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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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Yet, as Blair writes, Hopkins’s “metrical experimentation was not a signifier of unorthodoxy, but rather .  .  . a signal of the greater freedom offered by the stricter orthodoxies of Roman Catholicism.” Meredith Martin notes that Hopkins’s interest in an accentual rather than syllabic meter was related to his idea of how poetry names the “inscape” of things, how it “fetches out” the being of the object named in the poem, as he put it in a piece on Duns Scotus. While Hopkins is often claimed as a proto-modernist, his “metrical experimentations,” Martin remarks, “were not ahead of his time; on the contrary, they place him firmly amid the Victorian concerns about the standards and character of the English language.” The difference between the Victorians and modernists (such as Pound and Williams) is the view of experimentation as an inherent aspect of orthodoxy and tradition, rather than a rejection of it.

Robert Bridges, one of the Victorian period’s most active theorizers of poetic form, is now largely forgotten. But Bridges occupied a sort of third way between the accentual meter of Hopkins (and Skeat and Guest) and the hybrid model of Saintsbury. Bridges argued that either accents or syllables could govern the English line, but not both at the same time. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, he discovered an alternative to Saintsbury’s iambic pentameter in Milton’s hexameter, and instead of Saintsbury’s “English foot,” he proposed a “Britannic foot”—a trisyllabic, mid-stressed foot (exemplified in the name) that he claimed was the commonest example of “stressed verse” in English. 

Martin points out that Pound’s own ideas regarding English prosody are strikingly similar to those of Bridges. Pound’s remark in “A Retrospect” that poets should “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome” is suggested with much more nuance in Bridges’s “A Letter to a Musician on English Prosody,” which was published nearly a decade earlier. Furthermore, Pound’s remark “that some poems may have form as a tree has form, some as water poured into a vase” is not unlike Bridges’s distinction between accentual and quantitative meter. Martin writes: 

Pound’s language supports the narrative of a violent break with the past .  .  . and yet his assumption that any and all metrical systems are hegemonic and rigid belies his ignorance of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century poetics.

 

As both Blair and Meredith show, the Victorians debated and experimented with poetic form because of its perceived importance both for religious belief and in nourishing a sense of nationhood. It is hard to imagine poetry occupying such a central place in religious and political debates today—marginalized, to put it bluntly, as it has been by a century of avant-garde and so-called post-avant poets who view poetry as a means of attacking, rather than nourishing, the reading public’s sensibilities, and form as an oppressive constraint or a mere expression of the poet’s personality. This is not to say that there have been no great poets after Pound or Eliot. Yet the simplistic rejection of poetic form after Pound has made it far easier for myriad untalented ideologues to publish work that makes all the right stylistic “moves” but is of little lasting value.

Thankfully, a renewed interest in form is gaining momentum. The New Criterion’s poetry prize, the Contemporary Poetry Review, two new writing programs that emphasize the craft of form, and an increasing number of talented “formal” poets all point to this growing interest in poetic form. Here, however, the myth of stable English verse-forms, rejected by dissipated bohemians and now in need of recovery, is an equally tempting but false narrative. No doubt a closer attention to patterned language, to sound, to the freedom of control, is in need of recovery. This recovery, however, should continue, not merely replicate, the formal successes of the past.

Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.

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