Shakespeare Electronic Conference, SHK 7.0771. Monday, 28 October 1996.
Date: Sunday, 27 Oct 1996 23:46:09 -0500
Subject: Re: Politics
Thomas Bishop writes
>The fact that English uses phonemic stress whereas
>French does not, or that languages that shift stress
>routinely onto first syllables tend to develop alliterative
>meters, or even that all known human societies practise
>the composition and exchange of narratives: these are
>not in any useful sense "political" facts by themselves.
Umm, well....actually, all these facts *were* political, and useful, in the
sixteenth century. Take Sidney's *Defence*, for example. He wonders whether a
good English poetry should use quantitative or accentual-syllabic meter. This
isn't just an academic or purely aesthetic question for him, but part of the
larger question: what should English national culture look like? What should
England, as a political entity, be and mean? The question of a fit English
meter gets taken up and argued out after Sidney by Campion (who disdains rhyme)
and Daniel (who favors it). Daniel has to defend rhyme against the accusation
that it enforces a tyrannical governance on poetry. It's quite easy to see a
homology between Daniel's defence of rhyme and royalist arguments against
Puritans. I'd argue that it's more than a homology.
Nowadays we simply can't figure out how the meter is supposed to work in
Sidney's quantitative poems in the *Arcadia* or in Campion. Accentual-syllabic
metrical analysis, on the other hand, is regularly taught in Intro to Lit
classes--hell, even I teach it, and my colleagues regard me as a diehard
reactionary, or else a quaint fuddy-duddy, in consequence. It's so completely
naturalized by now that we can't even imagine the alternative. An English poem
in *sapphics*? Good God! But dactylic tetrameter; ah, that makes perfect sense.
But in teaching accentual-syllabic meter as an intrinsic part of poetic
language, an aesthetic fact meaningful in itself, we dehistoricize it and
situate it in a realm of value-neutrality. The classic strategy of political
hegemony is to dehistoricize ideologically constructed positions and claim
value-neutrality for them. Prosody doesn't lack political resonance; we've lost
the ability to think about prosody politically. Now there's a fact.
I've not tackled the "all human societies practice...narratives" argument here,
but as I've argued elsewhere (I've always wanted to say that! I've never
footnoted myself before!), Sidney talks about that in an explicitly political
As for Bill Godshalk's "everything isn't political--it's sexual," what's the
difference? I thought feminists and queer theorists had amply demonstrated that
the sexual was the political. And our prurient interest in Bill Clinton's
extramarital affairs and John-John's wedding suggests that the reverse is true
Of course, just to assert that everything is political or sexual or prosodical
or whatever begs the "so what" question. Anapestic hexameters, with or without
caesurae, with or without catalexis, with or without spondaic variations, are
political. And sexy. So what? Ah, now the argument begins....and like jesting
Pilate, I'll ask the question but won't stay for an answer.