« PreviousContinue »
inconsiderable, which by no process whatever can be rendered harmonious. The defence that must be set up for Shakspeare is, that his contemporaries were equally faulty in this respect. It may be observed, that this defect is scarcely ever found but in the heroick metre of ten syllables. Those who wrote smoothly in a shorter measure, fall into the most hobbling versification when they attempt the heroick couplet. The smaller pieces, for instance, of Nicholas Breton, have a very pleasing flow, of which the well-known ballad,
"On a hill there grows a flower,"
may be cited as an instance. But the same writer, in his "Sir Philip Sidney's Ourania," has exhibited the most deplorable specimens of doggrel that the language can supply. The commencement of his Shepherd's song will show in what measure he intended to compose:
"Before this world, quoth he, was set in frame,
Yet we soon after find him hobbling in this manner :
"Yet were no angels as then created,
"Nor angels offices destinated;
"Nor could their attendance do him pleasure,
and the greater part of his poem is much in the same strain. But much higher names than Breton are liable to a similar reproach. Thus, even Spenser:
"Faire seemely pleasaunce each to other makes
Fairy Queen, b. i. c. ii. st. 30.
"Vile caytive vassall of dread and dispayre."
B. ii. c. iii. st. 7.
Thus also Massinger :
"I should divert him from his holy purpose
City Madam, Act III. Sc. III.
"I never saw him
"Since he swoon'd in the
Bashful Lover, Act II. Sc. II.
"His desires were that
"Assurance for his safety might be granted
Ibid. Act IV. Sc. III.
I could multiply quotations on this subject; but these will suffice to show, that when Shakspeare fell into these irregularities, he was countenanced by the practice of his contemporaries; that the attempts at emendation to get rid of those are wholly unnecessary; and that there was not the slightest foundation for the sneers of Messrs. Ritson and George Hardinge, when Mr. Malone asserted that such verses were tolerated in our poet's time. The ten syllable heroick line is, perhaps, the most difficult species of verse in our language, as it is in truth the longest; the Alexandrine and that of fourteen syllables being, in fact, two short ones joined together. If a wrong accent is placed on any one word, the line loses its character, which is essentially iambick, with the occasional mixture of other feet for the sake of variety, and falls into an anapestick cadence. Take, for instance, the first line of Pope's Essay on Man:
"Awake my St. John, leave all meaner things."
Pronounce the name of that infidel nobleman as if he had been a saint; or for "leave all," read" desert;"
or for "meaner," read "despised;" and the verse becomes doggrel*. That great poet, by his example, has so tutored the ears of his countrymen, that the lowest scribbler now writes with tolerable smoothness, which was very far from being the case even in Dryden's days. Our ancestors, as we have seen, with all their excellence, were sometimes neglectful of strict harmony; but this, at least in our dramatick poets, was amply compensated by the vigour and vivacity of their general style. Their plays were, for the most part, written in blank verse; yet sometimes upon no sort of system, but merely as fancy suggested, they deviated into rhyme, which they quitted and resumed at their pleasure. This was the frequent practice of Shakspeare, more particularly in his early plays, but it was not peculiar to him; it was adopted by all the dramatick authors of his time. In Johnson's Sejanus, Act III. Sc. I. we find this fully exemplified. Decker has even admitted this intermixture of rhyme into so short a composition as a prologue, as, for example:
"The charmes of silence through this square be throwne
"May hang at every eare, for we present
* What our ancestors meant by rhyme doggrel, may be learnt from Freeman's Runne and a Great Cast, 1614:
Epigram 36: quis cladem.
"More did not Dulake, nor Godfry of Bullen,
"Nor any man if his cap made of woollen,
"At land at see without Castle or Carricke:
"Feeders on mans flesh, blood-suckers brave Jack
"Hath thumb'd many thousands, and kil'd with a knacke."
Whoop, whoop, me thinkes I heare my Reader cry, "Here is rime doggrell; I confesse it I," &c.
Yet drawne so lively that the weakest eye
(Through those thin vailes we hang between your sight "And this our piece) may read the mistery:
"What in it is most grave will most delight," &c.
Prologue to the Whore of Babylon, 1607. In their selection of rhymes they were not always very scrupulous. In Love's Labour's Lost, vol. iv. the following passage occurs, as it is printed in the old copies, and Mr. Malone's text:
"Taffata phrases, silken terms precise,
"Three piled hyperboles, spruce affection,
"Have blown me full of maggot ostentation."
Affection, in the second line, had been changed, by the modern editors, into affectation. Mr. Malone restores the old reading, and observes, that affection had already, in the same play, occurred in the sense of affectation; that it was a quadrisyllable, and that the rhyme was such as our author and his contemporaries thought sufficient. Mr. Steevens, on the other hand, declares that no ear can be satisfied with such rhymes as affection and ostentation; and Mr. Ritson, in his Remarks upon Mr. Malone's edition of 1790, has displayed a good deal of clumsy merriment upon the occasion. Yet what would either of them have said to the following passage in Spenser?
"Who soon as he beheld that angel's face
"His cheered heart eftsoones away gan chase
Fairy Queen, b. iv. c. xiv. st. 34.
Or what must we think of the following stanza from
"Prepare you then for travaile strong and light,
"And with that word and warning soone was dight
Fairfax's Godfrey, b. i. st. 66. 2 P
I now release the reader from the discussion of the irregularities which occur, either in the praseology or metre of Shakspeare, which would have been an gracious enquiry, were it not for the recollection that the slight spots which the most minute and scrupulous investigation can discover, are lost in the blaze of his excellence. I am now very shortly to call the reader's attention to the important change which he effected in our dramatick versification. Although I am unable to bestow upon Lord Surrey the praise which is claimed for him by my friend Dr. Nott, of having been the first who taught us metre, yet he is justly entitled to our gratitude for the introduction of blank verse into our language, which it is probable he was induced to adopt from the example which had been shown us by Italy, a country from which we have derived every real improvement in poetry, that we have borrowed from our continental neighbours. Dr. Nott is disposed to call this in question, on the ground that the Italia Liberata of Trissino was not published till after Surrey's death. He forgets that the Sophonisba, of the same author, had appeared before that nobleman was born, and that versi sciolti had become not only popular in Italy, but had been adopted at an early period in Spain. But although Trissino has had the honour generally ascribed to him of being the first who wrote in that measure, because he was the first who brought it to perfection; yet we learn from Crescimbeni that it existed in a ruder state in Italian literature long before his time. The Italians, indeed, seem, from the facilities which their eminently poetical language affords, to have led the way in every experiment upon metre. Thus, long before Sidney or Gabriel Harvey had taught English to halt on Roman feet, the same attempt had been made by Tolemei, with better materials, but not with much success. But whatever may have been the origin of Surrey's