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

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pillars of increasing cubital height : I think we had better
not be too sure about that either way. " You wait and
see," as the Devil said to the man (at Monte Cassino,
was it not .-') when he observed that it was really pre-
posterous to imagine that there could be such a place as
Hell. But there is no possible dubiety — for any one who
has ears to hear — about such verses as

The watcher on the column to the end,


and the splendid paragraph of pure Tennysonian structure
and symphony which closes the poem. I have indeed
known people laugh at " A quarter before twelve." Let

Indeed misjudgments of poetry are often of great " Love and
interest. The late excellent Principal Shairp, while ^^'
admiring " Love and Duty " for " noble and nobly
rendered thought," while acknowledging its four last lines
to be " pretty," considered that they " might have been
spared after the passionate parting scene," and joined
Bagehot in lecturing the poet on his " ornateness," using
obliquely even rasher words.^ These " very pretty " but
over-ornate, if not even " meretricious " and " dressy "
lines, are :

Then, when the first low matin-chirp hath grown
Full quire, and morning driven her plow of pearl
Far-furrowing into light the mounded rack.
Beyond the fair green field and eastern sea.

Now it is perfectly easy — it always is if it were worth
doing — to answer this philosopher even according to his
own pseudo-philosophy. I thought we had heard some-
thing of the " Versdhnung-c\osQ " — the excellence of leaving
off, if not the positive obligation to leave off, with a note
of hope and comfort, with the consolation of the stars
instead of the blank silence of the sun. Matthew
Arnold, Mr. Shairp's admired friend and fellow-critic, did
it in the ** Scholar Gipsy " and " Sohrab and Rustum,"
and I would he had never done worse. But the curious
thing is that a good scholar and a real lover of nature
and (as far as he could understand it) of poetry should
have seen in these lines only something very pretty stuck
on, as people put jam on junket for an extra sweetening.
They not only present an exquisite picture in the true
blend of picture and poetry ; they are not only in
themselves one of the most splendid pieces of blank verse
in English ; but they actually complete the blank verse

^ "Dressy" [this, to be sure, is Bagehot's], "meretricious," "one of the
evils incident to democracy." Now one may hate democracy 6/jlQs 'AiSao
ir{i\-Q<nv ; but when it begins to make people appreciate the four lines above
given, it will be time to waver in that hatred.


symphony of the whole piece — give the capital of the
glorious pillar which has risen, in paragraph after paragraph
of due proportion and taper and entasis, to the skies. With-
out this the thing would be truncated to the ear, and to the
mind that has an ear. It must be feared that Providence
or Jack Ketch has been unkind to many more minds
than one would expect in this matter.
"Morte But of course the " Morte " and "Ulysses" are the

■'Ulysses'^" summits here. There is a curious difference between
them, alike as they are ; and I have always wondered
whether it is too fanciful to assign this, less to the subjects
(which are not so very far apart, and even pretty close
in some respects), than to the documents which suggested
them. As is well known, Tennyson has in the " Morte,"
or parts of it, versified Malory with an almost Shake-
spearian closeness ; while Malory, in his turn, had before
him, not merely the mysterious " French book " (which
must have been a whole library), but certain very definite
English books. " Ulysses," on the other hand, was, as is
equally well known, suggested by one of the very finest
passages of Dante, which, however, it greatly amplifies
even in " argument." Now it certainly does seem to
me — it may be an error, but it is gratissmms — that
Tennyson, while showing in each that specified and
patented brand of verse which he had now reached,
shows also not a little, in the one case, of the curious
musical flowing fifteenth -century prose which contrasts
so strangely with official fifteenth-century verse, and, in
the other, of the unique combination of nervous strength
and flowing music to be found in Dante's tercets. The
" Morte " verse is the more undulating, the more entwined,
the more various and excursive, though it can reach the
utmost intensity, as in the famous passage of the throwing
of Excalibur. The other is slightly more rhetorical,
closer knit, more sententious and weighty, to be pronounced
slower. I should take, for single-line instances, two as
typical as they are well known —

So flashed and fell the brand Excalibur,


Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy ;

and for two entwined passages, the whole paragraph in
which the one occurs, and that which follows the other.^

I shall hope to return to the subject of Tennyson's
blank verse when we come to The Holy Grail, but for
the present it may be observed that his main secret —
the point in which he differs from all masters before him,
except Shakespeare in some of his soliloquies — is the great
variety of speeds which he succeeds in getting out of it
by the various devices of single-moulding, enjambment,
shift or omission of pause, epanaphora (of which latterly
he became dangerously fond), occasional trisyllabic feet
(of which the same remark may be made), and the rest.
Milton had, of course, employed them all ; but it was
impossible for Milton to move rapidly. Now rapid
movement was not Tennyson's favourite or most con-
genial mode in general verse, but he early succeeded in
getting almost as much of it into blanks as blanks will

It was but natural that this accomplished mastery of The PHncess.

1 My knowledge of Italian is slight ; but, ever since I have made a shift
to read Dante in the original, I have found English verse-translations
impossible— even Gary jarring, though perhaps not so much as the "stump-
rhymed " tercets of Longfellow. Yet I really think Tennyson, in blank
verse, might have reconciled me, though I am very glad he did not so waste
his time ; for verse translation of a poet by a poet always is waste time,
save when it is not translation at all. E perb sappia ciascuno, che nulla cosa
per legame musaico arinonizata si pub della sua loquela in altra trasmutaj-e,
senza romper e tutta sua dolcezza e artnonia. (Convito, i. 7.)

2 For they should never gabble — save for direct burlesque or grotesque
effect. If the text be doubted, compare the beginning and the end of
"CEnone," not a few passages in "Ulysses," and almost the whole of the
central incident in "Godiva." — As I wrote this I read, with amazement
which had some difficulty in keeping within the limits of respect, an
attempt, made by a classical scholar of distinction, to whitewash Euripides
from Aristophanes's "impertinence" by endeavouring to foist a silly and
saugrenu line of triviality into some of Tennyson's blank-verse exordia.
There might be a good deal to say about this elsewhere. Here it is only
permissible to wonder that such a scholar should be apparently blind to a
simple prosodic fact. His foist is a whole line ; and a whole line you may
put in anywhere as burlesque — in Shakespeare and in Milton, in Marlowe
and in Shelley. The point of the Frogs jest is the exquisite use made of
Euripides's metrical style, and of his mannerism with the penthemimeral
caesura, which invites the popping in his mouth of the tag \r\Kvdi.ov dTrwXeo-ej'.
There is nothing similar in Tennyson, though he has mannerisms enough,
some of which have been often excellently and legitimately burlesqued.


the metre which seemed to be " coted and signed " as
that of a long poem in English, should lead the poet to
attempt one. Hitherto, whatever his private schemes
may have been, he had been contented, in his published
work, to follow the bent of the century and confine
himself to short pieces. It is fortunately not necessary,
or even proper, for us to attempt to decide whether this
bent — though it happens to be one important to us —
was in itself an advance or a declension. Prosody has
nothing directly to do with the two great theories — the
one loudly and authoritatively proclaimed from the
beginning, the other rather shamefacedly and seldom
supported — that " all depends on the subject," which
subject should be of a certain {i.e. a considerable) magni-
tude ; and, -per contra^ that all depends on the reaching
and consummation, by the expression of the poet and the
impression of the reader, of the " poetic moment " — subject,
thought, action, fable, and what not, being things by no
means indifferent, but not essential, inasmuch as they
are shared by prose. With all this we have here nothing
to do as matter of prosodic property ; though it is, of
course, a separable accident that the short-poem system
gives more opportunities for varying prosodic success than
the long, and that it can keep that success up through-
out in a fashion which, human nature being what it is,
the long poem can hardly observe. On the length,
therefore, of The Princess we need say little, and on its
subject, nothing at all ; unless it be to point out that by
this time the poet's experiments had put him in a position
to adapt his metre to incidents and accidents of narrative
as he could hardly have done otherwise, and that these
incidents and accidents, by their variety and number,
furnished him with a further exercising ground in the

That the result is curiously felicitous nobody, I think,
has ever denied. We need not, and indeed must not,
take into account the decriers of the poem or the poet
because they do not agree with the principles, or are
disturbed by the historical, social, and general atmosphere.


or are in other ways " not at the point of view." The
blank-verse — individual, claused, and paragraphed — is of
singular ease, variety, and plastic resonance ; and the
mannerisms, which, as has been said, were certain to
harden later, are as yet in scarcely any case or way
excessive. There is perhaps something of an approach
to an overdose of epanaphora,^ but it is difficult to say
that it is an overdose as yet. And the skill with which
he sustains the long verse paragraph — hardly stopped at all,
but paused with infinite variety — is astonishing. As
there had been no such short pieces of blank verse as
" Love and Duty " and " Ulysses " before, so there had
been no such long one since Paradise Regained itself.
For the distinct though splendid pastiche of Hyperion was
not present here.

Here, as always, the poet was a careful reviser, and
his omission of the undignified wrangle with Lady Blanche
on the battlefield was an immense gain ; but the blank
verse was not much affected prosodically. The addition
of the songs, however, was a rich prosodic as well as
poetic bonus. There are no lyrics in English which have
a much more individual and self-rendered music than
" The splendour falls " and " Tears, idle tears." " Thy
voice is heard " is a marvel of rhythmical adaptation ;
and as for " Ask me no more," the audacious challenge ^
to the Carolines on their own ground is brought off in
" the best and most orgillous manner " — a right worshipful
randonnee with lances fairly shivered and confessed
equality for the prize.

From some points of view, no doubt, Tennyson's most in Memoriam.
interesting single work in relation to strict prosody may
be taken to be his instauration, and something more, of
the great hi Memoriam metre. We have given an
account, in the proper place, of the seventeenth-century
examples — not many in number, nor, for the most part,

1 "And" is naturally the commonest instrument of this ; "the'" perhaps
next; "not" not seldom. Others the most rapid run of the eye will find
plentifully in the double columns of the standard one vol. edition — e.g. " Two,"
p. 175, column 2; "I" repeatedly in Blanche's speech, 190-191, and, in
fact, passim. '^ See on Carew's piece, supra, vol. ii. p. 336.


exceedingly perfect in result — of this combination. It is
remarkable that in the great rummaging of our Eliza-
bethan treasuries which the end of the eighteenth and
the beginning of the nineteenth centuries saw, its capacities
were not earlier recognised ; for (once more, as we have
shown) they are quite obvious even in the imperfect
examples of Jonson and Herbert, and they appear strongly
when identical matter in identical line-form is transposed
into this stanza arrangement.^ As usual, attempts have,
I believe, been made to show that Tennyson was not the
absolutely first "^ to revive it, but they are merely
curious. The thing has taken its place, practically for
all time, as "/;z Memoriain metre." In fact, so powerful
and absorbing were the energies which the poet spent
upon it that hi Menioriam itself seems almost to have
monopolised the form — everything else in it appears
pastiche or parody.

To this, however. Time, who sees to all things, if
sometimes only to make them unseen, will certainly look ;
and like the Spenserian — which it resembles in possessing
special quality, though their capabilities are so different —
it will be used by new poets. For this quality is indeed
extraordinary, and, like some other things which we have
noticed, it is a text from which to prove the folly, not
merely of those who pooh-pooh prosody in general, but
of those who belittle rhyme.

This is the day of (among other things) a special form
of " removing our ignorance farther back " by stating
things in terms of what is called psychology. And
psychology may, if it will, give its own statement (calling
it an explanation) of the curious fact that if you take
four sounds corresponding in pairs, arrange them with
trains of other sounds behind them, and then change the
tip-arrangement from abab to abba, the total effect will
be quite different. The fact is the fact. The alternate-
rhymed quatrain gives, with no unpleasant touch, the
effect of something like a ratchet bar motion, with checks.

1 y. sup. ii. 332.
•^ For the Rossettian coincidence, v. inf. in the proper place.


The included rhyme ^ gives that of a sweep, in which the
variation of rhyme in the first pair is obHterated or com-
pensated by the reverse of this same variation in the
second pair, and seems to constitute an unbroken circle.
In other words, the In Memoriain quatrain is much more
continuous, and has a more bird-like motion, than the
ordinary " long measure," of which it is a displacement ;
and yet, like the Spenserian itself, it invites to continua-
tion, though its own internal movepnent is so perfect.

Why this combination of word -sound should lend
itself particularly to pensive meditation, is a thing much
more difficult to explain, in any way not simply futile.
The greater unity of the stanza, just mentioned, helps us
a little, but only a little ; and I do not know that we
can do better than acquiesce — not with a grin — in some
quia est in ilia virtus nieditativa. Once more, the fact is
the fact. I defy any one to use the hi Memoriam stanza
without dropping into such a vein, unless he is contented
with simple burlesque, or likes to have his metre per-
petually jostling his thought, like two ill-matched walkers

But, when its conditions and limitations are accepted,
it is a wonderful measure, and the secondary quality of
grouping itself comes out most remarkably. I do not
think that even supreme " common " measure, or ordinary
" long," groups itself with anything like the same ease :
the finest examples of both are cumulative. But in such
a piece as, for instance, the marvellous " Old Yew, which
graspest at the stones," '" though each verse is sufficiently

1 In decasyllabics as well as in octosyllables ; but the greater spacing of
sound-recurrence injures the effect in the longer form.

^ I am not giving many quotations from Tennyson, because the passages
referred to ought to be generally known ; but I must give this :

Old Yew, which graspest at the stones

That name the under-lying dead,

Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.

The seasons bring the flower again,

And bring the firstling to the flock ;

And in the dusk of thee, the clock
Beats out the little lives of men.

ton ode.


self-contained when looked at only in itself, there is
intimate connection between them. And when the thing
ends you feel that the end is an organic completion, not
a mere cutting short because enough seems to have been
given, a mere absence from adding another course because
the bricks are used up. Here again we have contact
with the Spenserian and the sonnet — hardly with any
shorter metre except rhyme-royal (which is itself nearly
double the length) and a very few quintets.
The Welling- fhe very difficult enterprise of the Ode on the Death

of the Duke of Wellington — a sort of attempt to " fight a
prize " with the great artificial half-musical, half-prosodic
compositions of Dryden and Pope — is not entirely a
prosodic success. It is true that it improves steadily,
and that the two last strophes are not faultily, but
magnificently faultless, the final couplet,^ with its slightly
varied cadence or dying fall, being a sans-pareil. But
the opening does not strike me as quite hit off: the
irregular sobbing movement" is somewhat too jerky.
Nor do the anapaests of the fifth strophe seem to me
quite happily inserted.^ The extraordinarily fine lines
and passages would save anything, poetically speaking ;
but I cannot call the whole a prosodic re'ussite}

not for thee the glow, the bloom,
Who chnngest not in any gale,
Nor branding summer suns avail

To touch thy thousand years of gloom :

And gazing on thee, sullen tree,

Sick for thy stubborn hardihood,
I seem to fail from out my blood

And grow incorporate into thee.

Change the penultimate foot ("-porate in-") to a mere iamb and the
crowning glory departs.

1 And in the vast cathedral leave him,
God accept him, Christ receive him.

2 Bury the Great Duke
With an Empire's lamentation.

■' As, for instance :

Let the bell be toU'd :
And a rev|erent peo|ple behold
The towering car, the sable steeds.
^ About this time, and that of Maud, Tennyson tried various experiments,
which illustrate what has been more than once said. None, I think, was


And so we come to that curious crux, Maud. There Maud.
are endless things to say about Maud, and some that are
not prosodic at first appearance have a prosodic bearing.
One part of its immediate unpopularity — thougli the
major part was undoubtedly due to the curious irrational
relapse which often comes when a man, long defrauded
of his due, receives it at last before he is thoroughly
estated in popular esteem — was pretty clearly caused by
its prosodic character. People, as we have seen, from
Coleridge and Mill to Mr. Smith, had been " bothered "
by Tennyson's irregularity, as they thought it. Accus-
tomed to the steady use of a single metre, they found
themselves jolted and jarred by perpetual changes. On
the other hand, there is very little doubt that the poet,
like many another Entellus when some pretentious Dares
steps into the ring, had resolved to try a round with the
Spasmodics, and even (which Entellus did not do) to
fight them with their own gloves of unbridled emotion,
unusual diction, and strange form of all kinds.

In so far as the piece has a staple metre at all, it
is to be found in a rather new, rather peculiar, and
not invariably successful medium of long anapaestic
lines, sometimes six-footers, sometimes five. It is im-
possible not to see that the longer ones, such as those
in which the very questionable overture is written, have
been to some extent suggested by the hexameter mania,
which was specially strong rather before the middle of
the century. Tennyson had too unerring a sense of

illegitimate, and hardly one fails to contain beautiful poetry. But such
things as the regularised and isolated equivalence, in one line only, of "The
Daisy " and the " Maurice," as in

And gray | metro | polls of | the North,

Cro;cus, I ane|mone, vi|olet,
though they satisfy my law, do not wholly please my ear, because they always
occur in the same place. Nor does the suggestion of resemblance to the last
line of an alcaic

Pauperiem sine dote qurero
at all reconcile me to them. For (i) the resemblance is incomplete by a
syllable, and an important one, (2) Latin and English are very different, (3)
in the Latin the rhythm takes up a precedent suggestion ; in the English it
does not.


English prosody ever to use the hexameter itself seriously;^
but he saw, for what it was really worth, that Puckish lob
of prosodic spirit which lurks about it.

Did he fling himself down ? who knows ? for a vast speculation
had failed

is, of course, really a six-foot anapaestic with a single
spondaic substitution. But if you cut off the last two
words it will be just a Clough-hewn hexameter ; dropping
the two first and pronouncing " fail^^," a hexameter which
has more semblance to the genuine thing than some of the

I remember the time, for the roots of my hair were stirr'd

is catalectic Evangeline of spondaic type. Change it to

I remember the time, for the roots of my hair were on end set,

and you might be following Evangeline herself in that
exceedingly ill-planned stern-chase of Gabriel which ended
in the hospital. These things form a by-study of great
interest to the hexameter question. I do not know that
in themselves they afford much prosodic delectation, except
when poetry makes the poet break into such a thing as

And the flying gold of the ruined woodlands drove thro' the air,

where you get the germ of the Sigurd metre, and a
wonderful line to boot ; or

The shining daffodil dead, and Orion low in his grave,

which is more wonderful still.

The five-foot lines of the finale are better ; in fact
Part III. is as far above Part I. prosodically as in other
ways. Indeed, this form is very quaint and curious, and
introduces us, if we will, to one of the prosodic mysteries.
It has been and will be said constantly in talking of
substitution, that it has to be most carefully guarded, so
that there be no confusion of bases. How difficult this is,
yet how it can be done by the skill of the poet, may be
shown by comparing these five-foot lines with the author's

* For his playing with it as a toiir de force, see the chapter on the subject,


five-foot iambics, especially when he took to copious tri-
syllabic equivalence there. They approach very closely.

It is time, O passionate heart and morbid eye,

might be either, read as it is. Substitute " 'Tis time,"
and everybody, seeing it by itself, would take it for a
heroic line ; and so with the next and others. Yet read
the whole, and the anapaestic staple is sun-clear.^

The shorter anapaests of the middle cantos, or fyttes,
or whatever you like to call them, are generally better ;
but sometimes worse. The regular but multiform lyrics,
and the mixed metres that fill so much of the poem, show
all the old prosodic mastery. The most beautiful of all,
" O that 'twere possible," is indeed certainly known to be a
production of the golden age — a good deal anterior to the
rest ; but there is plenty more. I suppose most people
think the snatch " Did I hear it half in a doze " a slight
thing, and so no doubt the Pope's messenger thought
Giotto's performance with red colour quite indecently
slight. To me the rhythm ^ is yet another miracle, and
I shall ask anybody, who will have the patience to note
the extraordinary variety, and yet the perfect consonance

^ Very beautiful is the expansion-contrast, when misanthropy and madness
have given way to resignation, of the single anapjestic trimeter given above
into three fives :

And the shining daffodil dies, and the Charioteer
And starry Gemini hang like glorious crowns
Over Orion'' s grave low down in the west.

2 Did I hear it half in a doze

Long since, I know not where ?
Did I dream it an hour ago.
When asleep in this arm-chair ?

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 18 of 50)