The Modern Poetic Sequence

The idea is so simple, so close to being self-evident, that the authors seem almost embarrassed to set it forth as an original contribution to the criticism of modern poetry. It is an idea that has waited for them while other critics have asked and answered questions of far less relevance and promise. As soon as a student of poetry confronts this insight, this strangely new discovery, it seems like a thing known from the start. Rosenthal and Gall have announced that the poetic sequence is the major compositional style of the twentieth century. They have formulated it as the lyric poet’s answer to the range and vision of traditional longer poetic kinds: the narrative (epic, heroic), the dramatic, and the didactic. They are undoubtedly correct. That criticism has blinded itself to such a patently obvious truth says much about the distance of most criticism from the literature it feeds upon; after all, what is offered here is simply empirical evidence and common sense.

The poetic sequence, as the authors present it, is a group of relatively self-contained lyric compositions that are combined and ordered to create a coherent whole. The relationship of the separate poems, or units, to one another is not—or not primarily—causal or chronological or spatial, nor are these sequences to be thought of as anthologies or serial structures (as many Renaissance sonnet sequences are). The bonding element, in fact, has to do with the inherent affective and tonal features of lyrical poetry; tonal modulation and orchestration of feeling are the organizing impulses of these works. They are epics of the inner life in which association prevails over linear design. The poetic sequence has its cousin in visual art: the collage. Indeed, many of the major achievements in this newly named mode—for example, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922)—are usefully approached as tonal collages.

After Rosenthal and Gall define their province, the rest is historical tracing and demonstration of constant and variable elements within the sequence mode. The execution here is uneven in its interest and lucidity, partly because the authors’ survey is so comprehensive and partly because the prose style of this partnership does not always do justice to the material. Once the conceptual ball is set in motion, the game-playing is often tedious. Moreover, most students of poetry can do such work on their own once the ground rules are established. Still, this is an important book, rich in vision and common sense and eminently useful.

The Modern Poetic Sequence is divided into five parts and fifteen chapters; each of the chapters is further divided into subsections. The book has so many numbered units, so much exemplification of its key issues, so many associative links drawing together the works of diverse, idiosyncratic poets that it reads, after a while, like a version of its subject—like a modern critical sequence.

The initial part is called “The Rise of the Modern Sequence.” Its first chapter is given over to tentative definitions of “poetic sequence,” to explorations of lyric sensibility, and to examinations of William Shakespeare’s sonnets and key poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Because a play such as King Lear (1605) is more truly “a succession of variously charged affective units,” Rosenthal and Gall find it closer to the modern poetic sequence than the sonnets are. Tennyson’s Maud (1855), though subservient to dramatic plotting, is a structure whose affective dynamics are considered close to those of the modern sequence: “Maud is at the very meeting point of long poem and sequence.” The beast these critics are after hangs in between the series, in which each part is independent to the extent that mutual nourishment is minimal and the sum is mere addition, and the long poem, whose sections cannot be extracted without great risk to the equilibrium of the whole and to themselves.

The next two chapters present Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Emily Dickinson’s Fascicles as the true starting points of the modern sequence. Here, especially in the treatment of Whitman, is some of the book’s most exciting, most persuasive discussion. A forceful and evocative critical language is brought into play for the elucidation of Whitman’s text as an interplay of tones and emotional centers. The treatment of Dickinson’s Fascicles is more daring, more problematic, and somewhat less convincing. Still, as a tentative hypothesis, the analysis of these groupings as sequences adds to one’s appreciation of Dickinson’s odd and lonely art. There is a case to be made, one that is not even hinted at here, that the whole of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) in its various editions and arrangements is a looser, larger version of the structure of “Song of Myself”; Whitman’s continued use of this embracing title and his inclusive, democratic stance argue for such an understanding. Nevertheless, one should be thankful for what Rosenthal and Gall have provided: a pioneering account of the foundation of a modern genre—the modern genre.

In part 2, Rosenthal and Gall shift the scene to England, adducing as precursors of the modern sequence W. E. Henley’s In Hospital (1888) and A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896). The thing itself? None other than Thomas Hardy’s “Poems of 1912-13.” In examining these works, especially the last, the authors deepen the historical context and broaden the stream of approaches to the emerging lyrical sequence. Without shared...

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Choice. XX, June, 1983, p. 1458.

Christian Science Monitor. November 15, 1983, p. 25.

Harper’s. CCLXVII, September, 1983, p. 68.

Library Journal. CVIII, March 15, 1983, p. 586.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 10, 1983, p. 5.