You are on Érudit's new platform. Enjoy! Switch to classic view


Brennan O'Donnell, The Passion of Meter: A Study of Wordsworth's Metrical Art. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0873385101. Price: US$35.

  • Jill Heydt-Stevenson

…more information

  • Jill Heydt-Stevenson
    University of Colorado, Boulder

Article body

Wordsworth has been a poet nearly ubiquitously decried as a one-time revolutionary who turned conservative, but Brennan O'Donnell's study should help teach us how deeply conservative Wordsworth always was—at least, that is, in matters of the metrical arts. If we associate orthodoxy with rigidity and rule, however, and expect to find here a younger Wordsworth who fits the stereotype of the older Wordsworth, O'Donnell corrects our preconception: he argues persuasively that throughout his career, Wordsworth's reliance on tradition is balanced by an infinitely inventive and dynamic use of forms, and that his verse provides 'unexpected sources of interest . . . creative tension . . . and sensuous patterns' (6). Further, lest a study of prosody seem rarified, O'Donnell also remedies that preconception: readers will be pleased to discover how widely he contextualizes his argument, helping us place metrical practice within 'a wide range of verse forms' as he 'traces significant relationships between [Wordsworth's] management of the minutiae of his versification and some of the larger tendencies and concerns of his poetry as a whole' (6). This masterful book thus fills in a gap 'largely unexamined' and 'virtually untouched' in studies of the poet: Wordsworth's 'metrical theory and practice—his understanding of the part played by meter in general or by particular metrical forms in the writing and reading of poems and the rules and habits underlying his management of metrical scheme, rhythm, rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and other patternings of sound in relation to sense' (2)

O'Donnell historicizes this gap in Wordsworth studies by pointing to several likely causes for the waning interest in such a 'quaint' topic as prosody: metrical experimentation in modern poetry ('calculated unmetricality or arhythmicality,' [3] for instance), as well as critical theories which subsume distinctive voice to a concern for the poem as a text or which favor cultural contextualization. Such influences have discouraged an 'approach that values literary language as a consciously and intentionally shaped medium significantly set apart from other kinds of discourse' (3). There has also been one other obstacle to a full appreciation of Wordsworth's metrical subtlety. O'Donnell argues that in disregarding the poet's versification, many readers have in fact taken their cue from Wordsworth himself, who seemed in his definitions of poetry in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads to diminish the importance of the 'rules, conventions, effects, and peculiarities of . . . metrical art' (2). After all, he is the one who defined poetry as the 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings' (3). Regardless of Wordsworth's radical manifesto, however, the poet, as O'Donnell successfully argues, 'was in matters of versification a deeply traditional poet from the start' (4), and that sense of tradition was nowhere more apparent that in his astonishing metrical versatility.

The study is divided into two parts, 'The Passion of Meter' and 'The Versification of Poems'; the first part explains Wordsworth's theories of prosody found in the prefaces, letters, notes, and conversations, while the second deals more specifically with the metrical intricacies of particular poems from throughout the poet's career. In Part One, Chapter 1, 'Similitude in Dissimilitude,' O'Donnell helps us reevaluate the revolution announced by the Preface to Lyrical Ballads by showing us that while Wordsworth is committed to significant changes in diction and subject matter from eighteenth-century practice, he is also, even here, rather conservative in his ideas about meter. Historicizing Wordsworth's metrical premises by comparing them to Thelwall's, O'Donnell demonstrates that the poet in fact resists contemporary developments in prosodic theory: 'during a time of theoretical and practical loosening of constraints on the English line, . . . Wordsworth's decidedly syllabic definition of his pentameters marks him as an exception' (31). Wordsworth's verse is perfectly traditional in its metrical essentials, and he is committed to the belief that regular meter is one great wellspring of poetry's pleasure. O'Donnell argues that Wordsworth does not claim, as others have assumed, that the poet may extricate himself from the expectations that meter encourages, but rather that Wordsworth is asserting that all poetry can achieve tremendous pleasure by associating old with new, and familiar with strange, by finding similitude in dissimilitude and by creating tensions between what a reader expects and what the poem provides. For O'Donnell, the important point is to bring us to a full understanding of the function in Wordsworth of what the poet called (in an 1804 letter to Thelwall centrally concerned with metrical theory) 'the passion of metre' (27). That passion, which gives this study its title, is for Wordsworth 'a force almost as inevitable as gravity' (27), and it is, as such, one of the great sources of emotion, of meaning, and of pleasure in all of his poetry. Meter offers structure, and sense offers emotion, but when linked they provide a kinetic force as the two systems of organization form an organic colloquy, sometimes resisting, sometimes supporting each other. As Wordsworth writes in On the Power of Sound, 'Break forth into thanksgiving, / Ye banded Instruments of wind and chords; / Unite, to magnify the Ever-living, / Your inarticulate notes with the voice of words!' (ll. 193-196). Thus both meter and sense have their passion'and their own unpredictable, yet passionate relationship: meter 'provide[s] a type of `interference' that heightens and improves the `coexist[ing]' pleasure produced by the passion' of sense (48).

Chapter 2, 'Metrical Tension and Varieties of Voice,' concludes the first part of O'Donnell's study with a chapter showing how Coleridge's comments, in Biographia Literaria and elsewhere, have tended to diminish Wordsworth's metrical practice. Coleridge, of course, famously demands that a poet achieve a self-contained unity in which all the elements are subordinated to the central idea or effect, but this was emphatically not Wordsworth's goal. Rather, his aim was precisely to create a tension between meter and diction since it was his conviction that the dynamic intertexture that results is one significant source of the poem's pleasure. It is that intertexture that allows the poet to lead the reader into what O'Donnell terms a physical relationship with minds which the reader would normally not meet. O'Donnell explains that although Wordsworth's key notion of similitude in dissimilitude 'bears a superficial similarity to Coleridge's ideas about the reconciliation of discordant elements,' Wordsworth's premises in fact conflict with Coleridge's own organic theories. While Coleridge aims toward 'synthesis and unity of diction and meter,' Wordsworth 'embraces [inconstancy] as an integral part of what he takes to be the poet's chief task' (50).

That prosody is an abstract and—for many readers—difficult topic, cannot be ignored, and it may be that not everyone will profit from O'Donnell's use of Derrick Attridge's The Rhythms of English Poetry (1982). I have no doubt, however, that readers will benefit tremendously from the many detailed close analyses of the poems. For example, his reading of 'The Sailor's Mother' provides a sterling illustration of the relationship between the passions of meter and of sense, and also works to refute Coleridge's argument that the poem 'is an especially good example of the deleterious influence of Wordsworth's theories' (52). In an unforgettable analysis of the meter in this poem, O'Donnell argues that the mother 'confronts the reader from the outset with a markedly incongruous relationship between humble subject and elaborate stanza form' (53). Wordsworth's use of a 'rhythmically elaborate, insistently lyrical metrical frame that might be thought appropriate for a homely tale told in simple words . . . is an . . . example of that `intertexture' of opposing feeling he values as a source of poetic pleasure' (54). And though that intertexture might seem 'extreme,' in fact it is entirely felicitous given the many 'sources of formal tension' (58) and 'the internal stylistic opposition in the poem' (54). Thus, the 'clash of dissimilar uses of the same metrical frame is itself an integral part of the poem's subject' (59). In brilliantly opening up the poem's complexity, O'Donnell answers his own question, the one that guides his entire approach, and which he states later in the book: 'What does the choice of this meter and its particular use contribute to this poem?' (123).

In the second part of the book, 'The Versification of Poems,' O'Donnell provides careful and inspired metrical readings of poems from throughout the poet's long career. In Chapter 3, '"Words in Tuneful Order,"' O'Donnell argues that very early works, like Descriptive Sketches and An Evening Walk, afford a worthy springboard for a discussion of the development of Wordsworth's versification. These works, written in the closed couplets that had dominated English verse for over a century, show Wordsworth's abilities in the form he was ultimately instrumental in displacing, but also reveal tendencies that will emerge more clearly in the versification of his mature poetry, such as a more expressive use of rhythm or the attempt to incorporate an idiosyncratic voice. Eighteenth-century conventions about descriptive poetry had militated against the kind of variety of voice that Wordsworth was trying to incorporate from his earliest serious poetry. Wordsworth's 'shifts of pace, disruptions of pattern, and even hypermetricality' used in earlier poems, such as The Vale of Esthwaite, help him develop an 'aesthetics of expressive passion and direct physical sensation' (87). Thus (though contrived), the metrics of 'On Seeing Miss Helen Maria Williams weep at a tale of distress' [1797] generate a sense of the 'very pulse of the speaker's experience' (85). O'Donnell here does a particularly good job at helping metrics come alive for the reader insofar as he reinforces the visceral character of these rhythms. He argues that Wordsworth's sensitivity to rhythm, 'variety of voices, transitions between them, and relationships among them' (90) 'tends to challenge the assumptions of more conventional landscape poetry of the period, in which natural phenomena more often than not are imaged as finally subordinate to an all encompassing, intellectualized vision of unity' (89). Thus, though early works may be mannered in their fashionable imitation of popular forms of versification, Wordsworth never abandons the necessity for the 'precious chains' ('On the Power of Sound' l. 173) of meter.

In Chapter 4, 'Varieties of Rhyme: the Stanzaic Verse of the Lyrical Ballads,' O'Donnell mounts a vigorous attack on the long critical tradition that Wordsworth wrote, in Saintsbury's words, 'prosodically negligible verse' (115). O'Donnell's 'chief purpose is to define and evaluate characteristic kinds of metrical complexity in relation to Wordsworth's overall concerns in the collection' (123). This intricate study of the metrical variety of Lyrical Ballads argues that Wordsworth takes up traditional stanzaic and verse forms and, through their subtle adaptation and reformulation, achieves the remarkable variety of poetic effects for which the volume is famous. As O'Donnell points out, 'even the most ostensibly simple and predictable of Wordsworth's stanzas—his adaptation of the ballad stanza, for instance—will reward careful attention to subtle tensions between metrical frame and diverse realizations in actual sonic and rhythmic impulses' (154).

Lyrical Ballads, then, relies for much of its power on a complex interplay between the expectations a reader brings to a verse form and the way Wordsworth then works both with and against those expectations. For example, his analysis of the functions and impact of Wordsworth's stanzaic choices and uses in 'The Complaint of the Forsaken Indian Woman,' 'The Last of the Flock,' and 'The Mad Mother' clarifies Wordsworth's concept of the marriage of extreme emotions (such as suffering) and a structure that is 'rhythmically predictable and reassuring': what Wordsworth called 'the `intertexture' of pleasurable feeling' (126). Other kinds of intertextures also enrich the poems: for example, in his use of traditional and popular poetry and song, Wordsworth brings the 'Mad Mother' into 'relation with oral and song traditions, while not submitting the poem's prosody and verse pattern to actual imitation of the practices of those traditions' (129). This relation rather than imitation, O'Donnell argues, allows Wordsworth 'to pursue a considerably more complex exploration of the psychology of abandonment, grief, and maternal love than is common in popular song' (129). His discussion of rhythmic mediation in 'The Thorn,' his underscoring of the persistent misidentification of 'Expostulation and Reply,' 'The Tables Turned,' 'A slumber did my spirit seal,' and nine other poems in the Lyrical Ballads as ballad stanzas; and his thorough examination of the flexibility and versatility of Wordsworth's metrical powers in 'Ruth,' 'Hart-Leap Well,' The Idiot Boy,''The Reverie of Poor Susan,' 'Song for the Wandering Jew,' 'The Pet Lamb,' and ''Tis Said, That Some Have Died for Love' all contribute to a chapter that seems an essential aide for teaching and scholarly work alike.

O'Donnell's discussion of Wordsworth and blank verse begins in Chapter 4, where he talks about the poet's use of the form in Lyrical Ballads, and he points to the large increase in blank verse poems between the 1798 and 1800 editions as evidence of Wordsworth's growing comfort with the form as a vehicle for the expression of his own voice. Chapter 5, '"Infinitely the Most Difficult Metre to Manage,"' then goes on to provide an extremely detailed analysis of blank verse, paying particular attention, as one must when discussing what is, after all, the great heartbeat of the history of English verse, to Wordsworth's response to the blank verse tradition, especially Milton. The adoption of a form so common and (by Wordsworth's time) so dominated by one gigantic predecessor means that O'Donnell can usefully deploy here again the recurring theme of this study: that Wordsworth's versification consistently attempts to create its distinctive achievements both in and against a framework provided by tradition. As he says, 'blank verse offered Wordsworth the most flexible means for developing and presenting his own voice in all of its complexity. At the same time, iambic pentameter verse carries the heaviest weight of associative power . . . of any form in English' (225).

The tenacious conviction that Wordsworth's accomplishments in poetry after 1807 represent a decline has hindered thorough estimations of the late poems. Because O'Donnell moves chronologically (though the entire oeuvre is not covered, of course) through Wordsworth's career, the book does a fine job of presenting the poet's life work as a whole, rather than as bifurcated fragments. Although O'Donnell primarily devotes his attention to Wordsworth's earlier work, he does close with a concluding chapter that analyzes 'On the Power of Sound' (composed in 1828-9 and published in 1835). The reader thus has the opportunity to see how this ode presents a triumphant statement about the passion of meter and the passion of sense, articulated so many years before in Preface to Lyrical Ballads. O'Donnell interprets this ode 'as an insistently mythologized, quasi-autobiographical defense, an apologia for his metrical art . . . [which] allows for a[n] . . . integral . . . view of its relation to the rest of Wordsworth's work' (243). O'Donnell's illuminating analysis of both the originality of the poem's versification and its intimate link to earlier compositional technique offers readers rich evidence of the poet's enduring creativity and developing craft. O'Donnell teaches us, for example, that the poem's sixteen-line stanza, which 'is the most complexly patterned, structurally integrated stanza in Wordsworth's poetical works' (243) 'is without precedent either in Wordsworth's corpus or in English poetry in general' (246).

This compelling and original analysis of a poem that is too little discussed makes for a fitting conclusion to this extremely valuable study of Wordsworth's versification. O'Donnell's studies of Wordsworth's poems and prose reinforce the conviction that '[i]n Wordsworth's metrical art, each sound, syllable, word, verse, stanza, or verse paragraph is represented as simultaneously an expression of spontaneous impulse and a fulfillment of a single controlling system of organization' (248). Perhaps not every reader will be comfortable with the notion that in Wordsworth's poetry by 'tones and numbers all things are controlled' (Power of Sound, l. 178) and might assert that there are tensions above and beyond those caused by intertexture and that are not kept wholly in a state of pleasurable tension. It does seem certain, however, that any reader of this book will find fresh sources of veneration for Wordsworth's metrical powers. Indeed, O'Donnell's study leaves no doubt about how wrong Saintsbury was when early in the century he made this declaration about Wordsworth: 'In no great poet does prosody play so small a part' (6).