Paratextual Prosodies of the Eighteenth Century
The Princeton Prosody Archive’s breadth and depth show us just how difficult it is to answer definitively what is prosody. The organization of the archive into collections—Music, Literary, Linguistics, and so on—reveals how prosody has a foot (pun intended) in a variety of disciplines. Prior to the advent of specialized fields of study, the boundaries of scholarship were much more porous, especially in the eighteenth century. The PPA, in collaboration with ECCO, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, is in the process of integrating more material from the eighteenth century to augment current texts from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I wanted to address the eighteenth-century material currently available in the PPA in anticipation of the new contexts that may appear with the addition of the ECCO materials.
All of this for good reason: the 1700s produced heaps of interdisciplinary prosodic material, and these texts trace the path of how prosody solidified into the concrete object that is Meredith Martin’s study of nineteenth-century “prosody wars.” The many overlapping narratives of prosody presented by this wealth of texts prompts us to formulate a new question: how could we answer “what is prosody”?
The number of possible answers is overwhelming. Meredith Martin, Courtney Weiss Smith, Paul Fussell, and many other scholars have excavated prosody as it was and is embedded in various narratives. Prosody—before it was even called “prosody”—existed in grammar books, scientific treatises, philosophical doctrines, and so on. I am reminded of W. H. Auden’s maxim: “Truth, like love and sleep resents / Approaches that are too intense.” As scholars of prosody tend to note, the more you try to pin down prosody, the more it pulls away.
How can scholars begin to witness inclusively, let alone comprehensively, these discourses, which all feed into our present debates over prosody’s definition and utility? Which research methods at our disposal can grapple not only with texts self-professedly prosodic, but with adjacent discourses, those similarly invested in questions of grammar, versification, and language itself? What, if any, bird’s-eye view of the ways prosodic discourse moved and changed in the eighteenth century can distant reading methods, famously inept at reading poetry but perhaps more productive in a project invested in paratextual material, provide?
In this essay, I propose a method of historical research that surveys tables of contents and other metadata extracted from the book-form. Paratextual features of a book—epigraphs, advertisements, prefaces, introductions, letters, tables of contents, indexes, bibliographies, footnotes, and so on—provide an interface between writer and reader. Organization is an announcement by the author of their intentions; it is also a tool for readers in forming an opinion on the work. This two-sidedness of authorial-intention and readerly-engagement is also true of prosody. I set myself the task of surveying paratextual materials in representative eighteenth-century materials in order to determine what is discoverable at one remove.
So, was prosody a thing for linguists? grammarians or historians? philosophers or schoolchildren or kings? It seems to have been all of the above. Working with tables of contents and other paratextual features orients scholarship toward just how far-spread and fraught the narratives of early prosodic theory were. In following this method of research, the PPA’s abundance moves from daunting to doable.
From the eighteenth and other centuries, there are a million-and-one conjectures about prosody, its functions and its purposes; in other words, there’s no way to account for each and every idea about prosody in some Grand Unified Theory of the Language Arts. Rather, scholars of English can invest in the packaging of poetics: how and why certain prosodic notions were presented by x-y-z authors and received by a-b-c readers. The wide variety of paratextual metadata pulled from the PPA’s texts from the eighteenth century displays prosodic theorizing in all its complex glory, which theorizing, in turn, set the stage for the nineteenth-century debates over versification and its role in literary society.
This essay on various eighteenth-century texts relies on five narratives of prosody I have identified from ten published books ranging from 1702 to 1799: public (oriented toward public consumption), political (oriented toward political importance), academic (oriented toward academic study), linguistic (oriented toward linguistic analysis), and historical (oriented toward historical meaning-making). I make these categories known before analyzing individual texts, because the entire point of the essay is to demonstrate how each text fits each category to some degree. The choice of category is a problem all (new) scholars in the digital humanities encounter. How might the new ECCO materials challenge the previous choices and revisions of the editors of the PPA?
Moreover, each text rejects neat categorization. While paratextual material—an address to royalty or an extensive footnoting of academic conversation—can demonstrate the primary narrative an author had for their notion of prosody, it is clear that a prosody for the common people could also be a prosody for politicians; a prosody for the study of the English language could also be a prosody for the production of historical narrative. As a text can be read any number of ways, I have divided my texts up as best I can by the primary category they inhabit, but I invite the reader to consider the many ways each text can fit any one of the five narratives of prosody I have listed above, in addition to the seven collections currently in use by the PPA.
Edward Bysshe’s 1702 The Art of English Poetry demonstrates the public consumption of prosody in the eighteenth century; that is, prosody existed in the public sphere, particularly as a connection between formal systems of education and class. People were increasingly concerned with the social significance of organized language. Bysshe’s prescriptive handbook is split into three sections: “I. Rules for Making Verses. II. A Dictionary of Rhymes. III. A Collection of the most Natural, Agreeable, and Noble Thoughts…that are to be found in the best English Poets.” The book was intended to give “human Aid” to writers and scholars of literature. Bysshe’s work was popular—reprinted at least five times in its first twenty years—because his clear textual organization gave easily digestible answers to the public about what counted as and how to make good poetry. The formality (“Rules”) of the English language arts derived from the ostensibly superior models provided in classical languages, Latin and Greek. Yet, thanks to Bysshe’s work, this aggregate of customs and traditions could be easily bound up and flipped through by anyone with money enough to purchase the volume.
Whereas Bysshe focused more exclusively on the extensive dissemination of literary and artistic rules, Daniel Farroe’s The royal universal British grammar and vocabulary, self-published in 1754, establishes a more explicit connection between prosodic concerns and British governance. In Farroe’s text, “the English language is, in Effect, reduced to a Standard” so as to be taught more effectively throughout “the British Dominions.” Farroe argued for the necessity of a homogenous language to unite the British people. Farroe presents the text unashamedly for political importance. Introductory materials include, in order, an address to the Prince of Wales, to the Public, to Teachers, to Subscribers, and a Preface. Then, throughout the work, grammar is taught in the style of catechism, making prescriptive language education into a call and response system for schoolchildren. One may recognize in Farroe’s textual organization the nationalistic recitations of poetry to become popular in the Victorian era, exemplifying the law-and-order appeal prosody had to those who wanted a regulated and indivisible body politic. Evidently, prosody, and the benefits of organized systems of language in general, was hotly debated. Yet, this debate did not remain in the mouths of laymen and politicians, but spread to the British academy as well.
The late eighteenth century saw the number of essays on prosodic issues, and general academic study of prosody and language, escalate quickly, many of which engaged foundational notions to English academia and poetry. By way of example, John Mason’s 1761 An essay on the power of numbers remarks on the divergence of Latin and English prosody—a highly contentious issue in a British society which prided itself on having descended from Troy—repeatedly throughout the introduction. Mason claims it would be inappropriate to introduce “the Rules [of prosody] of the former into the latter.” As a way to bridge the gap Mason perceives in Latin and English poetic construction, he devotes a good deal of page space to “numerical Structure both in Verse and Prose,” before scanning the works of Milton and other English writers. This text grapples with a difficult matrix of thought: how can the prosodies of Latin and English be “objectively” compared, when Latin and English are so different, and when British society subsists on a myth of Latin descent? Mason acknowledges the difficulty a non-academic will have with his work: “the Pleasure [of comprehension] will be proportioned to the Pains.” The admittedly strange, almost soft-spoken way Mason organizes his narrative on prosody reflects the care that academics were beginning to put into the matter of English prosody and the subsequent implications for English literature and history. Coming in at the very end of this small renaissance kicked off by John Mason’s work is William Belsham’s weighty two-volume Essays philosophical and moral, historical and literary. His 1799 catch-all for the rapidly expanding academic discourse concerned with prosodic problems is summed up well by Belsham’s maxim in the work’s preface: “the Times are to literary undertakings.” Belsham reprints several older essays on prosody and other language matters; he engages both ancient and modern writers and thinkers through an extensive system of footnotes; he hopscotches between classic and contemporary theories of prosody and versification in his very chapter titles. These paratextual features allow Belsham to summarize all of the burgeoning discussions on prosody from the latter half of the eighteenth century.
Concurrent with the expansion of academic concern for prosody in the 1770s was an increasing concern for linguistic analysis. Lord James Monboddo’s infamous six-volume work Of the origin and progress of language comes in 1774. Somewhat similar to Bysshe’s and Farroe’s public and political texts concerning prosody, Monboddo’s work asks questions about English civilization but addresses linguistic and prosodic questions more explicitly. He states in his preface that philosophy has predisposed him to organize his entire work on language as if it were as “a science, or system.” In other words, Monboddo believes the “elements and principles” of language must be intercepted, particularly as a way to analyze other topics. Monboddo was not alone in this belief: four years later, in 1788, two more foundational texts of language study would be published, James Beattie’s The theory of language and John Free’s An essay towards an history of the English tongue. While Beattie attaches philosophical importance to linguistics (language study helps students “transition from the more obvious to the abstruser parts of knowledge”) and Free attaches historical importance to linguistics (the history of English language provides “the Rise and Progress of the English Nation”), both men, like Monboddo, orient their discussion of linguistic and prosodic questions in wider-ranging narratives concerning academic, public, and political problems. Monboddo himself covers an impressive amount of ground in his chapter titles, all the while remaining rooted in the problem of organized language: “Whether language be from nature, or acquired habit,” “Of the ideas of Plato,” “Of the connection betwixt society and language,” “Progress of the barbarous languages toward improvement,” etc. By beginning with essential aspects of language, including prosody, Monboddo worked outward toward larger problems of society and cognition. His theorizing on language is tied in with his frequent recourse to classic writers as examples of proper style and beautiful literature.
Thus far, I have examined the public, the political, the academic, and the linguistic narratives of prosody using exemplary texts from the time period. Hovering around the periphery of all of these texts has been the question of nationhood. Prosody and general systems of organized language were often the basis for discussing how the English could build an empire to rival the ancients’. An early example of the widespread connection between prosodic treatments of language and the idea of a well-developed nation is Charles Rollin’s 1737 The method of teaching and studying the belles lettres. Rollin implicitly analogizes Roman and English education by the way he structures his table of contents. His chapters begin by dissecting and paying homage to Rome for the pedagogical development of its citizenry. Then, the chapters on Roman history inform later chapters on advice for how to rear British children. Throughout these various chapters, Rollin invokes Latin prosody as a method for cultivating better minds and manners, making the assumption that English prosody may do the same for an English empire (recall, however, John Mason’s admonition that Latin and English prosodies cannot and should not be compared!). Roughly thirty years later, in 1764, John Brown makes an even grander argument of poetry, and specifically organized prosody, as an important, almost essential, component of organized society in his The history of the rise and progress of poetry. Brown explicitly unites the history of prosody and organized language for poetry with the history of nations. His chapter titles say it all: “Of Melody, Dance, and Poem, in the Savage State,” “An Application of these Principles to the Melody, Dance, and Poem of Ancient Greece,” “Of the Rise and Progressions of Poetry in other European Countries,” “Of the Progressions of Poetry in China, Peru, and India,” and so on. Brown begins with “the Savage State” and what he conjectures to be humanity’s first experience with prosody and organized language, and then expands outward through “An Application of these Principles” to other nations of both the Western and Eastern hemispheres. In other words, poetry is what literally makes history. Brown’s epigraph for the work is taken from Horace’s Ars Poetica, and famously invokes the idea that poetry creates rules for governing society . This idea of prosody was not at all uncommon during the Enlightenment and singularly demonstrates the importance bestowed on language, particularly the organization of sound into poetic prosody, as a civilizing force. Though Brown is addressing the creation of history through prosody, it is clear how his narrative of prosody, like others discussed above, dips into various other narratives of prosody, such as the academic, political, and linguistic narratives.
The main difficulty of studying narratives of prosody in these early texts is the overwhelming number of patterns and deviations they present. Prosodic theory embodied a political narrative, even when it was discussed by language theorists, like Lord Monboddo or Charles Rollin; it embodied an academic narrative, even when it was discussed in publicly circulated texts, like Edward Bysshe’s The Art of English Poetry. A prime example of the mish-mash of prosody narratives from the Enlightenment comes smack-dab in the middle of the century: John Brightland’s 1759 A grammar of the English tongue. Brightland addresses the Queen, saying his text provides “a Compleat System of an English Education For the Use of the Schools of Great-Britain and Ireland.” Yet, there are extensive footnotes detailing abstruse, academic debates. Brightland allots much more literal page space for essays to describe the language arts than the grammar, which prescribes rules for the language arts. Brightland also doesn’t shy away from the question of nationhood, stating his grammar is in competition with the French to demonstrate “the same Superiority to Our Arts and Sciences.” As a final twist, the grammar contains charts in the back to track the sun, the time of day, and the seasons, similar to a farmer’s almanac! Each of the text’s aspects—its preface and address to the Queen, its organized grammar, extensive footnotes, language arts essays, introductory political remarks—all suggest the various narratives of prosody presented above: public, political, academic, linguistic, and historical. Documents like Brightland’s provide fascinating insight into how widespread and how complex prosodic narratives were during the eighteenth century in England.
When my high school English teachers taught me about prosody, they presented the topic as a neat and simple complement to the art of poetry. I quickly adopted the assumption that prosody, something loosely synonymous with “the sonic organization of language,” had been a guiding axiom to poetry ever since humans could do poetry. But the more one tugs at the threads of this notion, the more it unravels. In my experience, prosody is taught to high schoolers as the lock-and-key to understanding poetry, which recalls this centuries-old obsession with what prosody is and what it can “do” for us as readers and scholars and citizens. Poetry as rhyming song, poetry as strict organization, poetry as the ultimate expression of civilized emotion—these notions are not abstract truths embedded in the Western tradition and practice of poetry. Rather, we have inherited ideas about poetry and prosody as they were informed by a historical focus on classical propriety and the building of an English empire, much of which can be found in the documents surveyed above. Researching paratextual data from a variety of eighteenth-century texts on prosody gives us a bird’s-eye view of some of these essential ideas of poetry we’ve inherited.
The PPA is currently organized along the axes of academic subjects: music, literature, linguistics, and so on. It could also tag documents by the various narratives in which prosody is treated: public, academic, political, linguistic, and historical. Doing so is only a first step as each narrative can be broken down into sub-categories, and then provide an even greater wealth of knowledge on how prosody—and, by extension, poetry—existed in England. The goal of historical poetics, after all, is to deconstruct overly prescriptive notions of prosody and poetry handed down by these very Enlightenment-era documents. Categorizing documents according to paratextual detail as I have done encourages extra attention to all our vestigial narratives of prosody, which also soon demonstrates how prosody is as much a piece of history as any other idea. Surveys of paratextual metadata, of which this essay is a small exemplar, are solid beginning points for scholars of historical poetics to grapple with the questions asked through the centuries about what prosody is and how we could ever possibly answer.
Edited by Mary Naydan and Meredith Martin
- Fuit haec sapientia quondam, publica privatis secernere, sacra profanis, concubitu prohibere vago, dare iura maritis, oppida moliri, leges incidere ligno. Sic honor et nomen divinis vatibus atque carminibus venit.
Translation from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69381/ars-poetica: “This was deemed wisdom of yore, to distinguish the public from private weal; things sacred from things profane; to prohibit a promiscuous commerce between the sexes; to give laws to married people; to plan out cities; to engrave laws on [tables of] wood. Thus honor accrued to divine poets, and their songs.”