The Rationale of Verse by Edgar Allan Poe
THE RATIONALE OF VERSE
THE WORD “Verse” is here used not in its strict or primitive sense, but as the term most convenient for expressing generally and without pedantry all that is involved in the consideration of rhythm, rhyme, metre, and versification.
There is, perhaps, no topic in polite literature which has been more pertinaciously discussed, and there is certainly not one about which so much inaccuracy, confusion, misconception, misrepresentation, mystification, and downright ignorance on all sides, can be fairly said to exist. Were the topic really difficult, or did it lie, even, in the cloudland of metaphysics, where the doubt- vapors may be made to assume any and every shape at the will or at the fancy of the gazer, we should have less reason to wonder at all this contradiction and perplexity; but in fact the subject is exceedingly simple; one-tenth of it, possibly, may be called ethical; nine-tenths, however, appertain to mathematics; and the whole is included within the limits of the commonest common sense.
“But, if this is the case, how,” it will be asked, “can so much misunderstanding have arisen? Is it conceivable that a thousand profound scholars, investigating so very simple a matter for centuries, have not been able to place it in the fullest light, at least, of which it is susceptible?” These queries, I confess, are not easily answered: at all events, a satisfactory reply to them might cost more trouble than would, if properly considered, the whole vexata quaestio to which they have reference. Nevertheless, there is little difficulty or danger in suggesting that the “thousand profound scholars” may have failed first, because they were scholars; secondly, because they were profound; and thirdly, because they were a thousand-the impotency of the scholarship and profundity having been thus multiplied a thousand fold. I am serious in these suggestions; for, first again, there is something in “scholarship” which seduces us into blind worship of Bacon’s Idol of the Theatre- into irrational deference to antiquity, secondly, the proper “profundity” is rarely profound- it is the nature of Truth in general, as of some ores in particular, to be richest when most superficial; thirdly, the clearest subject may be over-clouded by mere superabundance of talk. In chemistry, the best way of separating two bodies is to add a third; in speculation, fact often agrees with fact and argument with argument until an additional well-meaning fact or argument sets everything by the ears. In one case out of a hundred a point is excessively discussed because it is obscure; in the ninety-nine remaining it is obscure because excessively discussed. When a topic is thus circumstanced, the readiest mode of investigating it is to forget that any previous investigation has been attempted.
But, in fact, while much has been written on the Greek and Latin rhythms, and even on the Hebrew, little effort has been made at examining that of any of the modern tongues. As regards the English, comparatively nothing has been done. It may be said, indeed, that we are without a treatise on our own verse. In our ordinary grammars and in our works on rhetoric or prosody in general, may be found occasional chapters, it is true, which have the heading,
“Versification,” but these are, in all instances, exceedingly meagre. They pretend to no analysis; they propose nothing like system; they make no attempts at even rule; everything depends upon “authority.” They are confined, in fact, to mere exemplification of the supposed varieties of English feet and English lines- although in no work with which I am acquainted are these feet correctly given or these lines detailed in anything like their full extent. Yet what has been mentioned is all- if we except the occasional introduction of some pedagogue-ism, such as this borrowed from the Greek Prosodies: “When a syllable is wanting the verse is said to be catalectic; when the measure is exact, the line is acatalectic; when there is a redundant syllable, it forms hypermeter.” Now, whether a line be termed catalectic or acatalectic is, perhaps, a point of no vital importance- it is even possible that the student may be able to decide, promptly, when the a should be employed and when omitted, yet be incognizant, at the same time, of all that is worth knowing in regard to the structure of verse.
A leading defect in each of our treatises (if treatises they can be called) is the confining the subject to mere Versification, while Verse in general, with the understanding given to the term in the heading of this paper, is the real question at issue. Nor am I aware of even one of our Grammars which so much as properly defines the word versification itself. “Versification,” says a work now before me, of which the accuracy is far more than usual- the “English Grammar” of Goold Brown- “Versification is the art of arranging words into lines of correspondent length, so as to produce harmony by the regular alternation of syllables differing in quantity.” The commencement of this definition might apply, indeed, to the art of versification, but not to versification itself. Versification is not the art of arranging, etc, but the actual arranging- a distinction too obvious to need comment. The error here is identical with one which has been too long permitted to disgrace the initial page of every one of our school grammars. I allude to the definitions of English Grammar itself. “English Grammar,” it is said, “is the art of speaking and writing the English language correctly.” This phraseology, or something essentially similar, is employed, I believe, by Bacon, Miller, Fisk, Greenleaf, Ingersoll, Kirkland, Cooper, Flint, Pue, Comly, and many others. These gentlemen, it is presumed, adopted it without examination from Murray, who derived it from Lily (whose work was “quam solam Regia Majestas in omnibus scholis docendam praecipit”), and who appropriated it without acknowledgment, but with some unimportant modification, from the Latin Grammar of Leonicenus. It may be shown, however, that this definition, so complacently received, is not, and cannot be, a proper definition of English Grammar. A definition is that which so describes its object as to distinguish it from all others- it is no definition of any one thing if its terms are applicable to any one other. But if it be asked- “What is the design- the end- the aim of English Grammar?” our obvious answer is, “The art of speaking and writing the English language correctly”- that is to say, we must use the precise words employed as the definition of English Grammar itself. But the object to be obtained by any means is, assuredly, not the means. English Grammar and the end contemplated by English Grammar are two matters sufficiently distinct; nor can the one be more reasonably regarded as the other than a fishing- hook as a fish. The definition, therefore, which is applicable in the latter instance, cannot, in the former, be true. Grammar in general is the analysis of language; English Grammar of the English.
But to return to Versification as defined in our extract above. “It is the art,” says the extract “of arranging words into lines of correspondent length.” Not so:- a correspondence in the length of lines is by no means essential. Pindaric odes are, surely, instances of versification, yet these compositions are noted for extreme diversity in the length of their lines.
The arrangement is moreover said to be for the purpose of producing “harmony by the regular alternation,” etc. But harmony is not the sole aim- not even the principal one. In the construction of verse, melody should never be left out of view; yet this is a point which all our Prosodies have most unaccountably forborne to touch. Reasoned rules on this topic should form a portion of all systems of rhythm.
“So as to produce harmony,” says the definition, “by the regular alternation,” etc. A regular alternation, as described, forms no part of any principle of versification. The arrangement of spondees and dactyls, for example, in the Greek hexameter, is an arrangement which may be termed at random. At least it is arbitrary. Without interference with the line as a whole, a dactyl may be substituted for a spondee, or the converse, at any point other than the ultimate and penultimate feet, of which the former is always a spondee, the latter nearly always a dactyl. Here, it is clear, we have no “regular alternation of syllables differing in quantity.”
“So as to produce harmony,” proceeds the definition “by the regular alternation of syllables differing in quantity,”- in other words by the alternation of long and short syllables; for in rhythm all syllables are necessarily either short or long. But not only do I deny the necessity of any regularity in the succession of feet and, by consequence, of syllables, but dispute the essentiality of any alternation regular or irregular, of syllables long and short. Our author, observe, is now engaged in a definition of versification in general, not of English versification in particular. But the Greek and Latin metres abound in the spondee and pyrrhic- the former consisting of two long syllables, the latter of two short; and there are innumerable instances of the immediate succession of many spondees and many pyrrhics.
Here is a passage from Silius Italicus:
Fallit te mensas inter quod credis inermem
Tot bellis quaesita viro, tot caedibus armat
Majestas aeterna ducem: si admoveris ora
Cannas et Trebium ante oculos Trasymenaque busta
Et Pauli stare ingentem miraberis umbram.
Making the elisions demanded by the classic Prosodies, we should scan these Hexameters thus:
Fallit / te men / sas in / ter quod / credis in / ermem /
Tot bel / lis quae / sita tot / caedibus / armat /
Majes / tas ae / terna du / cem s’ad / moveris / ora /
Cannas / et Trebi / ant ocu / los Trasy / menaque / busta /
Et Pau / li sta / r’ ingen / tem mi / raberis / umbram /
It will be seen that, in the first and last of these lines, we have only two short syllables in thirteen, with an uninterrupted succession of no less than nine long syllables. But how are we to reconcile all this with a definition of versification which describes it as “the art of arranging words into lines of correspondent length so as to produce harmony by the regular alternation of syllables differing in quantity”?
It may be urged, however, that our prosodist’s intention was to speak of the English metres alone, and that, by omitting all mention of the spondee and pyrrhic, he has virtually avowed their exclusion from our rhythms. A grammarian is never excusable on the ground of good intentions. We demand from him, if from any one, rigorous precision of style. But grant the design. Let us admit that our author, following the example of all authors on English Prosody, has, in defining versification at large, intended a definition merely of the English. All these prosodists, we will say, reject the spondee and pyrrhic. Still all admit the iambus, which consists of a short syllable followed by a long; the trochee, which is the converse of the iambus; the dactyl, formed of one long syllable followed by two short; and the anapaest- two short succeeded by a long. The spondee is improperly rejected, as I shall presently show. The pyrrhic is rightfully dismissed. Its existence in either ancient or modern rhythm is purely chimerical, and the insisting on so perplexing a nonentity as a foot of two short syllables, affords, perhaps, the best evidence of the gross irrationality and subservience to authority which characterise our Prosody. In the meantime the acknowledged dactyl and anapaest are enough to sustain my proposition about the “alternation,” etc, without reference to feet which are assumed to exist in the Greek and Latin metres alone- for an anapaest and a dactyl may meet in the same line, when, of course, we shall have an uninterrupted succession of four short syllables. The meeting of these two feet, to be sure, is an accident not contemplated in the definition now discussed; for this definition, in demanding a “regular alternation of syllables differing in quantity,” insists on a regular succession of similar feet. But here is an example:
Sing to me / Isabelle.
This is the opening line of a little ballad now before me which proceeds in the same rhythm- a peculiarly beautiful one. More than all this:- English lines are often well composed, entirely, of a regular succession of syllables all of the same quantity:- the first line, for instance, of the following quatrain by Arthur C. Coxe:
March! march! march!
Making sounds as they tread,
Ho! ho! how they step,
Going down to the dead!
The [first line] is formed of three caesuras. The caesura, of which I have much to say hereafter, is rejected by the English Prosodies, and grossly misrepresented in the classic. It is a perfect foot- the most important in all verse- and consists of a single long syllable; but the length of this syllable varies.
It has thus been made evident that there is not one point of the definition in question which does not involve an error, and for anything more satisfactory or more intelligible we shall look in vain to any published treatise on the topic.
So general and so total a failure can be referred only to radical misconception. In fact the English Prosodists have blindly followed the pedants. These latter, like les moutons de Panurge, have been occupied in incessant tumbling into ditches, for the excellent reason that their leaders have so tumbled before. The Iliad, being taken as a starting point, was made to stand instead of Nature and common sense. Upon this poem, in place of facts and deduction from fact, or from natural law, were built systems of feet, metres, rhythms, rules,- rules that contradict each other every five minutes, and for nearly all of which there may be found twice as many exceptions as examples. If any one has a fancy to be thoroughly confounded- to see how far the infatuation of what is termed “classical scholarship,” can lead a bookworm in the manufacture of darkness out of sunshine, let him turn over for a few moments any of the German Greek Prosodies. The only thing clearly made out in them is a very magnificent contempt for Leibnitzs principle of “a sufficient reason.”
To divert attention from the real matter in hand by any further reference to these works is unnecessary, and would be weak. I cannot call to mind at this moment one essential particular of information that is to be gleaned from them, and I will drop them here with merely this one observation,- that employing from among the numerous “ancient” feet the spondee, the trochee, the iambus, the anapaest, the dactyl, and the caesura alone, I will engage to scan correctly any of the Horatian rhythms, or any true rhythm that human ingenuity can conceive. And this excess of chimerical feet is perhaps the very least of the scholastic supererogations. Ex uno disce omnia. The fact is that quantity is a point in whose investigation the lumber of mere learning may be dispensed with, if ever in any. Its appreciation is universal. It appertains to no region, nor race, nor era in special. To melody and to harmony the Greeks hearkened with ears precisely similar to those which we employ for similar purposes at present, and I should not be condemned for heresy in asserting that a pendulum at Athens would have vibrated much after the same fashion as does a pendulum in the city of Penn.
Verse originates in the human enjoyment of equality, fitness. To this enjoyment, also, all the moods of verse, rhythm, metre, stanza, rhyme, alliteration, the refrain, and other analagous effects, are to be referred. As there are some readers who habitually confound rhythm and metre, it may be as well here to say that the former concerns the character of feet (that is arrangements of syllables) while the latter has to do with the number of these feet. Thus by “a dactylic rhythm” we express a sequence of dactyls. By “a dactylic hexameter” we imply a line or measure consisting of six of these dactyls.
To return to equality. Its idea embraces those of similarity, proportion, identity, repetition, and adaptation or fitness. It might not be very difficult to go even behind the idea of equality, and show both how and why it is that the human nature takes pleasure in it, but such an investigation would, for any purpose now in view, be supererogatory. It is sufficient that the fact is undeniable- the fact that man derives enjoyment from his perception of equality. Let us examine a crystal. We are at once interested by the equality between the sides and between the angles of one of its faces; the equality of the sides pleases us, that of the angles doubles the pleasure. On bringing to view a second face in all respects similar to the first, this pleasure seems to be squared; on bringing to view a third it appears to be cubed, and so on. I have no doubt, indeed, that the delight experienced, if measurable, would be found to have exact mathematical relation such as I suggest, that is to say, as far as a certain point, beyond which there would be a decrease in similar relations.
The perception of pleasure in the equality of sounds is the principle of Music. Unpractised ears can appreciate only simple equalities, such as are found in ballad airs. While comparing one simple sound with another they are too much occupied to be capable of comparing the equality subsisting between these two simple sounds taken conjointly, and two other similar simple sounds taken conjointly. Practised ears, on the other hand, appreciate both equalities at the same instant, although it is absurd to suppose that both are heard at the same instant. One is heard and appreciated from itself, the other is heard by the memory, and the instant glides into and is confounded with the secondary appreciation. Highly cultivated musical taste in this manner enjoys not only these double equalities, all appreciated at once, but takes pleasurable cognizance, through memory, of equalities the members of which occur at intervals so great that the uncultivated taste loses them altogether. That this latter can properly estimate or decide on the merits of what is called scientific music is of course impossible. But scientific music has no claim to intrinsic excellence; it is fit for scientific ears alone. In its excess it is the triumph of the physique over the morale of music. The sentiment is overwhelmed by the sense. On the whole, the advocates of the simpler melody and harmony have infinitely the best of the argument, although there has been very little of real argument on the subject.
In verse, which cannot be better designated than as an inferior or less capable Music, there is, happily, little chance for complexity. Its rigidly simple character not even Science- not even Pedantry can greatly pervert.
The rudiment of verse may possibly be found in the spondee. The very germ of a thought seeking satisfaction in equality of sound would result in the construction of words of two syllables, equally accented. In corroboration of this idea we find that spondees most abound in the most ancient tongues. The second step we can easily suppose to be the comparison, that is to say, the collocation of two spondees- or two words composed each of a spondee. The third step would be the juxtaposition of three of these words. By this time the perception of monotone would induce further consideration; and thus arises what Leigh Hunt so flounders in discussing under the title of “The Principle of Variety in Uniformity.” Of course there is no principle in the case- nor in maintaining it. The “Uniformity” is the principle- the “Variety” is but the principle’s natural safeguard from self-destruction by excess of self. “Uniformity,” besides, is the very worst word that could have been chosen for the expression of the general idea at which it aims.
The perception of monotone having given rise to an attempt at its relief, the first thought in this new direction would be that of collating two or more words formed each of two syllables differently accented (that is to say, short and long) but having the same order in each word- in other terms, of collating two or more iambuses, or two or more trochees. And here let me pause to assert that more pitiable nonsense has been written on the topic of long and short syllables than on any other subject under the sun. In general, a syllable is long or short, just as it is difficult or easy of enunciation. The natural long syllables are those encumbered- the natural short syllables are those unencumbered with consonants; all the rest is mere artificiality and jargon. The Latin Prosodies have a rule that a “vowel before two consonants is long.” This rule is deduced from “authority”- that is, from the observation that vowels so circumstanced, in the ancient poems, are always in syllables long by the laws of scansion. The philosophy of the rule is untouched, and lies simply in the physical difficulty of giving voice to such syllables- of performing the lingual evolutions necessary for their utterance. Of course, it is not the vowel that is long (although the rule says so), but the syllable of which the vowel is a part. It will be seen that the length of a syllable, depending on the facility or difficulty of its enunciation, must have great variation in various syllables; but for the purposes of verse we suppose a long syllable equal to two short ones, and the natural deviation from this relativeness we correct in perusal. The more closely our long syllables approach this relation with our short ones, the better, ceteris paribus, will be our verse: but if the relation does not exist of itself we force it by emphasis, which can, of course, make any syllable as long as desired;- or, by an effort we can pronounce with unnatural brevity a syllable that is naturally too long. Accented syllables are, of course, always long, but where unencumbered with consonants, must be classed among the unnaturally long. Mere custom has declared that we shall accent them- that is to say, dwell upon them; but no inevitable lingual difficulty forces us to do so. In fine, every long syllable must of its own accord occupy in its utterance, or must be made to occupy, precisely the time demanded for two short ones. The only exception to this rule is found in the caesura- of which more anon.
The success of the experiment with the trochees or iambuses (the one would have suggested the other) must have led to a trial of dactyls or anapaests- natural dactyls or anapaests- dactylic or anapaestic words. And now some degree of complexity has been attained. There is an appreciation, first, of the equality between the several dactyls or anapaests, and secondly, of that between the long syllable and the two short conjointly. But here it may be said, that step after step would have been taken, in continuation of this routine, until all the feet of the Greek Prosodies became exhausted. Not so; these remaining feet have no existence except in the brains of the scholiasts. It is needless to imagine men inventing these things, and folly to explain how and why they invented them, until it shall be first shown that they are actually invented. All other “feet” than those which I have specified are, if not impossible at first view, merely combinations of the specified; and, although this assertion is rigidly true, I will, to avoid misunderstanding, put it in a somewhat different shape. I will say, then, that at present I am aware of no rhythm- nor do I believe that any one can be constructed- which, in its last analysis, will not be found to consist altogether of the feet I have mentioned, either existing in their individual and obvious condition, or interwoven with each other in accordance with simple natural laws which I will endeavour to point out hereafter.
We have now gone so far as to suppose men constructing indefinite sequences of spondaic, iambic, trochaic, dactylic, or anapaestic words. In extending these sequences, they would be again arrested by the sense of monotone. A succession of spondees would immediately have displeased; one of iambuses or of trochees, on account of the variety included within the foot itself, would have taken longer to displease, one of dactyls or anapaests, still longer; but even the last, if extended very far, must have become wearisome. The idea first of curtailing, and secondly of defining, the length of a sequence would thus at once have arisen. Here then is the line of verse proper. (Verse, from the Latin vertere, to turn, is so called on account of the turning or re-commencement of the series of feet. Thus a verse strictly speaking is a line. In this sense, however, I have preferred using the latter word alone; employing the former in the general acceptation given it in the heading of this paper.) The principle of equality being constantly at the bottom of the whole process, lines would naturally be made, in the first instance, equal in the number of their feet; in the second instance, there would be variation in the mere number; one line would be twice as long as another, then one would be some less obvious multiple of another; then still less obvious proportions would be adopted- nevertheless there would be proportion, that is to say, a phase of equality, still.
Lines being once introduced, the necessity of distinctly defining these lines to the ear (as yet written verse does not exist), would lead to a scrutiny of their capabilities at their terminations- and now would spring up the idea of equality in sound between the final syllables- in other words, of rhyme. First, it would be used only in the iambic, anapaestic, and spondaic rhythms (granting that the latter had not been thrown aside long since, on account of its tameness), because in these rhythms the concluding syllable being long, could best sustain the necessary protraction of the voice. No great while could elapse, however, before the effect, found pleasant as well as useful, would be applied to the two remaining rhythms. But as the chief force of rhyme must lie in the accented syllable, the attempt to create rhyme at all in these two remaining rhythms, the trochaic and dactylic, would necessarily result in double and triple rhymes, such as beauty with duty (trochaic), and beautiful with dutiful (dactylic).
It must be observed that in suggesting these processes I assign them no date; nor do I even insist upon their order. Rhyme is supposed to be of modern origin, and were this proved my positions remain untouched. I may say, however, in passing, that several instances of rhyme occur in the “Clouds” of Aristophanes, and that the Roman poets occasionally employed it. There is an effective species of ancient rhyming which has never descended to the moderns: that in which the ultimate and penultimate syllables rhyme with each other. For example:
Parturiunt montes; nascetur ridiculus mus.
Litoreis ingens inventa sub ilicibus sus.
The terminations of Hebrew verse (as far as understood) show no signs of rhyme; but what thinking person can doubt that it did actually exist? That men have so obstinately and blindly insisted, in general, even up to the present day, in confining rhyme to the ends of lines, when its effect is even better applicable elsewhere, intimates in my opinion the sense of some necessity in the connection of the ends with the rhyme- hints that the origin of rhyme lay in a necessity which connected it with the end- shows that neither mere accident nor mere fancy gave rise to the connection-points, in a word, at the very necessity which I have suggested (that of some mode of defining lines to the ear), as the true origin of rhyme. Admit this and we throw the origin far back in the night of Time- beyond the origin of written verse.
But to resume. The amount of complexity I have now supposed to be attained is very considerable. Various systems of equalization are appreciated at once (or nearly so) in their respective values and in the value of each system with reference to all the others. As our present ultimatum of complexity, we have arrived at triple-rhymed, natural-dactylic lines, existing proportionally as well as equally with regard to other triple-rhymed, natural-dactylic lines. For example:
Virginal Lilian, rigidly, humblily dutiful;
Here we appreciate, first, the absolute equality between the long syllable of each dactyl and the two short conjointly; secondly, the absolute equality between each dactyl and any other dactyl, in other words, among all the dactyls; thirdly, the absolute equality between the two middle lines; fourthly, the absolute equality between the first line and the three others taken conjointly, fifthly, the absolute equality between the last two syllables of the respective words “dutiful” and “beautiful”; sixthly, the absolute equality between the two last syllables of the respective words “lowlily” and “holily”; seventhly, the proximate equality between the first syllable of “dutiful” and the first syllable of “beautiful”; eighthly, the proximate equality between the first syllable of “lowlily” and that of “holily”; ninthly, the proportional equality (that of five to one) between the first line and each of its members, the dactyls; tenthly, the proportional equality (that of two to one) between each of the middle lines and its members, the dactyls, eleventhly, the proportional equality between the first line and each of the two middle, that of five to two; twelfthly, the proportional equality between the first line and the last, that of five to one; thirteenthly, the proportional equality between each of the middle lines and the last, that of two to one, lastly, the proportional equality, as concerns number, between all the lines taken collectively, and any individual line, that of four to one.
The consideration of this last equality would give birth immediately to the idea of stanza, (A stanza is often vulgarly, and with gross impropriety, called a verse.) that is to say, the insulation of lines into equal or obviously proportional masses. In its primitive (which was also its best) form the stanza would most probably have had absolute unity. In other words, the removal of any one of its lines would have rendered it imperfect, as in the case above, where if the last line, for example, be taken away there is left no rhyme to the “dutiful” of the first. Modern stanza is excessively loose, and where so, ineffective as a matter of course.
Now, although in the deliberate written statement which I have here given of these various systems of equalities, there seems to be an infinity of complexity so much that it is hard to conceive the mind taking cognisance of them all in the brief period occupied by the perusal or recital of the stanza, yet the difficulty is in fact apparent only when we will it to become so. Any one fond of mental experiment may satisfy himself, by trial, that in listening to the lines he does actually (although with a seeming unconsciousness, on account of the rapid evolutions of sensation) recognise and instantaneously appreciate (more or less intensely as his is cultivated) each and all of the equalizations detailed. The pleasure received or receivable has very much such progressive increase, and in very nearly such mathematical relations as those which I have suggested in the case of the crystal.
It will be observed that I speak of merely a proximate equality between the first syllable of “dutiful” and that of “beautiful,” and it may be asked why we cannot imagine the earliest rhymes to have had absolute instead of proximate equality of sound. But absolute equality would have involved the use of identical words, and it is the duplicate sameness or monotony, that of sense as well as that of sound, which would have caused these rhymes to be rejected in the very first instance.
The narrowness of the limits within which verse composed of natural feet alone must necessarily have been confined would have led, after a very brief interval, to the trial and immediate adoption of artificial feet, that is to say, of feet not constituted each of a single word but two, or even three words, or of parts of words. These feet would be intermingled with natural ones. For example:
A breath / can make / them as / a breath / his made.
This is an iambic line in which each iambus is formed of two words. Again:
The un / ima / gina / ble might / of Jove.
This is an iambic line in which the first foot is formed of a word and a part of a word; the second and third of parts taken from the body or interior of a word; the fourth of a part and a whole; the fifth of two complete words. There are no natural feet in either line. Again:
Can it be / fancied that / Deity / ever vin / dictively
Made in his / image a / mannikin / merely to / madden it?
These are two dactylic lines in which we find natural feet (“Deity,” “mannikin”); feet composed of two words (“fancied that,” “image a,” “merely to,” “madden it”); feet composed of three words, (“can it be,” “made in his”); a foot composed of a part of a word (“dictively”); and a foot composed of a word and a part of a word (“ever vin”).
And now, in our suppositional progress, we have gone so far as to exhaust all the essentialities of verse. What follows may, strictly speaking, be regarded as embellishment merely, but even in this embellishment the rudimental sense of equality would have been the never-ceasing impulse. It would, for example, be simply in seeking further administration to this sense that men would come in time to think of the refrain or burden, where, at the closes of the several stanzas of a poem, one word or phrase is repeated; and of alliteration, in whose simplest form a consonant is repeated in the commencements of various words. This effect would be extended so as to embrace repetitions both of vowels and of consonants in the bodies as well as in the beginnings of words, and at a later period would be made to infringe on the province of rhyme by the introduction of general similarity of sound between whole feet occurring in the body of a line- all of which modifications I have exemplified in the line above.
Made in his image a mannikin merely to madden it.
Further cultivation would improve also the refrain by relieving its monotone in slightly varying the phrase at each repetition, or (as I have attempted to do in “The Raven”) in retaining the phrase and varying its application, although this latter point is not strictly a rhythmical effect alone. Finally, poets when fairly wearied with following precedent, following it the more closely the less they perceived it in company with Reason, would adventure so far as to indulge in positive rhyme at other points than the ends of lines. First, they would put it in the middle of the line, then at some point where the multiple would be less obvious, then, alarmed at their own audacity, they would undo all their work by cutting these lines in two. And here is the fruitful source of the infinity of “short metre” by which modern poetry, if not distinguished, is at least disgraced. It would require a high degree, indeed, both of cultivation and of courage on the part of any versifier to enable him to place his rhymes, and let them remain at unquestionably their best position, that of unusual and unanticipated intervals.
On account of the stupidity of some people, or (if talent be a more respectable word), on account of their talent for misconception- I think it necessary to add here, first, that I believe the “processes” above detailed to be nearly, if not accurately, those which did occur in the gradual creation of what we now can verse; secondly, that, although I so believe, I yet urge neither the assumed fact nor my belief in it as a part of the true propositions of this paper, thirdly, that in regard to the aim of this paper, it is of no consequence whether these processes did occur either in the order I have assigned them, or at all; my design being simply, in presenting a general type of what such processes might have been and must have resembled, to help them, the “some people,” to an easy understanding of what I have further to say on the topic of Verse.
There is one point, which, in my summary of the processes, I have purposely forborne to touch; because this point, being the most important of all on account of the immensity of error usually involved in its consideration, would have led me into a series of detail inconsistent with the object of a summary.
Every reader of verse must have observed how seldom it happens that even any one line proceeds uniformly with a succession, such as I have supposed, of absolutely equal feet; that is to say, with a succession of iambuses only, or of trochees only, or of dactyls only, or of anapaests only, or of spondees only. Even in the most musical lines we find the succession interrupted. The iambic pentameters of Pope, for example, will be found on examination, frequently varied by trochees in the beginning, or by (what seem to be) anapaests in the body of the line.
oh thou / whate / ver ti / tle please / thine ear /
Dean Dra / pier Bick / erstaff / or Gull / iver /
Whether / thou choose / Cervan / tes’ / se / rious air /
or laugh / and shake / in Rab / elais’ ea / sy chair /
Were any one weak enough to refer to the Prosodies for the solution of the difficulty here, he would find it solved as usual by a rule, stating the fact (or what it, the rule, supposes to be the fact), but without the slightest attempt at the rationale. “By a synaeresis of the two short syllables,” say the books, “an anapaest may sometimes be employed for an iambus, or dactyl for a trochee…. In the beginning of a line a trochee is often used for an iambus.”
Blending is the plain English for synaeresis- but there should be no blending; neither is an anapaest ever employed for an iambus, or a dactyl for a trochee. These feet differ in time, and no feet so differing can ever be legitimately used in the same line. An anapaest is equal to four short syllables- an iambus only to three. Dactyls and trochees hold the same relation. The principle of equality, in verse, admits, it is true, of variation at certain points, for the relief of monotone, as I have already shown, but the point of time is that point which, being the rudimental one, must never be tampered with at all.
To explain:- In further efforts for the relief of monotone than those to which I have alluded in the summary, men soon came to see that there was no absolute necessity for adhering to the precise number of syllables, provided the time required for the whole foot was preserved inviolate. They saw, for instance, that in such a line as
or laugh / and shake / in Rab / elais ea / sy chair /
the equalisation of the three syllables elais ea with the two syllables composing any of the other feet could be readily effected by pronouncing the two syllables elais in double quick time. By pronouncing each of the syllables e and lais twice as rapidly as the syllable sy, or the syllable in, or any other short syllable, they could bring the two of them, taken together, to the length, that is to say to the time, of any one short syllable. This consideration enabled them to effect the agreeable variation of three syllables in place of the uniform two. And variation was the object-variation to the ear. What sense is there, then, in supposing this object rendered null by the blending of the two syllables so as to render them, in absolute effect, one? Of course, there must be no blending. Each syllable must be pronounced as distinctly as possible (or the variation is lost), but with twice the rapidity in which the ordinary short syllable is enunciated. That the syllables elais ea do not compose an anapaest is evident, and the signs of their accentuation are erroneous. The foot might be written with inverted crescents expressing double quick time; and might be called a bastard iambus.
Here is a trochaic line:
See the / delicate-footed / rain-deer.
The prosodies- that is to say the most considerate of them- would here decide that “delicate” is a dactyl used in place of a trochee, and would refer to what they call their “rule, for justification. Others, varying the stupidity, would insist upon a Procrustean adjustment thus (del’cate) an adjustment recommended to all such words as silvery, murmuring. etc., which, it is said, should be not only pronounced but written silv’ry, murm’ring, and so on, whenever they find themselves in trochaic predicament. I have only to say that “delicate,” when circumstanced as above, is neither a dactyl nor a dactyl’s equivalent; that I think it as well to call it a bastard trochee; and that all words, at all events, should be written and pronounced in full, and as nearly as possible as nature intended them.
About eleven years ago, there appeared in “The American Monthly Magazine” (then edited, I believe, by Messrs Hoffman and Benjamin,) a review of Mr. Willis’s Poems; the critic putting forth his strength, or his weakness, in an endeavor to show that the poet was either absurdly affected, or grossly ignorant of the laws of verse; the accusation being based altogether on the fact that Mr. W. made occasional use of this very word “delicate,” and other similar words, in “the Heroic measure, which every one knew consisted of feet of two syllables.” Mr. W. has often, for example, such lines as
That binds him to a woman’s delicate love-
In the gay sunshine, reverent in the storm
With its invisible fingers my loose hair.
Here of course, the feet licate love, verent in and sible fin, are bastard iambuses; are not anapaests and are not improperly used. Their employment, on the contrary, by Mr. Willis, is but one of the innumerable instances he has given of keen sensibility in all those matters of taste which may be classed under the general head of fanciful embellishment.
It is also about eleven years ago, if I am not mistaken, since Mr. Horne (of England,) the author of “Orion,” one of the noblest epics in any language, thought it necessary to preface his “Chaucer Modernized” by a very long and evidently a very elaborate essay, of which the greater portion was occupied in a discussion of the seemingly anomalous foot of which we have been speaking. Mr. Horne upholds Chaucer in its frequent use; maintains his superiority, on account of his so frequently using it, over all English versifiers; and indignantly repelling the common idea of those who make verse on their fingers- that the superfluous syllable is a roughness and an error- very chivalrously makes battle for it as a “grace.” That a grace it is, there can be no doubt; and what I complain of is, that the author of the most happily versified long poem in existence, should have been under the necessity of discussing this grace merely as a grace, through forty or fifty vague pages, solely because of his inability to show how and why it is a grace- by which showing the question would have been settled in an instant.
About the trochee used for an iambus, as we see in the beginning of the line,
Whether thou choose Cervantes’ serious air,
there is little that need be said. It brings me to the general proposition that, in all rhythms, the prevalent or distinctive feet may be varied at will and nearly at random, by the occasional introduction of feet- that is to say, feet the sum of whose syllabic times is equal to the sum of the syllabic times of the distinctive feet. Thus, the trochee, whether is equal, in the sum of the times of its syllables, to the iambus, thou choose, in the sum of the times of its syllables; each foot being in time equal to three short syllables. Good versifiers who happen to be also good poets, contrive to relieve the monotony of a series of feet by the use of equivalent feet only at rare intervals, and at such points of their subject as seem in accordance with the startling character of the variation. Nothing of this care is seen in the line quoted above- although Pope has some fine instances of the duplicate effect. Where vehemence is to be strongly expressed, I am not sure that we should be wrong in venturing on two consecutive equivalent feet- although I cannot say that I have ever known the adventure made, except in the following passage, which occurs in “Al Aaraaf,” a boyish poem written by myself when a boy. I am referring to the sudden and rapid advent of a star:
Dim was its little disk, and angel eyes
Alone could see the phantom in the skies,
When first the phantoms course was found to be
Headlong hithirward o’er the starry sea.
In the “general proposition” above, I speak of the occasional introduction of equivalent feet. It sometimes happens that unskilful versifiers, without knowing what they do, or why they do it, introduce so many “variations” as to exceed in number the “distinctive” feet, when the ear becomes at once balked by the bouleversement of the rhythm. Too many trochees, for example, inserted in an iambic rhythm would convert the latter to a trochaic. I may note here that in all cases the rhythm designed should be commenced and continued, without variation, until the ear has had full time to comprehend what is the rhythm. In violation of a rule so obviously founded in common sense, many even of our best poets do not scruple to begin an iambic rhythm with a trochee, or the converse; or a dactylic with an anapaest or the converse; and so on.
A somewhat less objectionable error, although still a decided one, is that of commencing a rhythm not with a different equivalent foot but with a “bastard” foot of the rhythm intended. For example:
Many a / thought will / come to / memory. /
Here ‘many a’ is what I have explained to be a bastard trochee, and to be understood should be accented with inverted crescents. It is objectionable solely on account of its position as the opening foot of a trochaic rhythm. Memory, similarly accented is also a bastard trochee, but unobjectionable, although by no means demanded.
The further illustration of this point will enable me to take an important step.
One of our finest poets, Mr. Christopher Pearse Cranch, begins a very beautiful poem thus:
Many are the thoughts that come to me
In my lonely musing;
And they drift so strange and swift
There’s no time for choosing
Which to follow; for to leave
Any, seems a losing.
,p> “A losing” to Mr. Cranch, of course- but this en passant. It will be seen here that the intention is trochaic;- although we do not see this intention by the opening foot as we should do, or even by the opening line. Reading the whole stanza, however, we perceive the trochaic rhythm as the general design, and so after some reflection, we divide the first line thus:
Many are the / thoughts that / come to / me.
Thus scanned, the line will seem musical. It is highly so. And it is because there is no end to instances of just such lines of apparently incomprehensible music, that Coleridge thought proper to invent his nonsensical system of what he calls “scanning by accents”- as if “scanning by accents” were anything more than a phrase. Whenever “Christabel” is really not rough, it can be as readily scanned by the true I laws (not the supposititious rules) of verse, as can the simplest pentameter of Pope; and where it is rough (passim) these same laws will enable any one of common sense to show why it is rough and to point out instantaneously the remedy for the roughness.
A reads and re-reads a certain line, and pronounces it false in rhythm-unmusical. B, however, reads it to A, and A is at once struck with the perfection of the rhythm, and wonders at his dulness in not “catching” it before. Henceforward he admits the line to be musical. B, triumphant, asserts that, to be sure the line is musical- for it is the work of Coleridge- and that it is A who is not; the fault being in A’s false reading. Now here A is right and B wrong. That rhythm is erroneous (at some point or other more or less obvious), which any ordinary reader can, without design, read improperly. It is the business of the poet so to construct his line that the intention must be caught at once. Even when these men have precisely the same understanding of a sentence, they differ, and often widely, in their modes of enunciating it. Any one who has taken the trouble to examine the topic of emphasis (by which I here mean not accent of particular syllables, but the dwelling on entire words), must have seen that men emphasize in the most singularly arbitrary manner. There are certain large classes of people, for example, who persist in emphasizing their monosyllables. Little uniformity of emphasis prevails; because the thing itself- the idea, emphasis- is referabie to no natural- at least to no well comprehended and therefore uniform-law. Beyond a very narrow and vague limit, the whole matter is conventionality. And if we differ in emphasis even when we agree in comprehension, how much more so in the former when in the latter too! Apart, however, from the consideration of natural disagreement, is it not clear that, by tripping here and mouthing there, any sequence of words may be twisted into any species of rhythm? But are we thence to deduce that all sequences of words are rhythmical in a rational understanding of the term?- for this is the deduction precisely to which the reductio ad absurdum will, in the end, bring all the propositions of Coleridge. Out of a hundred readers of “Christabel,” fifty will be able to make nothing of its rhythm, while forty-nine of the remaining fifty with some ado, fancy they comprehend it, after the fourth or fifth perusal. The one out of the whole hundred who shall both comprehend and admire it at first sight- must be an unaccountably clever person- and I am by far too modest to assume, for a moment, that that very clever person is myself.
In illustration of what is here advanced I cannot do better than quote a poem:
Pease porridge hot pease porridge cold
Pease porridge in the pot- nine days old.
Now those of my readers who have never heard this poem pronounced according to the nursery conventionality, will find its rhythm as obscure as an explanatory note; while those who have heard it will divide it thus, declare it musical, and wonder how there can be any doubt about it. ,p>
Pease / porridge / hot / pease / porridge / cold /
Pease / porridge / in the / pot / nine / days / old. /
The chief thing in the way of this species of rhythm, is the necessity which it imposes upon the poet of travelling in constant company with his compositions, so as to be ready at a moment’s notice, to avail himself of a well-understood poetical license- that of reading aloud one’s own doggerel.
In Mr. Cranch’s line,
Many are the / thoughts that / come to / me,
the general error of which I speak is, of course, very partially exemplified, and the purpose for which, chiefly, I cite it, lies yet further on in our topic. ,p> The two divisions (thoughts that) and (come to) are ordinary trochees. The first division (many are the) would be thus accented by the Greek Prosodies (many are the), and would be called by them astrologos. The Latin books would style the foot Paeon Primus, and both Greek and Latin would swear that it was compoded of a trochee and what they term a pyrrhic- that is to say, a foot of two short syllables- a thing that cannot be, as I shall presently show.
But now, there is an obvious difficulty. The astrologos, according to the Prosodies’ own showing, is equal to five short syllables, and the trochee to three- yet, in the line quoted, these two feet are equal. They occupy, precisely, the same time. In fact, the whole music of the line depends upon their being made to occupy the same time. The Prosodies then, have demonstrated what all mathematicians have stupidly failed in demonstrating- that three and five are one and the same thing. After what I have already said, however, about the bastard trochee and the bastard iambus, no one can have any trouble in understanding that many are the is of similar character. It is merely a bolder variation than usual from the routine of trochees, and introduces to the bastard trochee one additional syllable. But this syllable is not short. That is, it is not short in the sense of “short” as applied to the final syllable of the ordinary trochee, where the word means merely the half of long.
In this case (that of the additional syllable) “short,” if used at all, must be used in the sense of the sixth of long. And all the three final syllables can be called short only with the same understanding of the term. The three together are equal only to the one short syllable (whose place they supply) of the ordinary trochee. It follows that there is no sense in accenting these syllables with [a crescent placed with the curve to the bottom]. We must devise for them some new character which shall denote the sixth of long. Let it be the crescent placed with the curve to the left. The whole foot (many are the) might be called a quick trochee.
We now come to the final division (me) of Mr. Cranch’s line. It is clear that this foot, short as it appears, is fully equal in time to each of the preceding. It is, in fact, the caesura- the foot which, in the beginning of this paper, I called the most important in all verse. Its chief office is that of pause or termination; and here- at the end of a line- its use is easy, because there is no danger of misapprehending its value. We pause on it, by a seeming necessity, just so long as it has taken us to pronounce the preceding feet, whether iambuses, trochees, dactyls, or anapaests. It is thus a variable foot, and, with some care, may be well introduced into the body of a line, as in a little poem of great beauty by Mrs. Welby:
I have / a lit / tle step / son / of on / ly three / years old. /
Here we dwell on the caesura, son just as long as it requires us to pronounce either of the preceding or succeeding iambuses. Its value, therefore, in this line, is that of three short syllables. In the following dactylic line its value is that of four short syllables.
Pale as a / lily was / Emily / [Gray]. /
I have accented the caesura with brackets by way of expressing this variability of value.
I observed just now that there could be no such foot as one of two short syllables. What we start from in the very beginning of all idea on the topic of verse, is quantity, length. Thus when we enunciate an independent syllable it is long, as a matter of course. If we enunciate two, dwelling on both we express equality in the enunciation, or length, and have a right to call them two long syllables. If we dwell on one more than the other, we have also a right to call one short, because it is short in relation to the other. But if we dwell on both equally, and with a tripping voice, saying to ourselves here are two short syllables, the query might well be asked of us- “in relation to what are they short?” Shortness is but the negation of length. To say, then, that two syllables, placed independently of any other syllable, are short, is merely to say that they have no positive length, or enunciation- in other words, that they are no syllables- that they do not exist at all. And if, persisting, we add anything about their equality, we are merely floundering in the idea of an identical equation, where, x being equal to x, nothing is shown to be equal to zero. In a word, we can form no conception of a pyrrhic as of an independent foot. It is a mere chimera bred in the mad fancy of a pedant.
From what I have said about the equalization of the several feet of a line, it must not be deduced that any necessity for equality in time exists between the rhythm of several lines. A poem, or even a stanza, may begin with iambuses in the first line, and proceed with anapaests in the second, or even with the less accordant dactyls, as in the opening of quite a pretty specimen of verse by Miss Mary A. S. Aldrich:
The wa / ter li / ly sleeps / in pride /
Down in the / depths of the / Azure / [lake.] /
Here azure is a spondee, equivalent to a dactyl; lake a caesura. I shall now best proceed in quoting the initial lines of Byron’s “Bride of Abydos”:
Know ye the land where, the cypress and myrtle
Are emblems of deeds that are done in their clime,
Where the rage of the vulture, the love of the turtle
Now melt into softness, now madden to crime?
Know ye the land of the cedar and vine,
Where the flowers ever blossom, the beams ever shine,
And the light wings of Zephyr, oppressed with perfume.
Wax faint o’er the gardens of Gul in their bloom?
Where the citron and olive are fairest of fruit
And the voice of the nightingale never is mute-
Where the virgins are soft as the roses they twine,
And all save the spirit of man is divine?
‘Tis the land of the East- ’tis the clime of the Sun-
Can he smile on such deeds as his children have done?
Oh, wild as the accents of lovers’ farewell
Are the hearts that they bear and the tales that they tell.
Now the flow of these lines (as times go) is very sweet and musical. They have been often admired, and justly- as times go- that is to say, it is a rare thing to find better versification of its kind. And where verse is pleasant to the ear, it is silly to find fault with it because it refuses to be scanned. Yet I have heard men, professing to be scholars, who made no scruple of abusing these lines of Byron’s on the ground that they were musical in spite of all law. Other gentlemen, not scholars, abused “all law” for the same reason- and it occurred neither to the one party nor to the other that the law about which they were disputing might possibly be no law at all- an ass of a law in the skin of a lion.
The Grammars said nothing about dactylic lines, and it was easily seen that these lines were at least meant for dactylic. The first one was, therefore, thus divided:
Know ye the / land where the / cypress and / myrtle. /
The concluding foot was a mystery; but the Prosodies said something about the dactylic “measure” calling now and then for a double rhyme; and the court of inquiry were content to rest in the double rhyme, without exactly perceiving what a double rhyme had to do with the question of an irregular foot. Quitting the first line, the second was thus scanned:
are emblems / of deeds that / are done in / their clime. /
It was immediately seen, however, that this would not do- it was at war with the whole emphasis of the reading. It could not be supposed that Byron, or any one in his senses, intended to place stress upon such monosyllables as “are,” “of,” and “their,” nor could “their clime,” collated with “to crime,” in the corresponding line below, be fairly twisted into anything like a “double rhyme,” so as to bring everything within the category of the Grammars. But farther these Grammars spoke not. The inquirers, therefore, in spite of their sense of harmony in the lines, when considered without reference to scansion, fell upon the idea that the “Are” was a blunder- an excess for which the poet should be sent to Coventry- and, striking it out, they scanned the remainder of the line as follows:
-emblems of / deeds that are / done in their / clime.
This answered pretty well; but the Grammars admitted no such foot as a foot of one syllable; and besides the rhythm was dactylic. In despair, the books are well searched, however, and at last the investigators are gratified by a full solution of the riddle in the profound “Observation” quoted in the beginning of this article:- “When a syllable is wanting, the verse is said to be catalectic, when the measure is exact, the line is acatalectic; when there is a redundant syllable it forms hypermeter” This is enough. The anomalous line is pronounced to be catalectic at the head and to form hypermeter at the tail- and so on, and so on; it being soon discovered that nearly all the remaining lines are in a similar predicament, and that what flows so smoothly to the ear, although so roughly to the eye, is, after all, a mere jumble of catalecticism, acatalecticism, and hypermeter- not to say worse.
Now, had this court of inquiry been in possession of even the shadow of the philosophy of Verse, they would have had no trouble in reconciling this oil and water of the eye and ear, by merely scanning the passage without reference to lines, and, continuously, thus:
Know ye the / land where the / cypress and myrtle Are / emblems of
deeds that are / done in their / clime Where the rage of the /
vulture the / love of the / turtle Now / melt into / softness now /
madden to / Know ye the / land of the / cedar and / vine Where the
flowers ever / blossom the / beams ever / shine And the / light
wings of / Zephyr op / pressed by per / fume Wax / faint o’er the /
gardens of / Gul in their / bloom where the / citron and / olive are /
fairest of / fruit And the / voice of the / nightingale / never is /
mute Where the / virgins are / soft as the / roses they / twine And
/ all save the / spirit of / man is di / vine. ‘Tis the / land of
the / East ’tis the / clime of the / sum Can he / smile on such /
deeds as his / children have / done Oh / wild as the / accents of /
lovers’ fare / well Are the / hearts that they / bear and the /
tales that they / tell.
Here “crime” and “tell” are caesuras, each having the value of a dactyl, four short syllables, while “fume Wax,” “twine And,” and “done Oh,” are spondees which, of course, being composed of two long syllables are also equal to four short, and are the dactyl’s natural equivalent. The nicety of Byron’s ear has led him into a succession of feet which, with two trivial exceptions as regards melody, are absolutely accurate, a very rare occurrence this in dactylic or anapaestic rhythms. The exceptions are found in the spondee “twine And,” and the dactyl “smile on such.” Both feet are false in point of melody. In “twine And” to make out the rhyme we must force “And” into a length which it will not naturally bear. We are called on to sacrifice either the proper length of the syllable as demanded by its position as a member of a spondee, or the customary accentuation of the word in conversation. There is no hesitation, and should be none. We at once give up the sound for the sense, and the rhythm is imperfect. In this instance it is very slightly so, not one person in ten thousand could by ear detect the inaccuracy. But the perfection of verse as regards melody, consists in its never demanding any such sacrifice as is here demanded. The rhythmical must agree thoroughly with the reading flow. This perfection has in no instance been attained, but is unquestionably attainable. “Smile on such,” a dactyl, is incorrect, because “such,” from the character of the two consonants ch cannot easily be enunciated in the ordinary time of a short syllable, which its position declares that it is. Almost every reader will be able to appreciate the slight difficulty here, and yet the error is by no means so important as that of the “And” in the spondee. By dexterity we may pronounce “such” in the true time, but the attempt to remedy the rhythmical deficiency of the And by drawing it out, merely aggrevates the offence against natural enunciation by directing attention to the offence.
My main object, however, in quoting these lines is to show that in spite of the Prosodies, the length of a line is entirely an arbitrary matter. We might divide the commencement of Byron’s poem thus:-
Know ye the / land where the /
Know ye the / land where the / cypress and /
Know ye the / land where the / cypress and / myrtle are /
Know ye the / land where the / cypress and / myrtle are / emblems of
In short, we may give it any division we please, and the lines will be good, provided we have at least two feet in a line. As in mathematics two units are required to form number, so rhythm (from the Greek arithmos, number) demands for its formation at least two feet. Beyond doubt, we often see such lines as
Know ye the-
Land where the-
lines of one foot, and our Prosodies admit such, but with impropriety, for common sense would dictate that every so obvious division of a poem as is made by a line, should include within itself all that is necessary for its own comprehension, but in a line of one foot we can have no appreciation of rhythm, which depends upon the equality between two or more pulsations. The false lines, consisting sometimes of a single caesura, which are seen in mock Pindaric odes, are, of course, “rhythmical” only in connection with some other line, and it is this want of independent rhythm, which adapts them to the purposes of burlesque alone. Their effect is that of incongruity (the principle of mirth), for they include the blankness of prose amid the harmony of verse.
My second object in quoting Byron’s lines was that of showing how absurd it often is to cite a single line from amid the body of a poem for the purpose of instancing the perfection or imperfection of the lines rhythm. Were we to see by itself
Know ye the land where the cypress and myrtle,
we might justly condemn it as defective in the final foot, which is equal to only three, instead of being equal to four short syllables. In the foot “flowers ever” we shall find a further exemplification of the principle of the bastard iambus, bastard trochee, and quick trochee, as I have been at some pains in describing these feet above. All the Prosodies on English verse would insist upon making elision in “flowers,” thus (flow’rs), but this is nonsense. In the quick trochee (many Are the) occurring in Mr. Cranch’s trochaic line, we had to equalize the time of the three syllables (ny, are, the) to that of the one short syllable whose position they usurp. Accordingly each of these syllables is equal to the third of a short syllable, that is to say, the sixth of a long. But in Byron’s dactylic rhythm, we have to equalize the time of the three syllables (ers, ev, er) to that of the one long syllable whose position they usurp, or (which is the same thing) of the two short. Therefore the value of each of the syllables (ers, ev, and er) is the third of a long. We enunciate them with only half the rapidity we employ in enunciating the three final syllables of the quick trochee- which latter is a rare foot. The “flowers ever,” on the contrary, is as common in the dactylic rhythm as is the bastard trochee in the trochaic, or the bastard iambus in the iambic. We may as well accent it with the curve of the crescent to the right and call it a bastard dactyl. A bastard anapaest, whose nature I now need be at no trouble in explaining, will of course occur now and then in an anapaestic rhythm.
I began the “processes” by a suggestion of the spondee as the first step towards verse. But the innate monotony of the spondee has caused its disappearance as the basis of rhythm from all modern poetry. We may say, indeed, that the French heroic- the most wretchedly monotonous verse in existence- is to all intents and purposes spondaic. But it is not designedly spondaic, and if the French were ever to examine it at all, they would no doubt pronounce it iambic. It must be observed that the French language is strangely peculiar in this point- that it is without accentuation and consequently without verse. The genius of the people, rather than the structure of the tongue, declares that their words are for the most part enunciated with a uniform dwelling on each syllable. For example we say “syllabification.” A Frenchman would say syl-la-bi-fi-ca-ti-on, dwelling on no one of the syllables with any noticeable particularity. Here again I put an extreme case in order to be well understood, but the general fact is as I give it- that, comparatively, the French have no accentuation; and there can be nothing worth the name of verse without. Therefore, the French have no verse worth the name- which is the fact put in sufficiently plain terms. Their iambic rhythm so superabounds in absolute spondees as to warrant me in calling its basis spondaic; but French is the only modern tongue which has any rhythm with such basis, and even in the French it is, as I have said, unintentional.
Admitting, however, the validity of my suggestion, that the spondee was the first approach to verse, we should expect to find, first, natural spondees (words each forming just a spondee) most abundant in the most ancient languages; and, secondly, we should expect to find spondees forming the basis of the most ancient rhythms. These expectations are in both cases confirmed.
Of the Greek hexameter the intentional basis is spondaic. The dactyls are the variation of the theme. It will be observed that there is no absolute certainty about their points of interposition. The penultimate foot, it is true, is usually a dactyl but not uniformly so, while the ultimate, on which the ear lingers, is always a spondee. Even that the penultimate is usually a dactyl may be clearly referred to the necessity of winding up with the distinctive spondee. In corroboration of this idea, again, we should look to find the penultimate spondee most usual in the most ancient verse, and, accordingly, we find it more frequent in the Greek than in the Latin hexameter.
But besides all this, spondees are not only more prevalent in the heroic hexameter than dactyls, but occur to such an extent as is even unpleasant to modern ears, on account of monotony. What the modern chiefly appreciates and admires in the Greek hexameter is the melody of the abundant vowel sounds. The Latin hexameters really please very few moderns- although so many pretend to fall into ecstasies about them. In the hexameters quoted several pages ago, from Silius Italicus, the preponderance of the spondee is strikingly manifest. Besides the natural spondees of the Greek and Latin, numerous artificial ones arise in the verse of these tongues, on account of the tendency which inflection has to throw full accentuation on terminal syllables, and the preponderance of the spondee is further ensured by the comparative infrequency of the small prepositions which we have to serve us instead of case, and also the absence of the diminutive auxiliary verbs with which we have to eke out the expression of our primary ones. These are the monosyllables whose abundance serves to stamp the poetic genius of a language as tripping or dactylic.
Now paying no attention to these facts, Sir Philip Sidney, Professor Longfellow, and innumerable other persons, more or less modern, have busied themselves in constructing what they supposed to be “English hexameters on the model of the Greek.” The only difficulty was that (even leaving out of question the melodious masses of vowel) these gentlemen never could get their English hexameters to sound Greek. Did they look Greek?- that should have been the query, and the reply might have led to a solution of the riddle. In placing a copy of ancient hexameters side by side with a copy (in similar type) of such hexameters as Professor Longfellow, or Professor Felton or the Frogpondian Professors collectively, are in the shameful practice of composing “on the model of the Greek,” it will be seen that the latter (hexameters, not professors) are about one-third longer to the eye, on an average, than the former. The more abundant dactyls make the difference. And it is the greater number of spondees in the Greek than in the English, in the ancient than in the modern tongue, which has caused it to fall out that while these eminent scholars were groping about in the dark for a Greek hexameter, which is a spondaic rhythm varied now and then by dactyls, they merely stumbled, to the lasting scandal of scholarship, over something which, on account of its long-leggedness, we may as well term a Feltonian hexameter, and which is a dactylic rhythm interrupted rarely by artificial spondees which are no spondees at all, and which are curiously thrown in by the heels at all kinds of improper and impertinent points.
Here is a specimen of the Longfellow hexameter:
Also the / church with / in was a / dorned for / this was the /
In which the / young their / parent’s / hope and the / loved ones of
/ Heaven /
Should at the / foot of the / altar re / new the / vows of their /
Therefore each / nook and / corner was / swept and / cleaned and the
/ dust was /
Blown from the / walls and / ceiling and / from the / oil-painted /
Mr. Longfellow is a man of imagination, but can he imagine that any individual, with a proper understanding of the danger of lockjaw, would make the attempt of twisting his mouth into the shape necessary for the emission of such spondees as “parents,” and “from the,” or such dactyls as “cleaned and the,” and “loved ones of”? “Baptism” is by no means a bad spondee- perhaps because it happens to be a dactyl- of all the rest, however, I am dreadfully ashamed.
But these feet, dactyls and spondees, all together, should thus be put at once into their proper position:
“Also the church within was adorned; for this was the season in which the young, their parents’ hope, and the loved ones of Heaven, should, at the foot of the altar, renew the vows of their baptism. Therefore, each nook and corner was swept and cleaned; and the dust was blown from the walls and ceiling, and from the oil-painted benches?
There!- That is respectable prose, and it will incur no danger of ever getting its character ruined by anybody’s mistaking it for verse. But even when we let these modern hexameters go as Greek, and merely hold them fast in their proper character of Longfellowine, or Feltonian, or Frogpondian, we must still condemn them as having been committed in a radical misconception of the philosophy of verse. The spondee, as I observed, is the theme of the Greek line. Most of the ancient hexameters begin with spondees, for the reason that the spondee is the theme, and the ear is filled with it as with a burden. Now the Feltonian dactylics have, in the same way, dactyl for the theme, and most of them begin with dactyls- which is all very proper if not very Greek- but unhappily, the one point at which they are very Greek is that point, precisely, at which they should be nothing but Feltonian. They always close with what is meant for a spondee. To be consistently silly they should die off in a dactyl.
That a truly Greek hexameter cannot, however, be readily composed in English, is a proposition which I am by no means inclined to admit. I think I could manage the point myself. For example:
Do tell! / when may we / hope to make / men of sense / out of the
Born and brought / up with their / snouts deep / down in the / mud
of the / Frog-pond?
Why ask? / who ever / yet saw / money made / out of a / fat old
Jew, or / downright / upright / nutmegs / out of a / pine-knot?
The proper spondee predominance is here preserved. Some of the dactyls are not so good as I could wish, but, upon the whole the rhythm is very decent- to say nothing of its excellent sense.