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Splitt'st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
This is nothing more than what has been done with the words “Merciful heaven!” which all the modern editors print as a hemistich, but which both in the First Folio and in all the others is made to form a line with the words that immediately precede; thus ;
“Nothing but thunder: Mercifull heauen.” : What mainly gives its character to the English Heroic line is its being poised upon the tenth syllable. It is by this, as well as by the number of feet, that its rhythm or musical flow is distinguished, for instance, from that of what is called the Alexandrine, or line of twelve syllables, the characteristic of which is that the pressure is upon the sixth and the twelfth. Without this twelve syllables will no more make an Alexandrine than they will a common Heroic line. There are in fact many Heroic lines consisting of twelve syllables, but still, nevertheless, resting upon the tenth.
It follows that generally in this kind of verse the tenth syllable will be strongly accented. That is the normal form of the line. When there is rhyme, the consonance is always in the tenth syllable. As, however, in dancing (which is a kind of visible verse,—the poetry of motion, as it has been called), or in architecture (which is another kind, and may be styled the visible poetry of repose), the pressure upon that which really sustains is sometimes sought to be concealed, or converted into the semblance of its opposite, and the limb or the pillar made to appear to be rather drawn towards the ground than resting upon it, so in word-poetry too we have occasionally the exhibition of a similar feat. Instead of a strongly accented syllable, one taking only a very slight accent, or none at all, is made to fill the tenth place. One form, indeed, of this peculiarity of structure is extremely common, and is resorted to by all our poets as often for mere convenience as for any higher purpose, that, namely, in which the weak tenth syllable is the termination of a word of which the syllable having the accent has already done duty in its proper place in the preceding foot. It is in this way that, both in our blank and in our rhymed verse, the large classes of words ending in -ing, -ness, -ment, -y, etc., and accented on the antepenultimate, are made available in concluding so many lines. The same thing happens when we have at the end of the line a short or unaccented monosyllable which either coalesces like an enclitic with the preceding word or at least belongs to the same clause of the expression ; as in Beaumont and Fletcher's “By my dead father's soul, you stir not, Sir!”
(Humorous Lieutenant, ii. 2);
“ And yields all thanks to me for that dear care
(King and No King, ü.). But another case is more remarkable.
This is when the weak or unaccented tenth syllable is neither the final syllable of a word the accented syllable of which has already done service in the preceding foot, nor in any way a part of the same clause of the expression to which that foot belongs, but a separate monosyllabic word, frequently one, such as and, but, if, or, of, even the, or a, or an, among the slightest and most rapidly uttered in the language, and belonging syntactically and in natural utterance to the succeeding line. We may be said to have the strongest or most illustrious exemplifications of this mode of versifying in the “ Labitur ripa, Jove non probante, u
-xorius amnis," and other similar exhibitions of " linked sweetness" in
Horace, Pindar, and the Greek dramatists in their choral passages (if we may accept the common arrangement),to say nothing of sundry modern imitations in the same bold style, even in our own vernacular, which need not be quoted. Such a construction of verse, however, when it does not go the length of actually cutting a word in two, is in perfect accordance with the principles of our English prosodical system ; for, besides that the and, or, of, or if is not really a slighter syllable than the termination -ty or -ly, for instance, which is so frequently found in the same position, these and other similar monosylla-, bles are constantly recognized, under the second of the above laws of modification, as virtually accented for the purposes of the verse in other places of the line. Still when a syllable so slight meets us in the place where the normal, natural, and customary rhythm demands the greatest pressure, the effect is always somewhat startling. This unexpectedness of effect, indeed, may be regarded as in many cases the end aimed at, and that which prompts or recommends the construction in question. And it does undoubtedly produce a certain variety and liveliness. It is fittest, therefore, for the lighter kinds of poetry. It is only there that it can without impropriety be made a characteristic of the verse. It partakes too much of the nature of a trick or a deception to be employed except sparingly in poetry of the manliest or most massive order. Yet there too it may be introduced now and then with the happiest effect, more especially in the drama, where variety and vivacity of style are so much more requisite than rhythmical fulness or roundness, and the form of dialogue, always demanding a natural ease and freedom, will justify even irregularities and audacities of expression which might be rejected by the more stately march of epic composition. It has something of the same bounding life which Ulysses describes Diomed as showing in “the manner of his gait”:
“He rises on the toe: that spirit of his
In aspiration lifts him from the earth.” Two things are observable with regard to Shakespeare's employment of this peculiar construction of verse:
1. It will be found upon an examination of his Plays that there are some of them in which it occurs very rarely, or perhaps scarcely at all, and others in which it is abundant. It was certainly a habit of writing which grew upon him after he once gave in to it. Among the Plays in which there is little or none of it are some of those known to be amongst his earliest; and some that were undoubtedly the product of the latest period of his life are among those that have the most of it. It is probable that the different stages in the frequency with which it is indulged in correspond generally to the order of succession in which the Plays were written. A certain progress of style may be traced more or less distinctly in every writer; and there is no point of style which more marks a poetic writer than the character of his versification. It is this, for instance, which furnishes us with the most conclusive or at least the clearest evidence that the play of King Henry the Eighth cannot have been written throughout by Shakespeare. It is a point of style which admits of precise appreciation to a degree much beyond most others; and there is no other single indication which can be compared with it as an element in determining the chronology of the Plays. It is therefore extremely difficult to believe that the three Roman plays, Julius Cæsar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, can all belong to the same period (Malone assigns them severally to the years 1607, 1608, and 1610), seeing that the second and third are among the plays in which verses having in the tenth place an unemphatic monosyllable of the kind in question are of most frequent occurrence, while the only instances of anything of the sort in the first are, 1 believe, the following:
54. “I had as lief not be as live to be
In awe of such a thing as I myself.”
“ And Cassius is
So get the start of the majestic world.”
“All the interim is
Have an immediate freedom of repeal.”
Produce his body to the market-place.” 358. “And that we are contented Cæsar shall
Have all true rites and awful ceremonies.” 406. “But yesterday the word of Cæsar might
Have stood against the world.” 494.
“Or here, or at
The Capitol.” Not only does so comparatively rare an indulgence in it show that the habit of this kind of versification was as yet not fully formed, but in one only of these ten instances have we it carried nearly so far as it repeatedly is in some other Plays : be, and is, and should, and may, and shall, and might, and are, all verbs, though certainly not emphatic, will yet any of them allow the voice to rest upon it with a considerably stronger pressure than such lightest and slightest of “winged words” as and, or, but, if, that (the relative or conjunction), who, which, than, as, of, to, with, for, etc. The only decided or true and perfect instance of the peculiarity is the last in the list.
2. In some of the Plays at least the prosody of many of the verses constructed upon the principle under consideration has been misconceived by every editor, including the most recent. Let us take, for example, the play of