In Search of a Foot

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Editor: Michelle Lee
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 109)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,628 words

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[(essay date summer 2000) In the following essay, Kirby-Smith offers a detailed account of the attempts of Yvor Winters and Williams to formulate a coherent and positive theory of free verse.]

In 1917, T. S. Eliot, who had been in London and Paris for several years and had observed the opening salvos of Imagist theory with a more experienced eye than most of the campaigners, published "Reflections on Vers Libre" in The New Statesman. "When a theory of art passes," stated Eliot, with premature sagacity, "it is usually found that a groat's worth of art has been bought with a million of advertisement. The theory which sold the wares may be quite false, or it may be confused and incapable of elucidation, or it may never have existed." Further on, he adds: "If vers libre is a genuine verse-form it will have a positive definition. And I can define it only in negatives: (1) absence of pattern, (2) absence of rhyme, (3) absence of metre. ... What sort of a line that would be which would not scan at all I cannot say." There follows a discussion of the greatest subtlety and erudition, which he ends by arguing that anything that is verse at all must continue to be an extension of an established meter. He quotes for illustration his favorite Jacobean playwrights, and his claim that John Webster's lines in The White Devil "deliberately rupture the bonds of pentameter" is unassailable; but he fails to remark that the same playwright deliberately restores the pentameter. "There is no escape from meter; there is only mastery," wrote Eliot, in the frequently quoted passage. Why not, I would ask, a mastery of escape? And yet what Eliot says is so fundamentally sensible that it seems to me to need only one small step that would admit the possibility of extraline variation, or line substitution--call it what you will--in which the metrical foot would give way to the line as atomic unit or fundamental division.

Eliot's essay remains one of the earliest and best assessments of what occurred in prosody in this century's second decade; it should be read and reread entire, not quoted in snippets. Eliot continued to take exception to the idea that vers libre was really possible, and also attacked the prose poem in an article published in The New Statesman for May 19, 1917, "The Borderline of Prose." Thirty years later, Eliot had softened considerably on these issues, but at that time he insisted on a hard and fast distinction between prose and poetry, and insisted there must be no discussion of either free verse or prose poetry. Yet only four years later he came around to an admission that long poems could take on qualities of prose and that prose could aspire toward poetry; in The Chapbook: A Monthly Miscellany of April 1921, he wrote:

Poetic content must be either the sort of thing that is usually, or the same thing that ought to be, expressed in...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420100916