George Saintsbury.

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

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further than Guest, could possibly see. The greater
advantage brings, of course, the greater responsibility.

In this final chapter — which must do the triple duty
of Interchapter to the previous Book, of interim summary
to this volume, and of Conclusion proper — I do not
propose to expatiate much. I have, I think, honestly



informed the reader of the point of view above referred
to ; I have endeavoured, without lugging in discussion of
it by head and shoulders, to justify its adoption where it
seemed proper to do so ; and the Appendix will enable
me to take up some special or general points. Here we
may sail fairly " easy " as a preliminary to dropping the

To those to whom my system seems inadequate let it
be inadequate, and to those to whom it seems mere
scholastic jargon let it remain so. If Gallio were in the
chair now I have not the slightest doubt that he would
call the scansion of English heroics by iamb or trochee,
and the scansion of English hexameters by dactyl or
anapaest, " questions of words and names," I dare say
Ippolito d'Este would dismiss the whole collection of
things as something which the unexpected prudery of
Italian literary historians wrangles about, in regard to
its exact designation. I rather fear that Jeffrey (though
he was no such bad critic, on the whole, as people think
sometimes) would decide that it would never do. Yet
somehow the more competent judgment of posterity has
not quite validated the decisions of the proconsul and
the cardinal and the editor. The question, once more,
comes to this, " Whether some system of analysing the
characteristics of verse, and, in a vaguer way, of verse-
diction, does not add to the appreciation of poetry, and so
to the pleasure and advantage of mankind ? " Yet further
to this, " Whether this particular system does not, with
most extension and least contentiousness, contribute to
that analysis ? "

I am content to leave the decision to my readers.^
These readers will have found in this final Book,
besides a certain amount of matter which seemed neces-
sary for completeness from various points of view, the
history of the last completed stage of nineteenth-century

1 By an odd chance, I had written these words some weeks before a
reviewer in the Guardian, to whom I formerly referred, and who disagrees
with me on several important points, acknowledged that ''it is quite possible
that this is the only method which is capable of being worked up into a
complete system."


prosody, and not a little of twentieth. The features of
that stage, if not so novel as they have seemed to some,
are what is far more interesting than mere novelty —
"true," as the florists say — accurate developments of
former stages. The body of verse, of which Mr. Swin-
burne was the latest and the greatest master, displays,
it may be in its furthest immediate form, the group of
tendencies which, originating from the reaction against
eighteenth - century styles, and especially against the
Popian couplet, was strengthened, varied, and regimented
by the individual poetic powers and predilections of the
great group of poets from Wordsworth to Keats. These
poets did not, to any large extent, devote themselves to
prosodic theory ; but their prosodic practice, in regard both
to metre and to diction, was of enormous importance.

Reaction and production together tended, as has been
shown in former Interchapters, in the first place, to a
great multiplication of metres ; in the second, to a free
though by no means anarchic management of the metres
selected ; and, in the third, to the substitution, for one
particular and limited convention of ornament in diction,
of an immense enlargement of the poetical dictionary —
an enlargement in all directions — plainness, archaism,
familiarity, gorgeousness beside which eighteenth-century
conventional ornament grew pale, technicality, everything.

Further, the practice of poetry under these influences
resulted in phenomena of divers kinds, and not easily
arranged in other than cross-division — a great preponder-
ance of lyric ; the strenuous and constant endeavour to
increase the range of appeal to the reader's faculties of
mental sight and hearing ; some others perhaps.

These things — manifested in the whole period, and
thus proper to the concluding remarks on the volume as
well as on this Book — became more and more evident in
the time and at the hands of Tennyson and Browning,
and most evident of all in the work of the poets most
immediately under consideration. Rossetti's influence as
a painter, and the strong pictorial element in Morris,
could escape no one. Mr. Swinburne was more purely


an artist in words ; and though, as I have tried to point
out, both his companions were great prosodic practitioners,
there could be no question of his pre-eminence in prosodic
virtuosity. It was, in fact, so great in degree that it was
mistaken in kind, and that it received compliments on its
originality which would have been much better addressed
to its admirable " improvement " (in the best sense of that
term) of the lessons of the ancestors.

The developments of these principles and practices, in
their last stage, we have seen in the preceding Book :
whether we have seen anything that will deiinitely either
oust or develop them further is a question which I do not
attempt to answer. We have seen in the further past —
and he was a wise man who said "The Past is the Self:
what it is and what it shall be " — two forms or varieties
of vicissitude in more or less accomplishment. There has
been the steady development, on the same but extended
lines, which we have seen from St. Godric to Mr. Swin-
burne ; and there have been various checks, offsets, sets-
back, and other complications of reaction, or revolt, or
mere experiment, such as the alliterative revival, the
wanderings in the wilderness of doggerel, the attempts —
always unsuccessful, but constantly revived — at classical
versing, and, most remarkable and pertinacious of all, the
limitation in form and rule imposed on the poetic spirit
during, and for some little time before, the eighteenth
century. To which of these two divisions our rhymeless-
ness, our discord-seeking, our stress -prosodies and other
things belong. Time will show. But one thing I think
we may dare say that even he will not show, and that is
any positive and final solution of continuity in the general
course of English prosody.

The characteristics of the last minor stage have been
also those of the major ; and the curious knitting of
nineteenth-century poetry, by the length of life and the
continuity in production of its poets, brought this about
necessarily. Tennyson himself was born in the first
decade of the century, and lived into the last ; he actually
published verse from the second to the tenth decade.


At the moment (itself the very centenary of his birth)
when I write these words, there is still living^ one of the
authors of the Bon Gaultier Ballads, published sixty-five
years ago. There never has been so long a time — iii
years if we start from the Lyrical Ballads, 129 if we
start from the Poetical Sketches — during no single year of
which there was not living a poet — during few years
of which there were not living several poets, who had
published, were publishing, and were to publish, work of
the first order in poetry. And there never was one so
knit, overlapped, latticed, cross-hatched, intertwined, as
regards the style and characteristics of that poetry.

Yet these all developed legitimately from the earlier
history, if — in regard to its immediately earlier stage —
partly by the way of resilience and reaction. All the
story is one ; and that — with some things as to the
character of the story — is what I chiefly hope to have
been able to impress on such readers as may have been,
or may be, good enough to follow me through the long
unrolling of it. I have been (not too severely) impeached
of diffusiveness ; but I really do not know what I could
have omitted, without omitting at once something not
unimportant in itself and something all-important in the
history as such. The gradual formation of the blend
called the English language, and the concomitant deter-
mining of a new blend of prosody — not French, not
Latin, not Old English, not a mere mechanical jumble
of all three, but a new chemical compound, or a fresh
sculpturesque configuration — formed the subject of the
earlier part of the first volume ; and I must again repeat
that if any one really wishes to understand English
prosody up to its very latest stage, or in any of its stages,
it is this Period of the Origins that he must study. Guest
studied it with his mind made up, his spectacles ready
coloured, and a determination to look only at what had
come before, not at what has come after it. Mitford had
no full opportunities, nor any satisfactory apparatus, for
studying it, while he also had a theory. There have

' Sir Theodore Martin died a few days later.


been many modern students of it, with ever-increasing
provision of the facilities which Mitford lacked. But they
have generally approached it from the philological side
only ; they have, in the majority of cases, been students
rather of parts than of the whole ; they have very seldom
indeed allowed the lessons of subsequent poetry to have
their fair influence ; and they have almost to a man
adopted, without investigation, the accent- or beat-system
which has been foisted in from abroad, and developed by
persons lacking English tongues or English ears, and
mostly under the domination of an artificial and arbitrary
system of phonetics.

What these various influences produced was the Foot
(see App. I.) — that is to say, the integral collocation of
"long" and "short," "strong" and "weak," "accented"
and " unaccented " syllables. This constitutes the differ-
ence of English prosody, on the one side from French,
which is syllabic almost wholly to begin with, though
influenced and qualified at the end by rhetorical or
individual " fingerings " ; on another from German, which
is accentual mainly, though with tendencies towards feet ; '
and on yet another from the strict classical prosodies,
where the feet are constituted from more or less invariably
and antecedently quantified or quantifiable syllables. It
comes nearest to the foot of Latin accentual prosody
(whence probably the error about English accent being
its foundation), but is differentiated by the absence of
that apparent pull against quantity which (again the
cause of serious error in regard to English) does some-
times appear in mediaeval Latin, and is flagrant in such
earlier barbaresque verse as that of Commodian."

^ I must not be misunderstood here. The prosodies of German and
English are of course very close, and in blank verse especially German is
even more apparently "regular" than English; but German pulls more
towards Accent, and English more towards Quantity.

^ The Commodianic hexameter {v. sup. i. i8) is sometimes an odd counter-
part to our more modern English attempts, such as those of Mr. Stone and
Mr. Bridges. But on this point, and on the remarks above as to foreign
prosodists, I would invite attention, from those who know how to " transpose,"
to some striking observations of Pepys. Samuel knew nothing about verse ;
but he knew a good deal about music, and he was one of those absolutely
natural men whose observations, when they are shrewd as well as natural, go


It was the later business of the First volume to show
how this foot-arrangement, slowly emerging in distinct
but incomplete conditions during the thirteenth and
fourteenth centuries, was, by the sudden application of
Chaucer's genius, brought to what perfection it could, in
the state of the language, attain ; how changes in word-
structure and in pronunciation, uncombated by such
genius as his, reduced most literary poetry in Southern
English to something like prosodic chaos in the fifteenth
century, though folk-song went its own saved and saving
way ; and how, with the New Learning and the settlement
of the language, but still under a terror of the doggerel
anarchy which had prevailed, things grew slowly better,
till Spenser established the form of English verse afresh,
brought out the foot-arrangement once more unmistak-
ably, but (as was natural and fitting in the circumstances)
kept to the side of order, and latterly did not even
adventure in the freer but still orderly lyric.

In the Second volume we saw how this re-established
command of the foot by degrees, owing partly to real
lyric, but still more to the great adventure of blank verse
— which showed that the foot had "felt itself" and its
power independently of rhyme, — attained once more the
full franchise of equivalence, and began to show, in
Shakespeare and Milton, the astonishing and almost
miraculous powers of the English blend. We saw, too,
how even yet things were not finally assured, and how,
after the extravagances of the enjambed couplet and the
" second doggerel " of broken-down blank verse, another
period of severe restriction was found necessary, and was

very far in matters with which they are acquainted. " I am convinced more
and more that, as every nation has a particular accent and tone in discourse,
so as the tone of one not to agree with or please the other, no more can the
fashion of singing to words ; so that the better the words are set the more
they take in the ordinary tone of the country whose language the song speaks.
So that a song well composed by an Englishman must be better to an
Englishman than it can be to a stranger, or than if set by a stranger in
foreign words" (Easter, Ap. 7, 1667, just before "The Dutch in the
Medway," ed. Wheatley, vi. pp. 260-261). This passage, which Lord Bray-
brooke omitted, is for infinite thought ; and may plead for Samuel against
many Dianas, and Betties, and Dolls, and so forth.



provided by the tyranny of the other form of couplet, and
of few and strictly tied-up lyrical measures, during the
eighteenth century.

And here, in the Third, we have seen another loosing
of the bonds, another exultation of freedom — whether
also another tendency to excesses beyond and against
prosodic nature, it is not necessary to say. In the
chapters of it I have not attempted to sum up the
general prosodic character of Mr. Swinburne and Mr.
Morris, of Tennyson and Browning, even perhaps of
Shelley and Keats — as it is now possible, and as it was
not for Mitford or even Guest, to sum up those of Chaucer
and Spenser, of Shakespeare and Milton, of Dryden and
Pope. I doubt whether the person is yet born — he is
certainly not long out of his cradle — who can do this, or
for many years will be able to do it. The perspective of
the past is not yet firm enough for that. But I have, I
think, given the intermediate and preliminary analysis
— in a way which may be useful even to the person
who has been or may be born to do it completely — ohm
Hast, dock ohm Rast. At least this is what I have tried
to do.

But at any rate I believe that it has been found
possible, in these volumes, to trace and to set forth, with
(as I at least hope) a coherence and completeness not
easily to be found in any single exposition earlier, a
possible and logical life-history of English verse for the
last seven centuries, supported throughout by examples
of fact, and conforming itself unceasingly and ungrudgingly
to this fact and to nothing else. To me it seems that
this could not be done by any other system — that all
other systems meet and break themselves against irre-
concilablenesses of one sort or another in the historic
sequence ; and that, still more, they meet with constant
particular difficulties, which they have to evade by
unnecessary and improbable " epicyclic " explanations,
or else to leave frankly unsolved ; while (as it seems to
me also) their particular explanations, when achieved,
are constantly at variance with the demands and the
VOL. Ill 2 L


commands of the ear. Of course it is conceivable
(though, I own, with great difificulty by me) that there is
710 system — that English prosody is not a natural and
orderly development on biological principles, but a
succession of haphazards, a drift of unconnected and
uncaused atoms, dependent on chance, or individual
genius, or definite "copying" from foreign models. If
anybody can believe this, I frankly grant that all this
book is, in my favourite quotation, " lost labour and
light-minded folly." Otherwise it is not quite that
perhaps, but at the worst a confession of faith, arrived at
and supported by an exposition of fact. The chief dogma
of the creed, and the chief fact discovered and expounded,
is the Foot.

And now quid plura ? I have done what I could to
show in this book that the formal part of English poetry
is no negligible thing, and that it is still less a thing to be
regarded as purely mechanical on one hand or purely
haphazard on the other. It is to me the life of poetry —
a life which, like other lives, is mysteriously and inex-
tricably blended with other things, but which is still, in a
way, separable.

And I have further tried to prove that if this special
life is conferred on the bare meaning, it is conferred by
Prosody, through its two engines of metre and diction.
How these engines have worked ; how they have been got
ready, especially on the metrical side ; how they have been
applied and perfected by twenty generations of those
greatest benefactors of the world, the poets — I have tried
to show. How inadequately I have done it no one can
be more conscious than I am. But I know that the
causeway under my feet, through whatever floods of doubt
and difficulty, " holds hard as wood " ; and that those who
pursue it will reach the Little Tower of appreciation of
poetry, whence no man was ever yet dislodged.^

' For, as the Judicious Poet writes :

The lip of a girl, and the lilt of a verse, and the lap and the lift of the sea —

Of all the things that the world has seen — of all that ever shall be —

Of all God's works in heaven and earth, there is nothing to match These Three.


At any rate, I may perhaps be allowed to repeat the
assurance that the system so perseveringly recommended
during this book is no result of casual theoretic whim,
forcing fact into accordance with it, nor of obedience (or,
what is still more common, opposition), to teaching in
early days. I never was taught any system of English
prosody, and, as it happened (it may seem odd, but is
true), I never read any books on English prosody till long
after I had formed my own ideas on the subject. And
these ideas were formed and fostered, developed, confirmed,
and completed by nothing but the reading of English
poetry. Even when — more than twenty years ago
perhaps, but at also more than double twenty years of
age — I began to read prosodists, I can honestly say
that I judged them, not because of their agreement or
disagreement with any crystallised system of my own,
but simply as they seemed to me to suit or not to suit
that same English poetry. I saw, and have seen ever
since with increasing clearness, that the pure accentual
system is totally inadequate ; that the mixed accent
and stress systems, with additions of syzygy, or section,
or what not, are at the best arbitrary and lacking in
universal application, while they often lead to horrible
mis-scansion ; that this same unpardonable sin of prosody
attaches still more to the pure musical systems ; that the
attempts to go behind the study of construction, and
the legitimate analysis of line and stanza-effect, into
questions of the origin of value, though no doubt they
need not necessarily, do, actually and in practice, lead to
error. Comparing and winnowing all these with the con-
stant correction of the actual poetic history and produc-
tion before me, I have found nothing adequate in the
exposition but the foot-system as here explained ; and

And as the Scholiast (stylo, as he says modestly, forsan canino, but surely with
even more than canine sagacity) adds, Basiationem continuatn sustinere
difficilliinum : et quamvis tnaneat Oceamis, ab Oceano occupaiiones tuae te
revocare et retinere possunt. Sed versus legere aut saltern versuum memiuisse,
iiiivis, tit libet, sic licet. Voluptatum ergo triuin haec potissiina et Jidelissima
est. (He subjoins a disquisition on qtmmvis with the indicative and sub-
junctive respectively, which may be omitted.)


I have found this adequate always. I have, of course,
made many omissions, many awkwardnesses, many positive
mistakes. But, at least, I have kept, or tried to keep, my
eyes steadily on " the eyes of Beatrice " — on the actual face
of the actual poetry.





I AM afraid that there may be an appearance of contumacy in
the attempt to " crush " (as the Edinburgh Reviewer ^ says) all
dealing with such subjects as the Principle of Equivalence, the
Accent and Quantity battle, and others as well, into the compass
of a single appendix of not many pages. My excuses (which
perhaps are not excuses at all) must be twofold — one historical,
the other philosophical. I never read in history, ancient or
modern, of any successful attempt to conciliate enemies when
the subject of quarrel was a real one ; or of any controversy
which did not leave the controversialists very much where they
began. And I never read in philosophy, ancient or modern,
from the Eleatics to the Neo-Platonists and from the Scholastics
to Nietzsche, any two sentences that impressed themselves more
upon me than Aristotle's caution against " straying into other
kinds," and Hume's warning that inquiries of a certain sort only
push ignorance further back. For my own purposes, and to my
own thinking, quite enough has been said on the whole subject,
or bundle of subjects, in this book already. But it might seem
unmannerly towards persons of worth and courtesy to say
nothing more ; and so I shall say something, though in no
sanguine state of mind as to its satisfying anybody.

To my thinking, as I have already stated again and again, the
subject of prosody begins where the question of what constitutes
prosodic material leaves off. It is no doubt competent for the
prosodist to busy himself with that question, just as it is com-
petent for the student of architecture to analyse rocks, and for
the student of painting to analyse madder, and cochineal, and
lapis-lazuli. But it is not in the slightest degree necessary for
him to do so ; and it is by no means certain that, in doing so, he
will not weaken his grasp of, and divert his attention from, his
proper subjects of inquiry. "The mode of ascertaining the
^ V. sup. p. 164.


apertures of the teeth," the question whether the u in " ugly " is
a single sound or an eikosiphthong, and even that whether a
" long " syllable is made so by Cause a, Cause /?, or Cause Abraca-
dabra, seem to me — I must apparently say it once more —
questions which, whether soluble or insoluble, frivolous or serious
in themselves, have as much to do with the question of the
admitted " harmony," as far as it goes, of Pope, the questioned
" harmony " of Shakespeare and Milton, the generally but not
universally given up /^harmony of Donne, as the petrology of
the Portuguese quarries has to do with the style of Batalha, or
the chemical analysis of the colours on Velasquez' palette with the
victoriousness of the " Venus " or the " Admiral."

It has, however, been objected by the most competent and
courteous of critics, Mr. Omond, that I have no riglit to speak
of " equivalence " unless I give some principle on which I
consider values equivalent. And we have seen a rather remark-
able argument (by the Edinburgh Reviewer cited more than
once), that although equivalence undoubtedly may exist in time,
it cannot in accent. I am indeed not sure that this latter
argument is, even in its own division, sound ; for whatever
accent may be — and there is quite as much fight about this as
about other things — it admittedly admits of degrees, and it is
difficult to conceive of " unaccentedness " which does not admit
of degrees of approach to accentedness. For a pure phonetic
zero could not be pronounced at all. With these degrees,

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 45 of 50)