- The Poet Stung:Verse Drama, Modern Rhythm, and the Politics of W. H. Auden's Metrical Stammer
Some beasts are dumbsome voluble, but onlyone species can stammer.—W. H. Auden, "Shorts" (Collected Poems, 884)
Verse drama's promise of collective oral performance offered one response to what W. H. Auden called "[t]he problem for the modern poet, as for every one else to-day, [of] how to find or form a genuine community, in which each has his valued place and can feel at home."1 He felt that dramatic practice could interrupt his own temptation to join "[o]ther poets [who] turned—horrified by the complexity and ugliness of their society … to contemplation of their own feelings and to writing of lyric."2 In the early 1930s, Auden still envisioned a socially unified and unifying function for poetry and poetic drama in particular. In The Poet's Tongue, a 1935 anthology for school use, Auden and his coeditor John Garrett insist that audiences feel poetry not as museum pieces or "cultural tradition" but as a "spontaneous living product" and a basic, rhythmic "human activity."3 Avoiding the usual "tension" between the rhythms of natural language and those "due to the poet's personal values," the metrical chorus offered a semblance of rhythmically cohering collective identity, an unusual model of group recitation (Auden and Garrett, The Poet's Tongue, v).4 In a 1935 manifesto Auden imagines how "[d]rama began as the act of a whole community" and as an "art of the body" linked to dance and physical movement.5 Like many of his contemporaries, [End Page 511] Auden hoped for a new social "whole" built around collective rhythmic experience, and he sought that rhythm in the shared acoustical space of the theater.
The 1935 manifesto builds on the enchanting vision of pre-industrial aesthetics in his earliest writings on meter (here, the literary form of rhythm):
Excitement seems naturally to excite movement. … the more in sympathy with each other each member of the group is, the more regular the movements; they keep time with each other; every foot comes down together.
Again, imagine a circle of people dancing; the circle revolves and comes back to its starting place. …
When the words move in this kind of repeated pattern, we call the effect of the movement in our minds the metre.6
His discussion reflects, to some extent, the redemptive idea of what Haun Saussy calls an "empowered oral tradition."7 This "historiographical back-formation" invents a kind of chorus, "replacing the traditional figure of the author with an anonymous horde or a völkisch vision" (Saussy, Ethnography of Rhythm, 13, 14). Auden echoes turn-of-the-century ballad theorist Francis Barton Gummere's influential account of the "communal human sympathy of rhythm, which binds one, as in that old consent of voice and step."8 For Gummere, this "saves [the] poet" from "mere raving" (The Beginnings of Poetry, 60). Yet uncertainty about the value and presence of rhythm is already evident. Auden's theory vacillates between the merely analogical—a group of words, not people, dances in meter—and the enticingly anthropological. I will argue that Auden recognized the need to disrupt the usual English "step" to save both poet and audience from new forms of "old consent" within the emergent politics of 1930s fascism.
The rise of European and English fascism made it possible, and for some terrifying, to imagine the large-scale dissemination of rhythm (e.g., the appeal of Carl Orff's rhythm-focused music education to the Hitler Youth) as well as its participation in mass spectacle.9 That imaginary is unsurprising in Ezra Pound, but his political vision of "absolute rhythm" is not isolated.10 For Auden's friend C. Day-Lewis, poetry's political relevance relied on the power of rhythm to "penetrate into strata of man's mind that nothing else can touch."11 It is not that rhythm or its metrical forms have any intrinsic totalitarian value, but rather that in this specific historical context, and especially under the auspices of verse drama and theatrical performance, rhythm's longstanding functions of entrainment and...