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except on the stage, moved in its serious moments." For the unrimed poems were not only very popular but very numerous. The first half of the eighteenth century saw some 350, and the next fifty years more than twice as many, not a few being works of considerable length. Nor were they limited to forgotten versifiers, for practically every poet of importance from Pope's time to the present has written at least one piece of blank verse. As far as the general public was concerned, the situation was accordingly paradoxical: rime was preferred, but the popular poems were those that did not use it.
It is only natural to suppose that such of the principal critics and poets of the time as did not favor blank verse were, both in theory and in practice, more strongly opposed to it than were "the general." Certainly they would be repelled, as the ordinary reader was not, by the crudity and roughness of contemporary efforts in the measure, many of which were distinguishable from prose only by the capitals at the beginning of the lines. We know there were not a few who would have exclaimed with Dr. Johnson, "When was blank verse without pedantry?" and many who shared the opinion of Robert Lloyd,
Take it for granted, 'tis by those
Who can't write verse, and won't write prose.3
Fastidious writers like Pope and Gray, antagonized by the slovenly and unmelodious imitations of Paradise Lost, naturally concluded, as Henry Neele did a hundred years later, that blank verse was another bow of Ulysses, "an instrument which few know how to touch." 4 Realization of the difficulties of the measure came late, however. Adam Smith expressed the common opinion when he sneered, "Even I, who never could find a single rhime in my life, could make blank verse as fast as I could speak." But, whether they thought it difficult or easy to compose, men of taste were not attracted by the general run of pieces written in it by their contemporaries.
1 Gosse, Eighteenth Century Literature, 1889, p. 2 (Good, pp. 20-21).
2 "Akenside," in Lives (ed. Hill), iii. 418.
To... about to publish a Volume of Miscellanies (w. 1755), in Poetical Works (1774), i. 106. By those who 'choose Milton as a model' Lloyd seems to mean nothing more than those who write blank verse. Cf. p. 78 below.
♦ Neele's Lectures on English Poetry, in Literary Remains (N. Y., 1829), 126. Cf. Crit. Rev., 1780, 1. 50 (“Blank verse is a weapon which none but the generals in our language are able to wield"); Mo. Rev., enl. ed., 1796, xxi. 337 ("To the solemn and dignified tone of blank verse MASTERS only are equal"; see also ib. xxii. 86); Drake's Literary Hours, 3d ed., 1804, i. 49–50.
5 Bee, 1791, iii. 5; see also p. 50, n. 3, below.
Yet to blank verse in the abstract, or when handled by a master, they seem to have been well enough disposed. They could hardly have been insensible to the argument contained in the oft-repeated reminder that Greek and Roman poetry was unrimed, — another instance, it should be observed, of the way in which Milton's resemblances to classical writers gained him admirers. But a greater factor in the popularizing of blank verse was probably the very dominance of rime. Tyranny breeds revolt, and, as the years passed, more and more necks were galled by the yoke of the couplet. Even had there been no great unrimed poetry a reaction must inevitably have set in, but its advance was hastened, and made more conscious and intelligent, by the vogue of Paradise Lost.1 Criticize its verse as they might, if people continued to read and to like the poem they were bound in time to feel the beauty of its freer, more varied measures, as well as the prosodical poverty of their own versification; and when these things were once realized the rigidity as well as the preeminence of the heroic couplet was doomed. It was the men of finer ear, usually the better poets, critics, and writers on prosody, who first became conscious of the deficiencies of neo-classic versification; they had given the most thought to the matter and by writing and reading many thousands of couplets had come to weary of them. This is why such leaders of rimed poetry as Dryden, Pope, and Prior evinced dissatisfaction with it at a time when their followers, the ordinary readers, versifiers, and critics, still remained with deaf and dogged complacency in the rut. For in literature, as in clothes, the leaders are giving over a style just when the rank and file have come to adopt it. The heroic couplet probably reached its widest popularity in the years when most poets worthy of the name were turning to other measures. That men of discernment were supposed, at least by some writers, to be admirers of blank verse is shown by a poem published in 1733, in which the devotees of "rime and rime only" are classed with those who admired Blackmore's epics and preferred Cibber to Pope. Their opinions are ridiculed in this fashion:
Verse without rhyme I never could endure,
Rhyme is the poet's pride, and peoples choice. .
1 Nothing is here said about Shakespeare, for dramatic blank verse, as will be shown later, was regarded as quite distinct from non-dramatic. Even Dr. Johnson's play was unrimed.
Thompson, write blank; but know that for that reason,
As London Ladies owe their shape to stays.1
The truth seems to be, therefore, that the general public favored rime but more often read the poems that were without it, whereas more discriminating persons, though well disposed towards blank verse at its best, were disturbed by the crudities of the works written in it; that during the first part of the century blank verse had the advantage of novelty, but after 1745 the leaders of the newer movement in poetry, Gray, Collins, the Wartons, and the rest, made little use of it, although after 1726 it always had the great advantage of being employed in the poems most read by all classes, Paradise Lost, The Seasons, Night Thoughts, and The Task.
The obvious fact that rime is better adapted to some purposes and blank verse to others was soon realized by all save extremists. "In English Poetry," wrote John Armstrong, "I question whether it is possible, with any Success, to write Odes, Epistles, Elegies, Pastorals or Satires, without Rhime;" 2 and with this opinion, as well as with that of W. H. Roberts, who wished to banish rime entirely from epic, dramatic, and didactic poetry, most persons would apparently have agreed. By universal accord, too, blank verse soon came to be the recognized medium for religious works, and, notwithstanding the vogue of Pope's Homer, for translations of the classics. It was also much used in meditative and philosophical poems, and, owing to the popularity of The Seasons, it became the usual vehicle for long descriptions of nature.
Thus it was that rime came to be excluded to a great extent from long, serious poems, and in this way tended to lose the admiration and even the respect of many thoughtful readers. By the more ardent champions of blank verse it was regarded as a somewhat trivial and childish ornament suited only to light songs, satires, and occasional pieces. Such poems "it raises ," said Young, "but sinks the great; as spangles adorn children, but expose men." 5 Hugh Blair, in his pleasantly conventional and hence widely popular Lectures on Rhetoric, agrees with "those who think that Rhyme finds
1 James Bramston, The Man of Taste, 7–8. The entire poem is ironical. 2 Sketches (1758), 33.
Preface to his Judah Restored (1774).
Even Pope and Parnell had to defend themselves for using rime in their translations of Homer: see p. 118, n. 1, below, and Parnell's preface to his Homer's Battle of the Frogs and Mice (1717), sign. A 4.
6 Conjectures on Original Composition (2d ed., 1759), 84.
its proper place in the middle, but not in the higher regions of Poetry." There seem to have been many such, particularly in Scotland; for two other leading critics north of the Tweed, Lord Kames and Lord Monboddo, who agreed on little else, united in condemning rime. "Sportive love, mirth, gaiety, humour, and ridicule," said the former, "are the province of rhyme. The boundaries were extended in barbarous and illiterate ages. . . .. but taste. . improves daily; and . . . rhyme . . . will in time be forc'd to abandon its unjust conquests."2 Monboddo regarded the "troublesome bondage" as "no more than a barbarous ornament." Thomas Twining gave expression to a widespread sentiment when he wrote, "To me, a work of length in the rhymed heroic of Pope, etc., is insufferably monotonous and cloying to the ear;" and towards the close of the century William Belsham spoke of the couplet as “unable . . . to stand the comparison with blank verse," which "of all the different kinds of verse known in English poetry . . . is undoubtedly entitled to be first mentioned as first in dignity and importance. "As these are not the prejudiced utterances of partisan poets, but the carefully-weighed conclusions of scholars, several of
1 Lecture xxxviii (printed 1783, but first delivered c. 1760). Blair thought rime "unfavourable to the sublime, or to the highly pathetic strain. An Epic Poem, or a Tragedy," he said, "would be fettered and degraded by it."
2 Elements of Criticism (6th ed., Edin., 1785), ii. 176, and cf. 160-63.
3 Origin and Progress of Language (Edin., 1774), ii. 386. On the other hand, Adam Smith, another of the Edinburgh group, "had an invincible contempt and aversion for blank verse, Milton's always excepted" (Bee, 1791, iii. 5, and cf. p. 47 above). Johnson, on learning how Smith felt, exclaimed, "Had I known that he loved rhyme as much as you tell me he does, I should have HUGGED him" (Boswell's Johnson, ed. Hill, i. 427-8).
Country Clergyman of the Eighteenth Century (1882), 120 (letter to his brother, May 3, 1784). In 1752 the Monthly Review (vii. 140), declared: "Blank verse is the proper cloathing of the sublime . . . it seems limited and confined if ornamented with this jingle. The battles of gods and speeches of heroes are nobly suited to this form of expression; and as they do not want the gaudy furniture of rhime, their splendour is in some degree eclipsed by it. It is, on the contrary, just otherwise in subjects in themselves low and mean; which require all the graces and ornaments which can be thrown upon them." Again, in 1758 (xviii. 277), it expresses a similar conviction: "Where the subject of a Poem is extensive, and lofty in its nature, or where the greater passions, as Terror, and Pity, are to be excited . . . Rhime may, with great propriety, be dispensed with." Cf. John Armstrong (Sketches, 1758, p. 33), "Blank verse . . . is . . . fittest for works of any considerable Length"; an anonymous writer in the Bee, xvi. 272 (Aug. 21, 1793), who regarded it "as the only species of verse, which in our language is suited to works of considerable length;" and Robert Lloyd (On Rhyme, in Poetical Works, 1774, ii. 114),
But tho' each couplet has its strength,
It palls in works of epic length.
"Essays (2d ed., 1799), ii. 500, 495. The first edition (1789) says substantially the same thing.
whom were men of wide influence, critical opinion appears in this classical century to have been more partial to the use of blank verse for long poems than it is in ours.
At times the partiality seemed likely to be carried farther still, for there were not a few who agreed with Gildon that "rhime is injurious . . . even in the shorter poems. "1 Milton himself may have been their warrant for this view, since in his own sweeping condemnation of "the jingling sound of like endings" he declared "the troublesome and modern bondage of riming" to be "no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame metre. . . . some both Italian and Spanish poets of prime note," he adds, "have rejected rime both in longer and shorter works... as a thing of itself, to all judicious ears, trivial and of no true musical delight." Echoes of this preface to Paradise Lost, or direct quotations from it, appear so frequently throughout the century as to indicate that it had considerable influence and was adopted literally and in full by many. The idea that rime was unnecessary even for the most airy or trivial pieces not only was accepted but was put into practice. One bard composed several odes, a monody, and a tale in unrimed octosyllabic and pentameter lines,2 and others wrote sonnets, Pindaric odes, and stanzas in blank verse.3 Lyrics without rime - usually, like Collins's exquisite Ode to Evening, in the meter of Milton's translation of Horace's ode to Pyrrhawere not uncommon after 1740.4
Critics and writers on prosody also assailed rime. John Mason, ✔
1 Laws of Poetry (1721), 69. Cf. the Examen Miscellaneum (1702, attributed to Gildon), the preface to which is interesting because the poems that follow it are pseudoclassic productions by such men as the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Rochester, and Waller. The editor, who quotes from Milton's attack on rime, holds the "boldness" of using blank verse to be "something necessary in order to reform our vitiated Tast of Poetry, which often palates wretched Stuff dress'd up in Rhime, that it wou'd nauseate if depriv'd of the jingle; which once laid aside, the true Beauties of Poetry wou'd be more our Study." The Vision, one of the poems in the volume, employs "that false jingling Chime" until the Muse appears and throws aside "barbarous Rhime" (p. 51, first pagination).
• Robert Andrews (or Robert Colvill?), Eidyllia (Edin., 1757).
* See Thomas Fletcher's Eternity (Poems, 1692, pp. 53-63); James Ralph's Muses Address to the King (1728,“ a Pindaric ode in blank verse "); Paul Rolli's Works, consisting of Odes in Blank Verse, etc. (1735); Roger Comberbach's Translation of an Ode of Horace (1754 or 1755); Joseph Strutt's Elegiac Poem in different Measures, without Rhime (1779); also below, pp. 560-65, and, for blank-verse sonnets, Bibl. IV, bef. 1715 (Monck), 1767 (Downman, Huddesford), 1774 (Dunster), 1777 (Polwhele), 1778 ("Gentleman of Oxford"), 1784 (Tytler), 1787 (Whitehouse), c. 1790 (Drake), 1802 (White).
• For poems in the unrimed stanza of Milton's translation, see Bibl. III c.