George Saintsbury.

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

. (page 31 of 50)
Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 31 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

poem contains. Nor could anything contrast more finely
with the melancholy music and the sweeping rush of the
companion pieces already noticed — " The Garden of
Proserpine " and " Hesperia." Other books

To what extent and in what proportion I ought to ^^^"^"^J^
discuss the contents of the long row of volumes — most oi Songs before
them denizens of my shelves from their earliest appear- * '"^''"^•
ance — which have followed the first Poems and Ballads,
I cannot be certain. Pleasure at the helm steers me
towards the whole unflinchingly ; but the stern daughter
of the Voice of God on the bridge speaks in a manner



The second
Poems and

justifying the late Professor Bain's unfavourable remarks
on her lack of " engaging " qualities.^ The sustainment
of the apparently simple metre '' of A Song of Italy
(1867) would of itself, without other evidence, serve as
proof for the Orders of the King in matters prosodic.
Songs before Sunrise (1871) would require nearly as
much room as the Poems and Ballads themselves, if that
were not the elder brother ; and the wonderful majesty of
the dizains of the " Prelude " sets a standard which the
poet never fails to keep through a score of variations, till,
with a characteristic maintenance of power in slight
change, he ends with the neiivains of the " Epilogue." ^

Many things here might be — perhaps ought to be —
particularised ; there are some in the second Poems and
Ballads (1878) which must be. In the Songs before
Sunrise (consequent upon the obsession and oppression of
the " Terrible Year ") there was a certain te7tsion, prosodic-

1 " A ' Daughter ' is an engaging object in the ordinary acceptation ; but
'stern' detracts from the tender aspect." (Rhetoric and Composition, ii. 113,


- Upon a windy night of stars that fell
At the wind's spoken spell, etc.
I hardly know any one else who could have kept this recurrent wave-like
motion, with so little monotony, for sixty pages.

3 Here are the corresponding conclusions, with Mr. Swinburne's favourite
end-note of " sea " :

A little time that we may fill
Or with such good works or such ill

As loose the bonds, or make them strong,
Wherein all mankind suffer wrong.
By rose-hung river and light-foot rill

There are who rest not ; who think long
Till they discern, as from a hill.

At the sun's hour of morning song.
Known of souls only, and those souls free,
The sacred spaces of the sea.

Yea, if no morning must behold
Man, other than were they now cold.

And other deeds than past deeds done.

Nor any near or far-off sun
Salute him risen and sunlike-souled.

Free, boundless, fearless, perfect, one —
Let man's world die, like worlds of old,

And here, in heaven's sight, only be

The sole sun on the worldless sea.


ally as otherwise : the ditente comes here, though with no
lack of severity when it is required, as in " The Last
Oracle" and " In the Bay." But " A Forsaken Garden "
takes us back to an easier and lighter motion, with verse
less at high pressure, with less struggle of steam against
valve. " Relics " continues this state of things, but " At
a Month's End " once more gives us an effect unique and
individual, the rush of the rapid measure balanced and
rhythmed into something new and delightful.

I have commented, in more places than one or two of " At a
this prosodic history, on instances of kar-ole — of the con- End."
tinuous dancing measure that picks up the movement
from stanza to stanza in a sort of endless chain, and
maintains this movement, of dance not of pace, throughout.
This poem seems to me to have attained the furthest
point yet secured in this particular department. The
magic of exact but elastic equivalence has reached almost
its highest stretch in it. Schematically it is nothing more
than " long measure " with the odd lines double-rhymed
hypercatalectically. But, by working on the fact that
this additional syllable gives a trochaic " throw-back "
throughout the line, and by marvellous management of
the occasional substitution of anapaests, the poet actually
keeps the three balls of iambic, trochaic, and anapaestic
rhythm in the air all at the same time. Insist merely on
the "four-stress" character; rein up the iambs into unbroken
sequence as such ; slur the anapaests into iambs themselves ;
miss the under-suggestion of trochaic rhythm ; and the whole
beauty of the thing has vanished. Allow the fountain of
song, within its limited-unlimited powers, to rise in liquid
mazes ; let iamb, trochee, anapaest, perform their wondrous
cJiasse-croisd as it is their nature to do ; and you get a
choreographic and harmonic effect absolutely unparalleled
— a "musical ride by torch-light" worthy of "The
Prophet and the Bride." ^

^ A poem like this is the best text for refuting such opinions as those of
Dr. Brandes and the German critic above noticed. Very hot ice, wondrous
strange snow, are the "sameness" and "stiffness" of such stanzas as these :
The night last night was strange and shaken;
More strange the change of you and me.


The later J j^avc Hsts of dozens — it would be no exaggeration to

volumes. . . °

say scores — of other poems in this and the remaining
volumes on which it would be worth while, if it were
possible, to comment. In fact almost any one of these
poems up to the latest — still more, any two or three — might
be employed, almost as well as those which have been
already selected from the earlier collections, to illustrate
the marvellous use made by Mr. Swinburne of the means
with which English poets were by this time provided. " A
Wasted Vigil," "Pastiche" very specially, the "Choriambics,"
the " Memorial " poems, " A Vision of Spring in Winter,"
" Ex Voto," " At Parting," in the volume just noticed ;
" On the Cliffs " or " The Garden of Cymodoce " in Songs
of the Springtides (1880); the " Adieux a Marie Stuart"
and the inexhaustible variations of " A Dark Month "
in the miscellaneous additions to Tristram of Lyonesse
(1882); the extraordinarily varied applications of the
" Roundel " principle in the Century of that same (1883) ;
" Neap-tide " or " The Interpreters " in the third Poems
and Ballads {i^Zg) \ plenty of other things down to the
Channel Passage volume (1904) and later: these are
selections of selections of selections — all showing the
triumph of the foot-system with equivalence and substitu-
tion ; the lucky-bag of fresh-minted form wherein the poet
{if he can) may dip and take for ever and for ever. But

Once more, for the old love's sake forsaken,
We went dovk'n once more toward the sea.

As a star feels the sun and falters,

Touched to death by diviner eyes —
As on the old gods' untended altars

The old fire of withered worship dies.

For a new soul let whoso please pray,
We are what life made us, and shall be.

For you the jungle and me the sea-spray.
And south for you and north for me.

So to my soul in surer fashion,

Your savage stamp and savour hangs :

The print and perfume of old passion,
The wild-benst mark of panther's fangs.


perhaps we must be content with dwelling slightly on
three points of some general interest : blank verse, the
heroic couplets of Tristram of Lyonesse, and the various
extremely long combinations which the poet at different
times adventured — before and after caricaturing them
with equal humour and good-humour ^ in " Nephelidia."

The blank verse, in and out of the plays, needs the The blank
least notice. For anybody else it would be marvellously ^^''^^•
good ; and it is in fact marvellously good in itself. But
blank verse, more than any other kind except perhaps the
sonnet, calls for compression, lays down the law of not-
too-much. Now these were not precisely the process to
which Mr. Swinburne was most attentive, and the law to
which he was most docile. He knew all the tricks and
all the manners ; and he certainly did not abuse them
more than Browning did. But his swashing-blow is not
here ; or, to speak less boisterously, he does not here open
the choicest volumes of his book of magic. We want
rhyme for colour, and we want the myriad forms of lyric
contour for shape.

To the somewhat similar but less decided doubt hinted The couplets
already about his couplet, the opening of Tristrmn ^yof ^^"^''«'«-
Lyonesse may, of course, be objected. That astonishing
overture " — which, for nearly fifty lines at a breath, as it
were, and with few breathing spaces through its nearly
three hundred, transforms the decasyllabic pairs into one
billowing volume of lyrical outrush, — can in one sense be
itself objected to only by a person who is half fool and half
churl, who cannot take the goods the Gods provide, and
will not do aught but blaspheme the giver for the provi-

' One, of course, cites the Heptalogia (1880) with the little bow of excuse
proper in the case of a book published anonymously, even though afterwards
acknowledged. But there is hardly any other volume more decisive as to its
author's prosodic skill. It is a pity that in one piece the "^wo'-humour "
failed. "Alas ! they had been friends in youth."

2 Love that is first and last of all things made,

The light that has the living world for shade,

The spirit that for temporal veil has on

The souls of all men, woven in unison,

One fiery raiment with all lives inwrought

And lights of sunny and starry deed and thouglil.
But the quoting of verse like that is as the letting out of waters.


sion. But if you take the poem as a whole — and, after
all, a " long poem " does hold itself out to be taken as a
whole — I do not think the measure justifies itself fully.
I do not think it justifies itself nearly as well as the
couplet of Morris, Perhaps this was much more because
the poet had not " the narrative head " than because he
could not manage the metre ; but the fact remains.
The lone ^^ ^°'' ^^ " iTiagnums " — tappit-hens, or Jeroboams

metres. rather — in which he sometimes chose to bottle his

wine, they again are difficult to quarrel with ; even as
no rational person would quarrel with an actual tappit-hen
of '78 Lafite, or an actual Jeroboam of Sandeman's special
'70. Yet, not as exceptions, but " to live with" — for human
nature's daily food, — ordinary bottles, with a modest
magnum itself now and then, are perhaps more convenient.
Moreover, these things have a peculiarity which does not
appertain to the bounties of Bacchus in their larger
receptacles. They have a wicked habit of " splitting
themselves up " and saying, " You may write me how you
like, but you cannot read me at full length." They do
this so obstinately — they are so thoroughly English in all
their qualities — that even the poet's malice aforethought,
in trying to make the split impossible by making it occur
in the middle of a word, does not prevent them. English
poetry is, after all, greater than any English poet ; and
English poetry, when it is asked to pass a line like

If again from the night or the twilight of ages Aristophanes had

slily suggests to the reader the " U-niversity of Gottingen,"
and a certain passage about Mile-End, and says, " My
children, you are entitled to read this :

" If again from the night or the twilight of a-
ges Aristophanes had arisen."

Wherever you look — in the poem just quoted (the
" Sunrise " finale of the Tristram volume) ; in the
sixteeners of the choruses oi Erechtheus ; ^ in the anapaestic

1 The unrhymed stanzas here will come best in the Hexameter chapter, as
also will the ever-memorable " Evening on the Broads" form.


tetrameters (eight feet and sometimes twenty-four full
syllables) of the " March " opening to the third Poems and
Ballads ; ^ in the deliberately Aristophanic seven-foot lines
of the Birds version in Studies in Song ; in the sixteeners,
sometimes hypercatalectic, of the sixth roundel " In
Guernsey " ; " in the tetrameter hypercatalectic of " Nephe-
lidia," ^ which extends the twenty-four above mentioned to
twenty-^t^^ or elsewhere ; in the other seven-footers of
"In the Water" {A Midsmniner Holiday), and the internal
rhymed unified triplets of " On the South Coast " and " A
Threnody " in Astrophel — the virtual, if sometimes shifting,
cleavage strikes my ear. I do not mind making a com-
promise ; I do not " sin my mercies " ; if Mr. Swinburne
had fancied forty-eight syllables, I should take them and
be thankful ; the multiplication would not be vexation to
me. But it would still seem to me unnecessary, and,
except as an exception, rather undesirable.

Yet they showed, even as such, his extraordinary
prosodic powers ; for almost anybody else would have
" clubbed " the manoeuvres of such unwieldy bodies of
syllables, before he had got through a dozen lines. And
so they join with the others to establish a prosodic record,
not exactly for the invention with which he has sometimes
been credited ; still less for any innovation on the general
principles of English prosody ; but for unsurpassed versa-
tility and virtuosity in adapting, varying, managing the
great materials and means with which he and his lesser
fellows were now furnished, by the thought and the work
of a score of generations of English poets, by the growth
and development of seven centuries of English language
and English literature.^

1 That the sea was not lovelier than here was the land, nor the night than

the day, nor the day than the night.

2 Night in utmost noon, forlorn and strong, with heart athirst and fasting.
^ Till the darkling desire of delight shall be far, as a fawn that is free

from the fangs that pursue her.
^ I may perhaps add that nowhere is the cleavage-tendency more apparent
than (as is indeed inevitable) in the internally rhymed forms, as, for instance,
in the beautiful and chivalrous threnody for Tennyson :
Fairer far
Than the morning star.


They have, moreover, the special interest for us of
having elicited from him the very rare and specially
precious vouchsafing of a directly prosodic note to the
Aristophanic version above cited {Studies in Song, p. 68).
This contains one particular sentence, which shows that
he knew, and knew consciously, more about preceptist
prosody than nine out of ten, if not ninety-nine out of a
hundred, of the preceptists whom we have discussed and
shall discuss in this book. " His (Aristophanes') marvel-
lous metrical invention of the anapaestic heptameter ^ is
almost exactly reproducible in a language to which all
variations and combinations of anapcestic, iambic, or trochaic
metre are as natural and pliable as all dactylic and spondaic
forms of verse are unnatural and abhorrent." The ex-
communication is indeed put with that hearty hyperbole
which was Mr. Swinburne's natural mode. But it is only
a hyperbole of the truth : and the earlier benediction is
the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Neglect it, and you will fumble in vain with English
prosody ; observe it, and you will be in no danger of
poor Peter Bell's sad fate when he made experiments on

Miss Rossetti : Ciccro (the fact was doubtless well known to Miss

Market Cornelia Blimber) used to exercise himself, almost to his

latest days, with declamations ; and it is known that Miss

And sweet for us as the songs that rang ||

Loud through Heaven

From the choral Seven
When all the stars of the morning sang, |{|

Shines the song

That we loved so long
Since first such love in us flamed and sprang. |||

which appeared originally as

Fairer far than the morning star, and sweet for us as the songs that rang, etc.

He had already begun the arrangement in Section HI. of "The Armada"
(Poems and Ballads, Third Series, 1889). A complete historical conspectus-
syllabus of Mr. Swinburne's prosody would take half this volume.

1 " Heptameter" is, of course, in strictness a slip, anapaests being classic-
ally arranged in pairs for a "metre." "Tetrameter brachycataleclic '' more
correctly — but no matter.


Christina Rossetti was fond of bouts-rimes and (if I mis-
take not) even of nonsense verses. The practice was
certainly well justified of the practitioner. A more
charming and certain-fingered executant in English verse
it would be difficult to find ; while she has little to fear
from the reproach, sometimes cast upon the presence of
" execution " in this and other arts, of obscuring or mask-
ing the absence of feeling. The Oxford blue of the back
of Goblin Market may have weathered itself to a dingy
slate in five-and-forty years ; and the margin of her
brother's quaint picturing of those most agreeable but
treacherous persons who are selling Laura fruit at so dear
a price, may have a certain foxiness. But the verse is as
fresh as ever.

The metre of the title-poem may be best described The title
as a dedoggerelised Skeltonic, with the gathered music P°^"^-
of the various metrical progress since Spenser, utilised
in the place of the wooden rattling of the followers of
Chaucer. There may be discerned in it the same
inclination towards line -irregularity which has broken
out, at different times, in the Pindaric of the late seven-
teenth and early eighteenth centuries, and in the rhyme-
lessness of Sayers earlier and of Mr. Arnold later. But
Miss Rossetti was too wise to discard the aid of rhyme.
The more the metre is studied ^ the more audacious may

* An extract or two may help : —

Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry :
" Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy :
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries,
Melons and raspberries.

She clipped a precious golden lock,
She dropped a tear more rare than pearl,
Then sucked their fruit globes fair or red.
Sweeter than honey from the rock.
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flowed that juice.

VOL. Ill 2 A


its composition seem. It is, from one point of view, a
mere fatrasie or niacedoine of measures, not merely in
length but in base — iambic, trochaic, dactylic, anapaestic —
the grouse jostling each other like those on the famous
moor, the air thick with metres as it was with majors
round the equally famous damsel. The almost surprised
contempt of the Quarterly on Keats, the interesting
indignation of the Blackwood reviewer of Tennyson, would
have been turned into something like speechless horror
by this Bedlam of discord, as they would have thought it.
As a matter of fact, though I daresay Miss Rossetti had
never heard the words " equivalence " or " substitution "
in their prosodic meaning, and though it is extremely
unlikely that she ever consciously realised Shakespeare's
use of shortened and lengthened norms in, say, Hamlet ;
if she had set herself to give a demonstration of these
things, as they appear in their very artfullest and yet
most seeming - simple shape, she could hardly have
succeeded better. Like so many other metres, this has
for regulative pattern, with the cautions so often given,
the rock -and -oak -born octosyllabic couplet — oak of
English rhythm and rock of Romance metre. It appears,
now and then, in sober completeness, as here :

Beside the brook, along the glen,
She heard the tramp of gobhn men.

But it comes oftener in single lines, or in associations of
distichs not rhymed together. To this the three-iocA.

But ever in the noonlight

She pined and pined away ;

Sought them by night and day,

Found them no more, but dwindled and grew grey ;

Then fell with the first snow,

While to this day no grass will grow

Where she lies low :

I planted daisies there a year ago

That never blow.

Laugiied every goblin
When they spied her peeping :
Came towards her hobbling,
Flying, running, leaping,
Puffing and blowing.


line is the natural companion and complement, as in
" common measure." But Miss Rossetti thinks of another
thing in connection with that. Use a monosyllabic foot
as first or third, or both, and you will get three feet on the
general scheme for schematic purposes, but, at the same
time, a quasi-dactylic effect, similar to that (which may
possibly have been in her mind) of Kingsley's " Freya "

Applying these principles, under the guidance of the
all-sanctioning or forbidding ear, you get various forms,
varied still further by " telescope " licence in shortening to
monometer ^ and in extension to full decasyllabic.^ And
these variations are most skilfully grouped, so as to make
what may be called quasi-stanzas or strophes, not inter-
rupting the continuous flow of the verse, but giving
subordinate effects like the whirls and eddies that form
and dissolve again in a rapid. Of course there is some-
thing of the tour de force in an effect so complicated ;
and, easily as the actual exercise goes off, I do not know
that one would recommend it for constant practice. But,
as it stands, it is doubly, or even trebly, enjoyable as a
mere feast to the ear, as a display of prosodic skill, and,
historically, as an exemplification of the powers given by
centuries of successful and unsuccessful endeavour, and of
the way in which the most apparently lawless excursions
can be reduced to law.

How little this eccentric success was evidence of that

^ Cur I rants and goose | berries,

Currants and | gooseberries ;
Citrons 1 and dates.

or, shorter still,

Citrons and | dates.

Of course, in both cases, -combined choriambic arrangement may please some
ears better, but this, to me, is always reducible to simpler terms.
- That never blow

Her fire away, etc.
And gnashed her teeth for baulked desire, and wept.



(in recent times too common) weakness which can only
be strong by eccentricity, you have but to turn a page or
two to see. The exquisite regularity of " Dreamland " ^ is
as patent as its exquisite suggestion ; and the same
qualities reappear in " Echo," ^ as in the perfectly simple
and perfectly succeeded " When I am dead, my Dearest."
While between the two — permitting itself some so-called
irregularities to suit the intensity of its subdued passion,
but uniform in general scheme — comes that wonderful
"Sleep at Sea,"" which ranks among the half-dozen
greatest devotional poems in English, let the others be
what they may.

His later In The Prhice's Progress (1866) there is no falling off

prosodically ; but, almost naturally, there is less to notice
as new. There is, however, greater real irregularity in
" The Poor Ghost." This takes the musical slur-licence
of some of those measures of Moore's which we noticed
formerly, but applies it, of course, in a rather different
manner, and carries it further. It is quite certain that
if there are editors in the future like those of the present,
who find no Alexandrines in Chaucer, and cut words out
as " foolish glosses " in order to get rid of the inconvenient
thing, they will cut the three first stanzas given below ^

1 Where sunless rivers weep Led by a single star,
Their waves into the deep, She came from very far,
She sleeps a charmed sleep : To seek, where shadows are,

Awake her not. Her pleasant lot.

2 Come to me in the silence of the night ;

Come in the speaking silence of a dream ;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream ;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope, love, of finished years.

2 One by one slowly, Clear stainless spirits,
Ah how sad and slow ! White, as white as snow ;

Wailing and praying, Pale spirits, wailing

The spirits rise and go : For an overthrow.

* " Oh ! whence do you come, my dear friend, to me ?
With your golden hair all fallen below your knee,
And your face as white as snowdrops on the lea,
And your voice, as hollow as the hollow sea ? '"

" From the other world I come back to you,

My locks are uncurled with dripping, drenching dew.


about in like manner. Of course she meant them as they
are, and I only request the fit deader of the original to
turn back to the poem before — as smooth as it is sweet —
for comparison. But in this book, even in the title-poem
and more elsewhere, she experimented much in these

Still, I think she grew dissatisfied with them, for there

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 31 of 50)