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

VIII. Southey

§ 25. Frank Sayers

Frank Sayers, a member of the almost famous Norwich literary group of which William Taylor was a sort of coryphaeus, contributed less to the actual body of English verse than Bowles. His life was much shorter; he was, at any rate for a time, a practising physician, and had a considerable number of other avocations and interests besides poetry. But he touches the subject, in theory and practice both, at one point, in a fashion which was to prove decidedly important, if not in actual production, yet influentially and historically. Whether Sayers was originally attracted to unrimed verse, not blank in the ordinary restricted sense, by the Germans, or by his own fancy, or by the reading which, after his own practice, he showed to a rather remarkable extent in a dissertation-defence on the subject—does not seem to be quite clear. The dissertation itself, which was published in 1793, shows the remarkable extension of knowledge of English poetry, which was doing much to prepare the great romantic outburst that followed. Collins’s Evening, and the now deservedly forgotten choruses of Glover’s Medea would have been known to anyone at the time, and, perhaps, Watts’s Sapphics (Cowper’s were not published). Most men must have known, though, perhaps, few would have brought into the argument, Milton’s “Pyrrha” version. But Sidney’s practice in Arcadia, The Mourning Muse of Thestylis, which was still thought Spenser’s, and Peele’s Complaint of Oenone would have been present to the minds of very few.

But whether he had known all these before he wrote, as Southey almost certainly did, or whether it was learning got up to support practice, Sayers’s own earlier Dramatic Sketches had supplied the most ambitious and abundant experiments in unrimed verse since Sidney himself, or, at least, since Campion. He does not entirely abjure rime; but, in Moina, Starno and his version of the Euripidean Cyclops, he tried the unrimed Pindaric; and (in a rather naïve, or more than rather unwisely ambitious, manner) he actually supplemented Collins’s ode with one To Night, on the same model. Elsewhere, it is perfectly plain, not merely from his rimelessness but from his titles and his diction, that the influence of Ossian had a great deal to do with the matter. He adopts, however, in all cases, regular verse-stanzas instead of rimed prose. Sayers’s poetical powers—wildly exalted by some in that day of smallest poetical things and of darkness before dawn—are very feeble: but he intends greatly, and does not sin in either of the three directions of evil which, as we have seen, Darwin and Hayley and the Della Cruscans respectively represent. But the most interesting thing about him is the way in which, like nearly everybody who has made similar attempts except Southey (v. sup.), he succumbs, despite almost demonstrable efforts to prevent it, to the danger of chopped decasyllables, which unite themselves in the reading and so upset the intended rhythm. Such things as the parallel openings of Thalaba and of Queen Mab he was incapable of reaching; but, if he had reached them, their inherent poetry might have carried off the almost inevitable defect of the scheme. As it is, that effect is patent and glaring.