Reference > Cambridge History > The Victorian Age, Part One > The Prosody of the Nineteenth Century > Victorian prosody
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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.

§ 13. Victorian prosody.


Between the prosodic practice of the later and larger part of the nineteenth century and that of the earlier, there is no such difference of principle as had prevailed between the earlier practice and the orthodox prosody of the eighteenth, so that, despite the number and importance of Victorian poets, we shall be able to treat them here more shortly than their teachers. But there are still three, not ill-marked, shades of division—the last of them as yet not clearly determinable but, possibly, of great importance—between the stages of this Victorian poetry itself; and there is at the opening, and not there only, a phenomenon which, though once more not at all surprising when duly considered, is certainly remarkable. Moreover, the actual prosodists of the sixty years are an almost formidable multitude, belonging to various prosodic nations and speaking, as it were, different prosodic languages; so that we shall have to give them more room as we give the poets less. And the most logical order of arrangement will be to deal with the special phenomenon above referred to first; to take the theorists next and to end with the sweeter mouths of the poets themselves.   36
  The point to start with is the fact that, though we can, it is believed, prove the general identity of method in the verse of 1798--1830, this was not by any means generally recognised, and the absence of recognition was, undoubtedly, at the root of the prosodic confusion of tongues which has succeeded. It has been mentioned, and cannot be mentioned too often, that Coleridge “could hardly scan” some of Tennyson’s verses; that he thought the younger poet “did not very well know what metre is,” and wished him “to write for two or three years in none but well known and correctly defined” measures. Now, at the present day, there is not the slightest difficulty, not merely in scanning Tennyson’s metres throughout, even in the unfinished forms in which Coleridge saw them in 1833, but in perceiving and proving that they proceed wholly on that very same principle of equivalence which accounts for The Ancient Mariner and Christabel. Fifteen years later, and half a dozen after the definitive exhibition of Tennyson’s genius and method in the 1842 volumes, a critic by no means despicable and far from generally hostile, William Smith, uttered a wail of agonised despair over the “Hollyhock” song—every principle and almost every line of which can be defended and paralleled from Shakespeare—as outlandish “ear-torturing” and altogether metrically indefensible and unintelligible. Bearing these things in mind, and bearing in mind, also, the strange paralogisms of Guest, rather less than midway between Smith and Coleridge, we shall not be unprepared to find that neither the return to the study of Elizabethan poetry, nor the great practice of the first romantic school, nor the strictly historical, though unfortunately misdirected, enquiries of Guest himself, saved the prosodists of Victorian times from all sorts of contradictory will-worships, of which the best thing that can usually be said is that one often exposes the faults of another.   37

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