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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

§ 4. Stanyhurst

Webbe, Puttenham and others to be mentioned presently engage in this question—Puttenham slightly, Webbe with a blundering eagerness—and it continues to be discussed at intervals till it is fought out by Campion and Daniel. But the most intelligent and the most illuminative of the earlier remarks on it come from one of the wildest of the practitioners, Richard Stanyhurst. For his wildness lies not so much in his prosody, as in his diction, where he wilfully hampers himself by making it his principle to use no word that had been used by his predecessor Phaer. As a critic of prosody, he is a curious mixture of sense and crotchet. He sees, and insists upon, the undoubted, and generally overlooked, truth that many important monosyllables in English, “me,” “my,” “the,” “and,” etc., are common: but he wishes to indicate the double pronunciation which, in effect, proves this, by spelling “mee” and “thee,” in the latter case introducing a gratuitous confusion with the pronoun. He follows, as a rule, Latin quantity in English, thus making “honour” short, in spite of the accent, and “mother” (which he spells “moother”) long, because of mater. He admits quantity by position, but, apparently, not in middle syllables; and, properly recognising the English tendency to carry back the accent, wants to make this uniform to the extent of “ímperative” and “órthography.” Lastly, he has a most singular system of deciding the quantity of final syllables, not by the last vowel, but by the last consonant, whereby he is driven to make endless exceptions, and a large number of “common” endings. In fact, the main value of Stanyhurst is that the prevalence of the common syllable in English is, really, at the bottom of all his theory. But the question could never be properly cleared up on these lines, and it remained in a state of theoretical unsettlement, and of occasional tentative, but always unsuccessful, practice till it was settled in the way mentioned above, and to be described below. It is curious that Milton makes no reference to it in the afterthought outburst against rime which he subjoined to the later copies of Paradise Lost. It would have been extremely interesting to have heard his deliberate opinion, at any rate of Campion.

The other main question, or, rather, group of questions, to which the criticism of what we have yet to speak of was devoted, concerns the general character and status of poetry at large, or, at least, the general rules of certain important poetical kinds. These matters had been eagerly and constantly discussed abroad during the middle of the century, in fact during nearly the whole of its two inner quarters, when most of the authors mentioned in the present chapter began to write. There was even a considerable stock of Italian and Latin critical writing on the question, which was soon to be supplemented in French, when Ascham himself turned his attention to the matter. These discussions turned, on one side, on the Platonic distrust, largely altered and dosed with the puritan dislike, of poetry, as such, and especially of dramatic poetry; and, on another side, on the proper laws, more particularly of the drama, but also of other poetic kinds. As for real historical criticism, for the examination of English poetry as it was, in order to discover what it ought to be, circumstances were not favourable; but some attempts were made even in this line. On the whole, it will be most profitable, having thus given the general conditions and directions, to consider in order the actual exponents and documents of the subject. Of Ascham and his group it is probably not necessary to say more. The direction to the subject which they gave was invaluable, but their actual utterances on it could not but be somewhat sporadic and haphazard. In particular, few of them were, or could even be expected to be, devoted to English literature as it was. General principles of a pedagogic kind, almost always coming round to the imitation of the ancients, were what they could give, and, perhaps, what it was best for them to give.