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Sound & Sense

November 11, 2011

‘Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse shou’d like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rocks’ vast Weight to throw, [370]
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o’er th’unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
Hear how Timotheus’ vary’d Lays surprize,
And bid Alternate Passions fall and rise!

The above lines — 364-375 from Pope’s Essay on Criticism  — are some of my very favorite lines in all of literature.  They are also a particularly apt and elegant formulation of an entire way of thinking about literature that I have made it my project to escape — or at the very least deconstruct.  According to this set of notions — we might call them the “sound and sense” school of criticism — metrical phenomena — the “sound” — must be composed to reflect and interpreted as images of the “sense”; whatever it is that the poet is attempting to represent or express.  Thus the metrical pattern of 366 represents the softness of Zephyr; of 366 the smoothness of a stream; 367-8 the roughness of the “loud surges”; of 371 the arduousness of Ajax’s striving; of 372-3 the swiftness of  Camilla.  I do not believe this mode of interpretation to be particularly generous to the very phenomenon it is most often used to support — that is, meter — because it crucially depends, as Pope makes clear in his final couplet, on the very factor which the meter itself limits: that is, variety.  Ultimately, the best meter for creating such images is the most varied meter — that is, no meter at all.   The obvious response, that we perceive such effects more sharply against the background of a more-or-less regular pattern (Why would we count, e.g., the spondaic and trochaic movements on which Pope depends for the majority of his effects as remarkable except by contrast to our expectation of iambs, or the alexandrine in 373 except inasmuch as it differs from the surrounding decasyllables?) is certainly valid, but ultimately unsatisfying.  It posits meter’s regularity as only negatively interesting; that is, as a burden only to be endured because of the opportunities it provides for its opposite.  At some point I rebelled against such a conception; I have great affection for meter in and of itself, and it struck me as insulting to define its value only in terms of something allegedly more important.

The problem, of course, with overcoming this way of thinking about meter is — as the above quotation makes clear — that it is also a way of writing poetry, one with an impressive pedigree in the western tradition, and one which has produced literary artifacts of enormous power and beauty.  As I have said I have enormous affection for the above-cited lines, and part of their charm is definitely the ways in which Pope manipulates the “sound” to correlate with the “sense.”  The locus classicus for this kind of poetry is the Augustan hexameters of Virgil and Ovid; any decent treatment of their style will catalogue numerous instances wherein sequences of spondees produce an impression of slowness or solemnity, of dactyls speed and urgency, or where the agreement or lack thereof between “ictus”  and accent creates an impression of smoothness or roughness.  This is among the great glories of Virgil and part of the exuberant, insufferable cleverness that makes Ovid a delight to some and an irritation to others.  (I count myself among the former.)  The technique seems to have been quite regular among the Roman poets.  And — of course — it is out of this tradition that most poetry produced in the west — including Pope’s work — falls.

But this was not the case everywhere or at all times.  Notably, despite Pope’s lengthy index of alleged examples (from the apparatus to his translations of Homer), the practice does not seem to be part of the normal technique of the early Greek hexameter tradition, at least according to the present consensus.  West, in one of the standard general texts on Greek Meter, writes,

On the whole, poets seem to have been content to let their verses turn out as best they might.  It cannot be proved that they ever deliberately sought out metrical effects to match the sense, though if not, lines like Η 238 οἶδ’ ἐπὶ δεξιά, οἶδ’ ἐπ’ ἀριστερὰ νωμῆσαι βῶν, or the whole passage λ 593-600 on the labour of Sisyphus, are the most felicitous of accidents.  Such cases are, however, exceptional. (Greek Metre, 39)

Thus, although occasional examples can be adduced, as a percentage of extant epic they are vanishingly small.  Any appreciation of the functioning of meter in Homer cannot depend exclusively on such examples, because to do so would leave meter functionless for the majority of the epics.  The same goes for the vast majority of extant Greek poetry.(1)  Even in Pindar, where metrical variety itself is at its highest , this variety is not correlated in any consistent way with the “sense.”  It is only in Attic drama that sound and sense readings begin to yield real results.  In a final attempt at “Sound and Sense” criticism before I became entirely disillusioned with the practice, I argued that the metrical transitions in the parodos to Aeschylus’ Agamemnon reflect the development and ultimate dissolution of the thought.  The looseness of the tragic trimeter also lent itself to meaningful variation and I can think of at least one instance in the Medea where Euripides took advantage of this (the two successive resolutions in l. 1322).

It is for this reason, among others, that Archaic Greece interests me.  In an environment where sound-and-sense readings are impossible, one is forced to develop a different method.  My initial attempt — that which characterized my thesis — merely to reversed the method.  I put forward what one might call a sense-and-sound reading, whereby the metrical pattern, instead of being a mere “Eccho to the Sense,” actually helped generate the meanings of the poem.  At this I had some modicum of success, and I think that the approach may still be a valuable, but even before I had finished I was aware that this too was insufficient.  Surely if there is one thing we have learned from the theoretical upheavals of the last century it is that mere reversals implicitly accept the terms of the very ideologies they are attempting to resist.  In the sense-and-sound reading, meter is still deprecated, because it is only important inasmuch as it helps to foster the (infinitely more important) meaning; sense and sound, like most culturally important oppositions, has a built-in asymmetry.

In order to make any real progress, therefore, it is first necessary the create a real genealogy of “sound and sense” in the western tradition, and perhaps of “form and content” in general.  There are two notions, as I do this, that I would like to oppose.  Calvert Watkins has argued (in How to Slay a Dragon) that the sound/sense opposition is of inestimable antiquity; that it is the very cornerstone of Indo-European poetics.  I am right now severely unequipped to judge this claim; I would like some day to acquire the proper equipment.  But it seems clear to me that there is an important difference between poetries of Greece in the archaic period and Rome in the so-called “Golden Age” of Latin literature, and that “sound and sense” as it has been formulated by Pope — among many others — is applicable only to the latter.  Whatever form of the distinction shows up in Archaic Greece must refer to something rather different.

Nonetheless, it is necessary not to overstate this transition.  It has become fashionable in some circles to say that Homer (I use the name by way of personification and synecdoche for an entire tradition of hexameter poetry) did not distinguish between form and content, at least not in the way that we are wont to make that distinction nowadays.  This would, on the surface, seem to be the very claim I am attempting to make.  But we must be on our guard: it is also a truism that form is in reality inextricable form content and vice versa.  The implication tends to be that Homer existed in a prelapsarian time — i.e., that form had yet to fall away from content, that poetry (and language in general) for him was characterized by fullness and totality and was not marked by anxieties of difference or deferral.  I reject this.  Homer was managing his own set of linguistic anxieties; they were different from our own, but ultimately language was no more fully present for him than for us.  It would be naive to assume that “form and content” — the opposition by which we understand language and art — was also the one he would recognize, but it would be even more naive assume that he therefore had no need of oppositions by which to understand language or art.  (As to what these oppositions were, I find Andrew Ford’s book on Homeric poetics, Homer: The Poetry of the Past particularly suggestive.  I do not approve all he says, and in the course of constructing the proposed genealogy I would need to make my own suggestions.  To do that, however, I would need to be considerably more responsible than I feel like being at the moment.)  The story I would like to tell, therefore, is not the division of some mythical totality into form and content like the lovers from Aristophanes’ myth in the Symposium.  Rather, it is the reconfiguring of a existing structure of oppositions into the form that make possible a the way of reading and writing in meter that has characterized the western tradition at least since Vergil, and possibly as early as Aeschylus.

That makes it possible — but even this is only half the story.  For sound-and-sense poetics does not merely reflect the ideologies of form and content, but actually helps to generate them.  When a poet writes a passage where the sound and sense are particularly well-matched, by that very gesture she helps sharpen the distinction between them, and at the same time contributes to the myth of their unity.  “Behold!” she says, “see how well the my form matches my content.  Consider now the difference between my poem and language as it is generally spoken.  Surely, under ordinary circumstances, the separation between form and content must be stark indeed.  But through poetry you may glimpse — however faintly — the unity that could be [often: and was once] theirs.”  The effect is rather like that of folding a piece of paper into two; the two halves of the paper may now touch each other, but it was only by the act of folding that the division into halves was effected in the first place.  This is Derrida’s hinge, which both separates and joins.

What, then, is it that Vergil, Pope, and the like claim for their own language?  What is it that (by this very claim) they forbid to language — even theirs?  It is what Pierce calls iconic signification.  According a sound-and-sense poetics, the metrical variations are capable of signifying something through their direct resemblance to it, rather than by the mere “symbolic signification” (for Saussure, this is signification as such) which is essentially arbitrary.  It is surely no coincidence that during the first great period of sound and sense Horace declared with more confidence than any before ut pictura poesis – poesy is like a picture, nor that the poetry/picture comparison has roots in Classical Athens, where (I earlier suggested) the transition began.  For the Augustan poets attempt to circumvent the arbitrariness both of language and of meter by creating in the distance between them a picture, that is a properly iconic sign, of their meaning.  It is telling that we usually speak of sound “reflecting” the sense; for the reflection is perhaps the ultimate in icons — which is (for us) more easily imagined in the visual than acoustical media. (Pope’s Eccho is more precise.)  A sound-and-sense poetics both emphasizes that language is not iconic and suggests that it ought to be.

This participates in one of the most important developments in western metaphysics.  For is it not the assertion that the signifier both is and emphatically is not an “image” of the signified precisely what Derrida has discovered in Saussure?


Well, that was a lengthy and irresponsible bit of fun.  If you’re reading this, I guess you put up with it anyway.  Unfortunately, I don’t have time to make it any more precise — I need to go read a metric ton of Thucydides.


1.  I had a discussion about this with two professors and a grad student when I visited Chicago; I haven’t done the necessary reading to make this claim on my own authority, and I am consequently depending largely on their agreement. The grad student had found only one possible example in his dissertation research on Pindar, and one of the professors — whose work involves detailed metrical analysis of the entire Archaic Greek tradition — seemed to agree that it was not characteristic of the Greek tradition in general.  The exception that proves the rule is the so-called “choliamb” or “scazon,” a trimeter disfigured by the lengthening of the penultimate syllable which is used for an equally disfigured kind of poetry. (See especially Mark Payne’s discussion from his recent book, The Animal Part.) But the correspondence of meters with various types of poetry (as opposed to the correspondence with variations with sense on a line-by-line basis) is entirely consistent with Archaic Greek practice, and this itself seems to be a rather late innovation.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2011 8:09 am

    You raise some interesting points, epicorreption, but I do wonder whether you would produce a more nuanced genealogy if you had actually bothered to do a close reading of the lines of Pope you cite rather than merely taking them at their word and setting them up as a straw man.

    For instance, I find the line “And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows” particularly interesting. If the “smooth Stream” must flow in “smoother Numbers,” we are dealing with something slightly more interesting than sound as a mere “Eccho” of the sense. Here the quality under consideration is actually greater in the verse than the object it supposedly represents; so distinguished from an echo, which is quieter and altogether less distinct. The verse-image is here portrayed as both imperfect and amplified. This lends itself to a rather Platonic interpretation; through the images created by metrical variation, we may actually glimpse “the smooth” more clearly than in the natural world. In this way, the meaning produced by metrical variation is actually more true to “what really is” than the mere appearances we encounter in our everyday experience. This line thus radicalizes the claims of the poetics of sound-and-sense, claiming for them a special authority outside the reach of an ordinary icon or even perception itself.

    What is even more interesting is that this “-er” to which I have just devoted a paragraph is apparently metri gratia; “the smooth stream in smooth numbers flows,” the sense expected in the context of the argument as it appears in the remainder of the verses does not scan. And here more than anywhere else it is important that the verse scan, because he is calling attention here to the smoothness of his meter itself. The former half of the verse, with the ascending pattern “and the smooth stream” is in and of itself more irregular — albeit, to my ears at least, a smooth and melodious kind of irregularity. This is itself a bit of sound-and-sense play; the “smooth stream” is smooth, but not metrically smooth; but the latter half is smooth by virtue of being metrical, and thus in an important sense smoother.

    We find ourselves in an interpretive Mobius strip. A metrically necessary syllable jars the argument for a moment off its path; but the syllable is all the more metrically necessary because of a special necessity for perfect metrical regularity in the context of an argument which would not exist without that syllable. And because the meter is so smooth and regular, we barely register that the sense has begun to wander, for all that this wandering implies such profound claims for the poetics of sound-and-sense.

    Perhaps it is out the tensions revealed by such interactions between sound-and-sense and sense-and-sound — as much as in the construction of genealogies — that a new approach to meter in poetry will emerge.

    • November 13, 2011 8:21 am

      You too bring up some interesting points, epicorreption — but I worry that someday a Terry Eagleton will make fun of you for proposing not a sound-and-sense reading, nor a sense-and-sound reading, but a sound-and-sense-and-sense-and-sound reading, particularly if (in true postmodern fashion) you reject that as well in favor of a sound-and-sense-and-sense-and-sound-and-sense-and-sound-and-sound-and-sense reading. None of this, ultimately, proposes anything new, and we remain trapped in the ideology of sound-and-sense as it exists in Pope. Some perspective, then, on the historical conditions and development of this constellation are surely in order?

      • November 13, 2011 8:27 am

        Your remark is well taken — but I don’t believe you understand what “as much as” means. I did not deny the importance of such an approach as you originally proposed; but I thought it was perhaps imprudent to sacrifice to it an intimate engagement with one’s texts.

    • November 13, 2011 8:38 am

      Also, your entire argument might be exploded if (as now believe likely) “smoother” means smoother than the “the Strain when Zephyr gently blows” rather than “the Stream.” Something to think about, chap.

      • November 13, 2011 8:48 am

        I’m not sure… I find that reading difficult to sustain. It may be simply that I’ve known these verses too long, but feel like the repetition of “smooth” strongly encourages me to take them together: the stream is smooth — and the numbers are even smoother! Thinking back to the “Soft. . .Strain” requires hiccuping over that previous “smooth.” Under normal circumstances, “smooth” could be taken as more or less synonymous (or at least close enough in the semantic field) with “soft,” thus justifying the comparative; but surely “smooth-smoother,” as the more obvious progression, asserts itself here?


  1. Of meter, that it perhaps does not exist | Part & Palimpsest

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