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Theorizing Meter (or: Help! I’m Reading Too Much Philosophy!)

March 5, 2012

Outside of language,(1) there is stuff; within language, stuff is meaning.  Meter is a kind of language-stuff that is not meaning. 

But because stuff as expressed by language is always meaning, meter — insofar as we can talk about it at all — has meaning.  But we must not let ourselves be fooled into thinking that this is a fact about the language-stuff that is meter rather than an effect of the language we use to express it.  That is to say: we cannot treat meter as a signifier which expresses a signified, neither symbolically nor iconically nor even indexically — the many problems with treating language itself as a transparent expression of some kind of content notwithstanding.  The question of signification as such (in all of its complexity) remains an interesting one to ask of those aspects of language to which signification pertains, but if we ask this question of meter, the answer cannot help but be simplistic and reductive.  “The hexameter” we might say “signifies epic.”  But — as interesting as the question of genre has become — I am not ultimately interested in an account of the hexameter whereby it screams out “EPIC! EPIC! EPIC! EPIC!” incessantly line after line.(2)

Sound-and-sense readings (with which I dealt in detail earlier) are capable of yielding more complex results — albeit ones which are very difficult to prove — but (as I said earlier) are almost always readings of non-meter, of the non-metrical within meter, rather than of meter itself.  This is further evidence of exactly what I’ve been saying: meter is a kind of language-stuff which neither is meaning nor has meaning.

Nonetheless, as I have said, everything about which we are speaking is meaning by virtue of the fact that we are speaking about it, the attempt to avoid reference to meaning altogether, although I have occasionally found it tempting, is probably futile.  There are (at least) three approaches remaining to us:

1. We can talk about meter-as-stuff: that is, we can make meter the meaning of our language.  This is the way we can talk about rocks or couches or trees.  Meter is stuff-in-language in the same way that there is stuff-in-the-world.  The virtue of a rigorously descriptive account is that it largely confines itself to ,the discussion of the properties of the meter-stuff itself.  One might wonder what the importance of meter is, and perhaps the stuff-in-the-world analogy can help us.  We want to know about rocks and tables and trees because they’re things we have to deal with as we navigate the world; meter is something we have to deal with as we navigate a poem.

But we might remain unsatisfied with this: after all, the analogy does not do justice to the fact that a poem is, after all, different from the world, and one of the important differences is that most stuff in language is such as to have meaning.  How meter relates to the stuff that has a meaning is as valid a question as how a table relates to a tree.  And it turns out that there is we can take the analogy further: meter is “made out of” stuff-that-has-meaning in the same way that tables are (frequently) made out of tree-stuff.  This leads to the second approach:

2. What happens to the meaningful stuff of language as it enters a meter-state?  It no more looses its meaning any more than the converted tree-stuff looses its hardness.  But the configuration of that meaning is inescapably altered by its accommodation to a non-meaningful structure.  This is the “Poetics of Metrical Determination” I have been pushing with increasing ambivalence, but I continue to think it an important aspect of metrical study — although granting it primacy means granting a privilege to meaning which (as I hope I have made clear) is alien to meter.

Why, then, do we make meter out of language?  Why we make tables out of trees is clearer: it turns out that wood is pretty good for making hard things we can put stuff on to keep them at a convenient height.(3)  So the most important question to ask of meter is:

3. What does meter do, why is this important to us, and why is language a good thing to make it out of, given that it does the thing it does?  This is a question to which there can be no easy answer, and it is here, I think, that the “table” analogy breaks down most obviously.  Tables may not have “meaning” per se, but we are pretty comfortable thinking of them as having a “purpose.”(4)  We may not be comfortable thinking of meter as a means to an end — I, personally, would rather think of it as an end in and of itself — and if it does have a purpose, that purpose is considerably more complex and less transparent.  It is perhaps for this reason that we are tempted to think of its purpose as “meaning” — meaning being the complex and nontransparent purpose par excellence.  Ultimately, I may be left merely with the somewhat vapid insistence that meter “is beautiful” buffered only by my convictions that “beauty is an end in and of itself” and “beauty is not a kind of meaning,” and return to questions 1 or 2.

But I remain haunted by the last question.  Why is language a good thing to make meter — which is not a kind of meaning but rather a kind of beauty — out of?  There are no easy answers here, and I suspect that it is here that meaning will rear its ugly head once again.  After all, it is apparently the salient characteristic of language (as opposed to other sounds one might pattern rhythmically) that it has meaning.(5)

As a closing gesture, let us begin (as is customary in considerations of the poetic) by turning to Plato’s critique.  In a recent perusal of Book X, I came across the following exchange:

οὕτω δὴ οἶμαι καὶ τὸν ποιητικὸν φήσομεν χρώματα ἄττα ἑκάστων τῶν τεχνῶν τοῖς ὀνόμασι καὶ ῥήμασιν ἐπιχρωματίζειν αὐτὸν οὐκ ἐπαΐοντα ἀλλ’ ἢ μιμεῖσθαι, ὥστε ἑτέροις τοιούτοις ἐκ τῶν λόγων θεωροῦσι δοκεῖν, ἐάντε περὶ σκυτοτομίας τις λέγῃ ἐν μέτρῳ καὶ ῥυθμῷ καὶ ἁρμονίᾳ, πάνυ εὖ δοκεῖν λέγεσθαι, ἐάντε περὶ στρατηγίας ἐάντε περὶ ἄλλου ὁτουοῦν· οὕτω φύσει αὐτὰ ταῦτα μεγάλην τινὰ κήλησιν ἔχειν. ἐπεὶ γυμνωθέντα γε τῶν τῆς μουσικῆς χρωμάτων τὰ τῶν ποιητῶν, αὐτὰ ἐφ’ αὑτῶν λεγόμενα, οἶμαί σε εἰδέναι οἷα φαίνεται. τεθέασαι γάρ που.

ἔγωγ’, ἔφη.

οὐκοῦν, ἦν δ’ ἐγώ, ἔοικεν τοῖς τῶν ὡραίων προσώποις, καλῶν δὲ μή, οἷα γίγνεται ἰδεῖν ὅταν αὐτὰ τὸ ἄνθος προλίπῃ;

παντάπασιν, ἦ δ’ ὅς.

“So actually I think we’ll say the poet, too, applies certain colors of each of the crafts to his words and phrases, although he doesn’t know them, except that he imitates in such a way as to seem to the rest, the kind of people who are watching — whether someone speaks in meter and rhythm and harmony about leather-working or about generalship or about anything else at all, he seems to speak entirely well: thus these things have some great magic.   For when the poet’s words are stripped of the colors of music, I think you know what the same things said about the same things are clearly like — I guess you’ve seen it.”

“Oh, I have,” he said.

And I said, “Aren’t they like the faces of boys who are still in season, but no longer beautiful, how it is to see them when when the flower of youth is gone?”

“In every way,” he said. (Pl. Resp. 601b-c)

What is it that, for Plato, gives meter and rhythm and harmony such magical powers?  Surely too complex a question to get into here (one would have to know the corpus better than I do, especially the Laws.) But I want to call attention to another use of the root μέτρ- (properly “measure”) a little later in the critique of mimesis, where Plato returns to the analogy of the painter.  In real life, things sometimes appear to be different depending on what direction one is looking at them from or how far away one is; the other parts of the soul(6) get confused and think it actually changes, but the reasoning part has tools to determine that it really stays the same:

ἆρ’ οὖν οὐ τὸ μετρεῖν καὶ ἀριθμεῖν καὶ ἱστάναι βοήθειαι χαριέσταται πρὸς αὐτὰ ἐφάνησαν, ὥστε μὴ ἄρχειν ἐν ἡμῖν τὸ φαινόμενον μεῖζον ἢ ἔλαττον ἢ πλέον ἢ βαρύτερον, ἀλλὰ τὸ λογισάμενον καὶ μετρῆσαν ἢ καὶ στῆσαν;

And don’t measuring and counting and weighing — auxiliaries for which we are most grateful — make things clear with respect to them, so that whatappearsisn’t in charge of “bigger or smaller” or “more” or “heavier,” but what calculates and measures or even weighs. (Pl.Resp. 602d)

Although Plato nowhere actually undertakes a critique of meter as such, I suggest that this passage gives us a hint of how meter is capable of working such powerful and potentially dangerous magic.  When we are confronted with shifting appearances, one way in which we can get a hold of what consistency exists in the physical world is by means of measuring; and such calculations ultimately lead us to the more abstract geometry which provides us with a certain kind of access to the forms themselves.  But whereas the falsity of the painter’s imitation can be demonstrated by measurement, meter (τὸ μέτρον) is an imitation of measurement itself (also τὸ μέτρον).(7)  It gives the impression that the words in question are pre-measured, when in fact they are no less false for its presence; this is one of the ways in which the poet can persuade even the best of us to let our guard down (cf. 605c-607a on mimesis).

Although I have extracted this critique from the text of Plato, I’m not sure he would endorse it; if he did, he would be quite foolish to allow the poets the opportunity to defend themselves ἐν μέλει ἤ τινι ἄλλῳ μέτρῳ (“in song-meter or some other meter”). But I put it forward as a possible Platonic critique of meter which is consistent with the remainder of his discussion of poetry.  The discussion of mimesis has — parodoxically — been a boon to discussions of poetic meaning.  It has given literary critics to give the opportunity to say, “No, Plato — poetic language is no mere imitation, it has real meaning, and some of the most profound meaning at that.”  Perhaps the account I have constructed — whereby μέτρον functions as an imitation of proper measurement — will help us appreciate the value meter actually has as a species of measure.

Meter is measure.  What is measured, and how strictly, is different in different poetries.  It may be syllables, or accents, or assonances of one sort or another; it may be units of meaning.  But fundamental to all poetic systems is the arrangement of language into segments which, whether or not they correspond to syntactic segments, are marked off by special formal features or by the manner of delivery and balanced or contrasted one against another. (M.L. West, Greek Metre)


1. NB: Language may or may not be the kind of thing that has a outside.


3. Once again, I’m exaggerating here.  The question of “why we make tables” is a more complicated one than I have implied.  The desire to store things at a given height is not perhaps as obvious as I have made it seem.  Perhaps there are even people who get along perfectly fine without tables.  But my point here is that there exists no such seemingly-transparent “purpose” for meter.

4. Within the sphere of presently-dominant notions about things (which I don’t know if I can or want to escape) once a table is an end in and of itself, it becomes “art.”

5. Whatever meaning turns out to be.

6. I maintain the traditional translation for clarity despite my misgivings about it.  Plato usually doesn’t say “part,” but tends to just use a neuter article or (usually interrogative or relative) pronoun followed by ἐν ψυχῇ and possibly an adjective or participle.

7. There may also be a pun on ῥυθμός and ἀριθμεῖν.  I don’t have the materials to test the etymological validity of this (I’ve always assumed they were related), but validity of etymology has never restrained Plato before.

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