Skip to content

The poem’s not in the word.

From our Archive: ‘Thoughts on the Technique of Poetry.’ 1906.


The “unit” of poetry, its primal element, is not the word but the verse, or at least the phrase…

I AM PERSUADED that out of every hundred persons who consider the matter at all, ninety-and-nine take one of two views concerning poetry. Either they think it is a mere virtuosity, or, say, like fencing, a pleasant pastime surviving from an age when it possessed some practical value. And this is the opinion of the majority, of ninety at least out of the ninety-and-nine. Or else they—the remainder—look upon prose and verse much as you may look upon a song and its setting. The essential of poetry they conceive exists first of all in prose in the mind of an author. Then, if he have the knack to give this added grace, he makes a rhythmic setting or translation of his prose, as one may say.

It is only a minority which gives to poetry as much importance even as this last view implies. But that is not saying that the majority condemn it or wish it done away with. Mere virtuosity—that, of course, has its value and a certain charm. Costly book-bindings, the collection of china, of old armour, etc.—all these things add to the amenities of life. You cannot analyse their uses. Book-binding is not helpful, hurtful rather, to book-reading, and collected china is of no service in a house, and scarcely counts as an ornament. Yet one feels a satisfaction in having things of price about one. So the majority judge about verse-writing. It is of no use; but it must have cost a lot of trouble, and so is expensive—in time. Now and again it is a pleasant change from prose. It is an article de luxe which no gentleman’s library should lack.

The folk who read Shakespeare often are in reality one man picked out of—say, five hundred. Others have read Shakespeare, chiefly from a sense of duty; and they always enjoy seeing his plays at His Majesty’s, where the scenery helps out a certain dulness in the plot, and the verse practically disappears. What remains is the presentation of character. If they were perfectly frank they would prefer to have that in prose. And if verse were indeed, what it is for them, an added ornament to the piece no more, could one say they were altogether in the wrong? It is certain that Hamlet’s personality never shows itself more vividly than when he speaks in prose.1 “Hath this fellow no feeling of his business that he sings at grave-digging?” “Is this the fine of his fines and the recovery of his recoveries, to his fine pate full of fine dirt?” Nor is Shylock ever so tremendous as in his outburst to Salarino, “He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation,” and so forth in the first scene of the third act of The Merchant of Venice. And that passage, too, is in prose.

Or a man might say of many parts of In Memoriam—some of the philosophic discussions—they would be clearer and more natural in prose. Even by the view of the nine and not the ninety, the view, I mean, that verse is a beautiful and desirable thing in itself, how are we to defend such lines as—

See thou, that countest reason ripe
In holding by the law within,
Thou fail not in a world of sin,
And even for want of such a type.

or as—

That each who seems a separate whole
Should move his rounds and, ‘fusing all
The skirts of self again, should fall,
Remerging in the general Soul,

Is faith as vague as all unsweet.

Surely writers of sermons, surely Usher or Stillingfleet, have said the same kind of thing much better in prose. What excuse can there be for the “setting,” for the “translation,” when it weakens the passage and adds nothing worth adding?

Why, this excuse—That the metre of In Memoriam belongs not to any special part of it, but to the whole, to the elegiac sentiment of the whole. The office it is there to fulfil is to remind you that, whatever the poet is speaking of at the moment, he always has this mourning, this elegiac mood behind his thoughts, and would keep it in yours likewise. (Whether the metre of In Memoriam is in fact a very good elegiac one or well-suited to the expression of a profound sorrow, that is not here our concern.) It is by this same rule that if Shakespeare’s dramas were in prose, though you might gain in the presentment of individual character, you would lose a certain greatness of atmosphere which envelops all the characters together.

Verse is neither an accident nor a choice, not a trick nor a translation, but a necessity for certain moods of thought…

Verse is in fact neither an accident nor a choice, not a trick nor a translation, but a necessity for certain moods of thought and, therefore, certain modes of speech. To think poetically in prose is not the same as to think in poetry. This last is a different kind of thinking, but I do not know that it need be always a more intense kind. Edgar Poe, we know, maintains that there are really no long poems. All poetry, he holds, represents an unusual condition, an exalted state or fervour of the imagination, as impossible to sustain for long together as if a man should try to live under water or a fish to live out of it. So that the intervals between these ecstasies really divide your long poem into a series of short ones. You leave off reading when your exaltation has gone by; when you begin again it is with a fresh impulse, as if you began a fresh poem. Such is Poe’s contention, which wants not a measure of truth. For not only do you, the reader, need to pause and renew your fires, but probably the poet himself does, and for him too like enough the long is in a sense a series of short ones. Milton, it is certain, keeps us too long upon the stretch with that invariable lofty diction of his; he would do better aliquando nugitare. And I doubt the like may be said of Virgil. But from whiles-nodding Homer, himself, there comes not the same sense of fatigue. We are indeed kept upon high levels most of the time, even as with Virgil and Milton, by the splendour of the language. Yet not the same sense of effort follows; and this, I imagine, is chiefly because there is no prose contemporary with Homer which can either trouble our minds or that of the poet, obliging him to fear and to exert himself lest he slip into prose. That is only saying that Homer’s is a naïve and natural epic; but Virgil’s and Milton’s are self-conscious and constructed epics. When a good current prose exists a man would never spontaneously tell a long story in verse.

To go to quite a different age, there is no sense of effort (chiefly for the same reason) in reading Chaucer or the Roman de la Rose. I speak of the single French epic of this chivalrous order that I know. There is no effort, but in these cases there is, as a rule, no great exaltation, no tightening of the breath as you read. And there is a third kind of narrative poem, of which the same thing can be said, though it differs altogether from the other two. It is the type which is called bernesque, whereof Byron’s Don Juan and Beppo are examples. And I have sometimes doubted whether we might not make a distinction between the poetry which you can only read for a short time on the stretch—say the duration of one evening at the most—and that which runs on not unpleasantly, but never carries you off your feet, as we say; and whether we should not give to the first alone the name of poetry, calling the second verse. Homer, of course, would not come within this second category. But Chaucer might, or a great part of Chaucer; and a great part of Don Juan would, I suppose, likewise. Then again, as Socrates says somewhere, I run away from the notion once more, lest I should be caught in a net of contradiction.

Poetry is not in one way or another an ingenious translation out of prose, but has a mere necessity of human nature for its root and origin.

In any case, the issue raised by Poe is only a side issue to our main thesis—that poetry is not in one way or another an ingenious translation out of prose, but has a mere necessity of human nature for its root and origin. Expressed in its simplest terms and in its primal form, the need for verse derives from the fact that words alone are never sufficient to express emotion, a fact which in private life we recognise a dozen times a day. In private life, as between man and man, the gap is filled in various fashions, by gesture, by caresses, by sighs, laughter, finally by tones of the voice. It would be possible to utter, “I am sorry you are going away!” in twenty different keys varying from polite indifference to tragedy. And if Yorick’s ghost heard his epitaph spoken ten times a day, but “always in plaintive accents,” it was because there was “such a general pity and esteem for him.” It would have been possible to say even “Alas! poor Yorick” in colourless tones. Not, perhaps, very easy. But why? Only because we have invented a certain number of literary signs—so to call them—such as alas! ha, ha! which stand for the sound of a sigh or the sound of laughter. They are chiefly a literary convention; in real life we say “Alas! I have lost my purse” more often than “Alas! I have lost a friend.” They are the call-boys’ “call” for an emotion. But the only thing which can call up an emotion outside the circle of personal relations are the tones of the voice, through a sort of singing, which gives a great portion of the style of prose, and gives all the technical part of poetry. If we accept the theory of these anthropologists (and of Darwin among them) that singing preceded speech and was the author of it, we can understand why poetry has forgone prose in the history of literature, and that prose has grown from verse.

Verse, then, if it is genuine, is necessity that when the imagination—which is the emotion of the thoughts—is active, what it desires to say cannot be uttered by the words we use as we use them in their mere intellectual meaning, and hence it is that the prose which calls for style is imaginative prose. Théophile Gautier has laid down the dictum that is the strangest experience, the newest emotion come to you, like a stone dropped from the moon, and find you without words to express it, then you are no man of letters. Taken exactly, I maintain this is the mere contrary of the truth, and that in imaginative writing it is the first condition that the ideas shall come more rapidly than the power of utterance. This is the intimate sign, the hall-mark of all speech uttered with emotion. That is the significance of those long catalogues of words and images which we find in rhetorical prose; they are there because the speaker is panting to utter thought which crowd upon him. And for the same reason he must then often overleap the strict rules of grammar.

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, sense, affections, passions?

Shylock begins, in that tremendous speech of his, a prose than which our language contains nothing greater,

Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

Shylock begins, observe, more deliberately with the two “hath nots.” But after “passions” he has no time to change his “hath nots” to “is he not,” as the passage following demanded. At “if you poison us do we not die?” he must pause for breath; and the last question, the most terrible of all, comes weighted with deliberation, “And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?”

In Milton’s—

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.

And in St. Paul’s—

For I am persuaded that neither life, not death, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, not things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God.

A redundancy of words is the most unpardonable of all faults in versification.

IN EVERY CASE the eagerness of the assertion, the liveliness of the emotion, these are given by the images rushing upon the heels one of another; but the greatness of the sentiment is expressed by the splendid cadences of sound. Verse, if verse has a reason for being, should touch even higher points. The intellectual emotion which incites to verse should, as a rule, be stronger (certainly livelier, though not necessarily greater) than the emotion which uses prose. So we must surmise that in verse-writing the thoughts which are clamouring to find a body, “vastly clamouring” in the brain. Like those ghosts which thronged around Ulysses’ trench, far outnumber the thoughts which there is time and place to clothe with form and semblance by language. From this follows a very easy canon for the critic of poetry, that a redundancy of words is the most unpardonable of all faults in versification. It is almost always such redundancy that marks off the poetaster from the poet. We may even say that when there are many words employed—although they cannot fairly be called redundant—the Muse is in a pedestrian vein. An example of such a case is Wordsworth’s poem on the daffodils, a very beautiful poem, but still on the whole pedestrian or jog-trot, and only rising to greatness in the last four lines—

They flash upon that inward eye,
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

But read the whole poem first, and then put side by side with it that one phrase of Shakespeare—

That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty,

and you will agree with me in the use of the words jog-trot verse. Under the head of redundancy are not to be counted certain repetitions which belong to the technique of certain sorts of verse, such as the refrains of ballads, &c. These things connect poetry most closely with its origins in singing and dancing. So do the similar repetitions in the choruses of Greek dramas—the “strophic correspondence”—which, as well as the correspondences in Pindar, and again (of another sort) in Theocritus, all connect Greek verse with its origins, with motion of voice or limbs, something outside the mere words. There is another sort of repetition in the parallelism which is of the technique of Hebrew verse. None of these things argue a poverty of ideas. They spring from another source.

Gifford, in his bitter attack on Endymion,2 fastened upon what seemed to him a great fault, and would seem so to the average reader maybe, that many of Keats’s images look as if they were suggested by the rhymes; for example, almost at the outset “fair musk-rose blooms” is followed by the line—

And such, too, is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead.

But when we think of the panting vehemence of imagination in all genuine verse, we see that the fault is a very small one. The poet’s mind was certainly at that moment crowded by images of beauty far more than he had time to set down, beauties of the visible world or of the world of thought, beauties of trees, of brooks, of daffodils, the flowers of earth and the dooms of the mighty dead. Where there is such a wealth of choice, rhyme may incline the balance. And that is all that can have happened.

But the way the average reader looks upon the matter is very different. And though Gifford was a rhymester himself and almost a poet, I doubt his reviewer’s view was the average reader’s. Such an one can only present to his fancy the poet desperately searching for the rhymes needed to convert what he would naturally say in prose into the required verse. Keats’s ideal, according to this notion, would have been to draw up a more or less logical catalogue of the beauties of both the worlds, the physical and the metaphysical, or such selection as should be the most typical, beginning, say, with the more important and ending with the more familiar. He would like to do this, but he is deflected from the ideal by the necessities of rhyme and metre. His art, his virtuosity, lies precisely in making the deflection as little conspicuous as possible. To such a theory Keats’s fault might well seem a grave one; he betrays, they would say, his incompetence by calling attention to the rhyme.3 In reality, to have been logical would have dispensed with and defeated all the objects of verse. It would imply reflection, time to let die the impulse which was alone the reason for not writing in prose, time, in fact, to let the word replace the vivid image in the purview of the mind. Even in impassioned prose strict grammar, as we have seen, cannot be; because grammar is the logic of language, and we cannot be strictly logical when we are impassioned. Much less in verse is anything of the sort, the logic of selection, the logic of strict grammar to be thought of. So there is something in Gautier’s dictum after all, if you do not interpret it too strictly. For it is certain that the man who cannot find the words for his thoughts, his images, till the vividness of either has died down, should choose another medium to utter himself in, not letters. And in such lightning processes as those of thought a strict account of sequences can scarcely be demanded.

In verse (and in impassioned prose as well) the first donné, the first thing gained after the “manifold” of passion that seeks for utterance, is not the words that utter it, but the whole phrase

Yet, as I want to consider all these matters rather curiously in the present article, I will add my own belief that in verse (and in impassioned prose as well) the first donné, the first thing gained after the “manifold” of passion that seeks for utterance, is not the words that utter it, but the whole phrase, in poetry most generally the line or verse which contains the words. That sounds paradoxical at a first hearing—that a poet can think his line before he knows of what words it will be made up. But if you will give a little attention to the theory you will see it is not so fantastic as it sounds. We have seen that words, before they can be charged with emotional or imaginative value, must always be supplemented by a something, by gesture or by intonation. And though we say supplemented, it is almost certain that these additions have, in the history of the race, preceded the use of speech. Caresses and many mimetic gestures we share with the beasts; children can use both before they learn to speak. Singing in a rude form, intonations of the voice; these are possessed by babies and by some apes. Further, many philologists think that our present vocabularies of short and simple sounds have been arrived at by a wearing down of much more elaborate and complicated sounds, what would more nearly correspond to sentences nowadays.  If singing did indeed create speech, the theory is doubly plausible. For the unit of singing cannot have been a single sound; it must have been the “phrase.” Emotion must have evoked the (musical) phrase—containing, that is to say, some sort of cadence and contrast of sound—before language was formed into the words that make the phrase. And there is nothing unreasonable or fantastic, but most probable, in the notion that the same sequence is followed still when emotion provokes us to any metrical form of speech.

These considerations are very germane to a comprehension of the technical side of poetry. How far have they already brought us from the notion that verse is a translation out of prose!4 So far as criticism goes it is the technical side of verse which needs most to be studied. Or one may say that when the critic is deficient on the other side, the sentimental, he generally has the grace to abstain from criticizing poetry. But “a feeling for poetry” is not enough. Through trusting to his sentiment of poetry and nothing else, our reviewer in this class of literature drifts about rudderless on a sea of opinion, guided by nothing but his individual likes and distastes. Now, if he will accept the theory that the verse itself (the phrase) is the real unit of poetry and will abandon altogether his notion of verse being a translation from prose, he will find that he has already made one good step toward criticizing poetry on its technical side.

The “unit” of poetry, its primal element, is not the word but the verse, or at least the phrase…

When they would fill their “phrase”—their verse—with words (as one may express it), most poets of the better sort have been haunted by a desire to get rid of poetic diction. After that—through the influence of Milton’s “pride and ample pinion”—a very Latinised English had come to be the accepted medium of verse, a reaction set in, passing through Cowper, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Mathew Arnold, towards a Saxon vocabulary. It reached its completest form under Tennyson; then it at once crystallised into a new poetic diction; and in the Coventry Patmores and so forth showed as artificial as anything which it had displaced. Artificiality lies, not in the use of one sort of words or another, but in their traditional use and in the mere adoption of another man’s speech or the monotony of the versifier’s own. The “babbling brooks” and “nodding groves” of Pope and Gray and Collins are apt phrases enough, and the second at least highly poetical. The fault lay in their constant repetition. Of course, no one is self-made or self-contained. The sounds which arrest his ear must in a great degree have come from education. But if you accept the theory which I have propounded above, that the “unit” of poetry, its primal element, is not the word but the verse, or at least the phrase, that will be enough to show that any special sort of vocabulary, any aim at the use of one kind of word and the extinction of another kind is out of the range of poetry.5 The unit, the primal element I speak of, that must vary with each individual—it expresses the essence of the emotion to the subject whereon he writes. How in that passage of Gray’s, of which I have just quoted a phrase, how should Gray, when he had Pindar in his thoughts, do without the long period of a Latin style?

Though he inherit
Nor the pride nor ample pinion
That the Theban eagle bear,
Sailing with supreme dominion
Through the azure deep of air.

And how could we discard from the passage the breadth and height of the “ample pinion” and the “supreme dominion”?

But in the Elegy, Gray uses a vocabulary much more homely. A man need never tire of quoting the Elegy in his thoughts: but it is (alas!) too hackneyed for quotation in print. The very first stanza is an example in point. It contains one French and one Latin word, of the most familiar sort; all the rest are pure Saxon. For Gray was, in truth, one of the greatest artists in verse who have ever written in English. Had his inspiration been on a level with his artistry, he would have ranked among the greatest poets.6

Wordsworth and Tennyson are Latinised when needful. The discretion of the former is parallel to Gray’s; he is homely in language when he deals with his peasant folk, but not in his odes or in such a poem as Laodamia.

With sacrifice before the rising morn.
Vows have I made by fruitless hope inspired;
And from the infernal Gods, ‘mid shades forlorn
Of night, my slaughtered Lord have I required.

Or, again,

He guides the Pestilence—the cloud
Of locusts travels on his breath;
The region that in hope was ploughed
His drought consumes, his mildew taints with death.

“Sacrifice,” “inspired,” “infernal,” “required,” and again “pestilence,” “region,” “consume,” the deep sonority of these words is needful to the passages in which they stand. So Tennyson in that beautiful short poem to Virgil, in the best passage thereof—

I salute thee, Mantovano,
I that loved thee since my day began,
Wielder of the stateliest measure
Ever moulded by the hand of man.

“Salute thee” and “stateliest measure” are of the very essence of the verse. And we have beside the un-English “Mantovano,” which is the keynote of the stanza. Compare any one of these three quatrains with the opening stanza of the Elegy, and you see at once the effect of the Latin part of our vocabulary.

IN DAYS WHEN either prose is not—is not in literature, I mean—as in Homer, or when verse still holds a preponderant place over prose, as with the Elizabethans—then men could do without a poetic diction, maybe, and only create one for future times. But in our age, when certain terms and expressions have an association hopelessly commonplace or worse, it is impossible to see how poetic diction of some sort is to be avoided. Mr. Kipling may write, if it pleases him so to do, that—

All unseen
Romance brought up the nine-fifteen.

But romance is not on the train one whit more for the saying so. The very sound of certain words must get debased by base uses, and could never spring into the mind in its imaginative moments.7

In this shadow-land of the whole phrase or verse which is first of all in the poet’s mind, there are certain crests on which the light of definite verbal meaning first shines. These are, in rhymed verse, the words that carry the rhyme, and in all (English or German or Italian) verse they are the words which carry the stress. Modern French verse has no stress, so the rhyme is all-important. In his Petit Traité de Poesie française, Th. de Banville lays it down as a fixed rule that the rhymed word must never be an insignificant one. What he lays down as universal, we need only to take as general—first, because the trammels of rhyme are stricter here than there; secondly, because the stressed word—the word which precedes the cæsura—has almost equal claim to consideration with the rhymed word. Here is a simple rule of thumb for the critic. If he find in his versifier (through-out) that the rhymed words and the stressed words are frequently insignificant ones, he may set him down as no poet. And the logic of this is very clear: if the writer’s inspiration have not itself created those bones, that skeleton of his verse, then he has no genuine inspiration to write in verse. In blank verse, of course, it is only the stressed words that count—one before the cæsura, one, not quite always, but almost always, at the end of the line. For instance, in that daffodils passage of Shakespeare’s the stressed words are “daffodils,” “dares,” “take,” “March,” “beauty”; all germane to the matter. We cited above four separate quatrains from Gray, from Wordsworth, from Tennyson. What are the rhymed and stressed words in these? From Gray we have “pride,” “pinion,” “Theban,” “bear,” “sailing,” “dominion,” “azure,” “air.” From Wordsworth (No. 1), we get “sacrifice,” “morn,” “vows” (or “fruitless”; these two words are almost equally stressed), “inspired,” “infernal,” “forlorn,” “slaughtered.” “required”; from Wordsworth (No. 2), “pestilence,” “crowd,” “locusts,” “breath,” “region,” “ploughed,” “consumes,” “death”; and from Tennyson, “salute,” “Mantovano,” “loved,” “began,” “wielder,” “measure,” “moulded,” “man.”

Or, as a simple example, take these lines from Midsummer Night’s Dream

Through the forest have I gone,
But Athenian found I none,
On whose eyes I might approve
This flower’s force in stirring love.

Where the stressed words, “forest,” “gone,” “Athenian,” “none,” “eyes,” “approve,” “force,” “love” give almost a perfect skeleton of the stanza.

But in this same Midsummer Night’s Dream you may find contrary examples of what should not be in verse. And that will be enough to show a critic that, though we have given him a rule of thumb for measuring poetry as such, no single judgment is a final one if it professes to judge the poet. For it is certain no one could defend such a couplet as—

Do not say so, Lysander, sat not so.
What though he loves your Hermia? Lord, what though.

Some evil genius, in truth, lay in wait for Shakespeare when he set himself to indite these heroic couplets. Who could have believed that the same pen which wrote the incomparable

Gliding pale streams with heavenly alchemy,

was capable of ending a fine sonnet thus?—

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds.
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.8

In English rhyme the exception to the rule which De Banville makes universal is most often made by the impulse toward a special form of lessened rhyme which can often be got by (for instance) rhyming “be” with words like “majesty”—in which case the lessening is got by the substitution (by means of the long word) of a dactyl for an iambic, a spondee, or a trochee at the end of a line. A like effect is also got by ending a line with a short, i.e., unaccented “are.” Of the first method we have an example in Milton’s nativity hymn:—

That glorious form, that Light insufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of majesty,
Wherewith He wont, at Heaven’s high council-table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside, and here with us to be
Forsook the courts of everlasting day.

Of the other in Shirley’s—

Victorious men of earth no more
Proclaim how wide your empires are!

Or Wotton’s—

Whose passions not his masters are,
Whose soul is still prepared for death.

The peculiar charm of this sort of rhyme lies in its giving a sense of dignity—a sort of dignity in resignation or restraint—such as is afforded also by the use of negative statements in lieu of positive ones—a use which is so common with the Greek tragedians, frequent in almost all the Latin poets, and met with more often in Milton than any other of ours; used by him in prose, too, with great effect, as in the passage quoted above from the Areopagitica.

Where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.

And for verse take—

And that strife
Was not inglorious, though the event was dire.

And ye five other wandering fires that move
In mystic dance, not without song . . .

More safe I sing with mortal voice unchanged
To harsh or mute, though fallen on evil days.

. . . . . Yet not alone while thou
Visitest my slumbers nightly.

In each case it is the sense of resignation or voluntary self-restraint, using the naturally unemphatic in place of the emphatic, which gives most of the pleasure; but, of course, a part also springs from the mere effect of contrast.

To this effect gained from language in its logical significance corresponds in another region—language as sound—the half-rhyme or incomplete rhyme, which in verse has an inexpressible charm. Almost always you will find in a set of rhymed verses that the stanza or couplet which contains the semi-rhyme sounds most pleasantly on the ear. As, for instance, in the “Queen and Huntress” lyric in Cynthia’s Revels, the quintessence of those quintessential lines is in these four:—

Lay thy bow of pearl apart,
And thy crystal-shining quiver;
Give unto the flying hart
Space to breathe how short soever.

In Kubla Khan the last couplet of the first verse is the most splendid—

And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war.

Or take this of Waller—

That which her slender waist confined,
Shall now my joyful temples bind:
No monarch but would give his crowd
His arms might do what this has done.

No doubt a greater proportion of this pleasure comes from contrast than in the case of that use of the negative just spoken of; and, unless employed sparingly, the pleasure evaporates.

De Banville also lays it down as a rule, and I am sure it is a just one, that two rhymed words should not be of the same nature (genre): with us it applies to the stressed words likewise. If, for example, a man were versifying of the constellations to make the Lion rhyme to Orion would be a fault. But if he had descended to earth and were writing of mythology and nature, then there would be no fault; for it is only qua constellation that “Orion” is of the same genre as “lion.” The reason of this principle is logical, as you will see in considering what was said above about the bones of the verse, or the mountain-summits of the verse, being the rhymed words and the stressed words. It is on them that the imagination fastens first. And it is only when imagination is weak that it will think at once of two things of the same genre; for, for the purposes of verse, these two things are but one thing.

So far forth this fault is found in certain verses of Orlando in As You Like It, which otherwise are the best of his batch:

Helen’s cheek but not her heart,
Cleopatra’s majesty,
Atalanta’s better part,
Sad Lucretia’s modesty.

For of course two words which are opposed in significance, such as “majesty,” “modesty,” may yet be of the same nature or genre.

And of equal importance is the rule for the stressed word (or for the cæsura)—a rule which is generally insisted on—that it must occur at irregular distances in the verse. (It is nonsense to talk, as critics generally do, of the cæsura as the essential element in this matter; the cæsura in itself is a purely negative element: its importance exists in its giving emphasis to the word which precedes it.) Here again the reason is plain. If the stressed word constantly recurred at the same interval all the effect of the stress would be thrown away. It would be like the constant repetition of the same rhyme.

Come not to me again: but say to Athens
Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beached verge of the salt flood;
Who once a day with his embossed froth
The turbulent surge shall cover. Thither come
And let my grave-stone be your oracle. 9

We see first how irregular are the position of the stressed words here; secondly, how completely they (like the stressed and rhymed words chosen anon from Gray, Wordsworth, Tennyson) give the cream of the passage;10 finally, how in “again,” “Athens,” “made,” “mansion,” “verge,” “flood,” “once,” “froth,” “turbulent,” “cover,” “come,” “grave-stone,” “oracle,” there is no repetition of genre.11

This would be the place to go on to speak of the two chief internal elements which give its sonority to verse—alliteration and assonance; or, one should rather say, dissonance. For, while likeness of neighbouring consonant sounds, if not too frequent, is an element of beauty, likeness of neighbouring vowel sounds is almost invariably an element of ugliness in verse. But there is no space to dwell on these matters.

Let it, however, be borne in mind that such rules as have been here touched on are useful to the critic of verse, but they can be of no use to the writer of verse. If his imagination working in this medium is not strong enough to fill his mind with more than he can possibly find room to say, to make all his ideas and emotions, adumbrate themselves in sounding phrases, to fashion the bones of his verse in such wise that there is no repetition in them and no monotony, then he will never accomplish those things by taking thought. He will not escape redundancy, monotony, poverty, the three things which separate the poetaster from the poet. The middle one he may perhaps avoid. There is a vast amount of lamp-poetry published to-day which seems calculated to deceive even the elect. It might deceive anyone if it were judged by “selected passages” in the reviews. It is when you read the whole that you detect its poverty in thought and in invention masked only by elaborated form.

C. F. Keary (1848-1917) was a scholar, novelist and critic who influenced Modernist writers, including James Joyce. This essay was first published as ‘Some Thoughts on the Technique of Poetry’ in the November 1906 issue of the Fortnightly Review. It has been manually transcribed for the New Series with minor changes to track subsequent usage. This transcription © 2020 The Fortnightly Review.


  1. The reason why Hamlet speaks so much in prose I take to be this: Here for the first time in the history of literature (and the last?) Shakespeare has portrayed the essential genius. But all Shakespeare’s folk (all the important ones) have one element of genius. They speak a language which no common man could have conceived of. That (as explained below) is necessary to the lofty atmosphere in which they dwell. But the same atmosphere would only distort the nature of Hamlet. Wherefore (not by thought, but through his artistic instinct) Shakespeare abandons verse in this case. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be,” is far less expressive of himself than are his prose speeches.
  2. So attributed, but actually by J.W. Croker, in the April 1818 Quarterly Review.—Ed.)
  3. There is a fault I have confessed in those two lines with the “musk rose blooms” rhyming to “dooms”: the rhyme is too conspicuous. But I think the essence of the fault lies in the fact that “dooms” is not precisely the word Keats would have chosen, had he been free to choose. He means the grandeur of men’s fates in death, thinking, I imagine, of the Odyssean νϵκυια or the Sixth Æneid. He does not mean dooms in the Christian—not even in Dante’s sense. These have to do with the good and the evil, the holy and unholy, but not with might and grandeur. He might be glancing at Tantalus or Sisyphus. But I will rather believe he has Achilles and Agamemnon and Anchises in his thoughts.
  4. Which, by the way, was also Ben Jonson’s theory, and Camden’s, his master’s. Camden may have thought what he pleased. But I will never believe that Jonson’s more inspired verse was—as he professes—first written out in prose.
  5. To avoid misconception I must explain that I do not mean that the primal element of poetry is mere “sound.” The phrase may just as well bear a distinct meaning as the single word. It is only by accident that we think of (and think we think in) words as quite separate entities. To the Homeric Greek likely enough (I owe this suggestion to Mr. Charles Whibley) the adjective was often a distinct part of the substantive: at any rate the phrases πόδαϛ ώκύϛ ‘Αχιλλϵϛ—πόλιϛ ϵύρυάγυια (Τρώων)—’Ολύμπια δώματ’ ξχοντϵϛ (άθάνατοι) and so forth, were not thought of otherwise than as unities. Again (to use an analogy) we think of a landscape as made up of a collection of things with names, a field, trees, a brook, &c. There is no reason why the born landscape-painter should so think of it. Yet he does not think of it as mere colour either.
  6. Gray, of course, breaks down in his Elegy just where inspiration would have served him; would have helped him, nay, forced him, to overcome his self-consciousness. Compare the feeble epigram:—

    He gave to Misery (all he had) a tear;
    He gained from Heaven (t’was all he wished) a Friend.”

    Compare this with:—

    A thousand, thousand sighs to save,
    Lay me O where
    Sad true-lover never find my grave,
    To weep there.”

    Or in a different sense, as a case of self-pity, compare it to that tremendous sonnet of Daniel, unsurpassed, I think, by any in the language:—

    “Care-charmer Sleep, son of the sable Night,
    Brother to Death, in silent darkness born,
    Relieve my languish and restore the light,
    With dark forgetting of my care return.”

  7. So, too, in prose. “High-souled” has become impossible; “high-minded”—a favourite word with Carlyle—still has lofty associations:—

    A delicate, proud, high-minded man, pure as refined gold, something sensitive and even feminine about him.”

  8. There is, however, also in Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act iii. sc. 2), an example as striking, as with Shakespeare it is rare, of the happy use of these rhymed iambic pentameters in couplets:—

    My Fairy lord, this must be done with haste,
    For Night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast:
    And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger,
    At whose approach ghosts, wandering here and there,
    Troop home to church-yards: damned spirits all
    That in cross-ways and floods have burial,
    Already to their wormy beds are gone;
    For fear lest day should look their shames upon,
    They wilfully themselves exile from light,
    And must for aye consort with black-browed Night.”

  9. In the penultimate line the “The” is elided, and “turbulent” is really the first word of the line. I doubt “cover” should be included as an extra stressed word in this line. “Come,” on the other hand, bears much less stress than any other final word in this passage.
  10. Timon is speaking: so the word “Timon” needs not to be stressed.
  11. The cæsura is generally counted either at the end of the fourth (unelided) syllable, or of the sixth. In my view, it should be counted always to follow the stressed word in the line.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *