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  • Where Does the Stress Fall?
  • Gabriel Roberts (bio)
Poetry and Language: The Linguistics of Verse by Michael Ferber. Cambridge University Press. 2019. £19.99. ISBN 9 7811 0845 3066

In this highly readable introduction to the analysis of poetry, Michael Ferber attempts to explain how the study of poetry, or more precisely verse, can be enriched by an understanding of linguistics. In seven chapters of lucid and personable prose, he considers the application of linguistics to metre, rhyme, onomatopoeia, non-standard syntax, meaning, metaphor, and translation, in each case providing clear definitions of technical terms and numerous examples of the features in question. Taken together, the chapters provide a crisp, well-illustrated guide to a set of linguistic concepts which may not be familiar to students of verse but may be very useful to them.

Much of the book is devoted to guiding the reader through descriptive schemas and illustrating how these can be applied. Chapter 2, for instance, provides a clear introduction to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and how to analyse verse phonetically. Readers with a background in literary criticism rather than linguistics may find this a little daunting (much [End Page 418] referring back to the table setting out the relationship between the thirtysix symbols and the sounds they represent is to be expected), but Ferber does show why using the IPA can be useful in poetic analysis. Sound patterns which may be obscured by the idiosyncrasies of English spelling, for instance, are much easier to spot in a poem that has been transliterated into IPA.

A similar combination of slightly daunting technicality and useful demonstration of its application can be found in the following chapter, where Ferber analyses rhyme. Readers may be surprised to discover here how many kinds of rhyme there are, from those that involve different numbers of syllables to those that involve different patterns of similarity between the three components of the syllables rhymed: the onset, the nucleus, and the coda. This provides the foundation of a broader analysis of sound-alike devices, such as assonance and consonance. Ferber even devises a numerical system for measuring the extent to which the syllables in a line or lines of verse require the reader to engage their speech organs differently (and hence how easy or difficult the line or lines are to say). The system is unlikely to catch on, simply because many people will find it too cumbersome, but it does suggest a way in which the effects of lines of verse on speakers and listeners may result from features which fall outside more conventional analysis. It would be interesting as a continuation of this to see whether readers and listeners actually register the distinctions that this analysis highlights.

Throughout the book, Ferber draws on numerous examples. For the most part, these are treated at pace. Shelley's 'Ozymandias' is quoted in full, for instance, to illustrate a point about complex syntax (parsing the second sentence correctly turns out to be quite a feat), but Ferber does not linger over the poem. Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is also featured, but only to illustrate a point about second-person pronouns (the speaker of most of the poem uses 'thou' to address the urn, whereas the urn uses 'ye' to address humankind). Only in the final chapter, on translation, where Ferber provides a searching analysis of Arthur Rimbaud's sonnet 'Le Dormeur du val' and of translations of it by Charles Causley and Robert Lowell, does the reader get a sense of how the categories set out in the rest of the book might be deployed in the considered reading of a whole poem. Indeed, reading Ferber's thoughts on the difficulty of reproducing Rimbaud's combination of rime riche (rhymes where the last syllable of two lines is entirely or almost entirely the same) and rime suffisante (rhymes where only the nucleus and coda of the last syllable of two lines are the same) or his use of enjambments which, unconventionally for the mid-nineteenth century, stretch phrases across line-breaks, the reader may regret that the examples earlier in the book are covered rather briskly in comparison. [End Page 419...


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pp. 418-422
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