The Ghost of Meter

Finch applies metrical-code analysis to the works of three highly individualistic nineteenth century poets: Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Stephen Crane. She then treats T.S. Eliot, whose own theory and practice seem best aligned to Finch’s approach. The final chapter examines the work of two contemporary free verse poets: Charles Wright and Audre Lorde. Finch’s general interpretive line is that the emergence of a traditional, authority-laden metric, such as iambic pentameter, occurs in local situations where the poet’s attitude toward tradition and authority is also revealed. Thus, the ghost of meter is the ghost of the past and of hallowed poetic norms. For Dickinson, iambic pentameter may be connected with patriarchy and religious authority; for Whitman, it may be connected with poetic orthodoxy and England.

Finch presents most of her readings as if the metrical code was a tool being consciously manipulated by the poets. However, she can offer very little to substantiate such a position, which at worst seems like an obvious if new incarnation of the intentional fallacy. Yet dotted throughout Finch’s treatise are assertions that the metrical code is a viable analytic tool even if the poet employs it unconsciously.

Students of poetry may find Finch’s elaboration of her theory engaging and sprightly while not entirely convincing. If nothing else, she reminds us that traditional meters appear with unexpected frequency in the works of writers for whom certain aspects of tradition are thought to be anathema. And the reasons for and effects of these appearances need to be addressed. Still, for many, the old-fashioned notion of expressive variation (called in her study the iconic theory) will remain a far more congenial and flexible critical tool than the metrical code.