The Visual Poem in the Eighteenth Century

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Richard Bradford

"Visual Poetry" is a technique that we normally associate with seventeenth-century pauern verse and with the typographical format of modern free verse and concrete poetry. This essay is an examination of the ways in which eighteenth-century critics treated the visual format of traditional verse as a determinant in the readers' appreciation of form and meaning. Critics such as John Rice, John Walker and Joshua Steele reprinted sequences of verse in accordance with their ideals of oral delivery, and others, such as Thomas Barnes and Peter Walkden Fogg, regarded the silent printed text as productive of effects which could be appreciated only via the interpretive faculty of the eye. The final section explores correspondences between the eighteenth-century work and modern criticism, and goes on to argue that twentieth-century appreciations of the visual format of verse are limited by their concentration upon the more extravagant typographic experiments of free verse.

The Visual Poem in the Eighteenth Century

Richard Bradford is a lecturer in

Visual poetry is a concept that we tend to associate

9 \

English at the University of Ulster at Coleraine, and has pre-

with two traditions of writing: the first being th'e brief seventeenth-century taste for typographical pattern, whose best known practitioner was George Herbert;

viously taught in the University

and the second being the tendency towards typo-

of Wales and Trinity College, Dublin. He has published articles on Milton, eighteenth century criticism, prosody

graphic effect in the formal dispositions of modern free verse, a development which has reached its most explicit and self-conscious manisfestation in concrete poetry. The eighteenth century is regarded as the age

and the visualformat ofpoetry. .Sis study of Kingsley Amis will be published in 1989, and he is cur-

of poetic grace, order and lucidity; its most eminent critical spokesmen, Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson, condemned the seventeeth-century pattern poems as "false wit" and the relatively respectable ex-

rently working on a study ofsound periment of Miltonic blank verse as "verse only to the

and typography in poetry. Richard Bradford, University of Ulster,

eye." The critical and creative atmosphere of the period between the Restoration and the emergence of romanticism seems the least likely to have either

Coleraine, County Londonderry

inspired or tolerated such self-indulgent peculiarities

BT52 !SA, Northern Ireland

as the visual manipulation of the written word. But, as the following study will show, there existed within

Visible Language XXIII,/ Richard Bradford, pp.9-Z7 '© l'isible La11guage,

the eighteenth-century a series of intriguing debates on how the visual text affects the journey of the poem from writer to reader.

Rhode Island School of Design

Pr(}f}idence, Rl 0290.1

c The genesis of literary criticism as we know it today 0 occured in the eighteenth century. It was not then at-
>(/) tached to a particular eduational system, but it did
"0 begin to address itself to something called the reader. c Earlier critics of poetry such as Sir Philip Sidney, ro "0 George Puttenham and George Gascoigne had attempc ted to establish some sort of formal identity for a recent
0 discourse whose subject was English literature, but (/) their audience was the hypothetical practitioners of
these forms. In the eighteenth century, the expansion of non-dramatic literature into the more public forum of booksellers, public readings and individual libraries of contemporary writing was accompanied by a shift of critical emphasis away from the writer and towards the reader, a person who might need to have the developing complexities of form and technique explained and interpreted for him.
One consequence of the emergence of the printing press into the center stage of cultural life was an increased sense of distance between the creator of the poem and the person who might find himself faced with the task of disclosing subtle nuances of intended meaning either in the silent, contemplative atmosphere of the drawing room or in the more active context of the public reading. And in the sphere of critical writing there developed a tendency towards the treatment of the printed poem as a temporary record of the original process of intonation, rhythm and emphasis which the distanced reader would need to recreate in order to receive, or to publicly perform, the full intensity of the poet's meaning. The most surprising and fascinating aspect of this new taste in interpretation was the meticulous and often ingenious emphasis given to the fact that the first meeting of poet and reader took place on the silent printed page. The critics to be discussed below grant us, even after two hundred years of interpretive sophistication, a new insight into the function of the eye in the determination of the effects and patterns in poetry which we might all too easily associate with the receptive faculty of the ear.

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Samuel Johnson's famous declaration that Paradise Lost "seems to be verse only to the eye" 1 was no more than a perfunctory acknowledgment of a long established contemporary attitude towards the unrhymed pentameter as a convention of the printer. As early as 1679, a little-known country parson, Samuel Woodford, had suggested that the poem might suffer little if printed as prose.2

Visible language Volume XXII/ number I

Woodford's significance in the history of interpretation should be recognized because he both addressed himself to what would become one of the major concerns of eighteenth-century critics and also raised problems of interpretation which re-emerged in early responses to the invention of modern free verse. Woodford admits that Paradise Lost "shall live as long as there are Men left to read and understand it," but of its style he suggests that though Milton might have been in a "Poetic rapture ... through the Disguise, the Prose appears" (Sig. B7'). He goes on to reprint a section of Milton's prose as verse, and although the new format is an irregular departure from the strict iambic pentameter, it does echo the uniquely Miltonic effect of the verse line cutting into and intensifying the already elaborate syntax, which many critics have found to be part of the poetic design of Paradise Lost.

Then Zeal, whose substance is Aetherial,

Arming in compleat Diamond, ascends

His Fiery Chariot, drawn with two blazing Meteors

Figur'd like Beasts, but ofan higher Breed -

Than any the Zodiac yields; resembling two

Of those Four, which Ezekial and St. John (saw;)

The one visag'd like a Lion, to express

Power, high Authority, and Indignation,


The other Countenance like a Man, to cast

Derision, and Scorn, upon perverse,

And Fradulent Seducers.

With these the Invincible Warrior Zeal, etc

(Sig. B7')

Woodford's experiment is significant because it sets a precedent for eighteenth-century critics. First it suggests that the rhythms and intonational sequences which we regard as poetic are actually present in a variety of distinct expressive contexts, including, it would seem, theological prose. And by implication, it would seem that our response to such sequences is determined essentially by our visual recognition of context. We read Paradise Lost as poetry because it looks like poetry, and Woodford attempts to demonstrate that we would also read the unpoetically titled Apology in Answer to the Modest ()onfutation ofa Libel intituled, Animadversions upon the Remonstrants Defence of Smectymnuus as a poem if it were made to look like a poem. It would seem that our response to context and genre might be part of a Pavlovian instinct triggered by typography.

Bradford Winter 1989

In 1709, William Coward also observed that the effect and meaning of loosely textured blank verse owes something to the illusion of its visual format.
'Tis true the Fiction's wonderfully done, And the whole Clue of Thoughts completely spun. But like an Image cast in Curious Mould, Tho' 'tis compos'd offinely polish'd Gold, Yet wants that Breath of Life to make It live, Which should right Vigour and true Spirit Give. For fine Romances may be made the same, If but the Printer please to set the Frame. And Declamations ty'd to Measur'd Feet, May yield an Harmony as truly sweet But how can such Exactness Fancy Raise, More than loose Prose, and undesign 'dfor LaysP3
To have regarded blank verse as an "Image cast in Curious Mould" and as partly the creation of the "Printer" was by no means an eccentric opinion, and this emphasis upon the effect of the visual format upon the reader's understanding was later in the eighteenth century to become an essential concern of one branch of criticism known as elocutionism. Writers such as John Rice, Thomas Sheridan and John Walker produced extensive guides to the oral performance of written discourse, and though a certain amount of their instruction is directed toward the preacher and public orator, their most intriguing work is concerned with the interpretation of poetry. The sensitive precision with which the elocutionists addressed themselves to the subtle nuances of poetic form preempts the modern ethos of close reading, but unlike their modern counterparts, the eighteenth-century critics maintained an almost fanatical concern with the genuine identity of poetic meaning as only realizable in its oral performance.
In his Introduction to the Art ofReading with Energy and Propriety (1765), John Rice raises what at the time was a familiar complaint against the reader who would emphasize the monotonous unstress/stress sequence of the pentameter and consequently suppress the broader interlineal pattern of rhythm and intonation. He lays primary blame for this fault upon the shape of the poem on the page: "The lines drawn up in Rank and File, with a capital Initial at the Head of Each, look formidable, and seem to demand a peculiar degree of Sound and Energy" (p.16). His solution to this is to have poems printed as a more accurate visual record of their intended aural identity, and he does this with lengthy sections of Paradise Lost, of which the follow-
Visible Language Volume XXIII11umber 1

ing is an example.
The third his Feet Shadow'd from either Heel, with feather'd Mail Sky tinctur'd Grain. Like Maias Son he stood ...
V 283-285 (original)
The third his Feet shadow'dfrom either Heel with feather'd Mail Sky tinctur'd Grain.
(Rice's reprinting, pp.l78-179)
The new arrangements would, he says, "be of great use to common Readers who are apt to pause at the End of a Line in reciting Verse, whether the Sense will admit of it or no... nor do I believe that they [the lines] would be deprived of any Part of their poetical Beauty." A contemporary of Rice, John Walker, was also aware that the printed pentameter could generate a causal chain of expectations, with its visual format providing an artificial backbone to an incorrect interpretation of the aural poem. In his Rhetorical Grammar or course of lessons on elocution, (1785), Walker rearranges the first twenty-six lines of Paradise Lost to "present to the eye the same union which is actually made by the ear," an experiment which has the famous opening lines ending at "Disobedience," "Tree" and "Taste" (pp. 343-345). Rice and Walker were arguing primarily against another 13\ elocutionist critic, Thomas Sheridan, who in his Lectures on the Art ofReading (1775) claimed that Milton had intended to have Paradise Lost interpreted according to its conventional printed form and that what he called the "pause of suspension" at the line ending was a Miltonic strategy to isolate the traditional pentameter, and more significantly, to intensify and make intricate both the rhythmic sweep and the delicate meaning of the verse paragraphs.4
The most important element of this debate is that all three critics claimed to have heard three different poems. The point of controversy was in locating the visual structure which most accurately reflects, rather than determines, the aural poem, and here the elocutionists had wandered into a sphere of analysis which we tend to associate only with the academic sophistications of modern analysis. If the rhythms and consequently the meaning of a piece of writing could be altered by changing not the words themselves, but the context in which they are understood, then it would follow that poetic effects are as much the consequence of the attitude and condition of the reader as they are the products of the poet's intention. I will examine the correspon-
Bradford Wi11ter 1989

dences between the eighteenth century and the modern perspectives in the closing section, but at present I shall look more closely at how the eighteenth century version of reader-response theory found itself dealing essentially with the effect of visual patterns.

(.) The results of the acceptance of the visual text as a

V:::J:l kind of musical score, a guide to the oral recreation of ~ the original poem, ranged from the tediously meticu(1) lous to the downright bizarre, but the most sophis-

.0 ticated adaptation of the musical analogy can be found

>VJ in Joshua Steele's Prosodia Rationalis: or an Essay
"0 Towards Establishing the Melody and Measure ofSpeech, to c be Expressed and Perpetuated by Peculiar Symbols (1775), co a work which rejects the bland relativity of unstress/

(1) stress values and presents a technique of scansion and

.(.1.). performance which could claim as much precision as
co our own structural and generative linguistics.


It is generally assumed that the study of poetic form

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and prosody was revolutionized by George L. Trager's

-, and Henry Lee Smith's paper, "An Outline of English

Structure" (1951).5 Trager and Smith argue that the

notion of English as a language with only two degrees

of stress is a gross simplification, and that the positive

and negative degrees of accentuation in, say, an iambic

sequence should be more accurately recorded upon a

relative scale of one to four. This concept of multiple

stress relativity has since been a central component of

linguistic prosody, but a glance at Steele's explanation

of his symbolic apparatus should establish that modern

prosody is two hundred years behind the times.

1st ACCENT. Acute/ grave "- , or both combined ,-... '--"" in a variety of circumflexes
2nd Q UANTITY. Longest 9 , long ? , short Y ,shortest I

3rdly PAUSE or silence. Semi brief rest , minim rest - , crotchet rest I , quaver rest ...,

4thly EMPHASIS or Cadence. Heavy 4 , light •• , lightest

5thly FORCE or quality ofsound. Loud e , louder e e , soft ~ , softer ~ ~ Swelling or increasing in loudness ~, decreasing in loudness or dying away ~ , Loudness uniformly continued ~
(p. 24)

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In Steele's application of this apparatus to the opening

three lines of Paradise Lost, we find the conventional

printed poem transformed into a diagram of its aural


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Whatever our opinion of the accuracy of Steele's interpretive technique, we must accept that he succeeds in exposing a number of tacit assumptions about the poem on the page that we, in the later twentieth century, still often take for granted. It is difficult to determine precisely how the cognitive function of recognizing a "poem" as a printed format influences the more complex procedure of understanding its effects or reading it aloud, but as Rice and Walker have demonstrated, the two processes are by no means discrete. Steele goes even further than his contemporaries in his complete rejection of the printer's measure and his replacement of this by a format which is designed to record the precise duration, stress value and demarcation of formal components.The poem, in lines, has been effectively rejected in favor of a visual format where written language and symbols are predicates of 15 \ its ideal aural presence.

The hypothesis of having all poems printed as musical scores is rather difficult to contemplate, but Steele's dedication to the visible format is no more than a logical extension of Woodford's claim that the silent recognition even of the poetic line can have a serious influence upon sound and meaning.

Paradise Lost offered the most complex points of controversy in the visual/aural debate because of its status as the first major English poem to deploy varied and extended rhythmic sequences unregimented by rhyme or regular syntactic closure-its true rhythmic and prosodic identity thus became a matter of opinion. But critical discussion of the relationships between visual cognition and oral performance extended far beyond the problems raised by blank verse.

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Steele's musical score is the most precise and meticulous attempt to recreate the aural poem in visual form, but the whole tradition of aural/visual speculation is underpinned by the implication that during the journey from creation to reading, the poem might well

Bradford Winter 198 9

acquire and discharge several distinct, and possibly irreconcilable, patterns of rhythm and meaning.
In his 1789 "Essay on Rhythmical Measures," Walter Young considers the relationship between the reader and the written text to be an essential determinant in these matters.
A very gentle hint will incline a hearer to count off such feet by combinations of the smaller even numbers. For this little more is necessary than to write them out in separate lines. The tones of the voice, with which a person is disposed to read lines of such even measure, are often sufficient to direct the hearer to the number according to which they are framed.6
Young raises the question of whether it is the poem or the shape of the poem which conditions the reader's awareness of its structural form. It is a very short step from this implicit recognition of the power of visual form to the acceptance of silent reading as a process of appreciation quite separate from the ideal of oral performance, and this is exactly what we find inThomas Barnes' 1785 essay, "On the Nature and Essential Characteristics of Poetry as distinguished from Prose."
The musicalness and flow of numerous composition, which charms the ear of every judicious reader, is certainly felt most strongly, where it is read aloud, with taste and expression. But when read with the eve only, without the accompaniment of the voice, there is a fainter association of the sound, the shadow of the music, as it were, connected with the words; so that we can judge exactly of the composition as if it were audible to the ear. This habit of composition associating sound with vision, is formed gradually by habit .... And some Gentlemen are said to have acquired this art of mental combination so perfectly, as to read, even the notes of a musical composition with considerable pleasure ...7•
Barnes draws out one element of the visual/aural relationship which critics such as Rice and Walker either take for granted or deliberately suppress. Walker's objective, to "prevent the eye from imposing upon the ear," is something of a contradiction in terms, since his own technique of typographic redisposition gives tacit priority to the power and function of the eye.
There must be many readers who are as fascinated by the changes in form and meaning which can be produced by changes in shape as they are concerned with the ideal style of oral delivery. And this slightly illicit process of silent, visual appreciation finds its most extravagant manisfestation in Peter Walkden Fogg's Elementa Anglicana (1792/6). In his section on the appreciation of English verse form, Fogg reflects upon how the mind of the reader finds pleasure in the harmonies and discontinuities of rhythmic verse.
The traces of these delightful movements frequently remain in the mind, and serve as a kind of inspiration, allowing them no rest till they have filled up the craving void of these blanks of harmony with compositions of their own. The varied and yet regular maze affords numberless objects of comparison, which to perceive is
Visible Language Volume XXII! IIIIIllber I

unspeakably pleasant. though to point them out m ight seem tedious. Nay, as was before remarked on the melody of pauses, pleasure may be derived from a view of straight lines in the same variety and proportion .
(Vol. II, p. 198)
It would seem that Steele's concept of musical form in language has been drawn out beyond its status as an analogy, to the extent that the substance, the material, of language can present us with a sphere of appreciation quite separate from its meaning-wordless music. The following is a short section from Fogg's rewriting of a poem by William Hayley:
Ofhumbler mien, but not of mortal race, Ill fated Dryden, with imperial grace, Gives to th 'obedient lyre his rapid laws Tones yet unheard, with touch divine, he draws, The melting Fall, the rising swell sublime, And all the magic of melodious rhyme
--- ---- ---------------
- - - - - - - - - ------- - - -- -- 17 \
(Vo i. II, p. 200)
Fogg comments: "Then the mind glances over the whole with a rapidity that enhances the delight; and the more as we suppose many other proportions still unperceived" (II, p.199). If his experiments leave us with a message, it is that it is all too easy to regard the processes of reading, seeing and understanding as distinct aspects of our cognitive and aesthetic response to poetry. We would surely not appreciate the proportions of harmony if we did not know that they interconnect with the more familiar medium of language, but as Fogg argues, our sensitivity to the beauty of language is conditioned to some degree by the literal shape and movement of language as material. Fogg's experiments were a remarkably exact anticipation of Man Ray's 1924 poem8 consisting of a title and four stanzas, with lines arranged in a straight vertical sequence on the left and a less predictable one on the right, but with no words. Man Ray called the poem "Lautgedicht," and the joke is rather more serious than it seems since Ray's reader would recognize a poem but would not be able to read it. Ray's pseudo-concrete experiment obliges us to admit that we understand
Bradfor d Winter /989

aspects of poetic writing which are outside its meaning, but the joke was a century and a half too late.
-.-..--_-_--.--.-- ------------·-----------------· ---------------------
Man Ray: Lautgedicht. 1924
OJ We still tend to regard the eighteenth century as a
E period of literary history dominated by the rhymed
.!: couplet, and we would certainly find it difficult to ac0:: cept that the ethos of Dryden and Pope was accom-
panied by a critical attitude to rhyme as a dangerously irrational departure from the ideal of poetic clarity. But, as I shall show, such opinions existed, and they offer one more dimension to the eighteenth-century concern with the identity and effect of the aural poem.
W.K. Wimsatt has produced the most penetrating and influential modern readings of Pope's rhymed couplets,9 but he was once caused to consider a peculiar dichotomy between his own attitude to rhyme and the image of the eighteenth century as the age of reason, and to ask why "sense, basically ordered by the rational schemes of parallel and antithesis" should rely so much
Visible Language Volume XXIII number I

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The Visual Poem in the Eighteenth Century