Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Robert B. Shaw, Blank Verse; A Guide to Its History and Use

Robert B. Shaw, Blank Verse; A Guide to Its History and Use, Ohio University Press, Athens, 2007.

Although exceptions are always possible, it seems likely that blank verse, which can succeed brilliantly in poems of sonnet length or slightly shorter, may find it harder to do so in extremely short pieces (say, under five line). Without room to display many of the devices that, for it, supply distinctive auditory and structural functions, the few lines may seem fragmentary to tentative jottings rather than finished works of art. (9)

Milton’s line, if we come to it after immersion in the relaxed versification of Webster or even the late Shakespeare, is likely to seem metrically austere. Feminine endings are much less frequent than in dramatic verse; (53)

In the early part of the twentieth century, Robert Bridges argued forcefully for the presence in Milton of the kinds of elision described above. … George Saintsbury … argued just as forcefully for Milton’s use of anapests in such instances. … For a reader, thought, it may not matter much whether Milton was unusually adventurous with elision (Bridges) or a pioneer in admitting an occasional anapest into his blank verse (Saintsbury). What we hear in such lines a willingness to play with the possibilities of packing an extra light syllable into a line that in this poet’s practice is usually stricter than that of the dramatists. (57)

Park of what we are calling the conversational effect in Wordsworth relies on an embrace of ordinary vocabulary and an avoidance of the ornate. But in his blank-verse poems a deliberately unshowy approach to the meter may be just as important, though less immediately noticeable. Not to be noticed as meter, in fact, seems to be a primary aim of Wordsworth’s blank verse. (65)
Wordsworth’s willingness to place prepositions like “from” and “to” in stress positions has bothered metrical precisionists. … Those who dislike Wordsworth’s blank verse generally object to what they call its prosiness. Saintsbury (a Shelley devotee) declares that “passage after passage of the Prelude is either intentional burlesque or sheer prose.” The slackness of rhythm, when the language itself is dull, undoubtedly gives such critics of that poem plenty of ammunition. (66-7)

Poetic style often seems to behave like a pendulum. The second generation of romantics, Byron, Shelley, and Keats, all wrote interesting poems in blank verse; but—perhaps fearing the threat of prosiness—they tended to shape their lines in a more formalized manner. (69)

But Tennyson’s distinctive legacy as a verse technician is the more musical blank verse. Indeed, some of his best-known passages in the form are deliberate experiments that bend it in a lyric direction: “Tears, Idle Tears” is often spoken of (and reasonably) as a song. Such passages can of course be gorgeous but compared with Milton and Keats in this regard, their opulent msuci may seem more florid, less suggestive. (78)

The American blank verse was, its relative lack of ornament and its pared-down rhetoric, close also in style to Wordsworth. Coming to it after poets like Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson, one is especially struck by the lack of ostentation in its management of sound. William Cullen Bryant… (78)

Frost… lines as regular as these are outnumbered in their respective poems by ones that are less so; and it is rare to find passages much longer than these that do not feature some pronounced variations. (90)

…less-than-studious readers were sometimes under the impression that Frost was writing free verse, which he abhorred. (96)

Justice has identified an undeniably prevalent feature in Stevens’s later approach to (or we might rather say his departure from) blank verse. From his middle period on, numerous lines are provided with an anapestic bounce, or more than one. (156)

It may seem surprising that such leaps in an out of regular meter do not disrupt the reader’s attention more than they do. Probably much of the credit of this is owing to Stevens’s imposingly extended sentences, often overriding the bounds not merely of a few lines but of several tercets. A nagging feeling may eventually accost some readers, a suspicion that the later Stevens is more interested in writing sentences than in shaping lines of verse. This brings us back to the applauding views of Stevens’s prosody that we quoted earlier, perhaps with an additional skepticism both in regard to them and to Stevens. … Donald Justice also writes out of an assumption that Stevens’s changes were positive in their results. He summarizes Stevens’s handling of the blank-verse line as a history of “treating it with ever increasing casualness—the easy condescension of the master—until in the general loosening process both the iambic and pentameter were to become nearly inaudible. (159)


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