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

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from being addressed to Wynn, his prosodic correspondent forty years earlier
{v. sup. p. 49),


remarked, Southey's ideas on metre, though nowhere much
developed, seem to have been singularly just, and his
knowledge of English poetry from the sixteenth century
onward, at least to the early nineteenth, was, and probably
is, unrivalled. It would not, of course, be fair to either
party to take the sweeping condemnation of the first
volume (the system) as expressing his full and final judg-
ment, made as it is in a mere glance during a letter to a
friend. But his judgment on the second shows that he
recognised the value of Guest's survey of matter.

Yet he was in a manner right in both judgments,
though a considerable proviso and saving clause has to be
made to the first. No study of such a subject as this,
made by a man of scholarship and wits, can be " worthless,"
because its very errors are of great price. Guest has
actually saved his opponents, as to versification by accent
only, the trouble of writing a treatise, which could easily
be as long as his own, to show its inevitable consequences.
You cannot have a man much better informed than he
was in all the poetry of English up to his time ; and as
for what has come since, if a man will not hear Keats and
Coleridge reinforcing Shakespeare and Milton, it would
have been no use if Tennyson and Browning and Mr.
Swinburne had been born earlier on purpose to convince
him. No one who reads his book can think him a fool,
or a perfunctory dealer with the subject. Nothing, there-
fore, but the radical unsoundness of his theory, could have
led him to such utterly absurd results in practice as the
condemnation of some of the finest lines of English poetry,
or the decision (more preposterous even than condemnation)
that Shakespeare and Milton " had no right " ^ to produce
the beautiful effects that they produced — that theirs was
a sort of Black Art ; its beauty a succubus ; the pleasure
it gave soul-destroying and damnable ; imitation of its
effects an outrage and a crime. No wonder that more
timid and less logical votaries of his idols wish to smuggle

1 His own phrase. The "right to work " maybe questionable, if only
because a negative seems to have slipped out somewhere ; and there are those
who question an unquaUfied " right to exist " ; but to question the " right to
be beautiful " is indeed a marvellous proceeding.

VOL. Ill U


him away ; cry " Agreed ! agreed ! " when any one calls
attention to him ; and the like.

But his second volume is not alone in being, as Southey
admitted, very " curious " in the best and oldest sense of
that word — meaning worth diligent and interested attention.
I should myself go so far as to say that the whole book
deserves the same description. I have never hesitated to
indicate it, with a few general cautions, as the best hand-
book of the subject hitherto : and, except in the case of a
very dull person, or to save time, I should not hesitate so
to indicate it without any caution at all — sure that the
reader would soon find out its weak parts, and could
derive nothing but benefit from its strong. For though
Guest's principles were hopelessly wrong, his method
(which, if man were not the most inconsistent of animals,
ought to have taken his principles and wrung their necks)
is almost perfectly right. It is, except when the principles
interfere, purely historical ; and the history is so pervading
that it automatically points out the errors of the principles
themselves. Here you have arranged, in chronological
order for the most part, examples of almost all English
lines and of a very large number of line- combinations.
You could not have found them out for yourself {crede
experto /) without years of labour and trouble. Here all,
or most of it, is done to your hand ; and you have only
got to supplement it, with a similar historical conspectus
of later movements and tendencies, to have all your
necessary materials before you. I myself never read
Guest till Professor Skeat republished him, nor indeed
for some years after ; and I had (as I have ventured to
assure the reader) interested myself in English poetry and
English prosody far earlier. He could tell me little that
I did not know as to matters since Chaucer ; and I knew
something of matters before. But the reading of his
survey, and the assistance of his method, gave me a most
powerful help in ceasing to see " confusedly " — in sorting
and arranging the myriad facts of the matter. It may
seem to be an odd fee for this assistance to take away his
prosodic character. But, after all, he called his book


A History of English RhytJuns. It is a history of English
rhythms ; and a right learned and valuable one. And it
is not precisely every book of which it can be said that it
comes up to its title learnedly and valuably.

At the same time, it attempts to be something more ; and
while, quite conscious of the de te fabula, one is regretfully
bound to echo, in one sense and to some extent, Mr.
Omond's accusation that Guest's book has been " a great
misfortune for English metrical science." I have, I think,
shown that it ought to have done little harm : I fear I
cannot deny that it has done a great deal. Perhaps there
are not so many readers as there should be who possess
that separating faculty which, after all, as it is the trans-
lation, so it is the foundation of Criticism. And this book
so far excelled anything that had gone before it, and
anything that followed it for decades and almost lifetimes,
that its influence — indirect, and at second hand rather
than at first, perhaps — cannot but have been disastrous.
It has certainly coloured most of the prosodic writing
since. And it is curious (though, after all, as far as
possible from being unexampled) that those who admit its
shortcomings almost impatiently, try to smuggle them
away, affect to regard them as admittedly discarded, yet
cling to the very points of the Guestian doctrine which
brought about these shortcomings themselves. Nor is
this the case only with what may be called — though we
are a very uncovenanted and Cyclopean, not to say
Ishmaelite, community — " professional " prosodists. Cer-
tainly, as I shall endeavour to show in the corresponding
chapter of the next Book, all sorts of fantastic heresies
date directly or indirectly from Guest. But it is at least
ten to one that if you meet a layman, of rather superior
intelligence and reading, who has troubled himself about
prosody a little but not much, you will find that the
" gainsaying of Guest " has had more or less effect upon
him. I do not want Guest to be swallowed up — I think
he is too useful, in the first place, as an example of that
" Rule of False " which is always to me precious in its
applications almost beyond anything, and I think that in


the second he contains too much valuable matter. But
that he is utterly wrong in his main views and conten-
tions ; that his " accents " are a beggarly element and his
" sections " a thing vainly invented, — this I may say,
without rashness, that I do not think, but know, and
have proved.

The importance of Guest is so great that he might
almost have had this chapter to himself; and inde-
pendently of it there happen to be not many writers
whom it is necessary, or even convenient, to couple with
him. Edgar Poe, who, a few years later, came closer to
the truth of the whole matter than any one else, though
hardly with full consciousness, and while making many
mistakes, will fall to be noticed in a separate chapter
dealing with the most noteworthy poets and prosodists of
his own country. Much, if not most, of the attention
bestowed on the subject in the middle third of the nine-
teenth century was determined (partly through the
popularity of Evangeline) to the matter of the hexameter :
and this also has its appointed separate treatment. There
are, however, a few writers on prosody, between 1838 and
the sixties, who may deserve to accompany the Master
of Sidney. Some of them, indeed, have considerable repute
— whether entirely by desert is another question.
Evans. Of their works Archdeacon Evans's Treatise on Versi-

fication (1852) is (to me at least) the most interesting;
but its interest consists almost wholly in its point of view,
especially when we notice its date. I do not know
that I should, as my friend Mr. Omond does, stigmatise
offhand as " ancient errors " the statements that verse is
constituted by " the regulated recurrence of a syllable,"
and that stress " necessarily prolongs time of vowel." In
the first a great deal depends upon what you mean by
" regulated " ; and in the second everything depends on
what you mean by " time." But I certainly should never
make these statements, in their actual forms, myself.
And some others, which Mr. Omond does not quote, can
hardly escape by the most ingenious glossing. That


" stress is the only basis of versification in any modern
language " is a proposition which I utterly deny, and
which I can, I believe, prove to be false in the case of
most languages. That there can be " only one stress in
each word " is, again, a fond thing vainly invented, the
falsity of which I should have defied the Archdeacon to
preach the shortest of sermons without demonstrating.
But we have heard all this before. What makes the book
interesting is the author's profound and almost childlike
belief in the hopeless inferiority of English, and especially
of English poetry, to those classical languages and litera-
tures with which he chiefly deals, and of which he is —
most rightly — an enthusiastic admirer. " Nothing but a
resolute forgetfulness of the ancient measures can make
us feel any satisfaction with blank verse." It may be so ;
but I am sure that I shall not forget the choruses of
<^schylus, and the hexameters of the De Rerum Natura,
till death or dotage comes upon me, and yet I feel more
satisfaction with blank verse every day I live. " An evil
genius seems to have presided over our lyric poetry. . . .
It must always be a blank" — a sheet of white paper on
which the names of Shakespeare and Donne and Herrick, of
Blake and Keats and Shelley, of Tennyson and Browning"
and Swinburne, are absolutely illegible. But the most
curious expression of this curious faith, or unfaith, is to
come. Twice over, in different form and in different
context, does the excellent Archdeacon remark that while
the ancient poets lose considerably (one fully agrees here)
by translation, Shakespeare and Milton are " wonderfully
improved," " gain exceedingly," by being cleverly rendered
into Greek trimeters and hexameters. This attitude is
so odd that I should like to know whether this Welsh
clergyman was also a Welsh poet, and whether this
double function could have anything to do with the
matter. I understand that Welsh verse is very regular ;
and the irregularity of English seems to be one of
Evans's chief objections to it, as compared, especially in
lyric, to the classics. Besides, he thinks that English
is, as a language, " deficient in richness and variety of


sound," and I have heard that this is a Cymric charge
against it.

Such a charge, of course, may be dismissed without
calling on counsel to reply. It is surely a piece, either of
actual physical insensibility, or of the lower and mis-
begotten " patriotism " — of the same Philistine ^avavaia
which makes other people talk of the " Welsh gurgle " or
the " Gaelic whine." It is, however, curiously parallel to
a German absurdity which was referred to above (p. 176),
and to an expression of Eurasian opinion which I once
quoted elsewhere.^ But it, and the whole book, are
certainly interesting as coming from a man of ability, and
of the fullest " liberal education," who must have spoken,
who certainly wrote, English with, as it were, native
competence, and who was writing after the middle of the
nineteenth century — ten years after the issue of Tennyson's
collected Poevis, and with all but the last chapter of the
book of English poetry, up to the present day, complete
before him.
O'Brien, Somc places which I have drawn blank, or nearly so,

Latham j^^y j^g crroupcd together. William O'Brien's Ancient

Dallas, Lord ^ .^ ^ ^

Redesdaie, etc. RJiytJinitcal Art Recovered (1843), a posthumous work, is
almost entirely on Greek choric verse, and is thus half-
excusably musical ; but it adopts " isochronism " as
metre's first law. Latham's famous or once- famous
English Language (1841) has a considerable prosody
section, which was progressively enlarged. It is, I believe,
responsible for the sickening symbol xa ax which has
infested prosody -books since; and it is so besottedly
accentual as to lay it down that " regularity of accent
makes verse, irregularity prose." It never really faces
" substitution " ; and, on the whole, may be said to have
done as much harm as any other book on the subject, if
not more, because of the authority which, somehow or
other, it obtained. E. S. Dallas in his Poetics (1852)
displays that curious and rather deplorable mixture of
talent and acuteness, dashed and brewed with discursive

1 Corrected Impressiotts (London, 1895), p. 27. It came to this, that
Tennyson was "like prose."


quasi-philosophical jargon, which is characteristic of all
his work. " The effect of the second law [of harmony]
upon the tune, a tune engendered by that of rhythm,
will be to prolong and repeat the strain so as to impart its
own self-complacency to the outward form." This really
might have been written in 19 10 instead of in 1852 :
and somewhere about 1600, by Feste in his altitudes, as
well as at either date. It is pure gibberish, the dialect
of a prosodic Pigrogromitus. He dwells much on opposi-
tion of " bar " and " stanza " ; but has acute aper^us, as
where he sees that Thalaba verse ^ is for the most part
only disjointed blanks. Lord Redesdale's two short
pamphlets Thoughts and Further Thoughts on Prosody
(Oxford, 1857) are worth reading, even if they were not
by Mitford's nephew and by a formidable Chairman of
Committees. They are chiefly jottings about the hexa-
meter question, with some translations of his own. The
notion that the Universities might compile a Quantitative
Lexicon of English, sounds perhaps odder than it is — or
was. And there are some sensible remarks, as on that
curiously un-Horatian character of Dryden's nevertheless
great translation of Horace, which has struck some persons
independently, while others have been obstinately blind
to it. But the things pretend to no system.^

^ Not, however, in Thalaba itself, as we have seen above.

2 An article on Greek and English Accentuation in the Eclectic Review
for 1838 (Fourth Series, vol. iii. p. 395), and so exactly contemporary with
Guest, contains a proposition which might be fruitfully handled as a text,
though it can hardly be accepted as a dogma : " Accent determines that a
line shall be metrical. Quantity gives it expression, harmony, variety." I
should translate this : " The presence of equal or equivalent feet determines
that a line shall be metrical. The constitution of those feet, with the arrange-
ment of their pauses, gives expression, harmony, variety." And I should
not be surprised if we both meant very much the same thing.


The substance of the summary of prosodic practice which
we have to give in this Interchapter may be briefly put.
It imports full entrance on the heritage which had been
gained in the past : the exercise, deliberate and unre-
strained, of the franchise of English prosody. Even in
Matthew Arnold, the most academically self-restraining
of the greater poets of the period, as well as the least
naturally inclined to self-indulgence in this particular
department, the negative commandments of the eighteenth
century have been taken down from any position of
prominence ; in others they may be said to be completely
erased or struck through. Make harmonious measure in
any way you please, provided you make it — make the
measure vary in any single poem as well as in different
poems, just as the fancy strikes you — is the motto of
this Theleme ; and everybody acts up to it.

I cannot myself perceive the slightest counter-argument
of value against the proposition that Tennyson is at once
the earliest exponent, and to no small extent the definite
master, of this new ordered liberty.^ It is years before
even Browning produces largely varied experiments in
metre ; his wife (not yet his wife) does not in her earliest
attempts, or before the forties at all, go beyond the half-
way house of Mrs. Hemans and Miss Landon ; and
Mr. Arnold was a boy of eight years old when the first
experiments of Tennyson in prosody came to puzzle

^ I have, I think, seen it stated that the " Hollyhock Song " {v. sup. p. i88)
is Keatsian, As far as prosody goes, this may be uncompromisingly denied.
Beddoes and Darley might be brought in as a little earlier parallels, but they
were practically contemporaries.



But it is in that puzzlement itself that the strongest
argument for Tennyson's advance lies. It has been
pointed out (with all due respect, I hope) that Coleridge
does not seem to have applied to questions of metrical
criticism the marvellous subtlety and originality ^ which
were at his disposal elsewhere ; that his very explanation
of the Christabel metre is confused and inadequate from
its own point of view ; that he ignores or evades metrical
points strangely in the elaborate examination of Words-
worth ; and that, in the corpus — sadly incomplete and
desultory no doubt, but very wide-ranging — of his critical
miscellanies, such questions are rarely touched. In fact
there is no stronger proof than Coleridge of the doctrine
of unconscious cerebration in prosody, which these
volumes have striven to illustrate consistently. We have
noticed, and shall probably again notice in this chapter,
much later and more distinct evidences of want of
appreciation, but none quite so remarkable as this.

Thus, as usual, the light shined in darkness : but it
shone. I have endeavoured, in the proper place, to give
such a conspectus as was possible of the details of
Tennyson's achievement in new forms, and in alteration
of old ones. Here it is merely desirable to gather up its
results and character. They can be easily summed — in
fact the summary has already been given more than once
by glance in anticipation — as Variety and Freedom,
subject to Order. Of Tennyson it may be said, with
utmost truth, that he touched no rhythm that he did
not adorn, and that few poets have touched so many
rhythms. For the very swiftest he had less fancy than
for slow and medium paces ; yet, as late as the Ballads^
in the " Voyage of Maeldune " more especially, he showed
that it was no positive inability which prevented him
from trying them. For very irregular metres — irregular
in the sense of outline and contour, not of rhythm — he
had again somewhat less fancy, though here also hardly less

1 I know no better touchstone of the scholar, as opposed to the scioHst
and the paradoxer, than perception or non-perception of this subtlety and
originality in Coleridge. It is an old one no doubt, but somehow most
touchstones are old.


power ; and he did not very often practise the largest or
nnost canzone-like lyrical stanzas in repeated order, though
he showed in " The Lotos-Eaters," once for all, what a
master he was of the Spenserian. For the shorter lyrical
stanzas, especially the quatrain of various lengths and
the short-lined octave, he was one of the very greatest
masters in English. The two forms of " The Palace of
Art " and the " Dream of Fair Women " are to me
perfect Cleopatras in their absolute inexhaustibleness of
charm ; and as much may be said for the octaves of
the " Voyage," the extended rime couee of " Sir Launcelot
and Queen Guinevere " and many others. He was equally
happy, and equally inexhaustible, in elaborate but not
regularly strophic lyrical paragraphs, like those of the
latter part of " The Lotos-Eaters " and the better part of
Maud; and it would be mere repetition of the earlier
analysis to mention things (such as the trochaic passage
in the " Vision of Sin ") which he has left as separate
diploma-pieces to show what he could do.

In contrast to, and in reinforcement of, this varied
power, his extraordinary accomplishment in blank verse
is almost unique. It is impossible for any one really
skilled in the comparative anatomy of the kinds of this
great and difficult form to call his — as Keats's may be
called with incomplete justice, but without complete
injustice — a pastiche of Milton's ; and he has entirely
got rid of the less desirable features of Thomson's, the
second most important influence which pervaded the blanks
of the eighteenth century. When his exercise really
begins — that is, in '* CEnone," as revised — he presents
hardly any resemblance to the Wordsworthian-Shelleyan
form, which may perhaps be ranked as the third ; which
may have had a little effect on him earlier, and which
certainly had much on Browning. Although the inde-
finable but constantly sensible difference between dramatic
and non-dramatic verse manifests itself at once between
his and Shakespeare's, it was, beyond possible doubt, by
blending the quality of the two unmatchable blank-
verse masters, and distilling it afresh with his own quint-


essence, that he reached the perfection of " CEnone " itself,
of " Ulysses," and of the " Morte " — a perfection which
continues little changed, as has been said, till " The Holy
Grail " at least. But Elizabethan poets earlier than
Shakespeare taught him the epanaphora which, extremely
effective as it is, he latterly rather abused ; and in his
" turns " and repetitions of words, not at the beginning
alone, he is markedly Spenserian. The tendency to a
perilously large dose of trisyllabic feet did not come on
him till late : it rather corresponded in this way to
Shakespeare's later indulgence in redundance, which
Tennyson never, in his non -dramatic verse, practised
largely. But, by whatever special methods and in what-
ever special way, he certainly furnished himself with a
seldom equalled and only twice surpassed brand of the
measure for continuous use ; and thus, when his immensely
varied accomplishment in other measures is taken in, he
stands as one of the very few English poets who are
wholly ambidextrous, who can manage the short poem and
the long with indifferent and consummate accomplishment.^
The general case, as was pointed out in the analysis,
is the same with Browning ; but it shows curious and
interesting differences of kind and degree in particular.
In a certain sense, no doubt. Browning may be said to
have mastered a kind of blank verse which was adequate
to his long-poem purposes ; but then it was (or at least
became) rather more blank than verse. Although, as I
have tried to show, by no means really " irregular " in
any bad sense, it was, and was clearly meant to be, of a
prosaic texture. Tennyson never comes very near prose,
but when he is least distant from it, it is almost invari-
ably in some other measure than blanks — in the rather
muddled trochaics and anapaestics of part of Maud, in the

1 The common blame of " lacking architectonic " is thus, as far as prosody
is concerned, absolutely unfounded. It is not my business here to treat it
from any other point of view. As for that "loading of the rifts with ore"
which Keats prescribed, there is almost agreement about it, if not always
an agreement of gratitude. The wiser folk are surely they who perform
and enjoy the inexhaustible wwpacking of the treasure, who let the elixirs
which the poet has so carefully distilled trickle to the inmost cranny of their


namby-pamby fourteeners of the "May Queen," and
elsewhere in other forms. Even the prosaic and prosaic-
ally treated matter of " Dora " and its likes, even his latest
and loosest experiments, are never prosaic in their form.
But the curious medium which Browning, after his first
Wordsworthian-Shelleyan practice, worked out for himself,

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 26 of 50)