10 I CHRONICLESnPERSPECTIVEnTHE PRICE OF FREE VERSE by Thomas FlemingnA post in our times,” wrote Thomas Love Peacock,niV “is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community.”nWhat Peacock meant by civilized community is not toonhard to guess: that rational, humane, progressive society ofnBritain and Northern Europe, which Peacock’s eccentricnfriends—Shelley, Coleridge, and Byron—all seemed bentnon destroying. Poets were barbaric, because they continuednto celebrate heroic violence and religious superstition in ansociety of steam locomotives and parliamentary commissions.nOf the barbarian qualities of verse. Peacock failed tonmention the most characteristic—rhythm. There may benpoetic traditions in which the regular alternation of strongnand weak elements played no part, but Peacock and hisnnnRomantic friends knew nothing of them. (Since much lyricnpoetry is actually song, even if a text appears to lack formalnrhythm, the song probably did not.) The quantitativenrhythms of Greek and Latin (relying on the oscillation ofnlong and short syllables) and the accentual rhythms ofnGermanic languages (including English), while they differnin so many respects that Nabokov thought it pointiess tonapply Greek terms like “iambic” to English verse, they stillnshare this one essential quality: the predictable rise and fallnof light and heavy, weak and strong that echoes the beat ofnour heart and the patterns of light and dark, cold and hot,nlife and death by which our existence is ordered.nAll savages and barbarians love to sing and dance,nincluding the savage children of our semicivilized race, andnthe Greeks did not clearly distinguish among the threenrhythmic arts of verse, dance, and song. Next to Homericnepic, the greatest of ancient poetry was designed as song andndance routines: the odes of Pindar and the great lyricnpassages of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.nWhen critics came to devise a language to describenpoetic rhythm, the words themselves had to be derived fromnthe terms used by dance-trainers and chorus masters. Wenstill speak of feet as well as arsis and thesis, usually withoutnany sense of the original connection.nIn civilized Athens, the most popular literary form maynhave been the dithyramb, an ode in honor of Dionysius thatnwas sung and danced by a chorus of 50 male citizens. Whatnsurvives of the Theban poet Pindar’s dithyramb for thenAthenians provides eloquent testimony to the powerfulnplace that such poetry had in the life of the city. Thenextravagant and passionate language—the ancient criticsncalled such a style “dithyrambic”—awakens echoes ofnearlier times when Greek religion bound its participants innthe barbaric ceremonies of blood. Some of the effect mayncome out in a modern “imitation” of two dithyrambicnfragments:nPindar in AthensnPindar called the gods down from Olympusnto sanctify his chorus in holy Athens—nwhere the city’s heart was mobbed and fuming with incense—nand join them there in the marketplace. Whatndid the poet offer them? Crowns twisted from violetsnand songs plucked from the Springtime as he went in a splendornof music that comes only from Zeus, up to the godnsprouting ivy, the thunder mortals interpret as shoutingnin our dazed blood: Dionysius; singing praises of the sonnof the highest father and Cadmus’ daughter.n