George Saintsbury.

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

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expression of " accentedness " in terms of unaccentedness is not
inconceivable, and the Reviewer's contention, though ingenious
and at first sight plausible, falls through.

Even if it did not, it would do me neither good nor harm ;
because I do not believe that our verse rests on accent, as such.
Nor do I believe that it rests on quantity in the strict sense
of time — or for the matter of that, that " quantity " itself ever
solely rested on time in Greek or Latin. English prosodic
value appears to me to be determined — and equivalence to be
determined likewise and consequently — by the ear, " penes quam
est jus et norma scande?idi" though the word itself will not
scan in the place. The qualifications ^ which the ear admits
seem to me to be extremely various, and, like a general passport,
not intrinsically sufficient without what it would be a bull to call
the immediate visa of the ear itself. Literal " length," i.e. time
of pronunciation, is perhaps the test which fails most seldom, and
that is why I like the "quantity" range of terms best. It is very

^ I should say that there is a certain "transmutation of force" in matters
aural, and that time, weight, loudness, sharpness, and some other things take
each other's places rather uncannily.


difficult to make a "short" syllable out of one which takes a
very long time to pronounce. But " time " will not do exclu-
sively, for it is easy to make a " long " syllable out of one that
takes a very short time to pronounce. Accent, as I have said
often, will give "acting" quantity; so will emphasis; so will
probable loudness or sharpness in actual speech ; so will, some-
times, the mere will and skill of the poet, who, by the rush and
hurry of his verse, forces you to negotiate the weak landing and
taking-off places as if they were solid rock, and carries you safe
over. But always it is the result to the ear which decides.^ The
person whom the King addresses as Esquire or anything else is
that thing for his life and afterwards. The syllable or sound
that the ear accepts as long or short is short or long for its life
and afterwards — in that particular place. Beyond this I hold it
not merely unsafe to go, but more or less unwise, if not positively
futile ; and therefore I do not go further myself.

But if the ear is tolerant of all sorts of methods of preparing
and qualifying " long " and " short " syllables, provided only that
it recognises them as such by " rule of d}-um" it by no means
extends this tolerance to the point of laxity in admitting their
arrangement anyhow, when they have once qualified. This
arrangement is determined by an ascending series of considera-
tions, pertaining as they ascend to different sciences and orders
of thought. The first is purely mathematical, being the simple
possible permutations of "short" and "long." And the fact
that the classical foot-names are merely convenient and appro-
priate labels for these permutations demonstrates the folly of
those who object to the use of these names. Let the anti-
classicalist rage never so fiercely, he cannot help raging (if he
does it in verse) in iambs and trochees, dactyls and anapaests ; if
he confines himself to prose, in these and a more extensive
assortment of the hated terms up to paeons and dochmiacs.

But when this point has been passed, things cease to be so
simple, and the genius of the particular language begins to assert
itself. Thenceforward there is no real help to be found except
in experiment to a certain extent, and to a much larger — an
infinitely larger — in that record of past experiment which is called
History. You will gain nothing from Phonetics — which, if they
are concerned with anything real at all, are concerned with real
things previous to the primary process of prosody itself. You
will probably be led hopelessly astray by Music — which is another

^ And the ear sometimes seems to conduct its business on principles almost as
liberal as those for which Mr. Bertram commended Dirk Hatteraick to Guy
Mannering : "He'll take wood or he'll take barley, or he'll take just what's
convenient at the time." But not always.


kind from prosody, though dangerously near to it. But if you
stick to Prosody herself and to the subject, the poetry of the
language with which you are dealing, it will be your own fault
if you ever go wrong ; though sometimes you may be unable to
go positively right, because there are two or more available inter-
pretations of the riddle.

The first and most important " light " which the study of the
history of this subject gives you is that from almost the first
"syllable of recorded time," when English became fully English,
its verse arranges itself — haltingly at first, then in a more and
more orderly and soldierly fashion — in certain equivalent groups
of syllables themselves, which, in turn, are grouped further into
lines. The lesser and more integral groups, which cannot be
broken up without breaking up all " verse," are not mere aggrega-
tions of accented and unaccented: and they are, most particularly
and essentially, not haphazard aggregations in respect of the
unaccented, or rigid ones in respect of the necessity of the
presence of an accent. No such rule as the impropriety of
adjacent accentuation really exists ; none such as the limitation
of accenting to one syllable in a word. When we examine the
groups (of syllables furnished, taliter qualifer, with long or short
value) which form verse satisfactory to the ear, they are, necessarily
because mathematically, found to be identical, most commonly
and most naturally, with the six commonest of the classically
named permutations — iamb, trochee, spondee, anapaest, dactyl,
and tribrach. Of these the spondee and dactyl are least common,
as a result of the general quantity-character of the language ;
and the tribrach is slowest in establishing itself, because, no doubt,
of the old accentual etiquette of Anglo-Saxon.

All these feet are accepted by a good English ear — as the
practice of good English poets should show conclusively even to
those whose ear is less delicate and receptive — as constructively
equivalent, and (subject to further limitations of construction) as
interchajigeable — capable of substitution. But English admits this
process with greater freedom than does either of the classical
languages, though by no means indiscriminately ; and, in particular,
it possesses a property and privilege which seems to have been
unknown to them, that of accepting — not so often as to create
confusion, but by no means as a mere exception — silence for sojind,
the pause half-foot or even foot as a recognised expletive of the
line. By this licence, and even without it, it possesses viotio-
syllabic feet, which can not merely precede the verse in the
fashion of anacrusis, but can also form integral parts of it.

These equivalent groups — which are from one point of view
bricks that build up the line ; from another, sections into which


it may be resolved ; best of all, anatomisable limbs of which it
is composed ; but in no sense constituents of a jumbled heap
themselves jumbled together — are Feet; and by them, and of
them, and into them, as 1 hope to have shown fairly by this
time, the whole body of English verse is constituted, consists,
and may be resolved. But to go further behind the principle of
their equivalence or the principle of their juxtaposition, I hold,
once more, to be as useless and as hopeless as to attempt to
determine the ultimate laws of beauty and fitness in any aesthetic
kind. The ear decides in the one case as the eye does in the
other ; and the ear laughs at specified anastomoses and phonetic
syzygies, speech -waves and pitch -accents, as the eye does at
attempts to decide that the distance from the base of the septum
of the nose to the handle-place of the Cupid's bow of the lip
shall be half, or a third, or whatever it is, of the distance between
the lower lip itself and the chin-base.

Observation of individual points is of course possible, and
valuable — I hope that there is not a little of it in these
volumes ; and you can sometimes generalise, though you must
do it very cautiously. For instance, there is, I think, no doubt
that, unless the poet carries the thing off by the escamotage of
emphasis or some other special device, ^ a dactyl before an iamb
or an anapaest after a trochee is always cacophonous in English.
" Of course," says the accentualist, " because there are too many
unaccented syllables together." Unfortunately, not only will a
tribrach come perfectly well before an iamb or (less well) after
a trochee, making four " unaccenteds " ; but two consecutive
tribrachs are by no means unthinkable, and may, I believe, be
actually found in Tennyson and Mr. Swinburne, as well as,
with even greater ease, in Browning. In other words, " the foot's
the thing " ; and between the classes and clans of feet, while there
is a general eq7dvale?ice, there is by no means an indiscriminate
capacity for substitution or willingness to co-habit. The foot is
a person : not a brute concourse of atoms.

To the definition of its social differentia as " isochronism " I
have no particular objection, so long as it is not too much forced.
I should prefer (and could construct on Aristophanic principles,
and even on those of Aristotle's Helot of frigidity, the rhetorician
Lycophron) a term expressing " equality and congruity to the
ear," and should be liberal on the first score, though by no
means indifferent, and pretty strict on the latter, though with
a strictness very hard to define. The liberality is of classical
ancestry, for it is an old commonplace of the subject that, putting

^ As, for instance, in the ' ' name-stanza " of " The Blessed Damozel " (v. sup. ),
where, however, " Margaret " is not indisputably an integral dactyl.


aside degrees of shortness and length, an anapaest or a spondee or
a dactyl can never, in strict time^ equal an iamb or a trochee.
But our strictness, though less easily put into rule, is really much
less inferior to that of the ancient prosodies than half-scholars
like Archdeacon Evans (7'. sup. p. 293) have thought. (If the
reader will refer to the remarks in the text on Waller, Cowley, and
some others he will see the justification of this.) And one of
the main differences between the historical and the a priori
modes of attacking prosody is that, while the latter as a rule
applies impossible scansions to good verses, the former, by
proper examination and comparison, detects the badness of bad.

I have made an absolutely clean breast of my views, and of the
points on which — per viltate doubtless — I decline to take a view
of what seems to me invisible ; and I do not think it necessary to
say much more on the subject. In the course of my examination
of English poetry I have found (i) that the attempt to explain
its structure by accented and unaccented syllables is certainly
inadequate, is in all probability wrong, and constantly leads to not
probable but certain error ; (2) that, something different and some-
thing more being wanted, this something is adequately supplied
by the admission, as the constituents of the structure, of certain
entities, themselves composed either of sound-syllables, contrasted
in value, or of silence-spaces, interchangeable within limits and
conditions, componible further into groups, corresponding or
contrasted, which can be yet further compounded on principles
of correspondence and contrast. These last I call couplets or
stanzas, or, in the special case of blank verse, paragraphs ; the
middle combinations I call lines or verses ; the first I call feet.
And it is with the way in which the three have manifested and
behaved themselves, for the last seven or eight hundred years,
that this book concerns itself.

I am forced, when I consider these matters, to ask myself
whether a considerable number of persons who use the word
"foot" really know what that word means; and to answer the
question evasively by confessing that, if they do, I do not. A
foot is not to me, as it is, for instance, to Professor Lewis,^ with
whom I have in some other points little to quarrel about, a
mere mathematical fraction of a line-total. It is a member of
a line-body. It is not, as it apparently is with many, a fixed
number of fixed syllables ; but that I have explained sufficiently.
It is not something borrowed from Greek and Latin. But these
points of variety in acceptation are as nothing to another.
When I use the word " foot " generally, and the words " iamb,"
" trochee," etc., specifically, I take them as something real. An

' V. sup. p. 503.


iamb — let us take the common value titian — is to me a prosodic
entity, which, whether it is entirely comprised in the same word
or made up of more than one, or parts of more than one, is a
prosodic integer, with a character, variable in degree but in-
variable in essence, of its own. It is prosodically separated
(again with degrees) from its neighbours ; it is prosodically

united (again with degrees) in itself. So with a trochee {tuniti)
and others. Further, these feet give, to a line of which they are
the basis, a character corresponding (still with degrees) to their
own, and this character varies with them. Let us take the very
beautiful, very characteristic, and, as it happens, very regular line
from Romeo and Juliet :

And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars.

This line, as far as it is possible to represent its sound-scansion
diagrammatically, represents to me something like this :

ious stars
of in
the yoke
And shake

the stair-rise being, of course, exaggerated— to strike — in the
diagram. The trochee-people's scansion (see next article) I am
unable to represent to my mind by anything but


shake the

yoke of




which, even after allowing for the same exaggeration, appears to
me ludicrous, hideous, and false. But this is because the feet
are real things to me, and not merely ad libitum spoonfuls of

Of these kinds there were much to be said, for, by stress of
art or frolic of the Muses, we may achieve divers feet. I am
prepared to meet and greet a pyrrhic, though I do not know-
that as yet, in some experience of English poetical society, I
have ever yet had that pleasure. The very long or four-syllabled
feet, which some think to have already been made hoffdhig, I
rather doubt as yet, in serious and fully accomplished work, and
I can generally explain them otherwise ; but I have not the least
objection to accept then:i when the poets shall have established
them in that position. The amphibrach is a masquerade foot :


it is generally, if not always, something that has put on a vizard
and a domino for the occasion, and when you go home with it
you find it be an old friend. Two others are in different case.
The spondee is not so rare as is thought ; but it is a foot " of
occasion," and the necessity of making it something more is one
of the drawbacks of the so-called English hexameter. And the
same remark extends to the dactyl, though sometimes it natural-
ises itself, or perhaps you do not care to examine its papers
too narrowly. It is most at home when chaperoned by the

But still there abide these three — iamb, trochee, and anapaest
— in the English aristocracy of poetry. The iamb is with us
the staple of poetic life : it will do any work, take on any colour,
prove itself at need the equal of either of the other two, which
it often summons to reinforce it. The trochee is the passion of
life ; not easily adaptable by itself, except for special moments,
comic or tragic, frivolous or plaintive, as it chooses, but seasoning
and inspiriting the iamb constantly and yet strangely. And the
anapaest is the glory of life, though its uses differ in glory.
When a man knows how to use these three, there is little left for
him to know, though there is infinitely much left for him to
devise and do. Beyond them, for constant and necessary use,
in seven centuries of experiment, no man has yet gone ; neither,
I think, in seven or seventy more, shall any go.^

^ As an aid to the comparison of foot-scansion with scansion by stress and
section let us take one of the greatest lines in modern, and English, poetry, the
finale of " Laus Veneris " :

The thun|der of | the trumjpets of | the night.

Foot-scansion gives me what I have indicated, for, as I have remarked in this
excursus, and shall in the next, I utterly decline

The I thunder | of the | trumpets | of the | night.
Stress and section-scansion would, I suppose, give me

The thunder of | the trumpets of | the night,

The thunder | of the trumpets | of the night,

or, just conceivably.

The thunder of the | trumpets | of the night.

I can see no fourth possibility.

Now these arrangements have some superficial merits. In fact I should not
object to the second myself, as indicative of what I have called the fingering of
the poet ; while the first, though inferior, has the advantage of bringing out
suddenly "the night" — the night that cometh. But let it be observed that
though these are themselves comparatively unobjectionable as rhetorical adjust-
ments of the line itself, they give no clue to anything else. You are not one whit
forwarder with any other line for them : whereas the foot-scansion (to which you
can easily add this, and something similar in other cases, while you often want


nothing more) is a key to every good line in the English language, and shows
you how all are good. And I think I may, though declining examination in
detail of Mr. Bridges' ' ' stress-prosody " here, point out that he has come to
allow " sXress-feet," including a kind of amphibrach called a "britannic," and
admitting sorts up to a practical molossus. 1 cannot always make them work,
and I can almost always make feet of the usual kind work better ; but the con-
cession, in such a quarter, of the practical insufficiency of stress-by-itself-stress is



The question mooted above is one on which I myself have no
doubts, and one which, intrinsically, I should not choose for
discussion. But I have been asked to say something on it, and
there are certain circumstances which give it a claim to attention.
To begin with, the pretensions of the trochee have had, at
different times, no small amount of backing, sometimes from not
negligible persons. In the second place, the dubiety — unjustified
as I think it — connects itself with some very important features
of prosodic inquiry in the past. But its most important title-
deed is a " black-letter " one — to use the term as it is used in
speaking of a " black-letter lawyer."

There certainly 7vas a time when the metrical basis of English
poetry, so far as it had any, was trochaic. The trochaic cadence
sounds — if any foot-cadence does — in the whole body of Anglo-
Saxon verse proper until the break-up, or the experimental
advances (whichever name be preferred), of the eleventh and
twelfth centuries. Nothing but Guest's determination to have
naught to do with anything in the least connected with " the
rhythm of the foreigner," or with a nomenclature associated with
quantity, can have prevented so careful a student of Anglo-Saxon
verse from noticing this. But it is exceedingly improbable that
many modern favourers of the trochee can have been influenced
by such a consideration ; and probably most of them have been
ignorant of the fact.

On the other hand, the rather numerous prosodic students
who cannot rid themselves of the notion that music is the thing
to help them, are naturally enough impelled, by the atiacrustic
fashion of scansion which music suggests, to " see trochees " as
freely as another class of persons sees snakes. Moreover, the
peculiar fashion in which iambic and trochaic measures intermix,
set to each other, and carry out a complicated country-dance,
might not unreasonably prompt the question, " Why is one of



the partners to be preferred above the other ? And if one is to
be preferred, why not the trochee ? "

Plenty of causes can be shown ; but to the present writer, on
the principles of the present book, one seems sufficient — the
extreme rarity of sustained trochaic rhythm, without admixture
or external support, in English poetry, and its very dubious
success, except in short passages, where it is attempted. In the
older poets, whether in great examples like those of Milton or
pleasant ones like those of Wither, when it does not frankly beg
an arm of the iambic, it constantly adopts the catalectic form,
which is nearly as much iambic as trochaic. " Virgin daughter
of Locrine '"' will lose two-thirds of its beauty if you make it
" Locrinz^i-," and " Makes the desolatest place " will be absolutely
spoilt, or at least made half-comic, if you make it " placei'," the
filling in in each case giving a suggestion of " rocking-horse," if
not of positive burlesque. On the other hand, the finest piece of
almost pure trochees in Enghsh, the " Passage of the Fountain "
in Tennyson's " Vision of Sin," is not quite pure — the foot
expanding into dactyls now and then — and is short, ending too,
usually, though not always, with catalexis. The monotony of
the long-continued trochaic measure of Hiawatha is notorious,
and, even by those who do not dislike the poem, undeniable.

On the contrary, it is almost superfluous to say that the
continuous iamb is always at home, and never requires any
variation (except for the mere pleasure of change) or support of
any kind. To get the vast armies, the innumerable multitudes
of it that exist in English, into trochaic form, or in most cases
even into a suggestion of trochaic rhythm, you have to play the
most gratuitous, unliterary, and unnatural tricks upon them, and
you often produce positively ludicrous or nauseous results. The
decided majority of prosodic opinion on the point comes to
reinforce the prima facie custom of poetic practice ; and the
undoubted primogeniture of the trochee is sufficiently disposed
of (except in the view of Guestites) by the great change which
came upon the language at the passing of Old and the coming of
Middle English. We have seen how even the revival of alliter-
ative-accentual rhythm, though it galvanised the trochaic run to
some extent, failed to maintain this, and passed over to the
anapKst, or something very like it.

Never, therefore, will it be justifiable to wrench, not the
accent, but the rhythmical cadence, of the mass of English verse
from "rising" to "falling." In fact one of the strongest argu-
ments against doing so is that it would obscure and deaden the
true trochaic rhythm, when it is wanted for contrast, or in its
rarer employment as staple metre. Yet there may be something

VOL. Ill 2 M


more to say, though it is very difficult to say it politely. Some
of these trochaisers seem to me to be prosodically rhythm-deaf
as other persons are physically colour-blind. Professor Alden,
in that valuable and interesting book to which I have only been
able to make a bare reference above, thinks that the distinction,
not only of iambic and trochaic, but of anapastic and dactylic, is
"superficial" — that it depends "not on the nature of the rhythm
concerned, but on where we begin to count a measure"; that " We
met a host and quelled it " has " the saftie rhythm " whether you
take the extra syllable at the end or the beginning. He says
further, in connection with my remarks on " Boadicea," "No one
has yet shown how the difference in naming and dividitig feet
can change the rhythm." Now this is to me passing strange.
My own preference for iambic over trochaic rhythm in the great
mass of English verse may be right or wrong. It is possible
that Shakespeare's and Milton's blank verse, scanned tro-
chaically, may not be so absurd or so hideous as it seems to me.
But to say that the two scansions are the same rhythm, seems
to me as though a man should say that blue is the same as
orange. They may be the same musically or mathematically : I
do not pretend to be a musician, and my last mathematical
distinction was attained about half a century ago. That, pro-
sodically, they are utterly different, my ear informs me, without
phrase and without appeal.

Nor do I think that the critic whose suggestion principally

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 46 of 50)