Geoffrey Chaucer.

The poems of Geoffrey Chaucer modernized online

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degree, both being subject to the same inherent law.
The reason why Chaucer's variations of rhythm chal-
lenge more attention, and require the sympathy and
knowledge of the reader in order to be properly ren-
dered, is from the superior vigour and palpable inten-
tion of the departure from regularity of sound in the
sequence of a number of verses.

The Revd was a slendre cholerike man :
His berd was shave as neighe as ever he can.

Read as though it were written, —


The Reve-e-was a slender choleric man :
His beard was shave as nigh as ever'e can.


Tucked he was, as is a frere, about ;

And ever he rode the hindmost of the route.

Read as though it were written, —

Tucked he was, as is a frere, about ;

And ever-'e-rode the hindmost of the rout.

Again, —

This Pardonere had hair as yellow as wax.

Read as though it were written, —

This Pardonere had hair as yell'w-as wax.

Or thus, —

This Pardonere had hair as yellowas wax.

Yet by no means with a harsh pedantic marking of



the implied contraction of words ; but merely read with
that feeling, and a sense of the principle of union.

The devil made a Reve for to preche,
Or of a Bouter a shipman, or a leche.

Read as though it were written, —

The devil made a Reve-e for to preach,
Or of a souter-a shipman, or a leach.

Perhaps thus, for the sake of making it clearer, though
hardly so good, the sounds being too much united : —

Or of a sout'ra shipman, or a leach.

Here is an example of a different kind, —

" My lord the Monk," quoth he, " he merry of el kit l"

As though it were written, merry f '; but read, —

" My lord the Monk," quoth he, " he merry-of cheer !"'

Thus, it is hoped, the fundamental principle of
Chaucer's rhythm is made plain, though further diffi-


culties will require further elucidation. On this
principle every English poet has acted in greater or
lesser degree : the school of Uryden and Pope almost
as little as possible ; that of Milton nearly to the
utmost bounds which can safely be attempted without
changing the heroic' into a new class of metre. Chau-
cer was the first to introduce this metre in England ;
and, as he made translations from Boccaccio at an
early period of his life, and was also acquainted with
the writings of Dante and Petrarch, all of whom had
shown a great predilection for the study of heroic
verse, there seems little doubt but that he adopted
it from the Italian, as well as from the French,
together with some peculiarities of those languages,
until he had worked out a system of harmony of his

Tn defending Chaucer from the charge that his fre-
quent superfluity of syllables renders his verse unmu-
sical, Mr. Tyrwhitt refers to Milton, with the very apt
remark, that " whoever can taste the metrical harmony
c 2


of the following lines from Milton, will not be em-
barrassed how to dispose of the (seemingly) superfluous
syllables which he may meet with in Chaucer :" —

Ominous conjecture on the whole success.

Paradise Lost, ii. 123.

A pillar of state ; deep on his front engraven —

Ibid. 302.

Celestial spirits in bondage, nor the abyss —

lb. 658.

No inconvenient diet nor too light fare.

lb. v. 495.

Things not revealed, which the invisible king —

lb. vii. 122.

Here are two more examples of a different kind,
and hundreds might easily be adduced : —

To whom thus Eve, with perfect beauty adorn'd.


Whom reason hath cipial'd, force hath made supreme.




It is probable, that some readers may think the
harmonies of the foregoing need elucidation quite
as much as those quoted from Chaucer ; and, certainly
the noble music of their rhythm is by no means so
obvious to the general ear as those of the Father Poet.

Our Host-e saw well that the hright-e sun

The ark-of-his artificial day had run

The fourth-e part, and half an hour and more ;

And though he were not deep expert in lore,

He wist it was the eighte and twenty day

Of April that is messenger to May ;

And saw well that the shadow of every tree

Was as in length of the same quantitee

That was the body erect that caused it ;

And therefore by the shadow he took his wit.


Now it may be fairly suggested, that those who
cannot discover the harmony of the foregoing lines
should by no means pretend to any admiration of the
versification of Milton.

But all this variety of rhythm, all these grand organ-
stops, were destined to long periods of neglect after
the death of their original composers. ■ Gorboduck '


the first English tragedy in blank verse, written about
the year 1560, is as regular and smooth in every line
as a pile of finely-planed mahogany planks. Marlowe's
lines, notwithstanding their great strength, for that lies
in his thoughts and magnificent images, are for the most
part as smooth and glossy as old ivory. From the time
of Chaucer, varied harmonies were nearly lest until they
again appeared in Spenser and Shakspeare. Those of
Spenser bear but little resemblance to the rhythm of
Chaucer : they are more flowing, stately, and luxurious,
but not so vigorous, nor with that frequent lighthearted-
ness which resembles the singing of happy childhood.
Shakspeare, on the whole, is regular in his numbers ;
that is to say, he usually maintains the ten syllables,
varied with the eleventh, as previously illustrated
in Chaucer and others. When not inspired by any
passionate emotion or profound philosophy, (and how
rarely is this !) Shakspeare's versification is somewhat
broken up, and unmusical, nor does he care about
introducing an alexandrine line of no very flowing


symmetry ; or terminating his lines with such words
as of, in, and, with, by, for, to, &c, which are totally
destructive of rhythm ; but on all great occasions
his noble harmony of verse is unfailing and regular
in its course. His varied music is, however, chiefly
confined to the perfect disposition of accents and
pauses, and seldom extends to the rhythmic manage-
ment of additional syllables, — except in the almost
unavoidable introduction of the eleventh, and occasion-
ally the twelfth syllable.

** Lines with double endings," says Mr. Darley,
" are frequent in Shakspeare ; with triple, less so :
but in him, single-ending, or common heroic verses
without any supernumerary syllable, abound most.
Hence, to a great degree, the firm, dignified, sonorous
march of his numbers : —

" Timon [digging) — Common Mother, thou,
Whose womb immeasurable, and infinite breast,
Teems and feeds all ; whose self-same mettle,
Whereof thy proud child, arrogant man, is puffed,


Engenders the black toad, and adder blue,
The gilded newt, and eyeless venomed worm,
With all the abhorred births below crisp Heaven,
Whereon Hyperion's quickening fire doth shine ;
Yield him, who all thy human sons doth hate,
From forth thy plenteous bosom, one poor root, &c.

" Here, out of twenty verses," proceeds Mr. Dar-
ley, " not one is over-measure, and the tone is a con-
tinuous grave hum, like the murmur of a sea- shore
heard afar off." Now, there are few who will not
instantly coincide with the writer in his admiration
of the harmonies of the foregoing passage — but not
for the reason he adduces. The second line undoubt-
edly contains twelve syllables — not an alexandrine
verse, into the rhythm of which it is not possible to
be forced — but twelve full syllables worked with har-
monious rhythm into the fundamental ten-syllable
heroic. This, with submission, is what renders it
dignified and sonorous. The third line most undoubt-
edly contains only nine syllables. Perhaps it is an
accident — as with some similar instances in Chaucer —


perhaps it might have been done in order to heighten
the effect of the preceding verse, and the one which
follows *. For the next line contains twelve syllables,
and is not an alexandrine. The words " Hyperion"
and " quickening" being contracted, the first into
three syllables, the second into two, renders the line
a legitimate heroic verse of strict metre ; but it is
not marked thus — and it is not only not necessary,
but would be injurious to the rhythm, and destroy
that very effect which Mr. Darley and everybody else
so much admire. In the course of the twenty lines
to which he refers, there are also four instances of
eleven syllables, — fairly reducible to ten, by apostrophe,
but not marked so, simply because the soft sounding
of the eleventh is needed to the sonorous effect in

I trust the object of these strictures will not be

* And perhaps it is not quoted correctly by Mr. Darley, as most editions of
Shakspeare read " Oh thou, whose self-same mettle." In this case the verse
will contain eleven syllables; or, more properly, ten and a half— i.e. ten with
a double ending.


misunderstood. They are merely made with a view
to clearing the question before us. The pleasure of
reading such poetry, added to an habitual respect for
the idea of the regular ten-syllable foundation, caused
Mr. Darley, in this instance, to take the cause for
granted by the effect. Otherwise, it would not be
easy to understand how such a statement could have
been made by a man of genius, with so good an ear.
The following is the finest theory ever yet broached
on poetical rhythm.

" Every true poet has a song in his mind, the notes of which,
little as they precede his thoughts — so little as to seem simulta-
neous with them — do precede, suggest and inspire many of these ;
modify and beautify them. That poet who has none of this dumb
music going on within him, will neither produce any by his versi-
fication, nor prove an imaginative or impassioned writer : he will
want the harmonizer which attunes heart, and mind, and soul — the
mainspring that sets them in movement together. Rhythm, thus,
as an enrapturer of the poet, mediately exalts him as a creator,
and augments all his powers. A good system of rhythm becomes,
therefore, momentous both for its own sake to the reader, and
because it is the poet's latent inspirer."

Introduction to Beaumont and Fletcher.


The verse of Beaumont and Fletcher has often more
freedom and variety of rhythm than that of Shaks-
peare, but seldom do they display an equal mastery
over accents and pauses. They have not his preci-
sion, his dignity, and breadth. Their variations of
rhythm are of a kind to change the heroic verse into
a blank verse metre of a different kind, which may
nevertheless be admirably suited to passages of a
wild and joyous character, or to convey emotions of
excessive and ungovernable passion. But they use it
on all occasions, and this weakens the effect of their
versification, — the variation almost becoming the metre,
and therefore no variation.

The next great change that occurred in English ver-
sification was exhibited by Milton. His verse demands
an understanding reader — " fit audience, though few."
An ordinary good ear, or a natural good ear, is not
sufficient to find any continuous satisfaction in his eru-
dite harmonies : it must be refined by knowledge and
practice. He found few followers. As his verse is the


most difficult to read properly of all verse in the lan-
guage (obsolete or modern), it naturally followed, on
the principle of extremes meeting, that the next change
should be to something as easy as possible, and with as
little variety.

This next change was originated by Sandys, followed
and established by Waller, and brought to perfection
and popularity during the time of Dryden and Pope.
Tn Dryden there was what may be termed a grand
regularity. His favourite measure was the heroic ten-
syllable rhyming couplet ; frequently varied by a triplet,
in the shape of an alexandrine, or twelve-syllable line,
and escaping the monotony to which he was rendered
liable from his tendency to throw the first accent of
most of his lines on the same syllables — (the fourth
or fifth) by the great vigour of his spirit, and the
heaping up of thoughts and waving forms as they
fell in long swathes before his scything progress.
Mr. Pope adopted one portion of his regularity,
and rendered the English heroic metre perfect in its


sweetness and monotony by the almost invariable
position of the first accent — which is with him the
dominant — on the fourth or fifth syllable ; the fourth
most commonly. The great length of his melodious and
elegant paraphrase from Homer, and the circumstance
of its being, at one time, introduced in most schools,
so that the young ear was first attuned to this unvary-
ing sequence of numbers, and taught to consider it as
the most perfect model for imitation, will easily account
for the general diffusion of an exclusive taste in versifi-
cation. The majority of young readers never recovered
it. Instead of trusting to the ear for the rhythm, and
the understanding for the accent or pause, they counted
ten upon the fingers, and denounced every thing (unless
restrained by the authority of some great name,) which
did not answer the very natural expectations of con-
firmed habit. During the last twenty years, however,
there has been a manifest change of taste in this respect.
Still, it is no wonder such a style became, and so
long continued, popular. It required no sort of culti-


vation of the ear to read it, the movement of almost
every couplet being exactly the same. There was no
need to study how to deal with variations and refine-
ments of rhythm and pauses. To read one couplet
smoothly, was to master the whole art ; and the writing
of verses, after this method, has been found sufficiently
easy of attainment, as the world has but too often seen.
It is to be remembered that this bears reference only
to theories of versification, not to the genius or talent
of which the practice of different poets may have made
them the medium.

The first great movers, in our own day, of the changes
of style in versification, were Wordsworth, in blank verse,
and Coleridge in lyrical composition. It may be said, as
a distinguishing characteristic in this question, that the
former commenced a restoration of the varied accents
and pauses adopted by Milton ; the latter of the varied
rhythm of Chaucer in his ballads and romaunts *.

* The ' Rime of the Ancient Mariner' re-invigoratid and extended the
taste for the ' Percy Reliques.'


By the unexpected transports of our age
Carried so high, that every thought — which looked
Beyond the temporal destiny of the kind —
To many seem'd superfluous ; as no cause, &c.


The first, second, and fourth lines contain eleven syl-
lables, and the third has twelve ; yet the effect, which
is full and harmonious, would be totally destroyed by
the awkward pedantry of contracting the sound of such
words as " temporal," " destiny," and " superfluous,"
into temp'ral, dest'ny, superfl'ous! Of course it is not
the legitimate propriety of their contraction that is
now brought in question — but the rhythm, the number
of syllabical sounds, which would be rendered deficient
by actual contraction.

The following examples are equally illustrative of our
argument : —

Now seek upon the heights of Time the source
Of a Holy River, on whose banks are found, &c.



His prominent feature like an eagle's beak —


Which the chaste Votaries seek beyond the grave —


Slowly the cormorant aims her heavy flight —


Ah, when the Body, round which in love we clung —


It must be borne in mind that these examples of
rhythm, as well as those previously given, are all read
under the greatest disadvantage by being abruptly sepa-
rated from the context, and therefore losing all the
re-solution of apparent discords, as well as the impetus
of their cadence from above. Yet even in this dis-
jointed state, it is believed that few critics would choose
to fall back upon the school of the past century, in
order to insist upon such ungainly sounds as vot'ries,
promnent, or cormrant, for the sake of the regular ten
syllables, and to the manifest injury of the poet's sense


and intention. There must be some sound of the addi-
tional syllable given — and, if so, why not the additional
syllable itself whenever needful ?

The restoration of a more free, manly, varied, and
harmonious versification was now vigorously undertaken
by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Leigh Hunt, —
the latter taking the lead in emancipating the public
ear from the monotony of the heroic rhyming couplet.
The change was fitfully followed by Byron in various
compositions ; by Keats ; and by Campbell, and Moore,
though very guardedly.

Among examples from poets best known to the
world, one or two from the poets least known, however
worthy of " divine honours," may not be unac-

Charm'd magic casements?, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.


Bastion'd with pyramids of glowing gold.




Were pent in regions of laborious breath ;
Dungeon'd in opaque element, to keep —

Blazing Hyperion on his orbed fire.


Every one of these verses contains eleven syllables.,
contracted into ten by implied apostrophe ; yet whether
marked or implied, eleven syllables should be articu-
lated, or else we should have the ugly jargon of such
sounds as op'ning, per'lous, bast' on d, labor' ous, dung' on d,
Hyper on, which no poet, or person of any ear could
tolerate*. If then we must of necessity have the sound
of this eleventh syllable, why not, as before observed,
have the syllable itself, whenever advantageous ?

Smiling a god-like smile, the innocent light —


Reign thou above the storms of sorrow and ruth.


• • — That indolent elision of the vowel, which our Midas ears have suf-
fered to be carried to such an extent, and by which so many of our dissylla-
bles have been melted, or rather crushed into monosyllabic words."— Rrtm
■ipeciive Review, vol. ix. p. 179.


From many a wondrous grot and secret cell.


And showering down the glory of lightsome day.


The first three of the foregoing verses contain
eleven syllables ; the last, twelve, — and what ear would
desire to reduce them to ten ?

The exquisite rhythm of some of Coleridge's lyrics
was recognized with admiration by Scott and Byron ;
and the latter particularly noticed these lines in Chris-
tabel. They are an example of perfect mastery in
musical versification : —

The night is chill ; the forest bare ;
Is it the wind that moaneth bleak ?
There is not wind enough in the air
To move away the ringlet curl
From the lovely lady's cheek —
There is not wind enough to twirl
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up to the sky.
d 2


Coleridge, in great glee, once said to a friend,
" They think they are reading verses of eight syllables,
and every now and then they read eleven." Doubtless he
meant that he did not compose on the syllabical theory
at all, but on that of simple musical time. The whole
of the foregoing quotation is a rhythmic variation upon
the eight-syllable metre. The first couplet contains the
regular number of syllables. The third line begins the
process of stealing off into a different quantity, by a
latent apostrophe. The fourth line is the regular eight
syllables, suggesting that all is going on regularly.
The fifth line gently drops into seven syllables, pro-
ducing a vague desire for some increase. The sixth is
again the regular eight syllables, and leads — both by its
rhythm, and by its sense, which forbids a pause at the
end of the line — into the seventh line, which contains
nine syllables ; both the rhythm and the sense of this
line also leading into the next line, which contains
ten syllables ; this, too, is led, by the same means,
into the next line, which is nine syllables ; and again,


in the same way, into the closing line, which contains
eleven syllables.

Here is another example, —

Thus Bracy said : the Baron the while

Half -listening heard him with a smile ;

Then turn'd to Lady Geraldine,

His eyes made up of wonder and love ;

And said in courtly accents fine,

' Sweet maid, Lord Roland's beauteous dove,

With arms more strong than harp or song,

Thy sire and I will crush the snake !'

He kiss'd her forehead as he spake,

And Geraldine, in maiden wise,

Casting down her large bright eyes,

With blushing cheek and courtesy fine,

She turned her from Sir Leoline ;

Softly gathering up her train

That o'er her right arm fell again ;

And folded her arms across her chest,

And couched her head upon her breast, &c.

Thus, we find introduced in the groundwork of the
octo-syllabic measure, the most musical variations. The
foregoing illustration contains ten lines of the regular
eight syllables, four lines of nine syllables, two lines of


seven syllables, and one (the second line) which by a
gentle contraction may be said to have eight sylla-
bles and a half. Yet all these superfluities and deficien-
cies, as they have been called, so far from producing an
effect of roughness or lameness, all work well together,
and melt their several melodies into the general har-

Now let the reader observe the lines that follow.
Notwithstanding the changes that have occurred in the
language, and without " considering their great age,"
who can fail to perceive the close resemblance of their
musical rhythm to the lines just quoted, even though
they are employed in the portraiture of old age ? —

Elde was painted, after this,
That shorter was, a foot, I wis,
Than she was wont in her yonghede * :
Unneth f her self-e she might feed.
So feeble and eke so old was she,
That faded was | all her beantee.

* Youth. t Scarcely.


Full sallow was waxen her co-ldure ;
Her head, for hoar, was white as flour.
I wis great qualme ne were it, none,
Ne sinne, although her life were gone.
All waxen was her body unwelde,
And drie, and d wined, all for elde:
A foule forwelked * thing was she
That whilom round and soft had be.

The time that passeth night and day,
And rest-e-less travayleth aye,
And stealeth from us so privily
That to us seemeth sikerly f
That it in one point dwelleth ever ;
And certes it ne resteth never,
But goeth so fast and passeth aye
That there n' is man that think-e may
Wfuxt time that Now Present is !"

These lines are taken verbatim from Chaucer. Even
the old spelling is retained, with two or three trifling
exceptions, such as feed for "fede," and hoar for "hore."
It is presumed that no one will question the musical
movement of the rhythm. The fundamental metre is

* O'erwrinkled. t Certainly.


the octo- syllabic, varied by lines of seven and nine
syllables, the origin of which may be found in the old
French Fabliaux. On this principle Coleridge wrote
his " Christabel," Shelley his " Rosalind and Helen,"
and Byron his "Giaour*." Notwithstanding the ob-
solete words, who can fail to perceive the musical
rhythm of the following ? —

His jambeux were of cuirboullie f ;
His swerd-es shethe of ivorie ;

His helm of latoun bright ;
His sadel was of rewel bone ;
His bridel as the son-ne shone,

Or as the nioon-e light.

His sperd was of fine cypres

That bodeth werre, and nothing peace ;

The hedde ful sharp yground ;
His ste'de' was all dappl-e grey —
It goeth an amble by the way,

Ful soft-e-ly and round.

Chain; r.

* See also Tennyson's poems of ' The Lotos-eaters '— ' The Death of the
Old Year,' and ' The Hesperides.'

t Jambeux, leggins, boots; cuirboullie, prepared leather; swerdes, sword's;
latoun, metal of a brass colour; sadel, saddle; rewel bone, the word is not
certainly known.


Let us take a few lines of a different movement of
rhythm from Shelley's " Euganean Hills." The poem
is written chiefly in lines of seven syllables, like Milton's
L' Allegro and II Penseroso.

Many a green isle needs must be
In the deep wide sea of misery,
Or the mariner worn and wan
Never thus could journey on,

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Online LibraryGeoffrey ChaucerThe poems of Geoffrey Chaucer modernized → online text (page 3 of 18)