Who Murdered the Metrical Muse?

By Thomas D'Evelyn. Thomas D'Evelyn is general editor for the humanities . | The Christian Science Monitor, May 2, 1990 | Go to article overview

Who Murdered the Metrical Muse?


Thomas D'Evelyn. Thomas D'Evelyn is general editor for the humanities ., The Christian Science Monitor


MISSING MEASURES: MODERN POETRY AND THE REVOLT AGAINST METER by Timothy Steele, Fayetteville, Ark.: U. of Arkansas Press, 340 pp., $22.95

THE radical modern poets who planned and carried out the murder of the Metrical Muse were the first to miss her. Savage and bombastic in their attacks on the iambic norm of English poetry, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams eventually mourned the loss. As early as 1918, Pound admitted that free verse had become "as prolix and as verbose" as the metrical verse it had replaced; in 1942, Eliot lamented "the craving for continual novelty of diction and metric"; and William Carlos Williams confessed in 1932, "There is no workable poetic form extant among us today."

But it was too late. And since the passing of the great moderns, free verse has become a lingua franca of Western society. Poetry has ceased to matter to many more people than those who write it. But recently, certain poets have begun to write in meters again. (The abiding presence of twice-Pulitzered Richard Wilbur has been a continuing source of solace, for he is a master of English verse.)

Now, poet Timothy Steele has written a quiet, scholarly book that investigates the crime. Given the situation, he can afford to be sympathetic with the original killers, who were reacting to something in Victorian verse. The numbingly insistent metrical patterns are almost as boring as free verse has become in our time.

Since there is no real question of who committed the fell deed, Steele's investigation moves quickly into the larger question of why and how. The original killers, so brazen in self-advertisement, offered many excuses. As Steele shows in his first chapter, Eliot was self-serving in his claims of precedence. But while Dryden and Wordsworth were indeed reformers of diction, they both extended and refined the metrical heritage. Nobody before Eliot had attacked the iamb, which, with its systole-diastole pattern of emphasis, is literally the heartbeat of English.

Eliot, and others, got into further difficulty as they tried to defend poetry against prose by imitating it. Again, Steele is sympathetic: The Victorian novel was stronger artistically than Victorian verse. As it turned out, modern advances in poetic theory - such as the "variable foot" - echo the ways the ancient Greeks described their prose. …

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