Reference > Cambridge History > The Age of Dryden > The Prosody of the Seventeenth Century > The “Pindaric” of Cowley and his Followers
  The Octosyllabic Couplet Dryden and the Heroic Couplet  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

IX. The Prosody of the Seventeenth Century.

§ 11. The “Pindaric” of Cowley and his Followers.


The development excepted above has been reserved for this place because it went on side by side with that of this couplet itself, and occupied, as it were, the position of privileged ally. This was the so-called “Pindaric” of Cowley and his followers. More or less irregular strophes of great beauty and very considerable length had been achieved by Spenser; and Ben Jonson had attempted regular strophic correspondence, as, in fact, did Cowley himself. But the Pindaric which he principally practised and personally made popular, which Dryden raised to a really great poetic medium, in which “cousin Swift” made notoriously unsuccessful attempts and which, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, burdened the English corpus poeticum with masses of intolerable verse, had no regular correspondence in the line composition of strophe and antistrophe, and no regular division of strophe, antistrophe and epode. It was merely a fortuitous string of stanzas, of unequal but considerable length, individually composed of lines also unequal in length, but arranged and rimed entirely at the poet’s discretion. The verse was, ordinarily, iambic and adhered to this measure with tolerable strictness—passages in triple time being only inserted in pieces (like Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast, but not his Anne Killigrew ode) intended for musical performance. It, therefore, did not act, like the anapaestic, and the octosyllabic, as an escapement from the heroic in the way of equivalent substitution; though, to some extent, it did so act in the less important matters of line-length, pause and strictly coupled rime. In later times—first, as regularised by Gray, and, since the romantic movement, in both regular and irregular forms—it has produced much magnificent poetry. But few of its practitioners, except Dryden, between 1650 and 1750, made of it anything but a row of formless agglomerations of line and rime—now hopelessly flat, now absurdly bombastic—often, if not usually, a mere mess of prose, rhythmed with the least possible effect of harmony and spooned or chopped into linefuls, after a fashion as little grateful or graceful as might be. It is, on the whole, during this period, a distinctly curious phenomenon; but, in more ways than one, it adds evidence of the fact that period and metre were only well married in the heroic couplet itself.   22

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  The Octosyllabic Couplet Dryden and the Heroic Couplet  
 
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