1. The poems heretofore considered have been those whose stanzas contain an exact number of full verse-units—that is, every verse in the stanza is complete of its kind—Romance, Ballad, Nibelungen, or Alexandrine. There is, however, another form of stanza which, whilst not nearly so common as the perfect form, is yet sufficiently common to demand consideration when deciding upon the “verse-unit.” It is a “fixed variation,” and any variation that can become fixed must have a large amount of inherent vitality–must be closely akin to the parent form.
2. The “telescoping” of a Romance and Ballad verse has been referred to in paragraph 8 of Section I. It gives rise to a very popular form of stanza :—
(1.) This mayden in a morne betime
Went forth, when May was in her prime,
To get sweet cetywall,
The honeysuckle, the harlocke,
The lilly and the lady-smooke,
To deck her summer hall.
(Drayton, “Dowsabel,” stanza 6.)
Stanzas such as this would almost suggest that a four-stressed rather than an eight-stressed verse should be adopted as the natural verse-unit. Such a unit would apply to all eight-stressed verses, whilst it would also apply to a large number of others that must otherwise be regarded as exceptions to the law, and variations of the type; practically the whole of our Lyric measures would conform to the four-stressed unit. Much of the Romance poetry, moreover, is found in four-stressed riming lines, each full Romance verse thus forming a rimed couplet, as in Scott's “Metrical Romances” :—
(2.) Fitz-James look round—yet scarce believed
The witness that his sight received;
Such apparition well might seem
Delusion of a dreadful dream.
Sir Roderick in suspense he eyed,
And to his look the Chief replied,
“Fear nought—nay, that I need not say—
But doubt not aught from mine array.”
(“The Lady of the Lake,” canto v, secn. xi.)
The very punctuation here indicates that each couplet in the above is a practically complete sentence which it would be a violation to divide with a breath. The verse is divided into two equal parts, but is knit or coupled by the rime. That the couplet is a complete whole is, I think, felt instinctively, and very few readers, if any, would take a breath after every line. It is not denied that advantage may be and is taken of a break such as that after the line
“Fear nought—nay, that I need not say—
but admitting this is only admitting occasional exceptions that do not vitiate the contention that the full Romance verse is the average length of a breath-sentence. The very fact that it is an average ‘implies that there were, and may still be, verses longer or shorter. Every law of classification has its exceptions, but when these exceptions are so small a minority in comparison with the conforming numbers they in no way weaken the law.
3. Scott's reasons for adopting the “Romantic stanza,” as he calls it, are set out in his introduction to the 1830 edition of “The Lay of the Last Minstrel.” He rejected the Ballad measure because “The Ballad measure itself, which was once listened to as to an enchanting melody, had become hackneyed and sickening, from its being the accompaniment of every grinding hand-organ; and, besides, a long work in quatrains, whether those of the common ballad, or such as are termed elegiac, has an effect upon the mind like that of the bed of Procrustes upon the human body; for, as it must be both awkward and difficult to carry on a long sentence from one stanza to another, it follows, that the meaning of each period must be comprehended within four lines, and equally so that it must be extended so as to fill that space.... In the dilemma occasioned by this objection the idea occurred to the Author of using the measured short line, which forms the
structure of so much minstrel poetry, that it may properly be termed the Romantic stanza by way of distinction; and which appears so natural to our language, that the very best of our poets have not been able to protract it into the verse properly called Heroic without the use of epithets which are, to say the least, unnecessary.” In a note to this remark he adds, “Thus it has been often remarked, that, in the opening couplets of Pope's translation of the Iliad, there are two syllables forming a superfluous word in each line, as may be observed by attending to such words as are printed in italics :—
(3.) Achilles' wrath to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber'd, heavenly goddess, sing;
That wrath which sent to Pluto's gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs in battle slain,
Whose bones, unburied on the desert shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.”
Scott rebels against the expansion or limitation of thought to the average of four lines—he should have said two lines. He also objects to the extra unit in Heroic verse; but the Heroic was the stepping-stone to Blank verse, a metre that evolved to accommodate sentences of varying length, as the Romance evolved to accommodate sentences of average length; and as the Romance metre will not tolerate sentences that run on from verse to verse, so the best Blank verse will not tolerate verses that do not run on or overflow. Whilst, however, Scott rebels against the yoke, he bows to it; for his sentences, as in the example quoted from “The Lady, of the Lake,” are nearly always comprised within two lines—a verse. Whilst, too, he rejects the formal ballad as his vehicle, he constantly admits it to relieve the monotony of the “Romantic stanza” (see in “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” canto i, sections x, xii, xiii, xviii, xxiv, &c.). It will scarcely be denied that Ballad verses of seven stresses are recited in one breath to one verse; and admitting this, it is admitted that the parent verse, the Romance, was recited in a breath. Had Scott's tales been sung—as, indeed, they were supposed to be sung in the Lay—Ballad metre would, without doubt, have much more largely predominated. The eye, however, does not require the rests required by the breath; and the period elapsing between the evolution of the Ballad form from the Romance and the time of printing is so comparatively short that, whilst the Ballad had time to become a most vigorous living form, the Romance also was given new life ere it had joined the hexameter and runic stave as a fossil parent form. In the formal ballad that Scott and others condemned, even despised—the ballad whose form appeared to be of greater moment than its thought—the form was, as it were, making root and wood; it throve sturdily and persistently among other and more tended forms, and upon its vigorous stock are now grafted the finest flowering of British lyrics.
4. A reason has already been given for supposing that the Romance verse was shortened by the dropping of a unit to admit of a breath being easily taken (see paragraph 8 of Section I). Were a breath taken after each line of four stresses, as is usually done in Church congregations (maugre Section I, paragraph 8), there would have been no need for any shortening at all. The mere fact that there was a tendency to shorten the eight-stressed verse shows that there was a tendency to take the whole in one breath, and it is for this reason that the unit of verse-length has been taken as the breath-sentence, or full verse of eight stresses, rather than as
the half-verse, or line of four stresses. The breath-sentence, as a rule, falls naturally into two parts :—
(4.) Everye white will have its blacke,
And everye sweete its sowre;
This founde the ladye Christabelle
In an untimely howre.
For so it befelle, as syr Cauline
Was with that ladye faire,
The kinge her father walked forthe
To take the evenyng aire:
And into the arboure as he went
To rest his wearye feet.
He founde his daughter and syr Cauline
There sette in daliaunce sweet.
The kinge hee sterted forthe, I-wys,
And an angrye man was hee:
‘Nowe, traytoure, thou shalt hange or drawe.
And rewe shall thy ladie.’
(“Sir Cauline,” part II, stanzas 1 to 4.)
If this or any other ballad be read aloud, it will be found that the breath is invariably taken after the seventh stress, at the place of the dropped eighth unit. It may be said that advantage is taken of the verse-end to take the breath, not that the verse was moulded of a length to enable the breath to be so taken; but the breath is the imperative need, and it is more likely that the articulations borne on the breath will be made coterminous with the natural breath than that the natural breath will be unduly shortened or lengthened to accommodate the articulations. Development is along the lines of least resistance, and it is easier to accommodate the articulations to the breath than the breath to the articulations. Again, it is easier to take a leisured breath than it is to take a hurried breath; and the unit was dropped from the eight-stressed Romance verse to avoid the gasp and discomfort of a hurried breath. Now, whilst the unit was usually dropped at the verse-end, instances may have occurred—indeed, must almost necessarily have occurred—where the unit was dropped at the opening of the second verse, and not at the end of the first. In the fourth stanza of example No. (4) the verse
(5.) The kinge hee sterted forthe, I-wys, and an angrye man was hee, can be divided either as two lines of four and three stresses respectively :—
(5a.) The kinge hee sterted forthe, I-wys,
And an angrye man was hee:
or as two lines of three and four stresses respectively :—
(5b.) The kinge hee sterted forthe,
I-wys, and an angrye man was hee:
Verses of the latter type are of frequent occurrence, and are probably examples of a type where the unit was dropped at the beginning of the second verse instead of at the end of the first. The following occur in the first book of Chapman's translation of Homer's “Iliad” :—
(6.) a. Jove's and Latona's son/; who, fired against the king of men
b. Obeying his high will/, the priest trod off with haste and fear;