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

§ 1. Ossian; Percy’s Religues

IN the last chapter on this subject, we confined ourselves strictly to the prosody and the prosodists of the eighteenth century proper, postponing not merely the remarkable developments which took place at the close of that century, but, also, certain phenomena of actual versification, some of which appeared when the century was little more than half over. These designed omissions must now be made good, as necessary preliminaries to the account of the prosody of the nineteenth—in fact, as practically the first section of the history of that prosody itself. In many, if not in all, cases, reference to the notices of the several poets (and, sometimes, the prose-writers) referred to will enlarge and comment what is here given; the present summary is strictly confined to its own title.

The important occupants of that vestibule or antechamber of the subject above referred to are Ossian, Percy’s Reliques and the poems of Chatterton and Blake. From them, we must proceed to the various signs of prosodic upheaval shown, at the extreme end of the century, in the ballad verse of Southey and Coleridge, with the tendency to rimelessness, and to the imitation of classical metres, of which the same poets are the chief, but not the only, or the first, exponents. It will, next, be necessary to survey the chief prosodic developments of nineteenth-century poetry itself in its two great divisions, and to follow up in each of those divisions the account of treatises on the subject. The matter to be dealt with is extremely voluminous, and the account of it cannot, it is feared, be very short.

The four books or “works” mentioned above as holding the first place are not merely of importance, individually and as a group, for intrinsic character and as influences on others; they are, also, curiously combined and cross-connected in themselves. For, Ossian undoubtedly influenced Blake’s “prophetic” writing: and Percy, as undoubtedly, influenced both Chatterton’s and Blake’s verse. As a whole, they may be taken, from our point of view, not merely as influences, but even more remarkably as symptoms of the growing discontent with the limited practice, and almost more limited theory, of prosody in the century wherein they appeared. But the several constituents of the group illustrate this discontent in curiously different ways. Ossian and Blake’s Prophetic Books, the latter deliberately and explicitly, revolt against the “fetters,” the “mechanism,” of poetry, which was, certainly, never more fettered or more mechanical than in their time. They carry this revolt to the point of intentionally discarding the uniformity of metre altogether, and of preferring the variety of prose-rhythm, subject to divisions less rhythmically continuous, but somewhat more parallel to each other than those of prose proper. They do not, however (and Macpherson fails here specially), succeed in doing this without including large proportions of imbedded metre, which constantly produce regular lines, often regular couplets and not seldom actual stanzas—occasionally, even, suggestive of something like rime. Blake’s greater power in actual poetry commonly saves him from this; but, on the other hand, it tempts him to make his rhythmical staves more like loosened and enlarged variations on certain kinds of verse—especially the “fourteener.”