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

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he thought " the strain of poetry could not be pitched too
high," that he " endeavoured to combine the utmost
richness of versification," etc., in order to compensate for
the extravagance and unfamiliarity of the story. So,
then, we have testimony of the most valuable kind that
rhyme is part, if not a necessary part, of " the highest
strain of poetry," that it is part, if not a necessary part,
of " the utmost richness of versification."

The result justifies the argument ; for the form of
Kchatna is certainly superior to that of Thalaba.
Macaulay may be right in his strictures on the want of
character and passion ; neither of these was ever Southey's
.strong point, and he has given more of both in Thalaba
than here. It may be quite true also that the fantastic
monstrosity of his subject required a vaguer and more
Blake-like outline than he could possibly give. Other
reasons, besides the general one that mankind will not

1 I hope it is not impertinent to suggest that it is possible to spoil this
couplet by making the second syllable of the dread angel's name long.
Southey always values the word, 1 think, either as "Michael" is commonly
pronounced or as '• Raphael," i.e. with the vowels blended or the a shortened.


as a rule continue to read long poems, might be assigned
for the increasing neglect. But if anybody denies that
the Curse itself is a very fine piece of verse indeed, I
am afraid I shall not even attempt to argue with him,
but merely shrug my shoulders and pass by. The
comparison ^ of the two long descriptions of Domdaniel,
and of the " gem-lighted city " that delighted Landor, is
even more instructive because more extensive. And I
really do not know that any form could have better
suited the stanza where Kailyal drinks from the Amreeta,
though of course, as in the case of the mysterious cup
itself, the effect of the contents depends on the nature of
the poet — or perhaps of the reader.

Little need be said on his other pieces, though they
at least support the prerogative place which has here
been given to him in respect of his prosodic standpoint.
The mass of his longer compositions has been spoken
of; it does not, from our point of view, help him much,
but it certainly does not hinder. The beautiful and
quite early " Holly Tree " (it dates, like the other piece
quoted above, from the Westbury sojourn of 1798), which
actually neutralised Hazlitt's venom at its most acrid,"
adapts seventeenth-century form with singular and much
more than mechanical success. The famous " Blenheim "
piece has no silliness in its simplicity — you could not find
a prosodic movement better suited to the theme or better
utilised for it ; and the " Lines written in a Library,"
which with these two are perhaps the only things of
Southey's now generally known, deserve the same praise
as that given to the " Holly Tree." He, perhaps more
than any one else, started in his Ballads the elastic
" Pindaric of anapaests," which was to be taken up by
Praed and perfected by Barham. But the rhymeless
experiments, the hexametrical excursions to be dealt with
later, and the early championship of equivalence are his
main titles of entrance into a history of prosody ; and
the last is his title to a place of honour there.

' 7'halaba, bks. ii. and xii., with ICchama, xxiii.
^ See The English Poets, sub fin.


It may well seem imperative to begin any account of Coleridge.
Coleridge as a prosodist with his famous manifesto-preface
to Christabel \ it might indeed seem positively impertinent
to do anything else. It is, no doubt, true that he was some
five -and -forty when he published it; that we do not
know when it ^ was written ; that it has (in the circum-
stances that we do know) a perilous suggestion of after-
thought ; and that, after its appearance, he wrote no verse
of the first value. But, after all, it is not (like that other
manifesto of Milton's which is its only counterpart) a
palinode. It conflicts with nothing that he had said or
done before. It might be intended to apply to the
Ancient Mariner as well as to Christabel. On the whole,
therefore, it may be well to start with it ; to discuss it
briefly in general ; and then to take the work, partly in
the light of it, partly not. It is as follows : —

" The metre of the Christabel is not, properly speaking,
irregular, though it may seem so from its being founded
on a new principle, namely, that of counting, in each line,
the accents, not the syllables. Though the latter may
vary from seven to twelve, yet in each line the accents
will be found to be only four. Nevertheless this occasional
variation in number of syllables is not introduced
wantonly, or for the mere ends of convenience, but in
correspondence with some transition in the nature of the
imagery or passion."

Now, there is no piece of Coleridge's celebrated t\\& Christabel
" f-f-f-f-fun " which is more complicatedly and dangerously '"^"'
funny than this. That the metre of Christabel is " founded
on a ftezv principle " ; that this principle is that of
" counting in each line the accents, not the syllables " ;
and that the variation is only used " in correspondence
with some change or transition in the nature of the
imagery or passion," are three statements of which the

1 " It ■' refers here specially to the Preface. On the i^eneral questions,
chronological and other, connected with the poem, reference should he made
to Mr. Ernest Coleridge's ed., with MS. facsimiles, for the Royal Society of
Literature (London, 1907). The most elaborate discussion (before that in
the text) of the tnetre is Mr. H. D. Bateson's {v. inf. in final chapter on


first always has been, and always must be, surprising ; of
which the second has been, and is, a disastrous stumbling-
block ; and of which the third is unnecessary, only
now and then true, always incomplete, and sometimes
false. That he can really have thought the principle of
Christabel " new " in any other sense than that it was
opposed to the prevailing doctrines of eighteenth and
late seventeenth century prosody, is inconceivable. He
did not know early Middle English poetry as Gray knew
it ; but he certainly knew the ShepJierds Calendar ; ^ and
of his own immediate predecessors and early contempor-
aries, he certainly knew Chatterton, he could hardly be
ignorant of Burns, and it is at least probable that he
knew Blake— all three of whom, as we have seen, use
substitution in octosyllabic couplet more or less.'^ If he
had never talked with Southey on the principle, which
seems very unlikely, he certainly knew Southey 's practice.
The expression, therefore, can only be interpreted as
implying that he had for the moment " decasyllabo-
mania " and octosyllabomania generally in his head, and
was announcing Christabel as a revolt against them,
without enquiring too narrowly whether there had been
any Wiclif to his Luther or any Wat Tyler to his Long

Us looseness So, too, the third statement (to pass over the second

designedly) requires a good deal of qualification to make
it go down. The substitution of a trisyllabic foot for a
dissyllabic one in a particular place, or the multiplication
of trisyllabic feet in a particular line or batch of lines,
jnay " suit sound to sense " in the manner here suggested.
And as even Johnson had admitted the excuse to some,
though not to this extent — as it has a good, plausible
sound about it, and falls in with the popular wish not to
let questions of form have attention in preference to
questions of matter, — it is quite possible that Coleridge

' For some remarks supplementary to those in vol. i. on this, and on the
notion that Spenser did not mean four-foot lines, v. inf. App. vi. § c.

* In Burns the trisyllabic feet are mainly, as Shenstone would say,
"virtual." Yet in Tarn o" Shanler he has more than once forgotten, or
deliberately dropped, " apostrophation," and has left the extra syllable.

of statement.


put it forward, not dishonestly, but prudently, as a
" practicable " buckler and mantlet for the innovation
which, if it was not absolutely so, he knew or thought
would be regarded as one. It is clear, however, that
the pretext is not the real one — is not even universally
applicable. If agreement with imagery is the thing aimed
at, why is there no gallop in

The palfrey was ^% fleet as ivind'^.

and why is it

And the Spring comes slowly up this way,
and not

The Spring comes ?

The fact, of course, is that, though " imagery and passion "
are reflected in the selection of feet and the length of the
lines, as in the famous

Tu— wh it — Tu — whoo,
and in

Beautiful exceedingly,

the moulding of the metre is to a very large extent
determined by purely metrical considerations, by the
desire to vary the music and to shape the paragraphs
into irregular stanzas.

But the proposition as to which one must most His prosodic
fervently hope that Coleridge had not " ceased his fun- °^^^^°''' "°'
ning " in affirming it — the proposition which, if he really
meant it, would put him on the wrong side as a preceptist,
though he must always remain in the vanguard of the
right as a practitioner — is the second. If he really
thought that, by observing your four accents, you might
chuck syllables about from seven {^xy four in the owl-cry)
to twelve, anyhow and as you pleased, then it is to be
feared that he almost brought himself under that uncom-
fortable Thirteenth Article of the Church, which declares
that good works done not in the right spirit have the
nature of sin. And a very unpleasant person, a Calvin or
a Joseph Irons of prosody, might augur the worst of his
future prospects from the fact that he does sometimes
seem to go on the purely happy-go-lucky principle, as,


for instance, in 11. 443 to 447/ where it may be observed
that not only does the concluding anapaestic couplet fit
rather badly, but

From the bodies and forms of men,

actually suggests tJn-ee " accents " and an anapaestic base

But " do not let us give way to such gloomy thoughts,"
as Mr. Bennet said to his wife on an immortal occasion.
For some reason or other, Coleridge's references to formal
questions of prosody are few and unimportant : they
almost reduce themselves to this, and to his intromittings
with hexameters, of which more elsewhere.' The com-
parative reticence of the whole group — the reticence of
men who must be about their real business of doing,
and who can leave others to draw morals and make
axioms and systems — is on him.
Supreme im- And he must bc a very odd person who is not satisfied

proSc ""^ '"^ w^^h this " doing." Coleridge's early verse is naturally
practice. not very different from late eighteenth -century verse

generally ; and his verse of dates later than the early
nineteenth century calls for no notice as prosody, whether
it is blank or couplet stanza or Pindaric, except that in
the best examples, such as Dejection and Love, it has
what only poetic spirit can give to poetic form. But it
is quite otherwise with the three wonder-works of the
golden months of 1797-98.

It has been disputed which of the three was first
composed ; but it matters little for any purpose, and for
ours simply nothing. Although nearly twenty years
were to pass between the publication of TJie Ancient
Afariner and that of Christabel and Kubla Khan, they
are practically inseparable in spiritual date and artistic

^ From the bodies and forms of men ! "
He spake : his eye in Hghtning rolls !
For the lady was ruthlessly seized ; and he kenn'd
In the beautiful lady the child of his friend.
- His alleged dissatisfaction with Tennyson's verse might be taken as
additional evidence that he had not thoroughly cleared up his mind on the
subject, if it were not merely reported. But, that being so, it will be better
to take it with Tennyson himself.


Kubla Khan is perhaps the greatest, poetically, of the Kubia Khan.
three. Indeed, it is not easy to think of a greater piece
of poetry than Kubla KJian} and the comparison of the
opening strophe with its mother-passage in Purchas is
almost a complete object-lesson of the difference between
prose and poetry. But though it has not exactly the
least prosodic interest, it has the least prosodic interest
for us. It is, in point of form, simply an example, im-
mensely improved in form itself, and charged with a
double and tenfold portion of the poetic spirit, of the
half-regular ode or lyric, the " broken and cuttit " verse.
This, in a fashion, may be traced back almost to the
point where English becomes English in the full sense ;
not " in a fashion," but unmistakably, and with no allow-
ance, from the sixteenth century, through the seventeenth,
onward. And it had been common enough in Pindaric
and non- Pindaric shapes during the eighteenth itself.
In other words, it is a satura, composed of batches of
octosyllabic and decasyllabic verse, with rhyme arranged
at discretion, and sometimes doubled ; with rhythm vary-
ing, but not beyond the ranges of iamb and trochee.
Such fingering of the general scheme had hardly been
seen since Conius and Lycidas and the Arcades ; but the
scheme could not, even to Coleridge himself, have seemed
" new."

It is very different with TJie Ancient Mariner and t Ac a ncienf
with Christabel; and the difference, acknowledged in the ^'^^'^■
latter case with whatever questionableness of detail,
might almost have been claimed — perhaps was originally
intended to be claimed — in the first.

The ballad metre was, of course, again in no sense Recent haiiad

1 This statement is wont to upset some people terribly. A friend of
mine, most right honourable in the literary sense, has said plaintively, " Really,
after all, the Odyssey is a greater poem than K. A'." Certainly it is — in the
sense that the hogshead is a greater health than the nipperkin ; but in no
other. I once read a very clever paper in which the writer, taking the same
side, asked passionately and repeatedly at the end, " Why are we to call
A'. K. ' pure poetry ' ? " Unluckily he had answered himself a dozen lines
before, in the words, " The interest of A'. A', is to find out how it produces
a poetical effect — for it does — ou/ 0/ so little." We have found out — by
adding to the little, to the almost nothing, of the opium dreams, the pure poetry
of verse and diction and atmosphere generally.


" new." As we have seen in our first two volumes, it
had never been abandoned since men first crumpled up
the long face of the fourteener into this delightful minois
chiffonne. But for a considerable time they had, even
since it was taken into favour again, been endeavouring,
except in the case of Burns and Blake, to smooth out
the blessed creases and dimples into a " prunes and
prism " uniformity. The abominably monotonous sing-
song that resulted almost, or altogether, justified Johnson's
parodies ; and even when people dared to slip a little
spirit and spring into the line, they seldom ventured to
vary the stanza, though there were ample precedents
of old. Even in the earlier eighteenth century itself,
Hughes ^ and others had seen something of the possi-
bilities, while the popularity of the romance-six was
another " lead." Add the resumption of internal rhyme ;
add a strong dose of archaic diction, not so well done at
first as later," but in its final form almost impeccable ;
and it will be easily seen what more potent spirits
Coleridge thus turned into the lethargic and lymphatic
body of the ballad stanza, as practised even by the
Goldsmiths and the Percies, much more by the Mickles
and the Helen Marias. In fact, people did say, as usual
in such cases, that " it had a devil." It shocked nearly
everybody, even Southey himself, only inferior to Coleridge
as a rejuvenator of the ballad — nay, even Wordsworth,
joint author of the book and (though to an infinitesimal
extent) of the poem.

In this case Voltaire's words certainly acquire a
validity which the author of them would have been the
first to disclaim. " C'est le diable au corps qu'il faut
avoir." The Ancient Mariner^ not Christabel, though by
the advantage of accident only, is the match that kindled
the torch of revived true English prosody, the knife that set
the prisoner free, the mallet that knocked the block from
the dog-shores and sent the ship careering into a sea

* See vol. ii. p. 504-

^ It is well known that Coleridge at first archaized and Scotticized his
vocabulary rather awkwardly, but mended this later.


hitherto silent, soon to be full of magical voices. It is
all so familiar now that unless the reader is either very
ignorant, or rather unusually furnished with knowledge,
he may hardly feel the astonishing difference of it.

Undoubtedly the main " source " (as Longinus would
say) of this difference is the use — the quite astoundingly
accomplished and effective use — of the trisyllabic foot.
The " accents," the " stresses," are exactly the same as in

I put my hat upon my head,

And walked into the Strand ;
And there I met another man.

Whose hat was in his hand.

I do not know whether anybody has noticed that the
almost uncanny panacea of the trisyllable will heal this
famous thing itself to some extent.

I set\tlcd xi\y hat | on my ihrob\bing'^ head,
And /walked | otit in|to the Strand ;

And there | I met | ivith ano|ther man,
Whose hat | was in | his hand

is infinitely superior. It quite arouses one's interest as to
what is going to happen in the Hat-Congress, which was
before so obstinately dull : and the unalterable last line
acquires merit from the contrast and " pull-up."

Instead of the " butterwoman's rank to market " of
the strict common measure, the interchanges of equivalent
but not identical feet communicate quite a new music :

It is an ancient mariner,

And he stoppeth one of three —
" By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,

Now wherefore stop'st thou me ? "

Let us apply the converse process to this :

It is an ancient mariner.

And he stops one of three —
" By thy grey beard and piercing eye

Now wherefore stop'st thou me ? "

1 If "throbbing" is objected to as an illegitimate addition of subject
attraction, try " curly," or " good bald," or even " on the top of." Anything
that gives the trisyllabic effect will do.


There is of course more left, because the archaic diction,
the picturesque suggestion of " one of three," and the
actually pictorial effect of beard and eye remain. But
the person who does not feel that something, and a very
great something, is lost, had better at once join himself
to those who say that prosody is moonshine without its
attractive qualities, and let this book (as it will gladly let
him) alone. And with him may go (taking with them
such joy as they understand) the people who think that
the difference between

Red I as a rose | is she


Red as | a rose | is she

is a mere " question of account," that the things are
identical prosodically, and those who see nothing but
chance or the whim of the poet in the expansion from
four to six lines of

With sloping masts and dipping prow,

As who pursued with yell and blow

Still treads the shadow of his foe,

And forward bends his head —

The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast.

And southward still we fled.

Others may not resent being asked to ask themselves
whether the presence of trisyllabic feet would not spoil

With my cross-bow
I shot the albatross,

and whether the absence of them would not ruin

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yel|low as gold :
Her skin | was as white | as leprosy —
The nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

A great prosodic device of the other chief kind — the
kind that concerns the batching of lines, not the con-
structing of them — is the extreme and intentional liberty
of carrying the extension to nine lines, more than double


the normal verse -length.^ He wants a passage of
suspense between the proem of the horror and its
accomplishment, and a picture to " set " what is to come,
and just the one sharp revulsion of rhythm —

The steers I man's face | by his lamp | gleamed white ;
From the sails | the dew | did drip —

quickening, in these the only trisyllabics, to the last clause
with the slow rise of the moon to light the death-throes
of the crew, where the trisyllables thicken again as the
souls flit past him

Like the whiz of my cross-bow !

It would be delightful to go through the poem in this
fashion ; but I have been rebuked for " amusing " and
" indulging " myself with such things, and so I suppose I
must leave it to the reader who pleases to amuse and
indulge himself with the rest. He will find the labour
easy and the reward great.

Of one sizing, however, I will not be stinted, and that
is the opportunity of pointing out are, I believe, almost always secretly
looking, whether they know it or not, at the modern
exaltation of prose as equal to, or better than, poetry.
Of course you can write poetry in the prose language of
De Ouincey, of Landor, of Ruskin, of Pater. But then
this is not what Wordsworth, or anybody in 1 800, meant
by the " language of prose " ; nor were De Quincey,


Landor, Ruskin, Pater rustics or persons who used the
language of ordinary Hfe.^

Further, " selection " will not help, for Wordsworth's
" selected " prose words are often fatal, and his selected
good words are oftener still not prose. No ! no ! all these
officious white-washers of the Wordsworthian theory are
merely but as the Pelagians who vainly talk and the
Anabaptists who falsely boast. When he obeyed his
principles he generally, though not always, wrote bad
poetry, and when he wrote good poetry he generally,
though not always, betrayed his principles. That is the
conclusion of the whole matter, and it is but vain breath
that is wasted against it. That he did not mean all that
he said may be true ; that he " was not such a fool as to
mean it " is a statement which may be left to the makers
of it as to form. But o yejpa(f)e, y6<Ypa(f)e, and out of his
own true letters no special pleading (such as he would
himself have disdained) can twist itself or him.
On "harmony And SO we may turn from diction to metre. There
of numbers. ^^^^ ^^^ much humour in Wordsworth himself, but I have
always thought that there must have been a little in the
famous, or should be famous, note to the Preface of i8i5-
" As sensibility to the harmony of numbers, and the
power of producing it, are invariably attendants upon the
faculties above specified [viz. Observation, Description,
Sensibility, Reflection, Imagination and Fancy, Invention,
and Judgment], nothing has been said upon those requisites."
The enormous petitio p7'incipii of " invariably," and the
equally enormous coolness with which it is advanced to
cover ignoring of the true elenc/ms, may seem hardly,
or not possibly serious, except in an utter fool, which
Wordsworth certainly was not. But anything may be
serious in a man who is serious or nothing ; and this
" W. W." certainly was.'-

1 I once had the apology put very naively and agreeably by a guileless
writer : "They say he is inconsistent, but they misunderstand him. He has
made errors in his prefaces, but these are his wrong views, not inconsistency."

2 It is hardly necessary to support this with any argument. But one
suggestion may be made : the " faculties above specified '' are, each and
all, necessary to the consummate prose novelist. Therefore, according to


The gods, however, were just, as they usually are, His actual
and made him, as in the other case of diction, a striking ^^^"('^"^
example of the falsity of his own doctrine. Not even
his diction itself, or his management of meaning, is more
responsible for that amazing and (by all but fanatics)
admitted inequality of his work than the micertainty of
his prosodic grip. Like his diction, like his management
of meaning, it can be a wonderful and beautiful thing ;
not merely Tintern Abbey and the Ode, but dozens of
other pieces, and hundreds of other passages, are prosodic-
ally competent and adequate even for the great office

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 6 of 50)