Linguistic Criticism - Poetry Analysis


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

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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