George Saintsbury.

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

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perhaps more truly rejoices the grave and chaste spirit, as 3. parody, though it
is inferior as a poem.


an example, by the way, which illustrates faults in diction
almost as much as faults of rhyme :

From my brain the soul-wings budded, waved a flame about my body,
Whence conventions coiled to ashes. I felt self-drawn out, as man,

From amalgamate false natures, and I saw the skies grow ruddy
With the deepening feet of angels, and I knew what spirits can.

Now only conceive any one who had just used " budded "
suggesting the pronunciation " buddy " for " body " at a
few words' distance !

These things are horrible and heartrending. They
make the process of reading Mrs. Browning something
like that of eating with a raging tooth — a process of
alternate expectation and agony. Nor is the diction
much better than the rhyme. This, in some ways
certainly, elect lady appears to have been congenitally
destitute of all power of mental association ; and you turn
not many pages from the " ruddy buddy budding with
soul-wings " before you come to a " confluent kiss " !

If it is with difficulty, I say, that these things allow
themselves to be conceived, it is with more difficulty still
that, even by the unquestionable poetical merits that
accompany them, they procure themselves to be pardoned.
If somebody some day should — worse things have been
done — attempt a blending of the Divhia Commedia with
the Viaje del Parnaso, he will have to tax his ingenuity
severely in devising proper purgatorial expiation for them.
Under her husband's influence, however — which, as we
have seen, was not really a bad though a very exception-
ally constituted one in these respects, — she did improve a
little, and you may read " The Great God Pan " ^ and
most of its contemporaries without any fear of being — as
to your ears at least — subjected to the fate of Marsyas.
The superiority If shc had at any time been half so bad a metrist
of her strictly ^^ gj^g ^^g jj^ rhyme-mastcry and word-picking, it would
powers. be almost impossible to read her at all ; but fortunately

this was not the case. She had, it has been said, inherited
or adopted from her elder sisters a sort of general looseness
which is felt even here sometimes ; but she had a rarer

* Or, as its actual title goes, "A Musical Instrument."


suggestion and a more varied supply of rhythm than they
had, even as she had a greater general poetical gift. In
the early poems this rhythm, if rather undistinguished, is
rarely incorrect, and the choruses of the Seraphim show that
she had read Shelley at least not without profit. Not a
few of the early lyrics that accompany it exhibit the
nisus towards varied music with no little success ; though
this success is often minimised by the stinginess of rhyme
noticed. The fact is, that in this respect as in all others
— even, no doubt, the cacophonous rhymes to some extent
— Mrs. Browning's curse was la fretta — hurry, absence
of selection and revision. A poetastress of later date
excused herself for not attempting elaborate forms often,
because (I quote from memory) " a woman-singer's heart
is too full of the burden of meaning for them." This
fallacy was, I am afraid, at least partly based upon the
practice and attitude of Mrs. Browning.

But, once more, that practice and that attitude were Examples,
certainly less licentious in sheer measure than outside of ^fJj^j^^'^j^^j!^ ^^^
it, as she advanced in her career. This is true, with what- of the Duchess
ever limitations, as we have said, of " Margret " ; it is true ^^'
of " Isobel's Child." That easy-seeming anix, the couplet
of trochaic sevens, is very well mastered in " Night and the
Merry Man " ; and though it would not be difficult to
pick a score of small holes in " Cowper's Grave," she has
managed, on the whole, to inform the fifteener with a
passionate wing-beat which is not commonplace.

How discord on the music fell, and darkness on the glory,

is not any " buddy's " line.

I do not know that the Shelleyan influence, though
developed with more originality, is much more happily
shown in the Drama of Exile than in the Seraphim ; but
the Lyrics, which, once again, gave a makeweight for it in
1 844, fly much higher. The Sonnets, even before those
not " from the Portuguese," have the right mixture of
strength and steadiness in flight. For all the rococo
romanticism of "The Lay of the Brown Rosary" the
metres are well chosen and deftly worked out ; and I


think I have spoken with sufficient enthusiasm of " The
Rhyme of Sir Lancelot Bogle" to entitle me to admire
that of the " Duchess May " as verse. For its matter, it
is as full of absurdities as you like, and I never have
quite known whether to dislike Mrs. Browning or Octave
Feuillet most, in respect of the death of the horses in this
poem and in Julia de Trecccur. But this need not inter-
fere with recognition of the adequacy of the metre. And
I am bound to say that I think that adequacy very
great and rather wonderful. I hate the dreadful " abe^/s "
that in the churchyard grow. " Grey of blee " is to my
eyes a ridiculous reminiscence-muddle of " bright of blee "
and " grey as glass." ^ But dismiss all this ; let measure
have its way ; and if the effect of the refrain, of the
internal rhyme, and of the peculiar last line does not make
itself felt, I am sorry. If any worthy person does feel it,
and is made uncomfortable by a remembrance of The
Bogle, his discomfort can be chased away very easily. In
the first place, half the merit of Aytoun's magnificent
parody — as of all parodies, and of all ironies that keep two
faces under one hood — is that there is the suggestion of the
seriousness and the passion behind the burlesque mask.
In the second place, let him observe that Aytoun, like a
master as he was, has not kept the measure exactly. He
has omitted the refrain ; he has quite altered the con-
stitution of the line he has substituted for it ; he has got
the burlesque effect very mainly by making the last line
rhyme triply with the halves of the third, and he has made
the " bob " something like an anapaest to give head-over-
heels effect. There is no reason to prevent the admirer
of either of these masterpieces from admiring the other,
though it must be owned that Aytoun's, if the less original,
is the more entire and perfect chrysolite of the two."

^ I do not, of course, mean that "blee" may not be generally used of
" complexion," but that the loss of the alliteration robs the archaism of excuse.
^ Two stanzas, one of the best in each, may be given :

There the castle stood up black with the red sun at its back —

Toll slowly —
Like a sullen smouldering pyre with a top that flickers fire
When the wind is on its track.


" Lady Geraldine " [v. sup.) is not quite so unhappy in
metre as in phrase, though the protracted trochaics rumble
and roll with a rather monotonous voluminousness. But
the " Vision of Poets " — which is nearly the worst of all
in diction, and which, on the whole, is very inferior as a
specimen of octosyllabic triplets to the " Two Voices " —
has some fine passages of rhythm. By the time of " The
Lost Bower " she had learnt that it does not do to scant
and stint rhyme ; and though with her, in this respect, the
part of Lady Bountiful was exposed to dangers, it has
counterbalancing advantages. The fifteener, split twice
and kept whole once, has no bad effect.^

But there surely never was an apothecary who so
insisted on putting flies in the ointment ! She will write
a really pretty, though somewhat mawkish and verbose,
" Lay of the Early Rose " ; and after straining the utmost
possibilities of rhyme half a score of times, couple " high-
way " and " niihi." Now there are several wa}'-s of pro-
nouncing that dative, from the speculative value of
" mic/nng mallecho " to the wise and tranquil acknow-
ledgment of nescience in " my-hy " ; but out of none of
them shall you get anything that comes nearer to " high-
way " than the latest abomination of desolation that has
been imported into London by Heaven knows what

" Thirty casks are nearly done, yet the revel's scarce begun ;
It were knightly sport and fun to strike in ! "
"Nay, tarry till they come," quoth Neish, "unto the rum —
They are working at the mum,
And the gin ! "
Exception may be taken to the description of "And the gin" as "something
like an anapzest." But doubters may be asked to compare lines 3 and 5
throughout the poem ; to observe that continuous trochaic will not suit 3 well
at all ; and lastly, to refer to what I have said of " Love among the Ruins,"
and shall say of Miss Veley's "Japanese Fan." There, and in other places
of Browning (see on him j?/(^ yf;/.), the full trochaic monometer catalectic is
required for weight and slowness. Here Aytoun, shortening the first syllable,
speeds it up, for serio-comic effect, to something at least very near an

1 I have lost the dream of Doing,

And the other dream of Done,

The first spring in the pursuing,

The first pride in the Begun, —

First recoil from incompletion, in the face of what is won.


His peculiar

loathsome dialect, " hy-vvhy." She writes a really (if,
again, rather a mawkishly) pathetic poem in " Bertha in
the Lane," and, by way of making us like it, starts with
the final triplet of her first verse as thus :

Though the clock stands at the noon
I am weary. I have sewn [soon],
Sweet ! for thee a wedding-gown [goon].

= 00

= o
= ou

The stanza forms of both of these, whenever you can
get them free of these intolerable degradations, are dis-
tinctly happy. So is that of " The House of Clouds "
(where, by way of a " farthest," you get " on " rhymed to
" tune "), and that of " Catarina to Camoens," where
" burden " finds itself coupled with " disregarding." This
latter word certainly seems to express the author's mood
at the time, and so to satisfy at least one of the then
contemporary criteria of poetry.

Of the later pieces it is not needful to say much here.
They are all separated and transformed by the stronger
and saner nature with which she had united hers. But
perhaps she lost something of her own, as well as gained
much of his. I do not find a " Duchess May " among
these late things, either in its absurdity or in its spell ;
though, once more, she had never before attained such
flawless music as in " A Musical Instrument " itself.^
We may moral on her in the Interchapter.

It would be impossible for the most cunning ingenuity,
furnished with unwearied pains and plenary power, to
devise a more perfect contrast to Mrs. Browning than
Mr. Arnold. Indeed (though, for reasons obvious, but
here unnecessary to mention, he never, I think, makes
any critical reference to her) I should imagine that her
poetry, with that of the Spasmodics, was his real substance

1 Sweet, I sweet, | sweet, | O Pan !
Pier|cing sweet | by the riv|er !
Blind [ing sweet, | O great | god Pan !
The sun | on the hill ) forgot | to die.
And the iil|ies revived, | and the drag | on-fly
Came back | to dream | on the riv | er.

I hope it is not necessary to add the exquisite final stanza — her very highest
attainment, perhaps, in poetry.


of recoil — very much more than Tennyson's, which he
expHcitly denounced, but imphcitly in many ways followed.
With her everything was undisciplined, emotional, gushing ;
and at least too many things were slatternly, not to say
slovenly. With him everything was deliberate and (to
the best of his judgment) disciplined ; and it is certain
that if there are any slips, they are slips of oversight, or
definite theory, or deficient power, not of mere recklessness
or ignorance. We are told, indeed, that he took more
trouble about his prose than about his verse, and it is
quite believable. But the result was not slovenliness : it
was only absence of that rather finikin mannerism which
latterly marred the real elegance of his earlier style in
the other harmony. He could not, and he did not,
escape the general tendencies of his generation. That
he has left no long poem may be partly, but cannot be
wholly, due to his avocations from poetry ; and that he
has in his earlier work, as in the " Church of Brou,"
constantly varied his metres is an unfailing tell-tale. That
he started with unrhymed broken verse, and much later
championed the English hexameter, may, or may not, speak
unfavourably of his prosodic taste and judgment ; but it
at any rate shows that his mind was exercised on the
subject. Nobody— at least nobody of his cultivation and
character — ever broke the serried staves of the phalanx
of blank verse into firewood, or attempted the forcing of
the most beautiful circles into the ugliest squares, except
of malice aforethought. Yet it is at least remarkable
that, except in the hexameter point, his wide-ranging
criticism seldom or never touches prosodic questions. It
is by his practice, almost solely, that we can here
judge him.

For his hexameters the common dock awaits him : His rhymeiess
the other cause may be called on at once. The experi- f, ThlTsuayed
ment of " The Strayed Reveller " was probably induced, Reveller."
partly by following of German, partly by the pseudo-
classical dislike of rhyme, but mainly, no doubt, by that
caprice, that desire " to be different," which (let him
denounce it as he would) was quite as evident in Mr.


Arnold as in any other child of his time. There are
nice things in the poem ; but its vehicle is fatally exposed
to the process of " taking out the linchpins," if indeed it
has any. It is probable that Mr. Arnold, like most
young Liberals of his time and since, despised Southey ;
but Southey's prefatory remarks to TJialaba would have
saved him from the error into which he falls here to a
quite ludicrous extent. I have known Heine's Nordsee
almost by heart for all but fifty years ; but I never feel
or felt inclined to read it as blank verse, and, what is
more, it is almost impossible to do so. Even when he
wrote a line like

Und durch die schwarze Wolkenwand,

which gives treacherous invitation to an opening iambus
in the next line, the cunning poet avoids the snare, and
continues with

Zuckt der zackige Wetterstrahl,

which leads the ear off in quite a different direction. A
full line you may sometimes find, such as

Auch dich erkenn' ich, auch dich, Aphrodite.
But this does not matter at all ; for in its neighbourhood
it does not in the least give a general blank-verse tone.
From this tone, as the examples given below will show,
Mr. Arnold could not escape.^

1 [Ever new magic !
Hast thou then hired hither,]
[Wonderful Goddess, by thy art,
The young], [languid-eyed Ampelus,
lacchus' darling — ]

[They see the Indian

Drifting, knife in hand,]

[His frail boat moor'd to

A floating isle thick-matted]

[With large-leaved \an(r\ low-creeping melon-leaves,]
[jr] And the dark cucumber.

[He reaps, and stows them,

Drifting — drifting ; — round him,

[Round his green harvest-plot,

Flow the cool lake- waves,]
[^] The mountains ring them.
Here the first piece is three pure decasyllabics, with redundance, cut into
five. The second requires only the addition of the italicised "and" to make


The other early poems are mostly happier in their Early lyric and
prosodic respects, though perhaps they show that their
author would never be a specially prosodic poet. The
finest of them — the Shakespeare sonnet — is fully up to
the mark in this way, and in others he is much more
than merely up to it. " Mycerinus " attains more than
fairly that peculiar quality of the sixain which, as we
saw, the unerring genius of Spenser discovered in the
first poem of the Kakndar — a melancholy and somewhat
monotonous majesty, which does not reach the plangency
and splendour of rhyme-royal. But he leaves it, even in
this poem, for blank verse, and does better there. For
his blank verse is really fine, and in one or two passages,
such as the famous close of " Sohrab and Rustum," almost
of the finest in its special class. But that class has the
limitations of specialty. It is studied off Milton first
of all, but lacks the " easements " which Milton gave
himself, while retaining many of his mannerisms ; and
Arnold is uncertain with his paragraphs. The first of the
" Mycerinus " batch, with its very Tennysonian close —

Splintered the silver arrows of the moon,

is fully adequate ; and so is the short coda. But the
second tails off flatly. The " Sohrab " close is, again,
redolent of Tennyson, as are many things throughout.
In " Balder Dead " (which perhaps for that reason has
been the subject, I believe, of coterie adoration) he seems
to have tried to adopt a more original form, classicalised
in phraseology after a different pattern from Milton's.
It does not seem to me very successful. Indeed, in all
but the finest passages of this blank verse there is a kind
of plaster-model feeling. He uses few trisyllabic feet,
and probably meant those he does use to be slurred. In
short, he is a little stiff at these numbers.

For neither rapidity nor flexibility of movement was ever

it a complete blank-verse passage with two shortened lines or half-lines,
X and_y, of the kind common in Shakespeare. The poem is crammed with
shorter stanza-pieces of the same kind. And it is perhaps desirable to point
out that it does not matter whether their occurrence was conscious or


"The Mr, Arnold's forte ; it is much if, in a celebrated example,

Memian"" and ^^ attains to a graceful undulation. This is, of course, " The
"A Question." Forsaken Merman," which I am entirely unable to despise,
though I believe it is a mark of being a superior person to
do so. Poetically it seems to me a beautiful thing ; and
prosodically the numerous variations from iamb to trochee
and anapaest — even, as some would say (and perhaps
they have a more plausible case here than in most other
places), amphibrach — appear to me to be managed always
satisfactorily and sometimes consummately. He got it
from Byron,^ I suppose, this rocking-horse movement (as
it is profanely termed) of

The hoarse wind | blows colder ;
Lights shine in | the town.

But the way in which these verses half-rise, half-sink,
through various motions to a calmer tone, till they end

sadly in

She left lone|ly for evjer
The kings I of the sea,-

gives me the prosodic thrill that I want. If anybody
cannot light on this box he must " seek another,"
as the German landlord, successively immortalised by
Erasmus, Scott, and Reade, inhospitably, but after all
quite logically, had it of his inn.

There is another piece which is not prosodic "common
form," and which I like very much, and that is " A
Question : To Fausta." It can be scanned well enough
with simple iambic and trochaic alternation ; but it
suggests, as other nineteenth-century poems have been
allowed here to suggest, a sort of whimsical syzygy into

1 V. sup. p. 97, note. But it may have been from Clarchen's song in Egmont.

2 The comparison of these two couplets should suffice, I think, to show
that the measure is really not amphibrachic, but anapcestic. But let us have
the whole penultimate stanza in this latter scansion :

Come away, | away chil|dren ; We shall see, | while above | us

Come chil|dren, come down ! The waves | roar and whirl,

The hoarse | wind blows cold|er; A ceil|ing of am|ber,

Lights shine | in the town. A pave|ment of pearl.

She will start | from her slum|ber Singing : " Here | came a mor|tal.

When gusts | shake the door ; But faith] less was she !

She will hear | the winds howl|ing, And alone | dwell for ev|er

Will hear I the waves roar. The kings I of the sea."


four-syllable feet, or trisyllabics with two longs. At least
the opening couplets of the two first stanzas indicate
special stress — a sort of " double-longing " process — in
" comes," " ebbs," " dawn," " smile," and seem to gather
round them the comparatively weaker though not
absolutely weak syllables " joy," " and goes," " hope,"
" and flows," etc. But it must be admitted that this
appearance as of pzeons or even epitrites does not work so
well with the third,^ and it is possibly a mere phantasm.

Reference has been made to the remarkable and tell- "The Church
tale influence of the Zeitgeist on the variations of metre -^Tdstram"*^
of the " Church of Brou " — variations which are repeated and iseuit."
on a different and larger scale in the extremely interest-
ing " Tristram and Iseuit." The " Church " opens with
some of the cheapest and most insignificant modern ballad
metre, with double unrhymed endings to lines one and
three — stuff worthy of Mickle, or the Delia Cruscans, or
the weaker early Romantics. The second part has a more
complicated and manlier stanza. And then in the third
you have some exceedingly fine heroic couplets, not in
the least eighteenth-century in character, but on the other
hand, though fairly enjambed, not at all Keatsian.
Suspending further comment on this, let us turn to
"Tristram and Iseuit." It opens with a decasyllabic sixain
split into conversation, which passes on to Christabel
metre of no bad kind, occasionally interrupted by deca-
syllabic couplets from the wounded knight. This part
ends suddenly with two of the best anapaestic lines in
the English language :

What voices are these in the clear night air ?
What lights in the court? what steps on]the stair?

But in the second part, when " Iseuit of Ireland "

^ Joy comes | and goes, : hope ebbs | and flows
Like the wave.


Dreams dawn | and fly, ; friends smile | and die
Like spring flowers.

We count | the hours ! | These dreams | of ours
suggests nothing except the ordinary rhythm.


appears, the metre changes to a quatrain of trochaic
decasyllabics with the odd lines redundanced but not
rhymed. It is not very good,^ and one is glad when the
Christabel returns. Yet, once more, it is the third part
that bears the bell prosodically ; and, once more, it is with
heroic couplet. Here, however, he has made a further
stride, and in coming nearer to Keats has anticipated
almost the very form that Mr. William Morris, a few
years later, was to employ so admirably in Jasoji and TJie
Earthly Paradise. And this, too, is admirable — fluent,
but not deliquescent ; varied, but not (to me) wavering ;
excellent in bulk for narrative, delectable in detail as
poetry. Why he never took up this capital medium
again is one of the mysteries of poetical and literary
history. Certainly a page of it contains more literature
than all Literature and Dogma, and is better for culture
of the spirit than Culture and Anarchy extended to half-
a-dozen volumes.
Isolation." The main lesson of the miscellaneous lyrics is the old

one — the variety of the tune ; the adequacy and scholar-
ship of the individual ; but here and there a certain want
of the inevitable and of original inspiration. You will
never be teased by nonsense ; but you will rarely be
gratified by special music. This is not more true of the
octosyllables of " Resignation " (an excellent thing poeti-
cally) than of the varied lyrics of that curious miscellany
" Switzerland," which really ought to be reconstituted, or
rather constituted, as a whole. Only once, perhaps, in the

1 The identity in diversity of the fault here with that in Part I. of "The
Church of Brou " is very striking :

Down the Savoy valleys sounding,

Echoing round the castle old,
'Mid the distant mountain-chalets

Hark ! what bell for church is tolFd ?

Raise the light, my page ! that I may see her. —
Thou art come at last, then, haughty Queen !
Long I've waited, long I've fought my fever ;
Late thou comcst, cruel thou hast been.
But at any rate he did not, as Mrs. Browning would have done, think that
"see her" and "fever" rhymed, or put "valleys" last to make a pleasant
pair with " chalets."


one very short thing of Mr. Arnold's (besides, perhaps,
the Shakespeare sonnet) that I can call magnificent,
" To Marguerite — Continued," ' is the Marriage of Form
and Matter absolutely consummated and consummate.

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