George Saintsbury.

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

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of the whole stanza-construction, provide in prosody the
" inevitableness " so often desiderated, so lightly talked of
by the inventor of the phrase. " Sensibility to harmony of
numbers and the power of producing it are invariably
companions " of the other poetic faculties. Are they ?
Perhaps, if all poets were Shelleys. But, unfortunately,
they are not.^

I anticipate, of course, the demurrer. " Oh, yes ! these
are beautiful poems, and the beauty of the poetry makes
you see beautiful prosody in it." But I think I may
fairly appeal to the whole of this book to rebut this.
The best poetry will, of course, best set off and be set off
by the best prosody. But poetry is not " the pernicious
and indubitate beggar Zenelophon." She will not look

^ Sometimes one wonders whether, after Shelley, any other poets are
wanted. But this is, of course, idle, the passion for poetry being, of all
others, the most insatiable : and he would himself say, like Beatrice, Volgiti
ed ascolta, Che non purnei niiei occhi e Paradiso. But the curious thing is that
this poetry — this passionate interpretation of life, in beautiful language, set to
harmonious measure — should have been pronounced, by one who in his day
was a great critic, and not a small poet, " ineffectual " ! If I am not mistaken,
there are some chemical substances which it is almost impossible to isolate
in their purity. Shelley effected the isolation of poetry, and (thank Heaven !
not with all of us) he has paid the penalty of attempting, even with success,
the apparently impossible.


so well in rags, and she will not transform them if she
wears them ; she will at most excuse and divert attention
from them. And though beautiful singing robes will
not dignify a poor song, they will still be beautiful.

Still, I must have quite failed to attain my own
object in this rather elaborate survey of Shelley's prosody
if I have not suggested to the reader that there is some-
thing peculiar about it — that he is in a way the exception
which ^/jproves Wordsworth's rule. With him suscepti-
bility to almost any harmony of numbers, and the power
of producing it, do follow or accompany the possession
of other poetic gifts. And this crowning gift seems to
have been bestowed upon him suddenly — as by his own
Witch of Atlas. Without apparent study or prepara-
tion he passes from the most ordinary, or nearly the
most ordinary, verse-making to the extraordinary blank
verse of Alastor : and thenceforward anything that he
chooses to write — tercet and quatrain, octave and
Spenserian, mixed lyric metres on the great and small
scale, couplets, octosyllables — is all the same to him.
The various feet come to him like the beasts to some
mighty magician — iamb and trochee, anapaest and tribrach,
show off their most cunning paces. He probably still
takes half-unconscious suggestion from others ; but he
makes no " study " of them, and whatever he takes he
transforms. If there is a slip anywhere, it is obviously
nothing but oversight — it can hardly be called " care-
lessness," for Shelley was too much in a state of mild
energumenism to be careless, — but " inability to attend to
trifles." He is one of the very greatest of all practical
prosodists — and one of the least deliberate.
Keats. With Keats, on the other hand, the process of deliber-

ate pupilage, working itself out to mastery, is traceable
all through. He gives expression to the revolt which
accompanies his discipleship, with a definite precept-
protest, in the well-known " Sleep and Poetry " quite
early. That discipleship itself — to Leigh Hunt ; to Leigh
Hunt's masters, the Jacobean and Caroline " enjambers " ;
to Spenser, to Chapman — is placarded all over the


"Juvenilia " and Endytnion. The way in which, finding his
education — his prosodic education — imperfect, he turns
to Milton and Dryden for alteratives, astringents, tonics,
is equally well known ; as are the magnificent results
when he has made the whole teaching his, and has
emerged from school (alas ! not for long) in such things
as the Eves, La Belle Dame sans Merci, the great odes,
and the last sonnets. But we must ourselves go through
this process a little more in detail.

The earliest poems, regarded in this way, have, even The early
of themselves, a different interest from that possessed by °^^^'
Shelley's. The prosodic initiation is more definite, more
scholastic, and, as the case may be, either happier or not
so happy. The Spenserians ^ which Armitage Brown
told Lord Houghton were Keats's earliest preserved work
and were written in his seventeenth year, are no great
things, but they are, with whatever inequalities and
infelicities of phrase, much nearer to Spenser's rhythm
than even Shelley's finest, and no bad first draft for the
magnificence of the Eve of St. Agnes later. On the other
hand, the " Moorish " or Lewisian anapaests ^ of " To some
Ladies " and its sequel are quite ludicrously bad. Keats
was never good at fast metres, and he wisely gave them
up. But the Miltonic "Ode to Apollo" sees him at
home again. It is only lisped Miltonese, of course ; but
it is Miltonese ; while the companion " Hymn " — a strange
medley of unharmonised alternation like some of Words-

1 Now Morning from her orient chamber came

And her first footsteps touch'd a verdant hill ;

Crowning its tawny crest with amber flame,

Silvering the untainted gushes of its rill ;

Which pure from mossy beds did down distil,

And after parting beds of simple flowers,

By many streams a little lake did fill,

Which round its marge reflected woven bowers
And in its middle space a sky that never lowers.

2 What though, while the wonders of nature exploring,
I cannot your light mazy footsteps attend ;
Nor listen to accents that almost adoring
Bless Cynthia's face, the enthusiast's friend.
But it is almost a shame to quote these incunabula, and I only do it because
they are such valuable signs and tokens.


worth's worst things — is a complete failure. But he had
already got the secret of the seven — not even the hideous
jar ^ of " higher " and " Thalia " can prevent us from
perceiving that in " Had'st thou lived in days of old."
And then there is the most interesting of all the attempts.
In Calidore and its induction, in " I stood tiptoe " and
" Sleep and Poetry " and others, we come to the most
famous and important of his followings, the experiments
in the enjambed decasyllabic couplet. That he took this
directly from Leigh Hunt is always said, and is probably
in great part true. The motto of " I stood," fully
attributed to the Story of Rimini, might suffice for those
who cannot discern, or who distrust, internal evidence.
At the same time, the more I read the Jacobean and
Caroline originals, the more convinced do I feel that
Browne, Marmion, and probably Chamberlayne himself,
had — whether at first or only later, but certainly before
Endymion was finished — a great direct influence on Keats.
The Sonnets. Recurrence to this metre was promised in dealing with

Leigh Hunt, but it may perhaps be best still postponed,
though only for a very brief space, till we come to
Endymion itself Meanwhile something should be said
of the early sonnets. Without allowing oneself to be too
much biassed by

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,

or by

Glory and loveliness have passed away,

it may, I think, be allowed that Keats showed more than
usual aptitude for the form. At first sight it might seem
hardly likely to suit his bent towards fluency ; but, on the
other hand, its qualities were exactly what were wanted
to curb that fluency ; and the intense vividness with
which he could conceive and visualise incidents and

^ It is unfortunate that some phoneticians have taken the part of this
abomination. It may be laid down with confidence that though it is not
desirable to say "Thalia/i," and still less to say "highwrrr," every English-
man who speaks correctly gives the "^r" a different sound from the "« " —
so that the rhyme is not even right as assonance.

The poetry of earth is never dead.


phenomena found ample opportunity in it. The sonnet
of thought was not for Keats : the sonnet of feeling, or of
imagination in the Addisonian sense — that is to say,
"imaging," — was his in a very high degree. Even in
the " Chapman " sonnet it is noticeable how the image
of the " traveller " dominates it till it becomes an actual
picture of Cortes and his band, against the sky and gazing
on the sea. And so it is later : whether " English " or
" Italian " in form, they are all picture- and figure-sonnets,
till the very last mirrors star and sea and snow and the
breast of the beloved, the verse moving as softly as the
swell and shimmer of the subjects.

But we must now come to Endymion, and the enjambed Endymion

.... ,-•./- T ii and Keats's

couplet m it and m its forerunners. 1 need not re- ^rst couplet.
capitulate at any length what has been said on this sub-
ject in the second volume,^ but I may fairly remind the
reader — " for his ease," as they used to say, and for my
own — that the two great dangers of it, as practised in the
first half of the seventeenth century, were flaccidity and
prolixity of verse, and — as apparently an almost necessary
consequence — loss of strictness and clearly marked sequence
in narrative and in composition generally. A tangle of
verse was accompanied, but hardly punctuated or divided,
by the rhymes : and a tangle of story, description, argu-
ment, or what not, was hardly kept within any bounds
of verse-sentence or even paragraph.

To these Leigh Hunt had added a third perilous
quality, which, though it is near akin to those just
described, is not, I think, a necessary result of them. I
do not refer to the so-called " voluptuousness " of Rimini
and E7idymion — though this certainly is a feature of
seventeenth- century poetry of the type, and has easy
prosodic and metaphysical connections — but to a curious
mawkish sentimentality of phrase which is by no means
of the seventeenth century, but is a rather uncomely
bastard between French eighteenth- century sensiblerie
and the " simple " language of Wordsworth, and even of
Coleridge in the " Young Ass." Hunt altered Rimini in

1 Especially in the chapter on "The Battle of the Couplets," pp. 273-302.


later editions considerably, but even after the alterations
a good deal of this stuff remains — familiar contractions
of " I've " and " I'll," conversational modern bathos like
" May I come in," etc.^

Keats exaggerated this tendency for a time, and, till
he abandoned the manner almost or altogether, was
a much greater sinner than Hunt himself in intricate
prolixity of verse and meaning. He had from the first
an unfortunate fancy for the word " very," which must
have irritated men like Lockhart extremely.

He will speak
And tell thee that my prayer is very meek.

Even in the beautiful " I stood," the second line —

The air was cooling, and so very still,

has a missishness about it that is rather maddening.

Again, he is dangerously addicted to double rhymes,
the peril whereof has been often pointed out in these
pages ; and his verse -sentences threaten almost the
involution of Pharonnida, as where, in Calidore^ fourteen
lines tell us, without a full stop, how the hero finished
embracing the ladies as he helped them to dismount, and
how the chatelain greeted him, and several other things.

Nevertheless all this early couplet is poetry : and its
prosodic character, when you compare it with that of
Rimini^ is as a winged angel to a tolerably nimble and
graceful pedestrian. And though the faults are not gone
when we come to Endymion — though they may seem to be
even aggravated by the impediments which they give to
the evolution of what should be a connected, and is a
long-drawn-out story — the prosodic aid to the poetry is
still more strongly present.
The prosodic It is, or ought to be, well known that the chief quarrel

criticism in the Qf <^^ Quarterly Reviewer with Keats was directed, first

Quarterly. .

to his diction and secondly to his versification. This
critic, who has been too often mixed up in the general

1 It is only fair to Hunt and Keats to remind the reader that this over-
revolt against poetic diction was seldom more perilously exhibited than in
the " I'm better now " of Christabel itself.


mind with the author, whoever he was, of the much more
discreditable attack in Blackwood, actually acknowledged
" powers of language, traits of fancy, and gleams of
genius." But he could not stomach the diction : his
objections to it being partly well-founded, but much more
largely based on ignorance of the real history and
principles of English. And it is evident that the versifi-
cation was simply anathema to him. Unluckily he lets
us understand why, in repeated self- confessions which
may be worth quoting together.

" At first it appeared to us that Mr. Keats had been
amusing himself, and wearying his readers, with an
immeasurable game at bouts rimes. . . . He seems to us
to write a line at random, and then he follows, not the
thought excited by this line, but that suggested by the
rhyme with which it concludes. T/iere is hardly a
complete couplet enclosing a complete idea throughout the
book. He wanders from one subject to another, from the
association not of ideas but of sounds ; and the work is
composed of hemistichs which, it is quite evident, have
forced themselves on the author by the mere force of the
catchwords on which they turn."

Later the critic comes even closer to pure prosody,
dropping the test of meaning. " He cannot indeed write a
sentence, but perhaps he may be able to scan a line. Let
us see. The following are specimens of his prosodial
notions of our English heroic metre." Of " the following "
we may select two or three, though all have lessons : —

So plenteously all weed-hidden roots.
Of some strange history, potent to send.
Before the deep intoxication.

The stubborn canvas for my voyage prepared.

Now it will be perfectly evident to any one who has
followed this lozv history of the Holy Grail of prosody —
which, wherever it comes, feeds all lovers of English verse
with the meats they love best — that the critic, whoever


he was, either knew nothing or recked nothing of " our
heroic metre " or of EngHsh verse generally, except as
developed on the breviary of Bysshe by the practice of
Pope. And it may be just pointed out in passing that
one culprit indicated as possible by Byron's combination ^
of flippantly personal dislike and literary ignorance —
Southey — could not possibly have written it ; for Southey
knew the ever-flowing verse of Browne and the rest as
well as he knew Milton or Pope himself, and was
fully aware that " -ion," until quite recently, was two
syllables at the pleasure, and generally by the preference,
of the poet. " There is hardly a complete couplet enclos-
ing a complete idea in the whole book." Why should
there be ? What is the matter with

So plenteously all weed-hidden roots ?

Nothing : except that Mr. Bysshe had said " * Beauteous '
is two syllables " ; and so, of course, is " plentj/^ous."
'* Potent " in its position can cover itself with the wings
not merely ot Milton but of Cowley, two contemporaries
not very commonly found agreeing together ; but it would
have been execrated by Johnson. An " accent " on a
monosyllabic preposition like " for " is not to be endured.
Elsewhere, in the examples originally given, but not
reprinted here, there are trisyllabic feet, " wrenched "
accents, enjambment, and all sorts of horrors.

It is not, I hope, a vain boast to say that this History
has shown them all, without exception, to be no horrors
at all — to be not even imperfectly naturalised aliens, but
free-born and true-born English folk, some of whom, like

Crocker, Cruwys, and Coplestone,

When the Conqueror came, were all at home,

while the rest of them were not long behind him. That
Keats's regimenting and drilling of his recruits was always

1 Who killed John Keats

The poet-priest Milman,
So ready to kill man,
Or Southey, or Barrow.
But it seems to have been Croker, as later in the Tennyson case.


thoroughly judicious need not be contended. In the
auxiliary division of diction, though the Quarterly man is
more often wrong than right in his special censures, there
is no doubt that the poet is sometimes peccant. It may
be wrong, but I wish the trees had not " sprouted a shady
boon," which appears to me rather a vile phrase, and too
much in the "most beautified" line. I do not think — I know
I shall excite the immeasurable contempt of some of the
younger sort — but I do not think that " dancing " rhymes
very nicely to " string," and when " very very deadliness
did nip The motherly cheeks of Niobe," I wish it had not,
for more reasons than one. When I read about the
Swart planet in the universe of deeds,

I bethink me of Ancient Pistol — not as I would. And
the opening of the Third Book, for twenty lines at least,
resembles nothing so much as a result of the combination
of some wooden spoon among the University Wits of the
late sixteenth century with the most spasmodic of Spas-
modics in the mid-nineteenth.

All this is true ; and no one except an uncritical
person will be afraid to say it. But what does it matter ?
It is the sin — a very small and disproportionate sin,
scarcely affecting a few score out of more than four
thousand lines — of a solace which will never cease for all
true lovers of English poetry. The faults are merely the
less clean foam, the muddier-coloured eddies, of the torrent
of fresh poetic language that was scouring the dry
channels of neo-classic poetry. And though the critic
has, apparently in half or whole ignorance, hit on some of
the dangers of enjambed verse, its benefits more than
compensate for them.

In pure versifying, indeed, there is hardly need to admit
any fault but exuberance and want of castigation. The
poet is perhaps still rather too fond of double rhymes ;
but the opening couplet, especially when its history is
known,^ is such a capital example of them at their best

1 It is just possible that some may not know what is said on fair authority,
that Keats first wrote :

A thing of beauty is a constant joy.


that it gives passports to the others, which are rarely as
unhappy as some in the early poems. Otherwise, and
reserving some slight question as to the extreme length of
the verse-sentences, it is difficult to allow too much beauty
to the verse, or too much appropriateness to its employ-
ment. The poet has mastered (though he might perhaps
have employed it more frequently) the secret of now and
then arresting the torrent of his rhythm by striking single
lines like

How tiptoe Night holds back her dark grey hood

Into the starry hollows of the world,

or by phrases of similar character, bridging the rhyme,
but pausing the verse, as in

Faint-smiling like a star
Through autumn mists,

On light tiptoe divine
A quivered Dian,

where something that Tennyson learnt will be seen. In
fact Keats has more than glimpsed the great secret that,
to write this kind of verse perfectly, you must make it
blank verse rhymed, and must neutralise the looseness of
rhyme itself with a due astringency of strong pause or
weighty word. And thus he has made it, at its best,
a marvellous medium. Such passages as that in the
subterranean wanderings which is crowned by the apparition
of Cybele, and the paragraph in the speech of Glaucus
which begins " 1 touched no lute," yield to few things in
English for prosodic adequacy — nay, supremacy. And
where were the eyes of the Quarterly man when, in a place
at which even the indolentest of reviewers generally
glances — the end of a Book — he missed one of the neatest
and completest thoughts expounded in a neat and com-
plete couplet :

The visions of the earth were gone and fled —
He saw the giant sea above his head ?

I do not think Dryden, who did not hate youth, would


have failed in recognition of this, or would have disdained
to write it.

That Keats — curiously free as he was from vanity — Isabella and
was unconscious of the merits of his metre is unthinkable ; ^'^ octave.
that he knew its defects is certain. Yet these were so
much the defects of his own qualities that he could not
at once get rid of them, and that they show themselves
almost equally in the octave of Isabella. This was prob-
ably a bad choice for him ; its rather negative character
in English as a serious metre has been more than once
dwelt on ; while, though he did not employ it for the
burlesque Cap and Bells, his command of comedy was
much too uncertain to have made a great thing of it there.
On the whole, it is the diction of Isabella rather than the
actual metre that is to blame. The former is too often
deplorable — the mawkishness which he so well knew to
be his besetting sin nowhere appears worse than ig the
two opening lines,^ and it recurs too often. On the other
hand, though there never appears that evident and pre-
determined mating between metre and substance which
we find in the Witch of Atlas, the famous, and justly
famous, purple patches, such as the second and third
stanzas and the magnificent fifty-third —

And she forgot the stars, the moon, the sun,

find no ill vehicle allotted to them. Yet I have always
been sorry, since I began to understand the nature of
rhythms a little, that Keats did not try rhyme-royal here ;
for the two effects which he wanted, the pictorial and the
plangent, can be got out of it, in combination, as out of
hardly any other metre. It would, however, with its
concluding couplet, hardly have supplied the tonics, the
styptics — almost the " cor[ro]sives " as they used to say
— that were required to correct his tendency to a fluent
effeminacy. He sought the right physicians when he
turned to profit by the solemn grandeur of Milton's blank
verse, the varied vigour of Dryden's couplet, and the less

^ Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel !

Lorenzo, a young palmer in Love's eye.


tightly girt, but not in the least loose or slipshod, grace of
the Spenserian.
Lamia and the Leigh Hunt, with the cathoHcity which was his saving
coupkr'^ virtue, had appreciated Dryden ; and had actually used the
triplet and the Alexandrine in Rimini. But his apprecia-
tion, or at least his imitation, had stopped at variety,
without attaining to the additional effects of majesty and
grace — of variation in the music of vowel and word, as well
as in the mere versification — which these offer. Keats, in
Lamia, showed himself very well aware of these possibilities,
while at the same time he obtained from Dryden a " stalk
of carle hemp " — an aqua vitae of energetic phrase — which
at once girded and stiffened the somewhat flaccid figure
of his earlier couplet, and gave body and " race " to its
rather excessive sweetness. We know, as an actual fact,
that he wrote Lamia after much study of Dryden ; we
could have known it without any external evidence at all.
There are few happier results of such study, and I own
that sometimes I like Lamia best of all its author's longer
poems, though no doubt it falls below the Eves, and La
Belle Dame sans Merci, and the best of the Odes. It is
of course a blend, and there are some people who do not
like blends ; but it is a blend of extraordinary attractive-
ness ; and, for my own part, if poets are allowed to
continue their work in the other world — a permission
which would have to be granted on rigid conditions and
principles of selection — the work of Keats which I should
like to see best would be that in which he has even more
thoroughly digested, and made his own, the metre of
Lamia. The combination of the general enjambed system,
which Dryden had discarded, with the devices which he
introduced to chequer and enliven the stopped form,
justifies itself most amply. The Alexandrines are splendid
— not merely the universally known last,^ but such earlier
ones as

While, like held breath, the stars drew in their panting fires.

And it is astonishing how the never-ending flow of

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 11 of 50)