Rhythm and Linguistic Form: Toward a Temporal Theory of Poetic Language


Richard D. Cureton
English Department
University of Michigan
Email: Richard D. Cureton

The title of our session, "Linguistics and Poetics: Revisited" is meant to recall Roman Jakobson's famous closing statement at the 1958 Indiana conference on style. For better or worse, Jakobson's closing statement has set many of the basic parameters of the long-standing argument over the relations between linguistic and literary study; or to put it in disciplinary terms, over the intentions and achievements of what is usually called stylistics. It is this issue that I would like to address here.

As many have now clarified, the major theoretical task of stylistics is to establish some criterial perspective that can relate language and literature, both to one another and to other major humanistic concerns---art, ideology, social and economic praxis, history, religion, psychology, biology/neurology, and so forth. In his 1958 paper, Jakobson suggested that we accomplish this task from the point of view of communication. All communication, he suggested, involves a small number of factors, each of which is associated with a communicative function, with the literary/poetic/aesthetic function being just one of these, one that focusses attention on the message itself,independent of its relation to addressee, addresser, or context. This self-focussing, he went on to claim, is achieved primarily by means of a dense paralleling, which concentrates in the syntagmatic/actual use of the medium related forms and meanings from the paradigmatic/virtual organization of the medium's communicative code. This projection of the principle of equivalence into the syntagmatic creates a secondary synonymy/antonymy over and above the primary organization of form and meaning that (also) appears: parallel forms create parallel meanings.

Jakobson's projection principle indeed isolates an important aspect of art, perhaps the most important, what is usually called theme. In thematic organization, some central human concern implied by the overall experience of an artwork is subjected to a formal analysis by the diverse and variant details of the work, usually by foregrounding minimal relations of similarity and difference--counterparts, examples, prototypes, analogues, preconditions, consequences, blends, extensions, variants, and so forth. Through the type of projectional process that Jakobson outlines, the theme of a work is examined from multiple perspectives, exemplified in multiple contexts, and embodied at multiple levels in the formal organization of the medium.
However, Jakobson's claim that poetic uses of language are thematically organized is neither new nor adequate as a criterial perspective for a principled stylistics. His projection principle isolates only one aspect of one sort of aesthetic structuring; it is not a theory of any of the major phenomena that must be accounted for by a theory of literature--language, rhetoric, the literary genres, the stylistic elaboration of these genres, the historical realization of these styles, the philosophical, sociological, and psychological preconditions of these styles, and so forth. If literature is one of the great art forms, as it certainly is, and if all great art forms give us detailed knowledge of the human, then any adequate stylistics must be based upon a full theory of human nature and its cultural and historical realizations.

Over the last five years or so, I have been suggesting that such a criterial perspective for a principled stylistics might be available in the forms of human time--not a novel suggestion, certainly, but one that has not been sufficiently explored. Rhythm creates time; and much of the recent work throughout the humanities and human sciences has been invoking rhythm and temporality to advance their projects. There seems to be growing evidence from many sources (1) that the most basic facts about the human mind are its modes of temporal processing, (2) that these modes of temporal processing are most clearly and completely revealed in the mind's rhythmic capabilities, (3) that these rhythmic capabilities evolved in a certain order and by a certain dialectical process, and (4) that the results of these evolutionary developments provide both the basic elements and overall morphology of many other major products of mind.

The major find in contemporary music theory has been that rhythmic cognition is strictly componential. There are four rhythmic components, what musicians call meter, grouping, prolongation, and theme; and when these rhythmic forms are compared, they present a coherent evolutionary series (in the order listed above), whose structural complexions contrast dialectically on a number of central humanistic concerns--subject-subject relation, subject-event relation, orientation to clock time, semiotic relation, relational scope, event position, and so forth. Functionally, these four rhythms correspond closely to (1) the temporal capabilities of our four brains (hind brain, mid brain, left cortex, and right) and (2) the temporal texturing of our four major psychological faculties (perception, emotion, volition, and memory); therefore, in their dialectical and evolutionary ordering, these rhythmic forms recapitulate the history of our neurological development. I like to call this dialectical evolutionary series "The Temporal Paradigm."

 

THE TEMPORAL PARADIGM

RHYTHMIC COMPONENTS

TEMPORAL FEATURES

Meter

cyclical

Grouping

centroidal

Prolongation

linear

Theme

relational

equative

relation

similarity

difference-in

similarity

similarity-in-

difference

difference

sequential

relation

occurrence

repetition

succcession

correspondence

prominence

proportion

transition

direction

implication

connection

distinction

simultaneity

subject-subject

relation

participation

obligation

cooperation

freedom

subject-event

relation

subjective

objective-in-

subjective

subjective-in-

objective

objective

semiotic

relation

icon

emblem

index

symbol

experiential

process

reaction

passive

affection

reciprocal

exploration

active

creation

improvisatory

clock time

orientation

past

present

future

relative

 

event

position

initial

medial

final

peripheral

 

relational

scope

proximate

local

regional

global

contour

fall

rise-fall

fall-rise

rise

volatility

fixed

constrained

volatile

free


My major claim is that these rhythmic components fractalize the major products of human cognition into dialectically related quadratures. For instance, within language and rhetoric, these rhythms lead to our major levels of linguistic structure, our major word categories, our major modes of word formation, the major levels of organization in prosody, our major verbal and nominal functions, our major modes of grammatical elaboration, the basic inventory and uses of our major tropes and schemes, and so forth. Given this extension of rhythm into grammar and rhetoric, poets can use language to vocalize, grammaticalize, semanticize, and rhetoricize temporal values.


At the outer limit, these temporal complexions fractalize whole areas of humanistic concern. For instance, as Northrop Frye claimed, the four major literary genres (drama, prose fiction, poetry, and epic/song) are elegantly motivated in these rhythmic terms; and as Hayden White has argued, Frye's theory of the literary genres can be extended to account for the major modes of literary emplotment (romance, comedy, tragedy, and satire) and the major metaphysical worldviews in cultural history (formism, organicism,mechanism, and contextualism). These temporal complexions also fractialize the historical periods in which these worldviews predominated in the West (the Ancient world; the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment; the 19th century; and the twentieth century).

I like to call this extension of rhythm into language, rhetoric, literature, philosophy, history, and other domains "The Poetic Paradigm."

 

THE POETIC PARADIGM

Time

Cyclical

Centroidal

Linear

Relational

I. Psychological and Neurological

sociobiology

colonial

invertebrate

social

insect

non-human

mammal

human

neurology

reptilian

brain

mammalian

brain

left

cortex

right

cortex

faculty

sense

body

feeling

emotion

will

action

memory

thought

generative

sense

touch

smell/taste

hearing

sight

phylogeny

australopithicus

homo habilis

homo erectus

homo sapiens

ontogeny

child

youth

adult

elder

psychopathology

manic depression

psychosis

neurosis

amnesia

II. Cultural

history of the West

Ancient

Medieval

Renaissance

Enlightenment

19th century

Modern

Postmodern

philosphy

formism

organicism

mechanism

contextualism

economy

hunting & gathering

agriculture

industry

information

religion

polytheism

monotheism

naturalism

humanism

social system

tribalism

feudalism

capitalism

socialism

linguistic technology

orality

chirography

typography

cybernetics

logic

conduction

deduction

induction

abduction

temporal orientation

past

present

future

relative

primary political & economic group

tribe

city-state

nation

world

primary social & personal group

family

kin

estate

peer

class

citizen

none

individual

government

monarchy

aristocracy

republic

democracy

spatial art

sculpture

architecture

painting

photography

social ethic

communal fate

personal duty

social progress

individual freedom

personal ethic

4 wisdom

3 justice

2 temperance

1 courage

4 faith

3 obedience/hope

2 charity

1 purity

4 intelligence

3 willpower

2 respect

1 discipline

4 creativity

3 freedom

2 care

1 excitement

III. Literary and Rhetorical

genre

epic

lyric

narrative

drama

reader/listener positioning

speech

character

audience

author

scheme

repetition

pattern

process

network

repetition

initial

medial

final

peripheral

pattern

concentric

geometircal

teleological

multidimensional

sonic sheme

alliteration

rhyme

reverse rhyme

assonance

consonance

pararhyme

discourse logic

paratactic

logical

temporal

dialectical

emplotment

romance

comedy

tragedy

satire

medium

song

poetry

prose

talk

artist

singer

poet

author

performer

creative process

dictation

revelation

exploration

improvisation

trope

metaphor

synecdoche

metonymy

irony

semiotic relation

iconic

emblematic

indexical

symbolic

imagery

spring

mornining

birth

child

mineral

dream

earth

rain

heaven

etc.

summer

noon

growth

youth

vegetable

wake

water

fountain/spring

Eden

etc.

fall

evening

maturity

adult

animal

live

air

river

purgatory

etc.

winter

night

death

elder

human

sleep

fire

sea/snow

hell

etc.

IV. Linguistic

(a) general

linguistic level

paralanguage

prosody

syntax

semantics

(b) prosody

prosody

stress

tonicity

tone

tune

stress

weak

tertiary

secondary

primary

prosodic hierarchy

syllable

clitic phrase

phonological phrase

tone unit

syllable

onset

nucleus

coda

periphery

tone

fall

rise-fall

fall-rise

rise

(c) syntax

syntactic level

word

phrase

clause

sentence

sentence types

declarative

exclamative

imperative

interrogative

subordinate clause

nominal

relative

comparative

adverbial

comment

complexing

apposition

conjunction

correlation

comment

basic clause pattern

intransitive

SV

copular

SVCs

transitive

SVO, SVOC, SVOO, SVOA

copular-adverbial

SVA

transitivity

monotransitive

SVO

complex-transitive

SVOC

ditransitive

SVOO

transitive-adverbial

SVOA

clausal constituency

subject

predicator

complement

adverbial

mood

indicative

subjunctive

imperative

conditional

adverbial

adjunct

subjunct

conunct

disjunct

adjunct

time & space

process

contingency

respect

subjunct

item

intensifier

courtesy

viewpoint

intensifier

focussing

amplifier

predication

emphasizer

phrase type

noun phrase

adjective phrase

verb phrase

adverb/

prepositional phrase

phrasal slots

head

modifier

complement

specifier

verb phrase

voice

aspect

modality

tense

voice

passive

middle

active

causative

aspect

perfective

habitual

progressive

perfect

tense

past

present

future

relative

modality

necessity

obligation

probability

possibility

reference

generic

indefinite

definite

proper

person

3rd

1st

2nd

generic

word formation

compounding

derivation

inflection

conversion

word class

noun

adjective

verb

adverb


The major innovation of this theory is the claim that themajor products of the human mind (art, literature, history, culture, etc.) are primarily constituted, not by their outward, spatial contents (physicality, meaning, action, interaction, etc.), but by their inner temporal forms--not by their structure but by their modes of structuration. That is, the theory suggests a new functionalism, but one that is, in itself, a formalism; thus, it overcomes the ubiquitous split between form and function that has plagued stylistics throughout its history.
The fractal organization of the theory also overcomes the ubiquitous split between similarity and difference, general principle and specific detail, that has been so troublesome to stylistic theory, in fact, to all humanistic criticism. In a fractal structure, forms are repeatedly differentiated by the same principles by which they are related. The same forms appear and re-appear in all realms of formal embodiment and at all levels of articulation within each individual realm, with each particular temporal embodiment being elaborated with its temporal complements, often to very fine levels of delicacy. In such an organization, similarity is maintained by the fractalizing rhythmic relatedness, while difference is achieved by the realm ofembodiment that is fractialized, the choices for complementary modulation at each level of fractalization, and the level of fractal elaboration that is finally achieved. General principle and infinite nuance, genus and species, are achieved simultaneously and inevitably, by the very design principles of the evolutionary system.
For instance, we can use the poetic paradigm to arrive at a detailed characterization of some very large phenomenon, such as the lyric, by following rhythmically parallel choices within the poetic paradigm--in this case, those embodiments of the second temporality, centroidal time. Following this procedure, psychologically, the lyric poem is predominantly concerned with emotion, youth, and taste. Culturally, its has its historical locus in the Medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment cultures in the West and therefore is associated socio-culturally with organicism, monotheism,deductive reasoning, feudalism, aristocracy, architecture, and the Christian virtues of faith, obedience, charity and purity. In its literary and rhetorical texture it is predominantly comedic, logical, emblematic, geometrical, patterned, chiastic, synecdochic, rhymed, and chiastic, with an imagery that focusses on summer, noon, water, Eden, spring, waking, growth, vegetation, and so forth. And linguistically, it is predominantly vocal, copular, conjunctional, phrasal, adjectival, subordinating, modifying, present tense, 1st person, imperfective, subjunctive, exclamative, gendered, aspectual, indefinite, ordinal, hyponymic, interjectional, amplificational, intensified, subjunctional, reciprocal, and derivational, with a rise-fall intonation and a prosodic focus on tertiary stress and the clitic phrase. Many of our canonical lyric poems have just this stylistic center, such as Shakespeare's Sonnet #18.

 

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer's lease hath all too short a date;

Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometimes declines,

By chance or nature's changing course untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;

Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to Time thou grow'st:

So long as men can breath, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


 

On the other hand, any particular lyric poem or any particular part of any particular lyric poem will usually modulate this general stylistic dominant with a complex, but coherent, mixture of choices from the other temporalities, depending on the poem's historical and cultural positioning, including the text's positioning within larger historical eras and the localdemands of authorial intention, sub-genre, text, and part of text being considered.

For instance, in the sonnets of the great Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth's "It Is a Beauteous Evening," the basic centroidal texture of the Renasissance lyric is maintained, but it is heavily modulated by the linearity of the historical and socio-cultural context (the nineteenth century).

 

It Is a Beauteous Evening

 

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,

The holy time is quiet as a Nun

Breathless with adoration; the broad sun

Is sinking down in its tranquility;

The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the Sea:

Listen! A mighty Being is awake,

And doth with his eternal motion make

A sound like thunder--everlastingly.

Dear child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,

If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,

Thy nature is not therefore less divine:

Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year,

And worship'st at the Temple's inner shrine,

God being with thee when we know it not.


 

Poetically, Wordsworth adds this linearity by foregroundingdynamic beginnings and endings of many different sorts and at manydifferent level of structure but in such a way that they neutralize one another, creating intensely static, shapely centers. The result is a "waved" motion of unusual variety, density, and energy that, again and again, begins easily and naturally, rises to a central climax, pauses, radiates its energies vertically, upward and downward in the textual thematics, and then moves on to an extended, and therefore, equally natural, muted finale. When embodiedin language, rhetoric, and cultural reference, this temporal figure dissolves past and future into a present epiphany: will and sense fuse inemotion; family and social class, in religious order.

To achieve this more linear temporality, Wordsworth modifies the culminating hypermeter in the canonical Renaissance sonnet so that it broadens and deepens in the center. By skewing the phrasal divisioning in the octave against the square rhyme scheme, he reduces the meter of the normal sonnet octave to one, three-part stanza that delivers a partial coda, both (prematurely) in its first part, and finally, on the stanzaic coda itself, shifting the double caudation that characterizes the Renaissance sonnet to the middle of the text. Arrested at the center, the text hovers in stasis and then proceeds more delicately and demurely into the sestet, ending with the same pair of partial codas, but now without larger structural support. With this hypermeter, the first half of the text now metrically outweighs the second half. The speaker's observation of the scene is lengthened; his spiritual epiphany ("a mighty Being is awake...") is felt more deeply and more physically; and the worldly consequences of his epiphany (the speaker's reaffirmation of the divinity of the child in the sestet) is softened and lightened.

 

Hypermeter

Section 1, Stanza 1, Part 1

 

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,

The holy time is quiet as a Nun

Breathless with adoration; the broad sun (partial coda)

 

Section 1, Stanza 1, Part 2

 

Is sinking down in its tranquility;

The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the Sea:

 

Section 1, Stanza 1, Part 3 (stanzaic coda)

Listen! A mighty Being is awake,

And doth with his eternal motion make

A sound like thunder--everlastingly. (partial coda)

 

Stanza 2, Part 1

 

Dear child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,

If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,

Thy nature is not therefore less divine: (partial coda)

 

Stanza 2, Part 2

Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year,

And worship'st at the Temple's inner shrine,

God being with thee when we know it not. (partial coda)


This hypermeter also radically alters the rhythmic effect of the repeated quatrain rhyme scheme in the octave, and with a similarcombination of centering and linearizing. With respect to the meter, the repetitive abba / abba pattern becomes abb / aa / bba, a non-repetitive, asymmetrical pattern that is both more expanded, more intricate, and more tightly concentric. This rhyme scheme focusses attention on the couplet in lines 4-5, especially its culminating second part: "The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the sea."

Temporal linearity is told out into the semantics and rhetoric of the text in metonymic relations, especially prepositional relations. At opening of the text, evening is connected metonymically to sun, then sea, then (more mysteriously) to God's cosmic thunder. The gentleness of heaven broods "o'er" the sea. The child walks "with" the speaker. She is untouched "by" solemn thought. She lies "in" Abraham's bosom and worships "at" the Temple's inner shrine, God being "with" her.

On the borderline between semantics and rhetoric, many of the adjectives in the text are also implicitly metonymic. The evening is "beauteous," "calm," and "free," the time is "holy," "quiet," and "breathless," because the speaker and those who share his faith and the heightened perception it provides feel it to be so, not because it inherently is so. These metonymic adjectives have been long recognized as the major mark of Wordsworth's Romantic style. In them, subject and object come together, and for a moment, interweave.

The predominantly linear motion of the poem is also told out into syntax by the regular movement of clauses from thematic subjects to rhematic predicates.

THEME

RHEME

It

is a beauteous evening.

calm and free,

The holy time

is quiet

as

a Nun

Breathless with adoration;

the broad sun

Is sinking down in its tranquility;

The gentleness of heaven

broods o'er the Sea:

Listen!

A mighty Being

is awake,

And

doth with his eternal motion

make A sound like thunder--everlastingly.

Dear child! dear Girl!

that

walkest with me here,

If

thou

appear untouched by solemn thought,

Thy nautre

is not therefore less divine:

Thou

liest in Abraham's bosom all the year,

And

worship'st at the Temple's inner shrine,

God

being with thee

when

we

know it not.

Syntactic elements within clauses are seldom inverted or dislocated; and sentences are primarily simple, or if elaborated, compound rather than subordinated.

Wordsworth's phrases are also neither complex nor simple; thus he distances his verse from a purely lyric temporality here, too. There is only one comparative clause ("as a Nun / Breathless with adoration") and only one relative clause ("that walkest with me here"), and those phrases that have non-clausal modifiers never have more than one.

determiner pre-modifier head post-modifier
a beauteous evening  
the holy time  
the   gentleness of heaven
a mighty Being  
his eternal motion  
a   sound like thunder
  Dear child  
  dear Girl  
    untouched by solemn thought
the Temple's inner shrine  


Within noun phrases, reference is also predominantly definite, and where definite, is usually marked with a definite article (rather than with a demonstrative, possessive, or comparative). As readers, we are placed firmly on the scene and are assumed to share the poet's vision.

 

the holy time

the broad sun

the gentleness of heaven

the Sea

the mighty Being

the year

the Temple's inner shrine


Other tellings of linear time into syntax are more scattered but are also important. The text contains an imperative (Listen!), several second person references (thou, Thy, thou), a progressive (is sinking down), a conjunct (therefore), a couple of implied correlatives (if-[then], [then]-when), and a transitive verb, albeit negated (know). The speaker does not just hold forth to no one in particular (or to himself) on some topic of universal concern, as a lyric speaker often does. He speaks to the child. The child is with him there. He directs her to attend. And then he goes on to induce the empirical certainty of her divinity, based on his observations of nature.

Finally, linearity is told out into sound in the strong consonantal patterning in the text, especially those patterns involving [r], [s], and nasals ([n], [m], and [ng] ). These consonantal patterns consistently foreground the ends of syllables, directing our attention through the syllable to its termination. Significantly, these terminations are also consistently continuant (or, if not continuant, sonorant).

[r]

[s]

[n]/[m]/[ng]

wor.ship'st

wor.ship'st

calm

i.nner

beau.teous

time

year

breath.less

Nun

na.ture

gen.tle.ness

Sun

there.fore

lis.ten

sin.king

a.ppear

less

down

na.ture

li.est

tran.qui.li.ty

Dear

wal.kest

gen.tle.ness

dear

hea.ven

here

lis.ten

e.ter.nal

mo.tion

thun.der

sound

e/ver/las.ting.ly

thun.der

so.lemn

A.bra.ham's

di.vine

shrine

bosom

Be.ing

be.ing