Printer Friendly

Materializing meter: physiology, psychology, prosody.

A discernible strain of idealism runs through mid-Victorian prosody. In he 1850s, for instance, both E. S. Dallas and Coventry Patmore, whose treatises on versification would go on to influence later generations of metrists, emphasized the "imaginary" nature of the metrical modulus and its difference from, as well as its potential for interaction with, the "real" (e.g., voiced) rhythms of language. (1) In his 1852 book Poetics, Dallas conceives of meter as a mental phenomenon: it is "intended to produce pleasure in the reader's mind." (2) Patmore's 1857 "Essay on English Metrical Law," first published in the North British Review, appears to take an even more idealist position, setting out a decorporealized prosody founded upon an "imaginary" ictus. This "all-important time-beater" of verse, claims Patmore, "has no material and external existence at all, but has its place in the mind, which craves measure in everything, and, wherever the idea of a measure is uncontradicted, delights in marking it with an imaginary 'beat." (3) Such "mentalizing of meter," as Adela Pinch has termed it, strives to divorce prosody from the body and abstract it. Meter becomes less a matter of "what you actually hear or say aloud" and more of "an abstract idea in your mind against which you measure how the line would actually be spoken if it were spoken." (4) What material existence meter has, argues Yopie Prins, readers encounter primarily in the act of "marking" verse on the page, as in the exercise of scanning. (5)

Pointing to these idealist assertions about meter, scholars such as Dennis Taylor and more recently Pinch have plotted a move toward abstraction--what Taylor has labeled % growing consensus about the abstract nature of metrical form"--in prosody of the second half of the nineteenth century. (6) What these readings underestimate, however, is the materialist imperative that underlies not only the apparently idealist theories of Dallas and Patmore themselves but also late-nineteenth-century metrics more generally. As Kirstie Blair and Jason R. Rudy have shown in two recent books, the materialities of human physiology and telegraphic communication technologies form an important context for mid-century thinking about the "imaginary" nature of meter. (7) Patmore's "insistence on meter's immateriality," as Rudy demonstrates in Electric Meters (2009), is in part a response to the Spasmodic poets' "celebration of the 'physical principles of sound'" (p. 115). Dallas's meter, though nominally mental, is nonetheless construed (by Dallas himself) as a vigorous "roundelay" brought about by "centrifugal" and "centripetal" forces (p. 171). While they are in the first place confined to one's head, the metrical acrobatics he theorizes may very well go on to inspire movement in the body: "if [the reader's] thoughts are very livelily engaged, he will beat time with his fingers or with his feet" (Dallas, p. 159). Fundamentally "related to physical experience" (such as the pulse), Dallas's meter, as Blair outlines in Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart (2006), "is connected to body as well as mind" (p. 85).

The complex interplay between metrical abstraction and embodiment can, in fact, be seen as central to much verse theory of the last decades of the nineteenth century, and it is this dialectic--between the "imaginary" metrical modulus and the material properties of corporeal, voiced rhythms--that will be my focus here. Around the time that Dallas and Patmore were making their important contributions to Victorian metrics, developments were underway in the comparatively new sciences of physiology and psychology that would impact directly on late-Victorian and turn-of-the-century prosody. The turn toward experimental methodologies, in conjunction with pioneering work on measurement and recording technologies, played a significant role in the elaboration of an empirical "metrics" that placed considerable emphasis on the "vocal mechanism and the body"; it is thus part of the pervasive "physiological poetics" that Rudy and Blair have begun to historicize. This particular mode of prosodic enquiry developed rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century--in laboratories of all places. Here, then, where empirical procedures were underwriting developments in acoustics, phonetics, and speech physiology, we can witness a significant moment in the conversation between idealist and materialist understandings of meter. The possibilities afforded by the "new languages of recording instruments," (8) I argue, would enable a re-conceptualizing of not only the discrete properties of metrical verse--including the ongoing contest between accent and time--but also the practice of scansion. As we shall see, the study of meter at the start of the twentieth century was nothing if not material.

Empirical Measures

In the nineteenth century, as David Cahan observes, "the very character of 'science' changed," (9) and the rise of a robustly material metrics is one corollary of this change. While the natural philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had more or less rejected Aristotelian metaphysics in favor of a more positivist practice that emphasized observation and experiment, it was not until the early decades of the nineteenth century that modernizing scientists "optimistically aimed to establish conceptual foundations and empirical knowledge for a rational, rigorous scientific understanding that [was] accurate, dependable, and universal." (10) This epistemological shift was characterized not only by a transition to a more rigorous and assertively empirical methodology but also by a more specialized and recognizably disciplinary organization of knowledge: "new labels and categories"--such as "biologist" and "physicist"--"reflected the fact that science had both delimited itself more fully from philosophy, theology, and other types of traditional learning and culture and differentiated itself internally into increasingly specialized regions of knowledge." (11) From one such specialized region--physiology--new research methods emerged that prioritized laboratory experiments and exploited up-to-date measurement apparatus. Moreover, "the dissemination of physiological techniques" shaped thinking beyond the immediate radius of physiology itself. (12) Pioneering work in sensory physiology--specifically acoustics--not only enabled a reframing of "questions lying on the borderland of the physical and the aesthetic enquiry" (13) but also assisted in creating a cadre of expert "metrical scientists," whose ample supplies of data would support-if not always prove--their prosodical postulations. (14)

The move toward a materialist metrics began properly in the 1830s. Particularly in the German-speaking states, where the transition from "speculative, idealistic and Romantic philosophy" (Naturphilosophie) to systematic natural science (Naturwissenschaft) was caught up in the restructuring of the universities, rising "[s]cientific materialists" such as Johannes Moiler were helping to define physiology as an "independent, experimental discipline." (15) In his Handbuch der Physiologie des Menschen (1833 and 40), (16) Muller fused various existing bodies of medical and scientific knowledge (e.g., anatomy, neurology, pathology, and vitalism (17)) and asserted the importance of "empirical findings for their own sake"(Nyhart, p. 63). But it was really his successors-notably Hermann von Helmholtz, Emil du Bois-Reymond, Ernst BrOke, and Carl Ludwig--who would set physiology's experimental agenda, reinforcing its allegiances to Wissenschaftsideologie and establishing in earnest both its conceptual methodology and its concrete laboratory procedures. Notably different from MOiler in their rejection of vitalism in favor of a "rigorous and reductionist" approach that "explain[ed] all living functions in terms of the physics and chemistry of organisms,"(18) this next generation of physiologists nevertheless upheld their predecessor's dedication to empiricism and, if anything, accelerated the pace of physiology's experimental aims. Working in specially designed laboratories--at Heidelberg, Leipzig, Berlin, Vienna, and elsewhere--they focused their attention on questions relating to, among other things, sensory perception. In their attempt "to show that living organisms could be treated like machines," (19) whose functions were rational and observable rather than the effect of some immaterial (and so immeasurable) "vital" force, the experimental physiologists coming of age in the 1840s used an array of specially designed instruments-many of which, such as Ludwig's kymograph (Fig. 1), they developed themselves--"to display previously hidden patterns related to physiological functions," (20) recording and measuring everything from nervous impulses in frogs' legs to color and motion perception in the human eye.


It was specifically in relation to acoustics that physiologists would lay the groundwork for later empirical research into metrical phenomena. At the turn of the nineteenth century, acoustics, like physiology itself, was beginning to establish its disciplinary credentials. (21) As David Pantalony notes, acoustic science moved away from the earlier, mathematically oriented field of harmonics toward a more experimental praxis made possible by machine-assisted measurement procedures, and, significantly, toward the measurement of not only synthetic musical sounds but eventually human voices (p. xxix). Technologies of sound were developing rapidly as the eighteenth century drew to a close, and by the early 1800s, innovations in "inscriptional apparatus"--from Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni's Klangfiguren (22) of the 1780s to the early nineteenth-century tuning-fork and piano-wire techniques of Wilhelm Weber and Thomas Young--were subtending "a qualitatively different type of scientific information" (Hankins and Silverman, pp. 130-133). This qualitative revolution had a decidedly quantitative aspect. Along with a more experimental outlook came a new understanding of how sonic phenomena could be assessed. Where conventional harmonics had "measured" sound largely in terms of abstractions such as ratios and proportions, the new acoustic scientists preferred a more precise "indexical relation" between their calculations and the sound vibrations they studied. As Friedrich Kittler has explained, the advent of an instrument-based experimental acoustics instituted a comprehensive "historical transition ... from a logic to a physics of sound," in which idealized "intervals" were replaced by more empirical "frequencies." (23) Further, accompanying (and in many cases assisting) this transformation was a change in the way measurements themselves were represented. "If one wants to measure and record the quantitative features of sound," note the authors of Instruments and the Imagination (1995), then "one must employ a visual image. The ear detects pitch, loudness, and timbre, but not the frequency, amplitude, and shape of sound waves. Recording instruments give us this information by representing the sound visually" (Hankins and Silverman, p. 133). By using a new "graphic method" of notation, acoustical researchers could render "audible vibrations" as "a set of [visible] tracings." (24) Capitalizing on (and often directly contributing to) these new acoustical methods and technologies, experimental physiologists such as Helmholtz began outlining the fundamentals of a physiological acoustics that was equipped to address not only somatic phenomena but also the aesthetics of music and, eventually, poetry.

While the groundwork for a physics of sound, including its propagation in waves and the "laws of vibratory motion," (25) had been established theoretically by the time Helmholtz began to formulate his own contributions to acoustic science, he was nonetheless instrumental in further transforming "the dominating mode of speculative, numerical inquiry" into an experimentally verifiable physiological acoustics. (26) Building on previous theoretical work--Fourier's analysis of harmonics, Ohm's physics of musical sounds, and "Muller's law of specific nerve energies"--Helmholtz innovated acoustical research not only by providing ample "supporting experimental evidence" but also by devising and using in his laboratories a collection of tuning forks and resonators, as well as specially adapted instruments such as the kymograph, to isolate, amplify, and record all manner of "rapid elastic vibrations" (from the sounds of stringed musical instruments to those of real and synthesized voices) (Green and Butler, pp. 256, 260). Covering the range of acoustic phenomena, from the physical "laws of vibratory motion" and their relation to "processes that take place within the ear itself" to the psychological effects of sound, Helmholtz's acoustics not only advanced according to thoroughly materialist principles, in which the anatomy of the ear played a central role in defining complex sound qualities; further, it established the foundations for a radical transformation in the ways aesthetic phenomena were understood and measured, as well as how these measurements could be represented according to the graphic method. (27) Specifically, Helmholtz's attention to the materialities of musical sound--as registerd by the ear, but more often by finely tuned laboratory instruments--would transform the study of such musical properties as period and rhythm, and it is here, as we shall see, that the science of sound began to impinge on the study of poetic meter.

As set out in two works, "Uber die physiologischen Ursachen der musikalischen Harmonie" (1857) and Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage fur die Theorie der Musik (1863), (28) Helmholtz's physiology of music takes as its starting point the wave character of sound and Fourier's premise "that any complex periodic vibration may be resolved into a number of simple harmonic vibrations" (Green and Butler, p. 256). By supplementing the existing mathematics of musical theory with extensive laboratory data, Helmholtz was able to demonstrate--in measurements that graphic recording rendered precise to hundredths of a second--how and why certain vibrations produced music (while others simply created noise) and how different qualities of tone (e.g., simple, compound, partial, combinational) figure in the creation and perception of musical properties. From here he could analyze nuanced topics, such as the relationship between harmonic overtones. While previous theorists had imagined harmonies in the comparatively abstract terms of intervals and ratios, Helmholtz offered concrete evidence. "What have the ratios of small whole numbers to do with harmony?" he asks in his 1857 lecture. "This is an old riddle, propounded by Pythagoras and hitherto unsolved. Let us see whether the means at the command of modern science will furnish the answer." (29) As Hehnholtz would later observe in Tonempfind. ungen, to answer this question "modern science" would need to depart from loosely conceived idealist assertions: "Musicians, as well as philosophers and physicists, have generally contented themselves with saying in effect that human minds were in some unknown manner so constituted as to discover the numerical relations of musical vibrations, and to have a peculiar pleasure in contemplating, simple ratios which are readily comprehensible" ("On the Sensations of Tone," p. 2). In the place of "simple ratios," Helmholtz produces precise measurements supported by graphic records made with a variety of recording apparatus (Figs. 2 and 3). Capable of "teach[ing] more at a glance than the most complicated descriptions," these diagrams give expression to a new, quantifiable language for discussing musical tones and harmonics, a language founded "upon purely scientific, as distinct from esthetic principles" (pp. 192,227). Thus, Helmholtz's studies of music offer radical interventions in longstanding debates-about isochronism, for example (30)--in that they reach beyond the more philosophical language of "proportion," replacing it with a mechanized notation that more accurately expresses fundamental physiological truths: the waveform transmission of sound and the ear's sensitivity to precise and rapid vibrations. (31)



Thus, with the aid of recording and inscription instruments, which were more responsive even than the ear itself, Helmholtz helped to materialize the study of music, replacing idealizations of musical phenomena (e.g., Pythagorean integer ratios) with what the French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey would later describe as the "language of the phenomena themselves." (32) Musical periods could now be expressed graphically as wave-lengths, and loudness could be represented precisely in terms of wave-height. Toward the close of the nineteenth century, this new visible vocabulary for music and the materialist practices on which it was predicated would transform studies of poetry. If "the principles of harmonic proportions" and related matters were "applicable alike to the phenomena of music and of prosody," (33) as some physiologists (not to mention several musicians and metrists) had already begun to speculate, (34) then perhaps an experimental, "scientific" prosody, one anchored in the physiological acoustics adumbrated by Helmholtz, could be used to accurately define the complex rhythmical character of poetry. While Helmholtz himself may have neglected the sonic features of the verse line (dismissing sounds in poetry as "subordinate auxiliaries of a more musical kind" ["On the Sensations of Tone," p. 2]), his successors were nevertheless willing to extend his vibratory aesthetic to poetic meters. As one of them noted in 1901, "the primary laws of verse, like those of music, [are] laid upon the bed-rock of acoustics." (35) Fittingly, Helmholtzian acoustics would go on to underwrite (quite literally) a laboratory prosody in which experimental psychologists, adapting the principles as well as the practices of their physiology forebears, turned their quantifying gaze toward "the Analysis and Measurement of Sensation ... [and] the Duration of Mental Process[es]." (36) By the close of the 1880s, these psychologists-cum-prosodists were exploiting "a collection of special appliances" (37)-many of them borrowed directly from physiology laboratories-to record and measure, with new levels of precision, "the rhythm used in music and poetry." (38) In keeping with Helmholtz's acoustical analyses of music, they centered their researches on the embodied, rather than abstract, elements of versification, preferring the "real," scientific language of pitch and frequency over what previous prosodists had theorized in philological terms borrowed from classical metrics or, as in Patmore's case, the "imaginary" language of musical integers. For a brief moment around the turn of the century, the new assertive, quantitative, and thoroughly "modern" language of acoustical prosody asserted itself as a factual alternative to vague theorizing. Science, not philology, would arbitrate in a brave new world of material metrics.

Meter's Materialities

During the first half of the nineteenth century, psychology was still operating within the "philosophy of mind" tradition (part of the Germanic Geisteswissenschaften), and as such it was ostensibly more equipped to grapple with Patmore's ideal mental modulus than to pioneer a materialist metrics that measured and graphed the physical vibrations of the verse line. By the second half of the century, however, psychologists in the German states had begun to assert their own experimental agenda. Borrowing extensively from the methods of the physiologists discussed above, they "attempt[ed] to attack," as the English psychical researcher F.W.H. Myers would later note, "the great problems of our being not by metaphysical argument," as their more philosophically inclined predecessors had done, "but by a study, as detailed and exact as in any other natural science." (39) From the 1870s a new generation of scientists-spearheaded by the Baden-born "radical empiricist" Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt (40)--began "combining with psychological observation the methods of experimental physiology." (41) In his groundbreaking Grundzuge der physiologischen Psychologie (1874), (42) Wundt, who had trained with Miiller and Helmholtz in the 1850s, mapped the contours of an inductive psychology that prioritized statistical analysis and "a consolidated 'scientific' outlook, based upon detailed measurement." (43) Five years later, in 1879, he made what was perhaps his most material contribution to the emerging discipline, founding at Leipzig the first bona fide laboratory of experimental psychology. Over the next few decades, Wundt's proteges (e.g., James McKeen Cattell, Granville Stanley Hall, Edward Wheeler Scripture, and Edward Bradford Titchener)would go on to work in (and in some instances to establish) similar institutions elsewhere in Europe and in North America. In these state-of-the-art facilities-where discrete workspaces were reserved for, among other things, haptical analysis, "olfactometry," and visual and auditory recognition (Cattell, pp. 37-51)--psychologists utilizing familiar and modified physiological instruments such as tuning forks (for "recording vibrations and marking time"), kymographs ("to record any process whose course is a function of time elapsed"), chronographs (used for measuring reaction-time in relation to sense impressions), phonautographs (for making graphic recordings and taking measurements of speech), and other apparatus could accurately "photograph," as one psychologist put it, a range of putatively "transient phenomena" (Cattell, pp. 38, 50)--including musical and poetic rhythms.

In the postscript to his book English Metrists (1921), T. S. Omond speculated that the "laboratory work" of psychologists "can be of use" in establishing "theoretically and experimentally.., the real basis of our verse." (44) Indeed, the materialist methods and technologies--as developed by Helmholtz, Wundt, and their successors--for analyzing frequency, harmony, and related aspects of musical and vocal physiology had been making an impact on the subject of metrics for nearly four decades by the time Omond published his prosodical history. As early as the 1880s, for instance, work was underway at Wundt's Leipzig laboratory "to determine the accuracy with which the ear can distinguish musical intervals" (Cattell, p. 43). If a metronome and a watch can together form "a psychological apparatus of the simplest kind," allowing scientists of music and poetry to measure conscious responses to "the intensity of successive beats," (45) then one could begin to understand the possibilities afforded by newer, more sensitive chronographic equipment. While Wundt's successors, who had internalized and extended their mentor's methodology, were busy using updated laboratory instruments to "measure at once the rate of change in the brain and of change in consciousness" (Cattell, p. 46), they were also actively testing musical perception and phonetic movements in poetry. Drawing not only on Wundt's own researches but also on Helmholtz's musical analyses of the 1850s and 1860s, this next generation of psychologists--particularly those working in laboratories housed by American universities such as Cornell, Clark, and Yale--concentrated on the body's interactions with the "rhythms of the poetic text," (46) scrutinizing the functions of tone, pitch, and loudness and working to establish a physical basis for theories of metrical accent and time. (47)

From the 1890s through the 1930s--the period during which experimental prosody can be said to have flourished--psychologists compiled voluminous meter-related "records" in their laboratories in Europe and North America. While some researchers, such as Albert S. Hurst and John McKay, tapped their fingers in time to silent scansions and recorded the results, (48) others preferred a more technologized method that recognized "the advantages of psychological experimentation by the aid of graphic records of the voice." (49) This approach was adopted by many turn-of-the-century acoustical prosodists, including Edward Wheeler Scripture and Warner Brown. A staunch adherent of Wundt's empirical method, Scripture rejected as imprecise "experiments on auditory rhythm" based on recorded taps or "sharp clicks" because "investigators did not take any records of the spoken sounds, but only of the rhythmic strokes of the hand" (Elements, p. 538). Brown considered tapping unreliable because it functioned as "an objective control like an instrumental accompaniment and the proper voice rhythm is made unduly regular in obedience to this control" (p. 8). In the place of tapping, both Scripture and Brown, along with many of their contemporaries, endorsed a method capable of"eliminating the illusions and errors of observation to which unaided human ears are liable" (Brown, p. 14). In his major contribution to metrical science, Elements of Experimental Phonetics (1902), Scripture insisted on "the attainment of accuracy and trustworthiness" of measurement and demanded instrumentation capable of producing results "absolutely accurate for all records in thousandths of a second." (50) Like Wundt and Helmholtz before them, Scripture and other experimental psychologists and phoneticians of his generation demanded devices that could take infinitesimally fine measurements from speaking subjects and translate them into decipherable visible impressions. With the help of tuning forks, kymographs, and a range of other laboratory instruments-many of which had served physiologists like Helmholtz well in analyses of sensory perception and sonic vibration-experimental psychologists set out to penetrate metrical mysteries with a new level of accuracy.

The empirical methodology of psychologist-prosodists such as Scripture and Brown enabled them to intervene in some seemingly intractable metrical debates, particularly in relation to questions of accent and time. In Elements Scripture devotes discrete chapters to "Accent," "Auditory and Motor Rhythm," and "Speech Rhythm," insisting that, while considerable work had been carried out, a complete, "scientific" explanation of these subjects remained to be articulated. "Great unclearness prevails," he contends, "on account of the confusion among physical, psychological and physiological terms" (p. 506). While to some it may have appeared obvious that "an accented sound is ... one that impresses the hearer more strongly or that requires more mental effort on the part of the speaker," questions about duration and quantity, as well as loudness and pitch, and their "relations" remained unsettled (p. 507). Further, too many of the available propositions regarding accent had been based on subjective and imprecise sense impressions. (51) What the study of accent required was a range of experimental apparatus that could detect minute variations in duration and pitch. Experiments made with a "ROUSSELOT voice-key," as outlined by Scripture, indicated that in recitations of trochaic verse "the emphatic syllable [was] usually longer than the unemphatic one" (p. 508). Another experiment, which coupled the voice key with a "DEPREZ marker" to record "voice vibrations" on a smoked drum, reinforced the link between stress and duration, (52) and some researchers, such as J. P. Dabney in The Musical Basis of Verse (1901), went so far as to assert that "accent is fundamental in marking off ... measures." (53) These and other experiments subtended materially informed theories of accent in poetry, some of which, in fact, served to blur the lines between the material and the imaginary elements of verse. According to Scripture, for instance, "in English at least, increase in duration and rise in pitch are ordinarily associated with increased stress, and that these associations are essentially mental ones and not interdependent physical or physiological phenomena." (54) Here Scripture hypothesizes a possible bridge between the accentual and temporal theories of meter that had been so assiduously debated by earlier generations of prosodists. Duration--what Patmore, in his "Essay," had described as "the time occupied in the delivery of a series of words" (p. 15)--was not the antithesis of accent but a fundamental constituent of it. Scripture's recognition of the "essentially mental" character of stress suggests that Patmore's speculation regarding the abstract, "imaginary" function of meter might have some grounding in experimentally demonstrable fact. What the mind "associates" with the patterning of a given line and the "physical or physiological phenomena" of duration and pitch need not be understood as one and the same thing.

The conclusion that "English verse is [both] ... a pitch-verse and a timeverse" (Cook, p. 28) was only one among the many machine-assisted prosodic principles to be confirmed by psychological laboratories. For Scripture and other would-be verse scientists, experiments on accent necessarily intersected with those on rhythm, and here, too, laboratory technicians scrutinized the relationship between the abstraction of meter and "the actual sounds produced in speaking." With instruments "peculiarly adapted to the determination of time intervals," researchers attempted to validate or disprove "prominent views of theorists" such as Patmore regarding the temporal nature of meter (Brown, pp. 3, 24, 25). Asking subjects to recite lines of metrical verse, verse scientists used kymographs to record and measure rapid voice vibrations. (55) Some among the many records compiled in this way appeared to vindicate Patmore's theory of isochronous intervals. Drawing on experiments carried out by Ernst Brucke, Ishiro Miyake, and others, Scripture was able to assert, for instance, that "the simplest English poetical line seems to consist of a quantity of speech-sound distributed so as to produce an effect equivalent to that of a certain number of points of emphasis at definite intervals" (p. 553). Similar to,what Patmore had called the "ictus" or "beat," "which, like a post in a chain railing, shall mark the end of one space, and the commencement of another" (Patmore, p. 15), these "points of emphasis"--what Scripture termed "center[s] of unification, of speech action," or "centroids"--define the boundaries of the foot: "the foot [is] the time between two centroids of speech energy." Further, "the time of a foot," according to Scripture, "is approximately constant" (pp. 451-452, 553); metrical units, he suggests, are more or less equal in time, or "isochronous." Other experiments focused explicitly on what Patmore had called the "perpetual conflict between the law of the verse and the freedom of the language" (p. 9). Laboratory data revealed variations in syllable length, and Scripture would assert that the "actual concrete rhythm of a particular piece of verse is a compromise between the natural [i.e., spoken] lengths [of syllables] and those required by abstract rhythm." (56) Over thirty years later, Wilbur Lang Schramm would suggest a more fundamental disjunction between abstract and material modulations. "There is little physical counterpart," he wrote in 1935, "of the rhythmical regularity we perceive or imagine in verse" (p. 67).

The tension between the abstraction of meter and the material features of spoken verse was always among the central concerns of experimental research, and this tension is particularly evident in debates about the suitability of received prosodic terminology. While Scripture's centroid-spacing may have helped in determining the boundaries of the foot, the foot itself seemed to many experimental prosodists an arbitrary measurement index that had no real basis in experimentally demonstrable fact. Scripture, for one, all but rejected it out of hand. "The unity of English verse," he wrote in 1900, "is the line, or the phrase. A line of verse cannot be divided into feet." (57) Over the next three decades, researchers continued to maintain an empirical distrust of conventional foot prosody, though not all sought to abandon the feet entirely. In his 1908 study, Brown produces table after table to demonstrate that the foot--here taken to mean a unit of duration--is little more than an approximation of rhythmic regularity, an "impression" that we may feel but that has no grounding in fact (p. 77). In one of the last sustained works in the laboratory tradition, Approaches to a Science of English Verse (1935), Schramm provides considerable "phonophotographic" evidence to support Brown's assertion. The foot constitutes only an approximate and ultimately imprecise (however convenient) marker of, among other things, accent grouping. Outlining five metrical fallacies, Schramm argues that feet are neither "equal in total duration" nor an accurate expression of "the rhythm of the line" (p. 69). Not all experimental prosodists agreed, however. In her 1918 doctoral dissertation, Pause: A Study of Its Nature and Its Rhythmical Function in Verse, as well as in a pair of related articles published in PMLA, Ada Snell provides data to reinforce the material reality of the otherwise notional metrical foot. Detailing experiments conducted using a Zimmermann kymograph, she confidently announces that "the foot is a fact." Curiously out of step, so the speak, with most other acoustical prosodists of her day, Snell found in technology a defense of traditional foot-based versification: the only truly "scientific method of scansion," she observes, "is one which uses the symbols conventionally used for indicating quantity and which also uses stress marks." (58) Conventional wisdom, it would seem, dies hard.

Still, in place of"the ordinary routine scansions" (Brown, p. 32) prized by Snell (and many other non-experimentalists besides), laboratory instruments were capable of asserting their own unique representations of verse movement, and this is perhaps their most intriguing contribution to a materialist metrics. Because kymographs and other inscriptional devices "are designed," as Brown observed in 1908, "to present in the form of a curve or otherwise the actual sounds produced in speaking" (p. 3), the graphic method provided the logical means of denoting the un-segmented, wave-like movement of sound in voicings of metered poetry. Unlike other systems of scansion, which relied on what the American musical prosodist Sidney Lanier, in his 1880 The Science of English Verse, had called "signs of sounds" that dMded lines into arbitrary notional units (whether feet, bars, or intervals), machine-recorded graphic records enabled psychologists to observe prosodical features that "had not previously been amenable to quantitative study." (59) As Schramm would observe, "connected speech is a continuous flow" (p. 20), irrespective of prevailing conventions for its metrical "[division] into equal or proportionate spaces" (Patmore, p. 15), and with the aid of instruments such as the kymograph, laboratory metrists could finally render material the fugitive "flow of speech-energy" (60) across a line of verse. By embracing the graphic method, laboratory prosodists such as Scripture, Brown, Snell, and Schramm not only found it possible to scrutinize minute variations in pitch, loudness, period, and other rhythmical qualities; but also they could represent--in the precise, visible language of frequency curves--material characteristics of the metered line that the unaided ear could not perceive. The "specimen records" inscribed by their instruments provided scientists with a unique mechanized "scansion" of the sounds made by a subject intoning a given meter (Fig. 4). These wave-graphs (61)--whose white peaks and troughs stand out against the smoked black background--allowed experimentally inclined metrists to both see and accurately measure "the length of the time between the successive movements" of verse (Scripture, Elements, p. 523): they could read accent in curve-height and duration in the horizontal spacing of wave-crests (as Helmholtz had done with musical tones).


Is It There?

Seizing the "opportunity for obtaining objective evidence about verse-structure," (62) verse scientists helped to advance a materialist metrics that did not rest wholly on idealized assertions and imaginary modulations. In doing so, they enlivened prosody and complicated its narrative, showing later generations of metrists how much theoretical approaches to versification had left unverified. (63) But even a positivist prosody has its limitations. From the 1930s experimental procedures fell from favor, and theories of abstract meter once again began to assert themselves, particularly among advocates of so-called practical criticism. There remained for many prosodists (e.g., I. A. Richards, W. K. Wimsatt, Monroe C. Beardsley, Seymour Chatman) a belief that machines, in spite of their demonstrable sonic sensitivity, could not account for an intuitive aspect of the metrical phenomenon. As Calvin S. Brown remarked in 1965, "though the objective facts of the laboratory analysis are always relevant and interesting, they are never decisive. If the technician says, 'What you say you hear simply isn't there,' we can justifiably answer, 'It is there--in my mind, and out of reach of your instruments."' (64) For all their accuracy, graphic records could capture only one among the many possible voicings of a given metrical text, only one of what Patmore had called the "innumerable small departures from [the] modulus" of meter (p. 9). The modulus itself--that "abstract rhythm never quite articulated by human speech" (65)--would continue to elude even the most specialized equipment.


I am very grateful to Meredith Martin and Yisrael Levin for their editorial interventions--without a doubt, they have made this a better article.

(1) For more on the significance of voice in Victorian metrics, see Eric Griffiths, The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989); and Yopie Prins, "Voice Inverse," Victorian Poetry, 42, no. 1 (2004): 43-59.

(2) E.S. Dallas, Poetics: An Essay on Poetry (London, 1852), p. 12.

(3) Coventry Patmore, Coventry Patmore's "Essay on English Metrical Law": A Critical Edition with a Commentary, ed. Mary Augustine Roth (Washington, DC: Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1961), p. 15 (emphasis original).

(4) Adela Pinch, "Love Thinking," Victorian Studies, 50, no. 3 (2008), p. 39l.

(5) Yopie Prins, Victorian Sappho (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1999), p. 150.

(6) Dennis Taylor, Hardy's Metres and Victorian Prosody with a Metrical Appendix of Hardy's Stanza Forms (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 22. See also Pinch, "Love Thinking."

(7) Kirstie Blair, Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), p. 85; Jason R. Rudy, Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 2009), p. 115.

(8) Thomas L. Hankins and RobertJ. Silverman, Instruments and the Imagination (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1995), p. 9.

(9) David Cahan, "Looking at Nineteenth-Century Science: An Introduction," From Natural Philosophy to the Sciences: Writing the History of Nineteenth-Century Sciences, ed. David Cahan (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 8.

(10) Mary Jo Nye, "Introduction: The Modern Physical and Mathematical Sciences," The Cambridge History of Science, vol. 5, ed. Mary Jo Nye (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), p. 1.

(11) Cahan, "Looking at Nineteenth-Century Science," p. 4. Cahan is thinking not just about science in the universities, where during the middle decades of the nineteenth centuryvarious scientific disciplines were becoming "institutionalized," but also about applied science in a number of contemporary industries: one example he cites is the physics of energy conservation (p. 9).

(12) Michael Hagner, "Scientific Medicine," From Natural Philosophy to the Sciences: Writing the History of Nineteenth-Century Sciences, ed. David Cahan (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 67.

(13) Edmund Gurney, The Power of Sound (1880; New York: Basic Books, 1966), p. xviii.

(14) For context on the figure of the "expert" in the nineteenth century, see Mary Poovey, A History of Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 15.

(15) W.F. Bynum, Science and the Practice of Medicine in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994), p. 98. Bynum offers a helpful precis of Naturphilosophie and Naturwissenschaft (pp. 95-96). See also chap. 2 in Lynn K. Nyhart, Biology Takes Form: Animal Morphology and the German Universities, 1800-1900 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 35-64.

(16) William Baly's English translation, entitled Elements of Physiology, appeared in two volumes between 1837 and 1842. Most of the German-language texts I will be discussing below were translated into English, often shortly following their original publication. Many of the scientists who would draw on these sources in their later analyses of meter would have been familiar, in any case, with the German editions.

(17) See John Galbraith Simmons, Doctors and Discoveries: Lives that Created Today's Medicine (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), pp. 67-70. Vitalism, defined by the OED as "the doctrine or theory that the origin and phenomena of life are due to or produced by a vital principle, as distinct from a purely chemical or physical force," was the remnant of a more Romantic, idealist science with which Muller's successors would break.

(18) W. F. Bynum, "The Rise of Science in Medicine, 1850-1913," The Western Medical Tradition: 1800-2000, ed. W. F. Bynum et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006), p. 114.

(19) Peter J. Bowler and Iwan Rhys Morus, Making Modern Science: A Historical Survey (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 96.

(20) David Pantalony, Altered Sensations: Rudolph Koenig's Acoustical Workshops in NineteenthCentury Paris (Dordrecht: Springer, 2009), p. 41.

(21) David Pantalony charts the rise of acoustics within the universities (again, particularly in the German states) and also its growth as a trade (especially in France). See Altered Sensations, pp. xxii-xxx.

(22) Chladni's Klangfiguren (or "sound-figures") were patterns formed by dry sand as it moved on a surface set in motion by sound vibrations.

(23) Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1999), p. 24.

(24) Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2002), p. 31.

(25) Hermann von Helmholtz, On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, trans. Alexander J. Ellis, 2nd ed. (London, 1885), p. 3.

(26) See Burdette Green and David Butler, "From Acoustics to Tonpsychologie," The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory, ed. Thomas Christensen (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002), p. 246.

(27) Helmholtz delineated three cognate, though effectively discrete, bodies of knowledge: physical, physiological, and psychological acoustics. Physical acoustics deals with the ways in which sounds are produced and propagated. Physiological acoustics concentrates not on how sounds are produced but on how they are perceived via "the sensations of hearing." It takes as its object "processes that take place within the ear itself." Combining these two sciences, Helmholtz analyzed both "how the agent [of sound] reaches the nerves to be excited" and "the various modes in which the nerves themselves are excited." Finally, psychological acoustics investigates how sensations processed by the auditory apparatus "result in mental images of determinate external objects"-that is, how our minds conceptualize what we hear (Helmholtz, On the Sensations of Tone, pp. 3-4).

(28) Both texts were translated by Alexander J. Ellis: the first as "The Physiological Causes of Harmony in Music" (in an 1873 collection of Helmholtz lectures introduced by John Tyndall) and the second as On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music (1875).

(29) Hermann von Helmholtz, "The Physiological Causes of Harmony in Music," Selected Writings of Hermann von Helmholtz, ed. Russell Kahl (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1971), p. 76.

(30) Helmholtz notes that "sound becomes a musical tone when such rapid impulses recur with perfect regularity and in precisely equal times" ("The Physiological Causes of Harmony in Music," p. 76).

(31) As Helmholtz's laboratory data reveal, "the human ear is affected by vibrations of the air within certain degrees of rapidity--from about 20 to about 32,000 in a second--and ... the sensation of musical tone arises from this effect" ("The Physiological Causes of Harmony in Music," p. 81).

(32) Etienne-Jules Marcey, La Methode graphique dans les sciences experimentales et principalement en physiologie et en medicine (Paris, 1878), p. iii; quoted in Hankins and Silverman, Instruments and the Imagination, p. 139.

(33) The quotation is taken from an anonymous review of Thelwall's King's College Lectures. See The Monthly Review 7, no. 32 (1828): 545.

(34) For music and meter see John Hollander, "The Music of Poetry," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 15, no. 2 (1956): 232-244.

(35) J. P. Dabney, The Musical Basis of Verse: A Scientific Study of the Principles of Poetic Composition (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1901), p. vii.

(36) James McKeen Cattell, "The Psychological Laboratory at Leipsic," Mind 13, no. 49 (1888): 40, 45.

(37) E. Bradford Titchener, "A Psychological Laboratory," Mind 7, no. 27 (1898): 313,311.

(38) Cattell, "The Psychological Laboratory at Leipsic," pp. 38, 50 (emphasis original). Wilbur Lang Schramm would later outline a "phonophotographic study" of English metrics, which involved "photographing the poem" and its "sound waves." See Approaches to a Science of English Verse (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1935), pp. 68, 15.

(39) F.W.H. Myers, "Human Personality in the Light of Hypnotic Suggestion," Proceedings for the Society for Psychical Research 4 (1886-87), p. 1.

(40) Alan Kim, "Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta,

(41) S. Feldman, "Wundt's Psychology," American Journal of Psychology 44, no. 4 (1932): 617.

(42) Wundt's book was translated into English by E. B. Titchener in 1902 as Principles of Physiological Psychology.

(43) Rick Rylance, Victorian Psychology and British Culture 1850-1880 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), p. 6.

(44) T.S. Omond, English Metrists: Being a Sketch of English Prosodical Criticism from Elizabethan Times to the Present Day (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921), p. 268 (emphasis added).

(45) Wilhelm Wundt, An Introduction to Psychology, trans. Rudolf Pintner (London: George Allen Unwin, 1912), p. 3.

(46) Michael Golston, Rhythm and Race in Modernist Poetry and Science (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2008), p. 71.

(47) See Audrey B. Davis and Uta C. Merzbach, Early Auditory Studies: Activities in the Psycho. logical Laboratories of American Universities (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975), p. 11.

(48) See Albert S. Hurst and John McKay, "Experimental Time Relations of Poetic Metres," University of Toronto Studies, Psychological Series I (1900): 155-175.

(49) Warner Brown, Time in English Verse Rhythm: An Empirical Study of Typical Verses by the Graphic Method (New York: Science Press, 1908), p. 1 (emphasis added).

(50) Edward Wheeler Scripture, "Accurate Work in Psychology," American Journal of Psychology 6, no. 3 (1894): 428-429.

(51) Scripture, Elements of Experimental Phonetics, pp. 507-508. He remarks: "The various treatments of accent rest upon judgments by the unaided ear. It is unquestionably the fact that here, as in all the senses without exception, attempts to specify anything beyond the general outline.., can result only in a statement of illusions. In a judgment of impressiveness the ear is unable to distinguish with any accuracy, except in extreme cases, the factors of pitch, loudness and length; accents stated to be due to increased stress may often be due to changes in pitch without the possibility of a detection of the fact by the ear."

(52) Scripture, Elements in Experimental Phonetics, p. 509. These are among the many devices recording and graphing devices used by Scripture and his contemporaries. Some are described and even illustrated in Elements.

(53) Brown, Time in English Verse Rhythm, p. 28 (emphasis added). See also Dabney, The Musical Basis of Verse.

(54) Scripture, Elements in Experimental Phonetics, p. 513 (emphasis added). Though Scripture insisted that he would "confine" his chapter on accent to "a summary of the disconnected experimental results with no attempt to work them into a theory," he nevertheless went on to offer general conceptual remarks that resonate with existing prosodic theories.

(55) Scripture, Elements of Experimental Phonetics, p. 539. See also Ishiro Miyake, "Researches on Rhythmic Action," Studies from the Yale Psychological Laboratory (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1902), pp. 1-48.

(56) Scripture, Elements of Experimental Phonetics, p. 552. See also Patmore, Essay on English Metrical Law, p. 9. "The best poet," Patmore stated, "is ... he whose language combines the greatest imaginative accuracy with the most elaborate and sensible metrical organization, and who, in his verse, preserves everywhere the living sense of metre, no so much by unvarying obedience to, as by innumerable small departures from, its modulus."

(57) Edward Wheeler Scripture, "Researches in Experimental Phonetics," PMLA 15 (1900): vii.

(58) Ada L. F. Snell, "An Objective Study of Syllabic Quantity in English Verse," PMLA 34, no. 3 (1919): 435,429, 428.

(59) Thus Borell describes how the kymograph allowed physiologists "to monitor a wide range of physiological events." Undoubtedly, it served a similar function for psychologists intent on "monitoring" metrical "events." See "Training the Senses, Training the Mind," p. 247.

(60) Edward Wheeler Scripture, "Researches in Experimental Phonetics," PMLA 15 (1900): vii.

(61) The word kymograph literally means "wave-writer."

(62) T.V.F. Brogan, English Versification, 1570-1980: A Reference Guide with a Global Appendix (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1981), p. 226.

(63) A number of twentieth-century prosodists, including no-nonsense practical critics like I. A. Richards, have commented on laboratory prosody and speculated about its usefulness. See, for example, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment (1929; New Brunswick: Transaction, 2004), p. 219.

(64) Calvin S. Brown, "Can Musical Notation Help English Scansion?," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 23, no. 3 (1965): 331.

(65) Yopie Prins, "Voice Inverse," p. 57. Elsewhere, Prins comments on another example of late-Victorian technology in relation to Robert Browning's meters. Wax cylinder recordings, which, like kyraographic records, produce not only the sound but also a visible impression of Browning's metrical recitations of his verse (as read by him), are themselves just another "mediation, as the speaking voice is broken up by the very technology that seeks to preserve it." Here, traditional and emergent technologies of meter are more alike than they are dissimilar. The phonograph is "yet another technology for its [the voice's, as well as the meter's] mediation: the phonograph as a mechanical device for mediating voice, like the metrical mechanism of [Browning's] own verse." See Yopie Prins, "Robert Browning, Transported by Meter," The Traffic in Poems: Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Transatlantic Exchange, ed. Meredith L. McGill (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2008), p. 216.

JASON DAVID HALL, Lecturere in English Literature at the University of Exeter, is the author of Seamus Heaney's Rhythmic Contract (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and co-editor, with Ashby Bland Crowder, of Seamus Heaney: Poet, Critic, Translator (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). His edited volume Meter Matters: Verse Cultures of the Long Nineteenth Century will be published by Ohio University Press in 2011, and his current project, a book-length cultural history of nineteenth-century Prosody, is provisionally titled "Promiscuous Feet."
COPYRIGHT 2011 West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Hall, Jason David
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2011
Previous Article:Ironizing prosody in John Davidson's "A Ballad in Blank Verse".
Next Article:Polymetrical dissonance: Tennyson, A. Mary F. Robinson, and classical meter.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters