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  • Materializing Meter:Physiology, Psychology, Prosody
  • Jason David Hall (bio)

A discernible strain of idealism runs through mid-Victorian prosody. In the 1850s, for instance, both E. S. Dallas and Coventry Patmore, whose treatises on versification would go on to influence later generations of metrists, emphasized the "imaginary" nature of the metrical modulus and its difference from, as well as its potential for interaction with, the "real" (e.g., voiced) rhythms of language.1 In his 1852 book Poetics, Dallas conceives of meter as a mental phenomenon: it is "intended to produce pleasure in the reader's mind."2 Patmore's 1857 "Essay on English Metrical Law," first published in the North British Review, appears to take an even more idealist position, setting out a decorporealized prosody founded upon an "imaginary" ictus. This "all-important time-beater" of verse, claims Patmore, "has no material and external existence at all, but has its place in the mind, which craves measure in everything, and, wherever the idea of a measure is uncontradicted, delights in marking it with an imaginary 'beat.'"3 Such "mentalizing of meter," as Adela Pinch has termed it, strives to divorce prosody from the body and abstract it. Meter becomes less a matter of "what you actually hear or say aloud" and more of "an abstract idea in your mind against which you measure how the line would actually be spoken if it were spoken."4 What material existence meter has, argues Yopie Prins, readers encounter primarily in the act of "marking" verse on the page, as in the exercise of scanning.5

Pointing to these idealist assertions about meter, scholars such as Dennis Taylor and more recently Pinch have plotted a move toward abstraction—what Taylor has labeled "a growing consensus about the abstract nature of metrical form"—in prosody of the second half of the nineteenth century.6 What these readings underestimate, however, is the materialist imperative that underlies not only the apparently idealist theories of Dallas and Patmore themselves but also late-nineteenth-century metrics more generally. As Kirstie Blair and Jason R. Rudy have shown in two recent books, the materialities of human physiology and telegraphic communication technologies form an important context for mid-century thinking about the "imaginary" nature of meter.7 Patmore's "insistence on meter's immateriality," as Rudy demonstrates in Electric Meters [End Page 179] (2009), is in part a response to the Spasmodic poets' "celebration of the 'physical principles of sound'" (p. 115). Dallas's meter, though nominally mental, is nonetheless construed (by Dallas himself) as a vigorous "roundelay" brought about by "centrifugal" and "centripetal" forces (p. 171). While they are in the first place confined to one's head, the metrical acrobatics he theorizes may very well go on to inspire movement in the body: "if [the reader's] thoughts are very livelily engaged, he will beat time with his fingers or with his feet" (Dallas, p. 159). Fundamentally "related to physical experience" (such as the pulse), Dallas's meter, as Blair outlines in Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart (2006), "is connected to body as well as mind" (p. 85).

The complex interplay between metrical abstraction and embodiment can, in fact, be seen as central to much verse theory of the last decades of the nineteenth century, and it is this dialectic—between the "imaginary" metrical modulus and the material properties of corporeal, voiced rhythms—that will be my focus here. Around the time that Dallas and Patmore were making their important contributions to Victorian metrics, developments were underway in the comparatively new sciences of physiology and psychology that would impact directly on late-Victorian and turn-of-the-century prosody. The turn toward experimental methodologies, in conjunction with pioneering work on measurement and recording technologies, played a significant role in the elaboration of an empirical "metrics" that placed considerable emphasis on the "vocal mechanism and the body"; it is thus part of the pervasive "physiological poetics" that Rudy and Blair have begun to historicize. This particular mode of prosodic enquiry developed rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century—in laboratories of all places. Here, then, where empirical procedures were underwriting developments in acoustics, phonetics...


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