The force of the poem builds up by the wave patterns that are occasioned by the movement of the breath, and we call lines. Breath however is not the whole of it. When William Carlos Williams in a late poem talked of "the ear and the eye lieing down together in the same bed" he was putting his finger on a basic process that applies to all poetry written in a culture that has gone beyond the purely oral. This applies equally to the way we read a Keats ode, and a twentieth century free verse poem, such as Williams himself might have written.
So far so good, but what is a line? Historically of course it is a finite unit composed of a group of feet. However, the actual definition of foot is very various. The Romans and Greeks used a highly sophisticated patterning by long and short syllables i.e. time duration. This was a result in all probability of either Latin and Greek lacking the heavy accentuation that characterises English for most of its history, or (possibly) to fit in with various musical systems we now know little about. Thus, to take a very simple example of what quantity sounded like, here are two lines from Hesiod, written in the six foot line that the ancients called the Hexameter
Take notice when you hear the voice of the crane Phracksesthai d', eut'an geranou phonen epakouseis highup from the clouds making its annual shriek upsothen ek nepheon eniausia kekleeguees.The Roman/Greek system however only used one form of long, and one of short syllable. One idea which is hard to cope with at first is that a syllable is short or long, as much by what comes after it, as by its own time value. Long vowels are always long. Thus "I cry" is two long syllables, and "a book" with no words after is two short syllables. However, if "book" is followed by another consonant it becomes long e.g. in "a book makes" "book" is long, but in "a book is" it is short. In simple terms two consonants before a vowel, whether in the same word or not create a long.
The value of this to a modern poet is not in recreating the classic meters, which rarely seem to work in English, but as a useful guide to the patterning of a free verse line. Often to scan a line into its syllable lengths is I find very helpful, in some way it seems to clarify what is wrong. This is especially so, given the tendency of modern English to become much more like American, and much flatter in tone, i.e. with much less accentuation of syllables. Try it, but remember a modern English line is not necessarily a conjunction of classical feet: English has its own patterns. Short, short, long, seems common to my ear in modern speech, but there are others.
After the classical scanning by quantity, which arguably never had great relevance to English poetry before free verse, the story is dominated by two systems with quite seperate histories.
Firstly, there is scansion by syllable groups, or lifts, allied to alliteration. This is called the Alliterative line, and has four groups to a line . It has a long history, from before Beowulf in the Dark Ages, through to the Fifteenth century. One of its greatest periods was just before its close with the Gawaine Poet and Langland in the last part of the Fourteenth Century. Thus from Gawaine and the Green Knight
After,/ the sesoun/ of somer/ wyth the soft wyndes Quen Zeferus/ syfles himself/ on sedes/ and erbesor from Piers Ploughman
In a somer/ seson,/ whan softe/ was the sonne, I shoop me/ into shroudes/ as I/ a sheep wereOne interesting result of this system is that (while there are exceptions) most syllable groups are two or three syllables, occasionally four.
This we will return to because it seems to me that this sort of English in many ways is closer to ours than anything in between.
This was however gradually replaced from Chaucer on with a system, derived from France, of lines of fixed number of syllables, divided into usually two syllable feet, each foot having one stress. The positioning of stresses is much more regular in some generations than others. One has only to go from Marlowe to Webster to realize this, and Milton is much more irregular than Pope or Dryden. Nevertheless I think it is fair to say that English poetry from Chaucer and Gower on is dominated by ten and eight syllable measures, using two syllable feet i.e. the octosyllabic and decasyllabic rhymed couplets, and the ten syllables of blank verse.
Thus (although remarkably different in sound) Dryden's lines from Macflecnoe
All humane things are subject to decay And, when Fate summons, Monarchs must obeyare in the same form (two lines of ten syllables, with five feet and five stresses, connected by a rhyme) as Chaucer's Prologue
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote \ The droghte of March hath perced to the rooteSimilarly Shakespeare's blank verse in The Merchant of Venice
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony.is the same measure as his own Hotspur in Henry IV part 1
But, I remember, when the fight was done, When I was dry with rage and extreme toil, Breathless and faint, leaning upon my sword, Came there a certain lord, neat, trimly dressed, Fresh as a bridegroom; and his chin newly reaped Showed like a stubble-land at harvest home.or indeed the opening of Milton's Paradise Lost
Of Man's First Disobedience,and the Fruit Of that Forbidden tree, whose mortal tast Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, Sing Heav'nly Muse ...Which could not sound more different from Frost's Witch of Coos, but is still the same measure of ten syllables, five feet and five stresses.
I stayed the night for shelter at a farm Behind the mountain, with a mother and son, Two old believers. They did all the talking.Lyric measures were of course more complex, but as a general rule, because of the dominance of the two syllable foot, they compose measures of six, eight, ten, and occasionally twelve or four syllables. The odd poem of course has lines of three or five or seven.
Thus to take an example with lines which are all of even numbers of syllables the opening of Herricks to Daffadills
Faire Daffadills, we weep to see 8 You haste away so soone: 6 As yet the early-rising Sun 8 Has not attained his Noone. 6 Stay, stay, 2 Untill the hasting day 6 Has run 2 But to the Even-song; 6 And, having prayed together, we 8 Will goe with you along. 6This is a far from dead procedure as it may well have influenced Dylan Thomas in Fern Hill and elsewhere, when he seems to have irregular stanzas, that repeat a set of lines, each with a given number of syllables.
This is a system of chant, that makes lines fall and rise with extraordinary inevitability, and as such works marvellously well aloud. Witness Absolom and Achitophel, Ode to the West Wind, Paradise Lost. etc, etc. Nevertheless it came to seem monotonous to the Nineteenth century, who seem instinctively (rather than from any scholarly concept) to have reached away from the two syllable foot into something more irregular, and more like the medieval. Thus Browning's once popular anthology piece
Your ghost/ will walk/ you lover/ of trees (If our loves/ remain) In an/ English lane By a/ cornfield side/ aflutter/ with poppies. Hark,/ those two/ in the /hazel coppice - A boy/and a girl/, if the good fates /pleaseNow one could get into all sorts of arguments about correct stresses, but this simple scansion by foot does show Browning (while in some ways sounding quite like the late eighteenth century) breaking away from two syllable feet into irregular measures of one to four syllables. Browning probably got the idea from Chatterton's experiment with medievalise, or from the recently revived ballads, but at least he was breaking the mould.
Yet the Nineteenth century revolution was dominated by Hopkins and Whitman. Hopkins, for all his irregularities, was using a highly coherent system. If you will bother to read his preface he was thinking of a sprung foot of usually one to four syllables with one primary stress i.e. syllable pronounced harder than the rest. It does not seem to be true that his his system ignored feet, and worked by stress count only.
Thus (from Harry Ploughman)
\ \ \ \ \ \ Hard/ as hurdle/ arms/, with a broth/ of gold/ish flueTo count by stresses only is an idea that seems to come not from Hopkins, but from the practice (often very interesting) of many late Nineteeth and early Twentieth century English poets, following on from what for example Browning was doing in the above extract. The popular music of Drake's Drum for example seems to alternate lines of six and five stresses.
\ \ \ \ \ \ Drake he's in his hammock an' a thousand mile away, \ \ \ \ \ (Capten, art thou sleepin' there below?, \ \ \ \ \ \ Slung atween the round shot in Nombre Dios Bay, \ \ \ \ \ An' dreamin' arl the time o' Plymouth Hoe.Here there is little evidence of any thought about feet in Browning or Hopkins' sense. Yet Hopkins was important.
This to my mind is because he got into what happens when lines are composed of irregular syllable groups, and the traditional rhythms of the two syllable foot, are ignored.
Whitman though broke through into the possibilities of irregular feet, without regarding stresses, driven by the breath of the chanter. Possibly he was led in this direction by the natural flatness of American. His practice is interesting for two reasons today. 1. It is breath driven 2. His lines are highly irregular in the numbers of syllables in the feet, but often seem to have something like six feet e.g.
When/ lilacs/ last/ in the/ dooryard/bloomed And the/ great star/ early drooped/ in the/ western sky/ in the night I mourned/ and yet/ shall mourn/ with ever/ returning/ spring.This leads back to the classical hexameter that we glimpsed in Hesiod. Though the method is different in everything except the fact of six feet to a line, the governing principle of the foot in Whitman and Hesiod seems similar. In both poets' system each foot takes a similar time to speak.
In the Twentieth century many flowers have bloomed prosodically speaking in England and America. Nevertheless the arguments we have just glimpsed emerging in the Nineteenth century have in many ways remained central to Free Verse. There have been two opposite tendencies, which are nevertheless closely connected.
1. To use lines of syllable groups e.g. the Wasteland's brilliant opening in four foot lines
April/ is the / cruellest month/, breeding Lilacs/ out of/ the dead land,/ mixing Memory/ and/ desire,/stirring Dull/ roots/ with spring/rain.This with all the variations, not least the absense of formal alliteration, is not that far from Langland and Gawaine. Yet it is more various than them, not least because Eliot's system works by periodic extension or diminution e.g. in the Four Quartets The Dry Salvages seems to open with lines of six feet.
An interesting problem with some lines is whether they scan as five feet or four. Thus the late Jon Silkin in his book The Life of Metrical and Free Verse in the Twentieth Century believed the opening of Lawrence's The Ship Of Death to be a clear five foot line with iambic overtones because of the placement of its stresses.
/ / / / / Have you built your ship of death, O have youIn fact I think the whole of the opening of the Ship of Death scans as four foot lines, and Silkin's attempts to introduce an irregularity by mixing four and five stress lines is a confusion based on ignoring groups of four syllables e.g.
Have you built/your ship of death,/O/ have youThis does however lead to the point that alternative scansions of the same line by different systems is possible, and sometimes it is a question of which system it is most useful for the poet to scan his work by.
2. To use syllable groups as self contained units, in often very short lines. This leads to very tight control, which is arguably easier to maintain than in 1. This is a large topic and not easily illustrated by one example. I suggest those that are interested read their way through William Carlos Williams, whose work prosodically speaking is a constant variation of the possibilities of this. However here is an example from Lorine Neidecker, that is more immediately obvious than Williams.
His holy slowly mulled over matter not all 'delirium of delight' as were the forests of BrazilIt seems little noticed by either her friends or enemies that much of late Plath uses highly intelligent variations on this system. Thus (from Ariel)
Stasis in darkness. Then the substanceless blue Pour of tor and distances.However by approximating her lines to a breath (as Williams does) but making the line rather longer than Williams, Plath manages to retain something of the older systems, rather like a tonal composer like Malcolm Arnold introducing twelve note elements into tonal composition e.g. from Morning Song
Love set you going like a fat gold watch. The midwife slapped your footsole, and your bald cry Took its place among the elementsThe essense of any writing in breath related measures is awareness of the movement of the breath, but also of the eye on the page. Personally I think Plath, Williams and the Objectivists offer the most real way forward for free verse today.
Yet not everything in the Twentieth Century is free verse. There has been good deal of innovation in lyric forms, which is in great danger of being forgotten. For example Dylan Thomas fused something of the motion of the new free verse with more fixed forms. These may have been based on the number of syllables in the line, which may have owed something to his early reading of Blake's Prophetic Books, which often seem to be irregular syllabics (though did Thomas have at least the idea of the classical scansion by length of syllable at the back of his head?). Thus Fern Hill seems to be composed of lines of 14, 9, or 6 syllables. Structurally the poem turns on the possibilities of three and two syllable feet. The nine syllable lines have to have three syllable feet e.g. "In the sun/born over/ and over". The six syllable are ambiguous, but are usually three feet of two e.g. "Time held/me green/and dying". The fourteeners are a mixture of the two e.g "Nothing/ I cared/, in the lamb/white days/, that time/would take me". The rhythm seems partly at least out of the old ballads, which also regularly mix two and three syllable feet. Analysis by standard stress pattern seems inappropriate.
And one should not forget the little known Edward Boaden Thomas, whose Twelve Parts of Derbyshire uses as its staple a ten syllable four foot line, that its poet had glimpsed in the Authorised Version psalms. Thus
We cannot/ catch in/ the mesh/ of this verse All the history/ that one/ hamlet/ is.Thus one poet at least in the last half of the Twentieth century found new and practical metrical formulas.
Finally I speak as a practicing poet and critic. It seems to me that there is great confusion over form at present. Free verse increasingly is being taken to mean what its enemies originally called it i.e. "chopped up prose". The reason is that all the basic tools of rhythmic procedure are being tossed to one side. Nobody scans for quantity, few listen to the length of their syllables in time. Nobody bothers to break their lines down in to the smaller units of 1-4 syllables that Hopkins identified, and the the medieval poets used. Hence the confusion about what is poetry and what prose. Why cannot we write poetry out as prose, etc? This would not matter, except that when we read great poetry, whether it is Milton or Dryden, Shelley or Williams, Eliot or Dylan Thomas, we are reading something much better than prose. We get a music of sounds and rhythms that amplifies the sense, and often subtly changes it into something much better. The tools to do this in modern free verse exist. We can identify feet, we can listen to the time of the present foot against the last one, we can write lines that are focused, because their sub units are. What is lacking is the will to get away from the literal sense of words, and to recognise the feel of a line and verse paragraph is at least as important as the sense. We must rediscover our feet, and stand on them!
An edited version of this article appeared in `Acumen'.