Text: Richard B. Eaton, Jr., “Poe’s Prosody in Perspective,” Poe Studies, December 1972, Vol. V, No. 2, 5:61-62


[page 61:]

Poe’s Prosody in Perspective

Edgar A. Poe, The Rationale of Verse: A Preliminary Edition, Incorporating Cognate Documents by Goold Brown, William Cullen Bryant, James Davenport Whelpley. Introduction, notes, and index by J. Arthur Greenwood. Princeton, N.J.: Wolfhart Book Company, 1968. xxxii + 270 pp. $3.50 paper. $7.00 cloth

To an important extent, any critical examination of an historically “placed” event has to include some appreciation of the historical context. This is especially true in the examination of prosodic documents, not that there is anything inherent in prosody untrue of other subjects, as that the subject has simply not been given an adequate historical context by the generations of scholars. Despite his learning and despite his attempt to place The Rationale of Verse in the context of Poe’s times, the major flaw of J. Arthur Greenwood’s “preliminary edition” is just this lack of historical perspective.

Karl Shapiro and Wellek and Warren have stied to describe the historical situation for the past generation. Nearly fifty years ago the MLA tried to establish standards for the handling of metrical analyses based on an even earlier generation’s definitions of prosodic issues — in, for example, the work of Saintsbury and Omond. Although there does exist a knowledgeable and an intelligent (though not always intelligible) base of documents and guidelines for the analysis of the work of past theorists, many present examiners assume that the only preparation necessary is a survey of the prosodic section of a dictionary or handbook of poetry — surveys not only superficial (by intent) but frequently misinformed.

Let me by way of anecdote give an example of the problem nearer to Poe’s time. Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Marquis de Chasrellux finally had to admit that the Marquis’ view of English verse was correct and his own wrong. The issue between the two had been whether or not the basis of English poetic rhythm was primarily accentual or syllabic. Jefferson was now persuaded that accent controlled the rhythm. But Jefferson’s earlier “error” was at least academically informed, for most of the early available contemporary documents he could have read — grammars and dictionaries — would have told him he was right. Within a quarter of a century of Jefferson’s change of mind, Coleridge decided that he had discovered a new, or rediscovered the old, principle of English verse — the accentually based line: that poets for four hundred years had lost contact with the essential rhythm of the language. So, if de Chastellux and (now) Jefferson and subsequently Coleridge were correct, what of the collective opinion of grammarians, elocutionists, and lexicographers?

Was something happening to aural sensibilities at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries? Could the nature of the poetic line have changed, or had, indeed, the character of the reader’s ear changed? The latter choice isn’t an impossibility. Bombarded by the insistence of prosodists, scholars, and poets [column 2:] with theoretical analogies between poetry and music, faced with an increasing number of published collections of folk songs — printed without the music, in formal stanzaic and linear patterns drawn from a written tradition — readers’ ears and minds might easily become attuned to a new (or reattuned to an old) rhythmical standard.

But whatever was happening to some literary sensibilities, the mass of received opinion still asserted the older orthodoxies. Grammars and dictionaries were not being altered. Since the two opinions are not reconcilable (the truth cannot lie somewhere in between) must we assume one is right, the other wrong? If we are drawn in such a direction we are committing the error of prosodic theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — that there has to be a single rhythmical theory applicable to all times. But if one age thinks the rhythm of the poetic line is based on the syllable count, then its poets probably count syllables. If another age thinks in terms of accents, then its poets define the rhythms without concern for syllables. And as ages overlap, differing poetic standards can exist side by side. So we find in different ages poetic theory reflecting and sometimes influencing the poetic sensibilities and creations of that age. Not a startling point, but one which apparently needs to be made.

Now where in this scheme of things did Poe fit? Did he see a light? Did he show up the experts for what they were? Hardly. He heard all English poetry — from over the centuries — in precisely the same way: with an ear which had assimilated two traditions and not too well at that. He marked stresses, he confused them with quantities, and he counted syllables. He vaguely anticipated Lanier’s theory of isochronic feet, a theory which was already a well-worked mine long before either Lanier or Poe. The importance of such an anticipation lies not in its indication of what Poe was ignorant of as in its hint of his “feel” for verse sounds. Despite Greenwood’s assertion, Poe did not have a tin ear, or no more of one than his age necessitated. For Poe’s thinking on prosody is first a response (often unconscious on his part) to the prosodic ripples of his time, and only secondarily a reaction to specific thinkers. Consider that the only grammarians explicitly referred to by Poe are the rewriters and summarizers of Lowth and Murray — themselves rewriters (and for Murray, at least, not an overly scrupulous one at that) of Sheridan.

Now Sheridan’s General Dictionary was published in 1780; and this brings us back to the main defect of Greenwood’s book: perspective. Greenwood tries to meet the problem of viewing Poe in an historical context by setting Poe’s thought against contemporary thought, including in his edition comparative documents produced during Poe’s life. The impulse is good, but the execution bad, because each of the documents chosen represents various combinations of uncritically arrived at assimilations of several prosodic traditions which, to be untangled, need to be examined in the larger context of prosodic thought of the last half of the eighteenth century, not the first half of the nineteenth (Greenwood apparently doesn’t know Fussell’s very important study of eighteenth-century prosodic thought). And directly related to this is what I consider the second major defect of the [page 62:] book. Greenwood, like Poe (and so many prosodic thinkers), reads from the fixed unchanging prosodic standard, as if in prosody we find the one universal constant.

Still, the work has virtue. As a study in the evolution of a text, describing the development of Poe’s theories from his earlier to his later statements, it is quite good. At moments in the seventeen-page introduction it approaches brilliance (see especially the descriptions of “Systems of Prosody”). The selection of comparative documents may be ill-advised, but Goold Brown and J. D. Whelpley should be better known and here is the reader’s chance. I would suggest that Brown’s The Grammar of English Grammars is a richer source than is his institutes (Greenwood’s choice). The editorial notes, although based, as I think, on the wrong prosodic and historical principles, are intelligent and often amusing (Harvey Gross “pretends that Pound and Eliot . . . revived the Anglo-Saxon line,” p. xvi), revealing an editorial personality I should like to know better.

Richard B. Eaton, Jr., West Virginia University


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