The Chances of Rhyme: Device and Modernity

The Chances of Rhyme: Device and Modernity

by Donald Wesling

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ISBN-13: 9780520038615
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/10/1980
Pages: 185
Product dimensions: 5.91(w) x 9.06(h) x (d)

About the Author

Donald Wesling is Professor of Literature at the University of California at San Diego.

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The Chances of Rhyme

Device and Modernity
By Donald Wesling

University of California Press

Copyright © 1980 Donald Wesling
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-03861-4


Chapter One

Historical and Structural Coordinates Some Definitions

The definition is, no doubt, the most modest of scholarly genres. Nevertheless, the sharpness and adequacy of critical vocabulary, in a given historical moment, exactly gauges the explanatory power of critical theory.

I begin this study with brief definitions of six related terms in the history of poetic style. Within these terms so defined lies the argument of the following account of rhyme. My little lexicon is itself preparation for a first chapter entirely preparatory. The purpose is to help the reader recognize the complexity of the situation in modern poetry and poetics. With these definitions, really approximations that at once and inevitably involve us in a context of debate, I wish to make explicit for the reader the bias and scope-the poetics if you will-of my argument.

The terms form a cluster; their definitions lean on each other.

Organic form is the first concept. This, or the illusion of it, is what the successful poem has when it justifies the arbitrariness of its technique; and what the failed poem lacks, when its technique seems obtrusively imposed. As applied to the author's presumed compositional process, and to the development of the poem itself, the concept of organic form has been criticized in our day because it imports into poetics a metaphysic that is said to forbid precise analysis; for neither the poet's mind nor the poem's movement can be discussed as structures, if both unite part and whole in the metaphor of growth. Those who see the organic form concept as irrational, reductionist, and a naive evasion of the particulars of poetic structure, like to oppose this notion to the notion of convention. By contrast, I would define organic form as convention in its innovative guise. My view relies, ultimately, on a physiology of consciousness, a sense, as the poet Robert Duncan has it, that mind is shapely and can be trusted to settle into elegant figures. Thus organic form is a calculated overstatement of a literal impossibility: one instance is Walt Whitman extravagantly punning on his very pages as "leaves" of grass. This hyperbole is necessary, because it is the rationale for innovation in the patterning of poetic language. As such, organic form is the primary myth of post-Romantic poetics. Modernity and organic form are born at the same time, and require each other; their origin, at the moment of Romanticism and Coleridgean poetics and methodology, is our moment too.

Rhetoric, the second concept, refers technically to a set of preexisting frames of language, a written or unwritten manual of poetics which proposes to order every present utterance by a patterning of formulae, apt and anterior to the text. Technically, as most critics now know, though they do not always openly concede, language and poetic convention always preexist as a generalized rhetoric, which the poet may not escape but which he may wrench into perceptibility by various, always literary, means. Hence my employment of the term in this wider or more primordial sense. Recent critics have been much interested in formulating a modern rhetoric in this sense, for the description of poetic effects. Rhetoric refers historically to the immense span of time between Aristotle and Quintilian on one end, and Coleridge on the other. Historically, rhetoric as a collective and prescriptive mode came crashing down, and with it the weight of thousands of years of literary precedent, in the first Romantic generation. At the Romantic watershed, for the first time rhetoric is consciously seen as in contradictory connection with what is regarded as poetic.

Modernity, the third term, follows from the other two. It is the historical name for the organicist imperative: everything in the poem, even the prosody, bears the mark of the poet's personality. The ideal of technique as sincerity is an impossible ideal, and yet one that conditions every transaction between the post-Romantic poet and his material resources in language and formal pattern. In poetry under the definitions of modernity, what separates art sentences from ordinary ones is the device, volatile in its position between ordinary and literary language. A certain usage of the device of rhyme, for instance in an otherwise conversational poem by Robert Frost, will produce that kind of justified rhetoric I would call organic form. So modernity must both despise and require the device, and I have tried to give examples of the way this can refresh the reader's attention and, on a larger scale, deflect the direction of the history of literary forms.

Device and equivalence, the fourth and fifth terms, are synonyms in the study of specifically poetic forms. All poetic devices, as Roman Jakobson and many others have insisted within the last scholarly generation, are likenings (e.g., in sound, sense, position) of two or more language features. Alliteration, assonance, rhyme, pun, and syntactic parallelism are equivalences of various sorts, but so too are the connections made between tenor and vehicle in metaphor, and the likening of time and stress values in the equal feet of a line of traditional meter. Poetics does not yet possess a general theory of literary language which would subsume and interrelate all these forms of equivalence, showing their several functions when used separately or in concert.

Roman Jakobson has used the term equivalence in his definition of the poetic function: "The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination." This says that word choice and word sequencing may be distinguished as the relational axes of language: a special interplay of lexis and syntax, of static substitution and temporal concatenation, when language is poetic. Because it is so clearly marked by the ear as an equivalence, rhyme more than meter is poetry's dramatic intersection point of these axes of selection and combination. Not only the rhyme words but also the nature of their separation by otherwise unmarked language is at issue here; my argument shows how each rhyme word has the combined stasis of its emphatic position, and the energy of its trajectory in the sentence, in the line, and in the poem. It follows that any historical changes in this highly marked device, which more boldly even than meter is at once sign and symbol, will result from major shifts in the way poetic sentences and poetic forms are made.

Organic form and rhetoric, modernity and device, are two oppositional pairs, wherein each member of each pair helps explain the other member by the nature of its aversion; I call this relationship a rapport-of-difference. Under rhetoric is its more particular synonym, device; and the next step down is equivalence, a term that describes the parallelism or equating which is the essential structure of all literary devices, a structure varied in each instance of each device.

Rhyme is the chosen instance of a device of equivalence. There exist an indefinite number of purely verbal definitions of rhyme as, for instance, "a repetition of identical or closely similar sounds arranged at regular intervals"; the more difficult task, which this essay attempts, is to indicate the essential history and structure of this device. Verbal definitions can be helpful, though, and I have employed several across the whole possible scale from the linguistic concept of "identical markedness values" (Michael Shapiro) to the deliquescence of the device itself in the general sense that ideas or events may "rhyme" by having similarities of structure or feature.

Rhyme is the boldest form of rhetoric, and perhaps also the most durable, since after Walt Whitman it persistently survives the threat posed to formal verse by free verse, and is employed in free verse more often than most people realize. Even though traditional rhyme is my subject, alliteration and assonance, repeated "figures of sound" (Gerard Manley Hopkins), repeated words and phrases, and homoeoteleuton in Aristotle's sense of "making the extreme words of both members of a period like one another" (Rhetoric, iii, 9), are all cousinly forms I admit under the title of rhyme. Every variant has its special effect, yet all serve as strong markers of literariness, with the double function of supplying a harmony of sound which is itself beautiful, and of articulating poetic structure by marking off lines and other segments and otherwise acting as the auxiliary of rhythm. Rhyme as sound, as sense, as position all have equal value and space in my account, which has a special concern for the more recent forms of the device. Punning and permutation of language, exact or slightly impaired sound chiming, the same or shifted word position are all instances of the device being remade under new historical conditions.

I hope that when these definitions are placed side-by-side with the ordinary ones they will disestablish a sector of the usual and will be welcomed as clarifying their objects. Organic form has often been summarily dismissed as the assumption that the poem is like a plant growing without the writer's conscious will; so this concept's centrality in post-Romantic poetics, and its subtlety, have rarely been argued. Rhetoric, accordingly, has not been rightly understood as the abominable necessity of our avant-garde era; rhetoric is a repertoire of figures of speech which the organic-form ethos must always tend to avoid, as it tries to render the cut and curve of experience. To trace the roots of avant-garde modernity in Romanticism is a significant, even fashionable, project these days, but no explanation has yet taken the account to the ground level of poetic technique. The terms device and equivalence are tools that enable us to explore the relation of repetition to sense in the poetic text, leading to observations on how phonetic repetition plays a rhythmic role. In the justification of taking any single device, such as rhyme, as a literary construct, everything depends on the degree to which this device is (a) treated structurally as the representative formula for all those effects of literary art which are the same and simultaneously not the same; and (b) treated historically as one intentional image of poet, period, and original readership.

The Form of History and the History of Form

To speak of history as the reality of a process and not a state, as something more than ornamental backdrop but other than proven direct determinant, will widen the range as well as the precision of poetics. To speak thus clears our way to an understanding of the poem not as an object but as a practice.

In trying to design fruitful hypotheses that will coordinate structural and historical accounts of literary texts, I have found inescapable the need to accept, in the strongest possible sense, the proposition that Romanticism signaled the major change in western literary history, inaugurating a new concept of poetic structure.

The chronological premise of this book is that Romanticism, rightly called by Isaiah Berlin the greatest shift in the consciousness of the west, initiated an epistemological break in European culture. The later moments known to Anglo-American criticism as Victorianism, Modernism, and post-Modernism are based on this premise within the enclave of Romanticism. Industrialism, mass democracy, historicism, bourgeois ascendancy, avant-gardism, ethical alienation, and modernity are synonymous with each other and with Romanticism. The years that have elapsed since 1795 have severely qualified but also deepened the assumptions of the Romantic generation of writers. The moral and formal discoveries of the great Romantics and their gigantic school have yet to be fully understood in history. Whether we like it or not, Romanticism is still the aesthetic and philosophical style of the west.

To my mind, then, modernity and Romanticism are coextensive; and Modernism (roughly 1919-1945) and post-Modernism (roughly 1945 onward) are subparadigm shifts within the larger period concept. Using the terms modernity and modern to refer to ideas and works after 1795, I de-emphasize the lesser, more proximate shift at about 1910. One might use the term modernist to refer to technically innovative works after 1910, but never without the sense that modernist writing develops methods in a startling fashion which for the most part originated in the Romantic generation.

The term break is, I should admit, a hyperbole for a process that dramatically brought certain persons and ideas, certain ways of making texts, into the foreground. In society as in literature, Romanticism is a speeding up of the processes of style change, an innovation in the sense of being an acceleration.

Matei Calinescu has traced the stages through which the idea of modernity passed before the mid-nineteenth century: from its origins in the Christian Middle Ages, to the Renaissance conviction that "history had a specific direction," to the paradoxes of the modern expressed in Stendahl, Gautier, and especially Baudelaire. Whether or not we agree with Calinescu's contention that artistic modernity proper begins with Baudelaire's programmatic anti-Romanticism, "with its compelling aim of épater le bourgeois," Calinescu's main argument is well worth taking as a working hypothesis: "Aesthetic modernity should be understood as a crisis concept involved in a threefold dialectical opposition to tradition, to the modernity of a bourgeois civilization (with its ideals of rationality, utility, progress), and, finally, to itself, insofar as it perceives itself as a new tradition or form of authority." This is valuable because it defines modernity as a concept at once cultural and aesthetic. The term raises difficult issues of social origin and class and ideological affiliation, issues obviously too vast to be resolved in this essay. At this stage in my own argument, it is enough to signal agreement with Calinescu: there is indeed a relation between aesthetic modernity and the modernity of capitalist technology and the business interest. Opposition is one kind of rapport.

Another commentator on modernity, Paul de Man, has argued that through modernity as a term or concept, the distinctive character of literature "becomes manifest as an inability to escape from a condition that is felt to be unbearable." Through modernity understood as "spontaneity of action" and of writing, the literariness of literature can be revealed in all its intricacy. Let us follow de Man in taking literature as an entity that does not "rest at ease in its own self-definition"-so that for us too the distinctive nature of literature is that which is to be defined.

Continues...


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