Home  »  The Cambridge History of English and American Literature  »  § 3. Foreign Influence

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XVIII. The Prosody of Old and Middle English

§ 3. Foreign Influence

When we turn to the other and smaller poems of the period we find this process of “slowly quickening into other forms” even more importantly and interestingly exhibited. The Paternoster is wholly in more or less regular rimed couplets of the kind just noted. In The Moral Ode, the fifteen-syllabled line of Orm, which, by the frequency of feminine endings, already promises the reduction to fourteen, comes even nearer to the ballad metre of eight and six, and exhibits a still more valuable characteristic in its tendency towards maintaining the old syllabic freedom and substitution of trisyllabic feet for the strict dissyllables of Ormulum. Further, this heritage of Old English manifests itself in the octosyllabic couplet; and, in the version of Genesis and Exodus, which is assigned to about the middle of the thirteenth century, anticipates exactly the Christabel metre which Coleridge thought he invented more than five hundred years later. And, before very long, though at dates impossible to indicate with precision, owing to the uncertainty of the chronology of the documents, other approximations of the old staple line or couplet to the metres of French and Latin (especially the rime couèe or combination of two eights and a six doubled) make their appearance. These transformations, however, as the liberty of their forms shows, and as may be specially studied with greatest ease in the various adaptations of the octosyllabic couplet, are neither mere aimless haphazard experiments, nor mere slavish following of French and Latin forms previously existing and held up as patterns. They may be much more reasonably regarded as attempts to adjust these latter to the old couplet with its middle division, and its liberty of equality or inequality of syllabic length in the halves; though, in all cases, the special rhythm of the older line or stave has become faint in the ear, and the new metrical swing prevails. An equal division of the halves gives a distich which, for some time, hesitates between eight and six syllables, the latter having the additional assistance of the French alexandrine as pattern. But it proves less suitable for English verse than the longer form, and it is dropped or very rarely used. An unequal division—from the first most popular—into eight and seven or eight and six, gives the long line of Robert of Gloucester—sometimes called, for convenience, a “fourteener” or, by Warton and others, but most improperly, a “long alexandrine.” This, when itself “disclosed” in “golden couplets,” becomes at once the famous “common” or balled measure, the most distinctly popular metre for seven hundred years past, and, at certain times, one yielding the most exquisite harmony possible, though very easily degraded and reduced to sing-song. In the course, moreover, of the give and take of this commerce between material and mould, the beginnings of the great decasyllabic, five-foot, or five-stress line emerge with a frequency which has, for the most part, been inadequately noted; as well as, more rarely, the alexandrine itself. In fact, it furnishes the poet, by luck or design, with every possible line from four, or even fewer, syllables to fourteen; while his examples in Latin and French in turn furnish almost endless suggestions of stanza-combination.

In one all-important particular, however, the foreign influence exercised—by French altogether and, by Latin, in the greatest part by far of its recent and accentual verse writing—in the direction of strict syllabic uniformity, is not, indeed, universally, but to a very large extent, and stubbornly, resisted. The rimelessness of Old English might be given up with pleasure; its curious non-metrical, or hardly more than half-metrical, cadences might be willingly exchanged for more definite harmony; the chains of its forced alliteration might be attenuated to an agreeable carcanet worn now and then for ornament; and its extreme length-licence might be curtailed and regularised. But, in one point which had made for this latter, English refused to surrender; and that was the admission of trisyllabic feet, as some phrase it, or, as some prefer to describe the process, the admission of extra unstressed syllables. The question was, indeed, not settled; as a question it, no doubt, never arose; and, when such problems came to be considered, there was a dangerous tendency from late in the sixteenth century till later in the eighteenth to answer them in the wrong way. But practice was irreconcilable. Of the octosyllabic couplet there were, almost from the first, two distinct forms, the strict and the elastic; in nearly all other metres the licence is practically assumed. By 1300, or a little later, say 1325—to admit the latest possible dates for the Harleian lyrics and the bulk of the early romances—all the constitutive principles of modern English prosody are in operation, and are turning out work, rougher or smoother, but unmistakable.