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English Metrical Critics.
ART. VI.-1. The Art of Elocution. By GEORGE VANDEN
HOFF. London: 1855. 8vo. 2. A History of English Rhythms. By E. GUEST. London:
1838. 8vo. 3. The Ancient Rhythmical Art Recovered. By WILLIAM
O'BRIEN. Dublin : 1843. 8vo.
VERSES, good or bad, at one time or another have exercised the power of delighting and impressing all persons. It seems, therefore, somewhat singular that all theories and criticisms of the nature of verse, and canons for its composition, should hitherto have been found the most dreary of reading: prosaic par excellence, “prosody,” in short-a word scarcely proper to be spoken within hearing of the ladies, a necessary evil of academic days, a subject which pedantry itself seldom dreams of obtruding upon ears polite. The reason seems to be, that in this department of learning investigators have failed to reach, often even to seek, those fundamental truths which, if discovered, must confer connection and unity, and consequently intellectual interest, on all the less general facts.
The adoption, by Surrey and his immediate successors, of certain foreign metres into our poetry, and the unprecedented attempt of that accomplished writer to establish “ blank verse” as a narrative vehicle, first aroused conscious and scientific interest in the subject of the mechanism of English verse. From that time to this, the nature of modern verse has been the pet problem of a large part of that peculiar class of enthusiasts who love to dive in deep waters for diving's sake. An infinite mass of nondescript matter has been brought up from the recesses visited, but none of the divers has succeeded, to the complete satisfaction of any but himself, in rendering an account of this secret of the intellectual deep. We have made it our business to ascertain whether any of the musical grammarians, whose science is, in great part, a mere abstraction of the laws of metre, have sounded the depths of this department of their art. The sum total of our inquiries in both fields of criticism, musical and poetical, amounts to this, that upon no other subject with which we are acquainted has so much been written with so little tangible result. Without for a moment questioning the value of certain portions of the writings of Puttenham, Gascoigne, Campion, Webbe, Daniel, Crowe, Foster, Mitford, Guest, and others, it must be confessed that no one of these writers renders anything like a full and philosophical account of the subject; and that, with the exception of Daniel, the admirable author of the “ Civil Wars," and Mitford, none has treated the question, even on the superficial ground in most cases assumed, with the combined ability and competence of information from which alone any important fruit can be looked for in such investigations. George Puttenham's “ Art of English Poesy” is by very much the most bulky and laborious of the early metrical essays; but at least nine-tenths of this book consist of as unprofitable writing as ever spoilt paper. His chapter on the arrangement of rhymes to form staves is worthy of the poetical student's attention; and we find in the outset of his work an explicit acknowledgment of the fact, so often lost sight of by his successors, that English verse is not properly measurable by the rules of Latin and Greek verse. Indeed, the early poetical critics commonly manifest a much clearer discernment of the main importance of rhyme and accentual stress, in English verse, than is to be found among later writers. Their views are, for the most part, far from being expressed with that positiveness and appearance of system characterizing the school of critics which received its data from Pope and his compeers; but they are, upon the whole, considerably more in accordance with the true spirit of English verse, as it appears in its highest excellence in the writings of the poets of Elizabeth and James. The dissertations of the second class of critics, of whom Foster was the most notable example, are rendered comparatively useless by the adoption of false or confused opinions as the groundwork of their theories; such, for instance, as Foster's assumption that the time of syllables in English keeps the proportion usually attributed to long and short quantities in Greek and Latin, and that the metrical ictus or stress in English, is identical with elevation of tone ;—mistakes which seem also to have been made by Dr Johnson in the prosody prefixed to his Dictionary, and by various other writers of that time. Joshua Steele has the praise of having propounded more fully than had hitherto been done, the true view of metre, as being primarily based upon isochronous division by ictuses or accents; and he, for the first time, clearly declared the necessity of measuring pauses in minutely scanning English verse. He remarked the strong pause which is required for the proper delivery of adjacent accented syllables, and without which the most beautiful verses must often be read into harsh prose. But the just and important views of this writer were mingled with so much that was erroneous and impracticable, that they made little or no general impression. Mitford's careful work on the Harmony of Language is perhaps the most significant book
which has appeared upon the subject. This work, though far from containing the whole, or the unmixed truth, has not yet been superseded by any of the several
elaborate essays on the same theme which have since appeared. Mr Guest's work on English Rhythms is a laborious and, in some respects, valuable performance; but
of his observations indicate an ear defective to a degree which seriously impairs their value, when they concern the more subtle kinds of metrical effect. The value of his work is further diminished by a singular unskilfulness in the mode of arranging his materials, and communicating his views. He has fallen into the grave error of endeavouring to simplify and abbreviate his statements by adopting, for the indication of different species of verse, a notation which few persons can fairly be called upon to take the pains to comprehend and follow. He throws, however, much new and interesting light upon the history of versification, and no student of the subject will omit to give his volumes a respectful reading. Mr Dallas brings metrical criticism up to the present day. His “ Poetics” is a clever and amusing volume, made up of much fun, much metaphysics, and a good many observations to the purpose. Indeed the balance between the metaphysics and the fun is hard to strike. When we feel ourselves disposed to object to the style of such criticisms as “the centrifugal force wherewith the mind rushes forth into the objective, acting on the centripetal force of self-consciousness, generates the circling numbers of the revolving harmonies of poesy-in one word, a roundelay,"—we ought, perhaps, to satisfy ourselves as Charles Lamb, in a stutter, is said to have consoled a free-thinking friend who had just been irritated by one of Coleridge's “properer-for-a-sermon” philosophical monologues, and to conclude that all such criticisms are only Mr Dallas's ph-ph-ph-fun!
The radical faults of nearly all the writers we have mentioned, and of those who have followed in their steps, are, first, the mistake of working in ignorance of the truth declared by Quintilian, " that mere literature, without a knowledge of sounds, will not enable a man to treat properly of metre and rhythm;" secondly, that of having formed too light an estimate of their subject, whereby they have been prevented from sounding deep enough for the discovery of the philosophical grounds and primary laws of metrical expression. No one, with any just sense of the ex alted but unobtrusive functions of art, will expect to derive much artistic instruction from the writings of men who set about their work, perhaps their life's work, with such sentiments as Dr Burney was not ashamed to avow at the commencement of that laborious treatise which is still deservedly a text-book of musical history: “I would rather be pronounced trivial than tiresome; VOL. XXVII. NO. LIII.
for music being, at best, but an amusement, its history merits not, in reading, the labour of intense application.” And again : “ What is music? An innocent luxury, unnecessary indeed to existence, but a great improvement and gratification to our sense of hearing."
The nature of the relation between the poet's peculiar mode of expression and the matter expressed has engaged the curiosity of many philosophic minds. Hegel, whose chapters on music and metre, in the third volume of his Æsthetics, contain by far the most satisfactory piece of writing we know of on the subject, admirably observes, that versification affords a necessary counterpoise to the great spiritualisation of language in poetry. “It is false,” he adds," that versification offers any obstacle to the free out-pouring of poetic thought. True genius disposes with ease of sensible materials, and moves therein as in a native element, which, instead of depressing or hindering, exalts and supports its flight." . Art, indeed, must have a body as well as a soul; and the higher and purer the spiritual, the more powerful and unmistakeable should be the corporeal element;—in other words, the more vigorous and various the life, the more stringent and elaborate must be the law, by obedience to which life expresses itself. The defective balance of these powers, the failure being on the material side, produces the effect of license in Shelley, and slovenliness in Wordsworth, and of much waste of the great spiritual powers of both; the opposite kind of failure, namely, the preponderance of form, has few examples among the writings of first-class English poets, but very many among those of Germany, whose prevailing error is that of causing form to weigh down and conceal, instead of expressing and supporting spirit. In this we do not allude only to metre, which is often over-elaborated by the best German poets, but to that which may be justly regarded as the continuation and development of the metrical element, namely, a highly and obviously artificial arrangement and unfolding of the subject.
The co-ordination of life and law, in the matter and form of poetry, determines the different degrees and kinds of metre, from the half prosaic dramatic verse to the extremest elaboration of high lyric metres. The quality of all emotion which is not ignoble, is to boast of its allegiance to law. The limits and decencies of ordinary speech will by no means declare high and strong feelings with efficiency. These must have free use of all sorts of figures and latitudes of speech ; such latitudes as would at once be perceived by a finely constituted mind to be lax and vicious, without the shackles of artistic form. What in prose would be shrieks and vular hyperbole, is transmuted by metre into graceful song. This effect of metre has often been alluded
to, with more or less exactness of thought and expression. “Bacon," says Mr Dallas, “ regards metre as a curb or shackle, where everything else is riot and lawless revelling; Wordsworth regards it as a mark of order, and so an assurance of reality needed in such an unusual state of mind as he takes poetry to be; and Coleridge would trace it to the balance struck between our passions and spontaneous efforts to hold them in check.” From the truth which is implied alike in these several propositions, it seems to us that an important and neglected corollary follows: metre ought not only to exist as the becoming garment of poetic passion, but, furthermore, it should continually make its existence recognised. Some writers, by a peculiar facility of language, have attained to write perfect metre with almost as little metrical effect as if it were prose. Now this is no merit, but
much the reThe language should always seem to feel, though not to suffer from the bonds of verse. The very deformities produced, really or apparently, in the phraseology of a great poet, by the confinement of metre, are beautiful and noble, exactly for the same artistic reasons that in architecture justify the bossy gothic foliage, so unlike nature, and yet, indeed, in its place and purpose as art, so much more beautiful than nature herself. Metre never attains its noblest effects when it is altogether unproductive of those beautiful exorbitancies on the side of law. Milton and Shakespeare are full of them; and we may declare the excellence of these effects without danger to the poorer proprietors of the lower walks of art, since no small poet can originate them, or even copy them, without making himself obviously absurd. Wordsworth's erroneous critical views of the necessity of approximating the language of poetry, as much as possible, to that of prose, especially by the avoidance of grammatical inversions, arose from his having overlooked the necessity of manifesting, as well as moving in, the bonds of verse.
In the finest specimens of versification, there seems to be a perpetual conflict between the law of the verse and the freedom of the language, and each is incessantly, though insignificantly, violated for the purpose of giving effect to the other. The best poet is not he whose verses are the most easily scannible, and whose phraseology is the commonest in its materials, and the most direct in its arrangement; but rather he whose language combines the greatest imaginative accuracy with the most elaborate and sensible metrical organization, and who, in his verse, preserves everywhere the living sense of metre, not so much by unvarying obedience to, as by innumerable small departures from, its modulus. The over-smooth and accurate metre of much of the eighteenth century poetry, to an ear able to appreciate the music of Milton and the best parts of Coleridge, is almost as