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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

§ 11. Spenser’s mission

To, and with, one great measure, Spenser (except doubtfully and in his earliest youth) did nothing; and it was as well that he did nothing. Nor is this yet the place in which to take any general survey of the features and progress of blank verse; for, though they had, by the end of the queen’s reign, reached almost, or quite, their highest, it was as part of a movement which was still moving and which certainly could not yet be said to be moving downward. But the reason why it was well that Spenser took no part in this is that his mission was, as has been said, essentially a mission, though not of cramp or fetter, of order and regularity. Now, blank verse did not require such a missioner then. It had started, in the first ardour of the movement against doggerel, with severe practice and example on the part of Surrey and, later, of Sackville. What it wanted, and what it received, was experiment and exploration of the most varied and daring kind, in all its own possible licences and transformations. Spenser, be it repeated, was not the man to do anything of that kind for it; and the two wisely let each other alone.

Even in regard to blank verse, however, the Spenserian lesson must have been of inestimable service. It is hardly excessive or fanciful to regard him, not merely as one of the greatest and one of the very first of Elizabethan composers, but as the greatest and the first of Elizabethan conductors, an impeccable master of rhythm, time and tune. This was what English poetry had wanted for nearly two hundred years and had now got. The ear was taught and the correspondence between ear and tongue was established. Nor—with a pretty large exception in regard to blank verse, where Spenser’s baton was quiet, in the mid-seventeenth century, and something of one in regard to the looser form of heroic couplet about the same time—were these great gains ever let slip. Their exercise, indeed, was, later, confined and hampered unduly; but its principle was not controverted. In Edward VI’s time, this general system of rhythm, time and tune had but just been tentatively and imperfectly attained by Wyatt and Surrey; there has not been any general change in it from Spenser’s period to the time of Edward VII. A few words have changed their usual accent and Spenser’s peculiar system of “eye-rime” has made it desirable to keep his spelling, lest we destroy an effect which he wished to produce. But, whatever you do with the spelling, you will not alter the rhythm; whereas, if you modernise Chaucer, you must either put continual new patches and pieces into the verse or lose the rhythm altogether. Words may fall out, and words may come in, but the latter find, as the former leave, a fixed system of prosodic arrangement to which they have but to adjust themselves. Ben Jonson may have been right or wrong in saying that Spenser “writ no language,” while he certainly was wrong in assigning mere “imitation of the ancients” as the cause thereof. But, though he did not—it is said—like the Spenserian stanza, his own more authentic and half-casual selection of Spenser as the antithesis to “the Water poet” shows us that he did not go wrong on his poetic powers. Amongst the evidences of those powers it would be ridiculous to say to-day that Spenser discovered the rhythmical-metrical system of English poetry; and it would be unjust to say that he alone rediscovered and adjusted it to existing circumstances. But he was among the rediscoverers: and the greatest of them up to his own time. In all matters of English prosody, except blank verse and the trisyllabically based measures, we may go back to Spenser and to his generation for example and practical precept; and it will always be possible so to go back until the language undergoes some transformation of which there is not at present even the faintest symptom.