Coventry Patmore (1823-1896) was a distinguished English Victorian poet and essayist, well known in his time, who fell into undeserved obscurity during the twentieth century. He published his first small volume of Poems under the influence of Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1844. After receiving a cruel review he tried to destroy the edition, but it was too late, his career was already launched, and through the book he soon made the acquaintance of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, and began to move in their circles.
In 1877 Patmore published what everyone now regards as his best work, The Unknown Eros (encouraged by his saintly daughter, Mary Christina, who became a nun), and in the following year Amelia, his own favourite among his poems, with an interesting and influential essay on English Metrical Law as a kind of preface to it. As he himself pointed out years later, the basic principles of the essay became widely accepted among critics within a decade or two. His friend the poet Alice Meynell writes of him [cited in Derek Patmore’s Life and Times of Coventry Patmore, p. 193],
Metre delighted him. He justly held that his mastery of the octosyllabic verse with its rhymes was worth the long study he had given it. The words, as has been said, were born alive; their order was to him a matter of keen pleasure. The lines and pauses of the Odes, measured chiefly by the variable breathing of thought and passion, he holds to be the work of an art all his own, even his own discovery. Let it be noted that when he talked of his poems, it was of their metres.
I want to introduce some of the points Patmore makes about poetry in his essay on metrical law, which is in part a defence of the irregular ode form used in The Unknown Eros and elsewhere. I am no expert on poetry, and I am afraid I got lost in the detailed argument about spondees and dactyls, but to the extent I can follow it, I find it makes sense of a lot of things that have always puzzled and intrigued me.
Before reading the essay on English Metrical Law, it had already begun to dawn on me that, as Patmore explains beautifully, what good prose has in common with good poetry is music, “harmonious numbers,” and specifically rhythm. (Flaubert is famously said to have worked out a rhythm for the final pages of Madame Bovary before coming up with the words.) Rhythm or metre is a mathematical structure, a structure of repetition and variation. It creates a shape in time, a dynamic flowing movement that carries the mind along with it. If prose lacks rhythm, it leaves us behind. Our attention is too easily diverted from the direction the author intends us to move.
(Something similar is true of all art, from music through to architecture and even painting, which, although seemingly static, requires us to move our attention through time in order to absorb it. A painting that can be appreciated entirely at a single glance, without leaving something further to explore, is probably not a very good painting.)
This insight into the musical nature of all speech, especially poetry, and the refusal to draw any clear lines between poetry and prose, lies close to the heart of his argument in this essay. Patmore finds support in Hegel’s writing on music and metre, to the effect that the rules of formal versification do not impede, but rather facilitate, the “free outpouring of poetic thought.” He then goes on to analyse the relationship of life to law in the various degrees and kinds of metre in poetry, “from the half-prosaic dramatic verse to the extremest elaboration of high lyric metres.”
Although he defends the rules of versification, he also argues that the best poetry does not follow the rules tamely and as if mechanically, but will convey feeling by constant little tensions with the underlying structure, little departures from the standard pattern. (The same is true in music. It must constantly surprise us in little ways; which it can only do if the form to which it basically conforms creates a framework of expectation.) Thus “there seems to be a perpetual conflict between the law of the verse and freedom of the language, and each is incessantly, though insignificantly, violated for the purpose of giving effect to the other.”
Patmore believed that music and metre “is as natural to spoken language as an even pace is natural to walking.” Just as “dancing is no more than an increase of the element of measure which already exists in walking, so verse is but an additional degree of that metre which is inherent in prose speaking.” He goes on to demonstrate as much with some choice examples of English prose, which leads him into a technical discussion of metrical accent and tone in poetry and prose, comparing Greek and English forms.
From there he returns to the theme of music in poetry – what pleases us in verse, he says, is not merely rhythm, in the sense of a measured beat, but “rhythmical melody”; not monotones like the ticking of a clock or the pulsing of a chime, but the repetition of sounds in which can be heard (or imagined) a variety of tones. The very highest form of verse therefore coincides with the highest form of human speech, namely song, where all these factors are combined with the thoughts and ideas that may be suggested in words.
This does not mean that all poetry must be spoken aloud or performed, quite the contrary. Patmore notes that “few lovers of good poetry care to hear it read or acted; for, although themselves, in all likelihood, quite unable to give such poetry a true and full vocal interpretation, their unexpressed imagination of its music is much higher than their own or any ordinary reading of it would be. Poets themselves have sometimes been very bad readers of their own verses; and it seems not unlikely that their acute sense of what such reading ought to be, discomposes and discourages them when they attempt to give their musical idea a material realization.”
A discussion of “metrical isochronism” or the necessary division of verse into intervals of equal length – the definition of metre – leads to the point that “catalexis,” when syllables seem to be missing from the regular metre, must require the substitution of appropriate pauses (which often play a more important part than those due to punctuation). On this basis, and the general law that he formulates to the effect that English verse is made up of metres bounded by alternate accents – so that the measure of verse is twice that of prose – he concludes that there is no such thing as “hypercatalexis” or superfluous syllables, but that all English verse in common cadence can be measured in dimeters, trimeters, or tetrameters; that is to say, in groups of 8, 12, or 16 syllables.
The final section of his essay distinguishes the three great classes of English poetry: alliterative, rhyming, and rhymeless or “blank” verse. Rhyme is “the great means, in modern languages, of marking essential metrical pauses.” Alliteration, or the repetition of consonants, which is the basis of Anglo-Saxon poetry, is also a way of marking the metre by “conferring emphasis on the accent.” Patmore continues in a detailed discussion where I won’t try to follow him, but his intention is first to defend and explain the important role of alliteration, cunningly used even in modern verse to enhance the impression of metre “as if by magic,” and then to defend the use of rhyme against its critics (such as Thomas Campion), before finally discussing the metres used in blank verse in the final paragraphs of the essay.
His final words of advice are to the young poet. “No poet, unless he feels himself to be above discipline, and therefore above the greatest poets of whose modes of composition we have any record, ought to think of beginning his career with blank verse.” It is much easier, according to Patmore, to begin in other, more apparently difficult metres: “The greater the frequency of the rhyme, and the more fixed the place of the grammatical pause, and the less liberty of changing the fundamental foot, the less will be the poet’s obligation to originate his own rhythms.”
In Patmore’s Preface to the third edition of Unknown Eros in 1890 he wrote what amounts, I suppose, almost to a kind of summary of his great essay on metrical law. It reads as follows:
To this edition of “The Unknown Eros” are added all the other poems I have written, in what I venture—because it has no other name—to call “catalectic verse.” Nearly all English metres owe their existence as metres to “catalexis,” or pause, for the time of one or more feet, and, as a rule, the position and amount of catalexis are fixed. But the verse in which this volume is written is catalectic par excellence, employing the pause (as it does the rhyme) with freedom only limited by the exigencies of poetic passion. From the time of Drummond of Hawthornden to our own, some of the noblest flights of English poetry have been taken on the wings of this verse; but with ordinary readers it has been more or less discredited by the far greater number of abortive efforts, on the part sometimes of considerable poets, to adapt it to purposes with which it has no expressional correspondence; or to vary it by rhythmical movements which are destructive of its character.
Some persons, unlearned in the subject of metre, have objected to this kind of verse that it is “lawless.” But it has its laws as truly as any other. In its highest order, the lyric or “ode,” it is a tetrameter, the line having the time of eight iambics. When it descends to narrative, or the expression of a less-exalted strain of thought, it becomes a trimeter, having the time of six iambics, or even a dimeter, with the time of four; and it is allowable to vary the tetrameter “ode” by the occasional introduction of passages in either or both of these inferior measures, but not, I think, by the use of any other. The license to rhyme at indefinite intervals is counterbalanced, in the writing of all poets who have employed this metre successfully, by unusual frequency in the recurrence of the same rhyme….
I do not pretend to have done more than very moderate justice to the exceeding grace and dignity and the inexhaustible expressiveness of which this kind of metre is capable; but I can say that I have never attempted to write in it in the absence of that one justification of and prime qualification for its use, namely, the impulse of some thought that “voluntary moved harmonious numbers.”
Published here by the gracious permission of the author, this post originally appeared in Beauty in Education.
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The featured image is a portrait of Coventry Patmore, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.