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

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by no means fond of extreme enjambment ; and he has
a curious fling at it in one of his later prefaces.*

[With pleasing murmur soothe

Her parted soul ?]
[Shall no tear wet the grave

Where Moina lies ?]
The bards shall raise the lay of death,
The bards shall soothe her parted soul,
[And drop the tear of grief

On Moina's grave.]

It will be observed that each of the couplets enclosed in square brackets
is simply a blank-verse line, arbitrarily split.

1 The name is Ossianic. Sayers speaks guardedly of the "works attri-
buted to Ossian " ; but I have no doubt that the immense influence of
Macpherson {v. Excursus itif.) had a good deal to do with his rhymelessness.
■•^ Hither, O queen of Silence, turn the steeds,
The slow-paced steeds that draw thy ebon car,
And heave athwart the sky
Thy starry-studded veil.

3 Complete Poems, ed. Gilfillan, 2 vols., Edinburgh, 1855.

* That to Ban-well Hill {\%i^), which is of some prosodic interest.


But in prosody as in poetry generally, those fourteen
sonnets, which distress of mind and desire of money ^ made
him compose and offer in the year of the French Revolu-
tion to a bookseller, estate him, with next to no other
title, but securely. How they affected Coleridge almost
everybody knows ; it is a not unimportant piece of
evidence in the question whether Southey took his interest
in Prosodia Liberata from Coleridge or not, that he felt
this influence just after he left Westminster and therefore
before he met Coleridge ; and it was widely shared. No
doubt their tone — the new interest in nature, scenery,
and historical association, the still newer intensifying of
this by the " pathetic fallacy " — did much. But we must
not defraud the prosodic appeal of its rights. For just
as this remarkable form was sovereign in the sixteenth
century against loose doggerel, so it showed itself sovereign
now against hide-bound couplet. The rhythm-scheme of
Bowles's attempts in it is not very strict,^ but for that
very reason it supplies a more serpentine and poly-rhymed
paragraph of verse, with undulating motion and soft
explosion of final music-echo, to contrast with the tick-
tick and rattle-clatter of the couplet.

^ See the interesting autobiographic Preface of 1837 for this and other
matters referred to in the above paragraph.

^ He says in the Preface above referred to: "I thought nothing about
the strict Italian model : the verses naturally flowed in unpremeditated
harmony as my ear directed." As far as consciousness goes, he no doubt
here formulates the usual fact.


If the introduction of Ossian into this history meant any
attempt to meddle with the Macpherson problem at large, the
present writer would simply "shudder and bolt." Fortunately
it does not. There is, I believe, no point on which there is
less dissidence between competent authorities than on this — that
however much or however little influence actual Gaelic texts
had upon Fingal and Temora, etc., the irregular prose-verse or
verse-prose in which these productions are couched owes
nothing to any Celtic source in point of form. Whether
Macpherson was a patriotic and fortunate discoverer of things
that had never been seen before, and were never to be seen
again ; or a pure forger ; or only an extremely ingenious
" faker " of a conglomerate of the genuine and the spurious, —
all this matters to us not at all. What does matter to us is
that his vehicle is somewhat remarkable in itself, is very much
more remarkable in the influence which it exercised, and is
perhaps most of all remarkable because of the testimony which
it gives to the drift — the appetite — the desires of the time.
The reader is already aware that I attach, rightly or wrongly,
much more importance to this than to anything else, and quite
infinitely more than to the expressed opinions of preceptist
prosodists. For these are " what the soldier said," and nothing
more ; the other is evidence.

In the same way this long-suffering reader ought to be aware
now (if he cares to be so) that much less importance is here
attached to supposed " originals " in particular cases than to the
said drift, appetite, tendency, manifesting itself in individuals as
well as in groups or nations. Whether Macpherson had any
one special archetype before him in arranging his blank verse,
or measured prose, or whatever it is to be called, I do not know.^
My excellent predecessor, Blair, writes merely as follows : —

^ The author himself, who, whatever else he was, was beyond all doubt
an exceedingly clever man, takes good care to throw very little light on the
matter in his Preface of 1773. But he gives a sample of " another poem " {utio
excusso no7i deficit alter) in prose and verse, the latter of which is in fair
machine-made eighteenth-century couplet.



"The measured prose which he has employed possesses
considerable advantages above any sort of versification he could
have chosen. Whilst it pleases and fills the ear with a variety
of harmonious cadences, being at the same time freer from
constraint in the choice and arrangement of words, it allows the
spirit of the original to be exhibited with more justness, force,
and sublimity." He rather pities " the poet " for being stripped
of his native dress, " divested of the harmony of his native
numbers," but urges that " if he still has power to please," he
must be an uncommon genius.

What Macpherson's own words do show beyond reach of
scepticism is that he felt the want of " simplicity and energy "
in the verse of his time : and though he also speaks, in the cant
phrase, of " the fetters of rhyme," there can be no hesitation in
assigning his decision, in part at least, to the misgivings which
we have traced, and are tracing, as to the artificiality and the
feebleness of the couplet — misgivings which, mutatis vnctandis as
to the actual form, were spreading all over Europe, and were
showing themselves in a dozen different ways.

Macpherson's way may have been suggested to him by more
originals than one or two ; but there is, I think, little reason to
doubt that the most important influence of all was that of the
English Bible in such passages as the Song of Deborah, the
Lament of David for Jonathan, nearly the whole of the Book of
Job, and large portions of the prophets, especially Isaiah. I do
not know what his knowledge of foreign and classical languages
was, but certainly any literal translation of a Greek chorus, even
any one of an Italian canzone, might have given him hints. And
I do not know that he did not take some from English Pindaric,
the popularity of which had not wholly waned when he began.
His chief special secret, as it seems to me, is the sharp and
absolute isolation of sentences of unequal length. There is
hardly anywhere, in verse or prose, a style so resolutely cumula-
tive, while maintaining such complete want of connection
between the constituents of the heap. Each sentence conveys
its meaning completely — as far as it goes.^

I do not think that Macpherson has any special moulds or
types of rhythm. As this sort of writing practically must do in
English (and as, we see, Blake's borrowing of it did much more),
it not unfrequently slips into fourteener :

The king alone no gladness shewed, no stranger he to war.

Tonora, bk. vi. p. 119.

And actual blank verse is, of course, still more inevitable. " Six-

' My references are to the "new edition" (2 vols., London, 1796).


teeners " or flattened out octosyllabic couplets, also frequent in
Blake, are common :

Tall Morla came, the son of Swarth, and stately strode the youth along.

Fifigal, bk. ii. p. 227.

But the effect is best when these definite crystallisations of metre
are avoided and the prose is left to run merely rhythmically.
Even in these the decoying character of metre is evident — the
way in which, if you venture on its inchoate stage of rhythm,
you are drawn to complete the whole. For instance, in one
passage you get, if you reverse the order as follows, simply the
half of an anapaestic stanza, like "Come into the garden, Maud " :

And the lake is settled and blue in the vale
When the sun is faint on its side.^

Fingal, bk. iii. p. 239.

^ Here is a similar one in the right order :

When it shews its lovely head on the lake,
And the setting sun is bright.

Carric-Thtira, i. 49.
In fact the combination is frequent : three pages farther you find :
By the mossy fountain I will sit
On the top of the hill of wind ;
and in Carthon, p. 73 :

When the sky pours down its flaky snow,
And the world is silent and dark.

Indeed, I have found dozens of them, and still more single groups of three-foot
anapaests. And here are some others in which the slightest change, or hardly
any, or none at all , makes obvious metre : —

[Oct. quatrain.]

Thy hand [it] touched the trembling harp :
Thy voice was soft as summer winds.
Ah me ! what shall the heroes say ?
For Dargo fell before a boar.

Note to Calthon and Colmal, i. 132.

[C. M. with rhyme, changing only plural for singular. Note trisyllabic
foot. ]

The waves dark-tumble on the lake.

And lash its rocky side[s].
The boat is brimful in the cove.
The oars | on the rock|ing tide.

Croma, p. 122.

[Complete " Moorish rfltelody," with slightest change.]

She turns | her blue eyes | toward the fields | of his pro(mise.

Where art | thou, O Fin] gal? the night is gathering round !

Comala, p. 36.
The opening of Carthon —

A tale of the times of old ! the deeds of the days of other j'ears

may have suggested the seven-foot anapasstic rhythm of the French Revolution tO'


Perhaps the form is at its happiest — which will not surprise
us, dates and other circumstances considered — when it is least
rhythmical and hardly metrical at all, such as in the passages at
the beginning of the short poem "Calthon and Colmal," above
cited. In fact, there are places where Macpherson, intention-
ally or by oversight, drops his " measure " altogether, as, for
instance, in this sentence from "Cathlin of Clutha" (p. 159):

The stranger stood by a secret stream, where the foam of Rathcol skirted
the mossy stones.

Of course you can, if you insist upon it, scan

The stran|ger stood | by a se|cret stream ;

but it is not natural in the context, and the whole cadence
of the sentence is of " the other harmony of prose," not the
poetic or the mixed. And you will not uncommonly find entire
passages of a very similar complexion.

But there is no doubt that, as the importance of Ossian for
us consists wholly, so its importance for its own audience con-
sisted very mainly, whatever good Dr. Blair might say, in its
hybrid prose-poetic vehicle, in the poetic licences (especially
the inversion) of its diction, and in the resounding barbaric-
poetic proper names. Even this last was a feature of the rising
disloyalty to the principles and practice of neo-classic writing.
It is true that Pope had not adopted, in so many words, Boileau's
almost incredulous horror at " Childebrand," but he, and still
more the Popelings, were really penetrated by it. Now " Oscar "
and "Malvina"and "Crimora" and"Carric-Thura" and "Starno"
are prosodic factors in their own way ; and they had almost as
much to do as the mists and the tree-rustling and the torrent-
foam with the production of that romantic — if rococo-romantic
— influence which " Ocean " undoubtedly exercised on its own,
and still more on the following generation.



Possible influences — Southey — His early perception of true doctrine
— His practice in Ballad — Thalaba — Kehama — Coleridge —
The Christabel manifesto — Its looseness of statement— -His
prosodic opinions not clear — Supreme importance of his prosodic
practice — Kubla Khan — The Ancient Mariner — Recent ballad
metre.— Christabel — Wonderful blunders about it— His other
prosodic titles — Wordsworth : his theories on poetic diction —
On "harmony of numbers " — His actual prosodic quality — The
prosody of the Immortality ode — An interlude of skirmish —
Scott — His relation to Christabel — His other narrative metres
— His lyric — His critics — Special relation of Moore's prosody
to music — The lesson of " Eveleen's Bower " — Landor : his
ordinary prosody — That of his " epigrams " — Rogers — Camp-
bell — Mat Lewis.

If I were to say that the mighty change which came
upon EngHsh poetry about the meeting of the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries was very mainly a prosodic
change, I might seem to be exposing myself to the jibe,
"There is nothing like leather."^ It was, of course,
much more than prosodic : in some cases, such as Words-
worth's, the prosodic element was accidentally or in-
tentionally kept in the background ; and in others, though
much attention was paid to it, that attention was not
always according to knowledge. But the general truth
of the statement made above remains. It will be better

1 I do not deny that the poet is horn, but I am sure that Prosodia is one
of the chief, if not the chief, of the mysterious group of goddesses that preside
at — and before — that birth.


48 777^ ROMANTIC REVIVAL book ix

to establish it by actual process of survey than to
" argufy " about it generally beforehand.
Possible We have seen how, in Chatterton to a remarkable

influences. extent at the time when most of the poets now to be
discussed were being born, and still more in Blake when
they were scarcely in the schoolroom, the principle of
free substitution of trisyllabic for dissyllabic feet, in metres
dissyllabic in staple, is present. It is present in both
unquestionably, and in Blake constantly. How much in
each was mere happy following of the elders, how much
original genius, how much almost accident, how much
deliberate practice resting on something like theory, it is
impossible to say. Chatterton had no time to record
reflections which he may very likely have made ; and
Blake, though he had plenty of time, was " dictated to "
about other matters. But Chatterton's practice must
have been known to all the great men of whom we are
about to speak ; while Blake's was certainly and perhaps
early known and appreciated by Southey and by Lamb,
and was probably communicated by one of them to
Wordsworth and Coleridge, though there is no evidence,
I think, that Scott shared their knowledge. But all the
Four, with Lamb and others, knew their Elizabethan
drama well ; and you cannot read the Elizabethan drama,
with eyes not blinkered by theory, and fail to see the
trisyllable and its virtue.

Whether Coleridge or Southey first appreciated the
principle is, I believe, impossible to determine. One is
accustomed — in most cases no doubt rightly — to regard
Coleridge as the fount and original of his friends' ideas,
and of course Christabel is a great document to " put in."
But Christabel, early as it is in its original form, was a
good deal subsequent to his acquaintance with Southey ;
and while Southey 's practice in ballad -writing is known
to be at least as early as 1796 — two years before the
Ancient Mariner and its group — his theory in a letter to
Wynn, only three years afterwards, is expressed in a
manner quite unlike Coleridge's later formulated precept
in Christabel itself. It is also very much nearer the


actual truth, though it is informally and casually put, and
certainly does not look as if it could be a possible trans-
literation of any hints received from the greater poet.
For prosodic purposes, therefore, it will probably be safe
to take the four in this order — Southey, Coleridge,
Wordsworth, Scott. And I do not think that I shall be
really guilty of confusion if, following out the principles
which have been announced in my Prefaces, I take the
prosodic practice and precepts of all four together, in
each case, reserving Southey 's share in the hexameter
business for the special chapter on that subject. For
this last is a matter where the malt of theory and pre-
ceptism is altogether above the meal of poetry. People
have written English hexameters because they had a
theory that they might be written : I cannot believe that
anybody ever spontaneously wrote them, and then made
a theory to explain the practice. In real English verse-
writing we know it to have been almost invariably the
other way.

Southey's letter to Wynn ' is dated Bristol, April 9, Southey.
1799, while Coleridge was still in Germany, and before
the restoration of intercourse between the two which re-
sulted in " The Devil's Walk." Nor had the greater poet
written any one of his diploma- pieces in equivalence
before the rupture. Written as it was privately to the
oldest and most intimate of Southey's friends, it is a
perfectly trustworthy document, and it is very interest-
ing to observe that " accent " is not even mentioned in
it. The subject, it may be barely desirable to say, is
his own volume of Ballads, etc., which had just been

" And now ... I proceed to the indictment of my His early
ears. If the charge had come from Dapple it would not ['^"f^j.'JJlnf
have surprised me. One may fancy him possessed of
more than ordinary susceptibility of ear ; but for the
irritability of yours, I cannot so satisfactorily account.
I could heap authority on authority for using two very
short syllables in blank verse instead of one — -they take up

* Letters of Robert Southey, ed. Warter (London, 1856), i. 69.
VOL. Ill E


only the time of one} ' Spirit ' in particular is repeatedly
placed as a monosyllable in Milton ; and some of his ass-
editors have attempted to print it as one, not feeling that
the rapid pronunciation of the two syllables does not
lengthen the verse more than the dilated sound of one.
The other line you quote is still less objectionable,
because the old ballad style requires ruggedness, if this
line were r^iggcd ; ^ and secondly, because the line itself
rattles over the tongue as smoothly as a curricle upon
down-turf :

1 have made candles of infant's fat.

This kind of cadence is repeatedly used in the Old
Woman and in the ' Parody.' "

The quantification, it should be observed, is original,
and practically disposes of the possible objection that
Southey does not specify " feet " — an omission (if it be
an omission at all) doubtless due to the fact that he was
writing informally to a friend, and not formally for the
public. He may have meant anapaests, and he may
have meant dactyls ; but when you once use longs and
shorts you mean and make feet, as that black pearl of
prosodists, Bysshe, right well did know.
His practice His practice had already long corresponded with his

in Ballad. theory, and the history of his reading (which is almost
the history of his life) accounts amply for it. As a boy
he had steeped himself in Spenser, and in other Eliza-
bethan and seventeenth-century writers ; as a very young
man he had been caught at once by Sayers' Dramatic
Sketches and other unrhymed Pindarics ; in 1793 and
1794 he had himself written unrhymed imitations — of
Collins, I suppose, in the first place. I do not know
in what particular ballads Wynn found the presence of
the trisyllabic foot to which he objected ; but it occurs
repeatedly in " The Cross Roads," written at Westbury
(the Bristol Westbury) in 1798 :

But for all | the wealth | in Brisjtol town
/ would not I be with | his soul ;

' The italics added.


where you can, of course, and may perhaps rightly, read
" I'd," but cannot alter the line before. Here are others
in the same piece :

Didst see a house beyond the hill

Which the winds \ and the rains | destroy ?

'Twere vain | to scream | and the ^/yjing groan

And it ^jten made | me wake | at night
When I saw | it in dreams | again.

The post I was drivjen in|/^ Jier breast,
Aiid a stone | is on | her face.

There are also abundant instances later.

This frank acknowledgment of equivalence, both in rhaiaba.
principle and practice, seems to me to be really Southey's
great prosodic title, his share in the hexameter business
being only rather questionable amusement, and his
temporary devotion to rhymelessness a respectable
mistake. But it cannot be denied that Thalaba is a
considerable prosodic fact in itself, and that, with its
pendant-contrast Kehauia, it makes a striking prosodic
lesson. One thing to be reckoned altogether to Southey's
credit prosodically, in the devising of Thalaba, is that he
saw, and deliberately set himself to avoid, the pit into
which, as we have seen,^ his model Sayers fell before
him, and into which, much longer after him, Mr. Matthew
Arnold was constantly tumbling. In the Preface to the
fourth edition (for the poem was deservedly popular),
written at Cintra in October i 800, he says that " no two
lines are employed in sequence that can be read into one."
He anticipates the objection that two six-syllable lines
(which are to be met in sequence repeatedly) compose an
Alexandrine, but retorts that the Alexandrine itself is
" composed of two six-syllable lines," which is ingenious
but not quite conclusive. However, TJialaba is entirely
free from the reproach (to which, as we shall see, TJie
Strayed Reveller is constantly open) of being a mere mess

1 Vide, supra, p. 40.


of minced or colloped decasyllabic lines. Another
interesting thing in this Preface — a thing which supports
the contention advanced in the last Book of the last
volume and in this — is his avowal of his desire for some-
thing different from " the obtrusiveness, the regular jews'
harp twing-twang, of what has been foolishly called heroic
measure." But he puts in, as he did frequently on other
occasions, the caveat that he does not prefer his present
vehicle to blank verse, which he thinks " the noblest
measure of which our admirable language is capable."

There is no doubt that Thalaba contrasts effectively
with his own blanks, which exist in immense numbers,
which are never bad, but which rarely attain distinction.
It will be difficult to refuse that distinction to the opening
stanza of Thalaba} which attracted the direct imitation
of Shelley, and to many another, such as one ^ on which
I open at absolute haphazard and the first dip (bk. vii.
St. 6).

It is not a bad narrative medium ; it is not flat ; it is

1 How beautiful is Night !
A dewy freshness fills the silent air ;
No mist obscures, nor cloud, nor speck, nor stain,

Breaks the serene of heaven :
In full-orb'd glory yonder moon divine
Rolls through the dark blue depths.
Beneath her steady ray
The desert-circle spreads,
Like the round ocean, girdled with the sky.
How beautiful is Night !

^ Silent and calm the river rolled along.

And at the verge arrived
Of that fair garden o'er a rocky bed.

Toward the mountain base.
Still full and silent, held its even way.
But farther as they went its deepening sound
Louder and louder in the distance rose.

As if it forced its stream
Struggling through crags along a narrow pass.
And lo ! where racing o'er a hollow course,

The ever-flowing flood
Foams in a thousand whirlpools. Thence, adown

The perforated rock
Plunge the whole waters : so precipitous,

So fathomless a fall,
That their earth-shaking roar came deadened up

Like subterranean thunders.


not monotonous ; but the ear is perpetually unsatisfied.
Bread without butter ; whitebait without its accessories ;
matches without heads ; a piano with hammers but
without wires — all these uncomfortable images suggest
themselves constantly, except in places where the passage
is so short and the situation so dramatic that rhyme
would be almost out of place — as in the far- (and justly)

Who comes from the Bridal Chamber ?
It is Azrael, the angel of Death. >

Ke/iama, which contrasts so strikingly with Tkalaba^ Kehama.
was actually begun within a very few months (May 1801)
of the writing of this Preface ; and it is not possible to
read, without being struck by them, the remarks which
the author, nearly forty years later, again makes, in the
Preface of the collected edition, on the change of metre.
He refers to Thalaba ; and he does not say that he felt
the want of rhyme there, nor does he say that he had
mended the defect in Kehama. But he does say that

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