Spectres of Metre: English Poetry in Classical Measures, 1860-1930
University of Cambridge
Faculty of English
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Polten, O. (2018). Spectres of Metre: English Poetry in Classical Measures, 1860-1930 (Doctoral thesis). https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.25908
Why did so many poets attempt English verse in Ancient Greek and Latin metres during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? And what was at stake in these attempts? The most immediate importance of these questions to literary criticism is the fact that they mark one of the most striking and consistent points of contiguity between the verse-forms — and poetic theories — of poets commonly categorised as ‘Modernists’ and ‘Victorians’. This study uncovers a lineage of experimentation with classical metres connecting Algernon Charles Swinburne to Ezra Pound and H. D., in the process challenging received periodizations of English verse-history. The assumption that vers libre and metrical verse constitute alternate and incompatible paradigms prevents us from being able to perceive, in either of them, the endless performative possibilities that rhythm offers us — possibilities which, as I intend to demonstrate, underpin some of the period’s most influential experiments in verse-form. My close studies of these poetic forms raise another question: what is the ontological status of these poetic forms that pass through multiple languages and millennia? I frame my readings of English poetry in classical measures through the metaphor of the ghost because English poetry can only encounter classical metres as a kind of spectral or incomplete presence. I refer to this encounter, borrowing a term from Jacques Derrida, as ‘hauntology’: a situation of temporal, historical, and ontological disjunction that occurs when a being or entity, apparently present, is revealed to be an absent or continually-deferred (non-)origin. The hauntological character of English poems in classical measures is due not only to fundamental differences between the syntaxes and phonologies of Ancient Greek, Latin, and English, but also to the loss of knowledge concerning the traditions and conventions of metrical performance in Ancient Greek and Latin. This is why writing English poetry in classical metres generally poses a far greater challenge — both technically and conceptually — than writing English poetry in the metres of a living language: recreating classical metres in English requires reimagining the very nature of the encounter between poems and bodies, while also facing up to the quasi-magical charge that ‘the classical’ holds in the English literary imagination.
Prosody and poetics, classical reception, Modernism, translation, English poetry, Ancient Greek poetry, Latin poetry
This PhD was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK). The PhD was also supported by grants from the St John’s College Hardship Fund, International Disabled Students’ Fund, and Learning and Research Fund, and by a College Travel Grant.
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This record's DOI: https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.25908
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