Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 10. Shenstone; Gray; Johnson

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

§ 10. Shenstone; Gray; Johnson

Wrong as they generally went, fruitless as were, too often, their attempts, flitting shadows in an arid desert as some may think them, history cannot entirely omit these enquirers; but she certainly turns to a few others with some satisfaction. Shenstone, Gray, Johnson and Cowper were poets who turned their attention definitely to prosody. Mason (John, not William) and Mitford were prosodists who, in the first case, at least, appreciated the beauty of poetry, and, in the second, made large excursions into the more than contemporary history of it. Shenstone’s actual poetical value may not be very high; but the merest glance at the variety of his poetical forms should prove something of a tell-tale about him, and his prose works, if only in a few scattered observations, emphasise the warning. He seems to have been the very first person in the century who definitely perceived the wanton asceticism of unvarying elision and sighed for “the dactyl,” as he called it; he is the first, also, who laid express stress on the value of “full” rimes and the colouring force of particular phrases. Gray, a much greater poet and not himself much of a practitioner of trisyllabics, was, on the other hand, the first to recognise the presence and the continuity of the trisyllabic foot in generally disyllabic metres from middle English downward; and he exhibits in his (unfortunately fragmentary) Metrum many other signs of historic knowledge and metrical vision. Johnson, in his prosodic remarks on Milton, Spenser and a few others, is, professedly, at least, of the straitest sect of believers in fixed syllabism, regular iambic arrangement and middle caesura. Yet, as is constantly the case with him in other departments of criticism, he shows, in an almost Drydenian manner, his consciousness of the other side; and, indeed, gives that side practically all it can ask by admitting that perfect “purity,” though, as enforced above, “the most complete harmony of which a single verse is capable,” is, if preserved continuously, not only “very difficult” but “tiresome and disgusting”; and that variation of the accents, though “it always injures the harmony of the line,” compensates the loss by relieving us of this tyranny. He did not extend the same indulgence to what he calls “elision,” that is to say, the presence of extra syllables or trisyllabic feet; or to pauses far from the centre. But the concession as to “pure” and “mixed” measures was itself a Trojan horse. If, the nearer you approach to purity and perfection, in one part of the system, the more likely your result is to be tiresome and disgusting, it will go near to be thought shortly that the system itself is rotten somewhere.