Page images

minister, teacher of elocution, and able writer on verse, regarded it as "one of the lowest Ornaments and greatest Shackles in modern poesy; "1 and Johnson's critic, Robert Potter, wrote, "Rhyme. has, after I have been reading blank verse, appeared to me trifling, tinkling, and childish . . . and must, I think, in every kind of writing have such an effect on manly ears accustomed to the dignity of blank verse. . . . Rhymes and point are fit only for children." 2 Strangely enough, some of the rimesters themselves shared these extreme opinions. As early as 1691 one wished that he had "broken a barbarous custom and freed [himself] from the troublesome and modern bondage of Rhiming;" while another, in 1775, expressed the belief that "Rhyme rather debases and enervates than gives any real beauty and strength to a Poem. This Tyranny of Rhyme hath been the cause of many, not inconsiderable, errors." 4

But it were a weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable task to try to register all the assaults made upon "jingle" in the century supposed to be devoted to it. One more, however, deserves to be noticed, the Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), which is the more interesting because its author also wrote the Night Thoughts and in his satires and his Two Epistles to Mr. Pope had shown no small skill in handling the heroic couplet. In this work of his old age Young denounced rimes as "childish shackles, and tinkling sounds," declaring blank verse to be "verse unfallen, uncurst; verse reclaim'd, reinthron'd in the true language of the gods," Pope, he asserted, had done Homer an "ignoble wrong" by the "effeminate decoration" of rime; it was as if he had "put Achilles in petticoats a second time." "Must rhyme then, say you, be banished?" he queried; "I wish the nature of our language could bear its intire expulsion; but our lesser poetry stands in need of a toleration for it." 5

It may be urged, on the other side, that Dr. Johnson and others were as violently opposed to blank verse as these men were to rime; but such was not the case. There were almost none who denied that the freer measures were better adapted to the stage and, in the hands of a master, to a few of the more lofty types of poetry. Even the

1 Essay on the Power of Numbers (1749), 13–14.

2 Art of Criticism (1789), 15–16, 203.

3 William Wollaston, The Design of Ecclesiastes, preface.

The anonymous author of Bath and it's Environs, pp. vi-vii. Cf. also Edmund Smith's Poem on the Death of John Philips (1708?), 2, 5-7; Lady Mary Montagu's Court of Dulness; and Ashley Cowper's Poetical Epistle to Daniel Wr-y (Norfolk Poetical Miscellany, 1744, i. 166–70; noted by Good, p. 71).

5 Second ed. (1759), 58-60, 84. Mr. Good (pp. 65, 90, 93, 160-66, 202-7, 230-35, etc.) quotes many other eighteenth-century utterances regarding rime and blank verse, and as many more of equal interest might be gathered.

most dogmatic assertion we have met with as to the superiority of rime is qualified by the clause, " where it can be properly used"; and Johnson himself did not wish Paradise Lost changed.1

The quarrel between rime and blank verse was long, inconclusive, and apparently futile. Scarcely any of the eighteenth-century discussions of the subject have, for a modern reader, any value save the historical; and, as neither side triumphed or suffered defeat, though each had to give up certain untenable positions, the whole controversy might seem to have been to no purpose. Yet in reality it was profitable, for it was a campaign of education. Few may have been convinced by the arguments of their opponents, but the discussion was provocative of thought and in the end all were the wiser, for each side came to a better understanding not simply of the meter it opposed but of the one it favored. The greatest accomplishment was, indeed, a gradual clarifying of ideas in regard to prosody, a bringing to the consciousness of both readers and versifiers the existence of problems, difficulties, and possibilities that few had realized at the beginning of the century.

1 See p. 45 above; and "Milton," in Johnson's Lives (ed. Hill), i. 194.



"THE poets from Dryden to Johnson," writes Mr. Saintsbury, "knocked a real sense of regular rhythm into the English head.” 1 Some of the poets and theorists of this period, and many in that which followed, were also knocking into their own and other English heads a sense of irregular rhythm, a realization, to quote the same authority, of "the transcendental union of order and freedom" which makes the versification of Shakespeare and Milton what it is.2 The undertaking has proved to be an exceedingly difficult one, so much so that there are thousands of English heads into which the idea has not yet penetrated. Besides such minor tasks as reviving the lost art of the lyric and remodelling the sonnet, to the eighteenth century was given the work of adapting the cathedral harmonies of Milton's organ and the crack of Pope's whip-lash to the music of everyday life. Is it any wonder that it staggered and often fell under the load?

So little, however, do we understand the difficulties of others, so slow are we to realize that the heights on which we were born were achieved by our forefathers only after long and painful struggles, that to some the eighteenth century may seem to have had a light burden, a simple, definite task which any one with a fair amount of insight and poetical power could have accomplished easily enough. Most of us see no reason why the blank verse of the Idylls of the King and the couplets of Endymion should not have been written by Thomson or Pope. As Mr. Saintsbury puts it, "Few people understand what English prosody really is; how entirely it differs from that of every other known language as a result of its blended character; and how very long and difficult the evolution of the new compound was." 3 It seems incredible that for many years most

1 Peace of the Augustans (1916), 101; cf. History of English Prosody (1908), ii. 458–9. 2 Peace of the Augustans, 101.

Ib. What is said about prosody in the pages that follow owes much to T. S. Omond's English Metrists in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1907) and to Saintsbury's English Prosody. Yet I have depended primarily, not upon these two works or similar studies, but upon the poetry and remarks on versification by eighteenth-century writers.

poets did not realize what constitutes blank verse, "the only difference" between their rimed and unrimed work being, in the words of one of them, "that the rhyme is wanting; while the verse is constituted in such a manner, that the ear has a right to expect it."1 Poets and critics of eminence were alike unconscious, or but vaguely conscious, that there should be any other difference. The unrimed translations of Roscommon and Addison and the Irene of Johnson betray no knowledge of other requisites, and as late as 1778 a poet and essayist of James Beattie's rank assumed that by changing one riming word in each couplet Pope's Homer could be made into blank verse! According to Bysshe, "Blank verse is where the Measure is exactly kept without Rhyme,' ,"4 and by "measure" he meant the strictest neo-classic versification. Many writers published as "imitations of Milton" productions that show no traces of the prosody of Paradise Lost but are either unrimed couplets or prose cut into tenfoot lengths; while others, dissatisfied with these pieces but failing to see where the fault lay, adopted, on the "safety first" principle, all the distinctive features of the epic, its style, diction, prosody, and phrasing.

Furthermore, "the sense of regular rhythm" was so effectively "knocked into the English head" that scarcely any other rhythm could get in, with the result that the introduction of hypermetrical syllables (trisyllabic feet), the inversion or slighting of stresses, and the shifting of the pause to all parts of the line, features which are the soul of beauty in verse, came to seem inharmonious, as indeed they were frequently declared to be. Even poets who were willing to follow Milton slavishly did not often succeed in maintaining through many successive lines the fundamental feature of his prosody, the I substitution of the free musical paragraph for the line as the unit of verse. They had been writing separate lines so long that they could not rid themselves of the habit. In truth, harmony was confined within narrow bounds in the days when laws for literature were laid down by ponderous lawyers, lexicographers, and divines, heavy eaters and drinkers and men of excellent sense in the main, but with little feeling for music or for elusive lyric graces. Instead of "piping

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

1 W. H. Roberts, Judah Restored (1774), p. xx.

2 Nor does James Ralph's unrimed Night (1728), though blank verse receives high praise in the preface.

* Essays on Poetry and Music, 382. Samuel Woodford, in the preface to his Paraphrase upon the Canticles (1679), printed as poetry a passage from the Animadversions upon the Remonstrants Defence, and asked if it were not as much blank verse as Paradise Lost was.

• Art of English Poelry (4th ed., 1710), 35, first pagination.

down the valleys wild," the devotees of unshorn Apollo clicked their high heels on a narrow, straight cement walk, on either side of which bristled a tall hedge of thorn. They occasionally broke through the barriers and wandered for a time in the green pastures that lay beyond, but in the main they kept much to the path in which they expected and were expected to walk. How narrow this path was and how thick the "dont's" bristled on the hedge, we who live in days when poetry seems to have no laws at all can hardly realize. Even Pope was not strict enough to please the self-constituted authorities, who paid little heed to the irregularities actually existing in poetry, but spun their rules, as the spider does his web, out of their own inner consciousness.

These men thought poorly of stanzas of "intermixed rhyme" like the Spenserian, and, for serious poetry, of practically all verse except the octo- and the deca-syllabic. They brought all hypermetrical syllables into line by elisions like "t' admire" and contractions like "vi'let" and "fab'lous"; "lovest," they said, must in verse be "lov'st"; the "ill-sounding Gaping call'd. Hiatus" they condemned even in such expressions as "thy Iambicks," and decreed that the e in "the" should always be dropped before a following vowel.1 The cesural pause, all agreed, should come near the middle of the line, never after the first, second, eighth, or ninth syllable, and there should be another pause at the close of the line. Inversion of accent (the substitution of a trochaic for an iambic foot) was allowed unwillingly and only to a limited extent, even in blank verse. Glover is said to have prided himself on having none at all throughout the weary length of his popular unrimed Leonidas; 2 and Pemberton, who commended this monotony, "corrected" the trochaic lines that he quoted from Paradise Lost. "Heroick measure," according to Dr. Johnson, is "pure . . . when the accent rests upon every second syllable through the whole line. . . . The repetition of this sound or percussion at equal times, is the most complete harmony of which a single verse is capable." On this account the Doctor pronounced some of Milton's finest lines "remarkably unharmonious"; yet, because of the difficulty and monotony of the "pure measure," he was forced to admit the "mixed," in which," as he explained, "some variation of the accents is allowed . . . though it always injures the

[ocr errors]

1 Bysshe, Art of English Poetry (1710), 10–13, first pagination.

2 Saintsbury, English Prosody, ii. 493-4; cf. Chalmers, English Poets, xvii. 11.

3 Observations on Poetry (1738), 130-34. On page 131 he writes, "The emphasis or accent falling upon the foremost of the two syllables in any foot, except the first,


or two syllables placed together in the same foot, which must both of necessity be pronounced short, will certainly destroy the harmony of the verse."

« PreviousContinue »