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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

§ 9. The Anapaest as the Chief Base-foot of Metre

With one important development of prosody during his time, however, Milton had little to do, though the experiments of Samson show that he may have thought of it latterly. This was the employment of the anapaest—not in occasional substitution for the iamb, but as the principal base-foot of metre. It has been pointed out repeatedly that such use, between the time of doggerel and the mid-seventeenth century, is rare in literature though authentically established by Tusser, Humfrey Gifford, Campion and others. But folk-song kept it; and, in such pieces as Mary Ambree, which, perhaps, is as early as 1584, there is no mistake about it. Yet literary poets are still shy of it, and it is curious how rare it is in the work of a man like Herrick, which would seem imperatively to demand it, and which actually gets a pseudo-trisyllabic effect out of strictly dissyllabic bases. In spite of the pressing invitation of music, closely connected as it is with the lyric of this period, there hangs about the triple time a suggestion of frivolity and vulgarity which is formulated preceptively at the beginning of the next century by Bysshe. Long before that, however, it had forced itself upon book-poetry. Ere 1650 had been reached, Cleiveland in his Mark Antony and Square-Cap, Waller in his Saraband—both popular and widely read versifiers—had employed it. But Cleiveland’s handling is very uncertain; and this uncertainty as to whether the authors meant iambic and trochaic movement with trisyllabic substitution, or a mainly trisyllabic measure with similarly occasional dissyllabic equivalence, persists as late as some examples of Dryden.

This last named poet, however, brought his great metrical skill, and his almost unchallenged authority, to the support of trisyllabic measures, alike in many songs and lyrics scattered about his plays, and in others not attached to any drama, but published in his Miscellanies. The other numerous collections of the middle and late seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries, from the Musarum Deliciae of Mennes [Minnes] and Smith to the Pills to Purge Melancholy of Tom D’Urfey, testify at once to the popularity of the movement and to the increasing skill of poets in it. The form which it most ordinarily takes is the four-footed anapaestic quatrain, rimed in couplets and well illustrated by Mary Ambree itself. Some years before the close of the seventeenth century, this form was taken up and perfected by a poet who could not be pooh-poohed as unlettered, Matthew Prior. It continued, indeed, for the best part of the eighteenth century to be regarded as a “light” measure, in more than the character of its movement; in fact, the approach to more serious uses was made earlier by the three-, than by the four-footed variety. But the point of importance is the making good of a place of vantage and security for a metre very different in character from that which was to hold the actual domination of English prosody for more than a hundred years.