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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

§ 3. The staple of English poetry

But, for real prosodic information, it is necessary to fall back upon the predecessors of these famous poets, in order to perceive how they reached their actual position. Naturally, when one comes to think of it, the predecessors of the right and left hand representatives are of less importance than those of the central protagonist. The attempts in more or less pure alliteration before Piers Plowman hardly deserve study here, for Piers Plowman “puts them all down”: the practitioners of the octosyllable, more or less precisely written, are of even less account prosodically. But with the great mass of verse writers, in scores of varying forms, who are the active forerunners of Chaucer (whether he directly studied them or not is beside the question) it is very different. In the huge body of mostly anonymous verse which is contained in a series of manuscripts beginning with the Harleian 2253 and ending with the Vernon, and which includes the work of named writers like Hampole, William of Shoreham and Laurence Minot, we find endless experiment, in almost every instance of which the action and reaction of mould and mass continue to develop the main process often referred to. It is, of course, possible, by keeping the eye wholly to one side, to lump all or most of these things under general categories of “so many [generally four] stress lines,” or, by directing it mainly to the other, to discover Latin or French originals more or less clumsily imitated. But if the examples are first carefully considered as individuals and the common features which they present are then patiently extracted in connection, it will go hard but the nisus towards new forms, familiar to us later, will emerge. And, to some students at any rate, the presence of foot-arrangement and its results—inchoate and imperfect as they may be—will pretty certainly manifest itself.

The most important, if the most disputed, of these results is the actual attainment, whether by deliberate intention or not, of what was to become the great staple of English poetry, the “decasyllabic” “five-stress” or “five-foot” line. The older statements (not quite obsolete yet) that this line does not appear before Chaucer—that Chaucer “introduced” it—are certainly false; while the attempts sometimes made to assign its invention, and its first employment in couplets, to Hampole are not very well founded. Something, at least, very like it appears as early as the Orison of Our Lady, and frequently reappears in later poems, especially in The Pricke of Conscience, but also in other poems of the Vernon and other MSS. which, probably, are later than Richard Rolle. But it is, in this particular place, less proper to establish this point by detailed argument than to draw attention to the fact that it is only one result of a whole multitude—the result of the ceaseless and resistless action and reaction of “mould and mass.” If the English decasyllable or heroic and the English alexandrine (which appears in many places, sporadically, from Mannyng to Piers Plowman), and combinations of them, with or without shorter lines, were merely imitations of French, they must have been more regular: their very irregularity shows that something was forcing or cramping (for either metaphor may be used) the hands of the practitioners.

The greatest of these practitioners naturally get their hands most free, but in different ways: in Piers Plowman, by shirking the full problem on one side, in Gower, by shirking it on the other. How Chaucer meets it has been told in detail in the proper place. Here, we need only consider his results in the couplet and in rime royal—the octosyllable, for all his excellent practice in it, must be regarded as a vehicle which he definitely relinquished; and his stanzas, other than the septet with final couplet, are of minor importance. But he left the two great combinations of the decasyllabic line in such a condition that, given the existing literary language (largely his work) and the existing pronunciation of it, hardly anything further could be achieved or expected. The stanza exhibited—except, perhaps, in respect of pause—a severer standard of uniformity than the couplet; five hundred years of subsequent practice have shown that, in all cases, this is desirable, since too great a variety in the individual line interferes with the concerted effect of the group. But the couplet itself exhibits an amount of freedom which has been denied rather because the deniers think it ought not to be there than because they can prove its absence. It certainly admits of either single (masculine) or double (feminine) rime; it certainly admits of extension in sense from line to line and from couplet to couplet; the pause, though hovering somewhere about the middle, by no means always definitely or necessarily alights there, or anywhere; and the lines are certainly not of invariable syllabic length. Here, perhaps, agreement ceases. But even those who, though they allow that Chaucer sometimes used nine syllables only, and often (with the double rime) eleven, would elsewhere crumple up an apparent hendecasyllable or dodecasyllable into ten, leave an opening to the other side. Call the means of crumpling “slur,” “elision,” “synaloepha,” or what you will, the actual fact remains that some lines are crumpled and some not; and will permit uncrumpling to those who choose. Those who do choose see in Chaucer, and have no mind to alter or disguise what they see, “feet”—monosyllabic, dissyllabic and trisyllabic of various composition—and lines—“acephalous,” heroic or alexandrine, as the case may be. In other words, they see what, in different degrees, has existed in English prosody ever since. And both parties, however much they may differ on this point, agree, each on its own system, that the prosody and versification of Chaucer are as accomplished, as orderly, as reducible to general rule and system, as the prosody and versification of any poet in the world, at any time. That a different opinion was once and long held is universally admitted to have been the result of sheer and almost excusable ignorance of certain facts affecting pronunciation, especially the pronunciation of the final -e.

Thus, the prosody of the fourteenth century proceeds, as has been said above, in a manner perfectly intelligible and even surprisingly logical. The processes of adjustment of mould and mass certainly are at work in the thirteenth century; probably, if not quite certainly, in the twelfth; and they continue, not merely unhindered to any important degree by the alliterative-accentual revival, but, in a certain fashion, assisted, and, as it were, clarified, by it, in the fourteenth. The more disorderly elements, the rougher matters, are drawn off into this alliterative direction. No very great poet shows himself to be a danger in the other direction of excessive smoothness and syllabic limitation; while a very great poet does show himself capable of conducting prosodic development on the combined principles of freedom and order. And, what is more, this is not only a great poet, but one recognised as great by his own contemporaries; and his reputation continues at its highest for more than another century. It might seem impossible that so favourable a state of things should turn to anything but good; that standards, at once so finished and so flexible as those of the heroic couplet and the rime royal of Chaucer, should be corrupted or lost. A stationary condition might seem to be the worst that could reasonably be feared; and there would not seem to be anything very terrible in a stationary state of Chaucerian verse.