[LMB] Levels of Bafflement

John Lennard john.c.lennard at gmail.com
Tue Jan 16 13:02:50 GMT 2018

Luke points to spondaic substitutions in Latin ; yup, and indeed in English
too. But whereas in Latin the ictus concerns vowel length, in English it's
stress, meaning a combination of emphasis and pitch that *may* but need not
affect duration. Put another way, in English a short vowel can be stressed,
a long one unstressed : coffee, frex.

Margaret: Can you comment on how musical rhythm and speech rhythm are and
are not the

John: Urk. Regarding speech rhythm in (British) English, I think the point
is that it simply does not -organise- patterns of duration. They are there,
and as Catherine said are likely to bear some relation to any formal
metrical pattern, but their controlled patterning is neither mandated nor
notated in prosody.

Musical notation, in specifying notes of particular durations (crotchet,
quaver, minim etc.), in the dotting system for extending durations, in time
signatures, has the exact duration of components as a primary axis.
Accentual-syllabic prosody, conversely, is concerned with the patterning of
more and less stressed syllables, which naturally occurs in all speech but
in metrical verse is formally organised into lines typically comprising a
repeating unit against which variations stand out.

If you listen to Richard Burton (marvellously) speaking Shakespeare's
"Let's talk of worms", from *Richard II*,


the iambic pentametric pulse, ti TUM ti TUM ti TUM ti TUM ti TUM, is always
audibly present ; Shax fixed it into the lines through his choices of word
and word order, and Burton sounds it ; but the tempo of his delivery, of
individual words, phrases, lines, is extremely varied, and though IMO
brilliant, in no way or sense definitive.

Micki, no doubt you remember that

There was a young man from Japan
whose verses would never quite scan ;
when asked why 'twas so,
he replied, "Well, you know,
I always like to get as many words into the last line as I possibly can."

Somewhat more earnestly, it sounds to me as if your school teaching did not
properly distinguish metre and scansion. Very briefly, the metre is the
fixed, repeating pattern in the abstract, while the scansion is what your
voice, or anyone else's, makes of the words spoken aloud.

With metre, there is correct and incorrect. If you tell me that Hamlet's
"To be or not to be" is in dactylic monometer, you're wrong. But with
scansion there is no correct and incorrect, though there may be perverse,
wrenched, or inconsistent as well as effects of national or regional
accent, inspired, and revelatory.

Allowing that it's hypermetric, Hamlet's famous line is an iambic
pentameter. This is the F text.

To be, or not to be, that is the Question :

and it -could- be scanned as wholly regular with an unstressed (old term,
feminine) hyperbeat :

to BE, / or NOT / to BE, / that IS / the QUES / tion :

In no sense is that scansion of the metre wrong ; but it's not how I would
myself scan it, because I'd say

to BE, / or NOT / to BE, / THAT is / the QUES / tion

The metre is five iambs and the hyperbeat ; my preferred scansion has an
inverted foot, a trochee, in fourth place -- and that's not wrong either.

IMO, having been teaching the stuff for decades, the failure to distinguish
properly between metre and scansion is the subject's single greatest bane
at school level, and the consequences of the confusion both put many people
off it altogether, and produce, for e.g., the painfully awkward readings
aloud by those who, say, stop to breathe at the end of each line regardless
of sense and enjambment.

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

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