Back to home page
Back to "Occasional Papers"

Reuven Tsur

Linguistic Devices and Ecstatic Poetry

“The Windhover”—Tongue-Twisters and Cognitive Processes


 Certain verbal structures have been pointed out in Hopkins’ “The Windhover” as typical, and conducive to an ecstatic effect: tongue-twisters, adjective pileups, the scarcity of finite verbs and the use of such verbs as hurl and achieve as nouns. The relationship between such verbal devices and ecstatic quality is usually assumed, not explained. This paper explores the possible contribution of such verbal constructions to an ecstatic effect. It invokes Bergson’s distinction between perceptions that are “clear, distinct, juxtaposed or juxtaposable one with another, and tend to group themselves into objects”; and “a continuous flux, […] a succession of states each of which announces that which follows and contains that which precedes it”. The latter underlies what he calls “Metaphysical Intuition”. I argue that Bergson’s description “in reality no one begins or ends, but all extend into each other” can be applied to both the semantic and phonetic component of such phrases as “dapple-dawn-drawn falcon”, in a way that has psychological reality. One typical feature of ecstatic experiences is usually described as “depersonalization”. The scarcity of finite verbs contributes to such an effect. Abstract nouns and nominalized verbs and adjectives in referring position reinforce this effect and contribute to the effect of perceived “flux”—as opposed to objects that have stable characteristic visual shapes with stable contours, that resist fusion. 

Speech sounds are transmitted by a stream of rich precategorial auditory information, which is immediately recoded into phonetic categories, and excluded from awareness. Some of the precategorial auditory information, however, lingers on subliminally in active memory, and is available for certain cognitive tasks and aesthetic purposes. Similar sound patterns may, in certain conditions, enhance such lingering information; but, in some other conditions, they may inhibit it (lateral inhibition). In the second part of the paper, a recording of this poem is submitted to instrumental analysis, and electronic manipulations to generate alternative solutions. The purpose of these exercises is to explore the vocal strategies by which a performer may boost or inhibit the interaction of gestalt-free elements across word and phrase boundaries. 

Keywords: Hopkins, tongue-twisters, adjective pileups,  ecstatic experience, abstract nouns in referring position. 

Ecstatic Quality, Linguistic Devices, and Cognitive Processes

Hopkins is a difficult poet. It is almost impossible to imagine a spontaneous “first reading” of any of his poems. It is more reasonable to assume that “spontaneous” response to a poem by Hopkins becomes possible only after the studious internalization of research done (independently, or by reading footnotes) on his language, imagery and theological conceptions. After the assimilation of all this knowledge, there may be a smooth, “spontaneous” response to the mystic or ecstatic experience conveyed by such a poem. 

In an unpublished paper on the grammar of ecstatic poetry I found the following passage on Hopkins’ “Windhover”: “[Hopkins’] unique style involves adjective pileups, syntactical switcheroos, sentences so grammatically dense they are nearly unparseable, alliteration, archaisms, and his characteristic ‘sprung’ or organic rhythms. The effect is gorgeous, complex, tongue-twister poetry, like this first stanza/octave of ‘The Windhover’ dedicated ‘To Christ Our Lord’”. I have asked myself, what is the relationship between “adjective pileups”, which “are nearly unparseable”, and “tongue-twisters” on the one hand, and ecstatic poetry on the other. In what follows, I will briefly explore these and similar questions, in light of my earlier work. In other words, this is not a close reading of the poem, but an exploration of certain theoretical problems. (An excellent word-by-word explication of the poem can be found in Landow, Online).

Reading an ecstatic poem does not mean that the reader actually experiences the ecstatic process; s/he only perceives an “ecstatic quality” in the poem. The reader does not enter an altered state of consciousness, only detects one in the poem, just as he may perceive that the music is sad, without becoming sad himself. Thus, a poem may convey, by using words, the impression of an ineffable experience. How do systems of music-sounds and verbal signs assume perceptual qualities endemic to other systems, such as human emotions? At the present stage of my argument I only want to point out that the resources available in the target systems impose severe strictures on the process. Usually only very few features or configurations thereof are available in the target systems that may be shared with the source phenomena. So, the best one can do is to choose the nearest options available in the target system. Minute differences may suffice to transform the perceived character of a complex whole.

From experimental results we can derive the law that the change in total complexes is more exactly perceived than any change in their parts. The more organized, extensive and closed these complexes are and the more important the part is for the whole, the more accurate will be the judgment of JND [just noticeable differences]. Methodological difficulties have prevented thus far the study of JNDs in feeling. Even primitive awareness reacts more accurately on the basis of emotional sensitivity than by means of part functions. It has been observed over and over that the smallest changes in experience are felt emotionally long before the change can be exactly described. (Krueger, 1968: 100–101)

Thus, “just noticeable differences” suggesting some altered state of consciousness may change the perceived character of a poem so as to be perceived as displaying some mystic or ecstatic quality. The issue at stake is the translation of perceived qualities from reality to some semiotic system, or from one semiotic system to another. The precision of translation depends on how fine-grained are the sign-units of the target system. If the target system is sufficiently fine-grained and its nearest options are chosen to represent a source phenomenon, it may evoke a perception that the two are “equivalent”. (The quality of a picture depends on how small are the particles in the photo; the fidelity of the music on how small are the particles in the magnetic coat of the tape). The translation of an ineffable, non-conceptual experience to the verbal medium would require a target system in which some fine-grained, precategorial information escapes from the control of categories (cf. Tsur, Online; 2006; 2009). In what follows, we shall see how Hopkins accomplishes such a feat.

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind.  My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here 

Buckle! and the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion 

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, 0 my chevalier! 

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down. sillion 

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, 

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion. 

This issue, however, arouses a much wider problem. “The dictionary of a language is […] a system of concepts in which a phonological form and certain syntactic and morphological characteristics are assigned to each concept” (Bierwisch, 1970: 172). Syntactic structures establish certain logical relationships between the words of a discourse. Mystic experience in general, and ecstasy in particular, are altered states of consciousness, nonconceptual and illogical in nature. Language appears, then, particularly ill-suited to convey mystic-ecstatic experiences. Nevertheless, as we know, in a wide variety of cultures there exist rich corpora of mystic-ecstatic poetry. How do poets attempt to overcome this limitation of language? In my various writings I have explored this issue, following a variety of paths. I will invoke here one of those paths. I will borrow the notion of “metaphysical intuition” from Bergson, and then explore how it works both in the semantic and the phonetic dimension of the phrase “dapple-dawn-drawn falcon” in Hopkins’ poem. Then I will explore the contribution of additional linguistic devices to the ecstatic quality of the poem. 

Consider, then, Bergson’s following description of “metaphysical intuition” (quoted by Ehrenzweig): 

What Bergson calls metaphysical intuition is a gestalt-free vision, capable of superimposed perception. Let us hear his own masterful description of surface and depth vision: 

“When I direct my attention inward to contemplate my own self [...] I perceive at first, as a crust solidified at the surface, all the perceptions which come to it from the material world. These perceptions are clear, distinct, juxtaposed or juxtaposable one with another; they tend to group themselves into objects. [...] But if I draw myself in from the periphery towards the centre [...] I find an altogether different thing. There is beneath these sharply cut crystals and this frozen surface a continuous flux which is not comparable to any flux I have ever seen. There is a succession of states each of which announces that which follows and contains that which precedes it. In reality no one begins or ends, but all extend into each other”.  (Ehrenzweig, l965: 34–35) 

Bergson recognizes that juxtaposition is essential for surface perception, but not for depth perception. He gives a practical recipe to achieve intuition: he recommends one to visualize at the same time a diversity of objects in superimposition. 

“By choosing images as dissimilar as possible, we shall prevent any one of them from usurping the place of the intuition it is intended to call up, since it would then be driven away at once by its rivals. By providing that, in spite of their differences of aspects, they all require from the mind the same kind of attention [...] we shall gradually accustom consciousness to a particular and clearly defined disposition”. (ibid.) 

Let us consider first how this process works in the semantic dimension of the phrase “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon”. It appears to be a rather elaborate description contracted into a three-word nominal phrase. But what is the elaborate description suggested? Owing to the contracted structure, the relationship between the two nouns and the past participle remains ambiguous in the sequence. As George P. Landow (online) observes, the phrase can have several meanings:

1. the dappled (or spotted or variegated) dawn[light] draws the falcon [so the speaker can see it]; or

2. the dappled dawn draws (or attracts) the falcon; or

3. the dappled falcon is drawn (attracted) by the dawn.

But in his “interlinear translation” of the poem he offers a fourth paraphrase: “a falcon spotted or dappled by the dawn”. The linguistic difference between paraphrases 2 and 3 can be accounted for in terms of different phrase-structure parsings: “[dapple dawn] [drawn] falcon”, and “[dapple] [dawn drawn] falcon”. The difference between paraphrases 1 and 2 can be accounted for in terms of different kinds of metaphor: paraphrase 1 suggests a “sensuous metaphor”, referring to the falcon’s spatial movement as seen by the perceiver; paraphrase 2 suggests a “functional metaphor”, referring to the falcon’s mental process. Paraphrase 4 explicitly suggests that it is a “dappled falcon”, and that it is “drawn” by dawn; but that it is “dappled by the dawn” is based on an inference, not necessarily on a metaphoric construal. 

Landow further observes: “Although these various readings do not make the phrase mean the same thing, none of them much changes the meaning of the poem or really conflicts with the others, which suggests that Hopkins wished the reader to reach for all them. What does this kind of phrasing tell us about Hopkins’ conception of language? reality? poetry? the way poetry should be read?” 

I submit that the importance of this kind of ambiguities lies not so much in the enrichment of its meaning, but in what it does to meaning. Arthur Mizener’s (1964: 142) exposition of “soft focus” in Shakespeare’s sonnets (using the verb usurp) echoes Bergson on “metaphysical intuition”. Paraphrasing Mizener, “no single meaning of these words will the poem work out completely, nor will the language allow any one of the several emergent figures to usurp our attention”. The various meanings blur each other or, using Bergson’s words, “extend into each other”. 

The paraphrases use prepositions and finite verbs to make logical relationships explicit. The “pileup of adjectives”, by contrast, relies on the implicit, structural meanings of the collocations. Unable to disambiguate logical relationships, it generates a “pileup” of meanings. Pursuing the metaphor ”pileup”, the adjectives do not merely convey a juxtaposed accumulation of meanings, but a jammed tangled mass of variously-paraphrasable meanings resulting from collision. By the same token, they generate a pileup of sound clusters which, in light of Bergson’s formulation, has a similar effect. 

The process in the phonetic dimension requires a more elaborate explanation. Speech sounds are transmitted by a stream of rich precategorial auditory information, which is immediately recoded into phonetic categories, and excluded from awareness. We only perceive a unitary, discrete phonetic category as [i] or [u]. Some of the precategorial auditory information, however, lingers on subliminally in active memory, and is available for certain cognitive tasks and aesthetic purposes. Such lingering auditory information normally serves to preserve verbal material in active memory for efficient processing. It is active, usually, in the background, unnoticed; but rhyme and alliteration may direct attention to it, turning it to aesthetic end in that it is perceived as musicality.

How does the precategorial auditory information affect our response to patterns of similar sound clusters? Let us turn to a set of experiments conducted for a different purpose. Researchers at the Haskins Laboratories (e. g., Liberman and Mann, 1981: 128-129; Brady et. al., 1983: 349-355; Mann, l984: 1-10), investigated the possible causes of some children’s difficulty to learn to read, and revealed a deficiency in the use of phonetic coding by poor readers; good readers, by contrast, seem to make an excellent use of it. In one experimental task, poor readers had greater difficulty than good readers in tapping once or three times in response to the number of syllables in such spoken words as pig or elephant, or once, twice or three times in response to the number of phonemes in such words as eye, pie or spy. This has been interpreted as a deficiency in the use of phonetic coding. In another task, they had to memorize groups of words—either rhymed or unrhymed, as in the following ones:

(2) chain  train  brain  rain  pain

cat         fly         score meat scale

Good readers did consistently better with both kinds of groups than poor readers. However, with the rhymed groups, their performance seriously deteriorated. While their reliance on phonetic representation increased their overall performance, the similar sounds of the rhyming words seem to have caused confusion in their acoustic memory. There was no difference in IQ between the two groups (in fact, in one of the experiments the average IQ of the poor readers was insignificantly higher). In nonverbal memory tasks the poor readers were as good as the good readers (in fact, insignificantly better). It was only that the good readers made efficient use of phonetic coding. Since the poor readers made inefficient use of the acoustic information in short-term memory, they were not penalized by the similar sounds of the rhyming words. 

Speech consists, then, of strings of abstract phonetic categories. The precategorial acoustic information that carries them is normally shut out of consciousness. Still, the perceived poetic affects, on the one hand, and the facilitation of certain cognitive tasks, on the other, indicate that some of this information is subliminally present and active. The sound patterns of poetry in general, and rhyme in particular, typically exploit this precategorial acoustic information and, actually, enhance its memory traces. In nonaesthetic memory experiments, this reliance on phonetic representation reveals two typical effects. It enables verbal material to linger for some time in short-term memory for more efficient processing, but also may cause acoustic confusion in certain circumstances. 

The disadvantage of efficient readers with rhymed words seems to contradict our commonsense observation that versification facilitates the memorization of texts. But the contradiction is only apparent. In the experiment, the effect depends on the distance between the rhyming words: “if the two units are too close together, they will integrate rather than inhibit. If they integrate, the subject will lose valuable information” (Crowder, 1983: 255). In poetry, rhyme functions differently. First, the rhyme words are further away from one another. Second, they break up a longer text into easily-remembered chunks. Third, at the same time, the reverberating similar sounds unify the segmented text. Fourth, the reverberating similar sounds also enlist auditory memory in the service of remembering. Fifth, in continuous, coherent texts, syntactic structure and the context demand the occurrence of certain words in certain places, eliminating certain possibilities on grammatical or semantic grounds. It is this context-governed process with which rhyme interacts in memory: it eliminates certain possibilities allowed by syntax and context.11 When in the experiment the rhyme words come in close succession in a meaningless list, there is no intervening text to organize, nor is there a meaningful context that would impose semantic or grammatical constraints: it makes no difference which word comes first, which comes next; so, the fusion of formants becomes mere confusion. What in the nonaesthetic memory experiments is called acoustic confusion, in an aesthetic context co-occurs with a continuous text, and may be perceived in the background as “harmonious fusion”, “musicality”. 

Experimental literature suggests three possibilities in the perception of successive speech stimuli. If a subsequent stimulus is very similar to the preceding stimulus, it may generate an enhanced response, because of integration with the lingering auditory information; if it is moderately similar, it will be reduced, inhibiting the lingering auditory information; if there is no similarity, it will be unaffected. In ordinary verbal communication usually one of the latter two possibilities is the case. As to rhyme or Hopkins’ plays on sounds, obviously the “very similar” option is the case. Robert G. Crowder suggests (personal communication) that there would be precedent for the assumption that the total effect would be the larger for having had a repeated sound. This depends on his assumption that both inhibitory and enhancing interaction takes place within the formant energy of the words, even though they may be spoken at different pitches (formants are concentrations of overtones that uniquely determine vowels). Thus, such sound patterns as rhyme and alliteration not only “exploit” the working of the auditory short-term memory, but actually enhance it. A chapter in one of my books is called “Musicality in Verse, and Phonological Universals”. It took months before I discovered that the word “verse” recurs in the word “universals”. It would appear that in prose discourse our pronunciation of the same sound sequence in two words tends to be moderately similar, so as to reduce the lingering auditory information, directing attention away from the words to the referents. One may attend back to the alliteration by changing the pronunciation of “universals”, rendering it more similar to “verse”. This may illuminate the phonetic mechanism underlying the “poetic mode of speech perception”. 

What can we learn from these experiments and their interpretation about the relationship between mystic poetry and Hopkins’ “tongue-twisters”. Language consists of “juxtaposable” sound clusters attached to concepts (called “words”). Syntactic structures establish certain logical relationships between those juxtaposed words. Such a system would appear particularly unsuitable to convey intuitions based on the flux described by Bergson. Not only the concepts, but also the sound clusters denoting them are juxtaposed. In Hopkins’ poem, the pileup of exceptionally similar sound clusters in close succession may have the following effect: it may reinforce the lingering rich precategorial auditory information in active memory, and may enhance its interaction, causing fusion (or confusion), Thus, though the phonetic categories and their clusters are juxtaposed, “in reality no one begins or ends, but all extend into each other”. Normally, as I said, rhymes break up a longer text into easily-remembered chunks. At the same time, the reverberating similar sounds unify the segmented text, and also enlist auditory memory in the service of remembering. In Hopkins’ pileup of sound clusters, where there is no intervening text, the reverberating similar sounds extend into each other, fusing the discrete phonetic units, so as to contribute to the perception of a flux. In such pileups there is a greater sense of violence in the coalescence of similar sound clusters than in ordinary rhyme or alliteration, where the effect may be smooth, or “clicking”. As to the pileup of adjectives, no single meaning of these words will the poem work out completely, nor will the language allow any one of the several emergent figures to usurp our attention—their meaning components are simultaneously present. 

Thus, in the sequence “dapple-dawn-drawn”, the principle of juxtaposition has been blatantly violated both in the phonetic and semantic dimension of the phonological clusters attached to concepts (called “words”), generating a jammed tangled mass of meanings and sound clusters resulting from collision. 

One can easily make out a case for the falcon’s ascent as a metaphor for ecstasy. But what about the other aspects of the falcon image so carefully emphasized? Are they “irrelevant texture” for the tenor suggested by the image, or do they contribute too to a drawn-out metaphor for an ecstatic experience? What about, e.g., “how he rung upon the rein”, or “riding / Of the rolling level underneath him steady air”, or the simile “As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend”? While ascent may be regarded as a well-worn conventional metaphor for a variety of God experiences, skating and the technicalities of falconry are usually not. This poem has another intriguing aspect, described by the paper mentioned above as “lack of verbs used as verbs (only four or five active verbs in eight lines—the rest are used as other parts of speech)”. This feature is conspicuous in the sestet too. Does it too contribute to the God experience? I will explore such features of the poem’s imagery in light of two comments, one by Maud Bodkin on Dante’s “Paradiso”, and one by Michael Persinger on the neuropsychology of God Experiences. 

In her discussion of Dante’s “Paradiso”, Maud Bodkin observes that in her own experience, “imaginative realization of the ascent thus indicated is inseparable from the recall […] of flight as it is known in dreams”. She comments on a very different image, characterizing its effect as “the absence of any sensation of effort, the wonder at effortless attainment of a new sphere” (Bodkin, 1963: 143). Such “absence of any sensation of effort” may account for the occurrence of “floating” and “hovering” imagery in ecstatic poetry. To take some “floating” imagery in prominent English ecstatic poems: the “cloud / That floats on high, o’er vales and hills” in Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”, and the “shadow of the dome of pleasure / Floated midway on the waves” and, in a somewhat different sense, the expression “Beware! Beware! / His flashing eyes, his floating hair!”) in Coleridge’s ”Kubla Khan”. These are natural symbols for precisely such effortless movement. The noun “windhover” (as opposed to “falcon” or “hawk”) suggests a bird hovering on the wind. And quite a few additional images in this poem suggest movement in the unsteady element of wind or air, as in “riding / Of the rolling level underneath him steady air” (paraphrased by some commentators as “the steady air rolling level underneath him”). In this perspective, “As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend” is just another striking image of effortless movement in space, drawing a wide smooth arc. 

Maud Bodkin applied Jungian archetypes in literary criticism. But her above insight gets support from more recent studies in what nowadays is called “neuro-theology”. Michael A. Persinger’s (1987) neuropsychological study may illuminate this kind of imagery from a different angle. He observes that God Experiences (as well as some pathological conditions) are associated with temporal lobe transients, electrical perturbations of the temporal lobe in the human brain (16). I assume that, psychologically, “God Experience involving temporal lobe instability” (26) is relevant to ecstatic poetry too. I will explore the relevance of two characteristics of such states: depersonalization and vestibular sensations (that is, of, relating to, or affecting the perception of body position and movement). As to the relevance of “floating”-imagery to “Daffodils” and “Kubla Khan”, the following observation may help to integrate it into the ecstatic experience suggested by these poems: “Few people appear to acknowledge the role of vestibular sensations in the God Experience. However, in light of the temporal lobe’s role in the sensation of balance and movement, these experiences are expected. [...] Literature concerned with the God Experiences are full of metaphors describing essential vestibular inputs. Sensations of ‘being lifted’, ‘feeling light’, or even ‘spinning, like being intoxicated’, are common” (Persinger, 1987: 26). After quoting an account of such an experience, he observes: “Note the repeated references to vestibular sensations: ‘floating,’ ‘lifted,’ ‘moving,’ ‘spinning’” (27). I appealed to the same mechanism in my discussion of the phrase “a most dizzy pain” in Keats’s “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” (Tsur, 2002: 305) as well. 

I would include under “references to vestibular sensations” such expressions too as “how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing”, Consider e.g., the following elucidation: “To ‘ring’ in falconry means to ascend spirally. So, the image here is of the falcon [ringing] on the rein of a [single] wimpling (rippling) wing”; and then, “The falcon rises in the sky in a spiral and then breaks off, using the momentum of his spiral (off, off forth on swing), in a long arc” (Landow, online).

Now we turn to the feature “lack of verbs used as verbs (only four or five active verbs in eight lines—the rest are used as other parts of speech)”. What has this feature to do with ecstatic poetry? The author of that paper fails to raise the question. I claim that it is intimately related to two issues of basic importance for mystic-ecstatic poetry: depersonalization and what I have elsewhere called “thematized predicate” or “topicalized attribute”. 

Let us begin with Persinger’s claim that such states are “an alteration in the description of the self. Depersonalization is typical” (Persinger, 1987: 18). The most conspicuous linguistic devices of personalization are, of course, personal pronouns, or the naming of the agents to whom those pronouns apply. Finite verbs are another conspicuous device of personalization: they indicate the agent, recipient and time of the action expressed by the verb. Another conspicuous personalization device is the  addressing of a present or absent person. 

In “the Windhover”, personalization is very much in evidence. The poem begins with a first personal pronoun: “I caught” (=“I caught [sight of]”). Such phrases that are at once apostrophes and exclamations as “0 my chevalier!” and “ah my dear” are even more effective personalization devices. At the same time, depersonalization too is very much in evidence. The most conspicuous device concerns the nominalization of verbs. Consider, for instance, the collocation “the hurl and gliding”. When Milton says “Him the Almighty Power / Hurl’d headlong, flaming, from th’ethereal sky”, he explicitly says who hurled whom, when, how, wherefrom and whereto. The verb “hurled” denotes vigorous or violent propulsive movement in space, and serves, among other things, to establish a relationship between the referring expressions “Him” and “the Almighty Power”. In Hopkins’ poem, the phrase “the hurl” places at the immediate disposal of the reader’s awareness a state of affairs characterized as “vigorous or violent propulsive movement in space”. It becomes a disembodied referring expression, the psychological center of the utterance. The phrase “riding / Of the rolling level underneath him steady air” is a more elaborate instance of the same principle. 

We have seen exclamations associated with apostrophes and interjections which typically enhance personalization. Now consider the sequence “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume”. The whole sequence consists of a series of exclamations of wonder. Apart from the first phrase, it is a series of isolated words, all but one monosyllabic; and all but one abstract nouns. In the middle of the series there is a monosyllabic interjection. The isolated words (and phrase) refer to emotionally indifferent entities; but being used as exclamations, they are charged with great emotional load. As Landow (online) rightly observes, his interlinear translation of Hopkins’s “Windhover” into simpler, if vastly less interesting or effective, language should help us follow Hopkins’s argument: “Then, at this point, all the bird’s brute, animal beauty, courage, and — oh! — his proud air and feathers [buckle or crumple!]” Comparing the simplified version to the original points up the unique effect of the latter. Instead of a coherent discourse we have a series of disconnected nouns and noun phrase, whose cumulative impact is a transport of amazed admiration. But notice this: the succession of nouns enumerates only the things perceived, not the experiencer.  

Compare the phrase “Brute beauty” to “beautiful brute” (animal). Both may serve as exclamations of wonder. In the latter phrase a concrete noun is in the referring position (“brute”). The adjective “beautiful” refers to an attribute of brute. In the former phrase, the adjective has been nominalized (turned into an abstract noun), and topicalized (that is, manipulated into the referring position). Thus it becomes the psychological subject of the utterance. “Brute”, in turn, is turned into an adjective and comes to mean “characteristic of an animal in quality, action, or instinct”. While “beautiful brute” refers to a stable object, “Brute beauty” to an elusive quality. By the same token, phonetically, the phrase “Brute beauty” manipulates two tokens of the sound sequence [b...u:t] into close proximity, effecting acoustic confusion; and generates a string of two consecutive stressed syllables, blurring the metric pattern. 

In the phrase “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”, at least “achieve” is a verb turned abstract noun. In such “abstract of the concrete” constructions, attention is conspicuously shifted away from the concrete thing to its abstract attributes. As I have elsewhere suggested, such constructions loosen the relations between the attributes “grown together” in the concrete noun, and render them more like the stream of information in emotions. Bergson’s conception of what he calls “surface” and “depth” perception may throw some interesting light on such  grammatical transformations. Things that have stable characteristic visual shapes are “juxtaposable”, and resist fusion. Abstractions, or thing-free and gestalt-free qualities have no stable boundaries. Shifting attention to them facilitates their fusion, their “extending into each other”. Such constructions are prevalent in poems that display strong emotional qualities or suggest some altered state of consciousness. Elsewhere I pointed out that in sixteenth-century Jesuit instructions for meditation attention is frequently directed away by such grammatical means from stable sceneries to abstract relations (like length, breadth, depth, and height) manipulated into the referring position (see, e.g., Tsur, 2003: 94). Chanita Goodblatt distinguished between “illustrative” and “meditative” catalogues in Whitman’s poetry. I have shown that one of the conspicuous linguistic differences between them is that the “abstract of the concrete” constructions abound in the “meditative” catalogues, directing attention away from the stable objects to their gestalt-free and thing-free attributes; in the “illustrative” catalogues stable objects are in the referring position (Tsur, 2008: 456–468). 

This paper does not presume to offer a comprehensive reading of “The Windhover”. Its explicit purpose is to point out certain linguistic devices that are conspicuous in the poem, and explore how certain cognitive theories and experimental findings can account for their possible contribution to an ecstatic quality. 

Vocal Performance and Lingering Precategorial Auditory Information

In the first part of this article I have discussed, speculatively, the issue of lateral inhibition and the fusion of lingering precategorial auditory information. In what follows I will explore the vocal strategies by which a performer may boost or inhibit the interaction of such precategorial auditory information across word and phrase boundaries.2 Richard Austin provides online a beautiful reading of Hopkins’ “The Windhover” [click to listen to it]. As we shall see, however, I would prefer if he leveled intonation leaps at certain points, so as to articulate word boundaries less clearly. Figure 1 gives phonetic information about the phrase “dapple-dawn-drawn-Falcon”, excised from this reading [click to listen to it]. Similarity of overtone concentrations (shown by spectrograms) obviously reflect the similar phonetic structures of words. Similarity of durations, pitch contours and amplitudes are largely due to the performer’s manipulation. 


Figure 1 Wave plot, pitch contour and spectrogram of the phrase “dapple-dawn-drawn-Falcon”, read by Richard Austin. The upper window presents the wave plot display, which shows a plot of the wave amplitude (in volts) on the vertical axis, as a function of time (in milliseconds) on the horizontal axis. The lowest window presents a spectrogram, which displays relative intensity as a function of time (horizontal axis) and frequency (vertical axis); as well as a fundamental frequency (pitch) plot, displaying time on the horizontal axis and the estimated glottal frequency in Hz on the vertical axis.

The arrows in Figure 1 point at the first and second formant, at the point where the vowel and [n] meet in “dawn” and “drawn” (formants are concentrations of overtones that uniquely determine speech sounds; the first and second formants being the crucial ones). The shape of the three plots are very similar for the words “dawn” and “drawn”. It should be noted that there is a gradual loss of pitch and amplitude from word to word. This is due to a gradual loss of subglottal air pressure while uttering the breath group. 

There is precedent from color interaction that the weaker the perceptual boundaries, the stronger the interaction of gestalt-free elements across them (see “Appendix”). The refractory period required for articulating two successive very similar sound clusters in the “pileup” generates a well-articulated boundary between the two words. I had the impression that the distinct downstep from the pitch of “dawn” to that of “drawn” enhances this boundary, obstructing the interaction of lingering precategorial auditory information. So, I used the speech processor Praat to lower the pitch of “dawn” to equalize it with “drawn”, blurring the distinct boundary between the two words, so as to boost the fusion of precategorial information [click to listen to it]. 



Figure 2 The genuine and “doctored” pitch contour of dapple dawn drawn Falcon. The higher, dim curve reflects the genuine reading, the lower curve with the “pitch dots” reflects the manipulated reading. 

The difference between the two versions will be better discerned when listening to them in close succession [click to listen to it]. Some listeners distinguish a clear difference; but some can hear no difference at all. This should by no means surprise us. The foregoing experiments with efficient and poor readers suggest that people differ regarding their reliance on phonetic coding in verbal tasks. It would now appear that this is not an either/or, but a more/less difference. Finally, let us listen to the first few lines of the poem with the doctored version substituted for the genuine one [click to listen]. 

A similar problem arises, with the necessary changes, at other points of this performance, such as in “this morning morning’s minion”. Here too the boundary of the first token of “morning” is enhanced by pitch movement, obstructing the interaction of lingering precategorial auditory information of the two tokens of the same word. But while in the foregoing case the relevant feature of the pitch movement was a distinct downstep at the onset of the similar words, here the relevant features involve terminal contour followed by a pitch reset.


Figure 3 Pitch contour of “I caught this morning morning’s minion”. The terminal contour of the first token of “morning” steeply falls to the base pitch, like the terminal intonation contour of “minion”. The fall is followed by a pitch reset on the second token. 

The terminal contour of the first token of “morning” falls to the base pitch just like the terminal contour of “minion”, but is considerably steeper. This generates two problems. The terminal contour of the first token is not similar to the second token’s, but to that of “minion”; and the steep fall to the base line suggests discontinuity, enhancing the boundary between the two tokens. This is further reinforced by a longish pause (305 msec) between the two tokens, and a pitch reset at the beginning of the second token [listen to it]. This clearly articulates syntax, but obstructs the interaction of gestalt-free elements across the boundary. To mitigate this effect, I slightly raised the last two “pitch points” in the intonation curve of the first “morning”. A terminal contour that fails to fall to the base line is perceived as less final  [listen to it]. The result is visually represented in Figure 43. 


Figure 4 Pitch contour, manipulated, of “I caught this morning morning’s minion”. The pitch on -ning has been slightly raised, in order to weaken the word boundary. 

The raising of pitch on ˜ is negligible; the manipulation mainly affects -ni-. The pitch measurements for -ni- in the genuine version can be profitably compared to the measurements of “minion” in the same version, and to the pitches of the same speech sounds in the manipulated version. We have the following pitch measurements for -ni- in the genuine version (in semitones): 

mean pitch: 74.02 st

maximum pitch: 75.88 st

minimum pitch: 73.39 st

The measurements for -io- (in “minion”) are quite similar:

mean pitch: 74.02 st

maximum pitch: 75.21 st

minimum pitch: 73.23 st

Thus, the two terminal contours have similar “concluding” effects, suggesting disconituity. In the manipulated version, the mean and maximum pitches for -ni- are 2–3 semitones higher: 

mean pitch: 76.75 st

maximum pitch: 78.48 st

minimum pitch: 73.63 st

Such manipulation, then, weakens the boundary between the two tokens of “morning”, facilitating the interaction of precategorial auditory information across it. Later I shortened the pause between the two tokens of “morning”. I also found that the high rise of intonation on the second token of “morning” suggest a new beginning, further enhancing the sense of discontinuity between the two tokens; so, I lowered the pitch onset of this word, to smooth it out with the onset of “minion” on the one hand, and with the lower end of the first “morning”, on the other. Finally, for similar reasons, I slightly lowered the jutting pitch peak on “minion” too. [listen to it] The resulting intonation contours are shown in figure 5. So, let us listen in succession to the three versions of the phrase [listen to it]. Finally, let us listen again to the first few lines with all the manipulated parts substituted for their genuine counterparts [listen to it]. 


Figure 5 Further manipulation of “I caught this morning morning’s minion”. The pitch contour of “morning’s minion” has been smoothened out, and the huge pause between the two tokens of “morning” shortened.  

As I have emphasized in many of my writings, the issue at stake in this doctoring exercise is not which one is the correct performance, but whether we can imagine or secure a reading that boosts rather than hinders the fusion of lingering precategorial auditory information within the pileup. There are almost insurmountable difficulties in eliciting rhythmicality or musicality judgments in experimental situations. But, in principle at least, one may submit to panels of judges pairs of genuine and manipulated versions, to judge whether one of them solves the rhythmic problem in hand, or whether it is conducive to the fusion of lingering precategorial information. In this respect, the purpose of the foregoing exercise was to explore the vocal strategies by which a performer may boost or inhibit the interaction of gestalt-free elements across word and phrase boundaries. 


Ehrenzweig most dramatically demonstrates the phenomenon of colour induction in the visual domain:

When Chevreuil, in the early nineteenth century, made artists familiar with colour induction, he did not touch directly on the problem of form and colour. The experiment which demonstrated interaction most clearly was to place a small grey square on a large ground of colour. On a green ground the grey square would turn a distinct pink. Obviously the more saturated the surrounding green ground, the stronger was the induced pink in the square. A few years later a most paradoxical phenomenon was observed; when a sheet of semi-transparent tissue paper was placed over the whole area the saturation of the green ground was of course severely diminished. One would have expected that the colour induction in the grey would be reduced to the same extent, that is to say that the induced pink of the grey square would also become much paler. But the opposite happened: the pinkness of the grey square became more pronounced. Many years passed until no less a man than the great Helmholtz gave the trite explanation of the paradox. The tissue paper made the outline of the grey square fuzzier and this weakening of its form increased colour interaction. A more impressive documentation for the overriding importance of line and form could scarcely be imagined. A comparatively crude weakening of the line was sufficient to compensate—indeed more than compensate—for the enormous loss in the saturation of the colours. [...] As in all relationships between form and colour the reverse effect can also happen. Strong colour interaction tends to make sharp outlines seem much softer than they are; it levels down differences in tone (ibid.,170–171).

Ehrenzweig argues that the same relationships hold in music between melodic shapes and overtone interaction (overtones being the physical correlates of “sound colour”) (Ehrenzweig, 1965: 172–173). This is more immediately relevant than colour induction to poetry reading, where we are dealing with intonation shapes and overtone interaction (where overtones are the physical correlates of vowels).

Bierwisch, Manfred (1970) “Semanitcs”, in John Lyons (ed.), New Horizons in Linguistics.  Harmondsworth: Pelican. 

Bodkin, Maud (1963 [19341]) Archetypal Patterns in Poetry. London: Oxford UP.

Brady, Susan, Donald Shankweiler & Virginia Mann (1983) “Speech Perception and Memory Coding in Relation to Reading Ability”. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 35:  345-367. 

Crowder, Robert G. (1982 a) “A Common Basis For Auditory Sensory Storage in Perception and Immediate Memory.” Perception & Psychophysics 31: 477–483.

Crowder, Robert G. (1982 b) “Disinhibition of Masking in Auditory Sensory Memory”. Memory & Cognition 10: 424–433.

Crowder, Robert G. (1983) “The Purity of Auditory Memory”. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 302: 251–265.

Ehrenzweig, Anton (1965) The Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing. New York: Braziller. 

Freud (No Date) Psychopathology of Everyday Life. New York: Mentor.

Goodblatt, C. (1990) “Whitman’s Catalogs as Literary Gestalts: Illustrative and Meditative Functions”. Style 24: 45–58. 

Krueger, F. (1968 [19281]) “The Essence of Feeling”, in Magda B. Arnold (ed.), The Nature of Emotion. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 97–108.

Landow, George P. (online) “A Reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’”. available:

Liberman, Isabelle Y., and Virginia A. Mann (1981) “Should Reading Instruction and Remediation Vary with the Sex of the Child?” Status Report on Speech Research SR-65:  Haskins Laboratories.

Mann, Virginia A. (l984) “Reading Skill and Language Skill”. Developmental Review 4:  1-15.

Mizener, Arthur (1964) “The Structure of Figurative Language in Shakespeare’s Sonnets”, in Barbara Herrnstein ed., Discussions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Boston: D. C. Heath and Company. 137–151.

Persinger, Michael A. (1987) Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs. New York, Westport, Connecticut, London: Praeger. 

Tsur, Reuven (1992) What Makes Sound Patterns Expressive: The Poetic Mode of Speech-Perception. Durham N. C.: Duke UP. 

Reuven Tsur (2001) “Onomatopoeia: Cuckoo-Language and Tick-Tocking—The Constraints of Semiotic Systems”. Iconicity In Language. Available Online: Also available

Tsur, Reuven (2002) “Aspects of Cognitive Poetics”, in Elena Semino and Jonathan Culpeper (eds.), Cognitive Stylistics—Language and Cognition in Text Analysis. John Benjamins Publishing Company: Amsterdam/Philadelphia. 

Tsur, Reuven (2003) On The Shore of Nothingness: Space, Rhythm, and Semantic Structure in Religious Poetry and its Mystic-Secular Counterpart—A Study in Cognitive Poetics. Exeter: Imprint Academic. 

Tsur, Reuven (2006) “Constraints of the Semiotic System—Onomatopoeia, Expressive Sound Patterns and Poetry Translation”, in Uta Klein, Katja Mellmann, Steffanie Metzger (Hrsg.) Heuristiken der Literaturwissenschaft—Disziplinexterne Perspektiven auf Literatur. Paderborn: mentis. 246–270.

Tsur, Reuven (2008) Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics. Second, expanded and updated edition. Sussex Academic Press: Brighton and Portland. 

Reuven Tsur (2009) “Aesthetic Qualities as Structural Resemblance"Divergence and Perceptual Forces in Poetry”. Distinguished Guest Lecture at the International conference on CognitIve Poetics: A Multimodal Approach. June 9–14, Toronto.

Available online:
Also available:

Richard Austin Reads the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

1. 1Likewise, metre breaks up the text into segments, enhances the unity of the segments, enlists auditory memory in the service of remembering, and eliminates additional possibilities of word combination. To be sure, semantic, syntactic, and versification constraints are no foolproof guarantee for, only increase the likelihood of, correct remembering. Thus, for instance, in his Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud mentions a young woman who, for good psychopathological reasons, misquoted four lines from Keats’s “Ode to Apollo” as

In thy Western house of gold

Where thou livest in thy state,

Bards, that once sublimely told

Prosaic truths that came too late.

The correct lines read as follows (the words forgotten and replaced by others being italicized):

In thy western halls of gold

When thou sittest in thy state,

Bards, that erst sublimely told

Heroic deeds and sang of fate.

The misquoted passage conforms with the syntactic and versification constraints; and the misquoted words are overdetermined by the semantic constraints of the original and the memorizer’s assumed psychopathological motives. (I have elsewhere discussed at greater length the cognitive processes underlying this misquote; Tsur, 1992: 148–153). 

2 The sound files for this paper can be found online, at 

3. The pitch manipulation feature of the speech processor Praat involves “stylization” of the pitch plot, that is, rendering it less fine-grained by omitting “pitch points” (cf. Figure 2 above). This constrains the fine-grainedness of the manipulations as well. Hence the differences between the pitch plots of words that were not manipulated, in Figure 3 on the one hand, and figures 4–5 on the other.

Back to home page
Back to "Occasional Papers"