Jason D. Hall, Nineteenth-Century Verse and Technology: Machines of Meter

Jason D. Hall, Nineteenth-Century Verse and Technology: Machines of Meter (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2017) 288 pp. £80.00 Hb. ISBN: 9783319535012

This book considers the 'ways in which machine culture impacted on fundamental conceptions of what poetic meter was and how it worked' (2). Jason Hall moves from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century but hinges himself theoretically on metrical and mechanical developments of the nineteenth century. In subsequent chapters, he explains how 'new epistemologies for conceiving beats, periods, and rhythmical modulations' found various modes of expression through nineteenth-century communicative and agricultural machines, such as the telegraph, steam thresher, kymograph, and poetry processor (5).

Hall analyzes how the systematic logic of the railway and telegraph provided mechanistic standards of linearity and spatio-temporal homogeneity that echoed the principle features of Coventry Patmore’s temporal metrics in the 'Measurement, Temporality, Abstraction' chapter (7). As Hall notes, 'The growth of the railway resulted in the homogenizing of time as well as space', and it reframed people’s lives within 'a larger narrative of temporal orientation' that accustomed Victorians to the '"metrical discipline of time" associated with Patmore and New Prosody' (23, 25).

Similarly, the metrics of telegraphy externalized new conceptions of time and space, which became features of daily life routines. Hall correlates how the telegraph’s 'units of electrically transmitted data' were quite similar to 'existing conventions for prosodic notation and scansion' that were internalized by millions of Europeans and North Americans (33). Hall also considers how the thresher machine became an 'alternative way of construing the effects of mechanization' on metrical abstraction, speech rhythms, and machine-generated rhythmical movement as well (34).

In 'Meter Manufactories', Hall describes the prosodic education of Victorian schoolboys and suggests that the monitorial system provided 'loci of metrical orthodoxy, as well as a [contentious] site of pedagogical, philological, and ideological' thinking, particularly for education reformists (63). Hall describes how monitorial schools, founded on the methods of Andrew Bell (1753-1832) and Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838), taught assembly skills to working-class children. As Hall suggests, prosodic instruction replicated the'“mechanistic tasks, processes, and principles [...] of the expanding factory system' within the classroom (63). In so doing, it helped factory-model schools produce docile pupils capable of internalizing rules of instruction and regimentation that spread systemically among Victorian schools, factories, and industries.

Hall articulates how pronunciation and phonetic instruction became a fundamental stage of monitorial schooling in which both learner and language were rendered component parts of a larger educational apparatus' that replicated serial assembly (66). Through syllabic methods of reading and writing, children were taught how to speak in a 'mechanistic, stop-and-start manner' that echoed the 'division of labor characteristic of nineteenth century factory production' (68, 66). Hall concludes the chapter by evaluating various critiques of 'mechanical metrical instruction' (93).

Hall assesses the utility of various machine versifiers and historicizes succinctly the extension of politicized, prosodic debates in popular periodicals of the mid-Victorian period. He considers how inventor John Clark’s Eureka became another site for contesting 'technological embodiment and parodic indictment of the Victorian science of prosody' (9). The Eureka much like the factory system 'depended upon a segmentation of processes, breaking down complex mechanical operations into a series of simpler tasks that could be performed in isolation from one another' (117). Hall qualifies Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine as a precursor of artificial intelligence and evaluates Victorian concerns over the automation of human labor.

Through its own 'discriminating prosodic processes', Clark’s automaton functioned not by understanding versification or the 'dactylic properties of hexameter', but by reducing the prosody of this mixed measure to 'a predetermined fixed, and readily repeatable series of data' (128), which produced random outputs. Much like the Victorian school boy 'whose daily regime of scholastic prosody consisted of manufacturing nonsense hexameters one after another, Clark’s Eureka [...] had no real understanding of the meters it manufactured' (122); however, it inspired 'wide-ranging discussions about work, diversion, automation, and intelligence', which allowed for multiperspectivity on these controversial and timely issues (113).

In 'The Automatic Flow of Verse', Hall provides an interesting history of the new breed of prosodist – phrenologists, physiologists, physicians, and surgeons – who investigated the man-machine’s ability or deficiency in producing metrical verses through the conscious mind and mechanistic body. Prosodists from different disciplines explored the 'mechanics of meter in relation to brain functions and other somatic factors, such as respiratory rhythms, speech pathologies, and cerebral diseases' (175). In so doing, prosodists debated whether '[m]eter might be brought to bear on the body by the mind with positive effects, or it might be an embodied assertion [made] uncontrollable by conscious intervention' as Hall claims (197).

Hall evidences how a new prosodic science created 'models of meter predicated on abstraction, proportionate spacing and the artificial segmenting of rhythmic flow' in his final chapter (10).  He considers the ways in which recording instruments were used to capture 'the rhythmic data of the voice itself' (218). Hall also reflects on the '"imaginary" metrical modulus and the material properties of corporeal, voiced rhythms' (222). He further examines how mechanized innovations encouraged a 'reconceptualizing of not only the discrete properties of metrical verse [...] but also the practice of scansion' (222). He details how experimental physiologists employed Carl Ludwig’s Kymograph to discern patterns in physiological functions of living organisms. From this point, Hall plots a progressive course toward experimental psychologists and phoneticians who created graphic records of the 'infinitesimally fine measurements' of human voice (232). Consequently, they were able to develop a visual language for representing the 'material characteristics of the metered line that the unaided ear could not perceive' (237). Prosodic science, however, did not achieve an 'indisputable metric law, verified by machines and agreed by like-minded experts' but instead 'fell into obscurity' as Hall concludes (242).

Hall’s book is well-documented and deserves consideration proportionate to its theoretical undertaking. It also provides compelling socio-historical evidence of the relation between prosodic education and mechanized serial production in the nineteenth century. By placing his argument at the intersection of various theoretical disciplines, he articulates a comprehensive framework for assessing the literal and conceptual 'meshings between meter and machinery' (18) in the nineteenth century.

John C Murray, Curry College