[LMB] Levels of Bafflement

John Lennard john.c.lennard at gmail.com
Sun Jan 14 13:15:28 GMT 2018

John: but this skipping of beats I wot not of. As with so-called sprung
rhythm, if one allows such conveniences mid-line all rigour is lost, nu?

Margaret: I don't know the right term for "skip a beat" but in musical
notation it would be

Eighth note Eighth note Eighth note / Quarter note Eighth note /

How about "Many and many a year ago, in a kingdom by the sea"

Aren't "year" and "king" twice the duration of the other syllables?

Perhaps there are formal ways of saying this, but I didn't learn anything
past the very basics.

John: Nnngh! Prosodically speaking, that has about three hornets' nests in

The whole subject suffers from a degree of skew, because the classical
metrical terminology it adopted (during the Renaissance) refers to
quantitative metres, developed for Greek and applied to Latin, where the
major consideration is not stress at all but vowel length. That doesn't
work in English, where the patterns involved are primarily of stress, not
duration, and what emerged is what is called accentual-syllabic prosody,
which is qualitative.

In theory, therefore, English prosody does not involve duration. This is
why many song lyrics, however easily delivered when melody and duration are
present, do not scan as metrical poems on the page and cannot be delivered
as a metrical line can be.

In practice, regular metres are not quantitative -- a thumpingly regular
iambic line, such as Marlowe's "To entertain divine Zenocrate" (to EN
terTAIN diVINE zeNOCratE), may have various syllabic durations in spoken
(not sung) delivery but unless a word is wilfully mispronounced (that is,
the natural spoken stress/es is/are wrenched awry) the iambic rock of
ti-TUMs will always be present.

However, one of the unmentioned elephants in the room is that *in mixed
metres*, especially iambic + anapaestic mixes, something that quite clearly
has a quantitative dimension does arise, and is theoretically ignored. Your
Poe example is one such ; another would be "I must go down to the sea
again, to the lonely sea and the sky." In practice, pretty much
every native speaker, regardless of accent, speaking such lines aloud,
enunciates a set of syllabic durations that would in musical notation
involve variant or dotted notes. But the prosodic notation, being
qualitative, ignores that, and construes the lines as mixing anapaests and
iambs (as, frex, "in a KING / dom BY / the SEA", or "i MUST / go DOWN / to
the SEA / aGAIN, / to the LONE / ly SEA / and the SKY"). There are no
missing beats, only a mixture of duple and triple feet ; and the mix not
being the same in every line, there is no fixed pattern against which
an equivalent of syncopation can be practiced.

John:  Were you a student, though, I'd ask why you wish to stress 'we', the
implication that none but we, only we and not you, have so advanced,

Margaret: That implication isn't there for me. I think the tendency is to
stress the subject of the sentence, and therefore putting the stress on HAVE
is the one that departs from normal and therefore implies something.

John: Can go either way. If you stress "I" in "I don't know" or "I couldn't
say", there may well be an implication that someone else knows or could
say. And in, oh, "I have to say ..." or "I have to go" or even "I have an
appointment", I would be at least mildly surprised to find no stress on

Lois's phrase being prose, there is no metre anyway -- but the default
metre in English in iambics (hence the use of iambic pentameter for drama,
lines to be spoken aloud), so I heard "we HAVE / adVANCED / to NEW". Far be
it from me to deny you an initial inverted foot if you really want one,
though -- WE have / adVANCED / to NEW, TUM-ti / ti-TUM / ti-TUM.

What I can't do, prosodically, is allow the rhythm of Lois's phrase to be
consistent in the sense of having a basic foot that is not substituted,
however I find it fascinating that you (and perhaps Luke), thinking
musically rather than prosodically, do hear such a consistency.

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

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