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

§ 14. Summary

To some extent, of course, the impoverished state of actual prosody at the time may be taken as an excuse for the prosodic theorists, though it would be very unfair to blame the poets themselves for the sins of these others. Prosodists saw around them practically nothing but one limited side of the possibilities of English verse; and the extent to which this had to do with their errors can hardly be exaggerated. But it was perfectly open to them to look back if they chose, and a few of them did choose; while, of those who did, still fewer showed themselves able to read the open lessons which authors no more recondite than Shakespeare and Milton had for them. Moreover—and, strange as it may seem, the phenomenon has repeated itself by no means seldom since, and is fully in view at the present day—the majority of them had evidently no taste whatever for poetry as poetry. It was a machine to be taken to pieces, not a body of beauty to be appreciated.

And so, though, in any case, the calling back into fresh existence of the older and more varied poetry, and the calling into new existence of a poetry more varied still, would have antiquated their enquiries, they failed even to give due value or due explanation to what they had. For, as has been set forth already, they had something, and no small thing, in their own poets—the positive and practically indestructible establishment of definite rhythm. As Chaucer and, in regard to line-grouping, if not to line-making, Spenser, as Shakespeare and Milton, in both, once more stand irremovably as witnesses for liberty and variety in metre, so Dryden and Pope and Johnson, nay, even Collins and Gray, stand for order and regularity. We wanted both sets of influences, and we had now got them.

It will thus be seen that, from the strictly historical point of view, this period is of no small importance in regard to the particular matter treated in this chapter. It is the first in which any considerable number of persons busied themselves with the attempt to analyse and systematise the principles of English versification. It is true that, with hardly more exceptions than Gray and John Mason to whom Shenstone and Tyrwhitt, perhaps, also, Sheridan, may, to some extent, be joined, they came for the most part, to wrong conclusions; but the reason why they so came is clear. In no case, except in those of Gray partially, and Mitford more fully, did students of prosody, at this time, study English poetry as it had actually existed and base their conclusions on the results of that examination. Generally, they took the restricted prosody of their own time as the perfection of all that was possible in the subject. In some particular cases, of which Steele’s is the most remarkable, they attacked the matter altogether a priori, and in the worst sense of that much abused term. They, then, endeavoured to construct an abstract science of prosody starting from assumed axioms and postulates, with deductions from which actual verse had to be accommodated as it best (or worst) might. No two writers may, at first sight, seem to stand farther apart than Bysshe and Steele; yet, when they are impartially examined, the faults which have been pointed out in them will be found to be equally present though differently distributed, and to be equally due to the same fundamental error of beginning with the rule, instead of with that from which the rule must be extracted. They can be convicted out of the mouth of him who, to most of them, was the greatest of poets and prophets—of Pope himself. They would not “discover,” they would not do anything but “devise.”