- Polymetrical Dissonance:Tennyson, A. Mary F. Robinson, and Classical Meter
What did A. Mary F. Robinson learn from her work as a translator of Greek, Greek meter, and from her study of classical prosody more generally? What expressive possibilities did she garner from the study of a language whose prosody bears little to no resemblance to English, and whose adoption threatens to become less boon than boondoggle? What she learns, I will argue, is the power of irregularity and dissonance, of an English prosody which diverges from English metrical tradition and yet somehow remains rhythmically forceful. But beyond the technical achievement of her metrical translations, Robinson finds in her complex new prosodic technique a means of interrogating both her aesthetic and personal relationship to the world.
Robinson's re-tuning of English meter, ordered in particular through Greek choral meters and Latin hendecasyllabics, diverges sharply from then contemporary accounts of both meter's form and its function. This essay will show how Robinson discovers the linguistic possibility of creating a form of metrical strain by importing classical schemes and bringing them into contact with traditional iambic meters; it shows, furthermore, how this strain is anticipated (sometimes nervously) by contemporary prosodists like Coventry Patmore and John Addington Symonds. The possibility of this dissonant prosodic form, adapted from classical meters, emerges in Victorian poetry most forcefully perhaps with Tennyson's experiments with quantitative verse; while Robinson follows his example, inviting the kind of metrical strain found in Tennyson's satirical and self-referential adoption of classical meters, she ultimately expands the value of this strain beyond the genre of riposte. In doing so she embraces not only a new form of dissonant meter but, perhaps most importantly, a new idea of how this dissonance can operate for the poet and her reader.
This essay owes a great deal to the work of Yopie Prins, who first noted the "deliberate intrusion on the ear" made by Robinson's re-tuned English prosody.1 Prins observes that Robinson's prosodic success lay in her "tun[ing] the musical instrument of her verse by translating ancient Greek" (p. 611) and [End Page 199] ultimately "expand[ing] the possibilities for writing English accentual verse" (p. 607). This essay attempts to supply a broader frame for this success in the context of Victorian poetry, especially Tennyson's, and contemporary theories of prosody that could place limits on both the "tunings" of prosody and the purpose of its suddenly expanding possibilities.
When Phaedra first speaks in Robinson's 1881 translation of Euripides' Hippolytus, her voice proceeds in a triple rhythm. She joins in this moment several other figures from Robinson's poetry that appear fixed in their triple feet. There is Constance, the lovesick woman of "A Rime of True Lovers," from Robinson's Handful of Honeysuckle (1878); she initially speaks only by repeating "leave me not, leave me not."2 Then there is the speaker of "Address to the Nightingale," who apostrophizes "Oh, my nightingale, nightingale, trill out thy anapest!"3 For each impassioned figure—Constance, Phaedra, and Robinson's lyric persona—the anapestic rhythm seems to formally represent their female longing.
Such a coordination of meter, passion, and identity seems one outcome of the late Victorian profusion of meters which George Saintsbury described as "polymetric" for its "variety and idiosyncrasy of meters."4 The "multiplicity of means and methods with which this multitude of meters has been handled" constitutes a new field in Victorian poetics, and is the impetus behind this special issue. On the one hand, Robinson's local use of meter to indicate passion seems limiting and even ideologically suspect; while the playful embedding of alternate meters might confirm Robinson's sensitivity toward polymetrical play of the sort found in Tennyson's Maud, it also has the unsettling effect of putting female desire into a prosodic mold. It threatens to take a figurative and arbitrary association between cadence and passion and make it seem a concrete definition of female desire, if not female poetic production as a whole. This is the Will Ladislaw theory of meter—when in Middlemarch (1874) Dorothea doubts that she could ever "produce a poem," Ladislaw responds...