Romantic Circles has moved! It also has a new look. Find out more about our move, redesign, and plans for the future here.

Brennan O'Donnell, The Passion of Meter: A Study of Wordsworth's Metrical Art

Tuesday, March 10, 1998 - 10:27
Brennan O'Donnell, The Passion of Meter: A Study of Wordsworth's Metrical Art. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1995. xii + 290pp. $35.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-87338-510-1).

Reviewed by
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.

In either case meter is an independent aesthetic presence, neither subordinate nor dominant in relation to its partner. The two dance in a sort of concordia discours. Wordsworth places maximum emphasis on the importance both of artfully metered language and of spontaneous expression. The poet fits language to meter, but the language he fits is a selection of the "real." It is clear, O'Donnell concludes, "that a chief interest of the poems so described ought to be the continuous process of fitting, not so much the accomplishment of a single and determining fit" (43). He summarizes this conception of the poem as a ground of active tensions between the passion of meter and the passion of sense with a fine aphorism: "Wordsworth's poem is a Garden of Adonis, not a Bowre of Bliss" (48).

Given his belief that poetry ought to display a complementary balance and correspondence between the excitement produced by meter and that produced by diction, it was inevitable that Coleridge would find Wordsworth's view of meter irrational. Chapter 2 takes up their disagreement, which grew from the former's limited conception of meter and diction. Coleridge famously wrote in meter because he was "about to use a language different from that of prose." Wordsworth, on the contrary, considered the ability of meter to provide a contrast to diction—whether the language was passionate or flat—to be the only aesthetic requirement necessary to produce poetic pleasure. The power of meter alone frees the poet from the need to employ artificially heightened or stimulated language. Coleridge singled out "The Sailor's Mother" as one of a group of works that employ a diction so prosaic that they "would have been more delightful . . . in prose" (Biographia Literaria 2:69). O'Donnell spends the better part of the chapter (53–62) showing that so seemingly prosaic a poem as "The Sailor's Mother" applies an unexpectedly complex lyric stanza with Spenserian overtones to a humble narrative. That narrative in turn modulates its rhythms to point the sharpest possible contrast between the two speakers. He presents similar analyses, though more briefly, for "The Thorn" (62f.) and the much maligned "Goody Blake and Harry Gill" (63–66), a poem that has virtually the same stanza form as the mellifluous "Lines Written Near Richmond, upon the Thames, at Evening" but informs its stanza with "a diction and syntax radically unfit for conventional metrical presentation" (64). Clearly, neither would have been more delightful in prose. O'Donnell argues that we need to understand the truly experimental nature of Wordsworth's metrical practice not only to appreciate his success in using rhythmic contrasts to represent a wide variety of mental and emotional experience but to balance the largely Coleridgean tradition of metrical analysis that has dominated discussions of Romantic versification (66).

Chapter 3 opens with an account of Wordsworth's early youthful versification prior to "An Evening Walk" and "Descriptive Sketches." At an early and impressionable age he developed the habit of maintaining a fairly tight restriction on syllabic count and stress placement and became adept at the various techniques for governing the number of syllables. That account in turn provides a foil for an explanation of why these two early descriptive poems were felt by contemporaries to be so "harsh." The harshness certainly did not result from lack of skill. It was calculated, and stems from strong shifts in expressive rhythm designed to depict the speaker in the process of reacting to changing landscapes. Strong metrical variations were acceptable in blank verse, but traditionally excluded from descriptive couplet verse "in favor of those more subtle variations calculated to give evidence of a rationally composed mind engaged in a comprehensive overview of a fixed 'scene'" (98). Many of the characteristics of the versification, especially the violation of the normal midline break by a much wider distribution of pause together with the presence of two or even three additional pauses, "suggest that Wordsworth was in fact attempting to create a new kind of pentameter couplet, one that would allow presentation of a distinctive, even idiosyncratic, voice within the context of conventionalized habits of association" (100). Verse structure thus ceases to be a mere transparent medium for conveying and focusing emotion; it becomes an active participant in expressing the reaction of the poet's fluctuating response to nature, man and society. The core of the book lies in the two long chapters (4 and 5) on Wordsworth's stanzaic variety in Lyrical Ballads and his blank verse respectively. They distill a deep, exhaustive familiarity with the verse into astute and compelling observations about poetic craft.

Chapter 4 is based on O'Donnell's indispensable taxonomy of the poet's verse forms in Numerous Verse: A Guide to the Stanzas and Metrical Structures of Wordsworth's Poetry (Studies in Philology, Texts and Studies Series 86, no. 4 [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989]). More than just a classification, this is a careful investigation into how Wordsworth created and deployed over 90 different kinds of stanzas and 22 irregular verse forms in addition to blank verse and sonnets. Lyrical Ballads provides a good test case, because it is representative of Wordsworth's practice throughout his corpus in adapting and reformulating stanzaic patterns that are firmly embedded in over four centuries of literary tradition. Because Wordsworth was a conservator rather than a radical innovator, Saintsbury could blindly dismiss him as the greatest English poet that ever wrote prosodically negligible verse. He is, in fact, the equal of his near contemporary Goethe both in the refinement of conventional verse forms and in their structural enunciation of experience. At the start of the chapter, O'Donnell makes an important observation that ought to be carefully considered by all romanticists:

To approach the Lyrical Ballads with a sense of the subtleties made possible by strict adherence to the rules of accentual-syllabic verse . . . , and with an appreciation of Wordsworth's own pervasive sensitivity to expressive, associative, rhetorical, and emblematic possibilities of verse forms embedded in an historical and cultural context . . . is to enable oneself to perceive the considerable extent to which these poems, both individually and as a collection, are powerful and challenging not despite their prosodic features (as is frequently assumed) but because of them. (116; emphasis added)

My only criticism of this chapter is the absence of any sustained scansions of whole lyrics. In his attempt at breadth of coverage, O'Donnell has not chosen—or has lacked the space—to focus intensely on a few key poems. The closest we have are some scattered comments on the stanza structure of "The Thorn" (131–34) and a note explaining how the four-stress accentual-syllabic line as used in poems like "The Tables Turned" and "Expostulation and Reply" frees Wordsworth, by contrast with the four-stress accentual ballad line of Coleridge, from the limitation of a single predominant rhythmic tendency (139–43). In the latter case he singles out individual lines for scansion, but tends to scant their context. Nevertheless, the chapter as a whole should eliminate any doubts about Wordsworth's skill in fashioning stanzaic structures that exhibit, as Goethe put it, a "Geprägte Form, die lebend sich entwickelt." The metrical effects "make the experience of reading an active and constitutive part of what the Lyrical Ballads are, both individually and as a collection" (177).

When I first read an advance copy of The Passion of Meter at the 1995 NASSR conference, I thought Chapter 5 the most powerful in the book. That impression still stands. In a letter to Catharine Grace Godwin, Wordsworth calls blank verse "infinitely the most difficult metre to manage, as is clear from so few having succeeded in it." O'Donnell considers his blank verse to be "a consummate artistic accomplishment" (179), and I would add that the few who stand with him as masters are Shakespeare, Milton and Tennyson.

The chapter divides neatly into three sections. After reviewing Wordsworth's "rules" for accentual-syllabic verse, O'Donnell examines the general features of blank verse in the Lyrical Ballads (which he generalizes as a compromise between Milton and Cowper) and then shows how complexities of voice instill diversity into the blank verse. Here we have the detailed discussions lacking in Chapter 4, with the main concentration on "Tintern Abbey" (191–201) and "Animal Tranquility and Decay, A Sketch" (201–05). The second section delves into the minute particularities of prosodic and aural organization in "A Night-Piece" and "Yew-Trees" (206–25), which Wordsworth reportedly thought his best examples of blank verse. The examination of aural effects in ll. 28–33 of "Yew-Trees," aided by a visual diagram, is notably effective. The third section deals with the dangerous fact that blank verse is simultaneously the most malleable of meters and the most charged with a weight of associative power. Narrative blank verse is inevitably associated with Milton. Wordsworth had thoroughly internalized and naturalized the Miltonic rhythm, but did not suffer as some have maintained from an anxiety of influence. The Miltonic rhythm is more like a constant background presence, sometimes surfacing into and sometimes receding from Wordsworth's blank verse: it "may be channeled, but it cannot be ignored (or 'exorcised' of cast off). Its undersong is as persistent as the undersong of the Derwent" (229). In every case, however, Wordsworth directs this associative power toward his own very different ends.

The "Conclusion" is a detailed structural anatomy of "On the Power of Sound," the poet's apologia as O'Donnell calls it "of a life dedicated to 'fitting' the English language to the requirements of 'numerous verse.' It suggests in grandly comprehensive terms how persuasively important metrical art is in the corpus as a whole" (238). This is an ambitious and wholly unexpected ending to the book—one that can properly be called daring. I have major differences of interpretation with O'Donnell on the structure and prosody of the ode, which I have expressed elsewhere, but would like to close with an actual quotation to show that even the late Wordsworth could write with a controlled Pindaric sonority largely absent from his fellow romantics. I will let ll. 180–92 end this review of a gracefully-written book that no one who loves or teaches Wordsworth should fail to consult:

The heavens, whose aspect makes our minds as still
As they themselves appear to be,
Innumerable voices fill
With everlasting harmony;
The towering headlands, crowned with mist,
Their feet among the billows, know
That Ocean is a mighty harmonist;
Thy pinions, universal Air,
Ever waving to and fro,
Are delegates of harmony, and bear
Strains that support the Seasons in their round;
Stern Winter loves a dirge-like sound.