Steven J. Willett
University of Shizuoka, Hamamatsu Campus
Despite the modest renaissance in the study of versification the past few years, romantic critics continue to write about poetry as if it were little more than a textual stream of rhetoric, imagery, metaphor, ideology and selfreferentiality whose only purpose is to provide matter for hermeneutic hunters. Nowhere has this tendency been more pronounced than in criticism of Wordsworth, a poet who combined unmatched passion for the sound and rhythmic texture of poetry with a Horatian dedication to craftsmanship. As Brennan O’Donnell notes in the introduction to this superb study of Wordsworth’s metrical art, “Wordsworthians and commentators on the romantic period and on the history of English poetry and prosody have tended, with some notable exceptions, to depreciate, dismiss as irrelevant, or simply ignore the particularities and peculiarities of Wordsworth’s verse considered as verse” (2). The neglect of the metrical, rhythmic and auditory in Wordsworth is symptomatic of a general postmodernist tendency to level all literary texts to one semantic Flatland where their oral, aural and temporal dimensions are lost. Against this background of neglect, The Passion of Meter: A Study of Wordsworth’s Metrical Art stands out as the first and for some time probably the only sustained treatment of his metrical theory and practice. It rectifies a crucial omission in our understanding of Wordsworth, but does more than just that. Its close, dexterous analysis of the verse provides a virtual education in techniques of metrical scansion for the reader with little knowledge of prosody. The exposition of metrical theory is so lucid, and the examples so well chosen, that one can learn quite enough here to read many another poet with a fair degree of metrical competence.
Nearly half the Introduction (11–17) is given over to a detailed explanation of the scansion and terminology used throughout The Passion of Meter. This is necessary, since O’Donnell has chosen to employ the system of metrical analysis devised by Derek Attridge in The Rhythms of English Poetry (1982) as his chief tool for exploring the subtleties of Wordsworth’s versification. In recent years Attridge has turned his attention to literary theory, Joyce and South African fiction, but his landmark book still remains one of the most important contributions to English metrical theory in the past 25 years. It is not, however, easy reading due to the sheer density of argument. These seven pages provide as concise, accurate and pragmatic a summary as one could hope to find in such short compass. Those who would like a more thorough summary of the principles underlying the 1982 work should consult his recent college textbook, Poetic Meter: An Introduction (1996).
The Passion of Meter falls into two parts of very unequal length. The first part consists of two chapters, one that traces out Wordsworth’s own complex theory of meter from among other sources (a) his abstract public statements in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads and (b) his more practical views in letters to John Thelwall and William Rowan Hamilton (Chapter 1), and one that addresses the significant differences between himself and Coleridge on the function of meter (Chapter 2). The second part, of three chapters and a conclusion, treats the versification of the poems under the following categories: the early practice of “An Evening Walk” and “Descriptive Sketches” (Chapter 3), the varieties of stanzaic form in the Lyrical Ballads (Chapter 4), the characteristics of Wordsworthian blank verse (Chapter 5) and the poet’s late apologia for his dedication to verse, “On the Power of Sound” (Conclusion).
Thelwall and a number of revisionary prosodists writing in the period 1770–1815 insisted that the true genius of English verse music lay in independence from abstract metrical patterns. They, like many modern poets, advocated the subordination of meter to the normal prose rhythms of English. Wordsworth’s own theory of meter places him squarely in the main accentual-syllabic tradition running from Surrey to Pope and in opposition to the reformers who wanted to loosen constraints on the verse line. An understanding of his opposition to current ideas is, O’Donnell rightly insists, necessary if we are to read him metrically: “Appreciating Wordsworth’s resistance to contemporary developments in prosodic theory and practice is of primary importance in reading Wordsworth metrically. Indeed, I think that many twentieth-century commentators have failed to hear the music of Wordsworth’s verse in part because the attitude toward verse pronunciation and performance that Thelwall espouses more closely approximates our own than does Wordsworth’s” (31). While essentially conservative in his metrical practice, Wordsworth held a novel theory of meter whose articulation, scattered oven many disparate sources, is often oblique.
O’Donnell untangles the involved braid of theory better than almost any other critic I know. In essence, Wordsworth conceived of the verse line as the locus for two different systems of organization, “the passion of meter” and “the passion of sense” as he calls them in an important letter to Thelwall. The predictable passion of meter, which suggests something inevitable as a natural force, must be fitted to the widely variable passion of sense. The fitting is not mechanical or fixed, but fluid and organic in the best sense of the words: sometimes the passion of meter fully supports and sometimes significantly resists the organizing dynamics of the passion of sense.