« AnteriorContinuar »
been able to discover any instance of this metre being used by any English poet before him, I am much inclined to suppose that he was the first introducer of it into our language." It had been long practised by the writers both in the northern and southern French; and within the half century before Chaucer wrote it had been successfully cultivated, in preference to every other metre, by the great poets of Italy—Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Tyrwhitt argues, therefore, that Chaucer may have borrowed his new English verse either from the French or from the Italian.
That the particular species of verse in which Chaucer has written his Canterbury Tales and some of his other poems had not been used by any other English poet before him, has not, we believe, been disputed, and does not appear to be disputable, at least from such remains of our early poetical literature as we now possess. Here, then, is one important fact. It is certain, also, that the French, if not likewise the Italian, poets who employed the decasyllabic (or more properly hendecasyllabic*)
* In the Italian language, at least, the original and proper form of the verse appears to have consisted of eleven syllables; whence the generical name of the metre is endecasi/llabo, and a verse of ten syllables is called endecasyllabo tronco, and one of twelve, endecasyllabo sdrucciolo. But these variations do not affect the prosodical character of the verse. which requires only that the tenth should be in all cases the last accented syllable. The modern English heroic, or, as we commonly call it, ten-syllabled verse, still admits of being extended by an eleventh or even a twelfth unaccented syllable; although, from the constitution of our present language as to syllabic emphasis, such extension is with us the exception, not the rule, as it is (at least to the length of eleven syllables) in Italian. It may be doubted whether Chaucer's type oirmodel line is to be considered as decametre were well known to Chaucer. The presumption, therefore, that his new metre is, as Tyrwhitt asserts, this same Italian or French metre of ten or eleven syllables (our present heroic verse) becomes exceedingly strong.
Moreover, if Chaucer's verso be not constructed upon the principle of syllabical as well as accentual regularity, when was this principle, which is now the law and universal practice of our poetry, introduced? It will not be denied to have been completely established ever since the language acquired in all material respects its present form and pronunciation—that is to say, at least since the middle of the sixteenth century: if it was not followed by Chaucer at the end of the-fourteenth, by whom among his followers in the course of the next hundred and fifty years was it first exemplified V
At present it is sufficient to say that no one of his successors throughout this space has hinted that any improvement, any change, had been made in the construction of English verse since Chaucer wrote. On the contrary, he is generally recognized by them as the great reformer of our language and our poetry, and as their master and instructor in their common art. By his friend and dissyllabic or hendecasyllabic; Tyrwhitt was of opinion that the greater number of his verses, when properly written and pronounced, would be found to consist of eleven syllables; and we think this is probable, looking to what is assumed, on the theory of his versification which we are considering, to have been the pronunciation of the language in his day. At the same time many of his lines consist evidently (on this theory) of ten syllables only; and such a construction of verse for ordinary purposes is become so much more agreeable to modern usage and taste that we should recommend his poetry to be so read wherever it can be done, even at the cost of thereby somewhat violating the exactness of the ancient pronunciation.
ciple Occleve he is called "the first finder of our fair langage." So Lydgate, in the next generation, celebrates him as his master—as " chief poet of Britain "—as
— " he that was of making soverain,
"The noble rhethor poet of Britain,
A later writer, Gawen Douglas, sounds his praise as—
"Venerable Chaucer, principal poet but" peer,
in a strain, it must be confessed, more remarkable for enthusiastic vehemence than for poetical inspiration. The learned, and at the same time elegant, Leland, in the next age, describes him as the writer to whom his country's tongue owes all its beauties:—
"Anglia Chaucerum veneratur nostra poetam,
and again, in another tribute, as having first reduced the language into regular form :—
"Linguam qui patriam redegit illam
'Without. b Horologe, clock or watch. e Regulator. <i Condiment. e Royal.
And such seems to have been the unbroken tradition down to Spenser, who, looking back through two centuries, hails his great predecessor as still the "well of English undefiled."
If now we proceed to examine Chaucer's verse, do we find it actually characterized by this regularity, which indisputably has at least from within a century and a half of his time been the law of our poetry? Undoubtedly we do not, if we assume that the English of Chaucer's time was read in all respects precisely like that of our own day. But are we warranted in assuming this? We know that some changes have taken place in the national pronunciation within a much shorter space. The accentuation of many words is different even in Shakspeare and his contemporaries from what it now is: even since the language has been what we may call settled, and the process of growth in it nearly stopped, there has still been observable a disposition in the accent or syllabic emphasis to project itself with more precipitation than formerly, to seize upon a more early enunciated part in dissyllables and other words than that to which it was wont to be attached. For example, we now always pronounce the word aspect with the accent on the first syllable; in the time of Shakspeare it was always accented on the last. We now call a certain short composition an essay; but only a century ago it was called an essay: "And write next winter," says Pope, "more essays on man." Probably at an earlier period, when this change was going on more actively, it was part of that general process by which the Germanic, or Saxon, element in our language eventually, after a long struggle, acquired the ascendancy over the French element; and, if so, for a time the ac
centuation of many words would be unfixed, or would oscillate between the two systems—the French habit of reserving itself for the final syllable, and the Germanic tendency to cling to a prior portion of the word. This appears to have been the case in Chaucer's day: many words are manifestly in his poetry accented differently from what they are now (as is proved, upon either theory of his prosody, when they occur at the end of a verse), and in many also he seems to vary the accent—pronouncing, for instance, langage in one line, langiige in another —as suits his convenience. But again, in the tendency to elision and abbreviation, which is common to all languages in a state of growth, there can be no doubt that, in the progress of the English tongue, from its first subjection to literary cultivation in the middle of the thirteenth century to its final settlement in the middle of the seventeenth, it dropt and lost altogether many short or unaccented syllables. Some of these, indeed, our poets still assert their right to revive in pressing circumstances: thus, though we now almost universally elide or suppress the e before the terminating d of the preterites and past participles of our verbs, it is still sometimes called into life again to make a distinct syllable in verse. Two centuries ago, when perhaps it was generally heard in the common speech of the people (as it still is in some of our provincial dialects), and when its suppression in reading prose would probably have been accounted an irre gularity, it was as often sounded in verse as not, and the licence was probably considered to be taken when it was elided. The elision, when it took place, was generally marked by the omission of the vowel in the spelling. If we go back another century, we find the pronunciation