1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Verse
VERSE (from Lat. versus, literally a line or furrow drawn by turning the plough, from vertere, and afterwards signifying an arrangement of syllables into feet), the name given to an assemblage of words so placed together as to produce a metrical effect. The art of making, and the science of analysing, such verses is known as Versification. According to Max Müller, there is an analogy between versus and the Sanskrit term, vritta, which is the name given by the ancient grammarians of India to the rule determining the value of the quantity in vedic poetry. In modern speech, verse is directly contrasted with prose, as being essentially the result of an attention to determined rules of form. In English we speak of "a verse" or "verses," with reference to specific instances, or of " verse," as the general science or art of metrical expression, with its regulations and phenomena. A verse, which is a series of rhythmical syllables, divided by pauses, is destined in script to occupy a single line, and was so understood by the ancients (the στίχος of the Greeks). The Alexandrian scholiast Hephaestion speaks distinctly of verses that ceased to be verses because they were too long; he stigmatizes a pentameter line of Callimachus as στίχον ύπέρμετρον. There is no danger, therefore, in our emphasizing this rule, and in saying that, even in Mr Swinburne's most extended experiments the theory is that a verse fills but one line in a supposititious piece of writing.
It is essential that the verse so limited should be a complete form in itself. It is not, like a clause or a sentence in prose, unrecurrent and unlimited, but it presents us with a successive and a continuous cadence, confined within definite bounds. There has been a constant discussion as to what it is in which this succession and this continuity consist, and here we come at once to the principal difficulty which makes the analysis of the processes of the poets so difficult. To go back to the earliest European tradition, it is universally admitted that the ancient Greeks considered the art of verse as a branch of musk, and as such co-ordinated it with harmony and orchestral effect. This appears from definite statements preserved in the fragments of Aristoxenus of Tarentum, a grammarian who lived in the age of Alexander the Great, and whom we shall see to have been the first who laid down definite laws for prosody as a department of musical art (μονσική). It was found necessary, in order to compose a work of musical value, to work out a system of disciplined and linked movement. This system, or arrangement, was called rhythm, and this is common to all the arts of melody. Harmony, consisting in the reproduction of the sound of human voices or of musical instruments, and orchestrics, dealing with the movements of the human body, were expressed in metrical art by that arrangement of syllables which is known as rhythm. The science of metre is the teaching of those laws on which depends the rhythmical forms of poetry. This science has been, from the earliest ages of criticism, divided into a study of the general principles upon which all these forms are builded, and upon the special types into which they have gradually developed.
In considering ancient versification, it is necessary to give attention to Latin as well as to Greek metre, because although the Roman poets were in the main dependent upon the earlier tradition, there were several points at which they broke away, and were almost entirely independent. Roman verse, though essentially the same as Greek verse, was modified by the national development of Italian forms of poetry, by a simplified imitation of Greek measures, and by a varied intensity in the creation of new types of the old Greek artistic forms (Volkmann). In later times there was a tendency to consider the laws of metre as superior to, and almost independent of, the native impulse of the poet; and this is where the study of the old poetry itself is most salutary, as checking us in our tendency to bow too slavishly to the rules of the grammarians. No doubt, in the archaic times, theory and practice went hand in hand. The poet, held in constant check by the exigencies of music, was obliged to recognize the existence of certain rules, the necessity of which was confirmed by the delicacy of his ear. These he would pass down to his disciples, with any further discoveries which he might himself have made. For instance, what we are somewhat vaguely told of the influence of a poet like Archilochus, to whom the very invention of trochaic and iambic metre is, perhaps fabulously, attributed, points to the probability that in Archilochus the Ionian race produced a poet of extraordinary daring and delicacy of ear, who gathered the wandering rhythms that had existed, and had doubtless been used in ah uncertain way before his time, into a system which could be depended upon, and not in his hands only, to produce certain effects of welcome variety. His system would engage the attention of theorists, and we learn that by the time of Plato schools of oral metrical education Were already in existence, where the science of sounds and syllables was already beginning to be recognized, as may be seen in the Cratylus. Before long, the teachings in these peripatetic schools would be preserved, for safety's sake, in writing, and the theoretic literature of versification would begin. In fact, we read in Suidas of a certain Lasus of Hermione who wrote an Art of Poetry, and the age of this, the earliest of recorded authorities on the formal laws of verse, is fixed for us by the fact that he is spoken of as having been the master of Pindar. Of the writings of Lasus and his followers, however, nothing remains, and the character of their teaching is problematical. In the 3rd century B.C., however, we come upon a figure which preserves a definite character; this is Aristoxenus, the disciple of Aristotle, who gave his undivided attention to rhythm, and who lives, unfortunately only in fragments, as the most eminent musical critic of antiquity. The brief fragments of his Elements of Rhythm (ρυθμικά στοιχεία) originally written in three books, are of unsurpassed value to us as illustrating the attitude of classical Greece to the interrelation of verse and music. The third book of Aristoxenus dealt specifically with λέξις, or the application of rhythm to artistically composed and written verse.
It is certain that, after the time of Alexander the Great, the theories of verse tended somewhat rapidly to release themselves from the theories of music, and when, in the successive ages of Greek criticism, much attention was given to the laws of versification, less and less was said about harmony and more and more about metre. Rules, often of a highly arbitrary nature, were drawn up by grammarians, who founded their laws on a scholiastic study of the ancient poets. The majority of the works in which these rules were collected are lost, but an enchiridion of Greek metres, by Hephaestion, a scholiast of the 2nd century A.D., has been preserved. First printed in 1526, editions and translations of Hephaestion's manual have not been infrequent.
The metrical theory of the Byzantine grammarians was entirely in unison with the old tradition of the Alexandrian schools, and depended on the authority of Hephaestion. Michael Psellus, in the 9th century, wrote abundantly on the subject, and towards the close of the Empire the verse-handbooks of Isaac Tzetzes (d. 1138) and of his brother Joannes were in general use. A large number of other Byzantine scholiasts and theorists are mentioned in this connexion by Gleditsch. "Very little attention was paid to metrical science in medieval and even Renaissance days. It is much to the honour of English scholarship that the earliest modern writer who made a rational study of ancient metre was Richard Bentley, in his Schediasma de metris Tereniianis, printed at Cambridge in 1726. He was soon followed by the Germans, in particular by Hermann, Boeckh and J. A. Apel. To this day, German scholarship easily leads in the rational and accurate study of classical versification.
The chief principle in ancient verse was quantity, that is, the amount of time involved in the effort to express a syllable. Accordingly, the two basal types which lie at the foundation of classical metre are "longs" and "shorts." The convention was that a long syllable was equal to two short ones: accordingly there was a real truth in calling the succession of such "feet" metre, for the length, or weight, of the syllables forming them could be, and was, measured. What has to be realized in speaking of ancient metre is that the value of these feet was defined with exactitude, not left uncertain, as it is in modern European verse, when accent is almost always made the guiding principle. In Greek verse, there might be an ictus (stress), which fell upon the long syllable, but it could only be a regulating element, and accent was always a secondary element in the construction of Greek metre, The "feet" recognized and described by the ancient grammarians were various, and in their apparent diversity sometimes difficult to follow, but the comprehension of them is simplified if the student realizes that the names given to them are often superfluous. The main distinction between feet consists in the diversity of the relation between the strong and the weak syllables. There are naturally only two movements, the quick and the slow. Thus we have the anapaest ( ‿ ‿ — , short-short-long) and the dactyl ( — ‿ ‿ , long-short-short), which are equal, and differ only as regards the position of their parts. To these follow two feet which must be considered as in their essence non^metrical, as it is only in combination with others that they can become metrical. These are the spondee ( — — , long-long) and the pyrrhic ( ‿ ‿ , short-short). Of more essential character are the two descriptions of slow feet, the iamb ( ‿ — , short-long) and the trochee ( — ‿ , long-short). Besides these definite types, the ingenuity of formalists has invented an almost infinite number of other " feet." It is, perhaps, necessary to mention some of the principal of these, although they are, in the majority of cases, purely arbitrary. In the rapid measures we find the tribrach (^-"~^ v - - , short -short- short), the molossus ( , long-long-long), the amphibrach
( w â€” w , short -long-short), the amphimacer ( â€” *-' â€” -, long- short-long), the bacchius (^ , short-long-long) and the
antibacchius ( w , long-long-short). There is a foot of
four syllables, the choriamb ( â€” w â€” 'â€¢ â€” , long-short-short- long), which is the fundamental foot in Aeolic verse â€” very frequently mentioned, but very seldom met with.
It must not be forgotten that the prosodical terminology of the Greeks, which is often treated by non-poetical writers as something scientific and even sacrosanct, dates from a time when ancient literature had lost all its freshness and impulse, and was exclusively the study of analysts and gram- marians. Between the life of Pindar, for instance, and that of Hephaestion, the great metrical authority, there extends a longer period than between Chaucer and Professor Skeat; and to appreciate the value of the rules of Greek prosody we must recollect that those rules were invented by learned and academic men to account for phenomena which they observed, and wished to comprehend, in writings that had long been classical, and were already growing positively archaic. The fact seems to be that the combination of long and short syllables into spondees, iambs, dactyls and anapaests, forms the sole genuine basis of all classical verse.
Metre is a science which pays attention to all the possible regular arrangements which can be made of these four indis- pensable and indestructible types. Of the metres of the ancients by far the most often employed, and no doubt the oldest, was the dactylic hexameter, a combination of six feet, five successive dactyls and a spondee or trochee: â€”
Lâ€”^ >â€”^â€” U^^ L..--^ U^.-^ L^-
This was known to the ancients as " epic " verse, in contrast to the various lyrical measures. The poetry of Homer is the typical example of the use of the epic hexameter, and the character of the Homeric saga led to the fashion by which the dactylic hexameter, whatever its subject, was styled " heroic metre." The earliest epics, doubtless, were chanted to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument, on which the pulsa- tion of the verse (<bnj) was recorded. It was the opinion of W. Christ that the origin of the hexameter was to be sought in hieratic poetry, the fulness of the long dactylic line attracting the priests to its use in the delivery of oracles, from which it naturally passed to solemn tales of the actions of gods and heroes. It is more difficult to see how, later on, it became the vehicle for comic and satiric writing, and is found at last adopted by the bucolic poets for their amorous and pastoral dialogues. The Homeric form of the dactylic hexameter has been usually taken, and was taken in classical times, as the normal one, but there have been many variations. A hexameter found in Catullus consists exclusively of spondees, and deviation from the original heroic type could go no further. This concentration of heavy sounds was cultivated to give solemnity to the cha- racter of the line. In the whole matter, it is best to recognize that the rules of the grammarians were made after the event, to account for the fact that the poets had chosen, while adhering to the verse-structure of five rapid beats and a subsidence, to vary the internal character of that structure exactly as their ear and their passion dictated. This seems particularly true in the case of the caesura, where the question is not so much a matter of defining " male " caesura or " female " caesura, " bucolic " caesura or " trochaic," as of patiently noting instances in which the unconscious poet, led by his inspiration, has varied his pauses and his emphasis at his own free will. The critics have written much of " proscdical licence," but verse in the days of Homer, like verse now, is simply good or bad, and if it is good it may show liberty and variety, but it knows nothing of " licence."
We pass, by a natural transition, to the pentameter, which is the most frequently employed of what are known as the syncopied forms of dactylic verse. It was used with the hexa- meter, to produce the effect which was early called elegiac, and its form shows the appropriateness of this custom: â€”
"Cynthia [ prima fu- | it, || Cynthia | finis e- | rit."
A hexameter, full of energy and exaltation, followed by a descending and melancholy pentameter, had an immediate tendency to take a complete form, and this is the origin of the stanza. The peculiar character of this two-line stanza has been fixed for all time by a brilliant epigram of Schiller, which is itself a specimen of the form: â€”
" Im Hexameter steigt des Springquells fliissige Saule, Im Pentameter drauf fallt sie melodisch herab."
Such a distich was called an elegy, k'Xeyetor', as specially suitable to an eXeyos or lamentation. It is difficult to say with certainty whether the distich so composed was essential as an accompani- ment to fluter-music in the earliest times, or how soon there came to be written purely literary elegies towards which the melody stood in a secondary or ornamental relation. It has, however, been observed that even when the distich had obviously come to be a purely intellectual or lyrical thing, there remained in the sound of the pentameter the trace of lamentation, in which its primitive use at funeral services was clearly preserved. Other grammarians, however, among whom Casar, in his work on the origin of elegiac verse, is prominent, â€” do not believe in the lugubrious essence of the pentameter, and think that the elegiacal couplet was originally erotic, and was adapted to mournful themes by Simonides. If we may credit a passage in Athenaeus, it would seem that the earliest-known elegists, such as Callinus and Solon, wrote for recitation, pure and simple, without the accompaniment of any instrument.
Trochaic verse is called by the ancient grammarians head- less (a.Kâ‚¬<t>a\ov) , because it really consists of iambic verse deprived of its head, or opening syllable. The iambic measure (â€¢~ y â€” w â€” â€¢â€” ' â€” ) becomes trochaic if we cut off the first "short," and make it run â€” ^ â€” "â€” '- â€” s-' â€” . The pure trochaic trimeter and tetrameter had a character of breathless speed, and sometimes bore the name of choric (pv$iibs xop&os), because it was peculiarly appropriate to the dance, and was used for poems which expressed a quickly stepping sentiment. It is understood that, after having been known as a musical movement, it was first employed in the composition of poetry by Archilochus of Paros, in the 7th century B.C.
Iambic metre was, next to the dactylic hexameter, the form of verse most frequently employed by the poets of Greek antiquity. Archilochus, again, who seems to have been a great initiator in the arts of versification, is credited with the invention of the iambic trimeter also, but it certainly existed before his time. Murray believes the original iambic measure, in its popular familiarity, to have sprung from the worship of the homely peasant gods, Dionysus and Demeter. It was not far removed from prose; it gave a writer opportunity for expressing popular thoughts in a manner which simple men could appreciate, being close to their own unsophisticated speech. In particular, it presented itself as a heaven-made instrument for the talent of Euripides, "who, seeing poetry and meaning in every stone of a street, found in the current iambic trimeter a vehicle of expression in some ways more flexible even than prose."
It was not, however, until the invention of the lyric proper,whether individual to the poet, or choral, that the full richness of possible rhythms became obvious to the Greeks. The lyric inspiration came originally from the island of Lesbos, and it passed down through the Asiatic archipelago to Crete before it reached the mainland of Greece. The Lesbians cultivated a monodic ode-poetry in strophes and monostrophes, the enchanting beauty of which can still be realized in measure from what remains to us of the writings of Sappho and Alcaeus There is a stanza known as the Sapphic and another as the Alcaic.
The Sapphic runs as follows: â€”
The stanza of Alcaeus runs:-
These marvellous inventions suited the different moods of these strongly contrasted lyrists, the " violet-crowned, pure, softly smiling Sappho," and the fiery, vehement soldier who was Alcaeus. We must give them peculiar attention, since they were the two earliest models for the lyric passion which has since then expressed itself in so many stanzaic forms, but in none of so faultless a perfection as the original Lesbian types.
The name of Stesichorus of Himera points to the belief of antiquity that he was the earliest poet who gave form to the choral song; he must have been called the "choir-setter" because he arranged and wrote for choirs semi-epic verse of a new kind, "made up of halves of the epic hexameter, interspersed with short variations â€” epitrites, anapaests or mere syncopae— just enough to break the dactylic swing, to make the verse lyrical " (Gilbert Murray). But it appears to be to Arion that the artistic form of the dithyramb is due. We are all among innovators and creators in this glorious 5th century B.C. Simonides gathered the various inventions together, and exercised his genius upon them all: he was the earliest universal lyrist of the world: he treated the styles of verse, as Shelley or as Victor Hugo did, with an impartial mastery.
After the happy event of the Persian War, Athens became the centre of literary activity in Greece, and here the great school of drama developed itself, using for its vehicle, in dialogue, monologue and chorus, nearly all the metres which earlier ages and distant provinces had invented. The verse-form which the dramatists preferred to use was almost exclusively the iambic trimeter, a form which adapted itself equally well to tragedy and to comedy. Aeschylus employed for his choruses a great number of lyric measures, which Sophocles and Euripides reduced and regulated. With the age of the dramatists the creative power of the Greeks in versification came to an end, and the revival of poetic enthusiasm in the Alexandrian age brought with it no talent for fresh metrical inventions, and the time had now arrived when the harvest of Greek prosody was completely garnered.
Latin Metre.—Very little is known about the verse-forms of the original inhabitants of Italy, before the introduction of Greek influences. The earliest use of poetry as a national art in Italy is to be judged by inscriptions in what is called the Saturnian metre. Already, the first Latin epic poets, Livius Andronicus in his Odyssia, Naevius in his Bellum Punicum, the Scipios in their Elogia, combined their rude national sense of folk-song with a consciousness of the quantitative rules of the Greeks. But the same writers, in their dramas, undoubtedly used Greek metres without adaptation, and it is therefore likely that the ancient Saturnian measure was already looked upon as barbarous, and it makes no further reappearance in Latin literature (cf. Gleditsch). The introduction of Greek dramatic metre marks the start of regular poetry among the Latins, which was due, not to men of Roman birth, but to poets of Greek extraction or inhabiting the Greek-speaking provinces of Italy. These writers, bearing the stamp of a widely recognized cultivation, threw the old national verse back into oblivion. Latin verse, then, began in a free but loyal modification of the principles of Greek verse. Plautus was particularly ambitious and skilful in this work, and, aided by a native genius for metre, he laid down the basis of Latin dramatic versification. Terence was a feebler and at the same time a more timid metrist. In satire, the iambic and trochaic measures were carefully adapted by Ennius and Lucilius. The dactylic hexameter followed, and Ennius, in all matters of verse a daring innovator, directly imitated in his Annates the epic measure of the Greeks. To him also is attributed the introduction of the elegiac distich, hexameter and pentameter. The dactylic hexameter was forthwith adopted as the leading metre of the Roman poets, and, as Gleditsch has pointed out, the basis upon which all future versification was to be erected was firmly laid down before the death of Ennius in 169 B.C. Lucilius followed, but perhaps with some tendency to retrogression, for the Latin critics seem to have looked upon his metre as wanting both in melody and elasticity. Lucretius, on the other hand, made a further advance on the labours of Ennius, in his study of
" the rise And long roll of the Hexameter."
Lest, however, this great form of verse should take too exclusive a place in the imagination of the Romans, a younger generation, with Laevius and Terentius Varro at their head, began to imitate the lyrical measures of the Greeks with remarkable success. Varro, who has been styled the earliest metrical theorist of Rome, opened up a new field in this direction by the example of his Menippean satires. These poets left the rigid school of Ennius, and sought to emulate the Alexandrians of their own age: we see the result in the lyric measures used so gracefully and with such brilliant ease by Catullus. The versification of the Romans reached its highest point of polish in the Augustan age, in the writings of Tibullus, Propertius, Virgil and particularly Ovid, who is considered to mark the highest level of various excellence which has ever been reached by a master of Latin versification. In Horace has been traced a tendency to archaism in the study of verse, and in his odes and epodes he was not content with the soft Alexandrian models, but aimed at achieving more vigorous effects by an imitation of the older Greek models, such as Alcaeus and even Archilochus. After the Augustan age, it was no longer the Greek poets, ancient or recent, who were imitated, but the Augustans them- selves were taken as the inapproachable models of Roman verse.
We have hitherto spoken of classical versification as it was regarded by those whom, without offence, we may describe as pedants. But there is precious evidence of the mode in which metre was regarded by poets, and by one of the greatest artists of antiquity. In his Art of Poetry Horace has been speaking of the need of method in composition â€” " tantum series juncturaque pollet " â€” and this reminds him that he has said nothing of the art of verse. The succeeding twenty-four lines contain all that this great poet thought it needful to supply on the subject with which Alexandrian grammarians could fill as many volumes. Although he is actually writing in dactylic hexameters, he does not mention this form of verse; he is chiefly occupied in describing, rather unscientifically, the iambic trimeter, and in praising the iamb, pes citus. He applauds, still somewhat vaguely, the stately versification of the precursors, Ennius and Accius, and blames the immodulata poemata of careless modern writers, whose laxity is condoned by popular ignorance. The only way to escape such faults is to study the Greeks by night and by day, but Horace evidently means by his exemplaria Graeca, not the scholiasts with their lists of metres and their laborious rules, but the old poets with their fine raptures. On Italian ground he points to Plautus, and laments that the Romans of his own day, fascinated by softer cadences, have lost their veneration for the vigorous beauty of the Plautinos numeros. And Horace closes with a queer suggestion, which may be taken as we please, that a poet in an age of flagging inspiration must trust to his fingers as well as his ears.
Modern Versification.—The main distinction between classical and modern versification consists in the negligence shown by the moderns to quantity, which is defined as the length or shortness of the sound of syllables, as determined by the time required to pronounce them. This dimension of sound was rigid in the case of Greek and Latin poetry, until, in what is known as the Middle Greek period, there came in a general tendency to relax the exact value of sounds and syllables, and to introduce accent, which is a measure of quality rather than of quantity. A syllable, in modern verse, is heavy or light, according as it is accented or unaccented— that is to say, according as it receives stress from the voice or not. In the word " tulip," for instance, the syllables are of equal length, but the accent is' strongly upon the first. It is mainly a question of force with us, not of time as with the ancients. There is, however, an element of quantity in modern verse, as there was of accent in ancient verse. The foot, in modern verse, takes a less prominent place in itself than it did in Greece, and is regarded more in relation to the whole line of which it makes a part. A mere counting of syllables is useless. In Milton's
"From haunted spring and dale,
Edg'd with poplar pale,"
an ancient scholiast would have found it impossible to discover any harmony, for he would have had no means of measuring the value of the heavy accent on "edg'd," followed by a pause, and would have demanded another syllable in the second line to turn the whole into verse. The first poet to whom it occurred that it was needless to attach such predominant importance to quantity was Gregory of Nazianzen (d. 389), a Christian bishop of the Greek Church. In two important poems by Gregory all prosodical discipline is found to have disappeared, and the rule of verse has come to be accentual, with a heavy stress on the penultimate syllable. About the same time, the Greek fabulist Babrius employed a choliambic metre having a strong accent on the penultimate. The poets of the transition loved to cultivate a loose iambic trimeter in twelve syllables, and shorter octo-syllabic forms called "anacreontic," although they were far enough from repeating the splendid effects of Anacreon. In these the old laws of quantity were more and more generally superseded by stress, and in all this we may see the dawn of the free accentual versification of modern Europe.
Romance Languages.â€” The prosodies of Provence, France, Italy and Spain were derived from the decayed and simplified forms of Latin verse by a slow and sometimes almost intangible transition. In these modern metres, however, when they came to be independent, it was found that all syllables in the line were of equal value, and that the sole criterion of measure was the number of these in each case. The relics of ancient versification, deprived of all the regulated principles of rhythmical art, received in return the ornament of obligatory and difficult rhyme, without which the weak rhythm itself would practically have disappeared. A new species of rhythm, depending on the varieties of mood, was introduced, and stanzaic forms of great elaboration and beauty were invented. The earliest standard work which exhibits in full the definitions of Romance versification is the Leys a" Amors of an unknown Provencal grammarian, written in 1356. Another medieval treatise of great importance is the De Vulgari Eloquentia, written by Dante in 1304. There is this difference between these two works, that the former, written long after the flourishing period of the troubadours, analyses what has been accomplished in the past, while the other, standing at the starting-point of Italian poetry, describes what has to be done in the future. Both of these authorities quote the ten-syllable line of five equal feet as most to be admired and as forming the basis of poetry. But the octosyllabic, almost in the earliest times, became a main favourite with the poets, and may be said to be the most frequently used of all lyrical measures in medieval Romance poetry. The earliest specimen of all, however, a mere refrain excepted, is the fragment of the Provencal " Boethius," and this is decasyllabic, like all French poems of the Charlemagne cycle. The typical French heroic verse, the alexandrine of six feet, is not found in the old epic poetry. In Provencal and early French the position of the caesura in each line was fixed by strict rules; in Italian these were relaxed. Dante gives very minute, although somewhat obscure, accounts of the essence and invention of stanzaic form (cobla in Provencal), in which the Romance poetries excelled from the first. The stanza was a group of lines formed on a regular and recurrent arrangement of rhymes. It was natural that the poets of Provence should carry to an extreme the invention of stanzaic forms, for their language was extravagantly rich in rhymes. They invented complicated poetic structures of stanza within stanza, and the canzo as written by the great troubadours is a marvel of ingenuity such as could scarcely be repeated in any other language. The extreme fulness and elaboration of the Provencal poets, however, has been serviceable as placing a very high ideal of structural skill before the poets of all succeeding times, and it was of immense value in directing the experiments of the earliest poet-artists of Italy and France.
In French poetry, successive masters corrected the national versification and drew closer round it the network of rules and principles. The alexandrine was invented in the 12th century, as a counterpart to the hexameter of the ancients, by Alexander de Bernay. A great part is played in French metre by masculine and feminine verse: the former is a verse which closes with a letter which is not e mute; the latter a verse which closes with e mute, or with e mule followed by s, or by the consonants nt. Masculine rhyme is that which combines two masculine verses, and feminine that which unites two feminine verses; and in regular verse such couplets must be alternated. Elision is the rule by which, in the scansion of a verse, the letter e at the end of a word is suppressed when it immediately precedes e mute or a non-aspirated h. These and other immutable rules were laid down by Malherbe, and by Boileau in his Art Poitique (1674), and for more than a century they were implicitly followed by all writers of verse. It was the genius of Victor Hugo which first enfranchised the prosody of France, not by rebelling against the rules, but by widening their scope in all directions, and by asserting that, in spite of its limitations, French verse was a living thing. The richness of Hugo's rhymes is proverbial, and the boldness and flow of his alexandrines exceeded everything which had been so much as dreamed of before his time. The revolution he brought about proved universal, and disciples like Theophile Gautier could, say, in the face of the critics and grammarians of the classic school, " If we suspected that Victor Hugo had written a single bad verse, we should not dare to admit it to ourselves, in a cellar, without a candle." Boileau and Hugo, therefore, have been the two lawgivers of the French Parnassus. The rules of French verse being, in fact, very severe, and weakness, excess of audacity and negligences of all sorts being very harshly repressed, it is not surprising that, as the personal authority of Hugo declined, various projects were started for lightening the burden of prosodical discipline. Since 1880 those projects have been numerous, and a great many poets of genuine inspiration have written in different forms of what is called "free verse."
Teutonic.—In very early times the inhabitants of the Germanic countries developed a prosodical system which owed nothing whatever to classical sources. The finest examples of this Teutonic verse are found in Icelandic and in Anglo-Saxon. The line consisted of two sections, each containing two strongly stressed syllables, and of these four long syllables three were alliterated. It is plain that there can be detected in ancient Teutonic verse but three severe and consistent rules, viz. that the section, the strong accentuation, and above all the alliteration must be preserved. We find this to be the case in High and Low German, Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon, and in the revived alliterative English poetry of the 14th century, such as "Piers Plowman." There are differences, however, which depend on such facts as that the Icelandic poems are mainly lyrical and the Anglo-Saxon epics are narrative. As time went on, under the pressure of south European practice, alliteration ceased to be regarded as the sole and sufficient ornament of Teutonic verse, and rhyme was occasionally used, but this was a concession which proved fatal to the type. With this use of rhyme, the High German poetry begins to cease, while England becomes the centre of Teutonic metrical composition. In Icelandic poetry there was a highly artificial verse-system known as court-verse (drdUkvaeU), which consisted of alliterative groups of two lines each, arranged in staves of eight lines. When we consider primitive Teutonic verse closely, we see that it did no,t begin with any conscious art, but, as Vigfussen has said, "was simply excited and emphatic prose" uttered with the repetition of catchwords and letters. The use of these was presently regulated. Alliteration of stressed ropt-syllables formed the basis of Teutonic verse, as quantity had formed the basis of Greek verse. A study of the "Heliand" and the "Lay of Hildebrand" in Old German, of the "Atli" and "Harbard" lays in Icelandic, and of the writings attributed to Beowulf, Caedmon and Cynewulf in Anglo-Saxon, will show the general unity and the local divergences of this class of verse.
English Metre.—The first writer in whom there has been discovered a distinct rebellion against the methods of Anglo- Saxon versification is St Godric, who died in 1170. Only three brief fragments of his poetry have been preserved, but there is no doubt that they show, for the first time, a regular composition in feet. A quotation will show the value of St Godric 's invention:—
" Sainte | Nicholaes, | Godes | druth,
Tymbre us | faire | scone | hus,
At thy I burth, ] at thy | bare,
Sainte | Nicholaes, | bring uswel thare."
From this difficult stanza down to the metres of modern English the transition seems gradual and direct, while the tradition of Anglo-Saxon alliterative prosody is abruptly broken. The fragments of St Godric appear to be independent of one another, and therefore indicate that the division of lines into feet is not accidental. They are much less dubious, and more firm as the basis of an hypothesis, than the famous quatrain 1 about the singing of the monks of Ely, which is perhaps a little earlier in date than the fragments of St Godric. This has much picturesque beauty, but if it is carefully examined the actual scheme of it as metre seems to evade detection. The Ely singer warbled, not knowing what he sang, but St Godric knew perfectly well, and must have been a deliberate innovator. There is still more definition of feet in the Poema Morale, printed by Dr Morris, which is supposed to date from about 1200. In longer pieces, and particularly in the Ormulum, and in the Brut of Layamon, which belong to the early part of the 13th century, we find, on the whole, less definite abandonment of the Anglo-Saxon system of prosody, but nevertheless a prominence given both to rhyme and to rhythm. In Layamon, particularly, the recognition of a recurrent verse of four accents is unquestionable. The place of this poet in the history of prosody is very carefully noted by Guest, who remarks that in Anglo-Saxon verse, the syllables which take the alliteration are always accented, while in the later metres, where alliteration was combined with rhyme, the former is often thrown upon ian unaccented syllable. " Layamon appears to take a middle course. It would seem he gave accents both to his rhyming and his alliterative syllables; but the former were often obliged to content themselves with a false accent." An advance was made about fifty years later in Genesis and Exodus, a poem published by Professor Skeat, which has such great value in the proof it gives of the extension of verbal melody, that Saintsbury lias said that " it contains more of the kernel of English prosody, properly sq called, than any [other] single poem before Spenser." The phenomenon which we meet with in all these earliest attempts at purely English verse is the unconscious deter- mination of writers, who had no views about prosody, to follow their national instinct in the direction of grouped feet and rhymes. This is further emphasized in Horn and Havelok, and' in the smoother octosyllabics of the 14th-century metrical romances, where the rhymes become very frequent, with an
"Merie suneen 5e muneches binnen Ely,
da Cnut cn[in]ing reu 5er by;
" RoweS, cnifhjtes, noer the land
and here we fies muneches sseng."
occasional short line or bob, to prevent monotony of effect. Few of these romances have much literary value, but their prosodical value is very great, for we see in them the normal movement of English verse becoming fixed to certain principles beyond any possibility of escape:—
"So fair [ he spak- ] e him withal,</nowiki>
He light- I ed down- | B in | the hall,
Bounde I his mare | among | them all,
Ana to I the board- | e won."
This, from Sir Percevale, is, it must be allowed, an unusually correct example; the uncouth 14th-century writers did not commonly arrive at their effect without much more irregularity and wavering than this, but the design is evident even in their worst examples. Between 1210 and 1340 not a single English poem of importance is known to have been written in the old alliterative measure of the Anglo-Saxons. But at the latter date there set in a singular reaction in favour of alliteration, a movement which culminated, after producing some beautiful romances, in the satires of Langland. Those writers, and they were many, who preserved foot-scansion and rhyme, during this alliterative repetion, became ever closer students of contemporary French verse, and in the favourite octosyllabic metre " the uncompromising adoption of the French, or syllabically uniform, system is the first thing noticeable" (Saintsbury). This tendency of Middle English metre culminates in the work of John Gower, which is singularly polished in its rhyming octosyllabics, although unquestionably nerveless still, and inelastic.
It is, however, to Chaucer that we turn for far greater con- tributions to English verse. He it was who first, with full consciousness of power as an artist, adopted the use of elaborate stanzas, always in following of the French; he it was who first gained freedom of sound by a variation of pause, and by an alternation of trochaic and iambic movement. It is the lack of these arts which keeps Gower and his predecessors so stiff. In particular Chaucer, in his first period, invented rime-royal, a stanzaic form (in seven decasyllabic lines, rhymed a b a b b C c), peculiarly English in character, which was dominant in our literature for more than two hundred years; it was used in the long romance of Troilus and Creseide, where English metre for the first time displays its beauty to the full. The importance of rime-royal is displayed in the fact that its sixth and seventh lines actually form the decasyllabic couplet, which is commonly held to be a later discovery of Chaucer's, in The Legend of Good Women. This is the heroic verse, in which The Canterbury Tales are mainly composed, and this metre of five accents, with couplet-rhyme, became so powerful in the future history of English poetry that it may almost be taken as the central and most characteristic of our verse-forms, as the alexandrine couplet is in French and Dutch prosody. It seems to have been originally called riding-rhyme, the name by which Gascoigne describes it (1575).
It is impossible here to do more than indicate very briefly those fluctuations which English prosody underwent when the learned and vivid example of Chaucer was withdrawn. The metres of Lydgate and his successors were discordant and feeble; their ears had learned but very incorrectly the lesson of the master. Lydgate, in particular, went back to an earlier type, and showed himself more skilful in the old eight-syllable measure than in the new decasyllable. More interesting to the prosodical student than the work of these or later Chaucerians is the influence exercised throughout the 15th and early 16th centuries by the popular ballads, of which "Chevy Chase" is believed to be the oldest surviving example, while "The Tale of Gamelyn" is the longest. The introduction of the loose, elastic ballad-quatrain, with its melodious tendency to refrain, was a matter of great importance in the metamorphosis of British verse. The degenerate forms employed by the English 1 5th-century poets in attempting more regular prosody were in some measure connected by the greater exactitude of the Scotch writers, particularly of Dunbar, who was by far the most accomplished metrist between Chaucer and Spenser. But Wyatt (1503–1542) was long considered the father of modern English verse, and though we now plainly enough perceive that before his day all the essential discoveries and inventions had been made, he nevertheless deserves great honour as a pioneer. He introduced, from France and Italy, the prosodical principles of the Renaissance—order and coherency, concentration and definition of sound—and that although his own powers in metre were far from being highly developed. He and his more gifted disciple Surrey introduced into English verse the sonnet (not of the pure Italian type, but as a quatorzain with a final couplet) as well as other short lyric forms. To Surrey, moreover, we owe the introduction from Italian of blank verse, the rhymeless metre of five accents, which has taken so prominent a place in subsequent English poetry.
With the heroic couplet, with blank verse, and with a variety of short lyric stanzaic measures, the equipment of British verse might now be said to be complete. For the moment, however, towards the middle of the 16th century, all these excellent metres seemed to be abandoned in favour of an awkward couplet of fourteen feet, which may have had some relation with the French alexandrine. It was always, as Saintsbury says, “a very uncertain and risky metre, settling down with a dangerous acquiescence into doggerel and sing-song.” It was to break up this nerveless measure that the remarkable reforms of the close of the century were made, and the discoveries of Wyatt and Surrey were brought, long after their deaths, into general practice. In drama, the doggerel of an earlier age retired before a blank verse, which was at first entirely pedestrian and mechanical, but struck out variety and music in the hands of Marlowe and Shakespeare. But the central magician was Spenser, in whom there arose a master of pure verse whose range and skill were greater than those of any previous writer of English, and before whom Chaucer himself must withdraw. It is not too much to say that Spenser took all the elements of English verse, as they had existed in more or less timid and undeveloped shape for four centuries, and that he moulded them together into an instrument capable, for the first time, of expressing, or accompanying, every passion, every emotion, every variety of sentiment or instinct, which stirs the human breast. His great work was that of solidification and emancipation, but he also created a noble form which bears his name, that Spenserian stanza of nine lines closing with an alexandrine, which lends itself in the hands of great poets, and great poets only, to magnificent narrative effects.
It was at this moment that a final attempt was made to disestablish the whole scheme of English metre, and to substitute for it unrhymed classic measures. In the year 1579 this heresy was powerful at Cambridge, and a vigorous attempt was made to include Spenser himself among its votaries. It failed, and with this failure it may be said that all the essential questions connected with English poetry were settled.
There is enough to fill a score of volumes in the mode in which the poets from Spenser downwards have employed the laws of English verse, but he was the latest of the legislators who laid down the framework of those laws. It is not possible in this place to enter into such themes as the rise and fall of Elizabethan dramatic blank verse; the perfection of the song and the development of the sonnet; the extraordinary virtuosity of Milton; the contest between enjambement (which permits the extension of the sentence beyond the limits of the distich) and the couplet as introduced by Waller; the victory of that couplet, and its use from 1670 to 1800; the slow growth of ode, which had been one of Spenser’s inventions; the revivals of prosodical taste in the 19th century; the extraordinary advance in freedom of anapaestic movement.
It may generally be remarked in connexion with the very various, copious and often chaotic criticism of English verse, that it has been a misfortune, from the earliest times, that pedantic and chimerical theories have too often invaded the study of metre. They had tended, from the times of the Alexandrian grammarians down to our own, to treat as a dead thing that vivid and elastic art of poetry whose very essence is its life. In modern times not a few theorists have allowed themselves to diverge into the most extraordinary chains of musical and even of mathematical conjecture and have been easily led, in the practice of their ingenious learning, to forget that what they are talking about is the vehicle in which tremulous and ardent thoughts are conveyed to the hearts of men. The poet knows the law by instinct, but he treats it as a living guide; he varies the pause, he manipulates the accent, he gives the vital element of freedom to the verse which he has founded upon discipline. It is extremely doubtful whether any youthful poet was even helped by prosodical instruction; his earliest measures are imitative; he does not compose consciously in “tribrachs” and “iambs”; he would gape in astonishment if asked to define the “pyrrhichian hypothesis”; his bursts of enthusiasm are not modified by a theory of “trisyllabic equivalence.” The old formula of verse, “variety in unity,” holds good in all languages, countries and times; the delicate rapture involved in a brilliant combination of rhyme and metre is a matter which is regulated; indeed, on a consideration of the laws of prosody, but depends on other and wider qualities of a moral and an aesthetic order.
Bibliography.—Richard Bentley, Schediasma de metris Terentianis (Cambridge, 1726); R. Volkmann, Rhetorik und Metrik der Griechen und Römer (ed. Gleditsch, Berlin, 1901); Wilhelm Christ, Metrik der Griechen und Römer (2nd ed., Leipzig, 1879) J. L. Ussing, Graesk og romersk Metrik (Copenhagen, 1893); Edwin Guest, A History of English Rhythms (new edition, edited by W. W. Skeat; London, 1882); George Saintsbury, A History of English Prosody (3 vols., London, 1906–9); J. Schipper, Englische Metrik (2 vols., Bonn, 1881); J. B. Mayor, Chapters on English Metre (Cambridge, 1901); T. S. Omond, English Verse-Structure (London, 1897); Metrical Rhythm (London, 1905); Théodore de Banville, Petit traité de prosodie française (2nd ed., Paris, 1872); Robert de Souza, Le Rhythme poétique (Paris, 1892); L. E. Kestner, A History of French Versification (Oxford, 1903); T. Casini, Le Forme metriche italiane (Florence, 1900); E. Benot, Prosodia Castellana i versification (3 vols., Madrid, 1902).
- But see the article Provencal Literature.