Fabliau of Florida (Wallace Stevens)

In The Book of Forms—which, when I was teaching myself the rudiments of meter, was perhaps the most helpful source I encountered—Lewis Turco includes a few “rules of scansion in English” (p. 19). Here is one of the rules:

In any series of three unstressed syllables in a line of verse, one of them, generally the middle syllable, will take a secondary stress through promotion and will be counted as a stressed syllable.

There is a corresponding rule for three stressed syllables in a row: one of them will fail to take a stress. Turco calls these “rules of thumb,” an appropriate designation since they have exceptions. The famous exception to the rule for stressed syllables is Tennyson’s Break, Break, Break. The heavy pauses between each “break” allow each stress to emerge fully, without the middle being demoted.

Can something similar happen with the rule against three consecutive unstressed syllables? It can. The poem Fabliau of Florida by Wallace Stevens is a nice illustration:

Fabliau of Florida

Barque of phosphor
On the palmy beach,

Move outward into heaven,
Into the alabasters
And night blues.

Foam and cloud are one.
Sultry moon-monsters
Are dissolving.

Fill your black hull
With white moonlight.

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

The lines range from monometer (are dissolving) to trimeter (foam and cloud are one), though many lines can be scanned in multiple ways, depending on just how heavy the stress is. For this particular poem, I prefer to count only the heaviest, clearest stresses, for reasons detailed below.

The lines I am most interested in are the last two lines. To satisfy the rule forbidding three consecutive unstressed syllables, the lines must be scanned as being at least trimeter:

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

—and perhaps even as tetrameter:

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

But both of these ways of scanning the line fundamentally mishear it, and miss the rhythm of the poem. Let us drop immediately the fantasy of stressing the first syllable of each line: they both clearly open with anapests (there will nev-; to this dron-). The entire poem is lightfooted, giving each stress space to breathe, except where it takes a heavier hand for a specific, local effect: “fill your black hull / with white moonlight.”

The only real question concerns “be” and “of”, syllables that are naturally unstressed, but which seem to be likely candidates for promotion as the middle occupants of a string of three unstressed syllables. Read the lines aloud, however, and listen. Each falls into two natural units:

There will never | be an end
To this droning | of the surf.

Both “be an end” and “of the surf” are natural anapests, and this comes out in reading the line. The key is that, in reading the lines, there is the slightest of pauses where I have placed the “|”. That pause eliminates the need to stress “be” and “of”. Thus the proper scansion is (with the vertical bar now indicating a break between feet):

There will never | be an end
To this droning | of the surf.

Both lines are anapestic dimeter, with the first anapest of each line containing what might be called a mid-line feminine ending. This is the only reading of the lines that does justice to their lightness.

Why insist on this? It reveals a more general point about meter. While there is a clear distinction between heavy stresses and the complete absence of stress, there is a whole range of intermediates whose proper treatment is less clear. A system of meter should introduce some ordered way of approaching them. That is what Turco’s rules do, and they do it ably, in a way that works for the majority of metrical English language poems. But there is nothing inherent in the language that requires that syllables that take a light stress count toward a line’s stress count. It really depends on the sort of regularity one is trying to create. Stevens, in Fabliau of Florida, was writing in a loose, light meter where it is only appropriate to emphasize the heavier stresses, and that creates a context in which the very slight stresses placed on “be” and “of” should not be counted as proper stresses.

In the end, the ear is the supreme judge, and will tolerate system only so far.

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Parry

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