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  • Meter and Modernist Prose:Verse Fragments in Woolf's The Years
  • Chris Townsend (bio)

"(To break the pentameter, that was the first heave)."1 Here are two ways of reading this often-quoted, parenthetical line of Ezra Pound's. One is that it describes modernism's relation to its own recent past as a "definitive break with Victorian poetics": between traditional meters, typified by iambic pentameter, and the "free" verses of modernism and of modernity.2 In such a reading, Pound is understood as being a party to the successful breaking of the pentameter, and as a celebrator of its destruction in the name of poetry unfettered. A second reading, though, runs as follows: the (self-reflexive) modernist poets recognized that their experiments in verse, whilst marking a departure from Victorian measures, were also continuous with what Meredith Martin has shown was a great proliferation, profusion, and confusion of metrical types in the Victorian period.3 Verse was already in some sense free long before it had been openly declared so, and, if the pentameter was broken at all, it was through a long and drawn-out process of being gently bent or contorted until brittle—not through any sudden and violent heave. Hence Pound's possibly ironical parentheses in the above quotation, and that line's absence of an active subject—implying that the line is not a poet's boast, but the expression of a widespread "false dogma."4 Hence the appearance of five-beat lines elsewhere in Pound's poetry, including in that very same "Canto." Hence, too, T. S. Eliot's broader recognition that "the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the 'freest' verse"—casting traditional measures as a Polonius-like spectral presence that lingers on into modernity.5 [End Page 475]

It is just such a spirit that Adam Piette hears "echoing within modernist poems": "the Victorian strain persists," he writes, "as a ghostly voice of the thing most despised, as a father and mother memory for the twentieth-century orphan-artist."6 The spirit of regular verse may not have broken along with the shell of the pentameter; it may perhaps have survived to operate behind the more complex verse forms of modernity, detectible through the surface movements of language. Much scholarly work has been undertaken to reveal the complex and overlapping—rather than straightforward and linear—relation of Victorian meters to modern free verse that I have just sketched in miniature. Far less, though, has been said about the positioning of modernist prose in relation to this narrative. One consequence of the conscious decision of writers to move away from meter, at least in its explicit guises, was the diminishment of a previously dominant distinction between poetry and prose: that poetry occurs in verse, and prose does not. This diminishment led to, amongst other things, the emergence of the sometimes vexed, sometimes vexing category of the "prose poem" in the early twentieth century. It also led to anxieties about what poems and novels were supposed to be doing, or what they were supposed to be. Modern poets found themselves in the unprecedented position of being, in the words of Timothy Steele, "forced to compare their art, which was metrical and which appeared to be in a state of decline, with an ascendant form of fiction produced without meter"; for Steele, the "Ford-Pound maxim that 'verse must be at least as well written as prose if it is to be poetry' was converted into the idea that verse might profitably be written, as was the novel, without meter."7

There is also, though, a sense in modernist writing that this relationship could be reciprocal—that prose could be written as if it were to be poetry. Virginia Woolf frequently alludes to such a relationship in her essays: of "poetry changing easily and naturally into prose, prose into poetry."8 Scholarly discussions of any "poetic" or "lyrical" character in Woolf's prose usually understand those terms as markers of heightened diction or convoluted syntax, or else suggest that Woolf's poetic prose can "be loosely understood as the expression of an intensely subjective emotion or spirituality."9 But...


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