Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Thursday, April 17, 2014



Earl the Squirrel's Rule #82
     Bill Jones and Gus Spectre are the two suspects in a murder mystery novel.  With nothing else to go on, which one would you say is guilty?

     Hearing this, most will answer "Gus Spectre" because it sounds like the word "suspect".  This is an albeit heavy-handed illustration of undertoning:  using small similarities and differences to create a subconscious impression or link on a listener.  In this case, it is sonic undertoning. 

     Metrical undertoning involves using the tiny differences in accenting levels that one might find within feet made up entirely of stressed or unstressed syllables.¹ 


     Traditionally, we view syllables as binary:  stressed or not.  Consider this clause:

...at my | day job

     A pyrrhus and a spondee.  Easy peasy.

     Now let's use Otto Jesperson's 4-level notation, which we here at Commercial Poetry designate with bolding if stressed, underlining if at the top of its range.  For example:

...at my | day job

Word  Level Description            Notation

"my"  = 1 = unstressed           = plain text

"at"  = 2 = like a shout-whisper = underlined

"job" = 3 = stressed             = bolded

"day" = 4 = strongly stressed    = bolded and underlined

     These designations allow us to make the point that the syllables within a pyrrhus or a spondee do not have to be exactly equal in emphasis.  We can have, for example, a trochaic pyrrhus ("at my", 2-1 in Jesperson's notation) or spondee ("day job", 4-3), or an iambic pyrrhus ("within", 1-2) or spondee ("blue dog", 3-4). 

Styles - Bangers versus Breakers:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #102
     These differences in stress levels within "uniform" (i.e. pyrrhic, spondaic, tribrachic or mollosic¹) feet will not be as sharp as that between accented and unaccented syllables but they can create an undercurrent ("undertones") that will play with or against the base rhythm.  For example, assuming the phrase "at my day job" (2-1-4-3) comes in a trochaic verse, the trochaic pyrrhus and trochaic spondee go with the grain. 

     By definition, "bangers" love strict cadences.  For example, the iambs we see from Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Frost, Timothy Steele and most curginistas, starting with D.P. Kristalo, tend to be pounding metronomes.  Indeed, some bangers deny that true pyrrhics and spondees exist!  At the far end of the spectrum are the more sophisticated "breakers" who employ substitions, inversions, lame feet, sprung rhythm and other irregulaties to break the monotony.  These include Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and most classical poets, starting with William Shakespeare.  As a matter of style, bangers like consistency, uniform feet reflecting the base rhythm.  Breakers?  Not so much.  The latter may see it as an opportunity to create some tension or counterpoint by going against the grain.

     To illustrate, these two pyrrhic feet are the only two non-iambs in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", written by the Head Banger² himself, Robert Frost:
His house | is in | the vil|lage though

But I | have prom|ises | to keep

    Note that each pyrrhic is iambic (i.e. 2-1 in Jesperson's notation) within an iambic meter.

    Here is an example of a "countertone" (e.g. a trochaic pyrrhus or spondee within an iambic poem) from Tennyson's iambic tetrameter "In Memoriam":

     Binary:  When the | blood creeps | and the | nerves prick

Jesperson's:  When the | blood creeps | and the | nerves prick

    The second pyrrhus may be too close to call but the first is clearly trochaic (i.e. 2-1 in Jesperson's notation).  This tension adds to the mood of suspense in the storyline.  Sound and sense.

    Occasionally, we'll see bangers get carried away and misscan lines, like this Wordsworth one, in order to support some bizarre theory (this one described by the redundant expression "metrical scanning"):

Our birth | is but | a sleep | and a | forget|ting

     Hand that line to 1,000 native English speakers and you'll hear an countertone:

Our birth | is but | a sleep | and a | forget|ting

     The proper trochaic pyrrhus, "and a", completes the parallelism begun with "but a".  Sound and common sense.


    Oddly, bangers, whose use of undertones is generally limited to confirming the base pattern, tend to exaggerate the importance of this subject.  Others may see the topic as fascinating but consider it just one more instrument in a poet's toolbox.  Note that it was not detailed in our series on fundamental scansion.


¹ - Of course, all of this is equally true of tribrachs and mollosi in trinary cadences (i.e. dactylic, amphibrachic or anapestic):

    Accented vs not:  ...and in the | damp, cold leaves

Jesperson's 4-level:  ...and in the | damp, cold leaves

² - Please excuse the pun.

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

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