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

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2 The reflections cast on his philological shortcomings, by some of those who
find him an inconvenient ally, seem to me a little ungenerous, and even rather
imprudent. He came indeed at an early stage of, if not altogether before,


especially, almost wholly derived from MSS. ; for even
Madden's Layainon had not appeared when he wrote,
and the publications of the E.E.T.S., the Philological
Society, and most of those of German bodies, periodicals,
and individuals, were a generation ahead. He had also
— what too many more recent students of " O.E." and
" M.E." have lacked — a competent, if not an exhaustive,
knowledge of our poetry from Elizabethan times to the
end of the eighteenth century ; and though he evidently
did not like it, he was pretty familiar with the verse of
the great school during the first quarter of the nineteenth.
Whether he knew, and what he thought, of that somewhat
younger gentleman of Cambridge who had, a few years
before, written two little books illustrating almost all the
principles of English, and (to use a favourite phrase of his
own) violating almost all those of accentual, prosody, I
do not know. But, from one or two hints, I should think
his knowledge not improbable, and I am nearly sure that
he would have judged

A spirit haunts the year's last hours

as severely as the excellent William Smith did later.
Its accom- For Guest's gifts and graces were — not brought to

panying draw- nought by any means, but — counteracted in all matters of
pure opinion, and some of pretty close demonstration, by
a wonderful and monstrous set of prejudices and question-
beggings. He has often been described as a type of the
a priori school, and I am not sure that I have not some-
times, in a manner, subscribed to the description. It is,
however, not quite accurate, though there is some accuracy
in it. The true a priori people are those who, as, for
instance, Bysshe and Steele, prepare, it may be from quite
different points, a theory on the subject without reference
to the facts at all, supplement it by more or less (generally
less) examination of fact, and save or condemn accordingly,
but, above all, prescribe and formulate. Guest does not

the series of constantly changing linguistic theories and systems which subse-
quent generations have elaborated and antiquated by turns. But, as is
pointed out above, he knew A. S. and M.E. literature as few have known it.


quite do this : his form of dementia is neither the mathe-
matical madness of the decasyllabists (though he is not
wholly free from it) nor the musical mania of the bar-and-
rest people. I believe I know his book pretty well. I have
used it, never without re-reading, as a basis of lecturing
for the best part of some fifteen years, and before writing
this I read it again (a thing not so difficult to do after a
good deal of practice, as may be thought) in an entirely
different spirit — that is to say, merely attempting to
isolate and define its own point of view. It has been
more and more borne in upon me that Guest was himself
by no means sure of this standpoint — that he was not
even at one standpoint throughout, and might have taken
up a different one still later.^

He seems to me, in fact, to have conducted his work The three
under the influences of three different obsessions, no one obsessions.
of which he ever worked out thoroughly in all its bearings,
which do not necessarily imply each other, and two of
which are even rather contradictory.

The first " was the belief that our verse is wholly
dependent upon accent, and that " the principles of
accentual rhythm," whatever they are, govern it ex-

The second ^ was that the laws of English versification
generally are somehow not only dependent on those of
Old English versification, but identical with them, and
always to be adjusted to them.

The third * was that, somewhere about the early
thirteenth century, and increasingly till the end of the
fourteenth, there took place a succession of alien invasions
which never resulted in a coalescence or blending, but
merely in the presence of two hostile elements ; and

1 Once more v. Professor Skeat's notes.

2 The evidence of this obsession is concentrated in Book I. chap, iv,
pp. 74-101 ; but diffused over the entire treatise.

•^ This seems to have presented itself to him throughout as a matter of
course, not requiring demonstration, and hardly likely to be contested ; it is
perhaps most categorically affirmed at Book II. chap. iii. p. 184.

■* This also is pervading. It "gathers itself up" most in the context just
cited, and at pp. 301 and 400-402, the two last among the most surprising
instances of complete misunderstanding of history by a real historical scholar.


that while the perfect English versifier will cling to the
older and only genuine one, he must, if he does not so
cling, give it up altogether, and have nothing to do with
anything but " the rhythm of the foreigner."

Now it seems to me, as the result of nearly half a
century's reading of English poetry of all ages, that these
propositions are in fact false, — false with an increasing
degree, and a more and more demonstrable quality, of

In the first place, though accent plays a large part in
English prosody, that prosody is as far as possible from
being purely or exclusively accentual.

In the second, the oldest English poetry and its
younger varieties are so utterly different in texture and
quality of word-material, and in result of rhythm on the
ear, that the same laws cannot, except per accidens, apply
to them.

In the third, instead of two jarring elements, we find
before us, from the thirteenth century, at least, onwards,
a more and more distinct and harmonious blend of
language, resulting, of necessity, in a more and more
distinct and harmonious blend of prosody.

But let us — for the moment only, and strictly for the
sake of argument — suppose that Guest is right, and
(though still more conditionally and provisionally) admit
also a fourth principle, which he adds to, rather than
deduces from, the other three : —

That ^ the collocation of accented and unaccented
syllables forms sections, which in turn form, and into
which can be reduced, all English verse.
Their working. Let US now sce how all these things work; how they
stand comparison with the facts ; what authority the
propositions derived from and based on them can
claim ; — how, in short, they perform that office which, as
has been often pointed out, every system of prosody
must perform satisfactorily or be dismissed as itself
unsatisfactory — the oflfice of fitting and interpreting
English poetry.

^ The working out of this fills the bulk of the book.


On the part of the accentual division, which concerns
the Accent v. Quantity battle, little need be said. Guest
himself observes, with the greatest possible truth, that in
the discussion of that question " more learning has been
shown than either good sense or good temper," and the
truth has certainly not got less truthful with the passage
of seventy years. But there is no need of learning, no
danger of ill-temper, and not even any remarkable demand
for good sense, in dealing with his dealing. He thinks ^
that, in the sense of quantity as connected with metrical
value, we have none in the English language ; but he
thinks that in English there are some syllables which are
"longer" — that is, which require more time for pro-
nunciation — than others, and still more certainly some
" long " vowels. Now the only sense of " quantity "
which is employed in this book is that of metrical value
— the question of necessary connection with time is left
open. And we do not say here, as Guest does, though he
disfranchises quantity, that the a in " father " is long,
while the a in " fathom " is short. The a in " fathom " is
long enough — is as long as that in " father " in

Full fa [thorn five | thy fa|ther lies ;

and I should rather doubt whether you could ever make
the a of " fathom " as short as that of " father " is in
"grandfather" and "forefather" as ordinarily pronounced,
though, of course, you may " stress up " both to any
length. Therefore here we may let him alone, even
when he finds fault with Spenser and Sidney for making
" hilly " long " against the evidence of their senses." The
evidence of our senses agrees with them (though not
exactly for their reasons), and so we must agree to differ
with him.

But when we come to his axioms, media and inferiora^
on things accentual, then we find real difficulties, and
a perpetually unanswered " Why ? " rises to the lips.
Suppose it is all accent. Why can no two adjoining
syllables be accented, unless there is a pause between

1 See the chapter on the subject — I. v. T/its quantity may be " an
embelHshment of rhythm," but we have no "temporal" rhythms.


them ? I can accent them without a pause as easily as
I can write them. Why ought the adjective always to
be more strongly accented than the substantive ? Why
does accentual rhythm necessarily imply fixed caesura ? ^
Why, on accentual principles, can no more than two
unaccented syllables be interposed between accented
ones ? I could accumulate scores of these whys, which I
dare swear will never find their wherefores as long as
English is English.
The accentual But if it is impossible for these " laws " to produce
preju ice. their commissions, it is still more flagrantly impossible
for them to justify themselves by their works. Between
them they have the unenviable distinction of blackmarking
some of the very greatest and choicest things in English
poetry — a crime which, as has been pointed out, is
the unpardonable sin in prosody. A prosodic scheme
which fails to account either for faults or (as far as beauty
can ever be accounted for) beauties is at best incomplete ;
and one which,like Steele's, obscures beauties is impertinent;
but one which condemns them is itself anathema. Guest's
condemnations are in a manner famous to all who have
studied the subject, though not, of course, to the general
reader. We have noticed how he dismisses contemptu-
ously some of the finest rhythms in Burns and Coleridge.^
Like Johnson, with whom he does not very often agree,
accentualists as they both are, he denounces ^ Cowley's
lovely line —

And the soft wings of Peace cover him round,

partly because he chooses to foist in an unnecessary pause
at " Peace." He declares ^ some of the noblest things in
Shakespeare, such as

Is noble Timon,

to be " opposed to every principle of versification," and he
has for Milton ^ a mixture of argument and scolding on
the subject of

^ Perhaps one can answer this, " Because its natural chaos becomes even
more chaotic without such csesura."

2 Page 183. 3 Page 229. ^ Page 153. ^ Page 185.


The Cherub Con|templation,

But Guest's second obsession was of a far more fatal The linguistic-
character than his first. I venture to think that (doubtless delusions.
through my own fault) the attitude of this book to accen-
tual scansion has been somewhat mistaken by certain
critics. I think that scansion wrongly based, as well as
necessarily and miserably inadequate. I think that a
man who confines himself to it misses much of the
understanding, and very much of the pleasure, which the
system of foot-scansion supplies. But I do not think
that he need necessarily go wrong — as far as he goes at
all — in practice.

Now Guest supplemented, muddled, and bedevilled his
accentual procedure with the gratuitous, unhistorical, and,
one would have thought, almost inconceivable theory, that
the whole course of English poetry from Caedmon to his
own time (which, be it remembered, was to his certain
knowledge the time of Coleridge and Keats, to his possible
knowledge the time of Tennyson and Browning) ought
to go, must go, did go, on the same principles. It was
this that really wrecked him ; and it is one of the most
astonishing things in the whole of our history — which is
not barren in occasions for amazement. If he had been
ignorant of Old English the thing would have been
intelligible enough ; but, as we have said, he knew it very
well. I doubt whether, at the time of his writing, any
man living, in or out of England, knew the literature
better — whatever may have been his real or supposed
linguistic shortcomings. And how any man, with any
ear at all, could read Caedmon and Coleridge, the Exeter
Book and Shelley, and fancy that they represented
identical systems of prosody — even systems obeyed in the
one case, and sinned against, but existing by right, in the
other, — is to me absolutely inconceivable.

The combination of these two obsessions almost
necessitated others : it was certainly accompanied by
them. Once more, how Guest even at times (for he seems,
now and again, to have had searchings of heart), could



' ' section. '

Its scheme.

figure to himself the course and life of English language
and literature, from the thirteenth century onward, as a
case of the English Michael and his angels fighting
against the Latin-Romance devil and his angels, is only
not so inconceivable as what has just been mentioned,
because it has been exemplified in a greater number of
persons. The " pure Saxon " folly — the championship of
" ungothroughsomeness " and its kin — seems to have been
more or less prevalent for the last century. Once more,
it is impossible to reconcile it with any knowledge even
of literature by itself or of language by itself, much less
with the (alas ! too seldom combined) knowledge of both.^

The three errors, however, were all united in Guest ;
and they brought forth, as has been said, another — the
" sectional " system, which is the direct cause of most of
his worst single enormities, and though perhaps not the
most generally noticed, by no means the least surprising
thing in his surprising book. Not very many people, I
should fancy, have worked steadily through the immense
mass of classified examples by which he endeavours to
prove, or at least exhibit, " sectional " scansion from the
" Genesis " to the " Revelation " of the English prosodic
Bible ; but I do not think any one can call himself a
thorough student of the subject who has not.

The labours of him who has will at any rate not be
without their reward. There is, to begin with, that
extraordinary scheme ^ of possible section-combinations
which has been more than once alluded to, and which he

^ See, for justification of this, especially the passage already cited (p. 400 sq.),
where the preconception actually makes him say that "Latin and French
deranged the vocabulary of our language, but never its form and structure''^ ;
that the streams "flowed through various channels." Perhaps the most
astonishing single confession of being "joined to idols" is at p. 561. "Of
all the metres known to our poetry, that which has best succeeded in reconcil-
ing the poet's freedom with the demands of science is — the alliterative system
of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors." And the most interesting glimmer of
resipiscence is at 444-445, where he makes a sort of apology to Milton and
even admits the possibility of the stream " resulting from the union of two or
more independent streamlets, which in blending their waters have mixed their
properties." Grant this frankly, and his system disappears, while ours takes
its place.

^ See p. 160. The table prefixed to the second edition is Professor
Skeat's, and most useful.


seems quite gravely to think that some industrious poet
might very profitably work out in practice to try what
would do and what would not. I have never myself
sympathised with those cold moderns who object to the plan,
recognised by Aldrich, of reckoning all possible combina-
tions of premiss and conclusion systematically, and then
rejecting those that are contrary to the general laws
of syllogism ; for both the combination and the rejection
are useful logical exercises, and proper to the rudiments
of an Art, if not congenial to the high-flying exigencies of
a Science. But this Guestian process is one of the worst
exemplifications of prosodic pravity in putting the Rule
before the Work — not to mention that, to judge by his
own results, the exclusion and admission of examples
would have proceeded on totally false principles.

For if ever a man took enormous pains to prove those
pains vain, that man was Guest. Wherever his " sections "
are harmless, they are absolutely superfluous : the simple
foot-and-pause (or no-pause) system antiquates them
hopelessly. In many cases they do positive harm ; for it
is the application of them which proves Shakespeare and
Milton to have been guilty of high treason to the
majesty of accent ; Burns and Spenser to have used
metres with " very little to recommend them " and " want-
ing in good taste." He is so (the word must be used)
besotted with them, that he solemnly informs us that they
rest on a principle which is not an actual law invented
for the mere purposes of arrangement, but is " the model
on which the great majority of these verses [" four-
accent "] have been actually formed." The " great
majority " of English iambic, trochaic, and anapaestic
dimeters (for that is what it comes to) apparently exists
in the three -volume corpus of Anglo-Saxon verse ! The
hundreds, nay thousands of volumes full of them from
Layamon to Swinburne, or (to be rigidly fair towards
Guest's date) from Layamon to Browning, form a small
minority !

A few results will speak for themselves. That the
commonest equivalences and other metrical incidents are


made to generate separate " sections " ^ (in a fashion
which always makes me think of Quintilian's demure
satire on the Greek figure-mongers) is a necessary conse-
quence ; and it may be said not a fatal one, but at the
worst polypragmatic and supererogatory. But it is a
much more serious thing when the actual scansion of a line
is interfered with, and perhaps hopelessly spoilt, to make a
" section " where no section should be. I regard it as an
utter mistake to put any strong division ^ at

Void of sorrow : and void of care (p. 190),

and a worse to put any whatever at

Two blissful twins : are to be bom ;

while the whole system of " sectional pause" {v. p. 296
and thereabouts) is utter cobweb, and should be simply
broomed away.
Its freaks. But some of his exploits in this z;?W-sectional torture

stagger reason ; for instance —

Whom God hath of his special : favour raised (p. 297),


Shall he, nursed in the peasant's : lowly shed,

in neither of which cases will any fetch about difference
between " pause " and " stop " give the slightest assistance.
Here are four extraordinary instances of Alexandrine
" section " from the Faerie Queene. It is of course true
that Spenser, not using the verse continuously, has taken
the liberty of sometimes neglecting its otherwise almost
essential middle pause. Yet when he does this he gener-
ally makes no real pause at all ; in fact it appears to be
done chiefly because he wants a pauseless line. But a
pauseless line was to Guest an unthinkable monstrosity,^

^ Perhaps it should be said that a "section" is a bundle of "accented"
and " unaccented " syllables extending in possible bulk from th^-ee syllables
with two accents (Guest's minimum) to eleven syllables with tJu-ee accents.
Of a pair of these, similar or dissimilar, a verse consists.

2 The colon is, of course, Guest's own division-mark.

^ This, which is an inevitable result of his system, would suffice to damn
it, for with the pauseless line disappears almost all possibility of the verse-
paragraph, and of the perfecting of blank verse generally, as well as a mighty
engine of beauty and variety in couplet and stanza.


and so he performs the following marvellous "surgical
operations " —

As well in curious instruments : as cunning lays . . .

They throned the second Constantine : with joyous tears . . .

How he that lady's liberty : might enterprise . . .

Their hearts were sick, their eyes were sore : their hands were lame ;

where the first and third neither need nor, I dare swear,
have a pause at all ; the second has but the very slightest,
easily negligible altogether ; and the fourth, if it has any,
has two^ at " sick " and " sore."

I hold no brief for Byron ; but the following (p. 244)
is really too bad : —

" Byron, whose negligent versification has never yet
been properly censured, has given us one or two examples
of the verse 6 : 2. To slip a verse of this kind into a
modern poem is little better than laying a trap for the
modern reader."

The modern reader, properly cautioned, may ask what
this mysterious " verse 6 : 2 " is ? This is it :

Look on me, the grave hath not chang'd thee more.

It is, of course, no masterpiece, but perfectly easy to scan
and pause without any senseless and cacophonous pseudo-
caesura. The real pause is, absolutely beyond question,
at " me," and " the " is lengthened or accentuated as it
very commonly is, especially after, and by the help of,
such a pause. But a pause at the third syllable was
abhorrent to Guest, and an accented " the " more so. So
he makes Byron scan it as below,^ and scolds him for
doing what " the noble poet," one of whose good points
was a command of " English simplicity " of language,
would have characterised in terms improper for this page.
I have thought it, however, better to reinforce and
illustrate what I have said in the text, by abundant refer-

^ It may further amuse the entrapped bird to see this scansion :

Look on I me, the grave | hath not |: chang|'d thee mor|e.
The divisions are, of course {v. sup. p. 276 7iote), not intended as divisions ;
but if any one will follow this scansion accentually, substituting 'for |, and
giving the pause at "not," he will see, once for all, the hideous jumble and
"cagmag"of sounds which this accentual scansion makes, and regards as
quite legitimate.



ences and citations in the notes, than to fill pages with
running comment on particular enormities. But there is
one peculiarity, which I might almost call a fifth obsession,
and on which I must dwell a little. Unless the reader's
faculty of surprise has been actually torpedoed ^ into
callousness by the extraordinary things he finds in this
book, he will open his eyes more widely than ever at
discovering that, next to the poetry before A.D. looo,
Guest, on the whole, prefers that between 1 660 and 1 800.
It is true that he slips expressions about Pope's " cold-
ness " — he is anything but consistent, and indeed could
hardly be with so fantastic a creed. But, on the whole,
the thing is so.

The reason of this thing, however, will not long escape
the student. Odd as Deor and the Dispensary, Genesis B
and Bysshe, Johnson and Juliana may look together, there
is no doubt that Augustan couplet-verse, with its regular
accents and pauses, and its strong centre-split, lends itself
to Guest's system as easily as possible ; while Elizabethan
and nineteenth - century varieties and excursions are
utterly rebel thereto. He would not ask himself the
question, " Is not this rather suspicious ? " or perhaps he
did ask it, though he would not let the answer escape.^

In one of the latest of his published letters ^ Southey
says that he is occupied, among other things, with a review
of Guest for the Quarterly, adding, " nothing can be more
worthless than the first volume, but in the second there is
a great deal that is curious." This was quite a full year
before the decline of mental power, which came upon
him, made itself definitely apparent ; but, as usual with
him, he had endless other things on hand, and the review
does not seem to have ever got itself written, or at least
published. It is no small loss ; for, as has been already

1 I refer to Nature's torpedo and not to Mr. Whitehead's.

2 Must I repeat that there is no retorsion here possible ? Popian verse is
no more rebel to our system than to Guest's, though it may not be so highly
placed therein.

3 Oct. 26, 1838 (^Letters, vol. iv. p. 560). It has all the more interest

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