"What music lies in the cold print": Larkin's experimental metric.
(Robert Lowell, qtd. in Larkin, Collected Poems dustjacket)
It is perhaps because "Larkin's attitude to [...] experimentation in the arts was well known" (Swarbrick 73) that Grosvenor Powell, in a recent article on iambic pentameter and twentieth-century metrical experimentation, finds no need to mention him at all. His reputation as complacent Philistine is, of course, partly of the poet's own making: he once notoriously remarked, "Form holds little interest for me. Content is everything," (1) and has praised a number of poetic predecessors as "people to whom technique seems to matter less than content, people who accept the forms they have inherited" (Larkin, Whitsun Weddings dustjacket; Hamilton 71). But Larkin's self-representations were notoriously untrustworthy: it is disconcerting, for example, to find that one of the plain unadventurous poets he refers to above is W. H. Auden, whom he has elsewhere praised for his "readiness to experiment" (Required Writing [henceforth RW] 123). Indeed, one could argue that thirty years after The Waste Land, simply to accept s ome inherited form of free verse as the prosodic norm was in a sense the more conservative option: throughout his career Larkin experimented, both with unusual metrical forms and with free verse. (2) Moreover, as James Booth has observed, he "immensely admired the work of many writers now called 'modernist'" (4). I wish to argue here that his handling of even that most established and time-worn of meters, the iambic pentameter, was--so far from representing a kind of Betjemanesque antiquarianism or what Swarbrick calls "a return to tradition" (73)--experimental, in practice if not in theory. Larkin's objection, after all, was not to the normal artistic process of testing and probing the fit between what one has to say and the available ways of saying it, but rather to what he saw as experimentation for its own sake, the restless meddling of his infernal trinity of "mad lads": Pound, Picasso and (Charlie) Parker. (3) There is more than one way of making it new, after all, and whereas Pound sought "to break the pentameter" (Canto 81), Larkin, more constructively, reinvented (or perhaps rediscovered) it for the twentieth-century as an essentially oral meter, mimetic of the spoken language in a surprising variety of registers. The process continued throughout his career: one of his earliest experiments, for example, is "Schoolmaster" (1940, Collected Poems [henceforth CP] 248), a poem that unsuccessfully explores the loosened or stretched colloquial pentameter he was to deploy so effectively some thirty years later in "The Old Fools" (CP 196) and "Show Saturday" (CP 199).
Of course, Larkin was by no means the first C20 poet to experiment with the form: Eliot (who tested it to destruction) and even Bridges had preceded him in this, and Lowell took the process even further in some directions -- but then no-one has ever accused Lowell of being a latter-day Georgian. Both poets sought a pentameter that would sound more natural, less orotund and Tennysonian, and in doing so they reintroduced into the line (deliberately or otherwise) a feature that had hitherto (as the following table shows) characterized only the specifically oral medium of Shakespeare's dramatic verse: catalexis, or the omission of nonbeatbearing syllables in the line:
Comparative Table of Catalexes and Harsh Mappings (1000-line samples) Lines with Initial Internal Total Harsh Catalexes Catalexis Catalexis Mappings Pope 0 0 0 0 Milton (PL) 0 0 0 0.2 Shakespeare (Sonn) 0 0 0 1.3 Shakespeare (Tp.) 0.9 1.0 1.9 01.4 Byron (Don Juan) 0 0 0 0.2 Tennyson 0 0 0 0.2 Browning (R&B) 0.1 0 0.1 3.2 Betjeman (b. 1906) 0 0 0 0.2 Wilbur (b. 1921) 0.1 0.1 0.2 0.5 Auden (b. 1907) 0.3 0 0.3 1.2 C20 Yeats (b. 1865) 0.3 0.1 0.4 1.5 McAuley (b. 1917) 3.2 0.5 3.7 0.7 Lowell (b. 1917) 5.0 1.1 6.1 1.6 Larkin (b. 1922) 2.6 4.2 6.8 1.4
Before the twentieth century, catalexis was avoided in the literary or "for-print" tradition as a solecism, even by Shakespeare: after all, the one thing every schoolboy knows about iambic pentameter is that it has at least ten syllables, two per foot, and even theoreticians of meter only came to recognize the possibility of the so-called "monosyllabic foot" in the second half of the nineteenth century (see, for example, Abbott 372-85). Thus Shakespeare's editors, from the anonymous redactor(s) of F2 onwards, have expended much ink and ingenuity in attempting to redeem the National Poet from the charge of incorrectness by repairing the catalexes in his dramatic verse. Earlier editors favored such expedients as emendation and relineation: modern ones are generally more cautious (though often no less intolerant), and are forced to find more imaginative stratagems. The New Arden editor of Richard II, for example, seeks to mend 2a below by invoking the spelling of the first quarto: "throwen in Q1, a form that, if reflected in the pronunciation, would regularise the metre of this line" (28n). So long as it has the regulation ten syllables, it seems, it is "regular," despite the three successive trochees ("Stay, the / king hath / throw-en") -- a highly disruptive variation that is vanishingly rare even in Shakespeare -- and the arbitrary mispronunciation: this is the bed of Procrustes at its bureaucratic worst.
A similar pedantic zeal informs Zulfikar Ghose's denunciation of "incompetent poets whose rule seems to be how the lines sound and not how they scan" (53): Ghose, advocating strict syllabic meter in the year of The Whitsun Weddings, probably had Larkin in mind. But though catalexis may irritate the pedants, it is not (as it would be in French) a metrical defect, since meter-in English is based in the first instance on a count not of syllables but of beats. Larkin understood this: while High Windows was in the proof stage in January 1974, for example, he wrote to his editor, Charles Monteith, of "Show Saturday," a poem in experimentally loosened pentameters (in which the tumbling overplus of stressed offbeats reflects the amiable excess of the county show), "One line [...] has six beats. Please ensure that I have a proof before the mighty presses roll" (Motion 436). In pentameter poems Larkin is content, where he does scan in the process of composition, merely to indicate the beats, as in the following verse f rom a draft of "Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album": "That too; but in the end, surely, we cry" (Tolley 63).
Catalexis, though it can arise from inadvertence in a poet who wishes to observe the shibboleth that forbids it, (4) may also be a stylistic tool: whether or not it is consciously registered, it is experienced by the reader or listener as a gap, an absence of something expected: thus headlessness creates a kind of initial abruptness that mirrors, for example, the suddenness of King Richard's volte-face in the first line of item 2a, or the explosive anger or exasperation of the speakers in the second two:
2. a. ^ Stay, the King hath throwne his Warder downe. (R2 1.3.118) b. ^ Goe, take hence that Traytor from our sight, (2H6 2.3.102) c. ^ Gentlemen, importune me no farther (Shr. 1.1.48)
In Larkin, headless lines are remarkably common (especially given the modest size of his oeuvre), starting with the very first of the collected poems (1938, CP 225). The majority of these (as shown by the following cento, a sonnet without rhyme--or reason) are initial lines like "^Dockery was junior to you" (CP 152) that exploit the buttonholing abruptness of the form:
3. Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows, Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages. Four o'clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie Matt and glossy on the thick black pages. Now night perfumes lie upon the air, Higher than the handsomest hotel. Darkness. A desire to stretch, to scratch: Turn. Sleep will unshell us, but not yet. Groping back to bed after a piss, Jan van Hogspeuw staggers to the door: Locked. The lawn spreads dazzlingly wide. This was Mr. Bleaney's room: he stayed Endlessly, time-honoured irritant, Hard as granite and as fixed as fate.
The effect in less concentrated doses is subliminal, however, such that even Shakespearean editors who profess intolerance of the headless line fail to notice a great many instances. (5) Similarly with Larkin's critics: Lolette Kuby, writing of lines in which "the sound is an 'echo of the sense,'" quotes and remarks that "the word 'locked,' heavily accented, beginning a new stanza, preceded by a colon and followed by a period, clicks into place like something that is actually locked tight" (145):
4. [I try the door of where I used to live:] ^ Locked. The lawn spreads dazzlingly' wide. ("Dockery and Son," CP 152)
She describes the effect well, but simply fails to notice that it is metrically produced, as does Salem Hassan, who attributes it entirely to "the strongly stopped consonant [t] at the end of the heavily stressed monosyllabic word 'locked' and the period after it" (64); that it is deliberate seems clear from the fact that it persists through several drafts of the line (see Motion, plate 50). Nothing could better illustrate Larkin's careful "technique and style which, because it is not flashy, causes reader and critic to underrate its craftsmanship" (Martin 140).
If this is what Ghose calls incompetence, it resembles Shakespeare's "incorrectness": we want more of it. Indeed, Larkin's unusual skill as a metrist has not gone unnoticed: David Timms, for example, remarks of "Talking in Bed" (CP 129) that "[t]he impression of someone speaking, or rather thinking, is achieved through subtle modifications in rhythm" (107) and David Lodge points out that the impressive peroration of "Mr. Bleaney" (CP 102) owes much to "a subtle complication of metre" (in Salwak 126). Such remarks do not depend upon analysis: they appeal instead to a shared perception of rhythmic complexity and metrical failure. They draw, that is, upon an intuitive sense of the meter that we acquire (as we do our intuitive understanding of the syntax of our native tongue) not by instruction but by unconscious internalization. Lines, like sentences of English, will sound right, or wrong, or dubious to a speaker who may be utterly unable to account for his or her judgment in explicit and coherent terms. Indeed, such explicit accounts of a given meter may not even exist: traditional Somali oral verse, to take one example, remained without any formal explanation of its intricate quantitative metric until the late 1970s (Johnson). But while the native speaker may not need precise descriptions of metrical rule-systems, it is clear that the analyst does. The fairly detailed system I intend to use in this paper may be described as a post-generative synthesis: I have set it forth fully in Strange Music, but I will need to sketch in some of its salient features here if my scansions are to be useful to those who have not read the book.
The essence of metrical structure in English is the placement of beats (sometimes known as articulatory stresses) in the spoken line, and this is enabled and limited by three things: by the disposition of lexical and syntactic stress, by the location of syntactic junctures, and by the speaker's placing of pragmatic accent within the utterance (in nonmetrical utterance it is also affected by such matters as speech-rate and tempo). Lines are metrically equivalent in the demotic tradition of English verse (which includes such things as nursery-rhymes, protest chants, and advertising jingles) if they have (that is, may be uttered with) a certain number of beats; in the literary tradition, the number of beats remains the primary determinant of metricality, but the number and disposition of nonbeat-bearing syllables (offbeats) are also regulated. Beats (indicated in what follows by a vertical solidus) are essentially a way of organizing articulation in time: they normally occur on stressed syllables, but by no mean s all stressed syllables; they can also occur upon an unstressed syllable, if it occurs in the middle of a run of five or more (compare "And\Yule at his \sister's \house in \Stoke" [four beats] with "And \Hanukkah \at his rellations' \house in \Stoke"), or even upon silence. In 5b, the silent beat establishes the relative clause as nondefining (and so implies that the bringing of the order followed the speaking):
5. a. I \spoke to the \waiter who \brought my \order. b. I \spoke to the \water, \^ who \brought my \order.
Lines with three sounded beats in English tend to be uttered with a fourth, silent beat (like a musical rest) on the end (Attridge 87), producing a kind of staccato, line-by-line progress, as in 6:
6. When \getting my \nose in a \book \^ Cured \most things \short of \school \^ It was \worth \ruining my \eyes \^ ("A Study of Reading Habits," CP 131)
Larkin tends to use the awkward jerky movement of this form in vernacular poems to represent a crude or caricatured persona: "Wild Oats" (CP 143), "Send No Money" (146), "Love" (150) and "The Life with a Hole in it" (202) are examples.
The basic metrical pattern or "matrix" of the iambic pentameter consists of a sequence of ten syllable-positions, alternately labeled "weak" (nonbeat-bearing) and "strong" (beat-bearing); further rules allow us to derive secondary patterns or "templates" by exchanging adjacent syllable-positions (provided the following position remains unexchanged--templates 7d and 7e are irregular for this reason) or adding an extra weak syllable-position onto the end of the pattern, thus deriving from the matrix a number of metrical "templates" as in (the line joining reversed positions is purely a visual convenience to draw attention to the transformation):
7. a. w S w S w S w S w S (a.: "normal" template) b. S-w w S w S w S w S o (b.: a common template: initial reversal) c. w S S-w w S w W-s S (c.: a rare template: second foot reversal and final "swap") (7) d. w S w S w S w S S-w (d. and e.: irregular templates, avoided by most poets) e. S-w S-w w S w S w S
Larkin, unlike those C20 poets (like Betjeman) who treat the pentameter as a kind of museum-piece, uses the full range of templates: in 8, for example, he uses the slight surprise generated by medial reversals that are not telegraphed by major syntactic breaks to suggest sudden or jerky motion:
8. My swivel eye hungers from pose to pose w S w S S--w w S w S ("Lines," CP 71) A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept. w S w S w S S------w w S ("The Whitsun Weddings," CP 114) The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow w S w S S--w w S w S ("Sad Steps," CP 169)
To scan a line is to attempt to relate its prosodic and syntactic structure to one of these templates according to certain "mapping" rules that permit (for example) any syllables to occupy "w" positions but only syllables capable of carrying beats ("independent" syllables, represented by a capital letter) to occupy "S" positions. Briefly, a stressed syllable (designated in the scansion by either "A" [lexical stress] or 'B" [nonlexical stress]) will prevent a beat from falling on an unstressed syllable adjacent to it in the same syntactic constituent; a syllable so "dominated" will be represented by a lowercase "o" connected to the dominant syllable by a line. Unstressed syllables that are not dominated may carry beats and are represented by a capital "0." Where two lexically stressed syllables are adjacent within the same syntactic phrase, one will be subordinate ("a") to the other; this subordinate will most commonly be the preceding one (as in a phrase: Big Ben, which is "a-A"), or the following one (as in a compound word: pigpen, which is "A-b"). Compare "a white house" uttered neutrally (a-A) with "The White House" (A-b).
An unmetrical line is one that cannot be mapped onto one of the available templates, and Larkin (unlike Lowell) has rather few of these. Occurring mainly in the earliest poetry, they represent, as in 9, either inexperience or unsuccessful experimentation. Example 9 dissolves into jaunty dactylic tetrameter catalectic in a natural unforced reading (the unmetrically-occupied S-slot is double-underlined):
9. Range-finding laughter, and ambush of tears A-----b--o A-----o o----A--o o----A S-----w w S w S S--w w S [S . . S . . S . . S] (four-beat scansion) "Observation," CP 264)
The very occasional examples that occur in his mature work, by contrast, are there for a purpose. (8) In 10, for example, the meter of the line suddenly collapses as the reader tries to find a beat on the first syllable of collapse:
10. [you mine away] For months, both of you, till the collapse comes o---A A---O---O A-----O o---a------A w S S---w w S w S w S (Into remorse) ("Letter to a Friend about Girls," CP 123)
Beat placement is also affected by pragmatic (i.e., contrastive or focal) pitch-accent, which is a feature of the individual utterance and thus not fully predictable from syntax and word-choice. The importance of accent is that although it enables an unstressed syllable that would otherwise be dominated to carry a beat (as in the first foot of 11 below), it does not oblige it to do so: it offers choice, not obligation. (9) Hence it is an oversimplification to speak of "[t]he stress placed on 'His' and 'her"' in II (Booth 143), and thus to represent the final foot as reversed (which would be a very severe disruption of the meter, especially given that the preceding foot is):
11. [One sees, with a sharp tender shock] His hand withdrawn, holding her hand. O A O----A A--o O A (S W) W S S--w w W ("Ann Arundel Tomb," CP 110)
The syllables "her" and "hand" here are prominent in quite different ways: to label both "stressed" obscures the subtlety of the rhythmical effect. The naturalistic complication of rhythm produced by the intrusive occurrence of an accented syllable in offbeat-position--that is, by a "strong mapping"--nevertheless leaves the meter unperturbed, perhaps here suggesting the surprising intrusion of this domestic touch of feeling into the stiff hieratic sculpture. Of course, what Larkin calls "playing off the natural rhythms [...] of speech against the artificialities of [...] metre" (RW 71) is something that pentameter poets have always done: the cadence of recalls, after all, another poignant vignette of vulnerable love, Adam and Eve's last prelapsarian parting:
12. Thus saying, from her Husbands hand her hand A A-o O o---A--o A O A w S w S w S w S w S [Soft she withdrew] (Praise Lost 9.385-6)
A more disruptive intrusion is produced by a "harsh mapping"-that is, a subordinate (as defined above) stress in ictic position (a/S). (10) Because a-syllables do not naturally carry beats in speech, in practice harsh mappings are systematically avoided in the verse-tradition before the twentieth century (as Table 1 shows), (11) and strictly taboo in neoclassical verse. For this reason they are something of a trademark for poets, such as Donne and Browning, who cultivate a "rough" anti-poetical style. Donne's Satyrs, for example, are full of harsh mappings (underlined in what follows), all of which Pope removes in his "versification" of them:
13. Sir; though (I thanke God for it) I do hate (12) A O O---a-----A---O O O o-A (S----w) w S S---w w S w S (Donne, Satyre II 1) Yes; thank my stars! as early as I knew A A o---A o--A---o O o--A (S-----w) w S w S w S w S (Pope's version)
The effect of harsh mappings is to disturb the "fit" between the metrical pattern and the prosodic shape of the line, to roughen up the texture (rather like the architect's "rustic work") and thus give the verse, for the modern reader, a degree of awkward authenticity, as in these examples from "To the Sea" (CP 173-74; note also the consecutive reversals in the second line):
14. To step over the low wall that divides o---A B-o O--a---A O o-A w S S-w w S S-----w w S A white steamer stuck in the afternoon. O---a-----A--O A---O o-B--O A w S S--w S---w w S w S The same clear water over smoothed pebbles o--A a----A-o B-o a------A--o w S w S w S w S [w]S o The white steamer has gone. Like breathed-on glass O---a-----A--o o--A o-----A------b A w S S--w w S w S w S
We may note in passing that this sense of honest awkwardness in the poem is sustained also by the hesitation we may feel in first scanning lines like the following:
15. The miniature gaiety of sea-sides (13) o--A-oO o----A-o-O O (b---A) w S wS w S w S w S Ears to transistors, that sound tame enough A----O o--A--o O---a----A o--A W----w w S w W---s S w S To the same sea-side quack, first became known. O o--a----A--b A A o-a-----A w W--s S w S S-----w w S
Harsh mapping may in the right context may suggest disorder and produce a sense of strain or unease in the reader. Whereas the first line of 16, for example, uses ordinary heavy mappings (a/w) to suggest the effort of long-repressed emotions forcing their way past some obstruction, in the second the chaotic emergence of those emotions is evoked not just by the disorderly double reversal but also by the harsh mapping in the second foot. (14)
16. Their thick tongues blort, their eyes squeeze grief, a crowd o----(A-----a) A o---A a------A o---A w S w S w S w S w S Of huge unheard answers jam and rejoice-- o---A o---a---A---o A--O o--A w S w S S---w S--w w S ("Faith Healing," CP 126)
One naturalistic device that Larkin takes further than Lowell (as Table 1 shows) is medial catalexis. Where it coincides with and thus reinforces an existing syntactic break, one simple effect is (again) to roughen up the texture of the line, this time by rendering it more life-like and colloquial for the twentieth-century reader, less "literary" and shaped, as in l7 (the double solidus indicates an obligatory intonation-break):
17. [Coming up England by a different line] For once, ^ early in the cold new year, o--A A---o O o--A a---A w S [w]S w S w S w S ("I Remember, I Remember," CP 81) The diet of this worls, ^ all rich game o--Ao O----a---A A a----A w Sw W----s S [w]S w S ("Success Story," CP 88) Legs lagged like drains, ^ slippers soft as fungus A A o-----A A--o A o---A--o (w W) w s [w] S w S w S o ("A Slight Relax of Air," CP 142) I fell asleep, ^ waking at the fumes o--A o---A A-o O o--A w S w S [w] S w S w S ("Dockery and Son," CP 152) [^ Light spreads darkly downward from the high] (15) Clusters of lights ^ over empty chairs A--o o---A B-o A---o A S w w S [w]S w S w S ("Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel," CP 163) Who makes ends meet, ^ who's taking the knock, A--a a------A A----a-o o--A S--w w S [w] S S-w w S ("Livings I," CP 186) And more rooms yet, ^ each one further off. o---A-----a A A---o A---o A w S w S [w] S w S w S ("The Building," CP 192) [In furnace-fear when we are caught without] People or drink. ^ Courage is no good: A-o o----A A--o O---a--A S-w w S [w] S w W---s S ("Aubade," CP 209)
More interestingly, the catalexis can point a rhetorical pause of some kind: it can suggest a slight hesitation, mirroring the poet's mild disappointment at the dull predictability of the interior in "Church Going," for example, or his surprise at "finding out how much had gone of life,/How widely from the others" in "Dockery and Son"; alternatively, it can register the anxious hiatus that follows the nurse's beckoning in "The Building":
18. Another church: ^ matting, seats, and stone, o-A--o A A--o A o----A w S w S [w] S w S w S ("Church Going," CP 97) For Dockery a son, for me ^ nothing, o---A--o O o--A O---o A--o w S w S w S w S[w] S o ("Dockery and Son," CP 153) The nurse beckons-). ^ Each gets up and goes O--a-----A--o A a--A o----A w S S--w [w] S w S w S ("The Building," CP 192)
Where the catalexis does not coincide with an existing major syntactic break, the tiny ungrammatical pause or deceleration it intrudes can suggest a typically Larkinesque hesitation over le mot juste:
19. Why did he think ^ adding meant increase? (16) O--O o---A A--o A (b----A) S--w w S [w]S w S w S [To me it was dilution. Where do these Innate assumptions come from? Not from what] We think ^ truest, or most want to do: O---a-------Ao O---a----A o--A w S [w] Sw W---s S w S ("Dockery and Son," CP 153) The rapid clouds, the moon's ^ cleanliness. o--A-o A O---a--------A---o O w S w S w S [w] S w S ("Sad Steps," CP 169) That how we live measures our own ^ nature, O O o---A A--o O---A A-o (w S) w S S--w w S [w] S o ("Mr. Bleaney," CP 102) And looking out to see the moon ^ thinned o----A--o A o--A O--a-------A w S w S w S w S [w] S ("Vers de Societe," CP 181) Too thin and thistled to be called ^ meadows, o---A o-----A--o O O--a---------A-o w S w S w S w S [w] S o ("Here," CP 136)
An early remark reveals Larkin's explicit awareness of this rhythmic effect: in a 1944 letter to a friend he quotes an early draft of the ballad "The North Ship" and observes of its refrain, 20, "You understand 'journey' is pronounced naturally, to make a little hesitation in the rhythm, not in the godawful prizeday-recitation 'journee' manner" (Thwaite 91):
20. And it was rigged for a long ^ journey. (CP 302) O O o---A------O O--a------A--o (w S) w S w S [w] S o
The fifth-foot catalexis seen in 20 and in the last examples of 19 (often combined, as here, with harsh mapping) became with its sombre or musing cadence a trademark of Larkin's style right up to the last great poem that he wrote:
21. The sun's occasional print, the brisk ^ brief / [Worry] (17) o--A o--A--o o----A o---A \ a------A--o w S w S w S w S [w] S ("Deceptions," CP 32) Shifting itently, face to flushed ^ face A--o o--A---o A O---a--------A S--w w S w S w S [w] S ("Reasons for Attendance," CP 80) Wrapped up in personnels like old ^ plaids. A-----a o---A--o O O---a-------A S-----w w S w S w S [w] S ("For Sidney Bechet," CP 83) Under fourteen, I sent in six ^ words B--o b----A o--A O---a-----A S--w w S w S w S [w] S ("Success Story," CP 88) My age fallen away like white ^ swaddling o-A A--o o-A O-----a-------A--o w S S--w w-S w-----S [w] S o ("Age," CP 95) Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked ^ cases, o----A----o A o----A O---a--------A-o w S w S w S w S [w] S o ("Church Going," CP 97) ^ And the widening river's slow ^ presence, O o--A-o o----A-o a------A-o [w]S w S w S w S [w] S o Here domes and statues, spires and cranes ^ cluster A A o-----A-o A o----A \ A--o (w S) w S w S w S [w] S o ("Here," CP 136) The same clear water over smoothed ^ pebbles o--a a----A-o B-o a--------A--o w S w S w S w S [w] S o ("To The Sea," CP 173) Only the young can be alone ^ freely A--o o--A-----O O o-A \ A--o S--w w S w S w S [w] S o ("Vers de Societe," CP 182) The [Blank]shire Times from soup to stewed ^ pears. o----A-----o A o----A O---a-------A w S w S w S w S [w] S ("Livings," CP 186) [Making all thought impossible but how] And where and when I shall myself ^ die. o-----A o-----A O O o-A \ A w S w S (w S) w S [w] S The sky is white as clay, with no ^ sun. o---A o----A o----A O----a-----A w S w S w S w S [w] S ("Aubade," CP 209)
Though single catalexes generally go unremarked, multiple catalexis will sometimes obtrude itself upon a critic's attention, in which case it will tend to be interpreted prescriptively as a departure from metricality. Take the famous peroration to "Dockery and Son," for example: according to Timms, in item 22b "[t]he hard bleakness of the statement is emphasized by Larkin's completely breaking with the iambic pentameter, which is the norm of the other lines" (101). It is not clear to me why abandoning the meter would have such an effect, but this is not in any case what Larkin does: it is his--and the reader's--very adherence to the meter at this point that gives the line its portentous gravity. As a prose statement it would most probably have three beats, as also in 22a, but that its occurrence in a pentameter poem makes us treat it as a pentameter entails giving it (as Larkin does in his recorded reading) five beats, one on each lexical stress. The principle of isochrony--the well-documented tendency of spe akers of English to space beats at (very) roughly regular intervals of time--causes the deceleration and consequent gravitas of the line (the more offbeats in a measure, the faster one has to speak to fit them in, and vice-versa):
22. a. [The problem is perfectly clear:] Life is first boredom, then fear. (invented example) A---O \ A \ A---o A A S . . S . . S b. [Nothing with all a son's harsh patronage.] ^ Life is first ^ boredom, then ^ fear. A---O \ A \ A---o A \ A [w] S w S [w] S w S [w] S ("Dockery and Son," CP 153)
We can now begin to explain those "subtle modifications in rhythm" (Timms 107) in "Talking in Bed" (CP 129). The poem begins with enough in the way of metrical variation to produce what Timms calls "[t]he impression of someone speaking," yet even in the first line the third-foot reversal places a worrying emphasis on the word ought:
23. Talking in bed ought to be easiest: A--o o---A A-----O o--A-oO S w w S S-----w w S wS Lying together there goes back so far, Ao o-A--o A a---A o--A Sw w S w S w S w S The emblem of two people being honest. o-A---o O----a--A--o Ao A-o w S w W----s S w Sw S o
But with the adversarial Yet of the fourth line, the poem is suddenly invaded by catalexes and harsh mappings which work together to create a voice riddled with uncertainty and unease.
24. Outside, the wind's ^ incomplete unrest b--A O--a-------B o---A o--A w S w S [w]S w S w S And dark ^ towns heap up on the horizon O----a------A a---A--O O o-A-o w S [w] S w S w S w S o At this unique distance from isolation o----A o-a-----A--o o--B-o-A-o w S w S S--w w S w S o [Words at once true and kind,] Or not untrue and not unking O O B---a \O O B--a (w S) w S (w S) w S
The last line in particular, both with its two reversible feet generating doubt about the scansion and its awkward juxtapositions of strong and harsh mapping in the remaining feet, underscores the lack of closure in the poem, its awkward trailing off into more comfortable silence.
It is interesting that Lowell and Larkin's rediscovery of catalexis has not caught on among subsequent users of the pentameter to the extent that one might have expected, even among Larkin's acknowledged poetic disciples like Anthony Thwaite and Douglas Dunn: the roots of prescriptivism run deep, and nobody wants to be awarded the asses' ears as one of Ghose's "incompetent poets" who cannot count up to ten. It is perhaps significant that the one poet who flaunts Larkin's prosodic influence is the pugnaciously proletarian Tony Harrison, since a deliberate and willful flouting of prescriptivism from within an exclusive discursive tradition is a time-honored method of cocking a snook at the bourgeoisie. Harrison writes an aggressively catalected pentameter, sometimes using unsignaled instances to disconcert the reader, as in item 25 (170):
25. a. ^ suntan creams and lotions prefixed sol- A--b A o----A--o A-b A [w] S w S w S w S w S [while a double of my dad takes three wild shots) b. ^ at pronouncing PARACETAMOL. O o-A---o B-o-A-o O [w]S w S w S w S w S ("Pain Killers II")
25a is headless, but because the first syllable is a natural beat we have no difficulty in scanning the line first time, the five beats emerging spontaneously from the prosodic material; 25b, however, begins with an unstressed syllable that we naturally, on a first reading, take not as a beat but as the offbeat of an initial iamb, and in consequence find the rest of the line increasingly intractable to scansion. As readers we thrash around for a foothold, thrown off balance like the elderly customer; for a moment the educated, typically middle-class reader of poetry shares the doubt and hesitation, the intimidation before the written word, of Harrison's working-class father-figure.
When Larkin, by contrast, writes such a deceptive or "garden-path" line, as in 26, it is presumably without any such design on the reader; rather it illustrates the orality of his metric, since such lines are by no means ambiguous or problematic to the poet who conceives them as speech and reads them to an audience. It is only on the page, to the reader attempting to reconstruct a performance in his or her head, that they present problems:
26. And each deep-drawn breath is redolent (CP 227) O \ a----A----b A o---A-o O [w]S w S w S w S w S
Although Larkin famously disliked poetry readings ("a wonderful new way of being paranoiacally boring" [RW 137]), it was because they encouraged meretriciousness: "they have to get an instant response, which tends to vulgarize" (RW 66). He nonetheless recognized the essentially oral nature of poetry: one of the things he taught Maeve Brenann was "to read poetry out loud" (Motion 310), and we have his own testimony that "there comes a moment with any poem we have really taken to ourselves when we want to hear its author read it" (RW 139): "all my antiquarian rage boils at the thought of the legions of pre-1928 tenors and sopranos we preserved when nobody thought to record, say, Hardy or Lawrence" (RW 136). But his notion of the relation between speech and writing was a naive one: he seems to have believed that writing in some magical way is capable of preserving the original utterance of a poem, so that "[w]hen you write a poem, you put everything into it that's needed: the reader should 'hear' it just as clea rly as if you were in the room saying it to him" (RW 61). Indeed, he has written appreciatively of how Francis Berry, in Poetry and the Physical Voice, holds that "we can reconstruct the personal voice of [a poet] in our inner hearing from the printed signs alone" (84), and even that "it is possible to detect the tremulousness [of old age] in the voice of Tennyson in 'Crossing the Bar"' (39): Derrida's myth of presence on steroids. This faith in the written voice explains Larkin's frequent failure to establish the meter of a poem in the first line, as in the case of 26, or of 27 (which will naturally be uttered as a tetrameter on a first reading):
27. Delay, well, travelers must expect o-A A A-o o----A o-A w S (w S) w S w S (first guess) w S [w]S S-w w S w S (revised) ("Autobiography at an Air-Station," CP 78)
Conversely, though the first line of "Broadcast" will probably be taken initially for a typical Larkin headless pentameter, the discovery that all the other stanzas begin with a tetrameter will solicit a reconsideration:
28. Giant whispering and coughing from Ao A--o O o-----A--o o [w]Sw S w S w S w S (first guess) w S w S w S w S (revised) CP 140)
There is a similar problem with the first line of "Love Again," for it leads you to expect catalected pentameter but it turns out to be four-beat triple meter:
29. Love again: wanking at ten past three A o-A A--o o---A a------A [w]S w S S--w w S w S (first guess) S . . S . . S . S (revised) (Surely he's taken her home by now?) A---o o----A-o o---A o--A S . . S . . S . S (CP 215)
Perhaps the clearest indication of this faith in the written voice of poetry, however, is his occasional use of the rest, or silent beat. The problem with silent beats is that unless they are already given in the metrical template, as in the limerick or nursery-rhyme, they cannot be reliably encoded in a text: there is no way of signaling a rest except through a performance of the lines. For this reason, even in Shakespeare there are few unambiguous examples. The clearest instance is signaled by patterning in The Merchant of Venice 5.1.1-22 (see Bowers 90), a passage that represents a kind of metrical matching of wits between Lorenzo and Jessica. There are six split lines, all ending in the two feet "In such a night." They fall into three pairs, in each case divided first Lorenzo/Jessica, then Jessica/Lorenzo. In the first pair, the first hemistiches fit perfectly to produce pentameters; in the second pair, there is an extra syllable, producing a so-called "feminine epic caesura"; and, in the third, there is a syllable missing, necessitating a rest:
30. a. Where Cressid lay that night. / In such a night (MV 5.1.6) And ranne dismayed away. / In such a night (9) b. To come againe to Car[thage]. / In such a night (12) that did renew old E[son]. / In such a night (14) c. As farre as Belmont. 0 / In such a night (17) And nere a true one. 0 / In such a night (20)
Larkin's own reading of "Nothing to be Said" unmistakably recuperates the (otherwise unmetrical) second line of example with a silent beat between the two phrases:
31. Hours giving evidence Ao A-o A-o O S S S Or birth, 0 advance o---A o--A S [S] S On death equally slowly. o---A A--o o--A-o S S S ("Nothing to be Said," CP 138)
The same thing can be heard in his reading of 32, a line that would otherwise be defective in that there are only four possible heats; the silent beat supplies a sardonic pause:
32. Whether or not we use it, 0 it goes. A--o o---O o-A---o o---A S--w w S w S w [S]w S ("Dockery and Son," CP 153)
In "Maiden Name," the silent beat in the middle stanza (again present in Larkin's own reading) suggests the presence of an interlocutor, by reproducing the silence into which the question drops:
33. [Then is it scentless, weightless, strengthless, wholly] Untruthful? 0 Try whispering it slowly o---A---o a---A--o O O \ A-o w S w [S] w S w S w S o (CP 101)
In "Midwinter Waking," it suggests the jerky, staccato quality of the hibernator's excited question:
34. [Paws there. Snout there as well. Mustiness. Mould. ^ Darkness; a desire to stretch, to scratch.] Than has the ---? Then it is ---? Nudge the thatch A---O O A O--O A o---A (S--w) w [S] w S w S w S (CP 87)
In "The Building," it marks one of Larkin's typically sharp transitions of register:
35. [Traffic; a locked church; short ^ terraced streets Where kids chalk games, and girls with hair-dos fetch] Their separates from the cleaners-0-O world, o---A-o-o O o---A-o o--A w S w S w S w [S] w S [Your loves, your chances are beyond the stretch of any hand from here!] (CP 192)
An article of this scope can do little more than gesture at the range and complexity of Larkin's metrical practice; the emphasis has been, moreover, rather narrowly on Larkin the experimenter, testing and probing the limits of the heroic line, refashioning it as a meter of gaps and omissions, fit vehicle for a poetry of loss and absence, of lives with holes in them. But a poet cannot usefully experiment in a form without first having mastered it. Consider a single example of his understated skill, "The Explosion," usually characterized simply as trochaic tetrameter, the meter of Hiawatha (see, e.g., Petch 107). To make sense of Larkin's artistry here we need to keep in mind the distinction between rising or falling rhythm on the one hand and iambic and trochaic meter on the other. Meter (in English) is a set of abstract patterns embodied in beats and offbeats: rhythm, by contrast, is the complex product of word- and phrase shapes, syntactic linkage, vowel-length, syllabic weight and other properties. Take, fo r example, the following two lines, rhythmically quite distinct yet metrically identical: 36a has a falling rhythm (falling pairs bolded) whereas 36b has a predominantly rising rhythm (rising pairs underlined). Given that Shakespeare already admits both headlessness and double endings, it is a gross violation of Occam's Razor to describe a as a line of five substituted trochees (even two in a row are seriously disruptive of the pentameter):
36. a. Never, never, never, never, never. (King Lear 5.3.308) A-o A-o A-o A-o A-o [w]S w S w S w S w S o b. And the day was plucked and tasted bitter (CP 283) O o--A o----A o----A--o A--o [w]S w S w S w S w S o
In "The Explosion" the Hiawatha meter is introduced rather uncertainly--the first line, 37a, could easily be an anapestic dimeter--but it gradually builds up to a heavily emphatic form in which falling rhythm and trochaic meter completely coincide (b), only to be suddenly contradicted by a total reversal in both rhythm and meter at c, the exact center of the 25-line poem and the moment of the explosion. This line can only be iambic, because trochaic tetrameter (perhaps being too recent a form to have developed conventional variations) does not tolerate inversion, internal catalexis or hypermetricality:
37. a. On the day of the explosion ("The Explosion," CP 175) O o--A--o O o---A--o S w S w S w S w b. Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter, A--o A--o A---b A---o S w S w S w S w c. At noon, there came a tremor; cows o---A o----A o---A-o A w s w S w S w S d. ^ We shall see them face to face O o----A----o A o--A [w] S w S w S w S e. ^ One showing the eggs unbroken A A-o o-A o---A-o [w]S S-w w S w S o
The next four lines are also iambic, though d, being headless, functions as a transition to the trochaics that resume their reign in the last two stanzas. But it is the last line (37e), one of Larkin's great poetic closures, that is most interesting, in that it represents a delicate resolution or reconciliation of the two metrical and rhythmic schemes that have preceded it: formally: it looks trochaic in that it begins on a beat and ends on an offbeat, but the reversal on showing reveals the line to be a headless iambic tetrameter with double (feminine) ending. Not only this, but rhythmically the line represents a perfect balance, being divided exactly between two rising pairs (the eggs, unbrok-) and two falling ones (showing, -broken). As Philip Hobsbaum has wisely observed, "when critics call Larkin's poetry drab [...] all they do is demonstrate that they have no ears" (Hartley 291).
(1.) Larkin was later to dismiss the former assertion, a bit of coat-trailing, as "a rather silly remark" (Required Writing 68).
(2.) See, for example, "Going" (CP 3), "Come then to prayers" (5), "The Dedicated" (10), "Wedding-Wind" (11), "Water" (93), "Self's the Man" (116), "High Windows" (165).
(3.) As he pointed out, "You have to distinguish between things that seemed odd when they were new but are now quite familiar, such as Ibsen and Wagner, and things that seemed crazy when they were new and seem crazy now, like Finnegan's Wake and Picasso" (RW 72).
(4.) At least one of Auden's headless lines in "Letter to Lord Byron" was 'corrected' in a subsequent edition, though this might have been a matter of maintaining the appropriate poetic register.
(5.) Frank Kermode, in his New Arden Tempest, for example, says of 1.2.53 "The scansion of some commentators: 'Twelve / year since / Miran / da twelve / year since,' will not do": and offers an explanation that derives from Abbott's Shakespearian Grammar (372). That the headless lines Abbott fails to mention, however, are not noticed by Kermode suggests the problem they pose is more theoretical than actual.
(6.) Drawn out into four syllables here.
(7.) That Sw reverses to Ws (rather than wS) reflects the fact that the swapping of positions between feet seems to preserve the underlying foot structure in requiring (in most metrical styles) a word-boundary between the W and the s syllables: we can have, for example, "[On some] / Advised night see walking a dead one" (CP 97), but not *" [On some] / Advised night see walking deceased ones."
(8.) James Booth has remarked of "Going" (CP 3), for example, that "the way the initial regular iambs collapse into virtual free verse at the end of the poem embodies [. . .] the sensation of fading consciousness" (138), and Bruce Martin (106-07) makes a similar point about "Spring" (CP 39).
(9.) The brackets indicate an optionally reversible foot; the syllable liberated by accent is shown in upper-case and underlined, as in "It's a white house [A A], not a cream one!"). Note that "white house" (A A) is distinguished from "White House" (A-b) largely by the duration of the first syllable.
(10.) Note that subordinate stress is only metrically relevant when the syllable in question is adjacent to a fully stressed syllable.
(11.) About 15 percent of lines in a pentameter text will contain a-A sequences; as Table 1 shows, in most poets fewer than 3 percent of these have a-syllables are mapped in S-position, though this proportion rises to 23 percent in Browning.
(12.) -syllables are "inhibited" by their neighbor and are mapped onto S only in a highly artificial performance-style.
(13.) "o" signifies an elidible syllable, one that need not be mapped onto the template.
(14.) The brackets (A--a) indicate that stress-values have been swapped under the Rhythm Rule (compare "Ilands unlknown" with "lunknown Ilands").
(15.) Here catalexis has the incidental extra effect of clarifying the grammar: the syntactic break it draws attention to shows over empty chairs to be an adverbial modifying the verb spreads, rather than a postmodifier of the noun lights.
(16.) The reading increase is Larkin's (on tape); the more usual increase would create a second catalexis (the brackets indicate reversal of stress pattern under the Rhythm Rule).
(17.) "One has a few private rules [about enjambment]: never split an adjective and its noun, for instance" (RW 71). See also sheer/Inaccuracy (CP 80), a bright/Litter (CP 110).
Abbott, Edwin A., A Shakespearian Grammar. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 1870.
Attridge, Derek. The Rhythms of English Poetry. London: Longman, 1982.
Berry, Francis. Poetry and the Physical Voice. London: Routledge, 1962.
Booth, James. Philip Larkin: Writer. New York: St. Martin's, 1992.
Bowers, Fredson, "Establishing Shakespeare's Text: Notes on Short Lines and the Problem of Verse Division." Studies in Bibliography 33 (1980): 74-130
Ghose, Zulfikar. "Defence of Syllabics." TLS 63 (1964): 53.
Groves, Peter L. Strange Music: The Metre of the English Heroic Line. ELS Monograph Series, 74. Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, 1998.
Hamilton, Ian. "Four Conversations: Philip Larkin." London Magazine 4 (Nov. 1964): 71-77.
Harrison, Tony. Selected Poems. 2nd ed. London: Penguin Books, 1987.
Hartley, George, ed. Philip Larkin 1922-1985: A Tribute. London: Marvell, 1988.
Hassan, Salem, Philip Larkin and his Contemporaries. London: Macmillan, 1988.
Johnson, John William. "Somali Prosodic Systems." Horn of Africa 2 (1979); 46-54.
Kuby, Lolette. An Uncommon Poet for the Common Man: A Study of Philip Larkin's Poetry. The Hague: Mouton, 1974.
Larkin, Philip. Collected Poems. Ed. Anthony Thwaite. London: Faber and Faber, 1988.
---. Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982. London: Faber and Faber, 1983.
---. The Whitsun Weddings. New York: Random House, 1964.
Martin, Bruce. Philip Larkin. Boston: Twayne, 1978.
Motion, Andrew. Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.
Petch, Simon. The Art of Philip Larkin. Sydney: Sydney UP, 1981.
Powell, Grosvenor. "The Two Paradigms for Iambic Pentameter and Twentieth-Century Metrical Experimentation." Modern Language Review 91 (1996):561-77.
Salwak, Dale, ed. Philip Larkin: The Man and His Work. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1989.
Swarbrick, Andrew. Philip Larkin: The Whitsun Weddings and The Less Deceived. Macmillan Master Guides. London: Macmillan, 1986.
Thwaite, Anthony, ed. Selected Letters of Philip Larkin: 1940-1985. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.
Timms, David. Philip Larkin. Modern Writers. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1973.
Tolley, A. T. Larkin at Work: A Study of Larkin's Mode of Composition as Seen in his Workbooks. Hull: The U of Hull P, 1997.
Peter L. Groves (Peter.Groves@arts.monash.edu.au) received his Ph.D. from Cambridge University and now teaches at Monash University, Melbourne. In addition to his recent Strange Music: The Metre of the English Heroic Line (University of Victoria Press, 1998) and Samuel Daniel: Selected Poetry and A Defence of Rhyme (Pegasus Press, 1998), he has published articles on the communication of metrical systems, on the reception of metrical theories, and on the performance-grammar of meter, and has contributed several articles to the Oxford University Press Encyclopedia of Semiotics (ed. Paul Bouissac). He is currently working on the theory of verse-movement.
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