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

§ 14. The hexameter controversy

For at least twenty—indeed, one might almost say for thirty—years after Guest, prosodic study in England was, though not wholly, mainly devoted to the vexed question of English hexameters, which, already revived seriously by A Vision of Judgment, was made active a second time in 1841 by Longfellow’s Children of the Lord’s Supper, and, a few years later, by the immense popularity of his Evangeline. Generally, prosodic study, even when not directly concerned with this question, was still very largely classicalised. One of the curiosities of the subject is Evans’s Treatise of Versification (1852), where the author, slightly to our surprise, busies himself with a subject which he frankly declares to be wholly unsatisfactory. No one acquainted with the classics “can possibly feel any satisfaction with blank-verse”; “an evil genius has always presided over our lyric poetry”; English poetry generally is “deficient in richness and variety of sound.” The quotations will probably be sufficient, but it must be owned that they are interesting. The names of O’Brien, Latham, Dallas, lord Redesdale, Sydney Walker, Masson, may be mentioned as helps to those who wish to work up the subject thoroughly, but they can receive no detailed discussion here.

On the other hand, the hexameter controversy requires some careful general notice, but few of the combatants can be individually dealt with. It was, perhaps, unavoidable—though the present writer frankly admits that it does not seem to him to be really so—that this controversy should be, if not exactly confused with, almost inextricably joined to, the old accent ν quantity battle. As this is one of the somewhat numerous discussions in which it seems impossible to arrange a set of terms which the combatants will accept in the same sense, it is pretty hopeless; but the matter can, perhaps, best be dealt with by a series of short propositions presenting the views of various parties, reproduced, so far as possible, in uncontroversial language, if not as to the whole question (for there are hardly any two persons who agree on that), yet as to its general subject and constituent parts.

First, as to the metre in itself:

I. There are those who, like the writer in The Edinburgh Review above referred to, altogether deny the possibility or, at least, the legitimacy of it in English on the simple ground that we have no quantity.

II. Others, and, infact, the vast majority, whether they like or dislike the result, admit the possibility of the verse; but dispute whether its constituent feet are to be connected with a view only to accent, as in the verse of Southey, Coleridge, Longfellow and some of Clough’s; or by quantity, determined in various ways (see post) but non-accentually.

III. A very few have maintained that the combination of dactyl and spondee is practically impossible, or, at least, a cacophonous jingle in English, and that, though good verses simulating the hexametrical form can be, and have been, produced (as especially in Kingsley’s Andromeda), they are always really five-foot anapaests with anacrusis (initial syllable or syllables outside the first foot) and hypercatalexis (ditto after last ditto). This view seems not improbably to have been held, though it is never clearly expressed, by Campion and other Elizabethans; it was formulated in relation to Greek by the eccentric John Warner, was deliberately championed and exemplified by Swinburne and was long ago independently arrived at by the present writer, whose conviction of its truth has grown stronger and stronger.

As to the construction of it:

I. Southey, who bestowed considerable pains (see his Preface) on the theory of the matter, came to the conclusion that spondees were scarcely available in English, and contented himself with trochees as a substitute—a licence of no great importance to those who hold that a very large number of syllables are “common” in our tongue. He also claimed, but did not really often exercise, the right to begin the line with a short syllable, which can hardly be so well allowed. The result was a cantering measure, rather “ungirt,” if not actually rickety, with a special tendency to break itself, not into irregular halves as a hexameter should, but into a rocking-horse rhythm of three parts, two feet in each, yet sometimes providing fine lines, which, however, always suggest the anapaestic arrangement above referred to. This metre was, in turn, taken up by Longfellow, who made it rather more tunable as a whole, but even looser and more rickety.

II. On the other hand, strict believers in quantity, as necessitating either long-vowel sound or “position,” revolted against the acceptance of stressed syllables as “long,” and began in various ways to meet their own difficulty. Some met it by selecting for their long syllables such as combined stress with one or both of the other qualifications; and the most successful examples of this plan are Tennyson’s experiments—of which, however, he himself saw the futility.

But yet others, including some persons of unquestionable scholarship and talent, not to say genius—Spedding, Cayley, Calverley, Clough in his later experiments, and others down to the late W.J. Stone, with the support of the present poet laureate—determined either to neglect accent, or (in some cases basing themselves on certain theories as to practice in the ancient languages) to pit quantity against it, and to produce verses which should scan by the first in the teeth of the second. The novelty and startling character of these proceedings, and the undoubted abilities of some of the practitioners, have given, at different times, a certain amount of vogue to the system. As usual, nothing will be attempted here beyond presenting a selection of the fruits for judgement of the nature and merits of the tree. If the examples given below are possible and euphonious English verses of hexametrical, i.e. dactylic-spondaic rhythm, then that system is admissible: and if not, not.

For some years, on each side of the very middle of the century, attention was chiefly directed to this question; but, by degrees, it widened, and the last forty or fifty years have been the most fertile in prosodic study of any similar periods in English literary history. A remarkably original, in some respects very acute, but, in others, slightly chemerical, student of the subject (who, like most persons of this blend, has exercised much influence lately) was Coventry Patmore, author of The Angel in the House. He, next to Tillbrook and Guest, and rather more than the latter, took full cognisance of previous prosodic theory, and his later poetical work (the earlier was rather facile, metrically speaking) showed good knowledge of poetic practice. But he was somewhat given to what the eighteenth century, with its usual practical wisdom, would have called “airy notions.” It is mostly from him that a rather favourite modern fancy of a sort of eternal fisticuffs between the law of metre and the freedom of language is derived, though the hexameter controversies also started this. He held very singular theories as to pauses and pause-endings, and, on the whole, his prosody may be described in the terms of the modern scientific foes of Bacchus as rather a stimulant than a food.