Rhythm and metre in Italian Renaissance narrative verse

  1. 1. David Robey

    Oxford University, University of Reading

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The work presented here derives from an earlier
computer-based project which I presented to ALLC-ACH 1999:
to produce a systematic representation of the accentual
rhythm of Dante's Divine Comedy by creating an electronic
text marked up in terms of accents and syllable divisions.
The core of this project is a set of criteria, mainly based
on word categories but supplemented by certain positional
rules, for the identification of accents in the verse line.
The criteria are predominantly linguistic rather than
metrical, in the sense that they make only the minimal
metrical assumption, which we know that Dante shared, that
each verse line in the hendecasyllable must have its last
accent on the tenth position. Otherwise they are intended to
generate a performance of Dante's text whose accentuation is
as consistent as it is reasonably possible to be within the
limits of normal parlance, since consistency must be an
overriding consideration in a project of this type. The
method is computer-aided and by no means fully electronic.
Manual intervention and the exercise of critical judgement
are not merely required for the identification of
word-accents that are not predictable from the word form;
they are also required for the elimination of accents where
the context requires it, and for the insertion of syllable
divisions, dialefe and diaeresis, in those cases where
adjacent vowels do not, contrary to the normal tendency of
Italian metrics, merge into a single syllable. The work on
the Divine Comedy is now complete, and both the method and
results are described in detail in the items referred to

With the support of a substantial research grant from the
U.K. Arts and Humanities Research Board, which covered the
cost of two half-time research assistants for a year, I have
now been able to extend this computer-aided procedure for
representing accentual rhythm to the major narrative poems
of the Italian Renaissance: Pulci's Morgante, Boiardo's
Orlando innamorato, Ariosto's Orlando furioso, and Tasso's
Gerusalemme liberata and Gerusalemme conquistata. This
corpus presents special advantages from the point of view of
computer analysis because of the strong generic connections
between the five texts. For, with features of the kind we
are concerned with here, the kind of analytical results that
computers can help us achieve necessarily become more
interesting as they are placed in a larger comparative
context. A major limitation of analysing the Divine Comedy
in the terms described above is the difficulty of finding
appropriate texts with which to compare it. On the other
hand the Renaissance poems we are now considering are all in
the same metrical form of ottava rima, they were all written
within the span of little more than a century, and their
material is drawn from substantially the same epic and
romance traditions--similarities which greatly enhance the
significance of the differences that the computer analysis
can reveal. It should be added that, given the absence of a
close comparative context for the Divine Comedy, this corpus
of texts constitutes as appropriate a basis as any other for
the comparative study of the rhythm of Dante's poem; within
the Italian literary canon, the four poets we are
considering have as strong a claim as any to count among
Dante's successors. The present project thus provides a
greatly extended basis for testing the results of the
preceding one.
The results of this new project have confirmed the validity
of my method, I believe, first by showing some quite
substantial divergences in accentual structure between the
different Renaissance texts, and between these and Dante,
thereby answering one major question with which I began:
were the structures I had found in Dante peculiar to him, or
simply general features of the poetic language? I now have
strong grounds for maintaining that accentual structures are
to a significant extent author-specific. By showing
differences between the Renaissance texts and Dante, the
output of the project also underlined how close my results
were to those of an earlier, pioneering and much more
selective computer analysis of Dante's rhythm, by P.M.
Bertinetto, and thereby also helped to confirm the validity
of my method. The results differ, however, because the
method was different, from the other pioneering work in the
field, that of Praloran published in 1988.

The marked-up texts that have now produced offer all sorts
of opportunities for further analysis. In particular I shall
consider how consistently the rhythmical characteristics
that distinguish the different texts are maintained
throughout their length: if we take random samples from
each author, will the distribution of features generally
correspond to that for the text as a whole, and will the
differences between a sample from one author and a sample
from another match those between their entire works?
Conversely, is there any correspondence between internal
rhythmical variations in the text and other features of
style or content? Do particular kinds of passage have a
particular kind of rhythm? What does a systematic review of
particular kinds of rhythmical structure--especially rare
structures involving, for instance, a very high number of
odd syllables per line--tell us about the way such
structures work in poetry? Knowing where all the accents in
the line fall in each text also enables us to perform more
sophisticated kinds of analysis concerning the distinctive
use of the verse form that each writer makes. Do words with
a particular rhythmical structure, for instance
proparoxytones, tend to fall in a particular position in the
line in a given author? The answers to these questions may
not always be easily relatable to conventional issues of
interpretation, but they will help us to define in precise
quantitative terms the characteristic feel of an author's
style. All these topics will be considered, in summary
form, in my paper.

The paper will also describe the other output of the
project: a searchable database of TEI-conformant texts of
all the poems referred to above, each line being tagged with
information about accentual structure and syllable divisions
as well as alliteration, assonance and rhyme.


David Robey, 'Rhythm and Metre in the Divine Comedy', in
Z.G. Baranski and Lino Pertile (eds.), In amicizia. Essays
in Honour of Giulio Lepschy. Special Supplement of The
Italianist XVII, 1997, pp. 100-16.

David Robey, 'Counting Syllables in the Divine Comedy: A
Computer Analysis', Modern Language Review, 94, 1 (1999),

David Robey, Sound and Structure in the 'Divine Comedy'
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 130-65.

M. Praloran and M. Tizi, Narrare in ottave. Metrica e stile
dell''Innamorato' (Pisa: Nistri-Lischi, 1988).

P. M. Bertinetto, Ritmo e modelli ritmici (Turin, Rosenberg
& Sellier, 1973).

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at New York University

New York, NY, United States

July 13, 2001 - July 16, 2001

94 works by 167 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (21), ALLC/EADH (28), ACH/ALLC (13)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC