge to the validity of the phonometric metrical system may centre on the question of whether it actually works well in the analysis of English poetry in general. Halliday believes that his phonometric approach is generally more suitable for the analysis of English poetry than classical metrics. He claims in the first edition of his Introduction that 'the received tradition of English metrical analysis, which is based on the classical metrics of Latin and Greek, does not accurately account for the rhythmic properties of English verse' (p. 10). However, one needs to qualify Halliday's view here, as the metrical tradition in Latin and Greek is quantitative, and not, as is the dominant tradition in English poetry, accentual-syllabic (see below).

Whether the phonometric approach is suitable for most English poems is debatable, but its advantage, I feel, cannot be denied for at least some types of English verse. One notices for instance, that most of the examples given by Halliday are nursery rhymes or children's verse. One recognises the appropriateness of the phonometric approach for these types of verse. However, Halliday is less successful in the phonometric analysis of more serious poetry. For example, in his analysis of a stanza from Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard, the phonometric analysis, which Halliday claims 'relates verse rhythm to the rhythm of the spoken language', would have been more successful had there been five stresses in the final line of the stanza, as the other lines of that stanza also have five stresses (see p. 14 of the first edition of Halliday's Introduction for this). In the classical approach (at least as it is practised by modern prosodists), one can either subject the penultimate foot of the final line (i.e. 'leaves the world to darkness and to me') to the normative iambic foot, or have a pyrrhic substitution there. In nursery rhymes, limericks and other simple verse in English however, the number of stresses per line is significant, and not quite the repetition of weak and strong stresses in an ordered sequence in each foot. Hence the phonometric approach seems to be more appropriate for these verse genres, but this does not mean that it will work satisfactorily for the analysis of all poetic genres in English.

Metrical Systems

The phonometric system has some similarities with the accentual metrical system. Some English poems are written with accentual metres (see Leech pp. 118-9). Poems written with this metre were prevalent in Old and Middle English, save that accentual metre in Old and Middle English poetry is virtually synonymous with what is known as alliterative metre (i.e., the combination of both stress and alliteration). We will be restricting ourselves to poems written in modern English for this course, but accentual metre does survive in modern English verse; we see it not only in nursery rhymes and other simple verse, but there are also some interesting examples of more serious poems in modern English which use accentual metres, and you may encounter some of them in your reading and analysis.

The dominant mode of versification for many poems written in modern English is not accentual, but accentual-syllabic. As you may know, one is not only interested in the number of stresses per line in the accentual-syllabic approach to versification, but also in the number of syllables per line; the stresses must also be regularly arranged in relation to the syllables. One reason why stress-based approaches, like the phonometric approach, may not always be adequate, is that both the number of stresses and syllables per line, are significant for the analysis of many poems written in modern English.

There have also been experiments which attempt to write English poems which concentrate on only the number of syllables per line. The most famous practitioner of this mode of versification was the American poet Marianne Moore. The number of syllables of a line in a stanza of a poem written with syllabic metre, is the same for each of the corresponding lines of the other stanzas.

Yet another minor (but historically important) metrical tradition, is the quantitative. In the quantitative approach to metre, one takes into consideration not only the number of syllables per line, but also the duration or length of each syllable. Instead of looking at strong and weak stresses, one sees whether the vowel in each syllable in a poem is long or short. These long and short syllables form themselves into ordered patterns in a rather similar way to the way the lines and feet of poetry written with accentual-syllabic metre are organized. There were some English versifiers who had tried to use this metre, in imitation of Latin and Greek verse, but the English language does not seem to be entirely comfortable with this kind of metre, although it must be acknowledged that duration does seem to have an important role to play (in addition to phonetic stress) in the notion of stress as it is understood in the literary analysis of English poetry.

Other Sound Features

With regard to duration, one must also recognise the contribution that vowel length and sound duration in general have to make to the speed of articulation of poetry. An analysis of vowel length, together with the analysis of the presence and absence of diphthongs, triphthongs, consonants and consonant clusters, may reveal the connection of these features not only with the poem's speed of articulation as a whole and in relation to its specific parts, but also, with the poems's style and meaning, which as you know, are significant considerations in the analysis of all literary works. In this connection, you may also want to consider using the following terms, which you should be familiar with, as they were used in courses in phonetics and phonology at a lower level: sibilant, nasal, plosive, liquid, fricative, aspirate, affricate, and voiced/unvoiced. You should also know (or find out about) the following literary terms: assonance, consonance, rhyme (including feminine, masculine, half (or para-), and imperfect rhymes), and onomatopoeia. In relation to the literary terms, you may refer to Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms. Chapter 6 of Leech's A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry contains a brief discussion of most of the linguistic and literary terms mentioned above.

In addition to the features mentioned, another factor which you may want to consider in the analysis of poetry, is pause or silence (see Leech pp. 107-8). Apart from the arbitrary pauses which may be encountered in the actual reading of poetry, there are more significant instances where pauses are created by any or all of the following divisions of units in a poem: the grapho-metric division between lines and stanzas; the orthographic divisions between sentences, and between colon and comma units; and the grammatical divisions between clauses and between certain significant clause constituents. If a pause is created by a grammatical division, the word juncture is also used in phonology (although - like the concept of stress in poetry, which involves more than just phonetic stress - more than just pause may be involved in the phonological concept of juncture).

In literary criticism, if the grapho-metric unit of the line does not coincide with the relevant grammatical and orthographic unit, an enjambment is created (see Leech, pp. 123-5 for a fuller discussion; it must be noted here however that Leech limits his definition to the lack of coincidence between the line and a corresponding grammatical unit). An enjambment results in what is known as a run-on line. The opposite of run-on line is end-stopped line, where there is a coincidence of the line with the relevant orthographic and grammatical units; in most cases, the end-stopped line coincides with the clause, and with the sentence or colon unit.

However, even if the divisions of orthographic and grammatical units do not occur at the ends of lines, they have a part to play in creating the pauses in a poem. The pauses created by grammatical and orthographic divisions which occur somewhere in the middle of the lines of a poem, are known as caesurae in traditional metrics. If a caesura takes the place of a missing stressed syllable, what Leech calls a silent stress occurs (p. 108). It has also been claimed that silent stresses or what Halliday calls silent beats occur at the end of lines which have an odd number of feet (eg. in trimeters and pentameters, but not in tetrameters and hexameters).

Web Readings

In addition to Blake's 'The Tyger', Frost's 'Acceptance', and some other poems which will be distributed during the workshop, we will be discussing the following extract in today's workshop:

from Thomas Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard':

The Curfeu tolls the Knell of parting Day
The lowing Herd winds slowly o'er the Lea
The Plow-man homeward plods his weary Way
And leaves the World to Darkness, and to me.

Click here for the notes for the next workshop.

Click here for the notes for the previous workshop.

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Last revised: 9 May 2017
Ismail S. Talib 1995-2017.