“Non-linguistic” Browning: Meter and music in “Pietro of Abano”

Kristin Hanson, Nigel Fabb


Sapir (1921) suggests that Robert Browning’s poetry is “non-linguistic” in the way he uses the English language to convey thought. We explore the meter of a much criticized example of his poetry, his “Pietro of Abano” (1880), and conclude otherwise. The poem is in trochaic metre with extensive and systematic catalexis, i.e. unrealized metrical constituents possible only at phrase boundaries. We show that Browning locates phrase and even word boundaries so that they work sometimes for, but also sometimes conspicuously against these requirements, thus drawing attention to them. We also look at one of the poem’s most curious features, a musical score where the poem’s final lines would be expected to be, and note that rather than resolve these issues, it likewise accentuates them. We conclude that Browning’s poem draws attention to linguistic form, thus allying his practice more with Jakobson’s (1960) approach to poetry than Sapir’s.


text-setting; meter; catalexis; music

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.3765/plsa.v7i1.5240

Copyright (c) 2022 Kristin Hanson, Nigel Fabb

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