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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

§ 6. The influence of music

The note of all these productions is that they were composed, in many cases, for definite musical accompaniment—in all, to be “sung or said,” in some sort of audible measure and rhythm, from musical arrangement itself down to the reciter’s drone, or the nurse’s sing-song. One general result of this is that a merely prosaic effect is almost impossible—that there must be some sort of rhythmical division and system, and that this must be marked. Another particular result of the greatest value is that “triple time” will not be gainsaid—or, in other words, that trisyllabic feet force their way in. The influence of music has not always been of unmitigated benefit to prosody; but, at this time, it could hardly, by any possibility, do harm, and might do infinite good. From the rough but still perfectly rhythmical verse of “The Percy out of Northumberland,” through the somewhat more regular and complicated, but equally unartificial “For I will to the greenwood go, alone, a banished man,” to the delicately modulated melody of the carol above referred to, everything is equally opposed to the heartbreaking prose of the staple rime royal and the mere disorder of the doggerel. And what these now famous things show, dozens, scores, hundreds of others, less famous, show likewise. As the simpler and more uniform English line of which the iambic foot forms the staple—the line suitable for poems of length and bulk and weight—has been hammered into shape during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, so the varieties of mixed cadence, suitable for lyric, are now being got ready; and, by a curious dispensation, exactly while the staple line is being not so much hammered as blunderingly knocked and bulged out of shape.

This lyric adjustment—which, in its turn, was to have important effects later on the staple line itself—went on continuously till it developed and refined itself, by steps which may be noticed presently, into the unsurpassed composition of 1580–1660. But, meanwhile, however slowly and tardily, the disorder of the staple line itself was reformed in two directions. The literary line—which had aimed at following Chaucer or Gower, and had wandered off into formless prose—girt itself up again (something over tightly) into octosyllables and decasyllables, pure fourteeners or “poulter’s measure.” The loose forms recognised their real basis and became anapaestic—regular, though unmusical, at first—as in Tusser. The documents of the first change, so far as practice goes, are to be found in the corpus of English verse during the middle of the sixteenth century, beginning with Wyatt and Surrey. As concerns theory, Gascoigne’s Notes of Instruction, though a little late, shows us the completed process. Earlier, less explicit, but not less really cogent evidence of discontent and desire to reform may be found in the craze for classical metres, the true source of which was by no means merely an idle desire to imitate the classics, but a very worthy, though mistaken, longing to get rid of the anarchy with which rimed English metres were associated, and to substitute a well tried and approved order. But perhaps most noteworthy of all is a piece of prose discussion in A Mirror for Magistrates, where examples of the broken fifteenth century rhythm, which had been prevalent from Lydgate to Hawes, are produced, “misliked” and excused on the ground of their being suitable to the time of their subject—the reign of Richard III. This appears in almost the oldest part of that curiously composite book; and, in a part a little later, but still before Spenser, there is a deliberate description of English alexandrines as written in agreement with “the Roman verse called iambics.”