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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XIII. Prosody from Chaucer to Spenser

§ 10. The Shepheards Calender

But we are less concerned here with the fortunes of particular metres, or particular styles, than with the general progress of English prosody. This—at a period the signpost to which is the publication of The Shepheards Calender but the influences and attainments of which are not, of course, limited to a single book or a single person—had reached one of its most important stages, a stage unparalleled in importance except by those similarly indicated in The Canterbury Tales and Paradise Lost. During the fifteenth century, it had been almost unmade from some points of view; but invaluable assistances for the remaking had been accumulated in all sorts of byways. In the two middle quarters of the sixteenth, it had been almost remade—in the sense that the presence of general rhythm had been restored in accordance with actual pronunciation; and that, as one school of prosodists would say, stressed and unstressed, accented and unaccented syllables, had been taught to observe more orderly and proportional arrangement: as another, that metrical scansion by feet had been once more vindicated and regimented. But, during these two generations of reforming experiment, there had been comparatively few poets of distinguished genius: of those who possessed it, Wyatt and Surrey came a little too early, Sackville practised on too small a scale and in too few varieties. Nay, the very fact of reforming and innovating experiment necessitated a period of go-cart and then, as it were, one of marking time.

But, by 1580, or a little earlier, both these periods were over, and the flock of singers of the great Elizabethan time found that they had been relieved of the preliminary drill. Even the classical metre craze—threatening as it might seem to be to English poetry and prosody—did good, not merely by showing what is not the way, but by emphasising the most important characteristic of what is: that is to say, the composition of the line, not by a muddle of promiscuous syllables, but by constituents themselves regularly and systematically composed and constituted. Even the “woodenness” of blank verse at first forces the ear to attend to the order and position of the stresses, to the existence and conformation of the feet. The jog-trot of the fourteeners and the “poulter’s measure” says the same thing heavily, as do the varied lyrical forms of Gascoigne and Turbervile not so heavily; nay, the so-called doggerel of Tusser (which is only doggerel in phrase and subject and spirit, for its form is quite regular) says nothing else. Whether it canters or trots, it may now seem to some ears to run “mind your feet” and, to others, “mind your stress”; but the difference is here merely logomachic. They heard it then—into whatever words they translated it—and they went and did it.

It may seem that the selection of Spenser to show exactly what this stage signifies is unjust to others. Certainly, if misunderstood, it would be so. It is as nearly certain as anything can be that Sidney and others did not learn their prosody from Spenser, and that even Drayton and other men, who lived and wrote far into the seventeenth century, were, in a sense, rather his junior schoolfellows than his pupils. But his direct influence soon became immense and all-pervading, and, as an early and masterly representative of influences that others were feeling, there is no one to match him. The prosodic lessons of The Shepheards Calender are all but unmistakable. On one point only is difference of opinion of an important kind possible—whether the famous loose metre of February and two other months is definite Genesis and Exodus or Christabel (to look before and after)—“four-stress” or “iambic” with trisyllabic substitution permitted—or whether it is an attempt at Chaucerian “five-stress” or “heroic.” The present writer has not the slightest doubt on the subject: but others have. Omitting this, every metre in the Calender, and every one subsequently tried by its author, though it may be differently named by different systems, is, with the proper translations of terminology, unmistakable. In the various forms of identical stanza, from the sizain through the septet and octave to his own special creation; in the sonnet; in the still larger strophes of his odes; in the more variegated lyrical outlines of some of the Calender poems; in the riding rime (here quite unmistakable) of Mother Hubberd’s Tale—the exact and regular accentuation or quantification of each scheme is unerringly observed. That great bone of contention, the “trisyllabic foot,” in metre not based trisyllabically, makes comparatively rare appearance in him; the believers in “slur” or “elision” seldom have to resort to either expedient. There are a very few possible alexandrines (outside the last line) in The Faerie Queene; but they are probably, or certainly, oversights. He fingers this regularly rhythmical line, whatever its length, into the widest variety by altering the pauses and weighting or lightening special places with chosen phrase. He runs the lines into one another, or holds them apart within the stanza, inexhaustibly. But, on the whole, despite his great variety of outline and combined form, he is once more a prophet and a practitioner of regularity—of order—of unbroken, uneccentric, music and rhythm. This is his mission in prosody—to make, so far as his example can reach, a gallimaufry and jumble of mixed and jolting cadences impossible or intolerable in English. His very abandonment of the promising, and, as it afterwards turned out, inestimable, “Oak and Brier” measure, is, on one theory of that measure, just as much as on another, evidence of a final dislike to even the possibility of such jumble and jolt.