Sunday, June 24, 2007

Auden's 'muscular' syntax

In my recent post on Auden, James's comment took me to task for the term 'muscular syntax', asking what I meant by it. Here goes - using the same Auden quote to which I applied the term as an example:

The tall unwounded leader
Of doomed companions, all
Whose voices in the rock
Are now perpetual,
Fighters for no one's sake
Who died beyond the border.

By calling the syntax muscular I mean that it supplies the rhyme-words, and a complex solution to the metrical brief, with minimal mangling of the underlying sentence (in this case a sentence fragment) - no inversions of word order, for example.

'The tall unwounded leader of doomed companions, all whose voices in the rock are now perpetual, fighters for no one's sake who died beyond the border.'

There's only one syntactical difficulty: 'doomed companions, all whose voices'. Here either 'doomed companions, whose voices' or 'doomed companions, all those whose voices' would be clearer; but it's still intelligible (the elision of 'those' is qute acceptable, if unusual), and such a hurdle is a typical Auden device for tightening and estranging the language.

While the rhyme-words occur in their proper places, the metre is not just a matter of providing adequate trimeter, strict or otherwise. As a rule each line corresponds to a syntactical unit:

'The tall unwounded leader'
'Are now perpetual,'
'Fighters for no one's sake'
'Who died beyond the border.'

That rule is broken, creating a syncopated effect, in L2-3:

'Of doomed companions, all
Whose voices in the rock'

Moreover although the lines correspond to syntactical units, those units are not simple clauses or sentences but fit together into a longer whole.

This illustrates what I mean by saying the metre and syntax are in conversation. Note then that Auden's syntax neither ignores the metre - a prose sentence running on over several lines apparently at random - nor submits to it by providing a series of trimeter clauses only loosely connected into a sentence. Delete any of the lines in thise extract, and the sense is destroyed. The complex sentence fragment running over these lines is trimetrical in shape, but each trimeter is not a discrete unit.

In achieving all of this the syntax never once breaks sweat in the sense of becoming a difficult sentence to untangle. The sentence is, and sounds, basically simple, conversational. That's the virtue of those short clauses, though they need marshalling with great skill. Even the 'all/Whose' knot is a localised elision rather than a confusion of subject or an unravelling of sense. It's controlled. And though we haven't dealt with the line breaks, vowel sounds, metre and so on in detail, all of which clearly contribute to the lines' status as poetry, I hope I've managed to indicate how the syntax can contribute to that status - and why we might call it 'muscular' when it leads to strong poetry.


Blogger Thinker said...

Hi Ed,

I still don't understand exactly how meter and syntax can create a muscular rhythm.Could you help me out?

Was Auden conscious of this when he wrote? Was it preplanned or did he just write randomly?

12:18 PM  
Blogger Tony Williams said...

HI Sorceress,

I don't quite mean that the rhythms are msucular. By saying the syntax is muscular I mean it is actively working with (and against) the metre to create interesting effects - as opposed, I suppose, to a 'weak' syntax which just sits there waiting to bear poetic effects.

Not sure if that helps at all.

Auden certainly didn't write randomly - but then again, I'm not sure he necessarily preplanned this sort of thing either (!?).

3:04 PM  
Blogger James said...

. . . and "weak" syntax is poor syntax. What you basically mean, then, is that whatever syntax that 'engages' or 'stimulate' the mind is good syntax, masculine or not, feminine or not?

5:59 PM  
Blogger James said...

Additionally, when you say "muscular syntax supplies rhyme-words", do you mean it helps frame the rhyme-words? And by saying "no inversions of word order", you do no inverted syntax, right?

Last thing: how can muscular syntax be a solution to the metrical brief? This lack of understanding might be because I've never heard that terminology before.


6:08 PM  
Blogger Tony Williams said...

I certainly never intended to utilise a distinction between masculine and feminine syntax. As for 'weak', I don't just mean poor in the sense of making a bad sentence, but in the sense of offering a sentence that shows no real relation to the verse form it's being used in, and/or repeats similar sentence structures throughout a poem because to do so makes the job of filling the form easier.

When I say that Auden's 'muscular syntax supplies rhyme-words' I mean to imply that it does so with an appearance of ease, rather than forcing the issue - sorry, should have made that clearer. And yes, by 'inverted word order' I mean 'inverted syntax'.

Similarly by 'supplying a solution to the metrical brief' (an odd way of putting it, you're right) I mean that the syntax proceeds via a series of clauses/sentences that satisfy the metre.

In both these cases - rhyme words and metre - what I meant to say was that Auden's syntax meets these two formal requirements without sacrificing either the formal requirements or the comlex and elegant sentence it expresses.

Not sure if that is any better.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this, and/or how you might apply the notions of masculine and feminine syntax here.

7:39 PM  
Blogger Thinker said...

That did help actually. Though I'm not really sure about masculine and feminine syntax.

Thank you.

12:12 PM  
Blogger James said...


I'm afraid I'm still not enough qualified to fully explained that at the moment; I'm still looking into it , and the differences between them.

I can post you a few resources I have found, if you're interested.

8:06 PM  
Blogger James said...

to fully explain *

8:07 PM  
Blogger Tony Williams said...


Yes please, that sounds interesting.

9:47 AM  
Blogger James said...

Ed Parson,

Many apologies for the late reply. I'm currently on holiday and--at loss of my links--am at the moment not in close reach of my resources, not to mention the lack of possible places I can find a library to connect to the IN.

I aim at returning home around one, or two, weeks from now. Then I'll find it.

Hope you have a good holiday too,

12:42 AM  
Blogger James said...

To inform you of something else:

I will most likely not return to your reply before I return home, not out of ignorance but lack of internet possibilities.


12:43 AM  
Blogger Tony Williams said...

Thanks James. Enjoy your time away.

5:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe someone out there can help me find the source of a Auden quote that Stephen King used in the dedication of one of his books. I saw it once a long time ago. It has remained in my brain ever since but I think that King in later editions of the book changed the quotes in the beginning so the one I saw was removed.

The quote I am looking for had this line of something like this line:
"The Center Moved". Thats all I can remember. Does anyone know what poem this comes from please???

My email is and I thank you very much in advance for the person who can take this penny out of my shoe that has been bugging me for such a long time.

11:45 AM  

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