Linguistic Criticism - Poetry Analysis


When, in 1951, the linguists George L. Trager and Henry Lee Smith, Jr., published An Outline of English Structure, a description of English phonetics, morphology, and syntax such as had been made of many exotic languages, the linguist Harold Whitehall immediately saw the possibility of application to the study of English literature, and went so far as to say that “no criticism can go beyond its linguistics.” Specifically, he saw that Trager and Smith’s account of stress, pitch, and juncture—as each having four functionally distinguishable levels in English—would be valuable to students of meter and rhythm of English verse. The rhythm of lines could presumably be much more precisely described in terms of four levels of stress rather than in the two normally recognized in traditional metrics. Such an application of Trager and Smith’s findings for modern American speech to the study of verse in English was actually made by Edmund L. Epstein and Terence Hawkes, who found in a body of iambic pentameter verse a vast number of different stress-patterns according to the four-level system. The question of the relevance of such descriptive analysis to the meaning and aesthetic value of the poetry in question was not raised in these early applications of linguistics to literature.

Archibald A. Hill, who did practical work in the application of linguistics to literature in the 1950’s, saw linguistic analysis of a text in terms of such factors as word order and stress as operating on a preliterary level, but considered them to be a useful preliminary to analysis in terms of literary categories such as images. Not unlike the New Critics, he approached a poem as a structured whole and sought to interpret it with minimal reference to outside knowledge such as biographical information, but he differed from the New Critics in thinking it best to begin with specifically linguistic formal details. In a 1955 discussion of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover” (wr. 1877, pb. 1918), Hill took an analysis of Hopkins’s stress and word order, considered in relation to general English usage, as the basis for resolving ambiguities and determining emphases at particular points—and applied it, as an aid to interpretation of at least local meaning.

Roman Jakobson

In 1958, the Conference on Style was held at Indiana University, in which a group of linguists, literary critics, and psychologists presented and discussed papers on issues relevant to the matter of style in language. This conference, the papers of which were published in 1960 in a collection titled Style in Language, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok, proved to be something of a watershed for the application of linguistics to the study of poetry. Roman Jakobson’s presentation on the relation of linguistics to poetics still remains a point of reference for work on the language of poetry. While the focus of the New Critics and some linguists working on literature was on the individual poem considered as an autonomous structured whole, the concern of poetics, as Jakobson sets it forth, is with the differentiating characteristics of poetic language. He argues that inasmuch as poetics deals with problems of verbal structure, it lies wholly within the field of linguistics, “the global science of verbal structure.” He offers a functional definition of poetic language in terms of the constitutive factors of any act of verbal communication, enumerating six such factors—the addresser, the message, the addressee, the context, the contact between addresser and addressee, and the code (the rules of the language, also of a certain register, dialect, and so on) in accord with which the message is constructed. In any given utterance or text, focus will be on one of these factors primarily, though to a lesser extent on others, and the predominant function of the utterance or text can be defined accordingly. Jakobson defines the poetic function of language as “focus on the message for its own sake,” stressing that the poetic function is not confined to poetry (appearing also, for example, in political slogans and advertising jingles) and that poetry involves functions of language other than the poetic; different genres, for example, are partially characterized by the relative importance of the referential, emotive, or conative (focus on the addressee) functions.

Contending that “the verbal structure of a message depends predominantly on [its] predominant function,” Jakobson then studies the effect of the poetic function on the linguistic structure of a text. His famous account of the differentiating feature of language in which the poetic function predominates over the other functions depends on the fact that making an utterance or constructing a text always involves two operations: selection from among a series of items that are syntactically and semantically equivalent and the combination of the selected items into a meaningful sequence of words. “The poetic function,” runs Jakobson’s formulation, “projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.” In verse, for example, every syllable becomes equivalent to every...

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Transformational-generative grammar

With the development of transformational-generative grammar by Noam Chomsky and others, beginning with Chomsky’s 1957 book Syntactic Structures, came new kinds of linguistic approaches to literature. The theory of transformational-generative grammar is based on the assumption that native speakers of a language internalize grammatical rules for their language such that they are able to produce unlimited numbers of grammatical sentences they have never heard before and to judge a given sentence as grammatical or ungrammatical (or as more or less grammatical, more or less complex).

There is the further assumption that the grammar should reflect native speaker intuitions of relation between superficially different sentences, as between a given declarative sentence in the active voice and its passivization, and of ambiguity as to the construction of certain sentences: In the former case, the superficially different sentences are taken as having the same “deep structure”; in the latter, the surface structure of the given sentence is taken as able to have been reached by two or more different routes, from two or more different deep structures. A transformational-generative grammar of a given language ideally consists of an ordered set of rules for the generation of all possible grammatical sentences in the language; besides phrase-structure rules, it includes ordered series of obligatory and optional transformational rules that transform an underlying “kernel sentence” or set of kernel sentences into a surface structure.

The surface structure/deep structure distinction was taken, in early efforts at the application of transformational-generative grammar to the study of literary texts such as Richard Ohmann’s, as a confirmation and clarification of the traditional distinction between form and content. A writer’s style could be accounted for by the nature of the optional transformations he chose. Ohmann adheres to the position of early transformational-generative theory that different surface structures produced by the choice of different optional transformations have the same content, but he contradicts himself when he says that each writer will make characteristic choices and that these choices correlate with the writer’s way of looking at experience. Likewise, regarding deviance in poetic language from usage restrictions on categories of words, he holds that the kinds of deviance employed by a poet will reflect his or her vision; the kinds of deviance found in Dylan Thomas’s poetry, Ohmann suggests, reflect his sense of nature as personal, the world as process.

One of the first linguists to apply transformational-generative grammar to the study of style in poetry was Samuel Levin. Levin was interested in the fact that poetry contains sentences and phrases that a native speaker might consider ungrammatical or semigrammatical. In a 1965 paper called “Internal and External Deviation in Poetry,” he takes external deviation in syntax, that is, deviation from a norm of syntactical usage lying outside the text in question, as ungrammaticality; in other words, he assumes that it involves sentences that the grammar of the language in question would not generate. Among such sentences he recognizes degrees of deviance or ungrammaticality. He does not find the notion of the probability of a given element at a given point in the text (transitional probability) helpful in rationalizing...

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Category-scale grammar

Besides transformational-generative grammar, other modes of syntactical analysis developed by modern linguistics have been used in approaches to poetry. One of these is category-scale grammar, developed by M. A. K. Halliday and set forth in his 1961 paper “Categories of the Theory of Grammar.” Category-scale grammar analyzes English syntax in terms of a hierarchically ordered enumeration or “rank-scale” of units: sentence, clause, group, word, morpheme. Halliday introduces the notion of rank-shift to refer to cases where a unit operates as a structural member of a unit of the same or lower rank; for example, a clause can be part of another clause or of a group (phrase). Category-scale grammar has been commended to students...

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Generative metrics

Many of the examples of linguistic approaches to poetry so far considered here have been studies of the language, especially the syntax, of individual poems. Besides focusing on individual texts, however, linguists have also addressed themselves to more general phenomena of poetic language, such as meter and metaphor.

Beginning with a 1966 paper by Morris Halle and Samuel Jay Keyser, a generative metrics was developed, devoted almost exclusively to accentual-syllabic verse, principally iambic pentameter. Halle and Keyser draw an analogy between the native speaker of a language, who has internalized a set of logically ordered rules in accord with which he or she produces grammatical sentences, and the poet, whom they...

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David Crystal: Tone-units

A very different approach to metrics has been taken by the British linguist David Crystal, who, in a 1971 paper, proposed a model for the description of English verse that is supposed to encompass both accentual-syllabic and free verse and to distinguish both from prose. He takes the line, rather than the syllable or the foot, as the basic unit of verse, and hypothesizes that the line normally consists, in performance, of a single complete “tone-unit.” A tone-unit is the basic unit of organization of intonation in an utterance; since intonation functions in part to signal syntactical relations, tone-unit boundaries coincide with syntactical—generally clause—boundaries.

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Speech act theory

Transformationalists have approached metaphor as deviance through violation of selection restriction rules (rules formalizing acceptable collocations—for example, that for verbs with certain semantic features the subject must be animate). One interprets metaphors, according to this view (espoused, for example, by Robert J. Matthews in a 1971 paper), by deemphasizing those semantic features entailed in the selection restriction violation.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, there was a growing recognition that properties such as metaphoricity, previously assumed to be peculiar to literary language, pertain as well to conversational usage; also, not only the formal features of a text but also the situational context and the...

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Roger Fowler, a British linguist, advocated and practiced the application of linguistics to the study of literary texts since the 1960’s; his early work in this field includes a paper (published in the 1966 collection Essays on Style and Language, which he edited) showing, with a rich variety of examples, that verse of a given meter can have very different rhythmical movements, depending on the relationships of the grammatical units with the lineation. In his 1981 volume Literature as Social Discourse: The Practice of Linguistic Criticism, Fowler argues that linguistic description of literary texts should concern itself with the sociocultural context. He exemplifies the sort of description, essentially...

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New directions

Besides speech act theory and sociolinguistics, later work on the development of a linguistic theory of discourse saw applications to literature. Teun A. van Dijk, for example, has done work on a grammar taking the text, rather than the sentence, as the structure to be described, and including a “pragmatic” component that would specify appropriateness conditions for discourses.

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Carter, Ronald, ed. Language and Literature: An Introductory Reader in Stylistics. 1982. New ed. New York: Routledge, 1991. Chapters in this important study include “Systemic Grammar and Its Use in Literary Analysis” by Chris Kennedy and “Stylistics and the Teaching of Literature” by M. H. Short.

Dijk, Teun A. van. Discourse Studies. 5 vols. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2008. This classic study examines the major fields of discourse studies, including grammar, stylistics, conversation analysis, narrative analysis, argumentation, psychology of comprehension, ethnography of speaking, and media.


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