A Study of Poetry
By Bliss Perry

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Chapter VI


  “Subtle rhymes, with ruin rife,
  Murmur in the house of life."

  “When this verse was first dictated to me I consider’d a Monotonous
  Cadence like that used by Milton & Shakspeare, & all writers of
  English Blank Verse, derived from the modern bondage of Rhyming, to
  be a necessary and indispensible part of the verse. But I soon found
  that in the mouth of a true Orator, such monotony was not only
  awkward, but as much a bondage as rhyme itself. I therefore have
  produced a variety in every line, both of cadences & number of
  syllables. Every word and every letter is studied and put into its
  fit place: the terrific numbers are reserved for the terrific parts,
  the mild & gentle for the mild & gentle parts, and the prosaic for
  inferior parts: all are necessary to each other. Poetry Fetter’d
  Fetters the Human Race!"

1. Battles Long Ago As we pass from the general consideration of Rhythm and Metre to some of the special questions involved in Rhyme, Stanza and Free Verse, it may be well to revert to the old distinction between what we called for convenience the “outside” and the “inside” of a work of art. In the field of music we saw that this distinction is almost, if not quite, meaningless, and in poetry it ought not to be pushed too far. Yet it is useful in explaining the differences among men as they regard, now the external form of verse, and now its inner spirit, and as they ask themselves how these two elements are related. Professor Butcher, in his Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, [Footnote: Page 147.] describes the natural tendencies of two sorts of men, who are quite as persistent to-day as ever they were in Greece in looking at one side only of the question:

  “We need not agree with a certain modern school who would empty all
  poetry of poetical thought and etherealize it till it melts into a
  strain of music; who sing to us we hardly know of what, but in such a
  way that the echoes of the real world, its men and women, its actual
  stir and conflict, are faint and hardly to be discerned. The poetry,
  we are told, resides not in the ideas conveyed, not in the blending
  of soul and sense, but in the sound itself, in the cadence of the
  verse. Yet, false as this view may be, it is not perhaps more false
  than that other which wholly ignores the effect of musical sound and
  looks only to the thought that is conveyed. Aristotle comes
  perilously near this doctrine.”

But it is not Aristotle only who permits himself at times to undervalue the formal element in verse. It is also Sir Philip Sidney, with his famous “verse being but an ornament and no cause to poetry” and “it is not riming and versing that maketh a poet.” It is Shelley with his “The distinction between poets and prose writers in a vulgar error.... Plato was essentially a poet–the truth and splendor of his imagery, and the melody of his language, are the most intense that it is possible to conceive.... Lord Bacon was a poet.” It is Coleridge with his “The writings of Plato, and Bishop Taylor, and the Theoria Sacra of Burnet, furnish undeniable proofs that poetry of the highest kind may be written without metre.”

In such passages as these, how generous are Sidney, Shelley, and Coleridge to the prose-men! And yet these same poet-critics, in dozens of other passages, have explained the fundamental justification of metre, rhyme and stanza as elements in the harmony of verse. Harmony may be attained, it is true, by rhythms too complicated to be easily scanned in metrical feet, and by measures which disregard rhyme and stanza; and poets, as well as critics, by giving exclusive attention to a single element in harmony, are able to persuade themselves for the moment that all other elements are relatively negligible. Milton, in his zeal for blank verse, attacked rhyme, in which he had already proved himself a master, quite as fiercely as any of our contemporary champions of free verse. Campion, a trained musician, argued for a quantitative system of English prosody during the very period when he was composing, in the accentual system, some of the most exquisite songs in the language. Daniel, whose Defense of Rhyme(1603) was a triumphant reply to Campion’s theory, gave courteous praise to his opponent’s practice. Dryden, most flexible-minded of critics, argues now for, and now against the use of rhymed heroic couplets in the drama, fitting his theories to the changing currents of contemporary taste as well as to the varying, self-determined technique of his own plays. “Never wholly out of the way, nor in it,” was Dryden’s happy phrase to describe the artist’s freedom, a freedom always conscious of underlying law.

2. Rhyme as a Form of Rhythm However theory and practice may happen to coincide or to drift apart, the fundamental law which justifies rhyme and stanza seems to be this: if rhythm is a primary fact in poetry, and metre is, as Aristotle called it, sections of rhythm, any device of repeating identical or nearly identical sounds at measured intervals is an aid to rhythmical effect. Rhyme is thus a form, an “externalizing” of rhythm. It is structural as well as decorative, or rather, it is one way of securing structure, of building verse. There are other devices, of course, for attaining symmetrical patterns, for conveying an impression of unity in variety. The “parallel" structure of Hebrew poetry, where one idea and phrase is balanced against another,

  “I have slain a man to my wounding–
   And a young man to my hurt–”

or the “envelope” structure of many of the Psalms, where the initial phrase or idea is repeated at the close, after the insertion of illustrative matter, thus securing a pattern by the “return” of the main idea–the closing of the “curve"–may serve to illustrate the universality of the principle of balance and contrast and repetition in the architecture of verse. For Hebrew poetry, like the poetry of many primitive peoples, utilized the natural pleasure which the ear takes in listening for and perceiving again an already uttered sound. Rhyme is a gratification of expectation, like the repetition of a chord in music [Footnote: “Most musical compositions are written in quite obvious rhymes; and the array of familiar and classical works that have not only rhymes but distinct stanzaic arrangements exactly like those of poetry is worth remembering. Mendelssohn’s ’Spring Song’ and Rubinstein’s ’Romance in E Flat’ will occur at once as examples in which the stanzas are unmistakable.” C. E. Russell, “Swinburne and Music,” North American Review, November, 1907.] or of colors in a rug. It assists the mind in grasping the sense-rhythm,– the design of the piece as a whole. It assists the emotions through the stimulus to the attention, through the reinforcement which it gives to the pulsations of the psycho-physical organism.

  “And sweep through the deep     While the stormy tempests blow,
   While the battle rages long and loud
     And the stormy tempests blow.”

The pulses cannot help quickening as the rhymes quicken.

But in order to perform this structural, rhythmical purpose it is not necessary that rhyme be of any single recognized type. As long as the ear receives the pleasure afforded by accordant sound, any of the various historical forms of rhyme may serve. It may be Alliteration, the letter-rhyme or “beginning-rhyme” of Old English poetry:

  ’Him be healfe stod hyse unweaxen,
   Cniht on gecampe, se full caflice.”

Tennyson imitates it in his “Battle of Brunanburh”:

  “Mighty the Mercian,
  Hard was his hand-play,
  Sparing not any of
  Those that with Anlaf,
  Warriors over the
  Weltering waters
  Borne in the bark’s-bosom,
  Drew to this island–
  Doomed to the death.”

This repetition of initial letters survives in phrases of prose like “dead and done with,” “to have and to hold,” and it is utilized in modern verse to give further emphasis to accentual syllables. But masters of alliterative effects, like Keats, Tennyson and Verlaine, constantly employ alliteration in unaccented syllables so as to color the tone-quality of a line without a too obvious assault upon the ear. The unrhymed songs of The Princess are full of these delicate modulations of sound.

In Common rhyme, or “end-rhyme” (found–abound), the accented vowel and all succeeding sounds are repeated, while the consonants preceding the accented vowel vary. Assonance, in its stricter sense, means the repetition of an accented vowel (blackness–dances), while the succeeding sounds vary, but the terms “assonance” and “consonance” are often employed loosely to signify harmonious effects of tone-color within a line or group of lines. Complete or “identical” rhymes (fair–affair), which were legitimate in Chaucer’s time, are not now considered admissible in English. “Masculine” rhymes are end-rhymes of one syllable; “feminine" rhymes are end-rhymes of two syllables (uncertain–curtain); internal or “middle-rhymes” are produced by the repetition at the end of a line of a rhyme-sound already employed within the line.

“We were the first that ever burst Into that silent sea.”

In general, the more frequent the repetitions of rhyme, the quicker is the rhythmic movement of the poem, and conversely. Thus, the In Memoriamstanza attains its peculiar effect of retardation by rhyming the first line with the fourth, so that the ear is compelled to wait for the expected recurrence of the first rhyme sound.

  “Beside the river’s wooded reach,
  The fortress and the mountain ridge,
  The cataract flashing from the bridge,
  The breaker breaking on the beach.”

This gives a movement markedly different from that secured by rearranging the same lines in alternate rhymes:

  “Beside the river’s wooded reach,
  The fortress and the mountain ridge,
  The breaker breaking on the beach,
  The cataract flashing from the bridge.”

If all the various forms of rhyme are only different ways of emphasizing rhythm through the repetition of accordant sounds, it follows that the varying rhythmical impulses of poets and of readers will demand now a greater and now a less dependence upon this particular mode of rhythmical satisfaction. Chaucer complained of the scarcity of rhymes in English as compared with their affluence in Old French, and it is true that rhyming is harder in our tongue than in the Romance languages. We have had magicians of rhyme, like Swinburne, whose very profusion of rhyme-sounds ends by cloying the taste of many a reader, and sending him back to blank verse or on to free verse. The Spenserian stanza, which calls for one fourfold set of rhymes, one threefold, and one double, all cunningly interlaced, is as complicated a piece of rhyme-harmony as the ear of the average lover of poetry can carry. It is needless to say that there are born rhymers, who think in rhyme and whose fecundity of imagery is multiplied by the excitement of matching sound with sound. They are often careless in their prodigality, inexact in their swift catching at any rhyme-word that will serve. At the other extreme are the self-conscious artists in verse who abhor imperfect concordances, and polish their rhymes until the life and freshness disappear. For sheer improvising cleverness of rhyme Byron is still unmatched, but he often contents himself with approximate rhymes that are nearly as bad as some of Mrs. Browning’s and Whittier’s. Very different is the deliberate artifice of the following lines, where the monotony of the rhyme-sound fits the “solemn ennui" of the trailing peacocks;

  “From out the temple’s pillared portico,
  Thence to the gardens where blue poppies blow
  The gold and emerald peacocks saunter slow,
  Trailing their solemn ennui as they go,
  Trailing their melancholy and their woe.

  “Trailing their melancholy and their woe,
  Trailing their solemn ennui as they go
  The gold and emerald peacocks saunter slow
  From out the gardens where blue poppies blow
  Thence to the temple’s pillared portico."
[Footnote: Frederic Adrian Lopere, “World Wisdom,” The International,
September, 1915.]

Rhyme, then, is not merely a “jingle,” it is rather, as Samuel Johnson said of all versification, a “joining music with reason.” Its blending of decorative with structural purpose is in truth “a dictate of nature,” or, to quote E. C. Stedman, “In real, that is, spontaneous minstrelsy, the fittest assonance, consonance, time, even rime,... come of themselves with imaginative thought.”

3. Stanza There are some lovers of poetry, however, who will grant this theoretical justification of rhyme as an element in the harmony of verse, without admitting that the actual rhyming stanzas of English verse show “spontaneous minstrelsy.” The word “stanza” or “strophe” means literally “a resting-place,” a halt or turn, that is to say, after a uniform group of rhymed lines. Alden defines it in his English Verse as “the largest unit of verse-measure ordinarily recognized. It is based not so much on rhythmical divisions as on periods either rhetorical or melodic; that is, a short stanza will roughly correspond to the period of a sentence, and a long one to that of a paragraph, while in lyrical verse the original idea was to conform the stanza to the melody for which it was written." “Normally, then,” Alden adds in his Introduction to Poetry, “all the stanzas of a poem are identical in the number, the length, the metre, and the rime-scheme of the corresponding verses.” The question arises, therefore, whether those units which we call “stanzas” are arbitrary or vital. Have the lines been fused into their rhymed grouping by passionate feeling, or is their unity a mere mechanical conformation to a pattern? In Theodore Watts-Dunton’s well-known article on “Poetry” in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica[Footnote: Now reprinted, with many expansions, in his Poetry and the Renascence of Wonder. E. P. Dutton, New York.] the phrases “stanzaic law” and “emotional law” are used to represent the two principles at issue:

  “In modern prosody the arrangement of the rhymes and the length of
  the lines in any rhymed metrical passage may be determined either by
  a fixed stanzaic law, or by a law infinitely deeper–by the law which
  impels the soul, in a state of poetic exultation, to seize hold of
  every kind of metrical aid, such as rhyme, caesura, etc., for the
  purpose of accentuating and marking off each shade of emotion as it
  arises, regardless of any demands of stanza.... If a metrical passage
  does not gain immensely by being written independently of stanzaic
  law, it loses immensely; and for this reason, perhaps, that the great
  charm of the music of all verse, as distinguished from the music of
  prose, is inevitableness of cadence. In regular metres we enjoy the
  pleasure of feeling that the rhymes will inevitably fall under a
  recognized law of couplet or stanza. But if the passage flows
  independently of these, it must still flow inevitably–it must, in
  short, show that it is governed by another and a yet deeper force,
  the inevitableness of emotional expression.”

This distinction between “stanzaic law” and “emotional law” is highly suggestive and not merely in its application to the metres of the famous regular and irregular odes of English verse. It applies also to the infinite variety of stanza-patterns which English poetry has taken over from Latin and French sources and developed through centuries ofexperimentation, and it affords a key, as we shall see in a moment, to some of the vexed questions involved in free verse.

Take first the more familiar of the stanza forms of English verse. They are conveniently indicated by using letters of the alphabet to correspond with each rhyme-sound, whenever repeated.

Thus the rhymed couplet

  “Around their prows the ocean roars,
  And chafes beneath their thousand oars”

may be marked as “four-stress iambic,” rhyming aa; the heroic couplet

  “The zeal of fools offends at any time,
  But most of all the zeal of fools in rhyme”

as five-stress iambic, rhyming aa. The familiar measure of English ballad poetry,

  “The King has written a braid letter,
    And signed it wi’ his hand,
  And sent it to Sir Patrick Spence,
    Was walking on the sand”

is alternating four-stress and three-stress iambic, rhyming ab cb. The In Memoriam stanza,

  “Now rings the woodland loud and long,
    The distance takes a lovelier hue,
    And drown’d in yonder living blue
  The lark becomes a sightless song”

is four-stress iambic, rhyming ab ba.

The Chaucerian stanza rhymes a b a b b c c:

  “’Loke up, I seye, and telle me what she is
  Anon, that I may gone aboute thi nede:
  Know iche hire ought? for my love telle me this;
  Thanne wolde I hopen the rather for to spede.’
  Tho gan the veyne of Troilus to blede,
  For he was hit, and wex alle rede for schame;
  ’Aha!’ quod Pandare, ’here bygynneth game.’”

Byron’s “ottava rima” rhymes a b a b a b c c:

  “A mighty mass of brick, and smoke, and shipping,
    Dirty and dusky, but as wide as eye
  Could reach, with here and there a sail just skipping
    In sight, then lost amidst the forestry
  Of masts; a wilderness of steeples peeping
    On tiptoe through their sea-coal canopy;
  A huge, dun cupola, like a foolscap crown
  On a fool’s head–and there is London Town!”

The Spenserian stanza rhymes a b a b b c b c c, with an extra foot in the final line:

  “Hee had a faire companion of his way,
  A goodly lady clad in scarlot red,
  Purfled with gold and pearle of rich assay;
  And like a Persian mitre on her hed
  Shee wore, with crowns and owches garnished,
  The which her lavish lovers to her gave:
  Her wanton palfrey all was overspred
  With tinsell trappings, woven like a wave,
  Whose bridle rung with golden bels and bosses brave.”

In considering these various groups of lines which we call stanzas it is clear that we have to do with thought-units as well as feeling-units, and that both thought-units and feeling-units should be harmonized, if possible, with the demands of beauty and variety of sound as represented by the rhymes. It is not absurd to speak of the natural “size” of poetic thoughts. Pope, for instance, often works with ideas of couplet size, just as Martial sometimes amused himself with ideas of a still smaller epigram size, or Omar Khayyam with thoughts and fancies that came in quatrain sizes. Many sonnets fail of effectiveness because the contained thought is too scanty or too full to receive adequate expression in the fourteen lines demanded by the traditional sonnet form. They are sometimes only quatrain ideas, blown up big with words to fill out the fourteen lines, or, on the contrary, as often with the Elizabethans, they are whole odes or elegies, remorselessly packed into the fashionable fourteen-line limit. No one who has given attention to the normal length of phrases and sentences doubts that there are natural “breathfuls” of words corresponding to the units of ideas; and when ideas are organized by emotion, there are waves, gusts, or ripples of words, matching the waves of feeling. In the ideal poetic “pattern,” these waves of idea, feeling and rhythmic speech would coincide more or less completely; we should have a union of “emotional law” with “stanzaic law,” the soul of poetry would find its perfect embodiment.

But if we turn the pages of any collection of English poetry, say the Golden Treasury or the Oxford Book of English Verse, we find something very different from this ideal embodiment of each poetic emotion in a form delicately moulded to the particular species of emotion revealed. We discover that precisely similar stanzaic patterns–like similar metrical patterns–are often used to express diametrically opposite feelings,–let us say, joy and sorrow, doubt and exultation, victory and defeat. The “common metre” of English hymnology is thus seen to be a rough mould into which almost any kind of religious emotion may be poured. If “trochaic" measures do not always trip it on a light fantastic toe, neither do “iambic” measures always pace sedately. Doubtless there is a certain general fitness, in various stanza forms, for this or that poetic purpose: the stanzas employed by English or Scotch balladry are admittedly excellent for story-telling; Spenser’s favorite stanza is unrivalled for painting dream-pictures and rendering dream-music, but less available for pure narration; Chaucer’s seven-line stanza, so delicately balanced upon that fourth, pivotal line, can paint a picture and tell a story too; Byron’s ottava rima has a devil-may-care jauntiness, borrowed, it is true, from his Italian models, but perfectly fitted to Byron’s own mood; the rhymed couplets of Pope sting and glitter like his antitheses, and the couplets of Dryden have their “resonance like a great bronze coin thrown down on marble"; each great artist in English verse, in short, chooses by instinct the general stanza form best suited to his particular purpose, and then moulds its details with whatever cunning he may possess. But the significant point is this: “stanzaic law” makes for uniformity, for the endless repetition of the chosen pattern, which must still be recognized as a pattern, however subtly the artist modulates his details; and in adjusting the infinitely varied material of thought and feeling, phrase and image, picture and story to the fixed stanzaic design, there are bound to be gaps and patches, stretchings and foldings of the thought-stuff,– for even as in humble tailor-craft, this many-colored coat of poetry must be cut according to the cloth as well as according to the pattern. How many pages of even the Oxford Book of English Verse are free from some touch of feebleness, of redundancy, of constraint due to the remorseless requirements of the stanza? The line must be filled out, whether or not the thought is quite full enough for it; rhyme must match rhyme, even if the thought becomes as far-fetched as the rhyming word; the stanza, in short, demands one kind of perfection as a constantly repeated musical design, as beauty of form; and another kind of perfection as the expression of human emotion. Sometimes these two perfections of “form” and “significance” are miraculously wedded, stanza after stanza, and we have our “Ode to a Nightingale,” or “Ode to Autumn” as the result. (And perhaps the best, even in this kind, are but shadows, when compared with the absolute union of truth and beauty as the poetic idea first took rhythmic form in the brain of the poet.)

Yet more often lovers of poetry must content themselves, not with such “dictates of nature” as these poems, but with approximations. Each stanzaic form has its conveniences, its “fatal facility,” its natural fitness for singing a song or telling a story or turning a thought over and over into music. Intellectual readers will always like the epigrammatic “snap” of the couplet, and Spenser will remain, largely because of his choice of stanza, the “poet’s poet.” Perhaps the very necessity of fitting rhymes together stimulates as much poetic activity as it discourages; for many poets have testified that the delight of rhyming adds energy to the imagination. If, as Shelley said, “the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness,” why may it not be the breath of rhyme, as well as any other form of rhythmic energy, which quickens its drooping flame? And few poets, furthermore, will admit that they are really in bondage to their stanzas. They love to dance in these fetters, and even when wearing the same fetters as another poet, they nevertheless invent movements of their own, so that Mr. Masefield’s “Chaucerian” stanzas are really not so much Chaucer’s as Masefield’s.

Each Ulysses makes and bends his own bow, after all; it is only the unsuccessful suitors for the honors of poetic craftsmanship who complain of its difficulties. Something of our contemporary impatience with fixed stanzaic forms is due perhaps to the failure to recognize that the greater poets succeed in making over every kind of poetic pattern in the act of employing it, just as a Chopin minuet differs from a Liszt minuet, although both composers are using the same fundamental form of dance music. We must allow for the infinite variety of creative intention, technique and result. The true defence of rhyme and stanza against the arguments of extreme advocates of free verse is to point out that rhyme and stanza are natural structural devices for securing certain effects. There are various types of bridges for crossing different kinds of streams; no one type of bridge is always and everywhere the best. To do away with rhyme and stanza is to renounce some modes of poetic beauty; it is to resolve that there shall be one less way of crossing the stream. An advocate of freedom in the arts may well admit that the artist may bridge his particular stream in any way he can,–or he may ford it or swim it or go over in an airplane if he chooses. But some method must be found of getting his ideas and emotions “across” into the mind and feelings of the readers of his poetry. If this can adequately be accomplished without recourse to rhyme and stanza, very well; there is Paradise Lost, for instance, and Hamlet. But here we are driven back again upon the countless varieties of artistic intention and craftsmanship and effect. Each method–and there are as many methods as there are poets and far more, for craftsmen like Milton and Tennyson try hundreds of methods in their time–is only a medium through which the artist is endeavoring to attain a special result. It is one way–only one, and perhaps not the best way–of trying to cross the stream.

4. Free Verse Recalling now the discussion of the rhythms of prose in the previous chapter, and remembering that rhyme and stanza are special forms of reinforcing the impulse of rhythm, what shall be said of free verse? It belongs, unquestionably, in that “neutral zone” which some readers, in Dr. Patterson’s phrase, instinctively appropriate as “prose experience,” and others as “verse experience.” It renounces metre–or rather endeavors to renounce it, for it does not always succeed. It professes to do away with rhyme and stanza, although it may play cunningly upon the sounds of like and unlike words, and it may arrange phrases into poetic paragraphs, which, aided by the art of typography, secure a kind of stanzaic effect. It cannot, however, do away with the element of rhythm, with ordered time. The moment free verse ceases to be felt as rhythmical, it ceases to be felt as poetry. This is admitted by its advocates and its opponents alike. The real question at issue then, is the manner in which free verse may secure the effects of rhythmic unity and variety, without, on the one hand, resorting to the obvious rhythms of prose, or on the other hand, without repeating the recognized patterns of verse. There are many competent critics who maintain with Edith Wyatt that “on an earth where there is nothing to wear but clothes, nothing to eat but food, there is also nothing to read but prose and poetry.” “According to the results of our experiments,” testifies Dr. Patterson, “there is no psychological meaning to claims for a third genre between regular verse and prose, except in the sense of a jumping back and forth from one side of the fence to the other." [Footnote: The Rhythm of Prose, p. 77.] And in the preface to his second edition, after having listened to Miss Amy Lowell’s readings of free verse, Dr. Patterson remarks: “What is achieved, as a rule, in Miss Lowell’s case, is emotional prose, emphatically phrased, excellent and moving. Spaced prose, we may call it.”

Now “spaced prose” is a useful expression, inasmuch as it calls attention to the careful emphasis and balance of phrases which up so much of the rhetorical structure of free verse, and it also serves to remind us of the part which typography plays in “spacing” these phrases, and stressing for the eye their curves and “returns.” But we are all agreed that typographical appeals to the eye are infinitely deceptive in blurring the distinction between verse and prose, and that the trained ear must be the only arbiter as to poetical and pseudo-poetical effects. Ask a lover of Walt Whitman whether “spaced prose” is the right label for “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and he will scoff at you. He will maintain that following the example of the rich broken rhythms of the English Bible, the example of Ossian, Blake, and many another European experimenter during the Romantic epoch, Whitman really succeeded in elaborating a mode of poetical expression, nearer for the most part to recitative than to aria, yet neither pure declamation nor pure song: a unique embodiment of passionate feeling, a veritable “neutral zone,” which refuses to let itself be annexed to either “prose” or “verse” as those terms are ordinarily understood, but for which “free verse” is precisely the right expression. Leaves of Grass (1855) remains the most interesting of all experiments with free verse, written as it was by an artist whose natural rhythmical endowment was extraordinary, and whose technical curiosity and patience in modulating his tonal effects was unwearied by failures and undiscouraged by popular neglect. But the case for free verse does not, after all, stand or fall with Walt Whitman. His was merely the most powerful poetic personality among the countless artificers who have endeavored to produce rhythmic and tonal beauty through new structural devices.

Readers who are familiar with the experiments of contemporary poets will easily recognize four prevalent types of “free verse”:

(a) Sometimes what is printed as “free verse” is nothing but prose disguised by the art of typography, i.e. judged by the ear, it is made up wholly of the rhythms of prose.

(b) Sometimes the prose rhythms predominate, without excluding a mixture of the recognized rhythms of verse.

(c) Sometimes verse rhythms predominate, and even fixed metrical feet are allowed to appear here and there.

(d) Sometimes verse rhythms and metres are used exclusively, although in new combinations which disguise or break up the metrical pattern.

A parody by F. P. A. in The Conning Tower affords a convenient illustration of the “a" type:

Add Spoon River Anthology

Peoria, Ill., Jan. 24.–The Spoon River levee, which protected thousands of acres of farm land below Havana, Ill., fifty-five miles south of here, broke this morning.

A score or more of families fled to higher ground. The towns of Havana, Lewiston and Duncan Mills are isolated. Two dozen head of cattle are reported drowned on the farm of John Himpshell, near Havana.–Associated Press dispatch.

  Edgar Lee Masters wrote a lot of things
  About me and the people who
  Inhabited my banks.
  All of them, all are sleeping on the hill.
  Herbert Marshall, Amelia Garrick, Enoch Dunlap,
  Ida Frickey, Alfred Moir, Archibald Highbie and the rest.
  Me he gave no thought to–
  Unless, perhaps, to think that I, too, was asleep.
  Those people on the hill, I thought,
  Have grown famous;
  But nobody writes about me.
  I was only a river, you know,
  But I had my pride,
  So one January day I overflowed my banks;
  It wasn’t much of a flood, Mr. Masters,
  But it put me on the front page
  And in the late dispatches
  Of the Associated Press.

It is clear that the quoted words of the Associated Press dispatch from Peoria are pure prose, devoid of rhythmical pattern, devoted to a plain statement of fact. So it is with the imaginary speech of the River. Not until the borrowed fourth line:

“All of them, all are sleeping on the hill,”

do we catch the rhythm (and even the metre) of verse, and F. P. A. is here imitating Mr. Masters’s way of introducing a strongly rhythmical and even metrical line into a passage otherwise flatly “prosaic” in its time-intervals. But “free verse” adopts many other cadences of English prose besides this “formless” structure which goes with matter-of-fact statement. It also reproduces the neat, polished, perhaps epigrammatic sentence which crystallizes a fact or a generalization; the more emotional and “moving” period resulting from heightened feeling, and finally the frankly imitative and ornamented cadences of descriptive and highly impassioned prose. Let us take some illustrations from Sidney Lanier’s Poem Outlines, a posthumously published collection of some of his sketches for poems, “jotted in pencil on the backs of envelopes, on the margins of musical programmes, or little torn scraps of paper.”

  “The United States in two hundred years
    has made Emerson out of a witch-burner.”

This is polished, graphic prose. Here is an equally graphic, but more impassioned sentence, with the staccato rhythm and the alliterative emphasis of good angry speech:

    To the Politicians
  “You are servants. Your thoughts are the thoughts of cooks curious to
  skim perquisites from every pan, your quarrels are the quarrels of
  scullions who fight for the privilege of cleaning the pot with most
  leavings in it, your committees sit upon the landings of back-stairs,
  and your quarrels are the quarrels of kitchens.”

But in the following passage, apparently a first draft for some lines in Hymns of the Marshes, Lanier takes a strongly rhythmical, heavily punctuated type of prose, as if he were writing a Collect:

  “The courses of the wind, and the shifts thereof, as also what way the
  clouds go; and that which is happening a long way off; and the full face
  of the sun; and the bow of the Milky Way from end to end; as also the
  small, the life of the fiddler-crab, and the household of the marsh-hen;
  and more, the translation of black ooze into green blade of marsh-grass,
  which is as if filth bred heaven: This a man seeth upon the marsh.”

In that rhapsody of the marsh there is no recognizable metrical scheme, in spite of the plainly marked rhythm, but in the following symbolic sketch the imitation of the horse’s ambling introduces an element of regular metre:

  “Ambling, ambling round the ring,
   Round the ring of daily duty,
   Leap, Circus-rider, man, through the paper hoop of death,
   –Ah, lightest thou, beyond death, on this same slow-ambling,
     padded horse of life.”

And finally, in such fragments as the following, Lanier uses a regular metre of “English verse"–it is true with a highly irregular third line–

                    “And then
  A gentle violin mated with the flute,
  And both flew off into a wood of harmony,
  Two doves of tone.”

It is clear that an artist in words, in jotting down thoughts and images as they first emerge, may instinctively use language which is subtly blended of verse and prose, like many rhapsodical passages in the private journals of Thoreau and Emerson. When duly elaborated, these passages usually become, in the hands of the greater artists, either one thing or the other, i.e. unmistakable prose or unmistakable verse. But it remains true, I think, that there is another artistic instinct which impels certain poets to blend the types in the endeavor to reach a new and hybrid beauty. [Footnote: Some examples of recent verse are printed in the “Notes and Illustrations” for this chapter.]

Take these illustrations of the “b" type–i.e. prose rhythms predominant, with some admixture of the rhythms of verse:

  “I hear footsteps over my head all night.
  They come and go. Again they come and again they go all night.
  They come one eternity in four paces and they go one eternity in four
    paces, and between the coming and the going there is Silence and Night
    and the Infinite.
  For infinite are the nine feet of a prison cell, and endless is the
    march of him who walks between the yellow brick wall and the red iron
    gate, thinking things that cannot be chained and cannot be locked, but
    that wander far away in the sunlit world, in their wild pilgrimage
    after destined goals.
  Throughout the restless night I hear the footsteps over my head.
  Who walks? I do not know. It is the phantom of the jail, the sleepless
    brain, a man, the man, the Walker.
  One–two–three–four; four paces and the wall."
[Footnote: From Giovanitti’s “The Walker."]

Or take this:

  “Jerusalem a handful of ashes blown by the wind, extinct,
  The Crusaders’ streams of shadowy midnight troops sped with the sunrise,
  Amadis, Tancred, utterly gone, Charlemagne, Roland, Oliver gone,
  Palmerin, ogre, departed, vanish’d the turrets that Usk from its waters
  Arthur vanish’d with all his knights, Merlin and Lancelot and Galahad,
    all gone, dissolv’d utterly like an exhalation;
  Pass’d! Pass’d! for us, forever pass’d, that once so mighty world, now
    void, inanimate, phantom world,
  Embroider’d, dazzling, foreign world, with all its gorgeous legends,
  Its kings and castles proud, its priests and warlike lords and courtly
  Pass’d to its charnel vault, coffin’d with crown and armor on,
  Blazon’d with Shakspere’s purple page,
  And dirged by Tennyson’s sweet sad rhyme."
[Footnote: Whitman, “Song of the Exposition."]

Here are examples of the “c" type–i.e. predominant verse rhythms, with occasional emphasis upon metrical feet:

  “Would you hear of an old-time sea-fight?
  Would you learn who won by the light of the moon and stars?
  List to the yarn, as my grandmother’s father the sailor told it to me.

  “Our foe was no skulk in his ship I tell you, (said he,)
  His was the surly English pluck, and there is no tougher or truer, and
    never was, and never will be;
  Along the lower’d eve he came horribly raking us.


  “Our frigate takes fire,
  The other asks if we demand quarter?
  If our colors are struck and the fighting done?

  “Now I laugh content, for I hear the voice of my little captain,
  We have not struck, he composedly cries, we have just begun our part
    of the fighting.


  “One of the pumps has been shot away, it is generally thought we are

  “Serene stands the little captain,
  He is not hurried, his voice is neither high nor low,
  His eyes give more light to us than our battle-lanterns.
  Toward twelve there in the beams of the moon they surrender to us."
[Footnote: Whitman. “Song of Myself."]

Read William Blake’s description of the Bastille, in his recently printed poem on “The French Revolution”:

  “’Seest thou yonder dark castle, that moated around, keeps this city of
    Paris in awe?
  Go, command yonder tower, saying: “Bastille, depart! and take thy
    shadowy course;
  Overstep the dark river, thou terrible tower, and get thee up into the
    country ten miles.
  And thou black southern prison, move along the dusky road to Versailles;
  Frown on the gardens–and, if it obey and depart, then the King will
  This war-breathing army; but, if it refuse, let the Nation’s Assembly
    thence learn
  That this army of terrors, that prison of horrors, are the bands of the
    murmuring kingdom."’

  “Like the morning star arising above the black waves, when a shipwrecked
    soul sighs for morning,
  Thro’ the ranks, silent, walk’d the Ambassador back to the Nation’s
    Assembly, and told
  The unwelcome message. Silent they heard; then a thunder roll’d round
    loud and louder;
  Like pillars of ancient halls and ruins of times remote, they sat.
  Like a voice from the dim pillars Mirabeau rose; the thunders subsided
  A rushing of wings around him was heard as he brighten’d, and cried out
  ’Where is the General of the Nation?’ The walls re-echo’d: ’Where is the
    General of the Nation?’”

And here are passages made up exclusively of the rhythms and metres of verse, in broken or disguised patterns ("d" type):

  “Under a stagnant sky,
  Gloom out of gloom uncoiling into gloom,
  The River, jaded and forlorn,
  Welters and wanders wearily–wretchedly–on;
  Yet in and out among the ribs
  Of the old skeleton bridge, as in the piles
  Of some dead lake-built city, full of skulls,
  Worm-worn, rat-riddled, mouldy with memories,
  Lingers to babble, to a broken tune
  (Once, O the unvoiced music of my heart!)
  So melancholy a soliloquy
  It sounds as it might tell
  The secret of the unending grief-in-grain,
  The terror of Time and Change and Death,
  That wastes this floating, transitory world."
[Footnote: W. E. Henley, “To James McNeill Whistler.” ]

Or take this:

  “They see the ferry
  On the broad, clay-laden
  Lone Chorasmian stream;–thereon,
  With snort and strain,
  Two horses, strongly swimming, tow
  The ferry-boat, with woven ropes
  To either bow
  Firm-harness’d by the mane; a chief,
  With shout and shaken spear,
  Stands at the prow, and guides them; but astern
  The cowering merchants in long robes
  Sit pale beside their wealth
  Of silk-bales and of balsam-drops,
  Of gold and ivory,
  Of turquoise-earth and amethyst,
  Jasper and chalcedony,
  And milk-barr’d onyx-stones.
  The loaded boat swings groaning
  In the yellow eddies;
  The Gods behold them."
[Footnote: Arnold, “The Strayed Reveller."]

5. Discovery and Rediscovery It is not pretended that the four types of free verse which have been illustrated are marked by clear-cut generic differences. They shade into one another. But they are all based upon a common sensitiveness to the effects of rhythmic prose, a common restlessness under what is felt to be the restraint of metre and rhyme, and a common endeavor to break down the conventional barrier which separates the characteristic beauty of prose speech from the characteristic beauty of verse. In this endeavor to obliterate boundary lines, to secure in one art the effects hitherto supposed to be the peculiar property of another, free verse is only one more evidence of the widespread “confusion of the genres” which marks contemporary artistic effort. It is possible, with the classicists, to condemn outright this blurring of values. [Footnote: See, for instance, Irving Babbitt, The New Laokoon. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1910.] One may legitimately maintain, with Edith Wyatt, that the traditional methods of English verse are to the true artist not oppressions but liberations. She calls it “a fallacious idea that all individual and all realistic expression in poetry is annulled by the presence of distinctive musical discernment, by the movement of rhyme with its keen heightening of the impulse of rhythm, by the word-shadows of assonance, by harmonies, overtones and the still beat of ordered time, subconsciously perceived but precise as the sense of the symphony leader’s flying baton. To readers, to writers for whom the tonal quality of every language is an intrinsic value these faculties of poetry serve not at all as cramping oppressions, but as great liberations for the communication of truth." [Footnote: New Republic, August 24, 1918.] But many practitioners of free verse would reply that this is not a matter for theorizing, but of individual preference, and that in their endeavor to communicate new modes of feeling, new aspects of beauty, they have a right to the use of new forms, even if those new forms be compounded out of the wreck of old ones. This argument for freedom of experiment is unanswerable; the true test of its validity lies in the results secured. That free verse has now and then succeeded in creating lovely flowering hybrids seems to me as indubitable as the magical tricks which Mr. Burbank has played with flowers and fruits. But the smiling Dame Nature sets her inexorable limits to “Burbanking"; she allows it to go about so far, and no farther. Freakish free verse, like freakish plants and animals, gets punished by sterility. Some of the “imagist” verse patterns are uniquely and intricately beautiful. Wrought in a medium which is neither wholly verse nor wholly prose, but which borrows some of the beauty peculiar to each art, they are their own excuse for being. And nevertheless they may not prove fertile. It may be that they have been produced by “pushing a medium farther than it will go.”

It must be admitted, furthermore, that a great deal of contemporary free verse has been written by persons with an obviously incomplete command over the resources of expression. Max Eastman has called it “Lazy Verse," the product of “aboriginal indolence"; and he adds this significant distinction, “In all arts it is the tendency of those who are ungrown to confuse the expression of intense feeling with the intense expression of feeling–which last is all the world will long listen to.” Shakspere, Milton, Keats are masters of concentrated, intensest expression: their verse, at its best, is structural as an oak. Those of us who have read with keen momentary enjoyment thousands of pages of the “New Verse," are frequently surprised to find how little of it stamps itself upon the memory. Intense feeling has gone into these formless forms, very certainly, but the medium soaks up the feeling like blotting-paper. In order to live, poetry must be plastic, a stark embodiment of emotion, and not a solution of emotion.

That fragile, transient fashions of expression have their own evanescent type of beauty no one who knows the history of Euphuism will deny. And much of the New Verse is Euphuistic, not merely in its self-conscious cleverness, its delightful toying with words and phrases for their own sake, its search of novel cadences and curves, but also in its naive pleasure in rediscovering and parodying what the ancients had discovered long before. “Polyphonic prose,” for instance, as announced and illustrated by Mr. Paul Fort and Miss Amy Lowell, is prose that makes use of all the “voices” of poetry,–viz. metre, vers libre, assonances, alliteration, rhyme and return. “Metrical verse,” says Miss Lowell in the Preface to Can Grande’s Castle, “has one set of laws, cadenced verse another; ’polyphonic prose’ can go from one to the other in the same poem with no sense of incongruity.... I finally decided to base my form upon the long, flowing cadence of oratorical prose. The variations permitted to this cadence enable the poet to change the more readily into those of vers libre, or even to take the regular beat of metre, should such a marked time seem advisable.... Rhyme is employed to give a richness of effect, to heighten the musical feeling of a passage, but ... the rhymes should seldom come at the ends of the cadences.... Return in ’polyphonic prose’ is usually achieved by the recurrence of a dominant thought or image, coming in irregularly and in varying words, but still giving the spherical effect which I have frequently spoken of as imperative in all poetry.”

Now every one of these devices is at least as old as Isocrates. It was in this very fashion that Euphues and his Friends delighted to serve and return their choicest tennis balls of Elizabethan phrase. But little De Quincey could pull out the various stops of polyphonic prose even more cleverly than John Lyly; and if one will read the admirable description of St. Mark’s in Can Grandel’s Castle, and then re-read Ruskin’s description of St. Mark’s, he will find that the Victorian’s orchestration of many-voiced prose does not suffer by comparison.

Yet though it is true enough of the arts, as Chaucer wrote suavely long ago, that “There nys no newe thing that is not olde,” we must remember that the arts are always profiting by their naive rediscoveries. It is more important that the thing should seem new than that it should really be new, and the fresh sense of untried possibilities, the feeling that much land remains to be possessed, has given our contemporaries the spirits and the satisfactions of the pioneer. What matters it that a few antiquaries can trace on old maps the very rivers and harbors which the New Verse believed itself to be exploring for the first time? Poetry does not live by antiquarianism, but by the passionate conviction that all things are made new through the creative imagination.

     “Have the elder races halted?
  Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
  We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
     Pioneers! O pioneers!”


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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