What Is A Free Verse Line

For linguistics the most problematic challenge is offered by category 3 of the line-syntax relationship. Williams has shown (particularly in 'Spring and All') that the practices of identifying deep and surface structures can be unsettled when the poem leaves us uncertain about the points at which phrases and clauses terminate and reengage.

(i) The following is section VII, 'The Corn Harvest', from Williams's Pictures from Brueghel. Try to work out why phrases and words (such as 'perhaps' and 'carelessly') seem to disrupt the progress of the syntagm. Is Williams attempting to reproduce, with linguistic signs, the blendings of shapes and objects and the consequent ambiguities of visual art (it is a poem about a painting)?


the painting is organized about a young reaper enjoying his noonday rest completely relaxed from his morning labors sprawled in fact sleeping unbuttoned on his back the women have brought him his lunch perhaps a spot of wine they gather gossiping under a tree whose shade carelessly he does not share the resting centre of their workaday world

(ii) The following extracts are from 'Burnt Norton', one of Eliot's Four Quartets. Consider how the line operates, not according to some abstract metrical formula, but as a metasyntactic unit. Do the line divisions construct patterns of meaning that are not merely breaks in the syntagmatic chain? (Compare them with Thribb's piece (p. 159) and Williams's This Is Just To Say'.)

Footfalls echo in the memory Down the passage which we did not take Towards the door we never opened Into the rose garden. My words echo Thus, in your mind.

(Section I)

Words move, music moves

Only in time; but that which is only living

Can only die. Words, after speech, reach

Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,

Can words or music reach

The stillness, as a Chinese jar still

Moves perpetually in its stillness.

(Section V)

(iii) The following is an extract from Auden's 'Musée des Beaux Arts'. Note how the verb phrases shift between equivocation and certainty ('may/Have', 'must have', for example). Does the relation between the irregular rhyme scheme, the lines and syntax underpin this referential effect? Why, given there is no persistent accentual-syllabic pattern, is 'green' separated from 'Water'? (Remember that it is 'about' a painting).

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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