SABCL - Volume 5
VI. Poems in New Metres
In some of these poems, as in others of the Six Poems,1 a quantitative metrical system has been used which seems to have puzzled some critics, apparently because it does not follow the laws of quantity obtaining in the ancient classical languages. But those laws are quite alien to the rhythm and sound-structure of the English tongue; the attempt to observe them has always ended in deserved and inevitable failure. Another system has been followed here which is in agreement with the native rhythm of English speech. There what determines the metrical length or brevity of syllables is weight, the weight of the voice emphasis or the dwelling of the voice upon the sound. Where there is that emphasis or that dwelling of the voice, the syllable may be considered metrically long; where both are absent there will be, normally, a recognisable shortness which can only be cured by some aid of consonant weight or other lengthening circumstance. All stressed syllables are metrically long in English and cannot be otherwise however short the vowel may be, for they dominate the verse movement; this is a fact which is ignored in the traditional account of English quantity and which many experimenters in quantitative verse have chosen to disregard with disastrous consequences,– all their genius or skill in metrical technique could not save them from failure. On the other hand, a long-vowel syllable can be regarded as metrically long even if there is no stress upon it. In the quantitative system used in these poems this possibility is converted into a law: metrical length is obligatory for all such natural syllabic longs, while a short-vowel syllable unstressed is normally short for metrical purposes unless it is very heavily weighted with consonants. But the mere occurrence of two or more consonants after a short vowel does not by itself make the syllable long as it necessarily does in Greek, Latin or Sanskrit.
The system may then be reduced to the following rules: –
1. All stressed syllables are regarded as metrically long, as also all syllables supported on a long vowel.
2. All short-vowel syllables not stressed are regarded as short unless they are heavily weighted with consonants. But on this last point no fixed rule can be given; in each case the ear must be the judge.
3. There are a great number of sounds in English which can be regarded according to circumstances either as longs or as shorts. Here too the ear must decide in each case.
4. English quantity metres cannot be as rigid as the metres of ancient tongues. The rhythm of the language demands a certain variability, free or sparing, without which monotony sets in; accordingly, in all English metres modulation is admitted as possible. Even the most regular rhythms do not altogether shut out the substitution of other feet than those fixed in the normal basic arrangement of the line; they admit at least so much as is needed to give the necessary pliancy or variety to the movement. There is sometimes a very free use of such variations; but they ought not to be allowed to break the basic movement or overburden or overlay it. The same rule must apply in quantitative metres; especially in long poems modulations are indispensable.
This system is not only not at discord with the sound-structure of the language, it accords closely with its natural rhythm; it only regulates and intensifies into metrical pitch and tone the cadence that is already there even in prose, even in daily speech. If we take passages from English literature which were written as prose but with some intensity of rhythm, its movement can be at once detected, e.g.,
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not,
neither do they spin; yet I say unto you that even Solomon
in all his glory was not arrayed like unto one of these:
Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth....
Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God;
or again, from Shakespeare’s prose,
This goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory;
this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire
and so on with a constant recurrence of the same quantitative movement all through; or, yet more strikingly,
How art thou fallen from Heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!
This last sentence can be read indeed as a very perfect hexameter. The first of these passages could be easily presented as four lines of free quantitative verse, each independent in its arrangement of feet, but all swaying in a single rhythm. Shakespeare’s is most wonderfully balanced in a series of differing four-syllabled, with occasional shorter, feet, as if of deliberate purpose, though it is no intention of the mind but the ear of the poet that has constructed this fine design of rhythmic prose. A free quantitative verse in this kind would be perfectly possible.
A more regular quantitative metre can be of two kinds. There could be lines all with the same metrical arrangement following each other without break or else alternating lines with a different arrangement for each, forming a stanza,– as in the practice of accentual metres. But there could also be an arrangement in strophe and antistrophe as in the Greek chorus. In Thought the Paraclete the first rule is followed; all the lines are on the same model. The metre of this poem has a certain rhythmic similarity to the Latin hendecasyllable which runs ||||,e.g.
Soles occider(e) et redire possunt,
Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux
Nox est perpetu(a) una dormienda.2
But here the metre runs ||||; a trochee is transferred from the closing flow of trochees to the beginning of the line, the spondee and dactyl are pushed into the middle, the last syllable of the closing trochee is most often dropped altogether. Classical metres cannot always with success be taken over just as they are into the English rhythm; often some modifications are needed to make them more malleable.
In Moon of Two Hemispheres the strophe antistrophe system has been used: the lines of the stanza differ from each other in the nature and order of the feet, no identity or approach to identity is imposed; but each line of the antistrophe follows scrupulously the arrangement of the corresponding line of the strophe. An occasional modulation at most is allowed, e.g., the substitution of a trochee for a spondee. The whole poem, however, in spite of its metrical variations, follows a single general rhythmic movement.
Rose of God, like a previous poem In Horis Aeternum, is written in pure stress metre. As stress and high accentual pitch usually coincide, it is possible to scan accentual metre on the stress principle and stress metre also can be so written that it can be scanned as accentual verse; but pure stress metre depends entirely on stress ictus. In ordinary poetry stress and natural syllabic quantity enter in as elements of the rhythm, but are not, qua stress and quantity, essential elements of the basic metre: in pure stress metre there is a reversal of these values; quantity and accentual inflexion are subordinate and help to build the rhythm, but stress alone determines the metrical basis. In Rose of God each line is composed of six stresses, and the whole poem is built of five stanzas, each containing four such lines; the arrangement of feet varies freely to suit the movement of thought and feeling in each line. Thus,
Rose of God, damask force of Infinity, red icon of might,
Rose of Power with thy diamond halo piercing the night,
Ablaze in the will of the mortal, design the wonder of thy plan,
Image of Immortality, outbreak of the Godhead in man.
Later edition of this work: The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo.- Set in 37 volumes.- Volume 2.- Collected Poems.- Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2009.- 751 p.
1 See Bibliography
2 Suns may set and come again;
For us, when once our brief light has set,
There is one perpetual night to be slept.