George Saintsbury.

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

. (page 3 of 50)
Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 3 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

There is no mere "rocking-horse" fluency, no mere
command of this metre or that in average consummate-
ness, with perfection after a sort, but without variety or
individuality. The poet has so thoroughly and in-
stinctively grasped the essential values of his measures
that he can convert these values — monosyllabic, dissyllabic,
or trisyllabic — with the unerringness of an accomplished
money -teller. And what is more, he can be really
" regular " — that is to say, can substitute feet, or within
limits increase and diminish length of line, at no danger
to the general prosodic scheme. In direct and glaring
contrast to almost the whole poetic habit of the eighteenth
century, mere mechanical regularity finds in him some-
body who does not want it, does not care for it, will not
have it, and who yet never misses the regularity that is
beyond and above mechanism. His regular verse, even
as Bysshe counted regularity, his equivalenced varieties,
and his " doggerel," all bear equal testimony to this in-
eradicable sense of foot- and line-value ; and the result is
that, by any one who desires really to understand English
prosody, there is no verse, within a small compass, so
valuable as his.

It is, however, not in the least surprising that he found The
pure verse insufficient — or at least galling and hampering ^^^^ ^'"^
— for his "prophetic" exercitations. He has indeed
managed to put into it some of the cream of these, and
many interesting by-passages. But English lyric is a
spirit too delicate for the commands of a mysticism which,


though nothing in the world so little as " earthy and
abhorred," is somewhat chaotic and gigantesque. My
own impression is — the other Blakites may pity or disdain
me as a mere sojourner in the court of the Gentiles if
they like — that Blake could have distilled everything
that was valuable from Tiriel to Jerusalem, and (if it was
later) Oothoon, with anything else that may have perished
in the hands of the accursed Tatham, into the forms of
" Broken Love," and " Auguries of Innocence," and " The
Everlasting Gospel " — if Fate and his own rather wilful
will had let him. But he was " let " in the opposite
sense ; and prose, ordinary or rhythmed, approaching
sometimes close to very long regular forms of verse,
served him for the first utterances of " the visions that
his soul had seen." The discussion of this part of his
writing belongs partly to that most interesting History of
Prose Rhythm which I should like to write, but am not
now writing ; yet to leave it entirely undiscussed here
would be out of the question. We have a sort of
authoritative pronouncement of his own on the subject,
but, as very often happens, it is not desirable to take this
too seriously. Afterthought has generally a great deal
more to do than forethought with these explanations,
and it is noteworthy that this one occurs in the very
latest of Blake's important " prophetic " utterances.
It ^ runs thus : —
Blake's note " When this verse was first dictated to me \Blake, as is

well knoivn, disclaiming all " authorship " in the ordinary
sense of the ten/i] I considered a monotonous cadence like
that used by Milton and Shakespeare and all writers of
English blank verse, derived [delivered?] from the modern
bondage of rhyming, to be a necessary and indispensable
part of the verse. But I soon found that, in the mouth
of a true orator, such monotony was not only awkward,
but as much a bondage as rhyme itself. I therefore have
produced a variety in every line, both in cadence and
number of syllables. Every word and every letter is
studied and put into its place. The terrific numbers are

1 Jerusalem , p. 3.


reserved for the terrific parts, the mild and gentle for the
mild and gentle parts, and the prosaic for inferior parts.
All are necessary to each other. Poetry fettered fetters
the human race."

Of this — interesting as it is, both in itself, in its
context, and in the bearing of the whole last clause on
the ideas of the whole century preceding — we need not
perhaps accept much more than the word " bondage."
It may be frankly allowed that the result is more accept-
able than the specimen of " monotonous cadence " ^ which
precedes the words themselves. But we shall venture, at
whatever cost, to take our usual way with Blake, and to
go patiently through the actual books with a few prefatory
remarks on the probable sources of the forms we shall find.

The first of these sources was, beyond all possibility of Models?
reasonable doubt, the Authorised Version of the Bible, in
its mode of handling the poetical books and passages of
the original. The second, which, since Blake has been
more studied and appreciated, his disciples seem rather to
" shy at," but which seems to me almost as unmistakable
as the first, is Ossian (vid^ Excursus at end of this
chapter). The third was, perhaps, Swedenborg ; and the
fourth must have been something of the German tendency
to long loose unrhymed lines which, with other German-
isms, came upon the last two decades of the English
eighteenth century in various forms, from the Klopstockian
hexameter to the Gessnerian " floppings " in prose. But
Blake had far too much of that uncomfortable but energis-
ing affection or possession which characterised his own

Who, in mysterious Sinai's awful cave,
To man the wondeious art of writing gave,
Again he speaks in thunder and in fire-
Thunder of thought and flames of fierce desire.
Even from the depths of Hell his voice I hear
Within the unfathomed caverns of my ear.
Therefore I print, nor vain my types shall be,
Heaven, Earth, and Hell henceforth shall live in harmony.

These are no bad couplets, and much more like Dryden than like Darwin
or that luckless Hayley, his recent visit to whom Blake dismisses as "my
three years' slumber on the banks of the ocean." But they would not have
suited Los and Albion and the building of Golgonooza.


" Long John Brown " — the devil in the interior — to follow
any one of these exactly or slavishly. In most of the books
he deviates sometimes into more or less regular verse ;
fourteeners and sixteeners are very liberally peppered over
most. But, once more, let us go through them.

The Early The piece sometimes accepted as earliest bears no title

Fragment. ^^^ j^ ^^^ contained in the thesaurus of Messrs. Ellis and
Yeats ; but was partly printed by Mr. W. M. Rossetti in
TJie Monthly Reviezv for August 1903, and reprinted,
after the strange fashion of editorial meddlement from
which Blake has suffered so much, in Mr. Ellis's type-
edition. It bears out the prefatory remarks to Jerusalem
as far as they have been accepted here, for it is blank-
versed prose.^

Tiriei. The next, Tiriel, displays the results of feeling the

" bondage." It has blank-verse rhythm, but the lines,-
though fairly regular in apparent length on the page, are
extended syllabically. Fourteeners and sixteeners are
common here, and there are frequent redundances ; but
on the whole the iambic cadence is unbroken. The
effect, occasional felicities excepted, is not very good ; for
these long lines want rhyme even more than shorter ones,
and the scheme is too monotonous compared with that
of Whitmanian or later Blakite rhythmed prose.

Thti. The Book of Thel, which opens with a lyrical stanza,

employs something of the same measure ^ as Tiriel ; but

1 As thus : " ' Woe,' cried the Muse, tears started at the sound, Grief
perched upon my brow and Thought embraced her ; ' What does this
mean ? ' I cried, ' when all around Summer hath spread her plumes and tunes
her notes.'" This arranges itself easily enough, though the original line-
lengths as written have a (probably deceptive) suggestion of Alexandrines :

"Woe," cried the Muse (tears started at the sound),
Grief perched upon my brow and Thought embrac'd her ;
"What does this mean?" I cried, " when all around
Summer hath spread her plumes and tunes her notes."

2 With Myratana, once the Queen of all the western plains,

Were we not slaves till we rebelled ? Who cares for Tiriel's curse ?
^ The opening block will do well enough, though a longer extract than
our space permits would be needed to show the "paragraph" effect. Thel
and Tiriel, however, are easily accessible in eye-saving type.

The Daughters of the Seraphim led round their sunny flocks,
All but the youngest : she in paleness sought the secret air,


the poet has grown more expert with it, it is much more
systematised, and not seldom the staves or tirades are
constructed of pure fourteeners modulated to something
like blank-verse paragraph-effect This suits well enough
with the tender and graceful quality which has been
generally recognised in Thel, as bringing it close to the

The very different temper of The Marriage of Heaven The Marriage
a?id Hell required, and received, a very different form, 'fj^i'^^^" '^"'^
The opening has been spoken of as in " irregular unrhymed
verse " ; but it is even more like prose than irregular
unrhymed verse has a habit of being, and it soon becomes
prose pure and simple, though frequently rhythmical,
whether in the broken axiomatic form of the famous
" Proverbs of Hell," or in continuous narrative. Nor is
the final " Song of Liberty " very different, though it is,
of course, lyrical prose — a division which may some day
be found useful.

As has been mentioned above, I was — until the whole Tiie French
of this notice of Blake, except the present paragraph, was ^^'"o^'"''-''"-
actually in type — under the impression that the printed
first book of the French Revolution (1791) had utterly
disappeared. But certain friends of mine who happened
to see my proofs knew better, and their great kindness
asked for me what the even greater kindness of the
Linnell Trustees granted — the privilege of seeing a copy.
It would be an irrelevance, and, in fact, somewhat of a
breach of faith, to make any general critical remarks on it
here, or to describe and criticise the substance. I shall
merely say that I am utterly at a loss to understand how
Mr. Swinburne, especially considering his general opinions
at the time, could have thought it " mere wind and
splutter." We are here only concerned with its form, of
which the few persons who have hitherto mentioned it
say absolutely nothing. It consists of about three
hundred lines of great length — much longer than the

To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day.
Down by the river of Adona her soft voice is heard,
And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew.


average prophetic " prose-verse " analysed below. On the
page these lines appear pretty equal ; syllabically they
vary from about sixteen to about twenty-one, nineteen
being a very common length. The metrical norm is a
seven-foot anapaest, sometimes cut short, sometimes ex-
tended, and undergoing substitution of the most unlimited
kind, with the result that the rhythm constantly approaches
(and sometimes very closely) the long swinging forms of
which Mr. Swinburne was himself so fond in his later
days, and which Tennyson sometimes tried, while occasion-
ally dactylic heptameters, conglomerations of amphibrachs,
and a whole kaleidoscopic welter of systems are suggested.
I am most kindly permitted to quote as well as to read
and comment ; so I choose some half-dozen striking
individual lines, and a batch of another half-dozen like
those taken from the other books below. As Blake
positively asserts that the rest was finished, it is to be
assumed that the form was the same ; but he certainly
laid it aside later. Page 5 :

Then the ancientest peer, Duke of Burgundy, rose from the Monarch's

right hand, red as wines
From his mountains, an odour of war Hke ripe vineyard rose from his

And the chamber became as a clouded sky ; o'er the council he

outstretched his red limbs,
Cloth'd in flames of crimson, as a ripe vineyard stretches over sheaves

of corn
The fierce Duke hung over the council ; around him crowd, weeping

m his burning robe,
A bright cloud of infant souls ; his words fall like purple autumn on

the sheaves.

(Is it not easy to guess how Blake would have en-
graved this ?)

Sick the mountains and all their vineyards weep in the eyes of the
kingly mourner.

For the Commons convene in the Hall of the Nation. France shakes !
And the Heavens of France.


Eternally rushing round like a man on his hands and knees, day and
night without rest.

Crying : Hide from the living ! our bonds and our prisoners shout in
the open field.

For the bars of Chaos are burst ; her millions prepare their fiery way.

Seest thou yon|der dark cas|tle that moat|ed around | keeps this cit|y
of Pa|ris in awe.

While they vote | the remo|val of war | and the pestjilence weighs |
his red wings | in the sky.

Get rhyming syllables at " cc?j-tle " and " arc'?/nd," at
"■ removal " and " pestilence," and every one will recognise
the tune. It is probable that when, later, he discarded
the form, it was because this tune was too prevalent.
But it is certainly not unsuited to the narrative-dramatic
character of the piece.

In the great group, however, to which the name oi Albion,
" Prophetic Books " proper has been by some, perhaps a ''^"j^^^pf'' ^"^^
little arbitrarily, restricted, the return to quasi-poetic form
is marked and universal, though there is nearly as marked
a progression ; from the almost regular extended blank
verse of Tiriel and TJiel to the structure — much more
elaborate and sometimes hardly iambic at all — of Jeru-
salem. The Visions of the Daughters of Albion, one of the
most interesting of the books in many ways, is not least
so in the way in which it brings the not flaccid but mild
and gentle measure of TJiel and Tiriel into line with the
sterner subject of the piece, and with the wonderful designs
which, if they cannot be said exactly to illustrate it, clothe
it with an atmosphere of magnificent gloom, and haunt it
with figures of passion and terror. Already the iambic
staple changes itself, not merely into equivalences — of
these, as we have seen, Blake had been from the first a
master — but into prosodic phrases and values, not equi-
valent by the laws of verse, though admissible by those
of rhythmed prose. In fact, just as I have suggested the
" Mad Song " and other poems as examples typical of


verse-prosody, so are numerous places of these books typi-
cal of what we may call with no uncomplimentary intent
" bastard rhythm " — that is to say, neither pure verse nor
pure though rhythmical prose, but a hybrid between them.
Urizen, Los, Amei'ica and Europe are, in this as in other ways,

and Aha?na. ^loscly Connected with Albion. But in Urizen we come
to a remarkable change which persists through Los and
Ahania. Here the poet-engraver has arranged his text
in double columns, which necessitate, of course, much
shorter lines ; and these are, sometimes at least, real lines,
not mere line-halves, separated for the convenience of
arrangement. Sometimes (as in Urizen, page 4, stanza
7 ^) the rhythm suggests, and indeed insists upon,
that favourite eighteenth -century measure, the three -foot
anapaest ; and sometimes, again (page 9, stanza 6 "), it
almost arrives at the immense improvement of this which
Byron and Praed and Mr. Swinburne were to achieve,
with even a suspicion of rhyme. He will drop further
into regular three-foot iambics, and the short throbbing
rhythm seems to force itself into harmony with the
writhing forms beneath, above, or opposite the " letter-
press," (See also 23, 4.) These short lines are in Los
less essentially short than in Urizen, and enjamb much

1 And a roof, | vast petri|fic around,

On all I sides he fram'd | like a womb,

Where thousands of rivers in veins

Of blood pour down the mountains to cool,

The eternal fires beating without

From Eternals : and like a black globe

View'd by sons of Eternity standing

On the shore of the infinite ocean.

Like a human heart struggling and beating,

The vast world of Urizen appear'd.

2 In a hor|rible dream |ful slum|ber,
Like the linked | infer| nal chain,
A vast spine writh'd in torment
Upon the winds, shooting-pain'd,
Ribs I like a bend|ing cav|ern,
And bones | of so|lidness froze
Over all his nerves of joy.

And a First Age passed over,
And a state of dismal woe.
Those who think that Blake always indicated the valued ed by writing it
without an apostrophe may question the first marked couplet, but the second


more frequently ; and the same is partly the case with
Ahania, though the last chapter of this seems to have
great difficulty in preventing itself from being regularly
lyrical. It has been said that more or less regular lyrics
occur in some of the Books ; and they will be found duly
collected by Mr. Sampson.

One approaches Vala or The Four Zoas with soraQ r/ie Four Zoas
misgivings ; for the eye of man (at least of this man) is^^'^^'^)-
not equal to deciphering much of Messrs. Ellis and Yeats's
facsimile of part, and their typographic representation of
the whole has been questioned by no less formidable and
competent a critic than Mr. Sampson himself. Putting
the two together, however, it is quite clear that Blake had
now abandoned the short line and gone back to the long
one of Albion, to which he thenceforward always, or almost
always, adhered. In these generally, though the regular
or almost regular fourteeners and sixteeners often appear,
what we have called the " bastard rhythm " is most
prevalent ; and it becomes more and more so in Milto7i MUton and
and in Jerusalem. Indeed, in these remarkable journey- "^^^^ ^'"'
ings " from Camberwell to Golgotha," and in the very
un-Miltonic utterances of the Bard in the midst of
sketches of Blake's cottage at Felpham and encadrements
from Stonehenge, the almost smooth and almost solid
blocks of fourteeners that we still find in V^'ala are much
rarer, though I would hardly dare to say that they do
not occur.^

1 Here are some examples : —
Albion type (J^tst07is, p. 5) :

Does the whale worship at thy footsteps as the hungry dog?

Or does he scent the mountain prey, because his nostrils wide

Draw in the ocean ? does his eye discern the flying cloud

As the raven's eye ? or does he measure the expanse like the vulture ?

Does the still spider view the cliffs where eagles hide their young ?

Or does the fly rejoice because the harvest is brought in ?

Does not the eagle scorn the earth and despise the treasures beneath ?

But the mole knoweth what is there, and the worm shall tell it thee ;

Does not the worm erect a pillar in the mouldering churchyard ?
(Fourteener cadence, breaking down, or out, into /ion - metrical prose

V^a/a type [Night, vii. p. 69) :
With a crash breaking across, the horrible mass comes down
Thund'ring ; and hail and frozen iron hail'd from the Element


Summary on It is to be hoped that few readers will have failed to

perceive, to some extent already, why so much space has
been given to the prosody of a poet who, vastly as the
appreciation of him has increased in the last thirty or forty
years, is probably still regarded by most people as a sort
of inspired doggerelist, if not as a doggerelist without the
inspiration, while the appreciation itself has provoked the
usual dana/ reaction against him. The reason simply is that,
in the first place, no poet since Shakespeare seems to me
to have had such an instinctive mastery of the great
principle of perfected English prosody — foot-composition
with free substitution ; and that, in the second place,
Blake shows the way to the progress in this line made
by his younger contemporaries and followers, the poets
of the nineteenth century proper. The way in which he
extends this command to the slippery, doubtful, and as

Rends thy white hair. Yet thou dost, fix'd, obdurate, brooding, sit
Writing thy books. Anon, a cloud filled with a waste of snows
Covers thee — still obdurate, still resolved, and writing still, etc. etc.

(In this, which has been kindly corrected for me, from a transcript of the
original, by Prof. Elton, the broken lines and strong varied pauses show a
remarkable change of scheme.)

Milton type (p. 25) :
They sang at the vintage. This is the last vintage, and seed
Shall no more be sown upon earth till all the vintage is over,
And all gather'd in — till the plow has passed over the nations,
And the harrow and heavy thundering roller upon the mountains,
And loud the souls howl round the porches of Golgonooza,
Crying, " O God, deliver us," to the Heavens or to the Earth !

(A different stamp altogether. Metre almost disappearing, but a strong
rhythmical split, at or a little beyond the middle, prevailing, as if in a sort of
lengthened Piers Ploivman scheme. As to a suggestion of Sigurd metre
which has been made, we may wait till we come to that poem. Of course
there is what may be called a substratum of fourteener generally. )

Jerusaletn type (pure prose and straightforward blank verse sometimes,
as at p. 77, \i\x\. generally as follows (p. 48)) : —

Beneath the bottoms of the graves which is Earth's central joint,
There is a place where contrarieties are equally true
(To protect from the giant blows in the sports of intellect,
Thunder in the midst of kindness, and love that kills its beloved.
Because Death is for a period, and they renew tenfold),
From this sweet place maternal love awoke Jerusalem.

(Not unlike the Milton, but with the central break less obvious, more
enjambment, and every now and then, as in the italicised line, a distinct
hexametrical suggestion.)


yet almost wholly unregimented " prose feet " in his later
or prophetical books is not strictly for us — it must be
kept to something else, to be written si Dieu nous prete vie
and opportunity. The very regimenting just spoken of
will have to be done there, though I have no fear of the
result. It will not break Blake, but make him. In his
verse proper there can be no doubt about the matter
except in those persons who have not given themselves
the trouble to understand it, who are still under the law
of the syllabic or accentual Golgonooza. Let me refer
readers once more to the scansion of the " Mad Song "
given above ; let me beg them, if they are sufficiently
interested, to apply it to all the other specimens given,
and then to go to the actual corpus of Blake's purely
poetical work and continue the application. They need
not, as Rossetti did (very pardonably considering all
things), " fake " imperfect lines. That Blake left plenty
of half-done work — work not even half done in many
cases — is a mere historical fact. But his half-done work
has the root of the matter in it ; and his done work has
root and stem and blossom and flower and fruit all at
once, as if it grew in the gardens of Alcinous.

Cowper and Crabbe having been disposed of in the The other
last volume, and Burns and Blake duly dealt with in ^"^^'
this, the remaining verse of the last two decades of the
eighteenth century may at first be thought to present a
spectacle so forlorn — if not so absurd — that a page of
gentle pity or gentler satire might suffice for it. That,
however, would be hardly historical. It would be im-
possible duly to appreciate the virtue of Blake himself;
it would be impossible to appreciate that larger, though
hardly intenser, development which exists in the " Lampads
Seven " ^ of the great Romantic return, and the smaller
lights scattered round them, if we did not dispassionately
contemplate and scientifically appraise Darwin and Hayley

1 The earliest work of the elder of these — the Lakers and Scott — belongs,
of course, to this period ; but it would be a pity to sever it from the later,
to which, in some cases, it presents so strange a contrast.


and the Delia Cruscans, and their malleus Gifford, and
the rest.
Darwin. A Very famous personage was mediaevally called stupor

inimdi. The stupors of my prosodic world are not few,
but there are moments in which I am inclined to put
Erasmus Darwin in the curial position, though with
somewhat different reasons for stupefaction. To perform
the rite duly, Erasmus should be studied in the original
quarto ^ published by Blake's publisher (so far as he had

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