The Price Of Free Verse

"A post in our times," wrote Thomas Love Peacock, "is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community." What Peacock meant by civilized community is not too hard to guess: that rational, humane, progressive society of Britain and Northern Europe, which Peacock's eccentric friends—Shelley, Coleridge, and Byron—all seemed bent on destroying. Poets were barbaric, because they continued to celebrate heroic violence and religious superstition in a society of steam locomotives and parliamentary commissions.

Of the barbarian qualities of verse. Peacock failed to mention the most characteristic—rhythm. There may be poetic traditions in which the regular alternation of strong and weak elements played no part, but Peacock and his Romantic friends knew nothing of them. (Since much lyric poetry is actually song, even if a text appears to lack formal rhythm, the song probably did not.) The quantitative rhythms of Greek and Latin (relying on the oscillation of long and short syllables) and the accentual rhythms of Germanic languages (including English), while they differ in so many respects that Nabokov thought it pointless to apply Greek terms like "iambic" to English verse, they still share this one essential quality: the predictable rise and fall of light and heavy, weak and strong that echoes the beat of our heart and the patterns of light and dark, cold and hot, life and death by which our existence...

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