Transformations of feeling

Among the most important prosodic ideas that gradually took hold by the mid-eighteenth century was the contention that the content of the work should determine the shape of the form, and it is significant that such an early critique of heroic couplets had come from Isaac Watts, a prominent writer of hymns. There was a precedent for this, well known by Milton, in the classical idea that musical modalities had attached emotions: the Dorian scale vigorously masculine; the Lydian relaxed; the Phrygian wild.10 Samuel Say's essays on prosody attached to his 1745 Poems on Several Occasions suggested that "'Tis reasonable ... to assume a different Style, and Numbers far Different, when the Like Ideas, or the Like Passions are intended to be rais'd in Those that hear us," and he particularly admired the alternating active iambics and slow spondaics of Paradise Lost.11

St. Cecilia odes, often composed for an annual competition that was begun in 1683 by the London Musical Society, were important models in this light: with their effects of musical mimesis and varying metrical effects and forms, the Cecilia odes picked up on Pindaric irregularity and carried it over to forms of great originality and musicality, allowing various instruments to "raise and quell the passions." The mimetic effects of Wordsworth's "On the Power of Sound," and his libretto "Ode on the Installation of His Royal Highness Prince Albert as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, July 1847," are much indebted to Dryden's and Pope's Cecilia odes.12

In 1789 William Lisle Bowles assembled a group of "Fourteen Sonnets, written chiefly on Picturesque Spots during a Journey." He recorded later: "I confined myself to fourteen lines, because fourteen lines seemed best adapted to unity of sentiment. I thought nothing about the strict Italian model; the verses naturally flowed in unpremeditated harmony, as my ear directed." He added: "The subjects were chiefly from river scenery ... it will be recollected also, that they were published ten years before those of Mr. Wordsworth on the river Duddon."13

Bowles's decasyllabic poems used varied stress patterns, and, though they followed a Shakespearean rhyme scheme, they tended to divide between octave and sestet like a Petrarchan sonnet as they also introduced new rhymes in the second quatrain. His hybrid forms were themselves indebted to the popular, and irregular, Elegiac Sonnets, first published in 1784, of Charlotte Turner Smith - poems that had revived the possibilities of the sonnet for expressing interior emotion, whether experienced or invented. Bowles's innovation, however, was to link his emotions and thoughts to depictions of the landscape as he traveled in one journey from England to Scotland and in another journey across the North Sea to Ostend and up the Rhine. Yoking the long prospect poem with the sonnet, his poems proved to be a tremendous influence on the work of Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Byron because of their free expression of emotion. The Romantics looked to Milton's work, too, as a precedent for sonnets of public reflection; sonnets fit neatly into the space available in newspapers, and, after the craze for sentimental sonnets at the end of the eighteenth century, Coleridge's "Sonnets on Eminent Characters," Wordsworth's "Sonnets Dedicated to Liberty," and Shelley's "England in 1819," which literally turns Petrarchan convention upside down, were just some of the sonnets designed for political ends.14 Wordsworth published 517 sonnets over his lifetime, and Keats, who gave up sonnet-writing just before he turned to his great odes of 1819, still managed to write sixty-four of them within a five-year period.15

The Romantic critique of eighteenth-century syllabic prosody was based not only in an idea about fidelity to the passions, but as well in an idea about fidelity to expression. What kind of expression was this? Perhaps, above all, it was one that had a realist bias - poetry was to represent the emotions and not to be an ideal and regulating force upon them; to this extent, arguments about poetic representation followed arguments about musical representation and led poets to become interested in the equal-time principles of accentual verse that linked the metrical foot and musical bar. And such feelings had to be located in the speaker/hearer relation - this placed a burden of authenticity on to the poet/speaker that could be alleviated only by means of imitation of others' voices.

Practices of ventriloquism in Romantic meter raise the possibility of sympathetic response conveyed through meter itself. The imitation of "mad" voices can be linked to chanting as a device of Romantic poetic composition. There are "mad song" elements in Lyrical Ballads' "The Idiot Boy" and "The Mad Mother," and in Peter Bell. Coleridge had a long interest in mad poetry, and, earlier, "mad songs" were an influence upon Thomas Percy's 1765 Reliques.16 The imitation of the mad also figured, as we shall see, in the enormous contribution the mad poets of the eighteenth century made to Romantic prosody. And in the career of John Clare, issues of authenticity are magnified as the "mad" poet at times writes poems in the voices of Thomas Chatterton and Lord Byron.

The transfer of such feelings resulted in certain paradoxes, as when Wordsworth writes in the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads17 that poetry is at once "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (pp. 126-7) and "emotion recollected in tranquility" (pp. 148-9). In his 1850 version of the Preface, Wordsworth continued to think of meter as "superadded" (p. 137). Poetry is to be made of the "language really spoken by men," he wrote, explaining: "if meter be superadded thereto, I believe that a dissimilitude will be produced altogether sufficient for the gratification of a rational mind" (p. 137). For Wordsworth, "the distinction of meter is regular and uniform" (pp. 144-5) and, more than any other Romantic poet, he carried forward a sense of the eighteenth-century mandate toward regularity. Significantly, however, his thinking about blank verse's potential regularity arose from a sense that poets could make a painful content bearable by means of metrical ease: "The end of Poetry is to produce excitement in co-existence with an overbalance of pleasure" (pp. 146-7). In putting his tragic Lucy poems into simple ballad meter or laying out the sorrows of "The Female Vagrant" in Spenserian stanza, Wordsworth wrote in his 1850 text that he had explored the ways "more pathetic situations and sentiments, that is, those which have a greater proportion of pain connected with them, may be endured in metrical composition, especially in rhyme, than in prose" (p. 147).

Inevitably, because of their pathbreaking work on Lyrical Ballads and the enduring nature of their collaboration and involvement in each other's thought, Wordsworth and Coleridge are considered together in estimations of Romantic achievement. Yet their approaches to meter in theory and practice are quite different; Wordsworth's idea that meter is "superadded thereto" approaches the mechanical - the opposite of Coleridge's organic notions of meter as, following August Wilhelm von Schlegel's ideas of conscious and unconscious activity in creation, he outlined them in his 1808-19 Lectures on Literature. Coleridge contended that "One character belongs to all true poets, they that write from a principle within, nor originating in anything without," and he admonished: "Remember that there is a difference between form as proceeding, and shape as superinduced; - the latter is either the death or the imprisonment of the thing; - the former is its self-witnessing and self-effected sphere of agency."18 In the Biographia Literaria, too, he suggested: "Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art."19

Consequently, while Wordsworth states in the 1802 preface: "there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition" (134), Coleridge claims in the Biographia Literaria: "I write in meter because I am about to use a language different from that of prose."20 In his essay "First Acquaintance with Poets," William Hazlitt famously recorded that these differences extended to the two poets' methods of composing: "Coleridge has told me that he himself liked to compose in walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood; whereas Wordsworth always wrote (if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel-walk, or in some spot where the continuity of his verse met with no collateral interruption."21 This contrast persists, as a Miltonic legacy of enjambed blank verse remains the metier of the

Wordsworth of The Prelude, while Coleridge often seeks "lines" that reflect the emotion of their content. Meanwhile, a Spenserian legacy of accentual meters and song forms continues throughout both their careers.

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