Rationale of Verse

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Edgar Allan Poe (1809—1849) American short-story writer, poet, and critic


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Essay by Poe, published as “Notes on English Verse” in The Pioneer (1843), and in its final form under the present title in the Southern Literary Messenger (1848). It is the most complete expression of Poe's theories of poetic technique, although critics, indicating its inconsistencies, assert that he did not follow his own dicta.

Refuting the notion that prosody is concerned with the regular “alternation of long and short syllables, ” Poe establishes a distinction between “natural” and “unnatural” metrical units. “The natural long syllables are those encumbered … with [difficult] consonants.… Accented syllables are of course always long, but, where unencumbered with consonants, must be classed among the unnaturally long.” He upholds a “principle of equality,” according to which each verse foot must be pronounced in the same time as every other foot in the line, regardless of the number of its syllables. This applies only to single lines, although to be effective a stanza should contain lines arranged in strict pattern; and rhyme, alliteration, and the use of refrains should be governed by the same rule. Since duration is the standard by which this “equality” is to be judged, there should be no “blending” or substitution of one metrical foot for another. Contractions or elisions should be avoided, although additional unstressed syllables may be used if they can be pronounced rapidly. The “cæsura” (in this usage, a “variable foot” occurring at the end or middle of a line, and consisting of one long syllable) is discussed as being one of the most important of metrical feet. The essay concludes with a passage, especially referring to Longfellow's poems, which denies the possibility of the successful use of Greek hexameters in English, because of the “natural” pronunciation peculiar to English words.

Subjects: Literature.

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