Letters – Issue 34

Syllables and stresses

In his review of my revised edition of Ursula Bothell: Collected Poems in the March 1998 issue of New Zealand Books, Hugh Roberts writes:

In the extended discussion of Bethell’s debt to Hopkins, … O’Sullivan asserts that Hopkins was responsible for taking English metre from being a matter primarily of accounting for syllables, to counting simply stresses.’ Such a blatant error would not have survived careful re-reading. For example, a line of anapaestic tetrameter (12 syllables with four stresses) has never been regarded as even remotely similar to an alexandrine (also 12 syllables, but six stresses). Syllabic verse is a purely modernist experiment.

It is good of Dr Roberts so patiently to explain metre to me, but might we bring to his own sentences that “careful re-reading” he considers the best way to avoid blatant error? I do not, to begin with, quite see the point of his pedagogical flourish about tetrameters and alexandrines. Whoever thought they were the same? But then I assume from the rather muffled logic of his argument that it has somehow to do with my remarking that Hopkins played such a part in taking English metre “from being a matter primarily of accounting for syllables, to counting simply stresses.” So may I take that phrase of mine, “primarily . . . accounting for syllables”? What, I wonder, is metre, if not accounting for which syllables are stressed, and which unstressed? Lesson one of any discussion of metre begins with that – the simple fact that what provides the regularity of most verse is how the poet arranges strongly, and less strongly, stressed syllables. One wonders why so elementary a fact makes Dr Roberts stamp his foot. What Hopkins did, and what many poets now do, was to distribute a fixed number of stresses to a line, but without fixing the position of those accented syllables as the patterned regularity of “traditional” verse tended to do. My point is precisely that made by Yeats, when the Irish poet takes issue with Hopkins. But I expect Dr Roberts is quite up to putting Yeats right on metre as well. As he himself goes on to write, “when so few people have any understanding of poetic metre … it is important to get these things right.” Indeed it is.

Dr Roberts also claims that I believe Bethell’s “October Morning” to be written in “conventional pentameter”, when so many of its lines do not measure up if you are the kind of reader, say, who cannot see that the iambic pentameter may continue to direct the rhythmic force of a poem, even though each line does not necessarily achieve the utter regularity preferred by those who seem to think a poem’s rhythmic pattern (as opposed to simply metre) is assessed by a metronome, or by chopping it out on one’s fingers. I’d have thought a reasonably alert reader might have taken this on board simply by considering the entire sentence that Dr Roberts does his plucking from, and taking it in the context of my discussion of Bethell’s gradual loosening of form: “In poems like ‘October Morning’ or ‘Summer Daybreak’ the conventional pentameter moves in a way that would not be likely without Hopkins’ tutelage.”

There is a point in his review when Dr Roberts, in full academic stride, asserts that while my edition will have to make do for the moment, “One day, no doubt, someone will bring out a Complete Bethell, which will include the unpublished poems which one assumes must exist in the correspondence.” A bit of a let-down, that “one assumes”, that “must exist”. Exist in which letters, might he tell us? In the letters so far available, there are a few quotations from poems that appear elsewhere, and a few light-hearted lines. Nothing more than that. A pretty vapid assumption, then, but one quite in proportion to the amount of knowledge behind it.

It also seems to irk Dr Roberts that I say so little that is “new” about Ursula Bethell’s relationship with her friend Effie Pollen. Much as he would like the goss on Bethell as “the pioneer-of-lesbian-literature”, he is obliged to accept that there isn’t much to go on, and yet implies that somehow I am responsible for not turning up the finger-lickin’-good snapshots he is after. The one and only reason I don’t say more is because I don’t know more. I doubt if anyone does. And it was not my job as editor, nor my inclination, to spin a yarn.

One final point, of the many that might be taken up. With an edition like the one under review, there will always be disagreement about what usefully might be annotated, and about what shades into mere pedantry. Dr Roberts for example knows lots about the iconography of the Raven, and has taken me to task for not displaying it, as he himself does so expansively, in annotating the line “I have a little Raven who brings me my dinner” in Bethell’s light, jokey poem “Grace”. One may offer too much or too little with annotation. My own preference is not to load a poem with notes for the sake of editorial flourish, although I might indeed have referred to a hint taken from Keats, as well as offering 1 Kings 17:6, as a more obvious allusion than the one Dr Roberts provides.

For several other matters of misrepresentation, I’m content to let a “careful re-reading” of the volume make its own response.

Vincent O’Sullivan


Paid companions and friends

I have recently read the review of Ursula Bethell’s Collected Poems in your March issue. I found it most offensive to read that “If a bit of lesbian street cred attracts a few more readers to Bethell’s poetry, then I’m all for it . . . ” Miss Bethell was very much of her class and generation. It does not seem to be understood that the women of that era would generally not have lived alone, and there were many single women as the result of the First World War. Miss Bethell had companions both before and after the time of Miss Pollen, but this paid companion was, Miss Bethell discovered, a beloved friend when she died. She told [my husband John Summers] of both her grief and guilt at not having taken the final illness seriously enough.

Seemingly a reserved woman, she was very ready with endearments, certainly in the letters she wrote to my husband both before and our marriage, and the use of them in some of the poems should not be misconstrued.

I write this letter because she was our friend.

Connie Summers


Hugh Roberts’ response: I am surprised by Professor O’Sullivan’s unnecessarily aggrieved response to my mostly positive review of his edition of Bethell’s poetry. I’m afraid I cannot agree with the specific complaints he raises. “Primarily accounting for syllables” cannot be made to mean “accounting for which syllables are stressed, and which unstressed” by mere fiat. Nor indeed would it entirely clear up the confusion if it could, as both the follower of Hopkins and the traditionalist must, strictly speaking, do this.

Traditional English metre requires equal attention to syllables and to stress (which is why it is sometimes called “stress and syllable metre”); sprung rhythm primarily requires attention to stress. That Professor O’Sullivan himself understands the difference between Hopkins’ sprung rhythm and traditional metre was never in question, unfortunately, he has expressed himself carelessly in this passage and consequently committed an error.

As for “October Morning” and its “conventional pentameter”, Professor O’Sullivan’s letter leaves me puzzled as to why he used the word “conventional” in the first place. But even if we assume that he intended to write “loose” or “approximate” pentameter, the description would still, unfortunately, be incorrect. Even without “chopping it out on one’s fingers” you can’t make a line like “And what, all white again? all white the long line of the mountains” into pentameter – conventional or otherwise.

With regard to future discoveries of unpublished Bethell poems: I did not mean this as a particular criticism of Professor O’Sullivan’s collection. We do not as yet possess a definitive collection of the works of such long-dead luminaries as Percy Bysshe Shelley or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, so it is only to be expected that there are as-yet-undiscovered works of Bethell’s. It is disconcerting, however, to learn that her editor has arbitrarily assumed that it is not worth expending the effort to find such works. Arbitrarily, and, as it happens, incorrectly:

at the time of writing the review I had two examples of unpublished poems from Bethell’s correspondence before me – one of which (“A Plaint from the Ewe-lamb”) will be included in the soon-to-be-published collection of New Zealand Comic and Satiric Verse of which I am co-editor.

Professor O’Sullivan has simply misunderstood my comments on “the pioneer-of-lesbian-literature angle”, which were a criticism of the (anonymous) writer of the backcover blurb, not of his entirely reasonable account of Bethell’s relationship with Effie Pollen. The backcover blurb gives a thumbnail sketch of this relationship and claims that the book contains new “discoveries and insights” into its nature. As this edition is a revised version of a collected Bethell published not too long ago, I thought it part of my duty as reviewer to point out to owners of the original edition that this claim to new “discoveries and insights” was false. In the absence of such new material, the only explanation for the decision to highlight Bethell’s relationship with Effie Pollen on the back cover seemed to me a questionable desire to give Ursula Bethell a measure of “lesbian chic”. I thought I had made it clear – but Professor O’Sullivan’s and Connie Summers’ letters show that I did not make it clear enough – that I considered these more sensationalist implications of the blurb to be overdrawn. That was what I meant when I wrote that “the pioneer-of-lesbian-literature angle proves to be somewhat chimerical”.

Professor O’Sullivan is quite right that “there will always be disagreement about what usefully might be annotated” – but he need not be so upset to have actually encountered some disagreement. On the other hand, if a dubious allusion to Exodus 28:34 in “Detail” is, in Professor O’Sullivan’s opinion, worth annotating, an unmistakable allusion to the same passage in “Grey Day” must also be. This is a matter of internal inconsistency, not of “different strokes for different folks”. As for “Grace”, my point was that when we understand the allusion, the poem becomes much more than “light” and “jokey”. An annotation that significantly alters our understanding of a poem is inherently more useful than one that merely notes a slight verbal similarity.

I am sorry to have occasioned Connie Summers any pain, and though I’m glad that it prompted her to give us this warm testament to Bethell’s admirable character. I hope that my explanation above has cleared up the misunderstanding. My (admittedly rather flippant) comment about “lesbian street-cred” was merely meant to suggest that anything that brings more readers to Bethell is a good thing. I agree entirely that we all too often impose anachronistic interpretations on past lives. Indeed, what interested me in the backcover blurb was that the publisher’s decision to single out Bethell’s relationship with Effie Pollen marks just such a dissonance between our current perceptions and preoccupations and those of the not-so-distant past. Bethell is too strong, both as a poet and a person, however, for any of our paltry misunderstandings to matter much. [Abridged]    

Hugh Roberts


Whereabouts no mystery

Bernard Carpinter concludes his review of two New Zealand “murder mysteries” by saying that “the Great Christchurch Mystery Novel remains to be written. Perhaps the city fathers [an interesting term, especially since the mayor is a woman] should offer Paul Thomas a grant to come and show them how it should be done. (New Zealand Books, issue 32)

Well, for my part, should I ever decide to write a murder mystery, I will be happy to kneel agog before Paul Thomas and scrabble for any pearls he casts my way. But no-one has to go to Christchurch to find me. I live in Wellington and would be happy to get together with Bernard to discuss the misperception of irony and black humour with such a penetrating analyst of fiction as himself.

Ray Prebble

Tagged with:
Posted in Letters
Search the archive
Search by category