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

§ 3. Anti-Bysshism

Perhaps the importance of Bysshe’s The Art of English Poetry cannot receive a better completion of proof than by showing that the general characteristics of the prosody of 1798–1830 are simply anti-Bysshism. Whether or not it is probable that any poet of mark thought of Bysshe is quite immaterial; though it is likely that Coleridge, and pretty certain that Southey, knew him. The point of importance is that, not merely the theoretical observations of Coleridge and Southey, but their practice, and the practice of the whole group (with exceptions proving the rule, as aforesaid) goes directly against the principles first formulated by Bysshe. He had said that English verse was to be strictly measured by syllables; they disregarded the syllabic limitation continually, and, in some cases, deliberately refused—in almost all neglected—the aid of “elision.” He and the whole eighteenth century after him had limited the preferred orders of our verse to two or three groups only; the poets now under discussion made their lines of any number of syllables they liked, from one to fourteen or fifteen. He had distinctly barred stanza-writing as obsolete; they, in many if not most cases, preferred any stanza to the couplet. The effect, and, in some instances, the expressed effect, of his rules, had been to snub triple time; to insist on middle pauses; to deprecate overlapping of couplet if not even of line. In every one of these respects, more or fewer of them—in one or two all—adopted practices diametrically opposed to his laws. If ever in prosodic history there was a case of “taking the ‘not’ out of the commandments and putting it into the creed,” that case occurred as regards the new nineteenth-century poetry and the old eighteenth-century formulas.

No good, however, has ever yet come of a merely negative revolt, and the anti-Bysshism of poets from Wordsworth to Keats had quite definite and positive objects. These objects may be described briefly as, in the first place, the liberty to use any form which might suit the poet’s subject and temper, and, secondly, the special selection of forms and the special adaptation of them when selected, to the new varied appeal to ear and eye, mental as well as bodily, and not merely to the pure understanding.

The difference is susceptible of being put to a test which, to some readers, may seem too mechanical, but which has a real cogency. Run the eye over a fairly considerable number of pages of any eighteenth-century poet. In the long poems, with the very rarest exceptions, you will find the regular outline of the couplet or of blank verse; in the great majority of the short ones, symmetrical sequences of sixes and eights in various, but still few, arrangements. Apply the same process to poets of the earlier nineteenth century. In long poems, you will, of course, still find a very considerable proportion of blank verse; but that of the heroic couplet will be greatly reduced; Spenserian and other stanzas, with octosyllables, regular or irregular, will constantly obtrude themselves; and more eccentric outlines still will not be wanting. But, when you come, in turn, to the collections of shorter pieces, all attempts at a few rigid specifications will have to be thrown to the winds. Length and grouping of line become, at first sight, absolutely “at discretion,” or, as the older critics would hold it, “indiscretion.” And, when you examine the lines themselves, the arrangement of rimes and so forth, you find that what the eighteenth century prudishly called “mixed” measure and sparingly allowed licence to—that is to say, substitution of trochee for iamb—gives way or is extended to what it would have thought the most lawless and promiscuous debauchery of indulgence in iamb, trochee, spondee, anapaest, dactyl and (you may sometimes think) even in other combinations of quantity or stress.

For detailed accounts of prosodic characteristics of greater poets recourse must be had to the chapters concerning them; but a brief juxtaposition of these characteristics from the general prosodic point of view can hardly fail to be of use. Crabbe and Rogers, as survivals, require next to no notice; but it is noteworthy that Campbell, who belongs to the same general school and is even definitely eighteenth century in his longer poems, adopts measures of distinct idiosyncrasy, and decidedly nineteenth-century character, for his great battle songs. Landor, not, perhaps, by any unnecessary connection with his “classicality” of one kind, is, also, distinctly classical in his neglect or refusal of frequent substitution in line, as well as in his sparing use of varied outline in line-group. But he had a definite, though surely a mistaken, idea that the variations of English verse were, comparatively, few; and a corresponding belief, of which he very satisfactorily availed himself, that those of prose were much more numerous. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey and Scott, among the first group, Moore, Byron (classical as he would have liked to be), Shelley and Keats, among the second, took almost every possible advantage, though in varying degrees, of the new scale; and we might add some remarkable instances from the minors of a generation slightly younger, though still older than that of Tennyson and Browning, such as Hood, Darley, Praed, Beddoes and Macaulay.

Wordsworth, as might be expected, allows himself less freedom than any of the others, yet his own range of metre is considerable. The great Immortality Ode would, by itself, supply large, if not exhaustive, texts for dealing with new methods; and the handling of his best blank verse embodies, to the full, that constant shifting of the values and cadences of the line by alteration of pause, by insertion of words of special weight or colour and the like, against which Johnson had partially protested, but which the joint study of Shakespeare and Milton is, of itself, sufficient to suggest and to authorise. Nor is it necessary to point out, at any length, that the mere revival of the sonnet—especially its adoption in the forms which do not consist of regular quatrains and a final couplet—is a “sign of profession and mark of difference.” It was not for nothing that the late seventeenth century and nearly the whole of the eighteenth were shy of the sonnet. Its great scope as a metrical unit, the intricate arrangement of its rimes, the close-knit structure of successive lines and the absolute impossibility of maintaining a middle pause right through without destroying the whole principle of the form, were enough to set any eighteenth-century writer against it, quite independently of vain imaginations about the unadjustable differences between English and Italian, the paucity of rimes in our language, or the artificial, trivial character of the thing in itself.