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

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it is significant that alliteration is strongly apparent in Coleridge
and Shelley ; but in the second and third divisions of nineteenth-
century poetry it became increasingly prominent. Probably
no one ever used it more, and abused it less, than Tennyson.
Browning revelled in it, and Mr. Swinburne's indulgence was
one of the chief features of his prosody that impressed themselves
upon the general. In fact it is undoubtedly one of the most
powerful, as it is one of the most popular, instruments at the
disposal of the English poet ; though, like most things of the
kind, it is dangerous. There is no more artful aid ; but it is
certain that than an inept alliteration nothing is inepter.

It is, however, in the article of Vowel-Music that the history
calls for the most distinct and notable summarising. I hope I
have made it clear that nobody need expect from me that fatuous
confidence in our being better than our fathers, which is the
mark of vulgar minds and vulgar epochs. There is, as I have
pointed out, exquisite vowel-music in mediaeval poetry ; but the
instrument was in the making, and the players were mostly
unaware even of the powers that it had already developed.
Shakespeare divides with ^^ischylus and Dante the position of
master word-musician of the world ; and Spenser, if he never
rises quite to Shakespeare's altitudes, more constantly affects this
peculiar appeal, and is uniformly successful in it. Milton on the
one side, and the crowd of Caroline lyrists on the other, do
wonders with it ; and his must be a pitiably limited ear which
cannot hear and rejoice in the trumpet of Dryden and the
clarionet of Pope. Still, with the exception of Spenser, Milton,
and perhaps some of the minor Carolines, it may be questioned
whether any of these employed the instrument very consciously
or deliberately — of Shakespeare I have several times declared my
steadfast determination never to say what he did or did not do
consciously. But the theories, no less than the abilities, of the
eighteenth century were disposed to close it, and lock its case.
Shenstone might perceive, if he could not fully exemplify, the
superior beauty of full rhymes ; Gray might accomplish a low
and moderated, Collins a higher and more varied, harmony of
sound- note ; but while few had the organ, hardly anybody
would have cared to use it. Good sense and right reason were
independent of the mouthing out of <9's and a's. In fact, if the
stopped decasyllabic couplet is the be-all and end-all of verse,
you cannot have much vowel-music ; your best will be the short.


if full-throated, trumpet -blares of Dryden, and those shriller
clarionetteries of Pope which have been mentioned.

But, when the tide of taste turned, there was nothing more
certain than that vowel-music would be eagerly practised and
(by degrees, if not at once) made a principal method of appeal.
It makes, indeed, the larger part of that attack on the definite
auditory faculty which has been noted. It is wonderful, if
elusive and improvised, in Blake ; hardly less wonderful, if more
sophisticated, in Coleridge. Nothing is more curious than the
perfection of it in the few greatest passages (such, especially, as
that in " Yew-Trees," quoted above) of Wordsworth, who theo-
retically regarded it as a matter of course, something that you
get with Judgment and Observation, like a coupon for cheap
jewellery with a pound of tea. As for Shelley, he ranks with
Spenser and almost with Shakespeare ; but it appears to me that
the deliberate using of it begins (or nearly so) with Keats, and
it was certainly from Keats that Tennyson learnt his marvellous
conception and execution in it. Since Tennyson our poets may
be said to have regularly schooled themselves in it — even the
occasional cacophony of some later writers is a homage of
sedition, a sort of barring-out, which acknowledges, in opposing,
the existence of a master. Browning used it for spheral harmony,
and for the devil's tattoo, and for everything between them, just
as he pleased ; and the great poets of the " Prae-Raphaelite "
school employed sound just as they employed colour, with
deliberate and accomplished craftsmanship.

Of the beauties and delights of it so much has been said
incidentally in the pages of the text that there cannot be need to
say much more. It is, indeed, the very light of prosody ; though,
as in the case of feet, we must remember that Jtiere vowel-sound
without its consonantal consorts is, like mere accent or stress
without their opposites, an imperfect and almost soulless thing.
But what is rather curious is, that accomplishment in its use
excites, among those who cannot taste it, a singular and ludicrous
indignation. They often seem to wish to expend upon it — and
sometimes actually do — the complimentary language which poor
John Davidson bestowed upon rhyme — nay, to extend that
language to a quite prophetic strain of abuse, utilising the
vocabulary of Ezekiel and the Apocalypse. Well, let them rave,
and let us enjoy.



A. The Prosody of Lafigla/id, Lydga/e, and the '■'■ Kingis Qtiair"

It is no part of my business to enter at any length into the
dispute as to separation of the authorship of Piers Plow»ia?i ;
but it would, I think, after what I have said in Vol. I., be some-
what pusillanimous not to add that the whole prosodic evidence,
as I read it, is against that separation. The revived alliterative
metre is a thing not very easy to classify by hard and fast
enumerations and differences ; but its varieties are by no means
difficult to appreciate by careful reading and a practised ear. I
myself discern a distinct individuality in the form prevailing in
all versions of Piers Plowman, as compared with other poems
from William of Paler ne and Cleanness to the late fifteenth- and
early sixteenth-century examples ; and the variations and pro-
gressions which I indicated here, long before the idea of separation
was made public (I have been expecting it for many years) are
quite consistent with the natural development of that individuality.
They are, on the other hand, almost unthinkable regarded as
exhibitions in the work of different men, even if pursuing a
common object and starting from a single archetype. If the
prosody of the bulk of " A," " B," and " C " is the work of five,
or three, or even two, different poets, it presents a phenomenon
which is nowhere else in English poetry, which is contrary to all
observed working of natural laws in the subject, and which is, in
fact, a miracle — not, as I so often use the word, in the sense of
something admirable, but in the sense of something supernatural
and anti-natural.

Some additions of curious and contrasted interest have also
been made to the matter available for discussing the prosody of
Lydgate and that of James I. — two things which have always

^ I have fashioned this as a convenient receptacle for notes, on general or
specific points, too long for Addenda and Corrigenda, but not quite long enough
for distinct Appendices. The arrangement is roughly chronological, but not
meticulously so.



presented themselves oddly side by side in the study of the
Chaucerians. We are now told that we must not reckon
"London Lickpenny " as Lydgate's, chiefly because there are
no final e's. This seems most remarkably to ignore the state-
ment in the MS. which Professor Skeat has followed as best —
that it was made " about . . . year ago " and is " newly overseen and
amended." One would hardly expect final ^''s in such a version,
even from the strictest point of view of philologists. But the
piece has always seemed to me incredibly lively and terse for the
Monk of Bury.

The other point is much more curious. I am told that
some further examination of the only MS. of the Quair has
thrown the gravest doubt on the regular existence there of the
final e's, which, we used to be told, distinguish it. This would,
of course, injure the " regularity " of its prosody ; but certainly
not make it less likely to be James's, inasmuch as in his day the
e was beyond doubt getting irregular. But it would be chiefly
valuable in supporting certain contentions, as to Chaucer himself
and others, which it is not necessary to repeat.

B. Guest's Sy^nbol fur marking Accent, and its Bearings

When I wrote, when I revised for press, and when I published,
the remarks on Guest's fashion of marking accent and its conse-
quences at Vol. I. pp. 8-IO, I was not unprepared for remonstrances,
on the ground of misunderstanding and unfairness, in connection
with Professor Skeat's warning comment. They were duly made,
both by reviewers of the book and in private communications.
Of these — in the absence of Appendices to Vol. II., and in view
of the fact that Guest's own book could not be treated in full
till this third volume — there seemed to be neither way to treat
nor means of treating earlier than here. And I shall frankly
confess that, even here, I had at first intended to be Pharaonic or
Pilatesque, and simply reafifirm my remarks. As, however, I
find that some anti-Guestians are troubled in their minds on the
matter, it may be better to give reasons why I cannot recede
from the position I formerly took up in reference to the symbol | ,
its use, and its bearing on such matters as the passages originally
cited from Cowper and Coleridge.

In the first place, I entirely deny any one's right to use, or
any one's right to defend the use of, a symbol which not only
means division or nothing, but actually and in fact divides, by
saying that it is " not meant " to divide. A man may as well
cut my head off", and say that he only meant to make a harmless
mark on the nape of my neck. That the same mark is used by


all the world, except Drs. Guest and Skeat, as a symbol of division
in a particular form does not really matter, though it makes the
rashness and the danger of the w/j-use greater. The fact would
remain — even if, per impossibile^ the sign had never suggested
_/0(?/-division — that it is a sign of division of some kind. You
may " call your hat Cadwallader " if you like, because Cadwallader
is meaningless per se in the case ; and, if only you explain your
eccentric nomenclature, it is all right. But you may not call
your hat a boot, and then object to some one's bringing you a
real boot when you do so.

And there is more. That the practice naturally misleads,
though it is a pretty strong argument, might not be conclusive
against it \ for, it may be said, we ought to resist the temptation.
Admitted. But if there had been no such thing as "schoolboy
division " (I wish schoolboys never learnt anything worse !), if
foot-scansion did not exist, this practice of Guest's would suggest
something akin to it. It is, I fear, useless to argue, as it has
been argued by an obliging correspondent of mine, that Guest's
actual "sections" save him. These sections are often, if not
always, quite independent of " feet " of any kind. The point is
that, if you draw attention by any ??ieafis, but most of all by a
division-mark, to separate batches of syllables, you inevitably
tempt the voice to halt between those batches. Or — to give
almost preposterously lavish rope — when you make no division
but at " sections," you suggest that it does not matter where the
minor divisions are. Now it does matter : it matters infinitely,
in both examples given, where these minor divisions are. It is a
question in one case of a dignified and almost mournful trochaic
or of a jerky and ill-fitted iambic ; in the other, of the whole great
problem whether the English hexameter is a dactylic measure at
all, or anapsestic with anacrusis and catalexis. It is on division
that these questions turn ; it is a particular division in each case
that the marking suggests ; it is, if you consent to waive suggestion
altogether and simply believe the evidence of your senses, the
reality of this division that it enforces.

For these reasons, as well as for others, I must decline to
withdraw my original remarks.^

C. The Metre of Spenser's " February "

The occurrence of Christabel in this volume would in any case
form no bad text for some discussion on the older examples of its
metre. But it so happens that, since I wrote on those examples,
there has been fresh handling of the subject from a point of view

^ In connection with this v. svp. p. 276.
VOL. Ill 2 N


opposite to mine. Mr. W. W. Greg, in his most excellent book
on Pastoral Poetry and Pastoral Drama (London, 1906) has
some remarks obiter on Spenser's rhythm in " February," " May,"
and " September " of the Shepheant s Kaleiidar, and incidentally on
the general breakdown of versification from 1400-1550. He goes
so far as to think that "there can surely be no doubt as to the
actual origin " of the measure denoted above.

I am so far in an inferior condition to Mr. Greg that I am
less undoubting than he as to my own solution (^. sup. i. 353
and elsewhere) of this origin. But I may say that I have no
doubt whatever as to the insufficiency — if not as to the total
incorrectness — of his. He thinks that " in Spenser's day all
memory of the syllabic e had long since vanished, and the only
rhythm to be extracted from Chaucer's verse was of a four-stress
type." And, reversing the process of argument, he thinks that
you can recreate a Chaucerian " five-beat " out of Spenserian
fours, as thus :

Tho opened he the dore, and inne came

The false fox as he were starke lame.

It is fair to say that he makes some qualification in a note ; but
the note itself contains the statement above quoted as to " no
doubt," and Mr. Greg fortifies himself by reference to Mr.
Courthope {Hist. Eng. Poetry, ii. 253). Moreover, all students
of the Kalendar are aware that Professor Herford holds not
dissimilar views. But (and I say this as a hearty admirer of Mr.
Greg's book and of the other two scholars mentioned) I do not
think this will do. In the first place, the solution is surely
inadequate — quite incommensurable with the facts. Large
numbers of Chaucer's most memorable and characteristic lines
cannot be squeezed into " four-beats " anyhow — or only at the
cost of sacrificing all harmony. The best — there are not many
to sample — of Spenser's " four-beats," such as the great passage
towards the close of " February," cannot by any ^-mongering be
got into fives. Besides, the explanation ignores, not merely
the presence of equivalenced octosyllables from Genesis and
Exodus downwards, but the not infrequent occurrence among these
of actual decasyllabics, which we have been so careful to trace. ^
These pre-Chaucerians, whatever they were doing, were certainly
not mismetring Chaucer !

In fact Mr. Greg seems to me to give up his own point when
he says that the lines only become decasyllabics '■'■ by accident.''''
Not only is this not the case, but they are constantly decasyllables
in Elizabethan English — which again upsets the whole theory.
Spenser might conceivably have thought that Chaucer meant four

^ Any one who cares to search the Romances will find them in abundance.


when he really meant five. But could such a poet — such a
metrist — have written five when he himself meant four ?

Mr. Greg, of course, is not dealing with prosody directly — this
passage is a mere digression — hardly more, as has been said, than
a mere obiier dictum. But it illustrates, I think, the mischief of
the " beat " system, and the way in which it tempts even men
of sound literary judgment to acquiesce in a kind of muddle, and
to think that poets of the finest ear and poetic sense could be
deaf and blind, not merely to other poets' music, but to their own.
For, after all, if Spenser thought Chaucer's metre " four-beat "
even occasionally, how, in the name of the Five Fingers and the
Ten Commandments, did he himself ever come to write Mother
Hubberd's Tale in obvious following of Chaucer ?

The question seems to me to be not improperly stated thus.
Here is a poet who has left a body of some forty or fifty thousand
verses, including perhaps ten thousand in the most various metres.
Every one of these (except a very few which are obvious over-
sights or half-done work) exhibits a system of rhythmical-metrical
arrangement to which the ear of this present reader and writer
submits itself without the slightest difficulty, hesitation, or doubt.
The three Kalendar pieces likewise adjust themselves to this
system most interestingly, and perhaps a very little surprisingly,
but in a manner which necessitates not the slightest forcing of
ear or conscience — and which ceases even to be surprising when
the true historical Pisgah is resorted to, and The Oak and the
Brere is seen between Ge?ies{s atid Exodits long before and
Chnstabel long after.

On the other hand, admit that Spenser can have meant these
passages for (however loose) Chaucerian heroics, and the marriage
of true ears is hopelessly divorced. The calculus which has
accounted for the whole vast and complicated problem breaks
utterly down. Nor this alone ; for the passages become incon-
sistent with themselves. They contain plenty of actual heroics
or decasyllabics, perfectly well constructed and rhythmed. If he
had meant these throughout, there is no conceivable reason why
he should not have given them throughout. A muddle of hit
and miss is rather more unlikely from Spenser than from any poet
in the world. Even his early classical versings, whatever liberties
they may take with pronunciation and accentuation, achieve what
they try to do with perfect regularity. Here we are to suppose
that his instrument is to start aside like a broken bow at one
moment and to shoot strong and true the next — that he himself
is to be Chaucer at one moment and John Metham at another !
The thing is not reasonable.

It becomes least reasonable of all when we judge simply by

VOL. Ill 2 N 2


the result. The Oak and the Brere (with the other pieces in a
somewhat minor degree) is, when regarded and read as a con-
certed piece, in mingled octosyllabics with substitution, and
decasyllabics without, a charming thing ; what becomes of the
charm, if you regard it as a piece in mingled correct and go-as-you-
please decasyllabics, is more than I can say — or rather I think
I can say that it becomes utter ugliness. Of course this may
be a question of taste. But when it is remembered that this
argument from taste reinforces another argument of almost
mathematical stringency from the wide, detailed practice of the
poet, and a third from the general character and colour of that
practice, the threefold cord becomes, to my fancy, a pretty stout
twist. To me yet a fourth strand — the evidence of Mother
Hubbercfs Tale — makes it a very hawser. And I cannot help
thinking that the attempt to break this by saying " He may have
changed his mind " is rather a confession. " Why should he
change his mind ? " especially when nothing of any sort is gained
by supposing that he did. Why did he change his mind, and
his ear, and the beat of his fingers, and his whole style as a poet,
on this occasion only, especially when there are in the Kalendar-
pieces just as good decasyllabic couplets as in Mother Hubberd
herself? Surely the fact is that he did not change his mind at
all — that he at one time intended to write pure riding rhyme,
and at another and earlier did not, but accepted the equivalenced
octosyllable, familiar to him in ballad and romance, for con-
tinuous use.^

D. So7ne Modern histances

In the text I have from time to time introduced a few, but
very few, instances of apparent difificulties which I think might be
removed, aporiae or cruces which might be solved, and mistakes
which might have been avoided or corrected, if the system of
this book had been applied. Here are a few more, beginning
with two from recent reviews of poetry.

" His versification is at times frightfully confusing. He mixes
up iambs, anapaests, etc., so that one can hardly hope to find two
lines the same."

A very frequent case indeed with Shakespeare, Milton, and
other poor creatures. I may at least hope that the reader of

' He had precedents enough even in this ; and among them has been aptly
suggested the piece entitled "How the Ploughman learned his Paternoster"
(Wright and Halliwell's Reliquim Antiqrtce, i. 43-47), printed by W. de Worde.
This overflows, not merely into decasyllabics, but into "long doggerel" once
more [v. sup. i. 353, and note there) like Heywood. (Also v. sup. p. 532 note.)


this book will " hardly hope " what the reviewer hoped, but for
quite different reasons, and that he certainly will not be confused
by finding iambs mixed up with anaprests.

Again :

" He is alternately scrupulous and careless as to form and art,
though it is hard to ascribe to carelessness such lines as —

He knew he could not die in the spring-tide,

and this, which is still worse —

We look toward the goal that never nears. "

I hope again that most readers of this book will be prepared
to accept both these lines as perfectly — the second, perhaps, as
rather unusually — good ; and I should not mind if they felt some
bewilderment as to where the supposed " carelessness " comes in.
The lengthening of "the," especially before "spring," which can
be the only thing objected to in the first line, is, of course, justified
by thousands of good examples, and is not even absolutely
necessary. As to the second, if the reviewer thought the scansion
" to-ward " wrong, he simply was wrong himself, though I am
aware that some prosodists (generally of the accentual order)
would defend him.

Here is a still more surprising case. In the Nortli American
Review for November 1907, " C. E. Russell" wrote thus in
reference to a line in " Evening on the Broads " :

"What can be made by the formerly accepted systems of
prosody of such hexameters \sic\ as —

Full-sailed, | wide-winged, | poised softly, | forever | asway ?

[divisions original]. The usual \sic\ explanation is that Mr.
Swinburne carelessly, indolently, or for some occult purpose,
interposed one line of five feet, and also to make the fifth foot a
spondee and the remaining feet anapaests."

Now I have met unsound explanations enough, and more than
enough, but I do not believe that even Steele or Thelwall ever
got into such a state of explanatory mania as this. In the first
place, the line, which is identical in form with dozens of others,
including the opening pair in the even places ^ of the poem,
is only a /zi?.rameter in the sense in which every even line in
Ovid's elegiac poems is a hexameter. In the second, I hardly
suppose that even the quantitative hexametrists would make
"asway" a spondee. In the third, what kind of incredible
monster can the anapaest be in Mr. Russell's eyes that "poised

^ V. sup. p. 350 ncte, and p. 424.


softly "or "forever" represents it? and what sort of rhythm can
he imagine that his arrangement gets on the whole line ? The
" formerly accepted system of prosody," the " usual explanation,"
as I take them, simply say that the line is a perfect pe?itameter of
its kind —

Full-sailed, | wide- winged, | poised |! softly, for] ever a | sway,

but that, like all good English hexameters and pentameters, it slips
out, or is ready to slip out, into anapaests, equivalenced or altered
thus —

Full-|sailed, wide-|winged, poised || soft|ly, for evjer asway, |

the penthemimers being turned upside down and the half foot
preceding instead of ending each.

In yet another case I agree with Mr. Omond exactly, when he
says that the scansion, quoted above, of

By the wa|ters of Ba|bylon we sat down | and wept, |

suggested by Gurney and approved by Professor Lewis, " reduces
it to prose," though it can be made much more rhythmical prose
otherwise. But let it be observed that the line, which is not
unmetrical, though not of the very best, is susceptible of other
scansions which are not prose. You may make it an anapaestic
dimeter, with the rickety " Moorish " foisting of a slurred syllable
{p. sup. p. 85)—

By the wa|ters of Babj'llon w'c sat | down and wept, |
though I should not. You can do it trochaic-dactylic fashion —

By the | waters of | Babylon | we sat | down and | wept ; |

which I should not like, but which is metrical, possible, and, as a
unit, defensible. Best of all, one may make it into an unusual
but legitimate and rather beautiful middle-pause line, thus —

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 48 of 50)