Breaking Expectations: The Prosodic Techniques of T. S. Eliot’s Approximated Verse
The Prosodic Techniques of T. S. Eliot’s Approximated Verse
In “Reflections on Vers Libre,” T. S. Eliot argues against the possibility of verse without meter, saying there is only “good verse, bad verse, and chaos.” Eliot asserts that the best uses of verse have been those in which the meter has been so mastered as to cause a departure from strict observance. This position led Eliot to his manipulations of meter and form in works such as “The Waste Land,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and “Gerontion,” among others. The prosody Eliot outlines in his 1920 essay is immensely valuable to the consideration of his work and its influence on the American poetic tradition. The essay explains Eliot’s commitment to maintaining some “ghost” of meter behind his verse and describes a resulting loosened form to which he gives no name. Eliot’s understanding of what it meant to master form allowed him to loosen or slacken his meter, resulting in two primary structural flexibilities: varied line lengths, and varied stanza lengths, both of which in turn caused the development of new prosodic techniques. T. S. Eliot’s verse thus led to the development of poetic techniques that have become characteristic of contemporary free verse prosody.
To consider the development of these structural techniques, it will be helpful first to examine Eliot’s meter as described in his essay, thereby gaining the necessary vocabulary to discuss his structural prosody.
Part 1: Eliot and Vers Libre
In “Reflections on Vers Libre” Eliot describes what he believed to be the liberties of a mastered form:
But the most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like the iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. It is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse. . . . We may therefore formulate as follows: the ghost of some simple meter should lurk behind the arras in even the “freest” verse; [sic] to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse.
Eliot provides an example of this “evasion” or approximation of form in a poem by an unnamed poet, but I will provide an example of Eliot’s own verse to demonstrate the prosody. This is a few lines from the opening of Eliot’s poem “Gerontion”:
Hère I àm, an òld màn in a drỳ mònth,
Bèing rèad tò by a bòy, waìting for raìn.
Ì was neìther àt the hòt gàtes
Nor foùght in the wàrm raìn
Nor knèe dèep in the sàlt màrsh, heàving a cùtlass.
Bìtten by flìes, foùght.
My hoùse is a decaỳed hoùse,
And the jèw squàts on the wìndow sìll, the òwner,
Spàwned in sòme estàminèt of Àntwerp,
Blìstered in Brùssels, pàtched and peèled in Lòndon.
The meter of “Gerontion” approximates a trochaic pentameter yet is interspersed with spondees and occasional pyrrhics. I say “approximates” because of the extent of the metrical variation in both foot type and number that creates the “ghost of some simple meter” that Eliot prescribes. The first line begins with two trochees: “Hère I àm, an.” The remaining three feet are, respectively, spondee, pyrrhic, spondee. The second line has a similar combination: trochee, spondee, pyrrhic, trochee (defective, but disguised by the caesura), trochee, iamb. The last three words of the second line (which come after the caesura) and the first three words of the first line (which come before the caesura) have a similar meter: “Hère I àm” (stress, unstress, stress) and “waìting for raìn” (stress, unstress, unstress, stress) and provide a sort of framework for the first two lines. From the third line on, the first stanza of “Gerontion” makes heavy use of the trochaic, while the spondees, such as “hot gates,” “warm rain,” “knee deep,” and “jew squats” give the trochaics lines a playful, elusive rhythm.
While Eliot’s meter here approximates a trochaic line interspersed with spondees, the variation of foot type and number of feet per line gives the piece a rhythm reflective of conversational speech. This “conversational rhythm” coupled with the “ghost of meter,” provides a tension central to the poem’s advancement, as Eliot says in his essay: “freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation.”
Because Eliot’s verse neither holds to the strict meters of “conventional verse” nor completely abandons all use of patterns of accentual units, it seems inappropriate to term Eliot’s verse either metered or free. In Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody, Charles Hartman argues that Eliot has confused meter with scansion and, lacking the former, is thus writing in free verse. Hartman defines meter as “a prosody whose mode of organization is numerical”; thus meter results from the counting and arrangement of units, in English these units being measured as accentual feet. The existence of accentual units (as Eliot argues) is, according to Hartman, not the equivalence of metrical arrangement of said units: “to seize upon the particular conventions—accents, syllable counts, feet—and discard the system within which alone these conventions have any significance, is not to account for a prosody.” While Hartman’s logic may be absolutely correct, to consider Eliot’s verse “free” is not to account for his approximated “ghost of meter” that still lurks in the background. For this reason, Hartman cites the critic Graham Hough who applies to Eliot’s verse the French term vers libéré, literally, liberated verse. For convenience in English, and for the sake of this essay, I will adopt the term approximated verse, to reflect the way in which a simple form may be “withdrawn” from or “approximated” to in the “fixity and flux” of Eliot’s meter.
Part 2: Eliot’s Prosodic Techniques
Abandonment of strict form for a looser though still organized structure, as exemplified in Eliot’s poem “Gerontion,” has two primary structural effects: (1) varied line lengths, and (2) varied stanza lengths, both of which in turn allow for the development of additional prosodic techniques. To understand the significance of varying line and stanza lengths, it is helpful to consider their traditional function as units of organization and measurement. Hartman defines meter as “a prosody whose mode of organization is numerical.” In other words, lines are used for counting metrical patterns. The meter of an English sonnet, for example, can only be described by the terms “iambic pentameter,” and “three quatrains and a couplet.” When meter is loosened, as in the case of Eliot’s approximated meter, the lines and stanzas lose, to a certain extent, their primary function and begin to serve other purposes. We will begin with a discussion of the prosodic techniques, or effects, that arise from the flexibility of line lengths, and then proceed to discuss the prosodic techniques, or effects, that arise from the flexibility of stanza lengths.
In addition to the structural effects that result from Eliot’s approximated verse, there are prosodic effects having to do with the syntax and rhythms of the language itself. Rosemary Gates, in “T. S. Eliot’s Prosody and the Free Verse Tradition,” for example, forgoes the conventions of metrical scansion to discuss Eliot’s rhythmic patterns by focusing on the syntactical accents, applying a ranking system from 1 to 4 to enumerate the stressed words in each line. And Hartman discusses the intricacies of isochrony. But these discussions involve a more complex linguistic and syntactical analysis than is available in the scope of this essay, and as a whole do little to explain Eliot’s effect on the tradition of poetic prosody. I have, therefore, chosen to focus here on the structural and organizational techniques that may be observed in Eliot’s approximated verse. It should be made clear that the prosodic techniques examined here, while resulting, in Eliot’s poetry, from his approximated meter, are by no means reliant on such meter, but develop as meter is loosened.
1. Varied Line Lengths
Alteration of Meter. In Hartman’s Free Verse there is an explanation of how breaking a single line in a variety of ways may shift the stresses and enunciations of particular syllables, thus altering the poem’s meter. Lines 17 through 19 of “Gerontion” are reflective of the loose pentameter the poem has established (in the first 20 lines of “Gerontion,” 30% are hexameter, 40% are pentameter, 10% are tetrameter, and 20% are trimeter) but the twentieth line disrupts the expected line length by offering only three stresses. The 21st line then returns to the expected approximated pentameter.
Sìgns are tàken for wònders. “We woùld see a sìgn!” 17
The wòrd withìn a wòrd, unàble to spèak a wòrd, 18
Swàddled with dàrkness. Ìn the juvèscence of the yèar 19
Càme Chrìst the tìger 20
In dèpraved Mày, dògwood and chèstnut, flòwering jùdas, 21
The 20th line, in its obvious departure from the expected hexameter, calls attention to itself and thereby creates extra emphases for its syllables. My scansion of line 20 includes a stress mark on all words other than the article. Consider how the scansion of lines 20 and 21 might change if the lines where re-broken as follows:
Came Chrìst the tìger in depràved Mày,
dògwood and chèstnut, flòwering jùdas,
Notice how the word Came is no longer emphasized. When the eye approaches this line (now similar visually to the lines of hexameter that preceded it), the word Christ grabs attention first. The word Came is skimmed over; Christ acts as a jumping board from which the reader is launched into the rest of the line. By not holding himself firmly to five accents per line, Eliot was able to create a line of three accents that created an added emphasis on a particular line and altered the poem’s meter. This alteration of meter draws attention to itself and creates thematic or emotional resonances.
Alteration of Rhythm. In addition to altering the meter mid-poem, the short line also may alter the rhythm, or tempo, with which the poem is read. For the terms “meter” and “rhythm,” I am borrowing definitions from Hartman, who defined meter as that which accords with numeric organization, and rhythm as that which accords with “the temporal distribution of the elements of language.” These elements work in conjunction or in opposition to create tension. When approaching several lines of similar length, as in the lines of pentameter and hexameter quoted above, the reader develops a rhythm of speech that he or she may carry from line to line. But when an irregular line is encountered, the reader pauses; the rhythm is disrupted and the reader sits a moment with the extra emphasis. Consider lines 26 through 31 of the same poem:
By Hàkagàwa, bòwing amòng the Tìtans;
By Madàme de Tornquìst, ìn the dàrk roòm
Shìfting the càndles; Fraùlein von Kùlp
Who tùrned in the hàll, one hànd on the doòr,
Weàve the wìnd. I hàve no ghòsts . . .
The first four lines of this passage approximate a tetrameter that allows the reader to fall into a fairly steady, conversational rhythm. When the reader reaches the line “Vacant shuttles,” however, the short line breaks the rhythm that the reader has hitherto adopted. Like varying the meter, varying the rhythm may also be used for emphasis or to heighten or lessen the emotional intensity of the passage.
Control of Emotional Intensity. Because it affects the time allotted to each line, varying line lengths also may allow for heightened or lessened emotional intensity, or shifts in tone. In section three of “The Waste Land,” Eliot describes a woman receiving possibly unwanted advances from a man. This passage approximates iambic pentameter (there are frequent trisyllabic feet and line lengths vary between four and six feet per line). The movement from line to line is quick and reflects the heightened intensity of the situation described:
The time is not propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
The full stanza from which this is an excerpt totals 34 lines. The long stanza serves here to drive the movement of the poem as the reader is forced quickly from line to line without pause. Compare, by contrast, a stanza that we find just 24 lines later:
The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash
Down Greenwich reach
Past the Isle of Dogs.
The shorter lines here actually slow down the speed of the poem. Moreover, though the lines contain fewer words, each word is placed so particularly as to call attention to itself. The line breaks also create pauses in the syntax of the sentence, and cause the reader to spend more time with each line. The tone in this passage is descriptive and contemplative, while the tone in the first passage was narrative and dramatic. There is less emotional intensity in this slow and careful description of ships than there is in the quick-paced narration of seduction.
By introducing a flexibility of line lengths, Eliot has more tools at his disposal for the manipulation of meter and rhythm, and for the creation of emotional intensity.
2. Varied Stanza Lengths
Unresolved Stanzas. To preface a discussion of unresolved tension in stanzas, I must take a moment and describe the positive of the term. In a poem that follows a conventional form, the set line and stanza lengths allow the poem to maintain a sense of cohesion and resolution. (I use the term resolution carefully, not intending to signify an end of tension, but merely an emotional completeness or wholeness in the midst of tension.) Consider, for example, the first two stanzas of Eliot’s “Whispers of Immortality”:
Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.
Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.
In a prosody that employs quatrains, the reader comes to know what to expect and receives the expected. Each stanza functions as a cohesive unit with an individual idea or image that progresses the poem as a whole. The first stanza of “Whispers of Immortality” describes a man who sees death even among the living. The first two lines convey the image of death (skull) lurking among the living (skin). The third and fourth lines develop a second image that attributes characteristics of the living (leaning and grinning) to the dead in their graves. The image of life attributed to the dead in lines three and four provides a proper balance for the image of death attributed to the living in lines one and two. Within the single stanza a contrast and central tension is established and there exists a cohesion and sense of emotional resolution. The rhyme in each stanza also contributes to the sense of resolution. When the reader has come to expect the rhyme, the word that is presented at the end of the second line (in the case of this poem) anticipates the completion of its sound that will follow in line four. If this completion of sound did not occur, the stanza’s end would hang awkwardly in the reader’s ear. Emotional resolution does not require rhyme or fixed stanza lengths to exist (resolution may, in fact, be achieved through a number of prosodic techniques), but rather regular rhyme and fixed stanza lengths create cohesion and resolution.
By allowing his stanzas to be different lengths, Eliot was able to leave stanzas unresolved. When cohesion was no longer a default effect of form, Eliot’s stanzas were able to reflect fragmentation. It must be noted, however, that neither fragmentation nor unresolved tension are direct results of varying stanza lengths, but rather come from establishing an expected form and then breaking it. A three-lined stanza only feels incomplete when the reader had been expecting a stanza of four lines. In the same way, an unrhymed stanza only feels awkwardly suspended if the reader had been expecting rhyme.
Contrast the cohesive and resolved stanzas of “Whispers of Immortality” to the opening of “Gerontion.” “Gerontion” opens with a stanza of sixteen lines followed by a stanza of four lines. The first stanza presents the character and his reflections on his life. The second stanza shifts to a spiritual subject that is not fully explored before the stanza breaks again. Much of the opening two stanzas is quoted above, but I will repeat a portion of it here so the shift may be seen. Lines 13–16 are the conclusion of the first stanza followed by the entirety of the second.
. . .
The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.
I an old man,
A dull head among windy spaces.
Signs are taken for wonders. “We would see a sign!”
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger.
By varying the lengths of his stanzas Eliot is able to control the levels of cohesion and resolution, or lack thereof, in each stanza and thus in the poem as a whole.
Structural Shifts. When the length of the stanza varies, then the stanza’s traditional prosodic purpose of measuring lines is obsolete. The poet must find a new function for the stanza entirely and the possibilities are endless, ranging from thematic organization to a desire for ellipsis. In the second part of “The Waste Land” Eliot opens with a clearly demarcated stanza of 33 lines followed by 33 lines of dialogue. There are, in the section of dialogue, several line breaks that may possibly be considered stanza breaks. Yet even with these breaks it is unclear how these stanzas of dialogue function any differently than would prose paragraphs of dialogue.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.”
I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.
“What is that noise?”
The wind under the door.
Shifting Content. By varying the length of the stanza, Eliot is also able to spend only the time and space desired on a subject without the need to provide cohesion for a set stanza length. Eliot’s “Prufrock” opens with an invitation to visit an unknown place but just as the reader expects to find out the aim of the journey, the rhyming couplet changes the subject.
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Do not ask, “what is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
It may be assumed that the room from which the women come and go is the place to which the poet and reader have journeyed together, but no sense of what is found in the room or the significance thereof is offered. The poem continues and changes subjects again:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the windowpanes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the windowpanes,
One may imagine that the windowpanes described in lines 16 and 17 are windows of the room the women come in and out of in lines 14 and 15, but this is just conjecture. And even if the windows are of the same room, neither the image of the room nor the image of the fog at the windowpanes does any work to advance the theme of the poem’s opening invitation. Eliot’s ability to vary his stanza lengths allowed him to devote more time to one subject and less time to another subject, denying the reader a sense of cohesion that would have begun to emerge had Eliot been forced to spend an entire stanza describing the women, and the same amount of time describing the fog. The danger in my argument is blurring the lines between content and form, for two lines about women and two lines about fog could very easily be imbedded into the strictest of meters. My argument merely aims to convey the loss of thematic cohesion that is one possible technique resulting from flexible stanza lengths.
When the stanza is no longer used for counting out lines, its function and form may vary, allowing content to vary as well. The combined effect is a loss of cohesion allowing for a fragmentation of image and theme.
Part 3: Examples from Contemporary Free Verse
The structural techniques resulting from Eliot’s approximated verse have largely come to characterize the prosody of contemporary free verse. (I limit my use of the term “contemporary” to refer to poetry published within the last twenty years.) For instance, in the poem “Circle Drawn in Water” by Franz Wright, it may be seen how one contemporary poet is able to vary his stanza lengths to create tension and thematic effect. The first two stanzas of the poem set the reader up to expect tercets. What would be the third tercet, however, is broken into two stanzas, a couplet and single lined stanza:
I think somewhere there is a room
in which I am living
an old man
in the future,
in a windy
room where I’m sitting and reading
trying to make out
bent over a three-legged table
these words I’m now writing—
When the reader reads the first two stanzas, she is able to fall into a syntactical rhythm. Each stanza is a complete thought or unit of speech. When the reader comes to the third stanza, however, the pattern is disrupted. The object of the first line is not stated in the couplet, allowing for the tension of an incomplete idea. The couplet closes with the particularly harsh words “three-legged table.” The stanza is jarring and abrupt in both form and content. In Free Verse, Hartman describes how the working of syntax across lineation serves to create a central tension of the poem. In this case, the syntax is working across the stanza break. When the idea finds its resolution in the single line that follows the couplet, the complete image of the old man bending over the table to read retains the emotion supplied by the break.
A flexibility in form and purpose of the stanza has also become very characteristic of contemporary free verse. In “War of the Foxes,” Richard Siken resists lineation altogether and writes in what resembles prose paragraphs. These paragraphs are interspersed with dialogue formatted according to a theatrical script.
Two rabbits were chased by a fox, of all the crazy shit in the world, and the fox kept up the chase, circling the world until the world caught up with them in some broken-down downtown metropolis. Inside the warren, the rabbits think fast. Pip touches the only other rabbit listening.
Pip: We’re doomed.
Flip: Oh Pip!
Pip: I know where you can hide.
Flip: Are you sure?
Pip: Yes. Here, hide inside me.
While the innovative form of Siken’s poem may be an extreme example of what the stanza may be stretched to, this incredible flexibility of structure resulting from Eliot’s abandonment of numerical organization has come to be characteristic of contemporary free verse prosody.
While quoting only two contemporary examples is limiting in what may be illustrated, these examples do convey the extent to which Eliot’s prosody has been developed and adopted by the contemporary movement. Wright’s poem, like many contemporary free verse poems, makes use of the stanza’s ability to count lines but breaks it when and where needed to create the tension desired. The example of Siken’s work shows extreme liberties of form that, though considered experimental or occasionally termed “cross-genre,” have resulted from the stanza’s use for organization in ways other than the numerical.
Eliot’s prosodic developments may be boiled down to an awareness of and manipulation of reader expectations. When Eliot creates a poem that approximates iambic pentameter the reader comes to expect something that is not fulfilled. Eliot uses this tension to create the effect he desires.
Reader expectations may come either from a prosody the poem has established itself (and thus the reader comes to understand by reading it) or from a prosody of conventions about which the reader has prior knowledge. It is appropriate to consider both sources. In Wright’s poem, the reader came to expect tercets because the poem began with two tercets and let the reader fall into the rhythmic and syntactical pattern of that organization. In each instance of these structural techniques we have discussed, Eliot anticipated his reader’s expectations of verse and numerical organization, and then experimented with breaking that expectation. Eliot’s first readers expected the cohesion provided by stanzas of three or four lines. Eliot broke those expectations and wrote stanzas of dialogue. This attitude towards breaking expectations creates tension that may be the very root of prosody as even a meter imposed over a syntactical line can create and challenge expectations. The prosodic techniques that developed from Eliot’s use of approximated verse did not change the essence of prosody but merely provided more avenues for the poets who have followed him to create and break expectations.
- Eliot, T. S. “Reflections On Vers Libre.” New Statesman (London, England: 1913) 8. (1917): 518-519. Humanities & Social Sciences Index Retrospective: 1907–1984 (H.W. Wilson). Web. 28 Nov. 2012.
- Eliot, T. S., and Frank Kermode. The Waste Land and Other Poems. New York, NY: Penguin, 1998. Print.
- Gates, Rosemary. “T. S. Eliot’s Prosody and the Free Verse Tradition: Restricting Whitman’s ‘Free Growth of Metrical Laws.’” Poetics Today 11.3 (1990): 547–578. Web. 19 Nov. 2012.
- Hartman, Charles. Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1980. Print.
- Siken, Richard. “War of the Foxes.” In War of the Foxes. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2015. Print.
- Wright, Franz. “Circle Drawn in Water.” In Walking to Martha’s Vineyard. New York, NY: Knopf, 2005. Print.