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

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tion : the curious continuous sixains (rhymed abbcca, but
having the appearance of blank verse accidentally tipped
with irregular rhyme), the dixains (three couplets and
an alternate quatrain), of RudolpJi, the irregular octaves
{aabbcdcd) of Albert and Emily. But his lyrics are the

The songs in Death's Jest Book, though always very
pretty and sometimes beautiful, supply only one perfect
thing, and elsewhere are not much above Barley's own

^ Fresh is my mossy bed ;
The frequent pity of the rock falls here,
A sweet, wild, silent tear !
I have heard
Sometimes a wild and melancholy bird
Warble at my grave-head.


pitch.^ But this is perfect, and when we come to what
should be the universally known first stanza of " Dream-
Pedlary " ^ what words can possibly do justice to its
movement and music ? what prosody of the very greatest
that we have cited or referred to, in this voyage through
the realms of gold, can be held superior to it ? The
selection of stanza ; the arrangement of the rhymes ; the
framing of single lines to suit their sense ; the utter
inevitableness of the diction — how shall we acknowledge
them rightly ? There is nothing for it but to borrow those
great and final words for which, even if Hazlitt's many
sins were more than they are and his many virtues fewer,
he should be canonised as a critic : " It is something
worth living for to write, or even read, such poetry as
this, or to know that it has been written." And, once
more, beyond all question, though not beyond all differ-
ence in estimate of proportion, the prosody is a mighty
part of this inestimable poetry.

One might quote many more, but this is not an
anthology, and after the pair just quoted it is not neces-
sary. Not even in Shelley before, or in Tennyson after,
is there anything more significant of the recovered mastery
of prosodic music — of the unlocking of the forgotten
treasury where the harps and horns of Elfland had hung
so lone unused.

If thou wilt ease thine heart
Of love and all its smart,

Then sleep, dear, sleep ;
And not a sorrow
Hang any tear on your eyelashes ;

Lie still and deep,
Sad soul, until the sea-wave washes
The rim o' the sun to-morrow

In eastern sky.

- If there were dreams to sell

What would you buy ?
Some cost a passing bell,

Some a light sigh —
That shakes from Life's fresh crown
Only a rose-leaf down.
If there were dreams to sell,
Merry and sad to tell,
And the crier rang his bell,
What would you buy ?

For some reason (I think a real
one) he cut the penultimate triplet
to a couplet in the other stanzas.



Subjects of the chapter — Return to Cowper — As prosodic critic —
Sayers again — The grammaticasters ; Walker and Murray —
Odell — Thelwall — Roe — Warner — Herbert — Gregory — Criti-
cisms on Southey's hexameters ; the Edinburgh Review — Till-
brook — Crowe — Some others — Payne Knight — Carey — Frere
and Blundell.

In the last volume we pursued the survey of " preceptist " Subjects of the

prosody till very nearly the close of the eighteenth century, ^'^'^^'^'^j

In the present chapter we take it up again with especial Cowper,

reference to those writers who did not accompany precept

and theory with practice, or whose practice (as in the case

of Crowe and one or two more) was not very important.

Of those who both preached and practised, the subjects

of the first chapter of this book yield us little ; and those

of the second and third, not very much ; while what they

give (except Southey's hexameter practice and theory,

which is reserved for separate treatment) has been, for the

most part, taken with their poetry. The glances of

Macpherson and of Blake are interesting, if only because

they are indicative of the inevitable dissatisfaction with

the prosody of eighteenth-century verse. But there is a

writer — later by far than Macpherson, contemporary in

work though not in years with Blake — to whom we must

return, because his prosodic remarks " throw forward,"

because he is not as Fogg or Nares, but — though himself

not half knowing it — a herald of things unimagined

by them.

It may have surprised some readers that Cowper, of As prosodic
whose practice in prosody not a little was said in the last



volume, did not figure there as a prosodist. The reason
for this has just been given — that the prosodic remarks in
his letters are very late, and distinctly belong to this
present chapter, not merely by their date, but (which is
much more important) by their character. Nowhere is
the anti-Pope movement — the revolt against the couplet
— more openly proclaimed ; in fact almost the whole of
them bear directly on the question of the superiority of
blank verse to rhyme as a medium for the translation of
Homer, and (indirectly) on the characteristics of blank
verse itself.

It is, however, pretty clear that Cowper had never
thought the question thoroughly out ; that he had not
even got so far as to ask himself what the general char-
acteristics of English prosody were. In this, as in so
many other cases, we must, of course, remember the
strange gap in his intellectual life, and that he was a man
of 1730 unnaturally yoked as a poet with men of 1750
or 1760 — a sort of poetical Rip van Winkle. In one of
his earliest pieces of criticism — the strictures on Johnson's
Lives of Pope and Prior (to Unwin, Jan. 5, 1782) — except
a glance at Pope's " mechanical verse " which duplicates
his own metrical criticism, there is nothing prosodic.
Nearly three years later (to Newton, Dec. 11, 1784) he
asserts that " blank verse is susceptible of a much greater
diversification of manner than verse in rhyme " — flatters
himself that lie has " avoided sameness," but does not say
how. To Bagot (Aug. 31, 1786) he extols the " divine
harmony " of Milton, attributes this to his " elisions," but
admits that these are "discord and dissonance" to " modern
ears " because they " lengthen the line beyond its due
limits." ^ Therefore, against his own judgment, he does
not himself " elide " much, but " shifts pause and cadence
perpetually." To the same, five years later (Jan. 4, 1791),
he denies Johnson's (?) remark that " the syllables of our
language are neither long nor short " ; rather rashly

^ The singular fate which besets those who use the word ' ' elision " in
English grips Cowper here. How can elisions possibly iengtkot a line ? But
to him, as to all of them, these were evidently elisions and not elisions.


asserting that " every syllable is distinguishably and clearly
either long or short," and, less rashly, that " without
attention to quantity good verse cannot possibly be
written " ; that " the ignorance of this matter is one reason
why we see so much that is good for nothing," and that
" the movement of a verse is always either shuffling or
graceful according to our management in this particular."
In two other letters to the same a few weeks later, he
comments on Johnson's dislike to " blanks " ; and the
curious undated correspondence with Thurlow is mainly
occupied with the " blank v. rhyme " question — the
Chancellor saying some sensible though general things.
Also there is the unlucky, though not surprising, judgment
of Chapman (to Park, July 15, 1793), which includes the
phrase, " his information was not much better than
his verse."

Now what strikes me as most remarkable in all this is
that Cowper, while laying the greatest stress on quantity,
appears to make hardly an allusion to what seems to me
inseparable from quantity — scansion by feet. And his
mentions of " elisions " are rather puzzling. He says that
other people thought they made Milton's lines too long —
which would seem to imply that other people did not
think them elisions at all. And, much as he admires, he
will not imitate them. So also, while vindicating his
use of varied cadence, he abstains in the most curious
fashion from specifying pauses, stopped or enjambed end-
ings — indeed anything in the way of technical prosodic
minutiae. That he should have read little on the subject
is not surprising ; for after his breakdown his access to
books was very small. But that a man with his evident
interest in the matter, his intense devotion to Milton, his
practice and skill in actual verse-making, and a sound
Westminster education at the back of it all, should not
have advanced, even a little, beyond vague general notions
of "harmony" and the like is really a puzzle. In one
place he objects (as he had a perfect right to do) to
Thomson's "numbers" as "sometimes not well harmonised" ;
but he gives us no particulars as to the points in which



Sayers again.

The gram-
maticasters ;
Walker and

this lack of harmony (as it seemed to him) consisted.
Perhaps we could hardly have a better instance of a fact
often insisted on in these pages — that a poet is by no means
necessarily a prosodic theorist ; that it is possible for him
to be a very cunning verse-smith, and yet to know no
more about the rationale of his processes than a bee does
when it adjusts the angles of its comb-cells. But perhaps
it tells us also something more — that the whole subject
was as yet a subject rather of ignorance than of know-
ledge ; and that Apollo winked at this ignorance.

One other piece of information is of a more definite
kind, and this falls in with the general theme of the first
chapter of this book — the impatience, the weariness, the
disgust, with the still reigning couplet, and the rather
blind but very natural notion that rhymelessness was the
only cure.

This notion, as we have seen, worked at the same time,
but in a more revolutionary manner, on Frank Sayers,
and produced his, at first sight, disappointing disquisition
on " English Metre." ^ Yet though this is little more than
incomplete and almost uncommented retrospect, disappoint-
ment, after all, is not perhaps the word ; for there is, at
any rate, that " exquisition of the old mother " — that
study of the real corpus of the subject — which is the one
thing needful, and which contrasts so remarkably with
the endless chatter about accent and quantity, and the
preposterous " bar "-scansion of the musicalists. And
though it is called a " disquisition," it is clear that this
piece of Sayers's is more in the nature of a note of pieces^
of " documents in the case," than anything else.

Those two curious dictators of English grammar and
English vocabulary at the end of the eighteenth century —
John Walker and Lindley Murray — than whom surely
no others ever competed for dictatorship with so little
qualification, or attained it with so little resistance for so
long a time — had to deal with prosody, of course. But
their attitudes to it, and the values of their remarks on it,
are very different. It would not be easy to find a better

1 V. sup. p. 39.


example of presumptuous ignorance and folly than these
words of the author of the Protiouncing Dictionary (i 79 1).
After modestly suggesting that everything previously
written on the subject should be cast into the fire, he
remarks that it is really so simple that very little need
be written. " Almost all that the subject requires " is to
say that we have verse of such and such a number of
syllables to the standard line ; that the rhythm is dis-
syllabic or trisyllabic ; that the rhythmical ichis does or
does not begin with the first and fall on the last ; that
lines are allowed, within certain limits, to deviate from
standard, but beyond that they become prose ; and that
" the clauses in the line, relatively to clauses in their own or
other lines, become harmonious by the propo7-tions they suggest^
It is about all that this requires, to say that part of it is
doubtfully true, most of it utterly inadequate, and the last
clause either mere gibberish, or in need of a not incon-
siderable treatise of explanation. In fact the passage
suggests a possible origin for that mysterious use of the
author's name (to indicate contemptuous reception of a
statement) which has never been satisfactorily accounted
for hitherto.

With Lindley Murray {English Grammar, 1795), it is,
I have said, different. Neither here nor elsewhere can
he be called a scholar, and his introductory concession
regarding poetry in general, that " When this lively mode
of exhibiting nature and sentiment is perfectly chaste, it
is often found to be highly interesting and instructive,"
is exquisitely ludicrous. " Accent " and " unaccent " have
too much of their way with him ; his doctrine that
" short " cum pause — " long " is, I know, anathema to
some good people ; he tends generally to the eloctitory ;
and his individual scansions are risky, though I rather
wonder at my friend, Mr. Omond, who could mildly ex-
postulate with the atrocities of Steele, but finds Lindley's
" appalling." Yet in spite of all this there is something
about Murray. His doctrine that " We have all that the
ancients had, and something they had not," is uncommonly
near the truth, though I dare say he did not know how


true it was. For the fact of the matter is that we have
the full quantitative scansion by feet, which is the franchise
and privilege of classical verse, without the limitations of
quantitative syllabisation with which that verse was
hampered. We have their Order and our own Freedom
besides. But I am not sure that Murray either knew or
meant this, and we must return to specialists.
Odeii. The melomania of Steele in prosody was sure to

attract followers ; this kind of crankery always does.
Indeed we noticed some in the last volume. In the first
quarter of the nineteenth century, however, there were
three writers of some note who, in both senses, followed
him and each other. The earliest, John Odell of
Cambridge, seems to have written his Essay on the
Elefuents, Accents, and Prosody of the English Language
as early as 1802, but did not publish it till four years
later. He is purely phonetic for a long time, and mainly
so always ; but about p. 1 24 becomes prosodic. He
rather dismisses "accent" and "quantity" — which is a
blessing ; but his substitution of " emphasis " requires a
good deal of guarding to prevent its becoming a curse.
Sometimes he is rather difficult to understand, as in the
following passage, where I simply deny the first clause ;
and as for the second, I hope I am doing nothing shocking
by reproducing it. "If the first syllable of 'gentle' be
made long it will be ' j^ntle ' ; and by the same means the
word ' body ' zvill become unfit for utterance in any decent
company I " ^ His scansions, as with all these musicians,
are anacrustic, and he thinks Milton's verse " often faulty,"
and, when not so, admitting three, four, five, or even six,
" cadences." But the most illuminating thing I have
found in him is the following arrangement of a stanza
from Rogers with " quaver-rests " :

That I very 1 | law which | moulds a [ tear
And j bids it T | trickle 1| 1 from its | source —
That I law pre [serves the | earth a | sphere
And I guides the | planets | T in their course.

1 In order to understand this at all you must first grant (what I utterly
deny) that a "long" syllable requires a "long" vowel, and secondly (what
I deny as strongly), that long e becomes a, and long o, aw.


Now I am a blameful heathen, afu,ovao<; in the narrower
Platonic sense, though not dyecofxerpTjro';, an outcast — but
this sort of thing makes me seem to perceive the effect
of the " Old Hundredth," and similar things, on people to
whom the real prosodic scansion is as secondary, and
almost as unfamiliar, as the musical is to me. And I
begin to understand a good deal about them.

John Thelwall, " Citizen " and elocutionist, appears, Theiwail
for all his " Citizen "-ship, to have been not a very bad and
rather a clever fellow. At any rate, he had some very
good friends, and he seems to have had the sense to
settle down from his early republican fredaines to the
comparatively innocuous, though not quite necessary,
business of elocution -teaching. But there were two
moments of his life at which, as it seems to me, he would
have been " none the worse of a hanging." The first was
when he made his celebrated joke about the head on the
pot of porter and that on kings and princes — a joke
which, at the moment, had too much of the practical
about it, and invited a practical return. The second was
when, in 181 2, he published his Illustrations of EnglisJi
Rhythmus by John Thelwall, Esq. [this " Esq." was surely
rank *' incivism "], Professor of the Science and Practice of

I think I should have given him his deserts on both
occasions had this been possible, and on the latter have
followed the excellent principle of the mob in Julius
CcEsar — that if he did not deserve to be torn in pieces
for a conspirator, he did for his bad [scansion of] verses.

^ The book seems to vary in the copies found, which is likely enough from
the note on the title-page — the full title is much longer than that given,
which is the half-\\\.\& : — " los. 6d. , in boards. Bound with duplicates, etc.,
for the use of the Pupils of Mr. Thelwall's Institution, One Guinea. With
MS. quotations for the use of persons with Impediments, Twenty Guineas."
Mine seems to be a normal copy enough. It consists of a body of selections
in prose and verse — diversified from an ordinary anthology only by the
marking of the " appoggiatur^ " (see next page) with the short quantity mark,
and an Introduction of seventy-two pages. Once more, as in the case of
Steele, whom Thelwall accepts almost implicitly, I am in hopeless discord
with my friend Mr. Omond about Thelwall. But I do not think it necessary
to "fight a prize" with him on the subject, as I think I can make myself
clear in the text without it. Guest was made amusingly unhappy by the
" appoggiatur^."


I do not say that there is nothing redeeming in his
Introduction, which, after all, is mainly a professional puff
of his own methods with stammerers and " stickit "
speakers of various kinds, and so to be pardoned. He
abuses all his forerunners except Steele, Odell, and
Roe {y. inf.), being not quite sure of Roe, and
blusters about "jargon," "mistake of cadences," etc.
But he starts with Steele's six cadences in a heroic line,
which is utterly fatal to any pretensions to prosodic ear ;
insists on " necessary progress from strong to weak "
(except in the Duck, which has no progress at all, it
seems, and the Guineapig, which has, as Mr. Mantalini
would say, a " demd " progress from weak to strong),
and finally lands himself in what shocks even Mr. Omond
— a promiscuity of " cadences " — six, seven, eight, or
was Sie zvunschen. That in his polemic with the accepted
prosody of his earlier, and indeed of his later days, he
has sometimes struck out true remarks — e.g. that iamb,
trochee, and spondee can be really equivalent — I do not
deny ; and though his " appoggiatura," (plural " appog-
giatur^" !) for the extra or "elided" syllable of a tri-
syllabic foot, is superfluous in the singular and preposterous
in the plural, the acknowledgment of its presence is

But, if only pede claudo, I must come to his scansions.
He begins, I have said, with the ordinary Steele-chopped
unnaturalness of a syllable, four trochees and another
syllable for a heroic line — a thing of itself enough to
damn any prosodist. But simple lese-prosodie of this kind
is never sufficient, and indeed never can be, for this kind
of person. Having no ear, he can permit his deafness
any vagary. Here are some of those ^ which Thelwall
does permit himself and it.

Arms and the | man I | sing | who | forced by | fate
Hail I holy | light | offspring of | heav'n first | born

1 M. Verrier's {v, inf.), which I have read since, sometimes remind me of
Thel wall's.


To I momentary [ Consciousness a | woke
A|bominable | iin|LUlerable | and | worse

He had a | fever | when he was in | Spain.

Now no one of these can possibly be accepted, as an
even possible scansion, by any one who has any correct
notion whatsoever of the rhythm of English speech.
They are, one and all, heterogeneous bundles of un-
related, unproportioned, unrhythmical doggerel — gasp-
bursts of infinitely worse than prosaic non-metre, which
could come naturally only to a man out of breath with
violent running, or under the pressure of some more
strange and unusual physical impediment. They inigJit
come from one of Mr. Thelwall's worst twenty -guinea
stammerers in his most grotesque paroxysms ; though I
never heard anything quite so bad. The arrangement of
such things in coherent and harmonious verse-paragraphs,
stanzas, or combinations of any kind would be impossible :
you might as well regiment, and attempt to drill, a
company of hopeless and fantastic cripples, no two of
whom should have quite the same distortion. It is
perhaps not insignificant that Thelwall not merely adopts
musical terminology, but devotes great attention to the
physical side of voice-production. Too much attention
to either in prosody is almost uniformly dangerous ; but
I never knew the two combined without a hopeless break-
down. And these things of his are called " cadences " !
They have the cadence of a cart-load of bricks shot into
a rubbish-pit ; and those not bricks fresh and uniform
from the brickyard, but chips or stuck -together lumps
from a broken-down wall.

Richard Roe's Principles of RhytJim both in Speech and Roe.
Music ; especially as exhibited in the Mechanisin of English
Verse (1823V is Steele filtered through Odell and rectified
by Thelwall (who actually had to do with it), and very
largely flavoured with the author's own essences. It is so

1 He had written earlier on the subject, and pubUshed, in 1801, a book
which has disappeared, but which must have been known to Thelwall {v.


intensely musical and phonetic that it is hardly within
my range. I go to my dentist when I wish (or do not
wish) to have a " mode of ascertaining the apertures of
the teeth " applied to me. But I can take Roe some-
times and find him of much value — not perhaps quite in
his own way. It is significant that he would like to get
rid of rhyme — or keep it very much " in its proper place."
It is more so that he not only admits trisyllabic feet—
that is the solace of the musical sin — but goes on to
tetrasyllable, and would inflict on the luckless Milton such
a scansion as

Wallowing, unlwieldy, e|normous | in their | gait,

which prosodlcally makes it a string-halting dactylic.

But a sentence worth a hundred thousand is this :
" I have not often met with a regular stanza in music,
except in vocal music, where it ge7ierally results from an
adherence to the measure of the words." It would be
absolutely impossible to have a clearer confession, from a
more competent witness, of the fact of the difference
between music and prosody — of the fact that the
" measure of the words " is something to which the
" measure " of the notes may adhere or not ; of the other
fact, that such an all-important prosodic thing as " stanza "
(compare Mitford's remark about " rhyme," and Roe's
own just-mentioned abhorrence of it) hardly exists in rebus
miisicis. For these and other things, as well as for a
certain " thoroughness," I am obliged to Richard Roe.
But as a prosodic authority I cannot accept him at all ;
and I hope that when John Doe writes his little book on
the subject it will be entirely different. From this trinity
of sectaries we may return to more isolated authors and
Warner. The curious Metrouarlstou (i 797) of Dr. John Warner ^

is mainly concerned with the old dispute about classical
accents, but brings in a good deal of English matter,
though somewhat confusedly. Warner, despite this con-

1 Whose name, however, does not appear in it as author. It is well
worth reading.


fusion, and that semitone of persiflage which irritates some,
has a great deal of sense in him, and might have gone far.
His plea for quantitative reading of Latin needs no urging
on those who were lucky enough to be taught to do this

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 14 of 50)