My three favourite English poets, in rank order are Milton, Pope, and Spenser.
(I would add James Thomson, except for the fact that he was technically a Scot. I would also add Rochester, except that he is too uneven; when he is good he is great, but when he’s bad he’s wretched).
My love for Milton is based almost solely on Paradise Lost and the odd sonnet or two (though I should mention that much of his prose is also well worth the reading). Paradise Lost is always grand, and I never read it without coming away from it feeling ennobled somehow. No poet is perfect, though each may be imperfect in his own way. With Milton, his imperfections lie in his coinages and his Latinate vocabulary, which are not always elegant or felicitous, sounding a little too much of the learned chit-chat at the college High Table.
In Pope, I admire his wit. He is at his best when he is being funny, which is why it was a shame that my college professors had us spend so much time studying An Essay on Man rather than The Dunciad. Pope was no philosopher, and the Essay on Man reads like a cheap verse bowdlerization of Shaftesbury or Bolingbroke. He was a master of comedic irony and a vicious and brutal satirist (I mean this in a good way). If he has one major drawback, for me, it would be his tiresome heroic couplets, which were unfortunately the characteristic vice of the age and by no means peculiar to Pope. They are often clever, but over long stretches they are tiresome. Still, to blame him for this is about as useful as blaming your parents for the platform shoes or velour tracksuits they wore in those old family photographs; one must look past them.
And then we come to Spenser. His language is earthy, his vocabulary is English (except where he focuses on the minutiae of chivalric deeds and accoutrement, wherein he has recourse to a bastard French lexicon). Whether he is describing shepherds or battle wounds, his images are striking — someone should do a count of how often he uses the word “grisly” in The Faerie Queene. He loves to use archaisms, and although this could seem rather contrived and intrusive in a poet of lesser skill, in Spenser it is more often charming.
As for faults, Spenser has two that are, to my mind, only excusable by the fact that he wrote in an age when English criticism was still in its infancy. On the other hand, he was a Cambridge man and had a decent classical education, so he would have had ample opportunity to know about the poetic sins he was committing from such authorities as Horace, Quintilian, and perhaps Longinus. He cannot, I think, plead ignorance.
In 1727, Pope published his humourous essay “Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry”. Its subject was the ways in which writers of his time commonly failed to hit at the level of sublimity or loftiness they were aiming at in their work, instead sinking into the commonplace, the bombastic, or the anticlimactic.
Sometimes a poet, whilst singing of great themes, goes on too long, until the reader is simply wearied. Or else, although not exactly wearied, the reader’s expectations are built up to such a height that the tension created is out of all proportion to the actual issue. Here I think of the Earl of Roscommon’s line in An Essay on Translated Verse (1685), echoing Horace:
“The Mountains Labour’d and a Mouse was Born” (p. 6)
When Spenser sinks, he more often does so by cramming his verse with commonplaces unworthy of his skill. Perhaps the best example of this is the following stanza from The Faerie Queene, in which Florimell is chased by the Foster:
“So as they gazed after her a while,
Lo where a griesly Foster forth did rush,
Breathing out beastly lust her to defile:
His tyreling iade he fiercely forth did push,
Through thicke and thin, both ouer banke and bush
In hope her to attaine by hooke or crooke,
That from his gorie sides the bloud did gush:
Large were his limbes, and terrible his looke,
And in his clownish hand a sharp bore speare he shooke.”
[Bk. III, Canto I, stanza xvii]
This is ugly stuff, no? If the only way one can fill out a stanza is by stuffing it with such peasantries as “through thick and thin”, “over bank and bush”, and “by hook or crook”, then it were better never writ.
In fairness, we might excuse Spenser on this occasion, since perhaps it was done intentionally, in keeping with the Foster’s bestiality and rustic clownishness. It may also be a feeble attempt at archaism, a monstrous facsimile of what Spenser thought was traditional Middle English alliterative verse. But still, there are other instances of such sinking in the book where no reason can be plausibly offered other than sheer laziness on the poet’s part. What it most commonly achieves is a combination of the serious with the frivolous, to the detriment of the former.
Spenser’s “Ten-Monosyllable Heroicks”
In his Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), Lord Shaftesbury described his impression of the effect that too many consecutive monosyllables will have on the ear:
“I see no reason why… an un-interrupted Succession of these well-strung Monosyllables might not be allow’d to clatter after one another, like the Hammers of a Paper-Mill, without any breach of Musick, or prejudice to the Harmony of our Language. But if Persons who have gone no farther than a Smith’s Anvil to gain an Ear, are yet likely, on fair trial, to find a plain defect in these Ten-Monosyllable Heroicks; it wou’d follow, methinks, that even a Prose-Author, who attempts to write politely, shou’d endeavour to confine himself within those Bounds, which can never, without breach of Harmony, be exceeded in any just Metre, or agreeable Pronunciation.” (III.265-266)
Technically speaking, the basis of heroic verse — the “Heroicks” to which Shaftesbury refers — was the rhyming couplet composed of ten-syllable lines in iambic pentameter, as in the opening lines of Pope’s Iliad:
“Achilles’ Wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber’d, heav’nly Goddess sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unbury’d on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.”
Whether arranged in rhyming couplets or not, the ten-syllable iambic pentameter line is common in English verse. Spenser’s stanzas are typically composed of ten-syllable pentameter, with a final twelve-syllable alexandrine. Having ten syllables to a line is no sin. Having ten monosyllables only to a line is.
Shaftesbury’s nephew, James Harris, noted in his Philological Inquiries (1780) that “It has been called a fault in our Language, that it abounds in MONOSYLLABLES. As these, in too lengthened a suite, disgrace a Composition; Lord Shaftesbury, (who studied purity of Stile with great attention) limited their number to nine, and was careful, in his Characteristics, to conform to his own Law” (Works, vol. II, p. 340).
In prose, the auditory effect of ten or more consecutive monosyllables is rather akin to the clattering hammers of a paper mill. Indeed, as his nephew notes, Shaftesbury took pains to excise examples of it from his own prose for the second edition of Characteristicks (compare, for example, volume I, page 66 of the first and second editions). It has a somewhat different effect in poetry, but just as jarring. In his Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue (1712), Jonathan Swift also remarked on “how much our Language was already overstocked with Monosyllables” (p. 21). The bad effects of this on poetry was, he claimed, exacerbated by the Restoration poets’ habit of contracting words to make them fit the measure, effectively rendering polysyllabic words monosyllabic.
Let us look at an example of a ten-monosyllable line in one of these Restoration poets. I mentioned earlier that when Lord Rochester is good he is great, but when he’s bad, he’s wretched. At line 109 of Rochester’s “Letter from Artemisia in the Town to Chloe in the Country,” we come across the following literary atrocity:
“They still find out why what may, should not please”
True, the line does not contain one of the contractions of which Swift complained. But in other respects it serves to illustrate the effect of the ten-monosyllable string on a line of verse. In this case, if we imagine the line to move along, like a horse, at a trot, the horse seems to stumble somewhere around the “what may”, a little before or a little after it, depending on how you scan it. (Notice that I have violated the nine-monosyllable rule myself in the foregoing sentence, to what effect I’ll leave you to judge). The same distance is travelled, but with confused steps, making the journey seem longer than it should.
Rather than clattering or hammering, for Pope the ten-monosyllable heroic was a creeping thing. Again, we are given the image of something at the same time ungraceful, ignoble, and unduly slow:
“Tho’ oft the Ear the open Vowels tire,
While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
While they ring round the same unvary’d Chimes,
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.”
[An Essay on Criticism (1711), p. 21, ll. 345-349]
More than nine consecutive monosyllables make a line seem longer than it is, and more than one such line in a stanza outright kills it. Spenser is more than once guilty of this kind of murder. Stanza xix of Bk. III, Canto V of The Faerie Queene is disfigured by two lines of ten consecutive monosyllables. Actually, there are three such lines if you believe, as I do, that Spenser intended “powre” to be pronounced as one syllable rather than two, as indicated by the altered spelling, allowing it to be crammed into a ten-syllable line. Thus, I end with this supreme example of Spenser’s art of sinking in poetry:
With that at him a quiu'ring dart he threw,
With so fell force and villeinous despighte,
That through his haberieon the forkehead flew,
And through the linked mayles empierced quite,
But had no powre in his soft flesh to bite:
That stroke the hardy Squire did sore displease,
But more that him he could not come to smite;
For by no meanes the high banke he could sease,
But labour'd long in that deepe ford with vaine disease.
(Bk. III, Canto V, stanza 19)
HARRIS, James. Philological Inquiries (1780). In The Works of James Harris, Esq. (2 vols.). London: F. Wingrave, 1801.
POPE, Alexander. An Essay on Criticism. London: W. Lewis, 1711 (facsimile, Menston, UK: Scolar Press, 1970).
—— Poetical Works. Herbert Davis (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.
ROCHESTER, John Wilmot, Earl of. The Complete Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. David M. Vieth (ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968.
ROSCOMMON, Wentworth Dillon, Earl of. An Essay on Translated Verse. London: Jacob Tonson, 1685 (facsimile, Menston, UK: Scolar Press, 1970).
SHAFTESBURY, Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of. Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (3 vols.). Birmingham: John Baskerville, 1773.
SPENSER, Edmund. The Faerie Queene (2 vols.). J. C. Smith (ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909.
SWIFT, Jonathan. A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue. London: Benjamin Tooke, 1712 (facsimile, Menston, UK: Scolar Press, 1969).