Some Cognitive Foundations of "Cultural Programs"

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Reuven Tsur

Some Cognitive Foundations of "Cultural Programs"

The past twenty years of cultural studies have focused on the ways in which culture begets culture, ignoring the cognitive capacities that are the conditions of possibility for cultural change. We would like to investigate the complex relations between the mind, the world that at once determines it and is determined by it, and the cultural forms that spring from this interaction and feed back into it (Introduction to the website "Literature and Cognition").

An important assumption of cognitive anthropology is that in the process of repeated social transmission, cultural programs come to take forms which have a good fit to the natural capacities of the human brain. Thus, when similar cultural programs are found in most societies around the world, there is reason to search for psychological factors which could account for these similarities (D'Andrade, 1980).

The above two mottos present the assumptions of this paper. I will argue that "cultural programs" have solid cognitive foundations, and are shaped and constrained by the natural capacities and constraints of the human brain, resulting in certain significant regularities. I will also argue that the "culture-begets-culture" paradigm cannot account for some of the most significant aspects of cultural processes easily accounted for by the "cognitive constraints" paradigm. I will also attempt to explore how the infinite variety of cultural forms may arise in cultural programs constrained and shaped by the same cognitive capacities. I wish to emphasise, however: I don't deny the validity of the "culture-begets-culture" paradigm; I only insist that it should not usurp the legitimate place of the "cognitive constraints" paradigm. In the ensuing discussions, two sets of poetic conventions will serve as epitomes of cultural programs: versification forms and two types of poetry, labelled by Ransom as "Platonic" and "Metaphysical".

This paper is devoted to the question, how cognitive processes shape and constrain cultural and literary forms. The generation of cultural forms has to do with the deployment of adaptation devices to one's physical and social environment; whereas the response to poetry involves adaptation devices turned to aesthetic ends. The ensuing argument confronts the conception that "culture begets culture" with the conception that the generation of culture is governed by adaptation devices exploited for cultural and aesthetic ends. The use of the verb "influence" is particularly harmful in this context. When we say "A influenced B", the suggestion is that A is active, whereas B is passive. The "older" culture forces, so to speak, the "younger" culture to accept some of its tenets. This is, in fact, an authoritarian conception of cultural processes, namely, that the earlier the culture, the greater its authority. Such a conception denies B the possibility of autonomous (let alone creative) action. In reality, the opposite is the case: in intercultural contacts B is active; it is B that selects from neighbouring cultures the cultural elements it needs for a realisation of its exigencies and yearnings. Underlying such cultural exigencies and yearnings we find tensions, pressures and wants generated within the system--cultural or cognitive. In this sense, cultural change is motivated by a tendency to resolve such tensions, pressures and wants, accommodating them in a wider structure. This is a "self-realisation" conception of cultural interactions. Such a conception is shared by cognitive poetics on the one hand, and by cultural studies as practiced by Itamar Even-Zohar and his followers, on the other.

When we encounter similar cultural or literary conventions in different societies, we may account for them in several ways. The least interesting (and perhaps the least plausible) possibility is that one society adopts, in a servile manner, the conventions and institutions of another society with an authoritative status. At the opposite pole there is the possibility suggested by Sir James Frazer (1922) that the human mind functions in similar circumstances in similar fashions; the similar cultural or literary conventions may be invented more than once. An interesting variant of Frazer's conception is suggested above by D'Andrade, namely, "that in the process of repeated social transmission, cultural programs come to take forms which have a good fit to the natural capacities of the human brain", and thus become similar, even if at the beginning of the process they were very different. In between these two poles there is an intermediary possibility: that cultures may "borrow" cultural programs from neighbouring societies to help the cognitive accommodation of tensions arising within its given social and cultural structures. The conception underlying the present argument is nearest to this third possibility. But, in the wake of sharpening my argument against the influence-hunting approach, it may occasionally become more similar to the second approach as formulated by Frazer and D'Andrade.

To round out the picture, I would like to mention, briefly, an additional, highly significant cultural process: the rise of ornaments. I have claimed that "the response to poetry involves adaptation devices turned to aesthetic ends". This assumption is compatible with Ehrenzweig's (1965) conception of the origin of ornaments in music and the visual arts. Ornaments, Ehrenzweig says, result from the application of defence mechanisms to artistic devices that have "too much" expressive force, rendering them "harmless"; expressive devices are turned into style. I have elsewhere shown in great detail (Tsur, 1992: 305-316) how some of the rigid formulae in the ballad "Edward" seem to have been generated in this way. Such expressive devices rendered harmless in ornament are usually perceived as "playful", "charming", "affected", "naive", or the like. The functional cognitive processes that generated them can no longer be detected in them. Such a conception allows the reinvention of ornaments every time anew; but does not necessarily deny the possibility of cultural borrowing.

My argument is divided into two major parts: the first one explores issues related to versification; the second--issues related to what John Crowe Ransom called "Platonic" and "Metaphysical" poetry. The two parts will be propounded in five stages. The first stage will deal with an issue of poetic prosody, foregrounding the conflict between the influence-hunting and the cognitive-constraint approaches to the same problem. The second stage will supplement this by an instance of how "in the process of repeated social transmission, cultural programs come to take forms which have a good fit to the natural capacities of the human brain". The third stage will treat the versification systems as cultural artefacts and attempt to account for the differences between them. The fourth stage will focus on two major adaptation devices, wit and emotion, and will attempt to show how two major poetic traditions exploit them for coping with the existential problems arising in their respective socio-historic and cultural contexts. In the fifth stage I will claim that the same "improbable" metaphysical conceit may have been invented in different languages and cultural traditions, in similar socio-cultural circumstances, by poets who had acquired two cognitive principles. This assumption is most parsimonious, because with the same set of two cognitive principles an indefinite number of additional conceits can be generated. Thus, a "migratory" conception of cultural change will be confronted with a "cognitive-constraint" conception, with reference to versification devices as well as varieties of figurative language. With reference to the latter, the complex relations too will be investigated, "between the mind, the world that at once determines it and is determined by it, and the cultural forms that spring from this interaction". In an Appendix, I will explore at some length what appears a counter-example to one of my central generalisations in this paper.

Cognitive Constraints vs. Influence Hunting

A few years ago I submitted a paper on "Rhyme and Cognitive Poetics" to Poetics Today (Tsur, 1996). One of the referees, while warmly recommending the publication of the paper, added six pages of criticism of my cognitive approach. I wrote a long (unpublished) Postscript, enumerating and answering the referee's points one by one. My introductory example will be taken from there. As the reviewer professes, s/he comes from a different scholarly tradition, of the so-called Russian school in verse study. "This approach is based not so much on insight and intuition as on wide quantitative analyses of observable facts". The first example to be discussed here bluntly confronts the "culture-begets-culture" approach with the one that advocates "the cognitive capacities that are the conditions of possibility for cultural" creation and change. It will insist that "quantitative analyses of observable facts" may also be used to give some indications of the "insights and intuitions" of poets dead for hundreds of years.

In my paper on rhyme I had to touch upon the problem that, for good cognitive reasons, such verse lines as the iambic tetrameter, pentameter and hexameter are divided in the middle by a caesura into two segments. Classical prosody requires a caesura in midline; in my conception, this convention reflects certain perceptual needs (cf. Tsur, 1977: 66-82; 1992: 134-139; 1998: 113-139). I pointed out that iambic lines the number of whose positions are dividable by 4 can be divided into segments of equal length and equal structure. The tetrameter and the hexameter can be divided into 4 + 4 and 6 + 6 respectively, each segment beginning with a weak position and ending with a strong position. In these metres there is a very active caesura at the exact middle, even if not marked by punctuation; and even if overridden by the absence of a word boundary. The iambic pentameter, by contrast, can be divided into 5 + 5 positions; but then, the first segment begins and ends with a weak position, whereas the second segment begins and ends with a strong position. Alternatively, we may have two segments of unequal length, containing 4 + 6 or 6 + 4 positions, each segment beginning with a weak position and ending with a strong position. Consequently, caesura is more flexible in the pentameter than in the tetrameter and hexameter, where it is rigidly fixed. As a result, in the tetrameter short and rigid units follow fast one upon another, giving rise to certain perceptual qualities--especially when coupled with the trochaic metre. Aristotle, for instance, perceived in them a quality that is "too much akin to the comic dance", as opposed to the "characteristic rhythm of people as they talk" (cf. below, note 5). I also claimed that in the syllabo-tonic system, in English, Hebrew and Hungarian poetry, 4 + 6 lines are overwhelmingly more frequent than 6 + 4 lines.1 I found the same asymmetry in syllabic verse, in French poetry. I concluded, therefore, that the 4 + 6 line contains the unmarked caesura, the 6 + 4 line the marked caesura. In my books (Tsur, 1977; 1992; 1998) I also provided cognitive reasons for this conclusion.

Regarding this claim, the reviewer comments: "The hemistich form 4 + 6 of the English iambic pentameter has been derived from the pattern of the French decasyllable; it is characteristic of the periods of a more rigorous iambic canon in the English literature. In the works of later Shakespeare, in the verse of Romantic and Post-romantic poets the 'hemistich boundary' moves to the right, positions 6/7. What makes the 4 + 6 form unmarked? The fact that it appears in a more rigorous variant of the English iambic pentameter? I wish Prof. Tsur would at least explain". I am going to do just that, and, in fact, I have so done in Tsur (1977: 74-82).

Consider the comment "The hemistich form 4 + 6 of the English iambic pentameter has been derived from the pattern of the French decasyllable". This statement attempts to refute my argument concerning the perceived affects of the English iambic pentameter by relying on its putative origin. I don't exactly understand what this may mean, or what light this can throw upon an understanding of the perceived affect of the caesura after the fourth position.2 At any rate, I too have found that Villon and Baudelaire overwhelmingly place caesura in their decasyllabic verse lines after the fourth position. I have found that in English iambic pentameter there is an overwhelming tendency to place caesura after the fourth position. I have also found in three Hebrew (Avraham Shlonsky, Leah Goldberg, and Shim'on Halkin), and two Hungarian poets (Árpád Tóth, and Attila József) a similar tendency to place caesura after the fourth rather than sixth position in iambic pentameter lines. Briefly, there is an overwhelming tendency to place caesura after the fourth rather than sixth position of decasyllabic lines in languages as remote from each other as English, French, Hungarian, and Hebrew, and in such different versification systems as syllabic and syllabo-tonic meter. This I have taken for a set of sufficiently unrelated findings that calls for a cognitive rather than influence-based explanation. It is easy to show that there was such a practice in French poetry and in 16th-century English poetry. It might be much more difficult to show that the latter was derived from the former. But even if we can show that, my reviewer will be hard put to explain a few more things: first, why do we have the same pattern in Hebrew and Hungarian poetry? Second, in this way s/he has merely transferred the mystery from one place to another. By this, far from solving the problem, s/he has to face now not one, but two unanswered questions: first, why did the French poets, in the first place, prefer so emphatically the 4 + 6 division rather than a random distribution? And second, why did this French practice become such a world-wide convention, in widely different versification systems? Furthermore, in the languages I have checked, I have not found a single poet who has a majority of verse lines with a segmentation of 6 + 4. Furthermore, I have found in these languages an interesting phenomenon (admitted, though differently explained, by my reviewer too), that in all these poets (with the notable exception of Shelley), the proportion of "marked" caesurae increases with the proportion of marked forms in other prosodic respects too. Consider the following statement of my reviewer: "In the works of later Shakespeare, in the verse of Romantic and Post-romantic poets the 'hemistich boundary' moves to the right, positions 6/7. What makes the 4 + 6 form unmarked? The fact that it appears in a more rigorous variant of the English iambic pentameter?" This issue suggests two opposite conceptions. According to the reviewer's conception, the 4 + 6 division is a numerical fact, and has no perceptual correlates. The only possibility for it to receive its "unmarked" nature seems to be Pavlovian conditioning, from "the fact that it appears in a more rigorous variant of the English iambic pentameter". According to the present conception, by contrast, the marked and unmarked nature of caesurae is determined by cognitive factors, and are independent variables. But they may join a variety of other independent variables on the prosodic, semantic, syntactic and thematic levels, interact with them, and contribute to the generation of a wide variety of "regional qualities" (in the gestaltist terminology), that may have great aesthetic significance. According to one conception, the caesura derives its cognitive and aesthetic nature from the other neighbouring elements; according to the other conception, certain cognitive factors determine the structural and aesthetic potential of the caesura which, in turn, may make its contribution to the overall effect. Thus, we may perhaps account also for the fact that in certain poetic styles (the later Shakespeare, Milton) caesura tends to move to the right, whereas in others (Pope) back to the left, and then back to the right (some romanticists). This is not a random process but governed by certain pervasive aesthetic principles.

The exception in the context of the relative frequency of caesurae is Milton; there is no significant difference in the number of caesurae after positions IV, V and VI (though IV is slightly more frequent than the others). We have to conclude, then, that the unmarked form is the caesura after position IV. Had a similar distribution occurred in Pope, we should have had to conclude that caesurae after positions IV and VI are equally unmarked. Within the present constellation we have to conclude that the unmarked form is, beyond doubt, caesura after position IV. In my various writings I have distinguished between convergent and divergent poetry. In Milton's divergent poetry, contrasts are typically blurred (as, for instance, by stressed syllables in weak positions and unstressed ones in strong positions, and by divergent patterns of alliteration). Statistically, the difference in deviant stresses between Milton and Pope is negligible: 24 deviations per 100 lines, that is, per 1000 positions--hardly sufficient to account for our intuition that Milton is the prototypic deviant poet and Pope the prototypic regular poet. As I have suggested, the divergent effect of Milton's poetry cannot be accounted for merely by the number of deviating stresses, but only by his having recourse to the marked options in a wide range of versification devices, of which stressed syllables in weak positions are only one and marked caesura appears to be another. He has recourse, not infrequently, to such marked forms as strings of stresses that end in weak positions, bisyllabics with their stressed syllables in weak positions, and last but not least, stress maxima in weak positions. In Paradise Lost, Book I, 15 out of 20 compounds have their first (strongest) stress in a weak position. All these marked forms are virtually non-existent in Pope. So we should not be surprised that in respect of caesura, too, Milton resorts to the marked form more frequently than most other poets.

As to the relative frequency of unmarked and marked caesurae, I concluded that this is an instance of a wider linguistic principle, mentioned by Jakobson as an example of the poetic function: "'Why do you always say Joan and Margery, yet never Margery and Joan? Do you prefer Joan to her twin sister?' 'Not at all, it just sounds smoother'. In a sequence of two coordinate names, as far as no rank problems interfere, the precedence of the shorter name suits the speaker, unaccountably for him, as a well-ordered shape of the message" (Jakobson, 1960: 356-357). This seems to hold for "precedence of the shorter hemistich" as well. This, in turn, I have taken as an instance of an even wider linguistic principle, that can be accounted for with reference to the limitations of short-term memory, constraining many speech-processing, and rhythm-processing activities. Geoffrey Leech formulated it as follows: "There is a general tendency for the weight of syntactic structure to occur later rather than earlier in the sentence, so as to avoid strain on a person's short-term memory in the course of constructing and interpreting sentences" (Leech, 1974: 197). This enables a person to handle the preliminary processing of the first part of a linguistic unit while new information is still presented to him by the speaker. This principle can also be formulated as "the item hardest to process comes last", and can account for a wide range of phonetic preferences too, among others, the preference of such expressions as sing-song and ding-dong to song-sing and dong-ding, of trick or treat to treat or trick, or walkie-talkie to talkiewalkie, etc. (Cooper and Ross, 1975; Tsur, 1992b: 84-86). On the traditional view, we are used to these expressions; that is why their reversal sounds odd. The present suggestion is that there are certain general principles (all derived from the limitations of short-term memory) that govern the preferences in a variety of languages, in unforeseen combinations too. Consider, for instance, the title of Joseph Haim Brenner's Hebrew novel Shkhol vekhishalon ("bereavement and failure"). Shkhol is shorter than kishalon and, accordingly, it precedes it. Hillel Halkin, in his English translation, reversed the nouns: Failure and Bereavement. Far from being used to this order of these two nouns, "in a sequence of two coordinate nouns, as far as no rank problems interfere, the precedence of the shorter noun suits the speaker, unaccountably for him, as a well-ordered shape of the message".

Now, to complicate things, Cooper and Meyer (1960: 61) have found that this principle of the longest item comes last prevails outside verbal communication, in music, too. According to Woodrow's experiments in the nineteen-twenties (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. 3 Among a variety of explanations, Cooper and Meyer (1960: 61) appeal to this finding in order to account for their finding that musical sequences tend to divide into a shorter followed by a longer group. "As lengths of the rhythmic groups increase, the ability of stress to act as an effective organising force diminishes and the role of durational differences in determining grouping necessarily becomes more important". Considering that greater length is usually perceived as greater accent in speech perception as well as in music, it would be but reasonable to expect that whenever a pentameter line is divided into segments of four and six, segmentation into 4 + 6 would be more natural than 6 + 4.

To sum up, then, this example. The "culture-begets-culture" conception cannot explain how cultural models arise, nor how those models, once created, become models to be imitated. It can merely refer us to ever-earlier occurrences of the model. The cognitive approach, by contrast, can account for the need for caesura in the first place, and for the cognitive need to prefer the 4 + 6 segmentation to the 6 + 4 segmentation in decasyllabic lines, irrespective of language and versification system. Furthermore, it can be shown that this cognitive dynamics applies to additional linguistic phenomena too, as well as to non-verbal communication, in music. Now suppose we can prove (which I doubt) that "the hemistich form 4 + 6 of the English iambic pentameter has been derived from the pattern of the French decasyllable", we can, at least, give a reasonable answer to the question "why should an English poet in the syllabo-tonic versification system ever want to adopt 'the hemistich form 4 + 6' from the French syllabic system, rather than be satisfied with a random distribution of caesura?"

"The Natural Capacities of the Human Brain"

My next example will explore how cultural programs may take, in the process of repeated social transmission, forms that have a good fit to the natural capacities of the human brain. The two most conspicuous relevant "natural capacities" are the limitations and capacities of short-term memory, and the gestalt rules of perception. Tenth-century Hebrew poets in Moslem Spain made a conscious effort to import Arabic quantitative metre, based on a complex system of systematically alternating longer and shorter syllables. They came, however, to the conclusion that such a system would not be suitable to Hebrew grammar; so they decided to found their metre on the system of full vowels ("chords") systematically alternating with units consisting of a vowel + schwa mobile ("pegs"). Accepting Schirmann's proposal (1961), it is more parsimonious to speak of vowels and schwas.

In mediaeval Hebrew poetry there is a huge number of rather complex classical metres (Samuel Hanagid, for instance, uses over 60 kinds of such metric patterns). Some present-day scholars are inclined to praise certain poets for having recourse to a wide variety of metric structures. Consulting the tables of metres in academic editions of the corpus, I have shifted the focus of interest: I have checked the relative frequency of each metric structure, and found surprising results. While traditional scholars treated the various metres as equal, I have found that some metric structures are more equal than others. The index of metres in Dov Yarden's edition of Ibn Gabirol's Secular Poetry reveals, for instance, that the most common metre in this volume ("hamerube") occurs in 139 poems. To this, one may add a related structure that occurs in 24 poems. The second most common metre ("hashalem") occurs in 29 poems. The distribution of the other metres in this volume is between 1 to 12 poems. This distribution is fairly typical of the whole corpus. It has no trace in the explicit poetics of the period, and one must assume that this overwhelming preference was entirely intuitive. Here, "quantitative analyses of observable facts" may give some indications of the "insights and intuitions" of the poets.

Verse lines can be perceived as perceptual wholes if they can be contained in short-term memory, which functions in the acoustic mode like an echo box, and the number of units it can hold is limited, according to George Miller, at "the magical number seven, plus or minus two." The gestalt rules of perception refer to the conditions that maximise our tendency to perceive a stimulus pattern as an integrated whole. The "better," or "simpler," the gestalt of a stimulus pattern, the less mental processing space it occupies and is, therefore, more likely to be contained within the scope of short term memory and perceived as rhythmical. At the same time, according to gestalt theory, greater simplicity of the parts impairs the integrity of the whole, and the simplicity of, e.g., the metric feet must be modified so as to make them dependent on, and integrated with, e.g., the hemistich which is the perceptual whole. In a paper I published with Yehosheva Bentov (Tsur and Bentov, 1996) we pointed out that the two most frequent versification structures are those that strike the best balance, according to gestalt theory, between regularly recurring near-symmetric feet, and the modification of the simplicity of the last foot, generating rhythmically recurring units on the one hand, and integrating them in a perceptual whole on the other. We also tried to account for the enormous difference between the relative frequency of the first and second most frequent metric structures. We invoked Woodrow's experiments mentioned above, which demonstrated that if the organising principle in an endless series of tick-tocks is differences of duration, the tick-tocks are grouped into end-accented groups; if differences of amplitude, they are grouped into beginning-accented groups. Pitch differences are neutral in this respect. Woodrow's findings can be explained by the limitations of short-term memory. Short-term memory must preserve the beginning of a message, while new information is still coming in and is being processed. The shorter the unit burdening memory, the greater is the space available for the mental processing of incoming new information. Thus, duration differences organise stimulus patterns into groups that leave their main weight to the end.

In terms of our model, the first two most frequent verse structures are based on feet that consist of three long units (vowels) and one short unit (schwa mobile). They differ in the placement of the short unit. In this context, longer duration means greater accent. The mediaeval classical Hebrew versification system is based on duration differences. Consequently, one should expect end-accented metric feet to be more natural, and therefore more frequent. Indeed, "hamerube", the most frequent versification structure, is based on a metric foot in which the short unit comes before the first long unit (that is, its weight is in its second half). "Hashalem", the second most frequent versification structure is based on a metric foot in which the short unit comes before the last long unit (that is, its weight is in its first half). This might explain why it is less frequent. In a similar way we have accounted for the relative frequency of the other metres in the corpus. The relative frequency of metres in the corpus is publicly verifiable data that reflect the rhythmic intuitions of eleventh-century poets, writing in a different cultural tradition. With the help of observations based on "the natural constraints of the human brain" we have accounted systematically for those intuitions.4

The same battery of cognitive principles may account for another "mystery" as well, this time in the so-called "Western tradition". In classical Greek and Latin metres, Aristotle and Horace observed that the iambic is more natural than the trochaic.5 This asymmetry can be accounted for, again, by the principle that these metres are based on differences of duration, and that in the iambic foot the longer syllable comes last (that is, is end-accented), whereas in the trochaic it comes first (that is, is beginning-accented). With reference to the syllabo-tonic system too, many critics in many languages have claimed that the iambic is more flexible, more tolerant, whereas the trochaic is more rigid, "exerts more relentlessly its will" (for a review see Tsur, 1977: 84-93). This observation appears to be inconsistent with the foregoing speculations, since syllabo-tonic metre is based on differences of stress, and until recently even such outstanding phonologists as Trager and Smith identified stress with amplitude. Consequently, one should have expected beginning-accented feet to be more natural in this versification system. D. B. Fry's experiments on stress perception (1958), however, have demonstrated that perceived stress is a mixture of pitch, duration and amplitude, in this decreasing order of effectivity. Pitch change, the most effective acoustic cue for stress is, as Woodrow found, neutral regarding accent placement in grouping; and the second most effective cue for stress is duration. Thus, again, one should expect the end-accented iambic to be more natural, more flexible than the beginning-accented trochaic.

Thus, the natural constraints and capacities of the human brain may account for the observational facts (sometimes supported by statistics) that end-accented metres are perceived as more natural than beginning-accented metres in widely different versification systems, languages and cultural traditions, over a 2300-years time span. The linguistic definition of the versification units differs to a considerable extent in these systems and languages; but in all of them the "longest-unit-comes-last" pattern is perceived as the most natural one. The foregoing conception cannot explain, however, why there is such a diversity of versification units with such a diversity of linguistic descriptions. The next section will attempt to outline the dynamics underlying this diversity; moreover, I will point out that diversity is generated most conspicuously even where deliberate adaptation of foreign models is the case.

Versification Systems as Cultural Artefacts

In an interview for the Literature, Cognition & the Brain website concerning the origins and implications of cognitive poetics, Beth Bradburn asked me:

Cognitive Poetics emphasises the cognitive processes of individual readers and poets while also assuming the universality of those processes. Does this tend to set a limit on the extent to which literary texts may be read as cultural artefacts?

My answer included the following comments. Cultural artefacts do not spring out like Pallas Athene, fully armed, from Zeus' head. There is a process of development, until the convention reaches its optimal fit to the natural capacities of the human brain. But, curiously enough, the various conventions do not become uniform, even when shaped and constrained by the same cognitive mechanisms. I have quoted above D'Andrade saying that "in the process of repeated social transmission, cultural programs come to take forms which have a good fit to the natural capacities of the human brain. Thus, when similar cultural programs are found in most societies around the world, there is reason to search for psychological factors which could account for these similarities". On the other hand, one might add, if those "cultural programs" contain features that do not conflict with "the natural capacities of the human brain," or there are some good culture-specific (e.g., religious6) reasons to preserve them, there may evolve huge differences, or even conflicting patterns, between the various cultures on the more concrete levels. My work on poetic metre, in two different metric systems which, in turn, belong to different cultural systems demonstrates this. The cognitive approach may shed some light on the way poetic conventions come into being. The metric system of pegs and chords, for example, was introduced into Hebrew poetry by a conscious and intentional effort of Dunash Ben Labrat, and its reception process involved violent ideological and other conflicts. But the overwhelming dominance of one metric structure within this system was the result of a long and unintentional process of natural selection: the metric pattern that had the best fit to the natural constraints of cognitive economy was the one that had a better chance to prevail and multiply.

Versification systems are cultural artefacts. One may account for the differences between them by the interaction of three factors: (1) the attempt to import foreign metric models of authoritative status (classical Greek and Latin models, in the case of English, French and Hungarian poetry; in the case of Mediaeval Hebrew poetry, classical Arab models); (2) the constraints of the importing languages; (3) the pressure of the aesthetic demands for unity and complexity. With the increase of the number of versification constraints, both the complexity and the unity of the verse lines increases. In the syllabo-tonic system, for instance, there is a greater number of constraints than in either the syllabic or the tonic system; consequently, it displays greater complexity and greater unity at the same time.

In French, which is a syllable-timed language, attempts to import quantitative metres were an illustrious failure. The intuitive differences between long and short syllables in mediaeval Hebrew seem to have been insufficient for importing Arabic quantitative metres based on long and short syllables; so the Hebrew poets invented a system based on a contrast between syllables (long or short) and schwa mobile. Thus, the adoption of foreign models is quite conspicuously constrained by the properties of the adopting languages.

Syllabic metre would be well-suited to any language I know of, and in quite a few of them there have been relatively short periods in which the syllabic system was prevalent. Downright dominance of the syllabic versification system, however, is surprisingly rare in European languages, prevalent mainly in the Romance languages. We may account for the relative frequency of metres other than syllabic by the aesthetic demand for unity and complexity. These two demands control each other; and seem to exert some pressure on versification systems to become more complex than mere syllabic metre. In French, where attempts to accommodate other versification systems failed, complexity was imposed by means compatible with the syllabic system: in the French alexandrine there is an obligatory caesura after the sixth syllable, and there is a systematic alternation of "feminine" and "masculine" rhymes. In this latter respect too convention was restricted by the constraints of the French language. In English, German, Hebrew and Hungarian, and some other languages, in some words the main stress is on their last syllable, in some words on their last-but-one, last-but-two syllable, and so forth. In French, by contrast, there are no such contrasts of stress. The only way in which French rhymes can be systematically varied is to contrast words which end with an e muet ("feminine" rhyme), and those which don't ("masculine" rhyme). This increases the complexity of rhyme pattern; at the same time, such a rhyme pattern groups together a masculine and a feminine ended line, dividing a quatrain into two symmetrical halves.

When, in Dante's time, the "pegs-and-chords" metre was exported from Spain to Italy, the Hebrew poets were exposed to Italian syllabic metre; and their "pegs-and-chords" metre began to resemble, more and more, the Italian syllabic metre. Now what may appear to be quite surprising is that this new metre gradually assumed the characteristics of the syllabo-tonic iambic. It was the great Hebrew poet and scholar, the late Dan Pagis, who demonstrated in great detail this development in Hebrew versification in Italy. Obviously, the syllabo-tonic pattern conformed better with the constraints of the Hebrew language than with those of the Italian; and thus, the Hebrew versification system gradually yielded to the pressure of the aesthetic demands for unity and complexity. From this interaction of foreign models, the constraints of importing languages, and the pressure of the aesthetic demands for unity and complexity resulted the culture-specific and language-specific metric conventions in which the intercultural principles have been individuated.

These intercultural principles, in turn, took, in the process of repeated social transmission, forms which have a good fit to the natural capacities of the human brain. The two most conspicuous relevant "natural capacities of the human brain" are, as I suggested, the limitations and capacities of short-term memory, and the gestalt rules of perception. As I said earlier, the gestalt rules of perception refer to the conditions that maximise our tendency to perceive a stimulus pattern as an integrated whole. The "better," or "simpler," the gestalt of a stimulus pattern, the less mental processing space it occupies and is, therefore, more likely to be contained within the scope of short term memory and perceived as rhythmical. This gestalt principle affects the placement of caesura both in syllabic and in syllabotonic verse, and also accounts for the overwhelming prevalence of the "hamerube" and the "hashalem" metres in mediaeval Hebrew poetry. As to the limitations of short-term memory, they are of the constraints that compel the need to apply gestalt principles in rhythmic organisation, and are responsible for the overwhelming prevalence of the "longest-unit-comes-last" principle in a variety of languages, versification systems, and--outside verbal communication--in music. Now notice this. In footnote No. 1 I commented on the relative frequency of caesurae in Hungarian iambic pentameter lines. "The majority of caesurae occur after position V"; this can be attributed to language-specific reasons. "But regarding the 4 + 6 or 6 + 4 division, the former division is the dominant one"; this can be attributed to universal cognitive constraints.

"Platonic" and "Metaphysical" Poetry

In the remainder of this paper I will address semantic and pragmatic issues related to "Platonic" and "Metaphysical" poetry, and compare the two.7 I will explore how certain cognitive resources (initially evolved for coping with reality) are turned to aesthetic ends in these two types of poetry. Both emotion and wit are phenomenological qualities of powerful adaptation devices. "Metaphysical" poetry exploits wit, which is the perceived quality of some sudden shift of mental sets; shift of mental sets, in turn, is a powerful adaptation mechanism--it allows the individual to adjust to sudden changes in the environment. One kind of "Platonic" poetry is "witty" in a different sense (Alexander Pope);8 another kind (romanticism) typically exploits the orientation mechanism and emotions; both are diffuse, fluctuating information in a highly activated state, applicable in constantly and rapidly changing environments.

Emotions and wit are, typically, perceptual qualities of poems belonging to these two types of poetry. As a result, we have "poetry of orientation" and "poetry of wit", an extreme case of which is "poetry of disorientation". I will argue that these two types of poetry exploit cognitive devices originally evolved for coping with disintegrating reality. The former attempts to integrate it with the help of the orientation mechanism. The orienting schema "always includes the perceiver as well as the environment. Ego and world are perceptually inseparable" (Neisser, 1976: 117). The cognitive devices associated with the "poetry of disorientation" are typically deployed when disintegration exceeds the integrating power of the orientation mechanism. We may find, therefore, sometimes the same metaphysical conceit in different languages, periods and cultural traditions. This may allow us "to investigate the complex relations between the mind, the world that at once determines it and is determined by it, and the cultural forms that spring from this interaction". Here, again, the same three possibilities arise which we have encountered in relation to prosodic devices: poetic devices can be traced back to ever-earlier occurrences, assuming an influence from the earlier to the later occurrence; or the same poetic device may be re-invented more than once in similar socio-cultural-historical contexts; or poetic devices can be selectively imported from earlier cultural periods or neighbouring cultural groups for coping with tensions arising in a certain socio-cultural-historical context.

John Crowe Ransom (1951) distinguishes three "ontological" models in poetry: Physical, Platonic and Metaphysical poetry. In what follows, I shall discuss at some length Platonic and Metaphysical poetry, and compare the two. All three types of poetry make liberal use of visual imagery, but in different ways. Physical poetry uses sequences of physical images that indicate no abstractions. Platonic poetry uses physical images to represent some abstract notions. Sir Philip Sidney's line

(1)   My true love hath my heart and I have his

speaks of the exchange of hearts, but means the exchange of affection. Platonic poetry directs attention away from the physical image to the abstract notion. Metaphysical poetry forces the reader to attend back to the physical image. I will argue that from the cognitive point of view, Platonic poetry is the unmarked form, Metaphysical poetry the marked form. Historically too, the latter frequently occurs later than, and as a reaction to, the former. This is true both of the "Renaissance--Metaphysical" and the "Romanticism--Modernism" pairs. As far as the later type of eras are considered as a reaction to the earlier type, this conforms with the "culture-begets-culture" paradigm; as far as one is considered as more marked from the cognitive point of view than the other, this conforms with the "cognitive-constraints" paradigm. In eleventh-century Hebrew poetry in Spain, the two types of poetry exist side by side. Literary critics speak of two poetic traditions in the so-called Western culture. For want of better terms I will call them "the line of seriousness" and "the line of wit" ("wit" in Donne's, not in Pope's sense).

Let me illustrate "Platonic" and "Metaphysical" poetry by a "minimal" pair of examples from English poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, III. ii., Helena utters the following sequence of lines:

(2)               So we grew together,
      Like to a double cherry, seeming parted;
      But yet a union in partition,
      Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;
      So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart,
      Two of the first, like coats in heraldry,
      Due but to one, and crownéd with one crest.

This sequence is part of a longer catalogue. In a term proposed elsewhere with reference to Whitman (Tsur, 1992: 416-428), it is an "illustrative catalogue": it illustrates "the ontological problem of the one and the many". The cognitive system saves mental processing space in the handling of such catalogues by recoding them in a more efficient way: it abstracts one category ("the ontological problem of the one and the many") from the items that are similar and disregards (or, at least, decreases the weight of) the irrelevant concrete texture, which is different in every item. Thus, the elements of these images lose their "warring identity". As we shall see, this automatic alleviating process is disrupted in the metaphysical use of images. It is in this sense that I consider the Platonic use of imagery as "unmarked". The same ontological problem is presented by Donne's famous compasses image:

(3)    If they be two, they are two so
      As stiffe twin compasses are two,
      Thy soule, the fixt foot, makes no show
      To move, but doth if th'other doe.

      And though it in the centre sit,
      Yet when the other far doth rome,
      It leans and hearkens after it,
      And growes erect as that comes home.

Here, too, the compasses serve as a good example of the ontological problem of the one and the many; the other properties of a compass are irrelevant to the illustration of this idea. The texture which is irrelevant to the idea illustrated may serve to prevent the image from losing its reality, from becoming a "mere illustration of an idea"; hence to preserve its concrete identity. Now, a variety of additional aspects of the compasses, all representing "irrelevant texture" with respect to the original "illustration" of the "ontological problem", are successively exploited for illustrations of additional ideas related to the situation of departing lovers. Thus, the reader is prevented from attending away from the image-vehicle to the ideas illustrated; he is forced, time and again, to attend back to additional aspects of it. In this way, both the image-vehicle (the compasses) and the set of ideas illustrated (related to the departing lovers) "preserve their warring identity", in James Smith's words (1934); each attempting to establish itself in the reader's perception as much as possible, thus heightening the witty quality of the image. In terms of the present discussion, the two passages can be regarded as various treatments of the same kind of paradox: Donne's image is the prototypic metaphysical image; Shakespeare's Renaissance catalogue is a prototypic Platonic use of the same image.

Both the metaphysical conceit and Platonic poetry draw attention to a functional relation, in which normally, "we know the first term only by relying on our awareness" of it "for attending to the second" (Polányi, 1967: 10). We are dealing here with Polányi's conception of tacit knowledge; as Polányi says, "all meaning tends to be displaced away from ourselves" (13). In an act of tacit knowing, we attend away from something in order to attend to something else; namely, from the first ("proximal") term to the second ("distal") term of the tacit relation. "We do not see retinal images, but outside objects". We usually do not perceive the acoustic cues or the muscular movements that produce speech sounds, but only the sounds themselves; and we are inclined to attend away from speech sounds to the meanings conveyed by them. In short, we tend to attend away from signs, to their joint meaning, appearance or function. And this is what typically happens in "Platonic poetry", the poetry of orientation, as suggested here. We attend away from the exchange of hearts to the exchange of affection. The metaphysical conceit, as conceived here, assigns two or more meanings or functions--that is, two "distal terms"--to a single image vehicle; thus it prevents us from attending away from the image, and at the same time, heightens our awareness of our mechanisms of knowing and perceiving. Repeated examination of one's cognitive apparatus--in this case, of the functional relation between the proximal and distal terms--proves to be a powerful means of improving one's being attuned to reality in a state of disorientation. Such an account can point up the adaptational raison d'être of the metaphysical conceit, characterised by Dr. Johnson as "the most heterogeneous ideas yoked together by violence".

Let us have a look into the cognitive apparatus underlying the two kinds of poetry. Consider the emotional qualities associated with Platonic poetry. When one observes the perceived qualities of poetry, one cannot escape facing a rather disconcerting issue. Words designate "compact" concepts, whereas some poetry at least is said to evoke diffuse emotions or vague moods. Furthermore, language is a predominantly sequential activity, of a conspicuously logical character and, as brain-research of the last few decades seems to suggest, it is typically associated with the left cerebral hemisphere; whereas diffuse emotional processes are typically associated with the right cerebral hemisphere. Thus, while we can name emotions, language does not appear to be well suited to convey their unique diffuse character. Accordingly, emotional poetry ought to be a contradiction in terms. We know that this is not the case. But this presentation of the problem emphasises that we have all too easily accepted what ought not to be taken for granted. There is no escape from the recognition that language is a highly differentiated logical tool by its very nature, and that it requires special manipulations to convey or evoke with its help low-differentiated, diffuse emotional qualities. Cognitive Poetics investigates a variety of ways in which poets overcome this problem. One efficient means for this investigation is to apply to poetry knowledge gained by psychologists concerning the nature of emotions. Psychologists have discerned the following elements in emotions:

1. Situation appraisal involving thought processes;

2. Deviation from normal energy level: increase (gladness, anger, aggression), or decrease of energy (sadness, depression, calm, boredom, apathy, ennui);

3. Diffuse information in a highly activated state that is less differentiated than conceptual information;

4. Such information is active in "the back of one's mind", without pre-empting everything else.

There is convincing experimental evidence that the superordinate categories of parallel entities is present, simultaneously though subliminally, in active memory. This can be demonstrated with the help of the Stroop test. The Stroop test has revealed an involuntary and subliminal cognitive mechanism of some interest for our present inquiry. In this test, colour names (e.g., "yellow") are written in different-coloured ink (e.g., "blue"). If the subject is required to read the word, he has little interference from the ink colour, but if he is required to name the ink colour, he has great difficulty because of interference from the colour name (Posner, 1973: 26). The findings of this experiment were exploited for a further study, concerning the automatic activation of superordinates. In this study, subjects were presented with lists of three words which they were to remember. The three words came from the same category (e.g., "maple, "oak", "elm"). The subjects were then shown one of the words in the list (e.g., "oak"), the name of the category (e.g., "tree"), or a neutral word unrelated to the list. These visually presented words were written in coloured ink. The subjects were asked to name the colour of the ink as rapidly as possible. Based on the Stroop effect, it was expected that if the word shown to the subject was in activated memory, the subjects would have greater trouble inhibiting a tendency to vocalise the word name. Such a tendency would slow their response to naming the ink colour. The experimental data showed that words from the list ("maple, "oak", "elm") and the category name ("tree") produced greater interference with colour naming than control words. This study suggests that the category name is activated when a list word is presented, without any requirement to do so (Posner, 1973: 86). One might perhaps cautiously suggest that the same principle may be extended to ad hoc categories too: that when Shakespeare's catalogue of cherries and berries is read, the superordinate category "the ontological problem of the one and the many" is activated too. Such an assumption, however, requires further experimental testing.

The abstractions extracted from parallel entities have considerable adaptation value. As Posner suggested, such abstractions may contribute to a parsimonious hierarchical organisation of semantic memory. One might add that they also facilitate the preservation of such parallel entities in active memory. As suggested above, one major assumption of cognitive poetics is that poetry exploits, for aesthetic purposes, cognitive processes that were initially evolved for non-aesthetic purposes. In the present instance, the abstractions that typically serve to alleviate the load on active memory (or contribute to the efficient organisation of semantic memory) receive exceptionally strong emphasis and are perceived as aspects of the emotional quality pervading the paradoxical catalogue. As aspects of the emotional quality pervading the paradoxical catalogue, such abstractions conform with emotions as described by psychologists: they constitute diffuse information in a highly activated state that is less differentiated than conceptual information, and are active in "the back of one's mind", without pre-empting everything else.

Consider, by contrast, the metaphysical conceit. It too generates a kind of cognitive economy, which is, however, less immediately accessed than the use of abstractions for alleviating the load on memory. Consider Neisser's comment (1968: 320) on the mental economy in spatial imagery: "the amount of information may require less capacity coded in terms of spatial relationships than in terms of temporal sequence". But, in Donne's compass image, this saving of capacity is achieved by going against the "Platonic move". At the same time, if "insight" is correctly characterised as the sudden discovery of unity in complexity, by accommodating incompatible meanings in a single image, such metaphysical conceits as the one by Donne may yield a sense of "insight" into the complexity and the paradoxical nature of human existence.

In an insightful paper on the structure of romantic nature imagery, W. K. Wimsatt suggests that romantic nature descriptions are meant to be understood literally and, at the same time, as vehicles of some metaphors. I submit that this imagery acts very much like Platonic poetry (Ransom mentions romantic poetry as an example of Platonic poetry), but with a twist. The texture irrelevant to the metaphoric meanings of the objects are integrated into a coherent landscape, not unlike the irrelevant texture in the metaphysical conceit but again with a twist. While in metaphysical poetry such an exploitation of the "irrelevant texture" of images prevents them from becoming mere tacit "proximal terms" for meanings "displaced away from ourselves", in a nature description they may amount to a coherent landscape in the middle of which the perceiving consciousness is located. In this way, orientation mechanisms are activated, in an imaginary landscape.

Let us consider the first stanza of a short lyric poem by the great Hebrew poet Hayim Lensky (who wrote Hebrew poetry in Soviet Russia, and found his death in Stalin's concentration camps):


The day is setting over the lake,
The fish have gone down to sleep in the depth,
The birds have ceased from their chatter...
How sad is the rustling of the reeds!

We may make two preliminary observations about this stanza. First, it is only in the fourth line that it names an emotion ("sad"); in the first three lines it describes facts of the landscape that have no explicit emotional contents. In other words, the emotion appears to be there only by way of "telling", not "showing". Intuitively, however, this is not true, and we should attempt to account for this intuition in a systematic way. Second, the four descriptive sentences in the four lines relate to one another in two different ways: in one way, they refer to parts of the situation, complete one another to constitute the description of a whole landscape; in another way, they parallel one another in an important sense. The latter relationship is reinforced by the abab rhyme pattern.

As I have suggested earlier, readers are inclined to extract from parallel entities their common ingredients. When the first three lines are read out to students, they abstract from these lines such abstractions as "going down", "decrease of activity". When asked whether this description has any emotional quality, they more often than not suggest the emotional quality "calm". Emotions are typically associated with some deviation from normal energy level, and the lowering of energy is typically associated with sadness, depression, or calm. It is only the fourth line that supplies the "cognitive situation appraisal", and resolves the emotional quality of the landscape description in favour of "sadness". The abstractions "going down", "decrease of activity" are perceived as aspects of the emotional quality pervading the landscape described, lingering in the back of one's mind, without pre-empting everything else. Poetic effects result, we have said, from the activities of adaptation devices turned to aesthetic ends. In this stanza, the abstractions that typically serve to alleviate the load of parallel items on memory get greater emphasis and are perceived as aspects of the emotional quality pervading the landscape. This is how this stanza evokes some diffuse emotion or vague mood. This quality is amplified and enhanced by an additional cognitive device.

Language is, then, a predominantly sequential activity, of a conspicuously logical character. As recent brain-research suggests, it is typically associated with the left cerebral hemisphere; whereas diffuse emotional processes are typically associated with the right cerebral hemisphere. This state of affairs generates a problem: while we can name emotions, language does not appear to be well suited to convey their unique diffuse character. In our foregoing discussion, I have suggested that poets attempt to overcome this problem by creating some verbal equivalent of the structure of emotions, such as deviation from normal energy level, and the generation of abstractions in the back of one's mind that do not pre-empt everything else. Here we may add yet another, highly favoured way of the poets (and of the Hebrew Prophets) to generate the unique diffuse character of emotions: to evoke in the reader's imagination a landscape in which orientation may take place. The nature of orientation in particular is illustrated by the two brain hemispheres' different ways of processing input:

The right side of the cortex processes its input more as a "patterned whole", that is, in a more simultaneous manner than does the left. This simultaneous processing is advantageous for the integration of diffuse inputs, such as for orienting oneself in space, when motor, kinesthetic and visual input must be quickly integrated. This mode of information-processing, too, would seem to underlie an "intuitive" rather than "intellectual" integration of complex entities (Ornstein, 1975: 95).

The verbally presented imaginary landscape (implying a perceiving consciousness that relates itself to it very much in the manner of orientation) transfers a substantial part of information-processing to the right hemisphere. In this context of generating emotional qualities by verbal means, the phrase "integration of diffuse inputs" undergoes a slight shift of emphasis to "integration of diffuse inputs". In the reading of landscape descriptions, abstractions are perceived as more condensed and more diffuse.

Platonic poetry, especially when coupled with the orientation device, establishes and enhances self's relation to its physical and social environment (this, when "heightened, to any degree heightened" may result in the verbal imitation of mystic communion). This may improve one's sense of being attuned to extra-linguistic reality in an era in which clashes of sets of value or "social, political and ideological upheaval" do not exceed a certain point.

In what follows, I will explore these issues with reference to the metaphysical conceit. I will attempt to substantiate my claim that the same poetic form can be invented more than once; alternatively, that for importing it, members of the importing culture must have command of the cognitive principles that generated it. And I will explore one instance of "the complex relations between the mind, the world that at once determines it and is determined by it, and the cultural forms that spring from this interaction". There are clusters of stylistic phenomena, usually termed as "mannerist" or "metaphysical" (I consider "metaphysical" as one kind of "mannerism"), which typically occur in certain kinds of historical periods. Many critics and theoreticians have drawn attention to this. "It is no accident that the grotesque mode in art and literature tends to be prevalent in societies and eras marked by strife, radical change or disorientation" (Thomson, 1972: 11). "[S]uch 'concrete' poems become popular in periods of great social, political and ideological upheaval" (Peer, 1993: 58).

The style of James (and, for that matter, of Hopkins) shows then the characteristics recurring in certain periods of the history of art and poetry--in the periods when the ideals of serenity and formal balance are broken by a spirit of uncertainty and search; the search makes for the refinement both in themes and expression, for subtler and subtler penetration of meanings and attention to details rather than to the structure as a whole. So, that there is a loss of balance and at times of proportion: details are worked out with a goldsmith's care, and this makes for an enormous gain in insight and precision--but the total effect is frequently lost sight of, and is reached through accumulation rather than through a harmonious disposition of structural parts. Uncertainty too contributes to the lack of balance, or, with reference to graphic representations, lack of symmetry; it induces a preference and taste for undulating, twining, whorling lines (Melchiori, 1966: 138).

This is also one of the underlying themes of Sypher's book, Four Stages of Renaissance Style, of which the first two are a period of provisional formulation (Renaissance) followed by a period of disintegration (Mannerism), in which "the centre cannot hold". Melchiori's description suits the second of these periods.

In order to avoid misunderstandings, one more word should be said about the meanings of the term "mannerism". In art history and criticism it has three different but related meanings. All three meanings refer to artistic and literary phenomena which compel the reader (or the audience) to focus attention on the individual figures rather than on the composition of the whole. Many critics use the term Mannerism in a pejorative sense, to refer to a style marked by an excess of ornaments and frequent repetition of a limited number of stylistic devices, whether functionally required or not. This is the meaning in which Willie van Peer uses the term when he says of a 17th century specimen of "wing poems" that "to a modern reader, the text is little more than a manneristic game". On the other hand, at least one important theoretician uses it very differently, referring in a positive sense to the cultural period in the 16th and 17th century, between the Renaissance and the Baroque:

Thus, mannerism has two modes, technical and psychological. Behind the technical ingenuities of mannerist style there usually is a personal unrest, a complex psychology that agitates the form and the phrase (Sypher, 1955: 116).

Sypher's usage links the term Mannerism with Metaphysical. The third meaning of the term refers to other styles or cultural periods which resemble in some important way mannerism in the second sense, including some trends of modernism (Melchiori uses the term in this third sense, when he calls James and Hopkins "Two Mannerists").

Why does mannerism tend to occur during "periods of great social, political and ideological upheaval, when more than one scale of values prevail"? One may account for this, I claim, via the cognitive functions fulfilled by such typical metaphysical devices as the metaphysical pun and conceit, using these functions in an effort to explain the effects of those devices on the readers. The gist of my argument is that the metaphysical pun and the metaphysical conceit are adaptive devices turned to an aesthetic end. In a socio-cultural situation in which disintegration exceeds the degree that could be handled by cognitive integrating devices deployed by e.g. romanticism, one must cope with emotional disorientation by resorting to some more effective adaptive devices. As a first orientation device, one might check whether one's adaptation mechanisms are properly tuned. When one is shocked out of tune with one's environment by the clashing emotional tendencies of the grotesque, of the metaphysical pun, or of the metaphysical conceit then, as suggested by Sypher, one tries to readjust himself so as to regain aesthetic distance. In the course of this, our own coping with the environment, and especially the linguistic mechanisms involved in this process, become perceptible to ourselves. As I suggested above, "the metaphysical conceit assigns two or more meanings or functions--that is, two "distal terms"--to a single image vehicle; thus it prevents us from attending away from the image, and at the same time, heightens our awareness of our mechanisms of knowing and perceiving". If a considerable number of members of a given society have acquired such coping mechanisms for adaptive purposes, they cannot be stopped from applying them for poetic purposes, and from putting them to work in a given poetic praxis, such as Mannerism. When the reader in a mannerist age contemplates such disorienting qualities as surprise, perplexity, startling, or astounding effects, or similar things associated with sensuous metaphors or metaphysical puns and conceits, far from having a painful experience, he may derive pleasure from the recognition that he is well equipped with the cognitive equipment required for coping with a reality in which the regular orientation devices are of little use. Poetry that utilises only such adaptive devices that have been superseded by more radical ones is usually experienced as affectedly delicate, or 'nice', or childish.

At a time when the Catholic Church tried to re-establish its hegemony through Counter Reformation; at a time when Donne wrote in his "An Anatomie of the World" "And new Philosophy calls all in doubt [...]/ The Sun is lost, and th'earth, and no man's wit/ Can well direct him where to looke for it. [...]/ 'Tis all in peeces, all cohaerance gone", and in his "Holy Sonnet 5" "You which beyond that heaven which was most high/ Have found new spheres, and of new lands can write"; at a time when Milton gave in one passage (in Paradise Lost VIII) a Ptolemaic and a Copernican account of the universe insisting that only the Great Architect knows the truth, people had to cope with disorientation in a world in which more than one scale of values prevailed. In such a universe, readers of poetry find pleasure not so much in the emotional disorientation that arises from the mannerist devices, but rather in the reassertion that their adaptive devices, when disrupted, function properly. This is one thing that cognitive poetics means by suggesting that in the response to poetry, adaptive devices are turned to an aesthetic end. And this is one reason for mannerist styles to recur in cultural and social periods in which more than one scale of values prevail.

There were some outstanding representatives of the metaphysical style in 11th-century Hebrew poetry in Spain too. Here the conflicting sets of value are less readily seen at first sight. But the meeting of the three big monotheistic religions in Spain generated tensions, with no firm grounds for preferring one religion to another. The very need to write a work like Yehuda Halevi's Hakuzari testifies to the perplexity. It is an historical fact that the Kazarian empire (on the Volga) converted to Judaism in the eighth century. Yehuda Halevi wrote a Platonic dialogue in which the king of Kazaria, dissatisfied with his pagan cult, invited representatives of the three great monotheistic religions, asking them to convince him which one is the true religion. They discussed one by one all the problems on which the three religions were in dispute. Each religion was right on each point in its own terms. The problem was to find common grounds for their dispute, for presenting their positions to a neutral observer. In this work, even in matters of poetic prosody we find a strongly ambivalent attitude. Yehuda Halevi, one of the greatest poets in the pegs-and-chords metre, makes his Jewish rabbi criticise this metre as grossly inferior to the prosody of the book of Psalms; likewise, in his "Treatise on Meter", he both teaches how to write such metered verse and condemns the very use of it (cf. Rosen, 1994; cf. footnote 4). Outside The Kazarian, there were additional issues in poetry dominated by conflicting world pictures or sets of value. In devotional poetry, poets of the period (like some of their Christian counterparts) had to cope with a perplexing problem in Jewish theology: to integrate the Biblical conception of a personal Creator with the Neo-Platonic conception of Creation by Light Emanation (cf. Tsur, 1998). As to secular poetry, Ross Brann (1991) studied at great length cultural ambiguity related to it. "The courtier-rabbis of the Hebrew 'Golden Age' in Muslim Spain (c. 950-1150) were a most improbable breed of literati and an even more unlikely brand of clerics" (9), "torn by conflicting desires to write secular poetry, yet conform to a traditional Jewish culture that seemingly forbade it". "The insolent ironies, mock subversive tones, and revelries of Hebrew poetry composed by learned and pious rabbis who also sang God's praises, thus present the reader with an entirely different set of ambiguities" (14) than that of their Arab counterparts.


Now, it should be noticed that not only mannerist, but also romantic poetry was prevalent in an age and societies that were marked by strife, radical change, or even disorientation. I have suggested that romantic poetry attempts to cope with disintegration by deploying orientation mechanisms and some other cognitive devices of great adaptation value. In fact, the romantic era on the one hand and the seventeenth or twentieth centuries on the other, differ mostly in their relative degree of disintegration. The greater the disintegration, the more pointed the effect of the mechanism of integration and orientation--but only up to a certain point. Beyond that point, the disintegrating environment escapes from the orienting mechanism's control and a different kind of coping procedure must be instantiated. For want of a better term, we might call this procedure meta-awareness.

Let me try to illuminate the issue of the sudden disintegration of self-specifying information with a concrete example taken from our everyday physical reality. When you are sitting in a stationary train and the train nearby pulls out, you may feel it as if your own train were moving in the opposite direction, even though you don't experience any movement of your body. Similarly, many drivers experience panick, when the parked car they are about to pass suddenly pulls out. The reason is that the self-specifying information in the optic array is being destroyed."9

The point of the example is that information "about oneself, like all other information, can only be picked up by an appropriately tuned schema" (Neisser, 1976: 116). When something suddenly seems to go wrong, one has to check the tuning of his own schemata. "Consciousness, according to Bartlett, enables an organism 'to turn around its own schemata'" (Miller and Johnson-Laird, 1976: 150). Interestingly enough, critical philosophy is characterised in similar terms: "thought turns around and examines itself instead of examining its own shadows in the void" (Pears, 1971: 30). In order to indicate that this analogy is not incidental, it ought to be pointed out that critical philosophy, not unlike the poetry of disorientation, tends to be prevalent in societies dominated by more than one set of values, and where there appear to be no unquestionable truths.

Modern poetry (and modern art in general) is just as much about cognitive processes as about its subject matter. Returning to the issue of meta-awareness: when the clashing emotional tendencies of the grotesque, of the metaphysical pun, or of the metaphysical conceit shock us out of tune with our environment, our own coping mechanisms (linguistic or otherwise) become perceptible to ourselves. The unique conscious quality of the moment of shock is experienced as confusion and emotional disorientation. One of the major functions of poetry is promoting heightened awareness, either awareness of the reality perceived, or of the cognitive mechanisms that enable us to perceive reality. The self-examination of cognitive mechanisms is still a matter of empirical investigation; an investigation moreover, which has lost its directness (cf. Pears, 1971: 31).

Whereas Romantic poetry tends to attend away from images (and language in general) to affect (which is a device of fast orientation), and thus may be called a poetry of orientation, there is another kind of poetry which we have called poetry of disorientation (mannerism, or metaphysical and modern poetry, and which focuses attention upon language and images. Furthermore, whereas in romantic poetry affect is an important integrating factor (in addition to the descriptive situation), in the poetry of disorientation one of the most important devices of integration is the sustained metaphor, the metaphysical conceit, or some of their equivalents.

When human thought turns around and examines itself, where does the investigation start? [...] The short answer [...] is that there are two forms in which the data to be investigated may be presented. They may be presented in a psychological form, as ideas, thoughts and modes of thought: or they may be presented in a linguistic form, as words, sentences and types of discourse. Kant's critique starts from data of the first kind, and the second wave of critical philosophy, the logico-analytic movement of this century, starts from data of the second kind (Pears, 1971: 27-28).

It is noteworthy that, correspondingly, mannerism too "has two modes, technical and psychological" (Sypher, 1955: 116). Sypher speaks of "Donne's false and verbal (perhaps false? perhaps verbal?) resolutions--his incapacity to commit himself wholly to any one world or view" (122). "The resolution is gained, if at all, only rhetorically, not [through] reason" (123). I suggest that this is one possible way in which poets in Thomson's words (1972: 65) "smash language, destroy man's naive trust in this most familiar and unquestioned part of his life [...] producing in the reader a strange sensation--making one suddenly doubt one's comfortable relationship with language--not unlike the sense of disorientation and confusion associated with the grotesque".

Thus, the metaphysical pun and conceit on the one hand, and the disorienting emotional shocks on the other (which eventually result in what Grierson, 1921, described as "strain of passionate paradoxical reasoning" in metaphysical poetry) seem to perform in one mode what critical philosophy is said to perform in another: they make thought turn around to examine itself. Intuitively, however, metaphysical (or manneristic, or modern) poetry and critical philosophy are rather unlike, and their differences seem to be no less significant than what they have in common. Shklovsky's formulation aptly encapsulates these differences from the angle of art in general: "The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known" (Shklovsky, 1965: 12). In metaphysical poetry in particular, one gets a sensation of perceptual and adaptive mechanisms as they are perceived and not as they are known, whereas in critical philosophy, one seeks an understanding rather than an immediate perception: "The understanding which is sought is understanding of our own conceptual system" (Pears, 1971: 31).

In this way, we may account for three kinds of human activities: the understanding of one's own conceptual system yields critical philosophy; the understanding of the perceptual system yields cognitive psychology; the immediate perception of one's own perceptual and/or conceptual system yields metaphysical poetry. Such a conception of the poetry of disorientation throws the metaphysical conceit into new perspectives. .

The Metaphysical Conceit--Influence or Creation?

Let us begin our discussion with Abraham Cowley's 'ingenious' conceit of exchange of hearts in "The Change":

(5)    Oh take my Heart, and by that means you'll prove
        Within, too stor'd enough of love:
      Give me but yours, I'll by that change so thrive
        That love in all my parts shall live.
      So powerful is this change, it render can
        My outside Woman, and your inside Man.

Ransom (1951: 784) quotes this stanza as containing a notorious example of the metaphysical conceit. "A conceit originates in a metaphor; and in fact the conceit is but a metaphor if the metaphor is meant; that is, if it is developed so baldly that nothing else can be meant". And further on he says, "such is Metaphysical Poetry; the extension of a rhetorical device" (ibid., 786).

Admittedly, Cowley is not the first poet to substitute heart for affection (cf. Sidney's "My true love hath my heart and I have his"). The startling quality of this image seems to be due to the fact that this metonymic device is developed so literally that this meaning must be intended. In this way, Cowley succeeds "in depositing with us the image of a very powerful affection" (Ransom, ibid.).

Yet, contrary to common belief, neither this way of handling imagery nor this particular image is the exclusive invention of seventeenth century metaphysical poets. Consider, for instance, two centuries earlier, Villon's Rondeau on the death of his mistress:

(6)    Deux étions et n'avions qu'ung cuer;
      S'il est mort, force est que devie,
      Voire, ou que je vive sans vie
       Comme les images, par cuer,

The heart is traditionally considered as the seat of thought, feeling or emotion, and Villon, like Cowley, develops the "miraculous" element in his image in two steps: first, by a metonymic transfer from "affection" to heart, and then, by developing this device so literally that it must be meant. The idea that the two lovers were inseparably united by a single affection is expressed as "we were two, and had only one heart", which appears to be miraculous enough, if you conceive of the heart as of a hollow muscular organ, of which you know that there must be one and only one in every human body. That is, by a logical development of those aspects of "heart" that are irrelevant to "affection", Villon achieved a miraculous, or witty, effect. The image is, then, further developed, and "too" literally: since she died with the only heart we had, I have been left without a heart. The image thus developed may suggest further metaphoric or metonymic implications (based on the fact that the heart is traditionally considered as the seat of life or vital powers): since there is no life without a heart, my life is in fact no life; and since there is no body without a heart, my body is no body any more, but a mere lifeless image. Notice also that although the physiological aspects of the heart image have been developed according to a consistent logic, the various figurative implications of the image need not be logically consistent with one another.

It will be noticed that we find the same image in the Shakespeare quote above, suggesting roughly the same emotion: "So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart". There it serves as just another illustration of "the ontological problem of the one and the many". While Shakespeare directs attention away from the irrelevant unique texture by multiplying images with the same tenor, Villon's use heightens the miraculous quality in this ontological paradox; while Shakespeare's catalogue mitigates the unique disturbing quality of the ontological paradox by drawing attention to its putative ubiquity, Villon emphasises the concrete identity of "heart", by logically developing those of its aspects that are irrelevant to "affection".

Nor is Villon the first poet to have had recourse to this particular conceit. Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, the eleventh-century Hebrew poet in Spain employed it more than once. Consider his verses on his physical separation from his friends:

Ibn Gabirol worked in a literary tradition different from that of Villon or Cowley, in a tradition imported to Spain from the Orient by the Arab conquerors. One should not be surprised very much if one found that he, too, had been preceded, may be by some Arab poet, in the use of this conceit, though I have no evidence for this.

How can one account for the same, highly ingenious use of images in widely different languages, in widely different poetic traditions? Two radically different explanations come to mind at once. Our choice between them depends, in the first place, on whether we decide to establish literary organisation on the level of the immediately observable elements of the literary universe, or consider them as the manifestation of an abstract structure (cf. Todorov, 1975: 20). This decision is influenced by our conception of the nature of literary creation and, ultimately, by our conception of Man: whether we regard him as hopelessly conditioned by his past experience, or are willing to grant him creative powers or, more generally, an ability to structure in his mind the world he lives in; in other words, whether we adopt a behaviorist or a cognitive model of Man and his culture. 10

According to the first conception, embodied in what might be called the 'migratory' theory, someone at the dawn of the history of literature happily "hit" upon a particular conceit, such as, in our case, the heart-conceit. From this point on, the conceit migrated until it reached the Arab poets in Spain, who transmitted it to the Hebrew poets of the eleventh century is Spain, as well as to the Provençal poets, who are known to have influenced the poets of the dolce stil nuovo in Italy, who, in their turn, have influenced English Metaphysical Poetry. The geographical proximity of Provence to Paris may then account for the appearance of the conceit in Villon's poetry. This explanation is not without geographical or chronological plausibility; but it appears to be too pedestrian, too circumstantial, too 'behavioristic', and leaves too much to chance. Above all, it does not explain how poets and readers of poetry handle novel conceits. It fails to explain why an earlier poet should be more likely to "hit" upon a certain conceit than a later one. In addition, the above explanation is counter-intuitive from the point of view of what we think we know about the inventiveness and ingenuity of the Metaphysical Poets.11

The rival explanation would rely on the possession of two cognitive devices, innate or acquired for adaptive purposes. These two devices (which we may loosely conceive of as principles or rules) are supposed to account for, not only the arise of the 'heart-conceit', but also for the generation of an indefinite number of additional conceits. Accordingly, one must assume that both the poets who had recourse to the heart-conceit and their reading public must know two generative rules: one may be called the principle of metonymy, and it concerns the figurative transfer from some activity or result to the tool or the organ that performs it (or from the faculty to its "seat"--depending on whether we conceive of affects or life as of something that is the result of the heart's activity, or something that is seated in the heart). The other one may be labelled, for want of a better term, the principle of "miraculism"; this rule is at work, according to Ransom, "when the poet discovers by analogy [or contiguity--R.T.] an identity between objects which is partial, though it should be considerable, and proceeds to an identification which is complete" (Ransom, 1951: 786). In other words, it is a metaphor [or metonymy--R.T.] that is "developed so literally that it must be meant" (ibid., 784).

This explanation has the obvious advantage that with the help of two relatively simple rules, it can account for a large number of conceits that have been and will be thought up in a wide range of languages, cultural traditions, and historical periods. It can also account for the fact that readers who have acquired the knowledge of these two rules have understood, and will understand, not only already established, but also novel conceits. This conception furthermore does justice to our intuitions concerning the inventiveness of the Metaphysical Poets: the "conditioning"-conception is, indeed, incapable of accounting for the invention, appreciation, and acceptance of a conceit for the first time. We may, then, assume that each one of the poets who have recourse to this conceit, has acquired these two rules, and may create (or generate) that same conceit every time anew, without having to be previously exposed to it in another poet's work. Moreover, even under the unlikely supposition that Villon knew Hebrew, and that he owned a collection of manuscripts of eleventh century Hebrew poetry; and even if we discovered the manuscripts of these two poems by Ibn Gabirol, with annotations in Villon's handwriting, we still might ask why Villon adopted, out of the treasure-house of Arabic-Hebrew conventions, precisely this one. Obviously, the answer would have to be that he accepted the influence of precisely those specific poetic devices of which he had acquired the generative principles.

The term miraculism used by Ransom appears to be all the more significant, since eleventh century Hebrew poetry in Spain includes a set of rhetorical devices that are said to yield "pretended wonderment" in secular, and "genuine wonderment" in sacred poetry. Nonetheless, it is hard to evade the disturbing question: Is this miraculous quality sufficient account for the widespread use of metaphysical conceits by poets in widely different cultural traditions? After all, the principle of "miraculism", as defined by Ransom, is little more than an abstract rule. We also must find the answer to an additional question: Where do we get the principles of "metonymy" and "miraculism" from? Is this another story of migration--this time, of two abstract principles, rather than of a specific conceit, from Arabia to Spain, Provence, France, Italy, and England? Or are these rather abstract rules transmitted in the structure of the brain? If so, is this "structure of the brain" not a mere tautology, something that is coextensive with the poetic conventions involved and inferred from them? (As to the principle itself, I will argue below that it is based on a 'logical fallacy').

The Metaphysical Conceit--An Adaptive Device?

One of the basic assumptions of this paper has been derived from D'Andrade (1980), that "when similar cultural programs are found in most societies around the world, there is reason to search for psychological factors which could account for these similarities". While I do not pretend to know whether the conceit under discussion is found "in most societies around the world", or, in fact, in any cultural tradition other than the ones mentioned here, I do believe that the facts discussed above warrant a search for psychological factors which could account for those similarities, to justify either its repeated re-invention or repeated importing from one culture to another.

As for the principle of metonymy, it has been unequivocally established by Jakobson's classical study (1956) reflecting a major natural resource of the brain, and I shall not discuss it here.

The principle of "miraculism" can be further explored in four areas. First, let us consider the metaphysical pun. It is the most condensed expression of what Sypher (1955: 122) characterised as Donne's "false and verbal (perhaps false? perhaps verbal?) resolutions--his incapacity to commit himself wholly to any one world or view". The pun "resolves" two sufficiently different meanings in a single verbal sign. The resolution is achieved on the verbal level alone, in a manner that can be reasonably characterised as illogical, or as obeying a false logic. In the metaphysical pun, both meanings are so literally developed that both must be meant. This device has a remarkable ontological corollary: what is being said can exist only on the verbal level, the verbal sign being brought into the focus of consciousness. In such a pun, we cannot "attend away" from the verbal sign vehicle to any one of its meanings without suppressing the other meanings. Our examination of the metaphysical pun may thus conveniently start with, in Pears's words, "human thought turn[ing] around and examin[ing] itself", as a paramount technique in the service of the "poetics of disorientation" when, in order to check the tuning of our own schemata, our own coping or linguistic mechanisms become perceptible to ourselves.

Second, the metaphysical conceit has all the ingredients that we have considered for the metaphysical pun. But, in addition, it includes a visual mental image. The cognitive importance of mental imagery cannot be overestimated. From the vast literature on the subject, I shall pick one issue for a brief consideration:

According to Neisser (1968: 320), "the amount of information may require less capacity coded in terms of spatial relationships than in terms of temporal sequence. [...] This assumption would explain the predominance of visual imagery in dreams, and perhaps also our preference for visual models and metaphors for thinking, from 'insight' to 'point of view' ".12

Third, a further word must be said about the logical fallacy that I said was involved in "miraculism", the poet discovering a partial identity between objects and proceeding to establish a complete identity. If it is true that poetry exploits adaptational mechanisms for aesthetic purposes, what is the adaptational value of the false logic encountered in the metaphysical conceit? Notice that we frequently encounter this particular kind of false logic in jokes, as in the joke about the person who had to go to a funeral but couldn't find a florist in the last minute; so he brought a box of candy. The hero of the joke clearly saw some functional equivalence between a bunch of flowers and a box of candy (i.e., you may bring either as a present when you are invited for dinner). This equivalence, however, is only partial: you may put a bunch of flowers on a grave, but it is conspicuously improper to put a box of candy there. So, when the hero of the joke develops the logic of this identification so consistently that the identification must be meant, the audience discovers the incompatibility of the results of this consistent but misguided logic with the objective circumstances. As a result, the reader must perform a shift of mental sets, followed by a process of rapid re-adjustment. Consistent thinking is a powerful means for handling reality; but if it is based on deceptive evidence, even the most consistent logic will lead to maladapted solutions. It is not enough to be logical; one's logic must be verified time and again against reality. From this point of view, "the partial though considerable identity" may serve to disguise, to some extent, the fallacious nature of the evidence upon which the reasoning is founded (letting the audience believe that the hero of the joke had, at least, some reason to identify flowers with candies: a fancy dress or a cork-screw would have been no less improper than candy, but then there would have been no joke, and the story would have been meaningless). The process of rapid re-adjustment makes the working of the adaptation mechanisms involved perceptible to our consciousness, so that their attunement to reality is exposed to inspection and control.

A fourth aspect of the adaptational value of the conceit concerns Piaget's familiar conservation test: whether five-years old children judge a given amount of water to remain the same after it is poured into a container of different shape and size. Three kinds of arguments were set forth by the children to support their judgment, one perceptual, one having to do with action, and finally, a "transformational" argument. "Of the children who thought the water was not equal in amount after pouring, 15 per cent used nonperceptual arguments to justify their judgement. Of those who recognized the equality of water, two thirds used nonperceptual arguments" (Bruner, 1968: 393). The metaphysical conceit develops consistently, by using a false logic, a perceptual argument; at the same time, it develops consistently some genuine, nonperceptual argument. As a result, it plays up a maladaptive mechanism against an adequate, adaptive mechanism. In a developmental perspective, the conceit presents an opportunity to examine one's "outgrown", childish level of intellectual performance in the light of one's adult level of functioning, which results in a feeling of relative freedom, superiority and amusement; in short: Enter irony!

The foregoing considerations seem to furnish good reasons for assuming that the principles of "metonymy" and "miraculism" reflect some natural capacities and constraints of the human brain. They turn adaptive mechanisms to poetic purposes. Thus, we can not only explain the fact that people invent or understand novel conceits; we may account for the reappearance of the same conceit in fairly different cultural environments, in the works of poets noted for their originality and ingenuity, as well as for the significant association of the metaphysical conceit with precisely the poetics of disorientation.

Summary and Conclusions

This paper has confronted the "culture-begets-culture" and the "cognitive-constraints" conceptions of poetic conventions and of cultural change. It assumes that "in the process of repeated social transmission, cultural programs come to take forms which have a good fit to the natural capacities of the human brain", and that there are some "complex relations between the mind, the world that at once determines it and is determined by it, and the cultural forms that spring from this interaction". Two major issues have been discussed in this respect: the rise and dissemination of prosodic conventions, and the rise and dissemination of the metaphysical conceit. Neither of the specific issues discussed here, the heart-conceit and the placement of caesura, rule out the possibility of "migration". But the "migratory" conception must lay down its arms before three crucial questions: how did the literary device arise in the first place--sometimes against all statistical odds; how did its first audience appreciate it, before having a chance to be conditioned by it; and how did it become a widely accepted convention, across languages, periods and cultural systems. Such a wide-spread migration, if it can be substantiated at all, forces us to assume certain capacities, constraints and even needs of the human brain that affect not only the poets but all the members of the literary communities who mediate transmission. As to the more abstract principle of "the longest unit comes last", operating in three utterly different versification systems, in additional linguistic phenomena, as well as in music, only the "cognitive-constraints" conception can account for it. I have also argued that the principles of "metonymy" and "miraculism" (that may account for the heart conceit and many other conceits) reflect a "natural capacity" and an "adaptive need" of the human brain, respectively. In all these issues the "cognitive-constraints" hypothesis is more parsimonious, even if migration can be proved. It would be absurd to deny migration and cultural borrowing. Indeed, even D'Andrade's conception of "good fit to the natural capacities of the human brain" presupposes "repeated social transmission".

Platonic poetry in general, and romantic poetry in particular, enhance one's relationship to one's environment--in periods in which disintegration does not exceed the integrating power of emotions and orientation devices. In typically mannerist periods, people live in a world in which they are forced to adapt very fast to situations that have very different internal logics. People usually do this with amazing ease. But, en route, something happens to them, witness the following joke. A mental asylum inmate leads a shoe box on a long string, and says: "Come on, come on, come on!" The doctor, passing by, says; "What a lovely dog you have, what is its name?" "Are you crazy, doctor, don't you see this is merely a shoe box?" "Oh yes, now I realise, it is a shoe box. Why do you lead it, then, on such a long string?" "Because I am afraid it will bite me". The phenomenological quality of the shifts of mental sets is wit. While in real life attention is directed toward the shifting situation appraisals that may affect one's well-being, in the joke the audience's attention is directed away from them to their phenomenological quality. This is what I meant by "in the response to literature, cognitive devices evolved for adaptive purposes are turned to aesthetic purposes". This process is not unlike the one we have encountered in Platonic poetry, where attention is directed away from parallel entities to their superordinate category, turning a mnemonic device into an emotional quality.

It is easy to enter a "possible" world that is governed by a strange kind of logic. What is more difficult is to enter a possible world that has a strange logic, without abandoning the other world with its familiar logic. This is the point of, e.g., what Todorov calls "the fantastique", or the nightmarish atmosphere in Kafka's The Castle, The Trial and Metamorphosis. In this joke, one need not stay simultaneously in two different possible worlds, but enter them successively, experiencing shifts of mental sets. The reader, reading in his study, is invited to imagine a mental asylum; then he enters the patient's "possible world"; then the patient prevents him from abandoning the logic of his normal world, even arouses in him a painful awareness of having accepted an illogical state of affairs all too easily; but then, again, he forces upon him his own possible world. Each later shift deals the reader a greater shock; but he immediately readjusts to the new situation.

The patient's kind of "double logic" we find occasionally in Lewis Carroll too, who was the grand master of getting his readers to enter "possible worlds" with very strange logics. Consider the following stanza from "The Walrus and the Carpenter":

(9)    But four young Oysters hurried up,
        All eager for the treat;
      Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
        Their shoes were clean and neat--
      And this was odd, because, you know,
        They hadn't any feet.

Readers have usually no difficulty to accept a world in which the oysters' coats are brushed and shoes are clean and neat; they get the shock only when they are reminded of what they knew all along, that the oysters hadn't any feet. This forces them to commit themselves to two worlds with two different kinds of logic. The clash of logics is sharpened into clashing emotional tendencies, when the oysters are regarded at once as the archetypal delicatesse to eat and as companions of whom "We cannot do with more than four / To give a hand to each":

(10)   "O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
        "You've had a pleasant run!
      Shall we be trotting home again?"
        But answer came there none--
      And this was hardly odd, because
        They've eaten every one.

We must admit, however, that this "double logic" has a different effect in metaphysical poetry (or, for that matter, in Kafka) from the joke (or Lewis Carroll). In metaphysical poetry and Kafka on the one hand, and in the joke and Lewis Carroll on the other, the "double logic" constitutes a threat. In the former two, however, the "double logic" is perceived as momentous, even sinister; in the latter two, as ridiculous or playful. In fact, there appears to be some significant difference even between Lewis Carroll's two quotes. We are meant to "laugh off" the clash of logics in (9) as "mere nonsense", just as we are meant to laugh it off in the joke; but the clash of emotional tendencies in (10) interferes with this. Adapting a distinction from Kenneth Burke (1957: 51-56), the momentous, the sinister, the ridiculous, the playful result in the afore-mentioned instances from the coping with threat. The difference between them concerns our attitude toward threat: whether we do or do not admit its authority. In the latter case we attend away from the situations to the phenomenological quality of the shift of mental sets: wit. In the former we are forced to attend back to the changing situations with their possibly grave implications. This paper has considered techniques by which a text may compel readers "to attend back" to it. The "phenomenological quality" of the shocks and readjustments is wit, confusion, disorientation. In this process, the reader's adaptation mechanisms are exposed to his immediate perception.

Flexible persons--as opposed to brain-damaged, "concrete" (Goldstein and Scheerer, 1941) and rigid, authoritarian (Frenkel-Brunswick, 1968) persons--are characterised by an ability "to assume an attitude toward 'the merely possible'" (Frenkel-Brunswick, 1968: 136). The second part of this paper explored some cognitive processes underlying this flexibility. We may have touched upon three degrees of markedness in their application to literature (in an increasing order of markedness): (1) Platonic poetry; (2) the mental patient's joke, and quote (9) from Lewis Carroll; (3) Metaphysical poetry, quote (10), and Kafka. We have also suggested how the cognitive processes of increasing markedness can be used for coping with the increasing disintegration of one's physical and socio-cultural reality, where self-specifying cues are less and less reliable--briefly, we have investigated the complex relations between the mind and the world, and the literary forms that spring from their interaction.

Appendix: Of Cabbages and Kings

(11)   "The time has come," the Walrus said,
        "To talk of many things:
      Of shoes--and ships--and sealing wax--
        Of cabbages--and kings--
      And why the sea is boiling hot--
        And whether pigs have wings."

Lewis Carrol's poem may appear to be an illuminating counter-example to the principle "the longest unit comes last", both in the stanza structure and in the line "Of cabbages--and kings--". The stanza consists of three pairs of verse lines, a longer line followed by a shorter one. And "kings" is obviously shorter than "cabbages". Now these "counter-examples" give us a golden opportunity to explore the full complexity of the process.

As to this particular stanza form, I will consider three of its aspects. First, as we have seen, perceptual wholes tend to break up into sub-units of equal length and equal structure. Consequently, the iambic tetrameter of the odd-numbered lines of this stanza tends to observe a very strong caesura (irrespective of whether it is confirmed by a word boundary). In this stanza, at least, each caesura is confirmed by a word boundary that constitutes a higher syntactic boundary than that of the adjacent words (there are, however, quite a few instances in this poem in which syntax overrides caesura). The trimeter of the even-numbered lines cannot be segmented into sub-units of equal length and equal structure, and is short enough to do without a caesura all in all. Thus, each pair of lines is capable of two alternative mental performances: it may consist either of an eight-syllable-long unit (further subdivided into two symmetrical halves) followed by a six-syllable-long unit, or of two four-syllable-long units followed by a six-syllable-long unit. The reader may focus attention on the whole line, keeping the subdivision in the back of his mind; or shift attention to the smaller parts, loosing sight of the whole line (see Figure 1 a, b) or keeping it in the back of his mind13. The simplest way to illustrate these two options would be by the following two trees:

Figure 1 Alternative possibilities of segmentation

Lineation suggests, of course, the first possibility; but in oral performance both possibilities are equally plausible. Since perceptual wholes tend to break up into units of equal length and equal structure, integration requires some unequalities. The two halves of line 1 tend to stand out at the expense of the whole line; but, since lines 1 and 2 are of unequal length, they must be grouped together. Such a grouping breaks up the stanza into three units of two lines each, of exactly the same length and structure. These three units are connected by the x-a-y-a-z-a rhyme pattern. The rhymeless lines are perceived as intrusions upon the sequence of the rhyming lines; each recurrence of the rhyme arouses a sense of "homecoming", stability and satisfaction. Such a perceptual process enhances both the unity and the complexity of the stanza.

Second, there is no possibility to render a rhymed line equal to the preceding unit: in tree a it is shorter than the preceding line; in tree b it is longer than each one of the two preceding units. At the same time, it is less likely than an eight-syllable long line to break up into smaller units. As a result, tree a represents a mental performance that is a counter-example to the principle "the longest of parallel units comes last"; whereas tree b becomes an exceptionally good example of it. I guess that many or most present-day readers are inclined to the latter kind of mental performance, and find such a stanza most enjoyable.

I strongly suspect, however, that historically this stanza form reflects a very different kind of cognitive process, more compatible with tree a. And this brings us to the third aspect of the issue. There is some evidence from widely different corpora that where music is involved, this cognitive "rule" is sometimes bluntly violated. I reported above that in Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry in Spain the overwhelmingly most frequent metre is based on a foot in which the shortest unit, the schwa mobile, occurs at the beginning (followed by three long units), whereas the second most frequent metre is based on the same units, but the schwa mobile occurs toward the end, before the last long unit. In Tsur and Bentov (1996), however, we report that when we consider in isolation liturgical poetry written in the classical metres, there is a third metre with a tendency to violate this principle that slightly exceeds the frequency of the metre that looms largest in the combined corpus of secular and liturgical poetry. We offer the following explanation. The perceptual unity of a verse line is preserved only if it is kept within the scope of short-term memory, which functions in the acoustic mode, like an echo-box. The span of short-term memory cannot be extended; only the verbal material can be re-coded in a more efficient manner. Poets want to increase the complexity of verse lines, without sacrificing their integrity. Liturgical poetry is more frequently sung than secular poetry. Music may serve as an additional coding device, alleviating the load on short-term memory. This allows the poet to increase the complexity of his verse line without violating its integrity. I offered the same explanation to another phenomenon, reported by David Gil (see, again, Tsur and Bentov, 1996). Gil explored such non-canonical poetic genres as cheers at the soccer games, in political demonstrations, chants of peddlers and hawkers, of hucksters at the marketplace. He has recorded his corpus of texts in Western Europe and the US, in the Middle East and the Far East, obtaining an impressive inter-cultural sample. Gil found that most of the cheers were rhythmically spoken, only a minority of them were sung. He was puzzled to discover that all the texts to which a melody was assigned had their prosodic weight at the beginning of the versification units. I contend, then, that here too music is enrolled as an additional coding device to alleviate the burden on short-term memory, when the text increases the load.

The case best known to Western readers is, of course, the ballad stanza which, too, was mostly sung at the dawn of its history. Consider, for instance the following stanza:

(12)   Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
        To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
      He prayeth well who loveth well
        Both man and bird and beast.

This stanza can be divided into two pairs of lines. The two pairs have exactly the same structure: a tetrameter followed by a trimeter. That is, the two lines are of unequal length. Consequently, the two lines tend to be grouped together, breaking up the stanza into two symmetrical parts. But in each part, most conspicuously, the shortest unit comes last, burdening short-term memory. This stanza too can be assigned two mental performances, one compatible with tree a, the other with tree b. I suspect, again, that the original singers of ballads and their audiences were inclined to a performance compatible with tree a, using music for alleviating the resulting burden on short-term memory. By contrast, most present-day readers (who recite, aloud or silently, these verses) may seek a performance compatible with tree b. Now Lewis Carrol's stanza is a form derived from the ballad stanza ("The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner", for instance, abounds in this variant of the ballad stanza). Alternatively, some people may treat this stanza form, in accordance with Ehrenzweig's conception, as a "symptom" of the ballad style in which cognitive processes are fossilised into style, no longer detecting the functional cognitive processes that generated it. They may even perceive in it some contribution to the "naive" appeal of the ballad style. So, I guess, we may account for its existence by the various alternative performances relying on their respective cognitive mechanisms.

The phrase "of cabbages--and kings" conspicuously violates the principle "the longest comes last". With reference to meaning, one may attempt to account for the existence of such a construction as follows. There is a catalogue of five items in lines 3-4 of this stanza. Any attempt to find some logical order in it is doomed to failure. In the sequence "cabbages and kings", at any rate, the items come in an inverted order of importance; this is reinforced by reversing the well-ordered sequence of relative length of the two phrases. Plausible as this explanation may sound, it is ad-hoc. It may be complemented by a more systematic one: the principle under consideration may be overridden by the prosodic constraints of metered and rhymed verse. In such verse, considerations of meter and rhyme subdue the considerations of relative length. This, however, is only part of the story. In metered and rhymed verse, such marked forms may assume a special effect. I pointed out long ago (Tsur, 1972) two aspects of segmentation: articulateness and requiredness ("requiredness" is a notion borrowed from Gestalt theory). The shorter the final segment of a verse line, the greater its requiredness, that is, the greater the frustration when it is missing, but the greater the satisfaction when it finally occurs. In this line "and kings" is short enough to be highly required; the sense of requiredness is enhanced by the sequence of three unstressed syllables preceding "king", two of which are part of the ploysyllable "cabbages", and lean back on its first, stressed syllable. As a result, metrically too "kings" is highly required at the end of that line.

This sense of requiredness is further reinforced by a more evasive form of requiredness, disproportionately pervasive in this stanza. The requiredness of a stressed syllable in the last strong position of a line increases, and yields a stronger closure, when it is a monosyllabic preceded by a polysyllabic lexical word with its stress on the penultimate syllable. Consider:

(13)   "The tíme has cóme," the Wálrus sáid

(14)   The Wálrus sáid: "The tíme has cóme"

"Sáid" in quote (13) constitutes a stronger perceptual closure than "cóme" in quote (14). It should be noticed that there are four relevant polysyllabics in this stanza ("Walrus ... many... sealing...boiling"); all of them occur at the end of the line as in quote (13), none of them in midline as in quote (14) (this form of closure is quite abundant in Shakespeare's Sonnets too).

1. In Hungarian iambic pentameter lines, the majority of caesurae occur after position V; but regarding the 4 + 6 or 6 + 4 division, the former division is the dominant one. [back]

2. This is a good example of what Wimsatt and Beardsley called "The Genetic Fallacy". I shall not recapitulate here the arguments for and against it (they have been reviewed and criticised by Wimsatt, 1968). [back]

3. Woodrow's experimental findings seem to be in harmony with some of my other cognitive assumptions governing my argument. That durational differences tend to give rise to end-accented rhythms can be interpreted as 'whenever durational differences arise, the longest segment comes last'. His finding that differences in amplitude tend to give rise to beginning-accented rhythms can be explained, first, by assuming that, other things being equal, greater amplitude at the beginning of a sequence more efficiently arouses the alertness of the perceiving system than at the end; and second, with reference to the finding that greater amplitude does not constitute a greater load on short-term memory. [back]

4. Beginning-accented and end-accented grouping may be even more pervasive in this corpus of poems. About thirty years ago I discovered a highly significant correlation between metre and rhyme which is not accounted for by the explicit poetics of the period, perhaps even contradicts it. Only recently I hit upon the cognitive explanation. In the second sentence of his "Treatise on Meter", Yehuda Halevi states: "But, indeed, the use of the Arabic metres in Hebrew must be condemned because it corrupts Hebrew speech, because it ignores stress on the last and the penultimate syllables of words, that distinguish between nouns and verbs [...], between past and future tense [...] between first person and the imperative" (Rosen, 1994: 325). The schoolbooks teach that stress is irrelevant to the rhymes of this period. Words with stress on the last syllable may rhyme with words whose penultimate syllable is stressed. I have found in my corpus that this is extremely rare, and that most of the few instances involve certain kinds of pun; in other words, stress may be relevant, but lower in relative importance than puns. I have also found, however, that the overhelming majority of rhymes in the "hamerube" metre have their stress on their last syllable; in the "hashalem" metre on their penultimate syllable. This correlation can be explained by the observation that in the former case both metre and rhyme are end-accented, in the latter--beginning-accented. [back]

5. "The iambic is the characteristic rhythm of people as they talk [...]. The trochaic rhythm, again, is too much akin to the comic dance, as may be seen in tetrameter verse, for the rhythm of tetrameters is light and tripping" (Aristotle, 1932: 38, 1408b).

"His rage armed Archilochus with his iambic: comedy and tragedy have adopted it, as being natural for dialogue, able to drown out the noise of the audience and suited to action" (Horace: 1951: 117).[back]

6. An illuminating example of such religious reasons is adduced by John Skoyles (1997). In ancient times there seem to have been good physical and perhaps neurological and cognitive reasons for writing from right to left. When in the Greek writing vowels were inserted between the consonants, the cognitive route of reading is hypothesised to have changed too, shifting from the "lexical" to the "assembled" phonology. ["Indeed, present models of reading suggest that adults use several kinds of processes involving at least two different routes by which words can be identified and pronounced; for instance in the logogen model there are separate routes for lexical (addressed) and phonetic (assembled) phonology"]. This, in turn, entailed the gradual change of writing direction first into bi-directional, and then into left-to-right writing, finally reaching, in terms of the present paper, the best fit of the changed cognitive route to the natural capacities and constraints of the human brain. In Hebrew and Arabic these changes didn't take place, because of the prohibition to alter the sacred texts of the Jews and Muslims. "These religious works are taken by their believers to be the word of God and thus unalterable". [back]

7. Substantial parts of the ensuing discussion have been extracted from my earlier writings: Tsur, 1987; 1992a; 1997; 1998a; unpublished. [back]

8. Pope, Addison and Dr. Johnson meticulously distinguished between what they called "true wit" and "false wit" (cf. note 10 below). I shall not go here into this matter; I only wish to remark that what is bad classicism may be excellent mannerism. My business in this section of my paper is to explore how the cognitive mechanisms underlying "Platonic" poetry can be exploited for emotional qualities in Renaissance and romantic poetry. [back]

9. A one-year-old child standing on the floor of the room will fall down if the walls are silently and suddenly moved forward a few inches, although nothing touches him. This is, because the optical pattern produced by the moving walls would normally specify that the observer was plunging backward. The child compensates by shifting forward, overbalances and falls. Even an adult who knows about the experimental arrangement can be 'knocked down' in this way if he is balancing on a narrow beam" (Neisser, 1976: 116). Similarly, in a fluid society, where there are no stable points of orientation, and where the self-specifying information from the social and spiritual environment is contradictory, serious emotional or mental disorientation may result. [back]

10. The issue of past experience versus structural organisation is at steak in the dispute between behaviourism and gestalt theory. Köhler (1969) uses the following visual designs to refute the past-experience conception:

  Figure 4

He claims to show "that past experience cannot be the main factor that makes us see unitary objects or things. Figure 2, particularly when it is presented in a rather short exposure, usually gives the impression of a pattern that is not at all familiar. But it contains one part with which we are well acquainted; this part is shown in Figure 3. What does this prove? It proves that the causes which really establish unitary visual things may operate in a way that makes well-known objects disappear, because they are not visually separated from perfectly unknown larger entities which we do see" (Köhler, 1969: 51; my italics). Likewise, in Figure 4, in the word men written above its mirror image a series of closed symmetrical shapes are generated, which overrides the series of graphemes in the widely familiar, arbitrary linguistic signs. [back]

11. As to the metaphysical poets' inventiveness, see, for instance, Dr. Johnson's essay on Abraham Cowley: "If Wit be well described by Pope, as being 'that which has been often thought, but was never before so well expressed', they [the metaphysical poets--RT] certainly never attained, or ever sought it; for they endeavoured to be singular in their thoughts, and were careless of their diction" (460); or, "the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found" (461). [back]

12.In a series of papers I have argued that this "efficient-coding" conception is far more adequate to account for the use of spatial images in figurative language than Lakoff's conception of the "embodied mind". Thus, spatio-visual imagery appears to have some fundamental function in cognitive processes. As it is manipulated in the metaphysical conceit, spatio-visual imagery as an active perceptual schema is submitted to the inspection of what we have called meta-awareness. [back]

13. Accordingly, tree a may have the following variant:



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