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

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circus-rider of English prosody, but he executes every
act of his profession with consummate skill, and, what is

1 And he had beside him not a few others, especially "bright broken
Maginn." I have glanced at one or two things — the adapted " Hundred
Years Hence" and "The Pewter Quart" — of this accomplished craftsman in
light verse, and I wish I could give him full room.


of most importance to us, he does it in a manner which
is simply unthinkable, say, a century before — not easily
thinkable half a century before. Even Anstey had not
dreamt of attempting — even Canning did not actually
attempt — anything like the instantaneous changes of line-,
length, the sweep from ground to saddle, the pirouetting
and foot-twinkling leap, the burst through papered and
flaming hoops of rhyme, that diversify these three
wonderful volumes,

A low kind of art ? That does not seem a necessary
subject of discussion. The point is that it is the very
highest kind of its own art ; and that is all that we have
to do with. An easy kind of art ? Go thou and do
likewise. There have been hundreds who went. I
doubt whether any very large percentage ever has done.
From the very first lines —

On the lone bleak moor,
At the midnight hour,
Beneath the Gallows tree ;
Hand in hand
The murderers stand
By one, by two, by three,

to the verses which, long before Little Dorrit, immortalised
Bleeding Heart Yard, you will never find Barham " miss-
ing his tip."

And the beauty of it is that it could not have been
done if long generations, of sometimes most solemn
practice, had not suppled the muscles and sinews,
strengthened the constitution, enlarged the aims and the
capacities, of English prosody. The rush of the verse —
which is almost impossible to overtake in actual reading
aloud, though eye- and mind-reading will do it easily
enough ; the audacious 7nanege of the measures — checking,
letting out, forcing to rear and curvet ; weighting and
lightening the movement ; flashing gyrations as when a
boy flourishes a squib in patterns and flings it from him
as far as he can — could not have been achieved without
the loosening of the whole prosodic system from the
hamper of eighteenth-century rules — without the suppling


and lissoming of the anapaest itself — nay, without the
loftier but closely connected experiments of Milton, and
Shakespeare, and Spenser. All sorts of things suggest
themselves to one in further and further stages of prepara-
tion and attempt — through " Back and side, go bare, go
bare " ; through the snatches of the Miracle Plays and
the Ballads ; through " Lenten is come with love to
town," and the " Love Rune," back to the very stammer
of Godric, the earliest chirp of the half-awakened bird.
Grotesque, burlesque, parody, caricature in matter ; in form
pure and perfected English prosody, with not a variation
of norm that is not easy to be accounted for, not a
licence but of those which the severest may allow himself.^

The longest of Thackeray's works in verse, and one of Thackeray.
his earliest good things, is an Ingoldsbian imitation — the
rather variously titled " Legend of St. Sophia " ; but he
was to do verse-work quite different and much better.
The prosody of his " Ballads " is not a careful prosody ;
it is probably as little deliberate or recherche as any that
we have examined in these hundreds of pages. There
was a time — and I am not sure that this time is altogether
gone — when people would have been almost indignant,
and quite contemptuous, at the idea of its being gravely
considered here at all. Yet it is not to be missed, either
as an example of the actual phenomena of its own
days, or, more importantly still, as an illustration of the
yeoman's service which very largely varied and very
freely exercised versification can do to poetic expression.
No one with an ear can have missed either the admirable
translation into metre of the rub-a-dub of the drum in
its " Chronicle," or the singular felicity of the change
when the chronicler comes to offer his own meditations.
The contrast is repeated — in quite different mode and
material, but with an equally successful result — in " The
King of Brentford's Testament," and the " Age of

1 It is very difficult to select a typical example, for the variety is of the
essence. Perhaps, on the whole, " The Smuggler's Leap" will do as well as
any ; and the stanzas of its catastrophe will especially show that combination,
of almost incredible speed and almost infinite change of verse-gesture with
strict regularity of principle, which has been indicated.


Wisdom " (another for the quintet), and the " Mahogany
Tree," and the " Ballad of Bouillabaisse." If he did not
deliberately plan it, no prosodic coup was ever more
unconsciously successful than the sudden shortening, with
no precedent, of the last line in " The End of the Play."
The use of the rhythm in " Piscator and Piscatrix " ;
the management of the double rhymes in " Vanitas
Vanitatum " ; the diabolic ingenuity of the double parody
of Shelley, or Scott, or Lewis, in " The Willow Tree " ;
the solemnity of " King Canute " ; the (let us say) absence
of solemnity of the " Battle of Limerick " ; the strum-strum
of the " Three Christmas Waits " — all these effects are
consummate. The verse takes the exact form that the
sense requires ; it is a question whether its accompani-
ment does not definitely add to and, "extra-illustrate,"
that sense.
Locker. To Barham and Thackeray it is perhaps only necessary

to add here the name of a writer who long outlived them,
but was barely ten years younger than Thackeray himself
— the name of Mr. Frederick Locker, whom it is here surely
not necessary to call Lampson. Who is there — what dole-
ful creature, fit for the company and habitation of owls
other than that of Pallas and dragons that have nothing
to do with Cynthia — who knows not the quaintly and
delicately crumpled outline of " To My Grandmother," ^
with its utilisation of the daintiest specimen of that
remarkable trochaic monometer catalectic which we have
noticed more than once or twice ? How agreeably the
tailed double triplet suits " My Neighbour Rose," '^ and

' Whether he took it directly or not from Holmes (v. inf. on him) matters
little. I suppose he did. He has never quite attained the serious beauty
{v. inf. again) of one splendid stanza of his original, but he is rather daintier.
What funny fancy slips
From atween these cherry lips?

Whisper me,
Fair Sorceress in paint,
What canon says I mayn't
Marry thee ?
2 What change in one short afternoon,
My own dear neighbour gone — so soon !
Is yon pale orb her honey-moon
Slow rising hither ?


how perfectly " of the Priory " are the anapaests of
" Beggars " ! " The Garden Lyric " is almost wholly
serious, but its music would be less if it were not for the
unusual shortening of the last line. I do not know
whether Locker or Calverley has imitated the " Agincourt "
metre the more perfectly for comic use ; and the some-
thing which takes so much longer to define than to write
appears again to perfection in " Geraldine." I do not
think he managed either of Praed's favourite octaves quite
so well, though he adopted Mr. Swinburne's improvement
in the last line of the greater one. But it is only in
comparison that these come short. Everywhere in him
we find prosodic adequacy and more — the exceptionally
high level of it which, as has been said, such verse

The dramatic blank verse of the century deserves Dramatic
separate though not very extensive treatment, for ''^^^ '
more reasons than one. It will enable us to group
Tennyson and Browning in a fresh collocation, and to
take notice of some poets who would otherwise hardly
find a place here ; while the subject in itself is interesting
if rather disappointing, and will gear itself on desirably
to former and more fortunate treatments of the whole

We saw how, after the break-up of the special form of
the medium before the closing of the theatres, and the
further interruption caused by the popularity of the
heroic, it was revived by Dryden and Lee, not at its old
best, but, at tkez'r best, with something that bore at least
the resemblance, in the literary sense, of a silver age to a
golden. We saw how no one else raised it even to this
height — the inferiority of Otway's, and still more of
Southern's blanks being, in great part, cause of their
unsatisfactory character as poets. We saw further how,
in the latest seventeenth century and throughout the

O lady, wan and marvellous !
How often have we communed thus !
Sweet memory shall dwell with us,
And joy go with her !

and Talfourd.


eighteenth, a greater degradation fell on it, due partly to
actual poetical incapacity, but partly also to a certain
confusion of kinds — the non-dramatic blanks of Milton
being before the writers' eyes indiscriminately with the
intensely dramatic blanks of Shakespeare, while in the
latter case their attention was principally directed to the
supreme, but extremely difficult and dangerous, achieve-
ments in soliloquy. Mercy to the reader, not idleness or
pusillanimity in the writer, forbade the giving of any
extensive examination of the strange chequerwork of
bombast and baldness which appears in eighteenth-century
blank verse of the dramatic kind ; but its general nature
was duly indicated.
Miss Baiiiie It cannot be said that the Romantic revival justified

itself here as elsewhere. The bombast was perhaps, in the
best examples, a little reduced, and the baldness slightly
relieved and tufted ; but the results tended even more to
a mediocrity not much more refreshing to eye and mind
than the rhetoric of Young and Home, or the balderdash
of Lillo, or the decent flatness of Hannah More. Take, for
instance, two such persons as Joanna Baillie and Talfourd.
Joanna was really " a sort of kind of as it were " in poetry.
Talfourd was a scholar and a man of letters, and could
write verse which, if not deserving the great Pl^iade
epithet of marbrine, was fairly carved in no bad oolite.
Yet there is something extraordinarily unsatisfactory
about both. They not only want " — that ! " but they want
so many " thats ! " You turn from them, I do not, of
course, say to Shakespeare or to Beaumont and Fletcher ;
I do not say even to the decadence of Elizabethanism in
its better passages ; but to Dryden and Lee themselves ;
and you find a strange difference. If you were (I do not
say that it is impossible, but I remember none) to come
across in De Montfort or /<?«, or, say, in Milman's Fa::io,
which is fair mock-Elizabethan plaster, such a line as
To the great palace of magnificent Death


Singing her flatteries to my morning wake,

you would '* wonder how the devil it got there," acknow-


ledging its richness and deploring its rarity. You might
find echoes of the famous passage in the Mourning Bride,
but could hardly be grateful for them.

In the second generation things, if a very little better, Tennyson and
are not much better, and are still more curious. Whatever agaki' '"^
the faults of the prosody we have been surveying in this
Book, stiffness, feebleness, want of variety, are not of them ;
and the period might seem to have entered, to the full, into
the Elizabethan heritage, without corruption of any neo-
classic custom. Moreover, to add to the wonder, blank
verse in the non-dramatic form is practically recovered —
and more than recovered ! But not merely when it sets
its feet on the boards — when writers confine themselves
to the most obvious and self-confessing " closet drama " —
the evil eye is on it ; the curse is pronounced ; the wax
image is set to dwindle in the flame ; the aiguillette is
tied. The spells may work in different ways, and achieve
the evil result in different degrees — they are never entirely
avoided or reversed. Prepared as I am to fight, for
Tennyson's position among the primates of English poetry,
with any adversary, and at all weapons of honour, I have
said that his best dramatic passages seem to me to have
strayed from something non-dramatic. I believe the
extremer Browningites maintain that if his best plays,
such as Strafford and the Blot in the 'Scutcheon, are not
full successes, it is due, not to inadequacy of medium so
much as to the fact that his dramatic faculty, though
strong of its kind, was not theatrically dramatic ; and for
once I am not indisposed to agree with them. But still,
his dramatic blank verse never seems to me to have the
full beauty of its own class. The famous apex (I suppose
it is that ?) of Mildred's self-excuse ^ is itself an instance.
I can read it to myself, as prose, without the blank verse
making itself heard at all, though, of course, it scans all
right. You will not get Cleopatra's death -words, or
Othello's, or the summit-verses of the Tempest — you will
not get such things as those I quoted, and even gibed at,

' I — I was so young ;

Beside, I loved him, Thorold — and I had
No mother. God forgot me — so I fell.


in Shirley ^ — to suffer such a process as this. The blank
verse there is not " obtrusive " in a bad sense ; but it sur-
rounds, animates, pervades the meaning as does the very-
air of heaven with a living being ; its presence giving life,
motion, power ; its absence, death and destruction.
Taylor. On the wholc, I think the nearest to the kingdom, from

which even these great ones were shut out, was a writer
not yet mentioned, Sir Henry Taylor. The author of
Philip Van Artevelde was a remarkable prosodist in other
ways : the first-comer could hardly be modeller at once of
A little bird sat on a greenwood tree,

of the famous or once famous

Quoth tongue of neither maid nor wife,

and of the remarkable stanza of " Lake Lugano " ; but
the best of his blank verse is perhaps better than any of
these prosodically. And yet it is noteworthy that it shows
best in soliloquies ; which (once more) tend to be, though
they ought not to be, more like non-dramatic verse than
any other part of a play, and certainly are more likely to
escape censure for being so. My favourite passage is the
speech of Leolf in Edwin the Fair{\ 842, Act IL Scene ii.).^
It is perhaps open to the charge of being a pastiche, not
exactly of

Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarca, St. Jerome, and Cicero,

but of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and half-a-dozen
other people. But the effect is effective — the adventure
has come to the adventurous. I am bound to say, as I
shall not return to the subject, that, with most other
dramatic blank-verse writers throughout the past century

1 Vol. ii. pp. 306-308.

2 Rocks that beheld my boyhood ! Perilous shelf
That nursed my infant courage ! Once again
I stand before you — not as in other days —
In your grey feces smiling, but like you
The worse for weather. Here again I stand —
Again and on the solitary shore
Old ocean plays as on an instrument,
Making that ancient music, when not known ?

There are even better things in the sequel, but the whole runs to some
thirty or forty lines.


and into the present, this effect seems to me to have been
missed, this adventure not to have been achieved.

Here, perhaps, at the end of the chapter, is the best Edward
place (though I have been in more than two minds on the JjJe^J^^JLf"^
subject) to deal with that marvel, belated ^ prosodically as
in other ways, FitzGerald's Omar Khayyam. Its author
must, as his verse and his prose show almost equally, have
been a great, though only partially developed, power in
this way ; and his orthodoxy (a little on the severer side
here) may have accounted as well as anything else for the
very natural and innocent, though unfortunately divulged,
remarks on Mrs. Browning which extracted equally natural
and innocent, though still more unfortunate, wrath from
her husband. But for our purpose, Time and Space
being, unluckily, things relevant, we may confine ourselves
to Omar, only inviting attention, though not giving
comment, to the rest, especially the inset lyrics in Sdldindn
and Absal. For the peculiarities of the decasyllabic
quatrain the reader must be asked to look before and
after, especially to the passage below on " Laus Veneris."
FitzGerald's way of obviating the difficulties and dangers —
while availing himself of all the sententious, the " gnomic "
power — of the form is to make lines i, 2, and 4 rhyme,
while leaving 3 blank, not merely in regard to its neigh-
bours, but altogether. He thus acquires perfect disjuncture,
in all but general meaning, between the stanzas. There
is not (for 1. and li., Ixvi. and Ixvii. do not make it) ^ any
real exception to this in the whole poem. On the other
hand, he enjambs the lines within the stanza much,
especially in the first couplet ; and this, with the constant
presence of the blank third line, entirely gets rid of
monotony. There is extraordinary virtue in this blank,
and in the contrast of run-on line and single-moulded

^ Belated, that is to say, comparing its date and the age of its author.
In a different ratio of time it could hardly have been earlier. It is belated
as the production of a man of fifty ; punctual, almost precocious, as the
production of 1859.

^ These numberings refer to the stanzas, as in the main version in Mr.
Aldis Wright's edition of the Works.

VOL. Ill T


stanza. For the other virtue which Mr. Swinburne has
got out of stanzas pair-knitted by the third line, and lines
very largely though not wholly single-moulded, we may
wait till we come to " Laus Veneris " itself. ^

' It seems needless to give examples from the Rtibdiydt. It is now,
fortunately, well known ; and while a single stanza would be inadequate, there
is no room for a long passage.



Guest's History of English Rhythns — The author a " sohfidian " of
accent — His learning — Its accompanying drawbacks — The
three obsessions — Their working — The accentual prejudice —
The linguistic-historical delusions — The "section" — Its
scheme — Its freaks — Southey's summary verdict — Evans —
O'Brien, Latham, Dallas, Lord Redesdale, etc.

By one of those coincidences which are mere coincidences Guest's
only to the obtuse, the work of Tennyson and Browning, ^^■^^P^"^
which was to sum up, and for the time, as it were, codify Rhythms.
the prosody of the Romantic revival in England, had
scarcely taken definite form before the most remark-
able and extensive book that had ever been written on
the general subject appeared. The History of English
Rhythms^ of Edwin Guest, then merely Fellow, after-
wards Master, of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, is
one of those books which, so long as their subject is
studied by competent and generous students, can never
lose a high place in the story. It has been my unavoid-
able duty to refer to " Guestianity " in almost invariable
terms of reprobation hitherto, and I shall have to expose
its defects more minutely and methodically now ; but
now also will come the opportunity of doing justice to

1 Two vols., London, 1836-38. Edited anew, after the author's death,
with corrections and notes, by Professor Skeat (one vol., London, 1882).
It is understood that Dr. Guest had declined to reissue the book himself;
and the original contained a note stating that, in the two years' interval
between the writing and publication of the volumes, he had (as indeed is
obvious) already modified his views. Due weight must be given to this ; but
quotations will be made from Professor Skeat's edition, since the original is
far from common.



The author a
" solifidian "
of accent.

the merits of Guest and his work. And this part of the
business will be all the more agreeable, because he, like
many other people, has experienced the pertinence of the
prayer to be saved from one's friends. Since the utter
untenableness of his extravagant accentualism made itself
felt, the accentualists have been extremely shy of him ;
and they endeavour to pooh-pooh repetitions of the
exposure, as kicking at an open door, and slaying the
slain. Now prosodic errors, as we have seen, are never
slain so " stone-dead " that another slash or stab is not
prudent in their case ; and one may much more than
suspect an uncomfortable suspicion in the pooh-poohers
that the cut or thrust of the misericorde^ when delivered,
will go not only through him, but into them.

To put the matter in a nutshell, Guest's errors all
come from, and are almost all summed up in, his denial
— a denial so complete that it takes the form rather of
rigid ignoring than of articulate protest — of the foot.
His exceedingly awkward system of indicating accents
by a dividing line, instead of a superimposed mark,^ makes
his scansions look as if they contained feet. But, as Sir
John Mandeville says, " men think that they have balm,
and they have none." These five-hundred-years-old, if
not older, concomitants, or rather components, of English
verse have, for him, no existence. The rhythms of Milton,
which, as we have shown, are explicable in the simplest
fashion by feet, and which with them exhibit their fullest
beauty, become, through want of the allowance, inexplicable
or shocking to him. There is no such thing, for him, in
English as metrical quantity,^ and no such thing as time in
a metrical sense, though he admits long and short vowels.
This is at once the cause and the consequence of his
apodisin. " It is accent, accent, all the way," with certain

^ See above, vol. i. pp. 8- ID — a passage to which objections have been
made, but to which I hold simpliciter for reasons stated in the Appendix
infra. No. VI. B. p. 544.

2 Chapter v. p. 102 l^ed. cit.). Guest is pretty copious on phonetic points,
and may no doubt interest those who are interested in such matters. His
first Book, indeed, of some hundred and fifty pages, is mainly occupied with
them, though he often makes prosodic applications. His terminology may
sometimes deceive, " rhyme " often meaning " /i£tM?- rhyme," i.e. " alliteration."


additions and corollaries to be considered presently. That
at one time — for he seems to have " modified his views "
specially in this respect/ — he adopted the extremest
notions of the elisionists, insisting on such hideous mis-
pronunciations as " del'cate," " om'nous," and the like,
cannot be said necessarily to follow from his disbelief in
feet. For though (as in Bysshe's case) the two things
are often found together, they are sometimes (as in
Johnson's) separated. His doctrine that two accents
must be separated by at least a pause, and could not be
separated by more than two unaccented syllables, is again
not incompatible with belief in feet ; but in him it was
rigidly divorced from any such belief What he substi-
tuted for them we shall see presently. Meanwhile it
may be said that, while his faith in accent could not save
him from disaster, his unfaith in feet made such disaster

His merits, however, were really enormous ; and his
work, like all good work once done, preserves a solid
residue of value in fact, however much allowance be made
for errors in opinion. Nothing can compare with it, in
range and thoroughness, except the much later work of
Dr. Schipper. It is, on the whole, superior to that in
method ; and it has the inestimable and (I fear it must be
said) indispensable, though in Guest's case not fully used,
advantage which belongs only to the man who is " to the
manner born."

Guest, perhaps prompted by Mitford (whose book he His learning.
knew well, and estimated, all things considered, not un-
justly), from the first abandoned the insensate practice of
nearly all eighteenth-century prosodists — that of attacking
the subject with little or no knowledge of its subject-
matter. To this day the extent and thoroughness of
his knowledge of Old and Middle English poetry is a
marvel.^ It must have been, in regard to Middle English

1 Professor Skeat's notes will be found very useful on this point ; but I
fear Guest would not have thanked him for talking of " trisyllabicy^rf."

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 24 of 50)