Prosody: Alternative Histories

What are the historical stakes of prosody, and why should we ask? ‘Prosody’ refers both to the patterning of language in poetry and to the formal study of that patterning. In both senses, it is roughly synonymous with ‘versification.’ Like many terms in the modern study of poetics, ‘prosody’... ... more

What are the historical stakes of prosody, and why should we ask? ‘Prosody’ refers both to the patterning of language in poetry and to the formal study of that patterning. In both senses, it is roughly synonymous with ‘versification.’ Like many terms in the modern study of poetics, ‘prosody’ derives from a Greek word of much wider application (prosōdía, ‘song; tone’). In Modern English, ‘prosody’ additionally designates a branch of linguistics concerned with the intonational and rhythmical patterning of speech.

The multiple meanings of ‘prosody’ hint at the historical perplexities of the term. One major difficulty is the qualitative difference between prosodic theory and practice—often itself a historical difference. In English literature, for example, the practice of meter predates metrical theory by 900 years. Between the composition of the Old English poem Cædmon’s Hymn (late seventh century) and the publication of George Gascoigne’s Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Ryme in English (1575), poets practiced but evidently did not theorize English prosody. (Modern poets’ continuous proselytizing letters, essays, and talks promulgating their prosodic theories has now more than made up for this gap!) Nonetheless, the medieval centuries are notable for metrical experimentation, from twelfth-century forays into syllabic verse to Geoffrey Chaucer’s invention of the French- and Italian-inspired iambic pentameter in the fourteenth century. This experimentation is incomprehensible without situating English in a cross-linguistic context, one that includes, at minimum, French, Italian, Latin, Norse, and Welsh, each with its own complex history.

The study of prosody in the centuries since Gascoigne has presented any number of historical complications, and the present era is no exception. Even as it enjoys a resurgence of interest, spurred by concurrent discoveries in sound studies, cognition, performance, psycholinguistics, and new technologies, verse prosody remains a problematic field. The linguistic turn of the twentieth century, for example, has meant that many prosodists have focused on developing, and refining, metrical theories, i.e., descriptive systems that account for the match or ‘fit’ between the phonological structure of the language and the aesthetic structure of the verse. This approach, originally sponsored not by a linguist but by a literary critic—that “every language has the prosody which it deserves”1—has certainly advanced a fundamental understanding of technique, but it has done so at significant cost: the assumption of verse’s artificiality as a transparent stylization of natural language, with an attendant, and surprising, lack of curiosity about the historical factors conditioning these outcomes.

Following the linguistic turn, literary scholars have endeavored to describe metrical traditions and to coordinate metrical histories and historical prosodic theories with cultural, intellectual, material, and social histories. Yet what is the status of such description and coordination, given the gap between practice and theory, or between cultural production and cultural analysis? Do early theories of prosody, from Pāṇini to Snorri Sturluson to Gascoigne, clarify the nature of verse or entail new epistemological problems? Do later approaches, from generative metrics to cognitive poetics to historical poetics, represent research progress or just add terminological complication? Can the historical practice of prosody be disentangled from the history of prosodic study—and if not, whence prosody?

Contemporary poets at all levels face an analogous gap between practice and theory: to what extent can the researches of prosodists influence or be of use to poets? What utility could there possibly be, given the outright inaccuracies of meters in most poetics handbooks (here, a reverse historical dilemma: practice may continue to outstrip theory, but theory outstrips primers). Does the textbooks’ persistence in oversimplifying and misrepresenting metrical study only prove the point that the academic pursuit of verse prosody is immaterial to practice?

Prosody thus traverses a set of vexing historical oppositions—between structuralist and poststructuralist, or formalist and historicist, or empirical and theoretical, methodologies; between departments in the twenty-first-century university—especially the languages, linguistics, cognitive sciences, and comparative literature; not to mention between poets and critics, the producers and analysts of prosody. Hoping to move past these artificial divides, this Colloquy brings together work in multiple media across disciplines, all considering reciprocal relationships between prosody and history, variously defined. The goal of the discussion is to inspire the kinds of productive disagreements that can move prosody closer to Donald Wesling’s vision of a unified field.2 This Colloquy shows that verse rhythm and aesthetic pleasure always exist in a dialectic relationship with many histories.

  • 1. George Saintsbury, A History of English Prosody (3 vols.) (London: Macmillan, 1906-10), Vol. 1, 371.
  • 2. Donald Wesling, The Scissors of Meter: Grammetrics and Reading (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1996), 22: “When literary criticism can complete linguistic metrics, and when it can in turn be completed by being deepened with a cognitive psychology of the reader, and when it can be fully historicized, then we shall have a prosody adequate to the greatness and range of poetry in English.”
Eric Weiskott's picture
Curator Eric Weiskott

I teach and write about medieval English literature. My research focuses on meter and poet

I teach and write about medieval English literature. My research focuses on meter and poetics (what makes poetry tick). My first book is English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History (Cambridge University Press, 2016), which won the English Association Beatrice White Prize in 2018. With Alastair Bennett and Katharine Breen, I edit the Yearbook of Langland Studies. My writing on culture and politics appears in Newsweek, The Atlantic, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere. See At Boston College, I teach in the fields of medieval literature and poetics: usually both at once. In collaboration with my students, I am building an interactive digital map of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. See I am also a poet, and my poems appear in several print and digital journals.

Natalie Gerber's picture
Curator Natalie Gerber

I look to linguistics and cognitive studies to shift conversations about prosody from inve

I look to linguistics and cognitive studies to shift conversations about prosody from investigating “what” a poem’s prosodic practice may be described as to “why” prosodic patterns and disruptions engage us at all. My writing has connected expansive blank verse to free verse practice and, especially, tackled intonation as an under-explored component of verse prosody. At the State University of New York at Fredonia, I teach poetry, 20th-century literature, and professional writing and currently serve as an associate editor for The Wallace Stevens Journal and guest editor for The Robert Frost Review.

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Reduced to Rhyme: Contemporary Doggerel

by David CaplanNewBook Chapter
Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture
Hip hop suggests that doggerel can achieve a surprising flexibility, ranging from the comic to the serious, from the delicate to the vulgar. It would be a mistake, though, to say the technique determines the result.  more

Metricalness and Rhythmicalness: What Our Ear Tells Our Mind

by Reuven TsurBook Chapter
Frontiers in Comparative Prosody
Tsur suggests that a reader’s rhythmical performance of complex lines (i.e., lines in which the linguistic pattern and the versification pattern diverge) may be regarded as a problem-solving activity that makes the conflicting patterns perceptible. more

After Scansion: Visualizing, Deforming, and Listening to Poetic Prosody

by Marit MacArthur and Lee MillerEssay
Scansion, for generations of American students, has been the dominant method of studying prosody in poetry. How and why did this happen? What if scansion had never become dominant? What alternative methods for understanding poetic prosody have been passed over?... more


by Juliana SpahrEssay
I have never really understood prosody. I might as well start there. It has always felt like some sort of coded speech that only those who were well trained in the tradition understood. It felt for many years as if there were some who had prosody so deep in their blood... more

How to Find Rhythm on a Piece of Paper

by Thomas CableBook Chapter
Critical Rhythm: The Poetics of a Literary Life Form
Wimsatt and Beardsley’s essay illustrated what was once again a central rift in English prosody of the past two centuries, between timers and stressers. more