The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 10. Keats
In the case of Keats, the results of prosodic study of his methods are curiously different. In him, we have, not a poet who catches up a suggestion and in whose mind that suggestion transmutes itself, one can hardly tell how, but a “sedulous ape” of a glorified kind who takes a definite model and works on that model in a way the processes of which can be traced with tolerable exactness. In the early pieces, as one would expect, the workmanship is crude and the hand uncertain. But, in the three longest poems, Endymion, Lamia and Hyperion, the prosodic process is perfectly distinct, and in Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and The Eve of St. Mark and the odes and smaller poems hardly less so, though there are, as a rule, even more striking examples of the completed fusing of the various elements. As a prosodic example, Endymion is not the least remarkable. Leigh Hunt had, indeed, ventured to revive the heroic couplet by recourse to the overlapped form of the seventeenth century. Keats may have followed Hunt. But, at least some of the not very numerous persons who are familiar with the Jacobean and Caroline originals feel pretty sure that Keats knew them too. He has, to some extent, imitated their vices; but he has attained a constant sweetness which is nowhere in The Story of Rimini, and an occasional strength which is seldom found in Chalkhill or in Chamberlayne.
He himself, however, knew that he had let this sweetness become cloying and had occasionally, at least, turned softness into flaccidity; and he set to work to tone up his strings. He did this by arduous, and evident joint, study of the prosodies of Milton and of Dryden. In the first place, he still clave to Dryden’s form-couplet. The result was the fine verse of Lamia, with triplets and Alexandrines restored, and with a good deal of Miltonic phraseology. But it was almost impossible that this should not attract Keats to Milton’s metre as well as to his phrase: and so there was Hyperion. Yet, no one of the three poems is open to the reproach, constantly and sometimes justly urged, against work which shows the existence of a model—of being a mere imitative exercise. The poet has infused sufficient of himself into all of them, and hardly the dullest critical ear could fail to distinguish a specimen of Endymion from Pharonnida, of Lamia from any of the Fables, or even of Hyperion from Paradise Lost. The octaves of Isabella show less definite following; and, perhaps, despite some extremely beautiful things, less individuality in the success; but the two Eves again show us something of the earlier phenomenon. Spenser had now been so often and so variously imitated, and the peculiar combination of character and adaptability in the metre had been so freely shown, that the finished poem, from this point of view, is less surprising than it is beautiful. But the unfinished Eve of St. Mark is, again, a most remarkable prosodic study. Its octosyllable is usually traced to Chaucer; but, to the present writer, Gower seems to be much more in evidence and the way in which Keats flushed Gower’s too frequently insignificant flow with colour and spirit, undulated its excessive evenness, stocked the waves with gold and silver fish and paved the channel with varicoloured pebbles, is, indeed, a marvel. In the odes and smaller pieces it is still more difficult to separate study of the prosody from praise of the poetry; but, in La Belle Dame sans Merci, at least, the modification of the ballad lesson would take a whole paragraph to display it fully.
Not less indicative of the course of prosodic events is the group of poets, in one way minor, in another transitional, discussed in an earlier chapter. They were by no means all of one literary school or sect. Beddoes and Darley were what their slightly younger contemporaries in France would have hailed with joy had they known them, romantiques à tous crins; Hood was not quite that, but a decided follower of the earlier and more sober romantic school, deriving straight from Elizabethan literature. Praed was an accomplished classical scholar, of the type of Canning and Frere but with more lyrical gift; and Macaulay the same, with, perhaps, something of a taste more “classical,” in the transferred sense, and, thus, less romantic than any of the others.
Yet, even he, and much more the rest, would give a sufficient text, even without any of the greater poets just dealt with, for illustrating the present discourse. The adoption of the metre of the Lays for their subject would, in fact, be enough; still more the execution. But the contrast of Macaulay’s two best poetic things—Epitaph on a Jacobite, at once stately and pathetic, with its firm memory of Dryden and Pope, fretted and chased with touches very different from theirs; and The Last Buccaneer, one of the uttermost stretches of the new prosodic licence perfectly justifiable, indeed, but justifiable only so—marks his prosodic character far more unmistakably.
Only brief reference can be made to Praed’s equally exquisite manipulation of the old three-foot anapaest of Gay and Byrom and Pulteney, of Shenstone and Cowper and Byron, into the metre of the Letter of Advice; to the triumphant irregularity of The Red Fisherman bettering Southey’s instruction; and to other things by him. The too little remarked skill of Hood, not merely in what may be thought the deliberate acrobatism of his comic pieces, but in The Haunted House, in The Bridge of Sighs and in more than one or more than half a dozen of his songs, requires no long comment. But these two, like Macaulay, are specially valuable for the purpose, because no one can decline to accept them—though some still decline to accept the authors of Death’s Jestbook and Sylvia—as formal and duly qualified representatives of their period in English literature. Yet, it will be exceedingly difficult for the recusants, unless they adopt some of the purely arbitrary doctrines of the prosodists to whom we are coming, to deny to Beddoes and Darley perfect prosodic correctness of the new kind. Both were, no doubt—Beddoes to a proven certainty—influenced by Shelley; and both carried even further the liberty of combining lines of almost any length into stanzas of almost any shape. We have glanced at the danger of this process—shown by the old “Pindaric” writers ad nauseam and by some of the present school, with Southey occasionally among them—that is to say, the construction of merely mechanical aggregations of line which have no symphonic effect. But, neither Darley nor Beddoes can be charged with this; and we can turn them to theoretic dealers with subject, as from almost typical examples of its practice.
After what has been said of the professional prosodists of the last years of the eighteenth century, no experienced reader will expect much from those of the early nineteenth. Nor will such a person be in the least surprised to find that the lessons of the practice of the new school of poets exercised very slow influence on “prosodic” critics, even when they were not indignantly or scornfully rejected by them. One of the chief counts in Croker’s indictment against Endymion in The Quarterly, when nearly a fifth of the century had passed, was that “there is hardly a complete couplet enclosing a complete idea throughout the book.” Nearly ten years later, when all the greatest poetry in varied form of the first school had been written and, on the eve of Tennyson, Crowe, himself a small poet, public orator at Oxford, and a very amiable and scholarly writer, denounced, in his Treatise on English versification, the combination of short and long lines, and stigmatised contemporary verse, generally, as “slovenly.” Nor, though it is impossible wholly to omit, would there be much good in dwelling upon the prosodists of the nearly forty years between Fogg and Guest. Walker, of the famous dictionary, writing towards the end of the eighteenth century, sneers at the whole subject, but practically repeats what Bysshe had said at the beginning, that a line has so many syllables, and ictus in such and so many places. Lindley Murray, of the still more famous grammar, is muddled and inadequate, with some terrible scansions, but, perhaps, deserves to be saved from utter condemnation by his remarkable phrase, “We have all that the ancients had; and something they had not”; which, though a little oracular, is perfectly true, and might easily be expanded into a sound system of prosody.