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

§ 2. Chatterton; Blake

The lesson of Reliques, felt strongly in spirit, and partly in form, by almost all later poets of the century, was not, in its most important prosodic point—the licence of substitution in ballad-metre—perceived or, at least, boldly adopted by anyone (except Chatterton and Blake again) till quite the close of the period. Even then, a lover of English verse like Southey’s friend Wynn protested against that poet’s innovations, in this respect, as faulty; and such pusillanimity accounts for the painful singsong of most ballad imitation from Percy himself, through even Goldsmith, to Mickle—a sing-song which gave its main point to Johnson’s disrespectful parodying of the ballad. But Chatterton saw the truth and followed it; Blake saw it and followed it still further and more boldly; while Burns’s practice—inherited, not, indeed, from Percy but from Scots originals—came to reinforce the movement.

It would appear difficult for some people, even yet, to perceive either the importance or the novelty of these examples of substitution (or admission of trisyllabic feet) in English poetry. The great prevalence, during the last hundred years, of a purely accentual system of prosody disguises the importance—for it suggests that, supposing you get your requisite number of accented syllables in a line, the rest may, as it has been put, be “left to take care of themselves.” The absence of attention to historic facts disguises the novelty. But it is difficult to think that anyone with a delicate ear can, when his attention is called to it, fail to perceive that the difference between “Like a rogue for forgery” and “Like rogues for forgery” is much greater than that between singular and plural only; or to see how much rhythmical gain there is in

  • The wild winds weep
  • And the night is a-cold,
  • compared with
  • The wild winds weep
  • And night is cold,
  • though in each case the number of accents is exactly the same. And it is almost as difficult to conceive how anybody with a logical mind can fail to see the force of Shenstone’s almost timid championship of what he calls “the dactyl” in the first half of the century, or of Wynn’s distinct protest against it some sixty years later, taken with its actual absence between these dates in the verse of almost every poet except those named.

    The revived fancy for rimelessness and for classical metres which the extreme end of the century saw runs in a curricle rather with the Ossianic hybrid verse-prose than with the new use of substitution; but it is quite as much a sign of discontent with the favourite metres and metrification of the century as either. It also, of course, had precedents—though, perhaps, not very happy ones—to plead in English, though the immediate stimulus was, possibly, German. Frank Sayers was able to muster (and might, even, have further strengthened) a tolerable body of such precedents for his rimeless stanzas; and English hexameters, sapphics and the like could bring forward undoubted, though rather dangerous, ancestry. But it is nearly certain that disgust with the tyranny of the stopped rimed couplet, and craving for a change—the most decided change possible—was the chief agent in the matter. The rimeless Pindarics were to produce two remarkable poems of some length and of no small merit in Southey’s Thalaba and Shelley’s Queen Mab; little good came, as little good has ever come, of English classical forms. But, as direct or indirect protests, both have a value which is not to be neglected.

    When the actual turn of the tide took place, in the very closing years of the century, it was impossible that some attention should not be paid to the theoretical as well as to the practical aspect of the turning. Whether Southey and Coleridge talked on the subject, during that meeting at Oxford which was only less fateful than the subsequent meeting of Coleridge and Wordsworth, there is not, it is believed, any documentary evidence to show. Both, certainly, became, very shortly afterwards, champions of substitution in practice; and Southey’s already referred to profession of faith on the subject is much earlier than any similar pronouncement that we have by Coleridge. There are, in addition to Coleridge’s long known metrical experiments, and the famous note on the metre of Christabel, further and only recently published exercises by him; and it would be possible (and worth while) to arrange a considerable cento of scattered remarks on the subject from Southey, at all periods of his life up to the very eve of the failure of his powers. Even Scott, the least ostentatiously theoretical of poets or of men of letters, has some. But Wordsworth chose to speak as if he believed that prosody, like reading and writing, “came by nature”; the remarks of Landor, from whom something might be expected, are few and disappointing; and, generally (and not at all disappointingly), the greater and even the lesser agonists in the romantic battle obeyed the precept “Go and do,” without reasoning much on the manners and theories of the doing. We shall be able, therefore, without difficulty or impropriety, to separate the practice from the principles, if not from the dealers with principle, and that not merely in regard to the first half of the century. For it so happens that one of the most important turning-points of English prosodic study, Guest’s A History of English Rhythms (1838), coincides nearly enough with the definite, though not as yet generally recognised, establishment of a new era in poetry, by Tennyson’s volumes of 1842 and Browning’s Bells and Pomegranates (1841 ff.).