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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

§ 12. Dryden and the Heroic Couplet

To say that this couplet could not have received its actual firm establishment without Dryden would, perhaps, be less philosophical than to say that the necessity of its establishment in its turn necessitated the arising of a poet like Dryden. If Pope and he had changed places, it is pretty certain that the domination of the form would have been much shorter than it actually was. For Dryden had by no means Pope’s attachment to the couplet, the pure couplet and nothing but the couplet; and his own form of it was much affected by precedent poetry, thereby, as it were, gearing the new vehicle on to the old. He took from Fairfax and Waller the sententious tramp of the stopped measure; he took from Cowley the alexandrine licence with its powers of amplification and variation; he took—perhaps from nobody in particular—the triplet with its similar reinforcement. He early adopted the use of the same word, emphatically repeated in different places of consecutive or neighbouring lines so as to give relief to the unvarying smoothness and the clockwork balance of the strict Wallerian type. Above all, after he wrote his first batch of couplet poems near the time of the restoration itself, and before he wrote his great satiric and didactic pieces in the same measure twenty years later, he had an enormous amount of practice in it through his heroic plays. The actual poetic value of them does not here matter at all. A man of Dryden’s metrical gift could not have written even ten or twenty thousand nonsense verses without becoming a thorough master of the metrical capacities of his instrument. But, as a matter of fact, little as the couplet may be suited to the necessities of the stage, those necessities themselves force it to display capacities which it would not otherwise show. People may laugh at (without, as a rule, reading) The Indian Queen and Tyrannic Love, The Conquest of Granada and Aureng-Zebe. But it is as certain as any such thing can be that, without his practice in these plays, Dryden’s couplet would never have attained the astonishing and unique combination of ease and force, of regularity and variety, which it displays in Absalom and Achitophel and Mac Flecknoe, in Religio Laici and The Hind and the Panther. Nor was it merely in the couplet itself that Dryden maintained that unceasing and unstereotyped variety of practice, which made his last examples of this particular metre in the Fables perhaps the capital instances of their particular kind. He took good care never to allow himself the sterilising indulgence of the single string. Reference has been made to the excellence of his smaller lyrics (far too often not so much undervalued as ignored) and of his larger; the stately dignity of his decasyllabic quatrains in Annus Mirabilis, though somewhat stiffer than it would have been if written at a later date, is admirable in itself; he shows himself, rarely as he tried them, a master of easy octosyllables; and his blank verse, when he returned to it in All for Love, is of really splendid kind prosodically, and has seemed to some almost the last English example of the form (except certain still more splendid but much rarer and briefer flashes of Lee) which really unites poetical and dramatic quality.

All this practice, with its variety and its excellence, is reflected in, and, probably, to no small extent contributed to, the peculiar quality of what, after all, is Dryden’s main poetic instrument—the couplet. This couplet is not, like Pope’s, “bred in and in” and severely trained and exercised to a typical but somewhat limited perfection. It is full-blooded, exuberant, multiform, showing, sometimes, almost the rush of the anapaest, though it seldom—perhaps never intentionally—admits the foot itself, and sometimes almost the mass of the blank verse paragraph, though its pairs or occasional triplets are usually complete in themselves. Dryden attains his effects in it not merely by the special devices already noted—alexandrine, triplet, repetition of emphasised word in different place—but by an omnipresent and peculiar distribution of the weight which, almost self-contradictorily destitute of heaviness, characterises his verse. He poises and wields and flourishes it like a quarterstaff with shifting load inside it. In doing this, he necessarily often neglects the middle pause, and, not unfrequently, breaks his line into sections brought about by pauses and half pauses, which are superadded to, and, in a way, independent of, the strict metrical division. Thus, a line partly quoted already

  • To set &pipe; tle the &pipe; success &pipe; sion of &pipe; the state
  • is perfectly normal—five-footed or five-accented—to all but those who deny the possibility of length or accent to “the” and “of,” while even they can manage the fivefold subdivision in other ways. But, in addition to this, Dryden has communicated to it a threefold rhetorico-prosodic arrangement
  • To settle—the succession—of the state,
  • which, as do other things like it in other lines, entirely frees the general context from the objection of mechanical jointing into merely equal lengths. He has also a great tendency to “bear up” the ends of his lines and his couplets with important words—especially when he uses middle pause—as in
  • They got a villain, and we lost a—fool,
  • or
  • Had more of lion in her than to fear.
  • But all this variation was strictly subjected, in Dryden’s case, to what he and his contemporaries, with almost everybody up to the early part of the nineteenth century, and not a few people since, called “smoothness” or “sweetness”—the origination of which they were wont to attribute to “Mr. Waller.” That is to say, you could never mistake the distinct iambic—and five-spaced iambic—distribution of the line. Monotony was avoided; but confusion of the base of the versification was avoided still more definitely and peremptorily. It is to this double avoidance that the differentia of the Drydenian couplet is due, and to it the astonishing hold which that couplet, in—but not exclusively in—the permutations which it underwent, maintained for nearly five generations after Dryden began, and for more than three after he had brought it to full perfection.

    It was natural that the somewhat tyrannous way in which its supremacy was exercised—the way in which, as may be seen later, measures of more strictly poetical quality than itself were ostracised or pooh-poohed—should make the revolt violent when that revolt came. It is natural that, even to the present day, vindication of its merits should seem like treason to these measures, in the eyes of well-meaning, but somewhat uncatholic, lovers of poetry itself. But no one who holds the balance true can share these feelings. The couplet of Dryden and its follower, to which we have not yet come, the couplet of Pope, together with other still later varieties, blends of the two, are not the be-all and end-all of English prosody: they leave out much and even forbid something that is greater than they. But the varieties constitute a very great metrical group in themselves. Fresh varieties of the stopped form—not much practised in the nineteenth century or in the twentieth, as yet—have been foreshadowed by Keats, in Lamia, and by Tennyson, in a brief but extraordinarily fine passage of The Vision of Sin. But, whatever has been and whatever may come, and whatever sins of omission and exclusion be on its head, it established in the English ear a firm sense of rhythm that is really rhythmical, and a notion—which may easily be carried too far, but which is eminently salutary in itself—that combinations of verse and arrangement of sense should obey some common law. It is no treason, it is only reason, to combine with enthusiasm for the prosody of Shakespeare and Milton and Shelley, admiration for the prosody of Jonson, of Pope and (above both) of Dryden.