George Saintsbury.

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

. (page 43 of 50)
Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 43 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

is that of varied metres in " Monadnoc." His very short
lines (" Give all to Love," etc.) are not tov Tv^ovro'i, and
I have seldom read a worse criticism than that of Thoreau "
on the " Ode to Beauty," that it " slopes too quickly to
the rhyme." You may " slope " as quickly as you like,
though you may not stagger. But perhaps one of the
most interesting things that I have found, in recent re-
readings of the author of the famous " long measure " of
" Brahma," is the suggestion, in a considerable number of
poems, of the Whitmanian rhythmed prose. You will
find passages in " Monadnoc," in " Blight," in the " Ode
to Channing," and in many others, which tend to prose,
just as we shall find the actual Whitmanic tending to
verse. How easily this might be Whitman's own :

I take him up my ragged sides
Half-repentant, scant of breath.

It depends entirely on what follows and precedes in
which harmony you read it. Here again are three
decasyllabics, quite good as such :

For I am weary of the surfaces.

And die of inanition. If I knew

Only the herbs and simples of the wood —

which make two perfect Whitmanic lines —

For I am weary of the surfaces, and die of inanition.
If I knew only the herbs and simples of the wood —

with an actual catalogue of these following.

Many years ago, when I was endeavouring to make Poe.

* For myself I have always thought that if Emerson could have dismissed
certain things (especially Emerson) from his mind, and let others flow naturally
into it, he might have been a very considerable poet. For he had, as I try
to point out above, distinct prosodic quality, and he had also many germs of
poetic phrase.

2 I only ask for information : but ivas there ever a more overrated person
than Thoreau ?


my way in literature by " honest journey work in default
of better," I made the late Sir Leslie Stephen very angry,
and shut one of the doors which had been opened to me,
by describing Edgar Poe, in an essay which I sent him at
his request, as " of the first order of poets." I have not
changed my mind in the least on this point between
1876 and 19 10, and I am not sure that I should not
also now call him very nearly of the first order of
prosodists. Neither then nor now, of course, should I
have said that everything he did, in practice or theory,
was of this first order ; in fact positive ignorance, and the
lack of a sufficient education, made him lay The Rationale
of Verse open to a good many damaging criticisms,
against which one can only oppose the unhesitating
assertion that, in spite of them all, he has the root of the
matter in him. As for his verses, he is one of the pierres
de touche. They are unequal, of course — extremely un-
equal ; but, if you think them valueless at their best, you
can only be asked to give your exact opinion as to
" What is a Pound ? " in poetry. And it is to be feared
that the value of this opinion would not be itself con-

Prosodically at least, there should be no doubt about
him, except in the realms of unabashed earlessness.
What perhaps may seem to some the chief instance of
his prowess in this respect, the " Bells," never appealed to
me much. It is all right, of course, in its own way ; but
that is merely the way of a not very difficult or dis-
tinguished tour de force, a mechanical thing. But there is
no mistake about the " Raven " ^ from our point of view,
though it is not a faultless poem from others. The
contrast of the rolling, racing trochaics with the fitful
internal rhyme (now present, now absent, now extended
to the next line), and the " pulled-up " quasi-refrain —
that is not mechanical ; or if it is, you may please
supply machines that will do it, in any number that
you like.

' The value of his own analysis, as forethought or afterthought, must be
left to individual judgment.


In some ways " Ulalume," the most open of all to His verse,
parody, and — which some things open to parody are not
— often perilously near to the ridiculous in its own actual
expression, is finer still in prosodic suggestion :

Astarte's be-diamonded crescent
Distinct with its duplicate horn

is a text for a sermon which would " take another glass "
and many glasses, to preach satisfactorily. As for
"Annabel Lee," the miraculous power of the anapaest,
which we have traced and studied so far and so long,
seems to have gathered itself into something superhuman
here. I pointed out the extraordinary swiftness of
Barham's " Smugglers' Leap " ; but here there is no
comedy (which needs and helps speed) at all, and yet
the swiftness rises, and doubles right through the poem,
till, in the last stanza, you cannot keep up with it. It
leaves you panting far behind, as it sinks into the final still-
ness of the tomb by the side of the sea. But can he only
play the dancing dervish — spin and pirouette and gallop ?
There is sufficient answer in " The Haunted Palace,"
where the

Banners, yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow,

and where the trochees themselves float and flow and
settle with the soft slowness of snow-flakes. And the
softness and the swiftness combine in " For Annie," and
the dangerous redundance of blank verse is almost, if not
quite, conquered in one " To Helen," and the quieter lyric
is perfect in the other ; and there is a whole prosodic sylva
in " Al Aaraaf " It is only a handful of verse, this ; with
the inferior things it does not fill a hundred pages. But
how many long poems have the value of these " sonnets,"
as our ancestors would have called them ? Whoso thinks
little of Poe, let him suspect that he knows about as little
of poetry, and therefore, for fear of accidents, had better
say nothing about it.

But we must turn to that curious document — one of His Ratiouaie
the most interesting in this chapter and almost in this


book — the Rationale of Verse) I have hinted that, for
those who merely try to pick holes, it cannot be made
" looped and windowed " enough. The author was very
imperfectly educated generally, and, I should imagine,
knew extremely little of that literature of his subject "
which is at any rate invaluable as showing one what to
avoid. He was writing in partly conscious, partly un-
conscious discipleship to one of the worst schools of
English criticism, that of the thirties and forties, which
too frequently combined the swaggering dogmatism of one
division of its predecessors with the somewhat anarchic
impressionism of the other. He was personally inclined
to exaggeration and hasty assertion. Finally, in 1848,
when he wrote, everybody was talking about accent, and
most people were talking about the hexameter — than
which I cannot imagine a worse starting-point for dis-
cussing general English prosody.

The consequence is that, as I have said, hole-picking
is quite " at discretion." I think, indeed, that Mr. Omond,
fairest of critics, has, by mistake, been unfair on one point,
in saying that Poe " omits all notice of silent spaces."
The reason of the mistake is to be found in Poe's extra-
ordinary terminology, and his careless use even of that.
When he says that the line

March ! March ! March !

is " formed of three caesuras. The caesura is rejected by
English prosodists and grossly misrepresented in the
classics," he talks, of course, ostensible nonsense. But he
shows, here and elsewhere, that by that unhappy word
" caesura " he meant " foot partly made up of pause-

To criticise separate statements in such a composition
and collocation of circumstances would be easy, but idle. I
could deny flatly a hundred of them. I really think it is

1 Works, ed. Ingram (Edinburgh, 1875), iii. 219-266.

2 It is no contradiction to this that he makes a great display of erudition —
even speaking of German treatises on Greek prosody. It is indeed obvious
that he knew nothing of classical scansion, since he makes a hopeless hash of
such easy things as the choriambic rhythm of Maecenas atavis.


not a mere hyperbole to say that there are hardly more
than one or two detailed assertions that will pass muster,
and that Foe rarely makes even one of these without
giving a wrong reason for it, or advances a solid argument
without making some slip in its application.

And yet the root or roots of the matter is or are in
him. He knows that variation, both in foot and line-
length, is the secret of poetic melody. He understands
(though the lovely and witty Miss Notable's ancient joke
of " nndexsttanble " is justified by the fact that he stumbles
over it) equivalence. He knows that it is often impossible
to determine the metre of a single line. His attempts to
fix the exact mathematical value of " length " are futile ;
but his recognition of the variation of it is invaluable ; and
when he says, " The object of what we call scansion is the
distinct marking of the rhythmical flow," he makes perhaps
the exception to his general rule, promulgates the truth
once and for all, and, with or without knowing it, sweeps
musicians and monopressurists, apostrophators and accent-
worshippers, thought-wavers and speech-wavers, all the
Doubters and all the Bloodmen that beset the prosodic
Mansoul, at once into the abyss.^

But the quality which I recognise in Poe, and which
estates him so highly with me, is higher even than this —
that he begins with the poetry and adapts his theories to
that. In the case of a man who does this, Poetry herself
will watch over him to see that he does not dash his foot
against a stone. But when a man endeavours, as nearly
all prosodists do, to force his theories on Poetry, she will
not watch over him ; and the stones shall be many and
bruising, to head as well as to foot.

The prosody of Longfellow,^ even outside of the Longfellow,
hexameters which have been discussed, is a matter of par-
ticular interest, because of the poet's circumstances. As
a man slightly older even than Tennyson, and belonging

1 The whole paragraph, p. 255 ed. cit., should be read carefully.

2 We have, of course, nothing to do with the contempt expressed by
Philistines of culture — a clan on whom Samson must have plied the ass's
jawbone with the keenest sense of enjoyment and congruity — for Longfellow
as a poet.


to a country which was only starting an independent
literary development, he might be expected to represent,
and to some extent did represent, the latest " inter-
mediate " school — that which had grown up to the
inheritance of the older Romantics as far as Byron ;
but which had hardly assimilated Keats and Shelley, and
had not felt the new wave of poetic inspiration that made
1830 a year less noisily, but not less really, notable in
English than in French literature. On the other hand,
he was early despatched to qualify for his professorship
by residence on the Continent of Europe ; and study
of Continental literatures enabled him, in some ways, to
anticipate influences which did not work on his English
contemporaries till later. And he was himself a remark-
able instance of plasticity, in both the passive and the
active sense, as far as metrical form was concerned. He
was not indeed inclined to accept the severe command —

Sculpte ! lime ! cisele I

in his prosodic creations. He cast rather than wrought,
and chose elastic moulds for the casting ; but they were
very far from being the moulds of the Italian-image-man.
A " facile " poet who somehow knocks out such things as
" The Wreck of the Hesperus " and " The Skeleton in
Armour " on one side, as (with all its drawbacks) the
Evangeline hexameter on another, and as the Hiawatha
metre on the third, is one whose facility might, with great
advantage, be chopped up into as many eyes and cuttings,
and propagated as freely, as possible.

Moreover, if Longfellow's music is easy (and it is well
to remember that apparent ease is rather a misleading
thing) it is always easy music ; ^ and those who prefer
difficult discord (which is perhaps not so difficult to pro-
duce after all) may be left to their preference. His design
is almost always happy ; his execution almost always
satisfactory. The alteration, for instance, of the old
Romance-six in the Prelude to Voices of the Night, with
the shift of the third line to the second place, and the

^ From this point I leave Evangeline and her companions alone.


monorhyming of the dimeters, is very agreeable.^ " The
Light of Stars " infuses into common measure, if not
seventeenth -century witchery, something very different
from eighteenth -century namby-pambiness. The ana-
paestic ballad form of the same measure has seldom been
better handled than in " The Wreck of the Hesperus" nor
the trochaic fifteener than in " The Belfry of Bruges."
There is real genius in the acceptance of the simplest form
of words to get the utmost prosodic effect in

I am Roland ; I am Roland. There is victory in the land.

I have spoken on a former occasion (ii. 336) of the special
attraction, from one point of view, of "The Skeleton in

The plain but irregularly rhymed octosyllabic couplet
comes out famously in " The Occultation of Orion," while
the substituted form, with adaptation to semi -dramatic
and narrative use, in The Golden Legend is really a triumph.
For easy conversational blank verse, if not for the greatest
dramatic kind, you will not easily beat The Spanish Student;
while in some of his well-known translations, "The
Hemlock Tree," " I know a maiden fair to see," and others,
he has shown ability to hammer verse to tune in a way
worthy of a pupil of Mimir or Weland. In fact Long-
fellow represents, for America, the first, and perhaps up
to this day the greatest, of the verse-makers who, as we
have seen, carried on during the whole of the nineteenth
century the principles of prosodic variety and adaptation
— of multiplication and development of metrical forms as
far as possible, on certain general laws, but with as little
minor bye-law as possible.

After Foe, the poet of genius, who accepts, not un-
consciously, the general laws of metre and produces

1 Pleasant it was, when woods were green
And winds were soft and low,
To lie amid some sylvan scene
Where the long drooping boughs between
Shadows dark and sunlight sheen
Alternate come and go.

The matrix may of course, be taken as the common measure with addi-
tion, and the masters as Coleridge and Scott — but that does no harm.


masterpieces in them ; and Longfellow, the poet of
exceptional and wide-ranging talent, who applies his gifts
to the formal, as to other parts of his art, with success
unvarying, or varying only according to the possibilities
of his experiment — there is an unusual aptness, an almost
artificial completion of the set, in Walt Whitman, another
poet of genius who devotes himself to formal, as to other,
Whitman. fhc gcncsis of Whitman's dithyrambic versicles is

sufficiently clear, even if we set aside the direct Emersonian
suggestions which were hinted at above. I do not know
his letters, and the biographical writings about him, so well
as I know his poems, and so I cannot say whether he ever
gave his own account of it. But, presumptuous as it may
seem to say so, a poet's account of such things is by no
means always the true account of them. That true account,
in Whitman's case, does not need a combination of the
late Professor Owen and the living Professor Sievers to
make out. The impulsive cause of it was, no doubt, that
natural and not disgraceful, though sometimes slightly
comic, desire to be entirely original and American — to
give an unadulterated product of These States, — of which
Longfellow, with the best right in the world, has made
such excellent fun in Kavanagh. The cause of pattern
or suggestion was even more undoubtedly — still leaving
the Emersonian following as unproved — the verse-divisions
of the English Bible. How far possible secondary causes
of development by hints from Blake, De Quincey,
Lamennais,^ and others may have helped, is a more
speculative division of the subject. But the last and
completely formative cause was, as it always is, the
idiosyncrasy of the writer. Whitman could and did write
more or less regular metre, and his actual medium is
often a plum-pudding-stone or conglomerate of metrical
fragments. Still the form which he mainly adopts, though
hybrid between poetry and prose, is a genuine thing as far

^ On the whole, and allowing for the differences of person, subject, and
language, the Paroles cfiai croyant is sometimes surprisingly near Leaves of


as it goes — a true hybrid, and not a mere Watertonian
cobbling together of unrelated elements.

The result, at its best, is not easy to specify or
exemplify precisely, because it has no ruling type. Of
one kind I really do not know a better example than
a passage the praise of which, many years ago, excited
the never- to-be-quenched wrath of one of the most
" cultured " of American prints. It comes early in Leaves
of Grass} and is one of a series of similitudes for the
grass itself:

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may
see and remark and say. Whose?

Here, it will be observed, there is, though no metre, a
comparatively regular progression of a quasi -metrical
kind, capable of several divisions no doubt, but grouping
easiest into something like three, four, and six or seven
examples of the " prose-feet " — paeons, epitrites, or doch-
miacs - — which we have occasionally mentioned. The
length of these versicles (which are batched in subsections
of absolutely optional length) is quite irregular ; they
might be monosyllabic — though I do not at the moment
remember, or in a casual turning over find, one ; and they
may extend to several lines, though they seldom do,
except in the catalogue-pieces, to more than three or four.
Even on these last Whitman can often inculcate an
excellent rhythmical undulation and final break. But
they naturally tend, at times, to something like this :

Not a move can a man or woman make that affects him or her in
a day, month, any part of the direct Hfe-time, or the hour of
death, but the same affects him or her onward afterward
through the indirect life-time.

That is not without rhythm — hardly any but the most
abject prose is, — but it is prose pure and simple. In fact
no small part of the " Verse " — he calls it " verse " him-

* "Walt Whitman," section 6, subsection 28 (p. 34 of the two-volume
Autograph Edition. Camden, N.J., 1876).


self — if printed straight on, would be indistinguishable
from no small part of the prose (^Democratic Vistas, etc.)
which is so printed.

On the other hand, not a few of the shorter or middle-
cut verses have an inefficient suggestion of ordinary verse,
as where the tails of the lines, and to some extent their
bodies, give confused echoes of Evangeline hexameters, or
Ionics a viinore clumsily and inharmoniously managed.
The fact is that people have not, as a rule, treated
Whitmanics sensibly. I have never myself been able to
see why they should be barred, as a variety of expression,
when the poet (or whatever he likes to call himself)
chooses them, and can justify the choice. It is evident
that the continuity of ordinary prose may be inconvenient
for some subjects, and uncongenial for some moods. It
is, I think, at least fair matter of contention that the
regularity of verse, even with all the easements and
licences possible to it, if it is to remain verse, may
be subject to similar drawbacks. But I should doubt
whether the medium will ever be susceptible of any but
very occasional use ; ^ and I am certain that the justifica-
tion mentioned above will only be secured by keeping it
nearer to verse than to prose, and by rigidly excluding
purely prosaic passages. Moreover, in a very large
number of instances, verse would do even better what
this does well. And from Whitman's actual experiments
it is clear that had he chosen, and taken the trouble, he
could have written beautiful verse proper. Yet it is clear
also, that in passages, and many of them, the marriage of
matter and form justifies itself as a true marriage. So
let it be registered as such, with the banns and the warn-
ings properly proclaimed and attended to.

^ Whitmanics were for a time, as was natural, essayed on this side the
water ; but not with much success. The best I know are O'Shaughnessy's
" Earth " in Music and Moonlight, and parts of a most admirable description
of Oxford undergraduate life, entitled " Poem of Joys," which appeared in
the Poems oi " Thomas White, jun. " (Oxford and London, 1876). But I have
been credibly informed that there was " no sick a person," and that the real
Thomas, since he became senior, writes about prosody. I wish I had any
chance of reversing the process ; and, in my second juniority or childhood,
of writing anything so good as this " Poem of Joys."'


We must now turn to the purer theorists who have, as Rush.
I have said, been remarkably numerous in America for
the last three-quarters of a century at least, and whose
work, especially in isolated articles or papers, I do not
pretend to do more than select for summary. Bryant's
early defence of substitution has been mentioned. One
of the earliest book-\Nx\X.&x?, on the subject (or rather on
something connected with it) with whom I am acquainted,
James Rush of Philadelphia, is so frankly physiological
in his Philosophy of the Human Voice (1827), that if I
had anything to say against him here, I should not say it.
He worked his work — I doubt not, well — with the
" Unequal Single Wave " and the " Drift of the Down-
ward Vanish " ; but I have nothing to do with them,
though I should like to write a poem with the second
title. Still some of his obiter dicta are almost as sug-
gestive as those of Roe.^ There is not a little food for
reflection in his observation that " persons who sing with
the greatest execution are rarely or never good readers^
And perhaps there is still more in this — that " many
passages by good poets camiot be read with satisfaction to
a discerning ear!' Perhaps this accounts for what he
would call the " Downward Radical and Vanishing Move-
ment," so noticeable to us in most handlings of prosody
from the musical-elocutory point of view. But he really
does not even venture to handle prosody directly.

Poe and Holmes I have dealt with, and, outside them, Lanier,
the chief prosodic attention of the middle century was
given in America, as with us, to the evangel of Evangeline.
But in 1 88 1, just before its author's death, I think, was
published a volume on The Science of English Verse, which
has had a greater reputation, perhaps, than any other
American book on the subject. In coming, therefore, to
Sidney Lanier I come once more to a pas pe'rilleux.
Although Mr. Omond sees numerous faults of detail in
this enthusiastic, amiable, and apparently much regretted
Southern poet and critic, he hails him as, on the whole

1 V. sup. p. 159. Rush followed Roe closely in date, and believed in
Steele, Roe's master.


sound in principle ; and American prosodists generally
seem to regard him as a prosodic Moses who was allowed
actually to lead others to the Promised Land. For my
part, I can only close my visor, put lance in rest, and
loosen sword in scabbard. On no terms can I accept
Mr. Lanier here. To begin with, he does not merely, like
Steele (to whom he is ungrateful), use musical analogies
and parallel explanations, but he interprets prosody
wholly and exclusively in terms of music, and uses no
other symbols than musical notes. Now this I am bound
to pronounce something like impertinence, in the worse
as well as in the less bad sense of the word. If I ask a
man to translate some Greek for me into English, and he
translates it into Spanish, I have a right to retort some-
thing less than courteously. His Spanish translation may
or may not be correct.^ I may know Spanish enough to
make it intelligible to me, or I may not. The imperti-
nence remains. Secondly, I cannot understand how such

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 43 of 50)