An Historical and Critical Account of the Origin and peculiar Nature of English Poetry, in a Letter to a Member of Parliament.

Poems on Several Occasions, formerly written by John Free, D.D. Vicar of East-Coker in Somersetshire.

Rev. John Free

A schoolmaster-poet informs an anonymous member of Parliament on the history and nature of English prosody, concluding: "For such being acquainted with our Original, must know our antient and natural Connexions, and discern what contributes to strengthen that, which is at once the PROTESTANT, and, ENGLISH Interest" p. xxxi.

It is perhaps worth noting that the Rev. John Free reports that his essay was written while waiting for the stage-coach to Oxford, which in the 1750s was becoming a center for the study of literary history.

Free denominates a new category of poetry to describe longer poems written in stanzas, then coming back into fashion: "The mixed HEROICK, consists of Heroick Verses, of ten Syllables put into Stanza, which is a Mode of Lyrick Poetry: The Forms of the Stanza are various. The most remarkable are those of Chaucer, Lidgate his Scholar, Gower his Contemporary, Spenser in the Fairie-queen, Bishop Hall, and Fairfax, the Translator of Tasso" xxviii. Free himself composed two odes in the Prior stanza.

These I take to be the principal Sorts of Verse now in Use in our Language; the rest generally arising from some Mixture or Composition, of these, or their Parts: It remains, that I shew to what Subjects they are applied, and what Denominations they take from their Subjects.

ENGLISH POETRY is divided according to it's Subjects, after the Manner of other Nations. We have the Epick, commonly called the Heroick, the Didactick, and the Lyrick; these Sorts are narrative: Some are Active or DRAMATICK: as the Tragick, and the Pastoral: For our Comedies are now no more in Verse.

To HEROICK Subjects we formerly gave the Species of Verse, which I mentioned before under the Name of the old Heroick, when I treated of the Origin of English Poetry. But now upon such Occasions we generally use the Quinarian Iambick, of five Feet, or ten Syllables; Latin or Greek Words with one Vowel before another, which form an Amphimacer, or by our Pronunciation sink that Vowel into a Dipthong, tho' they shew the Place of one, are not considered as adding another Syllable.

There is an essential Difference between the old and the common HEROICK with regard to the Pauses, which in the old are always fixed to a Place, and fall upon the 8th Syllable; in the common HEROICK they vary; and much more in Rhyme than in Blank Verse; where the Iambick shews itself continually, and without much Variation of the Pause, and yet gives little or no Offence: But in Rhyme this Sameness of Cadence would be intolerable, and therefore our Rhymers, who have been Men of Taste, and well acquainted with Classical Learning, have contrived to hide it with great Dexterity. What more surprising than this Verse of Mr. Dryden's?

Arms — and the Man — I sing — who forc'd — by Fate.

He knew, that the Verse he used was Iambick, which consists of Feet, but feeble at first setting out, and therefore to be heard, and create Attention, he gives the Alarm by a long Syllable, the first Foot therefore is a Trochee, and the two first Feet, which form the first Pause, make thereby a Choriambus.

The Musick in Mr. Pope's Verses is owing to the variety of the Pauses, that is reckoned the sweetest, where the Poetical Trajectory is the longest, and the Rapidity of the Voice the greatest. In the following Lines you may see the Mechanism and Force of these various Pauses,

That Wrath which hurl'd — to Pluto's gloo—my Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs — untime—ly slain.
POPE'S Iliad.

In the first Line, there is a slowness of the Pronunciation at "hurl'd," yet after that, the Rapidity of the Voice increases till it terminates at "gloo—" and the Iambick Feet form themselves into Dipodies, till you come to the last Foot. In the next Verse the Trajectory to the first grand Pause is formed by a Tripody, which is followed by two disunited Feet. The Structure of these Verses therefore is very different, tho' rising out of the same Materials. Mr. Creech has a very extraordinary Verse, which rests in the same Places, with the last of these, and is more rapid in the first Member, tho' it consists entirely of Monsyllables.

Nor could the World have born — so fierce a Flame.

This sort of Verse of ten Syllables seems to be of some Antiquity in England. It was used by Chaucer, who died, I believe, in the Year 1500.

With him there rode a gentil Pardonere,
Of Rounceval his Friend and his Compere:

It was used likewise by Gawin Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld in Scotland, in his famous English Translation of Virgil. He was born about 74 Years after the Death of Chaucer, and wrote in the Northern Dialect.

Quhill as the manful Trojan Aeneas
To se their nyse Figuris wonderand was
And as he musit, studeand in ane Stare
But one ane Sicht quhar on he blenkit there:
The Queen Dido, excellent in Bewte
To Tempill cummis with ane fare Menze
Of lusty Zoungeris walking her about
Like to the Goddess Diane with her Rout.
Aen. I.

I cannot help remarking here, the little Regard, which some People pay to Truth, when they have it in their Power to suppress any Thing, that seems to do credit to the NAME of England. The Publisher of the last Edition of this Book, says it is in the old Scotish Language: He might as well have said it was in Arabick. Since every one, who is acquainted with Languages knows, that there is no Scotish Language but the Erse. Whereas the Speech of the Lowlanders is ENGLISH; and if he had never learnt from History, that the Mother Tongue was introduced into Pictland, that is, the East of Scotland by Octha and Abyssa, soon after we had it in Kent: the Grammar of the Language might have informed him of it's Original. For here is the very Saxon Participle in ND "considerand," "studeand" for "considering," "studying." And therefore Sir David Lindsey acquits himself, like a good Historian, and an honest Man, when in the same Dialect, he celebrates this Bishop Douglas, as the FLOWER of English Rhetorick.

Alace! for one quhilk Lamp was in this Land,
Of Eloquence the Flow, and balmy Strand,
And in our Inglis Rhetorick the Rose, &c.

But this by Way, the View I have in producing his Poetry here is to shew, that both our Northern and Southern DIALECTS exhibited, at this Period this Kind of Metre, an Argument, that the Use of it was universal in the Island, and that therefore it is very antient, tho' not so antient, as what I call the old Heroick.

The mixed HEROICK, consists of Heroick Verses, of ten Syllables put into Stanza, which is a Mode of Lyrick Poetry: The Forms of the Stanza are various. The most remarkable are those of Chaucer, Lidgate his Scholar, Gower his Contemporary, Spenser in the Fairie-queen, Bishop Hall, and Fairfax, the Translator of Tasso.

The HEROICOMICAL, or Mock-heroick is peculiar to ourselves, it is an Iambick Verse of 4 Feet, or 8 Syllables, sometimes Rhyming with two Syllabels. It grew remarkable about the Reign of Charles II. chiefly by the Use of two great Wits, Mr. BUTLER the Author of Hudibras, and Mr. COTTON the Author of Virgil Travestie, who have since been imitated with great Applause, by Prior, Swift, and many others.

Of DIDACTICK Poems, which teach the Knowledge of some Art, or it's Improvements, we have two very fine Ones; Mr. Phillips's CYDER, and Mr. Dyer's FLEECE.

As for our LYRICK Poetry; I much question, but that the first Lyrick was of the same Sort with, what I call the old HEROICK; and that the ANTIENTS made Use of this favourite Measure, upon all solemn Subjects and publick Occasions, tho' it seems in it's Original to have been only taken from the Sound of some March, or Alarm to the Soldiery. For it very much resembles in it's Movement, or Beat of Time, the simple Whit and Dub of the Tabour and Pipe, continued for 14 Strokes together. I find a little Piece, supposed to be a wise Saying, or Meditation of King ALFRED'S, which I imagine to have been of this Form. It is printed indeed in Hemistichs by the MODERNS, and so appears to make 8 Verses; which however I reduce to 4 of the Sort abovementioned, concluding, as it is written in Rhyme, that there would have been a Rhyme to every Verse, and consequently 8 Rhymes, if there had been 8 Verses [Saxon characters].

I am the more inclined to this Opinion: because much of our Lyrick now in Use, is made out of the Members, of the old HEROICK, broke at the Pause, and considered as so many distinct Verses, two of which are destitute of Rhyme; as in the Booke of Psalms, translated by Tate and Brady: Or else the same Measure with the Addition of alternate Rhymes to the first and third Hemistich. Beside these, the Lyrick is either in Stanza, (as the Greeks and Roman had their Alcaicks, and Sapphicks:) or else in shorter Verse than the HEROICK, and without Stanza; as in the Trochaicks above cited.

Phyllis why should we delay, &c.

As for those irregular Verses let loose in the Time of Mr. Cowley, under the Denomination of Pindaricks, I believe they will hardly meet with Approbation, unless in a barbarous Age or Nation, that may be catched with the unmeasured Rhymes of a French Writer of Fables: And therefore, whoever goes about to recall these Exiles hither, I believe will fail of Success. The Mind well informed delights in Regularity. In Harmony as in all other Things, it looks for Proportion, and is always disgusted when it feels the Want of it. I think I speak this from Nature; but if my Opinion need the Support of Authority, I have the Voice of one, to whom the World has been used to pay some Attention, and therefore I recite his Words. "Aures enim, vel Animus, aurium Nuntio, naturalem quandam in se continet vocum ominium Mensionem. Itaque & longiora & breviora judicat, & perfecta, & moderata semper expectat. Mutila sentit quaedam & quasi decurtata: quibus, tanquam debito fraudetur, offenditur."

As for DRAMATICK Poetry, the Tragedy is written in the same Sort of Verse with our Heroick Poems, that is in the Iambick of ten Syllables; whether that be in Rhyme or not.

Some of our late Counting-house TRAGEDIANS by all the Assistance of WARD and WINGATE have not been able to tell these Ten. For beside the allowable Redundancy of one Syllable, we have been tired with Verses of such a Length, as I believe the World never heard before, and I hope will never hear again.

Our PASTORAL the last Species of Poetry mentioned in my Division, if it be of the Dramatick sort, is now generally written after the Manner of Virgil and Theocritus in Heroick Verse, tho' formerly it was in Stanza. As I am straitned for Room I cannot expatiate here upon these Subjects; and therefore refer you for a more full and just Account, to the third Part of my History of the English Tongue, which may one Time or other make it's Appearance, under the Auspices of some learned MINISTRY: For such being acquainted with our Original, must know our antient and natural Connexions, and discern what contributes to strengthen that, which is at once the PROTESTANT, and, ENGLISH Interest.

[Second edition; pp. xxv-xxxi]