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Classical Reception Seminar Series

When May 31, 2018
from 05:15 PM to 07:00 PM
Where G.21
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Prof. Elizabeth Vandiver (Clement Biddle Penrose Professor of Latin and Classics, Whitman College, USA)

"The Best Greek Poets Used a Kind of Free Verse”:  The Imagists, Vers Libre, and Ancient Metrics

Abstract:

The use of vers libre was one of the hallmarks of Imagist poetry; one of the six principles of Imagism printed in the Preface to the 1915 anthology Some Imagist Poets (edited by Amy Lowell) said ‘We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea’. But alongside this insistence on the newness and individuality of vers libre, the most prominent Imagists—Ezra Pound, H. D., Richard Aldington, Amy Lowell, and F. S. Flint—all claimed that their own free verse was directly modelled on ancient poetry, especially on Sappho and the tragic choruses. These poets explicitly and repeatedly claimed that Greek lyric poets wrote ‘free verse’ and that scholars who had worked out scansions were deluded; Pound’s term for such scholarship was ‘conventional imbecility’. Yet the Imagists’ claim that their own free verse was based on ancient metre is (obviously) factually untrue; their vers libre had by definition no fixed number of syllables or stresses per line and clearly bears no resemblance to, e.g., the Sapphic strophe. This paper examines the contexts in which the Imagists made this strange claim, and tries to reconstruct what they may have meant by it, why they may have thought it true, and why they considered it important to claim an ancient pedigree for their own form of verse. 

 

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