- The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860–1930 by Meredith Martin
In this smart, engaging book, Meredith Martin tames the many-headed monster of prosody that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century and marched into the early decades of the following one. Her approach is forthright and sensible (in every sense of the word). As she nicely points out in her chapter on the history of the discipline, the “dream of a stable system” for English prosody shimmered brightly but precariously, apt either to produce something like Smollet’s convocation of fire-and-smoke-breathing chimeras or to crumble into ashes (41). To those who doubt that prosody could be so incendiary, Martin is eager to demonstrate just how much is at stake, how much might rise and fall at meter’s command in the decades she addresses. Equipped with meticulous research, she produces a fresh and authoritative view of English literary culture in the still dimly appreciated period that led up to the First World War and shaped its aftermath. If, by the end of the book, the tick of meter has become a little [End Page 151] distracting, it is nonetheless valuable for its efforts to “provid[e] a more nuanced picture of the formal contingencies of the poem at a specific moment” (204).
Martin’s striking contention is that meter—the feet and beat of a poem—means more than simply the up and down of verse. She absorbingly demonstrates that “[b]y stabilizing, attempting to define, or grappling with their use of meter, poets and prosodists were often attempting to define, transform, or intervene in an aspect of national culture” (4). She presses this contention to refute the rather crude but tenacious view that meter served as a “stable, constraining, and limiting” curb on late-Victorian and Georgian poetics, a view that clearly serves only to valorize the modernist project emblematized by Ezra Pound, a project that aimed at “break[ing] the pentameter” as an act of rebellion (4). Martin asserts that this narrative elides the savage and contested grounds of meter in the preceding period, and she sets about uncovering the ideological heft of meter (and pentameter) that preceded the 1920s. A small quibble: Martin’s project does not overturn Pound’s resonant phrase, and in fact the latter could act as shorthand for the former. Pound’s heave was, after all, an ideological rather than a technical act. In order to frame the originality of her intervention, Martin needs to assert that literary study “accept[s] the naturalness of the iamb as a fact” (10), but Pound’s wry shove disputes her assertion, as do numerous, later commentators on prosody, commentators like Paul Fussell and Derek Attridge. Prosody has always been a game where the cultural and ideological stakes are known to be high. Nevertheless, Martin’s crisp sense of just where and how those stakes are placed is welcome and impressive. With this conviction, Martin steps into the thorny field of so-called “new formalism,” the academic pursuit of the cultures and contexts that shape the otherwise unworldly phenomena of crystalline forms in literature. I very much liked her direct approach to this concern. With a strong and sensitive appreciation that a poem’s meter—its structuring principle, its skeleton—works to make meaning, Martin assiduously hunts down the spaces of formative meaning-making; she seeks to describe the ideological and cultural constitutions of the English classroom as they shifted with the nineteenth-century reform bills and acts of education as well as material developments in textbook production, and she touches on how English literature was established as an academic discipline.
This latter section, which traces the distinctiveness of British and English national culture, is less sure-footed (pun noted). Writing from Glasgow, I was disappointed to see that the establishment of literary study in the ancient Scottish universities is overlooked in favor of a later, Oxbridge-centric picture (45). Indeed...