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

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Of what they think Shakespeare's verse to have been
really like, one example, or rather two which they have
themselves combined, will show better than pages of
desultory citation and comment. The main text is the
undoubtedly curious arrangement of some lines of Isabel's
first speech, in the opening scene of the Fourth Act of
Measure for Measure^ which (to run them on unconten-
tiously in prose) read thus in the Folio :

There have I made my promise, upon the heavy middle of the
night to call upon him.


This, which is undoubtedly difficult to get into
rhythmical blank verse of two lines only, has been mani-
pulated in various fashions, such as —

There have I made my promise to call upon him
Upon the heavy middle of the night.

According to these gentlemen, there are only two ways in
which the passage can be taken. They have no objection
to the actual Folio division —

There have 1 made my promise upon the
Heavy middle of the night to call upon him

(their principles not disallowing " heavy mid- " as a
possible foot), or else (which they prefer) —

There have I made my prom'se upon the heav-
y middle of the night to call upon him,

the same principles not precluding a dissection of
Canningian kind. They adduce as a parallel to this last,
Winter's Tale, V. iii, 140- 141 :

As I thought, dead, and have in vain said many
A prayer upon her grave.

Now it is not of the first importance, or of any
necessity, to settle here what the exact arrangement of
Isabel's words ought to be, though (as it may be thought
that a historian of prosody should not shun the test) I
may say that the " Globe " editors seem to me quite right.^
But it may be observed, in final dismissal of Messrs, Van
Dam and Stoffel's claim to be heard, — first, that the
Winter's Tale passage is of a totally different rhythm, and
not akin in any way ; secondly, that any one who can
regard either of their admitted solutions as a possible
Shakespearian cadence, even at the very earliest date to
which Measure for Measure can possibly be assigned,
must be utterly deaf to Shakespeare's prosody.^

' There have I made my promise
Upon the heavy middle of the night
To call upon him,

the incomplete, but pro tanto regular and metrical, first and third lines being
{v. sup. ii. 1-66, and p. 438 of this vol.) quite usual.
- It might be Davenant's or Suckling's.


I am afraid that one must go a little further. It is
not merely to Shakespeare's prosody that Messrs. Van
Dam and Stofifel are deaf: they have evidently no ears
for English poetry of any kind or time. That incompe-
tence of the foreigner — to which, though reluctantly, I
have been obliged more than once to draw attention — has
never been more astonishingly and fatally illustrated than
here. These authors, as has been said, write English
remarkably well. I do not think that there is a positive
solecism anywhere in their books. They have read most
creditably, and they have spent immense pains. Nowhere
will the student, hungry for those statistics and percentages
in which, as I acknowledge (with or without shame) these
present volumes are so barren, find more food than in
their work. They are not even to be blamed for adopt-
ing their own theory, erroneous as that theory may seem
to me and others. It has been held by great as well as
small men in the past, and it may be held by great as
well as small in the future. But these great men, how-
ever insensible to the unity and continuity of English
verse, have always been, and I think always will be,
sensible to its life and the charms of that life z« one or
another period. They may have slighted Chloe's figure
because it had not the symmetry of Phyllis, or disparaged
Phyllis's features because they were not regular according
to Chloe's type ; but they loved something, and where
they loved they understood.

Messrs. Van Dam and Stoffel may love or not ; but
they certainly do not understand. To them English
poetry is not a live thing at all — a thing subject to the
chances and changes, the growth and the flourishing and
the decay which attend life, and indeed constitute it. It
is an enormous sack, full of syllables which you have to
fit together in certain numbers on certain wires, splitting
your pea when it will not go into the proper place with
the proper rattle. It is not necessary to dwell much on
their disproportionate and exclusive estimate of Gascoigne
and the other Elizabethan critics, because that matter
has, I hope, been quite sufficiently dealt with long ago.



Other foreign
students of
prosody :
Dr. Schipper.

It is not necessary even to lay stress on the fact that to
" believe in the old printed texts " (their own words) is in
such matters almost irrational. The present writer is not
much disposed to innovation in anything, and is almost
as conservative in his attitude to matters literary as to
others, while he is certainly not unread in the original texts
of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But it appears
to him, in the first place, that it would be a very wonderful
thing if texts — printed almost always without revision
by their authors, in many cases not from those authors'
manuscripts, by persons who were actually as ignorant of
" the rules of prosody " as Messrs. Van Dam and Stofifel
suppose modern editors to be — could be accepted as
standards. And, in the second place, he knows, from
actual acquaintance, that though indiscriminate tampering
with these texts is inexcusable, literal acceptance of them
is only possible to a siviplicitas which is not even sancta.

But on such points difference of opinion is possible.
On the major appreciations and scansions of these two
gentlemen of Holland there can be no compromise, no
set-off, no recommendation to mercy. They have simply
presumed to give judgment on English poetry without
hearing — without, apparently, being able to hear — what
English poetry is.

Considerable attention has, in fact, been paid of late
years on the Continent to English versification. The
bulk of German work on the subject is, of course, very
great, though it is, from my point of view, almost univers-
ally injured by the German tendency to see all things in
stress, and not materially improved by the other German
tendency to classify, enumerate, tabulate, and imagine that
some solid result has thereby been attained. But I have
already paid tribute to the immense and orderly pains-
taking of Dr. Schipper's great work ^ — one of the founda-
tion stones of a prosodic library. And the unwearied
industry of the nation has been applied in other instances,
though I cannot remember many books or passages that

^ EngUsche Metrik (Bonn, 1882-89), and a section of Paul's Grundriss on
the subject.


need special comment. The work of Professor Alois
Brandl, and that of Dr. Luick, are perhaps the chief

In France, too, of late years, accompanying the general
tendency to study English literature of which the regretted
M. Beljame was one of the pioneer examples, there have
been treatments, contrasting curiously with Boileau's
alleged inquiries whether there were any English poets,
and with the complacent conclusion of Callieres that only
Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Italians should write in their
own tongues, while the other barbarians had better employ
Latin. Here also, however, there are drawbacks. Natur-
ally enough, as the Germans are prone to exaggerate the
accentual and " irregular " element in English — their own
side — so the French try to introduce syllabic regularity,
or to rely on mere general rhythm. Converting rather
than reversing a famous saying, they understand the spirit
to which they are like, and that only.

As early as 1886 M. J. Mother^, in a pamphlet entitled
Quelques rnots siir les theories du vers heroique anglais^
set the fashion (which some English writers have most
curiously followed) of regarding Chaucer's verse as directly
and in detail based on French contemporaries. But the
chief recent writers on the subject have been M. Verrier
and M. Walter Thomas. The first named, a good many M. Verrier.
years ago (1893) wrote in French a Primer of English
Versification, and has very recently issued a large and
elaborate system of it.^ With that system I do not agree,
and the earlier primer is too much adjusted to French and
" modern " points of view. There M. Verrier would not
use classical terms, and was a stress-and-rhythm man to the
«th. But it is noticeable that his " irregularities " take
in most of the important things — trisyllabic feet, pause-
syllables, etc. One might have hoped from this that, some

* Essai sur les principes de la nu'trique anglaise, three vols., Paris, 1 909.
Of these I have carefully studied vols. i. and ii. — Metrique auditive and
Thiorie ghi^rale du rhythme. The third, though announced as ready, was
not obtainable either when I wrote the text or when I revised my proofs.
It, however, appears only to contain results of phonetic experiment, which
could, in my view, be nothing but curiosities.


day, he would have come to perceive that these things, which
he did see, are just as " regular " as the others. But he
has, it seems, turned to physics and phonographs. Such
inquiries as these can, as it seems to me, have nothing, or
next to nothing, to do with those on which we are engaged.
They cannot affect the constitution of the different feet,
for on most stress and stress-interval systems, as we have
seen, iambs are as trochees, and anapaests as dactyls, if
not all four as one. With rhyme they have evidently
nothing to do. With alliteration, vowel-music, and other
things of the kind, nothing. From the arrangement of
definite and different metres, which forms the greater and
most delightful part of the study of prosody, they stand
so far back as to be little more connected with it than
with sheer prose, or with the disjointed chat of a couple of
goodies. They can deal with raw material only ; and my
customs take no account of raw material.

The task which M. Verrier has undertaken in his
large book is a bold and interesting one, for it is simply
to tell English prosodists of all schools (with only an
exception, and that partial, in favour of musical and
metronomical specialists like Mr. Thomson) that they
know nothing about their business, their poetry, and their
language.^ It seems that " la scansion traditionnelle fait
des vers anglais une marqueterie de morceaux disparates,
choisis comme au hasard et assembles sans principe."
Those who dwell in this chaos must naturally be glad to
see the advent of order ; but whether they will exactly
find it in M. Verrier remains to be seen. I fear I for one
can answer in the negative ; but if M. Verrier should ever
cast eyes on this book he will not be surprised at that.

His own new doctrine is announced as briefly this,
that in our poetry " Le Rhythme n'y est constitue que
par la coincidence de I'accent avec le temps marque "
\ictus\ " il est constitue par le retour du temps marque
a intervalles sensiblement ^gaux." Perhaps some

* Cf. MM. Van Dam and Stoffel ; also cf. Martin Chuzzlewit, as regards
the inferiority of the knowledge of Britishers on other points connected with
their own institutions.


persons will be disappointed at this, which, after all,
comes to little more than saying that English rhythm is
rhythmical, a proposition which I at least am far from
denying. The terms of the definition are not particularly
objectionable, but certainly not novel, though it would suit
the terminology of accentualists in one way, and that of
" isochronous intervalists" in another. In short, M. Verrier
is a musical and phonetical stress -prosodist of a special
type, and nothing more or newer. His differentia, such
as it is, consists in the fact that by far the larger part of
his book — the whole of the third volume and most of
the first two — is occupied by previous questions, phonetic
and in the wide sense phonological, which will go with
any system of prosody, and by records of experiment,
which perhaps can establish none.

His mediate processes, however, are very doubtful,
and his results sometimes, and indeed often, definitely and
demonstrably erroneous. Nor is this to be wondered at
when the secret of his mistakes reveals itself, as it is sure
to do to any patient and unprejudiced reader, though the
multitude of details may hide it for a time. M. Verrier
prides himself on " analysing " English verse, but his
method of analysis is, to say the least, peculiar. The
only fashion of analysis, as such, which can ever be satis-
factory, is to take the line as a whole, to read it, with the
right English pronunciation and with expression of extra-
poetical as well as poetical character, in connection with
its neighbours, and to see into what rhythmical modes
it falls most naturally. When you have done this for a
long period of time, on a sufficiently large number of
instances selected indifferently over the whole course of
English poetry, you will be qualified to say what these modes
are, whether they can be classified, and what are their
principles of arrangement. M. Verrier's proceeding is quite
different. He " begins at the beginning," but in a novel
fashion, looking at the beginning only for the nonce, and
deciding, on some phonetic principle or other, what that
beginning is. Then, having nailed this poor thing to the
operating board, without regard to the spasms of the
VOL. Ill 2 H


rest, he goes to the end and nails that down too. Then,
and only then, he proceeds to inspect the quivering
middle, and see what he can make of that. Whether
such a proceeding could anyhow come to good is a question
which may be left to the reader. I should say myself
that even the Procrustean methods of the Bysshes were
not so fatal. But it certainly does not. As with all
musical prosodists, " anacrusis," in an immense extension of
the term, figures everywhere, M. Verrier's use extending
to " sectional " employment of it. Like most of his
fellows, he confounds iambic and trochaic rhythm, re-
peatedly asserting that

Then methought I heard a hollow sound

has exactly the same rhythm as

Tumbling the hollow helmets of the fallen.

That he also sometimes, and even not seldom, comes
right, agreeing with the chaotic " marquetrists " in scansion,
is not surprising. After all, his " F., {."forte and faible, for
" long " and " short," represent the difference better than
" accented " and " unaccented," though not so well as " long "
and " short " themselves, especially as M. Verrier admits
" time." His " groupes rhythmiques " are sometimes actual
feet, and almost always might be. His " suppression of
anacrusis " and " trisyllabic variation " in these " groups "
are only infinitely clumsier and more arbitrary ways of
describing what, when it is described in plain foot-terms,
he calls a " marquetry of irreconcilable fragments." The
worst of it is that, where he is not erroneous, he is
generally superfluous, and that, where he is not superfluous,
he is almost always wrong.

Nor is the cause of his error far to seek, though it will
perhaps only display itself fully after careful reading.
The book seems to have been originally planned almost as a
direct polemic against the late M. Alexandre Beljame, who,
as is well known, edited and scanned EnocJi Arden, Mac-
beth, and other English poetry on a system perhaps a little


meticulous/ but with generally sound results. Now I am
going on delicate but necessary ground when I say that,
not having the pleasure of M. Verrier's personal acquaint-
ance, I cannot tell what his acquaintance with spoken
English may be. He seems dangerously prone to take it
from the phoneticians, who are frequently deaf, though
unfortunately not dumb, guides. But M. Beljame, whom
I did know, had, without exception, or with the exception
only of the present French Ambassador at Washington,
the most perfect English pronunciation and intonation
that I ever heard from French lips. He had, therefore,
the wedding garment, the qualification, the sine qua non.
Has M. Verrier? I can only say that his scansions
frequently suggest to me that he has not, and that one
or two passages and arguments of his book confirm the
suggestion fatally. As a careful student of phonetics he
knows the pitfall ; but does he know when he has fallen
into it ? For instance, he tells us that the first English verse
that seemed to him really to be verse was Byron's " The
Assyrian came down," because it was like a certain value
of the French Alexandrine. English Alexandrines, he
says, " ne lui disaient rien." Now all of us who have
some slight knowledge of French prosody, and of French
elocution, are aware that the French Alexandrine very
frequently, in the mouths of French actors and reciters,
becomes a four-foot anapaestic line. But Byron's line
is not an English Alexandrine, and has no relation to
an English Alexandrine whatever, except in the purely
accidental fact of its containing twelve "" syllables. Is
M. Verrier sure that he has quite purged his ears of this
hearing, or not hearing, English verse according as it
approaches French standards ?

I fear he has not, from almost his opening arguments.
At page four of his Introduction he scoffs at M. Beljame's
scansion of

Philip I the sHghtjed sui|tor of | old times

1 M. Beljame used three values, o, i, 2, for short, medium, and long

2 Merging " -ian " into one.


into the five dissyllabic feet of which it undoubtedly
consists. To M. Verrier this is " an allowance, in the
same verse, of feet not merely different but irreconcilable."
Of course to an English ear they are not irreconcilable,
but simply "Our Mr. Iamb" and "Our Mr. Trochee" of
the same great firm^persons who can sign for each
other, and discharge each other's functions without the
slightest hitch, to the extent and in the terms of the
partnership. But M. Verrier, strangely, appeals to
French ears. He admits regular syllabic scansion in
some French octosyllables ; but asks the question,
" Imposerons-nous cette scansion a tous ? " And he
produces a distich of Hugo, which, it seems, it would be
" ridiculous " to scan dissyllabically like this :

Plus loin I que les | vastes | forets
Je fui|rais, je | courrais, | j'irais.

Now this, with its inevitable bearing, is so obvious a
fallacy that it vitiates the entire book, for all its patient
observation and all its curious learning. Perhaps it is
absurd to a French ear. But how can the absurdity of
a French scansion of a French verse prove anything
whatever about an English one ? What law can a French
ear give to an English tongue, or vice versa ?

I hope that there is nothing in the above remarks to
disqualify me for the appellation of galant homvie which
M. Verrier deservedly gives to Mr. Omond. His evident
interest in English poetry, and his wide study of it, could
not but appeal to one who, like myself, has spent a life-
time in reading and enjoying French poetry. But I
have at least learnt, from my double study, to keep the
prosodies rigorously apart ; and I do not think that
M. Verrier has learnt this lesson quite sufficiently.

On the other hand, M. Walter Thomas (who seems to
write English excellently) contributed to the Modern
Language Reviezv for 1907 and 1908 two interesting
articles, a single sentence from which will perhaps dispense
me from saying much about them. He believes, and has
endeavoured to prove, that " Milton's blank metre always


contains ten counted syllables, and ten only." Negatur ;
the proofs of the negation have been given, as well as I
could give them, at great length in the proper place, and
there is no more to be said. Only it must be observed
as a little curious that M. Thomas regards his theory as
strictly historic^ and others (such as, no doubt, my own, to
which he had no opportunity of referring) as based on
twentieth-century pronunciation. Alas ! I learnt to pro-
nounce English a good deal before the twentieth century ;
and I regard my own view as historic or nothing. M.
Thomas has failed, I think, to allow for historic develop-
ment^ as well as for many other things, when he thinks the
English decasyllabic to have been carried down unaltered,
from Frenchmen and Italians, through Chaucer, Spenser,
and Shakespeare, to Milton.^

Lastly have to be mentioned some English writers of
very recent date whom, for reasons already assigned,
I do not think it desirable to review in much detail. I
think I may say that almost every controversial point in
their work is met, by implication, at one or another part
of this book, especially in the Appendices of the first
volume and of this present. In 1894 Mr. J. H. Hallard, Mr. Haiiard.
introducing his translation of Theocritus, showed himself
one of the few who have perceived the " anapaestic suck "
of the English hexameter, though not as one who quite
understood its lesson. In the same year Mr. H. D. Mr. Bateson.
Bateson printed, in the Manchester Quarterly, a paper on
the " Rhythm of Coleridge's Cliristabel" which he had
anticipated three years earlier with another on " English
Rhythms " generally. I have had some correspondence
with Mr. Bateson, and I think there is not much important
difference between us now, though he was led away by
Guest for a time. I hope he will continue his prosodic

On the other hand, I fear there is not the slightest Mr. William
chance of my ever making a concordat with Mr, William °^^°^-

^ To these should perhaps be added a veiy able and scholarly comparison
of English and French versification, written in French, but by a countryman
of our own, Mr. F. B. Rudmose- Brown (Grenoble, 1905).


Thomson/ who would indeed, I imagine, insist on white
sheet and neck-rope, if he were even contented with this.
That Mr. Thomson uses musical symbols and notation
throughout would be almost enough. That he thinks he
can arrive at metrical conclusions by a sort of Shamanistic
process of " tapping " discourages me further.^ At times,
through all these veils, I see something with which I think
I might agree ; but a sentence close to the end of his
pamphlet shows me that it is hopeless : " The terms
iamb and anapaest, as descriptive of feet, are impossible,
since they only confuse what is already covered by trochee
and dactyl." Here we come to a true Shibboleth. I can
imagine, though I think it superfluous, the prosody of the
tuning-fork and the laryngoscope, of the metronome and
the tapometer, being used on reasonable principles.^ But
if anybody thinks that a trochee or a dactyl is not
merely, in certain cases, capable of substitution for, but
actually " covers what " is meant by, iamb and anapaest,
then it is clear that he and I are speaking of two
different things, and that there is a gulf between us which
neither can cross.

One of the most curious, and one of the most disastrous,
results of " beatmanship " with which I am acquainted was
exemplified in an article ^ by a writer whom I mention
wholly for the sake of honour, though I disagree with
Mr. c. F. him here a outrance, Mr. C. F. Keary. Mr. Keary thinks
Keary. that, in blank verse, it is only stressed words that count,

one before the cjesura, and one generally, but not quite
always, at the end of the line ; while he thinks that in
Puck's lines {A Midsummer Nighfs Dream, II. ii. 65-69) —

Through \k\& forest have I gone.
But Athenian found I none,

^ The Basis of Etiglish Rhythm (Glasgow, 1904).

^ If the tap coincides with the ear we don't want it ; if it doesn't it is

^ I have long wondered why no one has applied the sphygmograph to
prosody. A pulse-record of sympathetic reciters, or even readers, of Shake-
speare, Shelley, Swinburne, would be much more interesting than most of
these things.

* Fortnightly Review, l^ovitmkiQx 1906. "Some Thoughts on the Technique
of Poetry."


On whose eyes I might approve
This flower's y<:)n"i? in stirring love^

the stressed words " give an almost perfect skeleton of

All this I do most powerfully and potently disbelieve.
Even in the octosyllables, where a comparatively large

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 41 of 50)