While tidying my study yesterday - yes, the annual clean-out has finally occurred - I found a note I'd made and lost some months ago of a superb quotation from 'On Poetry and Poets', a collection of essays by T.S. Eliot.
The quotation I'd noted down is from 'The Music of Poetry' (see how closely Paterson follows in the great man's footsteps?) and is relevant to me in connection with my last few posts on Alice Oswald and the writing of a long poem and on the structure of three modern epic poems. The following should serve rather well as a postscript to those entries:
'It would be a mistake, however, to assume that all poetry ought to be melodious, or that melody is more than one of the components of the music of words. Some poetry is meant to be sung; most poetry, in modern times, is meant to be spoken – and there are many other things to be spoken of besides the murmur of innumerable bees or the moan of doves in immemorial elms. Dissonance, even cacophony, has its place: just as, in a poem of any length, there must be transitions between passages of greater and less intensity, to give a rhythm of fluctuating emotion essential to the musical structure of the whole; and the passages of less intensity will be, in relation to the level on which the total poem operates, prosaic – so that, in the sense implied by that context, it may be said that no poet can write a poem of amplitude unless he is a master of the prosaic.'
Plus, the footnote accompanying that last point:
'This is the complementary doctrine to that of the 'touchstone' line or passage of Matthew Arnold: this test of the greatness of a poet is the way he writes his less intense, but structurally vital, matter.'
Now, you have to admire Eliot's mastery of prose - let alone the prosaic - in the passage I've just quoted. For a start, it's highly Latinate, in a way we rarely see anymore, not merely in his word selection, but more interestingly in his sentence structure, with its elegant asides, caveats and micro-clauses. But beyond that, his ability to make good solid sense, even with all that scaffolding in place, is what allows his criticism to stand out from other twentieth-century critics and to continue in its relevance to poets today.
This, of course, is the crux of that whole passage, at least for the purposes of my own earlier discussions on the writing of long or epic poems: in a poem of any length, there must be transitions between passages of greater and less intensity, to give a rhythm of fluctuating emotion essential to the musical structure of the whole ...
This seems to indicate that epic poetry follows the same pattern as other works of literature of any length - i.e. novels, theatrical dramas, screenplays - and that this is done, not simply to accommodate Eliot's nod to musical rhythm, though that is hugely important in the overall scheme, but also for our comfort as readers/listeners. Unending conflict and other excitements begin to be unpleasant, and eventually ludicrous, if suffered at length. (You often see impossibly manic sequences in comic films, for instance, to great effect.) So in a longer poem, a poet needs the quieter movements to recover from and prepare for the heights.
Assuming you have any heights, that is ...