Metrical Art in The Poem Christabel

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      When Scott hear Sir John Stoddart recite, Coleridge's yet unpublished Christabel, he is at once struck by the metre and is so haunted by its rhythm that he tries to adopt it for his 'Lay of the Last Minstrel'. The metrical system is in some sense original, and Coleridge took some points to explain it "I have only to add", he writes in his Preface "that the metre of Christabel is not, properly speaking, irregular, though it may seem so from its being founded on a new principle: that of counting in each line the accents, not the syllables. Though the latter may vary from seven to twelve, yet in each line the accent will be found to be only four. Nevertheless, this occasional variation in the number of syllables is not introduced want only, or for the mere ends of convenience, but in correspondence with some transition in the nature of the imagery of passion."

      There are two things to he noted in this metre-first, the number of syllables in each line varies on a very large scale, i.e., from seven to twelve; and secondly, "the light, ample cadence of the anapaest is introduces with delicate felicity among the shorter measures." It has been said that in none of these characteristics can Coleridge claim any originality for the principle of counting the accents and not the syllables is taken to be a revival of the Anglo-Saxon four-stress line with two half lines of two stresses each. But the analogy is more apparent than real, for the essence of the Anglo-Saxon metre is its scansion on alliterative principle quite as much as on accentual.

      As regains the anapaestic bias, it is true that eighteenth-century poets has used it but always with a jocular or satirical effect. "Only Chatterton and Blake", says Herford, "had at moments elicited the melodies which Coleridge elicited from it, but neither approached his range."

      An analysis of Coleridge's lines will reveal the subtleties of his metre which none really has been able to recapture. Take the following lines:

There is not wind enough to twirl
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance is can,
Hanging so light and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.

      The slow iambics in the first line suggest a quiet night. The second is even more drowsy. The spondee, 'red leaf', makes the movement slow and halts the fine. The concluding anapaest - "of its clan" — suddenly accelerates the movement, which is carried on to the liveliness. The fourth line is more rapid still, and in the fifth the iambics and three anapaests correspond to the idea of restless movement.

      Coleridge shows poetic power of the first rank in making a trochee take the place of an iambic, e.g., "Mary/mother/save me/now", "Off, woman; off! this hour is mine." It is only poets like Milton or Coleridge who can be trusted to modulate irregular verse and to make such irregularities an aid to emotional expression.

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