Novels, Romance, and Romans, oh my !

I’ve long kicked around the idea of writing a novel in Iambic Pentameter, the idea isn’t as nutty as it sounds. For one a few contemporary writers have written verse novels, like the late David Rakoff, whose “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is mostly in anapestic tetrameter, or Vikram Seth, whose novels are infused heavily with verse. His “The Golden Gate” is in iambic pentameter.

The idea seems funny, aren’t poetry and novels supposed to be separate?
Well, ask yourself, why?
Where does this assumption come from? Doubtless, few people in today’s world feel like wading through, say, Milton’s Paradise Lost but at one time verse, and poetry, were the queens of the literary world, both high and low. Broadsheet Ballads were the original English news papers, decades or perhaps even a century before the true rise of gazettes and journals.

Let’s consider this. The prose novel, as we know it today, is a rather new thing.
This is why, in fact, it’s called a novel in english, for it was a new and novel thing. They were also called Romances, a word that only survives today in Bodice and Panty Rippers churned out like candy, and devoured eagerly by educated and accomplished women all around the English speaking world as a naughty or guilty pleasure.

Originally all novels were Romances; or rather I should say and the Romance didn’t just deal with love, it dealt with war, adventures, all sorts of things. This notion survived on a bit even up until the 1960’s and early 70’s. Frank Yerby’s Gothic Romances were very much Male books. They could be read by women, and often were eagerly read by women, but the perspective of the central character was Male. The adventures were rugged, and he didn’t get one girl, rather he typically got two or more, of whom one would either survive (literally, death counts were a bit ghastly in some of these pulp paperback Romances) or be left as the one true love and right choice in the end.

The Romance in English is the Roman in French. The French prose Roman did inspire the first generation of English novelists, along with the translation of 1001 Arabian Nights, which in many ways more or less prefigured and inspired the Fantasy, Weird and Supernatural Tale (Lovecraft, and before him Poe, and even Lord Byron and others going before him were fascinated and heavily influenced by the 1001 Nights..)

Now the original Roman was in verse, they were poems, going back to the Roman de Rou and the Roman de Brut, in the earliest dim echos of Anglo-Norman literature. It is the Roman de Brut, which heavily borrowed from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Histria Regnum Britannia, which was responsible for popularizing the legend of King Author both among the French and English at the close of the Dark Ages and dawn of the High Middle Ages in the West.

All Romans at that time were poetry, often in an octosyllable meter, though sometimes in Alexandrines, at times rhyming, that new poetic device borrowed from Arab poetry, whose cultural influence gradually wafted North from Andalusia during the time of Muslim rule in Spain. But sometimes eschewing rhyme, Romans were crafted in a sort of blank verse.

A novel in Iambic Pentameter, in a way, is a return back to it’s origins. Or let’s say that stories, rather, narratives, when told in verse, are a return back to the origins of literary storytelling.

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