Copyright
George Saintsbury.

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

. (page 7 of 50)
Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 7 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


they have to discharge. But with much — an immense
" much " — of the rest it is, unfortunately, quite different.
I do not refer to the " silly sooth " of the " Alice Fell "
class, because the jog-trot and sing-song there, whether
defensible or indefensible, are deliberate. But even in
his greatest pieces, just referred to, it must be said that
Wordsworth's prosodic gift is very limited. It is sound
craft, but has very seldom any magic about it, and it is
at its best in blank verse and the plainer Pindaric things,
which, as he uses them, are somewhat nearer to Rhetoric '^
than to Poetic in their prosodic quality.

Outside of these the "sensibility to harmony of numbers" ,
too often seems to have gone to sleep and be snoring,
while the " power of producing it " has taken a holiday.
Enormous numbers of Wordsworth's blanks are below
Southey's in distinction and verse quality, and on a level _^ .di
with Crabbe's worst couplet. Passage after passage of u <*/>>•»
the Prelude is either intentional burlesque or sheer prose.
Why any human being should avail himself of zwharmoni- ,^^ ^ .^ , p^g-r,^
ous numbers to inform us that - tvosGi (oucr

On the roof }

Of an itinerant vehicle I sate, to^-''-

or that O'^'

My inner judgment
Not seldom differed from my taste in books,

Wordsworth, he is invariably a master of numbers as well. The Muse of
Literary History smiles and shakes her head. I should perhaps observe that
his attitude to the general question of the nature of metre and its connection
with poetry lies outside our scope.



72 THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL book ix

is a question that may well be asked, but cannot well,
or perhaps anyhow, be answered.

But insignificance and flatness are not the only charges
that can be justly brought against Wordsworth's numbers,
except when he is in his altitudes. He rose in the
" Lucy " group almost, but not quite, to the highest
heights of the ballad-four and the romance-six ; but these
few fine stanzas are balanced {not taking in the " silly
sooth " pieces) by hundreds of platitudes, prosodically
speaking. For the prosodic platitude is a terribly real
and distinct thing. His anapaests are nearly always
rickety and tin-kettly^ — in fact he cannot manage fast
movement at all : the " sensibility to harmony and
power of producing it " desert him utterly there, though
there is no reason to suppose that anything had happened
to his Observation and the rest. His trochees are rather
better ; but he does not seem at home there either — in fact
the iamb is almost as much Wordsworth's sole foot as it
is Pope's, He had a fair imitative faculty of form within
the iambic range, and could catch the Burns metre well
enough, as well as the seven -syllabled couplet in the
charming " Kitten " piece.
The prosody His Strength and his weakness appear remarkably in

that great poem which (I fear it must be said in each
case, owing to prepossessions on subject, not expression)
Mr. Arnold thought declamatory, and Lord Morley
" notoriously contrary to fact " and partly " nonsense." I,
however impar congresses with such a pair, think it one
of the greatest poems in English. The prosodic move-
ment of ten out of the eleven stanzas is almost faultless —
worthy of the great phrase and diction which Wordsworth
has nowhere else equalled, and which (as hardly anything
in any other poet does) upsets hopelessly his whole theory
of poetic diction. But in stanza iv.,"^ after four opening
lines of entire adequacy, the demon came upon him.

' Even " Poor Susan," though it has some lovely lines, hardly escapes as
a whole.

■^ This stanza is, naturally and fortunately, the least well-known passage
of the whole, so perhaps the opening, with the peccant part of it, should be
given. The remainder is all right :



of the Immor-
tality ode



CHAJ>. II THE FIRST ROMANTIC GROUP 73

My head hath its coronal

at once jolts the whole scheme out of rhythm, and for
ten lines more it staggers and joggles from bad CJiristabel
form to sheer Skeltonic, till it rights itself at last, and
slips back into the proper measure.

It is clear that the man who could be guilty of this
was prosodically uncritical — that it was hit-or-miss with
him ; yet at the same time the hits, where his Genius — a
beneficent Mephistopheles — thrusts straight and makes
up for his feebler and more fumbling Art, are notable.
The peculiar pathetic power of the redundant but slightly
single-moulded octosyllable — a metre where the iambic
effect seems actually to Jlow into the trochaic — has seldom
been better shown than in the last great thing that he
did, the dreadfully named and unequal, but at its best
beautiful, " Extempore Effusion " on the Seven Dead
Makers, in 1835.^ And there are splendid examples,
without redundance and sometimes with catalexis, in
" Brougham Castle." The meditative power of the deca-
syllabic quatrain is brought out excellently in the famous
" Peel Castle " lines, though, as is well known, he chose

Ye blessed Creatures, I have ^eard the call

Ye to each other make ; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee ;

My heart is at your festival,

My head hath its coronal.
The fulness of your Miss I feel — I feel it all.

O evil day '■ if I were sullen.

While the Earth herself is adorning
This sweet Afay-morning,

And the children arc pulling
On every side,

Jii a thousand valleys far and wide,

TVesh flo'ivers, while the sun shines wanit.
And the babe leaps up on his mother^ s arfu.

" Pretty enough ; very pretty," if you look at the picture ; not ugly, if you
take individual lines, as sound ; hopelessly out of tune and time if you look
at the general measure of the poem.
' With its famous phrases :

The rapt One of the godlike forehead,
The heaven -eyed creature sleeps in earth ;
and

How fast has brother followed brother
From sunshine to the sunless land !



74 THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL book ix

to spoil the finest of them. Of the full prosodic beauty
of the sonnet I do not think he was ever master.^ But
the final blanks of " Yew Trees " " can hardly be beaten,
or the best of " Tintern Abbey " ; while the modulation
of the crowning stanza of " Duty " could not easily be
surpassed by the cunningest artist in form. Yet here, as
elsewhere, " it was more strong than him," as one of the
most admirable of many admirable French idioms has
it : he did it because for once he could not help it,
against his principles, almost against his will. Now
" it was " never " more strong " than Shakespeare, and
seldom than Milton or than Shelley. Their prosodic
strength joined with that of the occasion : it did not arise
therefrom.

So I think it may be said generally of him that in no
great poet does prosody play so small a part. He would
not, I think, gainsay it ; nor would the Wordsworthians, I
suppose : so for once we may all agree in a really wonder-
ful unanimity.

An interlude Yet it will scarcely be held petulant or fractious

of skirmish. j£ j ^^^.j^ aside here for a moment to break a lance with

no Paynim or felon knight on no irrelevant dependence.

I happened some years ago to observe on the famous

phrase in the great Ode —

Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal silence,

that this was an example of poetic beauty added to, and
independent of, the meaning. For this I was rebuked by

^ This matter of the sonnet will be generally dealt with later.
- Beneath whose sable roof
Of boughs, as if for festal purpose, decked
With unrejoicing berries — ghostly Shapes
May meet at noontide ; Fear and trembling H(,>pe,
Silence and Foresight ; Death the Skeleton
And Time the Shadow ; — there to celebrate,
As in a natural temple scattered o'er
With altars undisturbed of mossy stone.
United worship ; or in mute repose
To lie, and listen to the mountain flood
Murmuring from Glaramara's inmost caves.



CHAP. II THE FIRST ROMANTIC GROUP 75

a cathedratiais nobilis ex cathedra nobilissima — in other
words, by Professor Bradley, on no less an occasion than
his inaugural appearance in the Oxford Chair of Poetry.
I " deceived myself," it seems ; the sound-value of the
phrase was not very specially beautiful, and what beauty
there was is not independent of, or definitely added to,
the meaning. Now, as to comparative beauty, I shall
say nothing (for the comparison of doxies is always
idle), except that in Professor Bradley's preferred passage,
the famous

Tendebantque manus vipae ulterioris amore,

the jingle of -oris and -ore, like that of tontierre and
etonnante in Bossuet's equally famous description of the
death of Henrietta Stuart, seems to me a thing tolerable,
doubtless, to the Latin nations, but slightly offensive
to the more sensitive and elflandish ear of our language.
But let that go. Is it true that the beauty of the
Wordsworthian phrase depends wholly on the meaning ?
That meaning can be exactly expressed thus : " Our
j noisy \

A loud-sounding j- twelvemonths appear minutes [seconds]
[ clamorous J

in the existence of the unending soundlessness." I defy
any one to make good the charge that I have left out
one jot of the meaning, or added one tittle to it, here.
The meaning, the whole meaning, and nothing but the
meaning, is there ; even the opposition of year and
moment is not exaggerated. Nor let any one say that
these are clumsy, awkward words ; for if he does, whether
justly or not, Xa^rjv SeSw/ce. Clumsiness and awkward-
ness are things of expression, not of meaning. Now let
us examine the phrase itself and see what Wordsworth
has added to this meaning.

To begin with, the tricksy sprite, who made him
frequently, though not constantly, contradict his abomin-
able principles by his admirable practice, has prompted
him to adopt distinct poetic diction in " our noisy years."
A " year " is not, in strict vieaning, " noisy," any more



76 THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL book ix

than it is pleasant or painful or fertile or anything else.
It is, in strict meaning, a period of time during which
noise or pleasure or pain may be experienced. But
" our noisy years," while a distinctly figurative expression
(figures always add to the meaning), is also a still more
distinctly beautiful one in mere sound. The two diph-
thongs in it not only enrich that sound, but present a
curious contrast-coincidence in the way in which the o
and e sounds are modified by the i and a. Translate
either word, with the most rigorous observation of meaning,
and you must lose this. Again, " moment " and " being "
have also a singular relationship in their trochaic character
non-trochaically adjusted, and in the contrast once more
oio and e, now unblended. Lastly, "eternal" and " silence "
keep up the game by the foil of the dull, prolonged thunder
of " &teni^\ " to the sharp, deep, brief clang of " .r/lence."

But, much more, this sound -material so far might
make prose, but it would not necessarily, except so far as
noticed in reference to " moment " and " being," make
verse. Wordsworth has next done something else which
rustics and ordinary folk do not very often do. He has
thrown the words and their necessary expletives into a
great blank-verse phrase (that the piece actually rhymes
matters no more than, as we saw, it did in Lycidas or in
Romeo and Juliet), into one of those great blank-verse
phrases of which Shakespeare found out the secret, and
which can have nothing to do with meaning.^ The whole
is practically one, but the parts have each its character.
The first line has, from different points of view, three or
four pauses (for there is a thinkable one at " in "), and
none at all — that is to say, it runs from beginning to end,
but runs slowly. And it runs with a cadence different
entirely from that which, after the line-pause, appears in

Of the eternal silence,
itself one of those great line-fragments which have the

' Unless, of course, the term is so extended as itself to lose all meaning,
(<r to include unspecified, unlimited, and uncovenanted Hinterlands of
" suggestion."



CHAP. II THE FIRST ROMANTIC GROUP 77

quality of a complete line, and which could be so used in
drama.

I hope I need not disclaim insensibility to the contrast,
as pure meaning, of time and eternity, of silence and
noise. It is great, but it is the handling that does it
here — the handling " in a poetical way." The Psalmist
or Isaiah, ^schylus or Lucretius, Donne or Browne,
might have put this meaning magnificently for me in
verse or prose, in Hebrew or Greek, in Latin or English ;
but there would in each case have been something added
to the meaning, something in a very true sense in-
dependent of it, which each would have given me, and
which I should have kept distinct, and distinctly treasured,
as I do this of Wordsworth's giving. The damsel Self-
deceit, with the pipe-clay so conveniently concealed in
her pocket, is a dangerous if an agreeable companion, no
doubt, but on this occasion I do not think it is in my
company that she will be found.

The prosody of Scott has many points of peculiar Scott.
interest, not the least of which, for us, is the contrast, in
a very important point, between him and the poet whom
we shall take next — the poet who was in their own time
considered, with whatever justice, to represent West
Britain, as Scott himself represented North. It is well
known that Scott had less of musical music in him than
any recorded poet, except perhaps Shelley — that he not
only had no technical instruction or practical skill in it,
but, as the phrase goes, did not know one note from
another, and hardly knew one tune from another. Yet in
prosodic music there have been few apter scholars ; and
not many greater masters when variety and excellence
are taken into joint consideration.

His largest historic feat in prosody is, of course, the
catching up and popularising of the Christabel metre long
before Christabel herself appeared. The attempts which
have been made — by the sort of person who would
naturally make them — to bring this under the head of
" plagiarism " are really as foolish as they are un-



78 THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL



generous. Scott never made the least secret of his
obligations, and Coleridge, at any rate in public (he
seems to have not quite equally succeeded in " choking
down the old man " in private), acknowledged Scott's
dealing with the matter as a gentleman and a scholar
should. But it has, I think, never been sufficiently
remarked that a chance recitation or reading of Christabcl
at Christchurch can hardly have done more than pre-
cipitate and crystallise things long previously existing in
solution in " the Wizard's " mind.
His relation Ckristabcl is uot in ballad metre, but the lines of

to Christabei. Qjiyi^tabcl are scattered broadcast and wholesale about
the ballads, which Scott knew as probably no other poet
has ever known them. Spenser and Chatterton had
preceded Coleridge, and Scott knew Spenser and
Chatterton almost as well as he knew the ballads.
Further, irregular though unrhymed narrative verse had,
nearly a decade before the Lay, been exemplified in
Thalaba, which Scott justly admired ; and in the early
romances which, again, he knew as no one else, not even
his friend Ellis, then knew them, he could find equivalenced
octosyllables, romance -sixes (single, double, or even
longer), and " broken and cuttit " rhymed stanzas of
various kinds to his heart's content. I do not say that
he would have used the metre which he did use if that
lucky visit to the Hampshire coast had never taken place ;
but I think it by no means improbable that he would.

At any rate, the poems from the Lay to the Lord,
through the Lady and the rest, are by no means mere
pastiches of Christabei, but immense developments and
variations upon it, metrically speaking.^ They were all
written and printed before Cliristabel was published : it
can only have been parts that Scott heard, and the
variations which Coleridge tried, even in the whole, as far
as it exists, are not very numerous. The tamer and
more machine-made regular octosyllables which open and

1 Especially in the increasing of the dose of eights to sixes, when he
adopts this combination — a device which was to lead to Tennyson's " Sir
Launcelot and Queen Guinevere" and Mr. Swinburne's Tale of Balen.



THE FIRST ROMANTIC GROUP 79



close the cantos of the Lay (and which, of course, Jeffrey
admired) break, with the narrative itself, into schematic
variations, of which Coleridge at best merely suggested
the possibility. There are many more anapaests, and
the very abundance of them prevents the effect of
" changed base," which, as we have pointed out, some-
times suggests itself with a jar in Christabel, where
solid iambics pass into nearly solid anapaests. The
definite arrangement in stanzas, or blocks, enables the
poet to make each as it were a symphonic integer, and
to vary his scheme to suit it, while their comparative
shortness gives him something of the descriptive advan-
tage of the Spenserian stanza. I need hardly insult the
reader by warning him that I have no intention of
exalting Scott at Coleridge's expense ; but distributive
justice is not content with distributing to one person only.
Scott's verse-romances are fortunately so well known,
and their faire is so little recondite in appearance, that
there is no need to dwell very long on them, But it is
desirable to repeat a note of warning which has to be
sounded whenever Scott is mentioned. He did " write
with ease," but to think that, because he did so, he wrote
without art, is to find yourself between the parapets of
the Pons Asinorum, if not plunging down the hell within
the gates of the Paradise of P'ools. If the man who
could make this apparently loose and lounging measure
suit such things (to go onwards from the Lay) as
the martyrdom of Constance and nearly the whole of
Flodden, as the picture of the Tees and the final
vengeance of Bertram in Rokeby, as a dozen descriptive
passages in T/ie Lady of the Lake and the Lord of the Lsles,
was not an artist — why, then, the Devil has at least one
person's leave to fly away with this poor fine art, as
Mr. Carlyle wished him to do with all of them. The
chief charge that can be brought against the later poems
is that Scott allowed himself to slip too much into the
unbroken octosyllable, on which, as we have seen from
the beginning, the danger of a slipshod and m.onotonous
fluency wars and watches with ceaseless malignity. But



8o



THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL



His other
narrative
metres.



even as late as the " Valley of St. John " passage in
that generally undervalued Bridal of Triermain (which
pays a rather graceful royalty of names to Christabel
itself), the power of the measure appears. Also there is
another thing to say, as Thackeray said of that Rubens
to whom he was not too just : " This is art, if you will,
but a very naive kind of art ; and now you know the
trick, don't you see how easy it is ? nozv that yoit know
tJu trick, suppose you take a canvas and see zvhether you
can do it ? " Many have tried to do it in Scott's way,
and how have they succeeded ? So ill that there is just
one user of the octosyllable for long narrative since who
has succeeded, and he dropped the Christabel form
altogether.

The fact is that Scott was almost a consummate
master of prosody — wherever he failed, it was not there.^
Turn to the much-abused Harold the Dauntless, on which
vials of critical wrath and contempt have been poured
ever since a Critical Reviewer gravely discovered that the
" preparations and adornments are not consistent with
the state of society two hundred years before the Danish
invasion." Put the " Lotos- Eaters," Adonais, and the Eve of
St. Agnes aside, and it will not be easy to find, in the
nineteenth century, better Spenserians than the stanzas
describing the murder- chambers of the Castle of the
Seven Shields. It will certainly be hard to match them
in Childe Harold, though the measure of that poem will
be found frequently, if not always, in the Vision of Don
Roderick, which is one of the least good things that
Scott did. He seldom tried heroic couplets, nor was he
a great hand at them ; they were too much " things
devised by the enemy " to be his business. But his blank
verse is a very curious study. The almost unrelieved



^ And when he did fail, which was seldom, it was merely because, at the
moment, he did not take trouble enough. With his usual impeccable fairness,
which makes any suggestion that he "stole" from Coleridge as fatuous as it
is offensive, he acknowledged that Mat Lewis was his schoolmaster in this
respect, and Mat, as we shall see when we come to him, was not ill qualified.
Nor is it the only case in which a schoolmaster has had scholars far greater
than himself.



THE FIRST ROMANTIC GROUP



badness of his plays — the only really bad things that he
ever did — has infected the verse; but the badness
is certainly not in the verse itself, as the admirable
fragments which he used to throw off for mottoes
sufficiently show. It is true that some of the " Old
Play " scraps are reminiscences more or less exact ; but
many others are not, and they include some of the best
blank verse — outside the absolutely consummate speci-
mens of the great age — to be found in English.

It was, however, in lyric that Scott showed his prosodic
power most, and furnished us with the most interesting
contrast to his successor. The extraordinary excellence
of his anapaests (which he may have learnt from Lewis,
but in which he left his teacher simply out of sight) is
uncontestable. The three pieces mentioned ^ in the last
volume, " Young Lochinvar," " Bonnie Dundee," and the
" Cavalier's Song " in Rokeby, attain the true, not the false,
gallop of the metre as few other things do ; and in
" Lochinvar " more particularly the modulation of the
prosodic music is quite miraculous. Any suitable tune
must suit it, but it wants none at all : it brings its own
with it, and he would be a clever composer who should
equal or represent that of

One touch — to her hand — and one word — in her ear,

with the sharp and checking divide at each foot, and the
spondee, or something very like it, before the succeeding
triples. Contrast it with the continuous rush of

" They'll have fleet steeds that follow," quoth young Lochinvar,

or

There was racing and chasing on Cannobie Lee,

and you will get almost the utmost possibilities of the
measure in the particular directions.

But Scott never comes short, whatever measure he His lyric.
tries ; and in his ballad fragments he is unsurpassable.

^ Vol. ii. p. 431. There is considerable prosodic interest in " The Eve of
St. John " ; we may recur to it under Moore and Macaulay, only indicating
the redundant — or rather really extra-metrical — syllable in such lines as
And I'll chain the bloodhound and the war[der] shall not sound.

VOL. in G



THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL



The two peaks of attainment here are, I suppose, the stanza
in the girl's ballad at Ellangovvan,^ where the substitution
is like the advance and retreat of a great violinist's bow,
and the admittedly unapproachable eeriness of " Proud
Maisie." This last marvel is of the family of " Phyllida
flouts me," and has all the Protean possibilities of its kin
— with special adjustment towards solemnity. The man
who could get that music out of words — it wants no
other but a sort of recitative — could do anything. And
he strews it about, as well as other things beyond price,
with his usual godlike indifference to cost, or fuss, or con-
sequence. When I read Scott — prosodically as other-
wise — I always think of the saying of a not quite idiotic
person that if potato flowers were as rare and dear as
orchids people would go mad over them.
His critics. When therefore we are told that Scott " shows a poor

choice of metres," and manages those which he does
choose badly — that this is probably due to his admitted
insensibility to music (shared with Shelley, remember !),
and that his lines " obey strict rules as far as the number
of syllables is concerned, but do not fill the measure," I
fear we must, whatever our respect for the critic," object
very decidedly and unswervingly. The statement about
the " number of syllables " is notoriously contrary to fact
— you cannot open a page of the Lay without perceiving
it. Indeed his supposed syllabic irregularity was one of
the main causes of the outcry of Jeffrey and his kind.
For the rest, it is possible to maintain — and it is not here



Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburyA history of English prosody from the twelfth century to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 7 of 50)