Obscure Poe: “The Rationale of Verse”

Obscure Poe: “The Rationale of Verse”, Edgar Allan Poe, Southern Literary Messenger, October-November 1848.

ultima thule portrait of poe 1848
The “Ultima Thule” portrait of Poe taken by Edwin H. Manchester on November 9, 1847, four days after he attempted suicide.

This is a long essay, 45 pages long in my Library of America edition. It’s a technical theory of verse, and I won’t attempt a discussion of all its points or pass judgements on Poe’s opinions.

It’s mostly an attack on all existing theories of English “versification” with plenty of detailed analysis. My impression is, after looking at a couple of times, it probably is of value to would-be poets.

I suppose the heart of the essay is the falling paragraph:

So general and so total a failure can be referred only to radical misconception. In fact the English Prosodists have blindly followed the pedants. These latter, like les moutons de Pannurge, have been occupied in incessant tumbling into ditches, for the excellent reason that their leaders have so tumbled before. The Illiad, being taken as a starting point, was made to stand in stead of Nature and common sense. Upon this poem, in place of facts and deduction from fact, or from natural law, were built systems of feet, metres, rhythms, rules, — rules that contradict each other every five minutes and for nearly all of which there may be found twice as many exceptions as examples. If any one has a fancy to be thoroughly confounded – to see how far the infatuation of what is termed “classical scholarship” can lead a book-worm in the manufacture of darkness out of sunshine, let him turn over, for a few moments, any one of the German Greek Prosodies. The only thing clearly made out in them is a very magnificent contempt for Liebnitz’s principle of a ‘sufficient reason’.

The eighteenth century was a time of great English pedantry when it came to the English language. Various English writers, worshipping at the feet of classical civilization, insisted on Latin being the model for English. Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way talks about some of this. All sorts of grammatical rules were proclaimed for English: no ending sentences with a preposition, no starting them with a conjunction, and no splitting infinitives. None of which described English as written or presented a rule whose violation obscured the sense of the language.

My suspicion is that the pedantry Poe attacked was born of the same impulse – forcing an English artform to conform with a Latin or Greek artform.

Poe gives many examples.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge poetical theories are attacked:

his nonsensical system of what he calls ‘scanning by accents’ – as if ‘scanning by accents’ were anything more than a phrase.

Lord Byron’s “Bride of Abydos” is

very sweet and musical . . .  pleasant to the ear, it is silly to find fault with it because it refuses to be scanned. Yet I have heard men, professing to be scholars, who made no scruple of abusing these lines of Byron’s on the ground that they were musical in spite of all law.

He cites examples Latin verse that is musical when not read by the scansion of theory. Philip Sidney and Henry Longfellow are attacked for trying to write English hexameters based on the Greek – but that don’t sound or look Greek. Theory is satisfied by their “twisting” their mouths into “the shape necessary for the emission” of the theoretical foot.

Poe’s view on French “verse” is surprising:

It must be observed that the French Language is strangely peculiar in this point – that it is without accentuation and consequently without verse.

I will leave those who know French to argue this point. I can’t one way or another. Poe does note that the French language is so full of

absolute spondees as to warrant me in calling its basis spondaic; but French is the only modern tongue which has any rhythm with such basis . . .

What’s been the reaction to this essay in the 170 years since it was published?

Well, his proposed schemes of poetic notation and alternate technical terms for poetry were obviously not adopted.

Poe scholar Arthur Hobson Quinn said Poe was ignorant of the history of English verse. That knowledge lay about 50 years ahead of Poe’s essay, but Quinn says that Coleridge was beginning work in that direction with his idea of “accentual basis for English verse”. Quinn claims English poetry is not based not based on syllables at all but on “accented elements”.

Christopher Aruffo’s “Reconsidering Poe’s ‘The Rationale of Verse'”, in the 2011 issue of Poe Studies, defends the piece. Yes, at the beginning he says,

Poe stumbles badly in presenting his argument. Overtly, ‘The Rationale of Verse’ is a vicious, petulant, egotistical tirade. Its thesis is overshadowed by a relentless harangue against the ignorance of scholastic authority. A strawman definition of verse is given and vigorously eviscerated … but no alternative comes forward in its stead. Having no empirical support for his assertions, Poe repeatedly appeals to ‘common sense’ . . . despite his own admission elsewhere that ‘profound ignorance on any particular topic is always sure to manifest itself by some allusion to “common sense” as an all-sufficient instructor.’ Every page insults and condescends to the very reader capable of understanding the essay’s goals.

But at the end he still sees something of value in it:

‘The Rationale of Verse’ deserves a fresh treatment. Poe may have discovered a rationale to account for the structure of English verse, and its principles are supported by contemporary evidence that allows us to evaluate his scansion and the examples he offered to explain it. His proposition does not oppose traditional scholarship but adds new perspective to its knowledge. It is understandable that Poe’s atrocious presentation of his thesis has been dismissed and marginalized, but the rationale of equality may be brought forth from the morass and examined, as a practical guide, for its relationship to Poe’s poetry or other metered English verse


More reviews of by and about Poe are indexed on the Poe page.

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