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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 rather different causes, of something the same sort as
that which exists between the strictly Elizabethan and
the mainly post-Elizabethan dramatists.

The writer whom some may be surprised to find put Leigh Hunt,
in front of Byron, Shelley, and Keats in the title-heading,



deserves his place for something more than the fact that
he was four years older than Byron — for something more
even than the still greater claim of having been, to no
small extent, the direct master of Keats himself. Hunt
is one of those very distinctly second-, if not third-rate
poets, who deserve almost the first place in a history
of prosody. He has had some rather extravagant
personal and political championship, but his personal
and political partisans have too often done him
nothing like the justice that he deserves in matters
of pure literature. A great poet he was not ; nor
was he exactly a great writer in any way. But in
prose he, more than any one else, deserves the credit of
having turned the eighteenth -century essay into that of
the nineteenth ; and in verse, especially the form of verse,
he deserves even wider if not higher praise. That
singular catholicity — to be a little kind, and more than a
little blind to the fact that it almost deserves the less
amiable word promiscuity — of taste which marks Hunt,
and which Macaulay, as shrewdly as kindly, selected for
eulogy, did not in him confine itself to mere appreciation.
It found frequent expression in intelligent following. His
greatest achievement in this way was of course, so far as
we are concerned, the revival of the enjambed decasyllabic
couplet which he effected and partly taught to Keats.
This will be best dealt with when we come to Keats
himself. But the results of Hunt's own affectionate
discipleship to all English poets from Chaucer downwards,^
and to many of the French and Italians, were not limited
to this. The consequence is that in his by no means
extensive budget of verse (it is perhaps rather to his
credit that he wrote so little, considering that he wrote so
long and lived at least partly by writing) there could be
found a large number of things prosodically remarkable.
Rimini of course is one, and, from the above-mentioned
point of view, the chief. But the famous " Abou Ben
Adhem," which judiciously adopts the less enjambed form
of couplet, could hardly have been better clothed than in
the quiet, evenly flowing robes of that measure, where it


is neither snipsnap nor slipshod. Both the anapaests and
the iambs of " The Palfrey " are as deftly managed ; and
so are the fourteeners of " The Glove and the Lions,"
waiving altogether the question whether Hunt or Browning
has taken the right view of the story. Neither shall any
difference about views prevent acknowledgment of the
metrical excellence of " Captain Sword and Captain Pen."
The well-known rondeau " Jenny kissed me " (they say
now it was 7wt Mrs. Carlyle, which is a pity) could not
be better of its kind ; and the " Nile " and " Fish " sonnets
(at least the last of the three on this latter subject) are
almost consummate. When a man, in a tournament with
Shelley and Keats, can strike such a stroke as

The laughing queen that caught the world's great hands,

he has hewn his way once for all into the Joyous Gard of
Prosody. That line was written ninety years ago ; and
you will find echoes of it often since. But you will not
find anything like it for ninety years before, and hardly
for twice ninety, till you come to Shakespeare — since it
is not quite Miltonic. Still, it may be said, all these are
small things ; and you can match most, if not all of them,
elsewhere. But will you match all of them in the same
man at the same time, and earlier than this? — that is
the question. Leigh Hunt is beginning the nineteenth
century karole of eclectic and varied versifying — the
multiplication of metre to match the multiplication of
subject ; and he is exhibiting that curious rummaging
and ransacking of earlier poetry, domestic and foreign,
which was also to have so great an influence on his
younger contemporaries, and which in his elder had, save
in Southey's case,^ been a little partial and one-sided.

We shall see, when we come to discuss Guest's History Byron : his
of English Rhythms, that he falls foul of Byron for laxity ^""'
of metre ; and I shall find myself there in the rather
unwonted position of defender of " the noble poet " in the
particular instance. Nor am I disposed to think that

1 It may be urged that Wordsworth, especially about 1807, studied the
earlier poets, even with special prosodic intent. He did ; but it was rather
late in his career, and I do not think it profited him much.


the hardest things which can be said of Byron usually,
or perhaps ever, concern the domain of prosody. His
inability to reach the most sacred and highest places of
poetry indeed pursues him here — there is absolutely
nothing of the magician about him ; and he is sometimes
inclined to what, in his unfortunate way, he was disposed
to look upon as a proper aristocratic carelessness — a
carelessness not, like Scott's, a natural and actual part of
an unpretentious nature, but, on the contrary, part of his
own invariable and deliberate pose. His rhymes are too
often botched up for the minute, as in the famous case of
" There let him layl' and his phrase varies from the
bombastic to the slipshod. But he can always use metre
with a craftsman-like effectiveness when he chooses ; and
sometimes he is not unoriginal in respect of it. I have not
yet succeeded in discovering ^ where he got the metre of

I enter thy garden of roses,
Beloved and fair Haidee,

which, as my friend, Mr. Mowbray Morris, pointed out to
me many years ago, is the original of Praed's " Letter of
Advice," and of Mr. Swinburne's " Dolores," slightly further
altered, and which, by one of the miracles of prosody,
turns the rickety jingle of Byrom's and Shenstone's and
Cowper's three-foot anapaest, and his own " Bright be the
place of thy soul," into a magnificent harmony. I do
not see how any one can think scorn of the movement of
When we two parted,

where the " knapping " of the anapaestic dimeter is
magisterially accomplished ; and in the same way I am
not going to let any " hackneyedness " shame me out of
thinking highly of the metre of " Maid of Athens."
" To Thyrza " has that continuous catch and run of line
to line which has been noted more than once, and which,

^ Gay's "Molly Mog" has been suggested, and so, for that matter,
might those delightful lines of Chesterfield's which I quoted at ii. 528, and
Lady Mary's " (Jood madam, when ladies are willing." But I want a
serious example, and one where the dissyllabic ending occurs. Not all even
of " Haidee " has the right cadence, and still less of the " Stanzas to Augusta."
Indeed it is not certain that Byron at this time meant "Haidee" for a dis-
syllable, for the modern Greek which he is adapting is XaT^Si?.


when it appears, is always a note of something more than
prosodic adequacy. " She walks in beauty " and " The
Assyrian came down " may rank with " When we two
parted " and the " Maid " as coins of verse of which long
currency has not in the least reduced the value ; and, as
I dare anything in this book, I shall join " There be none
of Beauty's daughters " to them. The final Missolonghi
verses — which atone for so much in substance, and, with a
little more supremacy of expression, might almost be
accepted as payment in full — exhibit admirably the
effect, to which attention has so often been drawn, of a
shortened last line. None of these is actually supreme.
Byron never was supreme here, as he certainly was
not elsewhere in poetry ; but they are all more than
competent.^ The blank verse of the " Dream " and of His blank

• vcrsG etc

" Darkness " is very much more than competent — if it
were not for the accursed smatch of rhetoric in the bad
sense which always mars a draught of Byron, there would
be even some consummateness about them. As for his
couplets, the heroics are fair eighteenth-century standard
with a good deal of " devil " infused into that sometimes
rather spiritless body ; and his octosyllables, regular or
free, are Scott dosed in the same sort of way. The well-
known patches of Parisiiia and the Bride of CorintJi show
him at his best here. But it is in the Spenserians of
Childe Harold and the " Frerians " of Beppo and Don Juan
that Byron's prosodic interest probably lies for most people.

I do not and cannot like his Spenserians, despite the His
tours de force, known to everybody, that he has executed - p*^"^^"^"^-

1 Another remarkable experiment is to l)e found in the stanzas beginning
Could Love for ever
Run like a river
And Time's endeavour
Be tried in vain.

This also has been enormously improved upon, but Byron has given the
model. I think, by the way, that "When we two parted" is a valuable key
to that remarkable song in The Defor?>ted Traitsformcd which has been
referred to before as an apparent stronghold for the amphibrachists :

The black bands came over
The Alps and their snow.

Both are really only unequally split-up anapsestic dimeters.

VOL. Ill H


in them. It is not that the ingrained vulgarity which is
Byron's hopeless fault breaks out in the Preface of Childe
Harold — though vulgarity and Spenser can no more keep
house together than banality and Milton. It is not that
the sham sincerity and the sham strength, which attract
some people and repel others, are of all other things most
alien from a metre that is as true to an unaggressive
yet irresistible sweetness and truth as its own Una. There
are some very plain, unvarnished, un-" high-falutin " reasons
why Byron's Spenserian " will not do " technically and
mechanically. In the first place, he has not only not got
the right line to build it of, but he has got a hopelessly
wrong one. The Byronic line is almost always neither
more nor less than a half-couplet of very fair, sometimes
excellent quality, more or less regularly middle-paused.^
We said of old that Lycidas was blank verse rhyme-tipped
in a special manner for a special purpose ; we may say
now that Childe Harold is couplets with their rhymes
wrenched into Spenserian order, and with a Drydenian,
not a Spenserian, Alexandrine thrust in at regular (and
therefore hopelessly un-Drydenian) intervals. That there
are not seldom some fine results of this medley, this
biblical " confusion " ; that Ardennes waves her leaves
not without harmonious rustle, and that the deep and
dark -blue ocean rolls majestically enough ; that Venice
and the Rhine might be celebrated in worse vessels or
vehicles — one need not deny.

But, all the while, within we hear
How sweet, how different a thing —

a thing which we have a right to hear, for Byron has
been rash enough to force the hearing of it on us — the
music of the song of Phaedria and of the incantations of
the Bower of Bliss, the setting of the Caves of Despair

^ Spenser {v. sup. vol. i. p. 368 tiote) is always careful to make pauses in
the individual lines, unless for special reasons, as various and as little corre-
spondent as possible. Byron, as he always is, is prodigal of strong and
generally centripetal breaks. Nor, as a general rule, does Byron know how
to fit on the Alexandrine so as to make it an organic part of the stanza. It
may be said, with some support from his own Preface, that he had Beattie
rather than Spenser before him ; but I hardly think this mends matters.


and of Mammon, the magical caroche of quest and fight,
of pageant and dream. And we do not want his lord-
ship's shoddy — even though Spenser and Dryden, Pope
and Scott, are the victims of the devil * of it — any more
that day.

He would, I think, if he had ever tried it, have
managed rhyme -royal even worse than he managed the
Spenserian. For the power of this last metre is so great
that, even mismanaged by a man who himself has any
power at all, it cannot wholly fail ; and there is no doubt,
as has been already acknowledged, that Byron's best
efforts in it are fine poetical rhetoric, or rhetorical poetry
of a bastard but vigorous growth. Now rhyme-royal, as
we have seen, can easily be very bad indeed ; and its
peculiar merit of plangency, without turmoil and " to-do,"
was not one that Byron was likely to develop.

But with the metre that stands between them he His serio-
was far luckier. I have once or twice hinted that the ''°"'''^ ''^'''''''•
octave, for purely serious purposes, does not seem to me a
metre exactly at home in English, despite the numerous
fine things that we have had in it from Chaucer onward.
But in the land of its origin, as most people know, it was
largely employed for purposes which were either not
wholly serious or deliberately serio-comic. The credit of
discovering how this gift of the metre could be developed
in English has generally, and I doubt not rightly, been
given to that remarkable master of wit and wisdom, John
Hookham Frere, in The Monks and the Giants. I have
pointed out, in speaking of Fairfax's Tasso, the tendency
of the couplet to separate itself from the sixain, and
collect itself into a sort of pointe. The value of this
peculiarity for burlesque or serio-comic purposes is
obvious, and can hardly be exaggerated — in fact, in the
rhyme-royal. Sir Francis Kynaston had frequently availed
himself of it nearly half a century later than Fairfax.
But stanzas were rapidly going out of fashion then ; and
when the eighteenth century tried them for burlesque it

^ This is not bad language. The " devil" is the actual name of the
machine which tears up old stuff into the wisps from which shoddy is rewoven.


blundered into the Spenserian, which is usually impatient
of this catachresis, and actually (as we know it did in
Shenstone's case) converts the scoffers by its own power.
Frere^ knew better ; and when "the brothers Whistlecraft "
wrote their " Prospectus and Specimen of a National
Epic" in 1813, and the survivor of them began to publish
it four years later, the lesson of Ariosto himself to no
small extent, but of Pulci and Berni still more, had borne
almost full fruit.

Digression on In TJte Mouks and tJie Giants the handling of Beppo,

Don Juan, and the Vision of Judgment is all ready.
The means consist chiefly of a double management of
the separated couplet just referred to. Sometimes the poet
avails himself of it, as it were to "turn upon himself":
after having written a tolerably serious sixain he crowns
it with a comic cap-and-bells. At other times he lets
the whole proceed to this culmination or explosion.
Another very important point illustrates the curious
chance-medleys of prosodic biology. Double rhymes are
necessities in Italian, and there have no essentially comic
tendency. In English they have something of the sort ;
while triple rhymes require the utmost care in management,
and the strongest infusion of passion of some kind, to save
them from the burlesque effect. Now the serio-comic
writer has unmatched opportunities, with these lengthened
echoes, in the octave.

Byron's adop- Frere used them uncommonly well,^ but Byron, beyond

tion of it.

1 Frere's Works ( 1 87 1 ) are full of practical "and not devoid {v. inf. chap. iv. )
of preceptist " interest as regards prosody. But " Whistlecraft " can be found,
more accessibly and cheaply, in a volume of the late Professor Henry Morley's
" Carisbrooke 'Lihvs.xy,'" Parodies and Buflesg2ie Pieces (London, 1890). It
is only fair to Gay to remember that he did use the octave in his " Welcome
from Greece " to Pope ; but he has not there mastered the full effect of the
final couplet.

2 Seldom better, perhaps, than in this early stanza ;

We must take care in our poetic cruise
And never hold a single tack too long ;

Therefore my versatile ingenious muse

Takes leave of this illiterate, low-bred throng,

Intending to present superior views
Which to genteeler company belong.

And show the higher orders of society

Behaving with politeness and propriety.


all doubt, used them better. I do not know that he ever
did things much better than in Bcppo itself ; but the com-
parative insignificance of scale and subject there, and the
rather cheap indulgence of personal and political " black-
guarding " in the Vision, necessarily make Don Juan the
chief place of exercise and illustration. There is hardly
a better example, in this history which we are trying to
tell of pre-established harmony between measure and
matter, than that most happily interrupted poem, which
could hardly have given us anything better than it gives if
it had gone on for another sixteen or sixty cantos ; which,
in going on, would probably have degenerated into stock
satire of a society already becoming unfamiliar to the
writer ; and which actually contains variety enough to
satisfy the most restless hater of monotony, and accom-
plishment enough to defeat Momus himself.

There are periods when, in Don juan.

A neat, snug study on a winter's night,

without the distractions which the poet himself suggests
as alternatives or additions to a " book," one wonders
whether it would not have been better that Byron should
have written nothing but Don Juan. It is difficult to
believe that it can ever have done any serious harm to
any one ; it certainly has given many abundance of not
in the least disreputable delight ; and, once more, it is
such a marriage of spirit and form ! Once more, as in
all the great instances — Chaucerian riding rhyme,
Spenserian stanza, Shakespearian or Miltonic blank verse
(each in its way the greatest), Caroline lyrics, the heroic
onslaught of Dryden, and the satiric revue of Pope, — the
thing is almost unthinkable in any other measure. He
has made very good play with the serious capacities of
the stanza where it is necessary— for instance, in the
death of Haidee ; and the adaptation goes, with constant
improvement, right through the middle stages of descrip-
tion, half-ironic reasoning, and the like, to the definite
burlesque. The omnipresence — or at least the ever-
sensible neighbourhood — of this latter mood renders the

Santa bar::-^' - ^^



ness of his

Byronic bad taste comparatively innocuous ; the serious or
neutral episodes save it from that mere perpetual " thorn-
crackling " laugh which is not a whit less tiresome, and dis-
tinctly more irritating, than the dullest continuity of platitude.
And, guiding and tending and giving piquancy to all, goes
the saucy metre, with lift of skirt and pirouette and
curtsey of fantastic rhyme, and quaintly twisted final
couplet-ends, and becks and wreathed smiles of word-
play — a little bit of the courtesan perhaps in it, a great
deal of the coquette, but with almost all the qualities of
an agreeable and accomplished companion for pastime.
No : there are plenty of things to be said against Byron
as a poet, and his fluency and volume have prevented his
versification from being always impeccable. But on the
whole of that score he has very little to fear : on the part
of it which concerns his serio-comic ottava, nothing.

There is, however, for some of us at least, always the
feeling that we are, with Byron, in the outer courts of
poetry ; there can hardly be any such in regard to the
two poets to whom we come next. Here, as elsewhere,
the pair differ curiously ; and it will be better in every
way to work out the differences by examination than to
state them beforehand in ostentatious antithesis. One of
the chief points of interest with Shelley arises from the
fact, attested by the indisputable authority of Peacock,
that his insensibility to technical music was nearly if not
quite as great as Scott's. Now, even those who, following
the vague popular opinion of to-day that Scott is only a
second-class poet, try to make him out a second- or third-
class master of poetical music, will hardly say that of the
author of Adonais and the " Skylark," of " O World ! O
Life ! O Time ! " and " I arise from dreams of thee," of
" To Constantia Singing " and " The Invitation " and
" The Recollection."

That Shelley paid much conscious attention to
prosody I should doubt. The almost entire absence of
any important reference to it in the Defejice of Poetry ^

1 Such references as those we do find are quite general. The most note-
worthy of them, I think, is this : " Every great poet must inevitably innovate


and in his letters, though not decisive, is strongly against
his having cumbered himself about these matters ; and I
think that he might have supplied an additional illustra-
tion of his famous remark about the mutton and the gin-
shop if the subject had been subjected to his treatment.
As the reader by this time knows, I find nothing in the
least disconcerting or disappointing in this, still less
anything surprising. It was Shelley's business not to
talk, or even to think, about making great prosody, but
to make it. And he made it. Indeed the very short-
comings in his practice are interesting in the highest
degree ; for they are quite evidently not attempts at
something that he could not do, not attempts at something
that he had not yet quite learnt to do, but either original
refashionings, or else sheer accidental carelessnesses due
in some cases to absence of revision, and in some perhaps
merely to the untoward and troublesome circumstances of
the publication of his books.

Although, perhaps, The

" Juvenilia.
The nymph Contrasta^ with her treacherous wiles,

has had too much influence on most people who have
spoken of Shelley's " Juvenilia," it would, no doubt, be
rather superfluous to spend much time on their prosody.
The most interesting thing — imitative, and awkwardly
imitative, as it is for the most part — is the remarkable
song, " Fierce roars the midnight storm," in Victor and
Casire, which has a conjectured plagiarism from Monk
Lewis, a certain resemblance to FitzEustace's song in
Marviio7i, and, as I think, an almost more certain resem-
blance, though in another sense, to Thackeray's more and
less serious " Willow Songs " in the FitzBoodle Papers}
Although this has some of the rather lumbering and

upon the example of his predecessors in the exact structure of his peculiar
versification." Most true, and specially well seen of Shelley himself. But
that he proceeds from it to talk of the "vulgar error" of distinguishing
between poets and prose writers shows that, at the moment, he was nearer to
Wordsworth and farther from Apollo than usual.

^ If any one cares to follow this curious matter up he may consult Dr.
Garnett's original reprint of Victor and Cazire (London, 1898) and the
"Oxford" edition of Thackeray's Works, iv. 19 sq.



Queen Mab.

His blank
verse from
A las tor

wallowing trisyllabics, imitated from the German, of the
Lewisian versification, it has echo and quick, not dead,
quality about it. But even here it would have been
difficult, and with most of the rest it would have been
impossible, for the most ingenious critic to tell whether,
prosodically as in other ways, the writer was going to
become a poet or a poetaster.

With Queen Mab it is not so. Here, too, there is
imitation of the frankest and most undisguised character ;
for Shelley has not only taken the unrhymed short
Pindaric form of Thalaba, but has, with that curious,
audacious, unhumorous, childlike innocence which dis-
tinguished him throughout, thrown the first stanza into
the very mould of Southey's first. Yet he has not kept to
this lyric form, but has passed frequently into ordinary
blank verse — not of the pattern that he was soon to reach,
a little indeterminate, and, where determined, inclining
towards the dramatic, but still good. If I had had to
review Queen Mab in 1 8 1 3 I should have said that it
contained a good deal of nonsense, some of it mischievous,
but that the author was pretty certainly a poet, and most
certainly no small master of prosody already.

When, years afterwards, he extracted and refashioned
from this experiment The Demon of the World, Mrs.
Shelley thought that he " changed somewhat the versifica-
tion, and made other alterations scarcely to be called

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