The Scandal of Form

Poetry Nation Review

June 1986

Donald Wesling, The New Poetries: Poetic Form since Coleridge and Wordsworth (New York: Associated University Presses, 1986)

This is ‘the second of three volumes on prosody’. When the first appeared, The Chances of Rhyme, it was attacked in this magazine by Nicolas Tredell (PNR 24). To equate `rhyme’ with device’, then to define the poetic modern in terms of the denial of rhyme: that seemed bad enough. But to suggest that it all suddenly happened in or about 1795, Tredell found absurdly reductive. Elsewhere, C. H. Sisson questioned the very enterprise of defining modernity (TLS, 12 September 1980). Every poet worth the name at every age had sought to liberate language from ‘the shadow of what has become too familiar’, without abandoning the responsibility to be at some level intelligible. Further objecting to Wesling’s virtual identification of modernity with the invention of `sincer­ity’, Sisson felt prompted to return to essentials, and offered his own memorable definition of poetry: ‘a receptacle for sense which cannot be put into prose, and which burdens the speaker until it is said’. In this light, he reminded the author of The Chances of Rhyme that one could not talk glibly of poets looking around for an alternative ‘device’ with which to unload the meaning: form and sense were always inseparable.

Professor Wesling (University of California) has noted these rebukes, but does not want to dwell on them. True, his introduction to The New Poetries incorporates part of the article in which he replied to Tredell and Sisson, whom he believed to represent a critical conspiracy against him (PNR 40); but all personal controversy, indeed all names, have been removed. Here he settles down, with exemplary disinterestedness, to articulate the ‘materialist poetics’ which that article only announced.

His avowed concern now is more with the plurality of techniques which emerged from Romanticism — hence the ‘Poetries’ of his title — than with one dramatic moment of prosodic rupture. And far from ignoring the tension between restraint and novelty, the ‘New’ for Wesling turns out to revolve around an old problem, here summarized as ‘the scandal of form’. None of the poets, Romantic and post-Romantic, whom he commends would deny that ‘poetic form is what constitutes the very literariness of literature’. Indeed, if ‘scandal’ means ‘a grossly discreditable circumstance, a cause of stumbling, a snare’, he only uses the word provocatively as ‘a convention of mock-horror and hyperbole’. There is no final escape of measure and rule. That said, the Romantics did liberate language, did elude the scandal, to an extent hitherto unknown.

Thus, though Wesling wants to emphasize the diversity of modern poetry, his dating of its inception is the same. By 1795 ‘shape as superinduced’ was, in Coleridge’s termin­ology, giving way to ‘form as proceeding’. The restraint of rhyme began to be questioned in favour of a poetry of utterance. The conventional reflection of a given world by a politely subordinate individual was outmoded: what mat­tered now was the self-expressive creation of alternative worlds. Where Johnson had defined (and reduced?) prosody as an aspect of grammar, grammar itself became a medium manipulated by the poet for higher, visionary ends. Innovation, instead of Augustan ‘correction’, meant ‘the wish to be or seem unprecedented’. In short, sincerity replaced style as the priority.

So major was the advance that Wesling sees everything since as its logical progression. What we call ‘modernism’ is rather a perpetuation and extension of the initial impulses of 1795. Here he ignores — wisely, since it would muddle his argument — the fact that most writers associated with the later movement denied the premises of Romanticism (while incidentally benefiting from its formal innovations, of course). If we are to reduce literary history to formulae, and assert that Wordsworth and Coleridge sought to subordinate style to sincerity, then we might just as easily reply that Hulme and Eliot sought to do the exact opposite.

Perhaps part of the problem — in which we may include the hostilities between Wesling, Tredell and Sisson — is the difference between the aesthetic preoccupations of two countries. John Bayley has recently argued that in America, unlike England, Romanticism never became ‘socially and poetically correct, the done thing’. There being no Parnassian or Tennysonian succession, the original impetus never seemed to settle, or congeal, into a poetic diction. ‘In America Romanticism was a grand spiritual and metaphy­sical bequest, a gift generously received and returned threefold by Emerson, by Whitman, by Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane. In England Romanticism became the letter that kills; in America it was always the spirit that giveth life’ (Poetry CXLVI, 4). Apart from serving as a reminder of why Eliot was so keen to get away to England, it does explain the obsession of American critics such as Wesling with Romanticism: why they keep coming back to it, testing its powers of regeneration. They do not want to believe that it might only have been an awkward and dim prefigurement of elitist modernism. They want to believe that it facilitated, at a stroke, a genuine meritocracy of expression. English critics (Frank Kermode, Bayley him­self), though they have long since acknowledged the various Romantic continuities, are far from associating a momen­tary revolt against style with an extant revolutionary impetus. They are not to be beguiled.

The thesis Donald Wesling finds particularly beguiling is that the spirit of 1795 has informed three main events in prosody. These are sprung rhythm, prose poetry and free verse.

As for the last of these, it would be impertinent to challenge the account offered in The New Poetries. Wesling convincingly demonstrates that the shift of emphasis from rhyme and metre to the phrase, the line, the unit of meaning, had been rehearsed by the Romantics, whatever else they were about.

Prose poetry is a less accessible category, which might have benefited from a more thoroughly historical — more ‘materialist’, one might say — treatment. Instead we get coffee-table linguistics: ‘It seems pretty obvious that ordin­ary language is prose but that prose (literary) is not ordinary language; that is, the proposition is not reversible. So we have first ordinary language, then literary language, then literary language can be either in prose or verse — two different relations to ordinary language, and to each other.’ Despite the attempt at cheery colloquialism, this is not immediately enlightening. Nor are we aided to under­standing by being provided with an indigestible assortment of quotations from figures as variously placed as Stephane Mallarme, Gertrude Stein and Geoffrey Hill – all under the optimistically inclusive title of ‘prose poetry’. Hill’s Mercian Hymns is slighted most by such a conjuncture, since one of its most striking achievements is to repudiate that symbolist or late-Romantic word-headiness which Mallarme fostered and which Stein took to excess.

But it is sprung rhythm on which Wesling’s thesis chiefly rests. For he cannot allow that Romanticism really did congeal, not even in England. So there has to be someone who kept the spirit alive beneath the deadly literary surface represented by Tennyson. That someone is of course Gerard Manley Hopkins. But the solution turns out to be another problem; and the critic knows it. ‘Within the period from 1855 to 1910,’ he too desperately affirms, ‘there is a special relation of poetic practice to theory, which may be described as an array of competing possibilities.’ In insisting that Parnassianism cannot be the whole story, he invests far too much in one technically subversive figure; and the investment will not sustain the thesis. He describes Hopkins initially as ‘the proprietor of a new type of form as proceeding’. But after an (admittedly skilful and persuasive) analysis of ‘Carrion Comfort’, he tries to make a most inconvenient projection sound like an irrefutable case: ‘To my mind Hopkins’s major follower in sprung rhythm is John Berry­man, who also combines heavy lurching stress with distortion of normal grammar and syntax.’ From Hopkins to Berryman is in itself quite a heavy, lurching stress in terms of literary history.

Thus ‘nonmetrical prosody’ turns out to be a limiting principle. For English readers these limits will perhaps appear most distinctly when they see how an obsession with Hopkins blinds Wesling to the significance of Thomas Hardy. More or less excluded from the argument, he is only mentioned briefly, and then merely used to illustrate the quandary of all late-nineteenth century versification apart from Hopkins’: ‘Intensely dissatisfied with the received system, Thomas Hardy could not see his way to breaking the molds and had to content himself with writing virtually every poem in homemade metrical and stanzaic forms.’ Wesling, though familiar enough with Donald Davie on Pound, could do worse than to reread Thomas Hardy and British Poetry; might ponder too Pound’s own recognition of the advances made in `clarity’ by a revered ex-novelist. He might thereby be better equipped to avoid such an inappropriately patronizing tone.

The New Poetries, then, though interesting on Roman­ticism and useful on free verse, is a book whose beginning is largely betrayed by its middle and its end. Having encourag­ingly proclaimed a ‘Plurality of Styles in an Avant-Garde Era’, Wesling proceeds to describe a solemnly exclusive two-century subversion of ‘the scandal of form’.

Laurence Coupe