Dynamic Refrains

Mikhail I. Rabinovich, Alan N. Simmons, and Pablo Varona, ‘Dynamical Bridge Between Brain and Mind’, Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 19 (2015), 453-61.

This is an intriguing article that, I’ll be honest, eludes me just a little because it’s unforgiving with its technical vocabulary, and has some pretty serious equations as well. The main idea, though, seems fairly clear: the authors are exploring ways of understanding and predicting how the brain’s various processes work together to create a mind. Their solution is suggesting mathematical models to describe the ‘dynamical’ quality of these processes, which are characterised by complex interactions and links that change over time.
      Early on there is a nice quotation from William James in 1890: ‘Thought is in constant change… no state once gone can recur and be identical with what it was before’. I take this to mean that it’s part of the Protean nature of thought that it should have components that can be used repeatedly, but that their recurrences will not be the same in manifestation or consequences. At this point I was already thinking about poems, and especially about refrains, those little repeating features of stanza forms.
      So I then began to form a parallel argument in my mind. Rabinovich et al. were explaining what mathematical models of dynamic networks of brain activity might achieve, while I was making their phrases resonate rather differently, as hints at how poetic refrains might themselves model the ways in which thoughts interconnect and resolve into mental functions.
      They were pursuing ‘itinerant brain activity’… ‘robust transient mind dynamics’… ‘functional networks, including hubs’; hubs made me think of refrains. They noted that ‘specific nodes have been identified as critical points in the connective network’… and ‘these adaptive networks change over time’… ‘in response to the perceived and predicted needs of the system’; adaptive critical points made me think of refrains. They put emphasis on an orientation towards the future: ‘predictive patterns of the mind result in predictable structured patterns in the brain’; predictive patterns made me think of the qualities of verse forms in general (including refrains).


Here’s a poem by Thomas Wyatt, written during the reign of Henry VIII. One story is that the poem is about the execution of Anne Boleyn; Wyatt himself was suspected of being her lover. Each stanza has a slightly different focus: the first says that if you want to remain at ‘ease’, avoid public life; the second says that in particular one must avoid the heights of society, from which there is a great fall; the third focuses this wisdom into the speaker’s harsh experience of ‘these days’; the fourth conveys that the speaker has seen something particularly awful that he cannot forget; the fifth reiterates the advice of the first two, with the additional point that ‘wit’ won’t help arrest your fall. Each stanza ends with the same phrase.

Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where ,
For sure, .

The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, .

These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, .

The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet .

By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too ,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the ,
For sure, .


In my book Shakespeare, Rhetoric and Cognition I tried to develop the argument that renaissance rhetoric, in theory and practice, is a cognitive science, in that it contains all kinds of ideas about how thought works. I would say the same about poetic form and the study of poetic form: the article by Rabinovich et al. has enabled me to suggest one way in which a feature of poetry, the refrain, might show how minds, like poems, reuse key structural resources that are never quite the same twice.

Coming Soon: More Refrains; And An Attempt At Defining What Refrains Know.

i.e. when you leave you will feel the disdain of others.
The phrase means ‘it thunders round the realm’; it may also suggest that the thunder sounds most of all among the rulers. It is quoted from Phaedra, a play by the Roman tragedian Seneca. The point made in the stanza (and the next) is found also in Phaedra, so the quotation marks that connection. Here the phrase suggests a general threat to those who venture out into public life.
Here the phrase offers something similar to its contribution to the first stanza. However, the meteorological idea fits a bit more naturally with the blasted mountains and the focus ‘aloft’.
Although the general force of the phrase is still there, the directive, deictic force of ‘These [bloody days]’ means that the ‘Regna’ in question seem (the word is technically plural) more specific.
The specificity of the bell tower location now locates the thundering in a specific time and place, one that is not necessarily obvious to the reader, but must surely have been obvious to someone at some time. The thunder’s cause now seems specific as well: this ‘sight’ perturbed the heavens.
This word means eagerly, diligently, quickly, and/or well.
I think the idea here is that you should let God steer the metaphorical ship of your life.
The last rumbling instance in the poem is affected by repetition itself, of course, as they all are. They aren’t the same when repeated because of their cumulative effects. Here the presence of ‘God’ makes a difference to the way we think about the cause of the thunder, and perhaps also the scope of the kingdom being thundered through.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

3 thoughts on “Dynamic Refrains

  1. Florence

    I really like the realization that something can be the same but not, can seem identical even though it’s changed. Reminds me of the brain teaser of Theseus’ ship as told by Plutarch: Theseus bequeathed his famous ship to the Athenians who preserved it for years, changing planks here and there, the sail, the mast – but is it still Theseus’s ship then? Yes and no. You cannot step into the same river twice, because with time comes change, and yet…

    Continuity in change reminds me of oral traditions, and how songs are still recognizably the same though wording and narrative detail may have changed. Which is why telling something again is not just an echo (same same) but a refrain (same but different). Check out Miles Foley’s http://www.pathwaysproject.org/ which makes a case for oral traditions working through similar processes as the internet, and both these two working like the associative thinking of our minds: you have content that repeats itself over and over again in different contexts, that is, environments. And these environments are connected by hyperlinks – our memory, that is, in terms of oral traditions. Clicking on a hyperlink (I totally get your meta-anxiety in the next post!) is the equivalent of mentally knitting together stories, triggered by some word or other. And it is precisely refrains, those little memorable hooks in the mind, which provide the nodes, the triggers.

    I also like the word ‘hub’ you used; it’s like the refrain is a place that enables “coming together”, where multiple contexts and connotations unfold, mingle, compete. In the Wyatt example, the refrain stems of course from Seneca’s tragedy Phaedra, spoken by the chorus. Wyatt ties his poem up with Seneca’s play, so change and continuity, sameness and difference, receive a whole new twist. The refrain is like an intertextual lace binding these two texts together.

  2. Makori

    I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at, which also might mean I’m not sure what the poem is getting at. I think it has to do with the idea that if you regard something very closely, that thing you regard overwhelms your ability to look at something else. A bit like the light that remains on your retina after looking into a light. A flower can’t do that, exactly, but the looking can: become so absorbing that you can’t quite ‘see’ after such intense study. That I guess is the point in terms of poems more generally that you’re making: if you look very carefully and closely you ‘see’ what blinds you to other seeing. And, if I try to recall de Man, it seems to me that the idea of ‘insight’ necessitates, he would say, a blindness elsewhere. If I see something true about Stevens, I miss something else about him that’s equally true; and may also become so overwhelmed by the truth of Stevens I can’t quite see the value of Williams, say. Something like that?

  3. Raphael Post author

    I think there may have been an ingenious spam attack on this blog (and presumably others), in that I have recently received several comments intervening trenchantly but elliptically on the approximate subject of a post… in this case, close analysis of poems. I am not going to delete this one, though, and if you are a real person, Makori, I am sorry for doubting you. I think it’s interesting to think about the quality of attention that we give to poems, how they may make us see some things and then not others. On the whole, more and more, I think that I’d always advocate reading closely, but that shouldn’t mean getting lost in a head-down mode.


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