The importance of sound in poetry is indisputable, yet it is not at all an easy subject to discuss, and is rarely treated systematically by literary scholars. This book uses a variety of computer-based processes to construct a systematic analytical description of the sounds of Dante's Divine Comedy in the sense of their overall distribution within the text. The description is developed through a comparative treatment of the same features in a range of related texts, with a view to defining the distinctive characteristics of Dante's practice; and by a discussion of the function and effect of sounds in the work, with special attention to unusually high incidences of particular features. The book is thus both a contribution to the scholarly debate about Dante's poem, and an illustration and discussion of the ways in which new electronic technology can be used for this kind of purpose. Taking advantage of the regularity of Italian orthography, the book begins by using an almost wholly electronic analysis to study the distribution of vocalic and consonantal phonemes and of assonances and alliterations in the text of the Comedy.
This is followed by an extensive discussion of the related topic of rhyme, also susceptible of treatment by almost entirely electronic means. The next part of the book deals with rhythmical and metrical structures, and as a result has required a much greater element of manual intervention. A full discussion of syllable divisions in the Comedy and related texts is the necessary first step in the treatment of rhythm. This is followed by a discussion of the theoretical problems involved in the definition of accented syllables in verse, and the formulation a set of principles for resolving them, which are then systematically applied. The outcome is the identification of some distinctive rhythmical tendencies in Dante's work, and a discussion of the effect of certain kinds of rhythmical structure in the poem. The final chapter's contribution is broadly contextual, describing and discussing the theoretical and methodological starting-points - mainly in Formalism and structuralism - of the numerical analysis with which the rest of the book is concerned.
David Robey is Professor of Italian, University of Reading