Text: Martin Roth, “Poe’s Divine Spondee,” Poe Studies, June 1979, Vol. XII, No. 1, 12:14-18


[page 14, column 2:]

Poe’s Divine Spondee

University of Minnesota

“I have written,” Poe remarked in 1848, “an essay on the ‘Rationale of Verse,’ in which the whole topic is surveyed ab initio, and with reference to general and immutable principles’’ (1). Eureka, published in the same year, is Poe’s essay on general and immutable principles. Both works are an expression of that rage for a final and personal ordering of all things earthly and heavenly, which, in Poe, took such a logically rigid and scornfully dogmatic form. Both works tell similar stories of the unified beginning, the particularized and perverse temporal career, and the final, awful destiny of their subject matter. The matter of “The Rationale of Verse” (and of other scattered paragraphs on the subject of metrics in the 1840’s which attach themselves intertextually) is the music of poetry. Its story is not as clear as that of the other, overtly metaphysical work, but, because it is also a divine topic, it touches on many of the same transcendental moments as Eureka, and it gives a unique expression to what Richard Wilbur has called the “mysterious spirit of perversity” in the poet (here, Poe himself), divided between his privileged access to the ancient and original music of poetry and his delight in the wild excesses of metrical decadence (2)

“The Rationale of Verse” also resembles Eureka epistemologically. In both, one comes to grasp the truth only through the poet, and one can then possess the truth through a mixture of deductive and inferential argument. Both reject all received opinion on their subjects (the arrogant assumption of correct and unique knowledge seems to have been a necessary psychological prelude to Poe’s exposition generally). In a “Marginalia” item for 1848, Poe wrote: “On this topic [metrics], and on all topics connected with verse, there is not a prosody in existence which is not a mere jumble of the grossest error” (XVI, 126). What “The Rationale of Verse” offered, in a rhetoric reminiscent of Tom Paine, is simple truth for the first time; it begins as follows:

There is, perhaps, no topic in polite literature which has been more pertinaciously discussed, and there is certainly not one about which so much inaccuracy, confusion, misconception, misrepresentation, mystification, and downright ignorance on all sides, can be fairly said to exist . . . . but in fact the subject is extremely simple . . . and the whole is included within the limits of the commonest common sense (3).

The simple figure beneath the confusion that Poe would offer reveals that the development of verse, like that of the material universe, moves from an original simplicity to an ultimate complexity according to “simple natural laws” (RV, p. 222).



In the beginning was the spondee, the “rudiment of verse”:

“The very germ of a thought seeking satisfaction in equality of sound, would result in the construction of words of two syllables, equally accented. In corroboration of this idea we find that spondees most abound in the most ancient tongues” (RV, p. 220). Underlying the spondee is the principle of equality. “Verse,” Poe claims, “originates in the human enjoyment of equality,” and his notion of equality is so strictly arithmetical that he rejects accentual scansion as “nonsensical” (RV, p. 236), dismisses elision as “nonsense” (RV, p. 247), and denies, for example, that there exists, in poetry, an instance of a dactylic foot occupying a trochaic line — “the point of time is that point which, being the rudimental one, must never be tampered with at all” (RV, p. 231).

More significantly, the idea of equality “embraces those of similarity, proportion, identity, repetition, and adaptation or fitness.” Poe adds that it “might not be very difficult to go even behind the idea of equality, and show both how and why it is that the human nature takes pleasure in it,” but for his purposes it “is sufficient that the fact is undeniable” (RV, p. 218).

I would equate the idea of equality with the “instinct of the symmetrical” in Eureka — “the poetical instinct of

Humanity . . . which the Soul, not only of Man but of all created beings, took up, in the beginning, from the geometrical basis of the Universal irradiation” (E, pp. 292-293). Symmetry is “the poetical essence of the Universe,” and it is the basis of all beauty and truth: “Now symmetry and consistency are convertible terms: — thus Poetry and Truth are one” (E, p. 302). The value Poe gives this cluster of ideas is of long standing in his thought. In “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” of 1841, Monos is able to register and appreciate the pure idea of equality as he passes through what men call death and attains the threshold of angelic existence:

And now, from the wreck and the chaos of the usual senses, there appeared to have arisen within me a sixth, all perfect. In its exercise I found a wild delight . . . . No muscle quivered; no nerve thrilled; no artery throbbed. But there seemed to have sprung up in the brain . . . a mental pendulous pulsation. It was the moral embodiment of man s abstract idea of Time. By the absolute equalization of this movement — or of such as this — had the cycles of the firmamental orbs themselves, been adjusted. By its aid I measured the irregularities of the clock . . . . The slightest deviations from the true proportion . . . affected me just as violations of the abstract truth are wont, on earth, to affect the moral sense . . . . And this — this keen, perfect, self-existing sentiment of duration . . . was the first obvious and certain step of the intemporal soul upon the threshold of the temporal eternity. (IV, 209-210)

The beauty of equal duration, which is experienced after death by Monos, by the living in some works of music, and, at some remote period of antiquity, in spondaic poetry, is a transcendental value. “The elements of that beauty which is felt in sound, may be,” Poe wrote in his 1842 review of Longfellow’s Ballads and Other Poems “the mutual or common heritage of Earth and Heaven . . . . a harp may strike notes not unfamiliar to the angels” (XI, 75).

In the beginning of Eureka, Poe is seized by an irresistible impulse which forces him to conclude that “what God originally created — that that Matter which, by dint of [column 2:] his Volition, he first made from his Spirit, or from Nihility, could have been nothing but Matter in its utmost conceivable state of — what? — of Simplicity” (p. 206). The corresponding quality of the originally created meter is monotony (RV, p. 220). Not only is monotony the condition of poetry at its inception, but the appreciation of it also seems to belong to the youth of the poet, when, Eureka implies, he understands through dreams that he is God (E, pp. 311-312). Poe anticipates such a view in the schoolroom of “William Wilson” (1839), one end of which is dominated by a “stupendous” clock: there, for the title character, “the apparently dismal monotony of a school was replete with more intense excitement than my riper youth has derived from luxury” (III, 304).

“The Rationale of Verse,” in my opinion, thus couples the origin of verse with what Richard Wilbur and others see as Poe’s myth of the poet. The original beauty of simple equality is steadily obscured as a result of the poet’s growing desire for complexity in beauty, which is due to the increasing perversity into which his soul has fallen. But metrics, as will be seen, continues to develop as a result of the principle of equality and monotony, insuring beauty’s continued existence in and through a fallen world. The development of metrics is both angelic and perverse, as all poetic acts are in Poe (4). In Eureka’s terms, I believe that Poe would see this as still another example of the divine adaptation, the reciprocity of cause and effect.



The stages of the development of meter are detailed and literal. At one point, Poe allows the reader to suppose that he is merely reproducing a logical process: “It must be observed that in suggesting these processes, I assign them no date; nor do I even insist upon their order. Rhyme is supposed to be of modern origin, and were this proved, my position remains unchanged” (RV, p. 224). He claims, however, that there is rhyme in Aristophanes as well as in Hebrew poetry, and a few pages later, he sets the record straight: “On account of the stupidity of some people, or, (if talent be a more respectable word,) on account of their talent for misconception — I think it necessary to add here, first, that I believe the ‘processes’ above detailed to be nearly if not accurately those which did occur in the gradual creation of what we now call verse” (RV, pp. 229-230).

According to Poe, by the time that poetry developed a collocation of equalities consisting of three natural spondees, the ear would begin to hear the monotony as something unpleasant. “The perception of monotone” would give rise to “an attempt at its relief” and lead to the creation of the iamb and the trochee (RV, p. 220). Sequences of these feet would also have their natural limit of monotony and would in turn generate anapestic and dactyllic feet:

A succession of spondees would immediately have displeased; one of iambuses or of trochees, on account of the variety included within the foot itself, would have taken longer to displease; one of dactyls or anapaests, still longer: but even the last, if extended very far, must have become wearisome. (RV, p. 223) [page 16:]

Monotony would eventually lead poetry through the invention of the line, lines of unequal length, rhyme, stanza, imperfect rhyme, the refrain, alliteration, and the non-terminal rhyme, in that order.

Poe insists that the principle of equality and monotony is the sole cause of the development of meter. Like the comparable “Oneness” of Eureka’s metaphysics, it “is a principle abundantly sufficient to account for the constitution” and “the existing phaenomena,” in this case, of metrics (E, p. 207). There is no distinct principle of variety in verse for Poe; the more complex feet do not arise in opposition to the simplicity and monotony of the spondee. He accordingly dismisses the intellectual floundering of Leigh Hunt’s essay “The Principle of Variety in Uniformity”:

Of course there is no principle in the case — nor in maintaining it. The “Uniformity” is the principle: — the “Variety” is but the principle’s natural safe-guard from self-destruction by excess of self. (RV, p. 220)

The first substantial argument in Eureka is devoted to the concept of a limited creation. The idea of an infinite universe would bind God to the task of creating infinitely, and this, for Poe, is an aesthetic impossibility: “My assumption, then, or rather my inevitable deduction from just premises — was that of a determinate irradiation — one finally discontinued” (E, p. 230). Metrical creation is similarly limited (5). With the stanza, “We have gone so far as to exhaust all the essentialities of verse. What follows [that is, the refrain and non-terminal rhyme] may, strictly speaking, be regarded as embellishment merely — but even in this embellishment, the rudimental sense of equality would have been the never-ceasing impulse” (RV, p. 228).

In the course of this argument, Poe anticipates an objection to his claim that the dactyl is the ultimate poetic foot:

But here it may be said, that step after step would have been taken, in continuation of this routine, until all the feet of the Greek Prosodies became exhausted. Not so: — these remaining feet have no existence except in the brains of the scholiasts. (RV, p. 222)

In Eureka, Poe similarly attributes the analogous idea of infinite process to the mental confusion of its proponents: “No fog of the mind can well be greater than that which, extending to the very boundaries of the mental domain, shuts out even those boundaries themselves from comprehension” (E, p. 204).

The development of both verse and the material universe also results in similar if not strictly analogous disappearances of their original centers. The creation of the material universe was an act of divine sacrifice and “Self-Diffusion” (E. , p. 314). The nothing out of which the universe was created was the simple matter of God, who now exists only in its myriad individual parts. Similarly, “the innate monotony of the spondee has caused its disappearance, as the basis of rhythm, from all modern poetry” (RV, p. 260). (As I will show, its peculiar music can no longer even be heard in the poetry of the ancients — except [column 2:] by Poe.) Poe further speculates that the spondee had “long since” disappeared by the time of the invention of rhyme. But instances of rhyme can be found in Aristophanes’ The Clouds, and, although the terminations of Hebrew verse show no signs of rhyme, “what thinking person,” he asks, “can doubt that it did actually exist?” (RV, p. 224) (6). Rhyme, moreover, is a practical inevitability that follows from the very fact of verse; “Admit this,” Poe contends, “and we throw the origin far back in the night of Time — beyond the origin of written verse” (RV, p. 225).



For Poe, the material universe exists in a state of ever increasing abnormality and, one gathers, is fast approaching that ultimate stage of “wrongfulness” (E, p. 233) which will herald the turning-point of creation, when universal matter, “with the spiritual passion of . . . [its] appetite for oneness,” will rush “into a common embrace” to instantaneously disappear and let God “remain all in all” (E, pp. 308, 311).

In the “great Now — the awful Present — the Existing Condition of the Universe” (E, p. 307), poetry also endures in a degenerate condition. The terms of this fall are several. For one thing, Poe in the mid-1840’s twice expressed the opinion that iambic pentameter is a limited versification which is capable of only “negative merits” (7). And I see a similar suggestion in “The Rationale of Verse” that true poetry, poetical music at least, can no longer be created:

Now the flow of these lines the opening of Byron’s “The Bride of Abydos”] (as times go,) is very sweet and musical. They have been often admired, and justly — as times go — that is to say, it is a rare thing to find better versification of its kind. And where verse is pleasant to the ear, it is silly to find fault with it because it refuses to be scanned. (pp. 242-243)

The degenerate condition of poetry is implicitly due to the disappearance of the spondee as the basis of modern rhythm. Poe’s argument would seem to run as follows: spondaic poetry is no longer a natural possibility for many modern languages. Spondaic poetry can still be created in certain modern languages (and, of course, it still exists in the ancient languages), but this body of poetry cannot be heard as musical by modern ears. Poe, and perhaps a few other poets, can still hear the music of the spondee, and he can reproduce it, and he does, but not in his poetry. His poetry represents a wild fling into decadence; it is an expression of the diseased nature of the poet in the present.

At various places in his writings on metrics, Poe heaps scorn on those modern poets — particularly Sir Philip Sidney, Coleridge, and Longfellow — who have attempted to restore the ancient music of verse, artificially to imitate the Greek hexameter in English. He insists (on what authority beyond the logic of his own argument is unknown) that this verse was essentially spondaic (8). Not only does English, Poe claimed in 1845, have very few naturally spondaic words, but it “repels the spondee as antagonistical.” No one before him, he goes on, has suspected that the [page 17:] spondees which are naturally lacking may be supplied by art; and Poe, thereupon, invents the following spondaic line:

Man is a | complex, | compound, | compost, | yet is he | God-born. (9)

We moderns still possess the ancient music, to some extent — “The ancient verse, read aloud, is in general musical, and occasionally very musical “ (RV, p. 253) — but modern sensibility has perversely conspired to rob us even of this: those prosodic systems which, on the one hand, are defective because of their slavish adherence to the practice of the ancient poets, nonetheless, on the other hand, will not allow us to scan the ancient verse; they “are entirely at war . . . with the reading flow universally given them [ancient verse], and never denied them, by even the most obstinate and stolid of scholars” (RV, p. 254). Elsewhere, Poe claims that even our pleasure in the oral music of ancient verse is feigned: “The Latin hexameters really please very few moderns, although so many pretend to fall into ecstasies about them” (RV, p. 262).

For some reason or on some authority equally unknown to me, Poe in the early 1840’s claimed that the Scandinavian languages are abundantly spondaic: “In the Swedish they are nearly as abundant as in the Latin and Greek” (XI, 66). The context here is Longfellow’s translation of Tegner’s poem, “The Children of the Lord’s Supper,” and the contrariness of this 1842 reference may have something to do with Poe’s involved attitude toward Longfellow. In his preface, Longfellow had complained of this measure: “that inexorable hexameter, in which it must be confessed the motions of the English Muse are not unlike those of a prisoner dancing in his chains’’ (10). In a “Marginalia” item published a year and a half later, Poe wrote: “Strange — that I should here find the only non-execrable barbarian attempts at imitation of the Greek and Roman measures! “ (XVI, 44). The text is Jacob Baden’s Forelaesninger over det Danske Sprog, eller resonneret Dansk Grammatik. Nothing more is said of this potential home for true modern poetry. One recalls, however, the long and unparalleled series of Norwegian place-names at the opening of “A Descent into the Maelstrom” (1841).

In “The Rationale of Verse,” however, French is the only modern language with a naturally spondaic rhythm. The French “iambic rhythm so superabounds in absolute spondees as to warrant me in calling its basis spondaic” (RV, p. 261). Spondees may be produced in the present, but their true music cannot be heard by modern ears. This conclusion leads Poe to deny that there was or could be any French poetry. Four years earlier, in his “Marginalia,” he had reproduced an example of a Frenchman’s “Garlic rhythm” in verses written in English, Gerardin’s [Girardin’s] inscription to the memory of Shenstone:

This plain stone

To William Shenstone.

In his writings he displayed

A mind natural;

At Leasowes he laid

Arcadian greens rural. (XVI, 43-44)

In an 1845 review of the poetry of Elizabeth Oakes Smith, [column 2:] he strongly implied that modern ears register spondees as “absolute discords” (VIII, 91), the point, one assumes, of the above quotation.

As a poet of the latter days, one of Poe’s artistic missions is to hasten the end of creation, to vary or complicate the original, unified poetic impulse to the greatest possible extent (11). The final stages of metrical development come with the evolution of the refrain; with that further cultivation which would improve the refrain “by relieving its monotone in slightly varying the phrase at each repetition, or, (as I have attempted to do in “The Raven,”) in retaining the phrase and varying its application”; and with the use of rhyme at other points than the end of the line (RV, p. 229). In anticipation of the latter point, in 1846 Poe had claimed that his line “Thrilled me, filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before” represents “perfection of rhyme’’ (12).

The final source of variety that Poe discusses in “The Rationale of Verse” is the occasional introduction of equivalent feet, a trochee for an iamb, for example, which good poets use only at intervals and only when the sense seems to justify a startling effect. One might even, he says, venture on “two consecutive equivalent feet — although I cannot say that I have ever known the adventure made, except in the following passage, which occurs in ‘Al Aaraaf,’ a boyish poem, written to myself when a boy”:

Dim was its little disk, and angel eyes

Alone could see the phantom in the skies

When first the^ pha — nto^m’s co — urse wa^s fo — und to^ be —

Headlo^ng hi^the^rward o’er the starry sea. (RV, p. 235)

Alfred Lord Tennyson is assigned a special place among poets of complex verse; his lines below are quoted as “our present ultimatum of complexity” (RV, p. 225):

Virginal Lilian, rigidly, humblily dutiful;

Saintlily, lowlily,

Thrillingly, holily


In Eureka, the informing principle of “Oneness” is felt in the created universe as gravitation. It is not a sufficiently strong unifying force to prevent dispersion, but it can bind clusters of matter together as stars, planets, nebulae, and so forth. Poe carefully points out how the complex variation of this stanza by Tennyson is bound together by various local equalities: “Here we appreciate, first, the absolute equality between the two long syllables of each dactyl and any other dactyl” (RV, p. 225); and so on, through fourteen instances of equality!

In a “Marginalia” item of 1849, Poe represented Tennyson as the poet of the turning-point. From the ruins of Shelley, it appears, there had sprung into existence a “tottering,” “fantastic,” and “mad” school of poetry produced by young men who were “dazzled with the glare and bewildered by the bizarrerie of the lightning that flickered through the clouds of ‘Alastor’”:

Matters were now fast verging to their worst; and at length, in Tennyson poetic inconsistency attained its extreme. But it was precisely this extreme (for the greatest truth and the greatest error [page 18:] are scarcely two points in a circle) which, following the law of all extremes, wrought in him (Tennyson) a natural and inevitable revulsion; leading him first to contemn, and secondly to investigate, his early manner, and finally to winnow, from its magnificent elements, the truest and purest of all poetical styles.

The process thus begun is not yet complete; completed, it will produce the noblest poem that can be composed (XVI, 149-150).

If late Poe saw himself as the poet of complexity, contributing to a development that may have reached an extreme, and thus a turning point, in Tennyson, he also saw himself as the angelic poet who, in youth, was “peculiarly haunted . . . by dim but ever present Memories of a Destiny more vast — very distant in the by-gone time, and infinitely awful” (E, p. 312). As a critic, his mission was similarly paradoxical, pointing both to the rationale for increasing complexity in verse and to the lost spondaic basis of the ancient music. His fellow critics had conspired to obfuscate the ancient poetry, but Poe could recover its original purity:

Had I space, nothing would afford me greater pleasure than to proceed with the scansion of all the ancient rhythms, and to show how easily, by the help of common-sense, the intended music of each and all can be rendered instantaneously apparent. (RV, p. 260)

He alone can scan the ancient verse. He alone can compose lines of spondaic hexameter in the present. He does so in parody at the end of “The Rationale of Verse.” And if one glances over the titles of his published works, he can be seen to have more seriously followed out this mad bent from the beginning, producing an extraordinary number of divine spondees, in poems like “Al Aaraaf” and “DreamLand,” and, particularly, in the tales: “Berenice,” “The Black Cat,” “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” “The Domain of Arnheim,” “The Gold-Bug,” “Hop-Frog,” “King Pest,” “The Light-House,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “William Wilson,” and, I would guess, many others.



(1) “Marginalia,” in Complete Works, XVI, 124. All references to writings by Poe are to this edition. “The Rationale of Verse” (RV) and Eureka (E) are in volumes XIV and XVI respectively and will be specifically identified in the body of the text.

(2) “Edgar Allan Poe,” in Major Writers of America, ed. Perry Miller (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), p. 374. The reading of Eureka and the reconstructed cosmology derived from it that are used in this article accord with those provided by Wilbur. [column 2:]

(3) RV, p. 209. “The Rationale of Verse” is an expanded and revised version of Poe’s “Notes upon English Verse,” originally published in 1843 in James Russell Lowell’s The Pioneer (New York: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1947). Although a substantial essay in itself, the 1843 version contains none of the matter upon which the argument of this article is based. In fact, Poe was then willing (p. 105) to allow that the English language is accentually metric.

Those critics and scholars who have treated “The Rationale of Verse” in the past have either summarized it or taken Poe to task for his ignorance of prosodic or linguistic fact: see Sidney Lanier, The Science of English Verse (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), p. xiv; T. S. Omond, English Metrists in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries ( London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1907), pp. 138-144; George Saintsbury, A Historical Manual of English Prosody (London: Macmillan and Co., 1910), p. 310; Gay Wilson Allen, American Prosody (New York: American Book Co., 1935), pp. 57-58; Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1969), p. 561; J. Arthur Greenwood, Edgar Allan Poe, The Rationale of Verse: A Preliminary Edition, Incorporating Cognate Documents (Princeton N.J., 1968); and Floyd Stovall, Edgar Poe the Poet (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1969). Robert D. Jacobs, Poe: Journalist d; Critic (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press 1969), pp. 444-447, discusses “The Rationale of Verse” briefly within the context of eighteenth-century mechanistic metaphysics.

(4) For speculations on the duality of perversity in Poe, see Wilbur and Joseph J. Moldenhauer’s “Murder as a Fine Art,” PMLA, 83 (1968), 295-296.

(5) In the 1843 essay, Poe claimed that the varieties of English verse are unlimited, although the existing prosodies dogmatically insisted that they were limited.

(6) In 1836, Poe had written: “It is certain that Hebrew verse did not include rhyme: the terminations of the lines where they are most distinct, never showing any thing of the kind” (“Pinakidia,” XIV, 54).

(7) “Marginalia” (1844), XVI, 59. See also “William Cullen Bryant” (1846), X111, 133.

(8) RV, pp. 261 ff. According to Joseph B. Mayor, Chapters on English Metre (Cambridge, 1901), p. 268, the ancient hexameter is “‘Dactyllic Hexameter Cataletic,’ in which the last dactyl loses its final syllable, so as to give a line consisting of five dactyls and a trochee; but, as the final syllable of a verse was indifferently long or short, the final trochee might always be a spondee . . . . In the fragments of Ennius we find one or two verses without a single dactyl. The only instance in later writers seems to be one from Catullus . . . . But, to make a verse, it is not enough to place side by side six feet of the kind mentioned.”

(9) “Marginalia” (1845), XVI, 72-73.

(10) Quoted in Mayor, p. 274.

(11) See Moldenhauer, pp. 284-297.

(12) “Marginalia,” XVI, 86-87.


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