A Study of Poetry
By Bliss Perry

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Chapter V


  “Rhythm is the recurrence of stress at intervals; metre is the
  regular, or measured, recurrence of stress."
    M. H. SHACKFORD, A First Book of Poetics
  “Metres being manifestly sections of rhythm."
    ARISTOTLE, Poetics, 4. (Butcher’s translation)

  “Thoughts that voluntary move
  Harmonious numbers."

1. The Nature of Rhythm And why must the words begin to dance? The answer is to be perceived in the very nature of Rhythm, that old name for the ceaseless pulsing or “flowing” of all living things. So deep indeed lies the instinct for rhythm in our consciousness that we impute it even to inanimate objects. We hear the ticking of the clock as tíck-tock, tíck-tock, or else tick-tóck, tick-tóck, although psychologists assure us that the clock’s wheels are moving with indifferent, mechanical precision, and that it is simply our own focusing of attention upon alternate beats which creates the impression of rhythm. We hear a rhythm in the wheels of the train, and in the purring of the motor-engine, knowing all the while that it is we who impose or make-up the rhythm, in our human instinct for organizing the units of attention. We cannot help it, as long as our own pulses beat. No two persons catch quite the same rhythm in the sounds of the animate and inanimate world, because no two persons have absolutely identical pulse-beats, identical powers of attention, an identical psycho-physical organism. We all perceive that there is a rhythm in a racing crew, in a perfectly timed stroke of golf, in a fisherman’s fly- casting, in a violinist’s bow, in a close-hauled sailboat fighting with the wind. But we appropriate and organize these objective impressions in subtly different ways.

When, for instance, we listen to poetry read aloud, or when we read it aloud ourselves, some of us are instinctive “timers," [Footnote: See W. M. Patterson, The Rhythm of Prose. Columbia University Press, 1916.] paying primary attention to the spaced or measured intervals of time, although in so doing we are not wholly regardless of those points of “stress” which help to make the time-intervals plainer. Others of us are natural “stressers,” in that we pay primary attention to the “weight” of words,–the relative loudness or pitch, by which their meaning or importance is indicated,–and it is only secondarily that we think of these weighted or “stressed” words as separated from one another by approximately equal intervals of time. Standing on the rocks at Gloucester after an easterly storm, a typical “timer” might be chiefly conscious of the steady sequence of the waves, the measured intervals between their summits; while the typical stresser, although subconsciously aware of the steady iteration of the giant rollers, might watch primarily their foaming crests, and listen chiefly to their crashing thunder. The point to be remembered is this: that neither the “timing” instinct nor the “stressing” instinct excludes the other, although in most individuals one or the other predominates. Musicians, for instance, are apt to be noticeable “timers,” while many scholars who deal habitually with words in their varied shifts of meaning, are professionally inclined to be “stressers.”

2. The Measurement of Rhythm Let us apply these facts to some of the more simple of the vexed questions of prosody, No one disputes the universality of the rhythmizing impulse; the quarrel begins as soon as any prosodist attempts to dogmatize about the nature and measurement of those flowing time-intervals whose arrangement we call rhythm. No one disputes, again, that the only arbiter in matters of prosody is the trained ear, and not the eye. Infinitely deceptive is the printed page of verse when regarded by the eye. Verse may be made to look like prose and prose to look like verse. Capital letters, lines, rhymes, phrases and paragraphs may be so cunningly or conventionally arranged by the printer as to disguise the real nature of the rhythmical and metrical pattern. When in doubt, close your eyes!

We agree, then, that in all spoken language–and this is as true of prose as it is of verse–there are time-intervals more or less clearly marked, and that the ear is the final judge as to the nature of these intervals. But can the ear really measure the intervals with any approximation to certainty, so that prosodists, for instance, can agree that a given poem is written in a definite metre? In one sense “yes.” No one doubts that the Odyssey is written in “dactylic hexameters,” i.e., in lines made up of six “feet,” each one of which is normally composed of a long syllable plus two short syllables, or of an acceptable equivalent for that particular combination. But when we are taught in school that Longfellow’s Evangeline is also written in “dactylic hexameters,” trouble begins for the few inquisitive, since it is certain that if you close your eyes and listen carefully to a dozen lines of Homer’s Greek, and then to a dozen lines of Longfellow’s English, each written in so-called “hexameters,” you are listening to two very different arrangements of time-intervals, so different, in fact, that the two poems are really not in the same “measure” or “metre” at all. For the Greek poet was, as a metrist, thinking primarily of quantity, of the relative “timing” of his syllables, and the American of the relative “stress” of his syllables. [Footnote: “Musically speaking–because the musical terms are exact and not ambiguous–true dactyls are in 2-4 time and the verse of Evangelineis in 3-8 time.” T. D. Goodell, Nation, October 12, 1911.]

That illustration is drearily hackneyed, no doubt, but it has a double value. It is perfectly clear; and furthermore, it serves to remind us of the instinctive differences between different persons and different races as regards the ways of arranging time-intervals so as to create the rhythms of verse. The individual’s standard of measurement–his poetic foot-rule, so to speak–is very elastic,–"made of rubber” indeed, as the experiments of many psychological laboratories have demonstrated beyond a question. Furthermore, the composers of poetry build it out of very elastic units. They are simply putting syllables of words together into a rhythmical design, and these “airy syllables,” in themselves mere symbols of ideas and feelings, cannot be weighed by any absolutely correct sound-scales. They cannot be measured in time by any absolutely accurate watch-dial, or exactly estimated in their meaning, whether that be literal or figurative, by any dictionary of words and phrases. But this is only saying that the syllables which make up the units of verse, whether the units be called “foot” or “line” or “phrase,” are not dead, mechanical things, but live things, moving rhythmically, entering thereby into the pulsing, chiming life of the real world, and taking on more fullness of life and beauty in elastic movement, in ordered but infinitely flexible design, than they ever could possess as independent particles.

3. Conflict and Compromise And everywhere in the arrangement of syllables into the patterns of rhythm and metre we find conflict and compromise, the surrender of some values of sound or sense for the sake of a greater unity. To revert to considerations dealt with in an earlier chapter, we touch here upon the old antinomy–or it may be, harmony–between “form” and “significance," between the “outside” and the “inside” of the work of art. For words, surely, have one kind of value as pure sound, as “cadences” made up of stresses, slides, pauses, and even of silences when the expected syllable is artfully withheld. It is this sound-value, for instance, which you perceive as you listen to a beautifully recited poem in Russian, a language of which you know not a single word; and you may experience a modification of the same pleasure in closing your mind wholly to the “sense” of a richly musical passage in Swinburne, and delighting your ear by its mere beauty of tone. But words have also that other value as meaning, and we are aware how these meaning values shift with the stress and turns of thought, so that a given word has a greater or less weight in different sentences or even in different clauses of the same sentence. “Meaning" values, like sound values, are never precisely fixed in a mechanical and universally agreed-upon scale, they are relative, not absolute. Sometimes meaning and sound conflict with one another, and one must be sacrificed in part, as when the normal accent of a word refuses to coincide with the verse-accent demanded by a certain measure, so that we “wrench” the accent a trifle, or make it “hover” over two syllables without really alighting upon either. And it is significant that lovers of poetry have always found pleasure in such compromises. [Footnote: Compare the passage about Chopin’s piano-playing, quoted from Alden in the Notes and Illustrations for this chapter.] They enjoy minor departures from and returns to the normal, the expected measure of both sound and sense, just as a man likes to sail a boat as closely into the wind as he conveniently can, making his actual course a compromise between the line as laid by the compass, and the actual facts of wind and tide and the behavior of his particular boat. It is thus that the sailor “makes it,” triumphantly! And the poet “makes it” likewise, out of deep, strong-running tides of rhythmic impulse, out of arbitrary words and rebellious moods, out of

  “Thoughts hardly to be packed
  Into a narrow act,
  Fancies that broke through language and escaped,”

until he compels rhythm and syllables to move concordantly, and blend into that larger living whole–the dancing, singing crowd of sounds and meanings which make up a poem.

4. The Rhythms of Prose Just here it may be of help to us to turn away for a moment from verse rhythm, and to consider what Dryden called “the other harmony” of prose. For no one doubts that prose has rhythm, as well as verse. Vast and learned treatises have been written on the prose rhythms of the Greeks and Romans, and Saintsbury’s History of English Prose Rhythm is a monumental collection of wonderful prose passages in English, with the scansion of “long” and “short” syllables and of “feet” marked after a fashion that seems to please no one but the author. But in truth the task of inventing an adequate system for notating the rhythm of prose, and securing a working agreement among prosodists as to a proper terminology, is almost insuperable. Those of us who sat in our youth at the feet of German masters were taught that the distinction between verse and prose was simple: verse was, as the Greeks had called it, “bound speech” and prose was “loosened speech.” But a large proportion of the poetry published in the last ten years is “free verse,” which is assuredly of a “loosened" rather than a “bound” pattern.

Apparently the old fence between prose and verse has been broken down. Or, if one conceives of indubitable prose and indubitable verse as forming two intersecting circles, there is a neutral zone,

[Illustration: Prose / Neutral Zone / Verse]

which some would call “prose poetry” and some “free verse,” and which, according to the experiments of Dr. Patterson [Footnote: The Rhythm of Prose, already cited.] may be appropriated as “prose experience” or “verse experience” according to the rhythmic instinct of each individual. Indeed Mr. T. S. Omond has admitted that “the very same words, with the very same natural stresses, may be prose or verse according as we treat them. The difference is in ourselves, in the mental rhythm to which we unconsciously adjust the words." [Footnote: Quoted in B. M. Alden, “The Mental Side of Metrical Form," Modern Language Review, July, 1914.] Many familiar sentences from the English Bible or Prayer-Book, such as the words from the Te Deum, “We, therefore, pray thee, help thy servants, whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood,” have a rhythm which may be felt as prose or verse, according to the mental habit or mood or rhythmizing impulse of the hearer.

Nevertheless it remains true in general that the rhythms of prose are more constantly varied, broken and intricate than the rhythms of verse. They are characterized, according to the interesting experiments of Dr. Patterson, by syncopated time, [Footnote: “For a ’timer’ the definition of prose as distinguished from verse experience depends upon a predominance of syncopation over coincidence in the coordination of the accented syllables of the text with the measuring pulses.” Rhythm of Prose, p. 22.] whereas in normal verse there is a fairly clean-cut coincidence between the pulses of the hearer and the strokes of the rhythm. Every one seems to agree that there is a certain danger in mixing these infinitely subtle and “syncopated” tunes of prose with the easily recognized tunes of verse. There is, unquestionably, a natural “iambic” roll in English prose, due to the predominant alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables in our native tongue, but when Dickens–to cite what John Wesley would call “an eminent sinner” in this respect–inserts in his emotional prose line after line of five-stress “iambic” verse, we feel instinctively that the presence of the blank verse impairs the true harmony of the prose. [Footnote: Observe, in the “Notes and Illustrations” for this chapter, the frequency of the blank-verse lines in Robert G. Ingersoll’s “Address over a Little Boy’s Grave."] Delicate writers of English prose usually avoid this coincidence of pattern with the more familiar patterns of verse, but it is impossible to avoid it wholly, and some of the most beautiful cadences of English prose might, if detached from their context, be scanned for a few syllables as perfect verse. The free verse of Whitman, Henley and Matthew Arnold is full of these embedded fragments of recognized “tunes of verse,” mingled with the unidentifiable tunes of prose. There has seldom been a more curious example of accidental coincidence than in this sentence from a prosaic textbook on “The Parallelogram of Forces”: “And hence no force, however great, can draw a cord, however fine, into a horizontal line which shall be absolutely straight.” This is precisely the “four-stressed iambic” metre of In Memoriam, and it even preserves the peculiar rhyme order of the In Memoriam stanza:

  “And hence no force, however great,
    Can draw a cord, however fine,
    Into a horizontal line
  Which shall be absolutely straight.”

We shall consider more closely, in the section on Free Verse in the following chapter, this question of the coincidence and variation of pattern as certain types of loosened verse pass in and out of the zone which is commonly recognized as pure prose. But it is highly important here to remember another fact, which professional psychologists in their laboratory experiments with the notation of verse and prose have frequently forgotten, namely, the existence of a type of ornamented prose, which has had a marked historical influence upon the development of English style. This ornamented prose, elaborated by Greek and Roman rhetoricians, and constantly apparent in the pages of Cicero, heightened its rhythm by various devices of alliteration, assonance, tone-color, cadence, phrase and period. Greek oratory even employed rhyme in highly colored passages, precisely as Miss Amy Lowell uses rhyme in her polyphonic or “many-voiced” prose. Medieval Latin took over all of these devices from Classical Latin, and in its varied oratorical, liturgical and epistolary forms it strove to imitate the various modes of cursus("running”) and clausula ("cadence”) which had characterized the rhythms of Isocrates and Cicero. [Footnote: A. C. Clark, Prose Rhythm in English. Oxford, 1913. Morris W. Croll, “The Cadence of English Oratorical Prose,” Studies in Philology. January, 1919. Oliver W. Elton, “English Prose Numbers,” in Essays and Studies by members of the English Association, 4th Series. Oxford, 1913.] From the Medieval Latin Missal and Breviary these devices of prose rhythm, particularly those affecting the end of sentences, were taken over into the Collects and other parts of the liturgy of the English Prayer-Book. They had a constant influence upon the rhythms employed by the translators of the English Bible, and through the Bible the cadences of this ancient ornamented prose have passed over into the familiar but intricate harmonies of our “heightened” modern prose.

While this whole matter is too technical to be dealt with adequately here, it may serve at least to remind the reader that an appreciation of English prose rhythms, as they have been actually employed for many centuries, requires a sensitiveness to the rhetorical position of phrases and clauses, and to “the use of sonorous words in the places of rhetorical emphasis, which cannot be indicated by the bare symbols of prosody." [Footnote: New York Nation, February 27, 1913.] For that sonority and cadence and balance which constitute a harmonious prose sentence cannot be adequately felt by a possibly illiterate scientist in his laboratory for acoustics; the “literary" value of words, in all strongly emotional prose, is inextricably mingled with the bare sound values: it is thought-units that must be delicately “balanced” as well as stresses and slides and final clauses; it is the elevation of ideas, the nobility and beauty of feeling, as discerned by the trained literary sense, which makes the final difference between enduring prose harmonies and the mere tinkling of the “musical glasses." [Footnote: This point is suggestively discussed by C. E. Andrews, The Writing and Reading of Verse, chap. 5. New York, 1918.] The student of verse may very profitably continue to exercise himself with the rhythms of prose. He should learn to share the unwearied enthusiasm of Professor Saintsbury for the splendid cadences of our sixteenth-century English, for the florid decorative period of Thomas Browne and Jeremy Taylor, for the eloquent “prose poetry” of De Quincey and Ruskin and Charles Kingsley, and for the strangely subtle effects wrought by Pater and Stevenson. But he must not imagine that any laboratory system of tapping syncopated time, or any painstaking marking of macrons (-) breves (u) and caesuras (||) will give him full initiation into the mysteries of prose cadences which have been built, not merely out of stressed and unstressed syllables, but out of the passionate intellectual life of many generations of men. He may learn to feel that life as it pulsates in words, but no one has thus far devised an adequate scheme for its notation.

5. Quantity, Stress and Syllable The notation of verse, however, while certainly not a wholly simple matter, is far easier. It is practicable to indicate by conventional printer’s devices the general rhythmical and metrical scheme of a poem, and to indicate the more obvious, at least, of its incidental variations from the expected pattern. It remains as true of verse as it is of prose that the “literary" values of words–their connotations or emotional overtones–are too subtle to be indicated by any marks invented by a printer; but the alternation or succession of long or short syllables, of stressed or unstressed syllables, the nature of particular feet and lines and stanzas, the order and interlacing of rhymes, and even the devices of tone-color, are sufficiently external elements of verse to allow easy methods of indication.

When you and I first began to study Virgil and Horace, for instance, we were taught that the Roman poets, imitating the Greeks, built heir verses upon the principle of Quantity. The metrical unit was the foot, made up of long and short syllables in various combinations, two short syllables being equivalent to one long one. The feet most commonly used were the Iambus [short-long], the Anapest [short-short-long], the Trochee [long-short], the Dactyl [long-short-short], and the Spondee [long-long]. Then we were instructed that a “verse” or line consisting of one foot was called a monometer, of two feet, a dimeter, of three, a trimeter, of four, a tetrameter, of five, a pentameter, of six, a hexameter. This looked like a fairly easy game, and before long we were marking the quantities in the first line of the Aeneid, as other school-children had done ever since the time of St. Augustine:

Arma vi¦rumque ca¦no Tro¦jae qui ¦ primus ab¦oris.

Or perhaps it was Horace’s

Maece¦nas, atavis ¦¦ edite reg¦ibus.

We were told, of course, that it was not all quite as simple as this: that there were frequent metrical variations, such as trochees changing places with dactyls, and anapests with iambi; that feet could be inverted, so that a trochaic line might begin with an iambus, an anapestic line with a dactyl, or vice versa; that syllables might be omitted at the beginning or the end or even in the middle of a line, and that this “cutting-off" was called catalexis; that syllables might even be added at the beginning or end of certain lines and that these syllables were called hypermetric; and that we must be very watchful about pauses, particularly about a somewhat mysterious chief pause, liable to occur about the middle of a line, called a caesura. But the magic password to admit us to this unknown world of Greek and Roman prosody was after all the word Quantity.

If a few of us were bold enough to ask the main difference between this Roman system of versification and the system which governed modern English poetry–even such rude playground verse as

  “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo,
  Catch a nigger by the toe"–

we were promptly told by the teacher that the difference was a very plain one, namely, that English, like all the Germanic languages, obeyed in its verse the principles of Stress. Instead of looking for “long” and “short” syllables, we had merely to look for “stressed” and “unstressed" syllables. It was a matter, not of quantity, but of accent; and if we remembered this fact, there was no harm but rather a great convenience, in retaining the technical names of classical versification. Only we must be careful that by “iambus,” in English poetry, we meant an unstressed syllable, rather than a short syllable followed by a long one. And so with “trochee,” “dactyl,” “anapest” and the rest; if we knew that accent and not quantity was what we really had in mind, it was proper enough to speak of Paradise Lost as written in “iambic pentameter,” and Evangeline in “dactylic hexameter,” etc. The trick was to count stresses and not syllables, for was not Coleridge’s Christabel written in a metre which varied its syllables anywhere from four to twelve for the line, yet maintained its music by regularity of stress?

Nothing could be plainer than all this. Yet some of us discovered when we went to college and listened to instructors who grew strangely excited over prosody, that it was not all as easy as this distinction between Quantity and Stress would seem to indicate. For we were now told that the Greek and Roman habits of daily speech in prose had something to do with their instinctive choice of verse-rhythms: that at the very time when the Greek heroic hexameters were being composed, there was a natural dactylic roll in spoken prose; that Roman daily speech had a stronger stress than Greek, so that Horace, in imitating Greek lyric measures, had stubborn natural word-accents to reconcile with his quantitative measures; that the Roman poets, who had originally allowed normal word-accent and verse-pulse to coincide for the most part, came gradually to enjoy a certain clash between them, keeping all the while the quantitative principle dominant; so that when Virgil and Horace read their verses aloud, and word-accent and verse-pulse fell upon different syllables, the verse-pulse yielded slightly to the word-accent, thus adding something of the charm of conversational prose to the normal time-values of the rhythm. In a word, we were now taught–if I may quote from a personal letter of a distinguished American Latinist–that “the almost universal belief that Latin verse is a matter of quantity only is a mistake. Word-accent was not lost in Latin verse.”

And then, as if this undermining of our schoolboy faith in pure Quantity were not enough, came the surprising information that the Romans had kept, perhaps from the beginning of their poetizing, a popular type of accented verse, as seen in the rude chant of the Roman legionaries,

Mílle Fráncos mílle sémel Sármatás occídimús. [Footnote: See C. M. Lewis, Foreign Sources of Modern English Versification. Halle, 1898.]

Certainly those sun-burnt “doughboys” were not bothering themselves about trochees and iambi and such toys of cultivated “literary” persons; they were amusing themselves on the march by inventing words to fit the “goose-step.” Their

Unus homo mille mille mille decollavimus which Professor Courthope scans as trochaic verse, [Footnote: History of English Poetry, vol. 1, p. 73.] seems to me nothing but “stress” verse, like

“Hay-foot, straw-foot, belly full of bean-soup–Hep–Hep!” Popular accentual verse persisted, then, while the more cultivated Roman public acquired and then gradually lost, in the course of centuries, its ear for the quantitative rhythms which originally had been copied from the Greeks.

Furthermore, according to our ingenious college teachers, there was still a third principle of versification to be reckoned with, not depending on Quantity or Stress, but merely Syllabic, or syllable-counting. This was immemorially old, it seemed, and it had reappeared mysteriously in Europe in the Dark Ages.

Dr. Lewis cites from a Latin manuscript poem of the ninth century: [Footnote: Foreign Sources, etc., p. 3.]

  “Beatissimus namque Dionysius ¦ Athenis quondam episcopus,
  Quem Sanctus Clemens direxit in Galliam ¦ propter praedicandi
    gratiam,” etc.

“Each verse contains 21 syllables, with a caesura after the 12th. No further regularity, either metrical or rhythmical, can be perceived. Such a verse could probably not have been written except for music." Church-music, apparently, was also a factor in the development of versification,–particularly that “Gregorian" style which demanded neither quantitative nor accentual rhythm, but simply a fair count of syllables in the libretto, note matching syllable exactly. But when the great medieval Latin hymns, like Dies ire, were written, the Syllabic principle of versification, like the Quantitative principle, dropped out of sight, and we witness once more the emergence of the Stress or accentual system, heavily ornamented with rhymes. [Footnote: See the quotation from Taylor’s Classical Heritage of the Middle Ages printed in the “Notes and Illustrations” for this chapter.] Yet the Syllabic method reappears once more, we were told, in French prosody, and thus affects the verse of Chaucer and of subsequent English poetry, and it still may be studied, isolated as far as may be from considerations of quantity and stress, in certain English songs written for music, where syllable carefully matches note. The “long metre" (8 syllables), “short metre” (6 syllables) and “common metre" (7 syllables, 6 syllables) of the hymn books is a convenient illustration of thinking of metre in terms of syllables alone.

6. The Appeal to the Ear At this point, perhaps, having set forth the three theories of Quantity, Stress and Syllable, our instructors were sensible enough to make an appeal to the ear. Reminding us that stress was the controlling principle in Germanic poetry,–although not denying that considerations of quantity and number of syllables might have something to do with the effect,–they read aloud to us some Old English verse. Perhaps it was that Song of the Battle of Brunanburh which Tennyson has so skilfully rendered into modern English words while preserving the Old English metre. And here, though the Anglo-Saxon words were certainly uncouth, we caught the chief stresses without difficulty, usually four beats to the line. If the instructor, while these rude strokes of rhythm were still pounding in our ears, followed the Old English with a dozen lines of Chaucer, we could all perceive the presence of a newer, smoother, more highly elaborated verse-music, where the number of syllables had been cunningly reckoned, and the verse-accent seemed always to fall upon a syllable long and strong enough to bear the weight easily, and the rhymes rippled like a brook. Whether we called the metre of the Prologue rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter, or rhymed couplets of ten-syllabled, five-stressed verse, the music, at least, was clear enough. And so was the music of the “blank” or unrhymed five-stress lines of Marlowe and Shakspere and Milton, and as we listened it was easy to believe that “stress” and “quantity” and “syllable,” all playing together like a chime of bells, are concordant and not quarrelsome elements in the harmony of modern English verse. Only, to be richly concordant, each must be prepared to yield a little if need be, to the other!

I have taken too many pages, perhaps, in thus sketching the rudimentary education of a college student in the elements of rhythm and metre, and in showing how the theoretical difficulties of the subject–which are admittedly great–often disappear as soon as one resolves to let the ear decide. A satisfied ear may soothe a dissatisfied mind. I have quoted from a letter of an American scholar about quantity being the “controlling" element of cultivated Roman verse, and I now quote from a personal letter of an American poet, emphasizing the necessity of “reading poetry as it was meant to be read”: “My point is not that English verse has no quantity, but that the controlling element is not quantity but accent. The lack of fixed syllabic quantity is just what I emphasize. This lack makes definite beat impossible: or at least it makes it absurd to attempt to scan English verse by feet. The proportion of ’irregularities’ and ’exceptions’ becomes painful to the student and embarrassing to the professor. He is put to fearful straits to explain his prosody and make it fit the verse. And when he has done all this, the student, if he has a good ear, forthwith forgets it all, and reads the verse as it was meant to be read, as a succession of musical bars (without pitch, of course), in which the accent marks the rhythm, and pauses and rests often take the place of missing syllables. To this ingenuous student I hold out my hand and cast in my lot with him. He is the man for whom English poetry is written.”

It may be objected, of course, that the phrase “reading poetry as it was meant to be read” really begs the question. For English poets have often amused themselves by composing purely quantitative verse, which they wish us to read as quantitative. The result may be as artificial as the painfully composed Latin quantitative verse of English schoolboys, but the thing can be done. Tennyson’s experiments in quantity are well known, and should be carefully studied. He was proud of his hexameter:

“High winds roaring above me, dark leaves falling about me,”

and of his pentameter:

“All men alike hate slops, particularly gruel.”

Here the English long and short syllables–as far as “long” and “short" can be definitely distinguished in English–correspond precisely to the rules of Roman prosody. The present Laureate, Robert Bridges, whose investigations in English and Roman prosody have been incessant, has recently published a book of experiments in writing English quantitative hexameters. [Footnote: Ibant Obscuri. New York, Oxford University Press, 1917.] Here are half a dozen lines:

  “Midway of all this tract, with secular arms an immense elm
  Reareth a crowd of branches, aneath whose lofty protection
  Vain dreams thickly nestle, clinging unto the foliage on high:
  And many strange creatures of monstrous form and features
  Stable about th’ entrance, Centaur and Scylla’s abortion,
  And hundred-handed Briareus, and Lerna’s wild beast....”

These are lines interesting to the scholar, but they are somehow “non-English” in their rhythm–not in accordance with “the genius of the language,” as we vaguely but very sensibly say. Neither did the stressed “dactylic” hexameters of Longfellow, written though they were by a skilful versifier, quite conform to “the nature of the language.”

7. The Analogy with Music One other attempt to explain the difficulties of English rhythm and metre must at least be mentioned here, namely the “musical” theory of the American poet and musician, Sidney Lanier. In his Science of English Verse, an acute and very suggestive book, he threw over the whole theory of stress–or at least, retained it as a mere element of assistance, as in music, to the marking of time, maintaining that the only necessary element in rhythm is equal time-intervals, corresponding to bars of music. According to Lanier, the structure of English blank verse, for instance, is not an alternation of unstressed with stressed syllables, but a series of bars of 3/8 time, thus:

[Illustration: Five bars of 3/8 time, each with a short and a long note.]

Thomson, Dabney and other prosodists have followed Lanier’s general theory, without always agreeing with him as to whether blank verse is written in 3/8 or 2/4 time. Alden, in a competent summary of these various musical theories as to the basis of English verse, [Footnote: Introduction to Poetry, pp. 190-93. See also Alden’s English Verse, Part 3. “The Time-Element in English Verse."] quotes with approval Mr. T. S. Omond’s words: “Musical notes are almost pure symbols. In theory at least, and no doubt substantially in practice, they can be divided with mathematical accuracy–into fractions of 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, etc.–and the ideal of music is absolute accordance with time. Verse has other methods and another ideal. Its words are concrete things, not readily carved to such exact pattern.... The perfection of music lies in absolute accordance with time, that of verse is continual slight departures from time. This is why no musical representations of verse ever seem satisfactory. They assume regularity where none exists.”

8. Prosody and Enjoyment It must be expected then, that there will be different preferences in choosing a nomenclature for modern English metres, based upon the differences in the individual physical organism of various metrists, and upon the strictness of their adherence to the significance of stress, quantity and number of syllables in the actual forms of verse. Adherents of musical theories in the interpretation of verse may prefer to speak of “duple time” instead of iambic-trochaic metres, and of “triple” time for anapests and dactyls. Natural “stressers” may prefer to call iambic and anapestic units “rising” feet, to indicate the ascent of stress as one passes from the weaker to the stronger syllables; and similarly, to call trochaic and dactylic units “falling” feet, to indicate the descent or decline of stress as the weaker syllable or syllables succeed the stronger. Or, combining these two modes of nomenclature, one may legitimately speak of iambic feet as “duple rising,”

“And never lifted up a single stone";

trochaic as “duple falling,”

“Here they are, my fifty perfect poems";

anapestic as “triple rising,”

“But he lived with a lot of wild mates, and they never would let him be good";

and dactylic as “triple falling";

“Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them.”

If a line is felt as “metrical,” i.e. divided into approximately equal time-intervals, the particular label employed to indicate the nature of the metre is unimportant. It may be left to the choice of each student of metre, provided he uses his terms consistently. The use of the traditional terminology “iambic,” “trochaic,” etc., is convenient, and is open to no objection if one is careful to make clear the sense in which he employs such ambiguous terms.

It should also be added, as a means of reconciling the apparently warring claims of stress and quantity in English poetry, that recent investigations in recording through delicate instruments the actual time-intervals used by different persons in reading aloud the same lines of poetry, prove what has long been suspected, namely, the close affiliation of quantity with stress.
[Footnote: “Syllabic Quantity in English Verse,” by Ada F. Snell, Pub. Of Mod, Lang. Ass., September, 1918.]
Miss Snell’s experiments show that the foot in English verse is made up of syllables 90 per cent of which are, in the stressed position, longer than those in the unstressed. The average relation of short to long syllables, is, in spite of a good deal of variation among the individual readers, almost precisely as 2 to 4–which has always been the accepted ratio for the relation of short to long syllables in Greek and Roman verse. If one examines English words in a dictionary, the quantities of the syllables are certainly not “fixed” as they are in Greek and Latin, but the moment one begins to read a passage of English poetry aloud, and becomes conscious of its underlying type of rhythm, he fits elastic units of “feet” into the steadily flowing or pulsing intervals of time. The “foot” becomes, as it were, a rubber link in a moving bicycle chain. The revolutions of the chain mark the rhythm; and the stressed or unstressed or lightly stressed syllables in each “link” or foot, accommodate themselves, by almost unperceived expansion and contraction, to the rhythmic beat of the passage as a whole.

Nor should it be forgotten that the “sense” of words, their meaning-weight, their rhetorical value in certain phrases, constantly affects the theoretical number of stresses belonging to a given line. In blank verse, for instance, the theoretical five chief stresses are often but three or four in actual practice, lighter stresses taking their place in order to avoid a pounding monotony, and conversely, as in Milton’s famous line,

“Rocks, caves, lakes, dens, bogs, fens, and shades of death,”

the rhetorical significance of the monosyllables compels an overloading of stresses which heightens the desired poetic effect. Corson’s Primer of English Verse and Mayor’s English Metres give numerous examples from the blank verse of Milton and Tennyson to illustrate the constant substitution and shifting of stresses in order to secure variety of music and suggestive adaptations of sound to sense. It is well known that Shakspere’s blank verse, as he developed in command of his artistic resources, shows fewer “end-stopped” lines and more “run-on” lines, with an increasing proportion of light and weak endings. But the same principle applies to every type of English rhythm. As soon as the dominant beat–which is commonly, but not always, apparent in the opening measures of the poem–once asserts itself, the poet’s mastery of technique is revealed through his skill in satisfying the ear with a verbal music which is never absolutely identical in its time-intervals, its stresses or its pitch, with the fixed, wooden pattern of the rhythm he is using.

For the human voice utters syllables which vary their duration, stress and pitch with each reader. Photographs of voice-waves, as printed by Verrier, Scripture, and many other laboratory workers, show how great is the difference between individuals in the intervals covered by the upward and downward slides or “inflections” which indicate doubt or affirmation. And these “rising” and “falling” and “circumflex” and “suspended” inflections, which make up what is called “pitch-accent,” are constantly varied, like the duration and stress of syllables, by the emotions evoked in reading. Words, phrases, lines and stanzas become colored with emotional overtones due to the feeling of the instant. Poetry read aloud as something sensuous and passionate cannot possibly conform exactly to a set mechanical pattern of rhythm and metre. Yet the hand-woven Oriental rug, though lacking the geometrical accuracy of a rug made by machinery, reveals a more vital and intimate beauty of design and execution. Many well-known poets–Tennyson being perhaps the most familiar example–have read aloud their own verses with a peculiar chanting sing-song which seemed to over-emphasize the fundamental rhythm. But who shall correct them? And who is entitled to say that a line like Swinburne’s

“Full-sailed, wide-winged, poised softly forever asway”

is irregular according to the foot-rule of traditional prosody, when it is probable, as Mr. C. E. Russell maintains, that Swinburne was here composing in purely musical and not prosodical rhythm? [Footnote: “Swinburne and Music,” by Charles E. Russell, North American Review, November, 1907. See the quotation in the “Notes and Illustrations” for this chapter.]

Is it not true, furthermore, as some metrical sceptics like to remind us, that if we once admit the principle of substitution and equivalence, of hypermetrical and truncated syllables, of pauses taking the place of syllables, we can very often make one metre seem very much like another? The question of calling a given group of lines “iambic” or “trochaic,” for instance, can be made quite arbitrary, depending upon where you begin to count syllables. “Iambic” with initial truncation or “trochaic” with final truncation? Tweedle-dum or tweedle-dee? Do you count waves from crest to crest or from hollow to hollow? When you count the links in a bicycle chain, do you begin with the slender middle of each link or with one of the swelling ends? So is it with this “iambic” and “trochaic” matter. Professor Alden, in a suggestive pamphlet, [Footnote: “The Mental Side of Metrical Form,” already cited.] confesses that these contrasting concepts of rising and falling metre are nothing more than concepts, alterable at will.

But while the experts in prosody continue to differ and to dogmatize, the lover of poetry should remember that versification is far older than the science of prosody, and that the enjoyment of verse is, for millions of human beings, as unaffected by theories of metrics as the stars are unaffected by the theories of astronomers. It is a satisfaction to the mind to know that the stars in their courses are amenable to law, even though one be so poor a mathematician as to be incapable of grasping and stating the law. The mathematics of music and of poetry, while heightening the intellectual pleasure of those capable of comprehending it, is admittedly too difficult for the mass of men. But no lover of poetry should refuse to go as far in theorizing as his ear will carry him. He will find that his susceptibility to the pulsations of various types of rhythm, and his delight in the intricacies of metrical device, will be heightened by the mental effort of attention and analysis. The danger is that the lover of poetry, wearied by the quarrels of prosodists, and forgetting the necessity of patience, compromise and freedom from dogmatism, will lose his curiosity about the infinite variety of metrical effects. But it is this very curiosity which makes his ear finer, even if his theories may be wrong. Hundreds of metricists admire and envy Professor Saintsbury’s ear for prose and verse rhythms while disagreeing wholly with his dogmatic theories of the “foot,” and his system of notation. There are sure to be some days and hours when the reader of poetry will find himself bored and tired with the effort of attention to the technique of verse. Then he can stop analysing, close his eyes, and drift out to sea upon the uncomprehended music.

  “The stars of midnight shall be dear
   To her; and she shall lean her ear
   In many a secret place
   Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
   And beauty born of murmuring sound
   Shall pass into her face.”


Preface  •  Part I: Poetry in General  •  Chapter II  •  Chapter III  •  Chapter IV  •  Chapter V  •  Chapter VI  •  Part II: The Lyric in Particular  •  Chapter VIII  •  Chapter IX  •  Chapter X  •  Notes and Illustrations  •  Appendix  •  Bibliography  •  Index

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By Bliss Perry
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