Cosmo Monkhouse





Literatur: Monkhouse
Literatur: The Academy


Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles, &c. Selected, with chapter on the various forms, by Gleeson White. (WalterScott.)


THIS little volume, full of many poems, may be said to represent very fairly the effects of some experiments made about ten years ago by a few men who had already earned reputation as writers of verse. These have been years of experiment and new life in all arts great and little; and in poetry scarcely any kind has been left untried, from the loosest to the most organic – from the poetry in solution of Walt Whitman to these highly crystalised forms of old France. Feeling the beauty of the forms when thoroughly understood, as by old writers like Villon and Voiture, and moderns like Théodore de Banville and Boulmier, and attracted perhaps by the very difficulty, as well as by the novelty, of the attempt, they commenced to write English poems in the form of "ballades and rondeaus, chants royal, sestinas, villanelles, &c.," as the title of this book has it. That they had any more serious intention than to amuse themselves and others by an interesting literary experiment may be doubted; that they thought of supplying a grave deficiency in English literature or forming a new school of poetry may be safely denied; but whether they wished it or not they created at least a fashion, and the number of authors (over sixty) who contribute to this volume probably represents less than half the number of verse writers in England and America who have set their wits to work on these dainty devices.

The movement, though not yet exhausted, has gone far enough to prove that, unless it takes some new and unexpected turn, it will not get much farther. Notwithstanding that many very beautiful poems have been written in these forms – poems which could not have given quite the same kind of delight if written in any other form – there are few, if any, signs of their real naturalisation. These beautiful poems have been written by a few men, and it is only a few of these few men who have written more than two or three of them, only one who may be said to have proved himself a master in several of the forms. Moreover, it is doubtful whether these exceptionally skilful singers will give us many more. An occasional ballade we may still hope for, perhaps, from Mr. Andrew Lang, and Mr. Austin Dobson possibly may, to use his own words, "unlock his heart in a rondeau" now and again. Mr. John Payne may still find in these forms exercise for his inexhaustible faculty of versification, but Mr. Gosse is not likely to repeat his triumphs in sestina or chant royal. Mr. Henley, who in this volume for the first time appears as the acknowledged author of what Mr. Gleason White rightly calls "the brilliant series of these poems" which appeared in the London during 1877-8, has long been silent, and there is no sign of any new writer who is likely to make up for these and other accessions from the quire.

It is scarcely necessary here to say much with regard to these initiators and their works. Such of the latter as appear in this volume are already well-known favourites. Mr. Dobson's ballades, rondeaus, villanelles, and triolets are models for imitation, correct in form, skilful in versification, and, moreover, poems. No one has entered so completely as he into the science of the different structures, and has seen so clearly the nature and description of theme specially suitable to the particular form. Apart from all the wit, the happy fancy, the charms of rhythm and cadence, and other characteristics of the writer, this sense of literary fitness is a special mark of his "French Forms." Mr. Lang has spoken of this class of poetry as "decorative," and there is a close analogy between the art of decoration and the art of "fixed forms." The "little blue mandarin" of Mr. Dobson's charming villanelle was no doubt part of a decoration which made the "Nankin Plate" a pretty thing without destroying its existence as a plate; and Mr. Dobson's villanelle is a pretty thing, but still a villanelle and nothing else. Of Mr. Lang's "ballades" it may be said that if not always so finely chiselled as Mr. Dobson's, they have a happy grace and flexibility, a spontaneous audacity, a freshness of flow as though straight from the source, which give them a charm peculiarly their own. Despite their strict observance of the rules, they frequently approach the freedom of improvisation. In his ballades, perhaps, more than in any others, we see the possibility that the ballade, with some slight modifications perhaps of rhyming difficulties, may become a favourite means of self-expression among English poets of the future. Yet it is Mr. Dobson, and not any other writer, who is the true begetter of this book.

As to which was the first to publish in England this form or that is not of much consequence. Mr. Andrew Lang was the first writer of the double ballade, not Mr. Henley, as stated in Mr. Gleason White's preliminary chapter. Mr. Gosse is credited with the first villanelle, with the first sestina in the Italian unrhymed form, and also with the first chant royal; and no one has excelled him in either of these two latter very difficult forms. Mr. Bridges's two charming triolets were the first in English (since Mr. Patrick Carey's); and there are others who might put in claims for being first in the field with this and the other form, or some variation of it. But though the seed was sown by many Mr. Dobson has done more than anyone to spread the cultivation of these forms in England and America, and most of the poems in this book by new writers show that the seed has been taken from his flowers. Although Mr. Lang's inimitable wit and style in the use of the ballade form has had a crowd of followers, no imitation of him is closer to the original than Mr. Ernest Whitney's echo of Mr. Dobson's double ballade of prose and rhyme; and there are few writers whose rondeaus and triolets do not bear very clear traces of similar parentage. For these reasons the majority of the poems in this volume by American writers, while they testify to a widespread skill in versification, add little to the poetical interest of the book, although in an article of more critical detail it would be a pleasant duty to call attention to the ballades of Mr Sherman and Mr. Brander Matthews, and to several of Mr. Clinton Scollard's pieces. Of English writers the most important of what at least to the majority of readers may be called "novelties" are Mr. Henley's London poems before mentioned. They show a true lyrical gift, a large range of feeling, and much happiness, force, and originality of language; but too many of them have been written in a hurry, and some of those which contain the most faultless and poetical of his stanzas are damaged by want of care in the execution of other stanzas. Nevertheless, one of the features of the volume is the exhibition of Mr. Henley's remarkable power in verse.

It is impossible here to quote from or to enter minutely into the merits of his work; but it may be noted that though he has used the forms for the most casual and trivial of purposes he is also one of those few who has employed them for the expression of the deeper emotions. There are few "forms" here which are more truly pathetic than his beautiful rondeau, "When you are old." The aptitude of these "conventional" forms for such serious feeling is a question which cannot be discussed here; but there are more than one example of it in Mr. Gleason White's book – e. g., Miss Mabel Robinson's triolets from "Fiammetta," especially the exquisite one beginning "Since I can never come again," and Mr. Samuel Waddington's fine chant royal of "The New Epiphany."

Nevertheless, although Mr. Swinburne has written some grand bsllades, and though such well-known prose-writers as Mr. William Black and Mr. Grant Allen have been tempted into verse by the ballade form, there is not much promise in the future for the expansion of this French colony of forms.

The fact is that, to use a homely phrase, the game is well-nigh played out. It has been interesting, exciting, delightful while it lasted, and it will leave its mark on English literature for some time to come. It has been an excellent school for young students in the art of poetry. It has done something to raise the technical standard of verse, and it has enriched our literature with many beautiful things; but the thorough naturalisation of these forms, certainly of most of them, in their exact French shape is not to be expected. They need a lightness of hand and of thought, a lightness also of language it may be said, which is native to the land which produced them, and cannot be imported with the forms themselves; and a still more palpable obstacle to their habitual use by English poets is the paucity of rhymes in English. Mr. [247] Dobson has suggested that this difficulty may be partly overcome by allowing words composed of the same vowel sounds, preceded by the same consonant, to rhyme with one another, provided the sense is different; but he adds that no purist would use such rhymes, and it is doubtful whether this addition to English rhyme power would be easily accepted by others who are not purists, and whether, if accepted, it would prove adequate to the purpose. How serious an obstacle it is can be seen by anyone who examines the ballades, where the inexpert poet generally gets into difficulties in the third stanza; and even in the less exacting form of the rondeau he is often put to palpable shifts.

At the same time the experiment seems to have revealed a real want in English literature. It has recognised beyond doubt the value of fixed forms, their special beauty of music and shape, and their use in expressing, with a neatness and charm otherwise unattainable, slight thoughts, moods, fancies. compliments, and sentiments both grave and gay. Especially is there need for them in this hurried age, when many besides Dr. Garnett seek for some pretty ready shrine in which to fix the "rare and coloured thoughts" which come across their minds at odd moments. Perhaps this movement will end in the invention and adoption of some modification of the ballade and the rondeau better suited to English thoughts and English words than the French forms. Perhaps Mr. Swinburne's "roundel," of which some beautiful specimens are given in Mr. Gleeson White's volume, will strike root. The modern movement towards greater perfection in lyric form, and cultivation of the sense of lyric music, owes more to him than perhaps to any poet except Rossetti; and it would be only fit that he should succeed in naturalising the rondeau in an English form. But if he fails in this, it need be no reason for wonder, when we remember that even Shakspere failed to make his sonnet grow.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Academy.
A Weekly Review of Literature, Science, and Art.
Bd. 32, 1887, Nr. 806, 15. Oktober, S. 246-247.


Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The Academy. A Weekly Review of Literature, Science, and Art   online





Das besprochene Werk




Literatur: Monkhouse

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Literatur: The Academy

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DOI: 10.14361/9783839451137-018



Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer