Rhyme and Cognitive Poetics
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Rhyme and Cognitive Poetics
One of the most fascinating things that can happen to someone engaged in the systematic investigation of any subject matter is to discover that his partial researches which he began independently from one another begin to grow together into one coherent field of research. My own work, which began with sporadic close-readings of a wide variety of poems, has been gradually growing together to a coherent theory of cognitive poetics. Recently I have published a rather comprehensive and systematic exposition of this theory (Tsur, 1992b). In the course of my explorations of poetry in a cognitive framework, I had shorter or longer observations relevant to rhyme in a variety of contexts, with little or no connection between them: from the point of view of phonetic and acoustic representation, its affect on short-term and long-term memory, the gestalt rules of grouping, semantic information processing, and the generation of such poetic qualities as witty, emotional, or hypnotic. The present paper, prompted by Uzi Shavit's illuminating little book Rhyme and Reason: Studies in the Historical Poetics of Hebrew Poetry, proposes to collect some of these observations and integrate them into a comprehensive cognitive account of rhyme. It will, here and there, fill in gaps, and add an entirely new section on dactylic rhyme.
In the introductory section of his book, Shavit proffers an overview of research on rhyme, and points out that, roughly, there are two kinds of approaches to rhyme: those that focus attention on the similar and the conflicting elements in rhyme; and those that regard rhyme as an organizing principle in the prosodic domain. Shavit regards these approaches complementary rather than mutually exclusive. In a footnote he comments: "These points of view are not contradictory. Thus, for instance, Reuven Tsur, in his discussions of grammatical and anti-grammatical rhyme (Tsur, 1976; 1983a; 1983b: 53--70) makes an important contribution to an understanding of the semantic role of rhyme. He also made an important contribution to an understanding of the compositional role of rhyme in his discussion of the sonnet (Tsur, 1988b: 84-91), as well as of the quatrain (Tsur, 1988a: 27-32); in addition, he explored the euphonic character of rhyme (Tsur, 1983a; 1983b: 78-82; 1987). Thus the distinction between the various kinds of approaches is mainly methodological" (Shavit, 1993: 14). Later, in a symposium on cognitive poetics (Tel Aviv University, 30.3.1993), he made a twofold suggestion: that one should attempt to integrate these and other scattered observations on rhyme into one comprehensive view, and that one should explore the relationship between a cognitive approach to rhyme and an historical approach of intertextuality: whether they are unrelated, or complementary in some way. In the present paper I make an attempt to take up these two challenges. The main bulk of the paper will approach rhyme from a variety of directions, enumerated above, attempting to account for significant intuitions of readers about rhyme. As for the relationship between cognitive and historical explanations of poetic affects, the paper will come to the following conclusion: Alternative intuitions concerning poetic affects are determined by alternative cognitive processing of individual poems; intertextuality can reinforce or tone down one or another such intuition.
Exploiting the Phonetic Code
Cognitive poetics assumes that poetry exploits for aesthetic purposes cognitive (including linguistic) processes that were initially evolved for nonaesthetic purposes, just as in evolving linguistic ability, old cognitive and physiological mechanisms are turned to new ends. The exploitation of the phonetic coding for rhyme is a case in point.1 Speech researchers distinguish a speech mode and a nonspeech mode. In the latter, the shape of the perceived sound is similar to the shape of the auditory information. In the former, only an abstract phonetic category (such as [a] [b] [i]) is perceived; the sound information that carries it is shut out of consciousness. I have suggested that there may be a third, poetic mode, in which some of the rich precategorial auditory information may reach consciousness, strongly affecting the emotional or poetic qualities of the speech sounds. Speech consists of several parallel streams of information. At the listener's end, we translate a stream of acoustic information into a stream of phonetic representations which, in turn, we translate into a stream of semantic representations, and so forth. There is a series of conversions, of recodings, from one stream to the other. Conversion from the acoustic to the phonetic stream involves a complete restructuring of the information, resulting in a string of abstract phonetic categories, so that only very little sensory information reaches, subliminally, consciousness. Some speech sounds are more thoroughly restructured ("more encoded") than others. In the voiceless plosives /p, t, k/ almost no pre-categorical auditory information is perceived, only the abstract phonetic category, whereas in periodic continuous sounds like vowels or sonorant consonants, or in such sibilants as [s, S] some rich pre-categorical sensory information is subliminally perceived, and may become accessible even to conscious introspection. This sensory information reverberates in short-term memory for a very short period of time. We must, however, assume that even in the case of voiceless plosives auditory memory is active, albeit in an impoverished form. As Conrad (1964) found out, there is evidence for acoustic confusion even with visually presented speech sounds. A syntactic unit can be perceived as a unit only if we can hold its beginning in echoic memory while new information is still coming in.
In the poetic mode of auditory perception, the precategorical sensory information that reaches consciousness somehow becomes significant. Liberman et al. (1972) describe a series of experiments by Crowder and Morton (1969), who found that in auditory (but not visual) presentation, vowels produce a recency effect (that is, performance on the last items is better than on the preceding ones) in certain cognitive tasks, but stops do not. Part of the explanation seems to be as follows:
The special process that decodes the stops strips away all auditory information and presents to immediate perception a categorical linguistic event the listener can be aware of only as /b, d, g, p, t, or k/. Thus, there is for these segments no auditory, precategorical form that is available to consciousness for a time long enough to produce a recency effect. The relatively unencoded vowels, on the other hand, are capable of being perceived in a different way [...]. The listener can make relatively fine discriminations within phonetic classes because the auditory characteristics of the signal can be preserved for a while. [...] In the experiment by Crowder, we may suppose that these same auditory characteristics of the vowel, held for several seconds in an echoic sensory register, provide the subject with rich, precategorical information that enables him to recall the most recently presented items with relative ease.
Crowder later found that this recency effect could
be drastically reduced by a "verbal suffix",
that is, when a nonsense syllable such as /ba/ was
used to indicate when the recall-attempt was to be
started, but not when a pure tone was used (1982).
The explanation he offered was that each later arrival
exerted "lateral inhibition" on earlier arrivals
in the neurological system, so that only the abstract
phonetic category should linger on, but not the precategorical
sensory information. In our foregoing terms, rhyme
delays the special process that in the course of decoding
the stops strips away all auditory information, presenting
to immediate perception a categorical linguistic event
the listener can be aware of only as /b, d, g, p, t,
or k/; by the same token, it exploits the "echoic
sensory register" for aesthetic ends. Occasionally
it may also cause confusion in acoustic memory.
Consider the following stanza from FitzGerald's "The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám":
(1) Some for the Glories of this World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!
Elsewhere (Tsur, 1992a: 35-37) I pointed out that this
quatrain is rich with euphonic sound-patterns. Some
of them are neutral as the Prophet's Paradise in line
2, or Cash and Credit in line 3 (where they are focussed
on words of symbolic significance). One is conspicuously
onomatopoetic: rum ble ... Drum. It is the latter to
which I wish to pay here some attention. All the sounds
of rumble (except for the /b/) are continuous and periodic--and
relatively unencoded. The first three of them are repeated
in Drum, in the same order. The /d/ of Drum too is
heralded by distant, and less conspicuously by heed
(in such a periodic context, the periodicity of the
voicing in the stops /b, d/ is foregrounded too). Now
consider a remarkable thing about the sound pattern
of the last line. The reader or listener is quite likely
to become aware of the rich precategorical, periodic
acoustic information and relate it to the rumble of
the drum. In this way, the sound becomes "an echo
of the sense", or, rather, the meaning and the
acoustic structure reinforce the effect of similar
features in each other. This phenomenon becomes even
more remarkable when contrasted to another sound pattern
of which Drum is part as well: it rhymes with some
and come. Most readers who are aware of the rich precategorical
auditory information in Drum report that they are not
aware of a similar richness in the preceding rhyme-fellows.
In the rumble--Drum sound pattern in relation to which
I suggested there that the auditory trace may be enhanced
rather than inhibited when several conditions meet,
such as (1) when the sounds involved are continuous
and periodical; (2) when massive sound clusters are
repeated; (3) when semantic features of the words tend
to draw attention to, rather than away from, the acoustic
and articulatory features of sound patterns; (4) when
one of the syllables concerned is the last one in a
perceptual unit (that is, no "verbal suffix"
Bruno Repp (personal communication) suggests that if
a subsequent stimulus is very similar to the preceding
stimulus, it may generate an enhanced response, because
of their integration. Robert G. Crowder (personal communication)
suggests 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. Thus,
such sound patterns as rhyme and alliteration not only
"exploit" the working of the auditory short-term
memory, but actually enhance it.
When we emit strings of speech sounds, we obviously have recourse to phonetic coding. It is much less obvious that phonetic coding is a major resource in the performance of a wide range of cognitive operations. We have already mentioned the Crowder and Morton experiment. Researchers at the Haskins Laboratories (e. g., Liberman and Mann, 1981: 128-129; Brady et. al., 1983: 349-355; Mann, l984: 1-10) in their research on the possible causes of some children's difficulty to learn to read have 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 seems to have caused confusion in their
acoustic memory. Thus, this experiment reveals an intimate
relationship between rhyme and the cognitive mechanisms
involved in certain memory tasks. 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. Virginia Mann advances two plausible explanations
for these experimental results. "On the one hand,
poor readers might not resort to phonetic representation
at all, relying instead on semantic or some other modes
of representation. On the other hand, they may attempt
to employ phonetic representation but for some reason
their representations are less effective" (1984:
Crowder and Wagner (1992: 228-230) summarize an experiment
by Byrne and Shea in which subjects had to take a "reading
test", reading out lists of words and then, unexpectedly,
were given a memory test. They were presented with
the words read earlier, interspersed with a number
of additional words, to which they had to respond "old"
or "new". The "new" words were
either phonetically or semantically related to the
"old" words. "Assume the prior items
were home and carpet: house and rug would be the semantically
similar foils and comb and market would be the phonetically
similar foils". Good readers tended to confuse
both phonetically and semantically related words, poor
readers semantically related words. Crowder and Wagner
insist: "The fact that poor readers seem to be
using 'too much' meaningful processing does not imply
that they are better at top-down processing than good
readers. It is just that they may be so deficient in
bottom-up processing they have no other recourse".
I do not presume to arbitrate between the two possibilities advanced by Mann. But this line of investigation may have tapped a kind of individual differences in verbal strategies that may characterize very advanced readers too; I mean students and professors of literature. Poor readers who in the kindergarten or the first three grades of elementary school are unable to respond appropriately to the number of phonemes or the syllables of a word, may learn to do so in due course. Such measures as the ones applied to first graders would be insufficient to measure a literature student's relative reliance on phonetic coding. However, we may find in prosody classes students of literature who are incapable of telling which syllable of a bisyllabic word in their mother tongue is stressed, even though they can pronounce it correctly. The plain fact seems to be that even at this level of students and professors of literature there are individual differences in this respect, and there are persons who do not seem to feel at ease with phonetic representation, and seek to fall back as frequently as possible on semantic coding. This is most conspicuous in the response of various readers to what Snyder (1930) called "hypnotic poetry". In a number of poems by Poe, Coleridge, and certain other poets, many readers are inclined to "attend away" from the meaning of the words, and to become "spell-bound" by their sound. The reader feels as if he were entangled by the sounds of these poems, and tends to perceive their meaning relatively dimly. However, some other readers respond quite differently: they may find the sound effects of the same poems rather boring and unemotional. Such differences are due to a person's being high or low on the personality variable "absorption" (Glicksohn, Tsur & Goodblatt, 1991). Still other readers may ignore all in all the sound effects of the same poems and seek to account for their significance solely in terms of their meaning. More often than not, such interpretations will also ignore the possible hypnotic effect of these poems. Such an inclination to account for the significance of poems solely in terms of their meaning may also be an indication of a basic preference for a semantic rather than a phonetic coding.2
Speech consists, then, of strings of abstract phonetic
categories. The precategorical 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. Rhyme typically exploits
this precategorical acoustic information and, actually,
enhances 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, on the one hand, and tends to
cause acoustic confusion, on the other. In poetic language,
the verbal material is subjected to much more sophisticated
processing than in other uses of language. But in some
instances at least, rhyme reverberates in echoic memory
more intensely and for even longer than most aspects
of poetic language.3
What in the nonaesthetic memory experiments is called
acoustic confusion, in an aesthetic context may be
perceived as "harmonious fusion", or "musicality"
("musicality" by its very nature is more
intimately associated with the the sensory aspects
of speech sounds than with the abstract phonetic categories).
As a result, the rhyming units are felt to be rather
closely knit together, even when they are apart in
time to some extent; alternatively, the rhymes may
be felt to spread some sort of an inarticulate sensory
net over a considerable region of a poem.
Now let us consider in light of the foregoing discussion
the following issue. In some instances a fuller body
of the rhyme words is perceived than in other instances.
Suppose we take a random collection of pieces of rhymed
verse and a random collection of readers, and ask the
readers to characterize the rhymes by such pairs of
adjectives as compact ~ diffuse; lean ~ plump; clicking
~ reverberating; tight ~ spacious; flat ~ plastic,
or the like. We may obtain a welter of judgments suggesting--wrongly,
I believe--that such judgments are a matter of purely
arbitrary subjective decisions. But if we realize that
three kinds of variables are involved in such judgments,
they will cease to appear arbitrary. The three kinds
of variables concern the phoneme structure of the rhymes,
the judge's cognitive style, and the relative strength
of the gestalts present in the poem, both on the prosodic
and semantic levels. It is difficult, though not impossible,
to sort out what is the relative share of each of these
variables in the judgments.
As for the phoneme structure of the rhymes, we may expect that the relatively unencoded speech sounds (that is, the ones that are not thoroughly restructured in perception, and some of the rich precategorical sensory information does reach consciousness) would more frequently elicit judgments that use the second member of each pair of the above adjectives. Such rhymes may be felt to have a fuller body. The phoneme structure of the rhymes may affect their perceived quality in an additional way too (Tsur, 1992a: 52-88). Speech sounds that are later acquisitions of the infant have greater emotional and aesthetic potential than the earlier acquisitions; among the later acquisitions, continuous and periodical sounds tend to have a highly musical or pleasant emotional quality, whereas abrupt or aperiodic sounds may have an unpleasant or unmusical quality. In French, the nasal vowels and the sound cluster -eur consist of late acquisitions that are acoustically continuous and periodic, and relatively unencoded from the phonetic point of view. It may be expected that highly emotional and musical (e.g., Symbolist) poetry in the French language should resort to the nasal vowels and the sound cluster -eur in its rhymes more frequently than rationalist poetry, or poetry that sets great store by its idea contents. A simple counting revealed that this is indeed the case (ibid., 66-67): Baudelaire in the first poem of his Fleurs du Mal used in his rhymes nasal vowels and the sound cluster -eur two and a half times as frequently as Boileau in the first one hundred lines of his L'Art Poétique. Or, consider the first stanza of Verlaine's "Chanson d'Automne", where the rhymes are nasal consonants and vowels, and the sound cluster -eur:
(3) Les sanglots longs
Blessent mon coeur
As for the judge's cognitive style, the less a reader
tends to rely on phonetic coding in his language processing,
the more he will be inclined to use the first member
of the afore-mentioned adjective pairs in characterizing
their perceived affect. And this might be the case,
for probably different reasons, with persons who have
low tolerance for delayed categorization. Phonetic
coding consists in the substitution of an abstract
phonetic category for the acoustic information that
transmitted it from the speaker to the hearer. The
greater the delay in categorization, the richer the
precategorical sensory information that becomes available
to a person, and the fuller the body of the sound patterns
perceived. By the same token, however, the cognitive
load of the information to be handled is greater too,
and the period of uncertainty resulting from the exposure
to uncategorized sensory information is longer; that
is why so many persons are intolerant of delayed categorization.
As for the relative strength of the gestalts present
in the poem, we must be aware of degrees of gestalt
organization: there is a spectrum of stronger and weaker
gestalts, with inarticulate, gestalt-free information
at the weak end. In visual perception the presence
of a gestalt-free ground--say, shading--lends "plasticity",
or "depth-dimension", to a strong visual
shape. The same principle seems to be at work in phonetic
perception in a poetic context. Here, too, the presence
of inarticulate, precategorical, sensory percepts seem
to lend "plasticity", or "depth-dimension",
to a well-articulated abstract phonetic category. However,
the inarticulate, precategorical, sensory percepts
gain greater or lesser relative weight, according to
the context in which they occur. This observation seems
to be true at all levels, from the smallest-scale phonetic
context to the widest poetic context. Rakerd (1984)
adduces carefully controlled experimental evidence
suggesting that vowels in consonantal context are perceived
more linguistically than are isolated vowels. In plain
English this means that in isolated vowels one may
perceive more precategorical auditory percepts than
in consonantal contexts. One possible explanation for
this is that vowels in consonantal context are subject
to what speech-researchers call "parallel transmission";
in other words, "the talker often coarticulates
the neighboring segments of an utterance (that is,
overlaps their productions) such that the acoustic
signal is jointly influenced by those segments"
(Rakerd, 1984: 123). This finding is corroborated by
Repp (1984) who discovered some cognitive strategies
by which listeners can attend at will to the abstract
phonetic categories of the fricative sibilants [s,
S], or switch to the underlying precategorical
auditory information. "The skill involved lay
in perceptually segregating the noise from its vocalic
context, which then made it possible to attend to its
'pitch'. Without this segregation, the phonetic percept
In some poems the rich precategorical auditory information seems to have an especially strong impact on their emotional, sometimes uncanny, atmosphere, as well as on their musicality. Let us return to the first stanza of Verlaine's "Chanson d'Automne" (quote No. (3)). When we perform a poem like this, we choose from the beginning a delivery-style that would allow us a sufficient margin of freedom to manipulate the nasal backvowels prolonging and segregating subliminally their crucial portions so as to allow to perceive and register their "dark" quality, as well as their rich sonorous quality, before "lateral inhibition" by later arrivals may occur, or so as to proactivate and enhance the sound trace of similar sound patterns to arrive later; or, at least, to pronounce the nasal vowels in such a way, that there should remain a sufficiently perceptible portion of their acoustic signal that is not jointly influenced by the neighboring segments. This margin of freedom is not easy to achieve. It seems to be only possible in a general state of mind in which parallel cognitive processing is encouraged, whereas in connected speech there is a tendency to proceed linearly rather than move in different directions from the central sequence. As will be suggested below, in poetry one may distinguish a convergent from a divergent style; in the latter, perceptual and conceptual gestalts are considerably weaker than in the former. In order to allow for the disruption--subliminal though--of the linear sequencing of speech sounds (i.e., for the segregation of the relevant portions of the auditory stream), the whole message must be less thoroughly organized, on all levels, as in divergent style, where the linguistic stress pattern diverges from the conventional metric pattern, and so does the syntactic unit (clause, sentence) from the prosodic unit (line). In the world stratum of divergent poems we frequently find diffuse shape-free (and sometimes thing-free) entities rather than things that have stable characteristic visual shapes. In short, the freedom to adopt the cognitive strategy of segregating or integrating the crucial portions of the sound stream, so as to move back and forth between auditory and phonetic modes of listening, is at its fullest when the cognitive system is on no level of the poem under the control of some strong shape, definite direction or patent purpose. In such a context of relaxed shapes on all levels of a poem, the greater the divergence of the repeated sound clusters from strings of arbitrary verbal signs, the more they assume the emotive effects of nonreferential sound gestures (cf. Tsur, 1992a: 72-73).
Rhyme and Gestalt
(4) The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
(5) The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
No. (4) is the first stanza of Thomas Gray's "Elegy
Written in a Country Church-Yard", No. (5) is
the same stanza, with its rhyme pattern re-arranged.
Semantically and thematically they convey quite similar
information (the rearrangement of lines interferes
with certain subject-predicate relationships, but this
does not affect my argument). A comparison of the two,
however, reveals a rather different tone. The second
version is felt to be considerably simplified, it has
a more straightforward tone. If we ask readers to apply
one member of the adjective pair emotional ~ witty
to one version and one to the other, more likely than
not, emotional will be applied to the original version,
witty to the re-arranged one. Gestalt theory is the
most convenient tool to relate systematically such
perceived affects to the structure of the texts. The
fundamental law of perception, the Law of Prägnanz,
is commonly defined by gestalt psychologists as follows:
"The psychological organization of any stimulus
pattern will always be as good as the prevailing conditions
allow", followed as a rule by a list of conditions
for "good". "The 'laws of organization',
as formulated by Max Wertheimer, designate the conditions
which maximize our tendency to respond to groups of
individual stimuli as unified 'percepts'. These conditions
include proximity and similarity"
(Herrnstein-Smith, 1968: 41). In quote (5), the similar
endings day - way and lea - me are in greater proximity
than in quote (4); in quote (5), therefore, the prevailing
conditions allow a better psychological organization
of the stimulus pattern than in quote (4).
The regional quality of such rhymes as in quote (5) is typically perceived as 'witty', in the sense of "characterized by sharpness usually associated with cleverness and quickness of apprehension". This quickness can easily be accounted for, if we consider the following description of the two versions. In quote (5), the second a-rhyme ("way") immediately follows the first a-rhyme ("day"); and the same is true of the b-rhymes. Each couplet is quickly completed and left off. In quote (4), by contrast, the first member of each rhyme-pair must be kept in mind for longer before it can be completed, and is perceived as somewhat "slower". That is why the a-b-a-b rhyme pattern suits better such descriptions as "The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea, / The plowman homeward plods his weary way", whereas the a-a-b-b rhyme pattern would suit better, e.g., Pope's witty arguments (cf. below, quotes (10-13). The a-a-b-b rhyme pattern has a simple, "good" shape, since it groups together by similarity two verse lines in close proximity. The a-b-a-b rhyme pattern has a less simple shape, since the rhyme endings grouped together by similarity are less in proximity. In fact, in order to obtain two similar parts on a higher level, two dissimilar lines must be grouped together on a lower level: if on a lower level the a+b lines are grouped together, the whole stanza divides into two symmetrical parts, of exactly the same structure, ab. It should be observed that the a-b-a-b rhyme pattern is relatively complex only as compared to the a-a-b-b rhyme pattern, but is quite simple as compared to some other rhyme patterns (compare, for instance, quotes (6) and (7) below). Consequently, (5) is apt to break up into two quickly alternating couplets, whereas (4) constitutes one stable whole. In (4), then, it takes longer and more complex processing before a complete, closed whole can be achieved. That is why (4) is perceived as slower, less witty, perhaps more emotional.4
In poetry, sometimes it is more convenient to talk of
strong and weak gestalts in terms of convergent and
divergent structures. When a line ending converges
with a sentence ending, they yield a stronger shape
than when they diverge. Likewise, when metrical strong
positions converge with linguistically stressed syllables
and with patterns of alliteration, they yield stronger
shapes than when they diverge in one way or other.
To this, one may add some observations concerning line
structure. An eight-position-long or twelve-position-long
iambic line may be divided into two segments of equal
length (four or six positions long) and of equal structure
(each beginning with a weak position and ending with
a strong position.)5
A ten-position-long iambic line,
too, can be divided into two segments of equal length
(5+5); the structure of these segments, however, will
be unequal (one beginning and ending with a weak position,
the other beginning and ending with a strong position).
Alternatively, the line can be divided into two segments
of unequal length (4+6 or 6+4), but of similar structures
(each beginning with a weak position and ending with
a strong position). Consequently, while the iambic
tetrameter and hexameter can be balanced by a caesura
at the middle, the iambic pentameter has only a rather
vague region of balance, where a caesura may occur
after the fourth, fifth or sixth position (the caesura
after the fourth position being the unmarked, after
the sixth, the marked caesura). Consequently, the tetrameter
and the hexameter tend to fall into two symmetrical
halves, whereas the pentameter tends to be perceived
as more integrated.
(6) Farewell, farewell, but this I tell
To thee, oh wedding guest:
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both Man and Bird and Beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
(Coleridge, from "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner")
(7) But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God does not need
Either man's work or his own gifts; who best 10
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.
(Milton, from "On his Blindness")
Consider the italicized sentences in (6) and (7). They
have three things at least in common. They convey a
similar "moral", in both the word "best"
is repeated, and they have a similar syntactic structure:
a complex sentence in which the subject is a rank-shifted
relative clause preceded by "he". In both,
the word "best" receives unusually strong
emphasis at the end of the line: in quote (6), because
the word converges with the caesura and the line ending,
yielding an unusually well-articulated, symmetrical,
stable whole; in quote (7), because an unusually strong
emphasis and prolongation on the word best is required,
in order to indicate the line ending behind the "fluid"
run-on sentence. The italicized run-on sentence in
quote (7) has exactly the length and structure of a
pentameter line, "straddled" between two
pentameter lines. Its "movement" is exceptionally
"impetuous", because it drastically upsets
the formal line's balance: it does not begin and end
in the regions of balance, but very near the end of
the two lines concerned, always leaving a mere two-syllable-long
chunk, which has, consequently, high "requiredness",
that is, satisfies a strong need for completion. I
have elsewhere compared in great detail these two passages
(Tsur, 1977: 203-207). I wish to repeat here only one
issue concerning the differences between the italicized
sentences, and add a new point.
The placement of the rank-shifted clause in the sentence
has a decisive effect upon the respective passages.
"When a prediction remains unfulfilled for too
long, the sentence becomes excessively laboured"
(Johnson-Laird, 1970: 263). "Laboured sentences"
and weak gestalts have one thing in common: both take
up relatively large amount of mental space. The gestalt
of Milton's sentence is rendered fuzzier than Coleridge's.
In Milton's sentence, "Who" predicts a relative
clause which, in turn, predicts a main clause in which
it is to fulfil the function of a noun; secondly, within
the relative clause, "who" predicts a verb
related to it in a subject-predicate relationship.
This expectation is prolonged by the interpolated "best".
In Coleridge's sentence, the two clauses come in the
reverse order: an independent clause followed by a
relative clause; the former predicts, syntactically,
no other one. All this increases the respective convergent
and divergent characters of the two passages. The transitionary
quality of Milton's sentence is all the more conspicuous,
since one may contrast it to a similar (yet different)
structure in the last line of the same sonnet: "They
also serve who only stand and wait". This sentence
is built 'on the model of' Coleridge's sentence: it
converges with the line; the relative clause follows
the independent clause (expectations are 'released').
So, the two comparable sentences mutually reinforce,
by contrast, the transitionary quality of the earlier,
and the firm closural quality of the later one.
In the present context, I wish to point out one more curious phenomenon. Some readers report that the word "best" is felt to be somehow fuzzier, less sharp at the end of line 10 in quote (7), than at the end of line 5 in quote (6). I used to think that this impression was due, mainly, to the sharpness or fuzziness, the convergence or divergence, of the gestalts in which the word "best" occurred. Though I still believe that there is some such relationship, now it seems to me quite unlikely that the impression of sharpness or fuzziness is simply displaced from the wider gestalt to the key-word "best".
As I have suggested above, there may be an actual difference
in our articulation of the word "best"--a sharper
articulation in quote (6), a more prolonged articulation
in quote (7). This would, perhaps, afford easier access
to the inarticulate precategorical sensory information
in quote (7) than in quote (6). In the preceding section,
I have discussed in some detail the relationship between
abstract phonetic categories and the rich precategorical
auditory information. I have suggested that we may
be influencing unwittingly this relationship by adopting
one or another cognitive strategy in our performance:
the freedom to adopt the cognitive strategy of segregating
or integrating the crucial portions of the sound stream,
so as to move back and forth between auditory and phonetic
modes of listening, is at its fullest when the cognitive
system is on no level of the poem under the control
of some strong shape, definite direction or patent
purpose. The conclusive tone of the great religious
truths enhanced by the repeated superlatives do arouse,
in both passages, a psychological atmosphere of definite
direction and patent purpose. However, while this psychological
atmosphere is reinforced by the exceptionally strong
prosodic shapes in quote (6), it is considerably mitigated
by the exceptionally fluid and weak prosodic shapes
in quote (7). Gestalt psychology in its discussion
of figure-ground relationships has discovered certain
principles of colour interaction that might be extended
to sound, if we substitute "gestalt-free elements"
for "colour". The interaction of colours
or of gestalt-free elements does not work across the
boundaries of strong gestalts. The weaker the gestalts,
the stronger the interaction of colours or of gestalt-free
elements across their boundaries. "The ambiguity
of a weak figure on a strong ground immensely increases
colour interaction" (Ehrenzweig, 1970: 172). Furthermore,
"as in all relationship 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., 171). If my suggestion of the analogy between
colour and gestalt-free elements is valid, the ambiguity
of the weak figures resulting from the syntactic and
prosodic shapes blurring each other in quote (7) may
immensely increase the interaction of gestalt-free,
inarticulate precategorical auditory information underlying
the word "best". This, in turn, may work
the other way as well: to make the outlines seem even
softer than they are. Such increased interaction of
gestalt-free elements may be responsible for the fuzzier,
plumper, fuller impression of "best" in quote
(7) than in quote (6).
The grouping of lines by rhyme, and the relative strength
of gestalts generated by such groupings may have a
decisive affect in an additional issue, upon which
I shall only touch here. I have already alluded to
what Snyder called "hypnotic" or "spell-weaving"
poetry. Regular metre gives security to what John Crowe
Ransom calls the "Platonic Censor in us"
(Chatman 1965: 212). A witty quality is generated when
this security is genuine, a hypnotic quality, when
this security is false. Metre gives security, because
it is predictable; security is genuine, when other
aspects of the poetic text, too, provide predictable
orders or do not violate too drastically the reader's
rationality or sense of reality. In Coleridge's "Kubla
Khan", in Poe's "Ulalume" and throughout
Alexander Pope's work, metre is more than usually regular.
Disregarding matters of contents, one may suggest that
Pope's work is perceived as witty because, among other
reasons, his rhymes are in close proximity and yield
perfectly predictable and symmetrical patterns; its
versification arouses genuine security. But in the
first stanzas of "Kubla Khan" (cf. Tsur,
1987a) and "Ulalume" (cf. Tsur, 1992b: 434-445),
the versification arouses false security: their regular
metre is coupled with unpredictable rhyme patterns
(in Coleridge even with unpredictable line lengths),
and symmetries, even when established, are frequently
disturbed or even overturned by later or intervening
lines. Hence their strong hypnotic effect.
In some instances, on the contrary, too much predictability of the rhyme pattern may arouse that feeling of uncertainty which, coupled with the certainty of predictable rhythm, generates the "spell-weaving", or "trance-inducing" affect of hypnotic poetry. In Tsur (1988a) I have discussed such a Hebrew poem, "Bircat Shoshanim" ("Rose Greeting") by Jonathan Ratosh. On the metric level, Ratosh's poem has an obtrusive, more than usually regular, ternary metre. The length of lines is regular in this poem, and thus strictly predictable. On the grouping level, however, this poem is much less predictable than, e.g.,"Kubla Khan". But it achieves this state of uncertainty by a device that is very different from that of "Kubla Khan": all of the twenty-four lines rhyme on one group of two speech sounds [et]. This succession of lines, with their undifferentiated rhyme pattern, has no self-generated grouping principle, and their formal division into eight-line-long stanzas is purely external and arbitrary. Such perceptual grouping is prone to arouse a feeling of saturation and strong cravings for change. Thus we may refer to two opposing aspects in the prosodic organization of Ratosh's poem. On the metric level and line level, it induces a marked feeling of security, whereas on the level of line-grouping it induces an unusually strong, almost chaotic sense of insecurity (cf. also Glicksohn & al., 1991, where we report an experimental investigation of the readers' response to this poem).
Rhyme and Meaning
In his paper "One Relationship between Rhyme and Reason", Wimsatt (1964: 153-166) points out the difference between Chaucer's rhymes and Pope's. Chaucer's are "tame" rhymes, in which the same parts of speech are used in closely parallel functions, as in
(8) And he was clad in cote and hood of green.
A sheef of pecock arwes, bright and kene,
Under his belt he bar full thriftily,
Wel coude he dresse his takel yemanly ...
Not so Pope, who achieves his witty effects, among other means, by rhyming, e.g., nouns with verbs, verbs with adverbs, in different syntactic positions, as in
(9) Blessed with each talent and each art to please,
And born to write, converse, and live with ease,
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
Bear like a Turke, no brother near the throne ...
Such rhymes are perceived as vigorous.Tame and vigorous
describe the perceived effects of these rhymes.
The remark that vigorous rhymes involve different parts
of speech describes their structure. The vigorous effect
of "anti-grammatical" rhymes (Roman Jakobson's
term) can be explained in terms of a semantic information-processing
According to a prevalent--though by no means the only--present
day-view of semantic representation, the meaning of
words can be conceived of as bundles of elements that
are frequently referred to as "semantic features",
or "meaning components", or "primitive
concepts". Thus, the word bachelor can be analyzed
into the following set of components: [+NOUN +COUNT
+CONCRETE +ANIMATE +HUMAN +ADULT +MALE -MARRIED]. The change of the sign of the last but one feature on this
list to [-MALE] results in a meaning structure that
can be realized in the surface word spinster. Deletion
of the last feature in the above list results in a
meaning structure that can be realized as the word
man. If we delete the last feature on the above list
and change the algebraic sign of the last but one feature,
we get the meaning structure of woman, and so forth.
Some cognitive and linguistic manipulations are typically
focused on the lowest item in the list of features.
When one says "That person is a bachelor",
one usually asserts of that person only that he is
unmarried, not that he is a human being, or an adult,
or a male (although one specifies, by the same token,
"that person" as adult and male). Similarly
the negative: "That person is not a bachelor"
negates only the lowest feature: saying "That
person is not unmarried", while still specifying
the person as adult and male. Assertion and negation
appear to concern only a single--the lowest--feature of
Likewise, in the word association game, according
to Clark (1970: 276-277), the stimulus
word man elicits woman 62 percent of the time (resulting
from the change of the lowest semantic feature [+MALE]),
but elicits boy only 8 per cent of the time (resulting
from the change of the lowest-but-one feature [+ADULT]);
it elicits girl only 3 percent of the time (resulting
from changing the two lowest features). Thus, woman
is obviously the unmarked response to man, whereas
boy and girl are marked to varying degrees. Clark's
findings can be accounted for by assuming that the
responses obtained are produced according to the simplicity-of-production
rule: "Perform the least change on the lowest
feature, with the restriction that the result must
correspond to an English word [...] Unsuccessful applications
of simpler rules therefore force people to use more
and more complex rules" (Clark, 1970:
280-281). Eventually, this amounts to the principle
of exerting minimum effort. Anti-grammatical rhymes
are produced contrary to the simplicity-of-production
rule: 'Change as many features as possible, as high
on the list as possible',6 resulting
in the assertion of maximum effort--hence its vigorous
The semantic structure of the rhymes in (9) is, then,
anti-grammatical; its perceived effect is vigorous
and witty. Returning now once more to the first stanza
of Verlaine's "Chanson d'Automne" (quote
(3)), we may notice that most of its rhymes, too, are
anti-grammatical: longs is an adjective, violons a
noun; l'automne is an abstract noun, whereas monotone
is an adjective. Even coeur and langueur, both of which
are nouns, are contrasted in a feature fairly high
on the list: [+/-CONCRETE]. Here, however, the perceived
effect is quite different. The rhymes enhance a certain
"thing-free" atmosphere, and an intense,
vague feeling rather than sharp wit. The semantic
features of the anti-grammatical rhyme are well articulated
in awareness, owing to the oppositions pointed up by
it. In a divergent stylistic context, these features
are diffused among the other diffuse elements. When
the same heterogeneous semantic elements are 'yoked'
together in an environment of convergence and strong
shapes, such rhymes usually have a 'witty' regional
quality, 'witty' used, as above, in the sense of 'sharpness'
usually associated with cleverness and quickness of
apprehension. This quickness, then, can be accounted
for by the properties of strong shapes.
At this point, I propose to draw together my discussions of phonetic and semantic information-processing, via Wimsatt's treatment of the homoeoteleuton:
It would be only an exaggeration, not a distortion, of principle to say that the difference between prose and verse is the difference betwen homoeoteleuton and rhyme. "Non modo ad salitem ejus exstinguendam sed etiam gloriam per tales viros infringendam", says Cicero, and Quintilian quotes it as an exmple of homoeoteleuton or like endings. Here the -endam and the -endam are alike, logically and legitimately alike; each has the same meaning, or is the same morpheme, and each supports the logic of the sentence by appearing in a certain place in the structure. Stylistic parallels or forms of meaning of this sort seem to come fairly to the aid of logic; they are part of the normal framework of the prose (Wimsatt, 1954: 153-1540).
When, in prose, not only the endings but also the roots rhyme, the result is an effect of alogicality, if not of excess and artificiality. Of somewhat the same character is the cursus of metrical ending.
And if a prose writer were to reinforce a pair of parallel or antithetic clauses by making each one an iambic pentameter, we should say that this was decidedly too much, that the metrical equality was hardly interesting unless it combined with a vein of logic that ran differently (ibid, 154).
I should like to relate this discussion, and its sequel,
the discussion of "tame" and "vigorous"
rhymes, to the above discussion of codings used by
good and poor readers. The experiment by Byrne and
Shea has tapped two kinds of codings, semantic and
phonetic, exploited for such cognitive activities as
reading, or keeping words in active memory. Similar-meaning
words reinforce the use of the semantic code; similar-sound
words, the use of the phonetic code. In ordinary speech,
the use of the phonetic code is "transparent";
it is exploited for the efficient use of short-term
memory, but no conscious or half-conscious attention
is paid to it. In literary use, some attention is shifted
to it: we do acknowledge its affect on the whole, but
are hard put to identify its source. Since, however,
we use language as a rule in order to convey meanings
rather than mere sounds, semantic coding does have
a certain primacy over phonetic coding, even in literary
language. Whenever possible, we tend to foreground
semantic coding; only when something seems to "go
wrong" with the semantic coding, we tend to shift
our attention to the phonetic coding. When, in Wimsatt's
quotation from Cicero, the like endings "each
has the same meaning, or is the same morpheme, and
each supports the logic of the sentence by appearing
in a certain place in the structure", that is,
"stylistic parallels or forms of meaning of this
sort seem to come fairly to the aid of logic",
the semantic and syntactic coding appears to be entirely
satisfactory, and the readers or listeners seem to
feel little need to attend to the phonetic coding.
Since, however, like endings have similar sounds as
well, the readers or listeners do direct increased
attention to them, but use this similarity merely to
reinforce the similar meanings. Not so with rhymes.
The greater the difference in the meanings of the rhyming
words, the more the readers or listeners are inclined
to shift attention to the phonetic similarity. In anti-grammatical
rhyme, the difference of meanings is, by definition,
greater than in grammatical rhyme; so, both the semantic
and phonetic representation are more active in perception.
In view of the foregoing analysis, we may distinguish
three significant kinds of relationship between the
semantic and the auditory-phonetic information in literary
language. Paraphrasing a distinction in ecological
acoustics, rhyme is resonant, homoeoteleuton is thunk
(Graver, 1993: 297). In homoeoteleuton, semantic and
logical relationships are dominant, to which the sound-information
is subordinated; it is perceived as rather flat, compact,
relative to the other possibilities. In rhyme, by contrast,
the sound-information becomes relatively loose, both
in the sense of released to some extent from its attachment
to meaning, and in the sense of less closely packed
together. It reverberates in echoic memory, and the
whole is perceived as more spacious, more plastic,
having a fuller body. In this case we have two possibilities:
"when the cognitive system is on no level of the
poem under the control of some strong shape",
and when it is on some level(s) of the poem under the
control of strong shape(s). In the latter case, in
Pope's poetry, for instance, the regular metre, the
symmetrical couplet form, and the parallelisms are
just such strong shapes that exert rigorous control
over the cognitive system, and considerably tone down
the impact of the rich precategorical auditory information.
As a result, the auditory information remains subordinated
to the abstract phonetic categories, generating a "figure-ground"
relationship, which renders the perception of the string
of abstract phonetic categories more plastic, bestowing
upon it, so to speak, depth-dimension. In the former
case, in Verlaine's "Chanson d'Automne",
for instance, the rich precategorical auditory information
may get out of control, reverberate at large, and tend
to assume the emotive effects of nonreferential sound
gestures. By the same token, attention tends to be
shifted away from the meaning to the sound of the poem.
By analogy with visual perception, the pre-categorial
information may be assumed to behave differently at
the two levels of rhyme: as long as the abstract phonetic
category is in control, the interaction between the
minute, inarticulate sound-percepts is contained within
the limited area of the speech sound; when the pre-categorial
sensory information bursts the constraints of organising
shapes, such interaction takes place over considerable
areas of the poem, and at great intensity levels. This
is a phonetic reason for Pope's rhymes to sound so
active, but also so focussed.
In what follows, I shall contrast the above conception of the relationship between rhyme and meaning to another, rather widespread one, that seems to arise from some critics' uneasiness with the need to handle issues related to sound patterns and rhyme schemes. In many instances, critics try to improvise some ad hoc semantic feature for the specific rhyme pattern. I propose now an (admittedly unduly brief) consideration of such an instance (Jones, 1969), in order to see whether the semantic and gestalt tools proposed here can handle the instance discussed by Jones more adequately. Let us consider a few couplets from Pope (all italics are Pope's):
(10) Our plenteous Streams a various Race supply;
The bright-ey'd Perch with Fins of Tyrian Dye,
The silver Eel, in shining volume roll'd,
The yellow Carp, in Scales bedrop'd with Gold,
Swift Trouts, diversify'd with Crimson Stains,
And Pikes, the Tyrants of the wat'ry Plains.
("Windsor Forest", 141-146)
(11) Yet let not each gay Turn thy Rapture move,
For Fools Admire, but Men of Sense Approve.
("An Essay on Criticism", 390-391)
(12) Others for language all their care express,
And value books, as Women Men, for Dress.
("An Essay on Criticism", 305-306)
(13) Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl'd:
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.
(Pope: "An Essay on Man", II. 17-18)
(14) Such if there be, who loves so long, so well,
Let him our sad, our tender story tell;
("Eloisa to Abelard", 363-364)
John A. Jones, in his book on Pope's couplet art, quotes (10), above, and makes the following comment on its third line:
Because the participle "roll'd" is the rhyme word, the verb quality of "rolling" is emphasized rather than adjectival or substantive quality. "Shining volumes" is more effective coming before the rhyme "roll'd" than it would be after it, for it is the climactic rolling or writhing that is highlighted. We do not always think of volumes as round but here it means "coils"; and when "roll'd" describes "volumes", the eelish quality is heightened, as the reader can easily imagine, even if he has never landed an eel (Jones, 1969: 74-75).
Consider the first sentence of this quotation from Jones.
The word because suggests a logical, causal relationship
between its two clauses. But is there one? To justify
such a statement, there must be some generalization
that can be consistently maintained, such as, for instance,
"When a participle occurs in the rhyme word, its
verb quality is emphasized rather than adjectival or
substantive quality". I am not aware of any such
valid generalization. In fact, all the available grammatical
and stylistic evidence suggests that the adjectival
quality is emphasized in this epithet. Jones's
interpretation, however, crucially seems to depend
on the participle's "verb quality". Since,
however, everybody feels that rhymes do something important
to words, and so little is known about what they do
to them, Jones quite safely resorts to the rhyme word
to enlist it in the service of the "verb quality"
construal of the participle. When words with certain
meaning components are systematically manipulated into
the rhyme, one can, perhaps, make a case for its significance;
but even that cannot justify any generalization of
this kind. Speech sounds are arbitrarily assigned to
meanings in natural languages. Versification is, typically,
an additional organization of the phonological component,
irrespective of the meanings of the sounds. Whenever
the critic claims that there is some interaction between
sound and meaning, he must make explicit the principles
on which he is relying.
Syntactic inversion; may be an effective foregrounding
device, unless there are factors that tend to void
it. In some cases, however, it may be reasonably supposed
that the poet used his conventional right to syntactic
inversion merely to make his words conform with meter
and rhyme. In "shining volume roll'd", there
may be room for just such 'reasonable supposition'.
But, sometimes, there is more to it.
Consider (13), above. The antithesis leaves little
room for doubt that Error in the first line is a word
of key importance. Although hurl'd contributes such
components to the image as helplessness, passive endurance
and unstability, its decisive component, physical transfer,
has little relevance to the thought expressed by the
antithesis. Hurl'd constitutes a virtuoso rhyme with
world, but this has been achieved at the double price
of an "inelegant" syntactic inversion and
manipulating the word of key importance out of the
rhyme. Is it possible that a great master of poetic
technique like Pope should be guilty of such incompetence?
And how could we explain, then, that precisely this
"incompetent" line constitutes one of the
most famous couplets on which Pope's reputation as
a major poet rests? An alternative explanation would
be that the syntactic inversion, the virtuoso rhyme,
and the manipulation of the key word out of the rhyme
serve one common effect. As the random collection of
couplets in (11-14) may suggest, such inversions, manipulating
words of little importance into the rhyme, are not
uncommon in Pope. It will be noticed that in (11-13)
the inversion occurs at the end of the first line of
the couplet, whereas in (14) it occurs at the end of
the second line. I shall argue that this is quite significant.
Consider (11). Here, "move" provides the finite
verb and the idea of causation only; greater interest
lies in the direct object Rapture, and even greater
in the subject, gay Turn. In short, the syntactic inversion
maneuvers precisely the nonemphatic verb into the rhyme.
At the same time, the antithesis fools ~ Men of Sense
focuses attention on the verbs Admire and Approve.
These two verbs are near-synonyms in that they express
a positive attitude; and they are near-antonyms in
that they express uncritical enthusiasm and sound judgment,
respectively. This semantic and rhetorical structure
is the main source of this couplet's wit. The witty
effect of the verb Approve is greatly enhanced here
by its high degree of requiredness at this place.
This verb is required here owing to its place in the
rhyme pattern, in the antithesis and in the segmentation
of the line. So, in light of the foregoing gestaltist
discussion, one might suggest that the syntactic inversion
at the end of the first line is functional: the structure
of the first line is weakened sufficiently to make
the part dependent on, and therefore integrated with,
its context. In short, the weaker the ending of the
first line, the stronger the structural closure perceived
at the end of the couplet. One of the most effective
means of amplifying the closure of a piece of poetry,
at various levels of organization, is to weaken the
closure of the unit before, and thus make it more dependent
on the whole.
Likewise, in (12) the inversion highlights the noun
phrases language and all their care; the least emphatic
member of the clause, the verb express, is again dislocated
and placed into the rhyme. Great attention is focused,
again, on Dress in the rhyme of the second line, by
a variety of means: requiredness arising from segmentation,
the rhetorical scheme (zeugma) and the convergence
of two meanings in the word Dress: 'guise, appearance,
adornment' and 'fine cloths'. A similar story can be
told of the first line of (13), even though in the
second line attention is not focused with such vigour
on the rhyming word.
Contrary, then, to Jones's contention, in all
these instances it is not the rhyme that effects the
meaning of, and bestows emphasis on, the word that
is manipulated into it, but rather the other way around:
the relatively low semantic importance of the word
manipulated into the line ending de-emphasizes the
first rhyme. The process is governed by the gestalt
principles discussed in the present paper, and is geared
to "the conditions which maximize our tendency
to respond to groups of individual stimuli as unified
We may observe a very different effect in (14), where the syntactic inversion occurs at the end of the second line. This couplet is perceived as "softer" than the instances discussed so far. This effect is achieved by a variety of means; but only the syntactic inversion at the end of the couplet concerns us here. "Eloisa to Abelard" is very different from Pope's other major poems. Here, the witty effect is replaced by a pervasive emotional tone, quite unusual in Pope. This emotional tone is supported by a relatively divergent structure. The drastic weakening of the closure at the end of the couplet is an effective means of weakening the overall gestalts within the rigid constraints of Pope's poetics.
Dactylic Rhyme, Intertextuality and Cognitive Poetics
In the present section I am going to focus attention on the placement of stress in rhyme, consider at some length the perceived affects of dactylic rhyme in various stylistic contexts, and discuss the relative merits of cognitive poetics and the historical approach of intertextuality in accounting for these qualities.
Regarding the placement of stress, one may distinguish for our purpose three types of rhyme: masculine (with the stress on the last syllable of the line), feminine (with the stress on the last but one syllable), and dactylic (with the stress on the last but two syllable). The third kind is very rare in English poetry, and may be illustrated by the following examples:
In his excellent study of the dactylic rhyme, Uzi Shavit (1993, 20-21) says as follows:
Most English handbooks of prosody associate the dactylic rhyme with light and comic verse; and this is right, undoubtedly, from the statistic point of view. However, does this mean that the comic quality is inherent in the English dactylic rhyme? [...] At least one famous example contradicts this assumption [...]: Thomas Hood's "The Bridge of Sighs". This poem [...] is conspicuously touching, pathetic. Still, about one third of the poem's verse-lines end with a dactylic rhyme; this kind of rhyme is, undoubtedly, one of the poem's most outstanding characteristics. Consequently, some contradiction ought to arise between the pathetic theme and message of the poem, and the comic character of its rhyme (all translations from Shavit are mine--R.T.).
However, the opposite appears to be the case. Shavit
quotes Edgar Allan Poe, who in his "The Poetic
Principle" says about this poem (quotes (18),
(19)): "The vigour of this poem is no less remarkable
than its pathos. The versification, although carrying
the fanciful to the very verge of the fantastic, is
nevertheless admirably adapted to the wild insanity
which is the thesis of the poem" (ibid, 21). Likewise,
Emil Legouis suggests that Hood "found for these
poems, and especially for the second of them ["The
Bridge of Sighs"], most original metres and rhymes,
which heightened their pathos" (ibid.). Shavit
concludes that the relationship which the English tend
to find between the dactylic rhyme and low comedy is
not inherent in the English dactylic rhyme, but is
derived from the relative scarcity of this kind of
rhyme in English. As a result of this scarcity, there
is a tendency to associate these rhymes with the central
texts in which they occur; and the central text in
which there are more dactylic rhymes than in any other
English text is Byron's Don Juan (quotes (15), (16),
(17)). There is no doubt either that in Byron, the
dactylic rhymes have a pointedly comic affect.
Later, in an attempt to explain the apparent contradiction
between the comic and pathetic affects of the dactylic
rhyme, Shavit adopts one of my own suggestions, namely
that this apparent contradiction is derived from the
high markedness of the English dactylic rhyme. Markedness
is a double-edged phenomenon; that is, in certain contexts
it may generate some heightened witty, comic quality,
whereas in other contexts--some emotional quality. The
prosodist's task is, accordingly, to point out the
conditions in which markedness contributes to one or
another quality. According to this conception, this
requires a cognitive theoretical framework, that would
enable an examination of the unique perceptual characteristics
of the various prosodic patterns (ibid., 25).
Whithout objecting to this line of investigation, Shavit prefers to consider the opposite affects of the dactylic rhyme within a different, historical framework of theory, insisting on intertextuality as the basic characteristic of literary texts and the source of the afore-mentioned contradiction. (Later, in a personal communication, he suggested that the two approaches should perhaps be regarded as complementary; in what follows, I shall explore this possibility.) Shavit goes on:
If we view the English dactylic rhyme in this context, the comic use made by Byron and Frere of the dactylic rhymes appears directly to be related to the peculiar coupling of the burlesque epic with the ottava rima, that is, to the Italian model of Luigi Pulci and other Italian burlesque poets from whom Frere and Byron adopted not only the ottava rima, but also the comic tone and the familiar and light style characteristical of [...] "Beppo" and Don Juan (ibid., 25).
Commenting on Hood's poem, Shavit says that it has no relation whatever to Byron's epic. The metre of Don Juan is the iambic pentameter, its strophic form is the ottava rima, whereas "The Bridge of Sighs" is written in the dactylic dimeter and an irregular strophic form. The combination of the dactylic dimeter with the dactylic rhyme, says Shavit, points in a different direction, to the angels' choirs in Faust; the following is a very convincing example from Part One (lines 801-807):
To reinforce his conception, Shavit makes two further
points: that the association of the dactylic rhyme
with Byron's Don Juan seems to have been established
only gradually, and did not affect yet Thomas Hood
or his readers and critics; and that Hood left England
in 1835, staying on the Continent for five years, first
in Germany, then in Belgium. In Germany he was supposed
to have been exposed to Goethe's Faust.
Now let us imagine a present day native speaker of English
who spends much time in reading nineteenth century
English poetry, but does not know that in 1835 Hood
spent some time in Germany; knows no German or Italian,
and has never read Faust or Italian burlesque epics
in the original languages or in English translation.
What affect may we suppose him to perceive in English
dactylic rhyme? More likely than not, he will perceive
a comic affect in Byron's and a passionate affect in
Hood's rhymes. I am not trying to extol an unsophisticated
person as my prototypical reader. Rather, I wish to
point out the weaknesses of the historical approach
by bringing its argument ad absurdum. If we can credit
a reader such as the one described above with an ability
to perceive a comic affect in Byron's and a passionate
affect in Hood's rhymes, we need not necessarily assume
that a more sophisticated reader must be exposed to
Luigi Pulci and to Goethe, in order to be capable of
perceiving the respective qualities in Byron and Hood.
If we can grant as much, we must look elsewhere for
an explanation; and a cognitive explanation seems to
me as good as any other. But first, if we can grant
as much, we must postulate one of three possibilities:
that the comic or affectionate affect of the poetic
passage is determined by the contents, and the dactylic
rhyme has no influence whatever on it; or, that the
dactylic rhyme amplifies any perceived affect in the
text generated by the contents; or, that the dactylic
rhyme has some comic or passionate potentials, which
may be realized in certain stylistic contexts, the
explicit contents being part of these contexts. It
is assumed here that evidence for the second possibility
supersedes the first one; and evidence for the third
possibility supersedes the first two. In what follows,
I shall explore the third possibility, within a cognitive
frame of reference.
The dactylic rhyme is highly marked in English poetry,
for three different reasons. One reason is that in
the English language it is more difficult to produce
it than in some other languages, hence its rarity.
The other two reasons seem to be less language-dependent.
The second reason has to do with the grouping of unstressed
syllables with stressed ones. For unstressed syllables
to achieve a sense of stability, they must be grouped
together with an adjacent stressed syllable in a metrical
strong position, and it is easier to group them forward
than backward. Backward grouping is always perceived
as marked. In the dactylic rhyme, the last two unstressed
syllables must be grouped backward since, by definition,
they are not followed by a stressed syllable in a strong
position. What is more, when the dactylic rhyme occurs
in a ternary metre (dactyl, anapaest or amphibrach),
two weak positions are grouped forward, and two backward,
with the same (last) stressed syllable in a strong
position (as opposed to the binary metres, in which
between any two strong positions there is only one
weak position). This may generate a kind of uneasy
feeling of perceptual ambiguity and confused directions.
The third reason has to do with the acoustic cues for
grouping and stress. According to Woodrow's experiments
(Meyer, 1956: 106-107; Chatman, 1965: 26-27; Tsur,
1977: 88-89), non-linguistic sound stimuli are perceptually
grouped into end-accented groups when there are differences
of duration, and into beginning-accented groups when
there are differences of amplitude. Differences of
pitch do not affect the direction of grouping. There
is some indication that this may be the case with linguistic
stimuli too. Furthermore, at variance with the layman's
intuition, linguistic stress is cued by a mixture of
pitch, duration and amplitude (loudness), in a decreasing
order of effectiveness (Frye, 1958). In natural speech
in languages that are not syllable-timed, there are
considerable differences of duration between syllables;
this would render beginning-accented prosodic units
more marked than end-accented ones, and dactylic rhymes
especially marked. In syllabo-tonic metre in particular,
beginning accented units (cued by amplitude) would
be more marked than end-accented ones (cued by duration).
In view of the foregoing observations, the binary, end-accented,
iambic metre would be perceived as less marked, more
flexible, than either the binary, beginning-accented
trochaic, or the various ternary metres (in which two
weak positions are grouped with an adjacent strong
one). Among the ternary metres, the beginning-accented
dactylic would be perceived as more marked, less flexible
than the rest. Accordingly, the middle-accented amphibrach
is the only metre in which pitch differences, the most
effective acoustic cue for stress, can be the dominant
one, and should be perceived as the most easily flowing
metre. As a matter of fact, many critics of many ages
and languages have commented on the perceptual qualities
of the various metres in this vein, though they offered
quite different explanations for them (cf. Tsur, 1977:
83-96). One more observation concerning line length
is needed here. From this point of view, the iambic
pentameter line seems to be the most flexible one:
shorter lines are perceived as more rigid; and longer
lines tend to break up into two or more smaller (rather
When comparing, then, the metres of Byron's Don Juan
and Hood's "The Bridge of Sighs", one should
note, first, that the former's metre is the least marked
one of available metres, the latter's the most marked
one; and second, that in respect of line length, too,
Hood's verse is more marked than Byron's.
We have observed that the dactylic rhyme is a highly
marked prosodic form and, as a result, it tends to
have a witty or comic perceived affect. This is its
"unmarked" affect. But it may have a more
marked affect as well, which may be described as pathetic,
passionate, or even hypnotic. As I have suggested above,
regular metre gives security to the "Platonic
Censor in us". A witty quality is generated when
this security is genuine; a hypnotic quality, when
false. In Byron's epic, the marked dactylic rhyme is
embedded in a relatively unmarked prosodic environment
that has considerable flexibility. In Hood's verse
we are confronted with a conspicuous instance of "false
security", so characteristic of hypnotic poetry.
The sense of more than usual security is generated
by the rigid dactylic dimeter; the sense of more than
usual insecurity is generated by the unstable dactylic
rhyme, on the one hand, and the unpredictable sequence
of rhymes, on the other. If Poe is right in discerning
what he calls "the wild insanity which is the
thesis of the poem", this may be another ingredient
that contributes to its sense of insecurity.
That is why a reader who is not equipped with wide erudition
in literary history may intuit, in spite of his ignorance,
a comic quality in Byron's dactylic rhyme, and a pathetic
or hypnotic quality in Hood's. This capability of "switching"
from one set of aspects to another of the dactylic
rhyme corresponds to the ability suggested by Wittgenstein
(1976: 214e) to "understand the request to pronounce
the word 'till' and to mean it as a verb" as opposed
to, say, an adverb). It is this mental ability that
underlies our capability of offering a variety of more
or less legitimate interpretations of the same text,
or of associating a variety of perceived qualities
with the same prosodic structures. Intertextuality
can reinforce one or another such intuition that arises
from the cognitive processing of individual poems.
Where there are no such intuitions based on cognitive
processing, intertextuality remains a mere phantom,
and merely transfers the mystery from one place to
To conclude this section on dactylic rhyme, I wish to
comment on an additional issue raised by Shavit. One
of the most impressive appearances of the dactylic
rhyme in modern Hebrew poetry (in the Ashkenazi pronunciation)
is in a Zionist ode "The Blessing of the People"
by the great Hebrew poet Bialik.
As Shavit convincingly demonstrates, this poem became a model for a long line of rightly-forgotten odes, all displaying a feast of dactylic rhymes. Shavit (ibid., 32-33) quotes the literary historian Lachover on this poem:
Our poet too built his hymn on a very artistic construction that arouses security and pronounces vigorous commands but, at the same time, arouses cravings and longings. Its rhymes in the even-numbered lines are short and vigorous; in the odd-numbered lines, by contrast, they are long and drawn out [...] This makes them most drawn out and most expressive of the innermost hope and hidden cravings.
This passage, which I have drastically abbreviated,
has something of the impressionistic chatter about
it; and the prosodist Y. Bakoon objects: "this
is a result of the impression from the poem's contents"
(ibid.), rather than from the rhythmic structure of
its rhymes. However, "the cravings and longings"
suggested by Lachover may have some structural sources
too: when attempting to account for the emotional affect
of weak shapes in his brilliant application of gestalt
theory to music, Leonard B. Meyer comments: "The
lack of distinct and tangible shapes and of well-articulated
modes of progression is capable of arousing powerful
desires for, and expectations of, clarification and
improvement" (Meyer, 1956: 160). According to
our foregoing analysis, the dactylic rhyme is characterized
by just such a "lack of well-articulated modes
of progression" that "is capable of arousing
powerful desires for clarification and improvement".
The quote from Lachover may also suggest, perhaps in
spite of the writer, the reason why such an ode has
more of an assertive ceremonial character than a pathetic
or hypnotic one. Only the dactylic rhyme is left to
arouse a feeling of uncertainty, whereas from the contents'
point of view, the "artistic construction arouses
security and pronounces vigorous commands".
My handling of Bialik's dactylic rhyme and Lachover's
comment on it, and my appeal to Meyer's treatment of
weak shapes can be taken as an instance of how Cognitive
Poetics offers cognitive hypotheses to relate systematically
"the particular regularities that occur in literary
texts" and "the specific effects of poetry".
Lachover describes the poem's rhyme structure, that
includes a systematic use of dactylic rhyme; he also
suggests that this makes the rhymes "most expressive
of the innermost hope and hidden cravings". Bakoon
objects that these cravings and longings have little
to do with poetic structure. My cognitive analysis
of dactylic rhyme and Meyer's characterization of weak
gestalts are cognitive hypotheses to relate systematically
the particular regularities that occur in literary
texts and the specific effects of poetry.
I have tried to give a comprehensive cognitive view of rhyme. Rhyme is one of the most powerful resources of poetic language. Readers and critics have strong intuitions about it, but have difficulties in talking about it and its contribution to the total affect of a poetic passage. So, very frequently, critics ignore rhymes in their writings, or merely point out the rhyme pattern of a poem. Other critics have recourse to impressionistic effusion in talking of rhymes. Still other critics rely on some ad hoc semantic analysis, hoping that the reader would discover the relevance of such an analysis to the poem's perceived affect; or resort to some argument based on intertextuality, sometimes merely transferring the mystery from one place to another. The present paper has attempted to reveal the sources of the possible affects of rhyme, and to offer critical tools to talk about rhyme in a meaningful way, and to relate systematically its affects to its structure.
Speech sounds are abstract categories, from which the
rich precategorical sensory information is typically
stripped away. Some of this information does reach,
nevertheless, the cognitive system, reverberating for
a very short period of time in short-term memory, and
facilitating certain cognitive tasks with reference
to verbal material. Rhyme exploits and enhances this
sensory information. There is some experimental evidence
that the memory traces of two words considerably apart
in time may be fused and perceived as if simultaneously
present. In certain conditions, such fusion of auditory
information may be perceived as if spread over the
intervening section of the poetic passage. We all are
familiar with figure-ground relationships in visual
perception, as well as in music. In certain circumstances
well-defined by gestalt psychology, inarticulate ground
may bestow depth-dimension and plasticity upon good
shapes. Gestalt psychology has discovered, on the other
hand, that when gestalts are considerably weakened,
the interaction of colour and other gestalt-free sensory
elements may be enhanced across their boundaries. It
has been suggested above that similar processes may
take place in the relationship between the phonetic
categories and the underlying acoustic information.
Some cognitive mechanisms related to the performance
of poetry were suggested, that may enhance these processes
(e.g., Repp's discovery concerning the segregation
or integration of the fricative sibilants [s, S],
or generating an attitude in which the cognitive system
is on no level of the poem under the control of some
strong shape, definite direction or patent purpose).
Also, with reference to, e.g., Omar Khayyám's
rumble of a distant Drum, suggestions were made concerning
the possible interaction of semantic or thematic features
with acoustic information underlying speech sounds.
Some of those gestalt laws were considered that designate
the conditions which maximize our tendency to respond
to groups of individual stimuli as unified 'percepts'
(e.g., grouping by similarity or proximity, or the
need to weaken the part in order to make it dependent
on the whole) and which, by the same token, may systematically
account for the perceived qualities regularly associated
with certain rhyme patterns. Considerable attention
has been devoted here to the relatively rare dactylic
rhyme, in an attempt to account for the conflicting
perceived affects regularly associated with it.
The general canons for the evaluation of a poetic passage
are unity, complexity, and some intense human quality
pervading it. The greater the unity, complexity, or
intense human quality of a poem, the greater its aesthetic
worth is said to be. As for complexity, rhyme superimposes
an organizing pattern upon a string of words, in addition
to the semantic, syntactic, and metric patterns. By
the same token, this additional organizing pattern
enhances unity; and the very raison d'être of
the gestalt principles considered above is to maximize
our tendency to respond to groups of individual stimuli
as unified 'percepts'. At the same time, by turning
the phonetic and acoustic resources of rhyme along
with the grouping gestalts to aesthetic ends, we shift
the focus of our attention from the effiency of performance
in certain cognitive tasks to such intense human qualities
as, e.g., "witty" or "emotional".
Finally, I wish to end with a caveat. There is no way to predict the perceived affects of a certain rhyme pattern (or of any other poetic structure). The affects must be accepted as given, as directly perceived by the reader. It is only after the event that one may account for them with structural features of the text which, to use Sibley's (1962) term, "typically count toward them".
1. The present section massively draws upon chapters 1 and 2 of my book (Tsur, 1992 a).
2. In the present state of knowledge it is not
clear at all whether there is any correlation between
low absorption and a preference for a semantic rather
than phonetic code.
3. Another versification device depends
even more crucially on this characteristic of short-term
memory. I mean the verse line, which typically is experienced
as a simultaneously presented unified percept. We know,
however, that the words of a verse line are presented
not simultaneously, but one after the other. As I have
elsewhere argued at great length (Tsur, 1977), one
indispensable feature of the rhythmical performance
of a verse line is that the performer must manipulate
the verbal material in such a way that the unit should
be completed before the memory trace of its beginning
fades out in echoic memory.
4. For further discussions of rhyme patterns and gestalts see Tsur
et al., 1991; Tsur, 1992 b: 111-131.
5. While the linguistic units of syllabo-tonic metre are unstressed and stressed syllables, the abstract verse line consists of regularly alternating weak and strong positions.
6. I have elsewhere (Tsur, 1983b) discussed at much greater length this conception of rhyme and semantic information-processing.
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