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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

IX. The Prosody of the Seventeenth Century

§ 10. The Octosyllabic Couplet

Another, and somewhat similar, “place of arms” was established somewhat earlier, in the form of the octosyllabic couplet, by Butler, and further fortified, not merely by Prior himself, but by Swift, who was not unimportant, likewise, in regard to the anapaest. This form was by no means the same as the Miltonic; and was also, for a long time, more or less identified with satiric and other semi-serious verse. It did not, as a rule, permit itself to “fail in a syllable,” as Chaucer quaintly and apologetically puts the rationale of the other; and so it commended itself to the strong and growing contemporary love for order. Butler marked its time unmistakably; and, while avoiding singsong, he thus avoided, at the same time, the colourless fluency which syllabic exactitude had too often invited or allowed (for instance, in Gower). But he indemnified himself for exactitude within the line by large extension at the end into double and even triple rime; and his manipulation of the rime generally, even without this extension, was marked by a pungency which, of itself, would have given character to the verse. Prior, and Swift when he did not aim at special burlesque effect (as, of course, Butler had almost always done), reduced what has been called the “acrobatism” of the measure, but made it into something much more than an “easy jingle”—a narrative and “occasional” medium of unsurpassed capacity, providing an invaluable easement, if not a definite correction, to the larger couplet.

But the way in which the course of events and the genius of Dryden “settled the succession of the state” of prosody for some century and a half to come in favour of that couplet itself is the point of importance for the rest of this chapter. And, in order to exhibit it to advantage, a short recapitulation of the actual state itself, at about the year 1660, should be given.

By this time—as the reader of these chapters will have perceived, if he has taken the trouble to read them consecutively—almost the whole province of English prosody had been consciously or unconsciously explored, though no ordnance map of it had been even attempted, and very large districts had not been brought under regular cultivation. Its life, to change the metaphor, had passed from the stage of infancy in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to an almost premature state of accomplished growth at the close of the last named, but had gone through a serious fit of disease in the fifteenth. It had recovered magnificently during the later sixteenth and earlier seventeenth, and, within this time, had practically, though not theoretically, completed the pioneer exploration above referred to. But certain dangerous symptoms had recurred in the breakdown of blank verse, in the roughness of the satirists, in the flaccidity of the heroic enjambed couplet; while the great tonic work of Milton, unlike that of Chaucer, was not at once appreciated, though, perhaps for that very reason, it had a deeper and more lasting effect. The immense increase of range which had been given by the practice of the various stanzas, of lyric, of octosyllable and decasyllable, of one other curious development yet to be noticed and, above all, of blank verse, had seemed, sometimes, to overpower the explorers’ sense of rhythm and metrical proportion—to afflict them with a sort of prosodic vertigo. Either Milton or Shakespeare would have been a hazardous specific for this, inasmuch as neither—and, more especially, not Shakespeare—used a technically rigid versification. Nothing has ever been devised—probably nothing ever could be devised—so efficacious for medical purposes in this condition of things as the stopped heroic couplet.