Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Novels in Verse

DAVID MASON'S LUDLOW has me thinking about novels in verse. Not the same thing as a book-length narrative poem, it seems fair to say--distinguishable from epic, obviously (my students often refer to the Odyssey as a novel, but I don't think that counts, as they also refer to HamletThe Future of an Illusion, and the Koran as novels), and from Jerusalem Delivered, Orlando Furioso, and so on .

Blake's Jerusalem? Book-length, yes, a narrative, I would say so, but not a novel, perhaps. To adopt a Rancièrean lens, the shift from epic to novel involved looking at events not because they were arguably more important and significant than most events (e.g., Paradise Lost, epics in general), but precisely because they were on an ordinary human scale, because they belonged to quotidian reality. Similarly, the personages need not be movers and shakers, heroes, leaders--better if they were not, actually, apart from the odd cameo, Napoleon in Balzac's Une Ténébreuse Affaire.

Accordingly, Mason's Ludlow seems like a novel because the characters are not John D. Rockefeller nor (except briefly) UMW leader John Lawson, nor governors nor presidents, but people at ground level, as it were. The attention to setting, to period detail, to the ordinary fabric of a day. is that of a novel.

Mason's afterword mounts a defense for writing novels in verse rather than prose, and it's a good one, but the undertaking seems nonetheless quixotic to me because, as far as I can tell, there is no built-in readership for novels in verse. None at all. I know people who gobbled up Vikram Seth's 1000+-page A Suitable Boy but would not even go near his novel-in-sonnets, Golden Gate.

For that matter, novels-in-verse have next to no profile in the history of literature. Not that people haven't written them, or haven't written good ones, but even the good ones haven't had much impact, so to speak.

Is there even one novel-in-verse that those who feel a commitment to literature (writers, traders, teachers) feel they really ought to read? I have read several worthwhile examples, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, her husband's The Ring and the Book, Brad Leithauser's Darlington Falls--I would even put in a good word for Stephen Vincent Benét's John Brown's Body. But I can't recall ever hearing someone say, "I have always wanted to get around to reading The Ring and the Book," as they might of The Divine Comedy or the Aeneid.

In sum: novels-in-verse have no canonical presence to speak of.

Why is that? It seems wrong, somehow.

I was able to think of a novel-in-verse that really ought to be canonical, though: Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. The depth of field and psychological acuity of a novel, the die-cut concision and verbal agility of a poem, and available in not one but two highly readable English translations. Eugene Onegin ought to be the novel-in-verse that everyone thinks they ought to read.

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