Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Writers of the Couplet > The revolution in English verse
   Sir John Beaumont  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

III. Writers of the Couplet.

§ 1. The revolution in English verse.

NO dogma of Dryden and the critics who were his contemporaries is more familiar than that which gave Edmund Waller the credit of bringing about a revolution in English verse. Dryden wrote, in 1664:
the excellence and dignity of it [i.e. rime] were never fully known till Mr. Waller taught it; he first made writing easily an art; first showed us to conclude the sense, most commonly in distichs, which, in the verse of those before him, runs on for so many lines together, that the reader is out of breath to overtake it. 1 
The author of the preface to the second part of Waller’s poems (1690) indulged in eulogy without qualification:
The reader needs to be told no more in commendation of these Poems, than that they are Mr. Waller’s; a name that carries everything in it that is either great or graceful in poetry. He was, indeed, the parent of English verse, and the first that showed us our tongue had beauty and numbers in it…. The tongue came into his hands like a rough diamond: he polished it first, and to that degree, that all artists since him have admired the workmanship, without pretending to mend it.
  These words represent the general conviction of an age in which smoothness of rhythm and terseness of language were indispensable conditions of poetry. The self-contained couplet became the universal medium to which these tests were applied; and in Waller’s couplets the age found the earliest form of verse which answered them satisfactorily. Waller, during the last thirty years of his life, must have been thoroughly familiar with the reputation which he enjoyed as the improver of our numbers; but it would be difficult to discover any set purpose or novel poetical theory underlying the form of the poems which made him famous. The decasyllabic couplet had been employed very generally, among other forms, by Elizabethan writers; and, in Englands Heroicall Epistles, written before the end of the sixteenth century, Drayton had given an example of couplet-writing in which there is as little overlapping of the sense from couplet to couplet as in any of Waller’s most admired poems. But the general tendency of those poets of “the former age” who used the couplet was to overstep the limits which Drayton instinctively felt that it imposed. Its bounds were too narrow for the richness of imagination which distinguished the followers of Marlowe or of Spenser, and for the elaboration of thought with which younger poets followed the example of Donne. Those bounds were better suited to Jonson; but, although much of his work in this form anticipates the practice of a later age, his abrupt vigour of language and his natural fluency were against consistency in his handling of the couplet. In many cases, where one couplet was allowed to pass into the next without any break of sense or construction, and where this continued for many lines together, the demands of melody prevented the poet from indulging in weak rimes, or ending one couplet with a conjunction or preposition which bound it to its successor; but, among the lesser poets of the Stewart epoch, such tricks became increasingly common, until, in poems like Chamberlayne’s Pharonnida, sentences were carried on without a break through couplet after couplet. The casual beauties of such passages are hidden by a pedantic neglect of form, which amounts to a point of honour with the writer.   2

Note 1. Dedication of The Rival Ladies (Works, ed. Scott [Saintsbury’s ed.], vol. III, p. 137). See, also, preface to Fables, 1700 (ibid., vol. XI, pp. 209, 210). [ back ]

   Sir John Beaumont  

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