Page images

tablished from foreign sources in Chaucer's time, and used in four principal forms, the septenar, the Alexandrine, the octosyllabic couplet, and the six-line stanza. That Chaucer used the last in the Rime of Sir Thopas, the third in several poems, but employed mainly the heroic line, in couplet or in stanza, which he seems to have introduced. That in adapting his language to this last form, Chaucer might err either in number of syllables, or in placing of accents. This he however did not do; the recognition of the inflectional syllables as an independent element, and of the French accentuation of borrowed words, rescues Chaucer's verse from imputations of roughness. “We may reasonably presume that our ancestors first passed from the broader sound of a to the thinner sound of e feminine, and not at once from a to e mute.”

Tyrwhitt recognizes that Urry held this same opinion, and cites also Wallis’ Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae, 1653, for the opinion that e (final or medial) could be pronounced or not, according as the metre required. See his notes 71 and 72. See Lounsbury, Studies I: 3oo-313. See censure of Tyrwhitt's linguistic ignorance in the preface to Wright's 1847 ed. of the Cant. Tales, cited in Skeat, Canon p. 23. On Tyrwhitt see under note of his edition in Section III C here.

[ocr errors]

“Another obstacle which has prevented the general study and reading of Chaucer, is the real or supposed defects of his versification. [Dryden is censured.] Languages vary, in different periods of their history, as to the fashion of their pronunciation. Many letters are pronounced at first, which afterward by a sort of tacit consent are dropped in speech. Thus it was in French. . . . Chaucer has done nothing more in this respect than was done by the early French poets . . . [but] Chaucer on the contrary [from their regularity] preserves or sinks the sound of his syllables arbitrarily to suit his own convenience; the reader is frequently unable at a

glance to discover his scheme of harmony” [etc.] - William Godwin in his Life of Chaucer, chap. I2.


“It is not easy to understand Chaucer's system of versification, whether it was metrical or rhythmical ; to speak plainer, whether he intended that his verses should consist of a certain number of feet, or like the modern Improvisatori was satisfied, so they were melodious, without restricting himself to any laws, either of length or cadence. I am inclined to think that this was his system, because upon this system, he is more melodious, and the pronunciation which otherwise is required is so variable, that it seems as if it must always have appeared ridiculous. Be that as it may, it is evident that he had well weighed the subject of versification.”

From Robert Southey's Preface to his Specimens of the Later English Poets. §


Nott considers Tyrwhitt's “system respecting Chaucer's versification”, and raises objections to it. He says that Tyrwhitt proposes three “expedients” for making each verse “a just Hendecasyllable”, the principal of these “expedients” being the recognition of the final –e feminine as sounded separately. “These three expedients failing, it is then proposed to consult manuscripts and See whether some one manuscript may not afford a reading which would enable us to complete the measure; . . . All these means of filling up the measure failing, the verse which still continues defective is to be considered corrupt.” Nott declares against the recognition of such “Saxon terminations” as the -e feminine in Chaucer. “Chaucer's object was to polish the language of his day. To do this he would naturally reject all words of an obsolete form, and all vulgar modes of pronunciation.” The sounding of the -e feminine “would be in direct opposition to the nature and genius of our language, which, instead of dilating words, . . . tends to contract.” Nott scouts the idea of Chaucer’s introducing “a novel mode of pronunciation.” He says that Tyrwhitt admits that we have no specimens of any such sort of verse in our language previous to this supposed introduction of it by Chaucer. What then, Nott asks, were the improvements made by Chaucer in our versification? He lists: (1) the rejection of alliteration. (2) The establishment of the practice of always changing the rime with the couplet. (3) The introduction of the heroic stanza of seven lines. (4) The dropping of the Alexandrine, and the substitution of the line of ten syllables. But he denies metrical movement; he insists that Chaucer's verse, like all English verse anterior to his, was rhythmical, not metrical; to be recited with a certain rhythmical cadence; “for which reason they seem to have been called ‘verses of cadence.’” He admits that there are many iambic lines in Chaucer, but thinks that such lines were not intentional on Chaucer's part. He insists upon the marking of the cesural dot and upon the frequent dotting at the end of the line by the scribes of the manuscripts as proof that Chaucer “designed his lines to be read with a caesura and rhythmical cadence.” The caution against “mismetring verse”, at the close of the Troilus, means that the cesural dot must be carefully marked. From “A Dissertation on the State of English Poetry before the Sixteenth Century”, prefixed to vol. I of “The Works of Henry Howard Earl of Surrey and of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder. Edited by George Frederick Nott, D. D., F. S. A.' London, 1815, 2 vols. For summary and comment on this work see also Lounsbury, Studies I : 331 ff.; see Blackw. Mag. 57 : 700; Edinb. Review 27: 390-422.


Guest's History of English Rhythms, pubd. 1838, re-edited in 1882 by Skeat, is discussed by Gayley and Scott, Introduction to the Methods and Materials of Literary Criticism, Boston 1899, p. 466; also by Omond, English Metrists in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Oxford 1907.

Guest's remarks upon Chaucer, as upon later English poets, are invalidated by his theory as to the unvarying structure of the English line. See Omond as cited, pp. 125-131, for notes.


“Our position is, that Chaucer was a most harmonious and melodious poet, and that he was a perfect master of the various forms of versification in which he wrote; that the principle on which his rhythm is founded fuses and subjects within itself all the minor details of metre; that this principle, though it has been understood only by the few, and never systematically explained, is, more or less, inseparable from the composition of an harmonious versification in the English language; and that he, the first man, if not unrivalled in the varied music of his verse, has scarcely been surpassed by any succeeding poet.”

[Tyrwhitt's citation of Dryden’s opinion is then quoted, in which, as can be seen ante, Dryden maintains that there are not ten syllables in each of Chaucer's heroic lines. Horne concedes this at once, and then proceeds to argue that the verse of nine and that of eleven syllables are indispensable as variants. A full discussion of “superfluous syllables” follows, with examples from modern poets; little is said of the nine-syllabled line, and that dubiously, see pp. lvilvii. Elision is explained.]

“Of the occasional deficiencies or “lameness’ in his verse, of which Chaucer has been accused, it is hoped that little need now be said. In the first place, we are to allow for his quantities, so far as we know them, or can feasibly conjecture what they were. In the second place, we are to give to a great poet who has accomplished so much harmony which is manifest, due credit for many instances where we are unable to perceive it, from our deficiency of knowledge. Thirdly, we are to allow for the errors of copyists, of whose ungodly pens Chaucer shows himself to be in much dread . . . It might be suggested, fifthly, that something should be allowed for the unsettled condition of the English language at his time, and that it was accounted an accomplishment for a man to be able to write even his own name. But this consideration I do not care to dwell upon in the case of one who shows such mastery. The main ground of defence consists in the examples given from modern poets—whose rich and harmonious versification is fully recognized —demonstrating that the occasional introduction of lines which are short by half a foot, or more (as well as those which pass the common bounds of length), of the regular quantity of a particular metre, may enhance the power or beauty of the rhythm.” From R. H. Horne's introduction to the volume of moderniza




tions of Chaucer edited by him. On Horne see Omond, English Metrists, 1907, p. 136.

B. Studies in Chaucer's Language and verse

F. W. Gesenius. De Lingua Chauceri. diss. Bonn pp. 87.
Commended by Child as below. A summary is in Ellis,
EEPron. III : 664-671. -

Moritz Rapp, in his Vergleichende Grammatik, vol. III: 166-
Abridged by Ellis, EEPron. III : 672-77.

Francis James Child. Observations on the Language of
Chaucer. - -
In the Memoirs of the American Academy, n. s. vol. VIII :
445 f.; separate prints are difficult to obtain. Condensed
and reprinted in Ellis, EEPron. I : 342-397. Based on Wright's
ed. of the Cant. Tales from MS Harley 7334, a text which
Child somewhat overrated. Child, and Wright's text, were
discussed by Herrig before the Berliner Gesellschaft, Jan. 6,
1863; see Archiv 32 : 386. The debt of students to this first
methodical and scholarly analysis of Chaucer's language is
in no wise lessened by the progress of study since the day of
Child. See p. 521 below. -

1867-1871. Alexander J. Ellis, On Early English Pronunciation,

with especial Reference to Shakspere and Chaucer, 5 vols.,
1867-1888. Published jointly by the Early English Text and
Chaucer Societies. -
Of this comprehensive and most valuable piece of inves-
tigation Parts I and III are of especial importance to students
of Chaucer. Vol. I p. 241 ff. deals with the rimes of Chaucer
and Gower and the evidence as to pronunciation to be de-
duced from them; on p. 318 ff. Ellis takes up the question of
-e final and its treatment by Chaucer, giving abstracts of
Child’s papers on Chaucer and Gower pp. 342-397, and com-
mending most warmly Child’s investigations. The accentua-
tion of French words and its double treatment by Chaucer is



discussed p. 331 (see III : 650) and in the abstract of Child p. 369. Some other points may be mentioned: the opinion that scribes of Chaucerian MSS were uncertain as to the -e final, owing to the rapid change in English speech which had begun already in Chaucer's time, p. 330; the remarks on headless lines, p. 333, cited below under E (4); and that on trisyllabic measure pp. 334-5, see also III : 648. In vol. III are found illustrations of the pronunciation of Chaucer and Gower, in especial a phonetic transcription of the Prologue to the Cant. Tales, pp. 680-725, and abstracts of the papers of Gesenius and of Rapp as above. Ellis’ opinion is frequently cited below. Ellis is reviewed Athen 1871 II : 393.

Carl Isberg. Grammatical Studies of Chaucer’s Language. diss. Upsala, pp. 38.

Joseph Payne. On the Use of final -e in Early English, and especially in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Chaucer Society Essays, part II.

1873-4. Henry Sweet. History of English Sounds. In the Trans



actions of the Philological Society; again, revised, Oxford 1888. -

R. F. Weymouth. On here and there in Chaucer. In the
Transactions of the Philological Society, 1877-9; in Chaucer
Society Essays part IV.

K. A. Schrader. Das altenglische Relativpronomen, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Sprache Chaucers. diss. Kiel, pp. 45.

1881-1888. J. Schipper. Englische Metrik in historischer und sys

tematischer Entwickelung dargestellt. 3 vols., Bonn; also revised and condensed, I vol., as Grundriss der englischen Metrik, Leipzig, 1895. Reviewed Anglia 5 : Anz. 30, 139 (Einenkel); Nation 1890 I : 355–57; Mod. Lang. Notes 4 : 290-94 (Gummere). Schipper answers the American reviews in Anglia Beibl. 1891 pp. 36 ff.

[Schipper is also the author of the section on Fremde Metra in Paul's Grundriss der germanischen Philologie, art. Englische Metrik..]

The 3-vol. work discusses Chaucer in T : 442 ft. The texts of Morris and of the Morris and Skeat eds. of separate Cant. Tales for school use are the basis of discussion. On the

« PreviousContinue »