Beyond Words - Language Blog

Poetry in Translation: Revolutionary Verse?

Language Hat posted a translation today of the Russian blogger Anatoly’s thoughts on free verse, specifically regarding Russian poetry. Anatoly writes:

There is just such a Problem standing before scholars of literature, a large and natural one: to explain the transition of almost all world poetry to free verse during the 20th century. The rare exceptions—Russian poetry being one of them—do not abolish the rule. These developments took place at different times in different languages and cultures, but gradually all of them converged and arrived during the second half of the century at the same destination: what Gasparov called “international free verse.”

He then goes on to ask why there was such a great shift in poetry at the end of the 19th century, a shift from rhymed and metrical formal verse to that of free verse, a poetry without formal constraints.

While many of Language Hat’s commenters provided interesting and accurate reasons for why the shift occurred—revolution, Baudelaire’s influence, the push against the aristocratic, etc.—it can be helpful to go back and look at the initial terms we’re working with.

The OED defines free verse as “poetic writing in which the traditional rules of prosody, esp. those of metre and rhyme, are disregarded in favour of variable rhythms and line lengths”—following the French vers libre which first appeared c. 1549. The time line puts free verse at 1886, although it probably appeared before then. The opposite of free verse can most easily be described as formal verse, that is poetry with rhyme, meter, and other patterns.

The first comment left in regard to Anatoly’s post states that “a lot European poetry followed French poetry during the 19th century, and the French were tired of the alexandrine, which they found constricting. Baudelaire and Hugo pushed the alexandrine to the limit, leaving not much for others to do except be second rate Hugos, Baudelaire’s, Racines, etc. “ Also, “The 19th century was also a time of conscious modernism and revolution, and the classic forms didn’t seem to fit that. Baudelaire played the pure form and impure content game to the limit, though Gide, Genet, and other picked it up in prose.”

While most of this analysis is spot on, it is important to remember the Baudelaire also pioneered the free verse form (if it can truly be called a form). Far in advance of his time, Baudelaire experimented with prose poetry during the latter part of his life. While no great prose poetry movement caught on, his work certainly influenced the move toward modern experimentation and free verse expression. Yes, the alexandrine and other formal elements were overused, but this hardly accounts for a worldwide shift in poetry. As Anatoly points out, other languages maintained formal integrity—Russian one of many. Far more than a pushing to the limit of form, I think the second half of the comment holds more water.

When looking back at the 19th century, it’s hard not to notice the plethora of revolutions that occurred. With the French Revolution ending in 1799 with the installation of Napoleon Bonaparte as dictator and then emperor and the American Revolution wrapping up in 1776, the 19th century opened with a bang. Throughout the century various other major world changes occurred, including (but of course not limited to) the collapse of the Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Holy Roman, and Mughal empires and the increased military and economic powers of Great Britain, the German Empire, and the United States of America. The industrial revolution had all engines running and eventually slavery was abolished in all Western countries and colonies. By mid-century the battle for women’s suffrage had begun in both North America and Europe, and the over-all social class structure that upheld the aristocratic, wealthy majority began to crumble by the end of the Victorian era.

While all of these changes were taking place, poets were taking note. The 19th century was a decade of binging—industrial power, money, a wealth-dominated class structure—but by the time 1900 rolled around, poets, as well as the public, were tired of it. In response to the various revolutions of the late 18th and 19th centuries, free verse acted as a catharsis. It purged poetry of the rigid and cliché rhyme-based and metrical devices while at the same time elevating the sense of words. Images held more sway than iambic pentameter, the content of the poem was more important than the rhyme pattern.

Very few poets then or now, however, claim to be free from meter, rhyme, or rhythm—in fact, most free verse poems openly engage the more formal devices. I find it hard to categorize free verse as a worldwide phenomenon. If anything, the push in poetry today is to move away from free verse—that it has been too free, become too cliché as the alexandrine did in the 19th century. What that next movement is, though, is anyone’s guess.

It’s also important to remember that free verse didn’t catch on until mid-twentieth century. Auden, Eliot, Yeats, and Hughes all maintained a strong formal element throughout all their work. Eliot even commented that “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.” Even today, the most successful poets play with both free and formal verse—Seamus Heaney and Elizabeth Bishop being two notable examples.

Of course all of this doesn’t actually answer Language Hat and Anatoly’s question—why the major shift from formal to free verse at the turn of the 19th century—other than to propose that maybe there wasn’t such a major shift. A shift, yes, but not necessarily one as exciting or revolutionary as the Norman Invasion of 1066.