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Counting Victorian Prosodists: Productive Instability and Nineteenth Century Meter

Meredith Martin, Princeton University

I’m going to begin with a rather long quotation:
The present performance is, so far as the end could be reached, the fulfillment of a design, formed about twenty-seven years ago, of one day presenting to the world if I might, something like a complete grammar of the English language; -- not a mere work of criticism, nor yet a work too tame, indecisive, and uncritical; for, in books of either of these sorts, our libraries already abound; -- not a mere philosophical investigation of what is general or universal in grammar, nor yet a minute detail of what forms only a part of our own philology; for either of these plans falls very short of such a purpose; -- not a mere grammatical compend, abstract, or compilation, sorting with other works already before the public; for, in the production of school grammars, the author had early performed his part; and, of small treatises on this subject, we have long had a superabundance rather than a lack. (n.p.)
So writes grammarian Goold Brown, from Lynn Massachusetts in 1851, in his prefatory remarks to his astonishing collection The Grammar of English Grammars.@ Not merely a work of criticism, Brown’s dream is to attempt “something like a complete” grammar by surveying and commenting on all of the existing grammars. But in his list of what this work is not, we are given a glimpse at the various ways that grammatical discourse was freely circulating in the mid-nineteenth century – from the tame and uncritical pamphlets to the highly technical grammar, from the philosophical investigation to the minute detail of a small part of philology.
Brown’s contribution proposed a final word. Running to 1,070 pages, it both a compendium of grammatical rules and is, at the same time, a history of the subject of English grammar. In it, Brown presents the general and – for the nineteenth century – universal rules of grammar, but he also details the differences between grammarians in a way that gestures toward the empirical and objective while nevertheless betraying that grammar, even in a grammar of grammars, is a subjective science. By quantifying the copious history and contemporary lack of consensus about individual rules of grammar, Goold’s Grammar reveals the back-story of one of the most contentious fields of literary study in the nineteenth century, the study of English prosody. I begin with the assumption that “prosody” was an unstable concept in the nineteenth century about which there were various registers of disagreement, but rather than simply quantify the reasons behind that discord (though I am obsessed by this) I am obsessed today with the way that these registers of disagreement were recorded by Victorian prosodists themselves – a trope of counting that, I argue, has continued to this day and has become a staple of prosodic discourse. Victorian prosodists were obsessed with counting, and contemporary prosodists are, too. While there was quite a bit of disagreement about the fundamental mechanisms by which to measure English poetry – accent or quantity – the quantity that interests me is of another kind altogether: that is, the impulse to record, historicize, and intervene as the newest, most studied, and most complete account of prosody in English. This competitive quantifying belies yet another level of formal concern in the nineteenth century beyond the already complicated and contentious debates about the measure of the line. Prosody, I argue here, is just as much about counting the ways that other prosodists have counted as it is about counting the beats in a line; without a community of other scholars to agree with your methodology, prosody becomes merely interpretive.
Otto Jespersen describes language in 1922 in terms that are also useful for thinking about the study of prosody: “a language or a word is no longer taken as something given once for all, but as a result of previous development and at the same time as the starting point for subsequent development.”@ Despite, or perhaps because of the many ideological shifts in linguistic thought over the course of the nineteenth century, the study of prosody – the study of pronunciation, which also contains the study of the measure of verse forms and therefore their definition – was often caught between the new science of language, the contingencies of pedagogical necessity, and the changing ideals of a pure poetic expression that poets hoped could take an organic (and thus collective) as well as inspired (and therefore individual) form. Along with the new philology,@ new histories of English literature,@ and the rise of English education, historical interpretations of prosody flourished in the nineteenth century. Yopie Prins writes, “English Prosody becomes a national heritage, with a political as well as poetical purpose.”@ As Prins asserts in her ground-breaking essay “Victorian Meters,” following John Hollander’s claim that “prosodical analysis is a form of literature in itself,”@ Victorian prosody as “a literary genre . . . raises important historical and theoretical questions about the interpretation of poetry, beyond a merely technical, seemingly ahistorical approach to the scansion of a particular text.”@ The main prosodic theorists of the nineteenth-century -- Edwin Guest, E.A. Dallas, Coventry Patmore, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jakob Schipper, Robert Bridges, Joseph Mayor, T. S. Omond, and George Saintsbury -- did not emerge in a vacuum. Even by mid-century, prosodic discourse was already known as a complicated and unresolved subject. In his 1858 second edition, (because, of course, a second edition was needed) Goold Brown writes a two page definition of “versification”@ (appearing on page 827 of the over 1,000 page text), but then appends to this definition two additional pages of smaller text “observations,” including the following:
If to settle the theory of English verse on true and consistent principles, is as difficult a matter, as the manifold controversies of doctrine among our prosodists would indicate, there can be no great hope of any scheme entirely satisfactory to the intelligent examiner. The very elements of the subject are much perplexed by the incompatible dogmas of authors deemed skillful to elucidate it. (828)
Brown then goes on to quantify the many issues over which prosodists quarreled at mid-century about versification. Though Wimsatt and Beardsley in 1959 simplified all of the discord about English prosody as a disagreement between the so-called “stressers” and “timers”@ the sheer amount of discord over English prosody – what it meant, what it was, what it measured, what it could measure – is something we are just now beginning to understand and use, critically, to our advantage. For instance: what does “quantity” even mean in prosodic terms? Even within the problem of “quantity” there were nuances, variations, and contours to the debate, issues understood and enumerated by Victorian commentators that we take for granted as stable definitions. Again in Brown, we can see some of the important points of contention among and between what we might now understand simply as a conflict between “time” versus “stress,” but more importantly we can see how utterly acceptable, how run of the mill and exhausting these disagreements were to those who attempted to catalogue and teach them. Brown writes:
The existence of quantity in our language; the dependence of our rhythms on the division of syllables into long and short; the concurrence of our accent, (except in some rare and questionable instances) with long quantity only; the constant effect of emphasis to lengthen quantity; the limitation of quantity to mere duration of sound; the doctrine that quantity pertains to all syllables as such, and not merely to vowel sounds; the recognition of the same general principles of syllabification in poetry as in prose; the supposition that accent pertains not to certain letters in particular, but to certain syllables as such; the limitations of accent to stress, or percussion, only; the conversion of short syllables into long, and long into short, by a change of accent; our frequent formation of long syllables with what are called short vowels; the necessity of some order in the succession of feet or syllables to form a rhythm; the need of framing each line to correspond with some other line or lines in length; the propriety of always making each line susceptible of scansion by itself; all these points, so essential to a true explanation of the nature of English verse, though, for the most part, well maintained by some prosodists, are nevertheless denied by some, so that opposite opinions may be cited concerning them all. (828)
This list is, sadly, not at all exhaustive. The disagreements he cites here are a common trope of the prosodic handbook, so that Coventry Patmore begins his 1857 essay “English Metrical Critics” with the claim that, since the establishment of blank verse just after Surrey, “the nature of modern verse has been a favourite problem of enthusiasts who love to dive in deep waters for diving’s sake. A vast mass of nondescript matter has been brought up from the recesses visited, but no one has succeeded in rendering any sufficient account of this secret of the intellectual deep.”@ Patmore, too, begins his own theory by first, ostensibly, reviewing other prosodists. Patmore’s article “English Metrical Critics” appeared the 1857 North British Review as ‘an article ostensibly reviewing George Vandenhoff’s The Art of Elocution, Edwin Guest’s A History of English Rhythms, and William O’Brien’s The Ancient Rhythmical Art Recovered.@ Patmore revised the essay and printed it as a “Prefatory Study on English Metrical Law” in the 1878 edition of Amelia, Tamerton Church Tower, Etc., and was again reprinted in the 1879 four-volume edition of Patmore’s collected Poems (in volume 2). The first steps toward any new theory of prosody are to step over your prosodic predecessors. In this way, prosodists in the nineteenth century created the field of prosody, counting and accounting for each other’s theories, disagreeing with them, and putting forth their corrections, adjustments, and improvements, both to each other and also in a series of revised and reprinted editions of their own works.
And, just as in the book trade, so too was prosodic discourse pervasive in all kinds of publications and fundamentally transatlantic. One of the figures Patmore was supposedly reviewing, George Vandenhoff (1820-1885), was born in England but moved to the United States in 1842, where he met Edgar Allan Poe, with whom he co-authored A Plain System of Elocution@ (though Patmore was reviewing his 1865 book The Art of Elocution). The measure of the English language – and, of course, the proper way to pronounce it – concerned scholars in England and America who published in elocution manuals, grammar books, and periodicals but who also printed and reprinted their debates with one another in their own prosody handbooks and treatises which, toward the end of the nineteenth century, especially, took on a much more nationalistic tone. Robert Bridges, for example, proposed to re-name the mid-stress trisyllabic foot “the Britannic.” His book Milton’s Prosody, published alongside the late William Johnson Stone’s treatise On the Use of Classical Metres in English,@ sold out its first print-run. A revised and expanded edition appeared in 1921. The German Jakob Schipper, who not only wrote about prosody but had also written a three volume History of versification, published his three-volume Englishche Metrik@ in 1888 and the much called-for abridged edition (like the manual George Saintsbury brought out in 1910) appeared in 1895 as Grundriss der englischen metrik (Wein, 1895). The classicist Joseph Mayor published the first edition of Chapters on English Meter@ in 1886 and the revised, second edition in 1901. Thomas Stewart Omond published English Hexameter Verse and English Verse-Structure@ in 1897, and in 1903 brought out English Metrists and A Study of Metre.@ This is only a small example of the field that prosodists and poets were carving out for English poetics in the late nineteenth century. In each of these, the history of prosody is bound to the history of England, prosodic discourse is a contentious battlefield, and each prosodist attempts, in his own way, to historicize and quantify the failed attempts of his predecessors to arrive at a successful prosodic system, in many cases, to catalog the history of revision within a single text; very few prosodic treatises were definitive editions, and this history of revision, correction, and striving is part of the history of English prosody as a malleable, dynamic, and ever-changing discourse. As “prosody” lost its place in nineteenth century English classroom toward the latter half of the century, these prosodic histories and treatises emerged to fill – indeed, superabundantly fill – the void.
But the history of quantifying I’m describing – a meta-prosodic discourse if ever their was one – did not end in the early twentieth century by any means. Its legacy has powerfully affected the way we go about our prosodic business today, both because we are either exhausted by the sheer amount of material and so choose to ignore it, adopting an idea of “traditional” scansion that has been passed down to us by the early twentieth century school system, or because we strike out on our own attempting to find that ever elusive ‘once and for all’ prosodic answer. But in addition to these two paths, I would like to propose a third path – a historically aware prosodic criticism that acknowledges the sheer quantity of prosodic discourse and engages with the possibility that prosody was and is an unstable concept. When T.V.F. Brogan, realized that there was no resource that tracked the way poets and scholars had written about versification in a comprehensive way, he began to count. As a graduate student at the University of Texas, Austin in the late seventies, before Zotero or Endnote, before the internet, he had a plywood box, about two feet wide and three feet deep full of 4x6 note-cards, and each book or article he found got its own card. Like the pigeonhole system of the early editors of the OED, Brogan had stacks of books and corresponded with people who could suggest more books, more bibliographies. When he hit about 5,000 cards, he decided he should start cross-referencing. The result became the magisterial English Versification, 1570-1980, published by Johns Hopkins Press in 1981, which is now available in a hypertext version online. Here is a quotation from his introduction which justifies his exercise:
More rapid progress is a particularly urgent task for versification just now, it being a field which in historical terms has been (it is not too extreme to say) a great mass of ignorance, confusion, superficial thinking, category mistakes, argument by spurious analogy, persuasive definitions, and gross abuses of both concepts and terms. Progress in the field has been repeatedly diverted and obfuscated by vehemently defended by eccentric theories for over three centuries, and the result, to address the plain fact of the matter, has been that neither the structure nor the elements of versification is understood very well even today. We do not need any more talk of shorts and longs, acephalous, acatalectic, or arsis, nor elaborate schemas categorizing the types of off-rhyme, nor really any more student's manuals which reduce subtle and highly complex systems of verbal dynamics to the baldest imaginable terms and definitions. For though it is true that metrical structure (the principal component of verseform) is in essence an extremely simple pattern of extremely simple elements-- indeed, elements which have been known and recognized widely for centuries--it is a system which rests upon linguistic material that continues to astound us by its intricacy, even for what little of it we understand. The full and adequate explanation of English verse- structure still remains to be written; indeed, I judge it is still about half a century away. Those of us who look forward to a unified field theory find it painful to live in a pre- Newtonian age. But we will never have such a theory at all until we survey, understand fully, then divest ourselves of the enormous conceptual errors of the past.
Shouldn’t a volume with over 6,000 records put our minds at rest? Shouldn’t I be satisfied that someone has gone through all of these books for me and has discovered not an answer, but a history that can help me understand why there is no easy answer?
One would think so, but, no. Instead, since 2001, I have also been counting, collecting, collating. Unlike Omond and Brogan, my version of counting is not only bibliographic, nor merely a compend. The Archive, which I’m calling the Princeton Prosody Archive, that I’ve been assembling since 2007 will be fully searchable, so that one can not only track how many times a prosodist referred back to Patmore (not many times, to tell you the truth), but how many times and in what context someone may have used the term “ictus.” Will the archive be exhaustive? Not at all. Will it be comprehensive? Possibly. It already exceeds Brogan’s records and is expanding every day – and I invite you, once we’ve completed a bit more of it, to suggest what we’re missing.
And why might I be interested in a project like this? In addition to a rather healthy case of obsessive compulsive disorder, which I think all of us interested in prosody share to some extent, I think the impulse to count other prosodists and assemble our field – or at least try to sketch out its borders and boundaries, helps us to feel more comfortable in the instability of it all. At least I have come to understand that there were multiple and competing prosodic systems in the Victorian era just as there are today, and so rather than take for granted that every poet’s understanding of prosody was the same, I am assembling this archive to try to see for myself what other ways prosodic discourses intersected in Victorian culture.
We do not have a stable prosody, but this instability can be productive and generative. By constellating some of the missteps, mistakes, obsessions, fads, trends, cultural associations and accrued meanings that have glommed onto prosodic discourse, the cultural field of prosody as an unstable yet extremely generative discourse emerges. And contemporary scholars, I feel, would do well to get comfortable with that instability and proceed not by throwing up our hands for convenience’s sake, nor by trying to account for all of it, but perhaps by agreeing that our task is impossible, that an exhaustive understanding might be impossible, but that our failure to arrive at a right answer or even a single genealogy on which to agree is part of prosodic discourse, a part of prosodic discourse about which our Victorian forbearers were well aware and that we would do well to remember.
Meredith Martin is an Assistant Professor of English at Princeton University, where she teaches courses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry. Her book, The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860-1930 is forthcoming from Princeton University Press. The Princeton Prosody Archive, which she edits and oversees, will launch by the end 2011. Her work has appeared in Victorian Studies, Victorian Poetry, The Hopkins Quarterly, and Modernism/Modernity