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

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is often merely what the eighteenth-century gainsayers
of blank verse called it, " measured prose " ; and his
most poetical long- poem vehicles are the equivalenced
octosyllables of Christmas Eve and Easter Day and the
Alexandrines of Fifine at the Fair.

But the touch of lyric banishes prose with him, as it
was not necessary for it to do in Tennyson's case, but
with no less satisfactory result. He may not be quite so
free-born, but he attains his freedom early, and keeps it
unstained. The reckless acrobatics of " A Likeness " are
not prose or anything like prose : the largely prosaic
matter and diction of " Up at a Villa, Down in the City "
keep poetic form in its most outrageous expressions, and
pass into an almost perfect kind of that form in such lines

And the hills oversmoked behind by the faint grey olive trees.

It is no matter — or it should be no matter — that he
makes the good-natured Muse of Prosody his partner in
country dances and Highland flings, and even double
shuffles, as well as in stately pavanes and minuets, and
in the " sway and swing " of the most voluptuous waltzes.
He can give her these too, and does give them, as we
have seen. His words want no song, and could find no
mere song worthy of them, when he is in the mood of
" Love Among the Ruins," or " The Last Ride Together,"
or " In a Gondola." And here as elsewhere, here as every-
where in this Book and almost everywhere in this volume,
we find the moods, whether lighter or graver, taking forms
of the most endless variety in length and adjustment of
length, in metre and combination of metre, in outline and
symphony and choric scheme. I like to read Browning
with the words of my beloved Bysshe ringing in my ears :
" Our poetry admits for the most part but three sorts of


verses — that is to say, verses of ten, eight, and seven
syllables. Our ancient poets frequently made use of
intermixed rhyme, etc. But this is now wholly laid aside."
It arranges itself in the most agreeable recitative ; and
" but this is now wholly laid aside " comes, in its new
meaning, with a crash at the end in the joyfullest manner.
The lesson of the tendency of the period, and of its
value, is certainly not weakened by the evidence of Mrs.
Browning's work and by that of Matthew Arnold's.
Mrs. Browning's horrible and heartrending cacophonies
of rhyme cannot be visited upon the new liberty ; in fact
hardly one of them is worse than the great Mr. Pope's
" satire " and " nature " in the palmiest days of the old
regime. And it is quite certain that, under that regime,
she never would have allowed herself — nay, she never
would have thought of — such more than satisfying, such
endlessly suggestive and pregnant melodies, as those of
the " Duchess May " or the " Brown Rosary." You
cannot, with her and in this context, repeat the easy, idle
brocard that " her faults are those of the time, and her
merits her own," for it is only too true that her faults are
her own, while her merits belong very largely to the time.
And her increased variety and intricacy of audible delight,
as compared with the results of her so often mentioned
elder and lesser sisters, are not less important (take them
as evidences of greater genius, or as instruments of mere
accomplished art, just as you like) than the still further
advance in these respects of her younger and greater
sister, Miss Rossetti. Nay, her own record, without any
" rascally comparison," shows this. " Lord Walter's Wife "
(that remarkable piece which Thackeray had to relinquish,
as Scott had to spoil St. Ronan's Well, owing to other
people's prudery) is not in the least inferior to " Lady
Geraldine's Courtship " as an example of nineteenth-
century prosody : it has simply got itself free from the
preposterous diction of the earlier example. And the
" Great God Pan " is not less impossible than the
" Romaunt of Margret " to conceive as having been
" versed " in the eighteenth century.


But Mr. Arnold, almost in spite of himself, is one of
the strongest witnesses to the present point. I do not say
that any distinct prosodic utterance of his (we have, as has
been said, very few such outside the hexameter question)
conflicts with his practice in metre as Wordsworth's utter-
ances as to diction conflict with his practice in diction itself.
But I do say, after long and repeated study of it, that
his whole critical attitude and tendency — his choice of
authorities, and his selection of instances to condemn —
make for preference of a few metres, if not of a single
metre, as regards the general practice of the poet, and for
restriction of variety to the most rigidly lyric, nay " melic,"
occasions. What are the facts ? He has, as we have
seen, a command, fine at its best though uncertain and
not very varied, of one great staple metre in blank verse ;
but he uses it rather seldom and at no great length.
Even for occasions of " pith and moment," narrative or
quasi-narrative in character, he employs either mixtures
of epic and lyric measures, or lyrical measures pure and
simple. In such pieces as the " Church of Brou " and
" Tristram and Iseult " he actually, in a fashion quite
contrary to the practice and principles of the ancients,
employs a satura of metres. And the great bulk of his
work, including a still larger portion of his best, is in lyric
or quasi -lyric form, varied as far as his own special
qualities and defects will allow him to vary it. In short,
the spirit of the time is too strong for him.

It is the same with all the minors who are worth
consideration ; for we need not take into that considera-
tion the producers of unreadable epics, sacred or profane,
the Sothebys and the Atherstones and the Herauds, the
Polloks and the Bickersteths, who labour at impossible
masses of soporific verse. The real poets take to
prosodic variety by nature, or are driven to it by necessity ;
and they illustrate it as best they can. It may be in
serious verse, like Kingsley ; in deliberately comic verse,
like Barham and Locker ; in exercises of ironic romance
and humorous melancholy, like Thackeray. But always
they illustrate it.


It may seem to be outside the duty of the present
history to discuss, at any length, the beneficent or
maleficent effect of this pressure of the time ; but I do
not think it can be regarded as wholly superfluous or at
all improper. The estimate of the total " clear profits "
added to the stock of English poetry by the generation
of Tennyson and Browning must, of course, largely depend
upon the general principles of poetic criticism adopted
by the valuer — on the question whether he is a subject-
man or a treatment-man ; whether he believes in the
Poetic Moment, or whether he refuses to take it into
consideration, except as a heresy. But although I have
seen more strange things in criticism than perhaps most
men have, and can there see nothing so strange but that
my critical fancy, as Mr. Swinburne says of something else

in " F^lise,"

Can dream of worse,

I can hardly imagine any tolerably competent and impartial
judge, even now, denying that the addition is, at least,
considerable. And when that addition is duly considered,
it will, I believe I may say without fear of valid contra-
diction, be found further, that the matter concerned takes
more various forms in general, and more free and versatile
forms in particular, than the admitted treasures of any
other period of English literature, with the sole exception,
and that not a certain one, of the great Elizabethan age,
in its major circumscription of 15 80- 1660. Now whether
this is a mere coincidence, or whether it is there as connec-
tion of causation, may not be certain to anybody but God ;
and so I shall not presume to be certain of it myself.
But at least I may say, without rashness, that there are
few things of which I am more certain than that the
prosodic variety and the poetic goodness are connected —
and that of necessity.

It need perhaps only be added that to the great
poetical differentia of nineteenth -century poetry — the
immense increase of combined audible and visual appeal
— this variety of prosodic construction necessarily contri-
butes almost as immensely. It has the audible appeal


almost to itself; it helps not a little in the visual. The
sounds of the measures which we have been chroniclino;
are as the concert of the Plain of Dura to a single pipe
or harp, when you compare them to those of eighteenth-
century poetry ; and the palette of the poetic limner is
enriched in an almost equal ratio.

When we turn from practitioners to theorists the result
is once more disappointing. The greater part of their
attention during this period is bestowed on the hopeless
hexameter business. The one really brilliant and virtually
sound prosodic study of the middle third of the century
is the work, not of an English prosodist, but of an American
poet. It is true that the period is not absolutely barren ;
that it can boast the almost epoch-making work of Guest ;
but that work itself, while it is in potentia a guide for-
ward to the prosodic Jerusalem, is in general intention,
in particular opinion, in actu, a guide backward to the
City of Destruction. You get men like Latham framing
barren and inaccurate rules to feed expecting and unsus-
pecting generations ; and men like Evans talking about
English verse with an ingenuous confession, on almost
every other page, that they have no appreciation whatever
of its qualities.

It seems, therefore, hardly necessary to occupy our
rapidly decreasing space with general remarks on them.^

^ I have, I think, seen some protest, though only in one quarter, and in a
context which slightly "gave to think,'' against my "Prosodist" chapters as
being cursory, flippant, and generally unsatisfactory. I am soriy if they
seem so to anybody ; but I did not adopt their method hastily, and I am not
prepared to alter it. This, I may be permitted to repeat, is a History of
Prosody, not a "History of Prosodists " ; and I mention the latter only to
the extent necessary to illustrate and explain the progress of the former. To
give a complete precis of such books as Steele's, Thelwall's, and many others,
would hopelessly overload a craft which is already pretty deep in the water.
It would be of very slight benefit to any but students specialising to such an
extent that they may reasonably be expected to consult the books for them-
selves — a consultation which I have facilitated as much as possible. And
large, if not lavish, information already exists on the subject in the works of
Mr. Omond, which do not duplicate mine, and which I feel no inclination
or obligation to duplicate in my turn more than is strictly necessary. Lastly,
the discussion of what other people have said about something appears to me
to have occupied, and to be occupying, far too much space in recent and current
literature ; and, once more, I desire to contribute to it only what strict
necessity requires.



VOL. Ill 305 X



Distribution and nomenclature — Differentia: general, and particular
— D. G. Rossetti — "The Blessed Damozel " — Various poems
— His sonnets and the later sonnet generally — William Morris :
his prosodic importance — The verse in the Oxford and Cam-
bridge Magazine — The Defence of Guenevere — The Life and
Death of Jason — Morris's heroics — The Earthly Paradise — Its
octosyllabics — Love is Enough — Sigurd the Volsung — Poems
by the Way — Mr. Swinburne : his blank verse postponed —
Atalanta in Calydon — Considerations on it — Chastelard —
Poons and Ballads — Laus Veneris — Various forms — The
" Dolores " metre — Other books : A Song of Italy and Songs
before Sunrise — The second Poems and Ballads — " At a Month's
End " — The later volumes — The blank verse — The couplets of
Tristram— T\i& long metres — Miss Rossetti : Goblin Market
— The title poem — -Her later books — Sonnets and general
quality — Canon Dixon — Mano and its metre — O'Shaughnessy :
Tlie Epic of Women — The "Barcarolle" — Lays of France —
Songs of a Worker — Music and Moonlight — James Thomson H.

There may be some difference of opinion on the question Distribution
whether the English poetry of the last third of the ^"^

'=•>■■' nomenclature.

nineteenth century can be separated from that of the
middle third (using these fractional terms with literary
laxity, and not with mathematical correctness) even as
much as this middle division can be separated from the
first. Not merely is the productive existence of Tennyson
and Browning, for much more than half of it, a serious
impediment to any such segregation ; but it is impossible
to say that their younger contemporaries differ from them,
even in the not very strongly marked way in which they
differ from their own elders. Nevertheless some difference,
of special if not generic kind, is sensible, and it is certainly



not less sensible than elsewhere in the particular domain
of prosody.

A special name, however, for this period is rather
wanting ; even for the remarkable group who began to
publish between the very late fifties and the very early
seventies, no quite satisfactory term has been invented.
There has been a certain habit of calling the verse of
the Rossettis, Mr. Morris, and Mr. Swinburne " Prae-
Raphaelite " poetry. There is more reason for it than
the fact that the eldest member, and in a way the master
of the group, was a painter, and a Prae-Raphaelite painter.
For the whole group and their followers did, in respect to
poetry, exactly what their congeners did in respect to art :
they went back to more primitive types of model than
even " those about Tennyson " had chosen, and exhibited
this reversion in no way more than in the prosodic. But,
after all, tickets, though convenient, are unnecessary. I
shall deal in this chapter with the four poets just named ;
adding to them that very remarkable verse -smith Mr.
O'Shaughnessy, Canon Dixon, who, for " one thing that
he did," if not for others, could not be omitted, and James
Thomson the Second ; but reserving for the next chapter
those other contemporaries whom death has exposed to
my operations.^
Differeiiiia: One vcry strong differentia of this school (using the

genera , word " school " Under caution) from all previous ones in

the English poetry of the last two centuries, is, besides
the decided reversion to older forms of our own literature,
the extension to both modern and older forms of other
literatures. The influence of the Elizabethans had, of
course, been powerful upon the first nineteenth-century
division ; and that of German, though slight, was present
in some degree. But they had seldom gone farther back
or farther afield in the literary sense ; even Scott's
attraction for ballad and romance being rather an intense

1 If it were not impossible to mention everybody, the list might, even
here, be slightly enlarged — as, for instance, by tiie name of Thomas Gordon
Hake, a forerunner, to some extent, of the Prre-Raphaelites, and a remarkable
handler of their statelier movements, who was stimulated to fresh production
after 1870.


kinship of nature, and a fortunate familiarity of acquaint-
ance, than a deliberately literary cult. Nor had much
advance in this respect been made by immediate pre-
decessors. Tennyson may have been introduced by
J. H. Kemble to Anglo-Saxon in some degree, and had
read his Malory and his Chaucer ; but he does not seem
to have gone much further, while foreign literary influence
of this kind on him, whether old or new, is simply non-
existent. Browning, often foreign in subject, is hardly at
all so in manner ; and though Mr. Arnold, despising
French poetry, and almost contemptuously ignorant of
mediaeval, affected to think highly of German, he imitated
little of it but its rhymelessness.

On the other hand, Rossetti — three-quarters of an and par-
Italian by blood, and re-Italianated yet more by his ^"^"^^'^'
predilections for and in art — was an eager student and
a matchless translator of the early poets of his ancestral
land, with no small bent, from his general mediaevalism,
to those of France and England. Morris was simply a
person who had somehow got knocked off the bridge of
the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, into some limbo
where he kept the influence of Chaucer's art and Langland's
politics, with the decorative instincts of a designer of
Books of Hours, and the chivalric predilections of
Froissart, ready to be crossed into curious hybrid by
nineteenth-century influences. Mr. Swinburne's bent was
rather towards French and the Renaissance than towards
Italian or English mediaevalism, but this last was not
alien from him ; while, like a true child of the Renaissance
itself, he united with these the classical scholarship which
the others could not boast. And all these things were
seen of them in their prosody as elsewhere. Miss Rossetti
was her brother's sister, with the addition of that influence
of the Oxford Movement which was for a time powerful
on Morris, and for a longer time on Dixon. O'Shaugh-
nessy was again French in the main.

Rossetti's extraordinary ambidexterity in the two d. g. Rossetti.
forms of line, with sound added in the one case and
colour in the other, was illustrated as early as the original


"The Blessed appearance of " The Blessed Damozel " itself in the Germ
Damozei. ^^^ February 1850. There is nothing schematically very
singular in the metre of this great poem, which ^ is merely
common measure prolonged to a six with an extra
couplet, the eights being not rhymed at all, the sixes
rhymed together. The effect of this recurrent rhyme is
indeed a peculiar one ; and the slightly weird insistence
which is noticeable with the simple triplet, in such poems as
The Tzvo Voices and A Vision of Poets, is rather enforced
than weakened by the interspaced blanks. But I do not
know that it can be said, merely as a metre, to carry
with it, or even to suggest, much other definite property or
endowment. And, of course, great part of the miraculous
charm of the piece is due to the way in which Rossetti,
like his mighty godfather, forces actual pictures on your
eyes : the Damozel herself in the dread serenity of her
outlook on space, and the great features of the prospect.
But this metre is made to serve the purposes of the
pencil in a way that is miraculous. The customary separa-
tion of the couplets, the rare overrunning with strong
pause in the subsequent line, and the sparing but un-
hesitating use of the trisyllabic foot, vindicate this claim ;
and the famous touchstone-stanza of the handmaidens
of Mary exemplifies the usage." The very article in the
second line is a mystery ; for if you omit it, substituting,
say, " blessed " for " the lady," and lose the trisyllabic foot,
the beauty will be half gone. But the heart of that

^ The Blessed Damozel leaned out

From the gold bar of heaven ;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth

Of waters stilled at even.
She had three lilies in her hand.

And the stars in her hair were seven.

It may, of course, also be taken as merely colourably broken fifteeners in
triplet: the chief advantage of which is the striking "parallel unparalleled"
with Orm. But it also has a bearing on the rhymelessness of i, 3, and 5.

^ We two, she said, will seek the groves
Where the Lady Mary is,
! With her five handmaidens, whose names

Are five sweet symphonies —
Cecily, Gertrude, Magdalen,
Margaret and Rosalys.


mystery is in the five names — a symphony of symphonies
which you cannot alter without disturbing, without
destroying, the effect. If you change the places of
"Margaret" and "Magdalen," " Rosalys " and "Cecily,"
you will comply with the bare scheme, but you will very
much lessen the music. If you take a dissyllabic saint
for Margaret you will do worse still, though you choose
the prettiest name left in the Calendar. The strong cretic
— not mere dactylic — value of " Magdalen[e]" will be
thrown away if you change her with " Cecily." If you
meddle with the order in any way (I have tried several)
you will lose the perfect harmony of consonant and
vowel arrangement.

He always had this " science of names," whereof
Milton and Hugo are " the first of those who know," and
he showed it again and again, especially in " Rose Mary " ;
but it was very far indeed from being his only prosodic
mastery. The refrain will of course suggest itself: this
eminently mediaeval thing was naturally a favourite with
the whole school, and it as naturally attracted stupid
ridicule from stupid people, and clever and humorous
parody from clever and good-humoured ones. But I do
not think he was so happy with it as was Morris. Of Various
the statelier forms of " broken and cuttit " verse he was a p°°"^^-
great master. " Love's Nocturn," and " The Staff and
Scrip," and " The Stream's Secret " yield to few things
in this way. In fact, save his less elaborate ballad
measures (which have not quite enough of the wilding
about them), what did he not make well in verse ? We
have several times noted the special virtues of mono-
rhymed batches — triplets or quatrains waisted and tailed
with otherwise -rhyming lines. Almost a new tone is
brought out in " The Burden of Nineveh," where the
persistence of the rhymes impresses the steady sarcastic
moral. The blank verse " Last Confession " is good, and
has an original touch ; and the ever-obliging-but-not-to-
be-quite-trusted-to-run-alone octosyllable could not do its
work better than in " Jenny " continuously, and in the
" White Ship " by separate couplets and triplets. He


actually used the In Memoriam metre before the publica-
tion of In Memoriam ; but it cannot be said that he was
master of it ; we have seen that nobody before Tennyson
was.^ Not a few of his songs are in marvellous measure.
The way in which the pulsing blood-throbs of the opening
couplets of " Love-Lily " ripple out into the stiller and
more continuous flow of the rest of the stanza is almost
unparalleled ; ^ and not less so the hopeless thuds of
" The Woodspurge," the swinging anapaests of the " Song
of the Bower," and the perfected use of that In Memoriam
septet, which was noticed above, in " The Sea Limits." ^
And then there are his sonnets.

^ In one of the songs of the "House of Life" he turned it into a very
effective septet by making the fourth line start a fresh round. V. inf.

- Between ; the hands, | J between ; the brows, |{|

Between : the lips ||| of Love -Lily,
A spirjit is born || whose birth \ endows ||

My blood ; with fire || to burn ; through me ;
Who breathes | upon | my ga|zing eyes, |

Who laughs | and murjmurs in | mine ear, j
At whose I least touch | my col | our flies,

And whom | my life | grows faint | to hear.

I have ventured here to indicate by signs what I have often described as
"fingering" in the text. The foot arrangement is inviolable and unviolated ;
but the poet, in his passion, borrows all the ^W\'&\ox\-sound of the first and
third, in the first two lines, to bestow it on the deeper pauses at "hands,"
and "brows," and "lips." There is still a stronger central pause, though
less of it, in 3 and 4 ; while 5 to 8 run almost equably. For the way in which
this "fingering" of the pervading and indestructible foot-system has led to
will-worships of fancy prosody, v. inf.

2 Master of the murmuring courts

Where the shapes of sleep convene,
Lo ! my spirit here exhorts

All the powers of thy demesne,
For their aid to woo my queen.
What reports
Yield thy jealous courts unseen ?

{Love's Nocturn.)
(I pronounce '■^Aemain" myself; but Rossetti was probably thinking of the

legal mesne.)

The wind flapped loose, the wind was still.
Shaken out dead from tree and hill ;
I had walked on at the wind's will ;
I sat now, for the wind was still.

Between my knees my forehead was.
My lips, drawn in, said not Alas !
My hair was over in the grass,
My naked ears heard the day pass.


The nineteenth century saw so great and continuous His sonnets
a reblossoming of the sonnet that it would hardly be sonnet

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 27 of 50)