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Address Formal

How the rhythm of poetry made sense to the Victorians.

Aug 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 45 • By MICAH MATTIX
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The story goes something like this: From Chaucer to Wordsworth, English poetry was marked by formal innovation. Shakespeare’s sonnets, Donne’s epigrams, Milton’s line, and Wordsworth’s lyrics were indebted to classical Greek and Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Italian forms, altered by the poets who were guided by excellent literary judgment alone. This formal innovation ceased with the Victorians. Concerned with protecting Protestant morals and establishing an English national identity requisite for a continuing imperialism, the Victorians prescribed certain meters and forms as inherently “Christian” or “natural.” George Saintsbury’s statement that 

Frederick Faber, 1860

Frederick Faber, 1860

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the “iamb, trochee, and anapest” are the “English aristocracy of poetry” (with the iamb, of course, reigning supreme) epitomizes the period’s prudery. It is from such arbitrary rules, and the lifeless poetry it created, that avant-garde poets broke free. As Ezra Pound puts it in his Canto 81, to break the pentameter, that was the first heave

This, to use a bit of Anglo-Saxon, is a bunch of crock. While the Victorians did see a clear link between poetic form and religious practice, between meter and national identity, this view, as Kirstie Blair (in Form and Faith in Victorian Poetry and Religion) and Meredith Martin (in The Rise and Fall of Meter) show, encouraged rather than stifled formal experimentation. The Brownings’ interest in “dynamic” form, Edwin Guest’s and Walter William Skeat’s theories of Anglo-Saxon accent, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “sprung” rhythm, and Robert Bridges’s “Britannic foot” were all opposed, in one way or another, to Saintsbury’s coining of iambic pentameter as “the English foot.” In fact, it is highly unlikely that the free verse of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound would have developed in the way that it did had it not been for the ideas and innovations of the Victorians. Pound’s characterization of formal poetry as lifeless and repressive allowed him to define his own work in opposition to it; but the story of English meter at the turn of the century is decidedly more complex than Pound, and many contemporary poets and critics, allowed. 

Blair begins with the Tractarians. Evangelical and dissenting poets, such as John Kenyon and Robert and Elizabeth Browning, viewed a strict adherence to religious forms and, by analogy, poetic forms as “restrictive and unnatural, constraining and eventually killing the religious spirit and its hopes for saving grace.” High church Tractarians, however, viewed them in exactly the opposite way. For poets like John Keble and Frederick Faber, religious and poetic forms provided the boundaries necessary for life and meaning, mirroring the forms of Christ’s church and creation, effectively “channeling” our chaotic passions. In “To the Rothay,” for example, Faber addresses the stream, asking it to teach him, by its example of controlled power, to master his own passions through the duty of religious service. This constriction, it turns out, is a blessing, providing both the poet and the poem with “rest”: And by duty narrowed now, / Straight unto that rest I flow, writes Faber. The poem shows, Blair suggests, “that imposed discipline, in the shape of a channeled stream, may be destructive to the free play of poetic and religious emotion, but is more likely to lead to ultimate salvation through duty and obedience.” This differs little in theory from William Carlos Williams’s statement that “verse cannot be free in the sense of having no limitations or guiding principles.” The question is: Which forms, which rules? And this question, it turns out, was just as open for the
Victorians as it was for the moderns.

If Faber’s poems were more restrictive than those of most modernists, this does not mean they exhibited no formal experimentation. In his sonnet “The Humiliation,” Blair notes, Faber eschews both the Petrarchan and Shakespearean rhyme scheme for one that is impossible to classify, and the final line contains an extra foot. So experimental were “The Humiliation” and Faber’s other sonnets that they were lamented by the Christian Remembrancer as showing no awareness “of any rule at all, save that of being hedged in by the limits for fourteen lines.” And few poets were as experimental as the great Roman Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins rejected Saintsbury’s hybrid model of measuring meter by both syllables (such as in Latin) and accents (such as in Anglo-Saxon). Instead, he believed poets should use stress alone to determine a line of poetry. Relying on stress to structure a poem, Hopkins acknowledged in a letter to Coventry Patmore, would result in “looser” forms. 

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