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

§ 16. Summary

This remarkable blend of sureness and freedom in rhythm may be said to be the full result of the successive processes which have been pointed out above in reference to the late seventeenth, the eighteenth and the nineteenth century respectively. The period in which Dryden and Pope ruled drove out—if, possibly, by too severe a tariff of penalty and restriction—the indulgence in uncertain, if not positively arrhythmic, caprices, which had marred not merely the fifteenth but (after a premature resipiscence from Wyatt to Gascoigne) the magnificent accomplishment of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Then, the Shakespeares and the Miltons did as they would, but always did right; others, not always much less than great, did as they would and frequently did wrong. So, English verse had to return into the go-cart and stayed there for a century and a half. Then it got free, and arose, and walked and flew. But, about the time of which we are now specially speaking, there began, partly in the realms of prosodic discussion, partly in those of poetic production, and, now and then, in quarters where the dissidents could both sing and say, a revolt against even qualified regularity. The different schemes which have been glanced at above of scansion by systems of irregular stress in corresponding lines; by “bars” of varying, and in none but a very loose way, equivalent length; and so forth, could not but suggest something very different from that general identity as opposed to variety of rhythmical arrangement which had hitherto been taken as the great differentia of verse as compared with prose. And verse to match the theory was, almost a generation ago, composed and has been since attempted on methods of increasing “impressionism”; some recent examples being admittedly intended to be read like prose, without any regard to supposed antecedent forms of correspondence, or mainly to illustrate the theory, noticed above, of a sort of prophetical cockpit-fight between quantity and accent, metre and rhetoric, and, perhaps, other pairs also, which may be left to suggest themselves.

  • But what success the efforts met
  • This story will not say—as yet,
  • to alter very slightly the famous and much discussed phrase in Cadenus and Vanessa. To some tastes, this success has not been great; the good verse produced being always scannable by the old methods and that recalcitrant to those methods being, to such tastes, not so good. But the whole principle of these prosodic chapters has been to take good English verse at every time and exhibit its characteristics of goodness without attempting to dictate. If anyone continues to apply that rule to the present and future efforts of English poets, he is not very likely to go far wrong.