2 DECEMBER 1911, Page 25


TAST week we said something about English hexameters. The subject is worth returning to. It is the misfortune of English hexameters, as we have pointed out before, that they are so easy to write—badly. The language falls so naturally into the mechanical as opposed to the artful hexametric rhythm that they have suffered much wrong, and have indeed never won their right place in our prosody. Curiously enough, the same fate nearly overtook our iambic metre—that blank verse which has been the glory of English poetry. The early Elizabethan pioneers in the mightiest measure "ever moulded by the mouth of man " (Shakespeare need not yield to Homer or even to Virgil) show us how the extreme easiness of writing English longs and shorts and the dreadful monotony of which the measure is capable if it is not properly handled nearly overwhelmed it. Greene, or one of his contemporaries —for we cannot trace the quotation for the moment—speaks with scorn of the "drumming deca.syllabons " of a brother poet. The phrase is good. "Drumming deca-syllabons" is just what blank verse ought not to be, but what it always is in futile and feeble bands. People are apt sometimes to wonder " with a foolish face " of amazement at the fact that whole pages of Dickens's worst sentimentalities will go into blank verse, and even Landor, great master of harmony as he was, affected a childish surprise that so much of the " Areopagitica" could be read as verse. In truth almost all carelessly written prose which is the least impassioned can be scanned into blank verse

of a sort. But the fact is irrelevant, or rather only relevant as showing how the great masters of our heroic unrhymed verse had to toil to overcome the fatal facility of their measure. But overcome it they did, and raised that glorious organ which gave us such lines as " . . ..... In such a night Stood Dido with a willow in her hand Upon the wild sea banks, and waft her love To come again to Carthage."

Unfortunately the English hexameter never went through this healthful discipline. It has never been enough schooled to get rid of the tiresome canter of its six feet—" a hammer, hammer, hammer on the hard high road" to Helicon, which is worse even than the "drumming deca-syllabon " of an illiterate and primitive iambic. Half the easily manufac- tured but artless English hexameters are only fit to be de- scribed in Rosalind's phrase as " a very false gallop of verses." Yet there is the measure waiting to be drilled into a noble measure. Very possibly it will want two or three poets to sacrifice their lives and their reputations to improve it, but that it can be done is clear from two examples—those of Charles Kingsley and Clough—but, remember, Clough not in the " Bobbie," which is unfortunately always quoted as proof of the failure of English hexameters, but in the infinitely subtler and better work, the " Amours de Voyage." In the " Bothie " we see the hexameter performing its worst and most facile canter ; it is prose, and rather slovenly prose, scanned into a dactylic hobble. In the " Amours " we have an English hexameter, without slavishly following the Latin or Greek (the English hexameter must be a metre of its own, and not a mere pedant's tour de force) at its best. Clough there was learning, had almost learnt indeed how to write English hexameters. How admirable are the lines of con- centrated irony in which he describes the Jesuits and the Catholic Reaction. People had said that Luther was unwise and premature-- "Luther was foolish, but 0 great God I what call you, Ignatius ? 0 my tolerant soul, be still ! but you talk of barbarians, Alaric, Attila, Genseric; why, they came, they killed, they Ravaged, and went on their way; but these vile, tyrannous Spaniards, These are here still, how long, 0 ye heavens, in the country of Dante?

These, that fanaticized Europe, which now can forget them, release not This, their choicest of prey, this Italy ; here you see them, Here, with emasculate pupils and gimcrack churches of Gesu, Pseudo-learning and lies, confessional boxes and postures, Here, with metallic beliefs and regimental devotions,

Here, overcrusting with slime, perverting, defacing, debasing, Michael Angelo's Dome, that had hung the Pantheon in heaven, Raphael's Joys and Graces, and thy clear stars, Galileo!"

That is splendid, as satire and as verse. There is no false canter here, but a tight grip of the great measure. Even more magnificent are the lines on the colossal horses and the twin brethren at the Monte Cavallo—late Graaco-Roman statuary no doubt, but the inspirers of noble verse :-

0 Ye, too, marvellous Twain, that erect on the Monte Cavallo Stand by your rearing steeds in the grace of your motionless movement,

Stand with your npstretched arms and tranquil regardant faces, Stand as instinct with life in the might of immutable manhood- () ye mighty and strange, ye ancient divine ones of Hellas, Are ye Christian too? to convert and redeem and renew you, Will the brief form have sufficed, that a Pope has setup on the apex Of the Egyptian stone that o'ertops you, the Christian symbol ?

And ye, silent, supreme in serene and victorious marble, Ye that encircle the walls of the stately Vatican chambers, Juno and Ceres, Minerva, Apollo, the Muses and Bacchus, Ye unto whom far and near come posting the Christian pilgrims, Ye that are ranged in the halls of the mystic Christian Pontiff Are ye also baptized? are ye of the Kingdom of Heaven? Utter, 0 some one, the word that dean reconcile Ancient and


Am I to turn me from this unto thee, great Chapel of Sixtus ? "

There is no shambling here. The lines could not be read as prose, and no prose could ever be read into such verse as this.

It may be remembered that at the end of each canto Clough tried his hand, and with unerring success, at the glories of elegiac verse :— °Alba, thou finclest me still, and, Alba, thou findest me ever, Now from the Capitol steps, now over Titus' Arch,

Here from the large grassy spaces that spread from the Lateran portal,

Towering o'er aqueduct lines lost in perspective between, Or from a Vatican window, or bridge, or the high Coliseum, Clear by the garlanded line cut of the Flavian ring. Beautiful can I not call thee, and yet thou host power to o'ermaster

Power of mere beauty ; in dreams,Alba,thou hauntest me still"

Willingly would we quote more, but our business is with the

hexameter to-day. Here is a passage in which Clough deals with the scenery of Rome with a rhetoric and a melody unsurpassable :—

" Tibur is beautiful, too, and the orchard slopes, and the Anio Falling, falling yet, to the ancient lyrical cadence;

Tibor• and Anio's tide ; and cool from Lucretilis ever, With the Digentian stream, and with the Bandusian fountain, Folded in Sabine recesses, the valley and villa of Horace ; So not seeing I sang ; so seeing and listening say I, Here as I sit by the stream, as I gaze at the cell of the Sibyl, Here with Albunea's home and the grove of Tiburnus beside me; Tivoli beautiful is, and musical, 0 Teverone,

Dashing from mountain to plain, thy parted impetuous waters, Tivoli's waters and rocks; and fair unto Monte Gennaro (Haunt, even yet I must think, as I wander and gaze, of the

shadows, Faded and pale, yet immortal, of Fannns, the Nymphs, and the Graces) Fair in itself, and yet fairer with human completing creations, Folded in Sabine recesses the valley and villa of Horace."

Let any one compare this for a moment with Longfellow's

" Evangeline," where the lines skip and lop along like a fat rabbit scuttling down a woodland drive, or with the " Bothie's " metrical ineptitudes and prosodic vulgarities, and be will find it difficult to realize that they are the same metre. But no man can write of the " Amours de Voyage" without doing his reverence to the noble piece of metre with which it concludes. The pentameters are as perfect as the hexa-

meters, and yet there is no touch of pedantry in either;-

" So go forth to the world, to the good report and the ev.j.1 I Go, little book! thy tale, is it not evil and good ?

Go, and if strangers revile, pass quietly by without answer. Go, and if curious friends ask of thy rearing and age,

Say, I am flitting about many years from brain unto brain of Feeble and restless youths born to inglorious days :

But,' so finish the word, 4 I was writ in a Roman chamber,

When from Janiculan heights thundered the cannon of France.'" We have left ourselves little space to speak of Kingsley's highly finished " Andromeda." It must not, however, be forgotten, as it is the only other successful poem of any length written in English hexameters. We are, of course, well aware that a certain number of notable examples may be cited in which some scholar has managed to write Latin in English. But for these we care little. What is wanted is an English metre which, though based upon the Latin, has a nature of its own and does not weary us with the sense of imitation. No one thinks of the metrical devices of Greek iambics when he reads "Hamlet" So must it be with English hexameters. Kingsley was not perhaps quite as successful as Clough, but, at any rate, he wrote his hexa- meters like a poet and not like a sloven or a pedant. Here is the deeply moving exordium of his poem-

" Over the sea, past Crete, on the Syrian shore to the southward, Dwells in the well-tilled lowland a dark-haired Ethiop people, Skilful with needle and loom, and the arts of the dyer and


Skilful, but feeble of heart; for they know not the lords of Olympus, Lovers of men ; neither broad-browed Zeus, nor Pallas Athene, Teacher of wisdom to heroes, bestower of might in the battle ; Share not the cunning of Hermes, nor list to the songs of Apollo. Fearing the stars of the sky, and the roll of the blue salt water, Fearing all things that have life in the womb of the seas and

the rivers, Eating no fish to this day, nor ploughing the main, like the Phcsnics,

Manful with black-beaked ships, they abide in a sorrowful region, Vexed with the earthquake, and flame, and the sea-floods, scourge of Poseidon."

Take again the description of how the hero frees the maid


"Just as some colt, wild-eyed, with quivering nostril,

Plunges in fear of the curb, and the fluttering robes of the rider ;

Soon, grown bold by despair, submits to the will of his master, Tamer and tamer each hour, and at last, in the pride of obedience,

Answers the heel with a curvet, and arches his neck to be fondled,

Cowed by the need that maid grew tame ; while the hero indignant

Tore at the fetters which held her the brass, too cunningly tempered, Held to the rock by the nails, deep wedged; till the boy, red with anger,

Drew from his ivory thigh, keen flashing, a falchion of diamond— 'Now let the work of the smith try strength with the arms of Immortals !'

Dazzling it fell ; and the blade, as the vine-hook shears off the vine-bough, Carved through the strength of the brass, till her arms fell soft on his shoulder."

Before we end this attempt to show that English hexa- meters must not he judged by the " Bothie " or "Evangeline," we may note that of the Elizabethan poets, of whom several tried their hands at hexameters, one at least did achieve a certain charm—that master of cunning devices in verse, Greene. The present writer, at any rate, has always felt an extraordinary magic in the line—

"Face rose-hued, cherry-red, with a silver taint like a lily."

A better example of Greene's work, or rather one of more genuine achievement, is the following. It is the conclusion to the poem entitled "Hexametra Rosamundae in Dolorem Amissi Alexis "

" Now, seely lass, hie down to the lake, haste down to the willows, And with those forsaken twigs go make thee a chaplet, Mournful sit and sigh by the springs, by the brooks, by the rivers,

Till thou turn for grief, as did Niobe, to a marble; Melt to tears, pour out thy plaints, let Echo reclaim them; How Rosamund that loved so dear is left of Alexis. Now, die, die Rosamund! let men engrave o' thy tombstone Here lies she that loved so dear the youngster Alexis, Once beloved, forsaken late of faithless Alexis, Yet Rosamund did die for love, false-hearted Alexis ! "

It may amuse our readers to remember how the Elizabethan literary satirists fell on the writers of English hexameters of their day and hewed them hip and thigh. Though as friends of the hexameter we may perhaps be held to be giving away our case, we cannot resist quoting Nash's description of English hexameters. He speaks of them as "that drunken staggering kind of verse which is all uphill and downhill, like the way betwixt Stamford and Beechfield, and goes like a horse plunging through the mire in the deep of winter, now soused up to the saddle, and straight aloft on his tip-toes." Of course our answer to Nash is that he describes the bad hexa- meters, not the good—the pace of a horse badly trained and badly ridden, and not of one that has learnt to soar like Pegasus with pride of ample pinion.