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Marina Tarlinskaja, Shakespeare and the Versification of English Drama, 1561-1642
by Paul Hecht

Tarlinskaja, Marina. Shakespeare and the Versification of English Drama, 1561–42. Ashgate, 2014. x + 411 pp. ISBN: 978-1472430281. $130.00 cloth.

Marina Tarlinskaja is an American academic trained in the former Soviet Union by Mikhail Gasparov. Her version of a linguistic approach to literature is one that values “big data” collected by old fashioned individual labor. She has spent her career analyzing primarily Early Modern English poetry for its rhythmic features. She then compiles statistics for works and authors, such as how often syntactic breaks occur at given places in a line, or how often words receive unexpected stress relative to the presiding rhythmic pattern. Appendix B is almost a hundred pages of summary tables where one can learn, for example, the number of pleonastic (i.e., semantically unnecessary) do’s per 1000 lines in Gorboduc Acts 1–3 (the number is 60.6). Within the text, in addition to making references to similar statistics, she also sometimes supplies charts like this one, which compares stress patterns in The Comedy of Errors, Troilus and Cressida, and The Tempest.

If such methods are reliable, then perhaps Tarlinskaja provides a way to identify stylistic “signatures” or “fingerprints” of certain authors, and thus more evidence for debates about attribution. She does indeed engage in some such debates, about A Lover’s Complaint and Double Falsehood, among others. Her analysis of A Lover’s Complaint, for example, does not support Brian Vickers’s hypothesis that John Davies is the true author, but neither does it support Shakespeare: “as far as versification analysis is concerned, LC is still an anonymous poem” (172). About Double Falsehood, her analysis reveals “few traces of Shakespeare’s versification but definite signs of Fletcher’s” (211).  I am not engaged enough in those debates to be able to comment on how useful her work is in advancing them, but she seems to be respected by the scholars who work in these areas.

What I am engaged in thinking about is what “formalist” study of literature means for us now and where it is headed. Tarlinskaja’s work demonstrates some of the continuing theoretical and methodological challenges (though she does not see them as such). But before getting to those it seems even more important to comment on what the book tells us about divisions of labor in academia and Early Modern studies. Tarlinskaja does not quite work in a vacuum, but other than attribution debates, she seems quite disconnected from every other aspect of Shakespeare and Renaissance scholarship. Or to put it another way, she displays confidence that her work is important enough in its own right not to be bothered with such connections. She is not even much engaged in competing theoretical models for English versification, or lively recent discussions about style (including those in Spenser studies). She has an explanation: she has a method for reading and analyzing rhythmic qualities of poetry, and is interested in the big picture, in large-scale statistics and claims. This requires consistency and, as she notes, a degree of simplification—she admits, for example, that she at one point considered using a more complex scale than “stress-no stress,” to analyze rhythmic patterns in iambic pentameter, but “later I had to give it up: too bulky for a wide analysis” (13).

One feels the isolation from other parts of the discipline when she begins to answer the question posed in the title of her first chapter, “why study versification?” After a few words about how much work dramatists put into their versification, she settles on character development as an obvious example of the usefulness of versification, and notes that as Othello descends from “noble hero” to “villain,” “his syntax and verse form evolve with his character’s evolution,” and cites her own book as support.[1] True enough, but not an arresting or original claim. Her second example is more technical, and more troubling:

English poets emphasize important features of the content with the help of accentual “deviations” from the prevailing iambic rhythm ta-Ta-ta-Ta-ta-Ta … “Deviations” that emphasize meaning, called rhythmical italics (see below) work not unlike onomatopoeia. They accompany and accentuate what is expressed in the line, e.g., Claps her pale cheek, till clapping makes it red (Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis, 469) instead of something more “iambic”: He claps her cheek …  And these are just two possibilities of how verse form can enrich semantics. (1)

For those of us who have been closely engaged with thinking about sonic and musical aspects of poetic language, this is not an auspicious opening. Her description of “Claps her pale cheek” is troubling in at least two significant ways. First, there is “not unlike onomatopoeia,” which we can take as telling us that the rhythm of this phrase is in some way “like” slapping someone on the cheek, or getting slapped, without warning, on the cheek, or watching someone do it to someone else. Or perhaps I am taking her too literally. If we back up to “emphasize important features of the content” then we are in still hazier territory: would readers somehow miss that Adonis hits Venus were it not for the phrase’s rhythm? We might not be able to suggest that Shakespeare would have been taught to avoid a crutch like using typographical italics for semantic emphasis, had it existed, but we might be able to suggest that he would be aware that larding his writing with additional pointers for “emphasis” could become tiresome, frustrating, annoying. So “rhythmical italics” seems a deeply problematic concept. She devotes an entire appendix to it, “Verse Form and Meaning: Rhythmical Italics,” but the fact that it comes in an appendix registers that it is not her main act, and also that she might be conscious of its problematic nature: she writes of an angry PMLA reader response to an article written in the 1980s on rhythm and meaning, and asserts that her work has nothing to do with the impressionistic claims of relations between form and meaning of the nineteenth century.

More broadly, “rhythmic italics” demonstrates what I am going to go ahead and call the “semantic prejudice” in formalist analysis. I have written about this elsewhere, though without that label, and so have David Scott Wilson-Okamura and J. B. Lethbridge. The semantic prejudice is that form always serves content, is always subordinate to meaning, that the semantic function of language is always primary. But poets and poems have long considered the notion that this might not be so. And theorists like Theodor Adorno have come up with powerful arguments that, if language is itself corrupt, then the sounds of words might hold the possibility of escaping that corruption. But if you think that sounds, rhythms, the musical aspect of language, is always subordinate to what words mean, as Tarlinskaja seems to, then, when faced with ambiguity, you will choose what you think enhances meaning. And if you can’t see such enrichment or enhancement associated with a formal feature, you are likely to pay less attention, or see it as a stylistic weakness. (An irony of Tarlinskaja’s first example is that the “less emphatic” version she provides is also less meaningful: “he claps her cheek” leaves out the original’s “pale”—so an alternative interpretation is that Shakespeare varied the rhythm here not to create an onomatopoeic “clap,” but to press in more meaning-per-word.)

Before sketching what an alternative might look like, we should give a bit of time to Tarlinskaja’s scansion, since so much depends on that. We cannot really blame her for “ta-Ta-ta-Ta” as “the prevailing iambic rhythm,” although one notes that there has been little advance here for decades, despite well-known shortcomings with the scheme. Relationship to alliteration, rhyme or other sound patterns? Role of “quantity” or “duration” as Early Modern poets so fervently seem to have thought was crucial to poetic success? And what of the relationship of this line to others? Its “deviation” to those that surround it? All of this is let go before an example that is supposed to demonstrate a straightforward phenomenon.

Language can do musical things: it can do and mean through the abstract work of sound patterns as music does. To a reader who can appreciate the unfolding of a Shakespeare speech, the relation of lines to sentences, to stanzas or periods or speeches or utterances, such a claim for “italics” seems to do more to distort than clarify. The rhythm of “Claps her pale cheek” might have more to do with its position in the lines that surround it than any desire to “enhance” the meaning of clapping. And who is to say that a more insistently “iambic” version might not “enhance” meaning just as much—the jagged or insistent iambics of the kind the Ezra Pound criticized in an early draft of The Waste Land are of course not picked up in Tarlinskaja’s system since they look just like a standard weak-strong decasyllabic. Pound elsewhere indicates that he thinks Eliot is being too jagged in his rhythmic writing with marginal comments like “too penty” or “too tum-pum at a stretch” (10).[2]

One of the great frustrations of the book is the knowledge that in Tarlinskaja’s possession are vast amounts of scanned verse. But we can’t see it, except through the extreme filter of her statistical tables, and her selected examples. In the wake of the Concordance to the Rhymes of The Faerie Queene, and in the wake of the ever-growing electronic resources for literature that allow searching and gathering, one longs for either a printed or online supplement to this book that would give readers access to the raw data. To be able to do a search of all English drama for decasyllabic lines with a stress in position 1, for example, or all pleonastic do’s, would be fascinating and wonderful. 

We might go farther: I would advocate for the launch a database of the music of language: something that would allow participants to gauge how close phrases, lines, and groups of lines are to each other, with various parameters; to identify all manner of sonic patterns and bring to light how such patterns develop through authors, develop among groups of writers and writings not limited to poetry or traditional literary forms. Into this could be fed what we know about pronunciation possibilities—rhymes that worked in 1590 but not now, possibilities for syllabic compression and expansion—so as to be able to generate automatic analyses of the sort that computers are adept at. The purpose would be better to understand the sonic landscape of English poetry, and what arguments or claims are to associate themselves with this could emerge as they emerge.


Paul J. Hecht
Purdue University – North Central

[1] Marina Tarlinskaja, Shakespeare’s Verse: Iambic Pentameter and the Poet’s Idiosyncrasies, Peter Lang, 1987.

[2] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, edited by Valerie Eliot, Harcourt, 1971.


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Cite as:

Paul Hecht, "Marina Tarlinskaja, Shakespeare and the Versification of English Drama, 1561-1642," Spenser Review 46.1.13 (Spring-Summer 2016). Accessed September 20th, 2018.
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