By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Reflections on Vers Libre’ is a 1917 essay by T. S. Eliot. Perhaps surprisingly, the essay begins with Eliot claiming that vers libre doesn’t exist, for reasons that Eliot goes on to outline in the course of the essay. You can read some of ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’ here before proceeding to our analysis of his argument below.
In ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’, Eliot argues that there is no freedom in art, and so no truly great poem can be written in verse that is genuinely ‘free’. What looks ‘free’ is actually being tightly controlled by the poet throughout, even if a poem doesn’t conform to a regular rhyme scheme or metre.
He begins ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’ by pointing out that things would be much better if new developments in art grew naturally out of earlier work, but the world doesn’t work like this: when an artist comes up with something innovative, however small their innovation may be, it demands a ‘theory’ and even a ‘polemic’ or argument to defend and promote it. This actually exaggerates the newness of the innovation, making it seem like a wholly unprecedented development.
Eliot then makes his argument that there is no freedom possible in true art, and so the term vers libre – which literally means ‘free verse’ in French, and is used particularly about French poetry – is not the best ‘label’ to use for this kind of poetry, if it’s any good. Indeed, Eliot argues that what we call ‘free’ verse can only be defined by what it lacks, by what it is not: namely, 1) it has no pattern to it; 2) it doesn’t rhyme; and 3) it doesn’t have a regular metre (i.e., rhythm).
However, Eliot immediately goes on to cast doubt over the last of these. ‘Free’ verse or vers libre may not have a regular metre, but it still ‘scans’ in some way. The rhythms of poetry are different, more artificial we might say, than the rhythms of ordinary prose. As Eliot goes on to state, any line of verse can be divided up into feet and accents of some kind.
It is in the next stage of Eliot’s argument in ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’ that, having considered the prosodic practice of Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), the Victorian poet, he asserts that all of the good ‘free’ verse that’s been written in English has been achieved by either starting with an established metre (such as iambic pentameter, for example) and withdrawing from it, or by starting with no form (so completely free) and working towards an established metre, such as iambic pentameter.
Eliot then turns, as he so often does in his critical essays, to Jacobean drama of the early seventeenth century, quoting some lines from the playwright John Webster, a contemporary of Shakespeare.
Eliot argues that although the lines he cites are irregular, they are disruptions of the usual iambic pentameter verse line: they are ‘free’, we might say, than completely regular blank verse (e.g. Romeo’s ‘But soft! what light through yonder window breaks’; contrast that with the more sprightly metre of Webster’s ‘I recover, like a spent taper, for a flash’).
Indeed, many lines of verse drama are spoilt by being too regular, and therefore too artificial: their regularity is at odds with the mood the playwright is trying to convey.
So, Eliot continues, the ‘ghost’ of a metre should always be detected behind any line of verse, even if it is so subtle that it’s almost entirely concealed. He criticises the free verse of Edgar Lee Masters because his subject-matter would have been better off being rendered in regular verse, as George Crabbe had done with similar material in the previous century.
However, Eliot does applaud modern poets for moving away from rhyme, or at least an over-reliance on rhyme: before the early twentieth century, the only true rhymeless verse in English was blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter.
Eliot says that excessive devotion to rhyme in poetry may have ‘thickened’ the ear of modern readers, making us less sensitive to the subtler music of poetry. So modern poets who write poems which don’t rhyme are more exposed if their poetry is weak, since rhyme is the easy way to provide a ‘comforting echo’ and make mediocre poetry sound passably good. (Eliot’s reference to ‘Shagpats’ is an allusion to the Victorian writer George Meredith’s novel The Shaving of Shagpat, an Arabian Nights-inspired story about a man who keeps a whole city in thrall through the power of his magic hair.
Eliot’s point is that poets who avoid rhyme leave themselves ‘shaved’ or ‘unwigged’: exposed for what they really are. If they’re good poets, the absence of rhyme won’t matter, but if they’re not very good, their poetry will fall flat.)
Eliot concludes ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’ by saying that the liberation from rhyme might well lead to a liberation of rhyme, because if poets don’t feel the need to rhyme every single line of their work, they can instead employ carefully chosen rhymes at certain points in their poetry, for maximum effect. Rhyme is not necessarily expected, so where it is present, it will be significant – in signalling a change of mood, for instance.
Eliot insists that formal rhymed verse will not disappear because so-called ‘free’ verse has become the fashion. But the decay of old verse forms like the sonnet is not a result of the advent of vers libre; in fact, if anything, vers libre arose because old forms like the sonnet were already decaying.
This is a similar point, we might note, to the one T. E. Hulme made in his ‘A Lecture on Modern Poetry’ nine years before Eliot, in 1908: as Hulme wrote, ‘It must be admitted that verse forms, like manners, and like individuals, develop and die. They evolve from their initial freedom to decay and finally to virtuosity.’ Or, as Eliot concludes ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’, there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos (i.e. poetry without any formal control whatsoever).