4.3.5 - Complexity and Tension

As you have no doubt perceived from working with the examples and exercises, the further we have gone with Attridge's deviation rules, the more complicated the lines have become. Indeed, Attridge has ordered his rules according to increasing levels of complexity and one may use this ordering to characterize the differences between simple and complex metrical styles. He defines these styles as follows: "By a simple metrical style we mean one in which the selection of deviation rules produces a highly regular rhythmic alternation, and by a complex style one in which regular alternation is frequently challenged. And we have ordered our rules so that, by and large, the more often a later rule is used the more complex the metrical style. Thus we might say that Dryden's metre is relatively simple, since he strictly limits his use of the later deviation rules, while Milton's is complex, because he freely takes advantage of them. Similarly, an individual line can be classed roughly on a scale of complexity according to the deviation rules it makes use of" (REP 205).

Below is a full list of Attridge's order of complexity (REP 205-206). While I have not given you examples that combine promotion or demotion with implied and double offbeats, the exercises you have completed so far should prepare you to encounter such examples. In addition, you will notice that he does not list an implied offbeat with a delayed double offbeat such as you saw in Example 19 and Exercise #8. I would rank that variation at the very bottom of the list as producing a complexity even greater than two double offbeats and two implied offbeats.

  1. Base rules only
  2. Double offbeat option of second base rule
  3. Promotion
  4. Demotion (mid-line)
  5. Demotion (initial)
  6. Implied offbeat and double offbeat
  7. Promotion, implied offbeat, and double offbeat
  8. Demotion, double offbeat, and implied offbeat
  9. Two double offbeats and two implied offbeats
  10. Implied offbeat with distanced double offbeat (my addition)

As you read and analyze more poems, you will begin to get a better feeling for how to treat the kinds of metrical complexity reflected in Attridge's list. Generally, it is not helpful to use it mathematically, counting up instances and making some kind of numerical judgement. Rather, it is a concrete descriptive tool that needs to be used in conjunction with literary critical good sense. More complexity doesn't necessarily make for a better poem but the kinds of complexity or simplicity a poet uses does affect how we read. Thus, you need always to be aware of where particular deviations or patterns occur, how they are related to the sense of the poem, and how they affect our responses as readers (do we pay more or less attention to certain words, does the rhythm affect our sense of the speed of the line, its temporal embodiment, etc.?). A full account of these questions cannot be had by looking at metrical complexity alone for there are other kinds of tension in the poem, including most centrally, the relationship between the syntax and rhythm, both within the line and between lines.