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

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mankind were to remain no longer."

And as this fabric broke and crumbled under the
pressure of the new poetry, fresh beams and blocks of
wall were perpetually joining the crash. The study of


Milton and of Shakespeare — who, as it has been said, are
between them really sufficient to destroy all prosodic
error — was upsetting the doctrine of the centripetal pause ;
the last stand for which was just about to be made,
though on grounds which would have been to Bysshe a
stumbling-block and to Johnson foolishness, at the very
close of our sub-period, by Guest. The prohibition, or at
least the anxious and gingerly allowance of " wrenched
accent," " inverted stress," or whatever it be called, was
also being swept away by these two irresistible influences.
We have heard the Quarterly Reviewer's cry of scandal-
ised indignation at the absence of " a complete thought
in a complete couplet " ; ten years after he wrote — nay,
almost at the time when he was writing — hardly any
younger poet would have hesitated for one moment at
enjambment whenever it seemed good to him, either as a
continuous or as an occasional instrument. The unreason-
ing exaltation of rhyme which the eighteenth century ^
had seen, while restricting it to less than half its powers,
had provoked an attack of that rhymeless measles which
comes now and then in the centuries. But by 1820
or thereabouts both had settled into the only reasonable
attitude of mind on the subject — that rhyme is good and
that blank verse is good, " as the (f)p6vifjio<; may deter-
mine " — as the sensible and responsible poet shall decide,
according to his occasions and necessities.

The result is that, as was pointed out in the preceding
chapter, the preceptist work of the period may be, unless
as a matter of duty, almost wholly neglected. Except as
regards the historical part of Mitford, and a little of that
" battle of the hexameter " which we mainly postpone,
these writers i/iai non fur vivi — they were not alive them-
selves to the actual life of prosody, and they had nothing
to do with it.

But that life itself was intense, burning, varied, as
hardly ever before. Almost every poet — with scarcely

1 I am obliged here to state the case strongly ; but I may refer to my
actual treatment of eighteenth-century poetry to show that I have no uncritical
contempt for it. I am glad that some of those who know it best and esteem
it most highly have acknowledged my treatment to be not unfair.


the exception of survivals like Crabbe and Rogers, nay,
with perhaps on/y the exception of the latter among men
of any mark — was consciously or unconsciously ransack-
ing the stores of the older English poetry for models to
follow or to vary, for principles to fortify and to guide
him. We have Coleridge saying and doing the truest of
things though he may call them by the wrongest of
names ; we have the sober Wordsworth almost pirouetting
(not, it must be confessed, to advantage) in the middle of
his most solemn and enthusiastic chant. And, most
important and instructive of all, we have in Shelley and
in Keats two absolutely capital examples, of the poet to
whom this new-old variety comes almost as a matter of
inspiration or intuition, and of the poet who attains it by
hard, constant, backward-and-forward study of patterns.
We get a man like Southey — who has been steeped in
English poetry almost from his cradle, and certainly since
he was breeched — fearlessly asserting the great law of
equivalence as well as practising it, and appealing to
precedent for his authority ; and we get a man like
Byron — who actually pretends to prefer eighteenth-century
manners and modes — stumbling upon a real modern in-
vention, though starting from ancient lines, in the "Haid6e "
garden-song. Everywhere in the eighteenth century,
though we were not unfair to what we found there, we
found uniformity, neglect and indeed prohibition of
experiment, blindness to the lessons and the achievements
of the past. Everywhere in the early nineteenth we
find variety, audacious, tentative, eager discipleship, and
fresh striking out in the lines of the great poets of that

But, in addition to all this, innovations, or rather
restorations, of a character almost as important for
prosody, and of a more insidiously pervading though
less obvious kind, were being made in Diction. It has
been pointed out that though Wordsworth was hopelessly
wrong in his argument against poetic diction in general,
he was quite right in his objection to the particular
poetic diction of the eighteenth century, with its eccentric



and contradictory blend of false dignity, arbitrary selection,
objection to archaism even of the best kind, and yet main-
tenance of a rococo jargon which was emphatically " no
language." It has also been noted in passing that the
Quarterly man is almost more severe on Keats's diction
than on his verse or the conduct of his theme ; and that,
though Keats was undoubtedly vulnerable on this head,
the Quarterly objections are directed at least as much to
excellent things as to things not so excellent. The fact
was that the practice — must it be repeated once more
that the various degrees of consciousness in this practice
do not matter at all ? — of all important poets tended to
the breaking down of arbitrary restrictions, the removal
of capricious preferences, the throwing open of the
immense treasuries of actual English vocabulary to the
poet, and the permission to increase them, if he could,
with his own coinage and manufacture. A side-truth
of Wordsworth's false theory was that no word was
necessarily too low or familiar for poetry unless it neces-
sarily comported ludicrous associations ; that no word
was too high or remote for it unless it was really un-
intelligible ; that native and foreign, ancient and modern,
technicality, and even (as in Shakespeare often) some
kinds of jargon, might be chosen by the spirit of poetry
to express the wonderful works of the God thereof The
poet had had to clothe and tincture his thought with a
vocabulary of drab stucco ; he was now re-endowed with
the power of investiture in mosaic of gems, and in enamel
of molten porcelain and gold.

In a connection rather causal than merely coincident
with these great changes, enormously increased duty was
laid on prosody in carrying out the two new aims, of
increased appeal to audible and visual effect, which have
distinguished nineteenth-century verse, and in promoting
that great return to lyric, that substitution of the short
poem for the long, which has been another distinctive
feature of it. The memorable encomium of the younger
Pitt on The Lay of the Last Minstrel — that it contained
effects at which he could have conceived a painter aiming.


but never before a poet ^ — might have been matched
— perhaps was, though I do not remember any single
passage or expression as memorable — on the other side,
TJie Ancient Mariner and some other things of Coleridge,
still more numerous ones of Keats and Shelley, and even
of some minors, contain things that one familiar only, or
mainly, with eighteenth-century verse might have con-
ceived a musician aiming at, but never a poet. It was,
of course, and it is open to a stickler for precise separation
of arts to contend that this is the vice of metabasis, that
each art ought to keep to itself and its own weapons.
To fight out that battle here would be improper, though
there are probably few readers who require to be told on
which side I should range my humble pugnacities. But
it is relevant, if it be hardly necessary, to point out again
how powerfully prosody can, and did, contribute to the
attainment of these new or, in their measure, increased
aims. In the appeal to the ear, versification and diction
together take practically the entire work upon themselves ;
in the appeal to the eye, diction has a large part, and
even pure versification not a small. I do not refer to the
look of the poem on the page, but to the assistance given
to visualising by the division and adjustment of the lines
as they strike the mind.

Still more important, and more direct, was the share of
prosody in the resurrection of lyric, and in the provision
of something like a second hundred years in which the
English Muse once more outsang all others, except her
eldest sisters in the flashing palaces and through the
solitary nights ■'' by the Ionian sea, or round the altar of
the theatre at Athens. I read recently an egregious
German critic who told us that English lyric was mainly
prose — it is true that he told us at the same time that

1 His father's favourite Spenser might have taught him better :

In Poet's wit that passeth Painter farre
In picturing.

(/: Q. III. Introd. i.)

2 For where does the echo of /xapixaipei 5^ ;a^7as 56/xos and eyw Se fxbva.
Kareijdu} and o/' 5' iv dx»?«''ats"Eppet iraff' 'A(ppo5iTa revive, as in the choruses
of Promei/ieus Unbound, and the "Naples" stanzas, and the cadences of La
Belle Dame sans Merci ?


there was no development of character in Jane Austen,
and that her personages were "typical." Heaven forbid
that I should speak evil of the better German lyre, for a
lifelong familiarity with it, and something like a know-
ledge by heart of the Buck der Lieder and the Roman-
zero, would paralyse my tongue if I were to dare so to
blaspheme. But there is no doubt that, on the whole, it
tends rather to lullen, if not to lallen, to simple crooning
melodies that touch the heart but do not fire the brain
with artistic rapture, like the " higher mood " of our
Elizabethans and Carolines, or of those about Shelley
and their successors. The removal of that strange
delusion, apparent in more than one eighteenth-century
preceptist, as well as in the whole practice of the period,
and as we have seen curiously reiterated by Crowe in
theory, after it had been broken to pieces in practice, —
the delusion of reproving lengthenings and shortenings of
lines and complicated twistings of rhyme — had made
the more elaborate and triumphant symphonies once more
possible. And the possibility was eagerly seized upon
in every shape and form, for every purpose and depart-
ment, from the unrhymed narrative Pindaric of Thalaba,
which only wanted a little more affiatus, to the choric
and melic parts of Proinetheus Unbound, which wanted
nothing that poetry could give them ; from the ballad of
The Ancient Mariner and the snatch of "The Knight's
Tomb " to the ineffable harmonies of Keats's minor pieces
and the strange irresponsible inspirations of Beddoes.
To those to whom these things seem prose let them
be prose.

As in the case of the divisions of the great period to
which we have compared our present subject, the com-
partments here run much into one another generally ;
and our Interchapters and (when it comes) our Conclusion
will have, in the same way, to be complementary of each
other rather than merely cumulative, tallies rather than
simple addition. In the thirty years or a little more
which we have been specially surveying (taking Chapter I.
of the present Book as a sort of antechamber) the lines

VOL. Ill N


of the prosodic, as of the general poetic, development of
the century were pretty firmly laid. Nor were they
merely lines rebellious or negative — mere destruction of
those previously accepted, mere proclamation of anarchy.
In the new-old prosody it was by no means a case of
Fay ce que voudras, but only of Fay ce que pourras. The
lines of prohibition were, in fact, more rigid than ever,
because they were real and not arbitrary. If you might
not do a thing, it was not because Dick had not done it,
and Tom had looked on it with disfavour, and Harry had
pronounced it contrary to all the rules ; but because it
did not make harmonious verse. If you might do it, it
was not because even Shakespeare or Milton had done
it — though their practice was a pretty sure stronghold,
and their authority a mighty ward and weapon — but
because it did make harmonious verse. And if any one
says, as is still sometimes and was often said, " But who is
to be the judge of harmony ? " I conceive (I hope with-
out fatuity) that the question has been answered. We
have seen what is implied in Pope's preference for the
line about the Tanais ; we have seen that continual, if
timid, protests were made against arbitrary restrictions
during the very heart of the eighteenth century itself;
we have seen how men were constrained to accommodate
their preceptist objections to the practice of Milton and
Shakespeare (to whom they all paid lip-worship more or
less) by all manner of inconsistent explanations and

The fact is that this prosodic orthodoxy of the
eighteenth century was not a real thing at all : that it
depended on a vicious circle of induction from arbitrarily
selected instances, and practice which was made in its
turn to corroborate that imperfect induction ; that at the
touch of anything like real study of the whole, or even a
large part, of English poetry, it vanished away, like the
evil things of romance at the blow of a virtuous sword or
spear, at the presentation of a holy shield. That the
inevitable " dram of eale " should show itself in the shape
of some loose and sloppy verse, of some mawkish and


silly and affected diction, could not be helped. But the
preceding period had not been saved by its " rules " from
such admixture. And in this case the evil element did
nothing of the noble substance to its own scandal. Even
in the same poet it is only the reader whose mind is un-
provided with even the least critical sieve who cannot
separate Keats's imperfections from his perfections; while,
in separate poets, the twaddle and the tinkle of Haynes
Bayly have no more to do with Shelley's divine
harmonies and perfect phrase than if they had been
written in another universe during another aeon. It is
simply that the career is open to the talents, and that
the talents are ready for the career.






Tennyson : the Poems by Two Brothers and other earliest work —
Tinibiictoo and The Lover's Tale—T\i& volumes of 1830 and
1832—" Claribel "—The " Hollyhock " song—" The Poet " and
the decasyllabic quatrain — The " Palace " and " Dream " stanzas
— The "Dying Swan" — "The Lady of Shalott" — " CEnone "
—The " Lotos-Eaters " — " The Vision of Sin " — " St. Simeon
Stylites " — " Love and Duty " — " Morte d' Arthur " and
"Ulysses" — The Princess — In Memortatn — The Wellington
ode — Maud — "The Voyage," etc. — The anapaestics of the
Ballads — The later blank verse — The dramas — Browning. The
common mistake about him — His early blank verse : Paulitte —
And couplet : Paracelsus and Sordello — The later form : not
incorrect, but admitting the highest excellence with difficulty —
His octosyllables — His salvation by lyric — Miscellaneous ex-
amples — " Love among the Ruins " — " The Last Ride To-
gether " — "In a Gondola" — More miscellanies — " Childe
Roland" — Drama/is Persona — "James Lee['s Wife] " — " Abt
Vogler " — " Rabbi Ben Ezra " — The later books — Fifine at the
Fair — The last varieties.

In taking the subjects of this chapter together, something
more is aimed at than a mere convenient allowance of
quantity ; something more even has been taken into con-
sideration than the fact that, for some sixty years, the
two poets were contemporary and complementary as
representatives of English poetry. The perhaps natural
but always regrettable tendency to make a cockpit of
literature, and to set poets to fight a main with each
other, has made it customary to regard Tennyson and
Browning as opposites in all respects, and perhaps
specially in prosody. The fact is quite different, and I
hope to show it. But it will, all the same, be better to



keep the initial surveys of their actual prosodic accom-
plishment separate.^
Tennyson : For that of Tennyson it is naturally, except for the

the Poems by g^j^g ^f completeness and curiosity, vain to look in

Two Brothers ^^ ^ '

and other Pocvis by Two Brothers. We see there the general
earhest work. pj.QgQ(jjc improvement which has been noted in the last
Book, and which was practically inevitable ; but nothing
Timbiictoo and morc.^ It is rather different with Timbuctoo and The
The Lover's i^^^^y^s Tale. Scott and Byron and Moore had been

Tale. ^

almost the only influences noticeable in the first book.
They are now not only not supreme — they have almost
disappeared, their places being taken, perhaps by Shelley
to some extent (though Shelley was never Tennyson's
special master), certainly by Keats. The blank verse of
Timbuctoo is hardly in the least like the magnificent medium
with which, in " Ulysses " and the " Morte d'Arthur,"
the poet was, a dozen years later, to give practically the
last very great and distinct phase of the form that we
have seen. It is not even like the " blanks " of the
volumes of 1830 and 1832, which already, especially in
CEiione, foreshadow this magnificence. It is partly an
echo of Milton direct ; partly one transmitted perhaps
through Wordsworth, but more probably through Alastor
and Hyperion. That of The Lover's Tale is a much
greater advance towards the later form, the peculiar and
entirely novel shaping of verse -paragraph, and of verse-
clauses and sentences within it, being quite visible in the

1 For the fulness of the treatment I do not think it necessary to make any
apology : in these two the whole later prosody of English has, in a manner,
its exercising ground and typical museum.

'^ It is curious to see how little the future master of harmonies could do
with a rare one when he got it. In

I wander in darkness and sorrow,
Alfred has actually taken the measure of

I enter thy garden of roses ;

but he cannot wake its music in the least. The slovenly leaving of the odd
lines unrhymed, noted above as very common at this time, throws away the
major part of the chance ; while it is only now and then that he even keeps the
redundance. We could not have a better lesson, remembering what, in a
few years, he will make out of the old quatrain in the " Palace of Art " and
the "Dream of Fair Women," and what Praed, at the very moment, was
doing with this very measure.


light of the later achievement, though perhaps not so
easily discerned without the help of that light. With
that help the peculiar contour of such a passage as this,
which, as usual, I take almost at random, can hardly be
missed :

Gleams of the water-circles as they broke,

Flickered like doubtful smiles about her lips.

Quivered a flying glory on her hair,

Leapt like a passing thought across her eyes ;

And mine, with one that will not pass till earth

And heaven pass too, dwelt on my heaven — a face

Most starry fair, but kindled from within

As 'twere with dawn.

It will be observed that the phrase starts admirably, that
the contrast of the " single-moulded " form of the opening
and the run-on close is admirable too, but that it does not
actually finish quite so well.

With the two famous little volumes of 1830 and The volumes
1 832-1 833 that founded the last new dynasty (up to °832.^° ''"'^
the present moment) of English poetry, it is altogether
different. The poet, though he has retained the general
inspiration — especially of Keats, — has ceased entirely to
be an imitator in respect of metre ; and he develops his
genius for this with a blend of variety and individuality
that I cannot remember in the opening volumes of any
poet before him. It may indeed be suspected that the
novelty and variety of the metrical forms in these books
gave one main reason for the disfavour or neglect with
which they were received ; though it has long been
admitted, by everybody whose opinion is of importance,
that the blemishes in them were enough to set the whole
pack of blemish -hunters — critics then were too often
little else — on their track in full cry. When I find
Coleridge himself,^ the author of the Ancient Mariner and
Christabel, saying that " Tennyson's misfortune is, he has
begun to write verses without very well understanding
what metre is," and confessing, " I can hardly scan some
of his verses " ; when I remember that, even twenty years

^ Table Talk (ed. Ashe, London, 1888), p. 214. Of course this is, once
more, "what the soldier," or the son-in-law, "[says Ae~\ said." But there
seems to be no reason for distrusting it.


later, William Smith, the author of Thomdale, said,^ of
that exquisite and truly English song " A spirit haunts
the year's last hours," " What metre, Greek or Roman,
Russian or Chinese, it was intended to imitate we have
no care to inquire : the man was writing English and
had no justifiable pretence for torturing our ears with
verse like this " ; — I confess that a great awe falls upon
me. Almost these passages persuade me to give up
saying anything about prosody at all — till I remember
further that Coleridge certainly did not know much of
any English poetry before the sixteenth century ; that
Smith probably knew little, except Shakespeare and
Milton, before the late seventeenth ; and that so the keys
of purgation from such errors as these were partly with-
held from them.

From our special point of view, the originals, " young "
and faulty as they are, seem scarcely less remarkable than
the forms which they afterwards took, as a result of one of
the greatest exercises of self-denying criticism that poet
ever went through.^ The extraordinary slips of taste
that marred the close of the " Lady of Shalott," the
" Groves-of-Blarney " stanzas of the " Palace of Art," the
eccentric balloon-prelude of the " Dream of Fair Women,"
are altogether outside the jurisdiction of this court ;
Prosody has no black mark, if she has no prize, for the
unlucky " Darling Room," and the later and better but
certainly not indispensable " Skipping Rope." A very
few improvements were indeed made in this direction ;
but, on the other hand, not a few things altered or
omitted had, to the full or in a very high degree, the
marvellous magic of the versification of the new poet.
It may be very seriously questioned whether there is any
difference, save that of mere polish, between the two
earlier volumes and the great collection of 1842, in poetic
qualities of any kind. Those who regard as Tennyson's
masterpieces such things as the " May Queen " may be

^ Blach.vooa' s Magazine, April 1S49.

- There has been, for some years, no difficulty in making the comparison,
thanks to the late Professor Churton Collins's edition of the Early Poems
with the variants (London, 1900).


shocked or scornful at this ; though, after all, their
respectable and amiable but feeble favourite appeared in
1833. But those who find the rays of the new planet
in " The Dying Swan " and " Mariana," in the " Palace "
and the " Dream," in the " Lotos-Eaters " and " QEnone,"
will want nothing more in one sense, though everything
in another. And the prosodic qualities of these — the
marvellous crescendo of " The Dying Swan," the moan of
" Mariana," the unrivalled plastic competence and adapta-
tion of the stanzas of the " Palace " and the "Dream,"
the elaborate partition of the " Lotos-Eaters," the majestic
blank verse of " CEnone " — were all there from the first,
and for the first time.

In fact the "quality of the qualities" is there in "Ciaribei.
" Claribel," which, though it had been abused, the poet
wisely left almost unaltered, as an overture to his work,
in every issue for sixty years. The good William Smith,
in the article above cited, thought that " ' Claribel ' leaves
as little impression on the living ear as it would on the
sleeper beneath." Even George Brimley,^ though he
admired it, was not sure what " the precise feeling of it " is.
Now I do not know whether Claribel could hear her
dirge ; but if she did, and did not like it, she had more
than the unreasonableness of woman. I do not know
what " the precise feeling of it " is, because its obvious
object is to excite a feeling not " precise," to give to ear

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 16 of 50)