- The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860–1930 by Meredith Martin
Few books promise to rewrite literary history, but The Rise and Fall of Meter is one of them. Boldly and brilliantly, Martin argues that the familiar story of how Modernism developed out of Victorianism—the story typically rehearsed in our literary-historical surveys—is misleading. Ezra Pound boasted that he and his peers broke the pentameter and, with it, the stultifying stranglehold of Victorian prosodic propriety. Martin turns this tale on its head: she contends that Modernist poetics do not so much indicate reactionism and rupture as they do continuity. For the prosodic theory and practice of the nineteenth century is not, on inspection, one of established order after all. It is actually one of restless and radical experimentation. And even into the Modernist moment, it is not only the self-styled avant-garde who seek to challenge the consolidated concept of traditional metres: that challenge comes also from poets who had been expanding the concept of English metre throughout the nineteenth century. In Martin’s account, even that most formally daring and difficult of late nineteenth-century poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, is not (as I.A. Richards would describe him) a “proto-Modernist” (49): he is a prototypical Victorian. His verse is noteworthy not because it was exceptional in its time but rather because it is exemplary of it. (Martin is especially original here on Hopkins’s use of diacritical marks in his poems.) [End Page 221]
Joseph Phelan’s The Music of Verse: Metrical Experiment in Nineteenth-Century Poetry (2012) was published too late for Martin to take account of it, but he argues in the same revisionist direction—though his book complements rather than anticipates Martin’s thesis. Phelan’s focus is on the innovative practices of nineteenth-century prosody. He aims to correct the erroneous view of nineteenth-century poetry as a steady progress from the conservative bonds of formal strictness towards the imaginative liberty of the “New Prosody” and “free verse.” But while Phelan is thus concerned with metre as an artisanal measure of English versification, Martin is interested in reflecting on what—variously and contrarily, explicitly and implicitly—“English” and “metre” might have meant at the time. Looking to Robert Bridges in particular as an instructive and influential figure in the “prosody wars” of the period, The Rise and Fall of Meter investigates “metre” as a dynamic concept responding to the diverse and competing pressures of English history and national identity. These include “class mobility, imperialism, masculinity, labour, education, the role of classical and philological institutions, freedom, patriotism, national identification, and high versus low art” (4).
To notice that The Rise and Fall of Meter is less focused on prosodic practice than it is on the discussions of prosody is not, however, to imply that the book is trained on politics and culture to the exclusion of aesthetics. On the contrary, following Isobel Armstrong’s seminal study Victorian Poetry Now (1993), as well as a raft of more recent works on historical prosody (notably, by Wolfson and Prins), Martin is indeed consciously preoccupied with exploring the extent to which these categories interpenetrate.
Martin quite sensibly shies from attempting to engage with all possible ramifying significances of the period’s prosodic discourses (although the subtitle of The Rise and Fall of Meter suggests that its purview extends from 1860 to 1930, the argument in fact reaches as far back as the late eighteenth century). But the coverage Martin does offer—presented as three interconnected and concurrent narratives—is extensive and subtle. The first of these narratives concerns the idea that the study of English literature, and of English prosody in particular, might act as a civilizing force: at home, for the newly enfranchised English masses, and abroad, within the empire. The second narrative traces the way that concepts of “native” or “foreign” and “inside” or “outside” are written and rewritten into the various attempts to establish...