In February 2009 we met at the University of Pennsylvania, where Max Cavitch announced an open meeting of the historical poetics group in the English Department:
As part of an ongoing project on historical poetics in the long 19th century–which will eventuate in a full formal conference at Penn in Spring 2010–we’ll be discussing a little-known 1786 essay by Thomas Jefferson in which he debated with his friend the Marquis de Chastellux whether quantitative prosodies did justice to poetry in English. After critiquing the prosody of Samuel Johnson, Jefferson concludes (wisely) that accent, not quantity, is the basis of English verse. The essay includes a detailed comparison of accentual and syllabic scansion, and a characterization of the “well-organized ear” that—along with the very existence of this essay!—begs the question of prosody’s relation to politics in the Jeffersonian imagination. Those planning to attend should read Jefferson’s essay in advance.
We continued discussion among ourselves about hexameter debates in Victorian England and America. We read excerpts from Saintsbury’s History of English Prosody on “the hexameter mania” and we brought in for “show and tell” various examples of nineteenth-century poems written in hexameters. A hexametrical dialogue ensued:
Modern metricians found classical meters beguiling and vital,
So we decided to make the hexameter wars our recital.
Must we then try to speak (train to speak, strain to speak) only in dactyls?
I thought mid-nineteenth century prosodists thought
That six feet rather than five were (yes?) overwrought.
No, I think we’d all agree that alternate meters are still acceptable for discourse. But, as Ambrose Bierce reminds us: In literature, and particularly in poetry, the elements of success are exceedingly simple, and are admirably set forth in the following lines by the reverend Father Gassalasca Jape, entitled, for some mysterious reason, John A. Joyce:
The bard who would prosper must carry a book,
Do his thinking in prose and wear
A crimson cravat, a far-away look
And a head of hexameter hair.
But wait just a minute–hexameter hair not-
Withstanding, since when is a metrical line caught
Out at three beats times six the same thing as two beats
Times six, which would put eighteen and twelve in dead heats?