Prosodic Pleasures and Metrical Fantasies: Donne's "Irregularity"
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Prosodic Pleasures and Metrical Fantasies:
Donne’s “Irregularity”

Can you hear what I hear? To ask the question is to be reminded of the inevitably subjective nature of sensory data, even in the attempt to elicit some independent verification of our experience. But it is a question that can also function as a test, intended to confirm not our own perceptions so much as the auditory competence of the person interrogated (as, for example, in musical examinations that require a person to sight-sing). In such cases, we do not judge our ears by the other, but the other by our ears. The question of which question we hear—the request or the test—depends of course upon where we hear the emphasis: “can you hear what I hear?” or “can you hear what I hear?” (or, perhaps, “can you hear what I hear?”). The following essay will turn upon these basic issues of emphasis and cognition, although the particular emphases I have in mind are of a special, paradoxical kind; they are, first and foremost, unheard emphases, textual emphases, the emphases that we speak of “hearing” in the printed voices of English poetry. These silent stresses are traditionally the province of that increasingly rare bird, the prosodist—an academic species noted both for its rebarbative lexical plumage, and for its peculiar habit of chopping poems into manageable bite-sized pieces and exhibiting them in taxonomic display, like frogs preserved in formaldehyde; and therefore, since we are in prosodic territory, I should perhaps emend my opening emblematic question accordingly, to “can you hear what I see?”—a synesthetic formulation that better reflects the difficulty of the prosodic task.

Prosodists have developed an impressive range of descriptive tools to represent the voices in their heads (or, to adopt a contemporary prosodic idiom, to represent what Garrett Stewart calls “the conjoint cerebral activity and suppressed muscular action of a simultaneously summoned and silenced enunciation”). 1 According to historical context and theoretical bias, they speak variously of numbers, measures, and of feet; of on- and off-beats and backwash rhythms; of stress, or accent, or pitch, or volume, and the differences between them; of metrical sets and grids; of the continuities between the rhythms of spoken English and the pulse of the blood, or the pounding of the heart, or the rise and fall of the breath; of amphibrachs and catalectics and the existence (or non-existence) of spondees; of syncope and caesura; of morphophonemes and extrasegmental units; of tension and counterpoint; and, with ironic repetitiousness, of the importance of variation. Yet, somehow, the sheer proliferation of these terms and vocabularies only serves to throw the failures of prosody into stark relief. As long ago as 1965 Seymour Chatman observed [End Page 171] that “1. Metrists do not agree upon the number of syllables in a given word or line; 2. Metrists do not agree upon whether a given syllable is prominent or not; 3. Metrists do not agree upon how the syllables are grouped”; 2 and as recently as 1996, the very first sentence of a new collection of essays entitled Meter In English states that “An outsider would be startled at the lack of consensus among poets and metrists about the nature of metrical verse,” indicating that little has changed since Chatman’s time. 3 To make matters worse, prosodists are unusual even among literary scholars for heaping scorn upon their own enterprises, and for the “savagely civil footnotes” with which they dispatch other members of their kind. 4 T. V. F. Brogan’s comment that prosody has been subject “to more eccentricity and confusion, more nonthink and doubletalk, than probably any other discipline in the realm of letters” is no more than typical. 5

But such self-flagellating rhetoric also tends to precede and perhaps even license a rather more grandiose claim; for despite the confusions and contradictions of the discipline, traditional prosodists can always contend that they alone attempt to describe the formal linguistic device most frequently proffered as the single essential characteristic of poetic language in general (or at the very least, of almost all English poetry written before this century, and of much written...