George Saintsbury.

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

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For such a writer, indeed, the warning bell of rhyme, His octo-
and the firm restrictions of lyric, are absolutely required ^yi^^^i^s.
to bring out his beauty of form. And even the first is not
sufficient by itself: the rush of his thought and phrase
drowns it. We have seen how, in Sordello, the couplet is
done to the likeness of blank verse. You hardly think
of the rhyme at all. I protest that, well as I know both,
I forget the rhyme in Sordello oftener and more com-
pletely than I ever do with the most " loose-legged " of
the Carolines. But this happens only in decasyllabic
couplet : he cannot get quite way enough on him in
octosyllables to overpower the end-clang as he does in
the bigger verse. There is not much danger of any one
forgetting the rhyme in Christmas Eve and Easter Day.

Indeed, with characteristic whimsicalness, he takes
good care that you shall not. As he must mind it, so
shall you. His rhymes are never of that excruciating
order which it pleased his wife to affect and defend before
she was his wife (he helped to save her soul in that way
at any rate). Dick and the other Minims talk nearly as
much nonsense about Browning's rhymes as about his
versification. There is nothing the matter with " examine
it " and " Jane Lamb in it " — it is a very perfect gentle
rhyme, though Spenser would have lopped the lady of
her b. There is nothing more than permitted licence in
" haunches stir " and " Manchester," ^ and (considering
the avowed comic liberty) very little in " ranunculus " and
" Your uncle us." ^ These things have really nothing in
common with the appalling abominations which we shall
have to chronicle in our next chapter. And Mrs.
Browning's crimes were, let it be remembered, always
committed in serious verse ; her husband's eccentricities
were rarely so.

1 For though you must not say either "ha«ches"or " Mawnches " the
sounds approximate near enough in "Ha" (compare " la?/nch " with its
forms " lanch " and "lance") and "Ma" (see App. on Rhyme).

2 Blushing History, however, will hide " Aphroa^;'^/^^ " : for the delight of
gods and men never, in the whole of Lempriere, did anything so improper as
to rhyme to "delight." However, I am not sure that I do not prefer her to
" Oulumpos " and the other later preposterousnesses. That single term at
University College, London, had a terrible deal to answer for.


His salvation No doubt, hovvcver, to be perfectly serious ourselves,

by lyric. j^jg rhymes, like his diction, were ever so little provocative.

In his management of strict lyric form there was no
profaning of the mysteries ; though, like almost every
poet, he may sometimes have made an unfortunate
experiment. That he had that Heaven-sent gift which
Heaven had withdrawn somewhere about the time of
the later Carolines, and vouchsafed again only with
Chatterton and Blake, was shown, as early as the date of
Paracelsus^ in the beautiful

Heap cassia, sandal-buds and stripes
Of labdanum, and aloe-balls,

where the coincidence with Tennyson's very little earlier
work is astonishing, though there is a touch of Beddoes in
it, and more than a reminiscence of Shelley. But for many
years he would not indulge his genius in this its true way,
or, at any rate, would not indulge an unworthy public
with the fruits of it. And it was not till the golden bells
rang, and the pomegranates shed their crimson pulp-
fragments, that anybody, unless it were his private friends,
could see what a lyric poet had all this time been wasting
himself on lower kinds of poetry. Reinforced later by part
of Men and Women, they were mostly collected together
in one volume of the 1863 three-volume issue. And, as it
was then that I myself made my acquaintance with most
of them, I may perhaps be allowed to take them in the
order of the volume which has been a companion for all
but half a century — although still later issues have re-
verted to the oldest arrangement.

All the " Cavalier Tunes " are unimpeachable in any
serious way, but I think the poet has only thoroughly
mastered his form, and risen to the level of his great
argument, in the chorus of " Give a Rouse," which is new
and magnificent. In the opening piece ^ he has perhaps
let his fancy for internal rhyme (not for the last time)
seduce him to the jingly. But the full chorus of the

^ Kentish Sir Byng stood for his King,

Bidding the crop-headed Parliament swing.


second/ just referred to, makes the rafters ring in the mere
silent reading of it, and the checks and loosings of dis-
syllabic and trisyllabic rhythm are unsurpassable.

On the other hand, the principles of" The Lost Leader " Miscellaneous
are deplorable, and its assertions (as that " Shakespeare ^■''^"^p'^^-
was for us ") are sometimes demonstrably false ; but its
versification is glorious. It is curious that, though in
quite different material, that power of the bridle — of the
curb — which we have noted in the " King Charles ! " is
shown again. The piece would not be half what it is
without the strong middle pauses of some lines and the
alternating ventre-d-terre gallop of others. As it is, it may
be coupled with " Prospice " as his greatest contribution
to the fingering of the anapaestic base. The famous
" Ride to Aix," though good, is much more commonplace
as verse ; and I would give twenty of it for one other
" Through the Metidja."

Here there is not only an almost impudent but
thoroughly successful experiment in monorhyme — nothing
but the clang of the i will do — but an almost equally
audacious and quite equally successful use of that " sunk "
syllable which is justified — not as extra-metrical, nor even
by the allowance of an extra-syllable at the middle, but
as really final. The thing is virtually and schematically
in single-foot lines :

As I ride,

As I ride,

With a full heart

For my guide.

But for convenience' sake, for the speeding of the metre,
and for the reinforcement of the clang-rhymes, the single
feet are " coupled up."

One must be careful with these lyrics of Browning's.
It is very difficult to pass over them ; but we must certainly
stop a moment on " Cristina." Here the poet was in

^ King Charles ! and who'll do him right now,
King Charles ! and who's ripe for fight now,
Give a rouse : here's in Hell's despite now,
King Charles !
If the run of that does not "warm the liver," as Dirk Hatteraick says, it
must be a white one.


two minds about his metre. Sometimes he printed it in
continuous long lines, and sometimes in halves — the latter
giving, to my ear, much the best adjustment.^ If you
give as much pause in the long lines as the sense and
rhythm both require, you practically make your halves,
whether the printer has made them for you or not ; and
that being so, I think the printer had much better do it.
But, of course, this is a matter of taste. The sway and
swing of dactyl and trochee (I think that both must be
given here, though the central anapaest is possible) in

So the year's j done with
Love me for j ever,

and the slow trochees by themselves of " A Woman's Last
Word," are things quite decisive. You would be justified,
on hearing either and nothing more, in saying, " This is a
lyric poet of the first rank." But they may yield for
" Love among discussion, as almost everything else must, to " Love among
tie ums. the Ruins." Here we have much the same metre as
" A Woman's Last Word," with the long lines extended
so as to shock the mild shade of the author of Lewesdon
Hill still further. At least / have no doubt of the
continuous trochee, though I believe some people scan the
short lines as anapaests, which, to me, gives a very jerky
and unpleasant effect. The way I prefer has a nepenthe
virtue which is almost unparalleled. It is not that the
poem is " always afternoon " in atmosphere.

Where the domed and daring palace shot its spires
Up hke fires,

In one year they sent a milHon fighters forth
South and north,

1 The reader may decide, if he does not exactly remember the poem, which
are greater — the wholes or the halves — from this stanza :
There are flashes struck from midnights,

There are fire-flames noondays kindle,
Whereby piled-up honours perish,

Whereby swollen ambitions dwindle —
While just this or that poor impulse,

Which for once had play unstifled,
Seems the sole work of a lifetime

That away the rest have trifled.


have pulse enough in them. But they only throw up
the quiet of the rest. And the bold monosyllabic foot of
the finale/ with the shudder- or at least shiver-pause
between it and " heart," ushers in such a stanza as no
English poet but might be proud to sign.

If (to break order and bring the three crowned pieces "The Last
together) I have given a slight precedence to " Love ^^^ , ,.
among the Ruins " over " The Last Ride Together," it was in
the strictest Pickwickian-prosodic sense. The " Romance " ^
is undoubtedly above the "Lyric,"^ as it is above everything
else of its author's (and most things of other people's), in
combined poetic merit ; but it may be exposed to an
objection like Harpagon's — the cook has used up a great
deal more money and material to make the dinner.
There is more varied, and, if not deeper, more carefully
exposed and vignetted meaning : the appeals are more
complicated, and the measure matches them. If the old
story about cutting the three extra strings from the lyre
have a just critical basis, this may count a very little
against it — but only a very little. This onzain ^ is most
cunningly wrought, with a double device. On the one
side there is the peculiar arrangement of rhyme
aabbcddeeec, where the return of the c rhymes is not

1 Oh II heart ! oh ! blood that freezes, blood that burns !
Earth's returns
For whole centuries of folly, noise, and sin !

Shut them in
With their triumphs and their glories, and the rest ;
Love is best.

- They originally appeared in the division respectively of " Dramatic
Lyrics" and "Dramatic Romances.''^

^ We must have a sample, but choice is difficult. The best known of all
(though by no means the best) will do :

What hand and brain went ever paired ?
What heart alike conceived and dared ?
What act proved all its thought had been ?
What will but felt the fleshly screen ?

We ride | and I see | her bosom heave.
There's many a crown for who can reach.
Ten lines, a statesman's life in each !
The flag stuck on a heap of bones,
A soldier's doing ! what atones ?
They scratch his name | on the Ab|bey stones.

My ri|ding is betjter, by their leave.

VOL. Ill Q


less or more important than the single triplet just before
this returning c, and the bold disturbance, by the first c,
of what had seemed like simple couplet. On the other
there is the almost invariable limitation of the dimeters,
of which the whole consists, to strict iambics, with the
equally constant admission of anapaests in the r-rhymed
lines, and the last of the triplet. This alternation of
steady ride and sudden curvet may be taken to be
" rhythm in accordance with the subject " if any one likes ;
but the adaptation to the poet's object is far more subtle
and admirable than that. There is, let it be remembered,
no conversation ; I believe the profane have observed
(they certainly may) that if the lady " has not spoke so
long," it was merely in accordance with the good old rule
of not speaking till you are spoken to. The thing, after
its short explanation -overture, is a meditation — un-
interrupted, far-ranging, softly linked, but circling more or
less round the same main point. For this he wants a
stanza of some room, one that will enable him to give
what De Quincey well called in another matter the " systole
and diastole " of his thought. That chosen, especially
with the c rhyme-line dividing it, supplies him exactly.
Again, he wants a mode of prosodic explosion, a method
of expressing the passing bursts of hope or despair, in
and at the end of these several meditations ; and the
trisyllabic substitution gives him that. From the old (or
rather middle-aged) uniformity nothing could easily have
been got to give this minor explosion in such lines as
Who knows I but the world I may end to-night ?


I hoped I she would love | me : here we ride

Now lriea\ven and she \ are beyond this ride.

Of course, as I have had so often to explain, the poet
did not proceed on the principles of the ancient rhetoric and
say, " I want to explode ; give me an anapaest," or " I want
circular thought ; let's expand the old ri^ne couee, and
take in the bob-and-wheel system to some extent, and do
it." But neither, when the lady lay for that moment on


his breast, did he say, " Let me bend back a little that she
may He more comfortably, and longer," nor, when her foot
rested in his hand, did he say, " Let me roll back the
radius, supinate the palmar fascia [I hope this is right]
and contract the phalanges." But I am given to under-
stand that he must have gone through all the latter
processes ; and I feel pretty sure that he went through the

The third of the trinity, " In a Gondola," is, in contrast " in a
to the other two, a concerted piece of very various move-
ments, and, as I read it for the n\h time, I am not sure
that it also is not the best. In the glorious opening -^ he
recovers an almost Shelleyan intensity : these seven lines
are more like Shelley, in musical wave and ring, than
anything else not his. And this quintessence returns in
the great heroics and the final Alexandrine of the close.
Between, the parts that are sung and the parts that are
said are, both in the modern and the Elizabethan sense,
paragons — at once supreme as regards others, and equal
as regards themselves. The fluent but not insignificant
octosyllable was perhaps Browning's best metrical cloth
or joint to cut and come again at for these purposes. I do
not know a finer example of its more regular form than

Oh ! which were best ? to roam or rest. More


And the songs show wonderful range, passing as they do
through " Past we glide " and the kisses of Moth and Bee
to the bravura of " What are we two ? "

I turn the brownish-purple volume backwards and for-
wards, rather aghast at the lengthening of this chapter : but
the variety of Browning's measures seems to insist on some
detail. Here again his stuff has something like a staple

' I send my heart up to thee, all my heart,

In this my singing.
For the stars help me, and the sea bears part ;

The very night is clinging
Closer to Venice' streets, to leave one space
Above me, whence thy face
May light my joyous heart to thee, its dwelling-place.

"Joyous " is perhaps weakish, and I am " no that sure " of " Venice' streets " :
else, could thought of man improve it ?


which, not so observable throughout the early lyrics, appears
in Dramatis Personce, and continues when, later, he allowed
his older admirers some oases of lyric to rest in while " the
Me Societies " fervently followed him through the blank-
verse desert. It is equivalenced iambic or equivalenced
anapaestic arranged with considerable skill, so that, while
there is the closest resemblance between the two forms,
you never feel that doubt about the main base which has
been pointed out as not quite absent in Coleridge the
Restorer. Very skilful is the blend in the excellent
" Lovers' Quarrel." ^ Often you have pure anapaests, with
substitution only for convenience and sometimes hardly at
all, as in " Up at a Villa, Down in the City," " Saul," and
others, too well known to need mention, and too many
to admit of it. But he never completely deserts his
trochees ; and the long triplets of the " Toccata " give
that rather uncanny foot opportunity to display all its
witchery. Those persons (they " have much to learn," as
the colonel said to the cornet when that young man
observed that he didn't know champagne improved with
keeping) who doubt the sovereign importance of the line,
should look at " My Star." " I would ask them to ask

1 Oh, I what a dawn | of day !
How the March | sun feels | like May !

All is blue | again

After last | night's rain,
And the South | dries the haw | thorn spray.

On|ly, my Love's | away !
I'd as lief | that the blue | were grey.

2 All that I know

Of a certain star
Is, it can throw

(Like the angled spar)
Now a dart of red,

Now a dart of blue ;
Till my friends have said

They would fain see, too,
My star that dartles the red and the blue.
Then it stops like a bird ; like a flower hangs furled :

They must solace themselves with the Saturn above it.
What matter to me if their star is a world ?

Mine has opened its soul to me ; therefore I love it.

(There is, by the way, a prosodic and critical as well as an astronomical
allegory here.)


themselves why Browning divided the early lines and not
the later ?

" By the Fireside " adds another proof of the per-
vadingness in prosody of the Garden of Cyrus, as do
" Two in the Campagna," and that most really puzzling
piece in all Browning, " A Serenade at the Villa." ^ The
examples are endless, but for " broken and cuttit " verse
of thoroughly successful kind, I do not know where to
look more confidently than to the almost crushing effect
of the very short lines — broken explanations and quiet
despair — of " In a Year " ^ and the varied karole of
" Women and Roses." So too " The Boy and the Angel,"
and " Instans Tyrannus," and " After " would lose half —
/ should say all but the whole — of their beauty if they were
in other measures ; and " Mesmerism " reminds us again
both of the magical and the conjugal powers of Five in a
marvellously effective stanza.^ The three-foot anapaests,
with double rhyme, of the " Glove " are curiously appro-
priate ; and " The Englishman in Italy " will give any
thoughtful person another excellent text for ruminating
on the question of " split and run-on " in lines. The
popular " Pied Piper " could not help coming after Praed
and Barham ; but the " Flight of the Duchess " follows
nobody. I think the poem would have been better had
it been shorter ; but the measure, with its shortenings and
lengthenings, is a very admirable thing. Only three more
from this division I must mention : the stately shorts

' They are all quintets on monometer or dimeter base, differently sub-
stituted and trimmed.

2 Never ajny more
While I live
Need I hope | to see | his face
As before.
(Trochaics &xq possible, and perhaps, in some moods, preferable.) ■
•^ Like the doors | of a cas|ket-shrine,
See, on ei|ther side,
Her two arms | divide
Till the heart | betwixt | makes sign,
Take | me, for I | am thine !
Let men and angels note the effect of the monosyllabic foot " take," with
the triple emphasis it gathers from its concentration. Scan such a piece by
"accents" or " stresses " only, and " the heart betwixt " is gone. Those
who like the fleshless and heartless skeleton may take it, for it is theirs.



Per son m.

and longs of the " Grammarian's Funeral," the perfect
intertwist of " Porphyria's Lover," and the remarkable
measure of " Childe Roland." This last admirable thing,
on which almost more nonsense has been talked than on
anything else even of Browning's, and which the poet
(perhaps in self-defence) is said to have declared to have
no particular purpose, is to me a quite obvious and
naturally supernatural dream — one has dreamt things not
unlike it, though inferior, and might have dreamt things
as good, if one's deserts had been greater and Eclympastere
had been kind. Now, though the character of dreams is
infinite, one thing is common in them — the extraordinary
gravity which accompanies their wildest and most pre-
posterous accidents and combinations ; as well as the
apparent smoothness with which the topsy-turvy transi-
tions are effected. To render this you want a severe
metre, but one admitting of no little variety. The sixain
aabccb, with every line a regular decasyllabic, provides
this excellently ; and as it is not a common form, it mixes
the requisite strangeness with its sobriety. There are
points, both in the substance and in the manner, which
most distinctly remind one of Hood's " Haunted House " ;
but Browning wants more scope, and does not want to
concentrate the attention on a single idea. And he has
crusted on its steady outline every vagary of the be-
witched scene, coloured it with all the rust of sulky sunset.
It may unluckily be true that you cannot set a slughorn
to your lips — it being a thing ^ which cometh out of them,
and does not set itself to them. But if the article had really
been obtainable of musical instrument-makers, and if there
were anything analogous to it in prosody, as there certainly
is to the varied forms of lyre and flute and trumpet,
then I should say that Browning's stanza here is exactly
the proper one for the purpose, — is a slughorn itself.

There is no single book of Browning's which illustrates
his prosodic powers and peculiarities so well as Dramatis
Personce. If it does not contain anything equal to the

• " Slughorn " = "sloggorne":=.r/(7fa« : though somebody has fished out
a Norfolk use of " slug-horn "' in cattle for a short slug-shaped horn.


First Three it contributes largely to the Thirty, and the
proportion of masterpieces in it is quite remarkable. The
poet's more serious blank verse in " A Death in the
Desert," and his more fantastic in " Caliban upon Setebos "
and " Mr. Sludge," are not exemplified at the tedious and
tyrannous length of the later exercitations, while the
choice of lyric, and of metres semi-lyrical, is, for so short
a book, most remarkable and again exemplary.

Indeed, if we further confined ourselves to the very " James Lee['s
first poem, we should have to go from mid- nineteenth
century (and just the end of the middle) to the later
sixteenth to find so much variety. " James Lee " (I
greatly prefer the original title, for the peccant James is
really the subject throughout, and his wife is only the
speaker ^) starts with an example "^ of the very short lines,
which suit so well for passion and disturbed passion — not
the steady burning flame : while even he never devised
a better form for passionate meditation than the fretted
outline of Part Two.^ The anapaestics of Three* suit
the attempted rally to cheerfulness ; and the striking
admixture of iambic substitution in Four^ equally suits

' Besides, the new title, "James Lee'j Wife,'''' obliterates the echo of the
title itself in the last two words —

When I should be dead oi ']oy , James Leel
- Ah, Love I but a day,

And the world | has changed I
The sun's | away,

And the bird | estranged ;
The wind | has dropped.

And the sky's | deranged :
Sumjmer has stopped.
^ Is all our fire of shipwreck wood,
Oak and pine ?
Oh, for the ills half-understood.
The dim dead woe
Long ago
Befallen this bitter coast of France '.
Well, poor sailors took their chance :
I take mine.
^ The swallow has set her six young on the rail.

And looks sea-ward, etc.
* I will be quiet and talk with you.
And reason why you are wrong.
You wanted my love — is that much true P
And so I did love, so I do :
What has come of it all along ?


the relapse that is to know no fresh recovery. The
broken half-rhythmical fragments of Five ^ stand for the
attempts at self-consolation — at least philosophising. And
then in Six ^ a bold but successful effort is made to pick
up the very measure and the very words of a quarter of
a century earlier, and adapt them to altered spirit and
circumstance. And here you get one of the summits of
the book prosodically. The early verse had nothing of
the solemn sweep of the passage beginning —

Nothing can be as it has been before,

and ending in — literally " sinking to " —

On all he'd sink to save.

I seem to remember that the remnant of the Canaanites,
in the high and strong places of Jebus, objected to the
" graving on its soul's hands' palms " of anything, however
wise, or fair, or good. It was like them. But let it be
lawful for us to point out how the accumulation of
strong monosyllables ^ itself graves the phrase and stimu-

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 20 of 50)