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

§ 12. Guest

Some others, Herbert, Gregory, Blundell and even such better known names as Hookham Frere and Payne Knight, must be only names for us here. But not in such silence or quasisilence, nor with the slight notice accorded to others in the last two pages, can we pass Edwin Guest, master of Gonville and Caius college, and first historian of English rhythms in any sense worthy of the title. In comparison with him, all his predecessors, even Mitford, are merely fumblers with history; while the enormous majority of them never attempt the historical method at all, and show constant ignorance of facts vital to their subject. Guest knows, uses and, in selection, cites the whole range of English poetry from Caedmon to Coleridge, and, though he supplies no positive evidence of knowledge of younger contemporaries such as Tennyson, there are hints in his work which, if they do not directly suggest such knowledge, are, at least, not inconsistent with it. And he applies this knowledge, in the whole of his second volume and in part of his first, with such industry and such method that, subject to a reservation—unfortunately rather a large one—to be made presently, it would be difficult to conceive, and a great deal more difficult to execute, a more thorough conspectus of the forms of English poetry up to circa 1830, continuously illustrated by specimens of every age and more particularly from those departments of Old and Middle English verse which, in his time, were largely inaccessible, and which, even now, are not to be found in every library of fair size.

Unfortunately—and there is no undue begging of the question in the use of the adverb, since Guest himself, revising his work some time after he had begun and even printed part of it, made large admissions; while, even those who share part of his views hardly in a single case adopt the whole—this labourious, excellently arranged and almost exhaustively informed survey was made under the influences of some of the most arbitrary assumptions and some of the strangest prepossessions that ever affected a work of scholarship. We must not include among these the doctrine that English prosody is wholly accentual and syllabic; for that doctrine, in part or whole, has been and is shared by many, though it seems to others partly erroneous and wholly inadequate. Nor, though there may be more doubt here, is his system of “sections” (starting with three, and possibly extending to eleven, syllables), in place of the “feet” which he will not admit, incapable of defence, though the same remark applies to it. The influences that injure, if they do not spoil, his work for all but very discreet users of it are different.

The first of them was an extraordinary idea—utterly at variance with that historic view which, in other respects, he took so well—that the laws of Old English verse must govern those of modern. The second (again absolutely unhistorical and, to do him justice, apparently the subject of misgivings on his part before he published the book) was that, during the Middle English period, there was no blending, but merely the intrusion of an alien versification, and that “the rhythm of the foreigner” (i.e. that of the vast majority of English verse, since Chaucer at least) is an unclean thing.

These two huge assumptions were partly necessitated, partly accompanied, by the strangest arbitrarinesses of minor judgments: such as that no two adjoining syllables can be accented; that the adjective ought to be always more strongly accented than the substantive; that accented rhythm implies a fixed caesura or pause; that no more than two unaccented syllables can come together, and so forth. And these, in their turn, result in such verdicts on particular verse as that Milton has no business to write

  • The Cherub Contemplation;
  • that Shakespeare’s
  • Dead
  • Is noble Timon,
  • is “opposed to every principle of versification”; and that Burns’s
  • Like a rogue for forgery
  • “has very little to recommend it.”

    In other words, Guest may be described, by borrowing an old formula, as “indefatigable in collecting and arranging examples, not trustworthy in judging them”; and it may be questioned whether his book has done more good or harm, especially since its republication in 1882 after his death. But, for the present, we may leave it and its earlier or later successors for treatment hereafter and return to the actual prosody of the second great period of the nineteenth century, that of the strictly Victorian division of poets.