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

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Men were drinking together,

Drinking and talking of me ;
" Well, if it prove a girl, the boy

Will have plenty : so let it be."

Is it an echo of something

Read with a boy's delight,
Viziers nodding together

In some Arabian night ?

Strange, that I hear two men,
Somewhere, talking of me ;
" Well, if it prove a girl, my boy
Will have plenty : so let it be."
VOL. Ill P


of it in detail with the atmosphere of the whole, whether
it is not.

As for the " Garden " song, I suppose the same people
would call it hackneyed — a term which for me has no
meaning except as applied to the persons who find things
so. What wears is not the artist's art, which is imperish-
able, but the reader's or hearer's power of reception : it is
he, not it, that is a hack. There are I do not know how
many " settings " of this ; but none of them has come
anywhere near its own music reinforced with its own
colour — the float, and sweep, and stoop, and sharp cross-
flight of a covey of birds of paradise. Others are almost
as well known, but there are few things finer in the
poem than the irregularly rhymed decasyllabics of the
central rapture :

Is that enchanted moan only the swell

Of the long waves that roll in yonder bay ?

"The The "minor" poems of the second period of Tenny-

oyage, etc. g^j^'g poetic life require somewhat less notice ; and the
very large body of blank verse which he composed or
published in it needs not a little. It is almost enough to
say of the bulk of the former that he never lost his
cunning in lyric to the very last — that in " Crossing the
Bar," as in " Claribel," you may find the prosodic sword
of which you will be wise to say, " There is none like
that : give it me " ; while in not a few cases he hit
upon distinct new schemes, or attained mastery in one
where he had been less successful. The Efioch Arden
collection of 1864 contained, besides its interesting
metrical experiments, two specially perfect things, one, it
would seem, old, the other certainly new — " The Voyage "
and " In the Valley of Cauteretz." The rushing splendour
of the former {the piece in English poetry, perhaps, for
showing what " celeres iambos " meant) — the way in which
line picks up line and stanza stanza — is a joy to see ;
while the latter, an exact opposite in the surging slowness
of its movement, is one of the pieces which require no
small study to be certain of their exact manufacture.


The rhythm is hemistichic — there being throughout a
very strong centre pause, on either side of which the
cadence may be iambic or trochaic, while the hemistichs
themselves may be catalectic or acatalectic, and trisyllabic
feet are scarcely used. I have thought it worth while to
scan it below ; for the process does no despite to, but
only brings out, the majesty of the surge.^

In later books still, there is at least one practically The
new achievement of more than a special or individual ^^I'^galiads'
kind. In his earlier work Tennyson — wonderful with
the iamb and trochee, and the occasionally substituted
anapaest — had not been very successful with this, the triple
foot, unmixed or basic. He had let the " Dying Swan "
swell into it magnificently ; but the anapaestic admixture
in the " May Queen " is one of the worst managed points
in that poem, and, as we have seen even in Maud, he
must be purely lyrical with it if he is to be purely

As not very unfrequently happens — and as, by a
curious instance of the coincidence of general with
particular development, had happened already in the
history ^ of this special measure — it was in comic or
partly comic matter that completely successful manage-
ment of the continuous anapaest first came to him. The
two " Northern Farmers " showed this mastery first ; and
he tried it in various inferior things, dialectic and literary,
for a time, till it finally produced the absolute master-
pieces of " The Revenge " and " Lucknow," and the
" Voyage of Maeldune." It may be, at the stage we
have reached, laid down with a certain confidence that

1 All I along I the val|ley, || stream | that \ flash] est; white,
Deep|ening | thy voice | with || the deep|ening of | the night,
All I along I the val|ley, || where | thy : wa|ters \ flow,
I walked | with one | I loved | two || and thirjty years ago.

The : divisions indicate a trochaic alternative, which might easily be
extended ; and of course some people may object to the pauses at "with"
and " two," putting them back a syllable. This will give a fine anapoestic
substitution in " with the deep- " and " two and thir-." But I think iambic
cadence in the first half, and trochaic in the second, gives the best scheme.
We don't want " All among the Barley " to come in.

^ See the chapter on it, vol. ii. p. 419 sgg.

blank verse


with a staple metre of this kind the poet has less to
bring out its special qualities — that belongs to the more
eccentric and elaborate measures — than to stamp its broad
and solid surface with his own mark. I do not know
where you will get exactly the same mark before as in

And the sun went down, and the stars came out, far over the
summer sea,

or in

And ever above the topmost roof the banner of England blew.

They are not quite the same, for the pause at " above " is
far less than at " the sun went down," which almost
makes tJiree divisions of the line — an arrangement
singularly and almost uncannily varied in the gorgeous
breathlessness of the shorter-lined "Maeldune," where there
is sometimes hardly any pause at all.^
The later There are many other things that I should like to

notice, but we must come to, and finish with, the later
blank verse. It is difficult, even with the assistance of
the Life, to be quite certain of the time when Tennyson
attained his absolute zenith in this art. The summit is,
I think, " twy- peaked," as he would have said himself.
The one peak is the opening of Tithonus, respecting
which, often as I have read it, I have never, from first
reading at first appearance to the present day, been able
to persuade myself that the first ten lines, and especially
the first four,^ are not a regular stanza. In no case that

1 As in

And high in the heaven above it there flickered a songless lark,

Our voices were thinner and fainter than any flittermouse-shriek,

For a wild witch naked as heav'n stood on each of the loftiest capes.

Another interesting contrast between "The Revenge" and " Maeldune" may
he found in the ceaseless variation of line-length and foot-composition of the
first, and the uniform sweep of the second.

2 The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes : I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,


I know does blank verse get so near the effect of rhyme in
time-beat and concatenation, if not in sound-echo. The
other is the great description of Lancelot's voyage to
Carbonek in the The Holy Grail, approached very near,
though I think not quite reached, by the transfiguration
of Galahad and his preliminary ride with Percevale. But
scores of passages in the Idylls, in Tiresias, and in other
poems, would have to be taken into consideration by any
one who wants to get a really synoptic view of the matter.
It is also perhaps not quite superfluous to warn those who
are not of the Old Guard in this subject that the modern
arrangement of the connected Idylls is extremely de-
ceptive, inasmuch as you get work of very different
periods arranged without the slightest regard to chrono-
logical order. Only by taking the original four — " Enid,"
" Vivien," " Elaine," and " Guinevere," — and adding the
others in the order in which they were published, con-
sidering, at the same time, the smaller things from
" Tithonus " onwards, can the true procession and
succession be observed.

The dramatic blank verse is perhaps rather a subject The dramas.
for some paragraph in an Interchapter or the Conclusion,
in regard to the curious phenomena presented by the
whole department to which it belongs, during the century.
Although there are some fine passages in it — notably the
" Green Tree " dream in Harold — there is not very much
which could shake the equanimity with which some
Tennysonian stalwarts would relinquish this part of the
master's work. And it could not but contribute —
perhaps more than a little — to the slight weakening of
command which his latest examples show. It is one of
the interesting things about blank verse that the diable
au corps which is necessary to it is wont, like other devils
in possession, to play tricks with the strongest men who
half-possess and are half-possessed by him. Milton's

A white-hair'd shadow, roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.
For once, rhyme has nothing to add to this ; the magic of the poet has
already given all, or almost all, that it could give.


familiar was a familiar with a bent one way towards stiffness
and hardness, and he got that way a little too much in
Paradise Regained and Samson ; another way, towards
temerarious substitution of trochees for iambs, which
broke out even earlier in the " universal reproaches " and
"bottomless pits." Shakespeare's angel— not a "black
cherub " at all, but slightly masterful — was one who
tended towards unbridled liberty, and showed it by
approaches to excess of redundance. Tennyson's tempter,
in his attendant sprite, was a leaning towards an overdose
of trisyllabic substitution, and in his latest days this
also was a little too strong for him. A blank-verseman
is nothing if he is not daring ; and by constant daring
he is apt to become rash.

It is thus, almost inevitably, in the direction of his
greatest success that his greatest danger lies, and the
various dangers almost all group themselves — from one
side of grouping — under the head of mannerism. Tenny-
son's manners had been obvious from the first — they were
partly indicated above, — and nothing but special grace will
keep a strong manner from becoming mannerism. Even
in the Holy Grail, and even in such a fine passage of it
as the paragraph describing Camelot, epanaphora and
epanorthosis " figure it " almost to the point of disfigure-
ment. In Balin and Balan more perilous tricks are tried,
such as the always dangerous final anapaest —

Than twenty Balins, Balan knight. I have said ;

where the danger is accentuated by the strong pause,
after a lighter one, which seems to close an iambic rhythm,
and then to break into a different one. Here, too, the
cunningly woven paragraphs get too much intertwisted
with parenthesis — a thing admirable in prose, but always
dangerous in verse, which has a parenthesis of its own.^

1 Again, I do not think

Moaning " my violences, my violences ! "

a safe line (though it is not, in its place, a bad one), because it, and other things
exaggerating it since, will, in the inevitable revenges of Time, provoke return
to the abominable apostrophation and decasyllabomania which we have seen


Of course there are any number of beautiful things
here. A lovelier piece of verse than the short speech
of Guinevere to Lancelot —

" Sweeter to me," she said, " this garden rose
Deep-hued and many-folded ! sweeter still
The wild-wood hyacinth and the bloom of May.
Prince, we have ridd'n before among the flowers
In those fair days — "

I do not know, though it may owe part of its loveliness
to the memory, so artfully suggested, of the forty years
earlier verses which chronicle Jiow they had "ridden before."
The effect of dramatic practice is also visible, I think, and
not quite satisfactorily so, in this dialogue of Balin and
Vivien :

Thereat she suddenly laughed and shrill ; anon

Sighed all as suddenly. Said Balin to her,

" Is this thy courtesy to mock me, ha ?

Hence ! for I will not with thee." Again she sighed.

Most of all, perhaps, the change,^ not for the better, is seen
when the original " Vivien " is compared with the later
version, or when the consummation of the old " Passing
of Arthur " contrasts with the admirable, but less admir-
able, " Coming." In the first case a tangle of broken
verse-parenthesis, with somewhat excessive redundance
and trisyllabism, passes strangely into the sweet and
stately measure of the earlier time. In the other, fine as
is the passage of the dragon-ship and the sea-waif child,
it certainly does not fully come up to the sustained
magnificence of Excalibur and the Queens.

Yet here, as so often elsewhere, we must allow for
experiment ; and Tennyson never quenched his power,
though he may sometimes have played tricks with it.
And at the very last, after two full generations of poets
trained — would they, nold they — by him ; with at least
four admirable representatives of the middle school yet
surviving, with a respectable promise of more to come —
who but he could have produced these lines of " St.
Telemachus " ?

1 The strong relief given to this is not, I think, a wholly pleasing result
of the redistribution of the Idylls as an epic in tableau.


And, called, arose, and slowly plunging down
Thro' that disastrous glory, set his face
By waste and field and town of alien tongue.
Following a hundred sunsets, and the sphere
Of westward-wheeling stars ; and every dawn
Struck from him his own shadow on to Rome.

The claw of the lion still ! We may say something more
of its general imprint later, but must now pass to the

Grand lion des plages de la mer

of English in the mid-nineteenth century.

Browning. The Dick Minims of to-day — for the order of Minimites

mislake"about ^^^ largely increased in the last century and a half,
him. though they wear their cords with a difference — have no

doubt about the prosody of Browning. He is a rugged
and incorrect versifier, contrasting remarkably with the
precise and almost feminine correctness of Tennyson,
Dick {minijmis in another sense) says it in examination
papers, and Dick major in reviews, and Dick inaximus
(thus and then most hopelessly minim) in books. Now a
great many false things, by odd fate, were said of Mr.
Browning, both in the time when the British public had
not liked him yet, and in the time when it had ; but than
this nothing was ever said falser. As a matter of fact
Browning, though an audacious, is almost invariably a
correct prosodist — he goes often to the very edge, but
hardly ever over it ; and when he chooses (which is not
.so extremely seldom) he can be " as smooth as smooth."
Not very seldom, likewise, especially in later days, when
long-deferred popularity had " got into his head," he set
his affected eccentricity of tongue against his native
justness of ear, and made an unnecessary to-do between
them. But even then the ear generally won, in spite of
the outrageous gesticulations of the other member.

And therefore, practically. Browning is not so much
of a prosodic contrast to Tennyson as he is of a prosodic
complcDieni : an instance of the same bent working in
slightly different ways. Like Tennyson, he enters into


the heritage of all English poetry as it had been re-
discovered and partly applied by Coleridge and Shelley
and Keats. Like Tennyson, he writes his greatest poetry
by far in assorted samples of varied prosodic mode. He
is fonder of quick measures, and better at them. He is
more addicted to prosodic as to other " tumbling " ; but as
your good acrobat never merely sprawls in gesture, so
does Browning never merely sprawl in verse. The many-
twinkling feet may be in the most unexpected places
and tread the most complicated labyrinths, but you will
generally find that no law of decent rhythm is broken by

Not merely, though partly, because we gave the prin- His early
cipal treatment to Tennyson's blank verse last, we shall pJ^iinT^^
treat Browning's blank verse first. It represents even
a larger proportion of his work, not merely after the
" British public," by way of atonement for neglecting his
best, had given him a bond to take anything (good or bad)
that he gave it, but earlier. Its changes and its qualities
are both extremely interesting ; and though I could not
produce a single piece ^ of Browning's in this medium
which seems to me of his very best — though he is cer-
tainly far below his great contemporary as a blank-
verseman — it illustrates the real, as distinguished from the
fancied, contrast with Tennyson almost supremely.

Tennyson, as we saw, began with a distinctly com-
posite and obviously transitional form borrowed, though
not slavishly, from two or three different originals, and
not so much blended as alternately practised. Browning
began with an imitation of a single model, very difficult
to imitate, and passed almost at once into something else.
Tennyson made the thing into one of its most specially ^
perfect forms, though at some later times he strained its

^ The chief exception, if any, is perhaps "Artemis Prologises" ; but this
is in pretty oh\\o\xs falsetto. That there are good specimens in " St. Praxed's,"
" Cleon," etc., and that " O Lyric Love " is a fine burst I should not dream
of denying ; but what are these among so many ? A very great poet, with a
very great metre, will hardly fail now and then to achieve greatness. The
text, and a further passage below, remain, I think, substantially true.

2 I use this word here (as it might be used with advantage oftener than it
is) in the proper sense of "as regards the species," not as = " uncommonly."


legitimate characteristics dangerously. Browning turned
it into a medium nearer prose in some ways than any
verse we have, yet never technically indefensible as verse.
His original model, as anybody may see ^ in Pauline after
a few pages, was Shelley. " No Alastor, no Pauline" as
far as verse goes, unless you admit some mysterious
re-creation on the part of a boy who was admittedly an
ardent student of the first exemplar. But the only thing
that he retained of this first study was a certain " breath-
lessness " which is not absent in Shelley, but which
assumes quite different form in Browning, and which is in
fact the right name for his much mistalked of " obscurity,"
Browning is only obscure to those who take him as
Thaumast did Panurge, and endeavour to discover some
recondite meaning in his gesticulations. But these
gesticulations (which are quite as often versicular as not)
are only the result of his burning desire to get to the next
thought, the next thing, the next hint, suggestion, infer-
ence, comment. All this haste transforms and transfuses
itself into the fashion of his verse, especially of his blank
verse ; and it ultimately landed him in that apparently,
but much more apparently than really, grotesque accumula-
tion of tribrachs, and that welter of monosyllables, exple-
tives, and sometimes mere gibberish, which was admirably
and hardly excessively caricatured by *' C. S. C. " in " The
Cock and the Bull," and " J. K. S." in the piece about the
And couplet : " Me Society down at Cambridge." ^ Oddly enough at first
and Sordeiio Sight — Icss SO, perhaps, when we remember the enjambers
of the seventeenth century — it was not in blank verse
that he first developed this pillar-to-post delivery, but in
the couplets of Sordeiio ; and he was duly punished for it
by having to wait, like Sordeiio himself, outside the gate
for a good many years. There is much less of

i' the thick
O' the work

1 I remember seeing this, at once and unprompted, when the poem was
first reprinted, and when I first read it, in 1868.

'^ It is curious tliat the "super-parodies," as they may be called, of the
Heptalogia (see below on Mr. Swinburne) do not touch the blank verse.


and similar things in Paracelsus, which is, as a matter of
fact, much more " obscure " than Sordello itself. The
blank verse here is still of the Pauline or Shelleyan
type. The long intricate paragraphs are rarely full-
stopped, but by no means freely equivalenced or frequently
redundanced. In the immense dying speech of the hero
— more than three hundred lines in length — there are not
half a score redundances (excluding words like " heaven "),
and scarcely, I think, more than half a dozen trisyllabic

In his later work, where he was taking some liberties The later form;
with the at length acquired popularity, and even in the "°^ '"correct,
middle, when he was conscious of having nearly attained
it, he of course launched out. But neither in the

Worn patchwork your respectable fingers served
To metamorphose somebody ; yes I've earned,

any more than in the


of " Sludge," nor in the

" Guilty " for the whim's sake ! " Guilty" he somehow thinks

of The Ring and the Book (" Guido," 408), will you find
any difficulty in reducing the thing to a perfectly sound
and satisfactory equivalence. You may be horrified at
the number of fourpenny and threepenny pieces, almost
at the " handful of brass," ^ you get, instead of your
expected five sixpences and shillings five, but there the
sum is, all right. And what is more, it is your own fault
if you can't " count the coin on the counter out " with a
perfectly rhythmical cadence.

Let it be once more observed that of the propriety of
presenting long trains of this verse, upholstered in a
diction prosaic enough, for the most part, to bring Words-

^ " Here ! boy, take this handful of brass

Across to the ' Goose and Gridiron ' pass ;
Count the coin on the counter out,
And bring me a quart of foaming stout."

There is no unpardonable irrelevance, I hope, in quoting these admirable
anapaests of poor Maginn's — as good an illustration, in the lighter way, of
the prosodic improvements we are discussing as could be given.


worth himself to a sense of the peril of his theory, I say
nothing here. I am merely insisting on the fact that, with
exceptions which may exist in such an immense volume,
but which I cannot remember and cannot, in repeated
readings to refresh my memory, find, Browning always
kept the norm — enlarged to utmost stretch, but never
actually exceeded or broken ; that he never went so near
to breach or excess as Tennyson himself sometimes did
but admitting On the Other hand, it is almost self-evident that this

exceu'fncTwith volubility, howevcr regularised, and this constant in-
difficuity. dulgence in the less centrical varieties of the norm, must
prevent a poet from exhibiting his very best powers in the
kind. There can hardly be a single good judge of verse
who, asked to point out a limited number of Browning's
best things, would include in them many proportionately
— if indeed he included any — in blank verse. Not to do
so with Tennyson would be ridiculous. To mention one
interesting case only, it is practically impossible that, in
such a loose and shifting form as Browning's, that marked
variety and various marking of the pause, which is the
great means of producing harmony, should result. The
measure is well filled ; but it is filled with sand that shifts,
so that it is impossible to get the finest composition and
relation of values out of it. One of the most effective
means of producing supreme blank verse used by Shakes-
peare and Tennyson — less so, but still to some extent, by
Milton — is the admixture of lines with no pause at all. But
the headlong speed of Browning's lines presently obliterates
whatever pauses there are ; so that the pauseless or
apparently pauseless line is, with him, the rule rather than
the exception. Nor is there any form of verse in which
the " beautiful word," the " ring on the stretched fore-
finger," produces so much poetic effect, or in which
Tennyson himself uses it with such exquisite yet inevit-
able art. But Browning never stops to look for a
beautiful word in his blank verse, or cares to hold it out,
though sometimes one may come to him by chance, or by
the natural kindness of beautiful things.


Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 19 of 50)