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This article is taken from PN Review 53, Volume 13 Number 3, January - February 1987.

Snake's Tails C.B. McCully
 
In a recent set of reviews I suggested that convention and tradition are not necessarily restricting, and that an investigation into the inherited formality which constitutes a large part of English verse-writing must at some point pose the question why 'inherited forms' such as the Alliterative Style or the 'pentameter' lasted, or have continued to last, for so long.

Part of the answer to such a question rests on a socio-politicial argument: forms last because they are perceived to be 'Literary', sanctioned by recent or not-so-recent history, and validated by the means of literary production (editors, publishing houses, printers). Of course it is easy to see the persuasiveness of such an argument, but I wonder if it is not over-simple? Literary history is strewn with forms that did not catch on, such as quantitative metre, and the Hiawatha line (to name but two), and yet such forms were fairly sanctioned by courtly pedigree or bourgeois grandeur (Campion, Bridges), or by a wide readership (Longfellow) - which last must correlate in some way with 'the means of literary production'. This is not, certainly, a conclusive counter-argument, but it does make one suspicious; it is disconcerting to find that after the cultural transmission of 'the Literary' has been described, then the power of the same artefact remains to be explained. Recently I have suggested - very tentatively - that part of the power (the memorability, the intrinsic beauty) of certain verse traditions rests on their being exploitations of available ...


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