The Science of Prosody, Circa 1677

Over sixty years ago, Paul Fussell argued that “the history of prosody is . . . inseparable from the history of ideas.”[1] I want to make a case for taking this claim seriously as a way of understanding the relationships between prosody and science—a case, indeed, for taking this claim further than Fussell himself did.

Fussell’s brilliant Theory of Prosody in Eighteenth-Century England explored the influence of “the history of ideas” on “the history of prosody.” He insisted that poets and prosodists “proceed[] in accordance with certain often-unconscious assumptions,” “metaphysical, ethical, and aesthetic,” such that “every different worldview” has a “unique prosody,” and every prosody “proceed[s] ultimately from” its own worldview assumptions. For example, Fussell explained, the new syllabic prosody emerging in Restoration England was indebted to both an older “metaphysical theory of universal order” and a new mathematical “Newtonian intellectual climate”: the poet tried to work his materials into the kind of harmony found in God’s creation, but the rationalizing drive transfigured “harmony” into a matter of precise syllable counts and “strict alternation of accented and unaccented syllables.”[2] Recently, exciting work in historical poetics has taken up Fussell’s insight anew: prosodies are historically specific and culturally charged. We can see, now, new links between prosody and science: Jason Rudy shows that Victorian writers “turn[ed] to electricity and the physical sciences to inspire new ways of thinking about poetry,” and Michael Golston demonstrates that phonoscopic technology and the science of rhythm “motivated many of the formal innovations of Modernist poetry.”[3] Different scientific ideas about nature, minds, bodies, and sounds inspired different prosodic theories and practices.

Intriguingly, in its emphasis on influence running from science to prosody, this important historical scholarship shares a logic with other current methodologies. Modern linguistics brings “scientific methods and goals of investigation” to “the language object,” and cognitive literary studies uses neuroscience to illuminate “our experiences of reading poems.”[4] In all of these cases, the emphasis is on how science helps explain prosody, not the other way around. But this direction of influence isn’t the only possibility. Fussell does not say that “the history of prosody” borrows from a broader “history of ideas”; he says the two are “inseparable.”

Here, I want to tell a story about a moment when the lines of influence reversed— a story about the “science of prosody,” where the of signifies not about or behind but characterized by (on analogy with a phrase like ‘the science of describing’). I want to tell a story, that is, about an attempt to use poetry as an instrument of cutting-edge science.


In the mid-1670s, English natural historian Robert Plot stood in a park in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, and measured the echo created by a facing hill. This was a “Polysyllabical articulate Echo[],” one capable of “return[ing] many syllables.”[5] With his measurement, Plot hoped to better understand the movement of sound across distances and perhaps even reduce echo phenomena to a mathematical rule. Jesuit scholar Josephus Blancanus had proposed that “no one syllable will return clearly” in less than “120 feet” and that each additional echoing syllable required an additional 120 feet. In order to test this rule, Plot first had to find “the true place of the Speaker,” the “place whither” the echoes “are returned stronger, and more distinct than any other.” He experimented by wandering “backward, forward, and to each hand,” before finding it. There, 2,280 feet from the opposite hill, he spoke out a series of syllables and noted that 19 of them echoed back. 2,280 divided by 19 is 120 exactly—“to [his] great satisfaction,” Plot explained, Blancanus’s rule stood.

This measurement was featured in The Natural History of Oxford-shire (1677), the book that made Plot’s name in science. On its merits, he was elected to the Royal Society and awarded positions as professor of chemistry at Oxford and curator of the university’s natural history museum, the Ashmolean.

What interests me most, however, is how Plot went about his measuring: he read out lines of poetry into the facing hills. Plot chose Ovid’s famous lines about Echo:

Quae nec reticere loquenti,

Nec prior ipsa loqui didicit resonabilis Echo.

[she of the echoing voice, who cannot be silent when others have spoken, nor learn how to speak first herself.]

Conjure the scene in your head: the natural historian setting out to study echo phenomena and to mathematize the landscape proceeds to recite classical verse and count the syllables that return. His experimental results must have required some doing. He must have spoken very loudly and very clearly to get the syllables to travel over 4,000 feet, and he must have spoken very quickly to be able to hear them once they did. He made other decisions about how to read these syllables, too. Before finding the “true place,” he noted that, “in the day time, little wind being stirring,” he could hear back 17 syllables, “only the last verse.” Yet, “in the night about twelve by the clock,” he “could also hear the last word of the former Hemistick.” Words echo back in the order spoken, so he must have tinkered with the starting point repeatedly, beginning with the first word of the second verse by day and with “loquenti” by night. (He arranged it so that the verb for “speaking” spoke only at night!) In his search for the “true place,” he must have said these words over and over again. There he was—the natural historian, out on the hillside, yelling out lines of verse.

Plot could have chosen to say nearly anything into the echo. Why Ovid? Certainly, classical poetry provided a ready-to-hand series of easily remembered syllables, and The Metamorphoses offered an opportunity for cleverness: Plot makes the echo echo lines about Echo’s echoes. The meter also mattered. In Plot’s moment, the short and long syllables of Latin verse were understood as basically standard units, and the resulting idea that (as Joshua Swidzinski puts it) poetry was “inherently and uniquely measurable” suited it to Plot’s task.[6] Moreover, Plot needed to say a lot of syllables quickly, so he could be ready to listen and count when they returned. The 17 syllables he first heard back—“Nec prior ipsa loqui didicit resonabilis Echo”—constitute an unusual line: it is all dactyls, except for the closing spondee. The two short syllables of a dactyl, together, were supposed to be of the same duration as the preceding long syllable. Accordingly, these 17 syllables, a full 10 of them short, should take the exact amount of time to pronounce as, say, just 12 syllables of spondees. Plot, thus, seems to have chosen this passage to enable both the measurement and the quick pronunciation crucial to the experiment. Poetry was useful for the natural historian.

Prosody was useful too, though this requires more explanation. The natural history of echoes set out an almost proto-ecological vision of the fundamental interconnectedness of the material world. The echo was made possible by the curves of the landscape: a park on a hill, a facing “hill” topped with “trees,” and a “valley between.” The echo also “receive[d]” “some advantage,” Plot noted, “from the rivulet” in the valley and from “the pond at the foot of the object hill; as also from two other hills that run obliquely up to it.” The soundscape and air quality mattered: more syllables echoed at night because “the Air” was “much more quiet, and stock’d with exhalations.” Plot considered that “the pores” of substances like stone may be “fitted to receive some vibrations of the Air, rather than others,” and he acknowledged that “different circumstances” of “time” and “place” require some “latitude” in the 120 feet rule. Following Plot, natural histories featured extensive discussions of all possible variables impacting echoes, and the experimenters themselves weren’t excepted—their voices and eardrums were key variables.

It is striking how often the language of the period’s prosody appeared in these discussions. As an early encyclopedia put it, prosody was the branch of knowledge “relat[ing] to Syllables,” “treating of their true Pronunciation in respect of Accent and Time.” It started from concern with particular qualities of letter sounds (open, closed, liquid, mute, etc.). These compose syllables, distinguished by “Time” (long, short) and “Accent” (grave, acute, circumflex). Syllables combine into feet—including dactyls and spondees—and then into lines, which could seem “smooth,” “soft,” “rough,” “sonorous,” or “musical to the Ear.”[7] Natural historians deployed this vocabulary, as they included the sensory qualities of words in their lists of variables impacting the echo. Plot proposed “that possibly there may be some sounds more agreeable to every Echo” and noted that his Woodstock echo differed from the one Francis Bacon described, that would not return “the letter S,” “an interior and hissing sound.” In Northamptonshire, John Morton found that he “cou’d not persuade” his echo “at any Distance whatsoever to say didicit,” so he rewrote Ovid’s line: he preserved its dactylic rhythms but “substituted” a more “open” vowel “Sound.” Morton also reported that, at a certain distance, 11 of those rewritten “Syllables were return’d in a Bar of common time.”[8] In his 1708 discussion of Plot’s measurement, William Derham urged consideration of “the different audibility of sound, the grave or acute sound of the syllables themselves, or their length or shortness.” Derham compared the Ovid line with “the rough and long syllables” of a line that echoed poorly.[9] When Gilbert White tested Plot’s rule in 1778, he explicitly argued that echoes return more syllables of “quick dactyls” than of “spondees,” “slow” and “heavy.”[10] Here, it was not only that a line’s prosodic features assisted the measurement. Prosodic theory was deployed for a science of sound: it helped natural historians explain how the sensory qualities of words impacted their movements through the landscape. Prosody played a role in knowledge creation.


Is there a longer, richer history of moments when influence runs like this, from prosody to science? I think there likely is. In fact, recent attempts to bring the two together embolden me. For all their emphasis on science helping prosody, these scholars often pause over moments when lines of influence blur. They celebrate “synergy” between poetics and modern linguistics on questions of rhythm or show that old poems anticipate new neuroscience. The possibilities seem even more promising for historical work: Golston wonders if “confluence” might be more apt than “influence,” for the early twentieth century.[11] Why shouldn’t I dream of an intellectual history that foregrounds such possibilities?

At least, the possibilities don’t seem so surprising if we consider that science and poetics offer different ways of approaching some of the same phenomena: nature, minds, bodies, sounds. Of course, that’s not usually how we treat science and poetics. We tend to make implicit assumptions—about the divisions between disciplines and their different epistemic underpinnings—that make it difficult to think about such intersections. Yet, today’s understanding of the disciplinary relations between science and poetics is certainly anachronistic for Plot’s moment.[12] Wouldn’t it be productive to historicize not just ideas about poetics and science but ideas about the kinds of ideas we can have about poetics and science--about the kinds of relationships the two can have?

This is easier said than done, though, for our disciplinary configurations have a very real impact on what gets seen and studied. Take, for instance, the way prosody’s role in echo measurements has been overlooked. Historians of science do fascinating work on natural history texts like Plot’s, but it is easy enough to see how the prosodic vocabulary could go unrecognized by those unfamiliar with the period’s poetry. On the flipside, literary historians don’t always go so deep into the non-canonical scientific literature. As I said, I think there’s likely a richer history of moments when prosody influences or assists science.

In fact, I want to destabilize the very separation of the terms. Historians of science teach us that our sense of the word “science” is also anachronistic. Samuel Johnson defined it as “Knowledge,” “Any art or species of knowledge,” and Lord Kames described literary criticism as “a rational science.”[13] Natural history and prosody were different kinds of “science,” indeed, but kinds, both. Quite apart from my play with the preposition of, then, the phrase “the science of prosody” can flag a disciplinary configuration different than our own. In the long eighteenth century, natural history and prosody were both part of the “history of ideas” proper. Prosody was the branch of knowledge relating to the material nature of words: it knew something profound about relationships between and amongst signs, sounds, and meanings, or minds, eyes, lips, and ears.

How else might our understanding of intellectual history change if we took prosody’s relation to scientific knowledge as seriously as the natural historians did? For one, Plot’s attitude defamiliarizes prosody’s vocabulary. Restoration and eighteenth-century writers everywhere spoke of the “vertue of numbers,” “Equality of Numbers,” “harmony and numbers,” “the power of numbers.” Swidzinski points out the absolute centrality of “measure,” too. That word described “syllables in a line” but also “feet,” “stanza” and “cadence or rhythm”; it was “at once noun and verb, artistic shape and critical activity.”[14] Remember that Fussell argued that the mathematical “Newtonian intellectual climate” influenced syllabic prosody: what if we consider, instead, that Newtonianism and prosody were part of the same mathematical “intellectual climate”? How did prosody’s talk of “numbers” and “measures” relate to scientific uses of the same words?

The vocabulary of “quantity” also raises questions, as it runs up against an old prosodic problem. Out measuring echoes, natural historians treated aspects of Latin quantity as perceptible, even if their English pronunciation meant that they couldn’t reliably hear them in Ovid’s line. Derek Attridge shows that the period’s pedagogy taught quantity as abstract and “intellectual,” as “more important and” somehow “more real than a mere physical property.”[15] What understanding of poetic word-things were the natural historians really proceeding from, and how did that understanding resonate when they turned to write about acoustics, cognition, or scientific language? At the very least, doesn’t the seriousness with which Plot treats the sensory properties of words trouble hackneyed commonplaces about the new science’s naïve notions of language, its dreams of a “transparent” language?

Finally, Plot’s attitude might help us better appreciate the relationships between prosody and “the history of ideas” in poetic practice. What would we see if we allowed that poetry could do serious intellectual work, even only in its form or “numbers,” even just in the ways it uses sounds and syllables?

[1] Paul Fussell, Theory of Prosody in Eighteenth-Century England [1954] (Archon Books, 1966), 37.

[2] Ibid., 37, 38, 7, 8.

[3] Jason R. Rudy, Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics (Ohio UP, 2009), 4 and Michael Golston, Rhythm and Race in Modernist Poetry and Science (Columbia UP, 2008), 1.

[4] Rosemary Winslow, Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th ed. (Princeton UP, 2012), s.v. “meter” and “prosody,” and G. Gabrielle Starr, “Poetic Subjects and Grecian Urns: Close Reading and the Tools of Cognitive Science” Modern Philology 105.1 (2007): 48.

[5] All references to the echo measurement are to Robert Plot, The Natural History of Oxford-Shire (Oxford, 1677), 7-12.

[6] Joshua Swidzinski, “Poetic Numbers: Measurement and the Formation of Literary Criticism in Enlightenment England” (dissertation, Columbia University, 2015).

[7] Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, 2 vols. (London, 1728), s.v. “prosody” and “numbers.”

[8] John Morton, The Natural History of Northampton-shire (London, 1712), 358.

[9] Reported in Benjamin Baddam, Memoirs of the Royal Society, vol. 5 (London, 1740), 92-93.

[10] Gilbert White, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (London, 1789), 225.

[11] T.V.F. Brogan and Lev Blumenfeld, Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, s.v. “generative metrics”; Starr, “Poetic Subjects”; and Golston, Rhythm and Race, 9.

[12] See Claire Preston, The Poetics of Scientific Investigation in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford UP, 2016) and Courtney Weiss Smith, Empiricist Devotions: Science, Religion, and Poetry in Early Eighteenth-Century England (U of Virginia P, 2016).

[13] Samuel Johnson, Dictionary, 2 vols. (London, 1755-56), s.v. “science,” and Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism (Edinburgh, 1762), 1:8. See also Peter Dear, “Historiography of Not-So-Recent Science” History of Science 50.167 (2012): 197-211.

[14] Swidzinski, “Poetic Numbers.”

[15] Derek Attridge, Well-Weighed Syllables: Elizabeth Verse in Classical Metres (Cambridge UP, 1974), 76.

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Prosody: Alternative Histories

What are the historical stakes of prosody, and why should we ask? ‘Prosody’ refers both to the patterning of language in poetry and to the formal study of that patterning.


In both senses, it is roughly synonymous with ‘versification.’ Like many terms in the modern study of poetics, ‘prosody’ derives from a Greek word of much wider application (prosōdía, ‘song; tone’). In Modern English, ‘prosody’ additionally designates a branch of linguistics concerned with the intonational and rhythmical patterning of speech.

The multiple meanings of ‘prosody’ hint at the historical perplexities of the term. One major difficulty is the qualitative difference between prosodic theory and practice—often itself a historical difference. In English literature, for example, the practice of meter predates metrical theory by 900 years. Between the composition of the Old English poem Cædmon’s Hymn (late seventh century) and the publication of George Gascoigne’s Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Ryme in English (1575), poets practiced but evidently did not theorize English prosody. (Modern poets’ continuous proselytizing letters, essays, and talks promulgating their prosodic theories has now more than made up for this gap!) Nonetheless, the medieval centuries are notable for metrical experimentation, from twelfth-century forays into syllabic verse to Geoffrey Chaucer’s invention of the French- and Italian-inspired iambic pentameter in the fourteenth century. This experimentation is incomprehensible without situating English in a cross-linguistic context, one that includes, at minimum, French, Italian, Latin, Norse, and Welsh, each with its own complex history.

The study of prosody in the centuries since Gascoigne has presented any number of historical complications, and the present era is no exception. Even as it enjoys a resurgence of interest, spurred by concurrent discoveries in sound studies, cognition, performance, psycholinguistics, and new technologies, verse prosody remains a problematic field. The linguistic turn of the twentieth century, for example, has meant that many prosodists have focused on developing, and refining, metrical theories, i.e., descriptive systems that account for the match or ‘fit’ between the phonological structure of the language and the aesthetic structure of the verse. This approach, originally sponsored not by a linguist but by a literary critic—that “every language has the prosody which it deserves”[1]—has certainly advanced a fundamental understanding of technique, but it has done so at significant cost: the assumption of verse’s artificiality as a transparent stylization of natural language, with an attendant, and surprising, lack of curiosity about the historical factors conditioning these outcomes.

Following the linguistic turn, literary scholars have endeavored to describe metrical traditions and to coordinate metrical histories and historical prosodic theories with cultural, intellectual, material, and social histories. Yet what is the status of such description and coordination, given the gap between practice and theory, or between cultural production and cultural analysis? Do early theories of prosody, from Pāṇini to Snorri Sturluson to Gascoigne, clarify the nature of verse or entail new epistemological problems? Do later approaches, from generative metrics to cognitive poetics to historical poetics, represent research progress or just add terminological complication? Can the historical practice of prosody be disentangled from the history of prosodic study—and if not, whence prosody?

Contemporary poets at all levels face an analogous gap between practice and theory: to what extent can the researches of prosodists influence or be of use to poets? What utility could there possibly be, given the outright inaccuracies of meters in most poetics handbooks (here, a reverse historical dilemma: practice may continue to outstrip theory, but theory outstrips primers). Does the textbooks’ persistence in oversimplifying and misrepresenting metrical study only prove the point that the academic pursuit of verse prosody is immaterial to practice?

Prosody thus traverses a set of vexing historical oppositions—between structuralist and poststructuralist, or formalist and historicist, or empirical and theoretical, methodologies; between departments in the twenty-first-century university—especially the languages, linguistics, cognitive sciences, and comparative literature; not to mention between poets and critics, the producers and analysts of prosody. Hoping to move past these artificial divides, this Colloquy brings together work in multiple media across disciplines, all considering reciprocal relationships between prosody and history, variously defined. The goal of the discussion is to inspire the kinds of productive disagreements that can move prosody closer to Donald Wesling’s vision of a unified field: “When literary criticism can complete linguistic metrics, and when it can in turn be completed by being deepened with a cognitive psychology of the reader, and when it can be fully historicized, then we shall have a prosody adequate to the greatness and range of poetry in English.”[2] This Colloquy shows that verse rhythm and aesthetic pleasure always exist in a dialectic relationship with many histories.

[1] George Saintsbury, A History of English Prosody (3 vols.) (London: Macmillan, 1906-10), vol. 1, 371.

[2] Donald Wesling, The Scissors of Meter: Grammetrics and Reading (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1996), 22.

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