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This article is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.

A New Theory of Poetic Metre Roger Caldwell
NIGEL FABB and MORRIS HALLE, Meter in Poetry - A New Theory (Cambridge University Press)

Metre in poetry is a matter most of us tend to take on trust. We learn in our schooldays - usually from rather antiquated manuals - there are such things as iambs, and spondees, and anapaests, and a variety of other metrical feet. We are vaguely aware that in English there are primary and secondary stresses. In later life we take of metrics what we need: but for the most part it is surely a matter that is dried and dusted. Scansion of a poem may be - and often is - contested, but it is hard to see what a new theory of metre would involve. It is the important achievement of a new book by Nigel Fabb and Morris Halle to jolt us out of our metrical complacency and cause us to look at the matter afresh.

Of the two authors Morris Halle is a veteran in the area, co-author with Chomsky of a classic text on stress-patterns in English. Nigel Fabb is Professor of Literary Linguistics at Strathclyde, and has written widely on language and literary structure. The authors argue that accounts of metre in general offer only the finished product: such accounts tell us (sometimes inaccurately, as the authors reveal) what metre a poem is in, they do not tell us by which rules the metre produces well-formed lines in the poem. Their approach is generative rather than ...

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