The Technic of Poetry I

by Richard Hovey

The Independent, New York: April 7, 1892


       IN a previous article in THE INDEPENDENT, entitled "Delsarte and Poetry," I referred to the application, in poetic technic, of the Delsartean principles of parallelism, opposition and succession. A few words more on this head.
       Delsarte approached his subject experimentally. He took the most direct and natural means by which man seeks to express himself, the motions of his own body, subjected these motions or gestures to a most minute and searching examination, classified them, and arrived inductively at certain of their laws. These laws, so far as we can ascertain his methods, he assumed to be true for all expression and hence for all the arts, due allowance being made for the modifying influence of the special medium through which each art is uttered. I am not quite sure that he had a logical right to make this inference from his premises; but he was not a man to be frightened by ratiocinative leaps. He had, indeed, almost a contempt for logic, and made his own discoveries by a kind of daring insight. Indeed, I do not know that he ever deigned to prove any of the principles he enounced. He contented himself with the appeal to the instinctive perception of his audience—an appeal that seldom failed of its response.
       This omission of the demonstrative element has been supplied in many ways by many of his disciples. In respect to the principles of opposition, parallelism and succession, with which we have now immediately to do, Henrietta Russell, certainly one of his most able and original followers, gives this explanation, having, like Delsarte, gesture primarily in mind:
       "Oppositions are physical. They are based upon the law of gravitation, being always a balancing, actual or metaphorical. They symbolize contrast, and are useful for dramatic effect. They give strength and dignity in motion or attitude, force in harmonies, self-assertion and hence vulgarity if used out of place—that is, where strength is not needed.
       "Parallelisms also arise out of the relation of things to gravity, but on the negative side. They are the absence of opposition of movement, and lack balance or a harmonious relation to the greatest physical force we deal with—gravitation. Physically, of course, they express weakness.
       "Balance is opposing gravitation by setting gravitation to opposing itself. It therefore expresses dignity, as it obtains force easily on the lines of least resistance. Parallelism is weak, because it opposes human strength to the great strength of Mother Earth. Delsarte described opposition of movement as two organs moving in opposite directions at the same time; parallelism as two organs moving in the same direction at the same time.
       "Parallelisms show purpose, and are thus contrary to instinct; they therefore express mentality. Oppositions are physically instinctive, and remain always a physical language.
       "Successions are the language of the emotions. Oppositions appear in the earliest experience of the race, successions in its highest development. Opposition and its negation, parallelism, arise from man's economic relation to the earth through gravitation, while successions arise from man's economic relation to himself through the laws of his own chemistry and the vibratory condition of his nervous system."
       Thus far Mrs. Russell. It seems to me preferable to arrive at the same conclusion by an à priori route, and thus avoid the appeal to analogy, to which I have already referred. Parallelism emphasizes the likeness or generic quality in things, and ignores or slurs over the unlikeness or specific quality. It affirms the universal and denies the particular. Or, since particularity is matter, and universality form or idea, we may say that parallelism is strong in expressing the things of the mind, and weak in expressing the things of the body. Opposition is the negation of parallelism. It emphasizes unlikeness and disregards likeness; it affirms the particular and denies the universal. It is therefore the expression of the physical, of strength, of Titanism.
       Succession is the synthesis or reconciliation of the two. It affirms likeness and unlikeness at once, variety in unity, change not as of a broken line but as of a curve, in obedience to an unchanging law. It thus expresses the union of universal and particular, which, as Hegel long since showed, is the individual, who is particular in that he has determinations, but universal in that he is determined by himself. Here first we find will with its motives and emotions, its loves and hates, its sympathy and its conscience—in short, moral or spiritual being. Thus parallelisms express pure thought, oppositions its negation or matter, and successions concrete spirit; oppositions are physical, parallelisms intellectual, successions spiritual.
       This metaphysical approach will not perhaps appeal to so many people as the other; but it has the advantage that its results are generalized and can be applied (without appeal to metaphor or analogy) to all arts and all languages with as little hesitancy as an algebraic formula is applied to all possible numbers.
       All this is by way of preface to a few examples of the practical applications that may be made of these principles in the study of philology and poetics. Meter is, of course, a parallelism, the continued repetition of the same or equivalent feet, the recurrence of an accent at equal intervals of time. It emphasizes the universal and is the expression of regularity, the reign of law, and necessity as opposed to mere subjective caprice or "doing as you please." It tempers the audacities of poetry with a sense of rationality and restraint which allows verse to dare frequently what prose could not venture without danger of the florid and bombastic. In the very torrent and tempest of passion it makes us feel an underconsciousness of the eternal calm. Carried too far, the parallelism of meter, as in the versification of Racine and Pope, becomes formalism—the mere empty nothing of pure universality. Indeed, Pope is such an acknowledged sinner in this direction that it is useless to quote examples from him. In Emerson's "Brahma," on the contrary, we have a justifiable use of a great deal of parallelism, in phrase as well as verse, for this empty but all-embracing absolute is exactly what he wishes to express:

                            "They reckon ill who leave me out;
                                   When me they fly, I am the wings;
                            I am the doubter and the doubt,
                                   And I the hymn the Brahmin sings."

       This is as "regular" as anything in Pope; but no one notices that it is, because its regularity is appropriate in expression. Ars est celare artem. The best technic effaces itself.
       Interruptions of the meter by breaks, dislocations of the accent and the like are oppositions, and express physical power, as where Lear's speech echoes the tumult of the storm:

       "Blòw, wìnd and cràck your cheèks! ràge, blòw!
       You càtaracts and hùrricànoes, spoùt
       Till you have drènched the steèples, dròwned the còcks!
       You sùlphurous and thoùght-èxecuting fires,
       Vaùnt-coùriers to òak-cleàving thùnderbòlts,
       Sìnge my whìte heàd, and thoù, àll-shàking thùnder,
       Strìke flàt the thìck rotùndity o' the wòrld!"

       Here there is an opposition of adjacent syllables, caused by the unexpected juxtaposition of accent, and also an opposition between the expected accent and the real accent; for repetition, the mother of habit, has caused the ear to expect a certain beat of the measure to hear the stress of the voice.
       The distinction between end-stopped and run-on lines has acquired special importance in recent studies of Shakespeare's artistic development. An end-stopped line is one which ends with the end of a phrase or sentence; that is, to the parallelism of meter it adds parallelism of phrasing and parallelism between the phrasing and the meter—too much parallelism for steady use. Run-on lines create a pleasing contrast between meter and phrasing, and make the harmonies of verse richer and more complex. It may be observed here that the line-group is never obliterated; tho even so acute an observer as Lanier seems to think that it sometimes might be, and tho there is always some theorist without ear (?) ready to rise and demand that we dispense with the fiction of lines in blank verse, and write it in irregular groups according to its phrasing. This would absolutely destroy the purpose of run-on lines, which is to diversify the meter; for there would no longer be any meter to diversify, but only (God save the mark!) rhythmic prose. Now, rhythmic prose, or prose which preserves a fixed type of quantity and masquerades in the habits of verse, is, as every tyro in literature knows, about as bad prose as can be written. Nevertheless, people will still go on making alleged translations of Homer into this bastard form. Good prose has its own rhythms, to be sure, but they are constructed in quite a different manner.
       This misconception of the relations of the line and the phrase is due to two causes, a failure to properly distinguish between the two subjects of meter and phrasing, and an insufficient understanding of the importance of what may be called the expectation of the ear. To be sure, in weak-ending, unrhymed lines, the line-group is marked off for the ear neither by recurrence of tone-color, nor pause, nor inflection—at least without an affectation in the reading. But the type of the versification being once fixed by sufficient repetition, the habit of noting all its regular phenomena, including the line-group, makes the ear expect a pause; and this expectation, tho no pause actually occur, is quite sufficient to preserve the effect of the line. It is strange that Lanier should not have seen this, who saw so clearly the application of the same principle in the treatment of accent and Shakespeare's use of the rest.
       But verse comprises not only rhythmic but phonetic phenomena, and in these, too, the same principles are operant. Bearing in mind what has been said of the significance of parallelism, we begin to see why its emphatic form in alliteration so easily becomes self-conscious, while, on the contrary, its all-pervading syzygies, like Tennyson's

              "Moan of doves in immemorial elms,
              And murmur of of innumerable bees,"

lift us into an atmosphere of dignity and calm.
       The word "syzygy" was applied by Professor Sylvester to all repetitions of consonants not alliterative; i.e., not beginning accented syllables, and adopted after him by Lanier. Sylvester saw clearly the importance of such repetitions in giving unity to the measure. It is to this, he says, "that we must attend in order to secure that coherence, compactness and ring of true metal, without which no versification deserves the name of poetry." Vowels, of course, may be treated in like manner, as in Shakespeare's

              "Singing masons building hives of gold,"

in which short i is repeated four times. It is true that there is an old rule in the books that the same vowel must not be repeated in the same line; but this rule has been honored in the breach by every one of the great English poets from Chaucer to Tennyson, and may as well be cast into the literary ragbag along with the notion that what are "perfect rhymes" in French are no rhymes at all in English, as if tones were not tones and rhymes rhymes whether spoken in Choctaw, Chinese or Zulu.
       On the other hand, contrast of vowel-sounds, of which Milton is so great a master, gives, as we should expect from our premises, great largeness of utterance, majestic, mouth-filling expressions, as in the opposing o'es and i's in

              "Osiris, Isis, Orus and their train,"

or the fine oppositions in the lines

              "In Vallombross, where the Etrurian shades
              High-overarched embower."

Take as another example Keats's

              "Silent, upon a peak in Darien,"

in which the long i of "silent" juts out among the other vowels of the line as if it were itself the peak of the poet's vision.
       Under the principle of succession comes all modulation of vowels and consonants. Such lines as Byron's

              "The song and oar of Adria's gondolier,"

have a lapsing cadence like the plash and ripple of Adria's waters, and leave a lingering sweetness in the memory, due almost entirely to the subtle transitions by which the ear is carried without perceiving it from "song" to "lier"; that is, from one extreme to the other of the whole range of English vowel sounds.
       In the most beautiful versification the three modes are used together. This may have been observed in some of the quotations already given, and will be continually in all fine verse when analyzed.
       In that splendid and sonorous line in "Paradise Lost,"

              "Busiris and his Memphian chivalry,"

note, as parallelism, the congruence of "ris" and "ry," and also that of "ris" and "his," and of "phi" and "iv"; likewise the syzygy of the two s's in "Busiris" and the z-sound in "his," and the i-syzygy in ris-his-phi-chiv-ry. See how the first three i's, unapparent and unaccented, seem to exercise a certain attraction that draws the melody from the strong opposition of "Bu" and "si" in the first foot, through the gradation a-e-a into the parallelism of the last two accented i's. All this may seem over-refinement to some, but not to those who by study and practice have become familiar with the mystery of sound. Indeed, it is by these very niceties that the true craftsmaster may always be known. They cannot be well done of malice prepense, but conscious, prentice work will nevertheless lead toward an unconscious habit that increases the skill of the poet. "The habit of noting such sequences," says Lanier, "will presently breed in the mind that unconscious care of them which will guide the thought, in its working, toward the proper combinations."