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Binding the Muse

Sarah Skwire
If by dull rhymes our English must be chained,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fettered, in spite of painéd loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrained,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy;
Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gained
By ear industrious, and attention meet;
Misers of sound and syllable, no less
Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leaves in the bay-wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
She will be bound with garlands of her own.
— John Keats, “On the Sonnet,” 1819

In the poem above, John Keats tangles with the troubled relationship that poetry has long had with the idea of rules. The strictures of formal verse are an important part of the history and traditions of poetry and serve to convey a powerful music. But those same strictures can feel a lot like handcuffs from time to time. This means that there is a long tradition of poets like Pulitzer Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz arguing that formal verse disrupts the connection between the poem and its meaning: “Form cannot be first if you want to reach high artistic levels, since you are then bound by form, and that form is very often a betrayal of reality. It cannot grasp reality.” 

And there is an equally long tradition of poets on the other side of the argument. John Ciardi told the story of Robert Frost lecturing about “how he used slant rhyme, hendecasyllables, and other things like that. One lady, an appreciator of the arts, greatly agitated, stood up and said, ‘Surely Mr. Frost, when you write your bee-youu-teee-ful poems, you don't think of these technical tricks,’ with the last two words, ‘technical tricks,’ spat out distastefully. Frost stood back, thought a moment, and then in the microphone said, ‘I revel in 'em!!’”

Because the sonnet is one of the more restrictive verse forms, it’s a particularly good vehicle for Keats to use for thinking about poetic rules. I’m going to resist the temptation to go all English professor here and take the sonnet apart thoroughly. Instead, I’ll simply note that while Keats adheres carefully to the rule that defines a sonnet as 14 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter, he plays some very clever games about the way he uses rhymes in the sonnet. Starting with his third line, he defies the rhyme schemes established by Petrarch and Shakespeare, making clear in the form of his verse what he wants to say with its content. He argues that, if the English sonnet has to rhyme (and blank verse poets since Shakespeare and Milton had skillfully resisted the insistence that real poetry has to rhyme), it should not be forced to follow antiquated and restrictive rhyme schemes established hundreds of years earlier. These are “dead leaves in the bay leaf crown” that honors poets. A poet who is truly worthy of honor, he argues, will examine each stress and each rhyme to see which truly fits the “naked foot” of the poem. Modern poetry—and when Keats was writing, his poetry was defiantly, even shockingly modern—should be flexible, and it should be self-aware.

But there is more going on here than some poetic inside baseball, nifty though that is. Those of us who are interested in the useful distinction Hayek draws between cosmos and taxis—the grown order and the made order—are going to want to pay particular attention to Keats’s final two lines.

So, if we may not let the Muse be free,

She will be bound with garlands of her own.

If we must have poetic form, he argues, let it be a form that is dictated by the nature of the poem itself and by the poet who is creating it, and not by the dead hand of the past.

The rules that Keats wants for poetry are like the Law Merchant described by Paul Milgrom, Douglass North, and Barry Weingast in their paper “The Role of Institutions in the Revival of Trade.” They point out, “At that time, without the benefit of state enforcement of contracts or an established body of commercial law, merchants evolved their own private code of laws (the Law Merchant) with disputes adjudicated by a judge who might be a local official or a private merchant.” A set of rules and laws that emerges from the community that needs them and uses them in order to assess the practices of that community—that’s a fairly good description of the rules that tell poets what makes a sonnet a sonnet. 

Milgrom, North, and Weingast also emphasize the complexity of these emergent rules. “The practice and evolution of the Law Merchant in medieval Europe was so rich and varied that no single model can hope to capture all the relevant variations and details.” Again, one thinks of poetry, and the endless opportunities for creating something wholly new by using (or breaking) the rules in an innovative way. If the experiment is a success, we get a whole new poetic form.

An equally useful parallel here is the distinction that Vernon Smith draws between constructivist rationality and ecological rationality in his book Rationality in Economics. He observes that constructivist rationality is “the deliberate design of rule systems to achieve desirable performance.” (A sonnet must be 14 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter. The rhymes must be put in certain acceptable patterns, preferably Shakespearean or Petrarchan.) Ecological rationality, however, is “emergent order in the form of the practices, norms, and evolving institutional rules governing actions by individuals” (What happens if I rhyme it like this instead?). It is the interplay between these two kinds of rationality where poetry happens. It is this interplay that allows for the creation of whimsically diabolical verse forms like the double dactyl—constructed intentionally to be challenging to compose and funny to read—and it is the feedback mechanism of the market of readers and writers that determines whether such experiments in poetry will live or die. As Smith notes, these concepts do not need to be in conflict. They can work together to create a tradition that remains a tradition but never loses its ability to change and to evolve.

That tradition is the poetic tradition, and it is the human tradition, and it is the tradition of freedom.