In my recent post on Auden, James's comment took me to task for the term 'muscular syntax', asking what I meant by it. Here goes - using the same Auden quote to which I applied the term as an example:
The tall unwounded leader
Of doomed companions, all
Whose voices in the rock
Are now perpetual,
Fighters for no one's sake
Who died beyond the border.
By calling the syntax muscular I mean that it supplies the rhyme-words, and a complex solution to the metrical brief, with minimal mangling of the underlying sentence (in this case a sentence fragment) - no inversions of word order, for example.
'The tall unwounded leader of doomed companions, all whose voices in the rock are now perpetual, fighters for no one's sake who died beyond the border.'
There's only one syntactical difficulty: 'doomed companions, all whose voices'. Here either 'doomed companions, whose voices' or 'doomed companions, all those whose voices' would be clearer; but it's still intelligible (the elision of 'those' is qute acceptable, if unusual), and such a hurdle is a typical Auden device for tightening and estranging the language.
While the rhyme-words occur in their proper places, the metre is not just a matter of providing adequate trimeter, strict or otherwise. As a rule each line corresponds to a syntactical unit:
'The tall unwounded leader'
'Are now perpetual,'
'Fighters for no one's sake'
'Who died beyond the border.'
That rule is broken, creating a syncopated effect, in L2-3:
'Of doomed companions, all
Whose voices in the rock'
Moreover although the lines correspond to syntactical units, those units are not simple clauses or sentences but fit together into a longer whole.
This illustrates what I mean by saying the metre and syntax are in conversation. Note then that Auden's syntax neither ignores the metre - a prose sentence running on over several lines apparently at random - nor submits to it by providing a series of trimeter clauses only loosely connected into a sentence. Delete any of the lines in thise extract, and the sense is destroyed. The complex sentence fragment running over these lines is trimetrical in shape, but each trimeter is not a discrete unit.
In achieving all of this the syntax never once breaks sweat in the sense of becoming a difficult sentence to untangle. The sentence is, and sounds, basically simple, conversational. That's the virtue of those short clauses, though they need marshalling with great skill. Even the 'all/Whose' knot is a localised elision rather than a confusion of subject or an unravelling of sense. It's controlled. And though we haven't dealt with the line breaks, vowel sounds, metre and so on in detail, all of which clearly contribute to the lines' status as poetry, I hope I've managed to indicate how the syntax can contribute to that status - and why we might call it 'muscular' when it leads to strong poetry.