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 Zoltán Kövecses, “Metaphor Universals in Literature”

Kathleen Hart, Vassar College

Metaphor Universals in Literature” succinctly synthesizes important conceptual metaphor scholarship (to which Kövecses has made substantial contributions) that offers valuable tools for analyzing metaphor in poetry and other literary forms. In what follows, I propose a theoretical justification for Kövecses’s decision to focus on poetry: more than other genres, poetry approximates the experience of ritual. I then explore the implications of this theory for the content Kövecses proposes for the schematicity levels of the skyscraper metaphor in Carl Sandburg’s poem “Skyscraper.”

Kövecses’ “schematicity hierarchy” can serve to illuminate the interpretive choices available to readers (including literary translators) by bringing to conscious awareness the different levels of abstraction associated with a metaphorical expression. Readers generally access the compound conceptual metaphor “Life is a journey” to interpret Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” But since a journey, like a walk in the woods, can be voluntarily undertaken, and to a known destination (for which the complex metaphor “A purposeful life is a journey” is more apt), the “Life is a journey” metaphor can lead readers to overlook the poem’s emphasis on what is involuntary and unknown. Applying Kövecses’ method, one can articulate an even more schematic (less specific) metaphorical level above “Life is a journey” that removes volition from the proposition: “A life from beginning to end is movement from a start point to an end-point” (the event-structure metaphor “Change of state is change of location” would not be specific enough). Now it becomes clear that life is from the outset a “journey” we are involuntarily thrust upon, under conditions not of our choosing, even if we exercise some choice with respect to paths taken. Likewise, identifying “path” (the route along which something travels) as a less specific source term than “road” (a wide, specially prepared surface) throws into relief the poem’s allusion to civilization as another factor narrowing our life choices:

Image schema: A life from beginning to end is movement from a starting point to an end-point.

Domain: Life is a journey

Frame: Making a life choice is embarking on one path instead of another

Mental spaces: I made a significant life choice (“that has made all the difference”) when I took the road less travelled by

Establishing such distinctions to create what Kövecses calls a “multi-level view” better enables readers to identify both choice and lack of choice as thematic preoccupations of the poem.

Probing relationships between different levels of abstraction can also call attention to the specific sensory-motor or perceptual representations activated by the source domain at the “mental spaces” level, enhancing our appreciation of the esthetic as well as symbolic value of a poet’s linguistic choices. The question of value, however, raises a theoretical consideration beyond the practical ones Kövecses cites for focusing primarily on poetry. If poetic choices have both esthetic and symbolic value, then we may need to take a text’s generic status into account when attempting to articulate its levels of metaphor. In the case of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Skyscraper,” for instance, the traditionally ritualistic character and functions of pro-labor poetry, with its emphasis on the neglected humanity of low-wage workers, participate in Sandburg’s questioning of the “Society is a building” metaphor.

As Kövecses observes, the “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.” This raises the question as to why poetry treats such topics, or why we read poems metaphorically for those topics in the first place. Never does Frost’s poem explicitly map the metaphor “Life is a journey,” though literary works often do offer explicit metaphorical mappings (e.g. “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players”). It’s the text’s recognizable status as a poem that invites us to give abstract meaning to a walk in the woods. If we were to take the news report of a fatal accident that occurred when a driver swerved into an oncoming car to avoid hitting an animal, and rearrange the same “ordinary” language on a page to resemble poetry, then it would automatically have metaphorical import. Now the driver becomes every human being who has tried to avoid a wrong path in life, only to embark on a worse one. Higher-level construal involves a certain discounting of the precise details that separate us. Not all of us drive cars or walk in a yellow wood, but we all share human vulnerability; we’re all on this journey together.

The very use of the adjective “higher” to refer to abstract processing is relevant to at least one significant theoretical rationale for focusing on poetry to explore metaphor: poetry comes closer than other genres to approximating the ritual affiliative symbolic practices of our pre-industrial ancestors. In ritual, humans experience a dissolution of boundaries between the self and other. Group ritual allowed members of a village or tribe to undergo self-transcendent experiences that had an “‘All for one, one for all’ subjective quality” (Yaden, et. Al, 153). Our capacity for self-transcendent experience likely conferred evolutionary advantages by promoting pro-social behavior. Experiencing the group as a single entity, one could forget the individual concerns of “the small self” and feel implicated in a “higher” purpose, with the word “higher” expressing the possibly embodied metaphor “Good is up.” One could then more easily reconceptualize “getting killed in battle” as “making a noble sacrifice” (see Dissanayake).

Poetry harkens back to ritual, as Ellen Dissanayake argues, in that it typically relies on “paralinguistic aesthetic devices” (56), including rhythm, repetitions, silences, and ways of bringing out words’ acoustic qualities; such devices are also characteristic of “motherese”: the style of speech adults universally use when bonding with infants. The poetic extension, elaboration, and questioning of metaphor is “covered by aesthetic devices” (67) that produce “bodily-emotional affective effects” (74). “Both baby talk and ritual ceremony structure (or pattern) and produce changes in feelings” (71), which influence our ways of thinking about something.

Ritual often takes place when something important is at stake. If we read “Skyscraper” as a ritualistic act that can change our ways of thinking about something, then the metaphorical expression involving a skyscraper at the beginning of the poem potentially means something different by the end of the poem. Citing cultural context – around the time the poem was written in1916, skyscrapers began to proliferate in major American cities — Kövecses asserts that the skyscraper can be construed as a metaphor whose four levels of schematicity he identifies as follows:

Image schema: Complex abstract systems are complex physical structures.

Domain: Society is a building.

Frame: The construction of a society is the building of a building.

Mental spaces: Building a new American society is building a skyscraper.

Never does the poem offer the explicit metaphorical mapping “Society is a building.” The poem’s own metaphorical expressions, on the other hand, point to a tension between the skyscraper as an awe-inspiring symbol of collective achievement, and the skyscraper as a money-making machine commissioned and controlled by “the master-men who rule the building.” Understood in historical context, that tension corresponds to two competing future visions of “the new American society”: it could potentially honor every “soul,” or be completely dominated by unregulated industrial capitalism.

At stake was the future of American workers. Would they ever enjoy an eight-hour workday, decent wages, compensation for job-related injury? Would child labor be outlawed? Or would workers continue to be the victims of employers’ unchecked power, while labor union organizers got beaten by the police, framed by the courts and executed? Would the rights to freedom of speech and assembly continue to be violated in the name of public safety? Sandburg cared deeply about those questions. And nowhere in the United States was the battle for labor fought more furiously than in the city of Chicago, where Sandburg had gone to write for a pro-labor newspaper amidst ongoing strikes.

Challenges to unregulated capitalism were associated in the public mind with anarchist violence, though violence often began when the police, at the behest of big business, fired into crowds of peaceful strikers. This may be why Sandburg’s publisher pressured him to soften the more radical tone of The Chicago Poems. “Skyscraper” leaves open the question of what more specific target domain, other than “new American society,” corresponds to the specificity of the source domain “skyscraper” at the level of mental spaces. That more specific target domain, I suggest, involves the “complex abstract system” of industrial capitalism.

The poem’s very first metaphorical expression hints at something ominous: “BY day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and has a soul.” The skyscraper is a huge inanimate object that has a “soul,” as if endowed with intelligence and agency: a thing is a being. Subsequent lines depict people being “poured” into the skyscraper, or identified as “broom” and “mop”: human beings are things. The personification of the skyscraper-as-instrument thus corresponds to the instrumentalization of the people who work in or on it, like the construction worker who becomes part of the building when he falls from a girder and breaks his neck.

As a product of unregulated industrial capitalism, the skyscraper was not a mere physical structure; it was an instrument for generating capital (Parker). Construction workers had no more say in its architectural design than in their own wages or working conditions; workers were treated as mindless and dispensable objects to be purchased cheap with the building materials: “Hour by hour the hand of the mason and the stuff of the mortar clinch the pieces and parts to the shape an architect voted.” The rise of unregulated industrial capitalism is the degradation of work, defined as “the separation of conception from execution” (Braverman 78).

Any working definition of a “society” includes “people.” It is the dehumanization of workers that the poet strives to oppose, by insisting that every person, regardless of social status, has “a soul.” Though reduced to machine-like status on the job, human beings deserve consideration with respect to wages, physical safety and daily hours. Offering a corrective to the representation of low-wage workers as mere things, the poet points out that “men and women, boys and girls,” are the ones “that give the building a soul of dreams and thoughts and memories.” The skyscraper minus human beings, on the other hand, is just a pile of concrete: “Dumped in the sea or fixed in a desert, who would care for the building . . . ?”

Society, then, is not a building (which is not to contradict Kövecses: to question a metaphor is to develop it). At the same time, however, humans are capable of feeling connected to a group as if it were a single entity; a building is a single entity. The poem’s final line echoes the first, while taking on a potentially new meaning: “By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and stars and has a soul.” By the end of this poem that has repeatedly invoked every person’s “soul,” the skyscraper’s “soul” now potentially designates a society by and for “souls” who are united as a single entity, to uphold a lofty group purpose. Experienced as an oppressive force that pits “the master-men” against powerless workers reduced to things, society can be conceptualized as a soul-destroying skyscraper. Experienced as a single entity that makes us feel “we are all in it together,” with worker’s hours reduced and income increased, a society can be conceptualized as an awe-inspiring symbol of collaborative endeavor: a skyscraper.

Vision I.

Image schema: Complex abstract systems are entities that limit our agency

Domain: Societies are buildings

Frame: The perpetuation of unregulated industrial capitalism is the erection of a building-machine that contains people by reducing them to things

Mental Spaces: The concretization of an American society based on unregulated capitalism is the erection of a soul-destroying skyscraper that looms over the dehumanized masses.

Vision II.

Image Schema: Complex abstract systems are entities that limit our agency

Domain: Societies are buildings

Frame: The establishment of regulated industrial capitalism is the erection of a building-machine that contains people while preserving (relatively speaking) their “souls”

Mental Spaces: The concretization of an American society based on regulated capitalism is the erection of an awe-inspiring soul-preserving skyscraper pointing to the stars.

Reading and writing pro-labor poetry was a ritualistic bonding practice of early twentieth-century Americans who fought for more regulatory policies and protections. Good or bad, their poetry and songs sustained them through terror and crushing defeat. Poetry helped them feel morally elevated above the proponents of unregulated capitalism who sought to keep them down.

To Carl Sandburg, poetry was a way of calling upon the soul’s power to transcend the “small self” and celebrate “people,” not profits, as the very highest purpose of humanity. Accordingly, “Skyscraper” uses the verticality metaphor in two ways: through the conceptual metaphor “Power is up” and the conceptual metaphor “Good (virtue) is up.” There are men in the skyscraper who aspire to a “million-dollar business,” to “live a lobster’s ease of life.” The “People are animals” metaphor – not just any animal here, but a lobster, quite low on the Great Chain of Being — indicates that only a low life aspires to “stacks of money” while disregarding the “souls” on whom fortune is made. Virtue, in the form of poetic contemplation and higher-level construal, belongs to the low-level watchman who gazes over the city from the building’s highest floor.

Kövecses’ term “conceptualizer” is appropriate, since the reader, and not just the poet, actively constructs metaphorical meaning; the reader’s background, and not just the writer’s, can account for the metaphors identified and articulated at different levels. My own background informs my reading: my great-grandfather, George Carey, was a Wobbly who met his Belarusian anarchist wife Ykaterina (“Kate”) at a rally for the labor activist Joe Hill (see Kornbluh and Gross 156-157). I have inherited their pro-worker pamphlets full of poetry.

Early twentieth-century America was at a crossroads. After laissez-faire economics failed to prevent the Great Depression, President Roosevelt took the view that “we” were all in this together, and had new regulatory policies and reforms adopted such as the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. By 1960 President Johnson called Sandburg “more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America.”

Unlike a building, a society is ever at a crossroads, consisting of people who make crucial decisions. Sandburg’s skyscraper could indeed be a metaphor for a “new American society” committed to civil liberties and protection for workers. Without the guarantee of those rights and protections, however, the skyscraper would revert to the status of an inhumanly immense instrument of oppression. Which road gets taken is what makes the difference.

Works Cited

Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999.

Dissanayake, Ellen. “Prelinguistic and Preliterate Substrates of Poetic Narrative.” Poetics Today 32.1 (2011): 55-79.

Kornbluh, Joyce L. and Daniel Gross. Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2011.

Parker, Martin. “Vertical Capitalism: Skyscrapers and Organization.” Culture and Organization 21.3 (2015):  217-234.

Yaden, David Bryce, Jonathan Haidt, Ralph W. Hood, Jr, David R. Vago, and Andrew B. Newberg. “The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience.” Review of General Psychology 21.2 (2017): 143-160.




Comments on Zheng Ying, “Chinese and Western Drama”

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

I was both pleased and stimulated to read Zheng Ying’s insightful reflections on tragi-comedy and tragedy. Since Professor Zheng is concerned centrally with my work on this topic, it seemed appropriate that I make a few comments. Broadly speaking, I believe Professor Zheng’s essay shows us something important about tragedy, comedy, and tragi-comedy. However, I am not convinced that it shows us a difference between Chinese and Western drama.

First, I should say that I did not initially conceive of my comments on tragedy and tragi-comedy as involving terribly substantive claims. I had analyzed story sequences in terms of goal pursuit, with goals defined by imagined happiness. Achievement of the goal is the basic condition of comedy. This left the obvious issue of what constitutes tragedy, since heroes do not typically pursue objects they do not believe will make them happy. My claim was simply that tragedy is not a problem because the tragic hero pursues a happiness goal in the usual way; what marks off tragedy from comedy is that the hero cannot achieve the goal. For example, Romeo and Juliet desire union. Their deaths prevent this. I went on to argue that prototypical comedies intensify their outcome emotion (of joy) by developing the middle of the story into an apparent loss of the happiness goal. For example, it is all well and good if John and Jane fall in love, then get married with their parents’ and friends’ enthusiastic encouragement. But it is more engaging and ultimately enjoyable if John and Jane are married after they have been separated by parental disapproval, with one of them apparently dying and the other being engaged to a wicked rival. In comedy, that intensification in the middle is, so to speak, temporarily tragic. The lovers are not dead; the conflict with the parents can be overcome. In tragedy, that middle is permanent.

Reading Professor Zheng’s essay, I realized that these claims are not simply preliminary to the genre analyses that follow. They do have some independent consequences. The first consequence that I should note is terminological. I use the term “tragi-comedy” to refer to outcomes of story sequences—failure to achieve goals (tragedy or the “tragi-” part of “tragicomedy”) versus success in achieving them (comedy). Another use of “tragi-comedy” refers to overall mood—sad (tragedy or the “tragi-” part of “tragi-comedy”) or joyful (comedy). In keeping with the latter usage, some writers refer to a work as a tragi-comedy if sorrowful elements disturb our response to the joyful elements, rendering the predominant mood unclear. Rather than referring to this as “tragi-comedy,” I would refer to (degrees of) ambivalence.

I believe to some extent Professor Zheng’s comments concern ambivalence rather than tragi-comedy (in my usage). However, that brings me to the second consequence, which is not merely terminological. Professor Zheng’s essay suggests to me that ambivalence is in part a matter of the extent to which happiness outcomes are or are not achieved, In other words, ambivalence results from different degrees of “shortening,” as Professor Zheng would put it. I have stressed the broad extent of ambivalence in other work (see How). But I did not fully realize its importance in tragedy or tragi-comedy before reading Professor Zheng’s analysis.

Specifically, Professor Zheng presents a suggestive argument that both Chinese and Western narratives involve shortening comedy into tragedy. However, in my terms, he indicates that Chinese tragedies are more ambivalent (thus have more joy) in their outcomes. This is possible. However, if true, it could only be shown by broad survey. What Professor Zheng’s examples suggest to me is, rather, that both traditions are more ambivalent than I had previously thought. In The Mind and Its Stories, I did stress the troubled character of heroic usurpation narratives. The “epilogue of suffering” that often ends such stories suggests that there is frequently a tragic mood even in works that count as tragi-comedies by my outcome-oriented definition. I also pointed out that many heroic stories involve the original leader being killed and replaced by his heir. Given these points, The Great Revenge of the Orphan of Chao seems to conform relatively well to the general structure of heroic tragi-comedy—or, more properly, it seems to approximate the prototype (since we are not dealing with necessary and sufficient conditions here, but with roughly average tendencies).

Hamlet is more clearly tragic than Chi Chun-hsiang’s play. The usurper is killed, but so is the hero (the usurped leader’s heir). King Lear turns out to be a difficult case. It partially approximates the tragi-comic prototype as the usurped leader (Lear) is succeeded by his favored son-in-law (Albany; recall the opening lines of the play, “I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall” [I.i.1-2]). But his favorite child (Cordelia) has been killed—partially due to conflict with that son-in-law. Even while being more complex in its outcome, King Lear seems clearly to be varying the prototypical, tragi-comic case. But its complexity—narrative, thematic, and above all emotional—is important and consequential.

The key point for present purposes is that all these heroic works—Chinese and Western–betray degrees of ambivalence, whether we judge them ultimately tragic or comic in outcome. The same point applies to romantic works. (On heroic and romantic works, see “Story.”) Consider, for example, Romeo and Juliet and Ma Chih-yuan’s Autumn in Han Palace. Both involve the permanent, tragic separation of the lovers. But both also involve social reconciliation at the end—reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets in the former case and reconciliation between Emperor Yuan and Emperor Huhanya in the latter. Indeed, once we are attuned to ambivalence, we are likely to notice that it occurs even in comedies, most obviously with the “scapegoat” figure—for example, Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night or the suicidal rival, Cheng Heng, at the end of Western Chamber Romance.

In sum, it is not clear that there is a systematic difference between Chinese and Western drama in the nature of shortening tragi-comedy into tragedy. Rather, Professor Zheng seems to me to have drawn our attention, very valuably, to variation in the degree of such shortening in both traditions. This in turn sensitizes us to the extent of ambivalence in both tragedy and comedy. Finally, it suggests that there is not a sharp comedy-tragedy division, but a continuum, with ambiguous cases—rather as we might have expected from the idea of tragi-comedy to begin with.

Future Research

The preceding points suggest that the ambivalence of both comedy and tragedy should be studied more systematically across a range of traditions. Part of this research may involve understanding what patterns there are in such ambivalence, for example what forms of “shortening” we find in more tragic stories or how common scapegoating is in comedies. Another part of this research may involve explaining why different traditions apparently develop comic and tragic outcomes in different proportions, both within and across works. Finally, further study of the way tragi-comedy operates in the different universal-prototypical genres (such as the heroic and romantic stories) might advance our understanding of why some genres appear more prone to ambivalence than others.

Works Cited

Chi Chun-hsiang. “The Orphan of Chao.” In Six Yuan Plays. Ed. and trans. Liu Jung-en. New York: Penguin, 1972, 41-81.

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

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

Ma Chih-yuan. Autumn in Han Palace. In Six Yuan Plays. Ed. and trans. Liu Jung-en. New York: Penguin, 1972, 189-224.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. In The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. New York: Norton, 1997, 2307-2554.

Tung Chieh-yuan. Master Tung’s Western Chamber Romance. Ed. and trans. Li-li Ch’en. New York: Columbia UP, 1976.

Response to Russom, ‘Comments on Fabb’

Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde

These very interesting comments raise some difficult issues, to which I offer partial responses as follows.

  1. The definition of “poem” is taken from Fabb (What is Poetry?). It covers metrical poetry, nonmetrical but parallelistic poetry, and free verse. Its goal is to differentiate most poetry from most prose, but it has some blurred boundaries: for example it does not fit prose poems, and it holds at a small scale – ordinary prose can be divided into paragraphs, chapters etc. which are larger sections not determined by syntactic or prosodic structure.  So it is intended as a useful but not strict (or universal) definition; its purpose is to draw attention to the fact that where poetry has regular added forms such as metre, rhyme, alliteration or parallelism, these added forms are dependent on poetic sections.  Because prose lacks these kinds of section it also lacks the poetic forms.  (Furthermore, as I argue in another entry, the poetic sections on which the forms depend are short enough to fit into working memory.)   Poetic sections – such as metrical lines – can have boundaries which coincide with linguistic constituent boundaries; in some traditions, this is strictly enforced, while in others it is not.  That is, there is definitely the possibility of a regular (perhaps statistically predictable) relation between poetic sections and linguistic constituents.  The point of the definition is that the reverse is not true; that is, there is no generalization that a specific type of linguistic (syntactic or prosodic) constituent is always coincident with a poetic section; if that was the case, then people would be talking poetry whenever they spoke and there would be no prose.
  1. As noted in the comment, there are apparently meters which enumerate words. Hebrew (Carmi 60-62) offers examples, and Rumsey argues that the PNG language Ku Waru has word-counting meters. If words, rather than some prosodic element inside words, are being counted in these meters then they fit the Fabb and Halle approach, which is not committed to phonology determining meter, better than the Kiparsky approach.  But also if these are just counting meters and there is no control of rhythm, then these ‘word counting’ meters are like syllable counting meters, or mora-counting meters, or Korean sijo in which accentual phrases are counted.  As such, these purely counting meters fall outside the scope of the universal, which look not at counting as such, but at the relation between counting and rhythm (in the sense of a pattern of prosodically differentiated units).
  1. Lerdahl and Jackendoff showed that music has various kinds of hierarchical structure, of which (musical) metrical structure is closest to the rhythmic organization of metrical verse. However musical metrical structures are not subject to an upper bounding in length; for example, if the music is in 3/4 time, we do not in general find a kind of requirement relating to the metrical structure itself that every four bars form a distinct section.  The organization of the musical sequence into sections is Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s ‘grouping structure’, a hierarchical organization into motives, phrases and sections which is distinct from but can be systematically related to the metrical structure: they are ‘independent but interactive’. Grouping structure is one of a range of kinds of hierarchical grouping structure in cognition (as Lerdahl and Jackendoff point out, and an area in which they were pioneers; for general discussion see Cohen).   Other kinds of grouping include event segmentation (Radvansky and Zacks).  One of the characteristics of all these kinds of grouping is that there is no inherent limit on their maximal size; they are not measured or counted out.  (Though Lerdahl and Jackendoff do have a rule against very small groups.)  But metrical structures in poetry are made from a controlled number of elements with a lower and upper bound; in this, they are unique.   Note that nothing prevents musical grouping being organized numerically, or prose being organized numerically (and Hymes argued that some folk tales were organised into counted groups); but this is optional not obligatory. Grouping structure in music is a bit like division into paragraphs and chapters in a novel; it is a kind of hierarchical grouping with no inherent limit on maximal size. It is unlike lineation in metrical verse.
  1. Finally, a comment on the Fabb and Halle theory of meter. This shares with all theories of meter the view that a metrical line is attached to a hierarchical metrical representation (whether tree or grid, close variants of one another), with rules which relate the prosodic phonology of the line to the metrical representation.  Theories differ in the extent to which the metrical representation is determined by the phonology of the line, or is autonomous of the phonology; the Fabb-Halle theory tends more (but not completely) to the latter.  We focus more than other theories on how the representation is built (and in our theory, also transformed). Our specific contribution is to note that the metrical representation is controlled in its size by non-linguistic principles; a meter such as iambic pentameter counts ten syllables (or five times two syllables) – but no linguistic rule can count higher then two or perhaps three.  This is the basis of the universal which I propose, which means that there are upper limits on the size of metrical sequences.  This is not inherent to the Kiparsky theories which focus on local relations between small metrical constituents such as feet and short sequences of syllables, though the setting of a limit is derived (in a different way) by Golston and Riad.

Works Cited

Carmi, T., ed. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

Cohen, G. “Hierarchical Models in Cognition: Do They Have Psychological Reality?” European Journal of Cognitive Psychology 12 (2000): 1-36.

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

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. Meter in Poetry: a New Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Golston, Chris and Riad, Tomas. “The Phonology of Classical Greek Meter,”  Linguistics  38 (2000): 99–167.

Radvansky, Gabriel A. and Jeffrey M. Zacks, eds. Event Cognition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Rumsey, Alan. “Tom Yaya Kange: A metrical narrative genre from the New Guinea Highlands.”   Journal of Linguistic Anthropology  11.2 (2001):193-239.


By: Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University, U.K.

Comments on Fabb, “Rhythm”

Geoffrey Russom, Brown University

I think that the proposed universal is very much worth pursuing but I disagree with two of the related claims and would appreciate a response to my reservations by Fabb. The two claims are:

(1) A poem is a text made of language, divided into sections which are not determined by syntactic or prosodic structure. Such sections are called ‘poetic sections’.

(2) In music, regular rhythms can be sustained indefinitely over musical sequences which are not divided into sections; in other words, music can be a kind of ‘metrical prose’ (Fabb and Halle “Grouping”).

Claim #1 comes from Fabb and Halle (Meter). This publication does not confront the evidence for the reality of the metrical foot presented by Paul Kiparsky, and in more recent work based on the hypothesis “that literary language is a development of ordinary language, using the resources already available to it” (Fabb and Halle, Meter, 10). I was surprised that Fabb and Halle simply ignored this research after noting that it existed. I think excellent evidence and argumentation have been provided for the claim that metrical feet exist, that foot boundaries are aligned with word boundaries in the unmarked case, and that line boundaries are aligned in the unmarked case with the boundaries of natural syntactic constituents (sentences, clauses, and phrases, short phrases of course when a form employs short lines). An important universal proposed by Gilbert Youmans is that “higher-level metrical boundaries are progressively more significant than lower-level ones” (376). This explains, for example, why coincidence of foot boundaries with word boundaries is less strictly regulated than coincidence of line boundaries with phrase boundaries. I think the most challenging poetic material for Fabb would be Irish alliterative meters in which the enumerated constituent of the line is the word. (For a summary and references, see Russom.)

Fabb’s claim #2 is stated as if it were an unremarkable one but it seems very remarkable to me. Music in 4/4 time, as generally understood, is divided into measures, and the unmarked realization of the measure is as a group of four quarter notes with the prominence contour 1/3/2/4 (“1” being highest). The leftward boundary of the measure coincides with a prominently accented note in the unmarked case. I have not read Fabb and Halle (“Grouping”) but it is important to clarify what it meant by claim #2 for the benefit of music theorists and musicians. Fabb might want to consider the universals for musical groups in Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s Generative Theory of Tonal Music (the list of universals is on pp. 345–52).

[See also Nigel Fabb, “Response to Russom.”]


Works Cited

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. “Grouping in the Stressing of Words, in Metrical Verse, and in Music.” In Language and Music as Cognitive Systems. Ed. Patrick Rebuschat, Martin Rohrmeier, John A. Hawkins, and Ian Cross. Oxford:  Oxford UP, 2012, 4–21.

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. Meter in Poetry: a New Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

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

Lerdahl, Fred and Ray Jackendoff. A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1983.

Russom, Geoffrey. “Word Patterns and Phrase Patterns in Universalist Metrics.” In Frontiers in Comparative Prosody. Ed. Mihhail Lotman and Maria-Kristiina Lotman. Bern: Peter Lang, 2011, 337–71.

Youmans, Gilbert. “Milton’s Meter.” In Phonetics and Phonology: Rhythm and Meter, Volume 1. Ed. Paul Kiparsky and Gilbert Youmans. San Diego, CA: Academic P, 1989), 341-379.



By: Geoffrey Russom, Brown University