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In Lord Surrey's translation of Virgil, a few Alexandrines are mingled with his ten syllable blank verse; but Dr. Nott is inclined to attribute their introduction, not to the cause which I have assigned for their frequent occurrence in other writers, but to an alteration which had taken place in the Earl's plan. He supposes him to have originally intended that the whole translation should be in that measure, and that these Alexandrines were remnants of the poem in its first form, while the rest had been brought down to the ten syllable standard. Webbe, indeed, seems to say, that this version was composed in hexameters; but this is a term which even in modern times has been very laxly used. I cannot believe Surrey to have been the author of a performance so abounding in verbiage, that two syllables, without leaving a chasm, could be taken from every line.
When we proceed to the reign of Elizabeth, we find the Alexandrines among ten syllable lines in the writings of the most distinguished poets of that time. For example, Bishop Hall in his Satires:
"As tho the staring world hangd on his sleeve,
"When once he smiles to laugh: and when he sighs to grieve."
"Great Solomon sings in the English quire
Lib. i. sat. 8.
"For shame or better write or Labeo write none."
Lib. ii. sat. 2.
So also Marston:
"Pure madness cease, cease to be insolent,
In modern authors the Alexandrine is always the second line of the couplet. Marston has made it the first:
"Euge! some gallant spirit, some resolved blood
Spenser has even introduced it into the middle of a stanza, unless we suppose the passages where it occurs to be corrupt:
"He bound that piteous lady prisoner, now relest."
"But Phlegeton is sonne of Herebus and Night."
The sonnet is, perhaps, of all compositions, that which is tied down by the strictest rules, and admits least of any deviation from strict metre. Yet B. Griffin, in his Fidessa, in which one of the poems attributed to Shakspeare is found, has this sonnet:
"Compare me to the child that plaies with fire,
"To touch the glorie of high heaven's frame,
Compare me to Leander struggling in the waves, "Not able to attain his safeties shore," &c.
He thus commences another:
"Compare me to Pygmalion with his image sotted." I will give one more extract from Griffin, which, I trust, its elegance will justify :
"Care-charmer sleepe sweet ease in restless miserie
"Brother of quiet death, when life is too too long." Thomas Watson, whom Mr. Steevens has declared to be a better sonneteer than Shakspeare, is equally licentious with Griffin in this respect. As his name has been thus opposed to that of our great poet, I will give his sonnet entire:
"Phœbus delights to view his Lawrel tree;
"Pallas will weare the olive branche or none;
"Of Shepheardes and theire flocke Pales is quene; "And Ceres rypes the corne was lately greene;
"To Chloris ev'ry flower belonges of right;
"The Dryade Nimphs of woodes make cheife accoumpt;
"To Zephire ev'ry gentle breathing winde.
Hecatompathia, sonnet 92.
I shall not undertake the defence of the Alexandrine. Even if Shakspeare had not been justified in its introduction, by the example of his contemporaries, and the writers who preceded him, I would leave it to those who have no relish for "the long majestick march and energy divine" of Dryden, and who think "cousin Swift was a better judge of poetry, to join with the facetious Dean and Mr. Steevens, in decrying its use. But whatever may be its demerits, if it has been shown to have found a place at almost every stage of our language, and in almost every species of composition, the reader will not be surprised at its admission into the laxity of dramatick dialogue. Those of our more ancient tragedies, which were formed upon the model of Ferrex and Porrex, are distinguished by a stately and formal march of rhythm, which admits of no variety whatever; and in them, therefore, the Alexandrine will rarely be found. If it occurs at all, we meet with it when the line begins in one speech and ends in another. Thus, in Kyd's Cornelia:
"CESAR. Whom fearest thou, then, Mark Antony?
"That wanting power in field to conquer you,
Others, like King Cambyses, were, for the most part,
written in the fourteen syllable verse, with more
familiarity of language. The versification of Shakspeare and his contemporaries was formed upon a medium between them both, not so formal as the one, nor so lax as the other. Marlowe, who was the greatest master of harmony in dramatick dialogue, before Shakspeare, has been sparing in the use of the Alexandrine; but in our great poet himself we meet with it in abundance. After all that Mr. Steevens has done, there are hundreds of lines in this measure which he can, by no contrivance, cut down, without totally re-writing the passage. In Massinger and Jonson they are not less frequent. I tried the experiment with Fletcher, and, on counting the number of instances in which an Alexandrine is employed, in one play, selected at random, I found in The Loyal Subject no less than fifty-two. It would be endless to produce instances: they may be easily discovered by the most careless reader, who will read a few pages in any one of the dramatick writers of Shakspeare's time. A similar liberty was taken in our ancient plays, where the eight syllable measure was chosen it was sometimes mingled with the heroick ten syllable lines. In Pericles, wherever this takes place, Mr. Steevens applies the knife without scruple. In the very first prologue by Gower, where the meaning of the original copy is perfectly clear, he has cut out two syllables from a couplet, and owns that by so doing he has introduced obscurity; but whimsically contends that he has thus promoted the object of the author, who probably was desirous of being obscure. See vol. xxi. p. 12, n. 6. He has rendered him the same assistance on a multitude of other occasions. He adds, "Of the same licence, I should not have availed myself, had I been employed on any of the undisputed dramas of our author." If he had adhered to this rule, his slashing mode of emendation might have been pardoned. The prologues of Gower are not of that excellence that we should be anxiously
solicitous about their purity; but how is it possible to restrain a feeling of indignation, when we find him tampering with Macbeth? In Act III. Sc. V. he has twice mangled the poet upon the pretence of curing inequality of metre. I will mention one of his alterations:
"I am for the air; this night I'll spend
This he reads,
"Unto a dismal-fatal end :"
because the old copy violates the metre. Yet in this very scene we find, at the commencement, three lines which are equally objectionable, but which he has not ventured to touch:
"1 Witch. Why, how now, Hecate? you look angerly. "Hecate. Have I not reason, beldames as you are, "Saucy and over bold? How did you dare"
But the practice of intermingling the eight and tensyllable lines with each other, is not peculiar to Shakspeare. In Fletcher's Faithful Shepherdess, one of the most harmonious poems in our language, we meet with the same variety:
"River God. The blood returns. I never saw
"A fairer mortal. Now doth break
"Her deadly slumber: Virgin, speak."
"Amoret. Who hath restored my sense, given me new
"And brought me back out of the arms of death?
"R. God. I have healed thy wounds.
Act III. Sc. I.
"R. God. Fear not him that succoured thee."
"My dearest, dearest Cloe! oh, the smart
"Runs through my side! I feel some pointed thing