Meter, Feelings, Knowing: An Interview with Nigel Fabb

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This guest post by Mark Dow is an excerpt from an interview conducted via email in May/June 2021. The complete interview appears in PN Review #263 (Jan./Feb. 2022).

 Nigel Fabb is Professor of Literary Linguistics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. His books include What is Poetry: Language and Memory in the Poems of the World (Cambridge 2015); with Morris Halle, Meter in Poetry: a New Theory (Cambridge 2008); Language and literary structure: the linguistic analysis of form in verse and narrative (Cambridge 2002); and Linguistics and Literature (Blackwell 1997). In 2022 he will have two new books, Thrills, epiphany, sublime: how literature surprises us. (Anthem) and with Venla Sykäri (eds.) Rhyme and Rhyming in Verbal Art, Song and Language (Studia Fennica Folkloristica).

Mark Dow is author of Plain Talk Rising (poems) and American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons (California).

MD: Let's start with the 'tip-of-the-tongue' phenomenon. It interests you, I think, as an example of linguistic structure detaching itself from 'content'. It points to the existence of 'unnameable' or 'unspeakable' content. On a larger scale, this feeling of knowing something we cannot put into words is what has been labelled 'the sublime.' Can you lay out the milestones of your interest in these topics?

NF: The tip-of-the-tongue feeling is a feeling relating to knowledge, and one of a number of 'epistemic feelings' which belong on what William James called the fringe of consciousness. It is related to the 'feeling of knowing', identified by J. T. Hart in 1965, which involves a feeling that we know the answer to a question, but cannot yet express it  (but are eventually able to).  I have just completed a book for Anthem Press, Thrills, sublime, epiphany: how literature surprises us, and which is about what (following Alf Gabrielsson) I call 'strong experiences'. These include experiences of suddenly feeling that we know something very important, as in the experience of the sublime and of 'epiphany' in all its variations.  Sometimes – as in aha-moments and some epiphanies – it is possible to put that knowledge into words.  And sometimes it is not. I suggest that all of these experiences begin with surprise, when we perceive something which we cannot quite fit into what we already know; and already in that, there is the possibility that what we perceive cannot be put into words, since we only have words for what we already know. There are all sorts of reasons why we cannot put into words what we think we know, and there are psychological explanations for these.  Raffman's Language, Music and Mind explores various sources of ineffability, and Sperber's On Anthropological Knowledge shows how we can fail to understand our own beliefs, including very profound beliefs, which would make them ineffable.

Are you trying to connect the measureable with the unmeasureable, the way mathematics is the basis of music and, presumably, of music's effect on us?

At least one kind of ineffability emerges from the micro-levels, in the sense that we have perceptions which are too fine-grained for us to have words for them; Raffman calls this 'nuance ineffability'.  The relation between mathematics and music's effect on us might be because we have cognitive abilities which respond to the mathematical forms underlying music; but also because we have statistical or probabilistic knowledge (which thus has a mathematical basis). That probabilistic knowledge is involved in forming expectations which can be violated or met, which is a source of feeling.

Donald Davie, in his essay 'Syntax as Music' on Susanne Langer, says that most poets who say poetry is like music don't really know music. He writes: 'In [Langer's] view a poem is like a piece of music in that it articulates itself; and in thus establishing internal relations, establishes also relations of feelings, building up the structure, the morphology of feeling, and telling us "what it feels like to feel"'.

This might be a way of saying that the meaning of the poem arises from the combination of the parts, which when taken apart do not have the same meaning (i.e., the opposite of Brecht, 'pluck a rose and every petal is beautiful'). This is true in principle for any utterance, which can always be more than the combined meaning of the parts; this is because language is partial evidence for meaning rather than fully encoding meaning. The same must be true for the non-meaning effects such as 'feelings'.  But incidentally that means that even the text as a whole is not enough, but must always be contextualized to produce meaning.

 Can you give us a lay explanation of 'generative metrics', of which Morris Halle is considered the founder, and of the the gist of your book with him? 

A generative theory is a set of instructions for building something.  A generative metrical theory is a set of instructions for building a scansion, which is a particular kind of complex structure, and that scansion is fitted to the line of poetry in a way which is also governed by instructions or rules.  Each distinct metre has its own set of instructions. Simple version: the instructions for iambic pentameter end up by building a scansion which has ten metrical positions, alternating weak (odd numbered) and strong (even numbered).  The line of poetry is fitted to the scansion, according to specific rules: the basic rules for this metre are that each syllable must fit a metrical position, which means that there are ten syllables in the line, and syllables carrying fixed stress must not match to weak positions (so for example, position 5 is weak and we would not expect a stressed syllable in this position in this metre).  If the scansion can be built and fits the line, then the line is metrical, and if not it is unmetrical (both relative to iambic pentameter, in this case).  There are further complications, for example sometimes two adjacent syllables can fit into one metrical position as in synaloepha, and sometimes there is a final extra unmatched syllable, and the rhythmic constraint is also subject to some variation.  The purpose of a generative metrics is to understand exactly what in our ordinary linguistic capabilities gets adapted to produce the modified kinds of language found in poetry, so it is part of the general linguistic project. It isn't about interpretation, and in that it is very different from a literary account of metre.

There are some big differences between this and standard foot-based approaches to metre, of the kind more commonly found in literary analysis, in which for example the iambic pentameter line is made of a sequence of five iambic feet, and feet can be substituted for other feet.  In generative metres, the line is always taken as a whole, not as a sequence of conjoined and separable feet.  And, a really crucial point is that the metre and the rhythm are not the same, but can have quite a loose connection as indeed they do in iambic pentameter, where every line in a poem can be in the same metre but every line can have a different rhythm.  This is because the metre is not altered to fit the rhythm of the line by for example substituting feet, and this is because the metre is assumed to under-determine the rhythm: that is, only some aspects of the rhythm are controlled by the metre.

The Fabb and Halle book presents a particular theory of metre which is supposed to account for both English and the major metrical traditions of the world, many of which we discuss.  We take the view that in metrical poetry, the most important factor is that the line is fixed in length, with permitted variations: that is, a metre is basically a counting system, so that iambic pentameter lines are counted out to have ten syllables.  And if the metrical poem also has a rhythm, the rhythm is dependent on how the metrical elements are counted, which is always a counting by pairs or by triplets, which emerges as a rhythmic pattern.

Does 'no rhythm' mean lacking a patterned repetition of accent or stress?

 Or of syllable weight or tone type, yes. Most of the traditional Celtic prosodies have syllable counting but no regular pattern of accents.  French alexandrines control stress only very minimally. The North Indian arya metre groups syllabic units (matra) into sequences but doesn't pattern stress or weight.  Japanese poetry counts syllabic units but does not have rhythm. Metre doesn't always have rhythm but it always has counting.

Define stress.

Stress is a property of a syllable, and it is a psychological effect, not an acoustic one.  We judge the stress of a syllable in context, relative to adjacent syllables.  So stress is always relational, and not an inherent property of the syllable; Mark Liberman's demonstration of that was an important innovation.  Various acoustic properties can indicate that a syllable is stressed, such as if it is loud, or high, or long, or several of these together.  In words of more than one syllable, the stress pattern is determined by the generative rules by the relational mechanisms just noted, and is stable in the sense that you know where the stress is, it can be listed in a dictionary etc., and incidentally these fixed stresses in multisyllabic words are the stresses which are hardest to put into weak metrical positions in poetry.  One of the interesting things about stress in English and many other languages is that it is determined by counting syllables backwards from the end of the word.  It is a good example of how our knowledge of language is atemporal, because structure can be generated backwards.

What's the shortest possible explanation you can give for the fact that stress has been a fundamental aspect of verse form in English, assuming you agree that that's the case? 

I don't have an explanation, and it puzzles me. Why can't English verse more frequently use syllable counting with either no or limited control over rhythm, like the French alexandrin?  Or, to take another possibility, English syllables can be differentiated like Latin or Greek into heavy and light, and indeed syllablic stress is determined inside English words relative to syllable weight, but English has few poems in a quantitative metre and even they tend to use stress as well.  Perhaps it is just the dominant influence of some very major writers who wrote using stress-based metres.  Or there may be something about English sound structure which determines it, and some generative metrists do make these kinds of proposal about the relation between languages and metres.

Years ago in the Berryville Old Book Shop, in Berryville, Virginia, I found a reprint of an intriguing book, A Study of Metre by Thomas Stewart Omond (1903). Is this a book prosodists or linguists take seriously today? What do you think of Omond's effort to replace the 'crudity and dubeity of scansion by syllables' with 'scansion by time-spaces'? 

I cannot think of anyone referring to it.  There is a longstanding tradition of arguing that metre is organized relative to time, but no generative metrists argue for it; metres have declarative or map-like properties and not procedural or directional properties.  In contrast, songs are organized relative to time, and you can see the difference between the atemporal poetic metre and the temporal musical metre when you see how variable the ways are of putting the two together in a song based on a metrical poem.  Incidentally, in the Fabb and Halle theory we argue that iambic scansions are constructed backwards across the line, from end to beginning (while trochaic ones are constructed forwards), which shows again that at least in our theory metre is completely outside time.  Perhaps metrical poetry gains its aesthetic because metre is an atemporal structure which is matched to the temporal structure of speech in real time.

What would you like to know about language that you don't know?

I'd like to know whether poetic or literary language produces any kind of distinct epistemic feeling or arousal, in itself, just from its difference from ordinary language.  This is a view which to some extent reflects the traditional notion of 'tension' as a characteristic of aesthetic language and aesthetic objects more generally, but it's a notion which is very difficult to test.  I'd also like to know why in Ma'di it is not possible to end a past tense sentence on an object, for example why the translation of 'I read the book' is not a possible sentence but 'I read the book yesterday' or 'I read the book for sure' are both possible.  It's been puzzling me for almost 20 years, and I once pointed out to a group of bilingual Ma'di and English speakers that you could say it in English and not in Ma'di, and they completely agreed while saying that – as for many of the facts about our own language – they had never noticed; they knew it without knowing it.  I have not been able to find a good specific linguistic explanation for this, as a linguist should.


Above is a guest post by Mark Dow.


  1. David Marjanović said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 9:14 am

    I don't have an explanation, and it puzzles me. Why can't English verse more frequently use syllable counting with either no or limited control over rhythm, like the French alexandrin?

    …because stress is phonemic in English (and German for instance), so if you stress a word wrong, it sounds wrong, while in French, stress is not phonemic, so putting a stress in an unusual position merely sounds unusual…?

  2. RfP said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 12:10 pm

    To add to what David said, I'd like to mention that Ian A. Gordon wrote a great book in the 1960s called The Movement of English Prose, which discusses the related issue of the rhythms of English prose.

    Here's an extremely abbreviated version of what he lays out towards the beginning of this book, which I can't recommend highly enough to people who are interested in these questions:

    “The stress rhythm of Old English prose is … essentially the stress-rhythm of the prose of today… [Despite the loss of] dozens of unstressed inflexions in the eleventh and twelfth centuries … The basic rhythm of English prose was preserved. It had to be, because more than rhythm was involved. The rhythm of an English spoken sentence has always been part of the meaning.”

  3. RfP said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 12:19 pm

    I'll try not to get too carried away with this, but I couldn't resist quoting a bit more extensively from The Movement of English Prose. Page numbers are from the 1966 hardback edition.

    “Much of the conventional history of the English language records mere changes on the surface, and ignores the unchanging elements, the permanent contours of the language.” (12)

    “The most important of these essential features which have persisted with little or no change during the whole history of the English language are vocabulary, voice-stress with its associated phenomenon of segmentation, and a continuing array of phrase and sentence patterns.” (13)

    “In good prose, where sentence-structure and not the use of the spectacular word is the supreme test of effectiveness and even of meaning, the importance of the Germanic elements is absolute.” (14)

    “More than any other feature of the language, [the English system of voice stress] has led to a basic stability in English prose of every period. It is a real foundation of ‘continuity’.” (16)

    “Stress in Old English verse (and hence in prose) was closely linked with meaning; the semantically important words were uttered with more emphasis. … Stress was carried on the root of the word, never on an inflexion. A prefix carried stress only when its meaning over-rode the meaning of the word to which it was attached… All that the Old English poet had to do to practise this metrical system was to formalize in half-line units and underline with alliteration the recurrent stress pattern of his ordinary language.” (17)

  4. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 2:29 pm

    Speculatively re: 'I read (/rɛd/) the book' cross-linguistically, it may be a textbook (and/or "transformational"?) mindset that gives the impression we can generate full sets of sentences displaying minimal regular semantic differences by plug-and-play from verb paradigms…

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 4:27 pm

    I am intrigued by the idea that even explicitly stress-based meter such as has historically been common in English poetry "underdetermines" the rhythm of a line of verse. I assume he has some groovy examples somewhere of contrasting lines which are both strict/perfect iambic pentameter but have notably different rhythms, and I guess being lazy I'd be interested in his examples rather than trying to come up with my own …

  6. Mark Dow said,

    April 6, 2022 @ 2:38 am

    @J.W. Brewer:

    All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
    All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see…

    That time of year thou mayst in me behold
    When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang…

    Of man's first disobedience and the fruit
    Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste…

    (Here are six lines — 2 each by Pope, Shakes., Milton — all of them perfect iambic pentameter and all rhythmically different.)

  7. David Marjanović said,

    April 6, 2022 @ 8:36 am

    I don't get how these are rhythmically different.

  8. Rodger C said,

    April 6, 2022 @ 10:30 am

    How are they not radically different in rhythm? Are we using the word "rhythmically" with different implied meanings? The Pope, in particular, in which he's winding up to his conclusion, is almost in ballad meter.

  9. Rodger C said,

    April 6, 2022 @ 10:56 am

    The first thing I notice is the differing prominence of the caesuras.

  10. Haamu said,

    April 6, 2022 @ 11:43 am

    @J.W. Brewer:

    … the metre is assumed to under-determine the rhythm: that is, only some aspects of the rhythm are controlled by the metre.

    This seems obvious, since meter is about stress but rhythm is about both stress and timing — which I think is basically the point the others here are making. Or am I over-simplifying?

  11. Linda Seebach said,

    April 6, 2022 @ 12:31 pm

    When poets read their work aloud, it often sounds "singsong" – in the light of this discussion, perhaps they are speaking in accordance with the meter. Actors reading the same poem read it as if it were prose – not contrary to the meter, but with normal rhythm.

    (I once heard Robert Frost read "Stopping by Woods" and have been puzzling about it ever since, because it sounded so unlike the poem I had read. I am delighted to find out there are ways to analyze this.)

  12. Brett said,

    April 6, 2022 @ 4:09 pm

    @Mark Dow: It's fine as poetry, but

    Of man's first disobedience and the fruit

    can't be "perfect" iambic pentameter, as it has eleven syllables.

    More generally, this whole approach seems to presuppose certain approach to the esthetic question of how poetry should be read (either silently or aloud). I can, in fact, read the first four lines you just quoted with exactly the same rhythm in each, and they all sound fine. Indeed, there have been many readers and writers of poetry who have insisted that such a strict rhythm with each foot having the same length is exactly how lines of iambic pentameter should be performed. I don't personally agree with that—but it is entirely a matter of opinion.

  13. D said,

    April 6, 2022 @ 9:21 pm


    In that line, "disobedience" must be pronounced with four syllables: DIS-o-BE-dience. The fourth syllable pronounced [djɛns].

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 7, 2022 @ 9:01 am

    I agree that the Milton "first disobedience" line is supposed to be read with only ten syllables as set forth by D, but the artificiality of the meter can be separately seen by the fact that "and" fills a stressed-syllable slot (per a generativist analysis) even though I don't think anyone would stress this "and" when uttering this string of words in ordinary speech as opposed to the "singsong" style referenced by Linda Seebach. You might well stress the "and" in "A *and* B" when the combination is surprising and it means something like not only A but rather unexpectedly B as well. But I don't think that's the case with the specific A and B here unless you know the Genesis narrative a lot less well than Milton's assumed reader would have.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 7, 2022 @ 9:04 am

    I should perhaps emend my prior comment to note that I don't necessarily mean "artificiality" to be pejorative. Thinking "artificiality" is inherently or presumptively a Bad Thing in poetry is merely one (contentious and factional) position in a long-running dispute over aesthetics and literary form.

  16. Benjamin Orsatti said,

    April 8, 2022 @ 7:28 am

    This is fascinating stuff!

    Meter (like G-d) is outside of time.

    The atemporal (achronos, apeiron ==> infinite) intersects with the temporal (finite) in the poem, where meter is "matched to the temporal structure of speech in real time". (This is surely an archetype; think "Tzimtum", the Incarnation, etc.)

    So the poem gives us our "epistemic feeling" (making the unfamiliar familiar and vice-versa) because "the rhythm of an English spoken sentence has always been part of the meaning", and "More than any other feature of the language, [the English system of voice stress] has led to a basic stability in English prose of every period. It is a real foundation of ‘continuity’.”

    But here's the part that's going to set me scurrying off to my Seamus Heaney Beowulf:

    “Stress in Old English verse (and hence in prose) was closely linked with meaning; the semantically important words were uttered with more emphasis. … Stress was carried on the root of the word, never on an inflexion. A prefix carried stress only when its meaning over-rode the meaning of the word to which it was attached… All that the Old English poet had to do to practise this metrical system was to formalize in half-line units and underline with alliteration the recurrent stress pattern of his ordinary language.”

    So, in a way, anyone who sits down to read English poetry is actually embarking on a quest to commune with the Infinite, the Ineffable, the Aperion.

    I think I'm beginning to understand a little better what those guys were getting at: Heidegger, Borges, Eco…

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