Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “The Rationale of Verse,” Manuscript fragments, November-December 1846


[page 1, Wakeman fragment:]  



The word “Verse” is here used not in its strict or primitive sense, but as the term most convenient for expressing generally and without pedantry all that is involved in the consideration of rhythm, rhyme, metre, and versification.

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. Were the topic really difficult, or did it lie, even, in the cloudland of metaphysics, where the doubt-vapors may be made to assume any and every shape at the will or at the fancy of the gazer, we should have less reason to wonder at all this contradiction and perplexity; but in fact the subject is exceedingly simple; one tenth of it, possibly, may be called ethical; nine tenths, however, appertain to the mathematics; and the whole is included within the limits of the commonest common sense.

“But, if this is the case, how”, it will be asked, “can so much misunderstanding have arisen? Is it conceivable that a thousand profound scholars, investigating so very simple a matter for centuries, have not been able to place it in the fullest light, at least, of which it is susceptible?” These queries, I confess, are not easily answered: — at all events a satisfactory reply to them might cost more trouble than would, if properly considered, the whole vexata quæstio to which they have reference. Nevertheless, there is little difficulty or danger in suggesting that the “thousand profound scholars” may have failed,

[page 2, Leavitt fragment:]  

first because they were scholars, secondly because they were profound, and thirdly because they were a thousand — the impotency of the scholarship and profundity having been thus multiplied a thousand fold. I am serious in these suggestions; for, first again, there is something in “scholarship” which seduces us into blind worship of Bacon's Idol of the Theatre — into irrational deference to antiquity; secondly, the proper “profundity” is rarely profound — it is the nature of Truth in general, as of some ores in particular, to be richest when most superficial; thirdly, the clearest subject may be overclouded by mere superabundance of talk. In chemistry, the best way of separating two bodies is to add a third; in speculation, fact often agrees with fact and argument with argument, until an additional well-meaning fact or argument sets every thing by the ears. In one case out of a hundred a point is excessively discussed because it is obscure; in the ninety-nine remaining it is obscure because excessively discussed. When a topic is thus circumstanced, the readiest mode of investigating it is to forget that any previous investigation has been attempted.

But, in fact, while much has been written on the Greek and Latin rhythms, and even on the Hebrew, little effort has been made at examining that of any of the modern tongues. As regards the English, comparatively nothing has been done. It may be said, indeed, that we are without a treatise on our own verse. In our ordinary grammars and in our works on rhetoric or prosody in general, may be found occasional chapters, it is true, which have the heading, “Versification”, but these are, in all instances, exceedingly meagre. They pretend to no analysis; they propose nothing like system; they make no attempts at even rule; every thing depends upon “authority.” They are confined, in fact, to mere exemplification of the supposed varieties of English feet and English lines; — although 

[page 3, Valentine fragment:]  

in no work with which I am acquainted are these feet correctly given or these lines detailed in anything like their full extent. Yet what has been mentioned is all — if we except the occasional introduction of some pedagogue-ism, such as this borrowed from the Greek Prosodies: — “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.” Now whether a line be termed catalectic or acatalectic is, perhaps, a point of no vital importance; — it is even possible that the student may be able to decide, promptly, when the a should be employed and when omitted, yet be incognizant, at the same time, of all that is worth knowing in regard to the structure of verse.

A leading defect in each of our treatises, (if treatises they can be called,) is the confining the subject to mere Versification, while Verse in general, with the understanding given <to> the term in the heading of this paper, is the real question at issue. Nor am I aware of even one of our Grammars which so much as properly defines the word versification itself. “Versification”, says a work now before me, of which the accuracy is far more than usual — the “English Grammar” of Goold Brown — “Versification is the art of arranging words into lines of correspondent length, so as to produce harmony by the regular alternation of syllables differing in quantity.” The commencement of this definition might apply, indeed, to the art of versification, but not to versification itself. Versification is not the art of arranging &c., but the actual arranging — a distinction too obvious to need comment. The error here is identical with one which has been too long permitted to disgrace the initial page of every one of our school grammars. I allude to the definitions of English Grammar itself. [[. . . .]]

[[. . . .]]

[about page 8, Tane fragment:]  

Verse originates in the human enjoyment of equality, fitness. To this enjoyment, also, all the moods of verse, rhythm, metre, stanza, rhyme, alliteration, the refrain, and other analagous effects, are to be referred. As there are some readers who habitually confound rhythm and metre, it may be as well here to say that the former concerns the character of feet (that is, arrangements of syllables) while the latter has to do with the number of these feet. Thus by “a dactylic rhythm” we express a sequence of dactyls. By “a dactylic hexameter” we imply a line or measure consisting of six of these dactyls.

[[about page 8, continued, Pleadwell fragment:]]  

To return to equality. Its idea embraces those of similarity, proportion, identity, repetition, and adaptation or fitness. 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 such an investigation would, for any purpose now in view, be supererogatory. It is sufficient that the fact is undeniable — the fact that man derives enjoyment from his perception of equality. Let us examine a crystal. We are at once interested by the equality between the sides and between the angles of one of its faces; the equality of the sides pleases us, that of the angles doubles the pleasure. On bringing to view a second face in all respects similar to the first, this pleasure seems to be squared; on bringing to view a third it appears to be cubed, and so on. I  [[. . . .]]

[[. . . .]]

[page 11, Self fragment:]  

The second step we can easily suppose to be the comparison, that is to say, the collocation of two spondees — or two words composed each of a spondee. The third step would be the juxta-position of three of these words. By this time the perception of monotone would induce farther consideration: and thus arises what Leigh Hunt so flounders in discussing under the title of “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 safeguard from self-destruction by excess of self. “Uniformity”, besides, is the very worst word that could have been chosen for the expression of the general idea at which it aims.

The perception of monotone having given rise to an attempt at its relief, the first thought in this new direction would be that of collating two or more words formed each of two syllables differently accented (that is to say, short and long) but having the same order in each word: — in other terms, of collating two or more iambuses, or two or more trochees. And here let me pause to assert that more pitiable nonsense has been written on the topic of long and short syllables than on any other subject under the sun. In general, a syllable is long or short, just as it is difficult or easy of enunciation. The natural long syllables are those encumbered — the natural short ones are those un encumbered, with consonants; all the rest is mere artificiality and jargon. The Latin Prosodies have a rule that “a vowel before two consonants is long”. This rule is deduced from “authority” — that is, from the observation that vowels so circumstanced, in the ancient poems, are always in syllables long by the laws of scansion. The philosophy of the rule is untouched, and lies simply in the physical difficulty of giving voice to such syllables — of performing the lingual evolutions necessary for their utterance. Of course, it is not the vowel that is long (although the rule says so) but the syllable of which the vowel is a part. It will be seen that the length of a syllable, depending on the facility or difficulty of its enunciation, must have great variation in various syllables; but for the purposes of verse we suppose a long syllable equal to two short ones: — and the natural deviation from this relativeness

[[. . . .]]

[page 18, Henry fragment:]  

the several stanzas of a poem, one word or phrase is repeated; and of alliteration, in whose simplest form a consonant is repeated in the commencements of various words. This effect would be extended so as to embrace repetitions both of vowels and of consonants, in the bodies as well as in the beginnings of words; and, at a later period, would be made to infringe on the province of rhyme, by the introduction of general similarity of sound between whole feet occurring in the body of a line: — all of which modifications I have exemplified in the line above,

Made in his image a mannikin merely to madden it.

Farther cultivation would improve also 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 — although this latter point is not strictly a rhythmical effect alone. Finally, poets when fairly wearied with following precedent — following it the more closely the less they perceived it in company with Reason — would adventure so far as to indulge in positive rhyme at other points than the ends of lines. First, they would put it in the middle of the line; then at some point where the multiple would be less obvious; then, alarmed at their own audacity, they would undo all their work by cutting these lines in two. And here is the fruitful source of the infinity of “short metre” by which modern poetry, if not distinguished, is at least disgraced. It would require a high degree, indeed, both of cultivation and of courage, on the part of any versifier, to enable him to place his rhymes — and let them remain — at unquestionably their best position, that of unusual and unanticipated intervals.

On account of the stupidity of some people, or (if talent be [[. . . .]]

[[. . . .]]

[page 23, Barrett fragment:]  

through forty or fifty vague pages, solely because of his inability to show how and why it is a grace — by which showing the question would have been settled in an instant.

About the trochee used for an iambus, as we see in the beginning of the line,

Whēthĕr thou choose Cervantes’ serious air,

there is little that need be said. It brings me to the general proposition that, in all rhythms, the prevalent or distinctive feet may be varied at will, and nearly at random, by the occasional introduction of equivalent feet — that is to say, feet the sum of whose syllabic times is equal to the sum of the syllabic times of the distinctive feet. Thus the troches whēthĕr, is equal, in the sum of the times of its syllables, to the iambus, thŏu chōōse, in the sum of the times of its syllables; each foot being, in time, equal to three short syllables. Good versifiers who happen to be, also, good poets, contrive to relieve the monotone of a series of feet, by the use of equivalent feet only at rare intervals, and at such points of their subject as seem in accordance with the startling character of the variation. Nothing of this care is seen in the line quoted above — although Pope has some fine instances of the duplicate effect. Where vehemence is to be strongly expressed, I am not sure that we should be wrong in venturing 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 by myself when a boy. I am referring to the sudden and rapid advent of a star:

Dim was its little disk, and angel eyes

Alone could see the phantom in the skies,

Whĕn fīrst thĕ phāntǒm's cōurse wăs fōund tǒ bē

Hēadlǒng hīthĕr ward o’er the starry sea.

[[. . . .]]

[page 27, Karpeles fragment:]  

by the Greek Prosodies (māny ăre thĕ) and would be called by them [[Greek text:]] αστρολογος [[:Greek text]]. The Latin books would style the foot Pæon Primus, and both Greek and Latin would swear that it was composed of a trochee and what they term a pyrrhic — that is to say a foot of two short syllables — a thing that cannot be, as I shall presently show.

But now, there is an obvious difficulty. The astrologos, according to the Prosodies’ own showing, is equal to five short syllables, and the trochee to three — yet, in the line quoted, these two feet are equal. They occupy precisely the same time. In fact, the whole music of the line depends upon their being made to occupy the same time. The Prosodies then, have demonstrated what all mathematicians have stupidly failed in demonstrating — that three and five are one and the same thing.

After what I have already said, however, about the bastard trochee and the bastard iambus, no one can have any trouble in understanding that many are the is of similar character. It is merely a bolder variation than usual from the routine of trochees, and introduces to the bastard trochee one additional syllable. But this syllable is not short. That is, it is not short in the sense of “short” as applied to the final syllable of the ordinary trochee, where the word means merely the half of long. In this case (that of the additional syllable) “short,” if used at all, must be used in the sense of the sixth of long. And all the three final syllables can be called short only with the same understanding of the term. The three together are equal only to the one short syllable (whose place they supply) of the ordinary trochee. It follows that there is no sense in thus (˘) accenting these syllables. We must devise for them some new character which shall denote

[[. . . .]]


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 1:]

*  Some <few> passages of this article appeared, about four years ago, in “The Pioneer,” a monthly Magazine published by J. R. Lowell and R. Carter. Although an excellent work it had a very limited circulation. 


The manuscript was preserved by John Reuben Thompson, who was the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in 1849. He broke up the manuscript and gave out pieces to friends as a sample of Poe's handwriting. Not all of the fragments have been located.

The “Henry” fragment in the Poe Foundation in Richmond was formerly pasted into the album of Lucy Dorthea Henry, later Mrs. Laighton. It has long since been removed from the album for display and safer storage. Miss Henry presumably obtained the fragment from Thompson, while both were living in Richmond. Miss Henry was a friend of Poe's sister, Rosalie, and Thompson was acting as Miss Poe's personal lawyer after Edgar's death. In that collection, it bears the designation of MS no. 465.b.

The Barrett fragment is reproduced in the auction catalog, “Selections from the collection formed by the Late Oliver R. Barrett,” Parke-Bernet Galleries (New York), October 30-31 and November 1-2, 1950, item 929. The collection was sold by order of his son, Roger W. Barrett, listed as the “Present Owner.”

The Karpeles manuscript was sold by Heritage Auctions, July 16, 2022, lot 43002. The catalog entry notes that it measures 8 x 6.25 inches and is numbered “27,” with traces on the back of having been mounted. In 2024, it was listed by Moments in Time for $225,000.


[S:0 - MS, 1846] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Essays - The Rationale of Verse (Text-A)