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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

§ 5. Decline of Blank Verse; the Redundant Syllable and other Means of Varying the Measure

The first excess of audacity was in the direction of the redundant syllable. This, the occasional virtue of which had been understood even by the Marlowe group, and was perfectly utilised by Shakespeare, was carried, even by him, in his latest plays, dangerously near, though never quite over, the limit. Whether the similar exaggeration by Beaumont and Fletcher was original or imitated—whether it preceded or followed Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest—is a controversial point, and, therefore, not to be treated at length or positively pronounced on as matter of fact here. The opinion of the present writer is in favour of imitation and following on the part of “the twins.”

But the added exaggeration of redundance, though it pleases different people differently when largely used, can hardly be regarded as inconsistent with the retention of a sound standard of blank verse in at least the dramatic variety. It is otherwise with careless and exaggerated handling of the other means of varying the measure—alteration of line length, shift or neglect of pause and substitution of syllable groups. By neglecting to keep the normal standard at least present in the background, so far as these alterations are concerned, blank verse, already deprived of the guard of rime, simply tumbles to pieces. It actually does so in the work of D’Avenant, of Suckling and of not a few lesser men, in the last fifteen or twenty years before the closing of the theatres. No wonder that, after the restoration, we find it for a time losing hold of the drama itself; and stigmatised as “too mean for a copy of verses” outside drama. The real wonder is at the magnificent audacity of Milton in experimenting with it for dramatic or semi-dramatic purposes so early as the date of Comus (actually after D’Avenant’s Albovine, if before Suckling’s Aglaura) and in choosing it (exactly how much later is unknown) for the vehicle of Paradise Lost. But this is to anticipate. There is much to be said of early seventeenth century prosody before Milton and in the days when he was writing but little verse. Especially, we have to deal with the resurgence and (after some vicissitudes) establishment of the decasyllabic couplet.

This couplet, it has been said, had been comparatively little practised in the fifteenth and the greater part of the sixteenth century. Except Dunbar, or whoever was the actual author of The Freiris of Berwik, no one had got a real grip of it before Spenser in Mother Hubberd’s Tale. But Drayton practised it early in a form like Chaucer’s own, neither definitely “stopped” nor definitely “enjambed”; and a phrase of his in prose, “the attraction of the gemell” [twin] or “geminell” (as he elsewhere calls it), combines with Jonson’s exaltation of it (transmitted to us by Drummond) as an important tell-tale. The effect of the closing couplets of Fairfax’s Tasso is also attested in prose by Dryden on the direct authority of Waller. But, earlier than Fairfax, Marlowe, in Hero and Leander, had set the example, in extraordinarily attractive form and matter, of the overlapped kind; and, on the whole, this was preferred in the first half of the century. The chief practitioners of it in the first quarter were Browne, Wither and, perhaps, the enigmatic Chalkhill; in the second, Shakerley Marmion and William Chamberlayne.

This variety has many attractions, evident even in these early examples, and fully developed later by Keats and William Morris. So far as the subject goes, its superiority for narrative hardly requires demonstration. The narrator acquires almost the full liberty of prose in regard to the shortening and lengthening of his sentences and to their adjustment in convenient paragraphs. He need neither “pad” in order to spread the sense into a couplet, nor break the sense up in order not to exceed the two lines. His rime is not intrusive or insistent; it neither teases nor interrupts. On the other hand, the form provides him with all the additional enticements of poetry, rhythm, rime itself as an agreeable accompaniment, the advantage of a more coloured and abundant diction, the added ornament of simile and other poetic figure.

Unfortunately, as in the case of the freer blank verse, these very advantages involve great temptations and great dangers, of which some fuller account will be found in the chapter on the lesser Caroline poets. The absence of restraint on sentence construction leads to confused and inconsecutive writing, which, in its turn, does almost more harm to the story than the power of varying sentence length and of jointing sentences together does good. But this is not all: the verse itself suffers, as verse. The rime, if it escapes the danger of excessive prominence, incurs that of being simply merged in the flow of overlapping lines. This means that it also loses the power of fulfilling its function as “time-beater,” and that the individual line becomes flaccid and imperfect in ictus. In fact, a general slovenliness comes over it; and, whether by accident or definite causation, no chapter of English poetry is more remarkable than this for ugly contractions, not to be saved by the most liberal allowance of trisyllabic feet, for libertine accentuation and for other laches of the kind.