Essay XII. Remarks on English Versification.

Essays, Philosophical, Historical, and Literary.

William Belsham

In the second part of his essay on "Style and Versification" William Belsham compares blank verse, heroic couplets, and verse stanzas: "The Spenserian stanza must be allowed to exhibit a certain air of stateliness, and it is not deficient in force or harmony, but it soon palls upon the ear by its uniformity. There seems to be a sort of analogy, remote and somewhat fanciful indeed, between the stanza of Spenser and the subject of his poem, sufficient however to prevent our regretting the choice he has made. A kind of stiff, formal, and obsolete magnificence seems to predominate in both" p. 231.

Spenser's English hexameters are briefly mentioned in the essay "On Style": "Spenser has made some attempts of this kind, with a degree of success which will scarcely encourage others to follow the example" p. 214.

The Essays were originally published anonymously. The 1799 version of the "Remarks" concludes with added remarks on Collins, and some extravagant praise for Mrs. Barbauld, a fellow dissenter.

Samuel Austin Allibone: "William Belsham, 1753-1827, younger brother of [the Unitarian divine William Belsham], was author of a number of historical and political treatises" Critical Dictionary of English Literature (1858-71; 1882) 1:163.

Versification may properly be considered as the style of poetry, or the art of composition in metre: and though the taste, or mental perception of beauty or deformity is in this case affected by still more lively emotions of disgust or admiration than prose has power to excite, the ultimate causes of those emotions are enveloped in exactly the same degree of darkness and obscurity. It is indeed perhaps somewhat more easy to lay down rules or reasons by which we are supposed to be influenced in forming our judgments respecting the beauty of stile in poetry than in prose. The "Canons of Criticism," for instance, inform us, 1st, That versification, in order to please, must be smooth and harmonious, exact without stiffness, and easy without negligence. 2dly, That uniformity should be blended with variety; and while the first is observed, in adhering to the same precise number of poetical feet in each verse or stanza, the latter should be studied in the pauses, cadences, and accents. 3dly, That the sound should, as far as possible, be made to coincide with the sense; from which coincidence arises what is called imitative harmony; and in general, that the emotion excited by the tone of the verse, should accord with the emotion excited by the sentiment expressed or the object described. It were not difficult to add a multiplicity of rules of the same kind, exemplifying them by an induction of particular passages, and expatiating learnedly upon each; or it were equally easy to quote passages without end, and to point out beauties without number; and to support our opinion by a reference to the same rules, which would in that case be converted into reasons. But it is to be feared that no great addition is made to real knowledge by this sort of information. For either the rules themselves are liable to suspicion, as not sufficiently confirmed by fact and experience, or if they are universally received as true, it is not the less difficult to demonstrate that they have their origin and foundation in reason.

The end of poetry is to please; and it is by an appeal to taste, and not to reason, that the question must be decided whether that end be actually attained. To decry all rules of poetical composition as impertinent or useless, would nevertheless be running into a very absurd extreme. As there is a certain degree of uniformity in our mental feelings and perceptions, there is a real foundation for that uniformity; and it is both entertaining and instructive, by any fair process of induction, to point out the immediate, though we cannot trace the ultimate causes of those uniform emotions of disgust or admiration; which is in effect to point out the means of avoiding or exciting them. Or, in other words, it is to establish certain fixed rules of composition upon the authority of experience; but the pedantry of appealing to speculative principles in opposition to the decisions of taste, and the vanity of attempting to demonstrate by argument, in defiance of feeling, that men ought or ought not to admire, are equally to be avoided. The affectation of judging in matters of taste, chiefly or solely by rule, is a foible which pervades and discolours a work of great and acknowledged merit and ingenuity — "The Elements of Criticism." Lord Kaims, with great acuteness of understanding, was not remarkable for delicacy of taste; or tremblingly alive to the finer sensibilities of the soul. And the cold and subtle discriminations of the metaphysician, are scarcely compatible with those glowing sympathies which distinguish that high class of critics who have imbibed the genuine spirit of Quintilian and Longinus.

Verse may be defined as a species of composition, in which the arrangement of words is subject to certain precise rules; and the ear, as Lord Kaims observes, must be appealed to as tic proper judge for deciding upon the effect produced by these rules. In short, the essential difference between verse and prose consists in the measure; for if we admit such performances as Telemaque or Fingal into the class of poems, how is it possible to draw any precise line between these two species of composition. Of all the different kinds of verse known in English poetry, blank verse is undoubtedly entitled to be first mentioned, as first in dignity and importance. M. Voltaire has observed, that blank verse is of so loose a texture, that it costs nothing but the trouble of writing; upon which account he seems to intend to represent it as scarcely worth the trouble of reading; or as far inferior at least to French heroic verse, which consisting of four regular anapests, and admitting little or no variation of pauses, accents, or arrangement, is consequently of much more difficult construction. But this difficulty surmounted, he pretends is the source of great delight to every reader of taste; a strange criterion indeed by which to judge of the comparative merit of these two kinds of versification. If that mode of composition which is most difficult in itself, be upon that account most pleasing, our greatest poets ought no doubt to have retired into "some peaceful province of Acrostic land."

There they might wings display, and altars raise,
And torture one poor word ten thousand ways.

It is certainly true, that blank verse is very easy to write; but for this reason it is as certainly the more difficult to excel in writing it. Such blank verse as M. de Voltaire himself has given us a specimen of, is no doubt, to do him justice, truly contemptible. But if M. Voltaire had been competently qualified to criticise upon English poetry, he would have known that the blank verse of Milton and Shakespeare is, of all the various measures, practised among us, that which is most difficult of imitation. Blank verse has so near an affinity to prose, that it requires the most consummate skill and judgment in the arrangement of the periods, as well as the utmost force and elevation of language to preserve the distinction between them. But when the requisite proportion of skill and genius is exerted, and that degree of perfection attained, which genius conducted by application never fails to reach, the wonderful effects of this species of poetical composition become fully apparent: and we admire the versification of the "Paradise Lost," not because Milton has surmounted great difficulties, for this alone is a very weak foundation of applause; but because he has attained to positive beauties of the most exquisite kind. Doubtless that egregious pedant, who took the trouble to translate the Iliad, and in each of the twenty-four books omitted some one letter of the alphabet, surmounted a difficulty of great magnitude; but is he therefore the subject of our admiration or derision? The truth is, that the conquest of difficulties is never a source of pleasure, at least to men of refinement, except some purpose either of use or beauty is accomplished by it. But when any such purpose is effected, the emotion of wonder excited by the removal of the difficulty, agreeably to the laws of association, blends itself with the emotion of esteem or admiration excited by the contemplation of utility or beauty: and the complex emotion acquires by this conjunction an high degree of force and vigour. Thus our admiration of the Miltonic versification, which is in itself exquisitely beautiful, is very much heightened by our knowledge of the extreme difficulty of succeeding in that measure: but the difficulty of writing French heroic verse, does not by any analogy induce us to admire the versification of the Henriade, which is in itself tame, languid, and monotonous.

If it should now be asked, what are those beauties of which blank verse is susceptible, and for which it is so much celebrated? we may reply in a few words, majesty, melody, and variety. Not even the hexameter of the antients possesses perhaps the property of majesty in an equal degree. The hexameter is no doubt a very noble poetical measure, but it does not seem capable of that long-continued pomp of sound of which we have so many examples in our great poets; and the following verses of Milton will appear in this view to great advantage in the comparison with any equal number of hexameters from the Aeneid.

—The great Creator from his world
Desisting, tho' unwearied, up return'd;
Up to the heaven of heavens, his high abode,
Thence to behold this new-created world,
Th' addition of his empire, how it shewed
In prospect from his throne — how good, how fair,
Answering his great idea. Up he rode
Followed with acclamations, and the sound
Symphonious of ten thousand harps, that tun'd
Angelic harmonies. The earth, the air
Resounded: thou remember'd, for thou heard'st:
The heavens and all the constellations rung;
The planets in their stations listening stood
While the bright pomp ascended jubilant.
Open, ye everlasting gates, they sung;
Open, ye heavens, your living doors; let in
Your great Creator, from his work return'd
Magnificent; his six days work, a world.

The monotonous close of the hexameter, though it may be disguised in a great measure for a few lines, by the surprising variety it is capable of in other respects, cannot fail to strike the ear upon frequent repetition; and in the recital of long passages to cause unreasonable interruptions to what Pope stiles "the long resounding march and energy divine." To compare blank verse with our own, or with the French heroic couplet, in this respect were wholly superfluous.

But blank verse, in the blank verse of Milton and Shakespeare, is no less remarkable for its melody than its majesty! This property of blank verse arises from the unbounded liberty the poet enjoys of varying his pauses and extending his periods so as to produce the utmost fulness and harmony of cadence: and in this respect it has a manifest advantage over the heroic couplet as well as the hexameter. It would be difficult to find any equal number of hexameters or couplets so melodious or grateful to the ear, as the passage just quoted from Milton. It indeed possesses the three great characteristics of that species of verse in high perfection. Upon the last of those characteristics it is superfluous to expatiate. As opposed to the hexameter measure, and the heroic couplet, its variety evidently arises from its happy exemption from the necessity of an uniform close. For the perpetual recurrence of the dactyl and the spondee is scarcely less fatiguing to the ear, however superior the hexameter may be deemed in other respects, than what Dryden stiles the tinkle in the close of the couplet.

The English heroic couplet, unable as it is to stand the comparison with blank verse or the hexameter, is nevertheless far from being destitute of force or beauty. It is capable of some variety in its accents, and very great diversity in its pauses. It is lively, vigorous, and animated; and particularly adapted to gay and airy subjects, of which "the Rape of the Lock" is a decisive proof. It seems not to admit of any considerable inversion of language; but Dryden, in numerous instances, has very happily indulged himself in the liberty of running one couplet into another, by which means he has added wonderfully to the spirit, freedom, and energy of his verse. Lord Kaims indeed asserts, that every couplet ought to finish with some close in the sense, assigning as a reason, "that as every couplet must of course conclude with a musical clause, if it is accompanied by a pause in the sense, the coincidence gratifies at the same time the ear and understanding. This remark is just, if applied to a single couplet, but surely it is not necessary to have our ears purged by an archangel with euphrasy and rue, to be sensible how much the petty pleasure arising from such coincidence is overbalanced by the additional delight we derive from that variety and animation, which are the result of occasional deviations from this rule. In confutation of this criticism, it is sufficient to cite the initial paragraph of Dryden's well known poem of the Hind and Panther.

A milk-white hind, immortal and unchang'd,
Fed on the lawns, or on the forest rang'd;
Without unspotted, innocent within,
She fear'd no danger, for she knew no sin;
Yet had she oft been chas'd with horns and hounds,
And Scythian shafts; and many winged wounds
Aim'd at her heart; was often forc'd to fly,
And doom'd to death, tho' fated not to die;

But the fastidious delicacy of Lord Kaims, would not allow the slightest musical pause to intervene between an adjective and substantive, a substantive and verb, or a verb and adverb. Who would suspect the following lines of Pope to be faulty?

In these deep solitudes and awful cells,
Where heavenly-pensive contemplation dwells,
And ever-musing melancholy reigns.

They always however appeared to Lord Kaims exceptionable, on account of the pause interjected between the verb and consequent substantive; and his Lordship, after a great deal of deep thinking, doubtless was at last fortunate enough, as he informs us, to discover a reason in support of his taste. "Between the active substantive and the verb placed in their natural order, there is no difficulty of interjecting a pause, because an active being is not always in motion, and therefore it is easily separable in idea from its action: but when by insertion the verb is placed first, is it lawful to separate it by a pause from the active substantive?" To this curious question his Lordship answers positively, "No; because an action is not in idea separable from the agent more than a quality from the subject to which it appertains."

To pass over these frivolities, it is certain that Pope has weakened the general effect of his poetry very considerably, by adhering too closely to the rule specified by Lord Kaims, respecting the propriety of concluding every couplet by a pause in the sense, as well as in the music. It has given his versification an air of tameness and uniformity, and in this as well as other characteristics of poetic genius, his inferiority to Dryden is very apparent; though he perhaps more than compensates for this inferiority by the limae labor which appears so conspicuous throughout all his works. Dryden was a writer to the last degree negligent and incorrect. He was also, in many instances, unhappy in the choice of his subjects, and his sentiments are frequently exceptionable, sometimes absurd and extravagant. Pope was, as an elegant critic (Dr. Warton) has stiled him, "the Poet of Reason, and in perusing his productions the understanding is improved, while the imagination is delighted. But still it must be allowed, that the sacred mantle which descended from Shakespeare to Milton, and which Dryden after them wore with dignity, cannot be adjudged without some hesitation to Pope.

Next to blank verse and the heroic couplet, the elegiac stanza seems to possess the greatest hare of importance and popularity. It has a kind of plaintive flow, which renders it peculiarly suitable to tender and melancholy subjects. Hammond and Shenstone, and above all Gray, have been particularly successful in this species of versification. In the last century, this stanza was very erroneously considered as superior in dignity to the heroic couplet; and it was accordingly adopted by Sir William D'Avenant, in his Epic poem of GONDIBERT, and by Dryden in his "Annus Mirabilis," and in other compositions of the same cast.

The Spenserian stanza must be allowed to exhibit a certain air of stateliness, and it is not deficient in force or harmony, but it soon palls upon the ear by its uniformity. There seems to be a sort of analogy, remote and somewhat fanciful indeed, between the stanza of Spenser and the subject of his poem, sufficient however to prevent our regretting the choice he has made; a kind of stiff, formal, and obsolete magnificence seems to predominate in both. This difficult stanza has been very happily revived by some modern writers, particularly by Thomson in his Castle of Indolence, and by Dr. Beattie in the first book of the Minstrel.

It is rather singular that the French heroic couplet, consisting of four anapests, should never be used amongst us but on subjects of mirth and gaiety, and with the utmost propriety. What can be deemed, for instance, more perfect in its kind than the versification of the Bath guide? But surely no admirer of that exquisite jeu d'esprit will deny that the first couplet of the Henriade,

Je chante ce heros qui regna sur la France

Et par droit de conquete, et par droit de naissance,

is as little adapted to the majesty of the Epopeia as,

But what with my Nivernois hat can compare,
My bag-wig and laced ruffles, and black solitaire?

The regular Pindarics of Gray and Collins are entitled to an high degree of applause; and notwithstanding the severity of Dr. Johnson's criticism, many irregular efforts of the Pindaric muse may also be read with great pleasure. Exclusive of Dryden's immortal Ode, which far transcends all praise, the Lycidas of Milton, Lord Lyttleton's Monody, Shaw's Ode to the Nightingale, and many other productions might be mentioned, which sufficiently demonstrate that regularity of metre is not essential to poetic excellence.

It would not be easy to enumerate all the different kinds of versification in use amongst us. Of those not already specified, perhaps the Hudibrastic couplet is most valuable, as admirably calculated for burlesque poetry. Prior, in his Alma, has shewn himself scarcely inferior to Butler in his dexterous management of it.

Though the warmest admirers of Pope have never exalted him to the rank of the greatest poet, he has often been stiled the best versifier in the English language. If by the belt is only meant the most polished and correct versifier, it is not difficult to acquiesce in the panegyric. But if his mode of versification is stiled the best, as affording the highest degree of delight, it can by no means be allowed. In this respect Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden, all rank much above him. Pope does not sufficiently conceal his art; he wants simplicity. The flow of his verse, though very harmonious, is seldom tender and pathetic, and still less frequently lofty and majestic. In his translation of the Iliad, however, he rises to very sublime heights. It is a wonderful performance, far superior no doubt to the Aeneid of Dryden, or probably to any other translation that ever appeared in the world. By comparing a few parallel passages transcribed from the version of Pope, and the wretched doggrel of Hobbes, the pleasure of contrast may be enjoyed in perfection, and the reader may contemplate at once the extremes of poetic elegance and meanness,

[Greek characters]

His prayer was granted by the Deity,
Who with his silver bow and arrows keen,
Descended from Olympus silently,
In likeness of the sable night unseen.
His bow and quiver both behind him hang;
The arrows chink as often as he jogs,
And as he shot, the bow was heard to twang, &c.

Thus Chryses pray'd — the favoring power attends,
And from Olympus' lofty tops descends;
Bent was his bow the Grecian hearts to wound,
Fierce as he mov'd his silver shafts resound;
Breathing revenge a sudden night he spread,
And gloomy darkness roll'd around his head.
The fleet in view he twang'd his deadly blow, &c.

[Greek Characters]

This, said Patroclus, led Briseis forth,
And to Atrides' messengers her gave,
She with them went, though much against her heart,
Achilles from his friends went off and pray'd;
And sitting with his face to th' sea apart,
Weeping unto his mother Thetis, said, &c.

Patroclus now, th' unwilling beauty brought,
She in soft sorrows and in pensive thought
Past silent, as the heralds held her hand,
And oft look'd back, slow moving o'er the strand.
Not so his loss the fierce Achilles bore,
But sad retiring to the sounding shore,
O'er the wild margin of the deep he hung,
That kindred deep from whence his mother sprung;
There bathed in tears of anger and disdain,
Thus loud lamented to the stormy main.

[Greek characters]

But when the sun had borne away his light,
Upon the sands they laid them down to sleep;
And when again Aurora came in sight,
Again they launch their ship into the deep.
A good fore-wind Apollo with them sent;
Then with her breast the ship the water tore,
Which by her down on both side roaring went,
And soon arrived at the Trojan shore.

Twas night; the chiefs beside the vessel lie,
Till rosy morn had purpled o'er the sky;
Then launch and hoist the mast; indulgent gales,
Supplied by Phoebus, fill the swelling sails.
The milk-white canvas bellying as they blow,
The parted ocean foams and roan below.
Above the bounding billows swift they flew,
Till now the Grecian camp appear'd in view.

But quotation must not be farther extended, while names of conspicuous merit, on the rolls of poetic fame, still claim their share of attention.

Had Cowley's judgment borne any proportion to his genius, he would unquestionably have been entitled to a very high rank in the public estimation, which indeed, while the public judgment was as yet immature, he actually enjoyed. In the present improved state of versification, we have few productions of the English muse more soft, more gay, more airy, than his Anacreontics, his Acme and Septimius, and his Chronicle. On the other hand, in the pathetic and plaintive stile, few pieces exhibit a more mournful slow of numbers than his Elegy on Harvey, the poem stiled the Complaint, and some others. He knew how to express as well as feel the most tender, as well as the most lively emotions of the soul.

Forgot his Epic, nay Pindaric art,
Yet still we love the language of his heart.

Waller must be regarded as greatly inferior to Cowley in genius; but he possessed a more correct taste and truer judgment. His versification, when compared with that of the majority of his predecessors, is eminently smooth and harmonious; and he contributed much to polish and refine the elegant art which he cultivated.

Thomson's celebrated poem, The Seasons, enjoys a reputation at least equal to its merit. As Pope has been called the Poet of Reason, Thomson may with equal justice be stiled the Poet of Nature. He surveyed her various scenes with a curious and attentive eye, and he describes them with warmth, accuracy and fidelity; and in this the real excellence of his work consists. When Thomson is not describing or moralizing, he is no poet. When he aims at elevation, he is always turgid; when he wishes to be splendid, he is only gaudy.

From brightening fields of ether fair disclos'd,
Child of the sun, refulgent summer comes
In pride of youth, and felt thro' nature's depth.
He comes, attended by the sultry hours
And ever fanning breezes on his way;
While from his ardent look the turning spring
Averts her blushful face,

Such mechanical poetry as this is calculated merely for grown children. The tales he interweaves are very indifferently narrated. His diction is either artificially strained or disgustingly familiar; and his versification is such, that for twenty or thirty lines together it is frequently difficult to distinguish it from prose. In a word, it is a poem in which description too much holds the place of sense. Nevertheless it is upon the whole a pleasing and justly popular performance; and such it will continue to be while any relish shall remain of the beauties of nature, the charms of poetry, or the sympathies of affection. His life was blameless as his song, and the tomb of Thomson has been consecrated by the tears of friendship and genius—

Remembrance oft shall haunt the shore,
While Thames with summer wreaths is drest,
And oft suspend the dashing, oar
To bid his gentle spirit rest.

His poem entitled Liberty contains many striking passages, and abounds in high and lofty sentiments; but it is unhappily extended to a length insufferably tedious. The smaller pieces merit little attention, the "Castle of Indolence" excepted, which is indeed a noble effort of imagination, and claims a distinguished rank in English poetry as a very elegant and beautiful allegory.

Young's Night Thoughts may not improperly be considered as a good poetical contrast to Thomson's Seasons. One delighted as much to exhibit the gloomy, as the other the cheerful face of things. Young's genius was without doubt of a rank much superior to that of Thomson. He possessed, as Addison says of Lee, true poetic fire, though obscured by thick volumes of smoke. In the article of sublimity, the only one in which a comparison can be instituted, the Night Thoughts may vie with the Paradise Lost itself. In their different descriptions of a comet, for instance, the inferiority of Young is not at all discernible—

Incens'd with indignation Satan stood
Unterrified; and like a comet burn'd,
That fires the length of Ophiucus huge
In th' Artic sky; and from his horrid hair
Shakes pestilence and war.
MILTON, P. L. Book II.

Hast thou not seen the comet's flaming flight?
Th' illustrious stranger passing terror sheds
On gazing nations from his fiery train
Of length enormous; takes his ample round
Thro' depths of ether; coasts unumber'd worlds
Of more than solar glory; doubles wide
Heaven's mighty Cape; and then revisits earth
From the long travel of a thousand years.

The general character of Young's versification is that of harshness and ruggedness, though many passages may be produced as exceptions. The earlier poetical compositions of Young possess little claim to admiration; it is to a work begun after he was sixty years of age, when, if we will give any credit to his own declaration,

He long had buried what gives life to live,
Firmness of nerve and energy of thought—

that he derives and will continue to derive his reputation; for certainly such poems as the Last Day and the Paraphrase on Job, or even his Satires and Tragedies, could never entitle him to a permanent mansion in the Temple of Fame.

A celebrated Poetess of our own times, Mrs. Barbauld, in the elegant miscellaneous collection with which she has favored the world, has exhibited the most beautiful examples of versification, happily diversified and accommodated to the greatest variety of subjects that are to be met with in any contemporary author. In the poem stiled Corsica, her blank verse makes a very near approach to the Miltonic majesty and the Summer Evening Meditation is in the best manner of Young. Delia breathes the very soul of Hammond; and the Address to Wisdom is written in the true spirit of Prior. The poem on the Origin of Song Writing might have done honor to Waller, and the Ode to Spring is entitled at least to "divide the crown" with Collins's exquisite Ode to Evening.

[(1799) 2:492-513]