David Antin: Notes for an Ultimate Prosody (2)

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:43 AM
"Metrical irregularity" is more normal than exceptional throughout the history of blank verse. Shakespeare provides as good examples as Wordsworth because there is no neat single convention of syllable - stress meter in English. The reason for the very complicated set of options available to poets writing in these meters is that from the start there were two conflicting conventions, one of which was an iso-syllabic convention adapted from Romance practice and the other a quantitative convention adapted to English with the substitution of accent for quantity. This conflict is apparent in the first essay on prosody in the English language ~George Gascoigne's Certain Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Rime in English. It is clear that Gascoigne regards the number of syllables as the measure of the verse: "I say, then, remember to hold the same measure wherewith you begin, whether it be in a verse of six syllables, eight, ten, twelve, etc." At the same time he defends Chaucer's "failure" to observe the syllable count on the grounds that Chaucer's lines are isochronic: "Also our father Chaucer hath used the same liberty in feet and measures that the Latinists do use, whosoever do peruse and well consider his works he shall find that, although his lines are not always of the selfsame number of syllables, yet, being read by one that hath understanding, the longest verse and that which hath most syllables in it will fall to the ear correspondent unto that which hath fewest syllables in it; and like wise that which hath fewest syllables shall be found yet to consist of words that have such a natural sound as may seem equal in length to a verse which hath many more syllables of lighter accents."

The earliest English blank verse was, of course, strictly decasyllabic, as was Gascoigne's own The Steel Glass. But with the adaptation of blank verse to the theater there was no possible significance in the purely page oriented, strict syllabics and the poets on grounds of expedience abandoned it and presumably justified the expedience on grounds of a "Classical" practice in which the "long" and "short" syllables of Greek and Latin were identified with the "accented" and "unaccented" syllables of English, Even Milton, whose blank verse in Paradise Lost is clearly decasyllabic, has lines which can only be resolved by some accent-counting convention.[1] The historical situation resulted in a situation of an illusory blank verse metric; whenever one convention acted as a compositional constraint the other convention provided the loophole. The situation with rhymed verse was essentially the same, except that rhyme is audible and the use of terminal rhyme made the line endings distinctly perceivable. This did not establish "the meter," but it did mark off the stretches of language separated by rhyme as equivalence units regardless of how they may have been varied in duration, accentual weight and so on. Consequently rhyme, as far as the sound structure was concerned, was of far greater importance than meter in the history of English syllable-stress poetry.

If we extend the meaning of rhyme to cover alliteration, it has been of far greater importance than meter throughout the entire history of English poetry.[2] The effect of meter seems to be either visual or moral. Either it is a page image of regularity and pattern, something like capital letters at the beginning of verse lines, or else an imaginary sense of constraint that has allowed certain poets to sleep at night. Given its largely fictitious existence one might wonder why poets felt any need to liberate themselves from it. Why free verse? The reason is more or less obvious. The image of meter invariably refers to other poetry. It is a visual framing effect and places whatever language is set within the frame in a context of "literature." It is not a musical device, it's a sentiment. "Metrical poetry" normally comes in a bundle together with syntactical and lexical habits that are much more effective in establishing the presence of the past, but this is not necessary. Whitman is able to embed the sound of a full-blown "folk song" in the free verse of Lilacs without the appearance of metric:

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?

Sea winds blown from east and west,
Blown from the Eastern sea and blown from the Western sea, till there on the prairies meeting,
These and with these and the breath of my chant,
I'll perfume the grave of him I love.

O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?
And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls
To adorn the burial house of him I love?

And it's possible, like Auden, to come on as Noel Coward till somebody counts the long and short of the syllables and decides "My God, it's in minor Alcaics!" Which is terribly
chic. And poetry that is not at all scannable may still appear metrical if it is sufficiently conventional in its attitudes. Thus Yvor Winters decided that "Gerontion" was written in "Websterian blank verse." This isn't incorrect, it's nonsense. Neither Eliot nor Webster are scannable in any reasonable way, and to say that in Websterian blank verse "the blank verse norm is feeble" is such a grotesque understatement it sounds like a joke. Anyone who scans "Gerontion's" seventy-some lines and finds a handful scannable -- by applying conflicting analyses of the hypothetical pattern -- is not entitled to write "in defense of reason." All that Winters meant to say was that "Gerontion" sounds like Webster, which is neither accurate nor a prosodic statement. Anyone with a perverse sense of humor or a morbid interest in literary criticism can compare Winters' attack on Eliot in In Defense Of Reason with Harvey Gross's defense in Sound and Form in Modern Poetry. What emerges is the conclusion that the briefest suggestion of scannability is a gravitational center around which prosodists cluster like moths around a light. Eliot is, however, partly responsible for this sort of discussion. It is the kind of inanity he made possible by his 1917 essay on free verse: " . . . the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the freest verse." When Polonius is summoned he always appears.

NOTES

1. The idea of a blind man composing poems in a purely page oriented syllabic measure is so unlikely that alternatives ought to be suggested. Either Milton’s blindness was mythical, which doesn’t seem likely, or he was not responsible for the final page arrangement of the poem he dictated, in which case the metric of Paradise Lost was largely due to the editors. This may explain why the irregular lines were never corrected.

2. I am aware that there are a number of very elaborate and ingenious theories of old English versification. but the only one that can count as reasonably "metrical" requires the hypothesis of either musical accompaniment or some special recitation technique which would allow for isochrony, and the evidence for this is slight. The more commonly accepted Five Type Foot Theory worked out by Sievers and subsequently rejected by him may describe fairly accurately the phrasal rhythms of Beowulf, but it is hard to see what that has to do with metrics. As a compositional constraint the theory supposes an immense variety of options. There are really six types of "foot" and numerous loopholes that constitute subspecies. It is not really clear what is excluded by this theory and, if significant Old English phrasal rhythms are excluded by it, and whether this is due to the rhetorical habits of the Beowulf poet or Old English poetry in general. (It is worth pointing out that an observer of chess games might wait a very long time before ever seeing White open by moving his king pawn to king three; it is nevertheless quite legal. Moreover the Sievers theory depends upon the existence of "lines," and there are no lines in Beowulf that were not established by editors. And the lines established by the editors are not satisfactory and require the assumption of numerous "hypermetric lines," which then require still more explanation. It would seem much more economical to assume that there is no "metric" and there are no "lines," that there is a continuum of language punctuated by alliteration, a habit of bipartite phrasing, and perhaps a consistency in placement of the caesura. If we accept the oral formulaic theory of composition for Beowulf there is even less reason to suppose a metric, especially a metric so laughably complicated as Sievers'. It seems extremely unlikely that the theory of Old English meter is based on anything more solid than nineteenth-century expectations.

[Originally published in Stony Brook, number one, December 1968. The first half of this essay appeared in a posting on May 28, 2009.]

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