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A history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) online

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improvements." It is not clear whether " other " is
intended to exclude or include the versification with or
from those which were not improvements ; but if the
much-tried and ever-faithful Mary meant to include it, I
am bound to differ with her in part. He has certainly
rather spoilt the first stanza; but he has decidedly improved
the blank verse.

It was natural that he should do so ; for by this time
(182 1 ) he had long ago attained his own remarkable
command of that difficult vehicle — a command which
he obtained to some extent from Wordsworth, which
Browning endeavoured to imitate in Paidine and even
later, though he changed it greatly afterwards, but which


is elsewhere, I think, hardly to be found. It is, indeed,
nearly complete in Alastor^ only two years younger than
Queen Mab itself. Its starting-point, as has been said, is
Wordsworth's very best brand of the verse, such as that
of the finest parts of " Tintern Abbey," to which the
overture of Alastor is actually akin in subject ; this
overture thus making, with the other to Queen Mab and
its relation to Thalaba, a curious double instance of the
way in which the most original of poets may start himself
with a simply borrowed capital. But Shelley soon parts
company from Wordsworth in spirit, and though he
retains the suggestion of form, blends it with other sug-
gestions of Milton and Shakespeare, and some things not
in either — a certain breathlessness (caught and never got
rid of by Browning) ; plenty of trisyllabic feet ; very
few, though some, redundant syllables ; ^ a love for
brilliant, opal -like spots of colour ; and a predilection
for very strong full-stop pauses at or near the middle,
which, if it were not for diversity of spirit, might suggest
Thomson or even (may the saints absolve me !) Glover.
Here there is no difficulty in agreeing with Mrs. Shelley,
who pronounces the versification " peculiarly melodious."
I know few poems more delightful to read scanningly to
oneself than Alastor.

The command of this admirable vehicle Shelley, as His early
has been said, always retained ; but he was not contented ' p^"^*^"^"^-
with it. In fact all forms of poetry seem to have come
naturally to him : others, with great price of labour, may
have attained this freedom, but he was free-born — that is,
when he was born at all, for it must be admitted that the
" Juvenilia " are in this respect ante-natal. Exactly why
Laon and Cythna or The Revolt of Islam employed the
Spenserian it might be impossible to say. No two poets
have been more akin on larger sides of their nature than
Spenser and Shelley ; and Shelley was to produce later,
in Adonais, the most magnificent, if not the most exact,

' It may be laid down generally that any one who does not recognise the
danger of very frequent redundance in dramatic blank verscj or of more than
very sparing redundance in non-dramatic, has not got its secret.


modern examples of the great metre. But I should not
be surprised if Childe Harold had something to do, if
only by an accident of time, with the selection ; and
occasionally a not wholly beneficent influence seems to
be exerted either by it, or by Shelley's own practice in
blank verse just noticed. He is rather too lavish of the
strong middle stop, of which, in Spenser, you may turn
page after page without finding a single example. But
his Alexandrines are much better moulded on than
Byron's ; and for the pure picture effects, which are so
frequent in this beautiful poem, the stanza, as is well
known, " hath no fellow." There is, however, a certain
twist about Shelley's Spenserians, of which we may say
more when we come to Adonais itself
Prince A prosodic text, for which we have been long waiting,

Athaimse^vi^ at last presents itself to us in Prince Athanase} Why —

the tercet. *■ •'

the question has already been suggested above — do
English poets seem so shy of terza rima, or why is it so
shy of them ? To say that Prince Athanase also is
beautiful is merely to say that it is Shelley's, and past
1815. But its measure has very little to do with
its beauty : one thinks very little about it. Indeed, I
always feel inclined myself, as I generally do with English
tercets, to read on as if it were a sort of interchained
couplet verse. Whether what Drayton would call " the
attraction of the Gemell " for the English ear works too
powerfully on this so near neighbour to it, I cannot say.
Sometimes I have also imagined a metaphysical con-
nection with the double rhyme, which comes naturally
and inevitably in Italian, and is anything but inevitable,
if it is not in the least unnatural, in English. But
certainly that powerful and dangerous engine, the pause,
comes into play here. Once more I run my eye down
page after page of Dante, finding hardly a single strong
internal stop except at the beginning of a speech.
Shelley has endeavoured to follow this, but in so short

1 The "Ode to the West Wind" has the pecidiarity of being in batches
— five quatorzains each divided into four triplets and a couplet, and almost
invariably run together. It is really a kind of sonnet-sequence, though the
triplets, separately regarded, are in terza 7-ima.


a stanza, and with mostly single rhymes, it does not
quite do. This is not a mere fancy, or a mere trumped-
up thing to suit the immediate purpose. The double
rhyme, like the redundant syllable generally, has a curious
reflex action. It fills, and so seems in a way to retard,
the interval between the two lines. But, in filling, it
brids^es that interval, and obliterates the sharpest edges
of its banks. Thus the Dantean tercet is, despite its
slow motion and not great volume, curiously integral, a
point which Dante carefully guards and watches by
avoiding as much as he possibly can the running of one
tercet into another. Now, this point Shelley as constantly
neglects. There are only, I think, four completely isolated
tercets in Prince Athanase ; between forty and fifty actually
enjamb ; and most of the rest are separated only by
commas. In one place a batch of half-a-score stanzas
runs without any end-stop at all, producing an effect more
opposite to that of any thirty lines of Dante than might
have seemed possible in an apparently identical metre.
And in the " West Wind," out of twenty tercets twelve
are in similar case. We may take this matter up yet
again on TJie Triumph of Life, and more fully still on
Canon Dixon's Mano}

Rosalind and Helen gives yet a fresh instance oi Rosalind
Shelley's propensity and ability to take any metre that sheiie^/s^octo-
suggested itself and make it his own. The libertine syllables,
octosyllable, substituted, lengthened, varied into ballad
and other stanzas, had already been solidly established as
a poetic vehicle by Coleridge and Scott and Byron.
Shelley shows himself completely master of it, though
perhaps he does not show such exquisiteness in the
mastery as he was afterwards to do in the purer but still
free octosyllables of shorter pieces in his very last stage.
It ends with a batch of very beautiful ^i^r^syllables,

1 I am bound to say that unrhymed terza, with frequent but not uniform
redundance, such as Longfellow used in his translation of the Comniedia,
seems to me one of the most abominable measures ever invented. And that
I am none of the decriers of Longfellow any one may see who looks at a
little volume of Selections from him (Edinburgh, 1906), or indeed at what
follows on him later in this volume.



lulian and
Maddalo :
his heroics.

Blank veise
and other
metres in


rhymed in a fashion which for once is absolutely irre-
ducible to any regular order.

Julian and Maddalo, on the other hand, is in con-
tinuous enjambed heroic couplets 7?z';//z«/-fashioned, but
with Shelley's curious combination of delicacy and
strength in utterance, instead of Hunt's rather loose-
lipped and loose -legged fluency. In the two great
dramas we have naturally, according to their subject and
scheme, blank verse largely alternated with lyric, and
blank verse alone. There cannot, I think, be much doubt
that Shelley's blank verse was better suited for mixed
than for pure usage. The longer speeches of The Cenci
contain some of the greatest things — perhaps the greatest
— in the later and more literary English serious drama ;
and their vehicle carries them off nobly. But it is less
well fitted for conversation, and the artificiality which
mars the whole of that drama is promoted, not hindered,
by it there.

On the other hand, Provicthetis Ufibound is as great
a triumph prosodically as in other ways ; perhaps even a
greater. It is more flawless in this respect than even
Adonais, though its larger bulk and greater variety would
seem to invite flaws to show themselves. The triumph
arises, not only from the beauty of particular passages,
but from the intimate union and congruity of the blank
verse with the lyrics themselves. The drawback of the
modern choric drama as a rule is that this unity does not
exist : there is at best an agreeable contrast, at worst a
positive discord, between dialogue and chorus. Here such
a thing as the magnificent opening speech — the central
passage of which has no superior in a certain kind of
rather flamboyant blanks — passes quite naturally into the
Earth-voices and the songs of the Oceanides, and these
again into the blank verse, and so throughout. To go,
showman-fashion, through Prometheus and exhibit the
single beauties of passage after passage would take a
chapter, if not a Book. I can only say that in all the
long procession and pageant of English poetry which it
has been my good fortune to survey as I have been


preparing and writing this History, nothing has ever
presented itself, and nothing, I think, will present itself,
in such a combination of prosodic beauty and variety as
this. The famous words of Asia ^ on the Spirit voice
are the only possible description of the sensations of the
reader of PronietJicus Utibound who is worthy to read it.
This was the heritage of which seven centuries of poetic
labour and experiment from Godric to Coleridge had put
English poetry in possession ; and Shelley's was the golden
key that threw it open to enjoyment."

The fact is that at this time (18 19) Shelley had fully The Masq^it
entered into his prosodic kingdom. Look at The Masque ''/^'^"^^^^y-
of AnarcJiy. The present writer has not a tear or a puff
of indignation to waste over " Peterloo " — of which he
happens to know the history pretty intimately, and which,
though a very much bungled thing, was not a crime at
all, nor even, had it been better done, a blunder. Yet he
thinks TJie Masque of Anarchy an admirable piece of
verse, with one of the powers of the trochee — its capacity
for expressing retained or reined-in feeling, be it passion,
or satire, or rage — perfectly mastered, and with the
occasional iambic alternations capitally managed. This
piece shows partly, and Peter Bell the Third shows still
more, that Shelley's sense of humour, though intermittent
and sometimes warped, was not in the least like Milton's,
a non-existent faculty, but only required heaven-sent
moments to develop it. It is developed prosodically, and
I can assure any incredulous reader that prosodic humour
is quite a real thing, though, unfortunately, some would-be
humorous verse-writers have little or no command of it.
In Peter it is very intermittent, but at the best excellent ;
giving us a fresh illustration of the remarkable powers of

1 My soul is an enchanted boat

Which like a sleeping swan doth float
Upon the silver waves of thy sweet singing ;

And thine doth like an angel sit

Beside a [the ?] helm conducting it,
Whilst all the winds with melody are ringing.

2 I apologise for this outbreak, as I did in the case of Spenser ; but one
cannot help these things now and then.


the quintet, which seems born for the purpose of charging
the ordinary quatrain with a second and special inten-
tion.^ And there is something of this prosodic humour
in the blank verse of the Epistle to Maria Gisbonie — the
satiric drama to the serious one of Alastor in point of
The Witch of Kubla Kkau has often been taken as the test-poem
octav^e^" ' ^ ^° decide whether a man cares for poetry as poetry, or
whether he cares for it as expressing some sentiment, or
conveying some meaning, which is agreeable or seems
respectable to him. It will serve, certainly ; but I am
not sure that The Witch of Atlas is not a better — it
certainly is a severer — basanos. Mary Shelley — for
reasons perfectly comprehensible, and illustrated by one
or two touching stories of her later life and conversation
— objected to it as having " no human interest." I
should have said it had a great deal ; at least I believe
myself to be human, and it has a very intense interest
for me. But that is perhaps beyond our province. Its
prosodic interest is very nearly supreme. It is to me
the only example of the octave in English serious, or
mainly serious verse, which is perfectly satisfactory ; and
I am not sure that this is not due to the fact that Shelley
has, in it, caught from Byron, and " translated " with his
own etherealising touch, some — one can hardly say comic,
one must certainly not say satiric or burlesque — but
" non-tragic " quality. He has made it utterly fanciful —
a true " fairy way of writing " — a rather less holy but
lighter companion to the Spenserian. Like the Prome-
theus, the Witch is pure prosodic nectar ; one must look
back at least to the close of Coniiis for anything of their
kind. Indeed, much admirable work as we have since
had — and how admirable it has been the pages that
follow will, I hope, serve, however inadequately, to tell — I
do not know that any equally considerable things have

^ Like gentle rains, on the dry plains,

Making that green which late was grey,
Or like the sudden moon that stains
Some gloomy chamber's window-panes
With a broad light like day.


been added since to this triad of achieved and continuous
lyrical or quasi-lyrical narrative.^

But that " going from strength to strength," which is Epipsychidion
so noteworthy in Shelley's last years, and which makes ^"'^ Adonais.
one lose oneself in wonder as to what he might have
done, is as noticeable in his mere prosodic aspects as in
his general poetic quality. The enjambed couplets of
Epipsychidio7i show an immense advance on Jjilian and
Maddalo, entirely avoiding that limpness which, as we
have seen, is the curse of the species, and attaining a
rhymed verse-paragraph which, quite unlike Lycidas in
particular effect, resembles it in belonging to the general
class of " rhymed blank verse " — rhymed verse that
acquires the powers of blank, and blank verse that borrows
the attraction of rhyme.

And then there is Adojiais.

Adonais is not faultless (faultlessness, thank Heaven !
could never be included in the list of Shelley's faults),
and some of its shortcomings are not exactly beauty-
spots. He uses double rhymes, which, though not un-
exampled in the great original, are always against the
metre ; and, with his usual lack of cold-blooded revision,
he has certain touches here and there of cliche and cheville.
But in the best of it (which means nearly the whole),
and exercising his full rights of Spenserian inheritance,
he has combined the pictorial power of the Faerie Qiieene
with the mystic ardour of the Fotir Hymns, the sweetness
of part of the Calendar, the intensity — in sorrow now, not
in love — of the Epithalaniion, adding his own marvellous

^ For the Prometheus and Coimis are much more narrative par persoiinages,
as the excellent Old French phrase has it, than drama. The Witch herself
is difficult to sample, she is so perfect ; but here is a stanza, literally the first
of the first page opened :

This lady never slept, but lay in trance

All night within the fountain, as in sleep.
Its emerald crags glowed in her beauty's glance ;
Through the green splendour of the water deep
She saw the constellations reel and dance

Like fire-flies ; and withal did ever keep
The tenor of her contemplations calm,
With open eyes, closed feet, and folded palm.
The marriage of rhythm and picture here was certainly made in heaven.


idiosyncrasy of phrase. The opening, the great and well-
known passages from the entry of the Dreams to the
simile of the dome, the towering magnificence of the final
apostrophe, and some of the fragments not incorporated,
do not merely exemplify to the full the power of this
wonderful metre : they add to it.
riw. Triumph Helliis and the various dramatic fragments require
of ife, etc. lij-j-jg addition to the comments which have already been
made on Shelley's blank verse, whether plain or mixed ;
and I do not know that much more is wanted on the
tercets of that unique torso The Triumph of Life, in
which it has always appeared to me that we get close to
the quintessence of Shelleyism on the less sensuous side.
He has, however, not got rid of what seems to me the
metricidal (or 7)ictroktonic) overlapping. And one curious
thing has struck me. In adopting, at the close of the
Proem, a quatrain instead of a tercet, he has of course
authority from Dante. But it is exceedingly noteworthy
— to me at least — that whereas in Dante's terminal
quatrains we always feel the last line to be an addition —
to be, as it were, extra-stanzaic — Shelley's four lines read
quite homogeneously and integrally, as if they meant to
be such.
The smaller The paradise of the smaller lyrics cannot be wandered

lyrics, etc. through at leisure, as I would so fain wander through it.
But it illustrates almost /^j-^'/w, in the literal sense, that
omnipotence of metrical adoption and adaptation which
has been noted. Even the " Lines " ^ which Mrs. Shelley
put as last dated (November 1 8 i 5) of the " Early Poems "
are quite obvious Ancient Mariyzer touched to a Shelleyan
issue. From the time when the yearly arrangement
begins we need not mention poems, however poetically
consummate, which are in metres already noticed or in

1 The cold earth slept below,
Above the cold sky shone.
And all around
With a chilling sound,
From caves of ice and fields of snow,
The breath of night like death did flow
Beneath the sinking moon.


those which require no special comment. But such a
thing, for instance, as the transformation of the Spenserian
in " To Constantia Singing " is of the kind that must be
noticed. It is a duplicate, in subject and spirit, of the
song in Prometheus noted above, but entirely different in
form. Of the pure novena it keeps nothing but the
number of lines and the final Alexandrine, and these only
in the first stanzas, the others being eleven-lined, while even
the interior line-lengths are irregular. But the irregularity
corresponds to the fluctuation of the music and the passion
alike, and the whole is perfectly symphonic.^

" Ozymandias," good as it is, is chiefly a text for the
very well-known sermon that Shelley had no particular
bent towards the sonnet. Some people would, I suppose,,
say that he did not like its restraint ; and without definitely
countering this, I should say that it neither afforded him
room enough for expatiation, nor was distinctly lyrical
enough for his short flights. But the splendid " Lines
written among the Euganean Hills," like the later
" Invitation " and " Ariel to Miranda," show an absolute
mastery of the trochaic heptasyllable — sometimes, but
not often, varied by the full iambic dimeter. And the-
" Stanzas written in Dejection " follow the " Constantia '*■
in showing how fond Shelley was of taking the novena
with Alexandrine ending and fingering the body of it into
quite new forms with a marvellous result.^ The " West

^ The great last stanza must be given :

I have no life, Constantia, now, but thee.

Whilst, like the world-surrounding air, thy song
Flows on, and fills all things with melody. —

Now is thy voice a tempest swift and strong.
On which, like one in trance upborne,

Secure o'er rocks and waves I sweep,
Rejoicing like a cloud of morn ;

Now 'tis the breath of summer night,
Which, when the starry waters sleep,

Round western isles, with incense-blossoms bright,
Lingering, suspends my soul in its voluptuous flight.
- I may take as example a stanza in which all editions known to me keep
what I feel quite sure is a wrong punctuation :

I see the Deep's untrampled floor

With green and purple seaweeds strown ;
I see the waves upon the shore

Like light dissolved in star-showers, thrown ;
VOL. Ill I


Wind," ^ with its already noted structure of a sonnet-
sequence spaced out into tercets and couplets, contrasts
curiously with the still more famous " Serenade," where
the prosody is more musical than strictly prosodic, and
is thus almost inextricable from the air when one has
once heard it. In the " Sensitive Plant," on the other
hand, the music is purely prosodic, and it gives us one of
the most remarkable examples of the power of the con-
tinuous anapaest, not merely in songs — as Scott and
Byron and Moore had shown it, as indeed it had been
shown since Dryden, if not earlier, — not merely in light
pieces as Prior and the eighteenth century had shown it,
but in serious and even passionate poetry, and at no
inconsiderable length. And there ought to be taken with
this the less popular but extraordinarily powerful " Vision
of the Sea," where the same metre is actually used for
narrative purposes, and used as successfully as the almost
inevitably impersonal or «;«personal character of Shelley's
narrative admits.

Of "The Cloud"- and "The Skylark "^^ who shall speak?

I sit upon the sands alone,

The lightning of the noontide ocean ^

Is flashing round me, and a tone
Arises from its measured motion —
How sweet ! did any heart now share in my emotion !
The comma should surely be at "dissolved," not "showers."

1 Vide sup. p. 1 06 7iote.

2 " Experimental " prosody is in vogue just now. I can give the reader
an example of it which he may not dislike. The first proof of this passage
was before me when M. Verrier's remarkable book {v. inf. last chapter on
" Prosodists ") came into my hands. M. Verrier says that "la metrique
traditionnelle renonce a diviser les pieds " in "The Cloud" and Christabel.
With the latter {v. sup. ) I had dealt already. But it so happened that I had
never deliberately scanned "The Cloud." I opened it, read it, without a
moment's preparation, straight through ; and I give my honour as a gentleman
that every line, every word, every syllable fell into its foot-place as if I had
had a marked copy before me.

^ The " Skylark " is perhaps one of those interesting prosodic cruces which
may be uncrossed in more ways than one. It may seem to be an instance of
the common, and delightful, chassi-croisi from iamb to trochee, and vice
versa, the quatrain of short lines being trochaic, and the Alexandrine iambic.
But I am not sure that the real cadence of the whole is not iambic, with
acephalous or monosyllabic beginning in most of the "shorts." A few of
these ("The pale | pur|ple even," "What ob|jects are | the fountain," etc.)
supply a curious key, or tuning-fork, by giving the full first foot.


The one is of the capital examples of triple, the other of
the capital examples of common time in our prosody.
The rush, almost the " rollick," of the first, the steady-
soar of the second, nearly exhaust the modes, in these
special directions, of metrical motion, by means of
articulate language, with an inarticulate aura of music
surrounding. And " Arethusa," and the " Hymn of Pan,"
and the " World's Wanderer," and the " Fugitives," and
" Remembrance," and almost dozens more of the shorter
later poems ? But there is one with which we must
finish. It is perhaps impossible to find a better example,
in little, of the way in which prosody can give poetry its
own music — can clothe thought, not merely with a sen-
sible body of words, but with an equally sensible vesture
of sound, — than the immortal " Lament " (" O World !
O Life ! O Time ! "). The arrangement of the line-
lengths, the selection of the vowel-values, the rise and fall

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 10 of 50)