Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Notes Upon English Verse” (Text-01), Manuscript fragments, Spring-Summer 1842



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[[“Gilman” manuscript fragment:]]

I >>should prefer to<< <shall> dismiss entirely, from the consideration of the principle of rhythm, the idea of versification, or the construction of verse. In so doing we shall avoid a world of confusion. Verse is, indeed, an afterthought, or an embellishment, or an improvement, rather than an element of rhythm; and this is the fact which, perhaps, more than any thing else, has induced the easy admission, into the realms of Pöesy, of such works as the >>”Telemachus”<< <”Télémaque”> of Fénélon. In the elaborate modulation of their sentences they fulfil the idea of metre; and their arrangement, or rather their division, into lines (which could be readily effected) would do little more than present this idea in a popularly intelligible dress.

<Holding> >>Bearing<< these things in view, the prosodist who rightly examines that which constitutes the external, or most immediately recognizable, form of Poetry, will commence with the definition of Rhythm. Now rhythm, from the Greek άριθμος, number, is a term which, in its present application, very nearly conveys its own idea. No more proper word could be employed to present the conception intended; for rhythm, in prosody, is, in its last analysis, identical with time in music. For this reason I have used, throughout this article, as synonymous with rhythm, the word metre from μετρον, measure. Either the one or the other may be defined as the arrangement of words into two or more consecutive, equal, pulsations of time. These pulsations are feet. Two feet, at least, are requisite to constitute a rhythm; just as, in mathematics, two units are necessary to form number. The syllables of which the foot consists, when the foot is not a syllable in itself, are subdivisions of the pulsations. No equality is demanded in these subdivisions. It is only required that, so far as regards two consecutive feet at least, the sum of the times of the syllables in one, shall be equal <to> the sum of the times of the syllables in the other. Beyond two pulsations there is no necessity for equality of time. All beyond is arbitrary or conventional. A third and fourth pulsation may embody half, or double, or any proportion of the time occupied in the two first.

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[[“Holmes” manuscript fragment]]

The general rhythm of these lines will be at once recognised as dactylic, or equivalent to dactylic. The two first pulsations, or feet, consist of a spondee and a dactyl; each amounting to four short syllables. This order is now interrupted by a single long syllable; (the cæsura foot;) and in the two succeeding, although the general rhythm remains undisturbed, two dactyls supply the place of the original spondee and dactyl. The cæsura effects the lapse from <the initial rhythm> to a variation of it. We should >>then<< be taught to look upon the cæsura as a variable foot which accommodates itself to any rhythm whatever. I have designated <it> “as a single long syllable,” because this is, apparently, its abstract force or value; but, in its application, it has the force of any foot <whatever.> >>with the exception of the pyrrhic.<< In the lines quoted just above, it has the value of a spondee, or dactyl; occupying precisely equal time. In the first verse above, we dwell upon the “vis “ just so long as it would take us to pronounce the “nas ata “ preceding. With this understanding of the cæsura (the most important foot in the English, or in any metre, and most blindly rejected by our prosodists) we can now proceed to an exemplification of what has been said respecting the arbitrary or conventional nature of mere versification, or the division of rhythms into verse. For this purpose let us quote the commencement of Lord Byron’s “Bride of Abydos”.

Know ye the land where the cypress and myrtle

Are emblems of deeds that are done in their clime —

Where the rage of the vulture, the love of the turtle,

Now melt into softness, now madden to crime?

Know ye the land of the cedar and vine,

Where the flowers ever blossom, the beams ever shine,

And the light wings of Zephyr, oppressed with perfume,

Wax faint o’er the gardens of Gul in her bloom?

Where the citron and olive are fairest of fruit,

And the voice of the nightingale never is mute?

Where the virgins are soft as the roses they twine

And all, save the spirit of man, is divine?

‘T is the land of the East — ‘tis the clime of the Sun —

Can he smile on such deeds as his children have done?

Oh, wild as the accents of lovers’ farewell,

Are the hearts that they bear and the tales that they tell.

The flow of these remarkable lines has been the theme of universal admiration; and not more of admiration than <of> surprise and embarrassment. While no one could deny their harmony, it has been found impossible to reconcile this harmony with their evident irregularity, when scanned in accordance with the rules of our Prosodies; for these Prosodies, insisting upon their bald and incomprehensive dogmas about mere verse, >>had<< <have> neglected to afford a true conception of rhythm; and this conception alone can furnish the key to the riddle. Of, perhaps, a hundred persons whom I have heard discussing <the passage> >>these lines<<; not one seemed to have the faintest comprehension of >>their<< its true scanning. The division into lines forced them into continual blunders. No one thought of looking beyond the line, or of referring one >>line<< to another. Each verse was scanned individually and independently. Thus, the puzzle was, that, while the flow was perfect, while no harshness or break could be discovered in the harmony, the lines differed so remarkably among themselves. The Grammars had spoken of dactylic lines, and it was easily <seen> that these must be dactylic. The first verse was therefore thus divided:

Knōw ўe thĕ | lānd whĕre thĕ | cÿprĕss ănd | mÿrtlĕ.

The concluding foot, however, was still a mystery; but the Grammars said something about the dactylic measure’s calling for a double or triple rhyme, occasionally; and the inquirer was content to rest in the “double rhyme”, without exactly perceiving what a “double rhyme”, had to do with the question of an irregular foot. Quitting the first verse, the second was thus scanned:

Āre ĕmblĕms | ōf dēēds thăt | āre dŏne ĭn | thēir clĭme.

But it was immediately seen that this would not do. It was at war with the whole emphasis of the reading. It was certainly never intended by Lord Byron, or by any one in his senses, that stress should be placed upon such monosyllables as “are “, “of “, and “their “; nor could “their clime “, when compared with “to crime “ in the corresponding line below, be tortured into anything like “a double rhyme”, so as to come within the category of the Grammars. But these Grammars were now silent. Farther they said not. The inquirer fell back, therefore, (in spite of his appreciation of the harmony of the verses, when read without scanning) upon the idea that the “Are “ in the beginning was a blunder, or excess, and, discarding it, scanned the remainder as follows:

— ēmblĕms of | dēēds thăt ăre | dōne ĭn thĕir | clīme.

This would have been satisfactory, but for the forced elision <of the “are”> and the difficulty of accounting for the odd syllable “clime “. The Grammars admitted no such foot as one of a single syllable, and besides the metre was dactylic. In despair, our inquirer turns over the pages of his Prosody, and at length is blessed by a full solution of the riddle, in the learned “observation “ quoted in the commencement of this paper — “When a syllable is wanting, the verse is said to be catalectic; when the measure is exact, the line is acatalectic; when there is a redundant syllable it forms hypermeter “. This is enough. The verse in question is pronounced to “form hypermeter” at the tail, and to be “catalectic” at the head. A slight difficulty still remains, to be sure. Upon continuing the examination of the lines, it is discovered that what flow>>ed<< <s> so harmoniously in perusal, is, upon subjection to the scanning process of the Grammars, a mere jumble, throughout, of catalecticism, acatalecticism, and hypermeter.

By discarding, however, our clumsy conventional notions of mere verse, we shall see, at once, that the lines are perfect in flow only because perfect in scansion — perfect in practice only because perfect in theory. They are, in fact, a regular succession of dactylic rhythms, varied only at three points by equivalent spondees, and separated into two distinct divisions by equivalent, terminating cæsuras. I must here beg the reader to notice that termination, or pause, is one of the chief offices, if not indeed the sole office of the cæsura. In taking upon itself the force, or time, of the pulsations which have preceded it, it produces a fulness of close not to be so well brought about by other means. But let us scan the passage under discussion.

Knōw yĕ thĕ | lānd whĕre thĕ | cÿprĕss ănd | mÿrtlĕ arĕ | ēmblĕms ŏf | dēeds thăt ăre | dōne ĭn thĕir | clīme whĕre thĕ | rāge ŏf thĕ | vūltŭre thĕ | lōve ŏf thĕ | tūrtlĕ nŏw | mēlt ĭntŏ | sōftnĕss nŏw | māddĕn tŏ | crime.

Knōw yĕ thĕ | lānd ŏf thĕ | cēdar ănd | vīne whĕre thĕ | flōw’rs ĕvĕr | blōssŏm thĕ | bēams ĕvĕr | shīne whĕre thĕ | līght wĭngs ŏf | Zēphyr ŏp- | prēss’d wĭth pĕr- | fūme wāx | fāint o’ĕr thĕ | gārdĕns ŏf | Gūl ĭn thĕir | blōōm whĕre thĕ | cītrŏn ănd | ōlĭve ăre | fāirĕst ŏf | frūit ănd thĕ | vōice ŏf thĕ | nīghtĭngăle | nēvĕr ĭs | mūte whĕre thĕ | vīrgĭns ăre | sōft ăs thĕ | rōsĕs thĕy | twīne ānd | āll săvĕ the | spīrĭt ŏf | mān ĭs dĭ- | vīne ‘tĭs thĕ | lānd ŏf thĕ | Ēast ‘tĭs thĕ | clīme ŏf thĕ | Sūn can hĕ | smīle ŏn sŭch | dēēds ăs hĭs | chīldrĕn hăve | dōne ōh | wīld ăs thĕ | āccĕnts ŏf | lōvĕrs’ făre- | wēll ăre thĕ | heārts thăt thĕy | beār ănd thĕ | tāles thăt thĕy | tell.

By all who have ears — not over long — this will be acknowledged as the true and the sole true scansion. The harmony is perfect, and with the melody but a single fault can be found, and that of minor importance. In the dactyl formed by the words, “smile on such”, “such “ is too obviously a long syllable, that is to say, it too necessarily demands a long accentuation in common parlance, to justify its use as a short syllable in verse.

Can he smile on the deeds that his children have done,

would be an improvement of the melody; at the expense, however, of the sense.

Can he smile on the deeds which his children have done,

although more rigorously grammatical, than our line first suggested, is objectionable on the very ground which caused objection to the use of “such”. The difficulty of pronouncing “which” has brought about its exclusion from poetry, among those who have keen musical perceptions: — see the last line of those just quoted.

I have italicized the cæsuras and spondees introduced. The force and office of the cæsura have been already sufficiently explained; but it may be demanded — “Why is the continuous flow of the dactylic succession interrupted by spondees? Why were not dactyls here also employed?” The answer which most readily suggests itself is, that the variation is for the purpose of relieving the monotony; but however plausible this reply, it is by no means the true one. For, in fact, there is no relief of the monotone effected. The spondees used are to all intents and purposes (except with mere reference to the eye) equivalent to dactyls. The cause of their introduction is to be found in the admission of unusually long syllables at certain points. In the spondee “fume wax”, for example, the “wax”, which is composed of two of the most difficult consonants in the language, could not have been tortured into brevity by any mode of accentuation. Pronounce it as trippingly as we please, it will still occupy such portion of time as will render it equal to two short syllables. If employed at all, therefore, it could not have been employed otherwise, in its present location, than as the final syllable of a spondee. <The emphasis demanded upon the “oh” in “done oh” forces it, in the same manner, into length.>

That the division of the dactylic rhythms into verses, or lines, is a point purely arbitrary, or conventional, will be rendered evident by a glance at these rhythms as we have run them together, above. We might form what is termed versification thus:

Know ye the | land where the

Cypress and | myrtle are

Emblems of | deeds that are

Done in their | clime where the &c.

or thus:

Know ye the | land where the | cypress and

Myrtle are | emblems of | deeds that are &c.

or thus:

Know ye the | land where the | cypress and | myrtle are

Emblems of | deeds that are | done in their | clime where the &c.

or thus:

Know ye the | land where the | cypress and | myrtle are | emblems of

Deeds that are | done in their | clime where the | rage of the | vulture the &c.

In short the lines may be of any length which shall include a full rhythm, or two pulsations. Beyond doubt, we often see such lines as

Know ye the

Land where the &c.

and our Grammars admit such; but most improperly; for common sense would dictate that every <so obvious> >>such<< division of a poem, as is made by verse, should include within itself all that is necessary for its own comprehension or appreciation; but here we can have no appreciation of the rhythm; which depends upon the idea of equality between two pulsations. These pseudo-verses, and those which are met in mock Pindaric Odes, and consist sometimes of but a single long syllable, can be considered as rhythmical, only in connexion with what immediately precedes; and it is this want of independent rhythm, which adapts them to the purposes of burlesque, and of this alone. Their effect is that of incongruity — the principle of mirth; for they intrude the blankness of prove amid the harmony of verse.

One word here in regard to rhyme. Its employment is quite as arbitrary as that of verse itself. Our books speak of it as “a similarity of sound between the last syllables of different lines”. But how absurd such definition, in the very teeth of the admitted facts, that rhymes are often used in the middle of verses, and that mere similarity of sound is insufficient to constitute them in perfection! Rhyme may be defined as identity of sound occurring among rhythms, between syllables or portions of syllables of equal length, at equal intervals, or at interspaces the multiples of these intervals.

The Iambic, the Trochaic, the Anapæstic, and the Dactylic, are the usually admitted divisions of English verse. These varieties, in their purity, or perfection, are to be understood as mere indefinite successions of the feet or pulsations, respectively, from which are derived their names. Our Prosodies cite examples of only the most common divisions of the respective rhythms into lines; but profess to cite instances of all the varieties of English verse. These varieties are, nevertheless, unlimited, as will be readily seen from what has been said; but >>the assertions of<< the books have done much, by their dogmas, in the way of prohibiting invention. A wide field is open for its display, in >>the construction of<< novel combinations of metre. The immenseness of the effect derivable from the harmonious combination various rhythms, is a point strangely neglected or misunderstood. We have, in America, some few versifiers of fine ear, who succeed to admiration in the building of the ordinary established lines — the <Iambic> Pentameters of Sprague, for example, surpass even those of Pope — but we have had few evidences of originality in the division of the old rhythms, or in the combination of their varieties. In general, the grossest ignorance prevails, even among our finest poets, <and even> in respect to the common-place harmonies upon which they are most habitually employed. If we regard at the same time accuracy of rhythm, melody, and invention, or <novel> combination, of >>novel<< metre, I should have no hesitation in saying that a young <and true> poetess of Kentucky, Mrs Amelia Welby, has done more in the way of really good verse than any individual among us. I shall be pardoned, nevertheless, for quoting and commenting upon an excellently <well conceived and well managed> >>well managed and well conceived<< specimen of versification, which will aid in developing some of the propositions already expressed. It is the “Last Leaf” of Oliver W. Holmes.

I saw him once before

As he pass’d by the door

And again

The pavement stones resound

As he totters o’er the ground

With his cane.

They say that in his prime

Ere the pruning-knife of Time

Cut him down,

Not a better man was found

By the crier on his round

Through the town.

But now he walks the streets

And he looks at all he meets

So forlorn;

And he shakes his feeble head

That it seems as if he said

They are gone.

The mossy marbles rest

On the lips that he has prest

In their bloom

And the names he loved to hear

Have been carved for many a year

On the tomb.

My grandmama has said —

Poor old lady! she is dead

Long ago, —

That he had a Roman nose

And his cheek was like a rose

In the snow.

But now his nose is thin,

And it rests upon his chin

Like a staff;

And a crook is in his back

And a melancholy crack

In his laugh.

I know it is a sin

For me to sit and grin

At him here,

But the old three-corner’d hat

And the breeches and all that

Are so queer!

And if I should live to be

The last leaf upon the tree

In the spring, —

Let them smile, as I do now

At the old forsaken bough

Where I cling.

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The fragment given by Oliver Wendell Holmes to Daniel C. Gilman is in the collection of the library of Johns Hopkins University. The remaining fragments, retained by Holmes, are in the collection of the library at Harvard. According to a note on the manuscript, it was given to Holmes by “the late Robert Carter.” Carter, who died on February 15, 1879, was one of the editors of the Pioneer. The manuscript was probably already missing portions by the time he gave it to Holmes. The scansion marks are even more difficult to reproduce from the manuscript than the printed form as Poe has marked various syllables with marks rather than simply vowels.


[S:0 - MS, 1842 (photograph)] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Essays - Notes Upon English Verse (Text-01)