To master the God of Changes, as Menelaus learned, you have to pin him down. Proteus will change his body rapidly under the weight of yours: a lion, a serpent, a leopard, a boar. Then, as he realizes you won’t let go, he will get desperate. His body will become flowing water and then a rooted tree, motion and fixity, the extremes of the spectrum. Finally: Proteus.

Even that form, though, may be an illusion. After all, for him to remain Proteus, he has to remain protean. Proteus in his native form is just a body suspending its transition. His one true form is the sum of all his past forms and all his forms to come.

Let his name shape-shift a little in the ear. Keep the capital P, keep the long O sound, keep the dactylic rhythm of it, but let everything else flicker. Proteus. Protean.

Poetry.

Human gestation involves a steady embryonic shape-shift. In the womb, the body tests out neck gills and seals them, grows a tail and resorbs it, webs the fingers and frees them. A whole evolutionary past is implied in it: fish, salamander, duck. Enough metamorphoses to fill a book in Ovid.

We can make this mistake when it comes to form. We can think of a poet writing in many different forms as a preliminary fitfulness (larva, pupa, nymph) that precedes a settled, adult form. Congratulations, you have “found your voice,” “hit your stride,” “become who you are,” and you will never bother testing out a curtal sonnet or a run of sprung rhythm ever again.

Several prominent twentieth-century poets serve as examples that can trick us into this kind of thinking. Their oeuvres begin with formal restlessness, then break abruptly as they adopt the ubiquitous, free verse form of the twentieth century. The early books of W. S. Merwin, Ted Hughes, Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, and even John Ashbery experiment with patterns of rhyme and meter, shapes on the page governed by shapes for the ear. Then there is a break. The reasons for this are usually presented as the poet transcending “restraints” and gaining visionary access to the taproot of True Poetry, a breaking of “formal shackles,” or some other metaphor involving liberation, rebellion, or engaging with modernity. Seen from a distance, they adopted the dominant form of their era and stayed there. Because those poets rarely if ever returned to that early formal restlessness, it’s easy to regard that phase as apprentice work.

Other poets never underwent such a phase—or, what is more likely, concealed the literary traces of it. They seem to have shown up fully formed; they take one form and never depart from it. Every poem contains the entire formal genome of the poet, and the formal characteristics of all the other poems can be derived from one example of his or her art. Kay Ryan is like that. Pick a poem at random, say, “Shark’s Teeth” (2005):

Everything contains some

silence. Noise gets

its zest from the

small shark’s-tooth

shaped fragments

of rest angled

in it. An hour

of city holds maybe

a minute of these

remnants of a time

when silence reigned,

compact and dangerous

as a shark. Sometimes

a bit of a tail

or fin can still

be sensed in parks.

That is Ryan’s form. All her poems say different things, but they say those things the exact same way.

Ryan may seem to be a rare case, but most of the great Persian poets were more devoted to the couplet than Alexander Pope. Most American poets are one-form poets. The only reason we notice uniformity in Ryan’s case is because Ryan rhymes, creating a consistently identifiable, if intentionally skewed, symmetry. Most other American poets begin and end their careers using some kind of free verse that has an irregularly irregular rhythm; their formal variations are largely typographical. Many don’t honor their own line breaks as they recite, reading right through them as though they were reciting prose. That is the tell. Theirs is the restlessness of the return key, not the restlessness of form.

Not that stasis can’t be generative. From one perspective, Merwin’s mid- and late-career poems gained immensely through his eschewal of the rhyme, meter, and even the punctuation of his early books. Consider this from “The Asians Dying,” first published in 1966:

When the forests have been destroyed their

darkness remains

The ash the great walker follows the possessors

Forever

Nothing they will come to is real

Nor for long

Over the watercourses

Like ducks in the time of the ducks

The ghosts of the villages trail in the sky

Making a new twilight

Once he knew in advance what all his future poems would look and sound like, he could focus on other things, like what to put in the poems. The formal switch to free verse gave him a feeling of freedom, not just because he did not have to set up regular patterns of scansion and rhyme, but because he had one fewer artistic decision to worry about. Besides, it was what most readers wanted anyway.

What about poets who never leave off shape-shifting? In some oeuvres, a poem of a given shape cannot be pinpointed, on the basis of that shape alone, to an “early” or “mature” phase. A potpourri of patterns, a farrago of forms may persist into old age—even after a Merwin-like rupture. Yeats changed many elements of his style between the “Celtic Twilight” work and his more self-consciously “modern” work—but his formal restlessness remained constant.

Kipling remains adored by sentimentalists for “If,” cherished by children for the rhymes in Just-So Stories and The Jungle Book, despised by Postcolonial Studies majors for “The White Man’s Burden,” and ignored by everyone for the plebeian brogue of Barrack-Room Ballads. None of those easily distinguishable poems shares a form or even a tone or theme (except, maybe, his most famous one and his most infamous one). He was always trying out new themes and rhyme schemes.

The same holds true of most Romantic poets. Their Collected Poems usually contain a plethora of poetic patterns, sizes, and genres. Keats ran through more forms and categories of poem by the age of twenty-three than most American poets will touch in a Pulitzer Prize–winning career. Not just Keats but Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Tennyson all tried their hand at blank verse drama.

They did this because of Shakespeare, of course—that most protean of all poets, reshaping his voice into so many men and women that even his Sonnets are not definitely spoken in his “own” voice. Shakespeare alone ought to give the quietus to our notions of originality and “finding your voice.” Authorship controversies have attributed his entire oeuvre, at various times, to any one of a divergent cast of characters—among them a nobleman (Edward de Vere), a shoemaker’s son (Marlowe), and an Italian immigrant’s daughter (Emilia Bassano). Proteus can be anyone.

Formal restlessness is not some gestational, preliminary phase. Consider it, rather, a mature stage of development, a fixed characteristic, the “now this, now that” approach that makes Proteus Proteus.

Another consummate Proteus-poet was Goethe. He used to seize on a form, churn out several examples of it, and abandon it—until he returned to it later for some drastically different use of it. So the dactylic hexameter line shows up in the late 1780s, in the twenty-four salacious Roman Elegies (here translated by Michael Hamburger):

Often too in her arms I’ve lain composing a

poem,

Gently with her fingering hand count the

hexameter’s beat

Out on her back. . . .

The line shows up again, ten years later, in the sweet, idyllic epic about Hermann and Dorothea, a tale of a refugee falling in love in the German countryside. Around this time he also wrote a book or two of a hexameter epic on Achilles, putting that line to its more conventional use.

Another conventional use of the line, in the classical world, lay in didactic poetry. Goethe has a small role in the development of that biological theory of endless shape-shift, evolution. The hexameters of “The Metamorphosis of Animals” dates to 1806.

The Marienbad Elegy, written all the way in 1821, uses that meter yet again. Goethe returned to the young, satisfied lover’s meter—those dactyls, tapped out on his Italian lover’s back—to write about an old man’s impossible longing for a teenager. (Ulrike von Levetzow, the object of Goethe’s failed proposal, died in 1899. Her grave became an object of pilgrimage for many a biographer.)

This restlessness was a constant feature of Goethe’s poetry, as any glance at his Selected Poems reveals. He owned several mines, each one dedicated to a different poetic ore, which he accessed or abandoned depending on his needs and whims. Faust tumbled all these forms into one work—a gallimaufry of verbal patterns that changes, not just from scene to scene, but from character to character.

Goethe once described himself as a pagan and attracted the epithet “Olympian” from his contemporaries. Like so many Germans of his era, he fetishized the classical Mediterranean world. It may be no coincidence that formal restlessness is almost the rule among lyric poets of the classical world. Sappho gave her name to “sapphics,” but it’s not as if all her poems adhered to that one meter. Horace, imitating the Greeks, replicated their plurality of patterns: Asclepiadic, Sapphic, Alcaic, Aeolic. The world’s most famous poem of shape-shifts comes from his near contemporary.

There is one other major polytheistic civilization whose literature survives. Sanskrit poetry doesn’t just have a variety of meters; like the “pagan” Goethe’s Faust, like the dramas that survive from Greece’s polytheistic civilization, Sanskrit plays and courtly epics mix meters in the same work.

Yet formal restlessness is not just a literary quirk of Sanskrit poets; it correlates with Hindu theology, whose one divinity manifests in many forms. India’s earliest, most hallowed holy books, the Vedas, deploy no fewer than fifteen meters; the Bhagavad-Gita, a later sacred text, switches between two (my translation):

Look at me, Partha—forms,

A hundred, more, a thousandfold,

Divine multiplicities,

Multiple colors and shapes!

By the end of its millennia-long development, literary Sanskrit evolved no fewer than 850 meters. Multiplicity is one way to the infinite.

In the Hindu tradition, the God who takes on new forms is Vishnu. The most recent avatars have been human—Rama and Krishna—but the earlier ones include a fish, a turtle, a boar, and a man with the head of a lion. Animal forms precede the human one, just as they do in embryology and Darwinism.

Among the Greeks, Proteus was a minor God; among the Hindus, Vishnu is nothing less than the sustainer of the universe. In the Indian tradition, even the individual self reincarnates, subject to rebirth in different human or non-human bodies. This was a belief shared, in some form, by both Pythagoras and Socrates, who discusses reincarnation in the Meno. Metempsychosis is metamorphosis. Death is just a page break, a turning from this poem to the next one, which tries out yet another form: from blank verse monologue, to the sonnet, to the internal eternal recurrence of the triolet.

TheOdyssey shows us Proteus counting his flock of seals. Sunning on the rocks, seals are frequently motionless, and when they do move, they heave themselves forward awkwardly. Once they slip through the waves, they take on speed and grace. It’s the closest thing to transformation a body can manage without actually changing form.

Ambushed and pinned down, Proteus changes shape in desperation, attempting to elude the one who will force him to speak as himself. Menelaus wants a straight answer; he wants information. Proteus’s various guises all speak in Homeric hexameter, but what Menelaus wants from Proteus is the stuff of prose.

Proteus, however, wants to be free. He wants to be free to become something other than himself, perpetually, with neither endpoint nor endgame. In his natural state, glorying in his divine power, Proteus thrives by donning a variety of bodies. Formal restlessness is the only state in which he is entirely at ease, entirely himself.

Formal restlessness need not imply a scattered body of work. Paging through a collection by George Herbert, or Robert Frost, or a contemporary poet like A. E. Stallings, you can see a variety of shapes, which in these poets corresponds to a variety of sound patterns. Unity lies elsewhere—whether it’s a thematic fixation (religion, in Herbert), musical tics (the tendency to metrical substitution, in Stallings, that resembles a Morse operator’s “hand”), or sharp limitations of register (Frost is never effusive). Unity does not require uniformity. As a poet, you can be “all of a piece” even if the pieces don’t match.

Why pursue a plurality of forms? The poets who do it seem to do it relentlessly; even poets exclusively devoted to non-metrical, unrhymed verse seem compelled to break up their lines into couplets, tercets, quatrains, sonnets, what have you. Every poet who does so probably has his or her own reasons. A love of play almost certainly factors into it, especially for poets who persist in using rhyme, meter, or both. These musical elements link poetry to nursery rhymes; form in poetry is self-delighting first of all, I suspect, and delights the (receptive) reader as a bonus. No wonder squibs and the occasional run of doggerel show up even in the slender Collected of a poet as short-lived as Keats. Goethe, Eliot, and Stallings all show a willingness to pursue the art of light verse; Auden edited a whole anthology of it. Formally restless poets seem, as a rule, to be anti-hierarchical in their approach to poetry, perhaps because they try their hand at so many forms. They are less likely to dismiss the pun or clever epigram as antithetical to Serious Poetry.

Nor should we underestimate the drive, on the poet’s part, to avoid boredom. There is a thrill to succeeding with an as-yet-unattempted form to which only those who fail repeatedly can attest. The challenge keeps things interesting.

At its heart, though, I suspect formal restlessness is intrinsic to their poetic expression. The form creates a vacuum where no vacuum was, and not just rhymes and stressed syllables but emotions, images, ideas get sucked into it. The poet discovers new poems with the assistance of these forms; willed patterns fill with unwilled language. Notice how prolific Goethe, the English Romantics, Kipling, and Auden were: constantly seeking out new forms clearly did not hinder or stifle them. In fact, it may have done the reverse, liberating poetic speech from the tyranny of prose rhythms.

This would require us to rethink form itself—whether one chosen form (Ghalib’s ghazal) or a promiscuous panoply (Goethe’s multiplicity)—as something other than “constraint,” “restraint,” “shackles,” “box,” or “stricture.” All the conventional twentieth-century critical metaphors of containment, imprisonment, binding, and restriction will have to be scrapped. A new understanding must rely on new metaphors. Form is the engine, the lottery, the kaleidoscope; the void that gives you what you fill it with, the call you teach yourself to echo; the luck-maker, the goad, the god.

Menelaus trapped Proteus in order to put him to use. Stranded on the island of Pharos off the coast of Egypt, Menelaus wanted to learn how to get home. He made Proteus give him other facts as well, finding out the fates of Agamemnon and Odysseus. Proteus did this unwillingly. Providing mortals with straight information is not the proper function of a god, just as it is not the proper function of poetry. The oracle had the decency to be cryptic.

The name “Proteus” comes from protos, “first,” a prefix that still appears in English, most commonly in the sciences. The root of “Proteus” has given us the protons in atomic nuclei, as well as protozoa in the sea and protoplasm, the fluid inside every human cell. The three words form a rough map of evolution from inanimate matter, through the sea’s “first animals,” to the living brine that fills a human body.

All Proteus wanted to do, after emerging from the sea at high noon, was count his herd of seals by fives. (Verse used to be called “numbers,” its beats tapped out, perhaps on a lover’s back, by five fingers.) After counting, Menelaus had learned, Proteus always went to sleep. Proteus, the shape-shifting magical god, came up from the sea to sleep in broad daylight. His eyes closed to the garishly sparkling sea because he preferred his dreams.

“What song the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women,” wrote Thomas Browne, “though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.” Homer does not tell us what Proteus dreamed there in the sun, during his midday nap, just before Menelaus threw off his sealskin disguise and attacked. That god of formal fluidity, that unacknowledged god of poetry, may have dreamed himself slipping out of the waking world. He may have splashed into the dream world, where his mind moved faster and more gracefully, like a seal dropping through the waves, transformed instantly by the medium. In that dream, he may have tested out alternate bodies, voices, mating calls, and minds.

When he felt the heavy, hairy, desperate warrior pin him to the rock and startle him from dream sleep, he may have continued those shape-shifts in his groggy confusion: a lion, a serpent, a leopard, a boar, flowing water, a tree.

See Menelaus smother that tree in his embrace while the leaves turn red around him. At last, the bark smooths into bare skin, and the branches deflate into arms. The mutable magical one will be forced to answer against his will. He will give Menelaus knowledge of his friends and knowledge of how to leave the island where he has stalled: news and usable information. The wisdom of Proteus, because he has been pinned down to a single form, has already escaped. A shrewder captor might have asked the god to teach him and his men the art of becoming seals. They could have splashed into the waves immediately, no need to wait for the wind. They could have swum home to Sparta swiftly and gracefully, impossible to shipwreck, impossible to drown.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 9, on page 24
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