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

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half a century ago, but appears still to be a counsel of
perfection to most Englishmen and all foreigners. He
has some astonishingly acute and wide-ranging remarks —
as this (which knocks the phonetic-musical extravagances
on the head at once) : " Every slight variation of sound
is no more the same to every ear than is every slight
shade of colour to every eye." And we must return to
his immensely important if (directly) wrong suggestion
of scanning Homeric hexameters anapaestically with

Dean Herbert of Manchester is not a man to be Herbert.
spoken of lightly ; for his verse, though not very readable
(men who knew French must have repeated " Apres
VAttila, hola ! " with some relish in his case, for he wrote
a long poem on the Hun), is correct enough, and he did
various services to literature. But his criticism of
Mitford's second edition {v. sup. vol. ii. p. 563) in the
Edinburgh for July 1805 is of little value. Much of it
is merely phonetic, and therefore of no interest to us ;
and much more is on strictly classical metre. In fact,
though he treats his subject (who, be it remembered, was
a wicked Tory) with even more than the usual Blue and
Yellow de hmit en bas, he does not know a tithe of what
Mitford knew on the matters of English verse, and his
generalisations of accentual laws are of the usual hope-
lessly arbitrary kind. " If a monosyllabic adjective and
substantive are joined, the substantive has acute and the
adjective grave accent, unless the adjective be in antithesis."
Chansotis que tout cela ! as the smallest experiment will
prove, even if, which is going far, the existence of
" acute " and " grave " accent in English be granted.
The reason of the blunder, of course, is that old and
entirely baseless delusion (the origin of which I have in
vain endeavoured to trace, unless it is some pseudo-
classical analogy) that two acutes cannot come together
VOL. Ill M

1 6:



without a pause. I would undertake, if I had breath
enough, to put two thousand together without one. And
further on he illustrates, rather more boldly, the other
fallacy which is at the root of half the fantastic tricks
played with English, especially with Miltonic, scansion, by
laying it down that " to," " the," " of," etc., can never be
accented. The substitution of " emphasis " for " accent "
might have saved a Dean from this blunder ; for we may
hope that the Very Rev. the Hon. William Herbert did
not commit the vulgar error of slurring OF in certain
clauses of the Nicene Creed, when he read or said it long
afterwards in Manchester Cathedral.

One ought not, I suppose, to be too hard on Dr.
George Gregory, whose Letters on Literature appeared
posthumously in 1808 ; but they certainly remind one of
the irregular rhyme to his name in The Taming of the
Shrew. The book is a sort of " Blair-turned-into-a-
Parejifs- Assistant" wherein a devoted youth of the
name of John is written to on Taste, Composition, etc.
The prosodic section may be not unfairly sampled by the
statements that Hotspur's speech to Blunt is a specimen
of " low colloquial poetry, impossible to distinguish from
prosaic composition " ; that " the negligence of quantity
often adds to beauty " ; that Milton " is supported rather
by the grandeur of his thoughts and language than
by the harmony of his numbers"; and, at the end, that
it is time to go to " higher " subjects than metre. It
would be interesting to know whether, if the young man
named John ever produced, as most of us do, " low
prosaic compositions," they were at all like the verses
of William Shakespeare.

Southey's views on hexameters, and his practical
illustration of them in the Vision of Judgment, attracted
the Edinburgh ^q^q serious uotice than that contained in Byron's clever

Review. _,..!,

and vulgar parody. And some of this affects general
prosodic questions, so that it should be taken here and
not later. The Edinburgh Review for July 1821 (vol.
XXXV. pp. 143 sq.) discounts its criticism by the frank
animus of the opening diatribe against the Laureate.

Criticisms on
hexameters ;


" Effete," " dotage," " deliration," etc., are words too much
in need of the old scornful caution.

As if a man should spit against the wind, etc.

But though the personal and political prejudice continues
throughout, the critic does make a serious attempt to
criticise the metre. His criticism may be divided into
two parts, or perhaps three : his opinion on hexameters
in English ; his reasons for this ; and his general prosodic
theory. As for the first, I cannot quarrel with him when
he says that " the hexameter line can never be made
a legitimate English measure." But his reasons are weak.
They connect themselves with a general theory of English
verse which is wholly, or almost wholly, in the gall of
bitterness and the bond of iniquity. We cannot have
hexameters, because " we do not in our verse depend on
long and short, but on accented and unaccented syllables "
(he spars with Southey on the absence of spondees, but
in reality seems to agree with him on this point more
than he differs), and because we cannot count two unac-
cented syllables as equal to one accented. " An accented
syllable cannot be made up of two or twenty unaccented
ones." Now this is undoubtedly true ; but of course the
question remains, " Can ivhat the accented syllable supplies
to English verse be made up in this way ? " He does not
meet this question directly, because he has made up his
mind that accent qua accent is the thing ; but he evidently
has it, as a familiar phrase goes, " in the tail of his eye."
He understands what equivalence means, and is so very
bold — not to say rash — as to cry it down in one of those
interrogations which are meant to outdo the strongest
negation. " Is it true that in any known English metre
it is possible to exchange two unaccented syllables for
one that is accented — for instance, to substitute the word
' maintenance ' or ' abstinence ' in place of ' maintain '
or ' abstain ' ? Is there any ear to which these would
appear equivalent ? " I, of course, should answer " Yes "
and " Mine " to these two questions, quite quietly and
confidently as far as metre goes, though the substitution

1 64




of noun for verb might be difficult grammatically, and an
evident dolus lurks in the special and separate words
selected. But our reviewer could not be expected to
admit it, because he is sure that the e in " feathery " and
" watery " is not pronounced, and thinks that in Pope's
famous line the " curse on all laws " has, among its other
deleterious effects, that of " crushing " them into an iamb.
The paper is an interesting one, because it shows Bysshism
very much informed, but practically unaltered, a hundred
and twenty years after Bysshe. And, as I have hinted
more than once, I am not sure that, nearly a hundred
years later still, this orthodoxy does not seem really
orthodox to some people.

A year later Samuel Tillbrook, Fellow of Peterhouse,
printed at Cambridge a small treatise, Historical and
Critical Remarks on the Modern Hexametrists and upon
Mr. Southeys " Vision of Judgment]^ in which he makes
an indirect but dignified and scholarly protest against
the Edinburgh' s Billingsgate. He does more ; for he
shows an acquaintance with the Elizabethan hexametrists,
and prosodists generally, which is quite surprising and
extremely creditable. But he does not like the measure
any better than the reviewer did, though perhaps his
reason — the abundance of monosyllables in English, —
despite its nobler ancestry and precedent, is not much
stronger. I do not myself see why monosyllables of
themselves are anti-hexametrical any more than they are
(in the reality of Mr. Pope's practice, though not in his
theory) anti-heroic. That the real fault is that English
will " tip up " its dactyls into anapaests does not seem to
have occurred either to the Fellow of Peterhouse or to
the reviewer in the " Blue and Yellow." Indeed I do not
know any prosodist who has given the fact its full im-
portance, though Campion " gave a lead " to the discovery
three centuries ago, and though that odd person, Dr.
John Warner {v. snp.), had " glimpsed the panther " before
the end of the eighteenth century.

The Treatise of English ]''ersification (1827), written
in his old age by the Rev. William Crowe, Public Orator


at Oxford and author of Lewesdon Hill — a harmless pro-
tuberance, but scarcely to be entered for competition with
" Cooper's " " Grongar," " Strawberry," and the others — is
a very nicely arranged little book. If you could do with
a book as you do with a bottle or a canister — empty out
the contents and keep the form — I should like to do this
with it and fill it with my own notions. His appear to
me hopelessly homes ; as mine would no doubt seem to
him wildly anarchic. He tries, for instance, to systematise
and generalise " combinations," that is to say, stanzas of
no strict correspondence in verse-length, but " cuttit and
broken." One of his injustice -decreeing and beauty-
spoiling laws is that a very short line must not follow a
very long one — which, oi course, disqualifies many of the
most delightful seventeenth-century and nineteenth-century
adjustments. And what poem would the reader select to
fit the following description ? — " It would not be easy to
frame anything more different from what it ought to be
than the combination of short measures, double rhymes,
and false thoughts in . . ."

A fresh and independent paragraph must be consecrated
to the answer. This falsely thought and improperly
combined piece is one of the most exquisitely pathetic,
and at the same time most exquisitely executed, things in
English — Ben Jonson's Epitaph on Salathiel Pavy, part
of which adorns p. 156 of our second volume; and the
prosody of which is pure honey blended with the pure
nectar of poetry.

It is not wonderful that Crowe thought contemporary
poetry " slovenly," and it is probable that he thought the
Greek Anthology false wit and doubtful verse. But he
was evidently a good old man, and perhaps it is only the
grace of God that makes one different from him in
prosodic view.

Some persons of a certain traditional repute, but little some others —
real importance, may now be grouped together. Payne '^
Knight in his Analytical Enquiry into the Principles of
Taste, 1805, is a capital example of the off-hand shallow-
ness with which our subject has so often been, and is so


often, treated. Milton " has left more uncouth and in-
harmonious verses than any other poet of eminence."
People who discover melody in him are " as extraordinary
anomalies as any of those they admire." Knight ap-
parently desiderates mere " regularity " ; which is all the
odder, because, as is well known, his general theory of
aesthetic rests on the principle that " all unvaried continuity
tires," on the charm of " unexpectedness," etc. But just
as people sing what is not worth saying, so it would seem
that they expend on the art of singing in words all the
inattentive and presumptuous folly that can be spared
from more fortunate subjects. — One would not perhaps

Carey. expcct much good on English verse from John Carey,

the industrious and not useless compiler of the commonest
Gradus ad ParTiassum, the editor of many classics, the
manufacturer of " cribs " and " keys " innumerable, and the
" improver " of Dryden's Virgil in a most tiresome and
unjustifiable fashion. Nor does one get much. He is
Bysshier than Bysshe. English poetry is "entirely
regulated by number and accent of syllables." He thinks
that the beautiful common measure with catalectic first
and third " would not be worthy of notice if it had not
been adopted by some polished writers." Rhyme is once
more " a meretricious ornament of barbarous origin." " We
do not pronounce 'murmuring' as three syllables," which
means that we deprive the onomatopoeia of all its value.
But " on very rare occasions " — the italics are his own —
a real trisyllabic foot may be good.

Frereand On the Other hand, a few noteworthy general points

may be picked out here from the generally negligible
or postponible hexametrists. The eccentricities of which
they can be capable when they are musicians are well
shown by no less a person than Hookham Frere. As
a prosodic practitioner, the part author of the Anti-
Jacobin, the author in entirety of the work of " Whistle-
craft," and the translator of Aristophanes, needs neither
excuse nor allowance ; and his notion of an extra
initial syllable in the English hexameter need not shock
those who regard that metre as, in reality, a mere



" rickle " of anapsests. But when he tells us that the said
English hexameter has six " bars " and the heroic " two
bars and a half" the old despair comes upon the non-
musical reader. Another somewhat eccentric practitioner
and theorist of this tribe is James Blundell, who in 1838
(the year of Guest) printed, in a very handsome quarto,
Hexametrical Experiments in translation of Virgil's Eclogues,
with copious introduction and notes. He betters Frere
by suggesting redundant syllables anywhere, and, like him,
produces tolerable go-as-you-please anapcestasters. But the
most interesting thing about him is that he postulates, in
addition to long, short, and common, a new quantity,
" double-short" and that this when examined is found to
be a relic of the old " apostrophation " or " elision," the
syllables in question being such as the t in " rad/ant "
and the e in " awakening," in other words, Thelwall's
" appoggiatur^^." Unfortunately this leads him to im-
possible feet which he calls tribrach- and polybrach-
dactyls, such as

Echoing re [sound

Im I measurable ajbyss

— things which no doubt can be " crushed " into some sort
of feet, but only into such as those of Chinese ladies.

It will have been seen that the prosodic work of the
very last years of the eighteenth century and the first
forty (postponing Guest) of the nineteenth — the period
corresponding roughly to that between the appearance of
the Lyrical Ballads and the close of the first great poetical
procession ushered by that appearance — is by no means
inconsiderable in bulk.^ But the consideration which it
deserves — at least according to the view of the subject
taken in this book — shrivels uncomfortably when we
come to analyse and estimate. It is true that the interest
in the matter which, as we saw, distinguished the middle
and later eighteenth still exists, and that, to a certain
extent at any rate, there is continuous study of the subject.

1 Some ekings of it, and much more discussion than I have given, will be
found in Mr. Oniond, opp. cit.


But this continuity, though to be found in two or even
three different directions of sequence, is for the most part
vicious or futile. It exists among the musical gnostics
(as we may call them) of prosody, with their three or six
or eight bars in a heroic line. It exists among the sand-
rope twisters and ploughers of the sea, who pursue the
endless and hopeless battle of accent and quantity. It
exists, in a certain sense, among those who, though as
different in tone and temper as the Edinburgh Reviewer of
Southey and the Oxford Public Orator, hold to the pseudo-
orthodoxy of which Bysshe is the true, though mostly
unacknowledged, prophet. But of all these things it
may be said that they are not, and except by accident
cannot come to, good. A very large part of the prosodic
interest of the time, moreover, is devoted to a single question,
that of the English hexameter, which, though it certainly
does belong to the subject, had much better never have
done so.

Of the true prosodic process — exploration of the
whole course of English poetry and submissive inter-
pretation of the lessons thereof — hardly any one of these
writers seems to have the slightest idea ; and when an
earlier prosodist, Mitford, returns to his work in their
own time and improves it in this direction, they either
pay no attention to this part of his book or, like Herbert,
majestically snub him for it. Perhaps it was impossible
that the increasing knowledge of the subject which
Warton, Headley, Ellis, and others had given should be
quite without effect — they do show something a little
beyond the blank ignorance of facts and history which
had distinguished complacent theorisers like Steele and
Young. But if they know a little more, their extra
knowledge does them no good. On the contrary, a
man like Crowe, who is himself in a way du metier — a
scholar too, and, greatest wonder of all, an amiable
scholar, — avails himself of his knowledge of the exquisite,
and prosodically exquisite, lyrics of Ben and Donne only
to blaspheme them.

They were contemporary with a new poetic-prosodic


movement almost or quite as important as that of 1580-
1660 itself; but they either took no notice of it, or
passed it by on the other side, or sneered at it as modern
or slovenly, or paid strict attention to its actual " freaks,"
such as the hexametrical extravagation. It is evident,
however, that most of them were not much otherwise
minded towards Southey's good lyrical prosody, and that
of his poetically greater successors, than towards his bad
hexameters. The Quarterly on Keats's heroics, the Edin-
burgh earlier on Scott's octosyllables, others up to the
early — and not so very early — reviewers of Tennyson,
are all evidently under a sort of spell. They cannot see
the sweep and fluctuance of the light white sea-mew, the
crouch and curve and spring of the sleek black pantheress.
Both animals are to them articulated skeletons merely,
and the bones do not rank and clank in the proper order
and with the expected rattle of regularity. From Mitford's
second edition in 1804 to Guest's work in 1838 there is
not a single book that seems to me to be of the slightest
interest or value except historically. I and my kind
must read them ; and to us they have both interest and
importance, though, no doubt, these will vary, in nature
and measure most remarkably, according to the individual's
reading and his views. I have given indications of them
distinct enough, and (to my thinking) characterisations
of them full enough, to enable any inquirer to find them,
and to give him at least some notion whether they are
worth finding or not. But if any save a specialising
student of a rather unusual kind were to ask me, " Ought
I to read these men ? " I should reply, " Unless you have
exhausted everything else up to the year 1900, except
works on the currency and on Biblical criticism — no ! "


In the present Interchapter we have not, as we had in
some or most, if not all former ones, to collect and sum
up the evidences of one or more important developments
of a definite kind — the progressive constitution of rhythm
up to Chaucer ; its emphasising and regimenting by him ;
the break-up under his successors, and the restoration by
Spenser and his contemporaries ; the rise of blank verse,
its decay in drama, and its reorganisation as a non-
dramatic form by Milton ; the battle of the couplets and
the victory of the enclosed form ; its tyranny, and the
gathering evasions of it and opposition to it. These
stages are past : each of the progressive and constructive
ones has left its gain, and each of the retrograde and
destructive intervals its warning, for good and all.

Now, things are different. We have not seen in this
last Book — we shall not see in the present volume — any
definite advance in English prosody such as is marked by
the different metres of Chaucer and Spenser, by the
blank verse of Shakespeare and Milton, by the couplet of
Dryden and Pope. And most certainly we shall not see
what not merely the Quarterly Reviewer of Endy7)iion in
I 8 I 8, and Guest twenty years later, but even Coleridge,
in censuring the early prosody of Tennyson, thought he
saw — a debacle and dissolution of prosodic well-being, such
as prevailed wholly in the fifteenth century, and partially
in the seventeenth. Even the discredited couplet is not
so much dethroned as established on its own special
throne with others round it — reduced to its proper
functions. But the theoretical and arbitrary principles
on which the domination of that couplet had been based



disappear utterly as guides of practice, though for some
time they may be cherished, may indeed never be wholly
abandoned, by certain preceptists.

It can hardly be improper to try to separate, and put
before the reader, some of the general revolutions in
prosodic practice which display themselves in this great
change. The most important of all, according to the
views of the present treatise — the most important, I
should think, according to all views, though it may be
regarded with different feelings by those who hold them
— is the practical abolition of the strict syllabic theory,
and the admission of Substitution and Equivalence. We
saw ^ — not in the non-extant text, but in Southey's
scornful and explicit reply — Wynn's affirmation of the
older principle before the eighteenth century closed ; we
have seen the Edinburgh Reviewer's reaffirmation of it
when the nineteenth was well established. But the
practice — and in the rather rare cases where they
theorised, the theory — of almost all poets was against it,
even though old habit might be so strong that they
sometimes unnecessarily " apostrophated " words to suit
the older notion. Southey, as we have said, had plumply
denied any fault, and summoned Milton as his compur-
gator ; Coleridge's curious Christabel Preface, in whatever
fashion, directly abrogated the prohibition. The practice,
if not the theory, of Scott and Byron was identical with
that of Coleridge. Wordsworth was writing, if not
publishing —

Reverence was due to a /;^ing thus employed

(Prel. 265),

and little of a prosodic innovator as he was, was certainly
not intending it to be printed or read —

Rev'rence was due t'a being thus employed.

There could be no doubt in any one's mind what was the
system of Shelley or of Keats, however little authority he
might attach to that system. And so with all, both great

1 r. Slip. pp. 49, 50.


and small — the doctrine of strict syllabic uniformity was
being told, by almost every volume of verse that issued
from the press with any sign of youth or vigour, that
" 'twas time for it to goT

The second intruder that received notice to quit from
the practice of this quarter of a century was the doctrine
of the primacy of certain lines and combinations of lines,
and the restriction of the less highly-placed ones to
certain subjects. As we have seen, some seventeenth and
eighteenth-century opinion had held, not merely that the
decasyllable did absolutely overtop and overshadow every
other line, and the decasyllabic couplet every other com-
bination, but that beside it and the octosyllable, with the
extension of the one by redundance and the curtailing of
the other to sevens, hardly anything else needed to be
taken into account. Few, indeed, reached this extrava-
gance. Prior had early secured a privilegium for the
anapaest ; and " common measure," " long measure,"
romance-sixes, Pindarics, and a few others were tolerated
for special purposes. Spenserian imitation was at least half
burlesque ; and no serious poem of any importance in the
measure can be cited except the Castle of Iiidolejice (where it
is serious) and (if it is of importance) TJie Minstrel. Now,
all this was again changed. People wrote long and serious
narrative poems in continuous octosyllables, in rhymeless
Pindarics, in Spenserians, in any and every measure that
they chose to employ — some at least of these requiring
lines quite outside the old "customs regulations." And
in lyric — which was assuming greater and greater import-
ance with every new poet of the major clans who
appeared — the notion of a few limited forms had dis-
appeared from the poetic mind. Verily might it be said,
transferring to prosody one of the sentences of one of the
greatest passages of English prose, " In the fabric of
habit which they had so laboriously built for themselves

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 15 of 50)