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Verse - An Element Of Artistic Unity

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

What is verse? A little reflection will reveal that every known phase of it is a method of causing the flow of the words as they present themselves in time, to be interrupted sufficiently and with sufficient regularity to convey an impression like that produced when like objects appear side by side in space. Lines, feet, alliteration, assonance, rhyme,-all have the effect of retarding or preventing an absolute change; and thus of causing the composition to manifest not movement only, but unity of movement. Consider, for instance, the lyric. Its thought usually moves on very impetuously. The artistic requirement in its mode of expression, therefore, is that it manifest, in some way, that there is unity in the movement. But how can this be done better than by arranging the sounds in certain like groups, indicating unity of method? And how can we find like groups more clearly indicated than in the regular recurrence of accents, as in feet, or of tones as in alliteration or assonance, and especially as in rhymes at the ends of lines. These latter, in particular, cause the thought, at like intervals, to pause, as it were, and to connect the sound heard with another like sound that preceded it. A similar impression is also conveyed when successive stanzas end with a like refrain or chorus. . . . Without them, the thought of the lyric might often seem to roll forward as lifelessly and with as little evidence of organism as a log. These make it step and fly,—give it a regularly recurring motion like that of a living creature.—The Representative Significance of Form, XXII.


It may be asked, have we not derived our system of versification from that of the classic languages, and was this not based upon quantity rather than upon accent? Certainly; but, while observing these facts let us observe also that the classic system was not an elementary but a late development of rhythm. . Poetic measures, as we have found, result, primarily, from force given to syllables at regular intervals of duration. But careful observation will reveal that, as a rule, the application of this force necessarily involves also an increase in the duration of the accented syllable. This increase is made in speech unconsciously; in music it is made consciously; and that this was the case in the classic metres, furnishing one proof, which is confirmed by others, that they were results of an effort to intone verses—i. e., to make music of them. But besides this let us notice another fact. As accent is necessarily accompanied by an increase in quantity, it is impossible that our own metres also, though determined by accent, should not manifest some traces of the influence of quantity: Rhythm and Harmony in Poetry and Music, II.

In constructing verse the Greeks and Romans subordinated accent to quantity. Unlike ourselves, if in composing they came to a word in which long quantity and the ordinary accent did not go together, they seem always to have been at liberty to disregard the accent, and occasionally, too, they could change the quantity. In fact, they could change both quantity and accent in order to produce a rhythmic effect when chanting, analogous to that which we produce when reading. Our poets, on the contrary, have gone back to the primitive methods, antedating those of Greece, and base the rhythms of their verse on the accents of speech. The result, as compared with the language of our prose, is more natural than that reached by the other method; and in its way is fully as artistic. Nor, in other regards, is English inferior to the classic tongues in its capabilities for artistic treatment. Owing to an extensive use of terminations in nouns, articles, pronouns, adjectives, and verbs, in order to indicate different grammatical relationships, the Greeks and Romans could change the order of words in a sentence without changing its meaning. In their language, "The dog ate the wolf," with slightly varied terminations, could read, "The wolf ate the dog." For this reason, they could alter their phraseology, in order to accommodate it to the requirements of metre, as is not possible for us; and so far they had an advantage over us. Nevertheless, for some reason, when they came to put their words into verse, as every schoolboy who tries to scan knows, they produced a language which, like the present French poetic diction, sounded unlike that of conversation. Even supposing, with some scholars, that in reading they did not scan their verses as we do now, nor even chant them invariably, as some infer was the case, their poetic language was not the same as their spoken language. Aristotle tells us, when mentioning things which it is legitimate for the poet to do, that he can invent new words, that he can expand old ones, either by lengthening vowels or by adding syllables, that he can contract them by shortening vowels or omitting syllables, and that he can alter them in various other ways. Spenser and others since him have applied similar methods to English poetic diction; but, at present, such changes, except in rare instances, are not considered admissible, and this because they are recognized to be unnecessary. The fact that they are not admissible in our language, and were admissible in the classic languages, proves that, in one regard at least, our language is superior to them as a medium of metre.—Idem,II.

In the classic languages metre was determined by the quantities or relative lengths of the vowel-sounds or consonant-sounds composing the syllables. Our own language is not spelled phonetically, and therefore we fail to notice the effect of similar elements in it. Yet they are present to a greater extent than we ordinarily suppose, as will be brought out clearly when we come to consider quantity, especially that which is used in the English hexameter. Any one acquainted with the subject, knows that it is a mistake to hold that quantity has nothing whatever to do with the movements of our metres, and an analogous mistake, probably, would be made in supposing that the emphasis of ordinary pronunciation had nothing whatever to do with the classic metres. Poetry as a Representative Art, II.


We all must have noticed that a child too young to talk, a foreigner using a language unknown to us, a friend speaking at such a distance from us that his words are indistinguishable, can all reveal to us, with a certain degree of definiteness, the general tenor of their thoughts. Their tones, aside from their words, enable us to understand such facts as whether they are hurried or at leisure, elated or depressed, in earnest or indifferent, pleased or angered. This is so because these facts are directly represented by their intonations. Developed with design, these may be made to resemble those of the foremost actors and orators. Hence the art of elocution. Developed without design, they instinctively come to imitate those of the people with whom one most associates. Scotchmen, Irishmen, Englishmen, and Americans can all be distinguished by the different ways in which they utter the same phrases. No two of them will emphasize precisely alike a simple expression such as "I can't go there today."

Not only men of different nations can be distinguished thus, but even different individuals. Any one well known to us can be recognized in the dark by what we term his voice, by which we mean his method of using his voice; the way, peculiar to himself, of pausing at certain intervals and hurrying at others, of sliding his sounds up and down on certain syllables and phrases, and also, perhaps, of giving in certain places an unusual stress or quality of tone. All these methods impress his individuality on everything that he has to say. When he becomes a public speaker, his peculiarities in these regards become still more marked. Unconsciously, if not consciously, he develops them so that, in his delivery, similar intonations recur with a certain degree of regularity; in other words, he comes to have what may he termed a rhythm and a tune of his own. The reason why he comes to have these is, undoubtedly, . . . owing to a natural tendency to economize labor. Just as the swinging of the hands enables one to walk more easily, so what may be termed the swinging of the tones enables one to talk more easily: So, also, as we shall find by-and-bye, do verse and measure, to which these intonations naturally lead. The two together separate the words and syllables, and make them accord with the natural actions of the lungs and throat.

But let us waive this thought, until we reach it in its proper place. Before the age of books those who prepared literature published it by repeating it in public. Every man who did this had, of course, his own peculiarities of utterance, which, as he continued to repeat his productions, he would cultivate and render more and more peculiar; just as is the case today with the venders who cry in our streets, the clerks who read in our courts, and the priests who intone the services in our churches. These peculiarities, moreover, would be shown not only in the elocution of the reciter, but in the arrangement of his words and sentences, so as to fit them to his elocution. At the outset, every literary man would have his own style of delivery and composition, and confine himself to it. But after a little, just as men of the same districts, and preachers and exhorters of the same religious sects—Quakers, Methodists, or Episcopalians-imitate one an-other; so these public reciters would drift into imitation. Before long, too, it would be found that one style of expression, or form of words, was better suited for one set of ideas, and another for another set; so, in time, the same reciter would come to use different styles or forms for different subjects. Only a slight knowledge of history is needed in order to prove that this is what has actually taken place. Pindaric metre, and possibly Homeric, as also the Alcaic and Sapphic stanzas of the Greeks, were used first by the poets whose names they bear; but to-day they are used by many others who find them the best forms through which to express what they wish to write.

But to return to our line of thought. A further development in the direction already indicated, would cause these reciters after a time to use versification, so that their rhythms and the variations in them might be more clearly marked; and still later, that the precise length of their verses might be apparent, as well as to assist the memory in retaining them, they would use rhymes. Further developments in the direction of rhythm and tune, introducing greater variety in both, and making the tones more and more sustained, would lead to the singing of songs—that is, to poetry set to musical melody.—Idem, II.


The elements of all verse as well as of elocutionary forms, can be traced to the physical requirements of the organs of speech, and to these not as they are used in singing, but, distinctively, in talking. One can sing without suggesting any thing that can be developed into verse or rhythm; but it is impossible for him to talk, without suggesting what can be developed into both. In order to recognize the truth of this statement, we have merely to listen to a man talking. As we do so, two characteristics of speech will at once attract our attention. One is the pause or cessation of sound, following groups of syllables which form phrases or sentences, containing anywhere from two to a dozen words; the other is the accent, given to every second, third, or fourth syllable... .

The pause results, primarily, from the construction of the human lungs; the accent, from that of the human throat. The speaker checks his utterance in order to breathe; he accents it because the current of sound—in talking, but not in singing-flows through the vocal pas-sages in a manner similar to that in which fluid is emptied from the neck of a bottle i. e., with what may be termed alternate active and passive movements.

It is only necessary to observe these facts in order to recognize that the line in verse, at the end of which, when regularly constructed, the reader necessarily pauses, is an artistic development of the phrase, which we find in all natural conversation. In fact, Aristotle, in his "Rhetoric," seems to hint at some such a development in prose, for he says the period must be divided into clauses, easily pronounced at a breath. It is generally acknowledged that the principal mental process involved in art-construction is comparison. This causes all men, both consciously and unconsciously, both for convenience and pleasure, to take satisfaction in putting like with like. The moment this tendency is applied to groups of syllables separated by pauses, it leads men to place, if possible, a like number of syllables in each group, and thus have between the pauses like intervals of time. But an arrangement of this kind is the primary characteristic of verse. Idem, II.


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