Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Scansion is Easy; Stress is Hard

Complacencies of the peignoir; and late... {Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair}

That line, the first of Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning," has five unstressed syllables in a row.
(I define a stressed syllable here as the main stress of a content word.)

But not five metrically unaccented syllables in a row. That line metrically scans iamb-iamb-trochee-iamb-iamb. Again, knowing that it is almost impossible to have three metrically unaccented syllables in a row, I have to promote "of", which I actually do when reading.


Dr J said...

That's a trickier line that it may initially seem.

This way of reading it works, sorta: com-PLA-cen-CIES of THE peig-NOIR;

as does this, also kinda-sorta: com-PLA-CEN-cies of the PEIG-noir;

as does: com-PLA-CEN-cies {chiasmus} of the PEIG-NOIR;

and even: COM-pla-cen-cies {chiasmus} OF the PEIG-noir.

But I think I'd opt for:

COM-PLA-Cen-cies Of the PEIG-NOIR,

with a declining scale of emphasis over the first four syllables, the "OF" unusually stressed to inject a note of recommencement after the chiasmus, with a rough metrical pattern that looks like this, with two degrees of emphasis for each type of stress/unstress:

\1 \2 ~1 ~2 ~1 ~2 \1 \2

In which case there's a peculiar symmetry at work.

I don't know-- that's an incredibly malleable line, as many lines in Stevens are. Think just of the incredible various possible to the final lines of "The Idea of Order at Key West," and where one accords stress particularly with "keener sounds." (Stevens' readings don't really help, either, in this, his articulations often seeming almost self-parodic.)

But that's also a particular gift of Stevens'-- more than most poets of the 20th c., his use of declentions and pauses is more obviously musical (as in scored, depending on varying degrees of emphasis and tonality) than strictly metrical per se.

My two-cents, for half of what they're actually worth. Cheers.

Dr J said...

Doh! Brain-dead today. "Chiasmus" came out when I obviously meant caesura. Sorry. *hangs head in extreme embarrassment*

aum dada said...

Well, I can think you can complicate scansion as much as your heart desires. But, from a writing point of view, I prefer simplification. And I still stand my scan. But the value of a single line's scan is not that much. It's whether the rest of the lines can support it. At least in the writing.

jose said...

Actually I think the simplest option would be to scan it as a perfect iambic line, with the strongest stresses on "-PLA-," "-NOIR," and "LATE"; and intermediate stresses on "-CIES" and "THE."

I'm not sure if there is an extant recording of Stevens reciting this--there probably is--and if so, I think that would probably be the final authority.

jose said...

My original comment appears to have gotten lost in cyberspace, so I apologize if it appears later on.

I was thinking that maybe the simplest scansion, given that "Sunday Morning" is predominantly blank verse, is to treat line 1 as perfectly iambic, with strong stresses on "-PLA-," "-NOIR," and "LATE"; and intermediate stresses on "-CIES," and "THE." Of course, if there is a recording of Stevens reciting the poem--and I'm almost certain there is--I think that would have to be the final authority.

aum dada said...

Hmmm. Well, if that was the case, I think "the" should be italicized. "The" is a tough sell to stress for the average reader.

Geofhuth said...


At first it seems crazy to hear the "of" as stressed, but I read the line aloud and that is exactly as I read it naturally. But when we "promote" the "of," we are merely doing what our language naturally does; it's more an action of the language than of us as individuals.


jose said...

What I find tricky is that in most cases "of the" is a pyrrhic foot or the first two syllables of an anapest in most cases. To the best of my knowledge I've never encountered an iamb-trochee combination where the two adjacent stressed syllables are not strong stresses but intermediate ones. Part of me is actually tempted to discern only four beats in the line. It's all those weaker accents in the middle. Aaaghhhh!

aum dada said...

Geof, I agree. And if you were to use that 4-level notation on this, you'd get something like:
1-3 1-2 2-1 2-4 1-4
Or something like that I think. I think I'd make the "of" more like a 2.5 :-) Just a mid-line trochee sub. No need for those strange feet to get in the way of simplicity.

jose said...

I think I buy that scansion; I just had never encountered a 1-2 2-1 combination, with stronger stresses nearby; usually it's 1-3 3-1. (I use a three stress-level system, where 2's and 3's on a 4-scale system are virtually indistinguishable.)

aum dada said...

Jodie, I'd use a scale to 10 if I could, but I'm overly mathematical sometimes. It's interesting now that I look again: Jonathan was almost right.