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Apr/May 2012 Reviews & Interviews

Filling in the Blank

Blank Verse: A Guide to its History and Use
Robert B. Shaw.
Ohio University Press. 2007. 312 pp.
ISBN 978-0-8214-1757-7.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! Among the less palatable aspects of reviewing, from the reviewer's point of view (or, at least, this reviewer's), is the number of books that there is too little time to write about. That every book one receives cannot be read carefully from cover to cover, and only a few can be selected for further attention, based upon sampling a few pages (or less), takes getting used to. What is still more difficult to get used to is having to cull still further from among the books the samples from which indicate some considerable merit. Reading is long and life is short.

All is not lost, however, for a title from the better university or small literary press perennially relegated to a place in the queue just below the hot new poetry titles. Such presses tend to be dedicated to maintaining a backlist of even excruciatingly slow selling titles. If they believe in a book enough to publish it at all they believe in keeping it in print. The habit is among the many virtues of such presses.

I've promised myself to return, then, to review a few volumes that have waited years in the queue, worthy, still in print, but thwarted time and again of a review by the exigencies of a reviewer's paltry, unaccountable existence on this planet.

One such volume is Robert B. Shaw's Blank Verse: A Guide to its History and Use. Studies of verse forms (other than brief citations in poetical dictionaries and how-to books) have gone out of style, as Shaw recognizes in the case of blank verse:

The meter's history has been somewhat neglected by scholars in the modern and postmodern periods. The last book to attempt an overview of the topic, Blank Verse, by the English esthete and Italophile John Addington Symonds, was published in 1895, two years after the author's death... A fuller though more dispersed treatment of the subject is found in sections at various points of George Saintsbury's A History of English Prosody, whose three hefty volumes appeared from 1906 to 1910.

In these heady times, the full digital texts of both authors' works are available through Google Book Search. Together with Shaw's, they form an exhaustive library on their topic.

Shaw meets his obligation of providing a modest introduction to the early history of the verse form. Blank verse, he asserts, agreeing with centuries of scholarship, was first used at any length by Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey. A handful of previous swatches of it were spurious if not simply unintentional.

The Earl was once far better known among poets than now. He was still well remembered in lines from Alexander Pope, some 200 years later:

Matchless his pen, victorious was his lance;
Bold in the lists, and graceful in the dance:

Pope's is just one of the long list of praises later English poets have lavished upon him for the romantic figure he cut and the modern facility that he brought to English poetry.

Surrey was as erratic as most young noblemen during early English history, and far more brilliant, and was imprisoned several times for temper and intemperance. In the end, he became rather impatient for the gouty, porcine, syphilis-ridden Henry VIII to die, and for the Howard faction to rule as regents to the young, fragile, son conceived of the syphilitic, Edward. He lost his head for saying as much, in a characteristically unguarded moment, to a mother he and his father, the Duke of Norfolk, had otherwise famously cast off. Surrey was a mere 30 years of age when he laid his head on the block.

During those 30 years, Surrey wrote a small quantity of poetry. The fourteener—a poem with lines of fourteen syllables, generally rhymed in couplets—was then long the standard of English prosody, and, at first, he was happy enough to follow the prevailing style. He wrote his fourteeners exclusively in iambic meter (x/). He soon switched to the Alexandrine, a twelve syllable line, again iambic, generally in rhymed couplets.

As he was writing in those very stylish avant-garde Alexandrines, Surrey befriended another poet, Thomas Wyatt. Between the two of them, they adapted an Italian form, thereby inventing what we now know as the Shakespearean or English sonnet, with five iambic feet per line, arranged in three quatrains followed by a closing couplet. Over the next 150 years, the 14-line sonnet, with various rhyme-schemes, would be all the rage. It is arguable that it remains the rage even now.

Still, at that point, English poetry was a paltry thing in comparison to what could be accomplished in the continental languages. Among its great problems was that it was totally without a viable form into which it might effectively translate the Latin heroic hexameter. All attempts, with the tools thitherto at hand, had been feeble or suited only to medieval English ears. The modern English language was completely unsuited to regular use of the dactylic (/xx) metrical foot and the hexameter lines wielded in classical Latin poems.

Having realized that the iambic pentameter line was so flexible that it could go without rhyme, after the fashion of the classical Latin poets, Surrey translated two books of Virgil's Aeneid into unrhymed iambic pentameter, which, when applied to epic poems, is called "heroic verse." Whether applied to long or short poems, it is called "blank verse," the "blank" meaning "unrhymed." It has proven to be the perfect and only English corollary to Latin heroic verse. Soon, however, it was put to a much wider range of uses.

The long second chapter of Blank Verse: A Guide to its History and Use, on "Blank Verse Before the Twentieth Century," picks up from about this point. Shaw closely follows the history received from his two main sources, citing dozens of names, with exemplary lines, from Surrey to Nicholas Grimald to Shakespeare to John Webster to John Milton and so on through Tennyson and Robert Bridges. He does add John Greenleaf Whittier and one Frederick Goddard Tuckerman to the American names received from his two predecessors. Shakespeare and Milton, of course, are the acknowledged giants in the form.

So much time must be covered in the chapter that the reader is not informed that Charles I, of England, had in the meantime been beheaded, the Puritan Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had ruled and died, and Charles II had been restored to the throne, in 1660, from exile in France, to great celebration by a people tired of Puritan rule. Charles II brought wit back with him and the French couplet for poems and (briefly) for the plays that could once again be shown in public playhouses. Soon plays would throw off the fetters of prosody altogether and be written in prose.

Blank verse would have to wait nearly a hundred years to return to some popularity in poetry and would not be written well enough to be worthy of historical notice at least until the first of the poet James Thomson's Seasons, "Winter", in 1725. During those years, the vast majority of poets and readers felt that an eternal golden era of classically-styled, highly polished, thoroughly rational poetry in couplets had been attained in England. The period was called the "Augustan Age," comparing it to the golden age of Roman poetry under the Emperor Augustus. All that went before, in English poetry, including its great works of blank verse, was considered primitive if not brutish.

Thomson's Seasons opened the flood-gates (behind which considerable pressure had already accumulated) for what was then known as "Gothic poetry," and would come to be known as Romanticism. The faults of Thomson's poems, however, are sufficiently great that the vast majority of literary historians since the Romantic age have agreed with Shaw:

Readers who are left yawning by Thompson or actively irritated by [Edward] Young may find Cowper a relief. There are numerous Miltonic turns of phrase in The Task (1785), and yet in reading it we are more likely to notice anticipations of Wordsworth than reverberations of Milton.

While religion had been revived, in England, in reaction to the license of the Restoration (and, even more so, to the "civilized" rational religion of the Augustans), and its literature, a growing middle class now provided a new public for books and it demanded that a good bit of romanticism (domesticated, to be sure) and worldly optimism be mixed in with censure of the secular city.

By that standard, it was William Cowper's poem The Task which revived the fortunes of blank verse. Cowper's name has recently been revived not for his poem per se but for his relationship with William Wilberforce's highly popular Evangelical sect and the anti-slavery poems he wrote in support of their efforts. The leaders of the Wilberforce Evangelical sect were generally businessman, professionals and members of Parliament. They were possessed of sufficient wealth to rescue their families from the evils of London (that is to say "the big city") and begin the practice of commuting to work there from a small village called Clapham. The village is widely considered to have been transformed, in this way, into the first modern suburb (although, at the time, the term "suburb" was already in use and meant something entirely less salubrious), and Clapham families to have been transformed into the first truly "nuclear" families. Cowper has been drafted as the poet laureate of the new suburbia.

It is something of a commonplace, in recent times, to state as fact that Cowper often visited Clapham in order to participate in meetings of worship and planning although it is almost certain that he never did so. The poet frequently suffered prolonged bouts of clinical depression often so deep that he had to be restrained in asylums in order to be prevented from taking his own life. During his brighter intervals, he rarely felt up to the shock of traveling beyond the neighboring woodlands, where, together with his gardens, his cottage and his poetry, he found his only joys in life. He was an inmate (however gratefully) of the then model of suburban life, rather than having chosen it: gifted, once his poetry became popular, with the lifelong lease of a cottage, which removed him from squalor, thus providing him the requisite detached house and neighborhood park that defined the suburban lifestyle. He was cared for, most of his adult life, by the widow of an old friend. Requests from the "Clapham Sect" arrived by post, and, on rare occasion, by direct visit to the poet enlivened by matches of badminton.

All of this said, the better lines of Cowper's The Task are among the first to sound modern to contemporary readers and this is in considerable part because it is written in blank verse. He was giving surprisingly modern advice to aspiring poets who wrote to him, as well:

Remember that in writing perspicuity is always more than half the battle. The want of it is the ruin of more than half the poetry that is published. A meaning that does not stare you in the face is as bad as no meaning, because nobody will take the pains to poke for it.

Writing for a general audience, blank verse was more than an esthetic choice. Accessibility was on its way to become the byword it is today.

The first truly exceptional handling of the form waited still longer until the poetry of William Wordsworth or (depending upon one's taste) Percy Bysshe Shelley. As for blank verse in plays, several attempts have since been made to revive it—most with limited and brief success, if any. Shelley's plays in the form became enormously popular 17 years after his death in an 1822 sailing accident, when his wife, Mary, the author of the novel Frankenstein, agreed to publish a (discreetly censored) edition of his works from the disordered manuscripts he'd left behind. She had supported herself and their son by her pen since the poet's untimely death but never again wrote a work approaching the popularity of Frankenstein. The details of Shelley's romantic life and death, and the rare copies of the books he had vanity-published during that life, had, in the meantime, made him the first rock star in history. She was offered a gratifying amount, as the executrix of his estate, to release an edition of his complete poems and agreed on the condition that she would have total editorial control. She must have quietly thought that the badly needed paycheck was the least he owed her for the hell he'd put her through during his life. Soon after publication, young men let their hair grow and dressed in Shelley's careless fashion. Young women fainted with the climax of his wildest passages.

But Shelley's blank verse plays were never meant to be played. They were pitched at much too high a rate for that. They were pure poetry and he was purely a poet.

While all of this assured several generations of abominable imitations, a young fan named Robert Browning turned out to be carefully educated, by doting parents, and a supremely talented poet himself. Browning saw the excesses of his dear Shelley for what they were. Shelley's "plays" were diffuse to an extent that can only be appreciated by trying to read them. The dramatic efforts they encouraged in Browning were compressed into monologues, in most cases of a few hundred lines, adroitly unfolding the psychological make-up of much more earth-bound main characters. The blank verse dramatic monologue was born and Browning joined Shakespeare and Milton in the first rank of our blank verse poets.

Robert B. Shaw's Blank Verse: A Guide to its History and Use begins in earnest, properly speaking, at the 20th century, and the third chapter of his fine book, with a poet who did with Browning's dramatic monologues much as Browning did with Shelley's verse plays. While Shelley's plays are peopled by gods and demi-gods, Browning's monologues are brought closer to the reader by being spoken by minor historical figures. The dramatic poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson go a further and a fateful step: they are inhabited by the common people of the day.

In accordance with his new dramatis personae, Robinson also dialed back Browning's highly compressed style and preference for idiosyncratic personalities. His style is closer to the day-to-day language of his characters. The same is true of the emotional pitch.

Robinson himself recoiled from any suggestion that he was influenced by Browning and Shaw makes no connection. However much they share the machinery of drama, and a verse form, the details of the two poets' styles vary about as much as details may. He had those details from a number of poets (and his own personality, of course) and got what little he had of Browning through them as intermediaries. George Meredith (then the most popular poet, in English), while he only rarely wrote his portraits of the common people of his time in blank verse, was Robison's pervasive influence. Robinson's most effective trait—his gentle caricature—had come to be Meredith's stock-in-trade a decade before Robinson made use of it.

Robinson, in turn, heavily influenced the next poet in Shaw's chronology, and America's finest practitioner of strict blank verse, Robert Frost. Had Frost not been forced to seek out a publisher in England, he might have continued all his life to be a talented minor poet influenced by Emerson, Whittier, Meredith and Robinson. But go to England he did, in 1912, and there, as fate would have it, he met the bizarre and brilliant American expatriate poet Ezra Pound.

Some 40 years into the future, Pound would provide radio propaganda for the Axis powers in World War II, which, together with his virulent anti-Semitism, and racial bigotry, would make an inextricable mess out of his legacy. But during the early years of the century he was a wild-eyed thrift-shop London dandy replete with cape and cane and theories on how to write modern poetry. He had a reputation for being endlessly entertaining (inasmuch as one did not take him too seriously) and knowledgeable about the craft (inasmuch as one did).

Like so many poets Pound took under wing, Frost found him an impossible meddler. And, like so many, soon after suffering Pound's impromptu poetry classes he wrote by far the finest book of poetry he would ever write. At the time, Pound had one single-minded obsession: Robert Browning. Browning's dramatic monologues, he averred, to anyone who would listen (or who tried not to listen), were the model for a modern poetry.

In 1914, Frost's North of Boston was published and America had another volume to add to its then small collection of great works of poetry. It is largely a collection of blank verse dramatic narratives, with one or (generally) two speakers: the volume that gave us "The Death of a Hired Man," "The Housekeeper," and "Home Burial," among other profound psychological insights into ourselves and our neighbors. It would not have been an exaggeration, at the time, to call him "the Robert Browning of New England."

This is not to suggest that Frost slavishly imitated Browning. Or that Pound deserves equal credit for the volume as inspirational muse. Frost started with the dramatis personae that Robinson had employed—the people around him—and it was he alone who saw what could be done by taking back some of Browning's compression and attention to his characters' idiosyncrasies. It was he who could see how fruitful the combination would be, how only he had just the right ear for it.

Slowly, however, Frost would return to the lyric poetry he had learned to love in Meredith. Each subsequent volume was written on slightly easier terms, each had fewer and less well constructed blank verse dramatic narratives. He would not only never return to the quality of North of Boston but he would become a parody of himself. The parody would make him far more popular than the earlier, far better work had. The temptation was too much.

Beginning his third chapter with Robinson, Frost and Yeats, Robert B. Shaw might seem to have come to the end of his subject. It is generally understood that both free verse poets and formal have had little use for blank verse since Frost's early efforts. But this mistaken impression is exactly the reason Shaw took up the subject at all.

The traditional connection of blank verse to longer forms, loosening since the romantic era, pretty much gave way as Frost and other twentieth-century poets applied the meter to poems of less than a page. What was once the meter of epic was now licensed for lyric, and soon enough would be certified to deliver epigrams.

The generally held opinion does not quite hold up under closer inspection. There is still well over half the book to read.

The reader has yet to be introduced to dozens of minor twentieth century poets he or she are not likely to have read before. Most are as mediocre or dated as Shaw realizes. More than a few are surprisingly worth reading, as quotations from their work make clear. Gordon Bottomley's "The End of the World," for one example, is far too good to be trapped in the moldering pages of various Georgian poetry anthologies. Edward Thomas's poetry may have a better currency but his fellows in the World War I trenches, such as Wilfrid Gibson and Siegfried Sassoon, are now mere footnotes. In Sassoon's case, in particular, the loss is unfortunate.

It turns out that blank verse plays have a surprising and extensive history in the twentieth century. Bottomley had some success writing blank verse plays. Among the fun facts with which Shaw entertains us, we learn that the Bogey and Bacall movie, Key Largo, was originally a blank verse play by Maxwell Anderson. William Alfred's blank verse play, Hogan's Goat, was made into a television play starring Faye Dunaway.

Close variations on blank verse have been common since shortly after the form found its way into the language. In Observations in the Art of English Poesie (1602), one of the earliest English prosodies, Thomas Campion describes the then common form of the "Iambick licentiate":

The pure Iambick [of fiue feete] in English needes small demonstration, because it consists simply of Iambick feete, but our Iambick licentiate offers it selfe to a farther consideration; for in the third and fift place we must of force hold the Iambic foote, and that in the second or fourth place we may vse a Spondee or Iambick and sometime a Tribrach or Dactile, but rarely an Anapestick foote, and that in the second or fourth place.

It could be said that Shaw's thesis, in Blank Verse, is that twentieth century modernist and post-modernist poetry have included far more blank verse than is generally realized, but, more often than not, the poets have felt called upon to practice the widest possible license regarding it.

As Shaw recognizes, in fact, at the advent of the 20th century, matters were going well beyond "license." A growing historical dependence of the poet on a general audience, was making blank verse accessible to the point that the question must be asked:

At what point does blank verse become free verse under the pressure of experimentation? This is a time-honored question. As J. A. Symonds noted in the 1890s, "Indeed, so variable is its structure that it is by no means easy to define the minimum of metrical form below which a Blank Verse ceases to be a recognizable line."

After nearly 200 years, Romanticism was about to give way to new ideas. Blank verse, with its diverse history, would altogether break free of being "verse."

After an extended study of Wallace Stevens' frequent deft variations on blank verse, Shaw goes on to cover the years 1930 to the present:

In the period we are about to explore... many poets have treated iambic pentameter more as a point of departure than as a form consistently sustained.

With this proviso, such trendy historical names as Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott can be added to the writers of more recognizable blank verse such as Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht. Blank verse has remained a rich popular form.

What this partial list may make clear is that blank verse, more than any other traditional form, has remained almost entirely the domain of white, Anglo-Saxon, males, to this day (Adrienne Rich's early blank verse poems notwithstanding). While this is an accident of history, rather than a grand conspiracy—minority and women's liberations having fought their way to the political center of the English speaking world only after poetry had already begun radical new stylistic directions—Shaw's roster of contemporary poets is necessarily chosen with an eye towards being much more inclusive.

As regards this last period (our own) Shaw is perfunctory, nevertheless. At such close range it is more difficult to highlight names or to distinguish blank verse from free. The names chosen, however, are intriguing, the few quoted passages even more so. Blank verse peeps out from our contemporary poetry in surprising places, it is clear, but the reader will have to expend the effort him—or herself to find out the full extent of how many and where.

Robert B. Shaw's Blank Verse: A Guide to Its History and Use is a popular study in the best sense of the word. It is written entirely without scholarly jargon. Its explanations are clear and direct, its examples abundant and well chosen. Its author knows his subject intimately well.

 

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