The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VII. The Prosody of the Nineteenth Century

§ 15. Later prosodists

Towards the close of the sixties—perhaps owing to the great developments of actual poetry during that decade, perhaps not—a remarkable number of prosodic works appeared. In the single year 1869 came Edward Wadham’s English Versification, with an entirely new terminology of a most fantastic character, not much knowledge of the history of the subject and a certain return to the eighteenth-century views about trisyllabic fèt; R. F. Brewer’s A Manual of English Prosody (since republished and renamed), which is a useful magazine of fact, but does not show much grasp of the subject from any point of view; a shorter, equally practical and sounder book, The Rules of Rhyme, by the younger Thomas Hood; and the prosodic part of Abbott’s A Shakespearian Grammar, in which strict syllabic, and strict accentual, doctrines are combined in the most peremptory fashion. In the next few years there were added Sylvester’s The Laws of Verse, a book somewhat abstruse in appearance but very lively and suggestive in fact; the prosodic section of Earle’s Philology of the English Tongue, and, a little later, the work of Henry Sweet, both of them specially devoted to the sound value of words and syllables; and (another starting point of much subsequent writing) J. A. Symonds’s Blank Verse, an interesting but somewhat anarchical tractate which denies the possibility of scansion on any scheme. Meanwhile was begun and carried on the most elaborate of all treatises on English pronunciation, that of A.J. Ellis, which includes an extraordinarily intricate and minute scheme, extending to forty-five different items, of syllabic value from the point of view, single and combined, of pitch, force, weight, length and strength.

Later still, and in the last quarter of the century, may be noticed Gilbert Conway’s Treatise of Versification (1878), written on uncompromising accentual principles, and reverting to such pronunciations as “int’resting,” “am’rous,” “del’cate”; the characteristic eccentricity of Ruskin’s Elements of English Prosody (1880); and parts of two most interesting books by the late Edmund Gurney, very strongly musical in system. These last, like two later works by persons of distinction, the first in philosophy, the second in physical science, Shadworth Hodgson and Fleeming Jenkin, were largely influenced by the republication of Guest in 1882; and they all represent the attempts of men of distinguished ability in certain specialised ways to theorise on prosody. They are all, in the highest degree, ingenious and suggestive, and one is loth to apply to them the obvious terms which are often used in regard to excursions from the outside into technical subjects; but they certainly suggest somewhat insufficient acquaintance with the facts and the history of the matter. No such suggestion can be made in respect of J.B. Mayor’s Chapters on English Metre and A Handbook of Modern English Metre, books in the highest degree valuable for their general view of the subject and specially for their criticism of Guest and of not a few of the writers just mentioned.

Only three more prosodists can be individually noticed here. In 1888 appeared an anonymous treatise (or part of one, for the promised continuation never appeared) entitled Accent and Rhythm explained by the law of Monopressures. This doctrine, which was afterwards taken up and applied by Skeat, rests the whole prosodic matter on, and practically confines it to, a physiological basis—speech being regarded as only possible in jets governed by the glottis. No examination of this can be given here, but the objection brought against it that these jets, if they exist, must be “the raw material of prose and verse alike” seems almost fatal of itself and could be carried a great deal further. A year later appeared the most important book by a poet on poetics that has ever been issued in English, Robert Bridges’s Prosody of Milton, which, later much expanded, has almost become a treatise of stress prosody, while the actual history of the subject was, for the first time, set before the public with full bibliographical and large, if not exhaustive, critical detail by T.S. Omond.

Before concluding these remarks, or as an appendix to them, it may not be impertinent to sum up very briefly the chief points of the prosodic system from which (though it is believed without prejudice to other views) they and the whole of their predecessors in the prosodic chapters in this History have been made. Fort it is a constant—whether in all cases or not a quite well justified—complaint that writers on prosody do not make themselves clear—that the reader does not understand what they mean. The principle of the system—drawn from no a priori ideas as to metre or rhythm, to quantity or to accent, but from simple observation of the whole range of English poetry—is that it can, from the time of the blending of romance and Teutonic elements in Middle English, be best accounted for by admitting “feet” corresponding—as, indeed, all such things, whether called “feet,” “bars,” “groups,” “sections” or anything else, must, of mathematical necessity, correspond—to those of the classical languages, but composed of syllables the contrasted metrical quality of which (called for similar convenience “length” and “shortness”) is not arrived at in exactly the same way as in Greek or in Latin. There, length depended usually on vowel quantity or on “position,” technical “accent” having nothing to do with it; though “stress” could have exceptional effect on what was called arsis and thesis. In English, all these act, but, in the case of vowel-value and position, with a much lesser and more facultative effect; while accent acquires an almost unlimited power of lengthening syllables and can be disregarded with impunity in few cases. With a reasonable accentual system which, objecting to the word “quantity” for this or that extraneous reason (such as that “quantity” implies “time”), formulates its arrangements with the substitution of “accented” and “unaccented” for “long” and “short,” there need be no irreconcilable quarrel; though such a system may be thought cumbrous and open to a constant danger, which has often become disastrous, of unduly neglecting the unaccented syllables, and their powers of affecting the integral character of the accent-group. But, with any system which simply strides from accent to accent, neglecting or slurring other syllables, still more with any which would have sequences of similar lines to be composed of discretionary bars or sections varying like the rhythm clauses of prose, it may be admitted that no concordat is possible; nor any with those yet cruder systems which, starting from a purely syllabic basis, would, as did Bysshe and (partly) Johnson, either force extra syllables into unnatural coalescence or forbid them altogether as illegitimate. Nevertheless, an endeavour has been made to prevent colouring the actual history unduly with opinion; and, as it would hardly be possible to find anyone who can write on prosody without holding prosodie opinions of some sort, serious objection to the method adopted can hardly be taken.

As noted above, the history of the practical prosody of the last two thirds of the century may be taken in three stages, the last of which may be said to be still existing and, as has rarely happened in our history, owes something directly to preceptist studies. In the first, from the thirties to the sixties, the ever-developing genius of Tennyson and Browning developed, in its turn, as has been partly observed already, the prosodic enfranchisement of the first romantic school, with definite, if not always with conscious, reference to that school’s work. On almost every poet of the time (except men who practically belonged not merely to the last generation but to the last century), the lesson of equivalence taught by Coleridge had its effect almost unresisted, though sometimes not fully understood, and nothing can be stranger than Coleridge’s own inability to recognise that in, for instance, The Dying Swan, this lesson is simply exemplified—that you can expound it out of his own mouth. The blank verse of Wordsworth, on the other hand, had very great influence on Browning, less on Tennyson, who may be said almost to have developed a fresh variety of his own straight from Milton, but with very strong idiosyncrasy of blend. Metrically, the influence of Keats of him, strong in other ways, was less perceptible than that of Shelley, which, in those same other ways, is not so noteworthy as it is on Browning. Nobody, indeed, before Matthew Arnold (and he only to relinquish it) adopted the enjambed couplet of Endymion. But the so-called “irregular” lyric forms of both these great and too early removed poets exercised the widest power, not merely in respect of abstract form, but in directing the principal efforts of both their successors towards lyrical poetry. If anyone demurs to this, let him perpend the striking lesson of the first and second editions of Tennyson’s Princess, the first without, the second with, lyrical insets.

These two great poets continued, the one for nearly, the other for more than, sixty years, to multiply examples of their metrical, as of their poetical, powers. Towards the close of his career, Tennyson perhaps exaggerated that free admission of trisyllabic feet which he had made the differentia of his blank verse; and Browning, in the same vehicle, undoubtedly carried to excess the almost pedestrian looseness of his style. But, by this time, each had made excursion into almost every principal province of English metre, and in no one excursion had failed. The charge of over-sweetness in “numbers” brought against Tennyson was merely a crotchet; that of over-discord brought against Browning had more apparent, and even real, justification, but, on the whole, was a mistake. And it is difficult to know where to look for other examples of a metrical system—for it was really the same in both despite its apparent “differences of adminstration”—justified by such entirely novel displays of craftsmanship as Tennyson’s in the anapaests of The Voyage of Maeldune and Browning’s in the Alexandrines of Fifine at the Fair, each written half a century after the writer’s first appearance as a poet.

The younger and lesser verse-writers of this time cannot be reviewed here, but the prevalent tendency need not be better illustrated than by the example already glanced at, in part, of Matthew Arnold. His well-known classicism and anti-Tennysonianism might have been thought likely to lead him to discard variety of rhythm, and did, indeed, produce a somewhat stiffer if statelier form of blank verse in Sohrab and Rustum. But his best and best beloved poems—The Forsaken Merman, The Scholar-Gipsy and its sequel, the two Nights and others—are all in carefully and, for the most part, originally “researched” metres, while, in Tristram and Iseult, he alone, between Keats and William Morris, tried and tried most successfully the enjambed heroic couplet, and his well-known experiments in unrimed (but not in the ordinary restricted sense “blank”) verse, from The Strayed Reveller onwards, are characteristic of his time.

The school which made its appearance (the work of its eldest member Dante Rossetti being accidentally held back except in fragments) towards the close of the fifties cannot be said to exhibit any general change from the prosody of Tennyson and Browning, though it exhibited some very interesting minor developments. The most peculiar of these, which was chiefly taken up and worked by rather younger men, and which produced some very charming work, was the revival of the artificial forms of verse—ballades, rondeaux, roundels, and so forth—which had been the favourite occupation of French poets from the thirteenth century till well into the sixteenth, and which, in the late fourteenth and fifteenth, had been pretty largely practised in England. This revival, however, after some years died off, chiefly, as it seems to the present writer, because no poet had cared or dared, save in a very few cases, to ease off the syllabic rigidity of the originals into that equivalence which is the soul of English verse. But Dante Rossetti himself, perhaps at the call of his Italian blood, wrote sonnets in the more favourite Italian forms with an effect only matched by those of his sister Christina; and showed, besides, remarkable mastery of English measures, ballad, and other. William Morris, besides reviving not merely, as has been said, the overlapped Keatsian decasyllabic couplet, in The Life and Death of Jason, but the hitherto unfollowed octosyllabic of The Eve of St. Mark, used both, and especially the latter, with extraordinary effect in The Earthly Paradise. In Love is Enough, he tried a bolder and, in most judgments, less successful archaism by reviving alliterative and rimeless movements; but, later, in Sigurd the Volsung, he adjusted this and the old rimed fourteener (in fact, the Gamelyn metre) into a really splendid metre for narrative purposes.

Meanwhile, Swinburne combined the widest exercise in prosodic practice with not a little definite theorising on the subject. The most important result of the latter was his distinct formulation of the doctrine that spondaic-dactylic measures in English have a tendency to pass into anapaestics; it would be impossible to analyse his practice fully in any space possible here. In metrical “virtuosity,” it may be doubted whether he has ever had a superior, and the immensely long lines in which, latterly, this tempted him to indulge, though seldom, if ever, actual failures, have too much of the tour de force about them. So, too, the extreme fluency of language, which was often charged against him, had a tendency to make both his blank verse and his couplets too voluble. He may be said, indeed, to have combined, in a very curious fashion, the characteristics of both Tennyson and Browning in blank verse. But his more compassed and studied exercises in this were frequently admirable; while a finer example of a peculiar kind of couplet—again blended of stop and overlap—than the opening of Tristram of Lyonesse it would be difficult to find. It stands as a sort of contrast to the other remarkable blend in Tennyson’s Vision of Sin. But the sharper and more fretted outline of lyric was what was wanted to bring out Swinburne’s prosodic power to the full, and no poet has ever exemplified those general principles which have been kept in view during this chapter as he did. The variation of the Praed metre into that of Dolores, and of FitzGerald’s quatrain in Laus Veneris, together with the elaborate and triumphant stanza of The Triumph of Time— these are only three out of scores, or almost hundreds, of experiments which, however daring, never fail in bringing off the musical and rhythmical effect.