The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 55. French forms of verse
This question, however, does not touch the other and more general one referred to above. Much of Lang’s work is couched in the strict metrical forms which, by the operation of a slightly different temper and language, arose in northern France after the downfall of Provençal poetry in the south, were widely cultivated there from the thirteenth to the fifteenth and even sixteenth centuries, were imitated by English poets such as Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate and others of the time, but never with us achieved anything like the effect attained by French poets from Lescurel to Villon. They were still largely written in the earlier French renascence, but were turned out of favour by the Pléiade; were occasionally, though rarely, attempted in English during the seventeenth century, but died away almost entirely later. These forms—ballade, rondeau, roundel, triolet, virelai, chant royal—may, loosely, be said to belong to the same general class as the sonnet, but are much more artificial in their structure; the keys of all being first the use, under more or less intricate laws, of the refrain, and the repetition of one or more lines at statutory intervals; and, secondly, the observance of regularly recurrent rimes. The effect, especially when the poet is skilful enough to make this kind of carillon express sense as well as mere sound, is, sometimes, extremely beautiful; but, obviously, it is likely to become monotonous, tedious and purely artificial.
The revival of these forms in English depended upon an easily discoverable train of causes. The French romantic movement of 1830, and earlier, eagerly and naturally fed itself upon old French patterns; and some writers of its second generation, especially Théodore de Banville, had already managed the forms with singular grace. Now, in turn, the interest in these modern French poets created among younger English writers and critics by the pre-Raphaelite school, especially Swinburne, was very keen; and the result was practically unavoidable. Who first accomplished an English ballade or triolet is rather an idle question; what is important is that the forms were adopted by many eager and skilful verse writers—at least three of the chief of whom, Austin Dobson, Edmund Gosse and the present poet laureate, are still alive—besides Lang, Henley and many others down to the merest poetasters, who must needs try the trick of the time. This fancy continued during the seventies and earlier eighties in some force, lasted yet longer with diminished vogue and is not absolutely out of fashion even now, though examples are not common. The present writer, as one who was prepared for it almost before it arose, who welcomed it eagerly, who preserves some of its results in his own private and unprinted anthology of preferred poetry, but whose acquaintance with it has “come to forty year” and more, may, perhaps, be permitted to give his opinion about it, briefly, because it is, as was laid down above, a distinct and noteworthy episode in English poetic history.
There can be no doubt, then, that, originally, these forms were of great benefit to French poetry. The danger, at various times, and not least when the heroic part of the middle ages, on the one hand, and the folk song part, on the other, ceased, has been an easy skipping quality—a sort of recitative not far from prose. The firmer outline and the definitely concerted music of these refrain pieces was a great corrective to this. But, when they came to be applied to a perfected poetic language like nineteenth-century English, which, whether in blank verse, in couplet, in stanza, or in miscellaneous lyric measures, had learnt how to combine the greatest variety with the most serried force, the maximum of rhetorical, with the maximum of strictly poetical, music—certain things were almost bound to follow. The results achieved were, in some cases, as has been more than admitted, really beautiful. It would be improper to quote living writers here, but the two others named above supply unquestionable examples. The very piece cited above as a masterpiece by Lang is a ballade. But, from itself, a curious side-deduction may be made. In all the best French examples, the ballade form impresses itself inevitably; you may read Lang’s poem, and hardly notice that it is a ballade at all. In short—and the same, more or less, is the case with the best exercises of still living poets—the poem gains little from the form, unless the poet has put in poetry enough to make it independent of any form in particular. The fact seems to be that English is somewhat intolerant of measures which are too regularly and intricately concerted. Bacon’s old and often repeated sarcasm, “you may see things oft as good in tarts,” applies here.
At the same time, with fire enough in the inside—and, fortunately, there are numerous cases of this—the things can be subdued to the poet’s most serious purpose excellently well. And, for playful purposes, whether half tender or wholly burlesque, these forms are unsurpassable. There are dozens of Lang’s pieces, some of them never yet fished up from the depths of old periodicals, which are perfect in these ways.
To sum up, these artificial forms may be very useful and can be charming in various respects. But it is difficult, unless they are very freely treated, to get rid in them of a certain exotic and constrained air; and, unless they are undoubted successes, they are undoubted successes, they are apt to be intolerable.