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THE SPENSERIAN STANZA BEFORE 1700'
This attempt at a history of the Spenserian stanza and its
imitations began as a study in early Romanticism. Its justification
must rest upon its fulness of treatment and upon the importance
of two details. No one has hitherto made more than a tentative
list of users and imitators of Spenser's stanza, and no one, not
even Mr. Saintsbury in his History of English Prosody, Vol. I,
has noticed the metrical interest of the "Mirrour for Magistrates."
Nor, though many must have come upon the passage, has anyone
seemed to have been impressed with Dryden's acknowledgment of
his debt to Spenser.
The peculiar characteristics of the Spenserian stanza are its
linked quatrains and its final alexandrine. Since Spenser's time,
except for the Italian sonnet and the French ballade (both
imported forms), the linking of quatrains has not been very popu-
lar in English verse. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,
however, it was a frequent device. Chaucer used the ababbcbc in
several poems, notably in the ninety-seven stanzas of his "Monkes
Tale." Presumably Chaucer got it from the Old French, where
it was a fairly common form, and he was followed in its use by
Lydgate and others in the fifteenth century. C. Davidson notes
also that the stanza was a favorite of the Coventry plays. Of
Spenser's contemporaries, Samuel Daniel, in the dedication of his
"Tragedy of Cleopatra," makes the only use of it that I have been
able to find; Spenser himself does not use it, unless we count the
first eight lines of "November" in the "Shepheards Calender."
Spenser's followers, as we shall see, were almost certain, in cases
where they did not keep his stanza exactly, to omit the linking of
the quatrains ; so that that feature of the Spenserian stanza which
seems to have appealed to the nineteenth century as one of its
chief beauties has been most often ignored by mere imitators.
The history of the final alexandrine is very different ; its use
'This paper presents only the general conclusions of a study which the writer hopes
ultimately to publish at length, with full tables and references.
639] 1 [MoDEBN Philology, April, 1907
2 Edwaed Payson Morton
is the most certain mark of Spenserian influence, even where that
influence is at second or even third hand. Although Spenser was
not the first to use a stanza ending with a line longer than the
rest, he certainly set the fashion, and we may confidently ascribe
to his example even such stanzas as Carew's "Good Counsel to a
Young Maid," where the first lines are tetrameters, and the last a
Outside of the "Faerie Queen," Spenser uses a final alexan-
drine only in the last stanza of "January" in the "Shepheards
Calender;" in six of the sonnets prefixed to the "Faerie Queen;"
and in sonnets X and XLV of the " Amoretti." Spenser's follow-
ers, however, tried the alexandrine on all sorts of stanzas: the
elegiac quatrain, the familiar ababcc, the rhyme royal, the oUava
rima, and even the sonnet.
The source of Spenser's alexandrine has not yet been traced
satisfactorily. Professor Skeat, in the Athenaeum,^ ascribes it to
Surrey's use of it with the fourteener in Tottel's "Miscellany"
(1557). A fatal objection to that source, it seems to me, is that
in all the uses of the "Poulter's Measure" in Tottel the alexan-
drine is followed by the septenary, and is not a final longer line.
For a prior use of alexandrines merely Spenser did not even have
to go to Tottel, as he must have been familiar with Sidney's
quatorzains in alexandrines.
Guest, in his History of English Rhythms, Book IV, chapter
In his " Lamentacyon " for the death of Henry the Seventh's Queen,
written in 1503, Sir Thomas More uses the ballet-stave of seven, and
often gives six accents to the last verse of the stanza. This verse always
ends with the words "and lo now here she lies." It must have been often
convenient to wedge this section into a verse of six accents; and as the
poet's rhythm is in other respects loose, I consider the Spenser-stave
owing rather to the tumbling rhythm of the period, than to any design of
introducing novelty into English versification.
The poem in question consists of 12 rhyme-royal stanzas, each
ending with a refrain "and lo now here I lye." In 8 of the stanzas
the syllables preceding this refrain number either 4 or 5; in
stanzas 6, 7, 9, and 10 the syllables number 6, as follows: "My
iMayG, 1893, p. 5746.
The Spensekian Stanza Before 1700 3
palace bylded is;" "The mother's part also;" "Thy mother never
know;" "Farewell and pray for me." Sir Thomas More wrote
other poems in the rhyme-royal stanza, but never elsewhere ends
with an alexandrine.
So far as I am aware, no one has hitherto commented on the
forerunners of Spenser's stanza to be found in the "Mirrour for
Magistrates." In the edition of 1559, "Henry VI," attributed to
William Baldwin, is in forty absolutely regular stanzas, rhyming
aabb. To be sure, this is not a stanza ending in an alexandrine,
but it is a stanza ending in a longer line, and in a versification
that cannot by any stretch be called "tumbling." Eleven other
"legends" in this edition of 1559 are attributed to Baldwin, all of
them in the rhyme-royal stanza, with a total of about 350 stanzas.
These stanzas are also regular, not to say monotonous, in their
scansion, for the variations number only five, namely, two Latin
lines, one doubtful alexandrine, and two undoubted ones — all at
the ends of stanzas! The regularity of the versification of these
poems helps to put beyond a doubt the conclusion that the final
septenary of the stanza of "Henry VI" was intentional.
In 1574 John Higgins issued an addition to the "Mirrour for
Magistrates," with 16 legends, to which in 1575 he added another,
"Lord Irenglas." In 1587 he republished his part, and added 24
legends (including "Burdet" in Part III). Of these 41 legends,
numbering over 1,000 stanzas, 33 legends, with about 900 stan-
zas, have the rhyme royal rhyme-scheme. Like Baldwin, Higgins
clung to the rhyme-scheme, although he varied his line-lengths
and his measures. For example, in 2 short envoys the lines are
all alexandrines instead of pentameters; in 2 legends he uses a
perfectly regular anapestic tetrameter, one of them followed in
the envoy by 3 stanzas which run ababbcc. Higgins also tried a
few experiments in other stanza-forms; in 5 legends the rhyme-
scheme is ababbccc (the rhyme royal with an added line — a
rhyme-scheme sometimes used, as we shall see, by Spenser's fol-
lowers) ; the 2 stanzas of "Laelius Hamo" rhyme ababcc; in
"King Varianus" the scheme is aabbcdcdj in "C. C. Caligula,"
ababbcbcb; and in "Emperor Severus" he switches from ababccc,
4 Edwakd Payson Moeton
in the first 6 stanzas, to dbabbccc in the remaining 17. Higgins
was so obviously an experimenter in meters that it is worth while
to see how far he was either systematic or consistent in carrying
out his experiments.
Of the 41 legends, with their more than 1,000 stanzas, 28
items, numbering about 500 stanzas, are almost mechanically
regular. In addition, 8 of the legends in the rhyme royal stanzas
(about 150 stanzas) are practically regular, except that 22 stan-
zas end in an alexandrine, and 15 in an alexandrine couplet.
There are left 8 legends in the rhyme-royal stanza, and 3 others,
altogether about 400 stanzas, in which there is considerable
Of the 309 stanzas in the 8 legends in rhyme-royal stanzas, 94
are erratic; that is to say, occasional alexandrines appear in stan-
zas that are pretty certainly meant to be in pentameter, or
occasional pentameters in stanzas meant to be in alexandrines.
Even these stanzas, however, tend pretty clearly to fall into four
groups. The smallest group — of stanzas of uniform length of
line — numbers 44 stanzas, of which 15 are erratic. The next
group — ^stanzas with a long final line — numbers 65 stanzas, of
which 22 are erratic. Stanzas ending in a long couplet number
92, with 22 erratic. The largest group — of stanzas which end
with a shorter line or lines — numbers 102 stanzas, with 81
The only one of these legends which is hard to scan is "Pin-
nar," the shortest of them, and in its envoy Higgins himself says:
"Though thus unorderly his tale hee tell No fyner fyled
phrase could scape my handes." The other legends scan easily,
and the lines are clearly and obviously pentameters, alexandrines,
or septenaries, as the case may be. As a rule, where there might
be some doubt about the scansion, Higgins has helped us out by
his printing. For example, in a certain passage the -ed of the
preterite and the past participle was spelled out in the sixteen
cases in which it counted in the scansion; in the same passage
the fact that this ending was not counted in the scansion was
indicated forty-one times by -de, -d, -t, -te, or -d. Other instances
are "wandring," "enmies," "H'is," and "T'have sav'de."
The Spenserian Stanza Before 1700 5
The conclusion is unavoidable that Higgins knew how to write,
and did write, regular meter, so that we must look upon his mix-
ing pentameters, alexandrines, and septenaries in the same poem
or stanza as either carelessness or experiment. When we consider
in how many legends Higgins wrote regular, unvarying stanzas,
and in how few he lacks regularity; when we remember that his
looseness is (except in one short legend, for which he apologizes)
a matter of length of line, and almost never of how a particular
line shall be scanned, it seems to me that we must look upon
Higgins as a deliberate experimenter. So far as I know, though
my search has not been exhaustive, Higgins was the earliest
versifier to take liberties with the rhyme-royal stanza. It is
barely possible that Gascoigne had Higgins in mind when, in
1575, he wrote: "I will next advise you that you hold the just
measure wherewith you begin your verses."^
Only 3 of Higgins' legends with the ababbccc rhyme-scheme
have much variety of combination — "Londricus," "C. I. Caesar,"
and "Emperor Severus" — 81 stanzas in all, of which 21 are
regular pentameter, 55 end in a longer line, and only 4 (all in
" Caesar") end in a long couplet. The one salient fact is that in
these legends Higgins preceded Spenser in the device of adding
a line to a stanza already popular, and in making that added
line, in more than five-eighths of the cases, a longer line. It
does not follow, of course, that Spenser owed his stanza to Hig-
gins' example ; even if we could show that he did, it would still be
true that Spenser, and not Higgins, knew how to use an added
alexandrine consistently and as a definitely artistic element of his
stanza. The evidence is clear, however, that as early as 1574 at
least one man in England was consciously, though more or less
carelessly, experimenting with English stanzas in the direction
in which Spenser was later to come upon our finest native verse-
Spenser's stanza was certainly not much used by his contem-
poraries. The only instance I have found is a poem of nineteen
stanzas published in January, 1595, and called "Cynthia." Its
author, Richard Barnefield, says in his preface that it is " the first
1 Certain Notes of Instruction^ 3.
6 Edwaed Payson Morton
imitation of the verse of that excellent Poet, Maister Spencer, in
his Fayrie Queene.'^^ John Davies of Hereford seems to have
been attracted by Spenser's rhyme-scheme, for he used it in three
poems between 1602 and 1607, to the number of 1,270 stanzas,
but in pentameters throughout. In 1655 Robert Aylett twice
gave the "Contents" of poems in single stanzas with Spenser's
rhyme-scheme, but also in pentameters throughout. The only
other poem of this sort that I know of is Tom Hood's " Plea of the
Midsummer Fairies," published in 1827.
After "Cynthia," the next use of the regular stanza that I have
found is by the Platonist, Dr. Henry More, who used it in 1642
in his "Song of the Soul," a poem of 1,099 stanzas. He accounts
for his use of the stanza in his "Epistle" to his father, prefixed
to his Philosophical Poems, by saying: "You having from my
childhood tuned mine ears to Spenser's rhymes, entertaining us
on winter nights, with that incomparable piece of his, The Fairy
Queen, a Poem as richly fraught with divine Morality as Phansy.'"*
Though there were many contemporary criticisms of Spenser's
poetry, comments on his stanza are as rare as uses of it. I have
been able to find only two — one by Ben Jonson and the other by
Gabriel Harvey. Drummond of Hawthornden reports that Jon-
son said of Spenser: "his stanza pleased him not, nor his matter."
Harvey's comment is in his own handwriting in his copy of Gras-
coigne's Certain Notes of Instruction, now in the Bodleian. To
Gascoigne's advice to "hold the just measure wherewith you begin
your verse," Harvey added: "The difference of the last verse from
the rest in everie stanza, a grace in the Faerie Queen."' Harvey,
it may be added, did not once imitate either Spenser's stanza, or
It is rather remarkable that neither of the Fletchers, nor
Browne, who were Spenser's chief followers in the first quarter of
the seventeenth century, used Spenser's stanza, and that Browne,
though as ardent and as obvious a Spenserian as any, did not even
imitate his versification. His only approach to Spenser's stanza
1 Arber, English Scholar's Library, Barnefleld, p. 44.
2 Second edition, Cambridge, 1647. This preface does not appear in the first edition, 1642.
3 Cf. Gregory Smith, Elizabethan Critical Essays, Vol. I, pp. 49 and 5,39.
The Spenserian Stanza Before 1700 7
is a section in the fifth eclogue of the "Shepherd's Pipe"
(11. 47-136), where nine stanzas, in pentameters throughout,
Giles Fletcher's sole imitation of Spenser's stanza is the stanza
of his "Christ's Victory and Triumph," which runs ababbccc.
Of the anonymous "Britain's Ida" Mr. Gosse says that it "is the
only other known poem in that stanza." ' Unfortunately for Mr.
Gosse, Giles Fletcher himself wrote his earlier "Canto upon the
Death of Eliza" in that stanza; his brother Phineas wrote in it
"To my Beloved Thenot," and the second of his "Piscatory
Eclogues;" T. Robinson used it in his "Life and Death of Mary
Magdalene;" and Edmund Smith (d. 1710) used it in "Thales,"
first published in 1750 or 1751. In another comment on this
stanza Mr. Gosse says that it is "the nine-lined one of Spenser,
compressed into an octet by the omission of the seventh line, and
so deprived of that fourth rhyme which is one of its greatest tech-
nical difficulties."^ Mr. Gosse 's supposition is plausible, but, con-
sidering that Spenser apparently formed his stanza by adding a
line to a recognized form, and that Phineas Fletcher made a stanza
by adding an alexandrine to the ottava rima, it seems just as
likely that Giles Fletcher, following the example of five of the
legends in the "Mirrour for Magistrates," simply added an alex-
andrine to the common rhyme royal.
In contrast with his brother Giles, Phineas Fletcher experi-
mented with a final alexandrine in no fewer than thirteen stanza-
forms, from the triplet to an elaborate ten-line stanza. He length-
ened the last line of the triplet, of the rhyme royal, and of the
ottava rima; and he added an alexandrine to the heroic quatrain,
to the ababcc stanza, to the rhyme royal, and to the ottava rima.
Moreover, he tested most of these forms by using them in long
Phineas Fletcher is the only one of the Spenserian imitators
I have noticed who made anything more than a sporadic use of
feminine rhymes as an integral part of his stanza-structure. In
his "Elisa," which rhymes ababbcc, all but four of the one hundred
stanzas have feminine rhymes in the 6-lines (though there are
1 Jacobean Poets, p. 150. 2 ibid, p. 139.
8 Edward Payson Morton
only thirty-eight feminine rhymes in the c-lines, and eight in
the a-lines). A stanza from Milton's "Ode," followed by one
from "Elisa," will show the effect of the feminine rhymes:
This is the month, and this the happy morn,
Wherein the son of Heaven's eternal king,
Of wedded maid and virgin mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release.
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.
— "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," st. 1.
Look as a stag pierced with a fatal bow.
As by a wood he walks securely feeding, —
In coverts thick conceals his deadly blow.
And feeling death swim in his endless bleeding,
— His heavy head his fainting strength exceeding —
Bids woods adieu, so sinks into his grave;
Green brakes and primrose sweet, his seemly herse embrave.
—"Elisa," St. 1.
Toward the middle of the century Francis Quarles tried various
Spenserian imitations, but, like so many others, did not once use
the regular stanza. He perhaps preceded Phineas Fletcher in
writing the triplet ending in an alexandrine (as a stanza, not as a
variation of the couplet). Quarles seems also to have been the
first to lengthen the last line of the then popular ababcc stanza.
Of his other ventures, two are probably accidental variations of
the lengthened ottava rima introduced by Phineas Fletcher.
In 1650-51, in the preface to "Gondibert," Sir William Daven-
ant, speaking of Spenser's language, made a criticism which has
often been repeated in one form or another: "the unlucky choice
of his stanza, hath by repetition of rime, brought him to the
necessity of many exploded words." Possibly Edward Philips
had Davenant's objection in mind when he said, in 1675, in his
Theatrum Poetarum: "How much more stately and majestic in
epic poems, especially of heroic argument, Spenser's stanza ....
is above the way either of couplet or alternation of four verses only,
I am persuaded, were it revived, would soon be acknowledged."'
< Preface, pp. 2, 3.
The Spenserian Stanza Before 1700 9
Dr. Henry More, Sir Richard Fanshawe, and Robert Aylett had
all used Spenser's stanza, the latest of them twenty years before
Two years later, in 1677, appeared "Ripley Reviv'd," by
Eirenaeus Philalethes. If, as some have always thought, and as
Professor Kittredge thinks extremely likely, Eirenaeus Philalethes
was George Stirk (or Starkey), who died of the plague in 1665,
"Ripley Reviv'd" must have been written before that year, and
probably much earlier, for (again on the authority of Professor
Kittredge, who kindly furnished these items) Starkey mentions
"Ripley Reviv'd" specifically before 1654. In this book are
many bits of verse, among them two imitations of Spenser, one in
fifteen regular stanzas (p. 371), and the other (p. 88) in thirteen
stanzas, whose formula is ababcbcbb. As the book is very rare, I
give two stanzas from each passage:
Now for a close of this most secret Gate,
Whereat few enter, none but they who are
By Gods grace favour'd; its not luck ne fate
That in disclosing this can claim a share:
It is a portion which is very rare,
Bestow'd on those whom the most High shall chuse.
To such the Truth I freely shall declare.
Nor ought through Envy to them shall refuse.
Nor with unwonted Riddles shall their hopes abuse.
Of uncouth subjects now shall be my Song,
My mind intends high wonders to reveal.
Which have lain hidden heretofore full long.
Each artist striving them how to conceal.
Lest wretched Caitiffs should these Treasures steal:
Nor Villains should their VUlanies maintain
By this rare Art; which danger they to heal.
In horrid Metaphor veil'd an Art most plain.
Lest each fool knowing it, should it when known disdain.
—"An Exposition upon Sir G. Ripley's Fifth Gate."
And now my Muse, let it not irksome seem
To Thee of Natiures Mysteries to sing
Those hidden mysteries which many deem
Nought but delusions with them for to bring.
This is th' opinion of the vulgar rude,
10 Edwakd Payson Morton
To whom there's hardly any selcouth thing,
But seems a Juggling trick, that would delude
Their fancies with an empty wondering;
Therefore against it they with thundering words do ring.
There is a fiery Stone of Paradise,
So call'd because of its Celestial hew,
Named of ancient years by Sages wise
ELIXIE, made of Earth and Heaven new,
Anatically mixt; strange to relate.
Sought for by many, but found out by few;
Above vicissitudes of Nature, and by fate
Immortal, like a Body fixt to shew.
Whose penetrative vertue proves a Spirit true.
— "An Exposition upon the Preface of Sir G. Ripley."
In 1679 Dr. Samuel Woodford used Spenser's stanza in the
Epoda to his "Legend of Love," as he called his paraphrase upon
the Canticles. He also experimented with two or three rhyme-
schemes which had already been appropriated by the Spenserians.
The rhyme-scheme of the "Purple Island" [ababccc) he used in
four poems, each time varying the line-lengths. In two poems he
used the ababcc stanza, with a final alexandrine; in "Si ignores
te," however, his lines run 545456, and in "David's Elegy,"
545556. Aylett, Starkey, and Woodford seem to be the only men
of the seventeenth century who used both the regular Spenserian
stanza and imitations of it. Aylett and Woodford are interesting
also as among the very few Englishmen between Milton and
Warton who wrote sonnets.
Two passages from Woodford's preface are worth quoting:
The Legend further of Love I have stiled it, for honours sake to the
great Spencer, whose Stanza of Nine I have used, and who has Intituled
the six Books which we have compleat of his Fairy Queen, by the several
Among the several other Papers that we have lost of the Excellent
and Divine Spencer, one of the happiest Poets that this Nation ever bred,
(and out of it the World, it may be (all things considered) had not his
Fellow, excepting only such as were immediately Inspired) I bewail
nothing me- thinks so much, as his Version of the Canticles. For doubt-
less, in my poor Judgment, never was Man better made for such a Work,
and the Song itself so directly suited, with his Genius and manner of
The Spenserian Stanza Before 1700 11
Poetry (that I mean, wherein he best shews and even excells himself, His
Shepherds Kalender, and other occasional Poems, for I cannot yet say the
same directly for his Faery Queen, design'd for an Heroic Poem) ....
The noteworthy points in these sentences are the praise of the
"Shepheards Calender," with which chiefly Spenser won his repu-
tation in his own day, and the doubt of the greatness of the
"Faerie Queen" as a "heroic poem" — i. e., an epic. Woodford's
comment, indeed, leads us directly toward the attitude, not only
of the early eighteenth century, but also of the Romanticists. The
early eighteenth-century poets who used Spenser's stanza made it
a vehicle for political satire — led thereto presumably by Spenser's
use of allegory. Sir Kenelm Digby's "Observations on the 22d
stanza in the 9th Canto of the lid Book" goes to show how
ready men were to seize upon the political aspect of the allegory.
The Romanticists, from Thomson down, although they have not
used the stanza for satire, have also not used it for epic purposes,
but have rather paid especial attention to its pictorial capabilities.
When we talk today about the uses of the stanza since Spenser, we
speak of the "Castle of Indolence," of the "Revolt of Islam," of
the "Eve of St. Agnes," of the descriptive passages of "Childe
Harold," or of the few stanzas at the beginning of the "Lotos
Eaters." Indeed, may we not agree that the "Faerie Queen" as
an epic is something of a tour de force, inasmuch as the qualities
for which generation after generation has praised and loved it are
not those qualities which are considered indispensable in an epic ?
To say, then, that Woodford's criticism of the "Faerie Queen" is
also that of later centuries is not to claim for him any especial
acuteness of perception ; it is merely to point out that the critical
judgments of the Restoration and Augustan periods were not so
directly opposed to those of the nineteenth century as is generally
assumed. The pseudo-Classicists were hardly more alive to the
defects of the "Faerie Queen" than we post-Romanticists; they
were only less appreciative of its really great qualities — qualities
which would not have suited what those generations had to say,
any more than the Spenserian stanza would serve as a substitute
for the ottava rima in "Don Juan."
In 1687 appeared "Spenser Redivivus; containing the First
12 Edwakd Payson Morton
Book of the ' Fairy Queen.' His Essential Design Preserved, but
his Obsolete Language and Manner of Verse totally laid aside.
Delivered in Heroic Numbers by a Person of Quality." This
Travesty has often been cited to show how little that generation
thoug'ht of Spenser, but I think that its importance has been
greatly overestimated. In 1729 James Ralph published a poem
in heroics called "An Imitation of Spenser's Fairy Queen, by a
Young Gentleman of Twenty." In 1774 appeared Canto I,
"attempted in blank verse" to the length of eighteen pages; and
in 1783, Cantos • I-IV, also "attempted in blank verse." These
four attempts to modernize Spenser's versification are, however,
the only ones I have been able to find. Over against them we
must put the many admiring references to him, as well as the
really surprising number of poems both in his stanza and in
variations of it.
John Dry den followed others, Davenant most closely, in think-
ing the stanza of the "Faerie Queen" unsuited to epic purposes.
In the dedication to his translation of the Aeneis (1697) he says,
apropos of Spenser and Cowley: "They both make hemistichs
(or 1/2 verses), breaking off in the middle of the line. I confess
there are not many such in the Fairy Queen; and even those few
might be occasioned by his unhappy choice of so long a stanza."
We may balance this, however, with one of the most interesting
details of Spenser's influence in the seventeenth century —
Dryden's specific acknowledgment that he got his alexandrine
from Spenser. In this same dedication he says:
In the meantime, that I may arrogate nothing to myself, I must
acknowledge that Virgil in Latin, and Spenser in English, have been my
masters. Spenser has also given me the boldness to make use sometimes
of his Alexandrine line, which we call, though improperly, the Pindaric,
because Mr. Cowley has often employed it in his Odes. It adds a certain
majesty to the verse, when it is used with judgment, and stops the sense
from overflowing into another line.
A few pages farther on Dryden recurs to the subject in the
When I mentioned the Pindaric line, I should have added, that I take
another license in my veases: for I frequently make use ot triplet rhymes,
and for the same reason, because they bound the sense. And therefore I
The Spenserian Stanza Before 1700 13
generally join these two licenses together, and make the last verse of the
triplet a Pindaric: for, besides the majesty which it gives, it confines the
sense within the barriers of three lines, which would languish if it were
lengthened into four. Spenser is my example for both these privileges
of English verses; and Chapman has followed him in his translation of
Homer. Mr. Cowley has given in to them after both; and all succeeding
writers after him. I regard them now as the Magna Charta of heroic
poetry, and am too much an Englishman to lose what my ancestors
have gained for me.
Dryden's saying that "Spenser is my example for both these
privileges" is puzzling, for in Spenser's "Mother Hubberds Tale"
I can find no triplets and no alexandrines. If Dryden thought
that in "May" of the "Shepheards Calender," Spenser was trying
to write in heroic couplets, there is some slight warrant for his
statement, inasmuch as in its 317 lines there are three triplets.
Dryden's mention of Cowley, and of "Pindaricks" as a com-
mon name for alexandrines, leads one to wonder if Cowley was
not also indebted to Spenser. His Pindaric strophes commonly
end with an alexandrine, and as he plainly declared he was not
trying to reproduce either Pindar's words or his meter, but merely
his general effect, we can hardly trace his alexandrines to Pindar.
The only evidence I can find is an interesting, but for our pur-
poses rather inconclusive paragraph from his essay " On Myself,"
I believe I can tell the particular little Chance that filled my Head
first with such Chines of Verse, as have never since left ringing there:
For I remember when I began to read, and to take some Pleasure in it,
there was wont to lye in my Mother's Parlour (I know not by what acci-
dent, for she herself never in her life read any Book but of Devotion) but
there was wont to lye Spencer's Works; this I happened to fall upon, and
was infinitely delighted with the Stories of the Knights, and Giants, and
Monsters, and brave Houses, which I found every where there: (Tho my
Understanding had little to do with all this) and by degrees with the
Tinkling of the Rhyme and Dance of the Numbers, so that I think I had
read him all over before I was twelve years old, and was thus made a Poet
as irremediably as a child is made an Eunuch.
In a little more than a century between the first publication of
the " Faerie Queen" and 1698, my last entry before 1700, there
were Spenserian poems or imitations in forty-seven different years,
14 Edward Payson Morton
with only two long gaps, one of nine and one of fifteen years.
When we consider that the disciples of a poet are rather more
likely to show the master's influence in their style and phrase,
and general attitude, than in mere copying of meters, such imita-
tion in nearly half the years of the century is in itself a notable
record. These poems, which are by forty-three different poets,
number nearly one hundred and fifty. Twenty poems, including
the " Faerie Queen," are in the regular stanza, and are by Spen-
ser, Barnefield, More, and Fanshawe, who wrote only the regular
stanza, and Aylett, Eirenaeus Philalethes, and Woodford, who
wrote both the regular stanza and imitations of it.
Of the remaining poems, ten, by six poets, imitate only the
linking of the rhymes ; a dozen more, each by a different poet, end
a short-line stanza with a pentameter, and John Donne once used
a final septenary. We have left over a hundred poems in nearly
fifty stanza-forms, by a score of poets, all of whom confined their
imitations of Spenser's verse to the use of a final alexandrine.
In quantity, the number of regular stanzas is about equal to
the number of stanzas which have the final alexandrine. Poems
which merely link rhymes number about half as many stanzas;
and the poems which have the final long line, not an alexandrine,
number only 197 stanzas — about one-fortieth of the whole
The use of a given stanza in a long poem tests not only the
poet's facility, but also the fitness of the stanza for continuous
use. Fourteen of the poems in our list run to a length of a hun-
dred or more stanzas each; five of them are regular Spenserian,
four by John Davies of Hereford imitate the rhyme-scheme only,
and the remaining five — Giles Fletcher's "Christ's Victory and
Triumph;" Phineas' "Appollyonists," "Elisa," and "Purple
Island;" and the anonymous "Miserere" — are each in a different
stanza-form. It will be observed that all of these poems are,
except for the final alexandrine, in pentameters, and that they are
all in stanzas of seven, eight, or nine lines.
The true Spenserian stanzas of the seventeenth century are all
but forgotten — I have no doubt that many of my readers are sur-
prised at their number and length — and the work of the,Fletchers
The Spenserian Stanza BEroEE 1700 15
is remembered rather than known. Indeed, the one Spenserian
imitation in this century that can fairly be called both great and
familiar to the present generation is Milton's "Hymn on the
Nativity," which owes to Spenser only its concluding alexandrine.
And yet, when Mr. Swinburne used Milton's stanza in his "Ode
to Victor Hugo" — the only other instance I know of, except the
lone stanza in Gray's "Ode for Music" (1769) — he carefully
reduced the alexandrine to a pentameter in every one of his
That so little of this imitation of Spenser has proved of lasting
greatness or popularity is not to be charged against the vitality of
Spenser's influence. In the first place, we must not forget that,
except for the sonnet, of all our verse-forms the Spenserian stanza
is by far the most elaborate in common use. Indeed, when we
stop to think, we find that, although our English stanza-forms
number more than a thousand, the ones that have been much used
in relatively long poems are very few. Outside of "Isabella"
and "Don Juan" the ottava rima has been used most often
in translations from the Italian; since the "Rape of Lucrece"
the rhyme royal has been almost untouched; the "Venus and
Adonis" stanza, for a century enormously popular as a vehicle
for short songs, has been almost unused in extended poems;
the elegiac quatrain, more used than any of the others, is so
much shorter than Spenser's stanza that a comparison of use
seems hardly fair. All of these stanzas go back at least to
Elizabeth's time; to them we have added in later times the
stanza of "In Memoriam," and perhaps that of Fitzgerald's
"Omar." In fact, blank verse and the heroic couplet are now, as
they have been for three hundred years, the standard forms for
long poems, so that, although one might name a considerable list
of successful long poems in other forms, it is hard to find more
than a few instances of each kind. In such a list the Spenserian
stanza would almost certainly stand first.
In the second place, because of the constantly increasing sup-
ply of current literature, and the considerable additions which
each generation makes to the already large mass of what we call
our "classics," all but the greatest writers of a past generation
16 Edwaed Payson Morton
tend more and more to be forgotten. It follows that we are
increasingly likely to judge of a generation, or even of a century,
by the five or ten writers whose fame was greatest in their own
day. It often happens, therefore, that we hastily assume that a
minor poet of real sweetness and power was of as little impor-
tance to his own generation as he is to the present one.
I do not wish to be thought of as pleading for a revival of
interest in hitherto neglected authors; I do not profess to have
rediscovered even one poet or poem which the present generation
culpably ignores. But I do wish to insist that we are too likely
to dismiss as insignificant a man whose name is to most of us
only a name; such a man, for instance, as Dr. Henry More, the
Platonist. Of course, every student of seventeenth-century
English literature knows his name, though relatively few of us
are familiar with his work. Now, Dr. Henry More was a man of
much repute in his own generation, and the fact that he chose to
put his most serious work into the Spenserian stanza meant much
more toward establishing or continuing a Spenserian tradition than
even such a poem as the "Hymn on the Nativity." If, then, the
men who imitated Spenser's versification during the seventeenth
century were, many of them, of much more prominence in their
own generation than they are likely to seem to us, it follows that
a list of names such as we have here means that Spenser's influ-
ence before 1700 was as constant and as profound as that of all
but Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.
Edwaed Payson Mobton