The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860-1930

The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860-1930

The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860-1930

The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860-1930


Why do we often teach English poetic meter by the Greek terms iamb and trochee? How is our understanding of English meter influenced by the history of England's sense of itself in the nineteenth century? Not an old-fashioned approach to poetry, but a dynamic, contested, and inherently nontraditional field, "English meter" concerned issues of personal and national identity, class, education, patriotism, militarism, and the development of English literature as a discipline. The Rise and Fall of Meter tells the unknown story of English meter from the late eighteenth century until just after World War I. Uncovering a vast and unexplored archive in the history of poetics, Meredith Martin shows that the history of prosody is tied to the ways Victorian England argued about its national identity. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Coventry Patmore, and Robert Bridges used meter to negotiate their relationship to England and the English language; George Saintsbury, Matthew Arnold, and Henry Newbolt worried about the rise of one metrical model among multiple competitors. The pressure to conform to a stable model, however, produced reactionary misunderstandings of English meter and the culture it stood for. This unstable relationship to poetic form influenced the prose and poems of Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and Alice Meynell. A significant intervention in literary history, this book argues that our contemporary understanding of the rise of modernist poetic form was crucially bound to narratives of English national culture.


When he walked over the meadows
He was stifled and soothed by his own rhythm.

—T. S. Eliot, from “The Death of Saint Narcissus,”
The Waste Land (facsimile)

It is certain now (thanks in part to Mr. Saintsbury), as it has long been obvious, that
the foot is immensely important in English prosody.

—Rupert Brooke, reviewing Ezra Pound’s Personae in The Cambridge Review

Modern Instability

I don’t believe in iambs. I am keenly interested in why people do or do not believe in iambs and why the proper way of measuring a verse is such a defensive issue for critics. Why have critics still not agreed upon one system of prosody for English verse? Why do most contemporary poets think that metrical poems are conservative or “old-fashioned”? Why is such a stigma attached to the word “meter”? and how, and why, has this suppressed narrative of metrical disagreement been crucial for both the formation and advance of English literary study in the twentieth century?

The Rise and Fall of Meter questions our assumption that “English meter” was and is a stable category. Metrical discourse flourished in the nineteenth century but it intensified toward the 1880s and into the early twentieth century. Why was there such an interest in defining English meter at the turn of the century? What was so important about establishing the history and meaning of English meter at that particular historical moment? Usually read as a transition between the Victorian and Modernist eras, the period between 1860 and 1930 is a crucial epoch in its own right, a moment in which the New English Dictionary and state-funded education defined and promoted ideas of Englishness through the use and measure of English language and literature. Within a changing religious and political climate, poets and prosodists turned to meter as an organizing principle—a possible means to order and stabilize . . .

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