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Anti-Colonial Metrics: Homeric Time in an Indian Prison, ca. 1909
graphic scansion of lines of poetry

and have sufficient leisure and equanimity of mind to analyse the rhythm of this exhortation, you will find yourself in the presence of an excited double iamb followed by a vehement antispast, and can then conscientiously determine the rhythm of your own answer.

Aurobindo Ghose, On Quantitative Meter

Recent scholarship on Victorian poetry has drawn attention to the social meanings of meter, especially as a symbol of English national culture. Meredith Martin, Yopie Prins, and others have illumined how nineteenth and early twentieth century English poets used metrical selection as well as content to perform competing patriotic ideologies. Matthew Arnold (1822–88), to give a key example to be addressed below, promoted English literature pedagogy to civilize the nation’s restive working-classes, and Homeric hexameters as an ideal for a renewed English cultural identity. With the rise of modernist poetry, Arnold’s metrical politics failed but we should not, as Martin has compellingly argued, accept the conventional evolutionary narrative of English meter from a world of regulated Victorian verse to the more metrically emancipated poetry associated with progress, expansion, and the welfare state.[1] Instead, a project of “critical prosody” should re-embed poetic form in the historical politics of meaning. It should show how meter meant different things to different communities in a longer metrical discourse.

This essay looks at the significance of Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950) [Sri Aurobindo] within just such a historicist project of critical prosody. Despite Ghose’s nearly 5,000-line hexameter epic on the fall of Troy (Ilion: An Epic in Quantitative Hexameters), and his critical studies of meter in The Future Poetry and On Quantitative Meter, notice of his work is missing from even the most exhaustive histories of English meter and compendia of Homeric translations. Ghose was educated in England and read Classics at Cambridge, but he remains familiar largely to scholars of Indian history and literature as a revolutionary for Indian self-rule who became “India’s first modern guru,” and whose prolific writings include an over 23,000-line, Mahabharata-inspired English epic, Savitri.[2] Ghose began orally composing his hexameter Ilion while incarcerated in Alipore Jail, Calcutta, on the charge of conspiracy to wage war against the government of British India. As postcolonial scholars Leela Gandhi and Srinivas Aravamudan have shown, Ghose's subsequent scholarly, poetic, and spiritual practices introduced a radically cosmopolitan, nonsecular, notion of the political.[3] By situating Ghose's Ilion within Victorian debates over meter, I elaborate an aesthetic dimension of this politics. At the same time, to "determine the rhythm" of Ghose's answer to the threat of colonial violence, I seek out an enlarged history of Victorian meter that takes into greater account the contrapuntal metrics of colony and metropole.


Two disciplinary developments frame the Victorian controversies over meter: the nineteenth century prestige of Classics, and late emergence of English as the poor man’s Classics. English literary studies did not arrive in England until after Lord Macaulay’s 1835 Minute on Indian Education had already institutionalized English in India. Classical education, largely restricted to boys’ public schools and universities, served as a marker of status and a resource for self-recognition amongst noble-bourgeois groups, and a central nineteenth-century debate concerned whether and how to translate classical meters into English.[4] Before turning to this debate, it is critical to note that Macaulay’s Minute did not introduce Classics into India, but that Greek and Latin were nevertheless part of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) exams to which any Indian, theoretically, could apply. “What the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of [sixteenth-century] More and Ascham,” his Minute asserted, “our tongue is to the people of India. The literature of England is now more valuable than that of classical antiquity.”[5] Ghose was one of the few nineteenth-century Indians to be educated from an early age in England, and his relation to Greek needs to be situated in this disciplinary background of Victorian Classics to clarify his relation to English meter.

The story of Ghose’s Greek begins with his father’s dreams that his three sons enter the Indian Civil Service. After the ICS was opened in 1855 to any successful examination candidate under twenty-five, it represented the highest paying profession available to Indians at that time. Satyendranath Tagore, the elder brother of Rabindranath Tagore, became the first Indian to pass the exam in 1864. After this, the British educators and officials who set the annual London exam began to experiment with the entrance requirements precisely to restrict the number of successful Indian applicants. As Phiroze Vasunia has recently demonstrated, increasing the weight given to Greek and Latin papers became one solution to “the official desire to keep the Indian Civil Service largely free of Indians themselves.”[6] Since Greek and Latin were not taught in Indian schools and were best taught in elite British universities, Macaulay, Benjamin Jowett, and others sought both to fashion the ICS into a new vocation for Oxbridge Classicists and to regulate the social backgrounds of new “gentlemen” civil servants of the empire. To minimize the number of Indians in the ICS, they refused to hold a simultaneous examination in India, refused to replace the Greek and Latin requirement with Sanskrit for Indian applicants, and in 1875 lowered the maximum age of application to nineteen. It was directly in response to these measures that Dr. Krishna Dhan Ghose took the unusual step of sending his three sons in 1879 to be educated in England to receive the proper training for the ICS exam.

Aurobindo Ghose devoted himself to the field that served to exclude Indians from the ICS. From St. Paul’s School in London he won a scholarship to read Classics at King’s College, Cambridge (with the “best papers” the examiner had seen).[7] In the two years that he could financially afford to stay in England, he passed the Cambridge Classics Tripos Part 1 exam and won university prizes for best composition in Greek iambics (twice) and for composition in Latin hexameters. When he sat the open ICS exams in 1892 he came first in Greek (with “record marks”) and second in Latin.[8] Charles Porten Beachcroft, who later served as judge for Ghose’s trial at Alipore, had been an ICS classmate of Ghose. He had come second in Greek after Ghose that year. The circuitous path by which Ghose ended up a defendant, rather than a judge like his ICS classmate, began with Ghose’s early decision to defy his father’s wishes that he enter the Indian Civil Service. Despite his flying colors in the written exams, he failed the riding test required of successful applicants, first by falling off his horse, and then by not showing up to his re-test.[9] He therefore arrived in India in 1893 to assume an administrative position in relative obscurity, and not as a celebrated member of the Indian Civil Service. When Ghose composed his hexameter Ilion, during and after the year he spent in solitary confinement in Alipore Jail, the theolinguistic register and literary discourse of what Aravamudam calls “Guru English” was refracted through an idiom of Victorian Classics.


By most accounts, English national identity was at stake in Victorian debates over meter. Given Classics’ disciplinary prestige, the longstanding question of how to translate classical meters into English became critical to competing ideologies of English national culture. A debate on the translation of Homer between Matthew Arnold and F. W. Newman was central to this metrical history to which Ghose also belongs.[10] Briefly put, Newman, a Classics professor at London University, had in 1856 published a translation of the Iliad that deliberately sought to “antiquate” Homer through his choice of balladic meter and archaic Saxo-Norman language.[11] Arnold, on becoming Professor of Poetry at Oxford, devoted three lectures to attacking Newman, and then a fourth to rebut Newman’s angry response. Arnold argued that the future of English poetry—as well as of translating Homer—lay in translating Homeric hexameter into English hexameter.[12] Recent critics have interpreted the Arnold-Newman debate in different ways. Lawrence Venuti argues that Newman’s “foreignizing translation” in using popular forms actually presented a more democratic cultural politics than Arnold’s elitist mode of “domesticating translation.”[13] By contrast, Yopie Prins has argued that Arnold’s hexameters were “an instrument of defamiliarization” and not simply of bolstering bourgeois moral values for England.[14] Prins uncovers a broader Victorian alarm over the “foreignness” of hexameters against which Arnold’s manifesto for English hexameters militated. Meredith Martin traces the transformation of this more complex dream of metrical cultural identity through to what she calls the “military-metrical complex” of early twentieth-century England’s state-funded educational institutions and soldier-poets.[15] In tracing the Arnoldian debate to British India, I highlight its broader ethnographic discourse of meter.

Arnold and Newman grounded their visions of English metrical identity in oppositional evaluations of Homer’s civilizational status. Newman, a former missionary and the brother of Cardinal Newman, clarifies that “Christian Europe” was several developmental stages beyond Homer. Homer was “the poet of a barbarian age,” whose “barbaric puerilities and eccentricities” and “absurd religion” needed to be represented as such.[16] As a translator he sought “to retain every peculiarity of the original . . . the more foreign it may happen to be,—whether it be matter of taste, of intellect, or of morals.”[17] As Ghose would later note, Alfred Tennyson’s “On Translations of Homer” (1863) championed Newman’s theme, damning the “Barbarous experiment, barbarous hexameters.”[18] Newman offers his Iliad for his “countrymen” to “feed on the instruction which its contrast to ourselves suggests.”[19] He insists on a “moral” principle of meter: the English balladic meters that are “fundamentally musical and popular” but “liable to degenerate into doggerel” match the (low) moral style of Homeric epic that he chooses.[20] To malign the morality of hexameter, his metrical ethnography aligns Homer with contemporary foreigners: “[I]f Homer could sing his lines to us” they would initially entertain like a “simple melody from an African of the Gold Coast” before “we should complain of meagreness, sameness, and loss of moral expression; and should judge the style to be as inferior to our own oratorical metres” (his emphasis).[21] When a “native Maygar” read to Newman a Hungarian poem in quantitative meter, “He had not finished a single page, before I complained gravely of the monotony.”[22] With this same logic, Newman embraces the (prescient) observation of a Professor of Sanskrit that “the epithet cow-eyed of the Homeric Juno is an echo of the Hindoo poets,” arguing that “[m]any of [Homer’s] wild legends came from Asia.”[23] Indo-European parallels between Sanskrit and Homeric epic provide for him proof of the uncultivated status of the latter.

Arnold accepted the moral dimension of meter, but satirized Newman’s ethnographic framework. “On Translating Homer” begins by observing the decline of Classics and the prospect of a new generation who will encounter Homer only in English translation. To rescue English poetry and English national culture from the benighted state in which he finds it, Arnold here and in his later writings champions Homer (“the most important poetical monument existing”), Greek poetry (as an early step towards the pursuit of “sweetness and light”), and the force of Hellenism (“the effort to see things as they really are”).[24] Against Newman, he argues that the Homeric hexameter “has a natural dignity” that the translator “cannot too religiously follow.”[25] His call to translate Homer into English hexameters upends Newman’s civilizational hierarchy between Greece and England.

Only, the poet who would reproduce this must cultivate in himself a Greek virtue by no means common among the moderns in general, and the English in particular—moderation. For Homer has not only the English vigour, he has the Greek grace; and when one observes the boisterous, rollicking way, in which his English admirers . . . love to talk of Homer and his poetry, one cannot help feeling that there is no very deep community of nature between them and the object of their enthusiasm. “It is very well, my good friends,” I always imagine Homer saying to them, if he could hear them: “you do me a great deal of honour, but somehow or other you praise me too like barbarians.” For Homer’s grandeur is not the mixed and turbid grandeur of the great poets of the north, of the authors of Othello and Faust; it is a perfect, a lovely grandeur. Certainly his poetry has all the energy and power of the poetry of our ruder climates; but it has, besides, the pure lines of an Ionian horizon, the liquid clearness of an Ionian sky.[26]

Arnold would later satirize England as a society of barbarians (aristocrats), philistines (middle classes), and populace (working classes). Here, however, Homer’s translators occupy the position of barbarians.[27] The “boisterous, rollicking” English lack the Greek virtues of moderation and grace; their “turbid,” “ruder” environments fall short of the “perfect . . . grandeur,” “pure lines” and “liquid clearness of an Ionian sky.” In a similar vein, Arnold compares Homer to The Lays of Ancient Rome by Macaulay. He pronounces the latter “hard to read without a cry of pain” and the former of “an incomparably more developed spiritual and intellectual order.”[28]

For Arnold, the English dislike of the hexameter is symptomatic of England’s parochialism (“insular ferocity”) toward the ancient and modern world. Opening “the English ear” to Homer’s foreign rhythm promised an improving effect upon “us moderns.”[29] To do so, Arnold sought to develop English hexameter poetry, which “for the English ear [has] a certain correspondence with the Homeric hexameter.”[30] Modern German translators were leading the way in this project. Arnold invokes Johann Heinrich Voss, who had translated the entire Iliad and the Odyssey into German hexameters a half-century earlier, a feat hitherto only accomplished piecemeal by English translators. Arnold argues the potential superiority of an English translation because the “rapidity and decisiveness” of Latinate English gives it a greater “sympathy” with Greek than “heavy and trailing” German.[31] Although “the hexameter is . . . still unfamiliar in England,” he argues that it will inspire the translator, regulate a plain, natural, and noble grammar, and perfectly accommodate the modernising Latinate English that Newman’s Anglo-Norman language had avoided.[32] Newman’s references to non-English poetry and cultures were consistently negative. By contrast, Arnold ends his lectures by asserting the superiority of French and German literatures over English. Proper translation of Homer demanded the “simple lucidity of mind” that French and Germans valued but that third-rate England did not.[33] To improve English poetry and thereby English culture, the English needed to follow their continental peers in embracing “criticism.” Arnold’s subsequent “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1865) took the controversy over Homeric translation as the departure point for his famous explication of criticism as “a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.”[34]

Ghose admired Arnold’s poetry and critique of England but rejected his poetic “criticism of life” as insufficiently spiritual.[35] Like Arnold and Newman, Ghose understood that meters had a moral resonance. The Homeric hexameter embodied certain culturally-inscribed values that were still “foreign” to England, and like Arnold (but not Newman), Ghose found in that foreign meter something worth creatively recovering for modern poetry and culture. If Arnold’s “On Translating Homer” provided the manifesto for the English hexameter, Ghose’s On Quantitative Meter provided the practical manual, and his Ilion exemplary illustrations for that practicum. Ghose did not, however, subscribe to Arnold’s broader program for English poetry and culture. For Arnold, the Homeric hexameter was an index of the poetic and cultural tendencies that he sought for England. English poetry needed the Greek hexameter because Homer was “the most important poetical monument existing”; because the future of poetry lay in the application of “the great masters . . . as a touchstone to other poetry”; and because an overly “Hebraic” middle-class England (too strict of conscience and fixed on existing laws) needed the “Hellenic” spontaneity of conscience and ability to see things “as they really are.”[36] He values the hexameter as a kind of metrical bridge across which a third-rate English poetry and culture could critically progress towards a more “Hellenic” future.

The Homeric hexameter essentially served as an index of ancient Greek culture in the Arnold-Newman debate. Newman sought to protect the Christian English reader from the rhythm of Greek semi-barbarism; Arnold, in reaction, heard in the hexameter the “the liquid clearness of the Ionian sky.” For Ghose, however, the hexameter did not represent an idealized Greece. Although On Quantitative Meter iterated Arnold’s argument that English poetry could benefit from the Homeric hexameter, it did not do so because of Homeric Greece’s intrinsic virtues. If Arnold and Newman had quarreled over the hierarchy of Greece and England, Ghose confronted a more complex set of classicisms in British India. British colonial officials, Indian anti-colonial nationalists, and European comparative philologists elaborated competing ways of narrating and structuring the cultural matrix of ancient Greece, ancient India, modern England, and British India. Before exploring Ghose’s metrical discourse, the next section locates Ghose’s approach to Greco-Roman antiquity within this broader tropology of classicisms.[37]


After his return to India in 1896, Ghose self-consciously contributed to the nineteenth-century modernizing “Bengal Renaissance.” He took up its indigenizing call for “[t]he return of India to her eternal self, the restoration of her splendor, greatness, triumphant Asiatic supremacy” as “the ideal of Nationalism,” and for the “strenuous reassertion of all that is noble and puissant in the blood it draws from such an heroic ancestry as no other nation can boast.”[38] Rather than wholly renouncing Greece and Rome in favor of indigenous classicism, however, Ghose continued to reexamine and reappropriate aspects of Victorian classicism. His radical journalism from the period immediately leading up to his incarceration sheds some light on the Homeric theme of Ilion: An Epic in Quantitative Hexameters. After Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal in 1905 in order to “split up and thereby weaken a solid body of opponents to our rule,” Ghose moved from provincial Baroda to the political spotlight in Calcutta. Between 1906 and his arrest in 1908, he devoted himself to a revolutionary struggle for Indian self-rule. In opposition to the reformist Congress, he promoted both passive resistance and armed revolt. He served as one of the main authors of the radical news journal Bande Mataram, within whose articles and manifestos Greece and Rome held a prominent position.

The dozen or so discussions of Greece and Rome in Bande Mataram do not simply function as a marker of the erudition or class background of its editors. They also make explicit the politics of classical reference. Macaulay’s popular Lays of Ancient Rome, so reviled by Arnold, exemplified the colonial dimension of Victorian classicism with which Ghose and others engaged. Colonial classicism was essentially structured around the identification of British administrators with the Alexandrian and Roman imperial rulers of India. “I amused myself in India with trying to restore” poems about the founders of Rome, Macaulay explained.[39] His ballads celebrated the emergence of a Roman imperial self and its triumph in majesty over the Hellenic empires it simultaneously sought to emulate. This romance was understood to be a metaphor for British imperial rule in India and its superseding, in turn, of the Roman template. His anthology ends with a ballad that celebrates with imperial spoils that include “The belts set thick with starry gem/ That shone on Indian kings.”[40]

The Bande Mataram’s classicism was strategic rather than constructive. It variously deployed and critiqued the romantic modes through which both British colonials and Bengali reformists represented their actions through recourse to Greco-Roman antiquity. In a debate spanning several issues, Ghose rejected the proposal that the Greek system of city-states could ever serve as a political model for a unified Indian nation (BM, 7:908). Although he consistently championed the Greek ideals of democracy and freedom, he did not conflate these specific ideas with a classical cultural unity. The relation of post-classical Greece to Rome served as a warning.

If [India] is to model herself on the Anglo-Saxon type she must first kill everything in her which is her own. If she is to be a province of the British Empire, part of its life, sharing its institutions, governed by its policy, the fate of Greece under Roman dominion will surely be hers. (BM, 7:1084–88)

Ghose condemned “anglicized Bengalis” for leading “a nation of Greeks with polished intellects and debased souls, body and soul helplessly at the mercy of alien masters” (BM, 7:37). Ghose cited Arnold when mocking the Bengali reformists’ promotion of English Liberty, but rejected Arnold’s ideal of Hellenism. Lord Curzon’s division of Bengali Hindus and Muslims had led to a popular swadeshi movement to boycott British goods, and Ghose applauded “the obscure villages and towns of East Bengal” that had “flung aside the devices of the Greek and took on herself the majesty of Roman strength and valour” (BM, 7:892). Ghose’s point was not to remap India onto the Romans but, again, to trouble the colonial mode of classical identification. He represented Alexander the Great’s much-celebrated conquests of Asia as the introduction of “absolutism” into India, and British imperial rule in a similar vein (BM, 7:945).[41]

The Greek ideas of freedom and democracy had penetrated the European mind and created the great impulse of democratic Nationalism which dominated Europe in the nineteenth century. . . . Imperialism had to justify itself to this modern sentiment and could only do so by pretending to be a trustee of liberty, commissioned from on high to civilise the uncivilized. (BM, 6:362)

One effect of Ghose’s revolutionary writings, then, was to clarify the politics of the classical idiom in British India. Classical reference was not a mere trapping of political discourse but rather, as he later elaborated, part of more insidious philological arguments concerning race, nation, language, and religion. His anticolonial manifesto, “The Doctrine of Passive Resistance” (1907), foreshadowed Ilion’s Homeric plot, proclaiming: “Our attitude to bureaucratic concessions is that of Laocoon: ‘We fear the Greeks even when they bring us gifts.’ Our policy is self-development and defensive resistance” (BM, 6:300). The rhetorical “gifts” of bureaucratic reform align the English with the Greeks and the Indians with the Trojan recipients of the wooden horse. Ghose’s Ilion: An Epic in Quantitative Hexameters structured the history of the Trojan War around this same metaphor. Like Bande Mataram’s Laocoon, Ilion’s Laocoon played an enlarged role in urging the Trojans back to war.

Ghose’s first draft of Ilion was the sixteen-page The Fall of Troy: An Epic, which bore the postscript: “Composed in jail, 1909, resumed and completed in Pondicherry, April and May 1910.”[42] In 1908 one of Ghose’s associates killed two British women with a bomb intended for a British official. Ghose was amongst those charged and jailed. Although he was acquitted a year later in a highly publicized trial, his brother was found guilty and sentenced to death (later commuted). By Ghose’s own account, the year he spent in jail transformed his politics. Whilst in solitary confinement he received his first adeshas (commands from the Divine), instructing him to perform spiritual work on his release. He heard other voices, including that of the recently deceased spiritual leader Swami Vivekenanda. He experimented with yoga and fasting, and with what he called the “conventions of our senses,” for example, when bitten by red ants in jail, he learned to experience the pain as Ananda (bliss).[43] In this context of solitary spiritual upheaval, Ghose began composing the first hexameter lines of Ilion, and memorized them for more than a year.[44] Shortly after his release, he left revolutionary activism in British India for a new life of politicized spiritualism in French Pondicherry. He continued working on Ilion over the next four decades in his Pondicherry ashram. Only part of it was published with On Quantitative Meter, and it remained unfinished at the end of his life.

Ilion lacks the ideological clarity and optimism of Bande Mataram. The action of Ilion hinges on Trojan deliberations over Achilles’s offer of peace or war after ten years of fighting (rather than on Achilles’s choice as to whether or not to return to war, as in the Iliad). In the opening book Achilles’s herald, Talthybuis, expands the Homeric world to include India, effectively aligning Troy with India.

Not from the panting of Ares’ toil to repose, from the wrestle
Locked of hope and death in the ruthless clasp of the mellay
Leaving again the Trojan ramparts unmounted, leaving
Greece unavenged, the Aegean a lake and Europe a province.
Choosing from Hellas exile, from Peleus and Deidamia,
Choosing the field for my chamber of sleep and the battle for hearthside
I shall go warring on till Asia enslaved to my footsteps
Feels the tread of the God in my sandal pressed to her bosom.
Rest shall I then when the borders of Greece are fringed with the Ganges.[45]

In Achilles’s message, the Trojans face two possibilities: victory (“Europe a province”) or defeat (“Greece . . . fringed with the Ganges”). If we read Ilion in the context of colonial and anticolonial classicisms in British India, then the specter of the Greeks at the Ganges invokes both Alexandrian and British rule. Elsewhere it becomes clear that the Trojan War prefigures, rather than allegorizes, these later conflicts. Towards the end of Ilion, the slave Briseis tells Achilles of her dream in which she foretells both his death and the future return of Europeans to India.

Then three times I heard arise in the grandiose silence,—
Still was the sky and still was the land and still were the waters,—
Echoing a mighty voice, “Take back, O King, what thou gavest;
Strength, take thy strong man, sea, take thy wave, till the warfare eternal
Need him again to thunder through Asia’s plains to the Ganges.
(I, 7.95)

This notion of a cyclical pattern of war is made explicit.

So on earth the seed that was sown of the centuries ripened;
Europe and Asia, met on their borders, clashed in the Troad.
All over earth men wept and bled and labored, world-wide[.]
(I, 8.98)

The Trojan War becomes the “seed” of a perennial tragedy of strife between Europe and Asia.

There is a striking tension between Ilion’s embrace of the Homeric medium and its deep ambivalence toward the Homeric theme. The grim futility of war replaces the Homeric glorification of the hero’s beautiful death on the battlefield. Given Ghose’s commitment to finding political, spiritual, and poetic solutions to his contemporary war between Asia and Europe, Ilion presents a hermeneutic challenge. On the one hand, Ghose casts the Greeks in particularly unfavorable light. They welcome the Trojan choice of war with “the lust of the young barbarian nations” (I, 2.23) and their “nethermost promptings” (I, 7.90).

Forging a brittle peace by a common hatred and yearning.
Joyous they were of mood; for their hopes were already in Troya
Sating with massacre, plunder and rape and the groans of their foemen.
(I, 7.90)

One the other hand, the Trojans do not rise above the Greeks. Their quarrels and desires do not present them as a heroic ideal for their Indian progeny. Ilion borrows the Homeric imaginary as a dramatic space for internal debate, and insight and blindness, amongst Greeks and Trojans. It leaves us not only with the basic Homeric plot of Trojan defeat, but also with the puzzlingly pessimistic model of perennial conflict between Europe and Asia.

To explain Ilion’s classical imagery, literary critics have focused on the role of the “eastern” Amazon queen Penthesilea, arguing that she represents Durga or Kali (forms of the Mother Goddess) of Hindu myth.[46] Penthesilea does not appear in Homer, but later traditions celebrated her ultimately unsuccessful intervention on behalf of the Trojans, and the remorse of Achilles upon killing her. Ilion’s original and final drafts gave her a new prominence and the unfinished epic ends while she is still alive. In the final, unfinished book 9 she single-handedly battles the Greeks on behalf of the Trojans (“Back, ever back reeled the Hellene host with Virgin pursuing./ Storm-shod the Amazon fought and she slew like a god unresisted”) (I, 9.123). Ghose may indeed have intended Penthesilea allegorically. This would reflect Ghose’s commitment throughout his creative and critical work to all-powerful female deities. It would also make a work filled with Greek gods more coherent within the spiritual idiom of his other works. However it is also worth noting that his manifesto for poetic composition, The Future Poetry, explicitly rejects the use of allegory on grounds that it over-intellectualizes poetry (FP, 36). If Kali is the deus ex machina resolution for Ilion’s (rather unheroic) Trojans, why then not simply introduce her in the way that he simply inserts India (the Ganges) and the “warfare eternal” between Europe and Asia into the Homeric world? (I, 7.95) If we look beyond classical allegory, might we reconsider the spiritual politics of the Ilion using Ghose’s own representation of his composition, namely, as “the solution for introducing the hexameter into English verse”?[47]


For Ghose, poetic composition was a spiritual practice. His epics were not literary masterpieces for exegesis, but exercises. He wrote his best known, Mahabharata-themed epic Savitri as “a field of experimentation to see how far poetry could be written from one’s yogic consciousness.”[48] His manifesto for poetry, The Future Poetry, guided the future poet toward what he called the Mantra, the “poetic expression of the deepest spiritual reality” (FP, 19); “the word that carries the godhead in it or the power of the godhead” (FP, 313). If Ilion and On Quantitative Meter solved Arnold’s technical question of how to introduce the hexameter into English poetry, The Future Poetry explained why meter was important at all. Meter constituted one crucial component of the Mantra. Although The Future Poetry does not specify the hexameter (or any meter), we might see Ilion as his yogic exertion with a given meter in the longer poetic askesis of the Mantra. I suggest that the larger stakes of Ilion’s hexameter, as a metrical yoga, lie in Ghose’s elaboration of the Mantra as an anticolonial, antimaterialist critique of Victorian literary criticism and comparative philology.

The Future Poetry takes English literary education in British India as its point of departure. Its opening chapter, entitled “The Mantra,” praises a recent set of essays by James Cousins for raising “the whole question of the future of poetry in the age which is coming upon us, the higher functions open to it--as yet very imperfectly fulfilled,--and the part which English literature on the one side and the Indian mind and temperament on the other are likely to take in determining the new trend” (FP, 3). Cousins was an Irish poet and theosophist who had emigrated to India, and who posited his New Ways in English Literature (1917) as part of the movement, over eighty years after Macaulay’s 1835 Minute, to make education in India “both national and rational by putting it in contact with the vital spirit of literature.” [49] With short chapters on Rabindranath Tagore and Ghose, as well as W. B. Yeats, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others, Cousins sought to indicate the “direction of English literature at the present time and in the immediate past.”[50] Cousins provides the colonial context but not the spiritual basis of the Mantra. The Future Poetry couples a much longer eighteen chapter survey of English poetry from Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare to Tagore, Walt Whitman, and A. E., with fourteen chapters elaborating the national, literary, metrical, and above all spiritual challenges faced by the future poet.

Ghose seeks to lead poetry out of a period of what he calls “materialist intellectualism” (FP, 302–3). For him, Arnoldian criticism epitomized this Victorian tendency. Arnold’s critical impulse to teach and to observe life without recourse to the spirit “fail[ed] . . . to look beyond to the future,” and his “cultured moralising” remained constrained by the “dominant intellectualism” of the period (FP, 35–36). Thus if The Future Poetry implicitly invoked Arnold’s famous “The Study of Poetry” (1880), which began: “The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find ever surer and surer stay,” it did so in a critical, dialectical mode.[51]

The poetic vision of things is not a criticism of life, not an intellectual or philosophic view of it, but a soul-view, a seizing by the inner sense. The Mantra too is not in its substance or its form a poetic enunciation of philosophic verities, but a rhythmic revelation or intuition arising out of the soul’s sight of God and Nature and itself and of the world and of the inner truth—occult to the outward eye—of all that peoples it, the secrets of their life and being. (FP, 35–36)

Cousins had characterized Ghose as a “philosopher-poet,” but Ghose’s Mantra derives from spiritual revelation and not from philosophical insight. As his writings on the Vedas clarify, the original mantras had to come as “inspiration from the supra-mental plane” in order to take effect.[52] The Mantra was part of an ecumenical field of spirituality which he describes elsewhere as “other than mental idealism and other than religion.”[53]

The condition for the future poetry, then, “must be the completion of an as yet only initial spiritualised turn of our general human feeling and intelligence” (FP, 302). Ghose makes the evolution of English poetry part of a larger human trend towards over-dependence on external thought and form and a blockage of access to a deeper vision. In his account, the “eye of early man” is preoccupied with his physical world, and poetry should provide the inspiration to live with that world (FP, 38). At the next stage, a more curious man wants poetry to express the romance of existence by exciting the imagination and emotions. Next, man “begins to intellectualise,” and others later bring to this a more “subtelised intellect and richer life-experience” (FP, 38–39). At this point—Ghose’s own age—poetry will either decline or be reborn. The future of poetry depends on the poet’s adoption of “diviner potentialities and more spiritual values into the intention and structure of his life,” and The Future Poetry notes elements of Whitman and A.E.’s poetry that bears spiritual promise (FP, 307–8). Drawing from Vedic traditions, Ghose calls these future poets “poet-seers” (FP, 182, 218). The Sanskrit term Kavi, he notes, “applied to any maker of verse or even of prose, but in the Vedic it meant the poet-seer who saw Truth and found in a subtle truth-hearing the inspired word of his vision” (FP, 31n1).

For this shift from the thinking poet to the poet-seer Ghose also invokes Friedrich Nietzsche. His chapter “Poetic Vision and the Mantra” observes: “Thus the more rigid metaphysicians are perhaps right in denying to Nietzsche the name of philosopher; for Nietzsche does not think, but always sees, turbidly or clearly, rightly or distortedly, but with the eye of the seer rather than with the brain of the thinker” (FP, 34).[54] Ghose had been a Classics student in England a couple of decades after Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff published Zukunftsphilologie! (Future Philology!), his infamous attack on Nietzsche. Nietzsche sought to restore the strangeness of antiquity, and had denounced attempts by modern philologists to establish an affective relation with the Greeks. His The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music had envisioned the modern rebirth of Greek tragedy in Wagnerian opera, and Wilamowitz drew ironically on Wagner’s earlier publication of a (pejoratively entitled) “Zukunftsmusik” (“Future Music”). From this perspective we might see The Future Poetry both as a critique of Arnoldian criticism and as a contribution to the debate over modern philology.

For Ghose, the philologists at error are the Orientalists. To champion the Mantra, Ghose had to rescue the Vedas from the contempt of modern Sanskritists. Ghose’s The Secret of the Veda observes the sharp distinction philologists made between the “barbarous” Vedas and the later, more philosophical, Upanishads.[55] They explained this difference in terms of race: the early Vedas used the “materialistic barbarian” vocabulary of Aryans; after invading India through the Punjab, these Aryans were transformed by the more civilized Dravidians, and produced the Upanishads. This racial division between India’s Northern Aryans and Southern Dravidians (exploited by the British colonial policy of divide et impera) was, Ghose argued, fabricated by Europeans who had misread the Vedas.[56]

But the indications in the Veda on which this theory of a recent Aryan invasion is built, are very scanty in quantity and uncertain in their significance. There is no actual mention of such invasion. The distinction between Aryan and non-Aryan on which so much has been built, seems on the mass of the evidence to indicate a cultural rather than a racial difference.[57]

Ghose calls for a new philological basis for reading and reevaluating the Vedas. In place of the drama of races, he finds, amongst other things, the original mantras.

[T]he mantras of the Veda illuminated with a clear and exact light psychological experiences of my own for which I had found no sufficient explanation either in European psychology or in the teachings of Yoga or of Vedanta.[58]

Behind Ghose’s Mantra thus lies a systematic reevaluation of the Vedas grounded in an anticolonial critique of racialized philology.

Ghose’s spiritual philology offered an alternative cosmopolitan basis for bringing India into an otherwise Europe-centered history of literature. Philologists addressed Sanskrit’s relation to Greek and Latin in terms of linguistic and racial families. Similarly, the poet Cousins, with whom The Future Poetry began, explained what he saw as the spiritual affinities between Celtic and Indian poetry using a religio-racial framework of a shared Celt-Aryan antiquity.[59] Ghose agreed with Cousins that Indian and Irish poetry were more spiritual in their aims than other literatures, but rejected Cousin’s Aryanism.[60] The Future Poetry instead traces spiritual “kinship” across certain works that were never in contact, for example between Shakespeare and Kalidasa.

The kinship arises from the likeness of essential motive and psychological basic type and emerges and asserts itself in spite of the enormous cultural division. A poetry of spiritual vision and the sense of things behind life and above the intellect must similarly develop from its essence a characteristic voice, cry, mould of speech, natural way of development, habits of structure. (FP, 32)

Ghose’s comparative approach differs from that of Indo-Aryanists or indeed of Arnold. Arnold had sought to deparochialize England with an enlarged set of poetic touchstones, such as Homer: “By the nature of things, as England is not all the world, much of the best that is known and thought in the world cannot be of English growth, must be foreign.”[61] Ghose, by contrast, brings Kalidasa into English literary history to clarify that poetry is, or should be, a spiritual practice.

The Future Poetry concludes with the cosmopolitan availability of the spirit. Poet-seers can come from anywhere and speak in any language.

The nations that most include and make real [diviner potentialities and more spiritual values] in their life and culture are the nations of the coming dawn and the poets of whatever tongue and race who most completely see with this vision and speak with the inspiration of its utterance are those who shall be the creators of the poetry of the future. (FP, 307–8)

Ghose clarifies elsewhere that a poet’s nation and epoch are only his starting point; he is not necessarily “limited or conditioned by his environment”; nor “must he regard himself as only a voice of the national mind or bound by some past national tradition and debarred from striking out a novel and original road of his own” (FP, 41). Ultimately, the “free play of the poetic spirit” deterritorializes the poet-seer (FP, 40). Thus, although Ghose privileges English literature in his account (“not always the greatest or most perfect, but at least the most rich and naturally powerful poetry”), he makes clear that English is simply a starting point (FP, 48). The Future Poetry had, after all, begun with the question of literary education in British India, and the place of “English literature on the one side and the Indian mind and temperament on the other” in the future of poetry. The Mantra of the future poetry, he proposes, depends on the cosmopolitan conjunction of Eastern spiritualism and Western “wide-ranging thought” (FP, 304).

The Future Poetry unmoors the meter, as well as the language, of the future poetry from national or racial origins. In the Arnold-Newman debate, the Homeric hexameter indexed either a superior Hellenism or semi-barbarism. The Future Poetry does not address any specific meter, but instead elaborates Mantra as a generalized rhythmic revelation.

The ancient Indians . . . perceived that metrical speech has in itself not only an easier durability, but a greater natural power than unmetrical, not only an intenser value of sound, but a force to compel language and sense to heighten themselves in order to fall fitly into this stricter mould. There is perhaps a truth in the idea that the Spirit of creation framed all the movements of the world by chandas, in certain fixed rhythms of the formative Word, and its because they are faithful to the cosmic metres that the basic world-movements unchangingly endure. A balanced harmony maintained by a system of subtle recurrences is the foundation of immortality in created things, and metrical movement is nothing else than creative sound grown conscious of this secret of its own powers. (FP, 21)

Meter is the creative principle animating word and world. Poetic meters, like “cosmic metres,” embody a principle of rebirth. Fully heightened metrical speech even appears to sustain the “immortality in created things.” Although the Vedas provide his principle inspiration, Ghose argues that both ancient Greek and Indian meters embodied spiritual poetry, and as such might aid the basic shift from Victorian “materialist intellectualism” to a spiritual future poetry.

Ghose’s work on and in hexameters makes sense from this perspective of the spiritual potential of Greek and Indian meters. On Quantitative Meter is technical because the poet must acquire skill as well as inspiration to achieve the highest intensity of rhythm. It provides four sets of rules for the introduction of classical quantitative meters into English. It defines quantity in terms of length or “weight,” and quantifies each syllable in terms of its natural length, stress, and consonantal weight. All long-vowel syllables and all stressed syllables are metrically long; all short-vowel syllables, except those lengthened by stress or by “consonantal weight,” are metrically short.[62] These rules basically integrate stress into the quantitative determination of long and short syllables. On Quantitative Meter culminates with a section on “The Problem of Hexameter.” Hexameter is the “central knot” in the larger history of attempts to introduce the quantitative meters of classical poetry into English because the hexameter was the least “naturalized” classical meter and because “the hexameter is a quantitative verse or nothing.”[63] The appended Ilion illustrates these rules. In its scansion and parsing of individual lines, On Quantitative Meter makes Ilion significant not for its political or spiritual imagery, but as “the solution for introducing the hexameter into English verse.”

As both The Future Poetry and On Quantitative Meter make clear, metrical virtuosity is not, however, enough. The greatest possibility of poetic expression “is where the metrical movement remains as a base, but either enshrines and contains or is itself contained and floats in an element of greater music which exceeds it and yet brings out all its possibilities” (FP, 24). Rhythm is only one of three dimensions of the Mantra:

The Mantra, poetic expression of the deepest spiritual reality, is only possible when three highest intensities of poetic speech meet and become indissolubly one, a highest intensity of rhythmic movement, a highest intensity of interwoven verbal form and thought-substance, of style, and a highest intensity of the soul’s vision of truth. All great poetry comes about by a unison of these three elements. (FP, 19)

The Mantra essentially breaks down into rhythm, language, and spiritual revelation. On Quantitative Meter discusses the relation of these first two elements in the context of the hexameter. Greek and Latin hexameters were “fitted for great poetic speech, for great thoughts and feelings, for great action and movement.”[64] The English hexameter had thus far failed partly because it was “compelled to express subjects whose triviality brings it down far below its natural pitch of greatness, force or beauty.”[65] The Ilion’s war between Asia and Europe restored just such an appropriate theme to the English hexameter.

The Future Poetry makes the English metrical debate of On Quantitative Meter part of its more cosmopolitan metrics. Ghose’s comparisons of Sanskrit, Greek, and other meters coincided with an oral and metrical turn in Indo-European studies. Probably unknown to Ghose, continental scholars had by this time begun to compare Vedic and Homeric meters under the auspices of Indo-Europeanism.[66] However, whilst Indo-Europeanists rooted their comparisons in a shared (but not necessarily racialized) Indo-European past, Ghose grounded his in a culturally transcendent future Mantra. For Indo-Europeanists the absence of the hexameter in Sanskrit literature raised questions of genealogy and identity. For Ghose, it belonged to the challenge of the future poet. His unpublished writings include a short collection of original hexameter poems in Greek, Latin, and an unknown language (resembling Sanskrit) in Devanagari script entitled “Record of Writings in Different Languages whether acquired by inspiration, communication or by the writing in the ether.”[67]

Coincidentally, the Ilion includes aspects of the formulaic principle of Homeric composition developed in Indo-European metrics. For example it replicates Homer’s fixed metrical positioning of noun + epithet formulae:[68]

First in the | race and the | battle, Thra||symachus | son of A|retes (I, 1.7)
“Busy the | gods are | always. Thra||symachus | son of A|retes[.]” (I, 1.9)[69]

This kind of repetition does not, however, seem important to Ghose’s spiritual philology. More significant is the cosmic repetition of the Mantra. Ilion’s main God is “the Artist eternal,” and the epic begins not with the anger of Achilles but with the eternal cycles of Dawn-driven human movement (I, 8.32).

1 Dāwn ĭn hĕr | joūrnĕy ĕ|tērnăl cŏ||mpēllĭng thĕ | lāboūr ŏ|f mōrtăls
2 Dāwn thĕ bĕ|gīnnĕr ŏ|f thīngs wĭth thĕ || nīght fŏr theīr | rēst ŏr theīr | ēndĭng,
3 Pāllĭd ănd | brīght-lĭpped ă|rrīved frŏm thĕ || mīsts ănd thĕ | chīll ŏf thĕ | Eūxĭne. (I, 1.1)

Later in book 1, a mathematical simile in rigorous dactyls correlates numerical and cosmic repetition: “Life like a | decimal | ever re|curring re|peats the old | figure” (I, 1.5).[70] Thus Ilion presents two kinds of cycles: the perennial war between Asia and Europe; and cosmic-metrical repetition. The classical plot of Ilion offers no escape from the cycle of war between East and West. By contrast, the poet’s yogic exercise with the hexameter, as part of the pursuit of the Mantra, holds out the promise of conjoining East and West on a spiritual plane.

From his departure to British India in 1896 until his death in 1950, Ghose had little direct interaction with Europe. He had limited access to foreign books; he never went abroad; and after a brief notoriety in the British press during his 1908-1909 trial, there was scant notice of him or his work in Europe. Ghose did, however, establish a highly cosmopolitan ashram in French Pondicherry with his French Jewish spiritual collaborator, the Mother (Mirra Alfassa), to which Indian leaders and writers, as well as spiritual devotees from around the world, paid pilgrimage. His prolific writings remained fully engaged with the cultural inheritance and politics of British India, and this essay has emphasized the anticolonial force of his particular attention to meter. The Future Poetry, On Quantitative Meter, and Ilion together elaborated the importance of British India to a metrical debate about English national identity. The incarcerated Ghose did not, as he might have, wield Ilion’s hexameters in an Arnoldian attempt to civilize English national culture with Hellenism. Rather, the poet’s yogic exercise with the hexameter reoriented meter from questions of national identity towards a polyglot pursuit of the spiritual Mantra. This forward-looking Mantra thereby displaced the Indo-European philology as the meeting ground for Indian and European literary traditions.

Ghose applied a spiritual philology to the hexameter. The hexameter was one metrical resource or potential amongst many for the Mantra of the future poetry. The Mantra, to recall, was the “poetic expression of the deepest spiritual reality.” Only through the Mantra could the future poet-seer see and make others see the spiritual truth of things. The Mantra required, amongst other things, “a highest intensity of rhythmic movement.” This was not simply a question of finding the right meter, but on each occasion the “rhythmical soul-movement entering into the metrical form and often overflooding it” (FP, 19). The Future Poetry did not single out any meter as especially appropriate for the Mantra, any more than it specified poetic content. Likewise, On Quantitative Meter did not explicate its rules for the English hexameter as a shortcut to the Mantra. However, The Future Poetry made clear that certain meters had more potential than others. “War poetry and popular patriotic poetry” could stir the “the vital being in us like a trumpet or excite it like a drum. But after all the drum and the trumpet do not carry us far in the way of music” (FP, 22). Conversely, the greatest promise of Walt Whitman’s free verse (“the most Homeric voice since Homer”) emerged precisely when his “great metrical cadences” consciously or unconsciously approximated the Greek dithyramb and hexameter (FP, 165, 167). Ghose rejected the drumbeat of patriotic war poetry for Ilion in favor of the hexameter’s higher spiritual potential. Although few European poets and critics encountered his writings, Ghose’s metrical deliberations deserve greater recognition for proposing a cosmopolitan spiritual prosody binding colony and metropole.

Brown University

Author's note: I would like to thank the Trustees of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry for their generous permission to consult Sri Aurobindo’s unpublished materials; the librarians at King’s College, Cambridge; Richard Hartz, Leela Gandhi, and the anonymous reviewer at ELH.



[1] See Meredith Martin, The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860–1930 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2012).

[2] Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, (Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983), 97.

[3] See Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities: Anticolonial thought, Fin-De-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2006); and Srinivas Aravamudan, Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2006).

[4] For a discussion of this and the particularities of Cambridge Classics see Christopher Stray, Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities and Society in England 1830–1960 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

[5] Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Minute on Indian Education,” in Selected Writings, ed. John Clive and Thomas Pinney (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972), 243.

[6] Phiroze Vasunia, “Greek, Latin, and the Indian Civil Service,” in British Classics Outside England: The Academy and Beyond, ed. Judith Hallett and Christopher Stray (Waco: Baylor Univ. Press, 2009), 93.

[7] Peter Heehs, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2008), 19.

[8] Heehs, 20.

[9] John Wodehouse, a member of Gladstone’s cabinet commented on Ghose’s pro forma appeal: “I should very much doubt whether Mr Ghose wd be a desirable addition to the Service and if Mr Prothero or anyone else is under the impression that a Hindoo ought to have special exemption from the requirement of being able to ride, the sooner he is disabused of such an absurd notion the better” (quoted in Heehs, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, 31).

[10] The nineteenth century witnessed the highest number of printings of Homer in history, and new translations of the epics (or sections of them) appeared in Bengali, Marathi, Gujurati, Turkish, Arabic, as well as in European languages. See Vasunia, “Introduction,” in India, Greece, and Rome, 1757 to 2007, ed. Edith Hall and Vasunia, 1–11; and Philip H. Young, The Printed Homer: A 3,000 Year Publishing and Translation History of the Iliad and the Odyssey (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003).

[11] Francis W. Newman, The Iliad of Homer, Faithfully Translated into Unrhymed English Metre (London: Walton and Maberly, 1856), xvii.

[12] The text for Matthew Arnold’s “On Translating Homer” (1861), Newman’s “Homeric Translation In Theory and Practice: A Reply to Matthew Arnold” (1861), and Arnold’s “On Translating Homer: Last Words” (1862) is taken from Essays by Matthew Arnold (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1914).

[13] Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (London: Routledge, 1995), 118, 119.

[14] Yopie Prins, “Metrical Translation: Nineteenth Century Homers and the Hexameter Mania,” in Nation, Language, And The Ethics Of Translation, ed. Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2005), 233. See also George Steiner’s account of the tension between scholarly philological and poetical ideals of translation in “Homer in English Translation,” in The Cambridge Companion to Homer, ed. Robert Fowler, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004), 363–75. And compare James I. Porter, “Homer: The Very Idea,” Arion, 3rd series, 10.2 (2002): 57–86; and James I. Porter, “Homer: The History of an Idea,” in The Cambridge Companion to Homer, 324–43.

[15] Martin, The Rise and Fall of Meter, 130.

[16] Newman, “Homeric Translation In Theory and Practice,” 343, 365; Newman, The Iliad of Homer, iv.

[17] Newman, The Iliad of Homer, xvi.

[18] Alfred Tennyson, The Poetical Works of Alfred Tennyson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885), 635.

[19] Newman, The Iliad of Homer, xix.

[20] Newman, The Iliad of Homer, v.

[21] Newman, “Homeric Translation In Theory and Practice,” 323.

[22] Newman, “Homeric Translation In Theory and Practice,” 322.

[23] Newman, “Homeric Translation In Theory and Practice,” 374–75.

[24] Arnold, “On Translating Homer,” 245; Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1994), 37, 93.

[25] Arnold, “On Translating Homer,” 298.

[26] Arnold, “On Translating Homer,” 312.

[27] Arnold perhaps exploits Homer’s own distinction between Greek speakers and “barbarian-speakers” (that is, non-Greek speakers) in opposing Homer to his English translators.

[28] Arnold, “On Translating Homer: Last Words,” 419.

[29] Arnold, “On Translating Homer: Last Words,” 408–9.

[30] Arnold, “On Translating Homer: Last Words,” 406.

[31] Arnold, “On Translating Homer,” 248–49.

[32] Arnold, “On Translating Homer: Last Words,” 411. Arnold implicitly echoes an argument Samuel Taylor Coleridge had already made in comparing German and English hexameters. On Coleridge, see James Inglis Cochrane, “Preface,” in Homer’s Iliad. Book First. Translated into English Hexameters (London: Hardwicke and Co., Picadilly, 1862); and Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch, “‘When Klopstock England Defied’: Coleridge, Southey, and the German/English Hexameter,” Comparative Literature 55.2 (2003): 130–63.

[33] Arnold, “On Translating Homer,” 286.

[34] Arnold, Essays in Criticism (London: Macmillan, 1893), 37.

[35] Sri Aurobindo [Aurobindo Ghose], The Future Poetry, in The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, vol. 35 (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2011), 26:35–36. Hereafter cited parenthetically by page number and abbreviated FP. The Future Poetry was originally published in 32 installments in the monthly review Arya between December 1917 and July 1920. For Arnold’s original formulation of poetry as a criticism of life, see “The Study of Poetry” in The English Poets, ed. Thomas Humphrey Ward (London: Macmillan, 1880), xix. There is a copy of this book in Sri Aurobindo’s library that is preserved in Pondicherry. See Richard Hartz, “Books in Sri Aurobindo’s Room” (unpublished paper).

[36] Arnold, “On Translating Homer,” 245; Arnold, “The Study of Poetry,” xxv; Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, 93.

[37] I draw loosely here on Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (Baltimore: John Hopkins Univ. Press, 1973). On the growing literature on British classicism and colonialism, see Barbara Goff, “Introduction” in Classics and Colonialism, ed. Barbara Goff (London: Duckworth, 2005), 1–25; Vasunia, “Greater Rome and Greater Britain,” in Classics and Colonialism, 38–64; and Mark Bradley, “Introduction: Approaches to Classics and Imperialism,” Classics & Imperialism in the British Empire, ed. Bradley (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010), 1–28. For competing European Romantic classicizing paradigms of Homer see Porter, “Homer: The Very Idea.”

[38] Sri Aurobindo, Bande Mataram, 2 May 1908, 7:1084–88. Hereafter cited parenthetically by volume and page number and abbreviated BM. The editorials were published anonymously to protect the editors, but have since been attributed to Ghose.

[39] Thomas Babington Macaulay, Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome (Boston: Athenaeus Press, 1899), xi.

[40] Macaulay, Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, 123.

[41] On the nineteenth- and twentieth-century importance of Alexander, see Vasunia, “Alexander Sikandar,” in Classics and National Cultures, ed. Susan A. Stephens and others (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010), 302–24; and James I. Porter, “Hellenism and Modernity,” in The Oxford Handbook of Hellenic Studies, ed. George Boys-Stones and others (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), 7–18.

[42] As quoted in the “Editor’s Note” in Sri Aurobindo, Ilion, 129.

[43] Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Himself and the Ashram, in The Complete Works, 35:261.

[44] See Heehs, 224.

[45] Sri Aurobindo, Ilion, 1.15. Text according to Sri Aurobindo, Ilion: An Epic in Quantitative Hexameters (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1989). Hereafter cited parenthetically by book and page number and abbreviated I. Compare I, 2.22.

[46] See K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar, “Milton and Sri Aurobindo,” Journal of South Asian Literature 24.1 (1989): 67–82; K. D. Sethna, “Ilion: An Epic in Quantitative Hexameters,” in Sri Aurobindo the Poet (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, 1970), 107–31; V. Murugesu, A Commentary on Sri Aurobindo’s Poem Ilion (Pondicherry: Dipti Publications, 2001); and Heehs, 224–25.

[47] Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Poetry and Art, in The Complete Works, 27:226.

[48] Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Poetry and Art, in The Complete Works, 27:226.

[49] James H. Cousins, New Ways in English Literature, 2nd ed. (Madras: Ganesh and Co., 1919), xiii.

[50] Cousins, New Ways in English Literature, xiii.

[51] Arnold, “The Study of Poetry,” xvii.

[52] Sri Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda, in The Complete Works, 15:271.

[53] Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Poetry and Art, in The Complete Works, 27:730.

[54] Ghose was probably unaware of Friedrich Nietzsche’s unpublished papers and lectures from the 1870s on the quantitative nature of Greek rhythm. Nietzsche emphasized its difference from the modern system of accentuation, and argued the ultimately unrecoverable foreignness of ancient metrics: “In our modern education there is nothing similar, one must simply learn to beat a drum” (Werke Kritische Gesamtausgabe [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1993] 2.3:134). On this see James I. Porter, Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2000).

[55] Sri Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda, 14. Compare his criticism of F. Max Müller’s influential 50-volume Sacred Books of the East (1879–1902). See Sri Aurobindo, The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. Volume 18 Kena and Other Upanishads (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2011).

[56] For a full discussion of the specifically British history of the Aryan concept, see Thomas R. Trautmann, Aryans and British India (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1997).

[57] Sri Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda, 26.

[58] Sri Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda, 39.

[59] On Cousins’s racialization of the literary spirit, see Gauri Viswanathan, “‘Synthetic Vision’: Internationalism and the Poetics of Decolonization,” in Nation, Language, And The Ethics Of Translation, 326–45.

[60] Ghose’s Heracleitus uses the Vedas to clarify early Greek thought, but declines notions of influence or Aryan migration.

[61] Arnold, Essays, 37.

[62] Sri Aurobindo, On Quantitative Meter, in The Complete Works, 26:339–40. Ghose’s rules differ from that of Charles Bagot Cayley and others who translated Homer into hexameters. George Saintsbury’s History of English Prosody (1906–10; repr. London: Macmillan, 1923) includes a chapter-length discussion of nineteenth-century English hexameter which asks “how, in fact, is it possible to draw up ‘rules’ for quantity in such a language as ours?” (428) and argues “this hexameter battle . . . arises from, and illustrates, that extraordinary confusion of mind with which nearly all English writers have approached, and even still continue to approach, the subjects of Accent and Quantity in our language” (434). For an excellent discussion of Ghose’s reasoning, and his manipulation of the hexameter in parts of the Ilion, see K. D. Sethna, “Sri Aurobindo and the Hexameter” in The Poetic Genius of Sri Aurobindo (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1974), 29–74.

[63] Sri Aurobindo, On Quantitative Meter, 26:353, 322.

[64] Sri Aurobindo, On Quantitative Meter, 26:357.

[65] Sri Aurobindo, On Quantitative Meter, 26:357.

[66] Antoine Meillet, Milman Parry’s teacher in France, published the first systematic attempt to compare Greek and Vedic meters in 1897. Antoine Meillet, “De la partie commune des pādas de 11 et de 12 syllabes dans le maṇḍala III du Ṛgveda,” Journal Asiatique, 9e série, 10 (1897): 266–300; and Les origines indo-européennes des mètres grecs (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1923). See also Calvert Watkins, “Sketch for a History of Indo-European Poetics,” in How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995), 12–27.

[67] See Richard Hartz, “Note on Script of January 1913,” in Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research (April 1994): 101–10.

[68] For a translation of Milman Parry’s L’Épithète traditionnelle dans Homère; Essai sur un problem de style homérique (1928), see “The Traditional Epithet in Homer” in The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, ed. Adam Parry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 1–190.

[69] My emphases. Compare:
“What say the | vaunters of | Greece to the || virgin | Penthesi|lea?” (I, 1.11)
Answered a|loud to the | gods the || virgin | Penthesi|lea. (I, 1.15)
“Speak in the | palace of | Priam the || word of the | Phthian A|chilles” (I, 1.12)
“Once shall my | spear have | rung on the || shield of the | Phthian A|chilles” (I, 1.16)
Served in the | land of their | sires the || will of the | Phthian A|chilles (I, 5.2)
Troy shall lie | prone or | earth shall be || empty of | Phthian A|chilles. (I, 5.76)

[70] The final spondee, and neutralization of the quantitative opposition of long and short in the verse-final syllable, is normal.

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Prosody: Alternative Histories

What are the historical stakes of prosody, and why should we ask? ‘Prosody’ refers both to the patterning of language in poetry and to the formal study of that patterning.


In both senses, it is roughly synonymous with ‘versification.’ Like many terms in the modern study of poetics, ‘prosody’ derives from a Greek word of much wider application (prosōdía, ‘song; tone’). In Modern English, ‘prosody’ additionally designates a branch of linguistics concerned with the intonational and rhythmical patterning of speech.

The multiple meanings of ‘prosody’ hint at the historical perplexities of the term. One major difficulty is the qualitative difference between prosodic theory and practice—often itself a historical difference. In English literature, for example, the practice of meter predates metrical theory by 900 years. Between the composition of the Old English poem Cædmon’s Hymn (late seventh century) and the publication of George Gascoigne’s Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Ryme in English (1575), poets practiced but evidently did not theorize English prosody. (Modern poets’ continuous proselytizing letters, essays, and talks promulgating their prosodic theories has now more than made up for this gap!) Nonetheless, the medieval centuries are notable for metrical experimentation, from twelfth-century forays into syllabic verse to Geoffrey Chaucer’s invention of the French- and Italian-inspired iambic pentameter in the fourteenth century. This experimentation is incomprehensible without situating English in a cross-linguistic context, one that includes, at minimum, French, Italian, Latin, Norse, and Welsh, each with its own complex history.

The study of prosody in the centuries since Gascoigne has presented any number of historical complications, and the present era is no exception. Even as it enjoys a resurgence of interest, spurred by concurrent discoveries in sound studies, cognition, performance, psycholinguistics, and new technologies, verse prosody remains a problematic field. The linguistic turn of the twentieth century, for example, has meant that many prosodists have focused on developing, and refining, metrical theories, i.e., descriptive systems that account for the match or ‘fit’ between the phonological structure of the language and the aesthetic structure of the verse. This approach, originally sponsored not by a linguist but by a literary critic—that “every language has the prosody which it deserves”[1]—has certainly advanced a fundamental understanding of technique, but it has done so at significant cost: the assumption of verse’s artificiality as a transparent stylization of natural language, with an attendant, and surprising, lack of curiosity about the historical factors conditioning these outcomes.

Following the linguistic turn, literary scholars have endeavored to describe metrical traditions and to coordinate metrical histories and historical prosodic theories with cultural, intellectual, material, and social histories. Yet what is the status of such description and coordination, given the gap between practice and theory, or between cultural production and cultural analysis? Do early theories of prosody, from Pāṇini to Snorri Sturluson to Gascoigne, clarify the nature of verse or entail new epistemological problems? Do later approaches, from generative metrics to cognitive poetics to historical poetics, represent research progress or just add terminological complication? Can the historical practice of prosody be disentangled from the history of prosodic study—and if not, whence prosody?

Contemporary poets at all levels face an analogous gap between practice and theory: to what extent can the researches of prosodists influence or be of use to poets? What utility could there possibly be, given the outright inaccuracies of meters in most poetics handbooks (here, a reverse historical dilemma: practice may continue to outstrip theory, but theory outstrips primers). Does the textbooks’ persistence in oversimplifying and misrepresenting metrical study only prove the point that the academic pursuit of verse prosody is immaterial to practice?

Prosody thus traverses a set of vexing historical oppositions—between structuralist and poststructuralist, or formalist and historicist, or empirical and theoretical, methodologies; between departments in the twenty-first-century university—especially the languages, linguistics, cognitive sciences, and comparative literature; not to mention between poets and critics, the producers and analysts of prosody. Hoping to move past these artificial divides, this Colloquy brings together work in multiple media across disciplines, all considering reciprocal relationships between prosody and history, variously defined. The goal of the discussion is to inspire the kinds of productive disagreements that can move prosody closer to Donald Wesling’s vision of a unified field: “When literary criticism can complete linguistic metrics, and when it can in turn be completed by being deepened with a cognitive psychology of the reader, and when it can be fully historicized, then we shall have a prosody adequate to the greatness and range of poetry in English.”[2] This Colloquy shows that verse rhythm and aesthetic pleasure always exist in a dialectic relationship with many histories.

[1] George Saintsbury, A History of English Prosody (3 vols.) (London: Macmillan, 1906-10), vol. 1, 371.

[2] Donald Wesling, The Scissors of Meter: Grammetrics and Reading (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1996), 22.

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