Home  »  Volume VIII: English THE AGE OF DRYDEN  »  § 6. The Battle of the Couplets”: Waller and Cowley

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

§ 6. The Battle of the Couplets”: Waller and Cowley

On the other hand, the stopped form which had existed separately in Chaucer himself, which was not unfrequent in Spenser and Drayton and which, when the octave became popular, almost obtruded itself as a constant coda, presented a combination, beyond all question unrivalled in English poetry, of strength, neatness and regular music. The encomiastic exemplification of Sir John Beaumont shows us, with perfect clearness, and in effective terms, what its admirers and practitioners found and liked in it. The sweetness of the stanza, itself regular enough but “long drawn out,” had palled on them; the new overlapped paragraphs were not regular and were more long drawn out still; while a third variety of couplet, which the satirists and, especially, Donne were attempting, revolted them, not without reason, by its roughness. It may, perhaps, be questioned whether those to whom obvious and unmistakable regularity is the chief charm of verse have attained to the full understanding of it; but it is certain that, for a very large number of persons, perhaps even a considerable majority, regularity does provide this charm. They found it in the stopped decasyllabic couplet, combined with the further charm of exact and emphatic rimes, as well as with that (which seems, also, to have appealed very strongly to popular favour) of limitation of sense to a manageable modicum of metre.

The history of this “battle of the couplets,” as it has been termed, turns on the names and work of the poets mentioned and of others. It must not be supposed—and, indeed, will hardly be supposed by any one conversant with literary history—that any one of them was a positive and exclusive propagandist of either kind. Waller, who obtained his traditional title, “reformer of our numbers,” from his practice in the stopped kind, wrote some of his latest, and some of his best, work in the other. Cowley, too, affected both; though there is no doubt that his Davideis, with its deliberate introduction of the alexandrine to vary, weight and extend the stopped form, was of great moment. On the other hand, as has been observed, Chamberlayne, “the author of Pharonnida, the longest and the best of the enjambed couplet poems,” employs the stopped form in his England’s Jubile. But, little by little, this form triumphed; and its superior adaptation to the styles of poetry most popular after the restoration—satire, didactics, epistles and the like—must have won the day for it, even if the faults of its rival had been less gross. Nothing can be wisely regretted which gave us first Dryden and then Pope. But, even if these great masters had not found in the stopped couplet a metre exactly suited to their respective powers, its regulative quality—the way in which it once more drove doggerel out of English verse—would amply validate its claim to respect.