Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 7. Wyatt and Surrey

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

XIII. Prosody from Chaucer to Spenser

§ 7. Wyatt and Surrey

In the two famous writers in whom the reformation of English verse first distinctly appears, the reforming influences—or, to speak with stricter correctness, the models chosen in order to help the achievement of reform—are, without doubt, Italian, though French may have had some subsidiary or go-between influence. Sonnet and terza rima in Wyatt, and the same with the addition of blank verse in Surrey (putting aside lyrics), tell the tale unmistakably. And it is to be noticed that sonnet, terza rima and blank verse—the first two by their actually strict and rigid outline and the third through the fear and caution imposed on the writer by the absence of his usual mentor, rime, act almost automatically. But (and it is a precious piece of evidence in regard to their erring predecessors as well as to their penitent and reformed selves) it is quite clear that even they still have great difficulty in adjusting rhythm to pronunciation. They “wrench accent” in the fashion which Gascoigne was to rebuke in the next (almost in the same) generation; they dislocate rime; they have occasional recourse to the valued -e which we know to have been long obsolete, and even to have turned in some cases to the -y form in adjectives.

Whatever their shortcomings, however (and, in fact, their shortcomings were much less than might have been expected), there is no doubt that the two poets whose names have long been and must always be inseparable deserve, in prosody even more than in poetry generally, the credit of a “great instauration”—of showing how the old patterns of Chaucer and others, adjusted to the new pronunciation, could be got out of the disarray into which they had fallen, by reference (immediately) to Italian models. Nor is it superfluous to point out that Italian, though apparently a language most different in vocalisation and cadence from English, has the very point in common with us which French lacks—the combination, that is to say, of strict, elaborate and most various external conformation of stanza with a good deal of syllabic liberty inside the line. These two things were exactly what wanted encouragement in English: and Italian gave them together.

For the moment, however, and naturally, the stricter side of the teaching was more attended to than the looser. The older prosody, at an exceedingly uncertain time but, most probably, on the bridge of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, had produced some very lovely things: not only the three above mentioned (of which only The Nut Brown Maid can be later than the middle of the fifteenth century, and that may not be) but others certainly early, such as E. I. O., Quia amore langueo and many less known pieces. But doggerel had invaded lyric too, and sunk it to merely popular uses; and it would be difficult to pick out a really beautiful lyric that is certainly of the last generation of the fifteenth or the first of the sixteenth century. Here, therefore, as elsewhere, the reform had to be rather in the precise direction; and for at least fifty years from Wyatt (who must have begun writing as early as 1530) to Spenser, English lyric, like English poetry generally, is “on its good behaviour”; careful of syllabic exactness within and correspondence without; afraid of trisyllabic liberty; obviously nervous and “keeping its foot,” lest it slip into the quicksand of doggerel or the quagmire of scarcely rhythmed prose.