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

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place, as in the two well-known lines oi JoJm Barleycorn :

Like a rogue | for for|gerie

Tho' the tear | were in | her eye,

with which may be compared some of the most magnifi-
cent lines in Tke Ancient Mariner:

Like the whiz | of my | crossbow,

and others. The improvement which this " spur in the
head" gives to the verse is extraordinary ; and it is note-
worthy that much of it is lost if the anapaest is doubled,
as in

For he crushed | him between | two stones.

You want the check as well as the spur to produce the

And in all these, in his songs to the quaintest, catchiest Of the highest
tunes, in his mere fragments, there is the quicksilver, the b^^fcompara-
live blood which had been the main thing missing for a t'veiy simple.
hundred years or so at least. Failure to keep even the
exactest and most exacting measure is very rare ; but in
another sense the verse is not measured out at all : it glows
under the hand and flows from the lips of the singer
as an organic, not an inorganic thing. It is in this hardly
surpassed power of fingering — of giving life to every

1 V. sup. i. 264, note :

In a dow|fe like|nes than.

2 V. inf. on Guest himself: also his book, ed. Skeat, p. 183.


metre that he touches — that Burns's prosodic value con-
sists. He invented, as has been said, Httle or nothing
prosodically ; and his most distinguishing poetic qualities
are much more of sentiment or of phrase than of actual
versification. When you look at his predecessors down
to Fergusson you find the very same measures, but with
infinitely less diable au corps in them. Now, as this
infusion of diable {ton diable, of course) au corps was
exactly what eighteenth-century poetry wanted, nobody
could have been a greater benefactor to it than Burns
was. For his verse not only danced and sang itself, but,
as in fairy stories, it made all the hearers and readers who
had any dancing or singing faculty go and do likewise —
made them, at any rate, discontented with the tramp or
the saunter, with the drone and the sing-song, of earlier
eighteenth-century verse. In other respects his prosody
is perfectly plain sailing ; and in its own way it supplies
a fresh illustration of that prosodic correctness which we
have noted in the early poets of Middle Scots.^ More-
over, there is one point of importance about it which I do
not remember ever to have seen sufficiently urged — the
way in which he represents a tradition older than the
Gascoignian fancy about the non-existence of trisyllabic
feet, and so brings us back to the sound practice of these
Blake: his Nothing could well afford a sharper contrast than the

complexity. prosodic study offered by the greatest of his close con-
temporaries in poetry. The work of " English Blake " '^
(he called himself so, and his Irish blood appears to be

' Burns's greatest prosodic triumph appears to me to be in the famous
"Jessy" song, with the unique substitution of "despairing" in the third line
of the first verse. On the question why he did not repeat the shortening in
the others there might be "some airgument."

- Mr. Sampson's admirable Clarendon Press edition (Oxford, 1905) has
"antiquated" all others for the Poems; but the Aldine (London, 1874 and
since) is still desirable for The! and Tiriel. Nor can the student, even of
Blake's text, dispense with Mr. Swinburne's famous Essay (1866), which gives
in comfortable type large extracts from the Prophecies ; with Gilchrist (pre-
ferably the second edition, London, 1880), for much prose, typed prophecy,
etc.; with Messrs. Ellis and Yeats's Blakian thesaurus (3 vols., London,
1893) ; or with Mr. Ellis's later type-printed Works (Poetic and Prophetic)
(2 voLs., London, 1906).


eminently what the Articles describe as " a fond thing
vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of
scripture ") may appear at first sight as a prosodic chaos
beside the varied but regular organisation of the verse of
the Scottish bard. Not merely the unfortunate outsiders
who talk about Blake's " drivel " and " doggerel," but people
in a much less parlous state, and even those of the very
elect who have taken upon themselves to patch and piece
and plaster Blake's poems into regularity, have ignored
the extraordinary prosodic quality which, almost as much
as his thought, his imagery, and his passion, distinguishes
him as a poet. Of course a great deal — in fact, the
immense majority — of his verse has come to us in the
most dishevelled condition possible ; and though we have
not a few MS. corrections of his own, very few of them
can be supposed to represent in any sense a boti a tirer.
On the Poetical Sketches he seems to have refused to
bestow any paternal care at all ; in fact, there are actual
suspicions of infanticide as to the larger part of the
edition. His only other regularly printed book of verse,
the First Book of Tlie French Revolution, is a vanished
mystery.^ In the two sets of Songs and the wide range
of the " prophetic " or semi-prophetic books, we have to
remember the method of production, and the fact that he
was evidently always thinking of the meaning or the
ornament, not the poetical form — exception made for the
Jerusalem manifesto, to which we shall come in good
time. This, taken literally, would exclude prosody in
the ordinary sense from among the minute particulars to
which no doubt he did pay attention. The conditions of
the singular MSS. which, to the disgrace of the country,
have been allowed to go to America, make the " rough
copy " the rule, not the exception, in much of his most
interesting poetical work. And, lastly, that curious
mental diathesis which it is so difficult to describe without
exciting a hubbub,^ would certainly not make for what is

1 It was so to me and to nearly everybody when I wrote this notice, but
V. inf. pp. 23-5.

2 Although it is perhaps an irrelevancy, and a rather perilous one, may I —
as a Blakite since the day when, as a small boy, I discovered the " Mad



commonly thought prosodic exactness. But let us go
from generalities to " the blessed originals."
The Poetical Whether some of the MS. scraps, especially those of

The Island in the Moon, are earlier or not than the Poetical
Sketches is a question which could only be discussed with
the result of further swelling the immense amount of
superfluous talk already existing on the subject. There
can be no reason at all for doubting that the Sketches
represent, fairly and rather fully, the poet -painter-
prophet's work before and up to his six-and-twentieth
year. The " Advertisement," in fact, limits them to his
twentieth ; and so much the better if it be so, for that
would put them before 1777, only seven years later than
Chatterton's death. As was absolutely inevitable in the
circumstances, there is perpetual imitation in them. But,
on the one hand, this imitation is largely directed to things
which were only just being imitated at all, and which it
was not yet fashionable to imitate ; and, on the other,
there is much which is anything but imitative. Eliza-
bethan and seventeenth-century influences appear every-
where in the opening " Season " pieces ; the bold enjamb-
ment, the studiously varied pause, the epanaphora, all
give evidence of this kind ; and the same influence colours,
in a fashion partly comic, the Strawberry-Hill supernatural
of " Fair Elenor." But there is nothing comic in the
wonderful eights of

How sweet I roamed from field to field,

which is Caroline of the best kind. " My Silks and Fine
Array," though more directly imitative, is Elizabethan in
its imitation, and so is " Memory, hither come," The
fingering in these last three pieces is miraculous ; and it
must be remembered that the manner had not been

Song" and part of the "Catalogue" in Southey's Doctor, and as one who
defies any of his rivals to be Blakitior than himself — suggest that there is
something unwise in the nervous deprecation of "madness"? What is any
man — especially any poet — good for if he is not a little mad in the ordinary
and prosaic sense of the term ? And it is in the ordinary and prosaic sense
of the term only that madness can be, or indeed ever is, ascribed to Blake.
If the fools think the worse of him for it, let them ; but why should ivc be
as the fools?


transmitted — a little the worse for the transmission, but
continuous and alive — as it had been in Burns's case.
Nobody except Chatterton had sung like that — had
modulated measures like that — since the middle of the
seventeenth century.

But the "diploma-piece" from our point of view — the The "Mad
piece which, like a few of Chatterton's own, shows that a ^"^'
new birth of prosody had come — is the afore-mentioned
" Mad Song." For pure verse-effect — assisted powerfully
by diction, of course, and not to be divorced from thought,
but existing independently of it — there are few pieces in
English or any language to beat this marvellous thing.
And it is very noticeable that its ineffable music is really
prosodic, not musical at all, I do not know whether
anybody has ever tried to set it ; but I cannot fancy the
tune at all, and I require none. The scheme is very
simple, and capable of being defined with rigid accuracy.
Lines i, 2, 3, 4, 8 are iambic monometer with full
anapaestic and, I think, in one case monosyllabic sub-
stitution ; 5, 6, 7 extend themselves by a foot to dimeter
brachycatalectic with substitution existent but rather less
free. The foot-equivalence is thus rigidly maintained
throughout, and the line -correspondence in the stanza
equally so ; and yet, as you read, the thing shifts, outline
and texture and shade, like the " rustling beds of dawn "
themselves. The one real or apparent " irregularity " of
the piece, the substitution of the quatrain rhymed ao a
for a ah b, is very likely intentional, and certainly not
a discord, as it comes in the middle stanza, and so does
not disturb the concerted effect. If anybody objects to
the " cockney " rhyme of " dawn " and " scorn," he may
" go shake his ears," which are probably long enough to
wave like the reeds that told the story of Midas. On the
other hand, it has always been a matter of amazement to
me how Dante Rossetti, with the double sympathy of
poet and painter, could have changed " beds " to " birds."
As I ventured to point out in The Academy thirty-five
years ago, when reviewing Mr. W. M. Rossetti's edition, the
entire imagery of the poem is atmospheric, and the phrase


" beds of dawn " for the clouds whence sun and wind
issue is infinitely fine. But the whole should be given
and scanned : —

The wild | winds weep

And the night | is a-cold ;
Come hijther, Sleep,

And my griefs | unfold.
But lo ! I the morn|ing peeps
Over I the eas|tern steeps,
And the rust | ling beds | of dawn
The earth | do scorn.

Lo ! I to the vault

Of pajvM heaven,
With sor|row fraught.

My notes | are driven.
They strike | the ear | of night,

Make weep | the eyes | of day ;
They make mad | the roajring winds.

And with tem | pests play.

Like a fiend | in a cloud.

With how I ling woe
After night | I do crowd

And with night | will go ;
I turn I my back | to the East,
From whence com [forts have | increased,
For light ] doth seize | my brain
With franjtic pain.

Of course, if anybody is afraid of " Lo ! " as a mono-
syllabic foot, he can have " Lo ! to I the vault " ; but I



think it inferior. "Vaut" for rhyme has ample justi-

Nobody in the eighteenth century, not even Chatterton,
had yet returned to the true blend of freedom and order
in English prosody with such a perfect result as this. In
fact, I hardly know a better document or object-lesson
for the display of that prosody than this very piece ; and
if it were not doing it wrong, being so majestical and
exquisite at once, to put it to base uses, I should employ
nothing in preference to it. Take it on the accent or
stress system, neglecting the unaccented or unstressed
syllables in their exact combination with the others, and
you lose more than half its beauty and almost all com-
prehension of that beauty's source. Take the feet, and
the delicacy, the unerringness, and at the same time the
freedom and variety of their interchange, compose a
marvel for ever.

Even Blake could not increase our prosodic comforts
after this fashion every time that he took pen in hand —
much more every time that his ever-industrious and ever-
vagabond pencil strayed from drawing to writing. The
ballad measure of " Gwin, King of Norway " has some
fine phrase,^ but its actual rhythm hardly gets out of the
jog-trot which, till the Ancient Mariner bursts into that
long silent sea, beset the ballad. His Spenserian ex-
periments are among the greatest of prosodic curiosities.
He makes six shots at it, " all different and all wrong,"
as Mr. Sampson laconically but exhaustively observes.
That he varies the number of lines from eight to ten,
does not observe the final Alexandrine regularly, and
often ends with a couplet, is less surprising when we
remember Prior's rehandling, which was pretty certain to
be in an eighteenth-century mind, than it may seem to
us at first. But he was evidently quite out of sympathy
with the measure ; and his diction and line-forging are

^ It also shows the Ossiati influence (see Excursus at end of chapter). The
chiefs who stood round the king,

Like reared stones around a grave,
can hardly be irreminiscent of those who "stood silent around as the stones
of Loda " in the second " Duan " of Cath-Loda (i. 22, ed. cit. inf.).



Miltonic rather than Spenserian. So, too, the " blanks "
of Edward the Third are failures, from no dissimilar
reason. Whether he was actually acquainted with the prae-
Shakespearian drama, one cannot say. But, once more,
the diction and line-forging suggest some acquaintance
with this, and much with Milton : less with Shakespeare
himself, outside the historical plays, than we should have
The Songs of That in writing the Songs of Innocence and those of

Experience Blake had Watts at least to some extent
before him has occurred independently to several persons :
indeed, it could hardly escape any one acquainted with
the two, and interested in the subject. But the following
is of the most casual and intermittent kind ; and though
we have seen that Watts is contemptible neither as poet
nor as prosodist, there could not be two persons, poets,
or prosodists much more different than Lady Abney's
respectable chaplain and Hayley's recalcitrant guest.
The exquisite " Introduction " ^ is once more seventeenth
century with a new touch in it, and there are not many
trochaic quatrains of sevens in English that " drop their
honey " in a sweeter fashion. The anapaests of " The
Echoing Green " are purposely and beautifully puerile,
and the anapaestic measures throughout keep this tone
for the most part. But the trochee is Blake' s great
weapon here, and he reverses the old saying by bringing
strength out of its sweetness in the most wonderful way.
The sweetness is still uppermost in " Little Lamb, who
made thee ? " but there are presagings of the different
joy that is to come, long before we actually reach the
" Tiger " and find the whole cast of the metre changed
from softness and an almost coaxing lubricity to splendour
and terror." And though the trochee haunts him, he can

^ Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee, etc.

- One of the numerous genuine variants (there are others) —

What dread hand forged thy dread feet —

seems to me the ne plus ultra of the measure in this direction. It makes
almost a SQVQn-foot line with pause-syllables after every spoken one.


quite dispense with it. " Infant Joy " ^ is almost as
astonishing as the " Mad Song " in what it effects by
short plain iambic metre, not suggestive of tune in the
least, but of perfect prosodic music. The heroic quatrain
of " The Little Black Boy " is neither Dryden nor Gray ;
in fact, it escapes the monotony which is the curse of
the measure rather better than either. But one might
specify almost every piece for the new spirit that is
breathed into the old forms.

The Songs of Experience open with something different, and of Experi-
Blake had evidently been early impressed by Milton's ^"''''
" Nativity Hymn " and other grave concerted forms, and
by the " broken and cuttit " measures of the earlier
Elizabethans. But he applied their lessons with his own
fortunate assumption of free trisyllabic substitution, and
the result in the " Introduction " and its answer is extra-
ordinary. A finer stanza for construction and sound it
will be hard to find than that of

O Earth ! O Earth ! return !
Arise from out the dewy grass.

Night is worn,

And the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass.

Turn away no more ;
Why wilt thou turn away ?

The starry floor.

The watery shore,
Is given thee till the break of day.-

Blake wrote " wat'ry " and " giv'n " according to the pre-
scriptions of Bysshe, whose work, we know, he possessed ;
but the love of poetry laughs at such locksmiths, and we
may spell it as he would have spelt it to-day, though the
shorter feet make good metre enough. If it were not

* "I have I no name, Pret|ty joy,

I am but two days old." Sweet joy but two days old,

What shall I call thee ? Sweet joy, I call thee :

" I hap|py am, Thou | dost smile ;

Joy is my name." I sing the while,

Sweet joy befall thee ! " Sweet joy befall thee ! "

- I think ("reasoning rightly and in my own division") I would rather
have written these lines than anything in English poetry outside of Shakespeare.


entirely alien from his temperament to have done so, one
might suppose that he had purposely juxtaposed " The
Fly," where the linelets flit and cross like flies themselves,
with the majesty of the " Tiger " ; and certainly, if he
had been making a parade of his prosodic power, he
could not have done better than to follow them with the
sort of blend of the two which is found in " Lyca," " The
Little Girl Lost" and "Found." Many others tempt
the student ; and if Blake had kept up the rhythm of the
opening couplet of " The Sunflower " —

Ah ! Sun I flower, wea|ry of time.

Who count I est the steps | of the sun —

he would have anticipated, in one of its most difficult
shapes, the triumphs of the nineteenth century with the
unmixed or, at any rate, predominant anapaest for
purposes other than light. As it is, he has shaken the
jingle of Shenstone, and even of Cowper, out of the
three-foot form, and put clangour and cry in its place.
The MS. Of the poems from MS., though they contain some

wonderful things, there may seem less need to say much
prosodically, because they are, from the nature of the
case, unfinished. Nor do they contain much that is new
in scheme. Yet they are full of the new prosodic secret
— the secret that was not fully known even to the
Elizabethan age, though it actually gave the impulse to
that great age's poets. The very first piece in the
Rossetti book, christened by editors before Mr. Sampson
" Love's Secret," shows this to the full. It is given
below ^ with its MS. variants and deletions, and nobody

' Deleted — [Never pain to tell thy love,

Love that never told can be ;
For the gentle wind doth move
Silently, invisibly.]

I told my love, I told my love,

I told her all my heart.
Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears —

Ah ! she doth depart.

Soon as she was gone from me
A traveller came by —



who has an ear can fail to see that, with or without these
— in the face of the fact that we do not in the least
know how Blake would have printed it finally, — the
prosodic utiity, the kinship of the feet, and the wondrous
dance that they trip out, are unmistakable. Like the
" Mad Song," it is a thing that you will find nowhere
but in English poetry : like that, it shows what English
poetry can and may do in the prosodic way. The
quintessence of it is almost overpowering, and it carries
with it the beau bouquet de roses francJws which La Quinte
always has by her to recover her lovers of their ecstasy.
The trochaic half-trimeters catalectic of
Silent, silent Night

have been even better known to lovers of poetry for a
long time. The first triplet, at any rate, is unsurpassable,
and the still rapture of it only contrasts in the right way
with the rush of the iambics in an equally famous stanza
of another fragment.^ The absolute mastery of substitu-
tion which distinguishes this unique poet appears almost
as well as anywhere in " The Wildflower's Song," and it
is very interesting to observe the slight change of time
which suffices to turn this into what may be called
Blake's " Skeltonics," of which " The Fairy," better known
as " The Marriage Ring," is a famous example.^ His

Silently, invisibly —
Oh ! was no deny.

If there are anywhere much finer examples of the effect of "acephalous"
third and fourth lines, inclining now ("Trembling," etc.) to trochaic suggestion,
now (" Silently," etc.) to monosyllabic opening, I do not know them. There
is, however, parallel magic in

I laid me down upon a bank.
Where Love lay sleeping ;
I heard among the rushes dank —
Weeping, weeping.
^ Silent, silent Night, Let age and sickness silent rob

Quench the holy light The vineyards in the night.

Of thy torches bright. But those who burn with vigorous youth

Pluck fruits before the light.
2 As I wandered the forest, Come hither, my sparrows.

The green leaves among. My little arrows,

I heard a wildflower If a tear or a smile

Singing a song. Will a man beguile,

etc. etc. etc. etc.

VOL. Ill C


magnificent trochaic dimeters catalectic — the greatest of
all his metres — are nowhere shown better than in the
central stanzas of the poem, only to be found faithfully
rendered in Mr. Sampson's edition, but known to most
Blake-lovers by Rossetti's title of " Broken Love." ^ The
miraculous lampoon on Klopstock, which has in consider-
able part blushed itself off the face of the manuscript and
away from the knowledge of man since Mr. Swinburne
described it forty years ago, is either " Christabel " before
" Christabel " and adjusted to burla, or Butler equivalenced
into a wilder state of prosodic puckishness than Hudibras
itself displays. But to find one of those contrasts so
natural to Blake, one has but to turn over three poems —
two of them mere fragments — and find the " soft repentant
moan" of "Morning."^ In the dashed -off scraps of
epigram-fragment it might seem idle to look for much ;
but we find in them not infrequent evidence of a nervous
grip of the heroic couplet — once more contrasting,
strangely enough to the novice if not quite so to the
expert, with the vEolian harp murmurings of one part
of the verse and the reckless doggerel (as some call it)
of another. A fair specimen of this last is the piece
begmnmg j ^^^^ ^^ ^^ ^^^^ ^^^^ ^^ ^^^ .

1 Seven of my sweet loves thy knife
Has bereaved of their life.
Their marble tombs I built with tears,
And with cold and shuddering fears.

Seven more loves weep night and day,
Round the tomb where my loves lay,
And seven more loves attend each night
Around my couch with torches bright.

And seven more loves in my bed
Crown with wine my mournful head.
Pitying and forgiving all
My transgressions, great and small.

" Seven " has all its own mystical virtues in prosody, for pretty obvious
reasons, but this is the *' Song of Seven " in sense after sense.

- To find the Western path.
Right through the gates of Wrath,

I urge my way :
Sweet Mercy leads me on
With soft repentant moan —

I see the break of day.


but to see it in perfection we must go to the famous
" Everlasting Gospel," which is once more " Christabel "
endenioniada, while the "Auguries of Innocence" in the
Pickering MS. fall back nearly, but by no means quite,
to regular octosyllables with little but the usual catalectic

In all these lyrics (and if I seem to those not
*' entered " in Blake to have quoted too many, I shall
certainly seem to the initiated to have quoted too i^vi)^
as well as in others down to the merest scraps and
fragments, there is a really extraordinary prosodic quality.

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