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  • The Phonetic and Spatial Effects of Discourse in Poetic Narratives:The Case of Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci”
  • Lewis S. Gleich (bio)

The vast majority of recent narratological analyses of poetry focus on the ways in which the conventions of lyric, epic, and narrative intersect in individual poems.1 Although these studies are useful for explaining how these different genres work together or against one another, they do not help identify how narratives function differently when communicated through the medium of verse rather than prose. In this paper, I offer an alternative approach, one that expands on the work of several scholars, namely Barbara MacMahon, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, John Shoptaw, Brian McHale, and Adrian Pilkington. By applying recent studies in relevance theory, phonetics, and oculomotor functioning to John Keats’s ballad “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (1820), I show how and why poetic devices play an essential role in the reader’s engagement with the events of a poetic narrative. More precisely, I demonstrate how phonetic and spatial forms of poetic segmentation interact with narrative forms of segmentation to generate meaning in a dynamic interplay between the reader and the text. Ultimately, my analysis reveals that we need to think more critically about the precise ways in which discourse signifies in cases of narrative poetry. [End Page 219]

Discourse in Poetic Narratives

Despite contemporary narrative theory’s tendency to disregard the formal properties of verse when examining narrative poetry, the story events of narrative poems are inextricably tied to the poetic discourses that express them.2 Because traditional models of narrative place so much emphasis on distinguishing between story (also referred to as fabula or histoire) and discourse (also referred to as sjužet or récit), we often lose sight of the interactive nature of the narrative process.3 In poetic narratives, in particular, discourse works in conjunction with story: poetic devices at the discourse level reinforce, illuminate, harmonize with, contradict, and/or obscure events that take place at the story level. This interactive and interdependent exchange between story and discourse is fundamental to the structure of narrative poetry and central to the dynamic process through which poems evoke meaning. As Catherine Addison explains, “Writing a story in verse is not just a case of decorating with verbal felicities a meaning that is already ‘there’ or that could be more simply communicated in prose. The verse exerts a determining force on crucial aspects of meaning …” (140). In other words, verse is not incidental to the meaning of poetic narratives but “crucial” to signification.

In an attempt to elucidate the significant role that discourse plays in poetic narratives, several recent critics have proposed new approaches for theorizing poetry. Peter Hühn, for example, has formulated a theory premised on the claim that events take place not just at the story level but also at the discourse level. Hühn calls events that take place at the level of narration “discourse events” and argues that they are “specifically lyrical phenomena” that occur when the persona of a lyric poem assumes control over “plot function,” or when the “reference and location” of events are “shifted entirely to the discourse level” (154–62). In short, Hühn’s discourse events are instances that bring about a “decisive change” in the plot of a lyric but are generated by the persona and not by story events (162). Because discourse events occur at the level of the narration, Hühn reasons, they are produced, or realized, by the persona of the poem at the same time that he or she engages in the act of narration. Thus, for Hühn, the plots of lyric poems are “typically constituted by mental or psychological incidents such as perceptions, imaginations, desires, anxieties, recollections or emotions and their emergence and development” (149).

Hühn’s observations about lyric poetry are useful for understanding the constitutive role that speakers play in the development of poetic plots. Through an analysis of Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” Hühn offers an insightful look at the kinds of “frames” (thematic or situational contexts) and “scripts” (sequence patterns) that a lyric persona can adopt in a given poem (149...


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pp. 219-233
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