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Volume 40, 1907
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Art. XLII.—Metre.

[Read before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, 6th November, 1907.]

Chapter I.

1. Rhythm in music or poetry is an uninterrupted succession of equal divisions of time, each more or less filled with sound. Speech, as it becomes exalted or emotional, tends to become rhythmical. Rhythmic speech is intended to please rather than to instruct; to convince through the emotions rather than through the intellect. Therefore, the praises of their patrons were sung by the sagamen of old; prose would have insured ridicule rather than reward: so, too, a lover is allowed greater latitude when he sings his rhapsodies than when they fall from his lips in prose.

2. Apart from its audible nature, rhythm has a distinct form when written or printed as poetry. As distinguished from prose, its chief characteristic to the eye is that it is written in lines of definite lengths, each, as has been usually asserted by prosodists, containing a definite number of syllables. That the number of syllables is not everything, however, is implied when it is said above that the equal divisions of poetry are more or less filled with sound. This theory has of late years been amply set out by T. S. Omond, and need not now be further spoken of, as it must recur in the course of this essay. The external form of verse has not been so exhaustively treated as the internal, but forms almost as interesting a study, seeing that it is the external and visible expression of the internal and invisible spirit. Scansion studies the regularity of “feet,” the component parts of verses, or, as they are more commonly called, lines; but little attention has been paid to the regularity of the lines themselves.

3. The length of the lines is supposed to have been given by their users, the poets, and to have been fixed by their usage. This study will be confined to the absolutely rhythmical lines that followed the alliterative and comparatively rhythmical staves of the old Scandinavian or early Saxon bards. It is possible that the length of the lines could have been fixed arbitrarily? If one poet were great enough to fix them, another could arise great enough to alter them. In “Chambers's Encyclopædia,” under the heading “Metre,” it is stated that

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the ten-syllabled line was adopted because the eight-syllabled was too short and the twelve-syllabled too long; but no reason is given. In the last “Encyclopædia Britannica” it is suggested that, whilst usage may have made the line what it is, there may be some deep underlying law which has unconsciously guided the poet. Without doubt there is an underlying law: nor is it of great intricacy, for it is clearly manifested every time a stanza of verse is read aloud. Yet of the many writers on English prosody, though all speak of the regularity of lengths, not one gives the reason nor suggests the law for this regularity.

4. It is this law that is to be traced; and, as any law is best seen in operation where simplicity offers no distraction, the simplest and commonest forms of verse will serve as the best illustrations. We will therefore turn to ballad-metres, taking as simplest and most convenient Ritson's collection of the Robin Hood ballads. The discovery of this law is as important as the discovery of a primary law determining the form assumed by any particular predominant type of animal—say, man.

Chapter II.


1. The commonest form in which ballad-metre is now printed is in quatrains, or stanzas of four lines, the first and third usually eight-syllabled, the second and fourth six-syllabled.

The true and original form, however, is different, each pair as printed being really one line of fourteen syllables. In Ritson's prefatory note to the “Ballad of Robin Hood and the Beggar” he says, “It may be proper to mention that each line of the printed copy is here thrown into two, a step which, though absolutely necessary from the narrowness of the page, is sufficiently justified by the frequent recurrence of the double rime. The division of stanzas was conceived to be a still further improvement.” This “narrowness of the page” has been given as one reason for the adoption of lines of certain uniform length, and it has also been stated that thus printed the eye more readily catches the substance of the words. Both statements can at once be dismissed when it is remembered that the length of line was fixed at a time when the ballads were transmitted orally, before books were printed at all. The lines are printed as fourteen-syllabled in Warner's “Albion's England.”

2. From Ritson's remark that “the division of stanzas was conceived to be a still further improvement,” it is evident (as from their oral transmission, too, it must be) that the long lines were run on without division into stanzas; but the fact that it was at all possible to divide them in this way is a significant one. It means that in most cases two fourteen-syllabled lines

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formed a complete sentence. There are, naturally, many instances where stanzas are divided by colons only, but in the majority of instances each stanza is syntactically and synthetically complete.

Each line is, moreover, a complete clause, the comma after the eighth syllable being often no more than the mark of the printer's inordinate fondness for that symbol where verse is concerned.

3. Rimes, originally marking stanzas and aiding memory, came to be regarded as end words; and in printing, wherever rimes occurred, lines were cut off. This will be referred to more fully when rime is considered, and is only referred to now to indicate how rime has had an influence in splitting up and disguising the true metre. (See Chapter V.)

4. (a.) Other things helped to disguise the metre, such as variations from the true type. These variations consist of feet containing less or more than two syllables, dropped feet, and displacement or duplication of the accent. The following quotations will serve as illustration of these variations; the first-quoted, normal in metre, serving as type of the usual:—


He met a beggar by the way, who sturdily could gang;

He had a pike-staff in his hand that was both stark and strang:

A clouted cloak about him was, that held him frae the cold,

The thinnest bit of it, I guess, was more than twenty fold.

The accent occurs regularly on the second syllable, and each line runs smoothly and with spirit.


Rò|byn stòde | in Ber|nysdàle, | and lèaned | him tò | a trèe,|

And by | him stòde | Lytèll | Johànn, | a gòod | yemàn | was hè.|

(Page 115, line 9.)


Mùch | was rè|dy wìth | a bòlte, | rè|dly ànd | a nòne,|

He sèt | the mònke | to fòre | the brèst, | to the gròund | that hè | can gòne.|

(Page 154, line 73.)


A rỳght | good à|rowe hè | shall hàve, | the shàft | of sỳl|ver whỳte,|

The hèad | and the fèd|ers of rỳche | rède gòlde, | in Èng|lond ìs | none lỳke.|

(Page 164, line 17.)


For yè | have scàr|let and grène, | maystèr, | and mà|ny a rỳche | arày,|

There ìs | no màr|chaunt in mè|ry Englònde | so rỳche, | J dàre | well sàye.|

(Page 127, line 280.)


Gòd | the sàve, | good Rò|byn Hòod, | and àl | this còm|panỳ.|

Wèl|come bè | thou gèn|tyll knỳght, | and rỳght | welcòme | to mè.|

(Page 160, line 237.)

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Have hère | foure hòn|dred pounde, thèn | sayd the knỳght, | the whìch | ye lènt | to mè;|

And hère | is àl|so twèn|ty màrke | fòr | your cùr|teysỳ.|

(Page 161, line 261.)


When thèy | had shòte | abòut, | these àr chours faỳre | and gòod,|

È|ermòre | was the bèst | fòr | soth, Rò|byn Hòod.|

(Page 165, line 53.)


Rò|byn, sàyd | our kỳnge | nòw | prày | I thè,|To sèll | me sòme | of thàt | clòth | to mè | and mỳ | meynè.|

(Page 188, line 5.)


And ỳf | I tòke | it twỳse, | a shàme | it wère | to mè;|

And trèw|ly, gèn|tyll knỳght, | welcòme | arte thòu | to mè.|

(Page 162, line 269.)


Stỳll | stòde | the proùd | sherỳf, | a sò|ry màn | was hè:|

Wo wòrthe | the, Rày|nolde Grèn|elèfe | thou hast nòw | betrày|ed mè.|

(Page 147, line 181.)


Theyr bòw|es bènt | and fòrth | they wènt | shò|tynge àll | in fère,|

Towàrd | the tòwne | of Nòt|ynghàm, | òut|lawes às | they wère.|

(Page 189, line 21.)


Whèn | he càme | to grène | wòde, | ìn | a mèr|y mòrn|ynge,

Thère | he hèrde | the nòtes | smàll | of bỳrdes | mèr|y sỳng|ynge.

(Page 193, line 109. The only feminine rimes in the whole geste of 8 fytte.)


Alàs! | then sàyd | good Rò|byn, alàs | and wèll | a wòo !|

Yf Ì | dwele lèn|ger wìth | the kỳnge, | sòr|owe wỳll | me slòo.|

(Page 191, line 81.)

Later Ballads.


Althò' | good Rò|bin woùld | full fàin | of his wràth | avèn|ged bè,|

He smìl'd | to sèe | his mèr|ry young mèn | had gòt|ten a tàste | of the trèe.|

(Page 226, line 249.)


Good mòr|rowe, good fèl|lowe, said Rò|byn so fàyre, | good mòr|rowe, good fèl|lowe quo' hè;|

Methìnks | by this bòwe | thou bèars | in thy hànd, | a gòod | archere thòu | shouldst bè.|

(Page 231, line 97.)


And sòme|times, whèn | the hìgh|way faìl'd, | then hè | his còu|rage ròu|ses,

Hè | and his mèn | have òft | assaìled | such rìch | men in | their hòus|es.

(Page 246, line 209.)

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The so-called varieties of metre (such as trochaic, dactylic, anapestic, amphibrachic) arising from these variations will be spoken of more particularly in the chapter on metre; all that is required in this place is to show that the normal fourteen syllables are maintained in all these lines, divergent as many may appear from the normal type. (See Chapter VI.)

(b.) As suggested in Chapter I, section 2, the equal divisions of poetry, called “feet,” may be more or less filled with sound. The rhythm is the integral movement of which a foot is part; the foot is one of the equal divisions of the rhythm, and each foot normally consists of two beats—one light, one heavy. Words float on the beat of the rhythm, and the rhythm is constant, though a word may here and there be dropped or doubled. The place of the word in the former case is taken by a pause; in the latter a triplet is produced. Take the second line of the 8th quotation:—

And hère | is àl|so twèn|ty màrke | fòr | your oùr|teysỳ.|

Nine out of ten would read “marke” as one syllable, making the line the same as the second of quotation 13:—

Towàrd | the tòwne | of Nòt|ynghàm, | oùt | lawes às | they wère.|

The tenth might give the “e” of “marke” its full old-time value, when the line would have its fourteen syllables; so also to the gross ear would the line last quoted by the insertion of “bold” before “outlawes.” In the same manner a pause takes the place of the first syllable in the first line of quotation 3: for “Robyn stode” read “Good Robyn stode.” The second line of quotation 4 runs,—

He sèt | the mònke | to-fòre | the brèst, | to the gròund | that hè | can gòne.|

Here there are three syllables to the fifth foot, but it is evident they only occupy the time of two; they are, in fact, what triplets are in music—they alter the time only of the foot in which they occur. So again in quotation 6: here there are no less than four trisyllabic feet in the two lines; and, the time remaining constant throughout, an agreeable tripping effect is produced. In quotation 15, “Alàs! | then sàyd | good Rò|byn,” the accented syllable is dropped: the line reads normally by inserting “Hood” after “Robyn.” Taking quotation 11,—

And ỳf | I tòke | it twỳse, | a shàme | it wère | to mè; |

And trèw|ly, gèn|tyll knỳght, | welcòme | art thòu | to mè.|

In reading, a distinct pause is made after “twyse” and “knyght”—a pause equal to the two syllables dropped. In the second line of quotation 5,—

The hèad | and the fèd|ers of rỳche | rède gòld, | in Èng|lande ìs | none lỳke |

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we have two trisyllabic feet followed by a foot in which both syllables are accented, forming a fine contrast.

(c.) These are the usual variations. Such a line as the first of quotation 8 is too rugged to be correct; it has too many syllables: the second of quotation 9 has too few: both may be instances of faulty transmission. It is possible to read them with their proper metre, but the effect is unpleasing, whereas the effect of the other variations quoted is the reverse.

All the variations arose, possibly, by accident; it is more than possible they were faulty slips of amateur ballad-singers seized upon by good craftsmen as means of embellishing and varying the sing-song of the measure.

5. (a.) Referring again to quotation 15,—

Alàs! | then saỳd | good Rò|byn, | alàs | and wèll | a wòo!|

As already suggested in (b) of the previous section, this line has the eighth syllable dropped, and reads normally by the insertion of “Hood” after “Robyn.” It will be noted that the syllable dropped is one which when present bears an accent; and though lines such as this, containing thirteen syllables, do not often occur in English ballads, it is the normal line of the Danish and German ballad. The great German epic, the “Nibelungen Noth,” is written entirely in this thirteen-syllabled line, varied in the same way that the English line is varied. In old pieces it is written as one line; in later compositions it is split in two just as the English line is, and a mid-rime further disguises it; as in Œhlenschlaeger's “Thor in Helheim”:—

His mood and trust enduring,
He hasted through the night;
The darkness, less obscuring,
Was slowly lost in light.
One saw where torches glimmered
Within the chasm, as if
The moon had fall'n, and shimmered,
Caught in a cloven cliff.

In this metre the stanzas are, as a rule, made up of either four lines of thirteen syllables, or eight of seven and six alternately. The latter is the case when mid-rime occurs, as in example quoted; the former is the case where there is no mid-rime, as in the case of the German epic, and in the Danish poet Winther's series of tales entitled “Woodcuts.” A stanza of similar construction is that employed by Allan Ramsay in “Christ's Kirk on the Green.”

(b.) Quotation 11, again, has, as noted, a foot dropped in each line:—

And yf I toke it twyse, a shame it were to me;
And trewly, gentyll knyghte, welcome arte thou to me.

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Such lines, again, are not very frequently met with except in solitary instances, but they also have their counterpart in the Alexandrine, forming the measure which, first used in France in the twelfth century, in a poem on Alexander the Great, became the heroic or epic line of French poetry. The line is not easily worked into long poems in English, Drayton's “Polyolbion” being the only one of any considerable length in which it is employed. It is, however, used with fine effect as a concluding line in heroic stanzas such as Spenser's “Faerie Queene”: the stanzas seem to gather body like a wave, and break majestically in the long sweep of the Alexandrine. Part of “Polyobion” may be quoted to show the effect in reading this line continuously:—

From wealthy abbots' chests and churls' abundant store,
What oftentimes he took, he shar'd amongst the poor;
No lordly bishop came in lusty Robin's way,
To him, before he went, but for his pass must pay.

It will be found that a pause, equal to a foot, is instinctively made after the sixth syllable, so that the metre is practically read as ballad-metre. The same is true of the German metre; so that it is evident all these metres have a common basis, each assuming the form most compatible to the nature of the people adopting it.

6. Whilst it has been noted that each ballad-line contains fourteen syllables, a pause at the end of each line must be accounted for; so that each line contains in reality eight feet, seven of which are filled with sound. Proof of this may be adduced from a source rather unexpected—that is, from Church hymns.

As may be seen from the Robin Hood ballads, the Church and its ministers were held in very scant respect by the ruder classes; indeed, Bishop Latimer complained to King Edward VI that, passing through a certain town, he let it be known that he would be there on a certain day, and coming to the church he found it locked, it being Robin Hood's Day, and the people to a man preferred celebrating his day to hearing the Bishop. It would therefore appear strange that the Church should ever countenance the perpetuation of a poetic measure which formed the medium in which were preserved the popular tales of the people—tales many of which would nowadays be considered tapu, and many of which were directed against the Church itself. But it was the Church in the first instance that practically gave this metre to the people, in the early metrical romances. This metre of eight-syllabled half-lines was taken from the French, and seemed to be the final outcome of a long evolutionary process in metre in the European tongues, gradu

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ally breaking up and changing, in England, the rugged lines marked only by alliterative divisions, such as are seen in “Piers Plowman.” In this sixteen-syllabled metre were told the lives of the saints, and other religious subjects, which formed the literary staple of the people. It was no wonder, therefore, that when the people took to creating their own tales they took the metre which was most familiar to them; the more readily, too, that it was—though unknown to them—the natural metre. But its evolution was not complete, as was indicated by the fact that the second half of the sixteen-syllabled line showed a constant tendency to shorten itself when spoken; and, as the metre became more and more used by the people, it slowly but surely assumed the fourteen-syllabled form, which has remained unchanged to this day, and is the most attractive of all metres. Metre had, in fact, evolved to the natural type.

In the Index to the Church of England Hymns, A. and M., of the first hundred hymns, eighty-one are in ballad-measure. The strict measure, fourteen-syllabled, is in the index called “common measure”; sixteen-syllabled is “long measure”; and twelve-syllabled, “short measure.” The confirmation of the measure comes in this: Minims are used as the basic note, and in every measure (common, short, or long) each line is sung to sixteen syllables; in long measure each line ends with a minim; in common and short the six-syllabled lines are eked out to eight syllables with a dotted semibreve. What is yet more suggestive is that in still shorter measures the sixteen syllables are obtained: for instance, in Hymn 306, whose lines contain six and five syllables alternately, the six-syllabled lines end with two semibreves, the five-syllabled with a breve, making the sixteen syllables in all. The last remark premises the statement that of the nineteen hymns in the hundred which are not ballad-metre to the eye—that is, they contain less than six-syllabled lines—the music makes them pure ballad; so that it is not too much to say that at least 90 per cent. of the Church hymns are in ballad-measure. The exceptions are mostly hymns of late composition, such as “Lead Kindly Light”; though even some of these later hymns, such as “Hark, hark, my Soul,” though of eleven- and ten-syllabled lines alternately, are by the music made sixteen-syllabled. This is, metrically, an extraordinary fact, and shows how deeply the measure is imbedded in man's rhythmic nature. Here the conservative nature of the Church is of unexpected assistance in showing the primal and constant nature of the ballad-measure—the measure whose magic Sir Philip Sidney declared stirred his heart like a trumpet. In these later days, though the ear is attracted by the artificial forms of poetry that have been brought to perfection by men

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like Swinburne, the heart is at once touched and responds to a lilt in the old ballad-measure.

7. This long measure, the sixteen-syllabled line, has been especially used by two poets in English—John Gower and Sir Walter Scott. Gower's lines were meant for the eye rather than for the ear—that is, his tales were not to be sung; he was, too, in close touch with the metrical romances, whose teaching he continued. Scott's lines were certainly meant for the eye; and though in the first poem written by him in this measure, the “Lay of the Last Minstrel,” they are supposed to be sung by an old minstrel, it never passes the supposition: the minstrel did not sing them; the printer gave them to the eye, not the minstrel to the ear. The point to be noted is this: the eye needs no pause in reading, such as the voice needs in reciting. Scott deliberately discarded the natural ballad-metre, as in his day it had become the medium of an enormous amount of jingling nonsense; he admittedly harked back to the metrical romance metre.

8. On these remarks a certain statement is to be based. Ballads were originally sung or recited; the common measures are in twelve, thirteen, or fourteen syllables; a complete phrase is almost invariably expressed in that number. The inference is that fourteen syllables proved to be the average that could be uttered in one breath; a breath was taken during the silent foot, and the second line then spoken or sung. The conclusion then is, the breath determined the length of the ballad-line; and it will be found that almost invariably a breath is taken at the end of each line of fourteen syllables. This is the law: so simple that it seems absurd; so natural that it is inevitable. In singing the metrical romances—or their latter-day equivalents, Church hymns—a gasp is taken after the sixteenth syllable: it was the awkwardness of this gasp that began the shortening of the second half of the line, and produced the line of fourteen syllables, the true ballad.

Chapter III.

1. An objection to the conclusion arrived at in the last chapter appears to arise at the very outset. Though ballad-metre was formerly employed as the common medium, that metre is no longer predominant, but has given place to one considerably shorter—that is, the ten-syllabled metre of blank verse. This metre was first introduced into English by Surrey, but was not in that form the popular measure that the rimed heroic of Chaucer proved itself: it was too indefinite; lines were fused, and the old definite pause was missed. It was therefore as the rimed heroic that the line took firmest root, and was

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best used by Chaucer. With him it runs freely; the lines, though stopped by means of the rime, are yet not stopped abruptly; the mid-pause of the line, or cæsura, is varied, and it has some of the charm of blank verse with the primitive charm of rime added. With Pope the place of the cæsura became more definite, and the lines, too, were more definitely stopped; in fact, the rime broke his verses up into couplets; they became a string of epigrams: so that it has been said of Pope that under the curb of pause and rime his Pegasus became a rocking-horse. Such monotony must cause a revulsion. That revulsion took shape, not in discarding the metre, but in discarding the rime and in varying the place of the mid-pause. Dryden, among others, wrote against this innovation, maintaining that the rimed heroic was the suitable measure for tragedy, as it gave such opportunity for epigram—a state of things quite out of harmony in tragedy, where, of course, epigram has no place.

2. (a.) In Pope's couplets the two lines generally serve to convey a complete sentence, in the same way that the two lines of ballad-metre did. On reading Pope aloud, too, it will be found that a breath is taken invariably after the tenth or twentieth syllable—much more often after the tenth. Here, then, it would seem that the average length of a sentence is ten syllables: Pope by his artificiality has made the average the actual. Why should ten syllables be adopted here in the place of fourteen? Reading aloud gives one reply: it will be noticed that Pope's lines are read more slowly, more deliberately, than lines in ballad-metre. The reason will be at once seen on examining the nature of the subject conveyed by the words. The ballads are active, Pope is reflective: one relates an incident, intense and almost without detail; the other contemplates the incident, and elaborates the detail: one is active, one is sedentary. The very deliberate nature of his subject enabled Pope to measure his lines as if by scale.

(b.) In this light it will be interesting to compare two translations of Homer—one by Chapman, the other by Pope. Chapman employed the only metre really suitable—the equivalent, in English, of Homer's metre—when he employed the ballad-metre. One cannot but indorse Keats's sonnet in the main, but, whilst admiring the skill, the fault is also evident. Chapman made this mistake: he did not sufficiently stop the lines; he used the ballad-metre, the metre of action, but tried also to give it the flexibility belonging to blank verse in allowing his lines constantly to overflow; and it is these overflowing parts principally that cause his metre to halt. Rimes, when used, should generally coincide with pauses, not make them; with Chapman, they do not point his metre, but break it. Pope failed more

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signally in rendering Homer, since he adopted the reflective metre, heroic verse—too much stopped, and too evenly paused. Chapman enables us actually to see the action; Pope compels us to imagine it. Scott had an instinctive feeling as to the reason for Pope's failure. He pointed out that Pope's opening lines of the Iliad could all drop one foot, reducing the ten syllables to eight: thus, instead of—

The wrath of Peleus' son, the (direful) spring
Of (all the) Grecian woes, O goddess, sing;
That wrath which hurled to Pluto's (gloomy) reign
The souls of (mighty) chiefs untimely slain:
Whose limbs, unburied on the (naked) shore,
Devouring dogs and (hungry) vultures tore:

he read

The wrath of Peleus' son, the spring
Of Grecian woes, O goddess, sing;
That wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's reign
The souls of chiefs untimely slain:
Whose limbs, unburied on the shore,
Devouring dogs and vultures tore.

Note that every pair of lines is in reality one long line. The dropping of this foot brings the metre into line with Scott's favourite, which is no other than the long ballad-metre referred to in section 7 of Chapter II—a metre in which many of Sir Walter Scott's ballads, collected and otherwise, as well as his own minstrelsy, run.

It would almost seem that the Iliad is best translated in ballad-metre, not heroics or blank verse; in the verse of energy and action, not of rest and reflection. As suggested, the ballad recites an event; Pope's heroics contemplate it; blank verse acts it. This summarises the essential difference in nature: the two former are in a measure artificial; the last is natural; and in that fact will be found the reason for the overflowing lines.

3. Even when rime was discarded from the heroic line, the tendency to stop the lines was for a long time powerful. Whilst writers felt that the rime was a hindrance in emotional passages, they did not, as a class, see why. Soon, however, the lines overflowed, the sense incomplete in one being carried to the next.

Chapter IV.

Blank Verse.

At the outset the secret of blank verse becomes visible: its lines as printed are still those of the heroic, the average length of a sentence; but the variations of actual speech can be fully displayed with no disruption in metre, no violation of emotion. As the emotions vary, so the breath varies in depth and duration;

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so, too, the length of the sentences uttered by that breath. Macduff (Macbeth, ii, 3) cries in horror,—

Awake, awake!
Ring the alarum-bell.
Murder and treason!
Banquo and Donalbain!
Malcolm! awake!
Shake off this drowsy sleep, death's counterfeit, and look on death itself!
Up, up, and see the great doom's image!

Here all the feeling is in the short, abrupt exclamations: they are cries of horror at the deed: only when that horror is for a time forgotten in metaphor does the quickly drawn breath permit of longer sentences.

As a contrast, compare the length of the following sentences, where the emotion is so calm as to permit the breath to utter long imaginative phrases:—

Proserpina, for the flowers now, that, frighted, thou lett'st fall from Dis's waggon!
Daffodils, that come before the swallow dares, and take the winds of March with beauty,
Violets, dim, but sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes or Cytherea's breath.

How shall these two extracts be laid in the Procrustean bed of decasyllabic verse?

Take another quotation, from the murder scene in “Othello,” where the contrast in the varying emotion is more perceptible:—


It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,—


Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!—It is the cause.


Yet I'll not shed her blood;


Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, and smooth as monumental alabaster.


Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.


Put out the light, and then—put out the light!


If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, I can again thy former light restore, should I repent me:


But once put out thy light, thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,


I know not where is that Promethean heat that can thy light relume.


When I have plucked thy rose, I cannot give it vital growth again,


It needs must wither.


I'll smell it on the tree.


O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade justice to break her sword!


One more, one more.

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Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee, and love thee after:


One more, and this the last:


So sweet was ne'er so fatal.


I must weep, but they are cruel tears:


This sorrow's heavenly; it strikes where it doth love.


She wakes.

Here there are twenty sentences, with 218 syllables, an average of not quite eleven syllables to a sentence. Again it will be noted that the longest are those containing imagery. After the deed, all but the last sentences are pure emotion:—

Yes:—'tis Emilia:—by-and-by.—
She's dead!
'Tis like she comes to speak of Cassio's death;
The noise was high.—
Ha! no more moving?
Still as the grave.—
Shall she come in? Were't good?
I think she stirs again.—
No.—What's best to do?
If she comes in, she'll sure speak to my wife.
My wife! my wife! what wife?
I have no wife.
O, insupportable!
O, heavy hour!
Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse of sun and moon;
And that the affrighted globe should yawn at alteration.

This passage from “Othello” has been taken at random as an emotional passage: many others may be found where the average is about ten syllables to a sentence, such as Lear ii, 4, beginning “The king would speak with Cornwall,” and v, 3, “O, you are men of stones!” which both average slightly under nine; Hamlet, i, 4, beginning “Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!” which averages eleven; Hamlet, iii, 4, “Look here, upon this picture and on this,” and iii, 4, “Ecstasy!…” both of which average slightly over eleven.

Though the natural way would be to write or print the sentences as above, such a disjointed manner, whilst perfectly correct for acting, would break the consecutiveness of rhythm in reading; and the ten-syllabled line, the general average of a sentence, has been adopted for readers. One advantage of printing them as breathing sentences would be that they would serve as a visible index to the fluctuating emotions.

Chapter V.


1. As suggested in Chapter II, section 3, rime has been largely instrumental in disguising the metre, and at the same

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time giving the variety of form to printed poetry. At first the two rimes, as in ballad-metre, marked the stanza, and the rimes came gradually to be looked upon as the end-words. When, therefore, mid-rimes were introduced into ballad-metre, the fourteen-syllabled line was cut into two—one of eight and one of six syllables—as in quotation 18:—

And sometimes, when the highway fail'd
Then he his courage rouses,
He and his men have oft assailed
Such rich men in their houses.

The leonine or internal rime in the eight-syllabled line, as in quotation 13, introduced a new change, such a line being sometimes printed

Their bòw | es bènt |
And fòrth | they wènt |
Shò | tynge àll | in fère.|

Sometimes the four syllables of each leonine will be expanded to eight (the “light-horse gallop of verse”), as—

When Ruth was left half desolate
Her father took another mate;
And Ruth, not seven years old,
A slighted child, at her own will
Went wandering over dale and hill,
In thoughtless freedom bold.

And again, both halves of such a stanza may further be resolved into four-syllabled leonines, as—

With ravished ears
The monarch hears;
Assumes the god,
Affects to nod,
And seems to shake the spheres.

Such variations become yet more complicated when the rimes are feminine or double. A first reading would entirely fail to make Shelley's “The Cloud” the same metre as “Jack and Jill”—both ballad. But that the metre is the same is evident in taking a more regular stanza:—

I sìft | the snòw|
On the mòun|tains belòw,|
And their grèat | pines gròan | aghàst;|
And àll | the nìght|
'Tis my pil|low white,|
While I slèep | in the àrms | of the Blàst.|
Jàck | and Jill|
Went ùp | the hill|
To fètch | a pàil | of wà|ter;
Jàck | fell dòwn|
And bròke | his cròwn,|
And Jill | came tùmb|ling àfter.

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In both each leonine has two accents, the odd line three—the common measure of ballad-metre. The simple metre of “The Cloud” is, of course, further disguised by its triple feet.

As has been said, double rimes occur only once in “A Lyttel Geste of Robyn-Hood,” eight fytte of 461 stanzas, but they become more and more frequent as time goes on.

Once printing became common, this variation of the ballad stanza became more and more frequent and complicated, until now many stanzas that read well enough to the eye read roughly aloud; but still the most popular poems are those written in metre more nearly approximating to the old ballad.

Chapter VI.


1. Coming now to the last chapter, a few words will be said concerning metre itself. All blank verse, all ballad verse—which two include by far the greatest bulk of English poetry—is essentially iambic—that is, each foot contains two syllables, the stress falling on the second. Is there any reason why two syllables should be the natural number to a foot? for the preponderance of two-syllabled feet, and of iambic, show the iambic to be the natural foot.

Speech in poetry being an expression of the emotions, it is natural that speech should be regulated by those emotions; and so it is, as was shown by the quotations in Chapter IV: as the emotion deepens or strengthens, the speech becomes more rapidly and forcibly uttered, the sentences being proportionately shorter. Directly, the voice is produced by the lungs; indirectly, it is affected by the heart: more rapid breathing, if involuntary, implies more rapid heart-action; and increased heart-action, besides being caused by increased physical exertion, is also caused by emotional excitement. Hamlet, accused by his mother of madness, says,—

My pulse, as yours, doth temperately keep time,
And makes as healthful music;

and between calm contemplation and emotional terror there is a whole gamut finding expression not only in the voice, but in the beating and throbbing of the heart.

Reading aloud, or reciting, say, the speech of Antony over the body of Cæsar, it will be found that an average of from 140 to 160 syllables are uttered in one minute. In ordinary speech, 120 words is the average number spoken in a minute—say, 190 syllables. But no man recites so fast as he speaks, more especially verse, for every beat must be regarded or the rhythm will be lost. The heart makes, normally, an average

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of slightly over seventy pulsations a minute, each pulsation being composed of two periods—that of rest, and the almost synchronous beat of the auricles and ventricles (one-tenth of a second only intervenes); it beats, in fact, almost in iambic measure.

This is, of course, no more than an approximation; but that such an approximation is at all possible is not without significance, and is of intense interest in determining the origin of the basic metre of poetry, the iambic. It may seem doubtful which is the effect, which the cause; but, the heart being the organ of the emotions, it is reasonable to suppose that it should affect the emotional expressions of the voice; and, similarly, the action of the lungs being affected directly by that of the heart, the duration of an utterance should naturally be affected by those organs.

That iambic is in reality the basic metre may also be demonstrated by tracing the growth of all the other metres from it.

2. There does not seem much doubt that the trochee is no more than the iamb with the first and unaccented syllable dropped. In Milton's “L′Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” what are called trochaic lines freely mingle with iambic lines without break in the rhythm, though with some difference in audible effect.

That the attack in music is made on the first note of a bar may be adduced as argument that the trochaic effect is a natural one; but it will be remembered that in a great many cases one or two accented notes occur isolated before the first bar; and more, the finale is always an attack. It is therefore more reasonable to suppose that the bar has been put before the note attacked rather as a visible guide to the performer than as the natural division-line of the rhythm.

It cannot be gainsaid that the “Lyttel Geste” is in iambic metre, yet what are called trochaic lines constantly occur (see quotations 3, 4, 7, 10, 12, 14). There is absolutely no warrant for calling them trochaic lines, for it is evident that a syllable has been dropped at the beginning of the line, and the line is iambic immediately after the first syllable and onwards. This erroneous nomenclature has arisen because syllables have been taken as the only constituents of a foot, instead of both syllables and pauses.

3. Take the second line of quotation 4:—

He sèt | the mònke | to-fòre | the brèst, | to the gròund | that hè | can gòne. |

Here the fifth foot contains three syllables, but the three are uttered in the time of two; they are, in fact, equivalent to a

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triplet in music: that is, the foot is iambic, with a triple effect. So in the second line of quotation 5:—

The hèad | and the fè|ders of rỳche | rède gòlde, | in Èng|londe ìs | none lỳke. |

Here the second and third feet have three syllables each; but the effect is only to make the line appear more rapid in movement: the normal tempo is unaltered. Again, the fourth, foot, whilst still containing two syllables, has both accented. In quotation 6 the effect is still more marked:—

For yè | have scàr|let and grène, | maystèr, | and màny a rỳche | arày, |

There is | no màr|chaunt in mè|ry Englònde | so rỳche, | I dàre | well sàye. |

Here each line has two feet containing three syllables; and whilst the whole reads faster, the beat is still iambic.

As has been said, the later ballads become more and more trisyllabic. The following lines (date 1751) are alternately purely trisyllabic and purely iambic:—

As blìthe | as the lìn|net sings ìn | the green wòod, |
So blìthe | we'll wàke | the mòrn; |
And thrò' | the wide fò|rest of mèr|ry Sherwòod |
We'll wìnd | the bùg|le hòrn. |

but the trisyllabic line gives a decided trisyllabic effect even to the iambic. In quotation 16 the effect becomes still more pronounced:—

Althò' | g od Rò|bin wòuld | full fàin | of his wràth | avèn|ged bè, |

He smìl'd | to sèe | his mèr|ry young mèn | had gòt|ten a tàste | of the trèe. |

and in quotation 17, trisyllabics are altogether predominant:—

Good mòr|rowe, good fèl|lowe, said Rò|byn so fàyre, | good mòr|rowe, good fèl|lowe, quo' hè; |

Methìnks | by this bòwe | thou bèars | in thy hànd, | a gòod | archere thòu | shouldst bè. |

Were the lines of the two last quotations given to a syllabic prosodist, he could not with certainty say if they were in duple or triple measure. Another example will illustrate his difficulty:—

Knòw ye the | lànd where the | cỳpress and | mỳr|tle
Are èmblems | of dèeds that | are dòne in | their clìme? |
Where the ràge | of the vùl|ture, the lòve | of the tùr|tle

These have been quoted by prosodists as an example where the trisyllabic metre is used in its three forms, the first line being composed of dactyls, the second of amphibrachs, and third of anapests. Poe was the first to point out that the measure is unchanged when the lines are run on without linear division; all three are in so-called dactyls if judged from the opening feet, anapests by the closing. What, then, is to be said of the lines just previously quoted? They begin like the second of the three above; the first line sustains the amphibrachic

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effect, but it breaks down in the second in three feet, or in one if the final “e” be sounded in “bowe” and “archere.” This the prosodists say is the poetic license allowed in trisyllabic metre. The license is the other way: it is the iambic metre that has been overlaid with trisyllabic feet, and asserts itself time and again: there is an outcrop of the basic metre—or, as poetry is a living thing, a reversion to type. This reversion to type will be found in all the metres—trochee, anapest, dactyl, amphibrach; the reversion is always to the iambic—sufficient proof of the basic nature of that metre, of which the others are “sports,” some cultivated to a perfect degree, but all nevertheless “reverting” under stress of circumstance. The reversion is sometimes so frequent that it is almost impossible for the prosodists to say which is the true metre and which are the exceptions—e.g., Shelley's “The Cloud,” and Cowper's “Poplars.”

The reducing of all metres to one elementary metre, allowing the terms “trochee,” “dactyl,” &c., to be applied to varieties of individual feet only, is a reassertion of the simplicity of metre: there is but one metre, but its variations are legion. If we admit three-syllabled feet as native, what is to prevent an extension to four- or five-syllabled feet, as allowed by the Germans? The more loaded the foot is with syllables, the less is it able to mount to the heights, as could be shown with a four-syllabled foot much used by the Australian versifiers.

By this reduction, too, we abolish a host of perplexing licenses, exceptions, and a dictionary of technical phraseology. The whole of the former may be included in a sentence: a foot may (1) be an entire suspension of sound; or (2) may contain one syllable, either (a) accented, or (b) unaccented; or (3) two syllables, (a) one or (b) both accented; or (4) three syllables, always, it appears imperative, accented on the third syllable: i.e.:—


Fourth foot, and normally at end of every line:—

And ỳf | I tàke | it twỳse |——| a shàme | it wère | to mè |——|


(a) In the first foot:—

Gòd | the sàve | good Ròb|yn Hòod. |

In first and second feet:—

Stỳll | stòde | the pròud | sherỳf. |

In last foot:—

To sèll | me sòme | of thàt | clòth. |

(b) In the last foot:—

Alàs! | then saỳd | good Ròb|yn—|

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(a) In all feet:—


A rỳght | good à | rowe hè | shall hàve |


Hè and | his mèn | have òft | assàiled. |


In last foot:—

The hèad | and the fèd|ers of rỳch | rède gòlde. |


Good mòr|rowe, good fèl|lowe, sayd Ròb|yn so fàyre. |

In the fourth license, it seems the accent must fall on the third syllable; if it appear to fall on the second, it will be found that the phrase contains its basic iamb followed by an anapestic foot; if on the first, the first syllable of the iamb has been dropped and again an anapestic foot follows. It will be seen that these licenses are the variations upon which all the varieties of metre have been built.

It may, then, be ruled that the natural metre of English verse is iambic, with its trisyllabic equivalent, anapestic; and that the length of lines may vary from five to eight feet, depending upon the nature of the subject—those of five, blank verse, admitting of very frequent overflow, and those of eight, including generally the silent foot for breath, admitting of no overflow. It will be seen that this includes all the metres in which the world's best poetry has been written; and a question here suggests itself: did not the hexameter arise in a similar manner to the ballad-metre? for in English the ballad is its equivalent. I cannot speak with authority on classical metres, which are modelled on length of syllables rather than on stressed syllables—on quantity rather than accent; but it would appear from analogy that both have sprung from and both were regulated by a common source and principle, the breath; and whilst quantity may therefore have ruled the classic metres, their effect on the ear need not necessarily differ materially from our accented verse. Our own verse is sometimes quantitative, but rhythmical accent is always superior to the accent of individual words, and I believe the same to be true of classical metres.

To conclude, it is suggested that the normal measure, the iambic, has sprung from the heart-beat, as being the rhythmic source nearest to man, and most constant in its actions upon him. (It has been shown how the iambic measure varies in time in proportion as the heart-beat varies, influenced by changing emotions.) The suggestion may at first seem fantastic; but I am convinced that, whilst proof may be difficult, proof will come. Next—and this is more than a suggestion—the length of line that the two primary metres, ballad and blank verse, have adopted has been fixed by the breath. (Here, again, it has been shown how the ballad, a bare recital of an event, is

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able to accomplish such recital in stanzas composed of lines of even length, this length being the average of a sentence spoken in a breath, whilst blank verse, the language of action itself, is in overflowing lines, an average length being still generally kept, and that length again the average of a breath; it has also been shown how the emotions affect such lengths of line, in that they affect the depth and duration of the breath; and that a breath is almost invariably taken at the ends of what are considered “artificial” lines.) This formulates a new law; not only so far as New Zealand is concerned, but new to the English-speaking world. The relation between the ballad and the hexameter is a suggestion more than probable; the origin of all metres from the iambic, and the predominance of that type, is comparatively certain, as is the fact that a pause may form an integral portion of a foot. Should these laws and suggestions become established, we have come absolutely to the bed-rock of verse forms; and, personally, I have no doubt whatever but that, including the most important, the heart-beat and breath, they will be established.