Reconsidering Poe's “Rationale of Verse”


Edgar Allan Poe's essay “The Rationale of Verse” has been ill-treated. A rationale is a “an explanation or exposition of controlling principles (as of an opinion, belief, practice, or phenomenon),”1 and Poe's essay attempts to explain the controlling principles of poetry—including all traditions, across all languages, throughout all history. In writing his “Rationale,” however, Poe disputed scholarly wisdom that had been established for centuries, and the science of his time offered no support. Lacking empirical evidence, Poe made claims from his own intuition and argued from examples and anecdotes. “The Rationale of Verse” was repeatedly rejected before its publication and has since been alternately ignored, scorned, and reviled for its “bluffing and shoddy scholarship.”2 However, recent research in both linguistics and psychology holds the promise of legitimizing Poe's theories. Additionally, Stuart Levine and Susan Levine's recent edition Critical Theory: The Major Documents offers a new and exhaustive analysis of “Rationale,” providing us with the occasion to look again at this text. Given what we now know, Poe's thesis may be extracted and reexamined, allowing us to see “The Rationale of Verse” as an important component of his critical theory.

“The Rationale of Verse” is intended as a technical manual for prosodic practice, as Poe makes clear in its fourth paragraph:

We are without a treatise on our own verse. In our ordinary grammars and in our works on rhetoric or prosody in general, may be found occasional chapters, it is true, which have the heading, “Versification,” but these are, in all instances, exceedingly meagre. They pretend to no analysis; they propose nothing like system; they make no attempts at even rule; every thing depends upon “authority.” They are confined, in fact, to mere exemplification of the supposed varieties of English feet and English lines.3

This declaration explains why Poe's manuscript “has generally been read as a technical study of prosody … although it announces itself as theory.”4 Poe intends to present a technical study derived from a theory of natural law. He claims that manuals of prosody do not explain the principles underlying their own instructions, such that problems of verse are “solved … by a rule, stating the fact, (or what it, the rule, supposes to be the fact), but without the slightest attempt at the rationale” (96/231–32). Poe explains the intrinsic fault of such a manual: when a problem does not conform to its inventory of rules, the problem is “incomprehensible” (100/236) and cannot be solved. Discussion of anomalous problems can bloat into “forty or fifty vague pages, solely because of [the] inability to show how and why… by which showing the question would have been settled in an instant” (98/234). There is “no end” to such problems, Poe claims, but they could easily be resolved “by the true laws (not the supposititious rules) of verse” (100/236). With “The Rationale of Verse,” Poe wishes to encapsulate a unifying law that will simultaneously obviate and justify all systems of prosody. He wants to pinpoint the fundamental motive for the creation of verse—from which impulse any rule might be derived, to which origin every rule could be traced, and from which rationale each rule would be evidently true.

Poe stumbles badly in presenting his argument. Overtly, “The Rationale of Verse” is a vicious, petulant, egotistical tirade. Its thesis is overshadowed by a relentless harangue against the ignorance of scholastic authority. A straw-man definition of verse is given and vigorously eviscerated (82–86/218–21), but no alternative comes forward in its stead. Having no empirical support for his assertions, Poe repeatedly appeals to “common sense” (81/215, 86/221, 99/235, 100/236, 108/244, 118/254), despite his own admission elsewhere that “profound ignorance on any particular topic is always sure to manifest itself by some allusion to ‘common sense’ as an all-sufficient instructor.”5 Every page insults and condescends to the very reader capable of understanding the essay's goals. Accepted for publication “more as an act of charity than anything else,”“Rationale” inspired such revulsion that in 1968 J. Arthur Greenwood conceived a “polemic edition” to vitiate it.6 Yet the tone of Poe's presentation is not its fatal flaw. “The Rationale of Verse” fails by representing its theory with an unusable system of metrical analysis, or scansion. Poe's scansion immediately confuses most readers by employing questionable terminology (for example, “bastard trochee”) and, after defining a stressed syllable as two, scanning it as one, forcing all other syllabic values into vulgar fractions (109–11/245–47). Even if these choices were forgiven, the system is rendered unworkable by its “insufficient account of pauses, or rests, in calculating time.”7 Lacking allowance for pausing, Poe's examples contradict the principles they are meant to illustrate.8 With its thesis overwhelmed by vitriolic bombast, “The Rationale of Verse” presents itself as an ill-conceived and incorrect method of scansion.

Scholars have accordingly viewed “The Rationale of Verse” as a blunder. It is occasionally dismissed wholesale as a “mass of error” because, as one commentator puts it, “comment on such fantastic nonsense is scarcely needed.”9 Editors tend to preface the essay by summarizing its reputation as “a kind of awkward stepchild in the Poe canon.”10 Thomas O. Mabbott introduces it as “a rather complicated theory of scansion” and says little else (Works, 1:391). Arthur Hobson Quinn and Edward H. O’Neill characterize “Rationale” as “a revelation of the manner in which one of the most skilful artists in verse could go astray when he discussed the nature and laws of English versification.”11 Edmund C. Stedman and George E. Woodberry lament that “its main purpose … wastes laborious pages, when a clearly thought-out sentence would have disposed of the whole matter,”12 while Levine and Levine interpret the manuscript as “a fine cross section of its author's methods and attitudes, his wit, and, alas, his bigotry” (LL, 80), absent of literary consequence. Remarks such as these give context to readers but do not help us engage with Poe's prosodic theory.

Indeed, it is difficult to engage with Poe's theory when Poe himself seems to have taken great pains to obscure it. The more closely one looks at his evidence, the more invidious it appears. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Greenwood's edition, which undertakes the Herculean task of annotating where Poe fails to cite, expanding where Poe alludes, and recalling where Poe misremembers, point by meticulous point. The sheer magnitude of the requisite effort suggests the carelessness with which Poe composed his argument; the notes’ contents proceed to illustrate such a catalog of weaknesses “that a reader might conclude from it that ‘The Rationale …’ has nothing to teach” (LL, 78). Subsequently, Levine and Levine, having risen to the challenge of building upon Greenwood's already-thorough investigation, reveal at least one deliberate deceit in which Poe “intends to create the impression that he has surveyed the field when in fact he has hard evidence from only a single brief section of one book” (LL, 127). These two editions demonstrate, at length, that Poe's prosodic theory cannot be adequately discussed by considering his “evidence.” Such a discussion immediately devolves into disagreement over its interpretation or refutation of its premise13 and cannot proceed without resolution. An analysis of Poe's prosodic theory may best be accomplished by lifting it away from “The Rationale of Verse” and seeking a better support.

Poe's prosodic theory, however, has proven difficult to extract. Greenwood speaks for most analysts in admitting that “we can give no clear account of the meaning that Poe has attached to rationale.14 The issue lies in determining which of Poe's many sweeping assertions, scattered throughout “The Rationale of Verse,” is meant to be the rationale of verse. For example, because Poe has in “The Poetic Principle” defined verse as “The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty” (Works, 3:8), and here asserts that verse “cannot be better designated than as an inferior or less capable Music” (88/223), one might conclude that Poe expects verse to “reach its normal goal in music.”15 W. L. Werner obligingly compiles a survey confirming that Poe prefers “smooth sounds and rhythms,” but the concomitant irregularity of Poe's stanzaic patterns forces Werner to conclude that musical is a “vague adjective … as applied to verse” and cannot serve as a rationale.16 Greenwood seeks the origin of Poe's theory via comparative analysis, but Richard B. Eaton finds that Greenwood's “execution [is] bad” because his comparisons are inappropriate.17 Greenwood and Stovall enumerate what “Rationale” indicates to be Poe's rules of scansion, yet Greenwood finds the scansion a failure and Stovall is repeatedly frustrated by Poe's contravention of his own dictates.18 Given Poe's vociferous condemnation of imprecision in others’ verse, this latter contradiction makes it “hard to see why [Poe] wants to replace one body of intolerant pedantry … with another” (LL, 141).

But Poe's rationale cannot be a “body of … pedantry” or system of rules. Indeed, Poe would have predicted Greenwood's failure and Stovall's frustration because of their reliance on rules. That is, to perform their analyses, Greenwood and Stovall each adopt Poe's system of rules as an “authority,” causing their approaches, in Poe's words, to be “confined … to mere exemplification” (82/216), so that, when confronted with examples that do not conform to their inventory of rules, the writers cannot resolve them. The problems are instead declared “unutterable,”“unnatural and perhaps impossible.”19 Poe claims that rules are only valid insofar as they represent natural principles, and he attributes the insufficiencies of a rule set “to the utter absence of natural principle as a guide” (115/252). Poe intends “Rationale” as a guide to prosody and claims his guide will “scan correctly… any true rhythm that human ingenuity can conceive” (86/221). It is improbable that Poe would believe any set of rules to be sufficient for this purpose. His rationale of verse must therefore be a natural principle.

Poe's essential claim is that the rationale of verse is equality. Poe uses the word equality, “the quality or state of being equal,” to mean equivalence between objects’ characteristics, and he names the human enjoyment of equality as the root of all verse (87/222).20 Scientific study of symmetry confirms that humans perceive equality to be pleasurable, suggesting a biological origin.21 The identical wings of a butterfly please our sight. We smile to hear the steady rhythm of a musical beat. Poe claims that the human desire to experience equality motivates the creation of verse and explains its form (87/222). Poe devises his scansion from the need to represent his theory of equality and syllabic length (109/246), intending it to function as the practical expression of his main thesis. In writing “The Rationale of Verse,” his main purpose is not to codify rules of prosody but to describe the “true laws… of verse” (100/236) which arise from equality.

Poe's rationale has been described as giving rise to beauty. Critics who identify equality as Poe's rationale, such as George Kelly, surmise that Poe's purpose here is to unveil this form of beauty, given that the principle of equality is aesthetically unique among his works:

Here is a principle of beauty which has none of the transcendental quality of Poe's concept of the supernal realm; nor does it contain the subjectivism of his concept of the poetic sentiment manifested as a pleasurably elevated effect; it is an objective principle in which beauty is regarded as dependent upon an observable quality—equality. …[T]he objective qualities of beauty and pleasure are resolved into a kind of symmetry and consistency.22

Furthermore, the “beauty of equal duration” may have served to determine verse form.23 Poe suggests that verse originated from the spondee, the simplest of syllabic equalities, and “over the ages poets have added complexities” to relieve the monotony of spondaic rhythm (LL, 78). In this gradual transformation toward increasingly sophisticated patterns of equality, “the development of verse, like that of the material universe, moves from an original simplicity to an ultimate complexity,” finally obtaining a “totality of effect … through carefully orchestrated metrical and stanzaic proportions.”24 Throughout this process, it must be recognized, beauty justifies equality as the rationale of verse: equality motivates our creation of verse; beauty is our reward.

If equality is beautiful, and our appreciation of this beauty hearkens to universal laws of material structure, then it is reasonable to suppose that human endeavors would labor to achieve equality for the sake of beauty. But “for any purpose now in view … it is sufficient that the fact is undeniable—the fact that man derives enjoyment from his perception of equality” (87/222). Poe's technical manual concerns itself not with beauty but with validity. Versification “is not the art of arranging [words], but the actual arranging” (82/217). A technical discussion of “The Rationale of Verse” should thus consider whether the rationale of equality, as expressed in Poe's scansion, correctly represents the mechanics of English verse. Equality must be considered a practical law of versification.

The fundamental law of verse, in Poe's view, is equality of time. Poe defines rhythm as “the arrangement of words into … equal, pulsations of time” and verse as “the … isolation of rhythms into masses.”25 Thus, transitively, he defines verse as syllables arranged into equal lengths of time. The published manuscript of “Rationale” argues for this definition. Poe offers a fanciful “history” of verse (88–95/223–31), illustrating, if speculatively, how every component and feature of verse originated from “the rudimental sense of equality[as] the never-ceasing impulse” within which “the point of time is … the rudimental one” (94/230, 96/232). Poe acknowledges that equalities of sound, such as rhyme and alliteration, are natural features of verse form (90–91/226, 94/230); however, “the perception of pleasure in the equality of sounds is the principle of Music,” and “what we start from in the very beginning of all idea on the topic of verse is …length” (87/222, 103/240). Therefore, Poe defines verse as the collocation of equal lengths of time, or feet.26 When equal feet are not present, a passage of writing should be considered prose (120/257); when feet are equal in length, they are recognized to be verse.

Verse can be recognized because equal feet produce rhythm. Rhythm may be defined as a “steady and persisting succession of beats.”27 English language provides a beat via stress, or “peaks of prominence on selected syllables.”28 Equal feet provide a “steady and persisting succession,” and therefore equal feet with syllabic stresses generate rhythm. Equal feet are rhythmical; thus, verse is rhythmical language. However, from this definition, it is not necessary to suppose that “equal feet” refers to length, since foot equality could be described by syllabic stress values with no mention of time. Poe resolves the issue by defining unstressed and stressed syllables to be specific lengths—“that is to say, short and long” (88/224)—and thereby defines rhythm as a phenomenon based entirely on length.

Poe's definition of rhythm arises from the limitations of written language. In verbal English, a stressed syllable is defined as one “on which [a] speaker expends more muscular energy,” and muscular energy may produce increased loudness, changed pitch, or lengthened duration; when a syllable is imbued with these contrastive factors, stress is perceived.29 In written English, however, pitch changes cannot be shown; and, while loudness may be indicated by italics or ALL CAPS, such indication is not a mandatory feature of syllabic stress. Standard written English represents only the sounds of its letters—but all sounds occur over time. All sounds possess length. All written language, therefore, possesses length.

In written language, stress is produced by length. Length is a natural feature of English sounds. English vowels are contrasted by length, such that a “long” vowel must be sustained for its correct pronunciation;30 for example, if the word pool is spoken too quickly, it will be perceived as pull. Poe distinguishes “natural long syllables [as] those encumbered … with consonants” (89/224) because every sound adds more time. In a given syllable, a long vowel compounds muscular energy in each moment of its continued sustenance, and each new consonant demands muscular energy for the effort of its articulation. Thereby, through “the lingual evolutions necessary for their utterance” (89/224), written lengths generate syllabic stresses. A long syllable produces stress while a short syllable does not.

Poe measures the equality of feet in syllabic lengths. He assigns numerical values to long and short syllables, declaring that “for the purposes of verse we suppose a long syllable equal to two short ones” (89/224). These values can be justified by a phenomenon “known as isochrony or stress-timing”:“there is something in the way we pronounce sequences of syllables in English which … keep[s] the main stresses at roughly equal intervals.”31 This means that any pair of stressed and unstressed syllables will be equal in length to any other pair. Assigning values of two and one, as Poe does, is merely a convenient choice to indicate relative values of greater and lesser. Nonetheless, once these two values are assigned, other syllabic lengths can be determined relative to them.

Poe identifies certain syllables to be shorter than short, or quick, giving examples of lines whose stresses are equally spaced despite the presence of “extra” syllables:

or laugh and shake in Rabelais’ easy chair (96/232)See the delicate footed reindeer (97/233)

Poe observes that the syllables of elais’ and icate are equalized with the other feet by being pronounced “in double quick time” (96/232). The idea of “blending” the sounds into a single syllable (for example, del’cate) he rejects as both nonsensical and unnatural (96–97/232–33). In each of these lines, two syllables occupy the same length of time as one short syllable; therefore, where the value of a short syllable is one, these quick syllables are one half. Poe also gives a different example in which three syllables may take the place of one short (100/236) and, accordingly, measures these as “equal to the third of a short syllable” (108/245). In each instance, quick syllables are assigned a value relative “to that of the one short syllable whose position they usurp” (108/245).

Poe also recognizes other syllables to be longer than long, or extended. He gives two examples of lines that contain a foot consisting of a single long syllable (103/239). The feet are divided here by vertical lines.

I have | a lit | tle step | son | of on | ly three | years old.Pale as a | lily was | Emily | Gray.

To equalize these feet, each long syllable must be extended to the full length of the feet that precede them. Therefore the value of son“is that of three short syllables” and the value of Gray“is that of four short syllables” (103/239). As with quick syllables, the value of each extended syllable is measured relative to those it replaces.

Poe's system overlooks pauses. This is a deficiency, made evident wherever Poe offers samples of verse that contradict his postulates. For example, Poe's rationale of equality predicates that lines be organized into “equal or obviously proportional masses,” each containing an equal number of feet or a simple ratio thereof (92/228, 90/226), that is, 1-to-2 or 1-to-3. Poe then volunteers a nursery rhyme and claims he would “divide it thus [and] declare it musical” (101/238):

Pease | porridge | hot | pease | porridge | coldPease | porridge | in the | pot | nine | days | old

Divided in this way, the two lines exhibit an unequal and disproportionate ratio of 6-to-7, failing to support Poe's rationale. Furthermore, the markings fail to fulfill Poe's sole criterion for accurate scansion, namely, that “the scansion exactly conveys the rhythm” (112/249). Although the feet marked as one syllable do accurately represent those syllables’ extended lengths, the natural flow of these lines and their scanned divisions do not “go hand in hand” (112/249). However, the scansion is repaired, and the rationale restored, by recognizing pauses to account for the missing feet.

Pease | porridge | hot |**| pease | porridge | cold |**Pease | porridge | in the | pot | nine | days | old |**

With pauses included, these scanned divisions correctly represent the reading flow, and each line is seen to be equal in length with a ratio of 8-to-8. By allowing pauses, the deficiency in Poe's scansion is easily rectified.

“The Rationale of Verse” reaches no further than this. The essay can be summarized in three essential propositions:

  • 1The rationale of verse is equality.
  • 2Equality is realized through equal lengths of time.
  • 3When feet are equal, relative syllabic lengths may be accurately measured.

Had Poe crafted an essay that presented these points effectively, subsequent discussion might have been more receptive and respectful. Instead, Poe contrived a disorganized screed that has generated confusion and contempt. Understanding the complaints about Poe's scansion and answering them with current evidence can clear the way toward useful applications of his rationale.

For many commentators, the presence of syllabic length, or quantity, has automatically invalidated Poe's system. Quantity is understood to be “the basis of ancient Greek poetry,” imposed onto English during the late sixteenth century because of the “shared assumption … that the finest model to which English vernacular poetry could aspire would be the quantitative poetry of Classical Latin and Greek.”32 English quantity was conceived as “an artificial situation, ‘in which a verse-form developed for one language is applied to another of different phonological type.’”33 Thus quantitative measurement was implemented as “a complex system which could be applied to words,” valuing syllables “first by their position, otherwise by their natural sound.”34 The system was not a success: “The strong accents of English tend[ed] to override … the pattern of vowel-lengths,” and, with notable exceptions, the quantitative movement was abandoned “within a generation after it was first promoted.”35 Poe explicitly recognizes and rejects rule-based quantity (119–20/256–57), but his assertion of a natural English quantity contradicts the belief that, “in modern languages, stress has been substituted for quantity.”36 Thus, according to Quinn and O’Neill, Poe's system “fails to recognize the accentual basis of English verse” and, in Stovall's words, “betrays considerable ignorance in saying … that there is no essential difference between scanning by accents and scanning by length of syllables.”37 Poe's scansion is rejected for its “carelessness in distinguishing between the quantitative and accentual metrical systems” and misapprehension of “accented and unaccented syllables as ‘long’ and ‘short’ respectively.”38 Detractors concur that Poe “had assimilated two traditions and not too well at that”: “He marked stresses [and] confused them with quantities” in a manner at once “tedious … unsuccessful …[and] whimsically absurd.”39

Linguists now know that quantity is a primary correlate of English stress. In everyday acoustic phenomena, a greater quantity is perceived as having greater loudness and vice versa,40 and length is a better predictor of perceived syllabic stress. This may be observed using words that can receive stress on either syllable (e.g., permit): reversing the relative loudness of syllables is not likely to reverse a listener's judgment of stress.41 Rather, “changes of vowel duration ratio can swing listeners’ perception of strong stress from the first to the second syllable.”42 By itself, loudness makes “little, if any, independent contribution to the perception of stress.”43 Pitch change can produce stress, but “[English] speakers do not normally use this mechanism” in ordinary conversation.44 As it turns out—as Poe asserted—quantity is an essential determinant of English stress.

Poe's measurements of quantity describe our natural perceptions. Poe's system is accused of being “permeated by a fundamental mistake quite fatal to [its] usefulness … namely, that the accent makes every syllable long,” such that to the “element of natural quantity, which makes far a perceptibly longer syllable than fat, [Poe] remains willfully deaf.”45 However, English quantity measures, not the duration of a sound, but the time between stresses. English stress is perceived as an instantaneous pulse—a syllable's “psychological moment of occurrence” located at its “perceptual center.”46 Each long syllable produces a pulse of stress, and when these pulses are evenly spaced in time, they produce rhythm, irrespective of syllabic durations. A foot, in quantitative meter, is the length of time between pulses. Syllabic quantities represent a relationship to the interstress interval. If, for example, a foot is assigned the value of three, its long and short syllable may be assigned values of two and one, because two is greater than one and together they total three. In this manner, syllabic quantity may be accurately measured relative to the length of its foot.

Poe's syllabic measurements are mathematical, not musical. Admittedly, Poe's theories were probably influenced by his contemporaries’“insistence [upon]… theoretical analogies between poetry and music.”47The words “music” and “musical” appear throughout “The Rationale of Verse,” and the relative values of Poe's scansion can be translated directly into “musical nomenclature,” fostering the impression that Poe's metrical analysis is “borrowed from music.”48 However, Poe assigned values as rational numbers, not musical notes. Poe could not have been ignorant of musical notation; he and his wife Virginia were accomplished singers and she played the piano.49 If Poe intended syllables to have musical values, he need not have invented a scansion; in the seventeenth century, “the long and short syllables of quantitative Greek and Latin … were translated more or less directly into music,”50 and by the eighteenth century, musical notes or equivalent symbols had been applied to English verse in systematic detail.51 Poe declined to adopt a system of musical scansion. In his system, rather, “music” refers to “the melody of … vowel sounds” (119/256) and is therefore quality, not quantity. In Poe's view, the natural sounds of English produce music; conversely, unnatural sounds produce nonmusical qualities. Scansion and music are inextricably related, for when a syllable is forced to occupy “a length which it will not naturally bear,” its sounds must be unnaturally pronounced, making them “false in point of melody” or “unmusical” (107/243, 106/243, 100/236). Music, to Poe, is a quality of sound consequent to its natural pronunciation, and its “values” can be only true or falsemusical or unmusical. Musical quality cannot be measured quantitatively. The numerical values of Poe's scansion are lengths of rhythmical time.

The exact numerical values of Poe's scansion are not meant to be absolute durations. If they were, Poe's system would “force poetry into a Procrustean frame of time limitations,”“read … to the ticking of a metronome.”52 Yvor Winters repudiates Poe's numerical scansion as the “gross concept that all syllables can be grouped into general classes, each class having a fixed and recognizable degree of accent.”53 Poe's manner of recitation may have reinforced this impression, as in public lectures he was “careful to stress the regular beat,”54 but absolute value cannot be his intention. Poe indicates that the “real purpose” of scansion is “expressing to the eye the exact relative value of every syllable” and that the “natural deviation from this relativeness we correct in perusal” (109/246, 89/224). Here, Poe provides the crucial bridge between speech and scansion: deviation is corrected in perusal.

The “exact” values of scansion are created by a listener's imagination. Poetic meter “does not consist of a little drumbeat mincing along with the words.” Instead, “it consists of an atmosphere of shaped expectation cast over a long span.”55 No English speaker produces an exact rhythm; in fact, speakers make “no compensation at all to balance the duration of units”56 to produce isochrony. The rigid timing of isochrony is an illusion imposed by a listener who expects to hear rhythm. That is, when a listener expects rhythm, natural deviations in timing are mentally corrected, making every foot appear absolutely equal and syllabic lengths seem relatively exact. When Poe advises that “in all cases, the rhythm designed should be commenced and continued, without variation, until the ear has had full time to comprehend what is the rhythm” (99/235), he is disclosing how poetic meter induces isochrony. When Poe insists that a long syllable occupies “precisely the time demanded for two short ones” (89/225), he is stating a consequence of isochronous expectation, not a requirement for physical production. In fact, speech production requires inexact timing to be comprehensible. Once a listener perceives isochrony, a speaker “manipulate[s] the duration of the interstress intervals for linguistic purposes.”57 That is, a noticeable timing deviation is assimilated by a listener as a phrase boundary, or a “dramatic variation,”58 without any disruption to the rigid isochronous pattern. Were there no deviations, phrase boundaries would blur together and be difficult to detect. Therefore, the equalities indicated by Poe's scansion confirm the syllabic patterns that will induce and maintain isochrony for a listener. The exact values of Poe's scansion represent a listener's actual isochronous experience.

Poe's scansion accurately describes verse. Verse originates in the collocation of equal feet, which induce isochrony. Isochronous expectations allow syllabic lengths to be measured in precise relative quantity, and these quantities correctly represent the rhythmical flow of natural English speech production. Poe's system of scansion, therefore, correctly represents the mechanics of English verse. The fidelity of the scansion, in turn, verifies equality as the rationale of English verse.

Nonetheless, the details of Poe's scansion are simply one method of representing his rationale. This is fortunate, because “The Rationale of Verse” is one of only two documents in which his scansion appears. Poe designed his system at the conclusion of his career. Specifically, two critical reviews of Mary E. Hewitt, published in 1846 and 1848, respectively, provide evidence that “Poe's final theory … dates from 1847,” two years prior to his death; the first review shows that Poe had not yet conceived the “quick” syllable that would be crucial to his equalization of feet, and the second “is the only published attempt … to apply Poe's numerical system of marking scansion in routine criticism.”59 Rather than examine Poe's marking system in either of its two limited presentations, it may be more fruitful to consider other examples of verse in view of his rationale.

Verse may be analyzed and rated for its natural equalities. The only mandatory criterion, according to Poe, is that its feet must be equal in length, because unequal feet produce prose. Lines should, nonetheless, contain an equal number of feet or a simple ratio thereof. Equality is measured by the natural length of each syllable; therefore, it is by observing these lengths that the rationale of verse becomes a guide to prosody. The purpose of marking scansion is to verify the natural length of each syllable, thus ensuring that, when pronounced normally, they will automatically produce equal feet. Syllables’ natural lengths are produced when they are “pronounced in full, and as nearly as possible as nature intended them” (97/233). A “bad” verse is one that requires unnatural English for its feet to be made equal; there should be “no archaisms, no contractions, no inversions, no wrongly placed accents.”60 A “weak” verse is one “which any ordinary reader can, without design, read improperly” (100/237), because this means equality has been forced by a reader's effort and is not embodied in the language. To apply Poe's rationale to a given verse, it is not necessary to implement his scansion. The definitive test of “good” verse is whether its natural syllabic lengths produce equal feet. However, this test does not assay the adherence of some writer to Poe's prescriptive standard. Rather, it explains how a verse has fulfilled the purpose for which all verse is created: equality.

Poe's rationale should support other systems, not supplant them, though he wrongly condemns other methods of scansion. Poe attempts a direct comparison between his own and the “common accentuation” (111/248); however, he promotes his own by misrepresenting the other. He presents the following lines, scanned thusly, marking stressed syllables with lines (–) and unstressed syllables with breves (˘):

Māny̆ arĕ thĕ| thōughts thăt | cōme tŏ| mēIn my̆| lōnely̆| mūsĭng,ānd thĕy | drīft sŏ| strānge ănd | swīft (111/247)

If a reader speaks the stress pattern indicated here, his or her recitation will be rhythmically indistinguishable from that indicated by Poe's scansion. Thus when Poe asks of the reader, in contemplation of these lines, “Does the common accentuation express the truth, in particular, in general, or in any regard?… Does it convey either to the ignorant or to the scholar a just conception of the rhythm of the lines?” a reader who has read them out loud will respond yes, of course, and then be startled by Poe's disagreement: “Each of these questions must be answered in the negative” (111/248). Poe finds his argument by interpreting the marks as syllabic lengths, which they are not: they are stress marks. Thus Poe contradicts his reader's experience by exclaiming that “the common accentuation … express[es]precisely nothing whatever” (112/248), for it does, in fact, accurately express the lines’ natural rhythm. What the common accentuation does not show is why these lines produce rhythm. If these lines are rhythmical, then their feet must be equal. To perceive these lines as verse, a listener must impose isochrony, correcting the syllables of the first foot to be quick and the terminal syllables “me” and “swift” to be extended. The isochronous effect, which conforms the equality of each foot, is what the common accentuation fails to show. In other words, stress marks do accurately represent a speaker's natural production, but they do not explain why a listener perceives their pattern as rhythmical. Thus the two systems of marking do not differ in their validity, as Poe asserts.61 The scansions differ in their rationale.

A valid rationale should explain any system of rules. For example, Poe shows a line in which the first foot's stress pattern is reversed (98/234):

Whēthĕr thou choose Cervantes’ serious air

This reversal conforms to a rule known as “substitution.” Substitution is understood to have aesthetic effects, such as making a line “more interesting, more surprising, and often more melodic,”62 but these effects do not explain why a substitution is rhythmically acceptable. Poe's rationale provides an explanation: the substituted foot is the same length as the others, “each foot being, in time, equal to three short syllables” (98/234). Provided that a writer does not “introduce so many ‘variations’ as to exceed in number the ‘distinctive’ feet” (99/235), the “distinctive” feet will maintain isochrony, and a substituted foot will be assimilated into the rhythmical flow because its total length remains equal. In other words, a substitution is an acceptable variation because it maintains equality. The two quick syllables that begin the final foot (“ious air”) are also acceptable because they maintain equality. Any variation will be acceptable if it maintains equality, and unacceptable if it does not. Poe's prosodic theory is not summarized in a set of rules but in the single word equality. If equality is the rationale of verse, there can be no other explanation—and there need be none.

A new understanding of Poe's rationale provides a new way to address prior analyses. We may reassess Poe's “evidence,” not to evaluate how the evidence supports his rationale, but to determine how he believed his rationale explained the evidence. For example, Levine and Levine reject Poe's claim that the name “Rabelais” (in the line previously mentioned) was chosen by its writer, Alexander Pope, to produce an “agreeable variation” in rhythm (96/232); Levine and Levine say no, the reason is simply Pope's desire to mention François Rabelais, for which Pope “accepts a clumsy moment” (LL, 134). But the contention is moot. Pope's motivation for wanting “Rabelais” is not at issue; what must be explained is how, having selected it, Pope was rhythmically justified in employing it. Poe's rationale provides an explanation: its two quick syllables uphold rhythm by conforming equal feet. Beyond this example, we may find that Poe's rationale, in reference to the unutterable and impossible problems of prosodic rules, could “enable any one of common sense … to point out, instantaneously, the remedy” (100/236). Finally, in view of aesthetic effect, we may be able to analyze different layers and levels of equality for their particular effects on our perceptions of beauty. In sum, we have only begun to explore Poe's rationale.

“The Rationale of Verse” deserves a fresh treatment. Poe may have discovered a rationale to account for the structure of English verse, and its principles are supported by contemporary evidence that allows us to evaluate his scansion and the examples he offered to explain it. His proposition does not oppose traditional scholarship but adds new perspective to its knowledge. It is understandable that Poe's atrocious presentation of his thesis has been dismissed and marginalized, but the rationale of equality may be brought forth from the morass and examined, as a practical guide, for its relationship to Poe's poetry or other metered English verse. With further discovery, “The Rationale of Verse” may take its rightful place in the canon of Poe's critical theory.

McMaster University


  • 1

    Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, s.v. “rationale,” (accessed 10 November 2011).

  • 2

    Stuart Levine and Susan F. Levine, eds., Critical Theory: The Major Documents, by Edgar Allan Poe (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2009), 78; further references to the editors’ work in this volume will be cited parenthetically as LL.

  • 3

    Edgar Allan Poe, “The Rationale of Verse,” in Critical Theory, ed. Stuart Levine and Susan F. Levine (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2009), 82. “Rationale” is also available online in The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, 4 vols. (New York: J. S. Redfield, 1850), 2:216; reproduced by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Further references to Poe's text will be cited parenthetically as (Levine/Griswold).

  • 4

    Beverly R. Voloshin, “The Essays and ‘Marginalia’: Poe's Literary Theory,” in A Companion to Poe Studies, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996), 288.

  • 5

    Edgar Allan Poe, “Review of J. R. Lowell's A Fable For Critics,Southern Literary Messenger 15 (1849): 191; reproduced by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore,

  • 6

    James H. Whitty, preface to The Complete Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1911), lxvii, reproduced by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore,; J. Arthur Greenwood, ed., “The Rationale of Verse”: A Preliminary Edition, by Edgar Allan Poe (Princeton: Wolfhart Book Co., 1968), viii.

  • 7

    Sherwin Cody, Poe—Man, Poet and Creative Thinker, 2nd ed. (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1973), 327.

  • 8

    Thomas Stewart Omond, English Metrists in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: Being a Sketch of English Prosodical Criticism during the Last Two Hundred Years (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1907), 142.

  • 9

    Sidney Lanier, The Science of English Verse (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1880), 131; John P. Pritchard, “Horace and Edgar Allan Poe,”Classical Weekly 26, no. 17 (1933): 130.

  • 10

    Jeffrey A. Savoye, “Examining Poe's Critical Theory,” review of Critical Theory: The Major Documents, ed. Stuart Levine and Susan Levine, Poe Studies: History, Theory, Interpretation 42 (2009): 122.

  • 11

    Arthur H. Quinn and Edward H. O’Neill, eds., The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, With Selections from His Critical Writings (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), 2:1087.

  • 12

    Edmund Clarence Stedman and George Edward Woodberry, eds., The Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Chicago: Stone and Kimball, 1895), 6:xiv.

  • 13

    See, for example, Greenwood, ed., “Rationale,” 101.

  • 14

    Greenwood, ed., “Rationale,” 47.

  • 15

    Paul E. More, “A Note on Poe's Method,”Studies in Philology 20, no. 3 (1923): 304.

  • 16

    W. L. Werner, “Poe's Theories and Practice in Poetic Technique,”American Literature 2, no. 2 (1930): 164.

  • 17

    Richard B. Eaton, “Poe's Prosody in Perspective,” review of “The Rationale of Verse”: A Preliminary Edition, Incorporating Cognate Documents, ed. J. Arthur Greenwood, Poe Studies 5, no. 2 (1972): 61.

  • 18

    Greenwood, ed., “Rationale,” xviii–xix, xxviii; Floyd Stovall, Edgar Poe the Poet: Essays New and Old on the Man and His Work (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1969), 193–95, 200, 202, 227.

  • 19

    Greenwood, ed., “Rationale,” xxviii; Stovall, Edgar Poe the Poet, 227 n. 40.

  • 20

    Webster’s, s.v. “equality.” The word equivalence more accurately represents Poe's intention—for example, two syllables may be equivalent in length while the syllables themselves are unidentical, that is, not wholly equal. With that understanding, the word equality is used throughout this text as it was used by Poe.

  • 21

    Christopher W. Tyler, Human Symmetry Perception and Its Computational Analysis (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002), 8.

  • 22

    George Kelly, “Poe's Theory of Beauty,”American Literature 27, no. 4 (1956): 535.

  • 23

    Martin Roth, “Poe's Divine Spondee,”Poe Studies 12, no. 1 (1979): 14.

  • 24

    Roth, “Poe's Divine Spondee,” 15; Frederick S. Frank and Anthony Magistrale, The Poe Encyclopedia (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997), s.v. “The Rationale of Verse.”

  • 25

    Edgar Allan Poe, “Notes upon English Verse,”Pioneer no. 1 (1843): 105; reproduced by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore,

  • 26

    Poe, “Notes upon English Verse,” 105.

  • 27

    Webster’s, s.v. “rhythm.”

  • 28

    Herbert Chimhundu, “Linguistic Trends in Modern Shona Poetry,”African Languages and Cultures 2, no. 1 (1989): 24.

  • 29

    Peter Ladefoged and Keith Johnson, A Course in Phonetics, 4th ed. (Beverly, MA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2000), 231; Anne Cutler, “Lexical Stress,” in The Handbook of Speech Perception, ed. David B. Pisoni and Robert E. Remez (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 265.

  • 30

    Michael Hammond, “Vowel Quantity and Syllabification in English,”Language 73, no. 1 (1997): 2.

  • 31

    Derek Attridge, The Rhythms of English Poetry (New York: Longman Group, 1982), 22.

  • 32

    John Drury, The Poetry Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2006), s.v. “quantitative meter”; Kristin Hanson, “Quantitative Meter in English: The Lesson of Sir Philip Sidney,”English Language and Linguistics 5, no. 1 (2001): 41–42.

  • 33

    C. B. McCully, “Towards a Theory of Poetic Change,”Language and Literature 12, no. 1 (2003): 11; quoting W. Sidney Allen, Accent and Rhythm: Prosodic Features of Latin and Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973), 339.

  • 34

    Derek Attridge, Well-weighed syllables: Elizabethan Verse in Classical Metres (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1974), 66; Philip Sidney, The Poems of Sir Philip Sydney, ed. William A. Ringler (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1962), 392.

  • 35

    Robert Wallace, “Meter In English,” in Meter in English: A Critical Engagement, ed. David Baker (Fayetteville: Univ. of Arkansas Press, 1996), 11; John Frederick Nims, “Our Many Meters: Strength in Diversity,” in Meter In English: A Critical Engagement, ed. David Baker (Fayetteville: Univ. of Arkansas Press, 1996), 176.

  • 36

    Columbia Encyclopedia, 5th ed., s.v. “versification.”

  • 37

    Quinn and O’Neill, Complete Poems and Stories, 1087; Stovall, Edgar Poe the Poet, 194.

  • 38

    Summerfield Baldwin, “The Æsthetic Theory of Edgar Poe,”Sewanee Review 26, no. 2 (1918): 220; Raymond Macdonald Alden, “The Time Element in English Verse,”Modern Language Notes 14, no. 8 (1899): 240.

  • 39

    Eaton, “Poe's Prosody,” 61; Stedman and Woodberry, Works, 6:xv.

  • 40

    Gösta Ekman, Birgitta Berglund, and Ulf Berglund, “Loudness as a Function of the Duration of Auditory Stimulation,”Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 7, no. 1 (1966): 201–8; Samuel Lifshitz, “Two Integral Laws of Sound Perception Relating Loudness and Apparent Duration of Sound Impulses,”Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 5, no. 1 (1933): 31–33.

  • 41

    H. Mol and E. M. Uhlenbeck, “The Linguistic Relevance of Intensity in Stress,”Lingua 5, no. 1 (1956): 205–13.

  • 42

    Dennis Butler Fry, “Experiments in the Perception of Stress,”Language and Speech 1, no. 2 (1958): 151.

  • 43

    Alice E. Turk and James R. Sawusch, “The Processing of Duration and Intensity Cues to Prominence,”Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 99, no. 6 (1996): 3789.

  • 44

    G. Kochanski, E. Grabe, J. Coleman, and B. Rosner, “Loudness Predicts Prominence: Fundamental Frequency Lends Little,”Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 118, no. 2 (2005): 1052.

  • 45

    Lanier, Science of English Verse, xiv; Omond, English Metrists, 140.

  • 46

    John Morton, Steve Marcus, and Clive Frankish, “Perceptual Centers (P-centers),”Psychological Review 83, no. 5 (1976): 405–8.

  • 47

    Eaton, “Poe's Prosody,” 61.

  • 48

    James Joseph Sylvester, The Laws of Verse; or, Principles of Versification Exemplified in Metrical Translations … (London: Longmans, Green, 1870), 63–71; Stovall, Edgar Poe the Poet, 194.

  • 49

    Kenneth A. Silverman, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), 142.

  • 50

    George Houle, Meter in Music, 1600–1800: Performance, Perception, and Notation (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1987), 65.

  • 51

    Anselm Bayly, The Alliance of Musick, Poetry and Oratory (London: Printed for John Stockdale, 1789), 91; Joshua Steele, Prosodia Rationalis: Or, an Essay towards Establishing the Melody and Measure of Speech, to Be Expressed and Perpetuated by Peculiar Symbols, 2nd ed. (London: J. Nichols, 1779), 6–16.

  • 52

    Stovall, Edgar Poe the Poet, 194; Gay W. Allen, American Prosody (New York: American Book Co., 1935), 58.

  • 53

    Yvor Winters, “Edgar Allan Poe: A Crisis in the History of American Obscurantism,”American Literature 8, no. 4 (1937): 393.

  • 54

    Allen, American Prosody, 59.

  • 55

    Paul C. Boomsliter, Warren Creel, and George S. Hastings Jr., “Perception and English Poetic Meter,”PMLA 88 (March 1973): 207.

  • 56

    Antonio Pamies Bertrán, “Prosodic Typology: On the Dichotomy between Stress-Timed and Syllable-Timed Languages,”Language Design 2 (1999): 125.

  • 57

    Ilse Lehiste, “Isochrony Reconsidered,”Journal of Phonetics 5, no. 3 (1977): 253.

  • 58

    Boomsliter, Creel, and Hastings, “Perception and English Poetic Meter,” 204.

  • 59

    Greenwood, “Rationale,” viii.

  • 60

    Werner, “Poe's Theories,” 162.

  • 61

    Neither system recognizes that all lines are equally four feet due to the presence of a silent foot, or pause, at the end of the second line.

  • 62

    Drury, Poetry Dictionary, s.v. “substitution.”