Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Prosody
Author:
Winslow, Rosemary Gates
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Prosody is the study of sound patterning in verse, traditionally line and verse organization (quantitative) and assonance (qualitative). Whitman was the first to write modern free verse, and his contemporaries, along with poets and critics for several decades, tended to class his verse as heightened prose. (For reception and context, see Finch.) He himself thought of his poems as growing freely and loosely from the seeds of metrical laws, fulfilling themselves in natural shapes according to the same laws that governed music and oratory (1855 Preface). C. Carroll Hollis has traced the series of dots in the 1855 Leaves of Grass to rhetoric handbooks, which prescribed the marks to indicate long pauses for delivery.

The merging of spoken language, text, music, and poetry in the verse practice has made distinguishing an organizing principle for the prosody difficult and varied. Some scholars have located his prosody in the tradition of alliterative accentual verse or that of accentual syllabic verse. Others see it as composed of phrasal units, or as being wholly unsystematic. Lines and parts of lines that fit the parameters of traditional metrical or strong-stress poetry abound. Annie Finch examines mixtures of iambic and dactylic patterns, studying the verse in relation to nineteenth-century metrical codes.

Attempts to determine the basic principle of rhythmic organization examine syntax. Syntactic units are units of meaning whose boundaries are marked by some slight or long break in the stream of speech, often, though not necessarily, indicated by punctuation. The intonation unit is coextensive with the information unit; the unit of sound and meaning occur together and are not separable. Thus the "thought unit" is the unit of rhythmic organization, not the foot. Rhythmic cohesion depends on syntactic repetition, and repetition and variation of intonation (accentual) patterns. Whitman's lines are end-stopped; groupings of clauses or phrases (not feet) constitute lines; lines were originally divided into units for oral reading by series of dots; and syntactic repetition often serves as a cohesive and rhythmic device (e.g., "I" plus verb series, or prepositional phrase series). Further cohesion is made through patterns of accentual contours that are stylized, repeated, and varied, achieving force, fluidity, musicality, and delicacy. Familiar metrical patterns occur frequently but never so much as to invoke a consistent regularity which would identify a poem as metrical since metricality is determined by rule and context. For instance, consider the opening lines of "Song of Myself":


I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

While the first line can be scanned as iambic pentameter (iambic trimeter in the 1855 edition, before "and sing myself" was added) and the second and third lines as a mix of iambic, anapestic, and dactylic, we could scan most prose in the same way if read in the heightened manner reserved for poetry. Rather, rhythmic cohesion depends on the numbers and placement of accents within each phrasal group and the repetition and variation of accentual patterns. In line 1, there are two phrasal groups, each containing two accents, falling in the same positions—primary accents on cel- and sing, both verbs, and secondary accents on -self and -self, reflexive pronouns. The two groups have the same accentual contour—falling 1–2, primary to secondary prominence. Line 2 does not pick up the iambic rhythm of line one but rather this 1–2 falling contour. Again there are two groups, with 1–2 contours, with the first accent on pronouns—I and you and -sume and -sume. The falling of the accents on the same syntactic items reinforces the rhythmic cohesion. Line 3 has seven accents, four on one side of a midline break, three on the other. The rhythmic contour is again supported by syntactic and same word repetition—belonging, belongs, me, you. Many lines have too many unaccented syllables to be scanned, but they repeat the accentual contour types established at the poem's outset:


The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless. . . .

("Song of Myself," section 2)

Many poems ask to be read at a rapid, exuberant pace, with no time for the heightened accents of meters. Whitman's musical working of regularized accentual contours drawn from speech is able to contain the play of traditional meters in a rich fabric.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. American Prosody. New York: American, 1935.

Bradley, Sculley. "The Fundamental Metrical Principle in Whitman's Poetry." American Literature 10 (1939): 437–459.

Finch, Annie. The Ghost of Meter: Culture and Prosody in American Free Verse. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1993.

Gates, Rosemary L. "The Identity of American Free Verse: The Prosodic Study of Whitman's 'Lilacs.'" Language and Style 18 (1985): 248–276.

Hollis, C. Carroll. Language and Style in "Leaves of Grass." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.

Mitchell, Roger. "A Prosody for Whitman?" PMLA 84 (1969): 1606–1612.


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