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March" into “the ides of March" (149), and afterwards "fifteen days” into "fourteen days” (154). It is evident, however, that alterations of this kind ought to be very cautiously made.
VI. THE MECHANISM OF ENGLISH VERSE, AND THE
PROSODY OF THE PLAYS OF SHAKESPEARE.
The mechanism of verse is a thing altogether distinct from the music of verse. The one is matter of rule, the other of taste and feeling. No rules can be given for the production of music, or of the musical, any more than for the production of poetry, or the poetical.
The law of the mechanical construction of verse is common to verse of every degree of musical quality,—to the roughest or harshest (provided it be verse at all), as well as to the smoothest and sweetest. Music is not an absolute necessity of verse. There are cases in which it is not even an excellence or desirable ingredient. Verse is sometimes the more effective for being unmusical. The mechanical law or form is universally indispensable. It is that which constitutes the verse. It may be regarded as the substance; musical character, as the accident or ornament.
In every language the principle of the law of verse undoubtedly lies deep in the nature of the language. In all modern European languages, at least, it is dependent upon the system of accentuation established in the language, and would probably be found to be modified in each case according to the peculiarities of the accentual system. In so far as regards these languages, verse may be defined to consist in a certain arrangement of accented and unaccented syllables.
The Plays of Shakespeare are all, with the exception only of occasional couplets, in unrhymed or what is called Blank verse. This form of verse was first exemplified in
English in a translation of the Fourth Book of the Æneid by the unfortunate Lord Surrey, who was executed in 1547 ; it was first employed in dramatic writing by Thomas Sackville (afterwards Lord Buckhurst and Earl of Dorset) in his Gorboduc (or Ferrex and Porrex), produced in 1561; and, although not much used in poetical compositions of any other kind, either translated or original, till Milton brought it into reputation by his Paradise Lost in the latter part of the following century, it had come to be the established or customary verse for both tragedy and comedy before Shakespeare began to write for the stage. Our only legitimate English Blank verse is that commonly called the Heroic, consisting normally in a succession of five feet of two syllables each, with the pressure of the voice, or accent, on the latter of the two, or, in other words, on the second, fourth, sixth, eighth, and tenth syllables of each line. After the tenth syllable, an unaccented syllable, or even two, may be added without any prosodical effect. The rhythm is completed with the tenth syllable, and what follows is only as it were a slight reverberation or echo.
But this general statement is subject to certain important modifications :
1. In any of the feet an accent on the first syllable may be substituted for one on the second, providing it be not done in two adjoining feet. This transference of the accent is more unusual in certain of the feet than in others-most of all in the fifth, next to that in the second; -but is not in any foot a violation of the law of the verse, or what is properly to be called a licence.
2. It is a universal law of English verse, that any syllable whatever, falling in the place of the accent either immediately before or immediately after a foot of which one of the syllables is truly accented, will be accounted to be accented for the purposes of the verse. The -my
of enemy, for instance, or the in- of intercept, is always so
accounted in heroic verse, in virtue of the true accent upon en- and upon -cept; but in dactylic or anapæstic verse, these syllables, although pronounced precisely in the same manner, are always held to be unaccented, the law of those kinds of verse not requiring another accent within the distance at which the -my stands removed from the en-, or the in- from the -cept. This, in so far as regards the heroic line, is equivalent to saying that every alternate foot may be without a really accented syllable in it at all. Or the line might be defined as consisting, not of five feet of two syllables each, with one of them accented, but of two and a half feet, each of four syllables, with at least one of the four accented; the half foot, which need not have an accent, occurring sometimes at the beginning of the line, sometimes in the middle, sometimes at the end. Practically, the effect is, that anywhere in the line we may have a sequence of three syllables (none of them being superfluous) without any accent; and that there is no word in the language (such as Horace was plagued with in Latin) quod versu dicere non est,none, whether proper name or whatever else, which the verse does not readily admit.
3. It is by no means necessary (though it is commonly stated or assumed to be so that the syllables alternating with the accented ones should be unaccented. Any or all of them may be accented also.
4. Further, in any of the places which may be occupied by an unaccented syllable it is scarcely an irregularity to introduce two or even more such unaccented syllables. The effect may be compared to the prolongation or dispersion of a note in music by what is called a shake. Of course, such a construction of verse is to be resorted to sparingly and only upon special grounds or occasions ; employed habitually, or very frequently, it crowds and cumbers the rhythm, and gives it a quivering and feeble character. But it can nowhere be said to be illegitimate,
-although, in ordinary circumstances, it may have a less agreeable effect in some places of the line than in others.
These four modifications of its normal structure are what, along with the artistic distribution of the pauses and cadences, principally give its variety, freedom, and life to our Heroic verse. They are what the intermixture of dactyls and spondees is to the Greek or Latin Hexameter. They are none of them of the nature of what is properly denominated a poetic licence, which is not a modification but a violation of the rule, permissible only upon rare occasions, and altogether anarchical and destructive when too frequently committed. The first three of our four modifications are taken advantage of habitually and incessantly by every writer of verse in the language; and the fourth, to a greater or less extent, at least by nearly all our blank verse poets.
So much cannot be said for another form of verse (if it is to be so called) which has also been supposed to be found in Shakespeare; that, namely, in which a line, evidently perfect both at the beginning and the end, wants a syllable in the middle. Such, for instance, is the well-known line in Measure for Measure, ii. 2, as it stands in the First Folio,
“ Than the soft myrtle. But man, proud man.” Here, it will be observed, we have not a hemistich (by which we mean any portion of a verse perfect so far as it extends, whether it be the commencing or concluding portion), but something which professes to be a complete verse. The present is not merely a truncated line of nine syllables, or one where the defect consists in the want of either the first or the last syllable; the defect here would not be cured by any addition to either the beginning or the end of the line; the syllable that is wanting is in the middle.
The existing text of the Plays presents us with a con
siderable number of verses of this description. In many of these, in all probability, the text is corrupt; the wanting syllable, not being absolutely indispensable to the sense, has been dropt out in the copying or setting up by some one (a common case) not much alive to the demands of the prosody. The only other solution of the difficulty that has been offered is, that we have a substitute for the omitted syllable in a pause by which the reading of the line is to be broken. This notion appears to have received the sanction of Coleridge. But I cannot think that he had fully considered the matter. It is certain that in no verse of Coleridge's own does any mere pause ever perform the function which would thus be assigned to it. Nor is any such principle recognized in any other English verse, modern or ancient, of which we have a text that can be absolutely relied upon. It is needless to observe that both in Shakespeare and in all our other writers of verse we have abundance of lines broken by pauses of all lengths without any such effect being thereby produced as is here assumed. If the pause be really equivalent to a syllable, how happens it that it is not so in every case ? But that it should be so in any case is a doctrine to which I should have the greatest difficulty in reconciling myself. How is it possible by any length of pause to bring anything like rhythm out of the above quoted words,
“Than the soft myrtle. But man, proud man"?
If this be verse, there is nothing that may not be so designated.
I should be inclined to say, that, wherever there seems to be no reason for suspecting the loss of a syllable, we ought in a case of this sort to regard the words as making not one line, but two hemistichs, or truncated lines. Thus, the passage in Measure for Measure would stand
“ Merciful heaven !