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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

§ 2. Loss of Elasticity and Diversity

The point to start with, and to keep in mind as steadily as possible, is that the effort to drag English prosody out of its fifteenth century Slough of Despond—the effort begun by Wyatt and Surrey, continued by Sackville and his contemporaries and completed by Spenser—resulted, almost inevitably, in somewhat too great insistence on strict and nearly syllabic regularity of metre. The elasticity and variety of English verse which had been the most precious heritage from the union of Teutonic and Romance qualities had been a little lost sight of, even to the extent of the strange delusion—formulated as theory by Gascoigne in the face of facts, and evidently entertained by much greater and later poets in practice—that English possessed a foot of two syllables, iambically arranged, and that foot only.

Had this delusion not been counterworked, the loss would have been immense; but, fortunately, the counterworking went on in two—in fact in three—important directions. In the first place, the abundant composition of songs for music necessitated now the admixture, now the constant observance, of “triple time.” In the second, metrical composition in this triple time, with no idea of music, was popular; and, though not much affected by the greater poets, it was sporadically cultivated by the lesser, from Tusser onwards. But the great instrument, pattern and storehouse (to regard it from different points of view) in the recovery—slowly though this recovery was effected—was blank verse.

  • But it was impossible for a true dramatist who was also a true poet to remain content with the single-moulded, middle-paused, strictly iambic “decasyllabon.” Although this forms the staple verse of Peele and Greene and Marlowe, occasional escapes of passion break through the restraints in all directions, though the trisyllabic foot is still very uncommon with them. But Shakespeare, in a manner dealt with more in detail in the proper place, gradually dispenses with all restraints not absolutely necessary to the retention of the general rhythm of the line. Only, perhaps, by reading successively—with attention to the scansion—say, a passage of Gorboduc and one of the famous Hamlet soliloquies; and by following up this pair with another—say, one of Turbervile’s poems and a song from Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, or The Tempest—can anyone who has not deliberately studied prosody appreciate the recovery of liberty in its process and in its fulfilment. There will not be found any real “irregularity”—lines of intended similarity will never be observed to vary in “accent” or “foot division”—whichever arrangement may be preferred. The blank verse will sometimes extend itself to alexandrines, perhaps, in a few cases, to fourteeners, and sometimes contract itself to fragments (i. e. lesser multiples of the unit than five), which may end with half, as well as whole, feet. The lyrics may—generally will—present arrangements of different multiples. But these multiples, in the lyric case, will be adjusted to a definite stanza-symphony, and, in both cases, the individual correspondent lines, though they may present syllabic difference, will be found to be essentially equivalent—trisyllabic, occasionally monosyllabic, feet (or accent groups) being substituted for dissyllabic.