AD's English Literature : S. T. Coleridge's Definition of Metre

S. T. Coleridge's Definition of Metre


"Poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science. Poetry is opposed to science, and prose to metre."--

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834)

Introduction: ‘Poetry’, declared Dr. Johnson, is metrical composition (Dictionary), and Poe described it more rapturously as ‘the rhythmic creation of beauty’ (The Public Principle), thereby making poetry and metre almost synonymous yet Wordsworth would feign deny metre the right to be equated with poetry. Even though he began his famous Preface with the declaration that he had attempted to provide pleasure by ‘fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men’, and that ‘except with reference to the metre’ poetry was no different from prose, he later hastened to add that his use of metre was only in order to ‘superadd" poetry. The charm which by the consent of all nations, is acknowledge to exist in metrical language’. Wordsworth thus followed 18th century theory and saw metre as ‘superadded’ to poetry; its function is more nearly ornamental, a grace of style and not an essential quality. In contrast Coleridge saw metre as being organic, it functions together with all of the other parts of a poem and is not merely an echo to the sense or an artifice of style. Coleridge also examined the psychological effects of metre, the way it sets up patterns of exception that are either fulfilled or disappointed.

Metre and Sounds: Coleridge does not consider metre itself to be the cause or essence of poetry or that genuine poetry is to be ‘distinguished form prose by metre, though he does admit that ‘as a particular pleasure is found in anticipating the recurrence of sounds and quantities, all compositions that have this charm super added, whatever be their contents, may be entitled poems’ (Biographia Literaria Ch XIV). Tongue in check, he gives the example of such a poem which fails to be poetry, ‘Thirty days hath September, April, June and November’. Therefore he feels that although metre facilitates memorization, at least here, ‘superficial form’. Like Wordsworth who had harped upon metre as ‘superaddition’, Coleridge concludes that ‘the mere super addition of metre, with or without rhyme’ does not entitle these to the name of genuine poems. Indeed, he goes on the declare that the writings of Plato, Bishop Taylor and the “Theoria Sacra” of Burnet all furnish ‘undeniable proofs that poetry of the highest kind may exist without metre’.

Legitimate Poem: Yet, while defining a ‘legitimate poem’, he points out that ‘it must be one the part of which mutually support and explain each other, all in their proportion harmonizing with and supporting the purpose and known influences of metrical arrangements’. One gradually comes to realize that towards metre is caused by a mechanical adherence to metre or use of metre in a stereotyped manner. He points out that a series of distiches, if they absorb the whole attention of the reader, ‘disjoins’ the poem from its context and makes a separate whole rather than a harmonizing part. He believes that the reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by a mechanical impulse, but by a pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself, one therefore realize that what Coleridge seeks is organic unity of metre and matter and that it is precisely titivation, or what Wordsworth calls ‘super addition’ that he was antagonistic too.

Metre and Spontaneity: Coleridge traces the origin of metre to ‘balance in the mind effeced by spontaneous effect which strives to held in check the working of passion’. The balance is caused by a conscious exercize of the will and judgement for the foreseen purpose of pleasure. From two necessary conditions of metrical composition emerge. The 1st is that since the elements of metre owe their existence to a state of increased excitement, the metre itself should be accompanied by the natural language of excitement. The 2nd is that as these element are formed into metre by a voluntary act, with the purpose of blending delight with emotion, the exercise of will should be proportionately evident throughout the metrical language. In other words, in metrical composition there must be a perfect union of ‘an inter penetration of passion and of will, of spontaneous impulse and of voluntary purpose’.

Conclusion: As for the effects of metre, Coleridge believes that since metre is an organic part of poetry, it is vitally connected with its effects also. Metre in itself tends to increase the vivacity and susceptibility of the reader’s mind, by producing continual excitement of surprise. The poetic purposes, metre resemblance yeas, worthless or disagreeable in itself by giving vivacity or spirit to the liquor with which it is proportionately combined. It has the power to leaven the language and render it pleasurable. Yet Coleridge warns that the pleasure of metre is conditional. It is dependent on ‘the appropriateness of the thoughts and expressions, to which the metrical form is super added’. He therefore feels that where such correspondent food and appropriate matter are provided for the attentions and feelings aroused by metre, a disappointment. 

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