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

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lates the effort. Seven and Eight have simpler measures,*
old and plain, like the resignation that they express, and
then the coda with its recurrence of swing ^ punctuates
the emotion of the close.

1 I leaned on the turf,
I looked at a rock
Left dry by the surf:

For the turf — to call it grass were to mock ;
Dead to the roots, so deep was done
The work of the summer sun.

2 Nothing can be as it has been before :

Better, so call it, only not the same.
To draw one beauty into our heart's core

And keep it changeless ! such our claim ;
So answered — Never more !

3 Only, for man, how bitter not to grave

On his soul's hands' palms one fair, good, wise thing
Just as he grasped it !
Observe the " blank verse phrase " here ; not forgetting the rhyme — panache^
or crown, to it.

♦ Seven is plain decasyllables in a sixain : Eight (wliich he lengthened
later, not to its advantage), Christahel metre with rhyme-order at discretion.
^ In another anapaestic dimeter quintet of great beauty.


" Gold Hair " continues this metre with a shortened
fifth line. " The Worst of It " has a very fine close/ and
it is scarcely fair, though almost unavoidable, to remember
that it was very soon succeeded by a much finer thing
in the same key, Mr. Swinburne's " Triumph of Time,"
which " puts it down," prosodically as otherwise. It
is certainly not improved, from our point of view, by one
of Browning's curious experiments in that internal rhyme
which is either a great embellishment or distinctly dis-
figuring. Compare that almost earliest example which
we were able to quote in our first volume —



Under mold hi liggeth cold,

On my speckled hide : not you the pride,

And journeyed my stage, and earned my wage.

The curse of rhyme is jingle, and the curse has come
upon it here.

Some would say that it has come again in " Dis Aliter
Visum," where the rhymes are brought close together at
the end of the line — " I say, the day," " soft, aloft," etc. —
with a sometimes almost hiccuppy effect. It may, how-
ever, be urged, on the other side, that there is more
deliberate satire here, and that the satire, like the satyr, is
always permitted to caper. The total effect is certainly
good ; it is curious, by the way, how close thought and
expression come in places to " The Last Ride," " Too
Late" goes with "The Worst of It" in more ways than
one ; but in " Abt Vogler " we come once more to a thing
of consummate prosodic interest.

At first, as you read it, you can, if your ears are • ■ Abt Vogier.
accustomed to classical metres, have no doubt about the
scheme. It is simply the regular elegiac couplet " accentu-
ally " rendered in English, with the abscission of the last
syllable of the hexameter — a catalectic hexameter and a
pentameter catalectic. For the first four lines of the

1 I knew you once : but in Paradise,

If we meet, I will pass, nor turn my face.


first octave there is no doubt at all.^ But when you get
on to the second half you are pulled up. In the fifth
and sixth lines the pentameter seems to have got to the
first place, and the seventh is no more hexameter than
the eighth is its proper companion." For a moment you
may fancy that this was intended — that the poet meant
octaves of two different parts. But when you look at
the other stanzas you will find that this is by no means
the case. Truncated elegiac cadence appears, disappears,
reappears in the most bewildering fashion, till you
recognise — sooner or later according to your prosodic
experience — that it was only simulated cadence after all,
a sort of leaf-insect rhythm, and that the whole thing
(as marked by the dotted scansion lines below) is in six-
foot anapaests, equivalenced, daringly but quite legitimately,
with monosyllabic and dissyllabic feet. It gives a curious
and valuable side-light on that inevitable tendency of
English dactylic metres to the anapaest at which we have
glanced often, and on which we must dwell before very
long. But in itself it provides, especially for the famous
tenth stanza,^ a medium of marvellous capacity, and
interesting in the highest degree to compare with
Tennyson's anapaestic trimeters and seven-footers from
Maud to Maeldune.
Rabbi Ben I suppose most people would agree that " Rabbi Ben

Ezra" is the best poem in the book ; and its measure is
certainly not unworthy of it. I have drawn attention to
the effect of concluding lines greatly lengthened. The
original suggestion of this may have been part of the
immense legacy of Spenser to English poetry ; but it

• Would ': that the | struciture | brave, ; the | maniifold | muisic I | build, :
Bid;ding my | origan o|bey, ;|| calling its | keys \ to their | work,
Claim :ing each | slave i of the | sound : at a | touch, ; as when | So;lomon|
Arimies of | an; gels that | soar, :|| lejgions of | dejmons that | lurk.
2 Man, brute, :| reptile, ;| fly, :|| alien ; of | end \ and of | aim,

Adiverse | each ; from the | othier, | heajven-high | hell-deep re|moved, —
Should rush ; into sight : at once i as he named \ the ineftiable name.
And pile : him a paliace straight, : to pleaisure the prinicess he loved.
Note the alliteration.

^ " All we have willed or hoped," etc.

Ezra. "


was taken up by the seventeenth-century men and applied
in the most various fashions. There is no doubt that it
lay behind Dryden's use of the Alexandrine. Browning
has used it here ^ with real mastery. The old rime couee^
or romance-six, was a very effective rhyme-arrangement ;
but its monotonous recurrence of short line invited sing-
song and jingle — as Chaucer showed " vengeably " and
once for all in Sir Thopas. Here Browning shortens the
couplet lines to sixes, lengthens line three to a full deca-
syllabic, and when its correlate in the sixth comes, prolongs
the lengthening to an Alexandrine. He thus attains at
once proportion and variety, while the constant short
rhymed couplets prevent stiffness ; and the moderate
scale of the whole stanza compensates the variety with a
due balance of form-recurrence. Further, the extension
suits, in a peculiar manner, the general scheme of the
subject which it treats. This is, as it were, a running
remonstrance with self; the doubts of the natural man
countered with the secrets of the philosophers ; and for
this purpose the final Alexandrine serves as a clincher of
force and weight unattainable otherwise.

Almost enough has been said of the considerable blank-
verse constituents of the book. They make up nearly
half of it, and in the contrast already made between the
sobriety of " A Death in the Desert " and the apparent
vagaries of " Caliban " and " Sludge," the three things
observe a regular progression. The " Death " has, as it
ought to have, practically no " fanteegs " (is this the right
spelling of that capital if unliterary word ?) ; " Caliban "
some, and " Sludge " many. On the whole, " Caliban "
preserves the balance rather well, and shows the undoubted

' Take for example :

Not that, amassing flowers,

Youth sighed, " Which rose make ours,

Which lily leave and then as best recall ? "

Not that, admiring stars,

It yearned, " Nor Jove, nor Mars ;

Mine be some figured flame which blettds, transcends them all ! "

Observe that he has smuggled his Delilah of adjacent internal rhyme i
here ; but it is an exception.


advantage, for satiric-dramatic use, of this chartered liber-
tinage in verse.

The other smaller pieces of Dramatis PersoncB must
be briefly treated, but cannot be merely dismissed in a
group. In " Prospice " — the second general favourite, I
suppose — the fingering of the anapaest is most noteworthy,
— the way in which the foot is, so to speak — violating
anatomy, but not metaphor, — alternately " forced on its
haunches " by strong pause of word and sense and
general rhythm, and then let out in full career.^ The
admirable lightness of " Youth and Art," half careless,
half rueful, could not have been attained without audacious
double rhymes. As for " A Likeness," I suppose that
one must have a double dose of original sin to enjoy
it, and to have enjoyed it from the first. I find that
to this day virtuous persons are too often affected by
its outrageous rhymes and the apparently (not really)
disorderly sweep of its heel-kicking metre, very much as
those other well-conducted people the "islanders of
Rum-ti-Foo " were, or would have been, at the gymnastics
of their bishop. However, /have never had any difficulty
with it. It is Prosody in the ring, of course : Prosody
going through flaming hoops, performing " acts " on five
horses, and so forth. But there are worse places than
the ring, though no doubt it should not be made a
continuing city.

Nor is it ; for the varied measures of the " Epilogue "
take us far otherwhere. And if the solemn choric chant,
the " godly joy and pious mirth," of the first piece, the
stately heroic quatrains (solemn in another way) of the
despairing second, and the brave triplets, " bating no
jot of heart or hope " of the third, are not three pretty
good diploma -pieces in prosody for a poet to lodge
together and in half-a-dozen pages, I am greatly deceived.
The later Probably no more need be said of the blank verse of

the later days from The Ring and the Book onwards.

1 Fear death ? | to feel | the fog | in my throat,
For the jour|ney is done | and the sum|mit attained.


The comparative popularity of this just- named book,
combined (different as the two poets' styles were) with
that of TJie Ear-thly Paradise at nearly the same time,
shows that, when Time pleases, verse-narrative may recover
its old place with the general ; and this is of value as a
general historical-prosodic observation. In detail it may
be left ; though there would be a certain interest (if men
wrote now in folios, or would read them when written)
in discussing, as a quaestio quodlibetalis^ the reasons why
such pieces as The Inn Alburn and Red Cotton Nightcap
Country are more legible, in this curious hand-gallop
(remember it is not a false gallop) of rocking-horse
rhymelessness, than they would be in prose. I think it
would not be difficult to establish the fact that the
verse really does " cradle " the thought, and the reader,
in turn.

Some of the longer poems are, however, as is well Fifiut- at Uie
known, more ambitious prosodically ; and the chief of '"'^'
them is, beyond all doubt, Fifine at the Fair. For this
poem — over which the " Me Societies " have, I believe,
wagged their pows very specially, and not always with
approval — I have, I confess, a partiality which by no
means extends to most of its fellows. And that partiality
is, at least in great proportion, due to the metre. The
singularly beautiful " Prologue " and " Epilogue " — each
of them lyrically emancipated, as it were, from the motive
of the main verse, and wrought into fugues of the most
delightful dream -variety — may have something to do
with this. But the charm of a beginning and an
ending of a few score lines each will not carry one
through a middle of between two and three thousand,
formidable in individual bulk and provocative in individual

There was perhaps something of that rather feverish
and feminine (let us, perhaps, prefer to borrow a famous
word from Sir Toby and say " firaginous ") audacity
which distinguished Browning, in contrast to the calm
virility of Tennyson's accomplished art, in the selection,
dead in the teeth of the warning of the Polyolbion, of the


continuous Alexandrine for so long a poem. But in this
case also, adventures were to the adventurous. It has
already been noted how very characteristic of Browning's
matter is the prevalence of " shock " — of the meeting of
waves, of ups-and-downs and to-and-fro movements ; and
he has manipulated the Alexandrine so as to suit this
tendency — nowhere more strongly manifested — after a
fashion for which one can only make one's very best
compliment to him. As we have formerly said, the metre
almost insists upon a strong middle pause, or it gets out of
hand altogether. But, with the strong middle pause, it
risks a dreary monotony. Spenser, even though he does not
use it continuously, sometimes succumbs to this, though
seldom. Drayton does often, though by no means always.
Browning has deliberately accepted the conditions and
exaggerated them. The opening batch of four ^ are
practically cloven down the middle — the antithesis of the
Popian couplet is a mere crease to this cleavage ; and
though, of course, he has to run over the ditch sometimes,
it is by no means often that he does it even in sense, and
very seldom indeed that he does it in rhythm. This
abrupt and saccade fashion of writing may tease a little
at first. I remember that, when the poem appeared, I
felt it somewhat like Robinson Crusoe's goatskin waist-
coat before he " eased the arm-holes." But the arm-holes
very soon get eased ; and it " trips and skips " with us
like Elvire (or at least as Elvire ought to have done, for
there is suspicion that she did not) in the most suitable
and agreeable fashion. Perhaps you must have achieved
Eidothee in order to find the secret of Proteus, and to
accustom yourself to this partner. But then the humble
purpose of this book is to give people a little assistance
in the achievement of the prosodic Eidothee — at any
rate to send them on to the quest of her.

For my part I think the prosodic daughter of the sea-

' O trip and skip, Elvire ! Link arm in arm with me !

Like husband and like wife, together let us see

The tumbling; troop arrayed, the strollers on their stage,

Drawn up and under arms, and ready to engage.


god has been a very Ariadne to me in clewing me through
the mazes of this unique production. I do not find it so
in the fifteeners of La Saisia::, which I never can read
without a conviction that the measure is quite unsuitable
for a long poem. Nor can I take much delight in the
octaves of The Two Poets of Croz'sic, which do not seem
to me to attain the merits, or avoid the faults, of that
difficult scheme.

But the varieties of the later poems, though frequently-
interesting, become rather impossible. Let us take a few
only, from the time when, in Pacchiavotto^ he returned, at
least occasionally, to the smaller scale. In that rather
oiitrecuidant book especially, whether by a trick of
Nemesis, the one female person who really understands
irony, or intentionally, he uses " the banjo " more than
any other instrument. But even on the banjo there is
the game and not-the-game to be played ; and he generally
plays the former. The first of the " Pisgah-Sights " ^ has
a curiously soothing and satisfactory rhythm, and it is
not ill kept up in the second. Indeed Browning has in
few places better exemplified that higher suiting of sound
to sense which is part of the nineteenth century's prosodic
discoveries. The couplets " of the really beautiful poem
with the stupid and ugly title, neither Greek nor English
which might have been called " Nympholept," or " Nymph-
Struck," or a dozen other names, make one regret that
Browning did not try them oftener. Their rhythm is
quite different from that of Sordello, though not from
the still more beautiful close of " In a Gondola," and it
has a strange resemblance to that of Tennyson's blank

' Over the ball of it, Roughness and smoothness,

Peering and prying. Shine and defilement,

How I see all of it, Grace and uncouthness :

Life there, outlying ! One reconcilement.

- Still you stand, still you listen, still you smile !
Still melts your moonbeam through me, white awhile,
Softening, sweetening, till sweet and soft
Increase so round this heart of mine, that oft
I could believe your moonbeam smile has passed
The pallid limit.


" St. Martin's Summer," ^ again (strange correspond-
ence !), revives the old intricate karoles with no lack of
charm, if with something of the autumnal sadness added,
especially in the concluding three-syllabled lines with their
far-off echo of " Love among the Ruins. The choruses of
the Agamemnon are, of necessity, an almost total failure. I
hardly know any greater sign of Mr. Swinburne's natural
and acquired sense of prosodic fitness than that he made
his A talanta chorusQS in ordinary English lyric rhythms —
and yet he was not there translating. Only Tennyson
in his " Lotos -Eaters " days could have achieved these
things ; ^ and I doubt whether even then the remembrance
of the originals would not have made the English seem
unequal. But the not very successful long verses
{v. sup.) of La Saisiaa are preceded by a beautiful break
of lyric, and the penultimate of the Jocoseria oasis
was really a diamond of the desert. The magic of the
first quintet there ^ is hard to beat. There was more
sand for those who like sand-eating ; but after many
summers the swan died with a proper swan -song in
Asolando. The sand had not quite run out ; but there
is much else, and it can hardly be chance that the end
lines of the Epilogue-stanza, including the last line he
printed, if not the last he wrote, were examples of those
miniature masterpieces which we have noted more than
once, the trochaic monometer catalectics, " Pity me,"
" Sleep to wake," and " There as here." *

' No protesting, dearest !
Hardly kisses even !

Don't we both know how it ends ?
How the greenest leaf turns serest ?
Bluest outbreak — blankest heaven ?
Lovers — friends ?
'^ He has actually transferred some touches, as in the " two handfuls of
white dust," etc.

3 Never the time and the place

And the loved one all together !
This path — how soft to pace !

This May — what magic weather —
Where is the loved one's face ?

■* Summary, as in Tennyson's case, is postponed to the Interchapter.



Classification — Mrs. Browning — Her defects in form, especially in
rhyme, and diction — The superiority of her strictly metrical
powers — Examples, especially " The Rhyme of the Duchess
May" — Matthew Arnold. His peculiar position — His rhyme-
less attempts : " The Strayed Reveller" — Early lyric and blank
verse — "The Forsaken Merman " and "A Question" — "The
Church of Brou " and "Tristram and Iseult" — "Isolation" —
Merope — Empedocles on Etna — "The Scholar-Gipsy," etc. —
Kingsley — Some general considerations — The "Spasmodics"
— Some miscellaneous examples — Light verse : Barham —
Thackeray — Dramatic verse: Retrospect — Miss Baillie and
Talfourd — Tennyson and Browning again — Edward FitzGerald
and the Rubdiydt.

The poets, lesser than Tennyson and Robert Browning, of Classification.

the mid-nineteenth century, are numerous and interesting.

At least two of them, and perhaps more than two, ean only

be called " minor " in the strictly literal and grammatical,

not in the transferred and rather derogatory sense. But

with these exceptions they must be, for us, rather examples

of the prevailing principles which we have already indicated

in their " priors " than special objects of prosodic study.

Mrs. Browning, Mr. Arnold, with Kingsley and the so-called

*' Spasmodics," present, individually or in group, the

" majorities " of the minority : the others we must pass

over in a way rapid, if not quite so summary as that in

which Spenser groups the minor personages of form and

fear in the " Masque of Cupid."

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was once called " a great Mrs.
poetess, and almost a great poet." That there is no sneer ^^^^w^'^g-
in the word-play will be seen when we come to that
VOL. Ill 241 R


greater poetess and really great poet, Christina Rossetti ;
and the comparison at the same time demonstrates that
the fatal want of form which mars the elder singer has
nothing necessarily to do with her sex — if such demonstra-
tion were not made entirely superfluous by the single
name of Sappho. But Miss Barrett's form — Mrs. Brown-
ing's became rather better — was certainly in many ways
deplorable. She had no doubt to some extent caught the
disease from her mistresses in verse — if not from Mrs.
Hemans, at any rate from " L. E. L. " ; but she exhibited it
in a degree with which neither of them — weaker as they
both were in poetic spirit — is chargeable, and in respect
of which Felicia, if not Letitia, is, as was allowed, almost
Her defects in blamclcss. Her ear for rhyme was probably the worst on
form, especi- j-g^ord in the case of a person having any poetic power
whatever. That she defended her atrocities in a well-
known correspondence with R. H. Home does not very
much matter. Nearly all women, and a good many men,
have a dislike to acknowledging that they are hopelessly
and inexcusably wrong ; while few men, and scarcely a
woman, can harden their hearts as Wordsworth did and
leave " defence " to well-meaning partisans. But in her
case the torts were so hopeless, and so inexcusable, that
they cannot have been due to accident, carelessness, or
erroneous system, on the one side, or, on the other, as in
" W. W.'s " case, partly to pique, and partly to the exaggera-
tion of a not unwholesome or unreasonable reaction from
predecessors. They have been called " assonances " by
persons who apparently do not know what an assonance
is.^ They sin against assonance almost, if not quite, as
much as against consonance. In this place it is proper to
give large allowance, and not to proscribe such rhymes as
" -or " and " -ore," which, though by no means " things that
you can recommend to a friend," may be excused in one,
or even in an enemy, when there is some special reason
for them. But there is no excuse for rhymes of " -a " and
"-^r," even though our ancestors did spell "hunter" "hunta";

1 She Aas assonances, of course, but her worst things are not even


and the fact that a Scot like Gavin Douglas has " Palice " in
the sixteenth century, does not excuse an English lady, born
even as far north as Durham, within the nineteenth, for
rhyming " palace " to " chalice." The Scots also (or their
printers), then and later, used " v " for " w," still later " huz "
for " us," but that would not justify her in adopting the
style of Mr. Samuel Weller. Another rhyme of hers,
" mountain " and " daunting," is so inexpressibly awful
that we must merely mention it and pass by. No
Spenserian eye-rhyme will excuse " Idyll " valued on the
principle of " io\-dQ-jdddle," or " pyramidal " with pen-
ultimate long. To make sure that these horrid and long-
known things are not unfair selections I dip in my usual
sortes fashion, and at first try find " natures " and " features "
(quite allowable, perhaps, in the eighteenth century, not in
the nineteenth). Even the beautiful " Romaunt of Margret,"
where the mere selection of that form of the name is a
stroke of prosodic genius, cannot — though imitation of
" L. E. L." cuts its rhyme-allowance down to the absolute
minimum — get itself through without such a miserable
one as " faith " and " death." ^

It is indeed needless to multiply instances of what and diction,
is notorious to every critic — of what can only be dis-
regarded or denied by people who either have no ear at
all, or are gifted with the possibly happy faculty of
shutting their ears to discord in verse which expresses
their sentiments or tickles their emotions. Perhaps the
crowning instance of all is in that strange welter of pre-
posterous and genuine feeling — of ridiculous bombast and
true poetic expression — " Lady Geraldine's Courtship " ^ —

' It may seem that this is a hypercritical objection. But let the person who
thinks so remember that the muddling of the values of these two words will
spoil one of the most beautiful phrases in English for form and meaning,
" Faithful unto death." " Ivthful unto death " ? " Fa/thful unto Dayth " ?
Faugh !

- If one may timidly urge scruples against the majesty of " The Poet and
the Woodlouse " (and with what reluctance it is that I except against Mr.
Swinburne will be seen before long) it would be on the score of "gilding the
lily." Frank Smedley's

As she tasked him, when she asked him, " Mr. Johnson, is it well ?"

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 21 of 50)