Reciprocal Scansion in Wordsworth's ‘There Was a Boy’



This article is part of a cluster that draws material from the recent conference Metre Matters: New Approaches to Prosody, 1780–1914. It comprises an introduction by Jason David Hall and six articles presented at the conference, whose aim was to address renewed scholarly interest in versification and form across the long nineteenth century, as well as some of the methodologies underpinning it. The papers included in the cluster look both to the minutiae of Romantic and Victorian metres and to their cultural intertexts. The conference, hosted by the University of Exeter's Centre for Victorian Studies, was held 3–5 July 2008.

The cluster is made up of the following articles: Jason David Hall, ‘Metre, History, Context: Introduction to the Metre Matters Cluster’.

Emma Mason and Rhian Williams, ‘Reciprocal Scansion in Wordsworth's “There Was a Boy” ’.

Ross Wilson, ‘Robert Browning's Compounds’.

Margaret A. Loose, ‘The Internationalism of Ernest Jones's Dialectical Prosody’.

Nancy Jiwon Cho, ‘Gender and Authority in British Women Hymn-Writers’ Use of Metre, 1760–1900’.

Ashley Miller, ‘Involuntary Metrics and the Physiology of Memory’.

Summer Star, ‘ “For the Inscape's Sake”: Sounding the Self in the Metres of Gerard Manley Hopkins’.


In this two-voiced paper, we conduct an experiment in ‘reciprocal scansion’: a process in which prosodic investigation and labelling becomes a site, not for fixing the terms of a poem's formal effects, but for communication and dialogue. The paper will overturn the assumed association between scansion and ‘naturalness’ (the iambic pentameter as human heartbeat, for example), one that often manifests as peremptory analysis based on cultural prescription (as implied in an Eton Latin master's rhetorical questions in 1840: ‘if you do not write good longs and shorts, how can you ever be a man of taste? If you are not a man of taste, how can you ever be of use in the world?’). By renouncing openness and dialogue for rote methods of formal measurement, predetermined ways of scanning poetry serve to distance readers from, rather than draw them to, a poem's formal effects. In order to undo this knot of formalism, we seek to locate dialogue, rather than singularity of effect, at the heart of our investigation. An examination of prosodic variations within larger frames of regularity allows us to access the different effects that prosodic choices enact upon readers. In particular, this paper illustrates how Wordsworth's frequent emphasis on movements between the ear and the eye traces thematically vital transitions between sight and sound, and in doing so, allegorizes the process of scansion used in prosody. By bringing this treatment to bear on ‘There Was a Boy’, we critique the ‘naturalness’ of prosody and bring out the ways in which Wordsworth's ‘intertexture of ordinary feeling’ involves the coalition of emotion and regulation through metre. This coalition also hints at meetings and encounters that, by virtue of prosody, can be reciprocally rewarding.