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
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.
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.