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  • Patmore, Hopkins, and the Problem of the English Metrical Law
  • Joshua King

Hopkins Quarterly, 38.1-2, published by agreement of the editors in conjunction with Victorian Poetry, 49, no.2, as sharing the common theme, “Prosody.”

"I believe that I am now, for the first time, stating" the "great general law" of meter, Coventry Patmore proclaims in his influential "Essay on English Metrical Law," first published in 1857.1 "My Dear Mr. Patmore," Gerard Manley Hopkins writes in 1887, "I believe that I can now set metre and music both of them on a scientific footing which will be final like the law of gravitation."2 Patmore and Hopkins adopt the excited tone that a writer today would use after fully unraveling the human genome. In the three decades between Patmore's "Essay" and Hopkins's letter, many Victorians joined in the hunt for the English metrical law: books and articles published on meter twice doubled in number, first in the 1860s, then again in the 1880s.3 Called the "New Prosody" by later scholars and early contributors,4 this take-off in prosody criticism was characterized by a search after the "primary laws of metrical expression" ("Essay," 6). Yet in their search, Hopkins and Patmore confronted the paradox that Yopie Prins has shown other Victorians sensed: meter was actually an "abstraction, a graphic pattern" on the page, never realized in a human voice.5 Building off Prins's insight, I argue that both men faced the ghostliness of metrical law precisely because they did not wish meter to transmit their personal voices and feelings. Both believed that poets' and readers' adherence to metrical law corrected subjectivism, activating transpersonal emotional structures in speech that confirmed the divine design of reality. The dilemma each encountered was not failure to revive his own voice in a reader's, but the possibility that his metrical law was like the canal system Percival Lowell would soon "discover" on Mars—a self-delusion.

Three emphases, potentially contradictory, emerged in the New Prosody's quest for metrical laws. First was the widespread conviction that rhythmic variations upon a metrical pattern convey fundamental emotions from poets to readers. George Brimley [End Page 31] exemplifies this perspective in an 1855 article: "the various forms of metre … are all originally expressive … of emotion," so that modulations of rhythm provide "a medium through which the same heat of emotion" in the poet "is kindled in the reader."6 Patmore, who was probably influenced by Brimley, makes a similar statement in the "Essay," claiming that every "change" to an expected metrical pattern "is as real a mode of expressing emotion as words themselves are of expressing thoughts" ("Essay," 38).7 Second was the belief of many new prosodists that "[v]erse … is only verse on the condition of right reading" ("Essay," 11). The laws of meter, which made possible the rhythmic communication of emotions, were discernible only in a skilled vocal performance. Third, many late-Victorian prosodists followed E.S. Dallas and Patmore in describing metrical beats and rhythmic patterns as mental projections.8 Patmore's formulation of the idea was most influential: the beat of verse "for the most part, has no material and external existence at all, but has its place in the mind, which craves measure in everything" ("Essay," 15).9

Patmore and Hopkins diverged widely in their attempts to reconcile the trifold emphasis of New Prosody on innately affective rhythm, exacting vocal performance, and mentally projected meter. Yet Patmore agreed with Hopkins "that where there is much freedom of motion the laws which limit it should be strict" (LIII, 335). In his 1857 "Essay," Patmore claims that poets must strictly follow metrical laws, only violating these restraints for an easily discerned "emotional motive" ("Essay," 22). By the time Patmore wrote the "Essay," he had already promoted this view of lawful metrical liberty in print. Only when constrained by "the shackles" of meter, Patmore asserts in an 1850 discussion of Tennyson's In Memoriam in the North British Review, will the rhythms of emotional expression achieve their greatest intensity, purity, and communicability.10

In this review of In Memoriam, Patmore indicates what he thinks is at stake...


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