Obscure Poe: “The Rationale of Verse”

Obscure Poe: “The Rationale of Verse”, Edgar Allan Poe, Southern Literary Messenger, October-November 1848.

ultima thule portrait of poe 1848
The “Ultima Thule” portrait of Poe taken by Edwin H. Manchester on November 9, 1847, four days after he attempted suicide.

This is a long essay, 45 pages long in my Library of America edition. It’s a technical theory of verse, and I won’t attempt a discussion of all its points or pass judgements on Poe’s opinions.

It’s mostly an attack on all existing theories of English “versification” with plenty of detailed analysis. My impression is, after looking at a couple of times, it probably is of value to would-be poets.

I suppose the heart of the essay is the falling paragraph:

So general and so total a failure can be referred only to radical misconception. In fact the English Prosodists have blindly followed the pedants. These latter, like les moutons de Pannurge, have been occupied in incessant tumbling into ditches, for the excellent reason that their leaders have so tumbled before. The Illiad, being taken as a starting point, was made to stand in stead of Nature and common sense. Upon this poem, in place of facts and deduction from fact, or from natural law, were built systems of feet, metres, rhythms, rules, — rules that contradict each other every five minutes and for nearly all of which there may be found twice as many exceptions as examples. If any one has a fancy to be thoroughly confounded – to see how far the infatuation of what is termed “classical scholarship” can lead a book-worm in the manufacture of darkness out of sunshine, let him turn over, for a few moments, any one of the German Greek Prosodies. The only thing clearly made out in them is a very magnificent contempt for Liebnitz’s principle of a ‘sufficient reason’.

The eighteenth century was a time of great English pedantry when it came to the English language. Various English writers, worshipping at the feet of classical civilization, insisted on Latin being the model for English. Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way talks about some of this. All sorts of grammatical rules were proclaimed for English: no ending sentences with a preposition, no starting them with a conjunction, and no splitting infinitives. None of which described English as written or presented a rule whose violation obscured the sense of the language. Continue reading “Obscure Poe: “The Rationale of Verse””