Blank Verse In The Eighteenth Century

Within two decades of the publication of Milton's poem blank verse had become fully established as a vehicle for the non-dramatic poem. Although Johnson and a number of other critics remarked upon Milton's success in creating a particular idiom, a syntactic signature, with which his successors would have to engage, it must also be accepted that in the century following his epic its most challenging and perplexing formal innovations were effectively neutralised. Blank verse was brought into line with the rules and conventions that governed its more widely used counterpart, the closed heroic couplet. Edward Young's Night Thoughts (1742-6) is the best known and probably the most extreme case of prescriptive cross-fertilisation. His technique has been described as the use of the 'unrhymed couplet'. Young used the individual pentameter as a unit of cohesion in a very similar way to Pope's use of the couplet. As a replacement for the binding mechanism of rhyme he cautiously deployed the syntagm as a progressive movement whose breaks would be synchronised with the closure of each metrical unit. Blank verse of this type was the exception rather than the rule, and far more intriguing are the methods developed by men such as Thomson, Cowper and Akenside to make use of the more flexible Miltonic pattern yet control its effects upon the reader. The vast majority of eighteenth-century blank verse was of the descriptive, georgic type with a single, third person presence controlling the structure of the text. Consequently its practitioners faced the problem of how to create the effect of a relatively unconfined, discursive movement along the syntagmatic chain which would not, in the Miltonic manner, create tensions and conflicts with the metrical-syntactic formula of the pentameter. The following lines are from Thomson's Summer.

The dripping Rock, the Mountain's misty Top Swell on the Sight, and brighten with the Dawn Blue thro' the Dusk, the smoaking Currents shine; And from the bladed Field the fearful Hare Limps, awkward: while along the Forest-glade The wild Deer trip, and often turning gaze At early Passenger. Musick awakes, The native voice of undissembled joy; And thick around the woodland hymns arise. Roused by the cock, the soon-clad shepherd leaves His mossy cottage, where with Peace he dwells;

And from the crowded Fold, in order drives His flock to taste the Verdure of the Morn.

The most significant formal effect in this passage is Thomson's use of the two elements of the double pattern, syntax and the pentameter, to create the effect of the addresser gradually responding to the patterns of movement that take place in the perceived images. Up to lines 59-60 the more active and purposive components of the syntactic chain—'Swell', 'Blue', 'Limps'—are placed in positions of stress-reversal at the beginning of lines. Unlike Milton, he is cautious to effectively diffuse any uncertainty that might be caused by these syntactic-metrical conflicts. The effect is that of stasis: the mountain, the field and the hare are presented as self-contained, apparently discrete representations— the verbal and adjectival clauses that qualify their existence seem secondary to the images themselves. In the second half of the passage it is the verb itself that the syntactic-metrical structure throws into the foreground in its placing before the line ending (60-1, 63-4, 65-6). The effect of this redisposition of the verse instance in relation to verse design is the achievement of a kind of formal mimesis: in the first section the placing of the object within one metrical unit and its colour or action in the following one suggests that, for the perceiver, language supplements and clarifies the initial register of impressions, but in the second the placing of mainly active verbs at the interfaces between metrical unit and syntax creates the impression that the poetic function of the language has become synchronised with the physical movements of, and relations between, the objects perceived. But it is important to note that, unlike the apparently similar Miltonic disposition of 'must be/Worse', Thomson's verse form cautiously avoids causing any real sense of disjunction between the two elements of the double pattern. The syntax of the passage is carefully sown with preemptive clues, warnings even, of what will follow the termination of each metrical unit: it is not surprising that the fearful Hare/Limps', that the 'soon clad shepherd leaves/ His mossy cottage' or that from the 'crowded Fold' he 'drives/His flock'. It could be claimed that Thomson has adapted the progressive theme-rheme principle of the closed couplet to the less stable relation between the progressive movement of syntax and the unrhymed pentameter. To return to Jakobson's formulaic definition of verse as projecting the axis of selection onto the axis of combination we find that Thomson has succeeded in maintaining the parallelism of verse design, the pentameter, while minimalising its effect upon the orderly, one might claim prosaic, relation between the selective and combinative axes. It is the consecutive relation between elements of the syntagmatic chain that governs the interplay between verse design and verse instance, unlike Milton's use of the design-instance conflict which allows the paradigmatic-selective axis to create disruptions along the syntagmatic chain.

There are a number of reasons for these cautious reworkings of Miltonic technique. Most importantly, the eighteenth century was the first period in literary history in which texts could be judged against an accepted grammar of the double pattern, and the most significant rule of this insisted on the maintenance of a stable balance between verse design and verse instance. The following is from the work of a mid-eighteenth-century elocutionist, John Rice, and his prescriptions can be regarded as the shared axiom of contemporary critics and poets.

In reading poetry, if the Numbers interfere with the Harmony of the Period, there is a Defect in the Composition: For though the Harmony of Prosaic Periods is different, or will admit a greater Latitude and Variety than those of Poetry; yet the Laws of Diction require that the Sense and Meaning of the Writer should be consistent with both.

To best understand the Augustan programme in terms of the modern methodology of literary linguistics we should consider Jakobson's (1971, 133-4) summation of the work of Benveniste and Todorov on the spatio-temporal relations between addresser and addressee. Jakobson divides this interactive process into four constituent elements: the speech event (enunciation); the event narrated (the enounced); the subject of the enunciation (the speaking presence); the subject of the enounced (the listener/ reader either within or outside the text). What the Augustans effectively ruled against was the interference of the text in the interplay between these four elements. The principal difference between Milton's and Thomson's use of blank verse is that the latter maintains the reader's awareness of the double pattern—his ingenious use of 'grammatrics' to adjust the relation between the enounced and the subject of the enunciation productively foregrounds its presence—while encouraging an effect of closure between speech event, speaker, event and listener. Milton uses the double pattern to cause deliberate and perplexing disruptions between all four elements of the communicative circuit.

The most important point to emphasise here is the effect upon these two techniques upon the subject of the enounced; us, the readers. The shifting of balance away from the intervention of the text in the communicative circuit, both in eighteenth-century blank verse and the closed couplet, places the reader in a far more passive, receptive role than was the case with the textual foregroundings of Milton and the metaphysicals—and one significant point which we will return to with free verse is Hollander's suggestion that in Milton's verse there is a disjunction between the interpretive faculties of eye and ear, with the consequent obligation that the reader will effectively mediate between text and meaning. But for the moment let us consider how this reader-text relation functions in our encounters with the rhymed couplet.

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