Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 1. Changes in the Heroic Couplet of Dryden

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XI. The Prosody of the Eighteenth Century

§ 1. Changes in the Heroic Couplet of Dryden

IN dealing with the subject of the present chapter, the procedure of our last chapter on that subject has to be directly reversed. We had, there, to give account of complicated and largely changing practice, with hardly any contemporary theory to accompany it—with almost no theory in a developed and extant form. In the present case, a very short survey of the practice will suffice. But we shall have to take into consideration a body of prosodic study, no member of which is of very great interest in itself, but which practically founded that study in English literature.

Yet, if the space allotted to metrical practice at the time is small, it is not because that practice is negligible. On the contrary, the sentence in our earlier chapter that “it established in the English ear a sense of rhythm that is truly rhythmical’ deserves repetition and emphasis. So strongly was this establishment based, buttressed and built upon, that it practically survived all the apparent innovations in practice of the nineteenth century itself, and has only been attacked in very recent years and, as yet, with no real success. But it was, almost, of the nature of this process that the prosodic exercises of the eighteenth century should be comparatively few and positively simple. With the exception of the rhythmical prose-verse or verse-prose of Ossian, which, with its partial derivative, that of Blake, may be left to separate treatment later, and of the recovery of substitution by Chatterton, which may also be postponed, almost the entire practical prosody of the period confines itself to two main, and a very few subordinate, forms, all of which are governed by one general prosodic principle. This principle directs the restriction of every line—with the fewest and most jealously guarded licences—to a fixed number of syllables, the accentual or quantitative order or which varies as little as possible. Over the decasyllabic couplet, the sovereign of the prosodic seas at this time, over its attendant frigate the octosyllabic, over the not very numerous lyrical fly-boats that complete the squadron, this flag of syllabic and accentual regularity floats—only one or two privateer or picaroon small craft daring to disregard it.