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236.  Uvedale Price to EBB

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 1, 250–255.

Foxley

July 1st 1826

Dear Miss Barrett

This very amicable controversy, may, I think, be of use to us both; for you are well furnished with arms, & dextrous in the use of them. The line from Lucretius is aptly quoted in favour of your repeatedly attacked & defended Aonian; I think, however, there is a clear distinction between the two cases; you will form your judgment when I have given my reasons. You ask me very pertinently, whether I think the epithet—pierio [1] —superfluous? I do not; tho’ it might be called without any disparagement super-abundant. It seems to have been the poet’s intention in this & other places, strongly to impress on Memmius, [2] the dryness, obscurity, & novelty of the subject & the difficulty of treating it in Latin

 

Proper egestatem linguæ et rerum novitatem. [3]

& his earnest wish & endeavour to allure his patron’s attention by all the charms of poetry; he therefore adds pierio to suaveloquenti [4] & immediately afterwards dulci to Musæo

 

Et quasi Musæo dulci contingere melle. [5]

That he was well satisfied with what he had done we learn from what he had just said

 

Primum, quod magnis doceo de rebus & arctis [sic, for artis]. [6]

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Deinde quod obscura de re tam lucida pango

Carmina, Musæo contingens cuncta lepore. [7]

He therefore in the pride & fulness of his heart abounds in epithets, & the whole of the context plainly shews the meaning & force of pierio. Now I must own, & I believe have already confessed, that when I read

 

Lisp’d his first accents in Aonian rhyme [8]

I said to myself (knowing nothing of Cowley’s early productions, or in what metre, or language they were written) in what rhyme? The reason of my asking such a question,—for I should be sorry to think it sheer dulness of apprehension—I take to be this, that Aonian pierian, heliconian, & such epithets, if used singly & simply, do not, in my judgment suggest the idea of excellent, or inspired by the Muses, but require—at least in English—something with them to guide us to such a signification: on that ground therefore, I should object to Aonian, even supposing the early verses of Cowley to be equal to the finest of Lucretius; that is, to some of the finest in all poetry. With regard to the epithets themselves pierian does not occur in Milton, aonian but once, & applied to a sensible object, to the Mount itself: neither of the words occur in Shakespear; Pope in his well known line

 

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring. [9]

also applies it to a sensible object. As there is unluckily no index to his or Dryden’s works, I have no means of knowing how often, or in what manner such epithets may have been used by them; you are very likely to ferret them out: till you do, & can shew me some instances in your favour, I may be allowed to keep my opinion. The next question regards the verses themselves: I have never seen them; for they are not in the only edition I have of Cowley published by Spratt in 1680; [10] but he says,—speaking with praise of it’s contents,—“in the 13th year of his age a little book came out under his name” these last words seem to imply a sort of doubt whether the contents were really his; however that may be, the fact is, that although by his own account the editor was publishing “what was extant,” & collecting whatever more he could find, he has not thought fit to insert them: it may therefore naturally be suspected, either that he had some doubts of their authenticity, or, notwithstanding his praise, that he did not think them aonian enough to be inserted among his later productions. You at once allow that the epithet would be superfluous & ill-placed in Milton, because he simply distinguish’d the two modes of writing; “Now” you add “the passage in question in my book does not mean to draw any discrimination between the departments of prose & poetry, but to shew at what various times, & by what various causes Genius asserts his being in the soul: Cowley’s aonian inspiration is given as an instance of it.” No doubt it is: but what if the little book had contained nothing but prose? would you have noticed it at all? probably not; for it was only curious as shewing that Cowley’s genius for poetry, as distinguished from prose, was in his soul at an early age: & if the book had been in prose, & you had thought fit to notice it, you still must have made the distinction, & have shewn that Cowley did not, like Pope & others “lisp in numbers,” [11] as his first productions were in prose.— You have very candidly confessed that īllŭstrăte is very untuneable; & therefore, I will add, very unworthy of your poetry: on the other hand there are many words that you would have improved by changing the accent; & tho’ I should have thought it my duty to remonstrate, I should have done so, gently & unwillingly; if, for instance, you had laid the accent on the 2d syllable instead of the 1st of cháracter, & have used it as charácter throughout your poem, you would then have changed a bad dactyl into a good amphibrach; have given it an easier articulation, & a better cadence, & in both respects much nearer to the ancient pronunciation: still you would not have been justified in making the alteration, tho’ for the better: because it not only is contrary to present usage, but to that of former poets, whose verses would be spoilt in recitation were the new mode to be generally adopted: how much stronger the case when a good amphibrach in constant use, is changed to a bad dactyl! But although you give up this particular word, you are unwilling to give up your belief in the licence of changing the accentuation of words according to their position, & you refer to your quotations from Spencer [sic], & to my remarks on them: & then say “Now I find in Chaucer the same variety of accent tho’ in a less degree than in Spencer: we have pérfect accented as a trochee & as a spondee with only a few intermediate lines; thus

 

Living in peace & pārfĭte charitee. [12]

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For he was Epicurus’ owen son

That held opinion that plein delit

Was veraily felicité pārfīte [13]

From all I have observed in respect to the pronunciation in Chaucer’s time, & I have paid no slight attention to it, parfite was a spondee in both places; as true a one in the first quoted line, as the following spondees are in two lines with which you are well acquainted,

 

Thinkst thou in vain while pāle Tīme glides away

She rakes cōld grāves, & chronicles their clay. [14]

These monosyllabic spondees (we have scarcely any others) give so much variety & expression to the rhythm, such a relief from the perpetual recurrence of trochees & iambi, that we may well regret our having none, or next to none, of the dissyllabic kind. Pope would have been very glad of them when he was painting slowness of motion; but when he wished to give something of a spondaic cast to the well known line

 

When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw [15]

he could only do it by two such monosyllables as vāst wēīḡht, for we make sŏme rōck’s an iambus; &, in defiance of position, & ancient prosody, Ājăx a trochee! Our habits of pronouncing are so trochaic, & so anti-spondaic, that you very naturally pronounced & considered parfyte in the first quoted line as a trochee, though in the last as a spondee: the difference is, that in the last it must be a spondee (for such an iambus as părfīte is out of the question) in the first it may be either a trochee or a spondee: but Chaucer, & the poets of those ages were as little inclined to trochees as we are to spondees. The fact is, that the accentuation from the Conquest to Henry 8th was purely Norman, & nearly what the french is at present; & a Frenchman (as far as metre & rhythm are concerned) would recite Chaucer with great propriety; while an Englishman, who followed our usual accentuation, would perpetually disfigure the metre & the rhythm. Chaucer, I have no doubt, in all places (with regard to quantity) pronounced parfite, as the French now pronounce parfaite, & my belief is that he made living nearly, if not quite a spondee, & pronounced the verse also very much as a Frenchman would

 

Vivant en paix, & parfāīte unité!

The last word I was obliged to change, as in french verse the e muet must always be a syllable before a consonant, as it frequently is in Chaucer’s. My belief is (tho’ I speak with diffidence on on [sic, for a] subject to which I have not paid particular attention) that the licence you contend for, tho’ a very convenient one was seldom made use of; & I am now inclined to think, what I was not when I wrote to you, that Spencer in both the places meant envý & couráge to be accented on the last, for a spondee will agree with the metre in both places: Chaucer, I will venture to say, in point of quantity, certainly pronounced them both as the French do envie & courage; & Spencer probably did. Milton, as you observe, laid the accent on the last of aspéct, contrary to our present usage; whether to that of his own time I know not, as I do not recollect seeing the word in Dryden or any contemporary poet: Milton, however, religiously keeps to the same accent, having used the word no less than ten times in the Paradise lost: Shakespear, I believe always accented it on the last, & has used the word very often. As a further proof how truly french the accentuation was in Chaucer’s time, you may observe that opinión, instead of having only three syllables, must like the french word have four, opinion. I will add two lines of Chaucers so thoroughly french as to be quite burlesque with our present accents

 

To make it somewhat agreáble

Tho’ some words fail in a sylláble. [16]

A few last words on Elisions: If my notion—for it is little more—be just; i.e. that proper names only have a good right to those in question, prejudice can hardly have a claim on that score: Science has preferred what sounds a very odd one: that of being placed on the same footing with Dulness & admitted ad eundem. [17] Were I to make a distinction—& no one can be more en train, I should say the Dulness in the Dunciad is a person; Science, in Mind, little more than a personification: the Goddess Dulness acts & speaks, as it is right & proper she should, a[s] much as any Goddess in the Iliad: Science—also very properly—acts & speaks very little: she does however, make one very short speech, & as you so humbly recommend her to my mercy I will answer like ancient Pistol

 

As I suck blood I will some mercy shew. [18]

I must indeed be a most sanguinary & pitiless critic if I did not: especially as she is so often in the elided genitive, that it would be very troublesome to get her out of it.— I shall now quit my office of Aristarchus [19] till you call me to it again by a new work: & then, should it be your wish, shall willingly resume it. The subject you have thought of I approve highly & am confident it will devellop genius. [20] With all our best regards to Mr & Mrs Barrett, believe me

Most sincerely & faithfully yours

U Price

Addressed and franked by Robert Price on internal page: Hereford July one 1826 / put in the office on the second / Miss Barrett / Hope End / Ledbury / Robert Price.

Publication: None traced.

Manuscript: Armstrong Browning Library.

1. “Pierian,” pertaining to the Muses.

2. Gaius Memmius, Roman orator and poet, tribune (66 B.C.), friend of Lucretius and Catullus. Lucretius addressed De Rerum Natura to him.

3. “Because of the poverty of language and the novelty of my subject” (De Rerum Natura, I, 139).

4. “Sweetly speaking” (op. cit., I, 945).

5. “And as it were to touch it with the Muses’ delicious honey” (op. cit., I, 947).

6. “First, because my teaching is of high matters and difficult” (op. cit., I, 931).

7. “Next, because the subject is so obscure and the songs I write so clear, as I touch all with the Muses’ grace” (op. cit., 933–934).

8. An Essay on Mind, line 137.

9. Pope’s “Essay on Criticism” (1711), line 216.

10. Thomas Sprat (1635–1713), Bishop of Rochester, friend and biographer of Cowley.

11. “I lisp’d in Numbers, for the Numbers came” (“Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” 128).

12. Line 532 of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.

13. Ibid., lines 336–338.

14. An Essay on Mind, 216–217.

15. Line 370 of “An Essay on Criticism.”

16. “The House of Fame,” III, 7–8, slightly misquoted.

17. “Similar to it.”

18. Henry V, IV, 4, 64.

19. Aristarchus of Samothrace (fl. 156 B.C.), curator of the library of Alexandria, was held to be the greatest critic of antiquity.

20. See letter 242, note 17.

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