Conservative Prosody
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By James Matthew Wilson, November 1, 2010 in Editors' Picks, Pedagogy and Teaching, Publishing and Research, What is Education?

Conservatives are fond enough of lamenting the absence of Shakespeare in the modern college curriculum that one would expect them to take a keen delight in poetry.  To the contrary, they often are equally uninterested in that much receded art form as anyone else.  I am told that Edwin Arlington Robinson, writing at the turn of the Twentieth Century, estimated that about one percent of the American public read poetry; if the percentage has increased since his day, I should be much surprised.  And, I suppose, it would be unfair to poetry and conservatives alike to presume that conservatives should read poetry just because it is a very old art form, spuming an august mustiness through the attic of the mind at its very mention.  One might just as readily, and wrongly, hold up the obscure or obsene scattering of words that typifies much of contemporary poetry and presume that all liberals must love it just because, by its very ugliness and emptiness, it evidently was miscarried yesterday (or the day after tomorrow, as the anxious poet gropes for a form still struggling to be born).

I would like to propose two reasons that conservatives ought to take an interest in verse, one historical and the other ethical.  Following them, I should like to offer as a teaching resource a guide to verisification (prosody) that the reader may find of interest as a means of understanding this seldom taught craft and that the professor of good will is welcome to use as a booklet to distribute to students.

Since the French Revolution, the major poets in the Anglo-American tradition have typically wielded a conservative influence on culture and society, but seldom in an unmixed fashion.  Wordsworth and Coleridge, in poetry and prose, were foundational figures alongside Burke in the emergence of a coherent conservative position in the nineteenth century, though their innovations of the meditative lyric often appeared indulgent, undisciplined, and dangerously modern to their contemporaries.  The rolling, lilting, gently overflowing blank verse of these "lake poets" appeared disordered and prosaic compared with the tight syntax and grammatically discerete couplets of Pope and the Eighteenth Century as a whole.  Furthermore, their depictions of romantic nature and rural life were first identified with nascent liberal causes -- justice for the industrial and agricultural poor in an age of urban squalor and fiercely guarded enclosures -- so that John Keats and P.B. Shelley, self-identified radicals, would come to denounce the older poets as traitors of the spirit once this linkage was explicitly severed.  Specifically as anti-liberal romantics, Wordsworth and Coleridge would influence the epistemology and historical theories of the Oxford Movement and it is as defenders of custom and ceremony, the small society founded on friendship and charity, they they are best remembered.

If we pass over the conservative but intellectually banal cases of the great Victorians, Tennyson and Browning, we arrive at a curiously similar episode to that of the Romantics in the modernists.  When T.S. Eliot's first poems appeared, Arthur Waugh (father of the future novelist), decried Prufrock as serving the social function of a "drunken helot."  But Eliot early declared himself for "classicism," effectively insisting that his conservative critics simply could not see what classicism really was.  The ostensibly radical experimentation with form of the modernists clearly violated any sense of classicism current in turn-of-the-century England (where, to be neo-classical meant to be second rate but formally correct, like John Dryden) or in France (where, classicism meant adherence to the alexandrine and proper syntax).  As William Marx has argued, the example of Eliot in England and Paul Valery in France quickly resulted in a redefinition of the classical so that it entailed any manifestation of the permanent, the essential, the rational amid the teeming chaos of modernity.  Classicism in modernist art meant not representing an arcadian vision that compared favorably with contemporary anarchy, but in representing the permanent within, just beneath the surface of, the atomized and crowded emptiness of modern life.  Modernist poetry broke up form because classicism demanded that the ruptures of history be neither elided nor ignored -- nor merely satirized from afar (a foraging in the muck Yvor Winters denounced as the "fallacy of imitative form").

Marxists during this period could often see clearly the reaction built into modernist principles; they sometimes decried modernist experimentation as bourgeois aestheticism and escapism.  Such early socialist realists demanded clarity, didacticism, historical consciousness intelligible to the masses, in "legitimate" art.  But, as Alan Filreis has argued in Counter-revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960, many leftists and liberals were not put off by the reactionary associations of modernist formal rupture.  Indeed, they embraced it, seeing no inherent tension between the obscure technical developments of modern art and a proletarian class consciousness working for mass revolution.

Arguably, modernist forms were intrinsically ambivalent in their political meaning just as had been the romantic poetic forms of Wordsworth and Coleridge.  A broken statue, after all, may signify the persistence of archetypal beauty through ages of birth and decay and it may also signify virulent leftist iconoclasm.  Eliot's success was in seducing readers into thinking they had found a fellow iconoclast only to discover, once thoroughly devoted to him, that he had remolded their hearts in forms of reaction, conservatism, and even Christianity.  Eliot hardly provides the only such case; indeed, he may have been "remolded" somewhat himself through the influence of T.E. Hulme, whose philosophy of art initially derived from the radicalism of Georges Sorel but cultimated in a Christian orthodoxy two-parts Byzantine, one-part Pascal (see Bradley Birzer's fine essay on Hulme, Here).

Conservative critics and poets in the twentieth century exemplify this ambivalence: Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Richard Weaver demonstrated a capacity to celebrate modern art where it provided some insight onto the permanent truths of the human condition, and saw that such art naturally allied with the traditionalism they variously advocated  -- whether southern agrarian, belle lettrist, or Catholic.  They provide fine examples of how conservatives should always have fought what came to be called the culture wars.  They did not stand outside the life of the arts, as if modern art could be pinned to the wall with the phrase "the elites of New York City" or the "Hollywood Elites."  Rather, they sought to decentralize the arts and, in practicing them, to make them vital forces of tradition and reaction.  We would be fortunate if our cultural politics were actually to leap once more from the screen-and-sound-bite simulcra of the political realm typical to our age and into the realm of culture itself.  Surely the "culture wars" was not supposed to mean simply "war on culture," or to operate under the preposterous notion that such a vacuity as liberal individualism or a phantasmagoric ideology as radical leftism could be identifiable with culture itself.

In naming such figures as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Eliot, and Hulme I do not plea for conservatives' attention to poets simply because, in their pages, they may find fellow travellers.  I would propose, rather, that such authors provide profound intellectual and spiritual resources that should be the regular subject of contemplation for anyone who would live well by living in kinship with truth, goodness, and beauty.  As is evident from the last two names on this list, I believe modernist art, for all its difficulty and ungainly effects, provides us many if not all the riches present in older poetry -- even though, in what follows, I would advance several cautions about its deprecation of the the one essential resource of poetry, meter.

Conservative critics of the modernist poets and conservative modernist poets themselves always agreed upon one core principle.  Art is a virtue and a discipline that hones the intelligence for the perception and judgment of the beautiful;  insofar as beauty is convertible with truth and goodness, art is a discipline for living well.  The modernists struggled to find new artistic methods that would allow the representation of anarchy and rupture without entirely succumbing to it.  Because they thought of themselves as "experimenting" -- an activity totally inapplicable to the arts -- they often strayed too far from the conventions necessary for good poetry.  They failed, that is, to find what Jacques Maritain called a "living rule" for their art as vital as the living formal principles of versification that had developed naturally from the rhythms of the English language and which had become an infinitely flexible yet disciplined medium for human expression.

Conservatives today ought to reclaim, or re-emphasize, the old disciplines of verse.  This I offer as an ethical argument.  Prosody is a part of grammar, and conservatives should be committed to the preservation of well modulated conventions of speech and writing.  Inarticulate though so many of us are, we desire that our children and our fellow man be equipped with the capacities for consistent orthography, syntax, and punctuation.  Dr. Johnson rightly included prosody as the forth component of good grammar; doubtless, he could not imagine a gentlemen worthy of the name who could write a sentence but not a line of verse.

We should learn prosody because it is a fine mental discipline.  Discerning the mathematical abstractions of stress called metrical feet is a pleasing, because easy but always lively, exercise.  Once one discerns meter intuitively, it readily abets the memorization of verses, and I would propose that every educated person ought to carry around a small library of poems in his head -- always at the ready for fluent recitation.  This is a good in itself.  But here also is the now forgotten keystone of sound writing.  Contemporary universities often teach students to write by imposing upon them easy formulae for paragraphs, quotations, and thesis statements.  But the real way to cultivate writing style is to embody the graced language of another -- or rather, to absorb that of many others -- in one's own self.  When one carries "Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame" about in the round of one's skull, one soon discovers "It is not wisdom to be only wise," for one must tap out wisdom on one's toes and feel it in one's bones if one is to become capable of writing or speaking well.  The study of prosody, with its emphasis on the perception of rhythm and harmony, and the memorization of poems, is a prerequisite discipline for the aspirant writer of essays and bills of lading.  Such memorization amounts to no stunted technique; verses learned by rote become living once firmly in the mind, and thus compare favorably with the crude techniques typical of modern composition courses, which seem to bear no discernable fruit, even after six decades and their near universalization at American universities.

For those who wish to orientate themselves to the study of prosody, I have written a very brief introduction that explains all the major concepts of meter, rhyme, and stanza and provides definitions of the major terms of the subject.  Anyone who uses the Lehrman site is welcome to print a copy, and professors are welcome to use it in their courses (though I do request the courtesy of a note informing me of its use).  I suggest that a bit of prosody and memorization could be justly integrated into any humanities course, even those that do not deal directly with literary texts.

The booklet is formatted to be printed in "booklet format" on any standard laser printer and then saddle stapled.  The font and design reads very well so formatted.  You may download the booklet here.

Image credit: Christine Matthews [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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8 Comments
Lee Trepanier on Nov 3, 2010 at 6:20 am

Thanks for the review of conservative literature as well as your pamphlet on meter. I am curious why do you think meter or prosody is no longer taught in school today?

James Matthew Wilson on Nov 3, 2010 at 6:37 am

Hi, Lee.

The answer entails several developments, some of which I have written on elsewhere:

a) the rise of the prose novel and, subsequently, film as the predominant art forms of our age, because they make easier the transmission of stories; they more quickly become mere media than does verse.

b) the Victorian tendency to misunderstand the function of meter in general, which led to a sense of metric as "imposed" upon thought and as, therefore, an inconvenient artifice rather than an essential part of the poem qua poem.

c) a consequent loss of a sense of how meter functions in particular, so that irregularity rather than regularity, violation rather than perfection, became attractive (with Saintsbury, the first true historian of verse, and then T.S. Eliot).

d) the attempt of poets to justify their art in terms of complexity, difficulty, irregularity, and philosophical profundity (or obscure mystery), since poems no longer served chiefly as a way of telling stories or as a lyrical -- in the sense of musical -- genre to be recited or sung.

e) the refusal of most teachers to get themselves bound up with the difficulties mentioned in d), and the Dewey-ite aspersion cast upon memorization in the classroom (meter, as I suggest, finds part of its value as mnemonic device, though that value is based upon the greater one of formal perfection).

f) Thus, poetry became harder than ever to teach and such labor bore a less evident fruit.

Jessica Hooten on Nov 3, 2010 at 9:28 am

Thanks for the prosody introduction! I saved it on my desktop and will use it. I agree with you. Poetry also enhances our language; there's "such power in the naming of things" (Lynch) through poetry...

Lee Trepanier on Nov 4, 2010 at 6:42 am

Thanks James!

Ross McKnight on Nov 10, 2010 at 7:37 am

Dear Sir,

I quite enjoyed your article. May I use your booklet for discussion in a small writers' group that we have at Belmont Abbey College?

Thank you and God bless, Ross McKnight

Ross McKnight on Nov 10, 2010 at 7:40 am

By the by, I was referred to your essay by Mr. Patrick Ford...

James Matthew Wilson on Nov 10, 2010 at 7:47 am

Dear Mr. McKnight,

I would be grateful if the booklet were to be discussed at the Abbey. I hope it proves of some interest.

My best wishes to you and to Patrick.

Jacob Pride on Nov 11, 2010 at 9:04 am

Hello, This is a very fine article. I am a FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionary at BAC. I graduated with an English degree from Ave Maria University and just finished a book called "How to Read a Poem," so your essay came "just in time." Thank you. Patrick, Ross, and I are looking forward to developing this discussion group. I am an avid poet, myself, and it is encouraging to hear that there is more than just accidental significance to poetry. In Christ, Jacob

about the author

James Matthew Wilson
James Matthew Wilson

From Front Porch Republic:

James Matthew Wilson teaches in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. He has authored many essays on philosophical-theology and literature, and is currently at work on two books: T.S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, and the Return to the Real and Our Steps amid a Ruined Colonnade, the latter of which is running serially in Contemporary Poetry Review. A poet, and critic of contemporary poetry, some of his work has appeared in The Dark Horse, Modern Age, Lucid Rhythms and Measure. He is also the author of a regular column, The Treasonous Clerk, which is published in First Principles.

Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, and keeps a happy face in Devon, Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and scrupulous son.  More faithful to tradition even than he, his wife and daughter both hail from South Bend, Indiana, and pine for the open spaces and the ethanol inflected air.  He is proud to be associated, by grace of marriage and taste of palette, with the family that runs the Wyncroft Winery out of Buchanan, Michigan.