TO BREAK THE PENTAMETER.

Yesterday’s wood s lot presents a poem by Wilfred Owen, a sonnet titled “1914″:

War broke: and now the Winter of the world
With perishing great darkness closes in.
The foul tornado, centred at Berlin,
Is over all the width of Europe whirled,
Rending the sails of progress. Rent or furled
Are all Art’s ensigns. Verse wails. Now begin
Famines of thought and feeling. Love’s wine’s thin.
The grain of human Autumn rots, down-hurled.
For after Spring had bloomed in early Greece,
And Summer blazed her glory out with Rome,
An Autumn softly fell, a harvest home,
A slow grand age, and rich with all increase.
But now, for us, wild Winter, and the need
Of sowings for new Spring, and blood for seed.

It fascinates me because it shows so clearly the exhaustion of the poetic language of the nineteenth century. Owen is capable of powerful writing, but trapped as he is in the need to fit his feelings into the ta-tump-tee-tump, ABBA mold of his chosen form, he selects worn-out words like “rending” and creaky formulations like “rich with all increase” and inversions like “Is over all the width of Europe whirled” and “Now begin famines.” In between you can hear the faint voice of something new trying to get out: “Verse wails,” and “Love’s wine’s thin.” But he couldn’t break out of the box the Victorians had bequeathed him. This poem shows as clearly as anything I can think of the vital necessity of Pound’s revolution in verse, that allowed him to write, in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly”:

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

That’s how you write poetry about World War One.


While we’re on the subject of war poetry, there’s some powerful Vietnam-era writing in this MetaFilter thread and its links.

Comments

  1. Everyone knows that Wilfred Owen wasn’t fit to lick Rupert Brooke’s boots. ;-)

  2. And therein we have the collision of worlds that WWI represented. Very good post, LH.

  3. Paul Lucic says:

    The difference between Owen and Pound is the difference between compulsories and free-style. Owen’s test was to express his ideas within the confines of a form. Pound’s test was to express meaning without being submerged in the mechanics of experimentalism. I haven’t read either since high school but my recollection is that Owen’s less prolific output better met the test he set himself. But to each her or his own.
    Also … I thought I heard an echo of Kipling’s “for you broke a British square” in the title of your post. Intended?

  4. Well, you could at least cite Owen’s best work in that vein, “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”:

    So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
    And took the fire with him, and a knife.
    And as they sojourned both of them together,
    Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
    Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
    But where the lamb, for this burnt-offering?

    Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
    And builded parapets and trenches there,
    And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
    When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven;
    Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
    Neither do anything to him, thy son.
    Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
    A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

    But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
    And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

    Which shows that that 19th-century poetic language can, after all, be useful for something.

  5. J.Cassian says:

    IIRC correctly, Owen started out sub-Keatsian, Pound started out sub-Swinburnian/Rossettian. They didn’t end that way. Try Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” , an infinitely finer sonnet than the one you reproduce here. Plus if we look at the first section of the “Mauberly” poem you quote, it has the lines
    Died some, pro patria,
    non “dulce” not “et decor”…
    which immediately invite comparison with Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”, probably his most famous work. I’d say that was how you write poetry about World War One. Of course Owen, unlike Pound, had the dubious advantage of experiencing a gas attack firsthand, but he also had the gift of making the reader imagine what it might be like to experience it too.
    Pound continues:
    …walked eye-deep in hell
    believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
    came home, home to a lie,
    home to many deceits,
    home to old lies and new infamy…
    Well, arguably that was true, but surely much the same point was more devastatingly – and more subtly- put by Owen in “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”, quoted by John Cowan above. Pound’s stanza ends:
    usury age-old and age-thick
    and liars in public places.
    Oh dear. I think this shows some of the dangers inherent in Pound’s vatic style. I think Old Ez was better at sound than sense and he often let the (highly impressive) rhythms of his verse carry him away. If you keep speaking like a prophet, one day you end up believing you are one and think you’ve discovered the underlying cause of WWI was “Jew bankers and Jew industrialists” or whatever. We’re well on our way to some of the dodgy poetry Pound would write about World War Two here.
    Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had my ups and downs with Pound, but he did write some damn good poems on occasion. It’s just I don’t think the piece you quote from “Mauberley” is one of them. In fact, as Thomas Hardy spotted, Pound did write an excellent poem about World War One: “Homage to Sextus Propertius” (will try to find the Hardy quotation explaining this – maybe you know it already).

  6. I agree with both of you, but note that I didn’t say this was the best Owen could do (you’ve both cited better poems of his), I said that this particular poem made it acutely clear why Pound and others felt the need to break out of that particular box. Sure, good poems could still be written that way, and good compositions can still be written in C major, but there was a perceived need for wider horizons.
    maybe you know it already
    You betcha. (There’s very little Pound I don’t “know” in some sense, though there are vast swatches of the Cantos I’ll probably never do more than glance over again.) “Homage” is one of my favorites, and I once got a bookstore job on the strength of schmoozing the manager about it.
    It’s absolutely a crying shame that Ez went off the deep end with the fascism and the anti-Semitism and the solipsism (“Only I can save the world!”), and I think towards the end he had some inkling of that. His achievement could have been much greater. But that doesn’t detract from the amazing things he did. I’d trade half of twentieth-century American poetry for “Homage” or “Cathay.”

  7. Paul: Sorry, forgot to answer your question. If you click on my “revolution in verse” link, you get the following quote from Canto LXXXI: “to break the pentameter, that was the first heave.”

  8. “maybe you know it already”
    I meant the Hardy quotation (thus saving me the effort of looking it up myself!). I knew you’d know “HSP” itself of course, Mr Hat!

  9. Now I come to think of it, maybe the quotation comes from the end of Graves’ “Goodbye to All That”, where the author goes to see Old Man Hardy. Now all I have to do is find my copy. I’ll get back to you in a few weeks…
    Bonus free verse poem about WWI by Modernist ‘Merkin: “My sweet old etcetera”, by E.E. Cummings.

  10. Found “Goodbye to All That”, but certainly no mention of Pound by Hardy there. I still swear I didn’t dream the quotation, but where it came from I have no idea now.

  11. I meant the Hardy quotation
    Oops, sloppy reading on my part. Sorry, I don’t.

  12. LH puts things this way:
    It fascinates me because it shows so clearly the exhaustion of the poetic language of the nineteenth century.
    But later:
    Sure, good poems could still be written that way, and good compositions can still be written in C major, but there was a perceived need for wider horizons.
    So it wasn’t so much that the language was exhausted, was it? It was rather that “the world’s expanded thus”, to cite Donne creatively. WWI is indeed a breaking of the old mould – a pouring forth beyond the constraints of comfortable old horizons, yes? There was not so much a need for new horizons as a vertiginous sense that there were now new horizons, willy nilly. And all the arts were dragged into a recognition of this broadened world. The yolk is exhausted, the eggshell must break. A wider life now must now begin.
    Myself, I enjoy translating the old verse patterns of other languages into the old verse patterns of English. I agree that “good compositions can still be written in C major” – or, to put the matter less lyrically than LH does, that the period of common practice in music is still with us, or we are with it. It is a kind of dream-time for Western music, that we never really left and that never really leaves us. I prefer the music of that grand period, and occasionally composing the odd thing in one or other of its many styles. And so it is with iambic pentameter, and all that. Even if I didn’t relish these things in their Ur-form, I cannot imagine a Western musical or literary art that did not in some way respond to their reality.
    In at least one classic text on the writing of atonal music, the neophyte is enjoined to avoid sequences of notes that accidentally sound tonal! That is an acknowledgement, of sorts, of the reality of what is being supplanted. Surely a more mature atonal music would pass beyond such a reactionary style of response; and let us hope that poetry has well and truly passed beyond the need to dance on the ruins of the pentameter – atavistically to crush the eggshells underfoot, in celebration of the new.
    Biologists tell us that the material of the eggshell of the maturing bird within is re-absorbed, to re-appear as the very bones of the bird. As the eggshell gets thinner, weaker, and easier to crack, so the bones thicken, strengthen, and harden.

  13. let us hope that poetry has well and truly passed beyond the need to dance on the ruins of the pentameter
    I think it has — and be it noted that Pound certainly didn’t do that; he wrote some lovely pentameters himself in the Cantos (“Tudor indeed is gone and every rose…”).
    And when I say the language was exhausted, I don’t mean it was impossible to use it, just that it was getting more and more difficult to use it creatively, just as composers found traditional tonality and sonata form more and more difficult to deal with as the century wore on (in Brahms you can hear the lumbering effort more with every new symphony, and he could only manage four). Expanding the horizons and exploring new forms is (in my opinion) exactly what enabled the old ones to be revivified.

  14. Good, LH. I think there is no evidence that we disagree on anything important here. As for Brahms, we may be glad enough that he stopped at four! (The fourth was the most satisfactory, anyway.)

  15. Yeah, I confess I can’t help liking the fourth.

  16. Pound’s revolution suffers its own exhaustions, Hat. Ever try reading the Cantos? I have. Time and time and time again.

  17. I love the Cantos, though as I said above there are stretches that I probably won’t revisit (“accept the terms you propose 4 1/4 % for remedium…”).

  18. Surely Owen’s 1914 is not the best work of his — the opening is banal (disgustingly so to me) and sounds like it could have been written a century earlier, although it may have been Owen’s intent. Whether the potential of the English pentameter had been exhausted by 1918 I cannot judge but, first, we should look at the best of the best for proof, and second, I would refuse to live in a world that has no use for the iambic pentameter (nor other iambic and trochic meters) other than the use we have for the hexameter.
    Generally speaking, it’s harder to be innovative within inherited structures and strictures that to leave them behind at once, as if at Pound’s calling. I’m not sure I have it right but — Owen was the first major poet to widely, consciously use dissonant rhymes in “serious” verse. The Parable provides the evidence. (Also note the curious interplay between “fire and iron” and “offering.”) His was an organic response to secondary-sounding iambic pentameters: try and write good ones by deviating somewhat from the old standard — but within reasonable bounds. (Or switch to the trochee, which Housman had used twenty years before WWI to produce excellent poetry for the coming war.) Pound’s revolutionary firewater burnt out all metric regularity but wouldn’t wash out the banality — the reverse side of Owen’s, perhaps — in the lines on lies and usury that J.Cassian quotes above. When it comes to big moral lessons, I’m not sure Pound had anything to add to little Wilhelmine’s and little Peterkin’s wisdom (he shouldn’t have ventured out into morality in the first place). Owen — at least — produced a most convincing picture of a gas attack in a conventional metric format.

  19. he shouldn’t have ventured out into morality in the first place
    Very true.

  20. edward almanza says:

    Rupert Brooke’s boots???
    Two or three memorable poems maybe, but otherwise a fourth rate versifier with jingoistic sentiments and a handsome profile.

  21. I can’t stomach Pound and never could, Cantos or earlier work, so I can’t usefully comment on him. What I would say about Poundwas best said by Primo Levi, I think. Unfortunately my Levi books are far away and the passage isn’t on line anywhere — I don’t even remember which book the essay is in, but the phrase “maniacal hatred of bankers” and “even wrote in Chinese to make sure that he would not be understood” stick with me.

  22. I guess you’re one of those people who lets politics influence their appreciation of literature. Understandable, but it severely impacts the amount of literature one can appreciate. I knew a woman who refused to read Hemingway because he was a sexist. Her loss.

Speak Your Mind

*