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"The armed ships, coasting along the shore."
Godfrey of Bulloigne, b. i. st. 78.
Lord Surrey is said to have first taught us regular metre, and Dr. Nott produces the following lines, to show how well he varied his pauses:
"Did yield-vanquished for want of martial art-
How is that a blemish in Chaucer, which is an excellence in Surrey? But, in truth, Chaucer requires no authority to justify him; for he has not indulged in any licence at all. Dr. Nott has most correctly laid the accent on the second syllable of the word beauté, by which means the line has not only the harmony which that sort of versification (i. e. the rhythmical) aspires to, but it is as pure an iambic as can be found in Pope.
That Chaucer imagined that his own verses were metrical, and that he was even solicitous that they should not suffer in their harmony from ignorant transcription, is evident from what he says in Troilus and Cressida, if the words are taken in their natural and ordinary sense :
"So pray I God that none miswrite thee
"Ne the mismetre for Default of Tunge."
But Dr. Nott would persuade us that when he talks of metre, he means something else; and that his injunction is only that the rhythmical cadence may not be injured by a mistaken position of the cæsura. Another passage has been often cited from his House of Fame, in which he confesses his measure to be defective, and implores Apollo to make his book
"Tho' some verse fail of a syllable.”
This clearly proves, as Mr. Tyrwhitt has observed, that he knew the laws of metre, or he would not, in
this instance, have apologized for their violation. We must then, according to Dr. Nott's hypothesis, conclude, that, though he knew what was right, he wilfully, and with his eyes open, persisted in writing what was wrong. But we are told, that in all the ancient MSS. of his poems, the cæsura is distinctly marked; and Dr. Nott, by a series of entertaining quotations, has shown that this practice uniformly prevailed in ancient manuscripts up to a certain date. The fact is sufficiently established; but I cannot see how it supports the inference which is drawn from it, that the compositions, so distinguished, must, for that reason, have been constructed on a rhythmical, and not a metrical, system. What Adam Scrivener, as Chaucer calls him, intended by the various marks with which he adorned his pages, it is not easy, correctly to ascertain; but they would be quite as useful, and much more so, to prevent a blundering reciter from spoiling the metre "for default of tunge," as it would be to direct him in giving the proper rhythmical cadence. If he failed in the one instance, the verse was gone: but in the other, if I rightly understand what is meant by rhythmical cadence, which I suppose to bear some resemblance to a cathedral chaunt, if he gave too much or too little to one part of the line, he could easily recover his time in the remainder. Dr. Nott informs us, that these marks were disused after 1532, because our poetry had then become metrical. The word after is ambiguous; but if he means that this great alteration in our verse took place as early as that year, and that Surrey was its author, it is surely placing his influence on English literature extravagantly high, at a period when he was not above fourteen years of age. The extracts which are given from authors posterior to Chaucer, with a view to show that because their lines are unmetrical, the same must be said of his, by no means prove any such position. If others, in nature's de
spight, betook themselves to writing verses, and made very bad ones, are we thence to decide that one of our greatest poets, who has occasionally exhibited the most harmonious flow, was equally ignorant of his art? As well might we contend that Shakspeare and Spenser were rugged and untuneful, because they were followed by Donne and Cleaveland. But there is one material objection to the probability of Dr. Nott's hypothesis, which remains to be noticed. Surrey lived in a learned and critical age: his rank, his character, and the melancholy close of his life, threw an interest around every thing connected with his name. Churchyard was brought up in his family; Golding was probably as old; Gascoigne could not have been born at a much later period; Surrey is spoken of in high terms by every writer on poetry in the time of Queen Elizabeth; yet not from any one of them have we the slightest intimation of his having introduced such a radical change into the whole structure of English versification. I cannot but think that their silence will prove, that he was no more the inventor of a new species of measure, than Waller, or Dryden, or Pope, though his good taste led him to select what was best in his predecessors, and to add some partial improvements of his own. Our obligations to him, as being the first to whom we owe an example of blank verse, will be afterwards considered.
If, then, our early poets are not to be excluded from a history of English metre, let us return to the point from which we set out, and inquire into the origin of the Alexandrine, and the causes of its introduction. Chaucer had, indeed, taught us what is now termed the heroick couplet of ten syllables; but it was long after his time before it assumed that rank in our versification which it now holds, without dispute, except among those who give blank verse the superiority. It was not for his Knight's Tale, or the story of Cambuscan bold, that he was chiefly admired at an early period. His Troilus was regarded as his
greatest work; and the measure in which it was composed was distinguished as "rhyme royal." The heroick couplet was thought merely adapted to a set of tales told by a company of pilgrims as they rode on their way to Canterbury, and thence was denominated "riding rhyme ;" and might be used, says Gascoigne, in delectable and light enterprizes, while rhyme royal was suited to a grave discourse. King James goes further, and says, "there is ryme whilk servis only for lang historeis, and yit are nocht verse. As for example." He then goes on to quote some very smooth heroick couplets. Our old Scotch poet, Blind Harry, has written a "lang history" of Sir William Wallace in the heroick couplet; but when, in the sixth book, he describes his hero as "betaken with love," he seems to think the subject required a more polished measure, and deviates into the quatrain. In literature, as in every thing else, the habits of a people are not suddenly changed. The old measures which were in use before Chaucer, still retained their popularity, even in the reign of Elizabeth. Gascoigne observes, when pointing out a fault in writing, which was prevalent, as he tells us, in his time, "Yet do I see and read many new poems now adayes, whiche beginning with the measure of xii in the first line, and xiiii in the second (which is the common kind of verse) they will yet (by that time they have passed over a few verses) fall into xiiii and fourtene, and sic de similibus, the which is either forgetfulnes or carelesnes." If they used this licence in the measure to which they were accustomed, they would not readily submit to have their liberty altogether curtailed, when writing the ten syllable verse, but would sometimes break out into twelve syllables, or an Alexandrine. Chaucer himself could not invariably resist this temptation, at least if we ascribe to him The Remedie of Love, which Tyrwhitt, I acknowledge, has called in question:
"His patients sicknesse oweth first for to seche
In the Temple of Glasse, ascribed to Hawes, but probably written by Lydgate, the following lines close one of the stanzas:
"Of all my payne! helas! the harde stounde,
"The hotter that I burne the colder is my wounde." In Barclay's Ship of Fools, we meet with Alexandrines. If we compare the following with the neighbouring lines, it would seem, from its superior smoothness, that he understood that measure better than the ten syllable verse:
"He that goeth right, stedfast sure and fast,
"May him well mocke that goeth halting and lame,
Agaynst a man of Inde: but no man ought to blame "Another's vice while he useth the same."
The reader will recollect Pope's lines:
"Tis education forms the common mind,
"Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined."
Barclay thus expresses the same image in verses better than he generally writes:
"A little twigge plyant is by kinde,
"A byger braunche is harde to bowe or wynde;
"And rather it shall brake than outher wynde or bowe." The fame of Sir Thomas More would have been less permanent, had it rested on his poetry alone. Yet there is something pathetick in his lamentation on the death of Elizabeth, Henry VII.'s Queen. I will cite one stanza. The Queen is supposed to be the speaker:
"Adew Lord Henry my lovyng sonne adew.