Arthur Davison Ficke



Metrical Freedom and the Contemporary Poet. *


Literatur: Ficke
Literatur: The Dial


Poets have grown either less bold or more courteous than they were in the days when the authors of "The Dunciad" or of "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers" blackened many a fellow-writer's face with adroit mud. One need hardly bemoan the fact, since the admirable wit of those productions barely compensated for their execrable taste. But enthusiasm for even impersonal literary controversy seems lacking to-day; and differences of opinion so sharp that they might once have divided the poets into two hostile camps now scarcely serve to embroil them with their next-door neighbors.

Only thus can one explain the fact that open warfare has not broken out between the proponents of the lately resurrected theory of vers libre and the adherents of the orthodox type of regularly rhythmical metres. A genuine difference of opinion and of temperament is involved. On the one side stand the writers who demand complete freedom of rhythm as a requisite for expressing the free and irregular contours of emotion; and on the other side stand those who regard metrical regularity as the sole instrument by which high emotion can be given successful expression.

Mr. Arthur Stringer, in the Foreword of his new volume, "Open Water," states the first of these positions with some elaboration. The traditional technique of rhythm and rhyme is, he believes, as hampering and anachronistic as the chain-armour of the Middle Ages would be to a modern soldier; the poet of to-day is unable to achieve natural expression under such a handicap. Mr. Stringer points out very truly that the almost boundless liberty afforded by blank verse is not available to the poet except for large, almost epical, themes; therefore, in actual practice, rhymed verse alone remains to him for "the utterance of those more intimate moods and those subjective experiences which may be described as characteristically modern." But rhymed verse forces him to "sacrifice content for form," and has "left him incapable of what may be called abandonment." Even regularity of rhythm, where no rhyme is present, "crowds his soul into a geometrically designed mould."

The objection to Mr. Stringer's plausible theory lies in his own admission that formal rhythm and rhyme supply "definiteness of outline" and "give design to the lyric." Without the agency of a fixed rhythm, it is almost impossible to achieve those recurrences, pulses, waves, and echoes whose function in poetry is no adventitious or superfluous one. A fixed cadence alone can serve as a base for all the musical variations that the poet may wish to employ; and his success here is vital. Deprive "Lycidas" of its antiphonal organ-roll of sound, its great succession of mounded harmonies, – and it would be nothing. The design is the poem. The metrical form is the very condition, the true means, of the poet's success. That spontaneous expression of emotion for which Mr. Stringer pleads is not likely to result in poetry at all; what turns raw feeling into poetry is precisely the compression of the material into an artful pattern, an expressive structure, an intelligible design. Not sobs, but music whose tone has sobs buried in it, – not laughter, but the song that dances with winged feet, – come within the categories of art. In the process of turning emotion into art, some loss has to be suffered; but the loss is not so large as Mr. Stringer would have us believe. To sacrifice content for form, as he tells us we now do, would indeed be lamentable; but on the other hand, to sacrifice form for content means simply to break the bottle that might have held at least a part of the wine. The competent craftsman does not, however, have to choose between these evils. Form is his opportunity, not his prison, – as some of Mr. Stringer's own earlier lyrics prove. Most writers would agree that the exigencies of rhyme suggest felicitous excursions of thought far more frequently than they inhibit the exact statement of an idea in all its original integrity. The practiced poet learns not to formulate his idea too rigidly in advance, but to let it develop and grow like an unfolding vine over and through the lattice of his metrical trellis.

After all, the sole criterion by which any artistic theory can be judged is its success in practice. Mr. Stringer's practice of vers libre is not a convincing exemplification of the virtue of his theory. One of the best, and also one of the most regular, of his poems is the following, entitled "The Wild Swans Pass":

"In the dead of night
 You turned in your troubled sleep
 As you heard the wild swans pass;
 And then you slept again.

"You slept –
 While a new world swam beneath
 That army of eager wings,
 [12] While plainland and slough and lake
 Lay wide to those outstretched throats,
 While the lone far Lights allured
 That phalanx of passionate breasts.

"And I who had loved you more
 Than a homing bird loves flight, –
 I watched with an ache for freedom,
 I rose with a need for life,
 Knowing that love had passed
 Into its unknown North!"

It is hard not to feel that even this finely conceived picture needs the melody of a more definitely patterned form, – that we shall forget this nebulous strain to-morrow, but that if it had been woven through the rhythm of a true music, however hesitant its beat, we could never forget it.

Miss Amy Lowell, also, has provided her volume, "Sword Blades and Poppy Seed," with a Preface in which she raises the question of metrics. "Unrhymed cadence," as she prefers to call vers libre, differs from the rhythms of ordinary prose "by being more curved, and containing more stress." This statement justly suggests that it is to prose and not to regularly rhythmical verse that we must look for the prototype of vers libre. Miss Lowell has used "unrhymed cadence" for many, but not all, of her poems; and she expressly disclaims being an exclusive partisan of either form. Technique of versification is only one of many techniques that interest her. Her most notable quality appears in the opening passage of the volume.

"A drifting, April, twilight sky,
 A wind that blew the puddles dry,
 And slapped the river into waves
 That ran and hid among the staves
 Of an old wharf.   A watery light
 Touched bleak the granite bridge, and white
 Without the slightest tinge of gold,
 The city shivered in the cold.
 All day my thoughts had lain as dead,
 Unborn and bursting in my head.
 From time to time I wrote a word
 With lines and circles overscored.
 My table seemed a graveyard, full
 Of coffins waiting burial . . ."

The sharply etched tones and contours of this picture are characteristic of the author's work. Sometimes, however, an extreme carelessness, very different from that painstaking care which she praises in the "clear-eyed Frenchmen," mars her verse. "Were" does not respectably rhyme with "where," nor "vault" with "tumult," nor "Max" with "climax," nor "time" with "thyme"; yet this entire group of deformities occurs within the space of nineteen consecutive lines. This is no mere breaking of technical rules; it is the destruction of beauty. If the requirements of rhyme so irk a writer, it would be better to follow Mr. Stringer's example and use vers libre only. In "unrhymed cadence," Miss Lowell's cadences are sometimes extremely delicate, as in "The Captured Goddess":

"Over the housetops,
 Above the rotating chimney-pots,
 I have seen a shiver of amethyst,
 And blue and cinnamon have flickered
 A moment
 At the far end of a dusty street.

"Through sheeted rain
 Has come a lustre of crimson,
 And I have watched moonbeams
 Hushed by a film of palest green.

"It was her wings,
 Who stepped over the clouds,
 And laid her rainbow feathers
 Aslant on the currents of the air. . . ."

But to some readers, this passage will be merely an added proof of the fact that good vers libre is absolutely not so expressive as good rhythmical verse. Several passages on a similar theme in Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound" confirm such an opinion; nor is the comparison an unfair one, since every writer must endure the rivalry of the whole body of his predecessors. "Unrhymed cadence" at its best can hardly convey that intensity of effect which is poetry's peculiar function; certain clear emotional heights are as impossible of attainment by it as by prose.

Not so pliant, not so accurate, not even so free a medium for expression as the old rhythms! To say a thing directly, – to cry it out, – is not necessarily to express it. The complexities of rhythm and rhyme are not always a hindrance to the expression of complex thoughts. The poet's need is sometimes best served by that great world of musical signals and emotional calls which is at the disposal of him who accepts the convention that governs rhythmical verse, and employs this very convention as the instrument for evoking emotions that could never be evoked by naturalistic means. The supreme element of poetry comes into being only with that peculiar lift and flight which the disembodied imagination can take on the wings of formal geometrical beauty.

Miss Harriet Monroe, in her newly collected volume, "You and I," experiments with vers libre; but the pieces written in this style are few in number. Modernity in other than metrical matters chiefly marks her ambitions. In many of her poems she attempts with seriousness and devotion to consecrate poetry to the task of expressing modern industrial life. "The Hotel," "Night in State Street," [13] "The Turbine" are the titles of the first three poems in the book; and their names indicate something of the author's aim. It is not wholly demonstrable that so specifically purposed an interest in the concrete and not always significant aspects of modernity is the best way of attaining this end. There is in such an effort too much of the conscious intelligence and too little of those blind tides of passionate understanding which alone pour greatness into poetry. Yet these are rather well-known poems, which have given pleasure to many "people of high degree"; and it is perhaps a work of supererogation, – or worse, of arrogance, – to criticize unfavorably certain conceptions that find place in them. The critic must, however, unsociably go his own chosen way, lighted by his own lantern. In some instances he may find himself unable to follow Miss Monroe. To view the turbine, – its purring revolutions, its hidden lightnings, its moods and rebellions, – as a proud tempestuous woman, seems an example of that kind of poetic imagination which does not interpret but rather encumbers the true essence of its theme. In the poem "Our Canal," also, the lines

"O Panama, O ribbon twist
 That ties the continents together."

are surely a bad, a false, a really unimaginative way of seeing the world of things as they are.

Miss Monroe's best work is not in this vein. Here she seems like a Christina Rossetti led by an infelicitous chance into an alien and unmastered world of modern mechanics, where her very genuine powers are largely useless. Her best accomplishment is in the vein of less ambassadorial utterance, – in personal poems where she subdues a smaller world more perfectly to the service of poetry. Take the following sonnet:

"Look on the dead.   Stately and pure he lies
Under the white sheet's marble folds.   For him
The solemn bier, the scented chamber dim,
The sacred hush, the bowed heads of the wise,
The slow pomp, the majestical disguise
Of haughty death, the conjurer – even for him,
Poor trivial one, pale shadow on the rim,
Whom life marked not, but death may not despise.
Now is he level with the great; no king
Enthroned and crowned more royal is, more sure
Of the world's reverence.   Yesterday this thing
Was but a man, mortal and insecure;
Now chance and change their homage to him bring
And he is one with all things that endure."

This dignified passage, written probably some time ago, may serve to remind the reader once more of the value of the very old and, as Miss Monroe herself now believes, "exhausted" sonnet form. In "The Wonder of It" also, Miss Monroe has no difficulty in aptly turning conventional rhyme and rhythm to her own fantastic and original uses:

"How wild, how witch-like weird that life should be! That the insensate rock dared dream of me,
And take to bursting out and burgeoning –
    Oh, long ago – yo ho! –
And wearing green! How stark and strange a thing
    That life should be!

"Oh, mystic mad, a rigadoon of glee,
That dust should rise, and leap alive, and flee
Afoot, awing, and shake the deep with cries –
    Oh, far away – yo hay!
What moony masque, what arrogant disguise
    That life should be!"

Mr. George Sterling, an experienced metrist, trained in the great lyric tradition of the past, is wholly faithful to rhythmical verse in his new volume "Beyond the Breakers." All the freedom that he needs he takes for himself within the compass of regular rhythms. How little cramped he is, a passage from his "Browning Centenary Ode" may attest:

    "O vision wide and keen!
Which knew, untaught, that pains to joyance are
    As night unto the star
That on the effacing dawn must burn unseen.
    And thou didst know what meat
    Was torn to give us milk,
What countless worms made possible the silk
    That robes the mind, what plan
Drew as a bubble from old infamies
    And fen-pools of the past
The shy and many-colored soul of man.
    Yea! thou hast seen the lees
In that rich cup we lift against the day,
Seen the man-child at his disastrous play –
    His shafts without a mark,
His fountains flowing downward to the dark,
    His maiming and his bars,
    Then turned to see
His vatic shadow cast athwart the stars,
And his strange challenge to infinity. . . ."

It is interesting to speculate as to how the devotee of vers libre would have gone about attaining this lift and soar of flight. It may be doubted if he could possibly do so except by falling back upon that fairly regular variety of free metre which Matthew Arnold and Milton sometimes employed. To achieve that peculiar thing which we call poetry, a sustaining, emotion-heightening recurrence of rhythm is as indispensable as music is to opera. The sole debatable question is, how regular must the recurrence be to produce the desired trance-like effect? Vers libre often comes perilously near to the less insistent rhythms of prose, and loses the characteristic power of poetry thereby.



[Fußnote, S. 11]

* OPEN WATER. By Arthur Stringer. New York: John Lane Co.

SWORD BLADES AND POPPY SEED. By Amy Lowell. New York: The Macmillan Co.

YOU AND I. By Harriet Monroe. New York: The Macmillan Co.

BEYOND THE BREAKERS. By George Sterling. San Francisco: A. M. Robertson.   zurück





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Dial.
A Semi-Monthly Journal of Literary Criticism, Discussion, and Information.
Bd. 58, 1915, Nr. 685, 1. Januar, S. 11-13.

Gezeichnet: Arthur Davison Ficke.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The Dial   online







Literatur: Ficke

Brandmeyer, Rudolf: Poetiken der Lyrik: Von der Normpoetik zur Autorenpoetik. In: Handbuch Lyrik. Theorie, Analyse, Geschichte. Hrsg. von Dieter Lamping. 2. Aufl. Stuttgart 2016, S. 2-15.

Churchill, Suzanne W.: The Lying Game: Others and the Great Spectra Hoax of 1917. In: Little Magazines & Modernism. New Approaches. Hrsg. von Suzanne W. Churchill u. Adam McKible. Aldershot, England 2007, S. 177-195.

Diepeveen, Leonard (Hrsg.): Mock Modernism. An Anthology of Parodies, Travesties, Frauds, 1910-1935. Toronto u.a. 2014.

Finch, Annie: The Ghost of Meter. Culture and Prosody in American Free Verse. Ann Arbor 2000.

Glaser, Ben: Modernism's Metronome. Meter and Twentieth-Century Poetics. Baltimore 2020.

Marcus, Laura: Rhythmical Subjects. The Measures of the Modern. Oxford 2023.

Murat, Michel: Le vers libre. Paris 2008 (= Littérature de notre siècle, 36).

Newcomb, John T.: The Emergence of "The New Poetry". In: The Cambridge Companion to Modern American Poetry. Hrsg. von Walter Kalaidjian. Cambridge 2015, S. 11-22.



Literatur: The Dial

Bains, Christopher: Le Paris d'Ezra Pound: utopie et exil dans les pages de The New Age et The Dial. In: Revues modernistes anglo-américaines. Lieux d'échanges, lieux d’exil. Hrsg. von Benoît Tadié. Paris 2006, S. 79-93.

Britzolakis, Christina: Making Modernism Safe for Democracy. The Dial (1920-9). In: The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines. Hrsg. von Peter Brooker u.a. Bd. 2: North America 1894-1960. Oxford 2012, S. 85-102.

Dempsey, James: The Radical and the Aesthete: Randolph Bourne, Scofield Thayer, and The Dial. In:: Revues modernistes, revues engagées: (1900-1939). Hrsg. von Hélène Aji u.a. Rennes 2011, S. 151-159.

Golding, Alan: The Dial, The Little Review, and the Dialogics of Modernism. In: Little Magazines & Modernism. New Aproaches. Hrsg. Von Suzanne W. Churchill u. Adam McKible. Aldershot u.a. 2007, S. 67-81.

Joost, Nicholas: Years of Transition: The Dial, 1912-1920. Barre, Mass. 1967.

Marek, Jayne: Women Editing Modernism. Lexington 1995.

Pinkerton, Jan / Hudson, Randolph H.: Encyclopedia of the Chicago Literary Renaissance. New York 2004.



Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer