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

§ 4. Blank Verse

The most formidable rival, however, of the heroic was blank verse. The practice of this inevitably arose from, and, in most instances, continued to be the imitation of, Milton, which, sparse and scanty for the first generation after his death, grew more abundant as the eighteenth century itself went on and, in The Seasons, almost ceased to be mere imitation. Fine, however, as Thomson’s blank verse is, and sometimes almost original, it suffered not a little, while all the blank verse of the century before Cowper’s latest suffered more, from undue generalisation in almost all cases, and in most from positive caricature, of Milton’s mannerisms. The worst of these (so far as prosody is concerned) was the exaggeration of his occasional, and always specially effective, use of the full stop in the interior of a verse by chopping up line after line in this fashion to an extent ridiculous to the eye and mind, and destructive of all harmony to the ear. The practitioners of blank verse, also, too often agreed with its enemy Johnson that, if it was not “tumid and gorgeous,” it was mere prose; and, though they frequently failed to make it gorgeous, they almost invariably succeeded in making it tumid. Even in Yardley Oak, Cowper’s masterpiece of the form, these defects exist: and the eighteenth century strain in Wordsworth himself never completely freed itself from them.

It is, however, in lyric measures that the limitations of this period of more or less rigid drill show themselves most. In what has been called “the greater ode,” the terrible irregular “Pindarics” of the later seventeenth century continued; but they gradually died out, and the establishment of stricter forms (in which respect Congreve is not to be forgotten), speedily and luckily inspired with fuller poetic spirit by Gray and Collins, did much to appease the insulted ghost of the great Boeotian. In smaller and lighter work, the adoption of the anapaest by Prior was almost as fortunate as his patronage of the octosyllable, and we have not a few graceful trifles—“free” in no evil sense—not merely by Prior himself but by Gay and by Byrom, by Chesterfield, Pulteney, Shenstone and others.