George Saintsbury.

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

. (page 42 of 50)
Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 42 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

proportion of the words must be stressed, this system of
alternate mouthing and muttering, this disjected and
meaningless clatter of cryptographic syllables, is bad
enough. " Forest," " gone," " Athenian," " none," " eyes,"
" approve," " force," " love " — this (in a double sense)
Jingle-fashion of poetic speech is to me utterly repellent.
But in blank verse (and I suppose the process would be
extended to couplets) the result is much worse. Here
you have, almost literally realised, that process of stagger-
ing from post to post which was imaged in the foregoing
volume. Worse still, it tends to subject English poetry —
the great glory of which is the continuous though infinitely
varied music of its tenor, its " li7iked sweetness " — to the
more spasmodic emphasis of French. Everybody knows
how French spoken verse is apt to grate on an English
ear, precisely because of this alternation of extravagantly
emphasised syllables with gabbled and gobbled ones.

One final and fresh example of this curious stress-fancy, Mr. Hewlett.
and I have done, save for general remarks. As I was
revising and completing this chapter, a brilliant writer of
prose fiction issued a book of verse. The greater part of
it was in ordinary measures, but there were three or four
experiments. On these the author made this note :
" The intended musical effect . . . can only be got by
reading them as if they were written in prose. The
natural stresses will then fall into their places in the
scheme." Now it must strike most readers, I should
suppose, that this is an odd saying. For if you read a
thing as prose, and its intended stresses fall naturally into
their place, it will surely go hard but the thing is prose.
And there seems to be a double perversity, first in wasting
paper, and thickness of binding, by printing it as verse,
and then in interposing unnecessary obstacles in the way



Remarks on
" Fancy "

of the reader's reading it as he is intended to do. But
this is a priori. Let the reader get and read Mr. Maurice
Hewlett's Artemision — it will not be a painful process —
and he will find, after reading the examples, that they
have a rhythm which is not prose, and that they obey the
ordinary laws of verse, except zvhen they are prose, and
have no business with their companions save to make a
satura of the two.

If, once more, I seem to have taken too light a view
of some of these worthy inquirers, let me repair it here
by a serious, and, I think, a fairly novel, consideration
of some points that affect them generally. There is a
principle, or rather an ««//-principle, a common hetero-
doxy or fallacy, underlying, as it seems to me, a large
number of apparently independent and even opposed
systems — the stress-exaggeration of Hodgson and Lewis ^
(different but connected) ; the fancy sections, to which the
same epithets apply, of Price ^ and Jenkin ; the go-as-you-
please prosody of Symonds ; the thought-rhythms and
attention-stresses of Liddell,^ and many others. Historic-
ally, and as matter of direct (though often unconscious)
suggestion, most of these things started, I think, from
Guest (chiefly in the reprint of him), and they must lie
heavy on his soul, even though some of them were, no
doubt, intentionally corrections of, or revolts from, him.
Logically, they have a different origin ; or rather there is
another influence which must be taken into account with
regard to them. They appear to me to be, without
exception, results of the confusion of prosody proper —
the prosody of which an attempt has been made to
give an account in this book — with two different phases of
what I have called w^/«prosody, both lying beyond the
strict province of the subject, but one coming in strictness
before, the other altogether after it. The one is the, I
believe, hopeless quest of the constituents of what / call
" quantity," i.e. the contrast of syllabic value which
produces rhythm and (when regularised) metre. The
other cannot be so definitely described, but includes all
' See next chapter.


the individual technique of the poet (which I have
sometimes called " fingering ") and a good deal besides.
That this is individual ; that it cannot be generalised ;
and that the attempt to make a " science " out of it is
as rational as the attempt to make one out of a vast
collection of measurements in the possession of a famous
tailor ^ — men do not and will not see. And, not seeing
it, they miss also, or scornfully pass over and refuse to
recognise, the clear universal principles which govern the
province of English versification itself; which start from
the ready-given stuff of "long" and "short"; which
relinquish their own work to the poet for his final touches
of phrasing, valuing, fingering, and what not ; but which
are clearly perceptible after this, to which the whole can
always be reduced, and without which that whole can
never be really and satisfactorily understood. These
principles, putting them in concrete form, are the foot,
the line, and the stanza or paragraph, but, above all, the
foot, the ground at once of stability and motion, the secret
and idea of English prosody, the be-all, if not the end-all,
of English verse.

I myself recognise, of course, that these systems —
inadequate, fallacious, mischievous as they often seem
to me — have another excuse of origin, just as the
inadequate prosodic theories of the late sixteenth, the
seventeenth, and the eighteenth centuries had. They are
a revolt from these, as these were from the doggerel — the
no-system-at-all — of the fifteenth and early sixteenth. It
was the terror of this that drove Gascoigne and all his
followers — the unconscious prolongation of that terror
that drove Bysshe and Johnson — into their theories of
the exclusive iambus, of the strict decasyllabic, of the
" pure " alternate-accent line, of " elision," and " apostro-
phation," and the rest. And it was the revolt, in various
directions and under several flags, from this codification
of tick-tack and jog-trot and sing-song (with its foolish

' I had at first written "lasts" and "bootmaker"; but as I should
certainly have been charged with a pun on "feet," which I do not intend,
I have altered the image into one not quite so appropriate.


nineteenth -century progeny of xa and the rest) that
determined ^ the anarchy, tempered by crotchet, of not
unlettered men of science like Jenkin, and not unpoetical
scholars like Symonds. But the old infallible test of the
fruits applies here also. No system can be, or come to,
any good — no system can be a system of English verse at
all — which suggests from two to eight " stresses " — put on
that word what <fzstress you will — in an English " heroic "
line. No system can be, or come to, any good — no system
can be a system of English verse at all — which substitutes
the merely logical or merely rhetorical apportionments
of prose for those of metre, or which lays it down that
hop and skip and jump, glide and lurch, rush and stagger,
matter nothing, and are not worth dwelling upon, so long
as you get to the end of a line or a paragraph somehow.
" He can't be right who scans his verses wrong."

On the other hand, I am not concerned to deny that
not a few of the speculations of these writers, if they are
taken merely as facultative superstructure on a wide basis
of foot- prosody, may be harmless — may be positively
useful. The intelligent reader will have seen some
attempts of the kind in these volumes — if space had
allowed there would have been many more. In addition
to the general prosody of English, it may almost be said
that every poet, not hopelessly " minor," has a special
prosody " of his own ; and, what is more, that every dis-
tinctive metre has a prosody of its own. And some
attempts have been also made in these directions here.
But, to be of any value, they must be based on the
general analysis of the line itself ; and this, after lifelong
experience and experiment, after starting without com-
mittal to any previous theory, and taking English poetry
as the only guide to English poetic, I believe — I might
almost say I know — to be attainable only by the system
of foot-division, with equivalence and substitution of feet.
When you have clearly perceived this, and learnt to

* Assisted, of course, beforehand, by the free practice of nineteenth-century
poets from Coleridge to Tennyson.

^ Not in the sense of the German or Germanising "enumerators."


apply the " leaden rule " to the line itself and to its con-
stitution by feet, you may, if you like, extend your re-
search into the backward and forward Beyond. I do not
think the backward exploration, into the constituency of
the constituents, will profit you much : you may think
differently. The forward will certainly profit you if you
keep the main theory in view, but not otherwise ; and
most certainly not if you let it obscure that main theory.
Jargon, will -worship, that Delilah "the subject," music,
mathematics, a thousand other things will beset the
pilgrim ; and it will go hard but his bones will whiten by
the wayside with those of the worthy but misled folk of
whom we have spoken.

Perhaps a still further cause of the rise of these
" fancy prosodies " is the undoubted fact that various
scansions of the same line and piece present themselves.
I hope I may be excused for a certain feeling of amuse-
ment at the remarks which have (in very few, but a few,
cases) been made on my own admissions in this respect.
It seems to suggest itself to some persons that there can
be only one via sahitis in these cases, and that the
admission of several vitiates the system. It would be
as reasonable to say that the possibility of splitting up
any but a prime number (or a prime number itself if
you allow fractions), in different ways, is an argument
against arithmetic. But this peculiarity of prosody has
induced some other able students of the subject to argue
for a sort of antinomy or antimachy of accent and quan-
tity, of thought- movements and rhythm, of language
and verse, etc., which, I confess, appears to me doubtful
at the best,^ and quite incapable of systematisation. Let
us again take a vile corpuscle of botched -up verse to
experiment upon :

King ! thou art old ;

Thy tale is told ;

Stale is each Mate —

Thus saith thy Fate.

* I would admit an occasional " contrast " for special purposes ; but hardly
ever, or never, a ' ' conflict. "


Here there is no doubt about the general scansion : it is
iambic, or anapaestic, monometer, cut as low as possible
in syllabic allowance. But in every line except the
second, and less certainly the fourth, there is a choice, half
prosodic and half rhetorical, between dissyllabic feet every-
where, and strong monosyllabic ones to lead off, with
anapsests to follow. The fact of this is probably obscured
to many people by the inveterate incapacity to appreciate
the ubiquity of commonness in English, " Thou " and
" saith " will be long or short as you wish them, by various
laws or licences; "is" will be short or long. If you
read " grows " for " is " before " each " you will get a fresh
variation — spondaic this time, but equivalent. In other
words, the syllables will accommodate themselves to
different feet ; but the general metrical value and the
system of foot-measurement ivill remain. Only what may
be called the rhetorical-prosodic part of the matter is to a
certain extent arbitrary ; and the arbitrariness here will
practically defy all attempts to systematise it, as well as
all attempts to refer to hard and fast rules the condition
of syllabic value which, as it varies, brings about the
various relations and collocations of the constituents of

If there seem to any one to be pusillanimity in thus
relinquishing to the unknown a province on either side of
the province of prosody itself, I fear I must acknowledge
myself content to underlie the reproach, and shameless
enough rather to glory in it. For it is only by defining
your genus first, and then keeping strictly within the
definition, that any solid and satisfactory knowledge is
possible. Within the range I have indicated, I believe
that I can explain, on a rational system, all the formal
characteristics of English poetry ; and as to further ex-
planation, I am a complete agnostic.

Nor (it should be almost unnecessary to say it, but in
literary as in other war-time no precautions can safely be
omitted) has any unfavourable reference that I have made
to musical prosodies involved the slightest disrespect to
the great, ancient, and delightful Art of Music itself. I


feel sure that the Muse, or Muses, of Music would not
object to anything that I have said : and I venture to
doubt whether any great composer or executant would
ever dream of obtruding his art into an alien province.
It is the amateurs and the dilettanti who do this. The
two main reasons why I have spoken disrespectfully (for I
admit and I maintain the disrespect) of musical prosody are
as follows : — The first is, that — without, I think, a single
exception — the fruits of it are bad ; and the scansions, as
far as they allow themselves to be comprehended in
prosodic terms at all, prosodically wrong. The second is
the hopeless disagreement of the exponents. Music, I
have always understood, is a science as well as an art,
and its symbolic terminology is scientifically arranged.
Yet, to take a single instance, and almost the latest, Mr.
William Thomson declares that Lanier ^ (of whom, not-
withstanding, he thinks highly) " allows his practice to go
right in the teeth of his theory " ; that Chapman's ^' nota-
tion is " obsolete " ; that Miss Dabney's ^ " never existed " ;
that Professor Liddell's ^ " fortunately " few examples of it
are " wholly irrational collections of symbols " ; that Mr.
Ruskin is here " absolutely beyond comprehension." He
may be right or he may be wrong : each of the persons
he censures may be wrong or he may be right. But one
thing is clear, that the use of musical notation ensures no
kind of common ground for the users — that they are as
much at loggerheads as accent-men and quantity-men, as
those who stress and those who foot it. Take this, and
take the almost universal and absolutely damning confu-
sion of " backward " and " forward " — or, to translate the
terms intelligibly, iambic and trochaic — scansion as identi-
cal, and you have almost sufficient reasons for requesting
musical prosody to stand down. Indeed the plain man

1 See next chapter.

2 Not the poet, but a Rev. James Chapman who, in iSiS and 1821,
published two hooks, The Music of Language and a Rliythinical Grammar
of English. He will be found duly noticed by Mr. Omond, who, however,
admits his "wholesale plagiarism" from Steele and Thelwall. Now, I do
not love plagiarism — real plagiarism, that is to say— -of this kind. But a
person who plagiarises such stuff as Steele's and Thelwall's "steals trash"
with a vengeance, and is doubly to be extruded.


need hardly go so far. If he will remember the enormities
of the usual " set " song — the positive minority, and a
very small minority too, of instances in which setting does
not take liberties with the prosody — he will be satisfied
that music is no safe guide here.

But there is also another direction in which we must
look. I must reiterate excuse if I have seemed heedless
or impertinent in my refusal seriously to consider works on
prosody which are based upon " sound-lore." Impertinence
would be a sin towards my authors, heedlessness one
towards my readers, both, as well as ignorance, sins towards
myself also, which I should be very sorry to commit.
The truth is, that I do, after giving my best consideration
to the matter, solemnly believe and profess that there is
no help in Helmholtz for us, and that Ellis is a rotten
reed. Phonology, or phonetics, and prosody may seem to
have an intimate connection : they are certainly within
speaking distance of each other ; but so were Abraham
and Dives. It is possible that the principles of this science
or sciences — I wish their exponents were a little more at
one about them and about their results — may have had,
at some remote period in the order of our creation, some-
thing to do with the raw material of prosody. But, by
the time that prosody proper — that is to say, the actual
art of arrangement of actual poetry — comes into existence,
these relations are practically " avay in de Ewigkeit."
I have never found one single instance in which they have
been applied, by one single professor of them, in such a
way as to throw the smallest light on the constitution,
or to afford the faintest assistance in comprehending the
construction and appreciating the beauty, of a line of
Shakespeare or of Shelley. I have seen innumerable
instances in which they seem to have got in the way
of such comprehension and appreciation. In particular,
phonetic and phonological methods seem to have assisted
and stimulated the syllable-system and the stress-system
in the capital enormity, which both share, of considering
single sounds and not sound-combinations ; and in another
crime which is not confined to them, but can be (though


it never ought to be) committed by the foot-system itself
— that of disregard of individual fingering by the poet.
That " vowel sounds of the same pitch have different
harmonics present " is, I believe, an orthodox statement :
I should be prepared to accept it without authority and
without apparatus. But it does not get me one-millionth
of an inch forwarder in comprehending, or in appreciat-
ing, the prosodic magnificence of Prospero's dismissal
sentence, or of the last words of Cleopatra.



Necessary selection — Bryant — " Maria del Occidente " — Holmes —
Lowell — Leland — Emerson — Poe — His verse — His Rationale
of Verse — Longfellow — Whitman — Rush — Lanier — Dr. Price
— Professor Gummere — Miss Julia Dabney — Professor Liddell
— Professor Lewis — Others.

Necessary The wisdom of the Serpent would perhaps dictate, as the
least of two evils, the omission of this chapter altogether,
seeing that insufficient notice is apt to give more offence
than total neglect. But I hope I am, though perhaps a
little, not much more of a "serpent" than Mr. Winkle
was ; and while I cannot attempt to give a thorough
conspectus, even from the prosodic point of view, of the
abundant verse - production of the English - speaking
Occident, it would be not so much offensive as ridiculous
to pass over, sub silentio, a department of our subject
which contains, to mention here three things only, the
astonishing poetic and prosodic originality of Poe ; the
epoch-making attempt of Whitman at poetry without
metre ; and the most influential, if not the most felicitous,
of all attempts at English hexameters, which was made by
Longfellow. The fact that this last had to be brought
in, that the chapter on the subject would have been
ludicrously incomplete without him, still more necessitates
the inclusion of the other two. Moreover, in recent days,
the United States have contributed very largely indeed
to the study of prosody. I shall do what I can, neglecting
the consequences as boldly as nobler folk, who do what
they ought, are advised to neglect them.



I am not concerned to dispute the contention of some
American writers that the earlier efforts ^ of the American
Muse have been too cavalierly treated. But I shall hardly
be expected to sift them minutely here, especially as there
is not, and could hardly be, anything strikingly novel in
form to be found in them — so far as my not absolutely
rudimentary knowledge of them goes. I had often
remarked with interest the prosodic correctness, in the
best sense, of Bryant, before, quite recently, I was surprised Bryant.
to find that as early as 1 8 1 9, and in a paper which is
thought to have been written some six years earlier still
(which would bring it before the publication of Ckrzstabel),
he had, in the North AuiericMi Review, deliberately con-
tended for trisyllabic feet in iambic verse. The almost
unerring, though sometimes a little ultra-catholic, taste 01
Southey had made me familiar from childhood with this
beautiful passage in the Zophier- of the lady who called "Maria del
herself " Maria del Occidente," but whom men called o^'^'dente."
Mrs. Brooks :

And as the dove to far Palmyra flying,

From where her native founts of Antioch beam,
Weary, exhausted, longing, panting, sighing,

Lights sadly at the desert's bitter stream —

So many a soul o'er life's drear desert faring.

Love's pure congenial spring unfound — unquaffed, —

Suffers, recoils, then thirsty and despairing

Of what it would, descends and sips the nearest draught.

But there is nothing equal even to the last stanza, itself
not the equal of the first, in the rest of the poem. It is,
in fact, a pure prosodic windfall, arising from the adoption
of redundant syllables and double rhymes, which the lady
(though a rather bold experimenter, as her Alexandrine
in the text shows, and as is also shown by the constant
extension of her quatrain to five, six, or even seven
lines) rarely tried elsewhere, and never successfully.

' I have unluckily not yet seen Professor Otis's American Verse {/62J-
1807) (New York, 19 10), the first thorough dealing with this.

2 Zophiel, or the Bride of Seven (London, 1833). ^^ ^^^ people are
likely to follow me through it, I may say that the passage is in Canto VL,
not far from the beginning (p. 230 ol ed. cit.).

VOL. Ill 2 I







Holmes (in whose miscellaneous essays an interesting
but mainly physiological paper ^ on abstract prosody will
be found) is known to everybody as one of the deftest of
verse-smiths. He certainly practised before Mr. Locker,
whether he invented it or not, the admirable tragi-comic
stanza-form, which brought him " one of the most exquisite
things of the kind to be found in English :

The mossy marbles rest

On the lips that he has pressed

In their bloom ;
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year

On the tomb.

The varied skill of Mr. Lowell in all manner of
measures, serious and comic, is matter of common know-
ledge. Although the Biglow Papers might not have been
written quite as they are if " Ingoldsby " had remained
bodiless and in the gloom, they could not show a more
thorough command of verse than they do. And nobody
practised light verse that is not mere burla — though it
may have burlesque quality — more fascinatingly than
Charles Godfrey Leland, from the days when der Breit-
mann " came down to the sea," and those when, after
stormy experiences, he meditated on " de infinite blue," to
the less cheerful period when " 'Twas time for us to go."

There are many others ; but for our purpose I think
it will be both permissible and advisable to confine our-
selves (with one addition) to the three mentioned above
for practice (and in one case for theory also), and to
append a selection of the most noticeable prosodic studies
which belong to theory only.

The " addition " may, at any rate this side the water,
be a surprise. Few people may have been accustomed to

' It is actually entitled "The Physiology of Versification," and seems to
me (though I am quite a child at these things) to have anticipated the
" monopressurists " by its doctrines of "respiratory pauses" and "natural
respiratory rhythm," etc.

2 In the poem of "The Last Leaf." It may be well to mention that this,
and an excellent further selection of the light verse which, as we have
pointed out, is specially important for prosodic study, will be found in
Professor Brander Matthews' American Familiar Verse (New York and
London, 1904).


think of Emerson ^ in this particular light ; but I have
always myself seen him in it. The peculiar octosyllabic
couplets of which he was so fond, though rough in appear-
ance, are very characteristic ; his mixture of iambs and
trochees (as in " Rhea ") is sometimes quite effective, as

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 42 of 50)