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Who Murdered the Metrical Muse?

MISSING MEASURES: MODERN POETRY AND THE REVOLT AGAINST METER by Timothy Steele, Fayetteville, Ark.: U. of Arkansas Press, 340 pp., $22.95 THE radical modern poets who planned and carried out the murder of the Metrical Muse were the first to miss her. Savage and bombastic in their attacks on the iambic norm of English poetry, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams eventually mourned the loss. As early as 1918, Pound admitted that free verse had become ``as prolix and as verbose'' as the metrical verse it had replaced; in 1942, Eliot lamented ``the craving for continual novelty of diction and metric''; and William Carlos Williams confessed in 1932, ``There is no workable poetic form extant among us today.''

But it was too late. And since the passing of the great moderns, free verse has become a lingua franca of Western society. Poetry has ceased to matter to many more people than those who write it. But recently, certain poets have begun to write in meters again. (The abiding presence of twice-Pulitzered Richard Wilbur has been a continuing source of solace, for he is a master of English verse.)

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Now, poet Timothy Steele has written a quiet, scholarly book that investigates the crime. Given the situation, he can afford to be sympathetic with the original killers, who were reacting to something in Victorian verse. The numbingly insistent metrical patterns are almost as boring as free verse has become in our time.

Since there is no real question of who committed the fell deed, Steele's investigation moves quickly into the larger question of why and how. The original killers, so brazen in self-advertisement, offered many excuses. As Steele shows in his first chapter, Eliot was self-serving in his claims of precedence. But while Dryden and Wordsworth were indeed reformers of diction, they both extended and refined the metrical heritage. Nobody before Eliot had attacked the iamb, which, with its systole-diastole pattern of emphasis, is literally the heartbeat of English.

Eliot, and others, got into further difficulty as they tried to defend poetry against prose by imitating it. Again, Steele is sympathetic: The Victorian novel was stronger artistically than Victorian verse. As it turned out, modern advances in poetic theory - such as the ``variable foot'' - echo the ways the ancient Greeks described their prose.

Steele's attention to detail and his concern for precedent create a rich survey of the paradoxical relations between ancient and modern ideas. He does find ambiguity in ancient formulations that made the modern misapplications almost inevitable, given the shifting passions.

Whereas Aristotle, in his rage to define, seemed to prefer ``imitation'' to meter as the unique trait of poetry, later, the neo-Platonists argued that the best poetry ``eschewed imitation and aimed at rendering the Ineffable.'' Finally, by the time of Kant and Hegel, it would be argued that God ``is alive and present in the subjective consciousness,'' and that art is pure play.

As Steele suggests, all this crowns poetry with liberty while painting it into a corner. If the moderns, as he shows in his last two chapters, resorted to the models of music and science to take it out of that corner, who can blame them? Steele avoids the hectoring tone. But he is concerned about simple intellectual honesty. His method begins in sympathy and gets going by making intelligent distinctions. He concludes, after discovering the origins of certain intellectual trends, that the muddle is unconscionable. Music, science, and poetry remain very different disciplines. Getting rid of meter was really a way of emptying the mind of memory, since meter is, for reasons profound and obvious, inseparable from memory, both cultural and individual.

Accepting the discipline of meter, on the other hand, requires the poet to take seriously not only the craft and the language, but also the reader and what he remembers of past poetry, what he knows in his heart, or by heart. ``Missing Measures'' is ultimately a hopeful book. Returning to Aristotle's recognition that although all metered language (verse) need not be poetry, all poetry is metered, we see that the way forward is plain. Steele ends his book by quoting a lovely poem by one of those who never joined the modern cabal, Robert Frost.

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As generous as it is patient, as detailed and exacting as it is compelling, this book recalls one of Steele's own better poems, ``Summer,'' where he reveals ``slow creeks which bear flecked light through depths of trees.'' Here, iambic meter is no ``straitjacket,'' but an imitation, with carefully weighed syllables, of a vision of great beauty and truth. It could have been written by Homer.