Describing Literary Universals

Comments on Hogan, “Impossible Love”

Geoffrey Russom, Brown University

Some pretty clear examples of the mortal-immortal romance sub-genre (discussed in Patrick Hogan’s “Impossible Love: A Sub-Genre of Romantic Stories”) originate in Old Irish tradition and enter English tradition through Marie de France, the mother of the English romance and the grandmother of the novel.

The immortals involved are the Celtic fairies, in early tales called Tuatha Dé Danann ‘people of the Goddess Danu.’ Like other Celtic goddesses, Danu was a manifestation of a great river, the Danube. Fairies are said to live in island paradises like Tír ‘na n-Óg, “the land of the young,” and in fortresses connected to the underworld. Many of them bear the names of Celtic gods mentioned by Caesar.

“The Debility of the Ulstermen,” an important Old Irish instance of the sub-genre, explains why the Ulstermen were helpless when attacked by Queen Medb of Connaught in Táin Bó Cúalnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the great Irish epic in Prosimetrum form.

Plot: Crunnchu mac Agnoman isolates himself after the death of his wife. One day a distinguished-looking woman appears in his house and takes charge of the household. His handsome appearance is delightful to her and she sleeps with him. They live together in prosperity for a long while. One day Crunnchu says he will attend a great festival at the court of the Ulster king. She says he should not go because they cannot not be together if he speaks of her in the assembly, as she strongly suspects he will. He goes anyway. The royal chariot wins all the races at the festival and everyone praises the king’s horses. Crunnchu foolishly remarks that his wife can run faster than those horses. He is seized and his wife is summoned to race against the horses despite her protest that she is about to give birth. She declares that her name is Macha (the name of one aspect of the triple goddess Morrígan, a.k.a. Morgan the Fairy). She wins the race and gives birth to a son and a daughter before the king’s chariots finish. She then declares that everyone who has heard her cry out while giving birth will become as helpless as a woman in childbirth when attacked by an enemy, unto the ninth generation. It is worth adding that the Celtic pantheon includes widely-known horse goddesses like Epona.

A later example of the sub-genre is Marie’s Lanval.

Plot: Lanval is one of King Arthur’s knights. His virtues are many but are not appreciated. Wandering in the forest, he encounters a fairy princess in a beautiful pavilion. They become lovers. The princess warns Lanval that they can no longer be together if he tells anyone about her. With the fairy’s supernatural assistance, Lanval becomes wealthy and earns fame for his generosity. One day Arthur’s queen meets Lanval and attempts to seduce him. He refuses. She says he must be more interested in pageboys. Lanval scornfully tells her about his lover and declares that the princess’s servant girls are more beautiful than the queen. The furious queen lies to Arthur that Lanval has tried to seduce her. Lanval is seized. The barons decide that Lanval can be forgiven if he produces his lover and her servant girls to prove that what he has said is true. The fairy princess decides to rescue Lanval despite her earlier statement that they can no longer be together. Her servant girls arrive at the court, strikingly beautiful and splendidly attired. Last comes the fairy princess, who testifies for Lanval. He is forgiven and freed. He stands on a mounting block, and when the princess passes by on her horse, he jumps up behind her. They leave for the island paradise of Avalon.

Works Cited

“The Debility of the Ulstermen.” In Ancient Irish Tales. Ed., Tom Peete Cross and Clark Harris Slover. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969, 208–10. (Old Irish text, ed. and trans. Ernst Windisch, Königliche Sächsische Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, Berichte (Philologisch-Historische Klasse), XXXVI (1884): 336–47.)

Marie de France. Lanval. Trans., Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante. In The Lais of Marie de France. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1978, 105–23. (Old French text in Lais de Marie de France. Ed. Karl Warnke. Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer, 1900, 86-112; available at Lais de Marie de France.)

Comments on Hogan: Impossible Love and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones

Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University, U.K.

When we read Tom Jones for the first time, we may worry that Tom might engage in an impossible love—incest—because we do not know who Tom’s father is, but we seem to know who his mother is (see Hogan, “Impossible Love“). The two young women he sleeps with, Molly and Sophia, might either be the daughter of whoever his father is, and the theme of incest becomes overt when he inadvertently sleeps with the woman who is thought to be his mother, Jenny.  We are misdirected into suspecting a narrative of impossible love which is stopped in its tracks when we learn not only that his real mother is Bridget but also that his father is the previously unmentioned man Summer.  This revelation changes our understanding of the narrative so that it becomes a narrative of seasonal regeneration.  Tom takes on his father’s role as Summer; Squire Western is interpreted as his primary antagonist and takes on the role of the season he alliterates with, Winter, and young summer must win a girl (Sophia) from old winter.  Instead of the impossible romance of incest, we have a completely different impossible immortal-human romance where the personified seasons interact with humans.

How plausible a reading is this?  Tom and Western are paired in opposition by their different ways of travelling in the natural world—Tom on foot, Western on horse. Tom is associated with birds, not only narratively via Sophia’s bird, but also in the characters of Nightingale and Partridge, perhaps also Jenny (Jenny Wren). Moreover, his own name is a bird name (Tom Tit). Though most of the birds can be associated with any season, we might associate life with summer, and indeed a nightingale is a summer visitor to Britain. Tom Jones thus manifests a pattern found in folklore and mediaeval romances: “Summer is often personified by a young hero who defeats an older, feebler opponent: Culhwch taking Olwen from her father Ysbaddaden…” (Gantz).

Murray has given us an alternative reading of seasonality in the novel: Tom’s father is Summer who has engaged in an “unnatural mating'” (another impossible love) with winter, now personified as Bridget, “no improper emblem” of “a winter’s morning.” Tom is Spring, the result of the mating, and Sophia is also Spring (“the goddess Flora”), which allows them to be matched without further impossibility, while the anti-Sophia Lady Bellaston is in “the autumn of life.”

Though we are offered two incompatible readings, the multiplicity of impossible loves which thus emerge—along with the incest theme—reinforce our sense that Tom Jones exemplifies this type of Impossible Love romance.

Works Cited

Gantz, Jeffrey, trans. The Mabinogion. London: Penguin, 1976.

Murray, Peter B.  “Summer, Winter, Spring and Autumn in Tom Jones.” Modern Language Notes 76.4 (1 April 1961): 324-326.

 

Impossible Love: A Sub-Genre of Romantic Stories

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

Recently, I read a number of Seventeenth-Century Chinese stories as well as some classical Roman works that reminded me of one another and that led me to recall some South Asian and Native American stories that I had read earlier. They were all versions of the cross-culturally recurring romantic story, but they were not prototypical. The interesting thing was that their deviations from the prototype were closely related to one another, clustering into a sub-genre. As I reflected more on this sub-genre, I realized that the pattern extended quite widely. The present essay is an attempt to define that sub-genre, to sketch some of its constituent varieties, and to suggest some possible explanations for both. More precisely, I refer to the sub-genre as “intensified romance.” It is intensified in the sense that it makes the lovers’ union appear to be not only socially problematic, but in principle impossible. That impossibility may be either ontological or moral, yielding two types of the sub-genre.

As some readers of this essay were concerned about how I might explain the cross-cultural recurrence of love stories more broadly, I should note that the present essay is not aiming to explain the genre in general. I have discussed that topic in The Mind and Its Stories, Affective Narratology, and elsewhere (for a summary of the account, see “Story”). The present essay explores one specific variant of the romantic story and seeks to give a preliminary account of that variant alone.

A Note on Simulation

Simulation is a cognitive process by which we imagine trajectories of actions or events (for an introduction to simulation and its relation to literature, see Hogan How; see also Oatley, “Meetings”). That process may be a matter of interpolating causal links between real events that we experience, projecting future outcomes of current conditions, envisioning counterfactual alternatives to what has occurred, or creating purely hypothetical scenarios. A key evolutionary function of simulation is to allow us to consider alternative courses of action “offline,” thus without the consequences of real activity. For example, if I simulate a dangerous course of action—say, swimming at a beach closed due to shark sightings—I incur no risk and may decide to avoid real swimming on the basis of the simulation (including its frightful image of the malevolent leviathan crushing my thighbones like toothpicks between its teeth). If I could learn only from actual experience, I might end up eaten by a shark the first time I am faced with such a situation.

For simulation to fulfill its evolutionary function, we must be able to make adjustments to our simulations at various levels. For example, suppose an office worker wants a raise in her salary. She has to be able to consider the various, broad strategies for pursuing this—applying for other jobs, arguing for particular salary evaluation procedures, engaging in a class action suit, approaching her supervisor to discuss an individual increment, and so on. In each case, she must be able to imagine more specific strategies as well—what would be the best evaluation procedures or just what points she should make to the supervisor in support of an individual increment. In connection with this, we may draw a relative distinction between two sorts of variables—first, parameters, which define classes of alternatives; second, local variables, which specify instances of those alternatives.

Stories are the product of simulation. Authors create stories by imagining trajectories of actions and events, commonly through synthesizing genre prototypes with memories of actual experiences, hearsay, trajectories from other stories, and other sources. Part of this simulation involves making both larger and smaller changes, thus altering parameters to produce types of story and altering local variables to produce particular stories.

In The Mind and Its Stories and Affective Narratology, I have argued that perhaps the most common cross-cultural genre or story universal is romantic tragi-comedy. In its most prototypical form, this genre involves two people who fall in love, but are prevented from uniting, often by their parents and commonly due to some social conflict (such as the opposition between the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet). They are separated, frequently with suggestions or imagery of death. A rival may enter, producing a love triangle, before the lovers are finally united (or, in the tragic version, prevented forever from uniting).

The preceding comments on the nature of simulation would lead us to expect that there will be versions of any given genre that are produced by parametric variation. These are presumably most likely—as most consequential—at story “junctures,” the points at which significant causal changes occur in the trajectory of actions and events (on junctures, see my The Mind 91-93). One such juncture is governed by the nature of the restriction that separates the lovers. In most of the cases I considered in earlier publications, that restriction is contingent and social. Again, the Montague-Capulet feud comes to mind. There is no necessary reason why these two families must be enemies or why their children could not be united. However, there are other possible types of restriction. Specifically, some restrictions may be felt to be necessary, either necessary in the ethical sense or necessary in the ontological sense. In other words, the lovers’ union may be experienced as in some way unthinkable or impossible, either morally or practically.

The clearest case of moral intensification concerns incest. Ontological intensification bears most often on the union of humans and spirits of some sort—either superhuman spirits (such as gods, angels, or ghosts) or (usually subhuman) animal spirits. I will refer to the superhuman/human/subhuman order as ontological or, drawing on usage in linguistics, as manifesting an animacy hierarchy. Of course, it is not strictly correct to say that these are literally unthinkable or impossible. The moral violations occur in the real world, though they are paradigmatic of sexual taboo. The ontological violations are possible in the storyworlds of some fictions, though (presumably) not in the real world, unless the ontological difference is interpreted metaphorically. The point is that, in each case, there is something about the nature of the lovers that, in certain circumstances, makes it appear impossible for them to be united (in the sense that, on hearing of such a union in real life, one might exclaim, “That can’t be!,” as in “A mother marrying her own son? That can’t be!”). We may refer to the broad varieties of romance—where the restrictions on the lovers are contingent and social, on the one hand, versus necessary, on the other hand—as basic and intensified respectively. We may further subdivide the intensified varieties into moral and ontological.

We will consider some cases of each sort of intensified romance in the following sections. Before going on to that, however, it is useful to note that another variable or set of variables enters here. This concerns just who knows about the problematic identity of the lovers and just when they know. Readers of Romeo and Juliet may recall that the titular lovers become enamored of one another before learning that they are from the opposed families. Sometimes, the ethical and ontological versions of the romantic plot involve the lovers knowing about their difference early on; sometimes, both lovers learn only later; sometimes, one knows while the other does not.

Finally, I should note that two motifs recur with some frequency in intensified romances. As I am using the term, motifs are sequences that can be adapted to different genres and integrated into a range of stories. (The key point is that they cross genres.) Here, the motifs in question are the concealment of identity, where a character hides some important aspect of who he or she is, and mistaken identity, where a character misattributes a category to another person. In the ethical and ontological romantic plots, the concealment and mistake most often concern one or both of the lovers.

Romantic Stories and Animacy Hierarchies (I): Humans and Animal Spirits

A story told by the Arawak (see Lévi-Strauss 256-257 and Roth 203-204) concerns a hunter and a jaguar (or tiger). The jaguar has taken the form of a human woman and joins the hunter as his wife. However, they conceal her identity. The two live together happily; she is a good wife and hunting partner. At a certain point, they visit the man’s mother. Though the jaguar woman stresses that he should never reveal her identity, the man ends up informing his mother, who conveys the information to the society at large. The jaguar woman suffers from shame and leaves her husband. Despite great effort, he is never able to find her.

This is, to my mind, an intriguing and affecting story. It also manifests a structure that recurs with variations in different traditions. A forbidden—putatively impossible—union occurs. Since it is forbidden, the lovers conceal their identities. Despite being warned not to do so, one spouse engages in some action—constituting a tragic error or failure—that leads to the exposure of the identities. This in turn forces the separation of the lovers in a tragic ending. (It may be that tragic outcomes are more common in these intensified variations on the romantic genre than in the basic form.) Note that “tragedy” and “comedy” here are what we might refer to as “modes of resolution” for the genres defined by happiness goals. For example, romantic stories may be resolved by the lovers’ achievement of enduring union (comedy) or by a sequence of events (e.g., one lover’s death) that renders such achievement impossible (tragedy). Like genres, tragedy and comedy may themselves have recurring properties (such as the commission of a tragic error).

One striking feature of the Arawak story is that the inter-species union is, in fact, not impossible. Its putative impossibility is a function of knowledge. It is only when some people know the identities of the lovers—when society learns that they are not man and woman, but man and jaguar (or tiger)—that the impossibility appears. In other words, it is not an impossibility of the lovers or categories themselves, but of social opinion about those categories. This suggests that the restriction is ultimately a social restriction, though it is represented as ontological. In keeping with this, Alexandra Aikhenvald’s research indicates that “jaguar” might suggest a low status group (12), a point consistent with the woman’s feeling of shame. Alternatively, Roth’s work may point to a link between tigers and antagonistic out-groups (367). Thus, we have the usual sorts of social taboo—due either to social hierarchy within the society or conflict with an enemy group. The ontological romance intensifies this ordinary social problem through the animacy hierarchy (hence my name for this variant, “intensified” romance).

Pu Songling’s Strange Tales, an important, late Seventeenth-Century, Chinese work, includes several stories of this sort. In “The Girl in Green,” a woman arrives at the male protagonist’s lodgings unexpectedly. Though she conceals her background from him, they have sexual relations. The man asks her to sing. She refuses, warning that it may be dangerous. Eventually, she gives in to his pleas. When she departs, she is attacked, and he has to rescue her. At this time, he learns that she is not a woman, but a hornet. She thanks him for rescuing her, but leaves forever.

Here we have the same general structure. There is an inter-species union, though one in which the man is ignorant that the woman is not really a woman, but an insect. She warns him that they should behave in a particular way; he insists otherwise. The result is the disclosure of their species difference and their consequent separation. (As is undoubtedly clear, here and below I engage in the sort of structural mapping of story sequences that Lévi-Strauss developed so powerfully in his four-volume Introduction to the Science of Mythology. As is probably no less clear, however, the conclusions of my analysis and the psychological principles it involves are quite different from those of Lévi-Strauss.)

Another story along these lines is Pu’s “Princess Lotus.” In a dream, the protagonist meets a king, who introduces him to a young, beautiful woman. The protagonist falls in love and marries the woman. Everything seems to be proceeding with remarkable calmness. But suddenly the protagonist’s in-laws are threatened with destruction. He eventually learns that they are, in fact, not people but bees. This varies the structure, since the revelation is not the result of a violated taboo. It rather involves a danger to the family of one of the lovers. But there is still inter-species union connected with identity concealment, followed by disclosure.

Staying within the Chinese tradition, we find a further instance of this story structure in the often-retold “Legend of the White Snake” (for a summary of one version, see “Legend”). A magically powerful white snake transforms herself into a woman and marries a human. When the human discovers her identity, he dies. Through supernatural means, she manages to revive him; however, further tribulations follow. In some versions, she overcomes subsequent obstacles and the lovers are reunited enduringly; in other versions, she is unsuccessful.

Romantic Stories and Animacy Hierarchies (II): Humans and Immortal Spirits

The human-immortal romances are, on the whole, more insightful and engaging than the human-animal romances. They are also more abundant, though admittedly a number of stories could be put into either category. Another story from Pu follows the pattern of “The Girl in Green” and the Arawak tale. In “Sunset,” an unknown woman arrives at the protagonist’s home. Despite the intimate relationship that develops between them, she conceals her background and prohibits questions about it. He nevertheless tries to ascertain her identity, then continues this investigation despite further warnings. The man’s family has a crisis when his niece is possessed by a spirit. The mysterious woman helps through magical intervention. In consequence, her father learns about her affair with the human and forces their separation. Thus, we have the usual separation of lovers by the parent, but in this case due to an ontological discrepancy in the identities of the lovers. The woman, it turns out, is daughter to the Golden Dragon King. They are never reunited.

This story is particularly well developed. It takes up the motif of the threat to the family of one lover, which we saw in “Princess Lotus.” It also includes concealed identity, one lover’s attempt to prevent the disclosure of that identity, and the other lover’s violation of a warning.

A comic version of human-immortal romance may be found in Li Hao-ku’s early Thirteenth-Century, Chinese drama, Chang Boils the Sea. In that play, a scholar falls in love with the daughter of a dragon king. Through the use of magic, the scholar is able to join his beloved—although she is “thirty thousand fathoms beneath the blue sea” (170; the physical inaccessibility concretizes the ontological discrepancy between human and spirit). He is also able to secure the consent of the dragon king. Of course, this is not a concealment-revelation-loss sequence. Rather, this story indicates that the human-immortal romance may follow the more routine or basic form, with parental disapproval and the lovers’ work to overcome that disapproval.

The intensified romance is not confined to Chinese and Arawak traditions. In the Indian (South Asian) tradition, there are several versions of the romance between the mortal Purūravas and the celestial nymph Urvaśī. Consider, for example, the important early collection of stories from Hindu tradition, the Viṣṇu Purāṇa (see Wilson iv-viii). In that work, Urvaśī is condemned to a period of earthly existence, where she falls in love with Purūravas. They marry on the condition that Purūravas never violate a particular taboo. He is tricked into doing so and the lovers are separated, though they are ultimately reunited when Purūravas is elevated to the status of an immortal. In Vikramōrvaśīyam, the version by the most renowned Sanskrit playwright, Kālidāsa (fifth century C.E.), the human king Purūravas and Urvaśī fall in love. They are separated, as Urvaśī lives in heaven. However, due to her preoccupation with Purūravas, she commits a serious breach of etiquette and is condemned to become mortal for a certain time. The change of Urvaśī from spirit to human allows her union with Purūravas. But the temporary nature of her incarnation limits the duration of that union. In the end, she is allowed to remain human as long as Purūravas is alive.

In these cases too we see a variation on the intensified romance. In neither version is it a matter of concealment and exposure. However, the ontological contradiction of love between a mortal and a spirit is clear. Moreover, in theViṣṇu Purāṇaversion, there is a taboo on one of the lovers and the violation of that taboo leads to their separation. Interestingly, the human-spirit union is enabled by the change of status—the fall ofUrvaśī in bothversions and the elevation of Purūravas in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa. It is also worth noting that, the play seems particularly to recall death and grief. It thereby suggests a connection between separation in the ontological romance and the more mundane issue of bereavement, where the (still living) human lover is separated from (his or her deceased) beloved, who is now a spirit.

A particularly extended and complex version of the structure may be found in the Roman story of Amor and Psyche, as developed by Apuleius in the late second century. Due to a curse and subsequent abandonment by her family, the beautiful (human) Psyche ends up married to (immortal) Amor. However, Amor conceals his identity, and even prevents Psyche from seeing him. In keeping with the pattern we have considered, he warns Psyche that she should not seek to discover who he is. Convinced by her (jealous) sisters, Psyche tries to uncover her spouse’s identity, planning in fact to kill him. Instead of the dangerous monster she anticipates, Psyche sees Amor and falls in love with him. They are separated, and the separation is maintained by Amor’s mother, Venus, thus presenting the standard “familialization” of the pivotal conflict (in which the blocking characters are family members, thus giving their antagonism greater emotional force). Psyche now seeks reunion with Amor. Unlike the Arawak tale, this story develops the quest by the abandoned, human lover. Specifically, Psyche tries to win the approval of Venus by performing various tasks dictated by Venus—a scenario that we might expect for the male lover, rather than the female. (In Chang Boils the Sea, we see a sort of parallel for this, with the male lover undertaking the work of convincing the beloved’s father—in this case antagonistically, rather than deferentially.) In the interim, Amor recovers from an injury caused by Psyche’s misguided attempt to identify and kill him. He manages to procure immortalizing ambrosia. Drinking the ambrosia, Psyche becomes immortal, thus making possible her enduring union with Amor.

Thus, in Apuleius’s story, we have the concealment of identity, the taboo on seeking or revealing that identity, the violation of the taboo, and the separation. This is then followed by the usual familial conflict and a version of the lover’s attempt to convert the recalcitrant parent. However, the resolution does not come from a conversion of the parent. It comes, rather, from a transformation in the status of the lover, a change from mortal to immortal. This change erases the ontological difference that made the union impossible to begin with. There are two points to make in connection with this. First, there are two obvious ways in which the ontological difference may be overcome. One is the elevation of the human lover, as we see here. The other is the degradation of the spirit lover, as in the case of Urvaśī when she is initially joined with Purūravas in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa. The second point is that this is parallel with the more ordinary or basic romantic structure, in which the conflict is social, as when the lovers derive from different classes or castes. The elevation of one lover is, in this respect, parallel with the discovery that, for example, the slave girl is actually a patrician who was kidnapped as a child. The degradation of one lover is parallel to the discovery that the apparently higher class or caste beloved is in fact not inaccessible to the lover—as when Duṣyanta (in Kālidāsa’s Abhijñānaśākuntalam) discovers that Śakuntalā is not from the higher, Brahmin caste, but has only been raised by a Brahmin.

Thus, we find Native American, Chinese, Indian (South Asian), and European instances of the intensified romantic plot in which the lovers violate an ontological constraint defined by an animacy hierarchy. These stories also occur across a range of time periods. Further examples may be found in more recent works, both western and eastern. For example, Wings of Desire (directed by Wim Wenders), presents us with the story of an angel who falls in love with a mortal woman. He loses his angelic status, becoming mortal, and is united with the woman. Here, the sort of concealment we found in the Amor and Psyche story occurs before the union of the lovers, as the angel can observe his human beloved, while the latter has only vague intimations of the angel’s presence. In this case, there is no restriction, restriction-violating revelation of identity, and consequent separation of the lovers; it is, then, a reduced or simplified version of the structure.

Another film with this sort of plot is Postman to Heaven, a 2009 work from South Korea (directed by Hyung-min Lee). In this film, a young woman and a ghost fall in love. The ghost has been assigned the task of helping bereaved men and women work through their grief. The young woman had recently lost a lover, which leads to her connection with the ghost. The twist in this story is that the ghost is visible only to people who are in mourning. Thus, the young woman will no longer be able to see or interact with the ghost from the moment she overcomes her grief. But she overcomes her grief in proportion to the degree to which she falls in love with the ghost. Thus, she loses her new beloved precisely to the degree that she loves him; thus, she suffers a new grief precisely to the degree that she overcomes her old grief. The problem is resolved by divine intervention. Due to the ghost’s success in consoling the bereaved, particularly this young woman, Heaven returns him to his mortal life. As a human, he is now able to be united with his beloved, who is thereby freed from both the old and the new grief.

Neither film has the concealment-taboo-violation structure. But both still alter the more usual, basic genre trajectory, by having the lovers violate an ontological restriction and allowing their union by a change in status, from spirit to human. Further cases present other variations. For example, complex instances may be found in other stories by Pu Songling, such as “Grace and Pine,” “Butterfly,” and “The Laughing Girl.”

Romantic Stories and Same-Sex Love: An Intermediate Case

We will turn to the ethical form of the intensified romantic structure in the next section. Before going on to that, however, we might briefly remark on Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe and the Śikhaṇḍinī story in the Mahābhārata. In both stories—one European, the other Indian—two women are married to each other due to concealed identity, though the concealed identity in this case is one of anatomical sex, not of ontological level (human, animal, or spirit). As with the cases considered thus far, the revelation of the concealed identity causes problems for the union, and in each case the misrepresented lover (Iphis and Śikhaṇḍinī) goes through a magical sex change, comparable to the transformation of a human lover into a spirit or vice-versa.

These cases are interesting in part because they show how the romantic structure may, through parametric variation, be applied to significant social issues, in this case same-sex love. This is not to say that either provides any solution to the social conflicts surrounding such love, any more than the animacy-based versions provide a solution to the love between people of extreme out-groups (as in the Arawak case). The transformation of one lover functions most obviously as a fantasy, perhaps giving some people imaginary satisfaction. In any case, its social function is complex and equivocal. For example, in the case of Iphis and Ianthe, it may be taken to validate lesbian love, indicating that the lovers should be joined. But it might also be taken to stress the necessity of heterosexuality, since they can be joined only when they are differently sexed. On the other hand, romantic stories tend to cultivate a very strong preference for the lovers’ union. Thus, my inclination is to see stories such as Iphis and Ianthe as functioning primarily to cultivate sympathy with the same-sex lovers, even as the ending gives the author and reader an out, enabling the plausible denial of such homoerotic sympathies.

I refer to this as intermediate because it is not clear how authors and readers conceive of the restriction in this case. I suspect that it varies with authors, readers, and cultures. Some would think of the restriction as ethical. I suspect that such readers would not, in general, be sympathetic with the same-sex lovers. Other readers would think of the restriction as simply social, comparable to the forbidding of intermarriage between Montagues and Capulets (this is presumably the view of most academic readers today). Finally, some would think of the restriction as part of the order of being, so to speak—in this case, related not to animacy as such, but to the issue of mating. Different species cannot interbreed; neither can spirits and humans. For some writers and readers, the relation of same-sex lovers is probably of this sort. Clearly, this is a topic that requires further research, with many more examples from a much wider range of traditions.

Romantic Stories and Ethical Restrictions: Incest and Adultery

In considering the ontological version of intensified romance, I could not help but be aware of the similarity to one of the most famous and influential stories in European literature, the story of Oedipus. Though not a romantic plot per se, the story does involve two people being united despite the fact that their union is rigorously forbidden. This is possible because the (familial) identity of one person, Oedipus, has been concealed. Thus no one recognizes that the union is incestuous. When that identity is revealed, the couple is separated. In this case, the results are tragic, with the woman hanging herself and the man blinding himself. Interestingly, as developed by Sophocles (in the fifth century before the common era), the story is not only principally romantic (despite the union of Oedipus and Jocasta), but sacrificial. Specifically, there is a plague in Thebes; it has resulted from Oedipus’s crime of (unknowingly) killing his father, which led to his further crime of (unknowingly) marrying his mother. In other words, in this story, a sin perpetrated by the primary representative of the society (the king) has led to social devastation. The result is the sacrifice of the guilty parties (Jocasta’s death and Oedipus’s blinding). In Oedipus the King, then, a sacrificial structure is integrated with a much more limited romantic structure.

As just noted, the form of identity at issue for Oedipus is familial. Some readers have been confused by this, because the identity issue is not one of humans and animals or spirits. That is right. Indeed, that is the difference between two sorts of intensified romance—the ontological and the ethical. Ontological problems keep people and insects from marrying; ethical restrictions bear rather on incest. Of course, the ontological stories may metaphorically represent moral conflicts—or mere social conflicts. The point here concerns the literal representations.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses (early first century of the common era) presents us with other incestuous romantic narratives. One is the simple story of Byblis, who tries to unite with her brother, but is rejected; weeping, she is transformed into a spring. Another, more interesting story concerns Myrrha and her father. Myrrha falls in love with her father and contrives a way of sleeping with him while concealing her identity. When he learns of her identity, he not only rejects her, but tries to kill her. She flees and is transformed into a tree.  The Byblis story is a simple tale of rejected love. The story of Myrrha, however, includes union with concealed identity, followed by revelation and tragic separation.

One might expect other moral restrictions to enter here as well. An obvious case is adultery. In European literature, works such as Anna Karenina come to mind. In Tolstoy’s novel, for example, we have love between Anna and Vronsky, leading to a partial union, which is concealed from society. Once revealed, inadvertently, by Anna, problems arise. On the other hand, this is not a concealment of identity; Anna does not misrepresent herself as unmarried—either to Vronsky or to the larger world. Rather, it is simply the (illicit) sexual relations that are concealed. Moreover, the revealing of the secret does not lead to the separation of the lovers. There are problems with the cross-cultural manifestation of this structure as well, since possibilities for polygamy or divorce limit the degree to which prior marriage serves as a restriction on the lovers. On the other hand, there are some similarities between the structure we have been examining and such adultery stories as Anna Karenina.

Implications of this Analysis

Clearly, the preceding examples of an ethical romance plot are taken from a single tradition. That may suggest that this specific form of the structure is parochial. However, the Oedipus and Myrrha stories remain cases of a larger sequence that does recur cross-culturally.

Again, the intensified romance is defined by a restriction on the lovers that is not simply a matter of social convention or other social contingency, but of identity bearing on animacy or ethics. In its most prototypical form, the intensified romance proceeds as follows:

  • The lovers are united.
  • However,  there is some (intentional or unintentional) concealment of the ontologically or ethically relevant identities.
  • In connection with this concealment, there is often a warning about the behavior of one or both lovers.
  • A violation of the warning results in the problematic identity being revealed.
  • As a result of this revelation, the lovers are separated.
  • In comic instances of the ontological version, that separation may be overcome when the identity of one lovers is changed.
  • However, the ethical version of this structure does not in general allow for such a comic transformation (e.g., Psyche can be made immortal, but Oedipus cannot be made into the son of someone other than Jocasta).

Faced with the preceding examples, we might wonder why there is such a recurring pattern. “Why” here might refer to the generation of the sequence, just what gives rise to it; this could equally be referred to as “how” the structure is produced. “Why” might also refer to the function of the resulting sequence; this is “why” in the sense of “what for.” Note again that the pattern here is a pattern in stories. It is not a pattern in real life (where people do not marry insects either with or without concealed identity). It is, rather, a pattern in simulation.

The “how” question is relatively easy to answer. Again, we may think of simulation as involving principles with parameters and local variables. The simulation of romantic stories involves some restriction that separates the lovers. Obvious possibilities for such separation would include conventional versus necessary, with the latter category including ontological and ethical cases. Within each category, any given character might or might not know about the restrictions or the identities that trigger such restrictions at any given time. (For example, Oedipus and Jocasta do not know their restriction-triggering identities—son and mother—when they get married.) The stories we have been considering begin with an extreme restriction and vary the timing and extent of relevant knowledge. Typically, the knowledge comes to have social consequences only when it is socially available (as when the man’s society learns about the Jaguar woman’s identity). Usually, the lovers are able to maintain their union when they have the relevant knowledge but society does not, though the story of Myrrha suggests that this may be less true in the ethical cases.

The functional significance of this structure is perhaps less clear. However, there are some obvious possibilities. Specifically, we would expect the function to be either emotional or thematic. Emotionally, this sub-genre of romance provides some degree of novelty relative to the basic (and more realistic) form. In connection with this, it often organizes the trajectory of feeling somewhat differently. Specifically, the basic structure commonly begins with the main characters falling in love and recognizing their reciprocal feelings, but then being separated very quickly. The intensified version often involves the lovers joining together in a regularized union, such as marriage, and maintaining that state for some time before being separated due to the discovery of the concealed identity. Both versions treat love, loss, and (in the full, comic version) reunion. But in the basic version, the love is the feverish love of early romance and the loss is a loss of imagined possibilities. In the intensified version, the love is more likely to include a strong “companionate” element, a sense of bonding that may be less intense but may be more clearly enduring, and the loss is a loss not only of imagined possibilities, but of the ordinariness of regular life and ongoing expectation experienced for, in some cases, years of family life.

For the reasons just mentioned, the loss of the beloved in the intensified version may be more similar to the loss of a spouse in death. This too has emotional consequences. Specifically, in its ontological variant, the structure may suggest bereavement, while allegorizing that bereavement in the (perhaps less distressing) form of the human-spirit romance. I have already noted that there are suggestions of this in Vikramōrvaśīyam. The connection seems clear in other works as well. For example, in Postman to Heaven, the young woman falls in love with a ghost. Her former lover has died and her new beloved is actually a boy in a coma in a hospital. The lovers are separated as human and ghost, until his spirit returns to his body and he is revived from the coma, at which point they meet as mortals. The film repeatedly points toward the loss of a long-term partner by death. But it presents the main lovers’ separation as a matter of an ontological incompatibility which is resolved by the spirit leaving heaven to become a mortal.

These points are related to the thematic purposes of the ontological romance. In the comic version, the thematic operation of the structure involves a suggestion that the losses of death may be overcome—a point with obvious emotional consequences as well. In other words, it suggests that apparently irrecuperable losses might in fact be recuperable, and it does this without drawing our attention to death and separation too directly. Indeed, in some cases, it even serves to reconnect our companionate love with earlier, more romantic feelings. I say “our” here because the reader’s relation to the emotions of the protagonists is often intertwined with his or her own emotional memories (see, for example, Oatley, Passionate, 36, 179, 180). In that way, our empathic response to the lovers is in some degree connected with our own romantic histories.

On the other hand, the intensified romantic story is not always related to long-term attachment and bereavement. For example, the Arawak story has suggestions of death and grief. But it also suggests social divisions that have been rendered more extreme by being assimilated to species differences. There are two obvious thematic purposes of this sort of intensification of difference between the lovers. The first is to present an a fortiori case of romantic love in opposition to social divisions. If the Arawak hunter can live an ideal marriage with an actual jaguar or tiger woman, how much more readily could an Arawak live in marital union with another person who is from a class or other society associated with jaguars or tigers? As I have argued elsewhere (see chapter seven of Understanding Nationalism), romantic stories tend to challenge in-group/out-group divisions, preferring the union of the lovers to the maintenance of social oppositions. The ontological romance may simply extend this inclination.

This critical function of the ontological romance is clearest when the lovers’ initial union is untroubled. In the Arawak story, there is no real problem with the lovers’ life together. In other stories, however, there are difficulties, sometimes intrinsic to the lovers’ identities, as in the difference between mortals and immortals. For example, in Wings of Desire, the lovers can be joined only when the difference between them is overcome, when the angel becomes human. This too suggests that ordinary, social divisions are not absolute. If the difference between humans and spirits may be effaced, if immortal spirits can become humans and humans can become immortal spirits, then surely members of one society can become members of another society. This may simply be a matter of one lover being accepted into the other’s society, or it may involve some more elaborate assimilation into the culture of the latter.

Again, the obvious exception here is ethical, as in the case of incest. Incestuous unions are typically not open to this sort of resolution. Oedipus and Jocasta seem perfectly happy together. Everything appears to be going along well, with the family flourishing, including the children. But the union remains wrong for most readers. Thus, the ethical version does not fit with the most obvious thematic purposes of the ontological version of the intensified romantic structure. That may account for its apparent infrequency, relative to the ontological version, both within European tradition and across cultures. On the other hand, the success of the Oedipus story indicates that this version may be emotionally successful.

Before concluding, it is worth noting that concealed identity operates as a motif that may be used in various narrative contexts. Moreover, it may be taken up in complex and surprising ways in relation to romantic narrative. Particularly striking cases of this sort may be found in Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure. Specifically, in both cases, one main character sets out to engage in adultery, deceptively seducing a young woman, thus initiating a train of events that is commonly developed in the seduction plot (on the seduction plot, see chapter four of my Affective). However, the lovers meet in circumstances where the identity of the woman is concealed (reminiscent of the meeting between Myrrha and her father). However, in these cases, the concealed identity of one of the lovers does not mean that an apparently legitimate union is illegitimate. It means, rather, that an apparently illegitimate union is legitimate, for in both cases the man’s wife takes the place of the woman he was aiming to seduce. The resulting stories are highly interesting, due to this reversal. But they are problematic because the final union is not based on mutual love and it is therefore difficult for the reader (or audience member) to be entirely pleased by the putatively comic conclusion.

In connection with these final examples, one referee of this essay worried that concealed identity may be a motif produced by the romantic genre, not occurring elsewhere. I should therefore mention that in heroic plots we encounter spies who conceal their identities and heirs to the throne who are unknown to be heirs to the throne; in revenge narratives, we find revengers disguising themselves and killing people whose identity they misconstrue; in criminal investigation narratives, detectives take on disguises and innocent people are sometime mistaken for criminals—and so on, for all genres. Perhaps the most relevant case here is the (already mentioned) seduction story, which is often more appropriately termed a rape story. In this structure, the seducer or rapist often conceals his identity. This is significant to the present study because there are some famous cases in which the rapist is a god and the false identity is that of an animal—as in Zeus’s rape of Leda. This is related to the cases we are considering as the union is “impossible,” in the sense we have been considering. It therefore suggests a similar concern with the violation of putatively necessary social divisions, though in another genre.

Future Research

An obvious topic for research in this area concerns ethical restrictions on lovers and the degree to which the topics of incest and adultery, or other possibly morally objectionable unions, do or do not develop a version of this structure. A parallel point applies to same sex unions and the degree to which the relevant restrictions are presented as ethical, ontological, or merely social and conventional. Instances of these relationships and restrictions are clearly under-represented in the preceding discussions.

On the other hand, research on the incidence and varieties of more unequivocal cases of ontological romance is important as well. Again, we find a range of stories in different traditions in which lovers face a restriction that is not merely conventional or contingent, but in some sense viewed as necessary, either ontologically (in relation to animacy) or morally. Prototypically, the lovers in such stories are united, due to some intentional or inadvertent concealment of identity. But that concealment often renders the union unstable. In connection with this, one of the lovers may be warned not to engage in behavior that will reveal the concealed identity. In a tragic error, however, he or she may do just the wrong thing, precipitating the lovers’ separation. In a comic version, one of the lovers’ status may change, allowing the union, but this is generally restricted to the ontological version. We have evidence that the ontological version of this intensified structure occurs in a range of genetically and areally unrelated traditions. But it is not clear how frequent (or infrequent) the appearance of this structure may be. Further research is also important for assessing the preceding conjectures on the generation of the sub-genre and, even more, its function. The generation of the structure—deriving from the operation of variables in principles governing simulation—seems fairly clear in general. However, the specifics of the variables and the resulting variations on the sub-genre could be further developed and clarified. Moreover, the functions of the intensified romance appear more debatable.

Especially in connection with the last point, the relation of this variant to changes in cultural ideology and historical conditions may be worth investigating. For example, one might wonder if the ontological romance occurs more frequently in periods of extensive inter-cultural contact, where the contact has not become routinized; in other words, one might wonder if a particular degree of interaction with alien societies may not promote stories treating the romantic relations of extremely distant partners. For example, we might ask if the Pu Songling stories owe something to the early Qing dynasty experience of Manchu-Chinese cultural conflict (see Roberts 142), the divisive contact with the West and associated anti-Christian reaction of the time (see Rowe 138-139), and related matters. Similarly, we might consider if Apuleius was affected by the cultural interactions of 2ndCentury Rome, with its extensive empire. Along the same lines, we might inquire into the possible relation between the Arawak tale and European contact. A correlation in this respect might constitute a statistical, implicational universal.

I should note here that I am referring specifically to the ontological version of the intensified romantic structure. Such issues as same-sex desire recur in a range of time periods and cultures presumably because same-sex desire recurs in all time periods and cultures. As one reader of this essay commented, stories of same-sex union (as well as adultery and other sexual behaviors) occur because social rules often relate to categorial identities and these are often in conflict with what I have called “practical identity” (see, for example, Understanding Nationalism 25-37), one’s actual capabilities and propensities. That practical identity may include, for example, same-sex desire. However, the case of ontological romance—and even, for the most part, that of the most extreme cases of ethical romance, such as those involving incest—are different. There is no social issue of people marrying insect spirits or even sons marrying their mothers. These stories are, then, fundamentally a product of simulation. Of course, in the end, our narrative simulations, here and elsewhere, are inseparable from real-world issues of categorial and practical identity, as suggested by the Arawak story’s possible allegorization of social identity conflict—just as our experiences of categorial and practical identity are inseparable from simulation. In this way, the two forms of analysis should ultimately be joined with one another.

Finally, one might wonder about the implications of these observations for other genres. The sacrificial operation of the ethical romance in Oedipus the King might lead us to inquire after the relation of this romantic structure to other genres with which it might be integrated. We might also ask if there are junctural points in those other genres—sacrificial, heroic, family separation and reunion, revenge, seduction, and criminal investigation—that define significant sub-genres, such as we have been considering in the case of romantic stories. More exactly, simulation is not confined to romance, but produces the other genres equally. As such, we would expect to find such complex, sub-generic patterns in those other genres as well. In some cases, such sub-genres will be related to the intensified romance, with its ontological and moral impossibilities. Stories such as the rape of Leda suggest that this may be found in seduction/rape structures. Alternatively, such a violation may serve as a recurring motif. For example, there is an element of this in the story of Mary’s conception of Jesus—part of a sacrificial narrative—with its divine/human union and its image of the paraclete as a dove.

[See also Nigel Fabb, “Comments on Hogan, ‘Impossible Love and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones’” and Geoffrey Russom, “Comments on Hogan, ‘Impossible Love’.”]

Works Cited

Aikhenvald, Alexandra. A Grammar of Tariana. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. How Authors’ Minds Make Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Understanding Nationalism: On Narrative, Identity, and Cognitive Science. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2009.

Kālidāsa. Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kdlidasa. Ed. Barbara Stoler Miller. Trans. Edwin Gerow, David Gitomer, and Barbara Stoler Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Lee, Hyung-min, dir. Postman to Heaven. Written by Eriko Kitagawa. Seoul, South Korea: CJ Entertainment, 2009.

“Legend of the White Snake.” Shanghai Daily(26 March 2017). Available at https://www.shine.cn/archive/sunday/now-and-then/Legend-of-the-White-Snake/shdaily.shtml (accessed 21 June 2018).

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. From Honey to Ashes (Introduction to a Science of Mythology: 2). Trans. John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Li Hao-ku. Chang Boils the Sea. In Six Yüan Plays. Trans. Liu Jung-en. New York: Penguin, 1972, 159-187.

Oatley, Keith. “Meetings of Minds: Dialogue, Sympathy, and Identification, in Reading Fiction.” Poetics26.5 (1999): 439-454.

Oatley, Keith. The Passionate Muse: Exploring Emotion in Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Pu Songling. Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Trans. John Minford. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Roberts, J. A. G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Roth, Walter. An Inquiry into the Animism and Folk-Lore of the Guiana Indians. Thirtieth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution: 1908-1909. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1915, 103-453.

Rowe, William. China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009.

Wenders, Wim, dir. Wings of Desire. Written by Wim Wenders, Peter Handke, and Richard Reitinger. Berlin, West Germany: Road Movies Filmproduktion, 1987.

Wilson, H. H. “Introduction.” In Vikrama and Urvashi, or The Hero and the Nymph. Trans. H. H. Wilson. Calcutta, India: Society for the Resuscitation of Indian Literature, 1901, i-xii.

Literary Spatial Patterning

BY: Liz Finnigan, Southern Regional College, Northern Ireland

In this entry I propose a statistical universal (see Hogan “What are Literary Universals?”) about visual spatial patterning within verbal narrative. The universal states that unique sequential patterns of representation can be found in in the literary descriptions for three categories of space: Setting, Place and Person. For example, in the following quotation from Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847), the spatial description in the passage is formatted in a particular way; the narrator describes the space closest to her first and progresses to the space further away from her position: “I went to my window, opened it, and looked out. There were the two wings of the BUILDING; there was the GARDEN; there were the SKIRTS OF LOWOOD; there was the hilly HORIZON” (Brontë 72; capitalisation, where necessary, will distinguish patterning throughout).

This pattern emerges when we identify the first noun (building) and track its spatial relationship to all subsequent nouns (garden, skirts of Lowood, horizon). Descriptions of Place deliver a trend that describes the centre of the place then its edge, such as a dining table then a wall. Descriptions of characters, Persons, describe the outline of the person first and then the head/facial area and finally features of the body. They can also stop at the head/facial area.

These patterns are found in particular spatial frames, which I term “topological frames” because they describe the location of objects within a space and their inter-related arrangements relevant to the viewpoint of the narrator/character. Typically atemporal and absent of action, topological frames generally pause the story in order to render the detail of what is being viewed by a character or narrator. In literary texts, we might, all things being equal, expect individual writers to produce spatial representations that are based on stylistic choices which create difference and this also includes the possibility of randomness. Yet, in topological frames the same patterns of spatial relations occur consistently, demonstrating a statistical probability in their favour.

The universal can be stated as follows:

Verbal narrative contains topological frames of description which produce a systematic pattern of spatial representation which is, in turn, determined by their category: Setting, Place or Person.

I further propose that the patterning does not differ between writers, cultural influence and historical trends. In this study, one hundred narrative English language prose texts were examined ranging between the literary periods of Victorianism, Modernism, and Postmodernism. A transparent account of data selection would best describe it as purposive sampling. The corpus of texts was manually scanned to isolate any topological frames and then each of these frames was grouped into one of the three categories which were then further investigated for evidence of patterning. The sample includes non-western prose such as Nigerian, Aboriginal Australian, Chinese, and Japanese texts which, with the exception of one text which was a translation, were all written in English. The identification of these patterns in non-western texts suggests that cultural or stylistic factors may not influence the formation of the patterns. The translated text may also suggest that the patterns are conforming to English language conventions.

Before the patterns were identified, Jane Eyre was purposively sampled due to prior knowledge of the text’s frequent references to landscapes in the hope of understanding the more componential aspects of spatial representation for narrative setting. However, Brontë’s landscapes were soon found to produce a systematic pattern, what I term the progressive pattern because of the proximal to distal trend in its descriptions, and further categories were introduced to test for other patterns – Persons and Place. These two latter categories were determined because of the frequency with which descriptions of characters and rooms appeared within the corpus’s topological frames. Persons and Places are also given the same descriptive treatment as that of Setting. For example, Jane Eyre’s description of St. John Rivers seems to be describing a sculptured space rather than a living, moving organism. He is awarded the same spatial consideration by his narrator as a landscape. But new literary periods were also needed to test against cultural practices, hence the introduction of Modernist texts, all of which were sampled for their canonical standing and focus on one or more spatial categories. For example, the assumption for Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925) was that it would deliver a heavy focus on cities (Setting) and rooms (Place). Canonical postmodernist texts were added for the same purposeful reasons to determine whether they conformed to the patterns despite their frequent dispensing with narrative coherency, for example, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939).

Therefore, the nature of this study’s methodology is more characteristic of narrative itself, in that it begins with a discovery in a single novel from a particular period and the scope of the analysis was broadened to test for cultural influence, or lack thereof. The initial exploration of Jane Eyre can be treated as a pilot study and this informed the subsequent data collection and the process was repeated using other texts. Thus, although there is no rigorous methodology adopted here, and in the strictest sense there cannot be, this study sets out to chart topological frames within a collection of texts in order to test the hypothesis against cultural trends. This is perhaps a first step for a potentially much larger study and my hypothesis could be tested by different methods in the future.

Setting

If we examine various examples from the corpus in further detail, we can track the following pattern for the category of Setting:

Consider the following description of a landscape from Jane Eyre:

Leaning over the battlements and looking far down, I surveyed the grounds laid out like a map: the bright and velvet LAWN closely girdling the grey base of the mansion; the FIELD, wide as a park, dotted with its ancient timber; the WOOD, dun and sere, divided by a path, visibly overgrown, greener with moss than the trees were with foliage, the CHURCH at the gates, the ROAD, the tranquil HILLS, all reposing in the autumn day’s SUN. (Brontë 90)

The descriptions of the Setting category are typical of outdoor spaces, frequently landscape views. In the example above from Jane Eyre, the contents of the space are sequenced relative to Jane from proximal to distal, resulting in a progressive pattern. This pattern emerges when we identify the first landmark and track its position to the next: Lawn, Field, Wood, Church, Road, Hills and Sun. The landmarks noted here by Jane’s viewpoint do not, however, represent a fixed typology of spatial objects as any kind of landmark/spatial object can be listed within the frames.

Other texts from the same period also conform to this pattern such as the example below from Austen. Here, there are two separate examples of the same Setting pattern in the same passage which emerge with a change in narrative view:

Sense and Sensibility(1811):

The situation of the HOUSE was good. High HILLS rose immediately behind, and at no great distance on each side; some of which were open downs, the others cultivated and woody. The VILLAGE of Barton was chiefly on these hills, and it formed a pleasant view from the cottage windows. The prospect in front was more extensive; it commanded the whole of the VALLEY, and reached into the COUNTRY beyond. (Austen 23)

Thus, we initially are met with: HOUSE – HILLS BEHIND HOUSE – VILLAGE ON TOP OF HILL. And this is followed by: VALLEY – COUNTRY BEYOND.

Even a text with the complex narrative structure of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) demonstrates the same patterning for Setting:

Who blocksmitt her saft anvil or yelled lep to her PAIL? Was her BANNS never loosened in Adam and Eve’s or were him and her captain-spliced? I heard he dug good tin with his doll, delvan first and        duvlin after, when he raped her home, Sabrine Astore, in a parakeet’s cage…[There are 8 other rivers mentioned in the intervening text here]Who sold you that jackalantern’s tale? Pemmican’s pasty pie! Not a grasshoop to ring her, not an ants grain of ore. In a gabbard he barqued it, the boat of life, from the harbourless IVERNIKAN OKEAN till he spied the loom of his landfall and he loosed two croakers from under his tilt, by the smell of her KELP they made the PIGEON HOUSE. (197)

This sample requires some deciphering in order to see the pattern: this passage describes the moment HCE, the male protagonist, first meets ALP, his female counterpart. Throughout the text, each word is generally a pun on another, although not necessarily from the English language lexicon. The first point of space here “pail” could refer to both a pail of water or The Pale, an Anglo-Norman term for Dublin and its hinterlands. Bann – a river in Northern Ireland is also a marriage band (captain-spliced). However, what is evident is that all the points of space can be said to refer to a body of water – PAIL – RIVER – OCEAN. And, like the other examples, there is this movement from proximal to distal. The pail is swollen to a river and the river washes to the ocean. The pattern is reversed when HCE spots ALP (“till he spied the loom of his landfall”) and the water volume dissipates: IVERNIKAN OCEAN – KELP (only grows in shallow oceans and seas) – PIGEON HOUSE (South Wall entrance to the River Liffey in Dublin).

Place

The patterning also appears for people (here thought of as descriptive spaces) and other types of location such as rooms. Notably, for each of these spaces, the systematicity does not alter but what does change is the type of pattern produced by what I term the spatial set. This term denotes the spatial groupings of objects and locations from the beginning to end of a description, and their relationship to each other. The type of pattern produced in the spatial set is determined by how quickly the description delivers the space from origin to boundary and in which direction it moves.  With the category of Place, such as the indoor space of a room, the description often contains multiple spatial sets because the pattern “alternates” between the centre and the edge of a room, as illustrated below:

It was a large, stately apartment, with PURPLE CHAIRS (CENTRE) and CURTAINS (EDGE), a TURKEY CARPET (CENTRE), WALNUT-PANELLED WALLS, one VAST WINDOW RICH IN STAINED GLASS (EDGE), and a LOFT CEILING (CENTRE) nobly moulded. Mrs. Fairfax was dusting some vases of fine purple spar, which stood on SIDEBOARD (EDGE). (Bronte 88)

In this example we see three spatial sets, each involving a movement from centre to edge:

PURPLE CHAIRS TO CURTAINS = CENTRE TO EDGE

TURKEY CARPET TO PANELLED WALLS AND VAST WINDOW (same area view) = CENTRE TO EDGE

LOFT CEILING TO SIDEBOARD = CENTRE TO EDGE

Place patterning for Victorian texts, as with Jane Eyre above, generally appears in descriptions of rooms. However, in Modernist texts particularly, patterns do occur for outdoor spaces – where the pattern of Setting is expected – but as the characteristically indoor pattern of Place. The city, despite architectural embellishment or functional purpose, is pared down to its skeletal frame – it becomes an indoor space and within it we find the patterning for Place instead of the outdoor patterning for Setting. The city literally oppresses its inhabitants and this physical state of suffocation is often accompanied by a mental counterpart. It seems that despite the social, visual, technological and architectural developments that have occurred from Dickens’ 1860’s to the 1920’s of the Modernist writers, our cognition of these changes remains the same. With Hemingway’s Fiesta, buildings, monuments, narrow streets, etc. occlude, and even obstruct, the natural line of sight, forcing the narrator to move upwards constantly for an organic escape. The enclosure of the city renders the narrators’ perception of this space as proxemically limiting and hence, patterns which we would expect to follow the outdoor progressive trend are forced into the alternating patterns of Place due to the demands on the peri-personal space of each protagonist.

Fiesta (The Sun also Rises):

The taxi went up the hill (CENTRE), passed the lighted square (EDGE), then on into the dark, still climbing (CENTRE), and leveling out onto a dark street behind St Etienne du Mont (EDGE), went smoothly down the asphalt (CENTRE), passed the trees and the standing bus at the Place de la Contrescarpe (EDGE), then turned on to the cobbles (CENTRE) of the Rue Mouffetard. There were lighted bars and late open shops on each side of the street (EDGE). (Hemingway 22)

Persons

Descriptions of people form a different pattern; they begin with an outline of the shape, for example, “a large, heavy-set man,” and then move to the facial and head area. However, they do not form the closed alternating pattern that we see with the centre-edge combination in rooms, because what follows once the outline/head is delivered is a third component with two possibilities: the description can either remain with the facial/head area or move to a body part. Thus, it is not random because it never returns to outlining the shape. Instead, the descriptions form an open-ended sub-set of two.  This is evidenced in the two differing sample sets below:

Set 1: Outline-Face/Head-Body

Jane Eyre: “I looked at my pupil, who did not at first appear to notice me: she was quite a child, perhaps seven or eight years old, SLIGHTLY BUILT, with a small featured FACE, and a redundancy of hair falling in curls to her WAIST” (Bronte 85).

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea [1]: “They were true Papuans, men of fine stock, athletic in BUILD, FOREHEAD high and broad, NOSE large but not flat, TEETH white. Their woolly, red–tinted HAIR was in sharp contrast to their BODIES, which were black and glistening like those of Nubians” (Verne 80).

Set 2: Outline-Face/Head only

Crime and Punishment: “Sonya was of small STATURE, about eighteen years old, a THIN but GOOD-LOOKING blonde, with wonderful EYES” (Dostoevsky 221).

And, in Pride and Prejudice: “Lydia was a STOUT, well grown-girl of fifteen, with a fine COMPLEXION and good humoured COUNTENANCE” (Austen 40).

 

Literary Universals  

To conclude, this study demonstrates that a claim can be made for a statistical universal within certain spatial descriptions in verbal narrative which is determined by the spatial categories of Settings, Places and Persons. Traditionally, descriptive terms in verbal narrative have been associated with cultural and theoretical assumptions and for good reason. For example, the word landscape (a nineteenth century invention [see Hirsch and O’Hanlon]) alludes to all sorts of cultural agency–cultivation, environment, or the picturesque, to name a few. Similarly, the term place can denote either inside or outside, private or public, and each of these also comes with its own set of cultural and historical values. For example, the change in historical attitudes towards domesticity and its relationship to place not only impacts societal and cultural discourse but can also inform new architectural modes of thinking (see Rice). Therefore, conceptions of space, it would appear, are neither a cultural nor a historical constant. Despite this, the epistemological difficulty, and perhaps paradox, posed by this study is that the patterns doprovide evidence of a constant.

Future Research

The most important and immediate area for further research is the testing of a much larger, diverse non-purposive sample randomly selected by a concordancer from a substantial sample of non-English texts. A rigorous retesting of this sample multiple times would be necessary to check for data verification/falsification which may enable the claims made here to go beyond the bounds of theory. This would be a large undertaking but it could be performed in stages, and if corroborated, could potentially inform each literary genre/culture as it proceeds. Alternatively, smaller projects could review non-English language texts, professionally translated, to test for textual interference, research data could be collected from writing experiments, the relationship to sign language could be examined in order to test for differential outcomes. Further work could found within the literary texts, for example, a larger variance of period data could be introduced to test the overall claims made here or different perceptual systems. For example, Austen’s proclivity for matchmaking within her texts and the ubiquitous gossip that follows could test for auditory pattern invariance. It is also hoped that the manual search approach adopted here could influence corpora methodological design towards a more efficient search engine to speed up the process of analysis.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. London: Norton, 2002.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: Plant Three, 2003.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Norton, 2001.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. London: Penguin, 2003.

Finnigan, Liz.  “A Cognitive Approach to Spatial Patterning in Literary Narrative.” Doctoral Thesis, Strathclyde University, Glasgow,  2013.

Hemingway, Ernest. Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. London: Arrow, 2004.

Hirsch, Eric and O’ Hanlon, Michael ‘Introduction’ in The Anthropology of Landscape. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake.London: Penguin, 1976.

Rice, Charles. Emergence of the Interior. London: Routledge, 2007

Verne, Jules. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Many Books, 2017. eBook collection

[1]This description continues for a further five lines but remains with the bodies of the islanders. Notably, it switches from the male to female islanders but does not begin a new pattern with the women instead it moves from the bodies of the men to those of the women: “Beneath their pierced, distended earlobes there dangled strings of beads made from bone. Generally these savages were naked. I noted some women among them, dressed from hip to knee in grass skirts held up by belts made of vegetation. Some of the chieftains adorned their necks with crescents and with necklaces made from beads of red and white glass. Armed with bows, arrows, and shields, nearly all of them carried from their shoulders a sort of net, which held those polished stones their slings hurl with such dexterity” (Verne 80).

 

Metaphor Universals in Literature

Zoltán Kövecses, Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary

In the paper, I will be concerned with the issue of metaphor universals in poetry only – leaving aside the genre of the novel, for example (but see Hogan, The Mind). This decision is the result of practical considerations, rather than any theoretical reasons. Within the framework of conceptual metaphor theory, a lot more work has been done on poetry than on the novel, probably mostly because a pioneering study on metaphor by Lakoff and Turner (More than Cool Reason) also focused on poetry.

By metaphor I mean conceptual metaphor, which consists of a set of systematic mappings between two domains of experience (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By). One domain, which is typically more abstract, is called the target domain, and the other, which is typically more concrete or physical, is called the source domain. The more concrete domain is used to understand the more abstract one. A conceptual metaphor can have a variety of different manifestations in various modalities, including, most importantly for the present purposes, linguistic manifestations. In other words, a distinction is made between metaphor as a conceptual pattern (given structure by the mappings) and the linguistic manifestations (or examples) of this conceptual pattern (for overviews, see, e.g., Lakoff, “The Contemporary Theory”; Kövecses, Metaphor).

Metaphor Universals and Universal Metaphors

We should make a distinction between metaphor universals and universal metaphors. The notion of metaphor universals is more general than that of universal metaphors. Metaphor universals can be conceived of as any metaphor-related phenomenon, including universal metaphors. For example, one metaphor universal is the use of metaphors by poets. Probably, there is no poetry without the use of metaphors in some form. It is an interesting question why this should be the case. The answer favored by cognitive linguists would most probably be that typical topics of poetry, such as love, freedom, beauty, history, time, life, honor, nature, suffering, and so on, all invite metaphoric conceptualization, as they are highly abstract concepts that make excellent target domains in conceptual metaphors.

Universal metaphors, on the other hand, are the conceptual metaphors that are used universally, near-universally or potentially universally. Conceptual metaphors such as love is fire, time is motion, or life is a journey are potential universal conceptual metaphors in everyday linguistic usage, but also in literature, as poetry in many unrelated languages around the world shows.

The Cognitive-Linguistic Study of Conceptual Metaphors in Poetry

The study of conceptual metaphors in cognitive linguistics began with Lakoff and Turner’s book, More than Cool Reason. Lakoff and Turner made two very important claims concerning conceptual metaphors in poetry. First, they showed that poets share with everyday people most of the conceptual metaphors they use in poetry. The reason for this is that the conceptual metaphors such as the ones mentioned above are based on shared bodily experiences – for non-poets and poets alike. (More about this later.) Second, Lakoff and Turner suggested that metaphorical creativity in poetry is the result of four common conceptual devices that poets use in manipulating otherwise shared conceptual metaphors. These include the devices of elaboration, extension, questioning, and combining. In other words, according to Lakoff and Turner, the conceptual metaphors will be (nearly) the same, but the linguistic manifestations reflecting the effects of these devices will (or can) be (somewhat) different in everyday and poetic forms of language.

However, others have shown that these four cognitive devices, or strategies, exist not only in poetic language but also in more ordinary forms of language use, such as journalism (see, e.g., Jackendoff and Aaron, Review Article; Semino, Metaphor in Discourse). Thus, on this basis alone, it is not possible to distinguish poetic from non-poetic metaphor. Moreover, in accounting for poetic metaphors, Turner proposed that in many cases poetry (and literature in general) makes use of what he and Fauconnier call “blends,” in which various elements from two or more domains, or frames, can be conceptually fused, or integrated (see, e.g., Turner, The Literary Mind; Fauconnier and Turner, The Way We Think).

Although many conceptual metaphors are shared by poets and non-poets, many are clearly not. These are metaphors that are not based on universal bodily experiences but on certain creative analogies between a source and a target domain set up either by lay people or poets. In these cases, we have certain resemblances between a source and a target. While the dominant trend in the cognitive linguistic study of metaphor is to deal with metaphors where the source and target are related by some correlation in experience, analogical relations between a source and a target build on similarities, or resemblances, of various sorts (real, physical similarities, generic-level similarities, imagined similarities, etc.). They range from simple to complex. Below is a simple one that comes from William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills…

A more complex example is from Shakespeare’s King John. The king says the following to a messenger whose face reveals that he has some bad news to tell him:

So foul a sky clears not without a storm.
Pour down thy weather.

We can spell out the similarities in this example as a set of mappings between the scene of an imminent rainstorm and the scene of a messenger just about to deliver a message to the king:

the appearance of the sky ⇒ the appearance of the messenger’s face
the imminent storm ⇒ the bad message likely to be delivered
the rain ⇒ the act of telling the bad news

We can take similarity-based metaphors (i.e., analogies or similes) as a special case of conceptual metaphors (besides correlation-based ones). Needless to say, such potential similarities can be used to create a huge number of cases in metaphorical expression that are anything but universal.

Metaphorical Universality and Non-Universality in Poetry

Given the rough sketch of conceptual metaphors above, it seems that certain poetic metaphors (those that are correlation-based) are (potentially) universal at the conceptual level but non-universal at the linguistic one. According to the “standard” account of conceptual metaphors (see, e.g., Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By; Lakoff, “The Contemporary Theory”), conceptual metaphors are based on fundamental bodily experiences (i.e., correlations in experience). It is this basic bodily experience that may potentially lead to universal conceptual metaphors in poetry.

A more refined version of this idea in cognitive linguistics can be found in the theory of “primary metaphors” (see Grady; Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh). On this view, there are correlations between certain sensorimotor and subjective, abstract experiences, such as between destinations and purposes, body heat and emotion, verticality and amount, and so on. The repeated experience of such correlations results in primary metaphors that are, at least potentially, universal, including purposes are destinations, intimacy is closeness, emotion is heat, more is up. The primary metaphors constitute the basis for complex or compound conceptual metaphors such as life is a journey and love is a unity. For example, purposes are destinations is one primary metaphor that, in part, conceptually constitutes life is a journey, intimacy is closeness is one that, in part, constitutes love is a unity, and emotion is heat is one that, in part, constitutes anger is a hot fluid in a container. As a result, these pairs of primary and compound metaphors are potentially universal. Indeed, the anger is a hot fluid and the anger is heat conceptual metaphors are found in dozens of genetically unrelated and spatially and culturally independent languages, such as English, Chinese, and Hungarian (see, e.g., Yu, A Perspective from Chinese; Kövecses, Metaphor and Emotion, Metaphor in Culture, Metaphor). It would not be surprising to find linguistic metaphors based on these and other similar body-based conceptual metaphors in the poetry of these and other languages. As an example, let us take a poem by Anne Bradstreet, a 17th-century American poet, who in her poem “To My Dear and Loving Husband” wrote:

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If man were loved by wife, then thee

The first line is a straightforward linguistic illustration of the conceptual metaphor love is a unity (of two complementary parts) (see Kövecses, The Language of Love). It is very likely that the unity metaphor for love can be found in the poetry of many languages and cultures around the world.

While the view briefly described above provides an elegant and coherent account of universality in everyday and poetic metaphors, it does not pay sufficient attention to the many cases of non-universality. Non-universality in metaphor is complementary to universality; one assumes the other. Since we already provided an answer to the question of what makes some conceptual metaphors universal, we can take this as our point of departure in attempting to answer the next question: What makes some other conceptual metaphors non-universal? Or putting the question differently: Where does non-universality in everyday and poetic metaphorical thought come from?

In recent years, I suggested that it is necessary to make certain adjustments to the standard theory of conceptual metaphors in order to be able to answer this question (see Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture, for some initial ideas). The adjustments concern the role of context in the creation of novel metaphors (both conceptual and linguistic), on the one hand (see Kövecses, Where Metaphors Come From), and the various degrees of schematicity of conceptual metaphors (and their linguistic expressions), on the other (see Kövecses, “Levels of Metaphor”). We can term the resulting conception a contextualist and multi-level view of conceptual metaphors.

Both adjustments concern, in part, the issue of why conceptual and linguistic metaphors diverge from the universal patterns suggested above. They point to two major forms of deviation from universality. First, the insistence on the role of context helps us account for the kind of metaphor variation that derives from individual and group differences in human experience. And second, the multi-level view can explain the divergences in the use of metaphor resulting from individual and group differences in how higher-level conceptual metaphors are elaborated by lower-level ones. Actually, the two processes are related: various contextual factors can trigger particular elaborations of higher-level conceptual metaphors. This interaction will be demonstrated below.

Since deviations from universality occur on a large scale, we should not consider the issue of universality to be the main focus of metaphor research, as is often the case by cognitive linguists. As was noted above, universality and variation complement and assume each other. In conceptual metaphor theory, we should pay just as much attention to variation as to universality (see Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture), since variation is pervasive in the use of metaphor. This, I suggest, is due, to a large extent, to the role that context plays in metaphorical conceptualization – both in everyday usage and poetry.

How Context Shapes Metaphorical Conceptualization

Based on my findings (Kövecses, Where Metaphors Come From), I suggest that there are a variety of contextual factors (to be discussed below) that prime speakers when they use metaphors in communicative situations. The contextual factors belong to several context types: situational context, discourse context, conceptual-cognitive context, and bodily context. These types of context each come in two forms: local context and global context, as shown in Figure 1 below. The local context involves the specific knowledge conceptualizers have about some aspect of the immediate communicative situation. By contrast, the global context consists of the conceptualizers’ general knowledge concerning their community. It involves knowledge shared by an entire community of speakers / conceptualizers. The distinction is mostly of theoretical nature. In many actual communicative situations, there is no sharp dividing line between the local and the global context. The Figure below presents the four major context types as four sections of a circle and their division into local context (as the inner circle) and global context (as the outer circle). The box in the middle represents a particular act of metaphorical conceptualization in context. The contextual factors subsumed under the context types are not given in the Figure. They are discussed in the text following Figure 1.

Figure 1: Summary of Types of Context (Concentric circles represent global and local context; quadrants represent situational, discourse, bodily, and conceptual-cognitive contexts for a given metaphor.)

The four types of context can be briefly described in the following way.

Situational Context

The situational context comprises a variety of different contextual factors. Most commonly this type of context can be thought of as including the physical environment and the social-cultural situation. The physical environment includes the flora, the fauna, the landscape, the temperature, the weather, perceptual properties of the situation, and so on. For example, it is a common observation that American English metaphors relating to the physical environment are characteristically different from those of other English-speaking countries (see, e.g., Kövecses, American English). The small-scale, local environment, such as the visible events in or the perceptual properties of a situation, can also make its influence felt in shaping metaphors. The social-cultural situation consists of social aspects of life that typically center around notions such as gender, class, politeness, work, education, social organizations, social structure, art and entertainment, and others. All of these can play a role in metaphorical conceptualization. For example, Kolodny (The Lay of the Land, The Land Before Her) shows that American men and women developed very different metaphorical images for what they conceived of as the frontier in America. While the women commonly thought of the American frontier as a “garden to be cultivated,” men conceptualized it as “virgin land to be taken.” (For several other examples, see Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture.)

As an example of how the immediate physical situation as part of the physical context can prompt, or prime, a poet to use a particular conceptual metaphor, consider the poem “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold. In the first stanza, we get a glimpse of what the physical context consists of:

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits,- on the French coast, the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

The speaker (poet) is looking out to the sea from inside a house and can see a variety of things. One of them is that “The tide is full.” In the last stanza, however, he can see the tide “retreating” with a “withdrawing roar,” exposing the bottom of the sea:

The sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

At this point Arnold introduces the conceptual metaphor (christian) faith is the sea (“The sea of Faith”) in a special way. As the sea retreats, it leaves the bottom of sea exposed, and, in the same way, human beings become unprotected by Christian faith that once protected them. It is fairly safe to assume that what induced, or primed, the poet to use this conceptual metaphor in this particular way was the sight before him: the physical event of the ebb and flow of the sea, that is, a contextual factor belonging to what was called the situational context.

Discourse Context

The discourse context involves the immediate linguistic context (i.e., cotext), the previous discourses on the same topic, and the dominant forms of discourse related to a particular subject matter. We’ll look at an example for the linguistic context below. The metaphors in one discourse can also derive from previous discourses on the same topic. This can take a variety of forms ranging from elaborating, extending, questioning, negating, reflecting on, ridiculing, to otherwise taking advantage of a metaphor previously introduced. For example, an MP in the British Parliament responded to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair who said he does not have a reverse gear (i.e., he can only go forward – basing the statement on the progress is motion forward metaphor) with the reply: “but when you’re on the edge of a cliff it is good to have a reverse gear” (example taken from Semino). This was a humorous twist induced by the prior discourse on the progress is motion forward conceptual metaphor. The dominant forms of discourse and intertextuality can also influence the production of metaphors. Since certain forms of discourse can acquire dominant status in a community, the metaphors used in or based on this discourse can become widespread both temporally (historically) and spatially (cross-culturally). For example, the discourse of Christianity commonly gives rise to the use of metaphors in the Christian world.

To see how the immediate linguistic context can produce metaphors in poetic discourse, let us turn to Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Medusa.” Here are some relevant lines:

Off that landspit of stony mouth-plugs,
Eyes rolled by white sticks,
Ears cupping the sea’s incoherences,
You house your unnerving head—God-ball,
Lens of mercies,

Your stooges
Plying their wild cells in my keel’s shadow,
Pushing by like hearts,
Red stigmata at the very center,
Riding the rip tide to the nearest point of
departure,

Dragging their Jesus hair.
Did I escape, I wonder?

In the world of the poem, Sylvia Plath addresses her mother as Medusa. In Greek mythology, Medusa is a gorgon with snakes for her hair, who turns people who look at her to stone. As the lines quoted above suggest, the poet is trying to escape from the harmful influence of the mother. (This can be seen most clearly in the line “Did I escape, I wonder?”). What is remarkable here is that, to convey this, the poet makes use of the other sense of medusa: the “jellyfish” sense (“Your stooges / Plying their wild cells in my keel’s shadow”). She’s trying to get away from an overbearing mother, and the mother is portrayed analogically as jellyfish. Schools of jellyfish move about in the sea, and jellyfish stings can inflict pain and even death in humans. Thus, it can be suggested that the “jellyfish” meaning of medusa is used by the poet because the mythological Medusa was introduced early on in the poem (in the title) to begin with. This is one kind of linguistic context – the close relationship between two senses of a word, that is, their polysemy. The word form medusa evokes all the knowledge structures associated with it (given as the two senses of the word), and the poet is taking advantage of them, as they analogically fit the nature of the relationship with her mother.

Bodily Context

A particular state or condition of the body can produce particular metaphorical conceptualizations in specific cases, such as a poet’s or writer’s illness. I call this the bodily context. People’s bodily specificities can influence which metaphors they use. Casasanto (“Embodiment of abstract concepts”) found that left-handers prefer to use the moral is left, as opposed to the moral is right conceptual metaphor. Such metaphors contrast with the metaphors that evolve on the basis of the general properties of the human body (i.e., the correlation-based primary metaphors). Given the capacity of body specificities to prime metaphorical conceptualization, we can take the body as a further type of context[1]. Thus, the body is not only responsible for the production of hundreds of conceptual metaphors through the many correlations in subjective and sensorimotor experience (cf. Grady; Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh), but it can also prime the use of particular metaphors in more immediate, local contexts (see, e.g, Gibbs; Gibbs and Colston; Boroditsky; Boroditsky and Ramscar).

The idea that the general physical, biological, mental, emotional, etc. condition, or situation, of a poet can influence the way a poet writes poetry is well known and is often taken into account in the appreciation of poetry. Dickinson is a well-studied case, as discussed by several authors, among them, James Guthrie. Guthrie has this to say on the issue:

… I propose to concentrate on the fact of illness itself as a governing factor in Dickinson’s development as a poet. We are already accustomed to thinking about ways in which illness or deformity modulate the registers of expression we hear while reading Milton, Keats, Emily Bronte, Lord Byron. For Dickinson, illness was a formative experience as well, one which shaped her entire poetic methodology from perception to inscription and which very likely shook the foundations of her faith. Reading Dickinson’s poems in the full knowledge and belief that, while writing them, she was suffering acutely from a seemingly irremediable illness renders many of them recuperable as almost diaristic records of a rather ordinary person’s courageous struggle against profound adversity. (Guthrie, Emily Dickinson: 4-5)

Elsewhere, I showed how Dickinson’s (unconscious) choice of metaphors may have been influenced by her optical illness (see Kövecses, “A New View”, Where Metaphors Come From).

Conceptual-Cognitive Context

The conceptual-cognitive context includes the metaphorical conceptual system at large, knowledge about the elements of discourse, ideology, knowledge about past events, interests and concerns. In the metaphorical conceptual system, many concepts (sources and targets) stand in a metaphorical relationship with one another (e.g., life is a journey, argument is war) in long-term memory. Given such metaphorical relationships between concepts (such as between, say, life and journey), their presence or absence in the metaphorical conceptual system may function as a precondition for the production and comprehension of particular metaphors. A metaphorical conceptual system can function as context in this sense. Furthermore, conceptualizers often rely on their knowledge concerning the main elements of a discourse: the speaker, hearer, and the topic. Ideology can also be a formative factor in how metaphors are used in discourse. One’s ideology concerning major social and political issues may govern the choice of metaphors (as work by, for instance, Goatly, Washing the Brain, shows). A good example of this is George Lakoff’s (Moral Politics) study of American politics, where conservatives tend to use the nation is a strict father family metaphor, while liberals prefer the nation is a nurturant parent family version of the generic metaphor the nation is a family. Knowledge about past events (i.e., items in short-term and long-term memory) shared by the conceptualizers may also lead to the emergence of specific metaphors in discourse. For instance, it has often been observed that the memory of historical events can lead to the production (and comprehension) of some metaphors (see, e.g., Deignan, “Metaphorical expressions”; Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture).

Consider the life is a journey metaphor. It can be found in the poetry of many authors, epochs, and traditions. One of these many outstanding poets is Dante, who uses it in his “Divine Comedy”:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,

(In the middle of life’s road
I found myself in a dark wood,)

Another is Robert Frost in his poem “The Road Not Taken”:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The two uses of the life is a journey metaphor are of course not the same. Employing Lakoff and Turner’s terminology, we can say that although the two poets share the same conceptual metaphor, the metaphor is extended differently by Dante and Frost. And the extensions result in different manifestations of the conceptual metaphor: loss of goals in life by the former and making choices in life by the latter.

Elaborations of Higher Level Conceptual Metaphors

Lakoff and Turner (More than Cool) had in mind the kind of elaboration in the previous two examples where the concept of journey is realized lexically in two ways: in one, there is journey through a dark wood and one, where the road of the journey includes a fork that requires a choice. But there is another way of thinking about elaboration. In it, conceptual metaphors may be related to one another at a variety of different levels of schematicity (see Kövecses, “Levels of metaphor”). I suggested that we need to distinguish at least four levels of schematicity in conceptual metaphors: the level of image schemas, that of domains, that of frames, and that of mental spaces.

An example is provided by the American poet Karl Sandburg. Consider the first stanza of the poem called “Skyscraper”:

BY day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and
has a soul.
Prairie and valley, streets of the city, pour people into
it and they mingle among its twenty floors and are
poured out again back to the streets, prairies and
valleys.
It is the men and women, boys and girls so poured in and
out all day that give the building a soul of dreams
and thoughts and memories.
(Dumped in the sea or fixed in a desert, who would care
for the building or speak its name or ask a policeman
the way to it?)

The metaphoric-metonymic use of the skyscraper is clearly prompted by the situational (more precisely, physical-cultural) context. The poem was written in 1916 in Chicago, and it was at the turn of the 20th century that skyscrapers began to be built on a large scale in major American cities, including Chicago.

But what is more important in the present connection is that the conceptual metaphor on which the image of the skyscraper is based is that of society is a building and that this conceptual metaphor is part of a schematicity hierarchy. At the level of image schemas, we conceptualize complex abstract systems (such as societies) as complex physical objects. At the domain level, societies are conceptualized as buildings and the creation of a society as the physical creation of a building. The latter is the main focus of the metaphor in the poem. At the frame level, the idea of creation is elaborated as construction, which results in the conceptualization of the construction of a society as the construction (i.e., building) of a building (with tools and ingredients). Finally, at the mental spaces level, the building of a new American society is conceptualized as building a skyscraper (with hammers and crowbars and spikes and girders).

Clearly, this is a progression from the most schematic to the least schematic (or most specific) level of conceptualization (or, the other way around, from the most specific to the most schematic level). Thus, we get a set of conceptual metaphors in a schematicity hierarchy of conceptual metaphors:

Level of Image schema:
Complex abstract systems are complex physical objects

Level of Domain:
Society is a building; the creation of a society is the physical creation of a building

Level of Frame:
The construction of a society is the building of a building (with tools and ingredients)

Level of Mental spaces:
Building a new American society is building a skyscraper (with hammers and crowbars and spikes and girders)

This is a schematicity hierarchy that, moving downward, ends in the concept of building a skyscraper. The two highest levels, those of image schemas and domains, may be universal (or at least widespread) in cultures when it comes to the metaphorical conceptualization of societies. But the frame level, and especially the lowest mental spaces level are fairly culture- and even individual-specific. Sandburg captures the idea of building a new American society through the idea of building a skyscraper. At this level of conceptual metaphor, other poets may diverge widely (though using the same conceptual metaphors at the higher levels), depending on a large number of contextual factors (such as the physical environment). In other words, we can conclude on the basis of this example that elaborations of high-level conceptual metaphors may contribute to metaphor variation in poetry as well. Metaphors that may be universal or widespread at higher levels of schematicity may turn into something that is specific to particular poetic traditions or to individual poets.

Conclusions

Are there any metaphor universals in literature? I could not answer this question in the paper because I focused attention on poetry alone. As regards poetry, we can conclude from the foregoing that metaphor is a near-universal feature of poetry (in that most poetry operates with metaphor), or, as Hogan puts it in “What Are Literary Universals?,” a “statistical universal.”

A second metaphor universal in poetry (but possibly also in much of literature in general) is that the metaphors are conceptual metaphors expressed by certain linguistic manifestations. The conceptual metaphors emerge either from universal bodily experiences (correlation metaphors) or from resemblances of various sorts (analogies).

Third, the (unconscious) selection of the metaphors used by poets can be influenced by the various types of context: situational, discourse, bodily, and conceptual-cognitive.

Fourth, the metaphors occur on various levels of schematicity. Four such levels have been distinguished: the level of image schemas, domains, frames, and mental spaces. While this may be a universal feature of poetry, the actual elaboration of higher level metaphors at the most specific level of schematicity (i.e., mental spaces) may produce metaphor variation.

Fifth, the conceptual metaphors that are based on universal correlations in experience are potentially universal; they are present in the poetry of certain unrelated languages/cultures, but not in that of all languages/cultures (i.e., they are not absolute universals). At the same time, the conceptual metaphors based on resemblance tend to be highly variable cross-linguistically.

The issue of metaphor universals goes hand in hand with the issue of metaphor variation. The former often assumes the latter and the latter often assumes the former; they complement each other.

First, metaphor variation is produced essentially by three forces: divergences in the resemblances observed, contextual influence, and different elaborations of higher level metaphors.

Second, even universal metaphors can vary from culture to culture or individual to individual. This is because the universal metaphors may undergo differential contextual influence and because the universal metaphors may be elaborated in different ways. How they are elaborated may also be the result of contextual influence.

Third, metaphor universality is often a matter of the level of schematicity. Higher levels tend to be more universal than lower ones.

Fourth, differences in the kinds of analogies drawn (i.e., divergences in similarities observed) is probably the most obvious and most common source and form of variation.

Finally, it appears that the discussion of metaphor universals and variation in the paper does not allow us to distinguish the use of metaphor in poetry from its use in everyday language. All the metaphor-related processes mentioned above apply to both poetry and everyday language. It seems that the basis for any distinction should be sought elsewhere. It may well be that the proper basis for such a distinction can only be the degree of creativity (novelty), complexity, and density of metaphor (Kövecses, “A New View”). Metaphorical universality and variation are general properties of the human mind, regardless of the domain (everyday vs. poetic) in which metaphors are used.

Future Research

As regards future work in the study of metaphor universals in literature, several things can and should be done. First, researchers should propose accounts of metaphor universality and variation in other genres of literature, including the novel. We should find out whether the view of metaphorical universality and variation as presented in this paper is a viable option for the other genres. Second, a huge amount of work awaits us to collect, analyze, and compare data concerning metaphor universality and variation in diverse languages and cultures around the world. We can propose reasonable hypotheses in this regard on the basis of the CMT approach. Third, and probably most relevantly to literary scholars, we need to figure out whether the findings about metaphor universality and variation as discussed here can contribute useful ideas to literary scholarship in the interpretation of poetry (and other genres). My hope is that the study of metaphor universality and variation along the lines suggested in the paper can enrich accounts of interpretation. At the very least, I hope that the approach I described is not incompatible with certain ways of accounting for poetic meaning, as the comment on the present paper seems to indicate.

[See also Kathleen Hart, “Comment on ‘Zoltán Kövecses, ‘Metaphor Universals in Literature.'”]

Works Cited

Boroditsky, Lera. “Does Language Shape Thought? Mandarin and English Speakers’ Conception of Time.” Cognitive Psychology 43 (2001): 1−22.

Boroditsky, Lera and Michael Ramscar. “The Roles of Body and Mind in Abstract Thought.” Psychological Science 13.2 (2002): 185-189.

Casasanto, Daniel. “Embodiment of Abstract Concepts: Good and Bad in Right and Left Handers.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 138.3 (2009): 351–367.

Deignan, Alice. “Metaphorical expressions and culture: An indirect link.” Metaphor and Symbol 18.4 (2003): 255–271.

Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. The Way We Think. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Gibbs, Raymond W. Embodiment and Cognitive Science. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Gibbs, Raymond W. and Herbert Colston. Interpreting Figurative Meaning. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Goatly, Andrew. Washing the Brain. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2007.

Grady, Joseph. “Theories are buildings Revisited.” Cognitive Linguistics 8 (1997): 267-290.

Guthrie, James R. Emily Dickinson’s Vision. Illness and Identity in her Poetry. Gainesville, FL: The University Press of Florida, 1998.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and its Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Jackendoff, Ray and David Aaron. Review Article: More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Language 67.2 (1991): 320–328.

Kolodny, Annette. The Land Before Her. Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land. Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Kövecses, Zoltán. American English. An introduction. Petersburg, Canada: Broadview Press, 2000.

Kövecses, Zoltán. The Language of Love. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1988.

Kövecses, Zoltán. “Levels of Metaphor.” Cognitive Linguistics 28.2 (2017): 321-347.

Kövecses, Zoltán. Metaphor. A Practical Introduction. Oxford: Oxford  University Press, 2002/2010.

Kövecses, Zoltán. Metaphor in Culture. Universality and Variation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Kövecses, Zoltán. “A New Look at Metaphorical Creativity in Cognitive Linguistics.” Cognitive Linguistics, 2010.

Kövecses, Zoltán. Where Metaphors Come From. Reconsidering Context in Metaphor. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Lakoff, George. “The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor.” In Metaphor and Thought. Ed. A. Ortony. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 202-251.

Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Lakoff, George and Mark Turner. More Than Cool Reason. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Semino, Elena. Metaphor in Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Turner, Mark. The Literary Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

 

 

[1] At a meta-level of analysis, it can of course be suggested that assigning different values to left and right is a universal. But the analysis I conduct here is not at the meta-level. At the same time, I recognize the possibility of legitimately identifying universals in this particular case, as well as in other cases mentioned in the paper.

Repetition

Stefano Versace, University of Birmingham

This entry suggests that a specific kind of repetition, far from being an accidental feature, is inherently present in all manifestations and at all levels of poetic form. That is to say, when one writes or reads a poem, an intention to repeat a linguistic sign must play a crucial role in any poetic form in the world’s languages. Therefore, repetition can arguably be regarded as absolute universal of poetic form. For example, poetic meter can be seen as a repetition of a pattern over two or more lines; parallelism can be seen as a repetition of a syntactic or semantic structure; rhyme as a repetition of phonological segments over two or more lines, at designated positions. If we understand it in this way, repetition may constitute a viable basis to further understand poetic form and to investigate several psychological effects associated with poetry.

It has been claimed by Ribeiro (“Intending to Repeat”) that the only feature consistently holding of every poetic form in the languages of the world is repetition. Ribeiro substantiates this claim by identifying several possible kinds of repetition, and inferring that the common ground to all is an intention to repeat, which, coupled with an intention to relate a text to preceding texts of a similar kind, may surface in diverse forms (e.g. a sonnet intends to establish a relation to all preceding sonnets). In this way, several kinds of poetic form can be seen as kinds of repetition, of different aspects of language, at different levels.

To elaborate on Ribeiro, I suggest that repetition can be thought of as an intentional state that picks something that has already been expressed, or at least intended, and expresses it again. This intentional state is characterized by inherently being in a relationship with an antecedent, i.e. a previously expressed form, which influences the interpretation of a new utterance, or linguistic item. The repeated form may occur in exactly the same form of the antecedent (sameness), or in a partially different form that includes variation of the original form (variation). Since repeating any kind of linguistic sign means establishing the afore-mentioned relationship of a linguistic sign with an antecedent, repetition involves different kinds of memory. The antecedent may consist of a section of the same text, or a previous instantiation of the same form in another text, or in a given poetic tradition. The relationship is established in two directions: a repeated form looks backward to its antecedent(s); and it also looks forward, to its possible further repetitions. In this sense, the term “memory” is intended here as a general faculty, not distinguishing between its different component parts (see Fabb for further discussion of this issue). Fabb also argues that the poetic form “line of verse” constitutes the fundamental, non-linguistic unit in which the linguistic material is sectioned. Other poetic forms, such as poetic rhyme, are defined by, and hold of the line of verse. Many forms of repetition often seem to rely on this sectioning of the text, at different levels: for instance, lines, rhyming phonological segments and syntactic structures often constitute the object of repetition.  Specific poetic forms, as I show below, may differ in the relationship between sameness and variation they specifically instantiate. All texts that we term “poetic” entertain a relationship to a varying degree with this interplay of sameness and variation.

In the following I show in more detail how some formal features of poetry can be understood in terms of repetition.

Poetic meter as repetition. The poetic form that commonly goes under the name “poetic meter” is characterized by two possible kinds of repetition. The first one is the fact that two lines in the same meter instantiate the same abstract form. They thus repeat that very form, as rules that hold of these lines and of each other possible line written in that meter. For example, each line written in iambic pentameter repeats the formal features of iambic pentameter, regardless of the linguistic material constituting the lines themselves. The second way repetition informs poetic meter surfaces at the level of single lines and is less abstract: meter can be seen as a repetition of, e.g., a rhythmical pattern, or other kinds of phonological regularity. In this sense, a line of iambic pentameter instantiates a repetition of an iambic metrical foot five times. This further implies that any metrical line is in some relation of sameness to both precedent and subsequent lines in the same meter. However, lines in the same meter will also combine this relation of sameness with variation, for example, in how the linguistic material is fitted to the meter, or in the specific variation (e.g., of stress patterns) that a regular meter commonly exhibits.

Poetic rhyme, alliteration and other sound-patterning schemes as repetition. Poetic rhyme is the repetition of some designated phonological features, over different lines, at specific places within the lines. For example, if this repetition concerns all the phonological material from the last stressed syllable to the edge of the line, or at mid-line position, the result is a “perfect rhyme”. If the repetition solely targets consonants at word beginning, it results into the form known as alliteration; repetition may also concern vowels, in which case is commonly called assonance. An example of a form combining, together with poetic meter, also rhyme and alliteration is Icelandic skaldic poetry (cf. Árnason). Finally, but somewhat less commonly, this kind of repetition may specifically target morphological structures, thus being a repetition of higher-level linguistic units. In this case, the repeated units are best defined in terms of morphemes, rather than phonemes. These specific forms tend to rely more on repetition of the same material, and exhibit less variation, than what is found in poetic meter. On the other hand, additional complexity may arise in the repeated patterns that poetic rhyme or alliteration may exhibit.

Grammatical parallelism as repetition. Grammatical parallelism is the repetition of a same, or similar syntactic structure over two or more lines, or groups of lines. Several poetic traditions, such as, for example, Mongolian Baatarlag Tuul (cf. Poppe), are characterized by this form. This repetition normally relies on more or less regular variation of the specific linguistic material combined in the same syntactic structure, except in specific poetic forms that may require the very same linguistic material, such as the Italian canzone. The question may be asked whether, and if so how, this kind of repetition combines with other poetic forms. Jakobson for example claimed that where a tradition exhibits regular parallelism, poetic meter is never to be found. Other kinds of poetic forms and devices can be seen as the output of some kind of repetition.This thus appears to be a necessary condition on the form of language in verbal art.

Future Research

Acknowledging the role of repetition as an absolute universal of poetic form has the advantage of shedding light on characteristics of verbal art as diverse in their very nature as, for example, meter and lexical repetitions. Identifying the common ground of these features as a key feature of the poetries of the world is an important step towards understanding the deeper structures and effects of these features. Furthermore, a formal understanding of repetition in poetry may improve the fine-grain psycholinguistic investigation of poetic language and its effects.

All this raises the question of why repetition is such a widely attested poetic feature. Why did it come to be so, and what role does it play in producing the psychological effects normally related to poetry? For example, the effect known as “Semantic Satiation” (cf., e.g., Warr, Margulis), as an effect by which a linguistic expression loses its meaning if repeated several times, may bring us closer to an explanation of the semantic indeterminacy and vagueness often related to language in poetry. On the other hand, the same effects of indeterminacy and vagueness can receive an explanation in terms of Relevance Theory, which would in turn account for repetition as a feature increasing pragmatic processing (cf. Pilkington). Although we are still far from an understanding of why repetition is so widely found in the products of human psychology that we term “poetry,” this concept may offer promising ground to understand and further investigate its mechanisms.

 

Works Cited

Árnason, Kristian. The Rhythms of Dróttkvaett and other Old Icelandic Metres. Reykjavik  Institute Of Linguistics, University of Iceland, 1991.

Fabb, Nigel. What is Verse? Language and Memory in the Poetry of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Jakobson, Roman. “Grammatical Parallelism and its Russian Facet.” In Roman Jakobson. Language in Literature.  Ed. K. Pomorska and S. Rudy. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1987, 145-179.

Margulis, Elizabeth Hellmuth. “Repetition and Emotive Communication in Music Versus Speech.” Frontiers in Psychology 4 [167] (2013): 1-4.

Pilkington, Adrian. Poetic Effects: A Relevance Theory Perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2000.

Poppe, Niklaus. “Der Parallelismus in der epischen Dichtung der Mongolen.” Ural-Altaischen Jahrbücher 30 (1958): 195-228.

Ribeiro, Anna Cristina. “Intending to Repeat: A Definition of Poetry”. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65.2 (2007): 189-201.

Warr, Peter B. “Repetition and Verbal Learning.” British Journal of Psychology, 56.2-3 (1965): 147-156.

Comments on Keen: Universal Principles versus Uniformity

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

Suzanne Keen is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on empathy and literature. As such, and also as a feminist and even as a human being aware of the world around her, she is deeply sensitive to the implausibility of claims that people’s empathic responses are all the same. In keeping with this, she is committed to arguing against claims that everyone reacts identically to situations of human suffering (see “Narrative Empathy: A Universal Response to Fiction?”). I completely agree with Keen in this. In the context of the Literary Universals Project, however, it is important to stress that the existence of literary universals in no way entails uniformity in individual response. Indeed, as universals are usually formulated, they are incompatible with such uniformity. Of course, Keen certainly recognizes this point. Nonetheless, it is important to make it clear for readers who may not be aware of the incompatibility.

More technically, the existence of universal principles in literature is most often inconsistent with uniformity of output in individual cases. This is true for two reasons. First, the universal principles bearing on persons often involve indexical features, features that change the output of the principles depending on the person to whom they are applied (see my “Possibility”). For example, it appears to be a universal principle that recipients (e.g., readers) are more likely to empathize with people or characters in their identity groups than people or characters outside their identity groups. Identity groups vary from person to person. In consequence, the output of the principle in any given case—that is, who a given person empathizes with—will vary. Greeks will be inclined to empathize with Greeks; Trojans, with Trojans. If, on the whole, Greeks tended to empathize with Greeks, not Trojans or any other enemy, while Trojans tended to empathize with Greeks or any other enemy, not Trojans, we would have a divergence in principle, not universality. Moreover, even among Greeks, there will be differences—due, for example, to sex category identity.

The second reason that universal principles do not predict individual uniformity is that, most often, there is not a single principle for any domain, but a range of alternative principles. For example, I take it that ethical evaluation is in part a matter of emotional response and in part a matter of emplotment. In both cases, several principles are available. One form of ethical response stresses pride and anger, particularly in-group pride and anger against antagonistic out-groups. This form tends to draw on heroic narrative structures which support the in-group in inter-group conflict. It celebrates group loyalty, bravery, and so on. Another form of ethical response stresses the alleviation of suffering, as shared empathically; another focuses on disgust and the purging of moral “contamination.” Thus, two recipients of a story are likely to have different ethical reactions to a situation insofar as those recipients differ in the emotions and story structures they favor. Faced with the same story, a reader whose ethical preferences involve empathy (e.g., with the misery of separated, same-sex lovers) will respond differently from a reader whose ethical preferences are connected with disgust (e.g., at homosexuality).

Thus, for the most part, universals bearing on empathy and literature would not predict uniformity of individual response. Rather, they would predict divergence of response, based on indexical features of outputs (e.g., in-group bias) and diversity of principles (e.g., ethical orientations toward empathy or toward empathy-inhibiting emotions, such as disgust or anger).

Given these conclusions, one might ask, where does this leave the topic of literary universals and empathy? One point worth noting is that different traditions often appear to stress something that may reasonably be characterized as empathy, understood as “an affective response that is more appropriate for another’s situation than one’s own” (in Hoffman’s definition [4]). When Aristotle refers to our éleos or compassion–for example at páthos or suffering (see, for example, Poetics XIV.4)–he seems to suggest some sharing of the hero’s anguish. When the Sanskrit literary theorist, Abhinavagupta, maintains that the crucial rasa or “sentiment” of a work is a function of the memory traces activated in the recipient, he is connecting the audience’s feelings with experiences parallel to those of the characters, thus presumably pointing toward what we would call an empathic connection (see Abhinavagupta’s Locana [81, 117, and 182] and his Aesthetic Experience [96-97 and 112]; for discussion, see chapter two of my The Mind). When the Arabic theorists stress the importance of developing raḥmah or compassion, following exemplary literary characters, they seem to be suggesting that we should share feelings with the compassionate character and have a parallel feeling for the target of that character’s compassion–thus a feeling that is more relevant to that target’s situation than to our own (on the Arabic theorists, see my “Stories”).

Outside theoretical reflections, it seems clear that various literary traditions are filled with works that presumably affect readers in ways that are far more consistently empathic than we would expect from mere chance. Every reader may not share Lǐ Qīngzhào’s grief over her husband’s death in “聲聲慢” (“Shēng Shēng Màn” [Late Sounds]). Indeed, in the “co-creation” of the poem stressed by Keen, some readers may make it into a poem about something completely different than her husband’s death. (I once had a star basketball player in my class who found the poem hilariously funny; I hope she “co-created” the poem in a way that made it treat some very different topic.) But it seems unlikely that the status enjoyed by the poem for centuries has resulted only from formal features (e.g., rhyme). In other words, it hardly seems plausible that readers’ emotional responses would vary randomly—sometimes contempt, disgust, hate, sexual arousal, rage, etc., and once in a great while empathic grief, just by chance—as the speaker sits at her window, recalling an earlier night, just like this one, waiting for her husband to return from a trip, and now realizing that he will never again appear across the courtyard, amid the clustered blossoms at its border, arriving home. (For a discussion of this poem, seem my “Affect Studies.”)

Thus, it seems likely that the experience of empathy is in fact an important feature of literary experience cross-culturally, even though individual response is not uniform. Moreover, it seems clear that, cross-culturally, literary works are often designed to foster empathy (whatever their actual effects). In connection with this, one might wish to investigate a range of further areas for possible universals as well.

For example, in The Mind and Its Stories, I distinguished between what I called categorial and situational empathy. The distinction was between empathy based on shared identity categorization (“categorial empathy”) and empathy based on having been in a comparable situation (“situational empathy”). I would now say that all empathy is situational (i.e., there is no distinct type of empathy that is categorial). In other words, we have an experiential sense of what another person is feeling based on the activation of emotional memories from a similar situation (in keeping with Abhinavagupta). Identity categories make a difference. However, they make a difference to one’s interpersonal stance, the attitude one takes up toward the other person, an attitude of parallel or opposed emotion. We are inclined initially to adopt a parallel stance toward persons with whom we share an active identity category. Thus, we are inclined to empathize with them. In contrast, we are likely to adopt an opposed stance toward out-group members, perhaps feeling Schadenfreude at their suffering, rather than sharing that suffering. (For evidence bearing on this topic, see Gazzaniga 164, Keestra 237, Hain et al. 155, and Klimecki and Singer 542.)

In terms of this distinction, we would expect in-group empathy to be far more prominent than out-group empathy cross-culturally. Indeed, we might expect out-group empathy to be virtually absent. However, I have also argued that, as authors imagine the lives and experiences of out-group members in detail, they come to experience them as more fully human and to portray them in ways that manifest and are likely to foster empathy. This is a general, human propensity, and likely to be found in life as well as art. It is the sort of experience that leads Majnūn, in Niẓāmī’s renowned Persian poem, to share the feelings of both sides in a war, even though one side favors him and the other opposes him: “While each warrior thought of nothing but to kill the enemy and to defend himself, the poet was sharing the sufferings of both sides” (58). Indeed, I have argued that heroic stories often include remorse over the harm done to the enemy (see chapter four of The Mind). These points are all apparently statistical universals of literature and empathy. Moreover, they potentially open up other areas of study bearing on interpersonal stance, identity categories, and other factors that interact with empathic sensitivities cross-culturally.

Another area for possible research is Keen’s own division of empathic appeals into those aimed solely at the in-group, those aimed at out-groups, and those aimed at both out-groups and in-groups. It seems clear that dominant groups frequently write for their peers in support of in-group prerogatives. It is also clear that, in some places at some times, writers from oppressed groups have appealed to dominant out-groups. One might reasonably ask to what extent the latter has occurred cross-culturally. We certainly find works that appeal to a dominant group on behalf of dominated people. For example, a work such as Śūdraka’s Little Clay Cart contains at least suggestions of a challenge to the oppression of Śūdras (members of the servant caste). There are parts of the Mahābhārata that seem to present a non-orthodox view of gender (see chapter six of my Sexual), plays that rewrite the Rāmāyaṇa in ways that pose (limited) challenges to patriarchy (see chapter three of my Affective), and so on. In most of these cases, there appears to be at least some recruitment of empathy. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to say if the author was part of the dominated group, and it is often fairly clear that the author was not. In this way, these cases may not strictly fit Keen’s division. However, they manifest a related appeal for empathy across identity groups. As with all study of cross-cultural patterns, we may ask if such appeals occur widely or narrowly; if they occur in particular circumstances (suggesting implicational or typological universals); if they are an instance of some other pattern.

The preceding list of topics is far from exhausting the possibilities for the study of literary universals and empathy. My point here has not been to give anything like a definitive catalog of such possibilities. Rather, I have simply hoped to suggest that research on literary universals and empathy has hardly begun. It is important to recognize that there is not individual uniformity in empathic response (and that there are other non-universal aspects of literature, such as recently developed techniques that are sometimes claimed to bear on empathy), as Keen has discussed clearly and forcefully. But it is also important to recognize that literary universals are largely inconsistent with such uniformity. In short, the rejection of individual uniformity does not mark the end of research in literary universals and empathy—no more than the search for linguistic universals is cut short by the fact that we do not all say the same thing. The recognition of individual variability is, rather, a preliminary to research on cross-cultural patterns. Indeed, cross-cultural patterns are to a great extent patterns of individual variability that reoccur—in different proportions and with different specifications–across traditions.

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Poetics. Trans. with a critical text by S. H. Butcher. London: Macmillan, 1895.

Armony, Jorge and Patrik Vuilleumier, eds. The Cambridge Handbook of Human Affective Neuroscience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Chang, E. C. “Analyzing Li Qingzhao’s Poem ‘Sheng Sheng Man.’” Bilingual Chinese Poetry and Prose. http://www.poetry-chinese.com/resources/Analyzing+Li+Qingzhao.pdf (accessed 22 February 2017).

Gazzaniga, Michael. Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. New York: Ecco, 2011.

Hain, G., G. Silani, K. Preuschoff, C. D. Batson, and T. Singer. “Neural Responses to Ingroup and Outgroup Members’ Suffering Predict Individual Differences in Costly Helping.” Neuron 68 (2010): 149-160.

Hoffman, Martin. Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Affect Studies and Literary Criticism.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Ed. Paula Rabinowitz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Available at http://literature.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.001.0001/acrefore-9780190201098-e-105 .

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “The Possibility of Aesthetics,” The British Journal of Aesthetics 34.4 (1994): 337-49. (Reprinted on Cogweb, http://cogweb.ucla.edu.)

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Sexual Identities: A Cognitive Literary Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Stories and Morals: Emotion, Cognitive Exempla, and the Arabic Aristotelians.” The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture, and Complexity. Ed. Alan Richardson and Ellen Spolsky. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004, 31-50.

Keestra, Machiel. “Bounded Mirroring: Joint Action and Group Membership in Political Theory and Cognitive Neuroscience.” In Valk 222-248.

Klimecki, Olga and Tania Singer. “Empathy from the Perspective of Social Neuroscience.” In Armony and Vuilleumier 533-549.

Lǐ Qīngzhào (李清照). “聲聲慢.” In Chang.

Nizami. The Story of Layla and Majnun. Ed. and trans. Rudolf Gelpke in collaboration with E. Mattin and G. Hill. Final chapter trans. Zia Inayat Khan and Omid Safi. New Lebanon, NY: Omega Publications, 1997.

Valk, Frank Vander, ed. Essays on Neuroscience and Political Theory: Thinking the Body Politic. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Poetic Form

Geoffrey Russom, Brown University

In Russom, Evolution, I propose a general theory of poetic meter and explore its implications for metrical evolution. This article provides a brief summary of my findings as they relate to the study of literary universals. My initial hypothesis is that metrical constituents are abstracted from linguistic constituents: metrical positions from syllables, metrical feet from words, and metrical lines from syntactic constituents, preferably sentences. On this hypothesis it is obvious what constitutes the best match between abstract metrical patterns and the words chosen to realize them by the poet.

I think that my hypothesis qualifies as the null hypothesis but it is not uncontroversial. In Fabb and Halle, Meter in Poetry (11), the authors assume that “lines are sequences of syllables, rather than of words or phrases.” They reject “approaches which assume that literary language is a development of ordinary language, using the resources already available to it,” citing Hanson and Kiparsky, “Parametric theory,” as one of the language-based approaches they reject (pp. 46-8). According to an anonymous reviewer of this article, equating lines with sentences ignores the fact that syntax is asymmetric and hierarchical but meter is not. This generalization seems to be rather widely accepted but I regard it as an important error that has impeded metrical research. As will soon become apparent, I accept all regulated features of the poetic line as metrical. Regulated features of the line can include alliteration, rhyme, the word boundary, the major syntactic break (sometimes called the caesura), and syntactic parallelism. In the Celtic and Germanic alliterative meters I have studied, the constraints on syllabic patterns within the line are secondary consequences of constraints on morphological and syntactic structure.

In meters with long lines, there may be a metrical constituent between the foot and the line. In Germanic alliterative meters, the line consists of two verses and each verse contains two feet. The first verse of the line is called the a-verse; the second is called the b-verse. Important metrical constraints apply at verse level. I derive metrical constituents between foot level and line level from phrases between word level and sentence level. In meters that have a short line length relative to average word length, the line pattern might also be derived from a syntactic constituent below the level of the sentence.

All traditional meters employ the line. One early Irish meter specifies the number of words per line but imposes no constraints on syllables. This meter employs feet but no metrical positions. The Serbo-Croatian decasyllable counts syllables but imposes no constraints on word count, patterns of stress, or patterns of syllable length. This meter employs metrical positions but no feet. The meter of the Biblical psalms employs a line with neither feet nor metrical positions. The adjacent lines of a Biblical couplet match one another in syntax and propositional semantics, the characteristic features of the sentence as distinct from the word and the syllable. In this parallelistic meter, each line of the couplet takes the adjacent line as its semantic-syntactic prototype. Lines within a couplet are complex to the extent that they differ syntactically and semantically.

Certain features of the line can be fixed somewhat arbitrarily, for example the number of feet or the number of metrical positions. Many metrical rules are based on native-speaker intuitions, however, and operate below the level of consciousness, for the poet as well as the audience.

Metrical rules can be expressed as constraints on departure from a prototypical line pattern. The prototype for iambic pentameter can be realized by a line like

Refíned / gourméts // demánd / supérb / cuisíne.

As traditionally described, the iambic pentameter line has ten metrical positions organized into five iambic feet (separated by slashes). Each foot has two metrical positions, and the most prominent syllable within a foot is normally placed on its second position. In the prototypical line above, each metrical position is realized as a syllable with normal length, each iambic foot is realized as an iambic word, and the line is realized as a sentence with normal English word order, which is SVO (subject-verb-object). The major syntactic break within the prototype (notated by a double slash) falls after the fourth metrical position, between the subject (refined gourmets) and the predicate (demand superb cuisine). This is the normal position for the caesura in iambic pentameter. The caesura falls most often to the left of center because specifiers like subjects are shorter than predicates, which typically have a tensed verbal head and one or more complements (e.g. an object, a governed infinitive, and/or a prepositional phrase). Like sentence patterns, prototypical line patterns are hierarchically asymmetrical.

Linguistic rules applying at higher levels of structure can modify the output of lower-level rules. The most prominent stress assigned by a word-level rule can be subordinated within the phrase, for example by the higher-level rule for adjective-noun constructions. In a Modern English phrase like grèen grápes, the primary word stress of the adjective is subordinated to the primary word stress of the following noun. The most prominent stress in a small phrase can be subordinated by rules applying at the level of the sentence, for example by the nuclear stress rule, which subordinates every stressed syllable before the nuclear stress and provides the phonological basis for pronunciation. In a metrical line, similarly, line-level norms based on sentence structure exert more influence than foot-level norms based on word structure. Level-dependent effects were recognized within generative metrics as early as 1989, when Youmans observed that “higher-level boundaries are progressively more significant than lower-level ones” (“Milton’s meter” 376).

Realization of the foot as a word is clearly desirable in iambic pentameter, especially at the end of the line, where the principle of closure restricts metrical complexity. In his analysis of a large corpus of Milton’s unrhymed verse, Youmans observed that Milton often departs from ordinary word order to place an iambic word at line end, but rarely to remove an iambic word from that position.

Realizing the line as a clause or sentence is even more desirable than realizing the foot as a word, and occurs more frequently. In Shakespeare’s well-known sonnet 18, ten of the fourteen lines are realized as sentences or as clauses transparently related to sentences. In other sonnets, however, Shakespeare makes significant use of long, complex sentences that occupy two lines instead of one. The power of line-level constraints stands out with particular clarity when other constraints are loosened and compensatory measures are required to keep the metrical complexity of the line within tolerable limits. In the 404 iambic trimeters of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, extrametrical words are added more freely than in iambic pentameter tradition (Russom, Evolution, chapter 10). To compensate, the frequency of trimeter lines realized as sentences or clauses is kept above 50%, a conservative estimate that can be validated by any reasonable counting procedure. Since these lines are significantly shorter than Shakespeare’s, we would expect a high frequency of sentences occupying two lines in Gawain, all other things being equal; but the Gawain poet keeps sentences short and simple to limit the total complexity of a line that is unusually complex in another way. Another compensatory device of the trimeter is a high relative frequency of closing feet filled by iambic words, as in Milton’s unrhymed verse.

The relation between sentence rhythm and the poetic line is highlighted by sound echoes like rhyme and alliteration, which are most effectively situated in prominent linguistic constituents. In SVO languages like Modern English, the last stressed word in a sentence normally has the most prominent phrasal stress, called the nuclear stress. The best site for the rhyming word in such languages is line-final position. Alliteration is universally associated with syllabic prominence (Kiparsky, “Role of linguistics” 231). In SOV languages like Proto-Germanic, the first stressed word of a phrase normally bears the most prominent stress; and the first word with metrically significant stress alliterates obligatorily in ancient Germanic meters, which include Old English, Old Norse, Old Saxon, and Old High German meters (Sievers, Metrik). The word at the end of a typical Proto-Germanic sentence has subordinate stress; and alliteration at the end of the line is systematically ruled out in the four alliterative meters. In a VSO language like Old Irish, the first stressed word of the sentence is typically a verb with subordinate stress. In the most common Irish alliterative meter, which resembles ancient Germanic meters in important respects, the first stressed word of the verse typically does not alliterate and the first alliteration falls on the second stressed word.

In meters with a single foot pattern and a single line pattern, metrical variety is achieved by carefully regulated departure from the linear prototype. In Old English meter, there is a foot pattern for every native word pattern. Most combinations of two feet qualify as verses and many combinations of two verses qualify as lines. In this meter, the many verse patterns and line patterns provide ample variety; and conformity to the prototypical two-word realization of each verse type is much more strictly regulated than conformity to the iambic pentameter prototype. Meters that switch unpredictably from one pattern to another, compensating with stricter conformity to patterns, provide especially valuable evidence for deep analysis of poetic form.

The most highly favored foot pattern in Old English corresponds to the pattern of trochaic words like hwīle ‘time,’ which has a stressed root syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. This is the prototypical Old English word pattern (Dresher and Lahiri, “Metrical coherence”). The most highly favored verse pattern has two trochaic feet. An example from Beowulf is lange / hwīle ‘a long time’ (the a-verse of line 16, notated as 16a). This verse prototype establishes a norm of two primary word stresses and four metrical positions for the verse. The prototype for the line corresponds to an SOV Germanic sentence, with a weakly stressed finite verb at the end preceded by more prominent words such as subject and object nouns. Lines ending in a finite verb are highly favored.

As with norms of iambic pentameter, norms of Old English meter exert more influence at higher levels. Consider for example two variants of verse type Da, one variant with four metrical positions and another with five. Both variants have a stressed word in the first foot and a compound word in the second foot. An example of the shorter variant is Beowulf 164b, fēond / mancynnes ‘enemy of mankind.’ An example of the longer variant is Beowulf 223a, sīde / sǣnæssas ‘large sea-nesses.’ The longer variant realizes the first foot with a trochaic word and is optimal in that respect; but it has five metrical positions, contravening the four-position norm for the verse. If the foot norm exerted more influence, the longer variant would have higher frequency; but in fact this variant has about half the frequency of the shorter variant and is vanishingly rare in the b-verse, where the principle of closure restricts complexity. The four-position verse norm exerts more influence than the foot norm.

In Beowulf, two-word verses like lange / hwīle, with each foot realized as a trochaic word, have highest frequency in the b-verse. When the first foot is realized as a group of constituents rather than a single word, the added metrical complexity inhibits placement in the b-verse, all other things being equal. Verses like 121a, fēond on / helle ‘a fiend in hell,’ occur 112 times in the a-verse but only 24 times in the b-verse. Distribution is very different, however, for verses like 45b, forð on-/ sendon ‘sent forth,’ which occur 11 times in the a-verse and 65 times in the b-verse. Such verses realize the first foot as a constituent group but end with a finite verb. The line-level preference for a finite verb at the end exerts more influence on verse placement than the preference for realization of the foot as a word.

For analysis of rule conflict in Germanic alliterative meters, it is helpful to think in terms of violable rules with varying influence. These rules are like the rules of Optimality Theory in important respects (Russom, Evolution 283). Unlike OT linguistic rules, however, metrical rules do not select one and only one linguistic pattern as the only acceptable output. Instead, optimal linguistic features are incorporated into prototypical line patterns. Departures from optimal form occur somewhat more freely in metrical systems than in linguistic systems, and under different conditions; but each departure from the metrical prototype increases metrical complexity, limiting the relative frequency of complex verse patterns and inhibiting their placement in the closing half of the line.

To be preserved for its cultural value over a long period of time, a meter must evolve to accommodate language change. English alliterative meter can be traced from its reconstructed origin in late Proto-Germanic (about 300 BCE) to its death in the sixteenth century CE. Evolution of this form involved abandonment of constraints that became unsustainable and introduction of new constraints based on traditional tendencies that were still perceptible. When the Old English inflectional system was vitiated by reduction of unstressed word-final syllables, unstressed function words were more urgently necessary, and the meter had to tolerate a larger number of unstressed syllables per line. In Middle English alliterative poetry, the metrical coherence of the line was preserved in part by stricter alignment of verses with clauses and by obligatory double alliteration in the a-verse. Effects of the principle of closure were reinterpreted as a rule requiring asymmetry between a-verses and b-verses. The more complex types were increasingly confined to the a-verse, and the b-verse was increasingly populated by types that ended with a trochaic word. A new rule was then introduced requiring a trochaic constituent at the end of the line. For thorough philological discussion of the new Middle English constraints and related bibliography, see Putter et al., Studies. By the late Middle English period, when SVO syntax was the norm, alliterative poets were using conspicuously archaic language to preserve a form almost two thousand years old that was designed for a different language type. After major language changes in early Modern English, poetic archaisms were no longer comprehensible and the meter died.

Borrowing from another language can complicate metrical history. During the early Middle English period, poetic culture was dominated by rhymed forms imported from France for the Norman French aristocracy. In the late fourteenth century, French was less widely spoken, but the prestige dialect of English had accumulated a vast store of words with the prototypical iambic pattern of French borrowings. Rhymed iambic meter must have seemed a natural choice for Chaucer, who stood close to the center of royal power. As the frequency of iambic words increased, the frequency of trochaic words declined. By Chaucer’s time, final -e in trochaic words was no longer consistently scanned as a metrical syllable. After massive loss of word-final unstressed syllables in early Modern English, the trochaic norm for native words had been replaced by a monosyllabic norm –– the stereotypical ‘four-letter word.’ The function of a lost inflectional syllable was usually taken over by a preceding monosyllabic function word such as a preposition, an article, or a demonstrative pronoun. The new stressed monosyllables had no inherent rhythm of their own and iambic meter was ideally suited to the proliferating iambic phrases that replaced trochaic words. Compare for example Beowulf 1507a, hringa / þengel, with its literal modern English translation, the lord / of rings. The Old English verse has two trochaic words; its translation has two iambic phrases.

Conclusions

  1. Metrical constituents are abstracted from natural linguistic constituents.
  2. Meters are not reducible to syllabic patterns, contra Fabb and Halle, ‘Meter in Poetry.’ Meters also employ morphological patterns, syntactic patterns, and perhaps other linguistic patterns as well, such as patterns of prosodic constituents between the syllable and the word.
  3. Meters exploit the native speaker’s ability to apprehend all aspects of linguistic form in real time with automatic facility.
  4. The only metrical constituent universally required is the line. The metrical position, the foot, and the verse (or half-line) may be employed but are not required.
  5. A meter can be represented as a prototype incorporating optimal features of the relevant language.
  6. Metrical constraints can be formulated as violable rules. A given rule can augment or diminish the effects of other rules.
  7. The influence of a violable rule depends on the metrical level at which it applies. Higher-level rules exert more influence than lower-level rules.
  8. A meter preserved through language changes may abandon unsustainable constraints and introduce new sustainable constraints based on statistical frequencies and stylistic preferences.

Topics for Future Research

Conclusions 1–8 above are based on meters I have been able to analyze. My frequency assessments are obtained from complete manual scansions of Beowulf and Gawain in sortable and filterable Microsoft Excel files. Researchers interested in obtaining copies of these files should send an e-mail to < geoffrey_russom@brown.edu >. In some cases, my conclusions can be sharpened in more than one way consistent with the data I have gathered. Language-based analyses of other meters by qualified researchers can impose useful constraints on progressively sharper formulations of universalist constraints. The following are just a few examples of relevant topics.

  1. Research on meters with short lines relative to average word length might reveal whether they are abstracted from phrases below the level of the sentence, as with Old English verses, or create allowable mismatches to lines abstracted from sentences.
  2. Short textual lines might be genuine metrical lines or artifacts of formatting conventions for manuscripts and printed documents. A Japanese specialist, for example, might consider whether the haiku is a genuine three-line unit or is best analyzed as a single line with three cola.
  3. I am willing to be persuaded that a meter can have an obligatory pattern of syllable stress or length that is in some sense ‘artificial’ and does not correspond to a natural linguistic pattern. Classical Greek and Latin quantitative meters may have these characteristics but I have not encountered a focused argument to that effect and would like to see one. I would analyze such an artificial pattern as one that has strong and weak metrical positions abstracted from strong and weak syllables but no ‘word feet’ of the kind discussed in this article. Artificial specification of stress or length patterns would be analogous to artificial specification of the number of feet or metrical positions, familiar subjects of conscious reflection by poets and their audiences.
  4. For language-based metrical theories, corpus-based studies can provide useful information about the relative frequencies of syllabic patterns, word patterns, and syntactic patterns. Studies of this kind may already be available for the researcher’s language of interest.
  5. Researchers who work on modernist experimental poetry might consider whether a given experimental form could be apprehended with automatic facility during oral performance; and if not on first exposure, whether subsequent exposure or conscious instruction could make the form intuitively accessible.
  6. The earliest meters provided important technologies of cultural preservation for customary law, religion, history, myth, and heroic legend. The cultural functions of poetic meter provide topics of great potential interest for psychologists and aestheticians.

Works Cited

(For additional bibliography see Russom, Evolution.)

Dresher, Elan, and Aditi Lahiri. “The Germanic foot: metrical coherence in Old English.” Linguistic Inquiry 22 (1991), 253–86

Fabb, Nigel, and Morris Halle. Meter in Poetry: A New Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008

Hanson, Kristin, and Paul Kiparsky. “A parametric theory of poetic meter.” Language 72 (1996), 287–335

Kiparsky, Paul. “The role of linguistics in a theory of poetry.” Daedalus 102 (1973), 231–44

Kiparsky, Paul. “The Rhythmic Structure of English Verse.” Linguistic Inquiry 8 (1977), 189–247

Putter, Ad, Judith Jefferson, and Myra Stokes. Studies in the Metre of Alliterative Verse. Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 2007

Russom, Geoffrey. The Evolution of Verse Structure in Old and Middle English Poetry: From the  Earliest Alliterative Poems to Iambic Pentameter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Sievers, Eduard. Altgermanische Metrik. Halle: Niemeyer, 1893

Youmans, Gilbert. “Milton’s meter.” In Paul Kiparsky and Gilbert Youmans, eds., Phonetics and Phonology: Volume 1, Rhythm and Meter, 341–79. San Diego: Academic Press, 1989.

 

Literary Meaning: An Evolutionary Perspective

Joseph Carroll, University of Missouri, Saint Louis

Four Meta-Universals of Literary Meaning

In a persuasive formulation, Meyer Abrams reduces all literary activity to four components: the author, the reader, the world to which a literary work refers, and the work itself (Abrams “Types”). Since the poststructuralist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, much literary theory has consisted in eliminating or de-emphasizing one or another of these components—announcing the death of the author, declaring the impossibility of reference to a world outside the text, dissolving individual texts into circulating streams of cultural energies, or reducing the reader to an uncritical participant within a “community” that passively echoes this or that dominant episteme. Humanist and Darwinist critics have frequently criticized these efforts to develop a theory of literature by discarding some of its parts (Abrams, “Transformation”; Carroll, Evolution; Crews, Postmodern Pooh; Crews, Skeptical Engagements; Storey; Carroll et al., Graphing 1-8; Cain; Boyd, Carroll and Gottschall; Patai). There is no need to go over all that ground again. Instead, in this current essay, I use Abrams’s categories as a starting point for developing evolutionary ideas on universals of literary meaning.

Abrams’s four categories are literary meta-universals: conditions without which no other literary universals could exist. Authors speak to readers; literary works refer to a world shared by authors and readers; and a literary work is the medium through which authors communicate with readers. Those four propositions imply four further aspects of the universal literary situation: (1) intentional meaning (what authors intend to communicate); (2) interpretation (the activity of readers seeking to understand what authors mean); (3) meaning itself (what authors say and how readers respond to what authors say); and (4) the organization of meaning in language (linguistic and literary structure).

Abrams’s meta-universals are couched in the ordinary language of humanist common sense. Correlating these concepts with concepts from evolutionary biology situates them within an established scientific paradigm and confirms their robust validity. Authors and readers are human organisms. The world to which literary works refer is the environment in which those organisms live. Literary works are communicative signals, a form of social interaction that is displayed also by many species that do not have the capacity for articulate language. Abrams’s humanist concepts are not, then, superficial descriptors. They cut nature at its joints.

Abrams’s four categories identify appropriate units of analysis for literary research, but they do not offer causal explanation. The theory of adaptation by means of natural selection is a causal explanation that encompasses a vast network of subsidiary causal explanations. Ethology, the zoological discipline that deals most broadly with behavior, distinguishes four main categories of explanation: phylogeny, ontogeny, mechanism, and adaptive function (Tinbergen). Phylogeny concerns the evolutionary origins of any given behavior. Ontogeny concerns development within a single lifespan. Mechanism refers to the anatomical, physiological, and neurochemical structures that are the proximate causes of behavior. Adaptive function concerns the way any given mechanism has contributed to survival or reproduction, hence to the propagation of genes.

Evolutionary literary study assimilates information and explanatory hypotheses from a wide range of disciplines: primatology and comparative psychology (Chapais, “Social Universals”), cognitive and affective neuroscience (Panksepp and Biven; Decety and Cacioppo), developmental psychology (Konner), evolutionary social psychology (Carroll, “Social Theory”; Graham, Haidt and Nosek), evolutionary anthropology (Low), evolutionary psychology (Buss), and biocultural theory (Henrich; Carroll et al., “Biocultural Theory”). Evolutionary hypotheses about universals of literary meaning should integrate ideas from all these disciplines with ideas from empirically grounded disciplines more closely associated with literary study, for instance, from narrative psychology, affective narratology, the psychology of fiction, and evolutionary literary study (McAdams, “Actor”; Johnson-Laird and Oatley; Oatley, Psychology of Fiction; Tamir et al.; Oatley, Passionate Muse; Hogan, “Story“; Hogan, Authors’ Minds; Hogan, Affective Narratology; Carroll, “Minds”; Boyd; Gottschall Storytelling; Boyd, Carroll and Gottschall; Saunders; Clasen; Jacobs and Willems).

Four Levels of Organization for the Analysis of Literary Meaning

Meaning consists in mental experiences in the minds of authors and readers: perceptions, emotions, and thoughts. From an evolutionary perspective, meaning in literary texts can be analyzed at four distinct levels of organization: (1) universal, pan-human forms of experience; (2) specific cultural configurations that are prompted and constrained by pan-human forms of experience; (3) individual identities of authors, readers, and characters; and (4) structures and qualities that distinguish individual literary works from one another. Each of these levels is itself a universal feature of literary works. All works reflect pan-human forms of behavior and experience; all works are lodged within one or more particular cultural traditions; all works are produced by individual minds and interpreted by other individual minds; and all works display unique, distinctive characteristics. Each level of analysis can yield valuable information. A comprehensive evolutionary critique of meaning in any given literary text would integrate all four levels of analysis.

The Pan-Human Level of Organization

An ongoing effort in evolutionary social science aims at identifying the species-typical characteristics of human nature. Donald Brown’s classic portrait of “The Universal People” in Human Universals (1991) suggests the rich complexity of concepts required to describe a fictional “tribe” that exhibits features of behavior, qualities of experience, and forms of thought that appear in every known culture. Later research has pursued many different aspects of that universal picture, for instance, language, cognition, emotions, mating psychology, parenting, kinship, social dynamics, morality, religion, and the arts. (See Brown, “HUMAN UNIVERSALS.”)

Every species has a distinct, species-typical organization of birth, growth, ways of reproduction, and (if the species is social) social life. In every species, the overarching structure of life consists in a reproductive cycle. The field of biology that analyzes species-typical reproductive cycles is known as “life history theory” (Flatt and Heyland). Research on human life history theory has produced detailed accounts of how human reproductive and social behavior has evolved in adaptive interactions with ecological factors to produce the specifically human organization of the life cycle: altricial birth, extended infant dependency, extended childhood, pair-bonded dual parenting combined with cooperative male coalitions, cooperative child care, bilateral multi-generational kin networks, post-reproductive longevity, and death (Muehlenbein and Flinn; Kaplan, Gurven and Winking; Chapais, “Monogamy”). Life history theory reveals the underlying structure and the adaptive logic behind the rich complexity of behavior exhibited by “The Universal People” (Carroll, “Imaginary  Lives”).

The Cultural Level of Organization

In the past three decades or so, evolutionary cultural theory has gradually gained a firmer purchase on the peculiarly “biocultural” character of the human species (Carroll et al., “Biocultural Theory”). The theory of “gene-culture coevolution” describes the causal interaction of biological characteristics and cultural inventions over the course of human evolutionary history. Major landmarks in gene-culture coevolution include upright walking (freeing the hands), the use of tools, the control of fire (enabling cooked food, a reduced gut, and an expanded brain), the development of cooperative foraging centered on a campsite, the organization of families, the expansion of groups into clans and tribes, the evolution of language, the advent of agriculture and pastoralism, the invention of writing, and the massing of populations in cities. Each of these events has involved reciprocal alterations in the human genome and in the transmission of heritable cultural practices (Lumsden and Wilson; Richerson and Boyd; Henrich; Cochran and Harpending).

Because humans have evolved to be highly cultural, every culture develops distinct beliefs and practices, but all beliefs and practices, no matter how diverse, are informed by universal human motives, passions, and imaginative proclivities. Hence the fact that love poems, family dramas, heroic quests, or stories of revenge are easily intelligible across diverse cultures. Hence also the existence of a recognizable body of “world literature”—a common world heritage produced by translations of works from diverse cultures.

Organization at the Level of Individual Persons

Differences in individual identity include the three categories most often invoked in the cultural theory pervasive in the academic literary establishment: gender, race, and class. Major differences less often registered include distinctions of age and family role, degrees of social connectedness, differences of vocation, differences of religious and political belief, differences in temperament such as exuberance or moodiness, aggressive anger or affectional warmth, and differences in intellectual or imaginative characteristics such as learning, humor, imaginative vigor, aesthetic sensitivity, eloquence, creativity, or talent in some particular art or science (McAdams, Personality Development).

All individual differences are platformed on common, shared features of human experience. Races and classes interbreed. Genders are interdependent. Family members form parts of interdependent social organizations. Specialized vocations are functional units in complex economic systems. Personality differences are grounded in neurophysiological characteristics essential to all normal human functioning. All normally developing people have minds and recognize mental life—beliefs, values, feelings, thoughts—in other individuals.

Meaning can only take place in individual minds, but individual minds are always in interactive relationship with other individual minds. The production of meaning in literature is itself an inherently social activity—an activity of transmission, reception, and response.

Organization at the Level of Individual Literary Works

Human nature—the species-typical organization of human life—offers a wide range of subjects for literary depiction. Authors can choose, for instance, to write about any of the phases of life, from childhood and adolescence to maturity and old age; about any motives or concerns—survival, ambition, self-realization, gender or relations between the sexes, family life, kin relations, or social interactions; or about intellectual, artistic, or spiritual aspirations. Every culture has complex traditions that organize all these features of life, and they also have forms of imaginative culture that contain mythic figures, folk tales, and religious and artistic traditions that present such themes in multifaceted ways. Each culture contains an array of poetic, narrative, dramatic, and rhetorical techniques that can be used to construct literary works. Every individual human being has a unique identity that involves some particular configuration of personality traits, mental aptitudes, networks of family and social relationships, personal experiences, and ideas, beliefs, tastes, and attitudes. When some individual author sits down to compose a literary work, he or she has a virtually unlimited range of variables from which to select, and an unlimited range of possible ways in which to organize those variables.

A Formal Definition of Literature

To give more substance to the concept of literary meaning, we have to have a usable working definition of literature. To produce a definition, we need not suppose that literature is a Platonic absolute and that the purpose of definition is to identify the secret essence of literature. We need only locate literature in a class of human behaviors and distinguish it from other members of that class. (That procedure is the definition of a “formal definition.”) The definition proposed here is that literature is an aesthetically modeled verbal construct that evokes or depicts the subjective quality of human experience. In evoking subjective quality, literature is like the other arts but different from science and from much humanist scholarship. In using words as its specific medium, literature differs from the plastic arts and overlaps with science, philosophy, and history. Like the other arts, and unlike these other disciplines, literature typically concerns itself with the aesthetic aspects of its medium: the formal organization of sensory properties.

This definition implies no necessary boundary between high and low art. The definition is broad enough to take in doggerel verse, stand-up comedy, impromptu dramatic enactments, lyric poems, theatrical works, and narrative fictions of every sort. The definition allows for overlaps with other media—film or opera, for instance, or graphic narratives with verbal captions. It does not stipulate fiction as a necessary or exclusive feature of literature, and it draws no sharp boundary between literary works and the more highly colored forms of rhetoric, philosophical disquisition, biography, or historical narrative. The two limiting features in the definition are the aesthetic modeling of the verbal medium and the evocation or depiction of subjective experience. Presuming that readers provisionally accept the definition here offered, we can say that these limiting features—aesthetic modeling and qualitative subjectivity—are themselves universals of literary meaning. They are integral to the kinds of meaning conveyed in literature, and to the way literature conveys those meanings.

Imaginative Virtual Worlds

Literary authors often give direct expression to their own subjective sensations. Most lyric poets are overtly expressive, and many novelists and short story writers comment explicitly on their feelings about the fictional events they depict. Characters in drama and fiction often express emotions and describe their inner states, and authors of fiction routinely describe and analyze the inmost qualities of sensation and thought in their characters.

All these forms of subjectivity are encompassed within a broader, universal category of subjective sensation in literature: the imaginative virtual world. Every literary work creates an imaginative space shared by the author and reader. The subjective sensation within that shared imaginative space is modulated by universal features of human experience, by beliefs and forms of feeling peculiar to the cultures in which it is created and in which it is read, by the personalities of the author who creates it and the reader who reads it, and by the semantic, affective, and aesthetic properties of the words that are the medium of its existence.

Every individual literary work is imbued with the whole array of attitudes, beliefs, and tastes that make up an author’s world view. Attitudes, beliefs, and tastes within a single mind can of course conflict with one another. When they do, those internal conflicts—tensions, ambiguities, confusions, the feeling of disunion—are themselves distinctive features of the author’s world view. Each individual work is a manifestation of that world view, a fragment of the whole. Each fragment is indelibly stamped by the mind of the person who creates it. In entering imaginatively into a literary work, a reader is entering also into the author’s world view.

The very act of using artistic verbal constructs to create a shared space of imaginative experience is a universal aspect of literary meaning. In entering a shared imaginative space created by intentional verbal constructs, readers implicitly enter into the common human fellowship of imaginative virtual experience. So far as we know, that kind of experience is uniquely human. Independently of any specific quality in any given literary work, that uniquely human fellowship has inherent qualities all its own. It is verbal, imaginative, creative. It points to the world outside itself but organizes itself internally through concepts, images, rhetorical constructions, and tonal patterns. It contains denotative statements but deploys forms of meaning that are fully realized only through the interactions among its conceptual, emotional, and sensory elements. It is a simulacrum but also runs parallel with the real inner world of memories, dreams, and reveries that make up much of our active mental life (Raichle; Kaufman and Gregoire; Buckner, Andrews-Hanna and Schacter; Carroll, “Minds”; Andrews‐Hanna, Smallwood and Spreng).

Authors have a primary determinative force in using words to create an imaginative virtual world. They choose and arrange the words, and they imbue their artifice with their own mental character. Even so, readers are not merely passive recipients of authorial intentions. Every reader has his or her own world view. Each is animated by basic human motives and emotions—for instance, by hunger, thirst, love, and fear. Each reader’s culture endows him or her with beliefs, values, attitudes, and forms of imagination that have descended through generations and are shared by multitudes. Despite these shared aspects of mental life, each reader has a personal identity shaped by a unique combination of genetic endowments and environmental influences.

Readers willingly enter into the imaginative virtual worlds created by authors, but each reader also makes something of his or her own out of what the author gives. However explicit, definite, and unequivocal an author might be, intended meanings necessarily interact with the whole structure of values, beliefs, tastes, and attitudes that make up the reader’s own world view. As Auden says in his elegy for Yeats, “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.” Readers do not only assimilate. They respond and judge.

We have empirical evidence that readers respond in broadly similar ways to literary texts. They identify similar meanings in an author’s work, and even their emotional responses display broad similarities (Carroll et al., Graphing). Those similarities are grounded in common, shared aspects of human nature. Humans are broadly similar—anatomically, physiologically, neurologically—but no one person (not even an identical twin) is precisely the same as any other person. The uniqueness of individual identity is itself a human universal. In parallel, the uniqueness of individual response is a universal of literary meaning. It seems safe to say that no reader ever experiences the same work in precisely the same way as any other reader. And indeed, it seems likely that no reader ever reads the same work, or the same line, in quite the same way twice.

Universals of literary meaning include both these contrasting tendencies: broad similarity of recognition and response, and the unique subjective particularity of transient moments of literary experience.

A Framework for Analyzing Meaning in Literature: Theme, Tone, and Form

The broad similarity of humans—the kind of similarity described in Brown’s “Universal People”—makes it possible to construct a set of categories for the impersonal, objective analysis of literary meaning. A common framework of comparison is necessary both for describing the similarities of literary experience and for distinguishing experiences among cultures and individual persons. Some set of common terms is indispensable to any research program that aspires to joining a collective effort in producing cumulative, empirical knowledge (Gottschall, New Humanities; Carroll et al. Graphing).

Themes

If a work of literature is an aesthetically modeled verbal construct that evokes or depicts subjective qualities of human experience, a neutral analytic framework for analyzing literary experience would need to take in the constituents of subjective experience and the specifically aesthetic, literary characteristics that evoke or depict that experience. Subjective experience does not take place in a vacuum. In literature, it is invariably set in relation to events and circumstances. Events and circumstances might seem infinitely diverse, but the analysis of human actions can be reasonably delimited by analyzing the species-typical patterns of human life. Specifically human forms of mating, parenting, family organization, social interaction, and imaginative culture can be precisely described (Brown, Human Universals; Muehlenbein and Flinn; Chapais, “Social Universals”; Henrich). Every phase and kind of relationship identified in human life history theory displays its own characteristic motives and concerns. Those motives and concerns can be used as taxonomy of basic themes for literary analysis (Carroll, “Imaginary  Lives”; Carroll, “Minds”).

Adopting one common meaning of the term “themes,” I here designate subject areas as “themes.” (Other theorists use the term “themes” with a different signification.) Major themes include childhood and the struggles of growing up, life in a social group, intergroup conflict, mating, parenting, relations among siblings and other relatives, and the life of the mind (religion, ideology, and the arts).

Emotional Tone

Every subject bears within itself a range of affective potentialities, from joy and fulfillment to rage and despair. Characters depicted in literature experience emotions; authors have emotional responses to depicted events; and readers respond both to depicted events and to authors. This whole range of subjective sensation is traditionally characterized as “tone.”

The subjective quality of experience is best captured in the study of emotions. From an evolutionary perspective, two particular kinds of emotional study seem most useful for the purposes of generating a neutral analytic framework closely allied with evolved motives, phases of life, and species-typical kinds of social relationships: the cross-cultural study of emotional facial expressions, and affective neuroscience. On the basis of cross-cultural research on facial expressions, Paul Ekman identifies seven basic emotions: anger, fear, contempt, disgust, joy, sadness, and surprise. On the basis of neurological research, Jaak Panksepp identifies seven emotional systems that partially overlap with Ekman’s seven basic emotions: seeking, fear, rage, lust, maternal care, grief, and play. Basic emotions and emotion systems like those identified by Ekman and Panksepp are complicated and extended in self-conscious and social emotions such as embarrassment, pride, shame, guilt, remorse, and jealousy (Hogan, Affective Narratology; Oatley, Passionate Muse; Carroll et al., Graphing).

Form

Form in fictional narrative begins with the choice of words and the combinations of words in sentences and larger structures such as stanzas, paragraphs, and scenes. Purely physical properties include sound patterns and rhetorical rhythms, but the purely physical elements of language are always intertwined with semantic content and emotional tone. Images and figures of speech are indirect forms of sensory perception and thus also part of the aesthetic quality of literature. The aesthetic medium that begins in sensory experience in literature extends in imagination up through levels of formal organization that can be “perceived” only indirectly, through decoding time schemes and analyzing perspectival interactions among characters, narrators, implied authors, and implied readers (Carroll, “Minds”).

Since its inception, literary theory has aimed at identifying universal structural features in literary texts. Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end offers a classic example of a purely structural hypothesis. Efforts at creating a universal and universally accepted system of genres have so far met with limited success (Fowler), but there is wide general agreement on the characteristics of a few basic genres such as tragedy, comedy, satire, and heroic quest (Frye; Hogan, “Story”; Carroll, “Literary Meaning”). The forms of narration can be delineated with reference to relations among an implied author, a narrator, characters, and an implied reader (Booth; Carroll, “Minds”). Classifications based on the form of representation—verse, drama, and narrative—are well understood. Most literary critics, regardless of theoretical affiliations, recognize the central role of imagery, metaphor, and symbolism in literary structure (Hogan, “Imagery“).

Attributes of “The Universal People” described by Donald Brown include forms of oral, proto-literary expression: narrative, metaphor, metonomy, onomatopoeia, and poetic meter. The existence of these proto-literary forms in all known cultures points toward underlying pan-human forms of neurological development. Empirical research on the psychology of reading now has techniques and tools, including neuroimaging, that are likely to produce rapid advances, in the near future, on understanding the neurological mechanisms that regulate these processes (Jacobs). Pan-human neurological mechanisms are “natural kinds.” Classifications based on natural kinds offer good prospects for empirical development and for integration with thematic and tonal analysis focused on basic motives and emotions.

Established terms in prosody and narratology can be tested against techniques that allow empirical investigation into the psychology of reading (Jacobs). The ideal, ultimately, would be to ground all purely formal categories in cognitive science and to integrate them with an understanding of themes and emotional tone.

Living in the Imagination

Literature or its oral antecedents are human universals. People in all known cultures tell stories, act out scenes, play imaginatively with language, and use it for evocative, expressive, and aesthetic purposes. The idea of imaginative virtual worlds suggests why humans might have evolved this peculiar, uniquely human form of behavior. The imagination seems to be part of the universal repertory of human adaptive capacities (Abraham; Carroll, “Adaptive Function”; Kaufman and Gregoire; Mithen). Compared to humans, animals of other species are more tightly locked into the sensory present, reacting to stimuli from the environment and deploying a relatively narrow range of species-typical behaviors. All normally developing human beings connect the present with the past and with anticipations of the future, entertain cosmological ideas, evaluate behavior through reference to abstract moral codes, construct autobiographical narratives, and interpret events by comparing them, consciously or not, with stories, myths, and images drawn from their culture. In this sense, all human beings live in the imagination. They occupy a virtual imaginative world. Words are crucially important in constructing those worlds. When the words are organized in aesthetically modeled ways to evoke or depict subjective human experience, we call that literature.

Future Research

The evolutionary social sciences have been gradually moving toward the formation of a true paradigm: a model of the human mind that is comprehensive in scope, grounded in empirically validated causal explanations, and capable of cumulative empirical and theoretical development. Biocultural theory has become widely accepted in principle (Carroll et al., “Survey”), but in much evolutionary thinking, theories of “culture” still focus chiefly on technology, social customs, and markers of tribal identity. From the perspective adopted in this essay, understanding that humans live in the imagination is the last major component needed to construct an adequate basic model of the adapted mind. Several streams of research are now converging on that last major component: neuroimaging research on the brain’s default mode network (also known as “the imagination network”; Kaufman and Gregoire), narrative psychology (McAdams, Personality Development), the psychology of fiction (Oatley, Psychology of Fiction), cognitive and affective literary theory (Boyd; Hogan, Affective Narratology), and evolutionary literary theory (Boyd, Carroll and Gottschall).

The sciences characteristically seek explanations that reduce complex phenomena to basic causal principles, preferably principles that can be quantified. Literary critics characteristically seek to evoke complex imaginative structures in literary works. From the perspective adopted in this essay, a comprehensive research program in literary meaning would extend across a methodological spectrum that is occupied, at one pole, by empirical, quantitative research, and at the other pole, by imaginatively responsive interpretive work. Empirical research on the psychology and neurology of literary experience would be constrained by the need to approximate to the complex imaginative structures evoked in interpretive criticism. Interpretive criticism would be constrained by established scientific knowledge, an ethos of respect for empirical validity, and the logic of causal explanatory reduction. Research at both poles would be lodged within a comprehensive, unified conception of the human mind. That conception would synthesize convergent findings from the whole range of disciplines that take Homo sapiens as their subject matter.

 

Works Cited

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Poetic Line Length

Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University

Absolute universal:  Some types of regular poetic form – meter, rhyme, alliteration and parallelism – regulate linguistic form relative to a sequence of words which must be short enough to fit into working memory.  For example, a meter is regulated over a line which can fit as a whole into working memory.

It has been claimed by various authors that a line of metrical poetry is limited in its upper length by working memory capacity.  This claim requires a distinction between two aspects of metricality.  Consider Paradise Lost, which is in iambic pentameter for all of its length.  The meter is a set of constraints on a sequence of words which add up to about ten syllables (with a rhythm holding over that sequence); any constraint on line length must relate to this aspect of metricality, where the meter holds of a textual sequence of a certain length (often within a range of variations, but never limitless, and never very long).   The other aspect of the meter is that the whole poem is in iambic pentameter, and in this aspect of metricality there is no upper limit on length.  It is thus necessary to distinguish the aspect of metricality which holds within a section (e.g., the metrical line) and the aspect of metricality which holds over a whole text, which can be isometric or heterometric, where distinct sections are in different meters (in some cases, radically heterometric as in Greek lyric poetry).  There is usually no relation between these two aspects of a meter: iambic pentameter always controls the line in the same way but can combine with other meters in all kinds of ways to form patterns across a longer text.

Once we focus on the aspect of metricality which holds within a section (usually called a line), we can specify that the sections are always fairly short.  In many metrical traditions, the meter holds over a section which we might call a line.  (In some traditions, there is a longer and a shorter section, each of which might be called the line, depending on what aspect of form we focus on – as in Beowulf for example or the Arabic beyt); even if the meter holds of the larger section it is still always fairly short.  Various authors have argued that the metrical section can be no longer than the sequence of words which can fit into working memory capacity (Tsur, Hogan, Willett etc).  They tend to assume Miller’s characterization of working memory capacity as “seven plus or minus two” units (e.g., words, or sometimes syllables).  This however would not offer enough capacity for lines in many metrical traditions; it is also incorrect as a characterization of working memory capacity.  Working memory capacity is now considered by psychologists to contain about four ‘chunks’ of information (Cowan), and Baddeley suggests that in the episodic buffer of working memory a sequence of about fifteen lexical/grammatical words can fit into working memory.  Some such word-based measure is a larger estimate of capacity which is likely to be enough to fit any metrically-governed sequence of words in any poetic tradition.  (I illustrate this claim from a range of traditions in Fabb What is Poetry.)  This raises the possibility that the metrical line may be subject to an upper limit on length: it must fit into working memory capacity.

Note that this limit on length is based on information (e.g., number of words) and not on duration.  There is no specifically durational limit on the upper length of the line;  Turner and Pöppel claim a three second upper limit, but this is disproved by Fabb’s (“There is No Psychological Limit”) survey of recorded poetry.  Baddeley has a multi-component theory of working memory, and suggests that one part of working memory, the phonological loop is indeed limited by duration (two seconds of material); but it is not this part of working memory which is involved in this generalization (instead it is the episodic buffer which is limited by information, not time).

Adapting an existing tradition, my suggestion is that a kind of regular poetic form – meter – is constrained to operate over sequences which are no longer than can be held in working memory.  In Fabb What is Poetry I suggest that three other kinds of regular poetic form are similarly constrained: rhyme, alliteration and parallelism.  This requires a similar separation between two aspects of a form: (i) the constraints it places relative to a sequence of words, where the sequence is limited in length, and (ii) the overall pattern it forms over a text, where there is no upper limit.   Consider for example rhyme.  The constraint relative to a sequence can be stated for an English sonnet as ‘the final word in a line must rhyme’ (note that again this refers to the line as the relevant section, a section of limited length).  Rhyme can then be distributed in various kinds of pattern, which can hold over couplets, quatrains, octave/sestet or the whole poem, where there are no upper limits on the size of unit over which the pattern is defined.  Similar claims can be made for alliteration, where the rule requires e.g., one word in every half-line to alliterate, or one word in every line.  The same alliteration pattern can then be sustained throughout a whole poem (e.g., in the Somali gabay genre).  Parallelism is a looser structural notion, and can be found intermittently in prose (unlineated text) as well as poetry; when it is found in poetry, however, each part of a parallel pair is relatively short in length (Fabb “Poetic Parallelism”).  In conclusion, it appears that the four most widespread kinds of regular form found in poetry all hold of relatively short textual sequences, short enough to fit into working memory capacity.

Though Fabb What is Poetry shows that these claims appear to hold true for many different poetic traditions, the claims suffer from a lack of relevant psychological evidence.  First, we know rather little about the capacity of working memory as regards how many words will fit into it, and how different languages with different kinds of word place different demands on working memory (Cohen-Mimran et al).  Second, the measures offered, e.g., Baddeley’s fifteen words, depend on the words being syntactically connected in a coherent way (enabling chunking), but this is not always true of poetry where nonsyntactic concatenation is more common (Fabb “Why is Verse” suggests that poetic lines actually have no syntax).  Third, as far as I know there are no experimental results telling us how many words within a poem can fit as a sequence into working memory.

The generalization is that certain regular poetic forms must hold over a sequence of words which can fit into working memory.  This rules out two possibilities.  First, it means that regular poetic forms such as meter, rhyme, alliteration and parallelism cannot hold of prose. This is because the difference between prose and poetry is that only the latter has sections (e.g., lines) which are not isomorphic with syntactic or linguistic prosodic constituents; it is these sections over which the poetic forms hold, and which are limited in upper length.  Second, it means that in poetry, regular poetic forms cannot depend on long sequences; to give a specific example, there should be no poetry in which the only constraint on rhyming words is that they must fall at the end of quatrains (because they would be too long).

Note that the generalization does not apply to poetic lines as such.  Whitman’s lines can be longer than likely to fit into working memory.  But these lines also have no regular poetic form; the poetic forms emerge temporarily in Whitman’s poetry, just as they can do in prose.  The generalization applies only to poetic lines which have certain kinds of regular form. However, other kinds of poetic form may not be constrained in the same way; for example, in the Hiberno-Latin poem Altus Prosator (attr. St Columba) the first word in each of the six-line stanzas is alphabetically constrained: A in the first stanza, B in the second, etc.  Though the pattern is unconstrained (as it always is), there is nevertheless a rule, “put an alphabetically constrained word at the beginning of each stanza,” which because of the size of unit referred to would be impossible for rhyme, alliteration, metre, or parallelism. It is worth noting that this type of form depends on writing (which may allow for the larger units relative to which it is defined).

If the generalization is correct, then it might suggest that working memory has a role in the processing of regular poetic forms such as meter, rhyme, alliteration and parallelism; long-term memory is also important, for the overall patterns (including the very complex patterns formed by rhyme schemes or by responsion in Greek odes).   Does it have any consequence for the aesthetics of poetry: e.g., arising from the need to hold a metrical line as a whole unit in working memory.  Hogan suggests that the relation to working memory has a function of fostering aesthetic experience by enabling what Abhinavagupta calls “savoring” and that such savoring is in part a matter of fuller or richer encoding of verbal properties, relative to our (usually non-aesthetic) encoding of ordinary language

Future Research

(i)     It would be useful to know a lot more about working memory capacity and how it relates to linguistic form.  For example, psychologists claims about working memory capacity tend to refer to lexical/syntactic words, but it is clear that prosodic words (and prosodic constituency) are relevant in metre and other aspects of poetry.

(ii)    I know of no relevant experimental work to test working memory capacity and poetry.  In comparison, there is a big body of work on long term memory and poetry (particularly oral poetry).  The relation between the two kinds of memory would also be interesting to explore, as regards poetic form and the line.

(Thanks to an anonymous reviewer who forced a complete rewrite and resubmission.)

Works Cited

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Cohen-Mimran, Ravit, Jasmeen Adwan-Mansour and Shimon Sapir. “The Effect of Morphological Complexity on Verbal Working Memory: Results from Arabic Speaking Children.”  Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 42 (2013): 239–253.

Cowan, Nelson. “The Magical Number 4 in Short-term Memory: A Reconsideration of Mental Storage Capacity.”  Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24 (2000): 87–185.

Fabb, Nigel “Why is Verse Poetry?” PN Review 189. 36 (2009): 52–57.

Fabb, Nigel “There is no Psychological Limit on the Duration of Metrical Lines in Performance: Against Turner and Pöppel.” International Journal of Literary Linguistics 2 (2013): 1-29

Fabb, Nigel. What is Poetry?  Language and Memory in the Poems of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Fabb, Nigel. “Poetic Parallelism and Working Memory.”  Oral Tradition 31/2 (2017). Special issue on Parallelism in Verbal Art and Performance, ed. Frog & Lotte Tarkka.

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