Unreal Nature

September 27, 2014

The Nature of Parasitism

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

… it may be irresponsible since it always has the responsible thing it feeds on to sustain it and keep it alive.

This is from the essay ‘How Shall the Poem Be Written?’ found in The Collected Essays of J.V. Cunningham (1976):

… The motive is rebellion, now become a habit, which is sufficient to destroy but not to establish.

This is the inconclusive issue of that revolution in the arts, poetry among the rest, which began in the first decade of this century, culminated in the twenties, and achieved almost universal cultural acceptance in the forties. I myself came into it in the late twenties, the latest possible moment to be touched by the original impulse. Soon afterward — let us date it by Eliot’s tenure of the Charles Eliot Norton professorship at Harvard in 1933-34 — what had been the advance guard had become practically the whole army. Everyone felt special in belonging to a club to which everyone belonged.

[ … ]

… norm and variation is relevant to, is, in fact, the generating principle of parasitic meter. The term is descriptive and pejorative. Such meter presupposes a meter by law which it uses, alludes to, traduces, returns to. To perceive it one must have firmly in mind the prior tradition from which it departs and to which it returns. The locus classicus is Eliot’s “the most interesting verse which has yet been written in our langauge has been done by taking a very simple form, like the iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. It is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse.”

… If it seems from this account that meter can be parasitic in many and devious ways, this is true, for the only consistent principle is that it depart from and return to a norm. It is the nature of parasitism that it may feed in different ways, that it may be irresponsible since it always has the responsible thing it feeds on to sustain it and keep it alive.

… the nature of parasitic meter can be more clearly seen in what is perhaps the best passage in Eliot’s Gerontion:

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or if still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us.

Let us go through some of this, line by line. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now” is a normal iambic pentameter with feminine ending. It has a slightly odd movement, but that has nothing to do with the metrical principle. The next line consists of a complete clause forming a normal iambic pentameter, but with the appositive phrase “contrived corridors” tacked on extra. “And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions” has an unusual variation in the second foot. “Guides us by vanities. Think now” contains an easily recognized part of a normal line, with the repetition of “Think now” added. We return in the next line and the line following to blank verse, with an unusual variation in the last foot of the latter. “That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late”; this will not fit a standard pattern. The complete clause, however, could be taken as a headless pentameter, and the added phrase is supported by the repetition of “gives.” The next line returns to the normal. Finally, “In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon” is a standard line with the repetitive “Gives too soon” added. And so on.

An inductive examination of these poems, with no antecedent knowledge of English metrical tradition, would yield no metrical principle.

-Julie

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