The Principles of English Versification Part 26

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Palpitated, her hand shook, and we heard.

TENNYSON, The Princess, IV, 389.

Bearing all down, in thy precipitancy.

TENNYSON, Gareth, 8.

First as in fear, step after step, she stole Down the long tower stairs, hesitating.

TENNYSON, Lancelot and Elaine, 342 f.

This from Surrey's aeneid, because of its early date:

He with his hands strave to unloose the knots.

These two from Elizabethan drama--hundreds of interesting lines may be culled from this source, but the field is to be trodden with caution because of the uncertainties of the texts; though we quote 'Hamlet' we cannot be sure we are quoting Shakespeare, and in such a matter as this _certainty_ is indispensable--

Do more than this in sport.--Father, father.

King Lear, II, i.

Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young.

WEBSTER, d.u.c.h.ess of Malfi, IV, ii.

And finally, three examples from Samson Agonistes of interwoven tunes, a sort of counterpoint of two melodies sounding simultaneously--

My griefs not only pain me As a lingering disease, But, finding no redress, ferment and rage.

617 ff.

To boast Again in safety what thou would'st have done To Samson, but shalt never see Gath more.

1127 ff.

Force with force Is well ejected when the conqueror can.

1206 f.

He all their ammunition And feats of war defeats, With plain heroic magnitude of mind.

1277 ff.

Stevenson compared the writer of verse with a juggler who cleverly keeps several b.a.l.l.s in the air at one time. The comparison is suggestive, but is true only so far as it indicates the difficulty of the operation for those who are not jugglers. The juggler does not devote conscious attention to each individual ball. He has learned to keep them all moving at once, and when he starts them they go _of their own accord_.

Now and then, by conscious effort, he shoots one higher than the others--but there is no need to labor the ill.u.s.tration. The technique of versification is a mechanical thing to be learned like any mechanical thing. The poet learns it--in sundry different ways, to be sure--and when he has mastered it he is no more conscious of its complex details while he is composing than the pianist is conscious of his ten fingers while he is interpreting a Chopin concerto. There is a feeling, an idea, a poetic conception, which demands expression in words. The compound of direct intellectual activity and of automatic responses from a reservoir of intuitions long since filled by practice and experience no poet has ever been able to a.n.a.lyze--much less a psychologist who is not a poet.

Often the best ideas, the best phrases, the perfect harmony of thought and expression _emerge_ spontaneously; sometimes they have to be sought, diligently and laboriously sought.

"When one studies a prosody or a metrical form," says M. Verrier, "one may well ask if these alliterations, these a.s.sonances, these consonances, these rimes, these rhythmic movements, these metres, which one coldly describes in technical terms--if they actually produce the designated effects and especially if the poet 'thought of all that.' So it is when an amateur opens a scientific treatise on music and learns by what series of chords one modulates from one key to another, or even how the chord of the dominant seventh is resolved to the tonic in its fundamental form.... That the poet has not 'thought of all that' is evident, but not in the ordinary sense. When the illiterate countryman makes use of the subjunctive, he is not aware that a subjunctive exists, still less that one uses it for historical and logical and also perhaps for emotional reasons. But the subjunctive exists nevertheless, and the reasons too."[99]

+--------------------------------------------------------------+ [99] Verrier, vol. i, p. 134. +--------------------------------------------------------------+

The a.n.a.logy is helpful, though not altogether persuasive. There is the familiar story of Browning's reply to the puzzled admirer: "Madam, I have no idea what I meant when I wrote those lines." So much for warning to the oversedulous. But if I honestly find and feel a marvelous rhythmic effect where Robert Browning did not plan one, then such effect certainly exists--for me, at least, and for all whom I can persuade of its presence. On the other hand, there is a potent warning in the following exuberance:

But the thought of the king and his villainies stings him into rage again, and the rhythm slowly rises on three secondary stresses--

or ere this I should have fatted all the region kites With this slave's offal.

The last phrase twists and writhes through a series of secondary stresses with an intensity of hatred and bitterness that takes shape in a following series of peculiar falling rhythm waves, each one of which has a foam-covered crest 'white as the bitten lip of hate.' This rhythm, curling, hissing, tense, topful of venom, Alecto's serpents coiling and twisting through it, makes one of the most awful pa.s.sages in all English poetry--

b.l.o.o.d.y, bawdy villain!

Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!

and culminates in Hamlet's cry

O vengeance!

which, with its peculiar sustained falling close, vibrates through the rest of the verse.[100]

+--------------------------------------------------------------+ [100] Mark H. Liddell, An Introduction to the Scientific Study of English Poetry, New York, 1901, pp. 291 f. +--------------------------------------------------------------+

Professional prosodists doubt and dispute one another with the zeal and confidence of metaphysicians and editors of cla.s.sical texts. They are all blind guides--perhaps even the present one!--if followed slavishly.

There is only one means (a threefold unity) to the right understanding of the metrical element in poetry: a knowledge of the simple facts of metrical form, a careful scrutiny of the existent phenomena of ordinary language rhythms, and a study of the ways in which the best poets have fitted the one to the other with the most satisfying and most moving results.

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The Principles of English Versification Part 26 summary

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