Reciprocal scansion

I wrote this piece with Emma Mason and we presented it together at a conference on ‘Metre Matters’ in Exeter in 2008. We were looking to challenge and resist the tendency for some scholars of prosody to enact culturally conservative and restricting rules of metre. This was such a pleasure to write with Emma as we sat together with Wordsworth’s ‘There was a boy’ between us, annotating and chatting, and then passing the paper back and forth as we wrote it.

Here is our abstract to explain things:

In this two‐voiced paper, we conduct an experiment in ‘reciprocal scansion’: a process in which prosodic investigation and labelling becomes a site, not for fixing the terms of a poem’s formal effects, but for communication and dialogue. The paper will overturn the assumed association between scansion and ‘naturalness’ (the iambic pentameter as human heartbeat, for example), one that often manifests as peremptory analysis based on cultural prescription (as implied in an Eton Latin master’s rhetorical questions in 1840: ‘if you do not write good longs and shorts, how can you ever be a man of taste? If you are not a man of taste, how can you ever be of use in the world?’). By renouncing openness and dialogue for rote methods of formal measurement, predetermined ways of scanning poetry serve to distance readers from, rather than draw them to, a poem’s formal effects. In order to undo this knot of formalism, we seek to locate dialogue, rather than singularity of effect, at the heart of our investigation. An examination of prosodic variations within larger frames of regularity allows us to access the different effects that prosodic choices enact upon readers. In particular, this paper illustrates how Wordsworth’s frequent emphasis on movements between the ear and the eye traces thematically vital transitions between sight and sound, and in doing so, allegorizes the process of scansion used in prosody. By bringing this treatment to bear on ‘There Was a Boy’, we critique the ‘naturalness’ of prosody and bring out the ways in which Wordsworth’s ‘intertexture of ordinary feeling’ involves the coalition of emotion and regulation through metre. This coalition also hints at meetings and encounters that, by virtue of prosody, can be reciprocally rewarding.

Rhian Williams and Emma, ‘Reciprocal scansion in Wordsworth’s ‘There was a boy’.’ Literature Compass, 6(2) (2009), pp. 515-523.

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