EP&M Online Review

Poetic Voice and Poetic Form


Edward Zuk

    In an essay written in 1918, T. S. Eliot observed that “the comparative study of English versification at various periods is a large tract of unwritten history.”  For the most part this history remains unwritten, though the situation has improved since Eliot’s time.  I have read a very good book on the heroic couplet through several centuries by William Bowman Piper, for instance, and there are some excellent period studies such as Michael R. G. Spiller’s history of the sonnet during the Renaissance or Stuart Curran’s survey of poetic forms in the Romantic era, not to mention various appreciations of past masters by formalist poets themselves.  However, we remain ignorant of how the different poetic forms have evolved and how writers from different eras have viewed their potential.  I find it disappointing that no one has yet written a comprehensive history on how that bedrock of English poetry, blank verse, has changed from Chaucer’s time to Wilbur’s, let alone how the centuries have treated rime royale, the ballad stanza, or the ottava rima.
    One reason that these histories remain unwritten is that poetic forms are, by their nature, complex.  When I recall the thousands that have been written in English, I can safely conclude that the potential of the form is infinite.  Any formal structure that can encompass “Batter My Heart,” “On His Blindness,” “the cambridge ladies,” and “The Oven Bird” can hold anything.  And that is only taking the sonnet in English into account:  other languages have brought their own tones and sensibilities.  Something similar occurs within every set form.  The sestina, which at first glance would seem to be utterly limited by its need to repeat the same six word at fixed positions in each stanza, is capable of encompassing a wide range of effects and sensibilities when we remember that Ezra Pound’s “Altaforte,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina,” and Anthony Hecht’s “The Book of Yolek” are all examples of the form.  Even the Spenserian stanza and the ottava rima are capable of showing an enviable diversity, making the writing of their histories a daunting task.
    These observations lead to some important questions.  How can a poetic form like the sonnet or sestina achieve a variety of expression?  Why aren’t poems written in the same form more alike?  How does a poet find a voice within a form?  There are no easy answers to these questions, but I suspect that part of the solution lies in the fact that the sonnet, and every other set form, has been the subject of a constant experimentation.  Every sonnet is an attempt to discover something new in the form, whether this is a mood, idea, structure, or even level of polish in the language.  When writing a ballad or a stanza in rime royale, the poet becomes a kind of literary scientist, struggling to find the novel approach – the unexpected manipulation of form – that will open new vistas to explore, both for himself and for the generations to come.  The poems that survive are those which achieve a measure of originality, however subtle or momentous that may be. 
    In approaching the question of poetic voice and poetic form, I want to focus on the spirit of discovery that grants the sonnet, sestina, and other fixed forms their vitality.  I have chosen to focus on the ottava rima in part because the form is underappreciated and in part because it has allowed for such striking differences when used by poets such as Keats, Byron, and Yeats, three of the most individual poets in the English language.  Each chose to make the ottava rima a vehicle for his poetry, and for the latter two the form stands at the centre of their work.  What follows is not a history of the ottava rima, but rather a sketch of some of its developments and a suggestion of what a proper history might look like.
    My first example of the ottava rima comes is stanza 25 of “Isabella, or A Pot of Basil,” which is one of the masterpieces that Keats published in 1820.  This is not the most famous or best-written stanza in the poem, but it is typical.  At this point of the story, Basil, the hero, is leaving early one morning when he hears Isabella singing:
    And as he to the court-yard pass’d along,
       Each third step did he pause, and listen’d oft
    If he could hear his lady’s matin-song,
       Or the light whisper of her footstep soft;
    And as he thus over his passion hung,
       He heard a laugh full musical aloft;
    When, looking up, he saw her features bright
    Smile through an in-door lattice, all delight.

The first thing to notice is that the stanza is surprisingly plain-speaking for a work by Keats.  It contains little of the sensuous poetry that we associate with him, and while phrases like “listen’d oft,” “matin-song,” or “features bright” may sound overwritten to a modern ear, a contemporary reader would have accepted them as standard poetic diction.  The stanza is therefore functional, meant to be read quickly without calling special attention to itself.
    How does Keats create a plain-speaking stanza in a form that contains so many rhymes?  The answer, I think, is that he consciously battles against the natural tendencies of the ottava rima itself.  Keats is forced to work hard to downplay the musical nature of the rhymes.  He uses a plain diction, especially in the rhyme words.  Though they are mostly perfect, they are so ordinary (oft-soft-aloft, song-along-hung, or bright-delight) that the reader never lingers on them, which softens the music.  There is also enough enjambment to de-emphasize the rhymes, and writing this stanza as a single sentence pulls the reader along without allowing an undue pause.  In other words, the stanza subverts the music inherent in the ottava rima to create the swift narrative movement demanded by the poem.  (This is in fact a common use of poetic forms:  many poets will work against their natural tendencies to create a new music, trusting that something of the original music will remain.)
    While Keats attempts to mute the rhymes and music of the ottava rima, Byron accentuates them.  Here I have chosen the immortal stanza 22 from Canto I of Don Juan to see how the form is used to achieve a very different sort of tone.  The passage describes Don Juan’s mother:
    ‘Tis pity learnèd virgins ever wed
       With persons of no sort of education,
    Or gentlemen, who, though well born and bred,
       Grow tired of scientific conversation:
    I don’t choose to say much upon this head,
       I’m a plain man, and in a single station,
    But – Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,
    Inform us truly, have they not henpecked you all?

This stanza is light and conversational, leading up to one of the greatest forced rhymes in the language.  But even before the end couplet, the rhymes are significant, falling either on strong monosyllables or on double rhymes.  The final two are merely the culmination of a virtuoso performance.  The pauses at the end of the lines are necessary to emphasize the effect, as is the avoidance of any difficult or surprising diction in the middle of the lines.  This stanza – and a great many others throughout Don Juan – stakes everything on the success of the rhymes (especially the final couplet), and it is a testament to Byron’s craftsmanship that they rarely disappoint.
    The lines are weighted so that the important elements occur at their ends, and so Byron is free to create a conversational tone by padding the beginnings of his lines with asides or phrases that add little to the meaning.  In this stanza, there are only suggestions of this technique in the phrases “I’m a plain man” and “but – oh!” but in other places it is difficult to imagine how Byron could fill out its stanzas without it:
    In Seville was he born, a pleasant city,
       Famous for oranges and women – he
    Who has not seen it will be much to pity,
       So says the proverb – and I quite agree;

The italicized phrase exists to pad the line and create a conversational tone; a different type of poet would never have dreamed of inserting a throwaway phrase to pad out the line.  This technique, together with the loosening of the syntax, make Don Juan into the poetic equivalent of a standup comedian’s monologue, but with everything weighted towards the end rhymes instead of a punchline. 
    My final example of ottava rima comes from Yeats’s “Coole and Ballylee, 1931,” one of many masterpieces that Yeats wrote in the form.  The difference in tone between this stanza and the two previous ones is striking:
    Sound of a stick upon the floor, a sound
    From somebody that toils from chair to chair;
    Beloved books that famous hands have bound,
    Old marble heads, old pictures everywhere;
    Great rooms where travelled men and children found
    Content or joy; a last inheritor
    Where none has reigned that lacked a name and fame
    Or out of folly into folly came.

There are three main differences between this stanza and those of Keats and Byron that I can see.  First, the off-rhymes, which many scholars have pointed out in Yeats’s work, add dissonance and create a far different music from that of the Romantic poets.  Yeats is relatively perfect in his rhymes in this stanza, though “inheritor” adds a jarring note at the right moment.  The final rhyme of the poem is rode-flood, which is a better example of this effect.  Second, there is a delight in adding full stops at unexpected moments (often in the middle of a line) or in overrunning the natural division between the first six lines and the last two, which again produces a new music in the form.
    But even more important than these techniques is the density of “Coole Park and Ballylee” compared with its predecessors.  Phrases like “a last inheritor” or “toils from chair to chair” would disrupt the flow of Keats’s narrative or Byron’s monologue by asking the reader to linger too long on them; here they are the bricks out of which the lines are constructed.  A number of Yeats’s characteristic effects rely on the condensation of meaning, including the use of lists (as above or in a phrase like “fish, flesh, and fowl”), ellipsis, fragments (“sound of a stick upon the floor”), synecdoche (“famous hands have bound”), the inclusion of short sentences within a line, and so on.  The result of these innovations is a different type of movement – less sweeping and reassured, and more likely to provoke the reader at unexpected times.  Or, put another way, the line breaks and shifts in rhyme in the ottava rima no longer dictate the movement of the lines, which now, like many modern poems, develops independently of the stanza’s formal structure.
    These three examples, I believe, are enough to reaveal the scope granted to poets who work within an apparently rigid form.  In each case, the shifts in rhymes or dictates of the metre merely suggest how the poem should move, and other features – the diction, the syntax, the rhyme, or the caesuras – allow poets to create an individual movement and tone of their stanzas while still respecting the outward conventions.  The variety achieved is significant.  In fact, we might speculate that a stanza of ottava rima or a sestina allows its poets as much freedom as vers libre to achieve their effects – certainly, if we judge by literary history, the sensibilities that poets have expressed within these forms is as diverse as any that, say, Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams have achieved in a similar span of lines.  And this is why a history of literary forms is important:  it is only a lack of knowledge that prevents this fact from being widely accepted.

                                                                            Edward Zuk