essay on Quantitative Meter

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There never would've been any fascination with retrofitting Greek meters for English verse in the first place, if not for the truly amazing gallumph of the Latin thing. Even so, only crackpots it seems at sesquicentennial intervals, waging quixotic war on the whole shebang after Chaucer, get the bug. --No Ennius has yet appeared. Is it really so hard?

John Hollander in the third essay of Vision and Resonance (1975)1, ably propounds this topic for modern times. Starting with "Tennyson's 'scissors'", he points out that quantity in our language can only be metaphorical & concludes that as gamelike conventions go (--my words), "there are far more productive fictions to employ as catalysts."

In this cultural moment, which is not so much a (free) Verse Crisis, as cusp 'twixt civilizations, all should be tried. I think discussions of poetics will remain moot, unless they proceed from wider �sthetic considerations, & especially an awareness that poetry itself everywhere & always adumbrates deep core values. Which is to say, the loss of the meaning of "ptyx" (line-ending) notation does not nilpertain a state of affairs where resorting to your car's turn signal lever is tantamount to cowardice. Craft, or rather callidity2 (since following rules is the least part of it), thus becomes a small but real counter to the juggernaut of slubbered work & empty acquiescence; ardor meets etiquette.

To begin with, vowel length does vary. It even lends itself to disemic sorting, provided we recognize that, as Martianus Capella sagely observes, 'The true pronunciation of individual sounds is frequently altered or even lost by their context in speech.' (lib. iii �272) (More on this, later.) Naturally we ignore spelling, & posit the phonemes in bAIt, bEEt, bIte, bOAt, bOOt, bOUt, & bOYg (oh, well), as "diphthongal vowels"; bAt, bEt, bIt, bOt, & pUt as "simple vowels". (I can even remember it being taught this way in school, once upon a time.) Then:

1. Syllables are either long or short (none indeterminate as in Latin).

2. Syllables do not carry across adjacent words, as they do in Greek prosody. (English has too many long quantities already.)

3. No extrametric syllables--it screws up scansion (therefore I show this by spelling words like "diff'rent", ktp with an apostrophe of elision, also "of'en" to show it starts with a short), but traditional liberties: resolving - (long) into ** (2 shorts) & vice versa; occasional initial *-* for -**; others according to the tradition of the meter...

4. Short syllables have a simple vowel & either a single consonant, or none, following.

5. Long syllables have either a diphthongal vowel, or a "finial" double consonant sound (not spelling) following a simple vowel. Note that NG (except in the middle of a word where the G is sounded, "finger" but not "singer") & voiced/unvoiced TH & SH/ZH (including where spelling obscures, "oCEan" & "viSIon") count as single consonants; while X (=KS or GZ), Q(U) (=KW), CH (=TSH) & J (=DZH) count as double.

6. "Finial" double consonants are those which can be pronounced together with the vowel in front of them as one English word; "sniFTer" but not "flaTFooted". The Chime Test: for VCCV see if a following word CCV or CV chimes more--"metric TRICK" or "metric rick" shows that "metric" should be scanned as **.

This is already enough to start writing a kind of pseudo-quantitative verse from, but it should probably be left for usage to determine any further conventions. I will mention a few that I have found helpful...

7. The only shortened longs (canonically): stressed occurrence of the words TO (spelled "t'"), THE ("th'"), AND ("&"--not to confuse my regular pronunciation "an'", with a rhyme for "land"), ?maybe also FOR--suggested by W.J.Stone, & final Y (also unaccented EE directly before a diphthongal vowel--this is a Latin convention).

8. Here we come to a fork in the road, a choice of alternative conventions I christen rigora (strict) & rigoreta (lax). William Johnson Stone3 thought that rhotacized vowels (vowels followed by R plus a consonant) are not much longer than that vowel & consonant pair alone. To my ear, nasalized vowels (vowels followed by N plus a consonant) have that property more than rhotacized ones. E.g. "intimate" (adj.) & "sentiment" sound alike, not "garb" & "gob" ("hint" & "nit" are closer). Either way, this helps create more short syllables & makes the poet's task easier, hence "lax".

9. Other considerations were to have the simple O count as a long syllable if followed by a single consonant of the fricative (F V TH), nasal (N M NG), or sibilant (S Z ZH ZH) class, & a short syllable if followed by a single liquid (L R W Y) or plosive (P B T D K G). At another time I considered CH & J single consonants. And, in judging short vowel-double consonant centered disyllables, to count them as finial if the stress falls on the first of two syllables, but separate them if it falls on the second. (This does seem to describe actual pronunciation better. However, it practically eliminates the whole class of trochaic second-stress words, indispensible in composing dactylic hexameter lines.) Eventually I dropped these ideas.

10. When stress falls on a short syllable it is "heterodyne"; on a long, "homodyne". The latter occurs in idiomatic English much more readily (& quantitative verse, notably Tennyson's, has been written using homodynic feet exclusively). Latin poets, after Vergil's great example, preferred to utilize the clash of accent & quantity as a special music unique to this system, & I too strive to attain it. (Also, their practice of avoiding having word-boundaries & foot-boundaries coincide.) Even when I can't, I find that the effort has sharpened my ear for vowel music considerably; & this alone would justify the idea of pseudo-quantitative verse, even if no especially worthy poems ensue.

Syllabic-accentual verse read out loud used to fall prey to a singsong intonation that imposed a mechanical alternation of stresses, whether or not it fit the natural utterance. An opposite vice now prevails: to read flatly, without significant stress at all; & this feeds a contemporary trend that already ambiguates the stressing of many disyllabic words (one might clepe it a shift from French to German influence, iambs turning into trochees). I can imagine it continuing until English has evolved towards the present state of French, & then, once its vowels stabilize, it will be time to perfect this prosody.

'It is superstition to put one's hope in formalities, but it is pride to be unwilling to submit to them.' --Pascal (249)

notes & samples

1 "Observations in the Art of English Quantity"

2 from L. calliditas

3 "On the Use of Classical Meter in English" (1898), bound with Robert Bridges (q.v.) "Milton's Prosody", in his collected works volume 5.

The Elizabethans, to our sensibilities perversely, scanned by spelling. Sidney's Arcadia contains a few worth remembering:

"If mine eyes can speak to do hearty errand,

Or mine eyes' language she do hap to judge of.

So that eyes' message be of her receiv�d,

Hope, we do live yet... " (sapphics)

"O sweet woods, the delight of solitariness

O how much I do like your solitariness!

Where man's mind hath a freed consideration

Of goodness to receive lovely direction..." (asclepiads)

Spenser, of course has his "Iambicum Trimetrum":

"Unhappie Verse, the witnesse of my unhappie state,

Make thy selfe fluttring wings of thy fast flying

Thought, and fly forth unto my love, whersoever she be..."

Stanyhurst's 1582 translation of part of the �neid, has gone down as one of the curiosities of literature; Nashe called it "a foul lumbering boisterous wallowing measure":

"When ye in this passadge too Cumas cittye shall enter,

And lake with rumbling forrest of sacred Auerna,

A braynsick prophetesse se ye shal, whom dungeon holdeth

In ground deepe riueted, future haps and destenye chaunting.

But yeet al her prophecyes in greene leaves nicelye be scribled,

In theese slipprye leaues what sooth thee uirgin averreth,

Shee frams in Po�try: her uerses in dungeon howsing,

They keepe rancks ordred, with aray first setled abyding:

But when on a suddeyn thee doors winds blastye doe batter,

And theese leaues greenish with whisking lightlye be scatterd,

Neaver dooth she laboure to reuoke her flittered issue,

Or to place in cabban, theire floane lyms freshlye reioyning.

Thus they fle, detesting thee lodge of giddye Sibylla..." (iii. 441-452)

But it took Thomas Campion to make it sing:

"Rose-cheek'd Laura, come;

Sing thou smoothly with thy beauty's

Silent music, either other

Sweetly gracing.

Lovely forms do flow

From concent divinely fram�d:

Heaven is music, and thy beauty's

Birth is heavenly.

These dull notes we sing

Discords need for helps to grace them;

Only beauty purely loving

Knows no discord;

But still moves delight,

Like clear springs renew'd by flowing,

Ever perfect, ever in them-

selves eternal."

Interest renewed in the early 19c.; Tennyson as mentioned contributed a couple, including:

"O mighty-mouth'd inventor of harmonies,

O skill'd to sing of Time or Eternity,

God-gifted organ-voice of England,

Milton, a name to resound for ages..." (alcaics)

Robert Bridges took Stone's system & really tested it, from 1903 on. They were as successful as any of his experiments:

"From the minutely measur'd vacillation of Uranus, augur'd

Where his mighty brother Neptune went wandering unnamed

And thro' those thousand-million league darknesses of space

Drew him slowly whene'er he passed, and slowly released him!..."


"When to my lone soft bed at eve returning

Sweet desir'd sleep already stealeth o'er me,

My spirit flieth to the fairy-land of

her tyrannous love..." (sapphics).

some of mine

Though the red fox may possess a wealth of ingenious tricks,

they're nothing, next to the grandeur of the single hedgehog's.

Mystic Talion (praxilleions)

Once in dim musty cavernous den I was peeling

shards from a boiled egg, & Dean watching like a gentle

woozy black bear, his puzzled look that fixed on my egg

impelling me to laugh, quietly told with great grief

how never because of unsteady hands had he been

able to peel an egg like that without it tearing.

Hardly did he stutter or spit to say this; I gave

over the whole egg then: "You could fetch us out of jail though,

where other frantic efforts bid in vain to free us."

Cynthia lately confessed to me how although she

tried many things, none had lasted her more than two months;

fearing that she'd never discover focus or path

for long, her life would've wasted in aimless wand'rings...

I said, "But you've been one year pressing into my heart." (1987)


in that orchid hour where i

many times had waited to warm,

shiver-stilled and after dreams, blank

with not even hope of first gold...

in that hour often my last

among trees, before the hitchhike

miraculous or delayed, toward

some unknown entanglement, or

nothing, just a maze of concrete...

in that poising hour i might

not have to believe that my way

was constrained from going freely,

was the cage it soon would turn to...

but that hour i thought lost, now

all banished from my clockdial, i

discovered intact and perfect

on returning to the same place. (1986)


Hearing feet-scissored "swish swish" thru the curved grass

I was minded how little, out of my drab

daily wand'ring, ends in the pages I cram

closely with ink paths.

Who, then, goes this way of long zigs & short-zag

brain tremors? In darkness but sighted, slow bat

wheeling peregrine among starry fields... Can

these other, hijacked

perpetu'lly by error, incident, fad

or errand of hope, ever find some true map

for the day's seductive disorder? My graph

turns all drawings black.

(Later I investigated some of the Arabic meters, which do seem more suitable for English. Perhaps I will continue in that direction, if I resume.)

May 1-5, 1998