Version classiqueVersion mobile

La Négation

Stéphanie Bonnefille
Sébastien Salbayre

Poétique et esthétique : de la négation au négatif

The Forms of Negation: Metre and Metaphysics in the Versification of
T.S. Eliot

James W. Underhill


While this conference offers an interesting opportunity to discuss ways in which we say ‘no’, it might be interesting to examine the way in which negation is formulated. If all forms of negation must be formulated, then they are all engendered formally. This begs the question; what form does negation take? Poets have long examined ways in which the form of language can be harnessed to underline negation at strategic moments within the poem (Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, for example). Similarly, the refusal to use a formal structure such as metre can be interpreted as a form of negation advanced by a movement of writers (free verse, for example). More interestingly poets such as Thomas Hardy use the breakdown of metre within a poem to signal a striking change of mood, such as the entry of despair. T.S. Eliot, perhaps most interestingly of all, offers a poetry which is ambivalent towards structure and form. The voice which emerges in his versification is one which highlights negation in traditional ways using foregrounded negation at the beginning and at the end of lines, refrains and rhyme, but one which also manages to maintain a constant adoption and negation of traditional metres, a negation in permanence, which I would call metrical ambivalence. Working principally with the conceptual tools of Derek Attridge’s metrics, I propose in this paper to consider briefly a wide variety of techniques with which poets have shown that ‘No’ is not simply something that we say, but something that we do

Texte intégral


1.1. Misgivings about Metrics

1After more than a century of free verse, it may seem curious to resurrect the metrical tradition and claim that metre is not simply a technical device but rather something of cosmic importance which formally enacts the affirmation of the order of creation. Many scholars involved in poetics prefer to steer clear of metrics and, in fairness, this might not seem unwise given the manifest incapacity of foot metrics to explain what is happening in what seems to be the most simple of metrical lines. Foot metrics have never been able to explain why a pentameter might have three, four or six accents, for example, while a line with five accents might not work as a pentameter (though it might quite easily be read either as a tetrameter or a hexameter). Only since Derek Attridge introduced his binary scansion in 1982, can we explain why a line like the first one in Shakespeares's first sonnet reads perfectly metrically:

Β (beat)
ο (offbeat)
(Stesses in Attridge's scansion are attributed a negative, positive or neutral status.)

2In the binary scansion given here, we can see the difference between the stress contour (the stress the words take in the sentence or phrase) and the metrical beating which the poem bodies forth (and which the poetic tradition leads us to expect each time we begin to read a sonnet). The word ‘we’, in Shakespeare's line carries no stress, and yet the reader has no difficulty in giving the word a heightened accentuation, i. e. promoting it into a metrical beat. This process is intuitive. Attridge accounts for it by his first promotion role: “An unstressed syllable may realise a beat when it occurs between two unstressed syllables.” (165)

3The ideas of promotion and demotion (the converse effect of downplaying an accented syllable in a metrically weak position) were not unknown to traditional foot metrics, but they were never integrated into an efficient scansion which was able to demonstrate the way the stress contour pulls against the metre. Consequently, in their attempts to account for the fact that metrical accents and word stresses fail to coincide with frustrating regularity, scholars working with traditional metrical analysis were forced to introduce complicated and inept concepts of inversion, displacement or exception. The reputation of metrics was not helped by the reliance on Greco-Latin terms such as spondee and anapaest. Would sceptics have been mistaken if they had felt that such terms merely served to cover up the incapacity of specialists to explain the complexities and seeming irregularities of lines which for most people appear perfectly regular?

4In addition to this, free verse poets like Pound and Eliot (despite their insistence that the poet should familiarise himself with the tradition and emulate metrical verse), tended to defend their own innovations by setting up metre as a mechanical and impersonal form which must be broken or surpassed in order for the free voice to form itself. The terms, organic and mechanical form, were used by the German Romantics and by Coleridge to help them formulate a nonmechanistic aesthetics of the creative process. The idea of organic form was heralded in 20th century poetics as a form which had an inner coherence, completeness and harmony (Preminger, 868). Unfortunately, in pursuing a new open form of organicism (something which Coleridge and the German Romantics might have spoken of, but did not actually do), free verse poets and modern critics have tended to conflate metre with mechanical form. This is clearly unfair. Poets writing in metre have always reserved the term versification for that kind of poetry which rhymes and reads metrically, but which does so in a stilted, mechanical or forced manner. Though in the present article versification will be used in a neutral way to designate the organisation of syllables, phrasing, rhyming and other forms of sound patterning, the term, as it is used above, was obviously intended to be pejorative. Metre pasted on (words forced into metrical constraints) is something which has always been condemned. But who would suggest that this is what Shakespeare is doing in the line above? Has anyone condemned the mechanical nature of his verse?

1.2. The Poet of Order

5It has been necessary to clear away such misgivings about metrics in order to approach what might now seem like a distant all but forgotten idea of poetry; that of poetry as a religious affirmation of the organised cosmos, a celebration of creation. Such an ideal of poetry is a far cry from much contemporary poetry. With Larkin's generation we saw the arrival of poetry which increasingly investigated what up until then had been considered very “prosaic” subjects which Hardy or Wordsworth would probably have considered unworthy of poetry. In its extreme form, this trend has given rise to what has come to be known as kitchen sink poetry, a poetry exemplified in the work of Glyn Maxwell and Simon Armitage. While these poets do not abandon the quest for lyricism, they do seem to seek it very often in unusual places, such as car garages and football fields.

6In contrast to this world of prose, Hugo was declaring his affiliation to a long-standing tradition when he stressed that poetry, in its ideal form, was inseparable from metre:

Celui pour qui le vers n'est pas la langue maternelle, celui-là peut-être poète ; il n'est pas le poète. Le rythme et le nombre, ces mystères de l'équilibre universel, ces lois de l'idéal comme du réel, n'ont pas pour lui le haut caractère de la nécessité. Il s'en passerait volontiers ; la prose, c'est-à-dire l'ordre sans harmonie, lui suffit ; et, créateur, il ferait autrement que Dieu. Car, lorsqu'on jette un regard sur la création, une sorte de musique mystérieuse apparaît sous cette géométrie splendide ; la nature est une symphonie ; tout y est cadence et mesure ; et l'on pourrait presque dire que Dieu a fait le monde en vers. (Hugo, 1851-1853,700)

7Hugo defines the real poet as a God-like creator inspired by the harmony and cadence of creation; a poet whose poetry moves in time to some implicit principle of unity. The mediocre poet contents himself with prose, a form of writing which lacks this fundamental principle of harmony. Insensitive to the pattern and plans that underpin the workings of our world, such a poet cannot lend his ear to the inspiring principle which links the real poet to God. Only the latter is tuned to the harmony that manifests itself in creation. Only he knows: “La musique est dans tout. Un hymne sort du monde.” (Hugo, “Ecrit sur la plinthe d'un bas relief antique”, XXI, Les Luttes et les rêves, Contemplations).

1.2. Harmony and the Romantics

8Here Hugo shares one of the basic ideals of the poetry of his period. Indeed, there is nothing new in his affirmation of the affinity between the poet and God. Romantic poetry in France, England and in Germany (and later in America) all held this privileged insight into the cosmos to be the prerogative of the real poet. This was the ideal of all yearning souls who aspired to become poets. If poetry is written in verse, argues Shelley in A Defence of Poetry, it is because its measure expresses the order and the harmony of a world of which metre is a symbol and a correspondence. Poets are those privileged beings who imagine and express this indestructible order. (Meschonnic, 400) Joseph von Eichendorff evoked this idea in terms almost identical to those of Hugo when he wrote:

Schläft ein Lied in allen Dingen,
Die da träumen fort und fort
Und die Welt hebt an zu singen
Triffst du nur das Zauberwort.
(Wünschelrute, Eichendorff, 103)

9I would translate this short poem into English as:

In every thing there lives a song
Sleeping on unheard.
And the world lifts up , rejoicing
Once you find that Secret Word.

10Friedrich von Schlegel, the greatest of the Romantic thinkers, formulates a similar idea when he suggests that only that which must be written in verse is “poetry” in the full sense of the term. (Meschonnic, 399) The moral imperative here indicates that true or inspired poetry inevitably takes form in metre. The poem must engender a harmonious whole. Anything else is unworthy to be written in verse and unworthy of the term poetry. Here it is essential to remember that we cannot make a simple binary distinction between poetry and prose but must also remember the distinction (already mentioned) that separates poetry (in its ideal form), verse (uninspired poetry) and versification (bad poetry).

11Throughout Romantic poetry, we find a link being made between harmony and the poet. Once the poet finds himself at one with the harmony of nature, he finds himself at one with God. And it is his knowledge of God and the harmonious principle which governs everything which emanates from God that allows him to inspire others and lead them physically, through the metre of his verse, back into tune with God. In the same way, this encounter with harmony allows the poet to understand more intimately the relationship between man and woman, and to celebrate their harmonious union. Love, Nature and the Poet converge into one creative unity which echoes the logos.

1.3. Christian Aesthetics. Doubt and Versification

12Nor was this idea (or rather this ideal) of poetry anything new at the time of Shelley, Hugo and Schlegel. George Herbert, an English poet of the early 1600s forges a similar relationship between the state of grace experienced in the presence of God and the state of harmony within the poet's soul. Herbert, a poet and minister whose rhetoric is echoed in T. S. Eliot's religious poetry, speaks of what will later come to be termed the writer's block as a state of disorder and discontent whose expression cannot reach the ears of the Lord. The final stanza of the poem Deniall, is a prayer offered up to God, asking him to bring harmony to his mind and breast and thus to mend his poetry:

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent eares;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse:
My breast was full of fears
And disorder:
Ο cheer and tune my heartlesse breast,
Deferre no time;
That so my favours grarting my request,
They and my minde may chime
And mend my ryme. (67-68)

13The harmony that poetry derives from metre and rhyme constitutes a two-way gift, in Herbert's poem. Just as God inspires a feeling of peace, and oneness, an intuition of unity within the mind and breast of the poet, so the poet offers up his harmonious prayer to God. The language of the poet (the mother tongue of which Hugo speaks) is the language with which we are to discourse with God. Prose leaves us down among our miserable, mortal companions whose souls are unable to rise above the petty worries of this world in order to see the inspired organising principle which governs the fate of all men and all things. Prose, in this sense, becomes the negation of the cosmic order, and it is a negation which may take the form of ignorance or alienation. Herbert, like Augustine, has caught a glimpse of the face of God and now writhes in despair, far from God's grace, alienated from his divine presence. Herbert craves the affirmation of cosmic order and bewails the fact that his voice cannot find the harmony of an ordered versification. Other poets (the lesser kind, in Hugo's dichotomy) do not even have that divine spark which reveals to them that they are lost and alienated in a world of prose.

14This idea that the harmony of poetry is a reflection of the harmony of this world is perhaps the founding stone of Christian aesthetics. Just as the world is the handicraft of God, so the artist is conceived as an artisan whose creations should aspire to the balanced dimensions of all natural creations.


2.1. Plato and Neoplatonic aesthetics

15Once again we cannot limit this principle of order to Christian aesthetics. Greek aesthetics forge a similar relation: the logos which inspires all organic life is held to be the principle to which all art should aspire. It is therefore little wonder that Christians of the Renaissance had so few qualms about adopting Aristotle's aesthetics for the correct construction of poems and plays.

16Though contemporary readers tend to consider Aristotle's Poetics as a work of historical or technical interest (not often applicable to present poetry), it is important to understand that, for Aristotle, technique (techne) concerns the mode of creation and that creation is of paramount importance for him because it consists of bringing things into being (Nicomachean Ethics, 1140, Hofstadter and Kuhns, 83). Like all arts and activities, the art of poetry aims at some good; creating things well. The well-made artistic work has a perfection of form and a sureness of method which guarantees that it will be a satisfactory whole in itself and efficacious in its work (Hofstadter and Kuhns, 78-79) Fundamental for this perfection of form are the qualities of symmetry, harmony and definiteness (Metaphysics, 1078, Hofstadter and Kuhns, 96). For a work to be beautiful, it must, like any living creature, indeed like any whole made up of parts, present an orderly arrangement of its parts. It must conform to proportions which can be taken in by the audience so that its unity and wholeness can be appreciated (Poetics 1451, p. 233).

17However, much of what Aristotle has to say about poetry has little bearing on the development of Western aesthetics. Explanations of the associations of iambic and hexameter verse (idem. 1449, p. 228) are lost on the modern reader and, given that word stress in English metrics has replaced syllable length in classical metrics, it is uncertain whether we have a feel for exactly what Aristotle means by these terms. Aristotle certainly seems a precursor to Hugo's poet who understands the symphony of nature when he advocates, at the end of The Politics (1341, p. 249), that children should be taught music so as to be able to receive proper pleasure from excellent music and rhythms. Indeed, Aristotle considered art and music to be the fundamental means of transmitting a harmonious movement to the soul. Ethics for Aristotle begins by moving the soul in the right direction and cultivating a knowledge of goodness and beauty so that the soul will desire fully and cheerfully to do good. This is a conception of ethics which has very little in common with the tortured soul of Christians like Augustine who strive against sinning to find their way.

18The importance of aesthetics to ethics and the idea that what might be termed the geometry of the soul might be carved from a musical education was inherited by Aristotle from his teacher Plato, however (Republic, 376, p. 623). And aside from the aesthetics of harmony and order, the metaphysics of metrics which Shelley, Hugo and Eichendorff refer to does not grow out of Aristotle's thought, but out of Plato's.

19It is clear from The Republic that Plato does not consider himself a specialist of metrics and he relies on Damon as the expert who can extrapolate the appropriate metres to be used in different forms of poetry. What he does do though, is to initiate a tradition which will give priority to simple rhythms which avoid complexity and great variety in the basic movements ·, rhythms which must observe what are the rhythms of a life that is orderly and brave. (Republic, 399, p. 644). Like his student, Plato sees art as having a formative influence on the soul:

...the influence that emanates from works of beauty may waft itself to eye or ear like a breeze that brings from wholesome places health, and so from earliest childhood insensibly guide them to likeness, to friendship, to harmony with beautiful reason.... And it is for this reason... that education in music is most sovereign, because, more than anything else, rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it, bringing with them and imparting grace, if one is rightly trained..” (idem. 401, p. 646)

20The soul in tune with simple rhythms is not seen as a naive or blunt; simplicity is the attribute of a harmonious disposition and moral superiority. In a person trained to love harmony, diction conforms to the disposition of the soul:

Good speech, then, good accord, and good grace, and good rhythm wait upon a good disposition, not that weakness of head which we euphemistically style goodness of heart, but the truly good and fair disposition of the character and the mind. (idem; 645)

21Disharmony becomes for Plato “a defect of the soul”, (idem. 402, p. 647) And “gracelessness and evil rhythm and disharmony are akin to evil speaking and evil temper” (idem. 401, p. 646) The right love is “a sober and harmonious love of the orderly and the beautiful”. (idem. 402, p. 467) If Plato has often been chastised for banning the poets from his ideal Republic, it is because he discerns in poetry and song a tendency to transport the soul. But where a modern or postmodern aesthetics would tend to celebrate the power of art capable of doing this, Plato asks where the soul is being transported to? Does the poet know? Knowing will be conceived in terms of the rational perception of truth, and most poets are, in Plato's opinion, unaware of what they are doing. They are not lovers of truth as the real (or ideal) philosopher should be.

22Book 3 of The Republic is rarely quoted by contemporary critics. Perhaps this is because Plato has often been presented as a philosopher who takes an authoritarian stance against which an individualistic poetics can define itself. Book 3 gives a very different version of Plato though. The idea Plato posits is the following one:

... we must look for those craftsmen who by happy gift of nature are capable of following the trail of true beauty and grace, that our young men, dwelling as it were in a salubrious region, may receive benefit from all things about them... (idem. 401, p. 646)

23Though Plato believes the poet to be “a light and winged thing, and holy” (Ion, 434, p. 220), a man whose spiritual nature allows him to become inspired and rise up to the gods, he feels the poet is never fully possessed of the knowledge of beauty. It remains, therefore, for the philosopher to judge whether he may be included in the ideal Republic.

24Despite modern oppositions between poetry and philosophy, the tradition in which metre is seen to be a metaphysical question, a revelation of and celebration of the order of the world clearly derives from Plato's ideal of the aesthetics of order and beauty. This ideal is formulated in Plato's conception of the transcendental forms, the real forms of which all that we can see or touch is a mere shadow. This philosophy, which posits the supremacy of reason over perception, holds that all that we can ascertain concerning the world is subject to our fallible senses. Reason, on the other hand, connects us to the divine world of the forms which we can come to glimpse through philosophy. The essential difference between Plato and Aristotle on this point is that Aristotle will argue that we come to know what beauty is by studying beautiful things, Plato will argue that it is because we hold within us a knowledge of what beauty is in its ideal (i.e. real) form, that we can call things beautiful. Plato's is ultimately a metaphysical tradition. Aristotle was, of course, a great thinker on the nature of the divine and he had a great influence to religious thought, as for example in the work of Aquinas. He does, though, lead us to a much more down to earth aesthetics. And it is not to this tradition that Hugo adheres to. Hugo's poet thirsts for the divine'form'of beauty and harmony in a much more metaphysical, a much more platonic fashion. The divine nature of harmony which he seeks is of a transcendental form, one which is only discernable to the divine poet.

2.2. The fusion of Neoplatonic and Christian aesthetics

25It is Plotinus (and not Aristotle) who carries on this idealist tradition of a transcendental ideal of beauty of which order and harmony in art are the reflection. Art, for Plotinus, stands mid-way between the world of creation and the spiritual world. Because things are reshaped by the mind (which is higher than matter) they are perfected and thereby brought closer to the divine, the ultimate reality. In Plotinus' thought we find once more an aesthetics which celebrates the harmonious working of the parts of the whole, noble composition and symmetry (Hofstadter and Kuhns, 142). The soul recognises beauty, having ancient knowledge of it. Here the idea evoked is the same one as we find in Plato's thought; the ideal forms were known to the soul but have been forgotten. The soul is drawn to beauty; it “welcomes it, [and] enters into unison with it.” (Plotinus, ibid.) Conversely, the soul shrinks from ugliness, or rather “shrinks within itself’ (idem. 142-143). This is because beauty expands and develops the soul, ugliness shrivels it. For Plotinus, there exists a divine Principle which engenders harmony and beauty; this is divine thought:

All shapelessness whose kind admits of pattern and form, as long as it remains outside of Reason and Idea, is ugly by that very isolation from the Divine-Thought. And this is the Absolute Ugly: an ugly thing is something that has not been entirely mastered by pattern, that is by Reason, the Matter not yielding at all points and in all respects to Ideal-Form. (idem. 143)

26Here Reason, Idea and Pattern all form part of the same organising principle; logos might be the best single term, but for the multiple uses this term has been subjected to. The essential point that Plotinus is making in the above quotation is that organisation is not simply a formal principle but also one of metaphysical importance. In Plotinus' metaphysical aesthetics, formal patterning and meaning are inseparable.

27There is a continuity between this conception of the sacred nature of organisation and the idea of order expressed in the work of Augustine. If we can believe Karl Jaspers, Augustine understood little of Plato (Jaspers, 69). However, there is little doubt as to the influence Plato exerted over Augustine's thought, through his adoption of Plotinus' neoplatonism (Jaspers, ibid., Russel, 290). Plotinus' trinity (shown in the following diagram) helped to structure early Christian thought as to the nature of God.

28In Plotinus’ model, The One is a shadowy entity which is sometimes referred to as God and sometimes, as the Good. It transcends Being. The second entity, “Nous”, translated by Russel as “Mind” (and by Dean Inge as “Spirit”, Russel, 293) is higher than the Soul, in that it constitutes the divine Intellectual-Principle which was important in all Greek thought after Pythagoras and especially so in Plato's thought. The third and lowest member of the trinity is the Soul:

Soul though inferior to nous, is the author of all living things; it made the sun and moon and stars, and the whole visible world. It is the off-spring of the Divine-Intellect. It is double: there is an inner soul, intent on nous, and another, which faces the external. The latter is associated with a downward movement, in which the Soul generates its image, which is Nature and the world of sense. (Russel, 295)

29All three elements, the intangible One, the Divine-Intellect and the Soul that gives form and pattern to the universe are present in the conception of God found in Augustine's Confessions. God transcends creation for Augustine, as the divine form of beauty transcends the world of sensory reality for Plato. However, the essential difference between Greek and Christian aesthetics is that, for Christians, creation is divine (an idea which would have seemed absurd to Plato). And all of our Romantic poets join together in a celebration of the divine nature of creation by celebrating the part of nature which forms a fragment of the great whole made by the Lord. The leaf is a part of the tree which, in turn, is a part of nature, the Lord's great oeuvre, his gift of creation and of life. Thus the leaf becomes a symbol for life. Each thing becomes an echo of the divine voice, the Word.

30These poets adhere to a Christian conception of creation (a neo-platonic rather than a platonic tradition). The similarity in the direction of Augustine's and Plato's thought is striking, nevertheless. Like Plato, Augustine sees delight and enjoyment as something that “sets the soul in her ordered place” (De Musica, Hofstadter and Kuhn, 186). We find the same celebration of the aesthetics of cosmic harmony: “cycles of time which are marked by the stars, according to the laws of equality, unity and order.... the great whole universitatis” (ibid.). We find the same quest for permanence in change. Augustine, like Plato, will try to square the circle by transforming motion into stasis in his will to find an “immutable and eternal” rhythm “with no inequality possible in it” (idem. 190). Such a rhythm, Augustine believes, must come from God.

31This leads Augustine to embark on a characteristically fervent and passionate investigation of the nature of numbers in metrics (which we cannot go into in this short article). This fascinating intellectual exploration leads Augustine to consider number to be the basis of metre (since we count metrical feet). Similarly, since feet are repeated, this very repetition of the same thing enacts a kind of return to the one, which Augustine will take to be symbolic of the unity of the One God. In the same way, the very fact that metre leads us through time, from the past into the present and on into the future, and the fact that metre highlights this movement by repeating what has gone before and allowing us to anticipate what is to come, all contribute to make metre of paramount importance for religion; because time itself is divine. Time is divine not only because God created it but because (if we are to accept the argument that Augustine advances in Book 11 of The Confessions) past time and future time do not exist and can only be conceived in the present through the use of the divine faculties of memory and anticipation. The full coherent splendour of Augustine's elaborate thought is poorly rendered here. But this short summary should suffice to show how Augustine's conception of creation and his conception of the way we perceive that creation transform what appear to most of us today to be banal intellectual or cognitive faculties into perplexing religious experiences.

32Despite the evident influence of Augustine's thought on Western Christianity (and, more particularly, on poets such as Herbert and Eliot), it would be an exaggeration to claim that the complexity of his thought is mirrored in Christian or Romantic poetry. And yet some remnants of his basic tenets and his neoplatonic lust for finding the static and unchanging in the movement of poetry can be observed throughout this tradition. Time and time again, metre emerges as a force which affirms the harmonious order of the cosmos and the created world.

33What happens, then, when the poet turns his back on metre?


3.1. Negating harmony, Unmasking the Voice

34As we return to poetry and its formal organisation and more specifically to the movement and organisation of Eliot's verse, it is important not to fall into a formalism which leaves behind the subject matter of the poem. Neither should we try to show how the form reflects the meaning. Such an approach only falls into that schismatic thinking which divides form and sense, and then proceeds to stick them back together again. It may, at times be useful to speak in abstract terms about certain sound elements or recurring patterns in poetry, but as soon as we approach the individual poem form and sense are indivisible. Poetry is that special use of language that proves this to be true; for poetry is not reducible to meaning and, after the arguments that have gone before, form can hardly be relegated to a kind of decoration. In this paper, form will be considered to be the formulation of the poetic voice. The voice and the versification will be held to develop in unison, inseparably.

35What, then, is the voice of Eliot's poetry, and how does it constitute itself formally? Such a question is not merely a technical question (though it certainly is that too) it is also a metaphysical question. Metre and metaphysics are irrevocably linked in Eliot's poetry.

36If we look closely at the movement and organisation of the poems of this poet, we can discern three principal periods. The first might be called “The Society Poems”, the second, “The Metaphysical Poems” and the third, “The Religious poems”.

37In the poems that Eliot wrote in the 1910s, the period including Portrait of a Lady and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, we find men ill at ease in their social environment. The young man in Portrait of a Lady, finds himself reduced to silence in the presence of a pretentious society Dame. Her discourse forms a harmonious cadence, which avoids double stresses, and which flows in almost interminable sentences:

“So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul
Should be resurrected only among trends
Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom
That is rubbed and questioned in the concert
[room.” (...)
“You do not know how much they mean to me , my
And how, how rare it is to find
In a life composed so much, so much of odds and
(For indeed I do not love it.. you knew? You are
[not blind!
How keen you are!)
To find a friend who has these qualities,
Who has, and gives
Those qualities upon which friendship lives.
How much it means that I say this to you—
Without these friendships—life, what

38Such is the ease of her speech; a studied gracefulness appropriate to the accomplished society Dame, with a penchant for elegant French expressions like cauchemar. Her discourse is devoid of the sincerity or spontaneity that we might expect from an aspiring poet such as Eliot. As the French say: Elle n'habite pas sa voix. Faced with such a dame, the narrator of the poem finds himself at a loss for words. Indeed this “dialogic poem” does not form a simultaneous dialogue because no dialogue is possible. The narrator finds himself unable to speak-that is to say-he cannot find his voice. The young man is thus subjected to a monologue that echoes hollowly, and when an internal monologue does break through, it takes a form radically opposed to that of the Lady:

Among the windings of the violins
And the ariettes
Of cracked comets
Inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins
Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own,
Capricious monotone
That is at least one definite “false note”.

39Metrical analysis might be misleading in this instance, because metrical lines like the following one can be found in both passages:

40Both these lines can both be read as pentameters. The general effect of the versification in the two voices is radically different, however. The Lady's lines can almost all be read as pentameters and though some lines run on to six beats and others fall short, nothing interrupts the cadenced beating of the accentuation. Syntactic analysis, analysis which begins with the rhythmic phrasing of the verse then looks at how metre adds to the expressive shaping of the lines would be appropriate here. The second voice emerges in a versification which negates the graceful flow of the Lady's phrasing. The young man's angst manifests itself formally in the short abrupt sentences. The fact that they are cut into short lines renders their lack of continuity even more precarious. The second voice quoted above leads up to double stress, something which was called a spondee in traditional foot metrics: false note. Alternation is rejected; harmony is negated.

41The double stress is the metrical pattern that resists cadencing most obviously since it opposes the alternation of weak and strong accents. And it is not unworthy of note that it is used here to insist upon disharmony: “false note”. The young man's angst manifests itself in a musical metaphor which violently contrasts with the graceful harmony that the Lady seems to wish to maintain with such studied ease. Ironically-though irony is something which is characteristic of Eliot-rhyme is used here not to achieve harmony, as is the case in traditional metrical poetry; it is used to achieve disharmony, dissonance. The rhymes come too quickly:

And the ariettes
Of cracked cornets


Absurdly hammering aprelude of its own,
Capricious monotone

43They burst in frenetically. This is not the rhyme usually found in metrical poems whose regular recurrence tends to satisfy our expectations. Where Herbert hoped that rhyme would mend his verse, rhyme forms one of the tools used to enact the break down of the harmonious movement in Eliot's poem.

44Certainly we have here one of the basic ingredients of all Eliot's poetry, the violent juxtaposition of different voices, voices which each engender their own versification. Throughout Eliot's poetry, versification takes on a radically new role. The versification does not serve to evoke or maintain a certain tone, a certain movement and organisation. We shall not speak of Eliot's voice in the same way in which we speak of Pope's or Shelley's; a voice that we feel we would recognise because of a certain characteristic manner in the way each of their voices is formulated. In Eliot's poetry we find not one voice but voices. Versification becomes, then, not a means of giving coherence to one single centred voice; it becomes a means of setting voices at odds with one another. Versification becomes a means of finely tuning disharmony, disorder, dissonance. The expressive potential of negating the formal aesthetics of the Greek, Christian and Romantic traditions have rarely been so effectively exploited.

3.2. Dissonance and Metrical Competition

45Rupture becomes the only “organising principle” of Eliot's poetry of the second period. With The Waste Land, in 1922 and The Hollow Men, in 1925, Eliot has made a leap; certainly not a leap of faith, but a metaphysical leap, and he is seeking to form a link between life on earth and metaphysical despair. Though we might be inclined to find some contradiction between the poetry of this period and the poetry he wrote after his conversion to Anglican Catholicism, a Christian such as Augustine might consider this to be a period of searching, a necessary despair, without which knowledge of God is impossible. The Eliot of this period is reminiscent of Herbert who, in the early 1600s, despairs in anguish and doubt in the absence of God.

46The Waste Land is perhaps the best known of Eliot's poems. Disharmony and discontinuity reign in this distopia, in which man cannot communicate with man, in which man cannot encounter woman without their meeting being degraded into either a painful misencounter, a passionless non-event, or rape. Spring reminds us of our own spiritual decay, children are best aborted, and man is left painfully alone, almost unable to he, since he can only “become” by “being” for others.

47The deformed or perverted nature of man is manifest in the versification of voices which violently interrupt each other. We know the use Eliot makes of different languages, German, French and Sanskrit well enough, and the way these languages disconcert the reader's attempt to form order out of chaos and make sense of the poem. We know the use of different registers and the use of quotations for similar effect. So it is not necessary to labour these points. It would perhaps be interesting, however, to consider the way in which the movement and the organisation of these passages allows a process to emerge which seems to have gone unnoticed up until now or at least has not been adequately treated. This process might be called metrical competition.

48The Waste Land, as a poem of some length, offers good matter for analysing this process. The scope of this paper will allow only cursory and superficial treatment of one part of this poem though. This might suffice, however, to indicate two ways in which the idea of metrical competition might be useful. We can begin by reading (preferably aloud) the first 42 lines of The Waste Land.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the
[ Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the
[ colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm'aus Litauen,
[echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
and I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read much of the night, and go south in the

What are the roots that clutch, what branches
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket
[no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different
[ from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet
[ you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind
Wo weilest du?

‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;’
‘They called me the hyacinth girl.’
-Yet when we came back from the Hyacinth
Your arms full and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed'und leer das Meer.

49If the reader has been indulgent enough to read though such a long excerpt he will probably have heard a series of voices emerge in these lines, and it would be interesting to see the way the clearly metrical organisation of certain passages opposes the movement and organisation of the lines next to them. The following lines offer a striking example:

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind
Wo weilest du?
‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;’

50The German lines are divided into dimeters, but this is deceptive, for the movement is reminiscent of the tetrameter (often divided by a caesura):

51These lines contrast starkly, however, with another metrical form, the pentameter. Both the line preceding this passage, and the one that follows, would be read most probably as pentameters.

52If we look at the first passage, we see the second way metrical competition is at work. If we ask a literary scholar what the first line of The Waste Land is he will probably answer:

April is the cruellest month.

53This is, however, not the case. As we have already seen, the first line is:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

54Not only is the unity of the sentence broken, but so is the metrical organisation. The first phrase forms a tetrameter. The first line forms a pentameter. Throughout the first seven lines, these two metres oppose each other, contradicting each other and cancelling each other out. Metrical competition brings about a sustained formal negation.

55At times it is the verse which gives priority to the tetrameter while the syntax shapes itself into the pentameter, at other times, as we saw in the first example, it is the contrary; but throughout there is tension. It is important to stress that it is not the opposition between poetry and prose which creates tension here. The voice of the Lady in the first cycle of Eliot's poems moves in and out of regular verse. It is the struggle between rival metres with different metrical demands which creates tension. The reader, uncertain as to which metre to stress, is unavoidably drawn into the dissonance of this passage which recounts the pain of awakening with spring into a world in which life is only life-in-death, and death seems to promise the only possible comfort for those living. Negation of life and lust for life is lived out through the negation of attempts to move towards familiar patterns of formal organisation.

3.3. Still searching for a versification

56Eliot's religious period (as it might be called) comprises the poems he wrote after his conversion in 1927. Having taken the leap of faith, Eliot strives to write a poetry in which man can find his place in this universe. Man's attempt to find a place in the world and to come to terms with God is, of course, part of the same question, and in so much as Eliot maintains a link between the physical world of the social self and the metaphysical world to which the soul aspires in order to come into union with God, there is no contradiction in the framing of the question. It is simply that the existentialist atheist of The Waste Land now strives toward a state of grace; he has become a believer.

57One might, therefore, expect that The Four Quartets, the principal cycle of poems written during this period, to show a movement and organisation that evokes the grace and the unity which he and Herbert both craved for in their despair, the harmony that Hugo's real poet is privileged to hear, that inspired unity which created this world and which allows the poet to create inspired and inspiring poems. Certainly this is the ideal to which Eliot, as a religious poet, aspires. And yet as we can see in the following example, Eliot's harmony cannot be sustained. The voice of doubt cannot be prevented from interrupting the balanced cadence that he strives to maintain. Poetry surges forth, but real poetry for Eliot, the poetry of which Hugo spoke, is metrical, and the metre of his poem breaks down. The aspiring soul falls from a state of grace. Into the abyss of disorder he falls from harmony. Poetry decomposes into prose.

58Eliot is far more eloquent than any commentator. Eliot has examined this descent from poetry into prose. And so it might be appropriate to conclude with the following passage from East Coker, the second part of The Four Quartets. Here all the fire and energy of Eliot's poetic aspirations are channelled into the pursuit of a natural and cosmic energy that should bring forth life from anarchy and chaos; and yet, as the poetic voice admits, this is not a living and vital poetry, these words are hollow. The fabric of myths they try to weave is threadbare and sadly out-dated. The tetrametrical verse which echoes a tradition of folk and lyrical poetry aspires to the poetic but slumps back into prose:

Thunder rolled by the rolling stars
Simulates triumphal cars
Deployed in constellated wars
Scorpion fights against the Sun
Until the Sun and Moon go down
Comets weep and Leonids fly
Hunt the heavens and the plains
Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
The world to that destructive fire
Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.

That was a way of putting it-not very
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does
[not matter.
It was not (to start again) what one had

59In a curious metaphysical paradox, poetry has become the negation of harmony.



Aristotle, “Metaphysics” in Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns, eds., Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, Chicago, Chicago UP, 1964

———, The Politics, translated by William Ellis, New York, Prometheus Books, 1986

———, “Nicomachean Ethics” in Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns, eds., Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, Chicago, Chicago UP, 1964.

———, The Rhetoric and the Poetics, introduction and notes by Friedrich Solmsen, New York, Random House, 1954.

Attridge Derek, The Rhythms of English Poetry, London, Longman, 1982.

Saint Augustine, Les Confessions, Paris, Garnier Frères Flammarion, 1964.

———, “De Ordine” in Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns, eds., Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, Chicago, Chicago UP, 1964.

———, “De Musica” in Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns, eds., Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, Chicago, Chicago UP, 1964.

Armstrong Karen, A History of God, London, Mandarin, 1993.

Eichendorff Joseph von, Werke in Einem Band, Wien, Hanser, 1977.

Eliot T. S., Complete Poems and Plays, London, Faber and Faber, 1969.

———, Selected Prose, London, Penguin, 1953.

Herbert George, Poems Selected by W. H. Auden, London, Penguin, 1973.

Hugo Victor, Oeuvres poétiques: Les Châtiments, Les Contemplations, édition établie et annotée par Pierre Albouy, Paris, La Pléiade, Gallimard, 1967.

———, “Le Tas de Pierres” in Oeuvres Complètes, t. VIII, Paris, Club français du livre, 1851-1853.

Jaspers Karl, Plato and Augustine, translated from German by Ralph Manheim, Hannah Arendt, ed., New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962.

Leavis F. R., New Bearings in English Poetry, 1932, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972.

Meschonnic Henri, Critique du rythme, Paris, Verdier, 1982.

Plato, The Collected Dialogues, Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., New Jersey, Princeton UP, 1961.

Plotinus, “Ennead” in Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns, eds., Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, Chicago, Chicago UP, 1964.

Preminger Alex and T. V. F. Brogan, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, New Jersey, Princeton UP, 1993.

Russell Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy, 1946, London, Unwin Paperbacks, 1979.

Shakespeare William, The Sonnets, introduction by M. R. Ridley, London, Everyman's Library, 1976.


Est Maître de conférences à l'Université Stendhal à Grenoble où il enseigne la traduction. Il a enseigné la littérature à l’Université Charles à Prague et à l’Université de Paris VIII où il a soutenu sa thèse sur le rapport entre la voix et la versification dans la traduction de la poésie avec Henri Meschonnic. Ses articles portent sur la poétique, la métaphore et la traduction

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2006

Licence OpenEdition Books

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search