George Saintsbury.

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

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by iamb or trochee, it is "all the same." There is no end to the mischief
which this delusion, natural as it is on the accentual system, has done. We
shall deal with it faithfully later.


Edinburgh Review, with its Pharaonic hardening of heart.
I do not know whether Frere {v. sup. p. i66) was the
first to imagine that you can have an extra syllable at
the beginning of an English hexameter, a notion quite
destructive of any lingering resemblance to the ancient
metre, but possibly connected with the true view of it as
English verse.^ This notion was exaggerated by the
also previously -mentioned Blundell. But the matter,
though evidently occupying not a few minds, still re-
mained mostly in abeyance till the forties. In 1841
Longfellow published his hexametrical translation of
Tegner's Children of the Lord's Supper, following it up
six years later with Evangeline, the poem which gave
it its first hold on the general, and twelve years later
still with Miles Siandish. But between his first and his
main experiment attention, both in practice and dis-
cussion, grew quite lively in England. Two translations
of the Iliad appeared, with reviews of them by dis-
tinguished hands ; while a year after Evangeline there
came out the other most popular attempt in the kind,
Clough's Bothie of Tober-na- VuolicJi (its earlier title does
not matter prosodically).
Evangeline. Think what we may of Evangeline (for we had better

confine ourselves to the central example ") there is one
thing to be said about it which cannot be said of any but
a few books — that after some fifty years of attempts of
one kind or another, after three hundred since the first
attempts were made, it achieved distinct popular success
for a particular and peculiar scheme of metrical arrange-
ment. One may hold popular taste cheap enough — it
could hardly be dropped low enough for me, if it were put
up for sale at Dutch auction. But to " get your constitu-
tion to march " has long been recognised by the wise as
something. Longfellow did get his constitution to march
in the opinion of a great many people ; it has marched

1 Compare Coleridge's dodecasyllabic hendecasyllable just noticed.

2 As one might expect, The Children has a little more of novice work
(elided " Th' "at the beginning, etc.), and Miles is a little more confident and
practised. But perhaps the very expectation deceives, and there is really
little difference.


in that opinion for more than sixty years ; and, valeat
quantmUy the feat must be allowed for.

Having allowed for it, without tongue in cheek, let us
see what the achievement is worth, from a point of view
which is not popular, or from several points of view that
are not. There are some technical criticisms of it, possible
and valid in a certain sense, on which I should not myself
be inclined to lay very much stress. The old bugbear of
the scarcity of spondees is certainly not to be simply
waved away. I have admitted " commonness " in English
to the greatest possible extent. But it can scarcely be
denied that in such a line as

That the dying heard it and started up from their pillows,

"That the" can hardly be forced into anything but a trochee,
and " dying " and " started " are naturally and in their places
nothing else. Accentual system ; ictus system ; inherent-
long-vowel-quantity system ; any others you like to call
upon ; — they can hardly, even by clubbing their forces and
eking out the thing by a jot here and a tittle there, get
long syllables out of " the " and " -ing " and " -ed " in these
places. The consequence is that the line fails to satisfy
even the most tolerant and unpedantic requirements of
a classical hexameter. Almost the only lines which will
pass this muster are wholly or mainly dactylic ones, like ^

Crown us with asphodel flowers that are wet with the dews of

and it is needless to say that a great preponderance of
these differentiates the thing at once from either Greek
or (still more) Latin verse, where the spondee has to play
its part to get the full character of the measure.

But, it may be said, these are not Greek or Latin
verses, they are English, Well and good : the objection
could not be brought to a court more willing to receive
it. Are they good English verses ? No, they are not,
save with anapaestic " upsetting," which will not always

^ Objection to the quantity of " nt'penthe " I think pedantic, the difference
of long and short e in English being less than that attached to any other
vowel. And note that this line itself craves the anapKSt.


suffice. To begin with, the preponderant dactyl has been
admitted, by the very defenders of classical verse itself, to
be rarely, if ever, good in our language. This objection
may be partly met by adopting anapaestic scansion, which,
as we shall see, makes glorious verse of true English
quality in Kings ley's Andromeda. But even with this
(which, let it be remembered, " gives the metre away " on
its own showing) there is a weakness in Longfellow's
fingering which does not suit the ring of the anapaest —
a much more nervous, more vigorous, and stouter foot
than its counterpart, and one which wants its long
syllables not only long but strong. On the other hand,
this scansion makes utter havoc of the trochaicised lines.
Try it on the above-cited

That the dying heard it and started up from their pillows.
The effect is simply disastrous. The anacrusis thrusts itself

forward as part of a substantive foot — " That the dy- " —
and the whole scansion is dislocated. Whichever flag,
therefore, it hoists, it must be condemned.

It is thus, except in some chance shots, where the
poet gets the better of his medium, an ill thing and an
ugly, considered from any technical or artistic point of
view, while it has {Miles StandisJi brings out this fault
even more than Evangeline^ a peculiar rickety slipshod-
ness which is sometimes very trying. At the same time,
its popularity is not to be merely put aside with the
cheap paradox that the bad is generally the popular. It
is not, I think, deniable that, like some other things bad,
ugly, and slovenly in themselves (such as an old shoe),
it has its uses and conveniences. More people, among
readers in Longfellow's day, than at present had a certain,
but not a scholarly, familiarity with the measure, and liked
it in a confused way as connecting itself with their youth.
Its marked singsong is a quality which undoubtedly
appeals more to untrained ears than the complicated
harmony of the most beautiful lyric stanzas, or the
subtle and elusive music of blank verse. But there is
something more. Most of its qualities, and not a few


of its defects, make it positively a better medium for
narrative than more genuine and graceful forms of English
verse. Its great content is one of its merits for this
purpose. There is no doubt that the ordinary line acts
as a restraint in narration, unless you can get it into
the slipping slide of the Gower - Keats - Morris octo-
syllable, or of the seventeenth - century- Keats enjambed
heroic, where the line-ends ring but do not cause any
break. In one sense, no doubt, there is. a considerable
break at the end of each hexameter line ; but, from the
abnormality of the rhythm in English, it is not a poetically
felt break, and is much more like the usual intervals for
breath in prose reading. In fact English prose has by
no means, from Chaucer's Boethius ^ downwards through
the numerous passages in the English Bible, shown any
objection to " dropping into hexameter." Yet again, if
you try (I have tried in many places) you will find not
the slightest difficulty in reading line after line, and even
batch after batch, as prose. Who that did not know it
would necessarily take

Ah ! on her spirit within a deeper shadow had fallen

for verse ? He would not, without context and verse
arrangement, naturally read " fallen " ; and with " fall'n "
the whole clause is good and pure prose. I suspect that
in the same way —

There stood the wheaten loaf and honey fragrant with wild flowers ;
there stood the tankard of ale and cheese fresh brought from
the dairy ; and at head of board the great arm-chair of the

would either escape notice altogether, or be detected only
by the repetition of " there stood " and the form " of the
farmer " instead of " the farmer's," both of which 7>iigJit
be prose. I would undertake to read it as it is with-
out any straining, so as to give no impression of verse
whatever — the correspondences are so easily masked,
and the verse-bases so easily grouped into prose clauses.
Now with real, even blank-verse this is almost impossible.

' V. sup. i. p. 8.


ciough : The observations which I have made on Longfellow's

The Bothie. , ^ , ., ^ • • •

hexameters apply, as it seems to me, m mcreasmg measure
to those of Ciough, both the specially called " accentual "
ones and the others. Some remarks which I have already
given on the writer ^ may be appealed to, to show that
I am not of those who think him " a bad poet " ; and
though I freely confess that the sentiments of the Bothie
bore me, and that its narrative leaves me quite uninterested,
I think the whole tenor of this History will justify me from
the charge of being unduly influenced by the subject in
my judgment of the form. For mere picturesque effect
that form is of course sometimes happy enough, especially
in the spondaic (or rather trochaic^) endings. It is good
school fun, of course (and good school fun is a very good
thing), to make

The Laws of
Architectural Beauty in Application to Women

into the end of one hexameter and the whole of another.
Not the slightest violence is done to the actual prose
title, but then it is to be feared it is because the verse
itself is actually prose.

'Twas not in nature, the piper averred, there should not be kissing

(which, if I remember rightly, Mr. Lang once still further
improved by quoting from memory —

It was not in nature that there should not be kissing) —

is capital fun again, because, especially in the last form,
we contrast it with the elegance of Virgil and the
magnificence of Lucretius. But it is really all prose —
crumpled up as you crumple up a face, real or india-
rubber, in fun, by taking it between your two hands and
squeezing it. Only a few inversions and tricks, metri
gratia, save the famous passage of the cascade-pool from
being prose — quite beautiful prose of the modern
descriptive type, but prose.
His elegiacs, His elcgiacs are (as they nearly always are) worse;

lyrics, etc.

^ V. sup. p. 264.

2 Southey had introduced these very sparingly ; Longfellow often ; Ciough
lavished them.


and when he gets between quantity and accent, and tries
to do a sort of act on two horses, specially so. What
English ear that is unafflicted with disease wants such a

line as

Orbs in a dark wmhxaygc, luminous and ready-aunt,

They of A-mor musing rest in a leafy ca-vern ?

Torture — at least judicial torture of the old kind — is
unfashionable in modern days, though paradoxers have
defended it as a means to an end. But why strappado
your mother-tongue in order to made hideous and ludicrous
things of this kind ? There is no such outrage perhaps,
and there is a certain quaintness and cleverness, in making
Horace masquerade thus —

He who with pure dew laveth of Castaly
His flowing locks, who holdeth of Lycia
The oak forest and wood that bore him,
Delos' and Patara's own Apollo ;

though it may be observed that, in English, it will be
" Delos^j-," and so spoil the metre. But putting this
aside, what is the good of it ? It is not pretty. "Of
Castaly " is in a violently wrong place ; and you have,
after all, to shove in tags, stopgaps, chevilles, like " own."
Again —

Mr. Claude, you know, is behaving a great deal better.

It would be not bad fun to write that once in a letter :
but as you can do it as fast as you write mere prose stuff
— really the purest prose — why should you do it at all ?

He tried various experiments in " classical " verse,
including Alcaics, and The Letters of Par epidenius^ (1853)
discuss the subject with a tendency towards quantitative
scansion. But, like nearly everybody else (in a page or
two I hope to make good this apparently arrogant phrase),
he seems to me never to have cleared up his mind on the
subject. I do not know a better test-word in the case
than " odoriferous," which, as Mr. Omond has noted,

1 The apparently pedantic title merely expresses the fact that he was
writing as a "passing stranger" in America for an American magazine.


Clough at one time scanned odoriferous, and at another

odoriferous. If you are to have English classical metres
at all, there is no doubt that the latter is the only possible
scansion ; but the word is one which I think a good
English poet would avoid in any metre. If I were such,
or if I were a poet at all, I should avoid it tanquam
scopulum, because with ordinary pronunciation you cannot
get way enough on the " -rif-," and with classicised you
cannot get enough on the " -ous." I tolerate Clough be-
cause he is a Helot, and I love Helots. More liquor to
them ! in order that they may be (to put nots into the
Article descriptive of the Apocrypha) " examples of bad
life and instructions of manners to be avoided^

Others. This Helotry was rife in the decades preceding and

following the middle of the century, and Mr. Omond's
books will supply anybody who cares to rummage the
subject with full references. In various ways Lancelot
Shadwell, whose work has been glanced at ; John Oxenford,
dramatic critic ; James Spedding,^ good man, and friend
of better ; Professor Robinson Ellis, still one of the
greatest of our classical scholars ; Whewell, chief of those
who seem to know ; Lockhart, never to be mentioned by
me without honour ; F. W. Newman, instance of a genius
foiled and " failed " by crankery, and instance also that if,
as Miss P.ossetti says, " There is no friend like a sister,"
there surely is no enemy — at least to one's fame — like a
brother ; Munro, to be put in the opposite scale to Mr.
Ellis, that we may hold the balance true — these are
names always to be saluted, though with guns varying in
number. I shall take, however, for discussion in detail
two preceptists, Cayley and Calverley, and two poets,
Kingsley and Tennyson, as representative of this middle

Cayley. Charles Bagot Cayley (182 3- 1883) (not to be confused

with his elder brother, the famous mathematician, Arthur

' Spedding seems really to have been the father of the notion of quantity
combating accent. As this, though to some extent taken up by Clough, has
been largely developed by Mr. Stone and Mr. Bridges, I shall postpone dis-
cussion of him till I come to these.


Cayley) must have been a remarkable person, and his
relations with literature were, in a more exalted sense
than Sam Weller's with London, " extensive and peculiar."
He was one of those men of unquestioned literary power
who prefer translation to original work ; and he dealt in
it with both Greek {Homer (1877) and ^schylus (1867))
and Italian {D a7tt e {i?,$i) and Petrarch (1879)). Who
copes with great ones is not always great, but at any
rate he attempts greatness. And Cayley was not merely
a practitioner. In a paper, " Remarks and Experiments
in English Hexameters," which appeared in the Philo-
logical Society's Transactions (1861), and in the Preface
to his yEschylus} he dealt preceptively with the matter,
seems to have based himself on Spedding to some extent,
and endeavoured once more the hopeless task of giving
" rules " " for quantity in English. But his most important
position in the subject is perhaps due to the opening
distich in the short verse-introduction to his Homer —

Dons, undergraduates, essayists, and public, I ask you.

Are these "hexameters" true-timed, or Klopstockish uproar?

and especially to the first of them.

In fact this line, which has been not infrequently
quoted, and which is a challenge in terms, seems to me as
good a text or casus, as any other from Spedding to Stone,
for beating up the quarters of the English Quantity-
mongers. I have myself been blamed for using the word
" Quantity " without distinct reference to time ; though

' I cannot resist a quotation which shows this really brilliant writers
ignorance of the subject which he was treating. He talks of " the alliterative
doggerel to which our [and by our he means inclusively Chaucer's:'] country-
men had been accustomed y>-^w the titne of the Anglo-Saxon Kitigs." That
there are the barest traces of what "our countrymen" were "accustomed to
from the time of the Anglo-Saxon Kings" to 1200, and that these traces are
distinctly iiietrificated, Mr. Cayley evidently did not know ; that, except in
Layamon partially, there is no trace of any "alliterative doggerel" till a
period probably posterior, and certainly not much anterior, to that of Chaucer's
birth, he knew still less. Now too much stress may be laid on mere learning,
but it mi<;ht perhaps be better to know somethhti; of the history of the matter
of which you are talking.

'^ Vowel before vowel short ; vowel before doubled consonant short ;
vowel before two consonants long, etc., as illustrated in the scanned line


for my own part I never knew that quantus had temporal
reference only, and I have given a strict definition of my
own use. These other learned persons appear to me to
use the word with no English sense at all. On what
possible interpretation of the word " long " can you apply
it to the second and fifth syllables of the English word
" undergraduate " ? By a fortunate chance there is here
unusually little confusion possible on the accentual score.
Fanatics of " single accent " and fanatics of " non-contact "
in accent might raise side-battles ; but, for my part, I
should say that, by a correct speaker, " undergrad- " would
be accented pretty equally on all three syllables, though
the sharper sound of the a in " -grad- " might seem to carry
a special pseudo-accent with it, and perhaps the bulky
" stodgy " sound of u in " und- " another. So far, you see,
I approach Cayley — at least to the (in my case quite
immaterial) extent of not regarding " er " as in this case
necessarily and insalvably " short." But on what quanti-
tative principle can you, in English, make it definitely
" long " ? Accent — prominent accent — is here hopelessly

against you : to pronounce " undergraduate " is to speak a
language that is not English. But you do not mind that
— your principle is not to mind it ? Very well. Let us
pass to another possible ground of quantity. Can you
make the actual vowel e long in this syllable ? Can you
pronounce the thing as " un-^(?«r-graduayte " ? Clearly
you cannot, and would never think of doing so, save to
fight a prize. There remains only the old exploded
absurdity of " quantity by position." Now this has
always been a capital instance of the supreme misfortune
of writing about a subject without knowing its facts.
That " position " made a vowel, under certain circum-
stances and with certain limitations, long in Latin, can be
no more reason why it should make that vowel long in
English than the existence of the words " hang-hog " in
English can justify them as Latin for " bacon." The wiser
Elizabethans, by mother-wit, if not always by conclusive
argument, saw this. But the fact is — and Orm knew it,


though Cayley did not, and though the persons who spell
" traveller " " traveler " do not — that doubled consonants
have rather a tendency to sJiorten ^ vo\^e\-sounds (not
syllables) in English, and single ones to lengthen them —
unless the collocation is dislocated, and the two or more
consonants are pronounced with distinct separation and
yet with a throw-back to the antecedent vowel.^ This
they are not here ; " -^rgr- " can find no buttress in the
" "gr-," and remains a thinnish sound, conspicuously shorter
than " -und- " and " -grad-."

But the case of" -ate- " is even worse than that of" -erg-,"
though pronouncing insistence on it does not make the
word quite so ridiculous. I do not propose or defend the
vulgar " undergraduzV " as = " Jesuit." I think a correct
pronouncer will always keep the a. But he will keep it in
a state of nuance ; will subject it to kenosis of its length —
in short, will bring it near to " et" with a shade of value
for the final e. This deprives it of all possibility of any
but fictitious length in English ; and there is no reason
and no excuse for conferring any upon it, except the
absurd one that in another language, another word, of
different termination and proportion, from which it
happens to be derived, has the a long !

The whole of this History will, I hope, justify me from
the charge of being either ignorant of classical prosody,
or disdainful of it, or unwilling to use its help, its example,
its terminology, so far as is safe in English. I doubt
very much whether, except by some special and divine
aid of personal genius, any man ever mastered English
prosody, on the theoretical side, who had not long marked
time, and learnt drill, and practised gymnastics, in Greek
and Latin. But to transfer, not merely schematic and
abstract terms and forms, which, like those of logic and

1 The " quantitivist " tendency to confine this to a double of the same
consonant, and enforce it there, has no ground of fact or reason whatever.

" Banner," " follow," and a hundred others are as long as you like, and cannot
be shortened properly.

2 Here I shall come under my friend Mr. Omond's excommunication, but
I hope he will omit the candle, or at any rate not use it to light the fire round
a subsequent stake.


mathematics, are applicable to any matter, but principles
affecting matter itself, from one language to another, in
the way proposed by the class of scholars with whom I
am dealing, seems to me to be frankly monstrous, and
so to be in a certain sense justified of the monstrosi-
ties it produces. Regarded from no point of view can
such a verse as

Dons, undergraduates, essayists, and public, I ask you,

or any other of its preposterous kind, be regarded as
genuine English verse. And they can only be got into
Anglo-Greek or Anglo-Latin versification by what
Petronius might call, in a new sense, a " fabulous torment "
— a fantastic strappado of fictions, which give a mock
appearance of classical metre to a congeries of essentially
non-classical sounds. Renaissance " versing " had various
excuses — the fresh reverence for the classics, the store of
precedent English verse — positively not rich and thought
poorer than it was — the generous fancy for experiment, and
other things. The new attempts of the latest eighteenth
century had some excuses of the same kind. The
general ignorance of prosody prevented people from
discovering that the so-called " accentual " hexameter —
that is to say, the only hexameter possible in English
verse-substance — is, when it is good verse, not a classical
hexameter at all, but a five-anapaest line with anacrusis
and hypercatalexis. But this " quantitative " hexameter
has no excuse at all. It is a deliberate liturgy of Anti-
physis — an attempt to do something in alien material,
and with improper implements. Good - nature has
suggested that perhaps some poet, at some lucky hour,
will make poetry in this way. I am afraid that this is a
misuse of history and analogy — an instance of the fallacy
that, because Columbus discovered America, somebody
will some day square the circle. I hope that, if this book
has done anything, it has shown that the progress of
English prosody has been strictly normal and natural —
that it has developed the germs provided by, on the lines
originally indicated in, the blend of Teutonic-Romance


matter and form constituted in the early Middle Ages.
TJiis would not be a natural progress ; and it would not
be a normal development. Had it been so, it would indeed
have been strange if Spenser and Sidney, if Southey and

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 36 of 50)