Masculine and feminine rhymes: their structural effect.
One of my basic assumptions in the study of poetry is that versification does something to poems that cannot be reduced to meaning. (1) This article is an attempt to capture a small part of that "something." I will explore two insufficiently understood cognitive principles that govern the perceived effects of certain stanza forms. One concerns the so-called masculine and feminine rhymes; the other concerns the observation that in a series of parallel items, other things being equal, "the longest comes last" is the well-formed order. The two principles overlap to some extent, because the feminine rhyme is also longer than the masculine. But precisely this overlap points up that a different principle too may be at work here, that the feminine rhyme tends to be more "plastic," the masculine more "rigid." Poets may exploit these principles to achieve opposite effects. If, for instance, they want their stanza to have a relatively rigid, abrupt effect, they may prefer the "shortest comes last" order. This observation can be extended from rhymes to line length as well which, in turn, may throw the so-called ballad stanza, for instance (where a longer line alternates with a shorter one), into a new perspective. Until now I had to regard this structure as a fossilized remnant of cognitive processes active at the time of its creation; this new perspective may account for the perceived effects of such structures in the present too.
The terms "feminine" and "masculine" rhymes were adopted from French, where they refer to endings with or without a mute e respectively, whether the word does or does not suggest gender (thus, for instance, the verbs "passe" or "danse" too constitute "feminine" rhymes). In English, German, Hungarian and other languages the terms came to mean rhymes that bear linguistic stress on their penultimate or last syllables, respectively. Thus, the terms "feminine" and "masculine" rhymes refer to different phenomena in French and the other languages which, nevertheless, tend to have similar poetic effects.
In English, feminine rhymes are rare owing to the scarcity of words with a stress on their penultimate syllable. Feminine rhymes are, therefore, sporadic in English, and only rarely assume structural significance (as, for instance, in Excerpts 11 and 12). Consequently, the majority of my examples will necessarily come from other languages, French, German and Hebrew, and only a minority from English.
When discussing the perceptual qualities of rhyme, one must distinguish four aspects: the Gestalt structure of rhyme patterns, the semantic and the phonetic structure of rhyme words, and the different effect of assigning linguistic stress to the last or the penultimate syllable of the rhyme word(s). I have elsewhere discussed the first three of these aspects at great length (Tsur, "Rhyme"; Toward a Theory: 111-132). The present inquiry goes into greater delicacies of the latter two issues. I made heroic efforts not to refer to the semantic aspect.
Gestalt psychology offers a convenient theoretical framework for handling the perceptual qualities of rhyme patterns. So, I will briefly summarize its relevant principles. The terms "good shape" or "strong Gestalt" refer to the conditions in which stimulus patterns tend to be perceived as unified. The fundamental law of Gestalt Theory is the Law of Pragnanz: the psychological organization of a stimulus pattern will always be as "good" as the prevailing conditions permit. This does not mean that the shape will always be good, only as good as the prevailing conditions permit. The simpler a structure, the better its shape. Complexity is determined by the number of structural features of a stimulus pattern. A structure is simple in an absolute sense when it has few structural features; in a relative sense, when it organizes a greater number of structural features in a relatively simple pattern. A couplet is simple in the absolute sense, because it has only one structural feature: a rhymes with a; and is also symmetrical. An abab quatrain is more complex, because it has two structural features: a rhymes with a, and b rhymes with b. Two additional laws should be mentioned: the Law of Good Continuation and the Law of Return. Good Continuation means that perceptual preference is given to arrangements that make the fewest changes or interruptions in a sequence, visual or auditory. A couplet displays good continuation: an a-rhyme is followed by an a-rhyme. The abab quatrain displays less good continuation: an a-rhyme is followed by a b-rhyme. If, however, in such a quatrain you perceptually group an a-rhyme with the ensuing b-rhyme, you obtain good continuation on a higher level: an ab group is followed by an ab group. Such a structure is symmetrical too: on this higher level, the unit tends to divide into two equal, symmetrical parts. It is simple in the relative sense. All this suggests an additional principle: a perceptual unit cannot have equally good shapes at all levels. If the units on the lower levels have strong shapes, they will clearly stand out as independent entities, weakening the overall shape. In the aabb rhyme pattern, the two couplets will clearly stand out, at the expense of the whole. Such a quatrain is less unified than one with an abab or abba rhyme pattern. The shape of the parts must be weakened to make them integrated with the whole. The more unlike the endings of the consecutive a and b lines are, the more dependent on, and more strongly integrated with, the whole they are. In this sense, the combination of a feminine and a masculine ending of two unrhymed lines renders them less similar, and therefore even more tightly grouped together and more dependent on the whole. According to the Law of Return, "other things being equal, it is better to return to any starting point whatsoever than not to return" (Meyer 151). It seems to me that the two laws are ordered. One tries to apply the Law of Return when the application of the Law of Good Continuation fails. Consider the abba rhyme pattern. An a-rhyme is followed by a b-rhyme. But in this case the above solution won't work: here another b-rhyme follows. After a disruption of two b-rhymes, an a-line follows (that is, the pattern returns to a-rhyme) and closes the quatrain. Omar Khayyam's aaxa rhyme pattern displays almost perfect continuation of a-rhymes; but is interrupted by an x-line that rhymes with no other line. Here the principle of Return comes to rescue. After the disruption, the rhyme pattern returns to its initial mode, generating a pungent closure. The greater the disruption, the stronger the closure experienced. In the abba pattern the result is a closed symmetrical whole, in which the second half is the mirror image of the first half. The aaxa rhyme pattern is even more unified, because it cannot be divided into two equal parts.
Masculine and Feminine Rhymes
Structurally, masculine rhyme in the tonic-syllabic metre consists of a metrical strong position occupied by a stressed syllable; perceptually, it generates an abrupt cut-off point. In the feminine rhyme, by contrast, this clear-cut ending is followed by an unstressed syllable rendering the halt more gradual, more fuzzy-edged. Consequently, it is perceived as softer, less forceful, more pliable. Clive Scott, whose work I find exceptionally subtle, pointed out a similar effect in French versification: "masculine rhymes are abrupt, unrelenting, circumscribed, ... feminine rhymes are evanescent, yielding, reverberant (2)" (A Question of Syllables 201).
Furthermore, in a quatrain that consists of feminine and masculine rhymes, it makes a considerable difference whether the masculine or the feminine rhyme occurs at the end of the unit. Owing to certain cognitive dynamics, where two or more parallel entities occur, as long as no issues of preference are involved, "the longest comes last" is the well-formed order. The same holds true of music. In light of this observation, if the last rhyme of an abab or abba rhyme pattern is feminine, the quatrain will be perceived as softer, gentler, more relaxed, more "smoothly curved" than when the reverse is the case, If the stanza ends with a masculine rhyme, other things being equal, it will be perceived as sharper, terser, more purposeful, more conclusive.
To put it differently, the feminine rhyme has here an effect similar to that of fermata in music. (Fermata directs the performer to sustain the note of a composition). This is a typical example of the principle that discontinuity can be indicated by prolonging duration (albeit by different means: by adding a syllable after the abrupt stressed syllable in a strong position, rather than prolonging it). As Leonard B. Meyer implied prolongation may suggest in music "lack of forward motion" (136). The masculine rhyme by contrast, has an effect similar to fermato: a directive to a musician to perform a certain passage firmly or resolutely.
In the following two examples all other things are really equal. They consist of the same catalogue of eight items. Semantically, they all suggest topographic configurations and natural phenomena that may hinder fast movement; grammatically they all are prepositional phrases that serve as adverbials of place, constituting pairs that have shared or opposing semantic features; phonetically, the pairs of phrases are bound together by alliteration. The order of lines is constrained only by rhyme pattern. Excerpt 1 is the genuine version, with the feminine rhymes in the even lines; Excerpt 2 is a reshuffled version, reversing the order of masculine and feminine rhymes.
1 Over hill, over dale, Thorough bush, thorough briar, Over park, over pale, Thorough flood, thorough fire, 2 Thorough bush, thorough briar, Over hill, over dale, Thorough flood, thorough fire, Over park, over pale,
Now consider what happens at the end of lines 2 and 4 in the two excerpts. In Excerpt 1 at these points rhyme brings the line to a gradual halt generating a feeling that all forward drive is spent. In Excerpt 2, by contrast, the remaining forward drive is blocked but still active, as when slamming on the brakes. I would characterize this opposition with the help of the pun "rest ~ arrest." Thus, in the two versions the unrhymed pairs of verse lines have a very different character. In Excerpt 1, which is the genuine version, a shorter verse line leads up to a longer one, where the movement comes to a smooth end, to a relaxed rest. It does not stop, there is only a feeling of lack of forward motion. In Excerpt 2, a smoothly closed, comfortably settled first line is reopened and followed by an abrupt second line, experienced as foreshortened, or even as coming to a restless stop, as drastically curbed.
When one reads Excerpts 1 and 2 in succession, one may have an uneasy feeling that in Excerpt 2 something is wrong. One's first reaction may be to blame one's overfamiliarity with the genuine version. But there is more to it. Excerpt 1 must be performed in a certain way. There is a catalogue of eight parallel items. Each item must indicate that another item is to follow; the last item must indicate that the main sentence ("I do wander everywhere") is still to come. At the same time, if you want to read these four lines in a way that foregrounds the two halves that rhyme with each other, you have to indicate in some way a stronger halt at the end of the even than at the end of the odd lines. Suppose you perform the list with a slight intonation rise at the end of each item; it would be sufficient to indicate continuation; the sense of being settled generated by the feminine rhyme would be just enough to indicate discontinuity without disrupting the smooth stream of items. Such a performance will not work in Excerpt 2. Suppose you try to perform it in the same way; the sense of unease will suddenly become acute. If, however, you end the even lines with a falling terminal contour, the sense of unease will vanish, or diminish at least. What happened? The line with the abrupt masculine rhyme is experienced as curt and unstable, it generates a sense of restless halt. To foreground a well-articulated symmetric overall Gestalt, the boundary of both even lines must be reinforced by an effective terminal intonation contour. Thus performed, the feminine-masculine-feminine-masculine rhyme pattern will have a well-articulated, stern appearance, suggesting control, severe discipline or firm resolution. Notice this too. An abrupt masculine-ended line may have the effect of reinforcing some expression of defiance in the meaning dimension. In this case, a rising intonation at the end would be perfectly appropriate. But then the rising portion of the intonation must be loaded with considerable energy.
It is nearly impossible to substantiate such perceptions in controlled experiments. One may communicate one's perceptions only by pointing ostensively at paradigmatic examples and suggesting principles that govern them. I received dramatic support for the foregoing conception from an attempt to disagree with it. I told about my work in this article to a colleague noted for her subtle prosodic intuitions and ability to verbalize those intuitions, as well as relate them analytically to the verbal structure of texts. When I only stated my topic, she said she had a strong intuition that feminine rhymes are softer than masculine rhymes. I presented my argument via a Hebrew example, which I didn't intend to include in this article. The great Hebrew poet Nathan Alterman had in the nineteen-forties a weekly column in a daily newspaper, in which he responded to current events. His poem "Toast to an Italian Captain" (a masterpiece highly popular to this very day) was written after a daring action on the sea by the Jewish underground.
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In the transcription I have capitalized the syllables with metrical ictus:
anaNIM al raSHEnu, haRUakh eyTAN, hanlaKHA ne'esTA, khey shaMAyim! narim KOS, kapiTAN, shel braKHA, kapiTAN, od naSHUV, nippaGESH al haMAyim. 3 Clouds are over our head, the wind is impetuous, The work has been done, by heavens! Let us raise glasses, Captain, in salute, Captain, We will yet meet again on the waters.
In this poem the metre of odd lines is anapestic tetrameter, of even lines trimeter. In other words, the longer line comes first. On the other hand, the even lines end with a feminine rhyme that displays an effect similar to Excerpt 1, even though this is the shorter line. It would appear that the principle of stress placement overrides here the principle of line length. I made a re-writing exercise on this stanza, replacing the feminine with masculine rhymes.
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anaNIM al raSHEnu, haRUakh eyTAN, hanlaKHA ne'esTA po sof-SOF! narim KOS, kapiTAN, shel braKHA, kapiTAN, od naSHUV, nippaGESH al haKHOF. 4 Clouds are over our head, the wind is impetuous, The work has been done here at long last! Let us raise glasses, Captain, in salute, Captain, We will yet meet again on the shore.
I argued that the feminine rhymes in Excerpt 3 generated a more settled rest than the masculine rhymes in Excerpt 4. My colleague disagreed. In Excerpt 3, she said, I can pronounce "shaMAyim" with slightly rising intonation at the end, to indicate fluent continuity. At this point I showed her Excerpts 1 and 2, regarding which I make exactly the same suggestion in a wider context.
We are here on slippery ground, where people may mean very different things by the same adjectives. The lack of a proper metalanguage in this field of inquiry forces one to use metaphors, the meanings of which are determined to a large extent by the oppositions in which they occur. Thus, for instance, Clive Scott describes feminine rhymes as "evanescent, yielding, reverberant" as opposed to masculine rhymes, which are "abrupt, unrelenting, circumscribed." Consider, however, the last rhyme words of Excerpts 7 and 5, "Meandrins" and "fantasques." Their endings are contrasted in two significant respects: "Meandrins" has a masculine ending with a continuous, reverberating nasal vowel; whereas the ending of "fantasques" is feminine, and its last consonant is an abrupt, voiceless stop. Here, Scott's terminology would obviously break down. I am not criticizing Scott, but pointing out the difficulties inherent in dealing with these issues. (2) The remedy is to be very explicit about what aspect of rhyme you are describing. Consider the following stanzas:
5 Votre ame est un paysage choisi Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi Tristes sous leurs deguisements fantasques. Your soul is a choice landscape / Where masqueraders and bergamaskers walk charmingly / Playing the lute and dancing and as if/Sad beneath their fanciful disguises. 6 Sache qu'il faut aimer, sans faire la grimace, Le pauvre, le mechant, le tortu, l'hebete, Pour que tu puisses faire a Jesus, quand il passe, Un tapis triomphal avec ta charite. Know that one must love, without making a grimace, / The poor, the villain, the deformed, the imbecile, / So that you may make for Jesus, when he passes, / A triumphal carpet of your charity. 7 Il faut laisser maisons, et vergers, et jardins, Vaisselles, et vaisseaux que l'artisan burine, Et chanter son obseque en la facon du cygne, Qui chante son trepas sur les bords Meandrins. One must leave houses, vineyards and gardens, / China and vessels, which the craftsman engraves, / And sing one's own song of death like the swan / who sings his death on meandering banks. 8 Je suis l'Empire a la fin de la decadence, Qui regarde passer les grands Barbares blancs En composant des acrostiches indolents D'un style d'or ou la langueur du soleil danse. I am the Empire at the end of its decadence, / Who watches the tall fair Barbarians pass / Composing indolent acrostics / In a golden style where the languor of the sun dances. 9 Der schnelle Tag ist hin, die Nacht schwingt ibre Fahn' Und fuhrt die Sternen auf. Der Menschen mude Scharen Verlassen Feld und Werk; wo Tier' und Vogel waren, Traut itzt die Einsamkeit. Wie ist die Zeit vertan! Der Port naht mehr und mehr sich zu der Glieder Kahn. Gleich wie dies Licht verfiel, so wird in wenig Jahren Ich, du, und was man bat, und was man sieht, hinfahren. Dies Leben kommt mir vor als eine Rennebahn: The swift day is over, the night displays her banner / And parades the stars. The weary companies of men / Leave field and work; where animals and birds were, / Solitude now sorrows. How time has been wasted! / The harbour approaches closer and closer to the ferryboat. / Just as this light vanished, so in a few years / I, you and all one has and sees, will pass away. / This life seems to me a race-course.
So, one must carefully distinguish between the perceived effects of masculine and feminine rhymes on the one hand, and those of the speech sounds that constitute them, on the other. If, however, you ask yourself what quality you perceive in the respective endings of the two stanzas, you may find that in Excerpt 5 the stanza comes to a stable comfortable rest, whereas in Excerpt 7 it ends with a sudden arrest. At the end of Excerpt 5 all forward drive is spent, whereas in Excerpt 7 the remaining forward drive is blocked but still active, so to speak. Such a sense of brusque arrest may be mitigated when the rhyme word ends with a reverberating nasal vowel, as in "Meandrins." The abrupt [k] in "fantasques," by contrast, does, of course, reinforce the stable rest achieved, but not the fuzzy, gradually waning end. Note this too: when we confront "Meandrins" with "choisi" or "charite," for instance, all three have masculine endings, but the nasal vowel in the former is much more reverberant than the oral [i] or [e] in the latter two, even though they too are continuous, periodic speech sounds. The smoothest, most relaxed sense of rest is attained when the closing feminine rhyme contains a reverberating nasal vowel, as in "danse" (Excerpt 8). We have here a spectrum with indefinitely delicate nuances. Thus, for instance, between "danse" and "fantasques" we may find a "feminine" rhyme like "passe" (Excerpt 6), which ends with a fricative that, though continuous, is aperiodic and the syllable contains no nasal vowel.
Versification is about constraints. The most conspicuous constraint in English tonic-syllabic metre is a regularly alternating sequence of weak and strong positions. English versification can therefore do without rhyme all in all, as in blank verse, for instance. French syllabic metre constrains only the number of syllables in a line, irrespective of the placement of linguistic stress. Consequently, French versification is in need of additional constraints. The most common verse line in French is the alexandrine, which consists of twelve syllables; therefore, for good perceptual reasons, it has a mandatory caesura at precisely the middle, after the sixth syllable. In English blank verse, by contrast, the line is typically ten-syllable-long, and the placement of caesura is more flexible. While the underlying verse form in English drama is blank verse, in classical French drama it is the Alexandrine couplet, where pairs of feminine and masculine rhymes alternate with strict regularity. In other stanza forms too, as in the quatrain, the order of feminine and masculine rhymes is strictly consistent, if not prescribed.
From the foregoing exposition one might expect that among quatrains that alternate masculine and feminine rhymes, the majority should prefer patterns ending with a feminine rhyme, as in Excerpts 5 and 8, as more natural than patterns ending with a masculine rhyme, as in Excerpts 6 and 7. However, regarding the abab pattern as in Excerpts 5 and 6, the reverse is the case. Regarding the abba pattern, as in Excerpts 6 and 7, the distribution is roughly even. The point is that deviation from naturalness has its own stylistic effects. If, for instance, a poet wants his stanza to display a psychological atmosphere of severe self-discipline rather than a relaxed, settled one, he might prefer the less natural rhyme pattern, irrespective of the contents. Or, if there is interaction between contents and versification, the poet might want an aphoristic punchline to occur in a masculine-rhymed line.
Consider, for instance the octet of the sonnet "Abend" by the German Baroque poet, Andreas Gryphius (Excerpt 9). The eight lines display a gentle, pensive, contemplative tone. But precisely the fourth, masculine-rhymed line ends with the exclamation "Wie ist die Zeit vertan!"; whereas the eighth line contains an aphoristic deviation from the contemplative tone. Here the psychological atmospheres of the masculine rhyme and of the exclamation or aphoristic expression reinforce each other.
In French poetry, the foregoing organizational principles typically reach up to a higher level. So, let us consider a more sophisticated example, Baudealaire's "Le Lethe":
10 Viens sur mon coeur, ame cruelle et sourde, Tigre adore monstre aux airs indolents; Je veux longtemps plonger mes doigts tremblants Dans l'epaisseur de ta criniere lourde; Dans tes jupons remplis de ton parfum Ensevelir ma tete endolorie, Et respirer, comme une fleur fletrie, Le doux relent de mon amour defunt. Je veux dormir! dormir plutot que vivre! Dans un sommeil aussi doux que la mort, J'etalerai mes baisers sans remords Sur ton beau corps poli comme le cuivre. Pour engloutir mes sanglots apaises Rien ne me vaut l'abime de ta couche; L'oubli puissant habite sur ta bouche, Et le Lethe coule dans tes baisers. A mon destin, desormais mon delice, J'obeirai comme un predestine; Martyr docile, innocent condamne. Dont sa ferveur attise le supplice, Je sucerai pour noyer ma rancoeur, Le nepenthes et la bonne cigue Aux bouts charmants de cette gorge aigue Qui n'a jamais emprisonne de coeur. Come upon my heart, cruel and deaf soul,/adored tiger, monster with an air of indolence;/I want to plunge for a long time my trembling fingers/in the thickness of your heavy mane. To bury my painful head/in your petticoats filled with your perfume,/and breathe in, like a withered flower,/the sweet (musty) odour of my deceased love. I want to sleep! sleep rather than live! In a slumber as sweet as death, / I will spread out my remorseless kisses/upon your beautiful body polished like brass. To swallow up my appeased sobs/nothing equals the abyss of your bed,/powerful oblivion dwells on your lips,/and the Lethe flows in your kisses. My destiny which from now on is my delight,/I will obey like a predestinate; / docile martyr, innocent convict,/whose fervour fans the flames of torture, I will suck, to drown my resentment,/the nepenthe and the good hemlock/at the charming tip of your sharp breast/that has never imprisoned a heart.
This poem consists of six quatrains, each rhyming abba. At a more delicate level, in quatrains 1, 3 and 5 the a-rhymes are feminine, the b-rhymes masculine; in quatrains 2, 4 and 6 the other way around. Thus, the two kinds of rhyme obtain an additional structural meaning: in this poem two kinds of rhyme patterns alternate regularly. One may respond to this structure in three different ways, or rather different degrees. Many or most readers will probably not notice at all this systematic structure. In this case, it will not affect at all their response. Once noticed, however, it may affect the reader's perceptual readiness. Some people may have a strange feeling of alternating stanza endings: that at the end of quatrains 1, 3 and 5 a sense of comfortable rest is achieved, in quatrains 2, 4 and 6 a sense of abrupt halt; the line is curt, or cut short, so to speak. In rare instances this may lead to the perception of an even higher organization. In order to perceive the poem as consisting of similar elements, just as on the line level, two consecutive dissimilar quatrains must be grouped together. In this case groups of two stanzas are created in which the shorter comes last. Consequently, the last lines of quatrains 2, 4 and 6 constitute "the shortest unit that comes last" on two organization levels, enbancing the abrupt, terse nature of the ending.
In such poems, then, a complex alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes is highly formalized. This formal structure typically ignores meaning. But atone point, at least, significant interaction between versification and content occurs. The poem ends with a punch line. The last stanza exploits two different aspects of the female breast, which has sexual attraction and encloses a heart, literally. The last but one line speaks of "the charming tip of your sharp breast"; the last line switches to the other aspect of the breast, "that has never imprisoned a heart" in a figurative sense, in the manner of the metaphysical conceit, generating a witty punchline quality. This punchline quality and the verse line's abruptness reinforce each other's effect.
I conceive of poetic conventions as of fossilized cognitive processes. Cognitive processes experienced at the time of creating the conventions become fossilized in time and are turned into style. Such formalized stylistic devices may prevail after the formative experiences are absent or substantially toned down. In much French, German and Hungarian poetry the alternation of feminine and masculine rhymes is highly formalized, but rarely in English. One of the few English poets who sometimes do formalize the alternation of feminine and masculine rhymes is Lord Byron. Consider the following two excerpts, from the Hebrew Melodies (Excerpt 11) and "When we were parted" (Excerpt 12).
11 While sadly we gazed on the river Which roll'd on in freedom below, They demanded the song; but, oh never That triumph the stranger shall know! May this right hand be withered for ever, Ere it string our high harp for the foe. 12 When we two parted In silence and tears, Half broken-hearted, To sever for years, Pale grew thy cheek and cold, Colder thy kiss; Truly that hour foretold Sorrow to this. The dew of the morning Sunk chill on my brow-- It felt like the warning Of what I feel now. Thy vows are all broken, And light is thy fame; I hear thy name spoken, And share in its shame. They name thee before me, A knell to mine ear; A shudder comes o'er me-- Why wert thou so dear? They know not 1 knew thee, Who knew thee too well:-- Long, long shall I rue thee Too deeply to tell. In secret we met-- In silence I grieve That thy heart could forget, Thy spirit deceive. If I should meet thee After long years, How should I greet thee?-- With silence and tears.
The pattern in the two middle stanzas (second and third) of Excerpt 12 displays systematic alternation of feminine and masculine rhymes. The second quatrain of[ the first stanza and the first quatrain of the last stanza deviate from this pattern, and are experienced, precisely, as deviations from a forceful pattern. These deviations are not perceived as random: the first stanza consists of four regularly alternating feminine and masculine rhymes followed by four consecutive masculine rhymes. The last stanza, by contrast, begins with four consecutive abab masculine rhymes followed by four regularly alternating feminine and masculine rhymes. Thus, a chiastic structure is created, generating a solid closed framework.
Summary and Conclusions
I have explored two principles that affect the perceived quality of a stanza form, and their interaction. First, feminine rhymes are perceived as relatively soft, pliable, fuzzy-edged; masculine rhymes as abrupt, relentless, circumscribed, not merely short, but curt. Second, in a series of parallel items, other things being equal, "the longest comes last" is the well-formed order. Since feminine rhymes are longer than masculine rhymes, the two principles partially overlap.
I have dwelt on four different aspects of feminine and masculine rhymes. First, where perceptual dynamics require two consecutive lines with unlike endings to be grouped together, feminine and masculine endings increase their dissimilarity, and render their grouping more solid. Second, as 1 pointed out in the preceding paragraph, the two kinds of rhyme have different perceptual qualities. Third, it makes a difference whether the stanza ends with a feminine or masculine rhyme: in the former case it tends to come to a smooth, stable rest, in the latter, to an abrupt stop. Fourth, the speech sounds that constitute the specific rhyming syllables have each their own characteristic perceptual qualities. The perceptual qualities generated by the placement of linguistic stress and the specific speech sounds may reinforce each other, or may be in conflict. In this case, the former tend to override the latter, or the two may mitigate each other.
Smooth, stable rest at the end of a quatrain may be achieved, then, when it ends with a feminine rhyme, or when the longer and shorter lines alternating in it end with the longer one. This seems to be the unmarked form. One might expect that the unmarked forms should be substantially more frequent than the marked ones. And in many instances this is, indeed, the case. However, occasionally we encounter the marked forms; what is more, some poetic traditions perpetuated precisely the marked forms. Again, one should expect poetic traditions to perpetuate the unmarked forms. And this is, again, the case in most instances; but certain poetic traditions have good reasons to perpetuate precisely the marked forms. One conspicuous case in point is the "heroic rhythm," the dactylic hexameter, where the longest syllable in the foot comes first--perpetuated by the venerable Greek and Roman epic tradition. As I elsewhere pointed out (Tsur, "Poetic Conventions as Cognive Fossils"), Aristotle offers a clue to this riddle: "Of the various rhythms, the heroic has dignity, but lacks the tones of the spoken language. The iambic is the very language of ordinary people, so that in common talk iambic lines occur oftener than any others: but in a speech we need dignity and the power of taking the hearer out of his ordinary self." Aristotle claims, then, that "of the various rhythms, the heroic has dignity" and "the power of taking the hearer out of his ordinary self." In other words, the heroic action demands not the most natural rhythms, but those that take the hearer out of his ordinary self, that is, the least natural meters.
As to abab-rhymed quatrains, the unmarked form is when the b-rhyme is feminine. We have observed that, notwithstanding this, in the overwhelming majority of such quatrains in French it is the a-rhymes that are feminine. This seems to be a remnant from the classical period, when a psychological atmosphere of austere self-discipline rather than a relaxed, leisurely one was cherished. But poets may exploit such a psychological atmosphere to reinforce specific contents in their poems. Since this prevalence is statistical and not mandatory as with the dactylic hexameter in classic epic, for instance, poets always have the option to have recourse to the unmarked form, when convenient. (3)
I have said that formalized rhyme patterns are typically indifferent to con tents. They proceed, stanza after stanza, irrespective of the specific contents. But sometimes the poets take advantage of the psychological atmosphere of quatrains that end with masculine rhymes, to reinforce some aphoristic or witty punch line or, at least some exclamation or some other conclusive formulation. We have seen this in the two quatrains of Gryphius' sonnet, and at the end of Baudelaire's "Le Lethe."
Such highly formalized rhyme patterns, as I said, are indifferent to contents. Typically, interaction between versification and contents occurs after the event. Consider, for instance, the last stanza of Gerard de Nerval's poem "Fantaisie":
13 Puis une dame, a sa haute fenetre, Blonde aux yeux noirs, en ses habits anciens, Que dans une autre existence peut-etre, J'ai deja vue ... et dont je me souviens! ... And then a lady, in her high window. / Blond with black eyes, in her robes of olden days, /whom in another existence perhaps, / I have seen already [deja vue] ... and whom I remember now!
The last two lines express as tender longing as the whole poem. But the psychological atmosphere of patent purpose and definite direction inherent in the masculine ending may bring out of the last line a dormant punchline quality, as text written in lemon juice may be made visible by heating. In Excerpt 13 the exclamation mark suggests such a possibility.
In this article I have investigated the various aspects of masculine and feminine rhymes. In many of my writings I investigated how unmarked stylistic devices are fossilized by poetic tradition (e.g., Tsur "Poetic Conventions as Cognitive Fossils"; "Poetic Conventions as Fossilized Devices"). In the present article I have explored its converse too: how texts may exploit marked stylistic options for the sake of specific poetic effects.
An anonymous reviewer who had reservations from my paper introduced his criticism with the following comment: "If the editors of Style feel that the proof of good scholarship is that it stimulates debate, here is my contribution to the debate, based on this article." So, hereby I inaugurate the debate. In what follows I will quote his main points in detail and add my rejoinder.
Further, he remarks "I don't think the author would accept my reservations, since they go to the founding principles of his theory, rather than the particularities of the argument here." The reviewer's reservations are twofold: first, that my work attempts to be too scientific for his taste; and second, that my scientific attempts fail to yield scientific results. If the debate is, indeed, about the founding principles of my theory, I'd better answer his arguments one by one. In fact, the only justification to do this at such length is that together they constitute a concerted effort by a competent scholar to refute the "founding principles" of my approach.
One comment the reviewer makes concerns my use of terms.
A theory of poetry which posits masculine rhymes as "rigid," and feminine rhymes as "plastic," even with the scare quotes, doesn't quite convince me. Certainly, in the nineteenth century in France, which is the period I know best, and a period from which the author draws examples, poets and critics wrote about rhyme gender in that way, but it was metaphorical, I think, and it's quite a leap of the imagination to take that metaphor from the middle-class male minds which propagated it and suggest it corresponds to a cognitive reality.
I don't know how this is relevant to my article. I carefully make clear that my use of the terms "feminine" and "masculine" have nothing to do with gender: "they refer to endings with or without a mute e respectively, whether the word does or does not suggest gender; the verbs 'passe' or 'danse' too constitute 'feminine' rhymes." It is merely a shorthand for notions for which otherwise I ought to use such cumbersome phrases as "rhyme with its stress on the penultimate syllable." Since these are traditionally accepted terms it was convenient to use them. If the reviewer has some reasonable alternative terms, I will use them. The change of terms (e.g., to "abraca" and "dabra" respectively) will have no effect whatever on my argument. I don't think that this is an issue where political correctness should be brought in. The tell-tale phrase "middle-class male minds" suggests that the reviewer has no quarrel with what I mean by these terms, but with what I ought to have meant if I conformed with the feminist stereotype. I carefully avoid any suggestion that the soft or sharp qualities associated with rhymes have anything to do with sex. My argument is simply that, in English poetry for instance, a stressed syllable in the last strong position abruptly closes the verse line; an extrametric syllable after this abrupt ending sabotages its abruptness. In French syllabic metre there are no weak and strong positions. But the e muet after the full syllable does exactly the same job as the extrametric syllable at the end of English verse lines. At any rate, Clive Scott points out similar perceptual qualities in French rhymes. Here the reviewer could argue that be does not perceive in those rhymes the qualities pointed out by Clive Scott. That could be fatal to my argument. There is no way to prove that those qualities are there if one cannot perceive them, just as you can't argue with a colour-blind person about the colour of your shirt. Wittgenstein speaks of "aspect blindness." Luckily for me, the reviewer preferred feminist rhetoric.
My general conception is (not only on this matter) that poetry is made up of a wide range of independent variables that exist on what Wellek and Warren call the sound stratum, the meaning units stratum and the projected world stratum of the poem. These variables may occur in all sorts of unforeseen combinations, yielding a wide range of unforeseen perceptual qualities. Here I mainly concentrate on two variables on the sound stratum: stress placement and phonetic structure in rhyme. I insist that the two variables can be used in configurations in which they reinforce, override or mitigate each other's effect.
In this respect, consider the following comment by the reviewer.
When the author suggests that "meandrins" ends on a "continuous, reverberating nasal vowel," I am not convinced that I hear that vowel as reverberating--I can imagine an adjective like "anciennes" reverberating, but not the relatively clipped nasal /in/.
One cannot argue about intuitions. One can only assign a structural description to the object of the intuition. In the present case, it seems to me, this will do, pace the reviewer's disapproval of my "quasi-scientific quest for structural principles." Fortunately, he provided a counter-intuition, which in fact lends massive support to my argument. Feminine rhymes and "reverberating" nasals both sabotage abruptness, but in different ways. As I argue above, when stress placement in rhyme conflicts with phonetic structure, e.g., in "fantasque," the feminine ending tends to override the abruptness of the unvoiced stop. When, however, the two combine, they are particularly effective. In "anciennes" a continuous periodic nasal consonant combines with a feminine ending. Therefore its reverberation should be more obtrusive than when a continuous periodic nasal vowel combines with a masculine rhyme. This, however, does not imply that "relatively clipped nasal" vowels do not reverberate. To clarify my point, consider Verlaine's "Les sanglots longs." Is the ending of "sanglots" and "longs" equally abrupt, or that of "sanglots" more abrupt than that of "longs" (alternatively, is the ending of "longs" more reverberant than that of "sanglots)? The reviewer could argue here that the meaning of the word "longs" and its placement in the rhyme require to prolong it. To eliminate both factors and still keep as many things equal as possible, try to pronounce the phrase "les sanglots sanglants." Is the ending of both words equally abrupt (or equally reverberant)? This should suffice as an ostensive explanation. But I have some additional arguments up my sleeves.
The explanatory power of the above analysis will be foregrounded if we realize that the nasal consonant [n] in itself is no more reverberant than nasal vowels. It becomes more reverberant only when coupled with a "feminine" ending as in "ancienne" or "monotonne." In my book What Makes Sound, I compare the name of the German philosopher Kant to the British pronunciation of the contraction can't. They can be treated as almost a minimal pair. One of the most obtrusive differences between them concerns precisely the issue discussed here: in Kant the nasal consonant [n] has its full, solid body, and little or no reverberation is perceived in it. In can't, by contrast, the [n] is strongly attenuated by coarticulation with the [t]; accordingly, a strong nasal quality is perceived reverberating in the preceding vowel. The French, of course, would pronounce the philosopher's name too with a nasal vowel (as in "quant a") and would perceive considerable reverberation.
Nasal vowels are perceived as less abrupt than oral vowels because, as phonetic research has shown, "the spectra of nasalized vowels are acoustically less distinct" (Wright 47). To understand what this means, let us define some of our tools. Vowels are uniquely defined by concentrations of sound energy, called "formants." These concentrations of energy can be converted into patches of colour, or light and shade displayed by a spectrogram. In Figure 1 you may see the wave plot (upper windows) and spectrogram (lower window) of the phrase "sanglots longs" spoken by a native speaker of French, excised from a recording of Verlaine's poem. (I have used--somewhat incorrectly--the symbol [eta] to indicate the nasalized portion of "longs"). You may see that the spectrum of the nasalized portion is dimmer and sparser than that of the preceding [o]. The same holds true, to a lesser extent, for the first syllable of "sanglots." But there is a deeper sense in which the nasal portion is less distinct than the preceding oral vowel. You may see the spectrum of [o] articulated into several black patches (formants) one atop the other; in the spectrum of the nasal portion you can see only the first formant. The narrower shape of the wave plot indicates that the amplitude of the nasal portion is lower than that of the oral vowel. Briefly, this spectrogram shows how the nasal portion is responsible for the impression of a gradually waning end.
Moreover, "ancien" and "ancienne" reverberate in different ways. Dictionaries define "reverberating" as noise repeated several times as an echo; or, continuing in or as if in a series of echoes. Nasals are periodic; that is, the same waveform is repeated indefinitely. In nasal vowels the nasal element is attenuated; thus, in "ancien" the repetition is more like an echo than in "ancienne." By the same token it is also more elusive, and this may be a reason for the reviewer's difficulty to discern it.
The reviewer suggests that I am not paying sufficient attention to meaning; and where I do, I do it in the wrong way.
Indeed, it is striking that one of the only times the structural principle on offer here is linked to content, it is to a relatively minor phenomenon, that of the punchline. As it happens, I did find this more convincing once I had found some other examples from memory of masculine rhymes closing a poem on a similar kind of punchline--Baudelaire's "A une passante," which ends 'O toi que j'eusse aimee, o toi qui le savais!', Rimbaud's "Le Dormeur du val," which ends 'II a deux trous rouges au cote droit', Hugo's "Demain, des l'aube," which ends 'Et quand j'arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe / Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyere en fleur'. And yet there are enough exceptions to this 'rule' to undermine its very existence as a rule.
Actually, I am claiming the exact opposite. I claim that there is no such rule which the reviewer says I am arguing for. Several times in the paper I emphasize that "rhyme patterns are typically indifferent to contents" as, for instance, in "If a poet wants his stanza to display a psychological atmosphere of severe self-discipline rather than a relaxed, settled one, he might prefer the less natural rhyme pattern, irrespective of the contents. Or, if there is interaction between contents and versification, the poet might want an aphoristic punchline to occur in a masculine-rhymed line." In harmony with what I wrote two pages ago, indeed throughout the paper ("These variables may occur in all sorts of unforeseen combinations, yielding a wide range of unforeseen perceptual qualities"), I claim that there is no rule to combine the various variables. On the contrary, the poet is perfectly free to combine feminine or masculine rhymes with abrupt or continuous periodic speech sounds in any combination. In addition, he may or may not combine such configurations with a punchline quality in the contents. They are independent variables. You can speak of perceived qualities only after the event. Perceived qualities are usually the domain of impressionistic criticism, whereas some textual analysis completely disregards the human qualities of the text. What I am trying to do is to relate impressions and human qualities to text structure in a principled manner.
My neglect of meaning is not an accident or oversight. It is, rather, the result of affirmative action. As I argued in my paper "Comparing Approaches to Versification Style in Cyrano de Bergerac," cognitive linguists, for instance, pay too much attention to meaning, and too little to versification. Even when scholars like Eve Sweetser presume to deal with versification, they attend away from its perceived effects to the meanings associated with it. I have elsewhere extensively dealt with rhyme and meaning, but not in the way Sweetser or the reviewer have in mind. I use componential analysis comparing and contrasting rhyme words to account for what following Wimsatt (1954) one may call "tame" and "vigorous" rhymes. But these configurations of phonetics and semantics are neutral in respect of contents.
The following paragraph raises three different points which I propose to meet separately.
"the long-short-long-short form of the ballad stanza MAY be perceived as curt, downright, relentless. Such a psychological atmosphere MAY reinforce the relentless, straightforward atmosphere generated by the ballad plot." ... and yet, Villon wrote many ballads which are not necessarily relentless, straightforward ... and this is pretty typical, I think, of what my major problem is with this approach, in that in its efforts to identify universal principles it is forced either to generalise in ways which do not seem very convincing, or to conclude that its principles may be observed ... *some of the time.
At this point the reviewer explicitly refers to my methodology. He points out that I have frequent recourse to the auxiliary verb "may"--that is, instead of making assertions, I speak of mere possibilities. Elsewhere in his report he says that "My hesitation stems from the fact that the article belongs to an approach to poetics which I do not find entirely convincing, an approach which, in its quasi-scientific quest for structural principles, often attempts to impose problematic generalisations upon a wide variety of material." Here, I believe, he grossly misses my methodological point. The Oxford philosopher J.J.C. Smart in his classical paper on theory construction propounds the following argument.
Roughly speaking, we may say that within a theory or within the description of fact we are on one level of language, but when we step from the level of theory to the level of fact or vice versa, we are in a region where expressions like 'make more plausible', 'lead us to expect that', or 'strongly suggest' apply, but where the logical relations of implication and contradiction do not strictly apply. (Smart 239)
"'Rigour' in the sense it is pursued in pure mathematics is not an ideal in applied mathematics. The conception of 'rigour' involved in physics is that whereby it makes sense to say 'rigorous enough'" (idem, 237). Smart makes these statements with reference to the Kinetic Theory of Gases. In physics, then, such leaps can be made only in a hypothetical language. I firmly believe that this is the case in the humanities too, only in the humanities less rigour is "enough." Every discipline has its characteristic rigour; an all-or-nothing approach advocated by the reviewer won't do. So, I don't think I ought to apologize for having frequent recourse to "may"-constructions when I make a leap from describing the structure of the text to perceived qualities, and from them to psychological principles.
As to Villon's "ballads," the reviewer has, indeed, a major problem. He is not aware that he is talking about two very different genres: "ballad" and "ballade." The former is an epic-dramatic genre, the latter a lyric genre with an unusually demanding rhyme pattern. Villon never wrote a single ballad, only ballades, just like Chaucer. So, the counterexample is not a counterexample, and if this is pretty typical of the reviewer's major problem with my approach, I may be faring tolerably well. The two terms are not even accidental homonyms, because they are pronounced differently. (4) They are only etymologically derived from the same word (ballare = to dance).
Finally, I am not trying "to identify universal principles"; I am not qualified to do that. My aims are less ambitious. What I am trying to do is to render the subject "discussable." I am aware that by this I am robbing critics of their natural privilege to say anything and be right. I am trying to explore what kinds of arguments can be given to support one's intuitions concerning "masculine" and "feminine" rhymes, or whatever you call them. In this respect, the reviewer offered me on a silver plate a test case in which I had an opportunity to demonstrate the explanatory power of my model, by proposing arguments to support his intuition that "anciennes" is more reverberating than "Meandrins." What is more, I have also indicated that we are using "reverberant" in slightly different senses. Incidentally, in this example I also had an opportunity to adduce a piece of more "scientific" evidence, the output of a computer, which is, in fact, an argument to support one's intuition that a nasal vowel is less abrupt than its oral counterpart; but the model is explanatory without it too. At any rate, I claim I have demonstrated by this example that the conception on offer may render at least some elusive intuitions "discussable"--sometimes quite comprehensively.
Ironically enough, after the event, some of my generalizations do turn out to be valid outside Western culture. My book What Makes Sound Patterns Expressive?--The Poetic Mode of Speech Perception discusses sound symbolism in Western languages; but it was translated into Japanese, because the Japanese found that my generalizations apply to their language too; and Ning Yu says that some of my generalizations in synaesthesia apply to contemporary Chinese literature. But all this still does not amount to universal principles.
To conclude. The upshot of the reviewer's position is:
I do not think that the problem is entirely one of the absence of a satisfactory metalanguage, as the author suggests--rather, I think the attempt to perpetuate this idea of a supposed perceptual split in our cognitive response to all masculine and feminine rhymes is doomed to reduce a whole multiplicity of different examples to one unworkable law.
Poets use masculine and feminine rhymes, sometimes in strict alternation, not merely to satisfy "those RULES of old discover'd, not devis'd" (Pope), but also because they sound different. Such a "perceptual split" is not "supposed," but very real. The reviewer didn't even try to show that masculine and feminine rhymes are a "whole multiplicity of different examples." They become such only if you associate them with specific meanings. That is one reason why I insisted to explore them detached from all specific contents. The very fact that they are labelled by one pair of opposing terms suggests that these "different examples" do have something in common. It remains to be shown that there are instances to which the model does not apply. I said that one cannot argue about intuitions; but as it turned out, I could show that my model can account even for the reviewer's dissenting intuition regarding nasals. Actually, I have provided for a greater variety of possibilities than what the reviewer was willing to accept. I allowed for [[+ or -] ABRUPT] both in rhyme structure and phonetic structure, whose combinations yield four possibilities. You may add, if you like, [[+ or -] PUNCHLINE QUALITY]. This will make eight possibilities. Elsewhere I have discussed at great length [[+ or -] ANTIGRAMMATIC RHYME]; adding this would make sixteen possibilities. If the reviewer had in mind some different kind of multiplicity, he should give a hint what kind. It is all too easy to say "a whole multiplicity of different examples." I made an attempt to provide a workable metalanguage as far as it goes, even if the problem is not "entirely one of the absence of a satisfactory metalanguage." Since the reviewer attempted to refute "the founding principles" of my theory via "the particularities of the argument here," I tried to show one by one that his counterarguments are less than satisfactory in many respects.
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Tel Aviv University
(1) The research for this paper was supported by Grant No. 228/11 from the Israel Science Foundation.
(2) Feminine rhymes are "yielding," because they weaken the otherwise abrupt line boundary. And they are "reverberant" because, as I have elsewhere pointed out at great length (Tsur, Playing by Ear), vowels are concentrations of overtones whose reverberation is inhibited across strong Gestalt boundaries and facilitated across weaker ones. Indeed, I have now excellent reasons to believe that Scott would not object to such an additional perspective on his work. In the last minute before printing the present article, I ran into a recent paper by him, where he writes:
the greatest involuntary crime of metrical analysis--if one can call it that--is the wedge it has driven between the raw, phonetic data of particular poems and abstract patterns, whether of weak and strong syllables, where 'weak' and 'strong' tell us about the enunciatory intensity of syllables and nothing about what they sound like; or, as in French, of the number of syllables, rather than of the sequence of sounds. Even where the device is explicitly acoustic, the same process of de-acoustification takes place: an interest in rhyme resolves itself in to an interest in rhyme-pairs as semantic conjunctions, or as manifestations of rhyme-degree or rhyme-gender, or as the source of stanzaic structure. (70)
A newly conceived metrical analysis, or scansion, must find a way of doing justice to the acoustic particulars of any given poem, not just the repetition of sounds but the dynamic of the relationships of sounds: open/closed; front/back; voiced/voiceless; rounded/spread, so that, as with accent, sounds are treated as colour-values. (71)
(3) The ballad stanza too perpetuates a marked structure: longer and shorter lines alternate in it, in this order. One possible reason for such an "anomalous" structure lies in a combination of an aesthetic and a cognitive principle. There is an aesthetic quest for increased complexity and unity. Since, however, the cognitive system has limited channel capacity, an increase of complexity may cause disintegration. To alleviate the load on the cognitive system, the information must be recoded in a more efficient way, so as to use less mental processing space. Prosodic complexity, for instance, may be increased by putting the longer before the shorter unit. One way to alleviate overload on short term memory may be to enlist the aural sense in the service of perception. The ballad was sung at the beginning of its history, and this facilitated (and eventually fossilized) the use of the marked form. Poets may attain specific effects by having recourse to the marked forms. Thus, for instance, the long--short--long--short form of the ballad stanza may be perceived as curt, downright, relentless. Such a psychological atmosphere may reinforce the relentless, straightforward atmosphere generated by the ballad plot.
(4) The reader may listen online to the different pronunciations in the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Audio Edition: http://www.merriam-webster.com/ help/index.htm I have elsewhere discussed Villon's ballades at some length ("Poetic Conventions as Fossilized Cognitve Devices").
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