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

XIV. Elizabethan Criticism

§ 3. The Spenser and Harvey letters

These rules are repeatedly referred to in the correspondence between Harvey and Spenser to be noticed presently, though Harvey, with his usual bluster, disclaims all knowledge of them. Ascham himself is really our earliest authority on the subject, and seems (from Nashe’s references, for instance) to have been practically recognised as such even then.

To do him justice, however, his affection for “versing” appears to have been much more lukewarm than his dislike of rime. If, when he cites Watson’s doggerel, he commits himself to the statement that “our English tongue may as well receive right quantity of syllables and true order of versifying as either Greek or Latin,” he makes exceedingly damaging admissions afterwards, as that “our English tongue doth not well receive the nature of Carmen Heroicum because the dactylus the aptest foot for that verse, is seldom found,” and that the said carmen “doth rather trot and hobble than run smoothly in English.” He makes himself amends, however, by scolding rime with a curious pedantic pettishness; and by advancing the notable argument that, whosoever is angry with him for misliking rime may be angry with Quintilian for misliking it. This remark is, of course, of the highest value as showing how far from any true critical point of view a man, always a good scholar and, generally, a man of good sense, could find himself at this time. Nor is there less instruction in the other fact that, while he is aware of Surrey’s blank verse, and though it discards his bugbear rime, he is not in the least satisfied with it, because it has not “true quantity.” Now, as Surrey’s blank verse, though not very free or flexible, is, as a rule, correct enough in accent-quantity, it is clear that Ascham was woolgathering after a system of “quantity by position,” quantity, as opposed to accent, and the like, which never has been, and is never likely to be, established in English. This “true” quantity is, in fact, the key of the whole position, and the quest for it occupies all the acuter minds among the earlier disputants on the subject. Ascham, while hopeful, makes no serious effort to discover it, though his confession about Watson’s hexameters and those of others amounts to a confession that it had not been discovered. Spenser and Harvey, in their correspondence, do not so much quarrel as amicably “wrangle,” in the technical sense, over the difficulties of quantity by position. Can you possibly pronounce or, without pronouncing, value for prosodic purposes “carpenter” as “carpn¯ter”? May you, while retaining the short pronunciation, but availing yourself of the long accent of “mother” in its first syllable, make the short second syllable long before a consonant in the next word? Although Spenser, in his letters, nowhere acknowledges the impossibility of these tricks with words, his entire abandonment of this kind of versing in his mature work speaks more eloquently than any formal abjuration. As for Harvey, the sort of boisterous pedantry with which he seems to think it proper to suffuse his writing makes it very difficult to judge how far he is serious. But the verse (of which, apparently, he thought well enough to repeat it three times)

  • O blessëd Virtue! blessëd Fame! blessed Abundance!
  • is sufficient to show that he did believe in quantity by position, inasmuch as “blessed,” in the first two cases, before consonants, becomes “blessëd,” and in the third, before a vowel, remains “blessed.” But he is simply grotesque in many of his examples; and it is difficult not to believe them caricatures or partly so, though it is true that Spenser himself, master of harmony as he was in the true measures, and a very serious person, is nearly as much a doggerelist as others in these false measures.