[LMB] Levels of Bafflement

John Lennard john.c.lennard at gmail.com
Fri Jan 12 20:46:03 GMT 2018

Moved by the list's enthusiasm, I've just read John McPhee's *Annals of the
Former World*, and in 'Rising from the Plains', the section first published
in 86 (though perhaps tweaked for the omnibus ed. in 98), I was interested
to see collocated two antecedents of one of Miles's better phrases in

"Repeating the words of the volcanologist Alex McBirney, [Eldridge Moores]
says, 'Remember, 'In the next ten years, our confusion will reach new
heights of sophistication.''

(Or, in words dubiously attributed to Mark Twain: 'Researchers have already
cast much darkness on the subject, and if they continue their
investigations we shall soon know nothing at all about it.')"

What neither has is Miles's "and surprising", which led me to consider his
(or rather Lois's) phrase afresh and notice its prosody.

"We have advanced to new and surprising levels of bafflement," Miles told

It begins in unambiguous iambs (ti-TUMS)-- we HAVE / adVANCED / to NEW --
which is duple rising rhythm, and it ends in equally unambiguous dactyls
(TUM-ti-tis) -- LEVels of / BAFflement / MILES told her -- which is triple
falling rhythm ; in-between we have either (and surPRISing), a pyrrhic and
a trochee, ti-ti / TUM-ti, or a third paeon (ti-ti-TUM-ti, depending on how
Greek or Roman you're feeling), or (AND surPRISing), two trochees -- and in
any case a prosodic surprise that approximates duple falling rhythm, and so
perfectly mediates between duple rising and triple falling.

Which is to say that prosodic analysis supports both how good and how funny
it is.

Lois may, like Miles and Benedict, not have been born under a rhyming
planet, but there was a prosodic one up there somewhere, dancing in its
sphere, and when I'm next reading I shall try to be more alert for the
prosodic shapes enhancing her prose.

Just sayin'.

John Lennard, MA DPhil. (Oxon.), MA (WU)

Associate Member & Director of Studies in English, Hughes Hall, Cambridge
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