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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

§ 13. Perceptive Prosody: Jonson and Dryden

This chapter would be incomplete without a few remarks on the preceptive prosody of the seventeenth century, although, in amount of definite utterance, it is singularly meagre. Some obiter dicta of Drayton and others have been noted above. But the classical metre quarrel, which furnishes much matter for the middle and late sixteenth century, had died down with the duel of Campion and Daniel; the serious attention of the first two generations of the century was directed to other things than prosody, and the revival of general criticism in the third did not take prosodic form, while the very multiformity and diversity of prosodic practice, during the earlier period, may have had something to do with the absence of theory. There is a very curious and interesting preface by an unidentified “J. D.” (who cannot have been John Donne and is unlikely to have been John Dryden) to the posthumous English Parnassus of Joshua Poole (1656–7), containing some rather acute criticism on the prevailing faults of its transition date. There are, also, the interesting remarks of Samuel Woodford as to Milton’s versification. Milton himself, in his scornful denunciation of rime before Paradise Lost, has touched the subject, though he has hardly done so in the preface to Samson Agonistes. But the main interest under this particular head is an interest of a somewhat Hibernian kind, for it regards two things that are not in existence, though we have assurance, if not evidence, of the strongest kind that they formerly were.

Jonson and Dryden, who were both, in a way, literary dictators, the one for the first, the other for the last, third of the century, were also men from whom prosodic discussion might naturally have been expected, and from whom it ought to have been exceptionally valuable. Not only were both possessed of exceptional and unusually varied practical command of metre, but both had a strong inclination to criticism; a sound acquaintance, in Jonson’s case more specially with ancient, in Dryden’s with modern, literature; and a vigorous argumentative faculty. Moreover, we know, on their own authority, that both did treat, or, at least, intended to treat, the subject thoroughly. But, in neither case does any full treatment exist, and—which is more provoking—though we may guess, we cannot, if (as, indeed, is not very commonly done) we control our guesswork by positive evidence, be at all certain what the general purport of either would have been.

The facts as to Jonson are these. He glances at prosody in his incompleted English Grammar, distinguishes English from classical quantity, but quits the subject with promise of treatment “in the heel of the book”—which heel was either never reached, or perished in the burning of his study. In Discoveries, there is little or nothing prosodic. In the more dubious, but probably, in the main, trustworthy, Conversations with Drummond, however, there are prosodic touches of great but tantalising interest. When a man thinks Abraham Fraunce “a fool” for writing quantitative hexameters and John Donne worthy of “hanging for not keeping accent,” the opinions are noteworthy enough; but, as it happens, they might be connected and systematised in quite different ways. Spenser’s metre, it is said, did not please Jonson; but there are several ways in which it may have displeased him. The central statement—most definite in one part and most ambiguous in another part—is that he not merely intended “to perfect an Epic Poem … all in couplets, for he detested all other rimes,” but had

  • actually written a Discourse of Poesy both against Campion and Daniel, especially this last, where he proves couplets to be the bravest sort of verses especially when they are broken like hexameters, and that cross-rhymes and stanzas … were all forced.
  • Now, except as to the growing dislike of the stanza, where we have the above mentioned corroboration of Drayton, and the preference of the couplet, where we have the corroboration of the whole history just surveyed, this gives us very little positive information. Indeed, the phrase “broken like hexameters” is almost hopelessly susceptible of various and even opposite interpretations. Those who like to take separate phrases, place their own interpretations upon them and then infer and deduce away merrily, may reconstruct Ben Jonson’s Discourse of Poesy. The present writer declines the task, though he feels tolerably certain as to the probable drift of some passages.

    The situation repeats itself, with a curious general similarity, at the other end with Dryden. In his copious critical work, passages of definite prosodic bearing are extraordinarily few, and mostly slight and vague. There is, indeed, one exception, in the Dedication of the Aeneis. This contains a disclaimer of hiatus caused by “the want of a caesura” (as he oddly calls elision), which disclaimer is extended into a valuable general rule that “no vowel can be cut off before another when we cannot sink the pronunciation”; some curious comparisons of English with French and Italian prosody; a commendation of the occasional alexandrine (warranted by Jonson and Cowley); and one or two other things. But the most important sentence is, again, a “pain of Tantalus.” “I have long had by me the materials of an English Prosodia containing all the mechanical rules of versification, wherein I have treated, with some exactness, of the feet, the quantities and the pauses.” Alas! either these materials were never worked up (though “I have treated” looks positive enough) or else both they and the working up were lost. It may, indeed, be observed in passing, that the absence of any “remains” or posthumous publication of any kind in the case of a writer so prolific and industrious as Dryden is remarkable.

    But, however this may be, the English Prosodia, apparently, is in limbo with A Discourse of Poesy; and, in this case, as in the other, we can only conjecture what the contents would have been. By an odd sequence, however, which was probably not a coincidence merely, Dryden had been but a few months in his grave when the first book deserving the name of “an English Prosodia” appeared. The work of Bysshe does not belong to this chapter; but it is evidently deduced—imperfectly, pedantically and one-sidedly enough—from the practice of the period of Dryden himself, though it excludes or depreciates, and sometimes explicitly condemns, many of the saving graces and enfranchising easements which characterise Dryden’s work. But its faults look forward rather than backward and, therefore, we must not say any more of it for the present.

    It is, however, worth while to point out that even Dryden, with his remarkable acuteness and catholicity of appreciation, would have been hard put to it to devise a Prosodia which should do equal justice to the verse of the generation before him and that of his own youth, as well as to his own and that of his contemporaries. The changes were not only too great but too intricate and too gradual to be discriminatingly allowed for by anyone without larger assistance from what one of his own admirable phrases calls “the firm perspective of the past.” That assistance has been utilised here as much as possible; and it is hoped that the result may at least help some readers to do something like the justice which even Dryden could hardly have done to the verse of the whole period covered in the present chapter.