Reference > Cambridge History > The Age of Dryden > The Prosody of the Seventeenth Century > Variations of the Iambic Line
  Loss of Elasticity and Diversity Insufficient Understanding as to Equivalence in Feet  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

IX. The Prosody of the Seventeenth Century.

§ 3. Variations of the Iambic Line.

It is one of the paradoxes frequent in prosodic as in other history that this verse, in its origin and for some considerable time, might seem to have been chosen as the very sanctum of the foot of two syllables only. In Surrey, you will not find a trisyllabic foot; except, and then rarely, by giving value to a syllable (such as one or other of those in “sp&ibreve;r&ibreve;t”) which was probably, if not certainly, meant by the poet to be slurred—though it may improve the verse to unslur it. So, in the rare fragments (such as Gascoigne’s Steele Glas) of other non-dramatic sixteenth century work; and so, almost more, when the drama seized on blank verse, or blank verse on the drama. The tramp of Gorboduc is as unbroken as the ticking of a clock, as the “rub-dub”—not yet “rub-a-dub”—of the drum to which it was early compared.   5
  But it was impossible for a true dramatist who was also a true poet to remain content with the single-moulded, middle-paused, strictly iambic “decasyllabon.” Although this forms the staple verse of Peele and Greene and Marlowe, occasional escapes of passion break through the restraints in all directions, though the trisyllabic foot is still very uncommon with them. But Shakespeare, in a manner dealt with more in detail in the proper place, gradually dispenses with all restraints not absolutely necessary to the retention of the general rhythm of the line. Only, perhaps, by reading successively—with attention to the scansion—say, a passage of Gorboduc and one of the famous Hamlet soliloquies; and by following up this pair with another—say, one of Turbervile’s poems and a song from Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, or The Tempest—can anyone who has not deliberately studied prosody appreciate the recovery of liberty in its process and in its fulfilment. There will not be found any real “irregularity”—lines of intended similarity will never be observed to vary in “accent” or “foot division”—whichever arrangement may be preferred. The blank verse will sometimes extend itself to alexandrines, perhaps, in a few cases, to fourteeners, and sometimes contract itself to fragments (i. e. lesser multiples of the unit than five), which may end with half, as well as whole, feet. The lyrics may—generally will—present arrangements of different multiples. But these multiples, in the lyric case, will be adjusted to a definite stanza-symphony, and, in both cases, the individual correspondent lines, though they may present syllabic difference, will be found to be essentially equivalent—trisyllabic, occasionally monosyllabic, feet (or accent groups) being substituted for dissyllabic. 2    6

Note 2. The actual opening lines of Gorboduc will do perfectly well, with the observation that the rime of “shame” and “blame” is a mere accident, though rather an interesting one, as showing that it was still difficult to avoid “dropping into” this ornament of poetry.
The si | lent night | that brings | the qui | et pause,
From pain | ful tra | vails of | the wea | ry day,
Prolongs | my care | ful thoughts | and makes | me blame
The slow | Aurore | that so | for love | or shame
Doth long | delay | to show | her blush | ing face,
And now | the day | renews | my grief | ful plaint.
Here, every foot is dissyllabic and dissyllabic only: while there is hardly one, even “Aurore” or “-vails of,” which is not, according to ordinary English pronunciation, a pure iamb. And every line has five, and five only, of such feet without an eleventh syllable, and even without a prosodic overrun, though there may be no stop in punctuation, and even a connection in sense, at “blame” and “shame,” with the next verse.

Now take a Hamlet piece, observing that rearrangement of the lines, though in some cases possible, will not affect the argument. For you will never get them into exact decasyllabons. Neither will allowance of, or insistence on, slur help to bridge the difference, for there is nothing in the Gorboduc passage like “gen’ral” or “ign’rant.”
For He | cuba!
What’s He | cuba | to him | or he | to He | cuba?
That he | should weep | for her? | What should | he do,
Had he | the mo | tive and | the cure | for pass | ion
That I | have? He | would drown | the stage | with tears,
And cleave | the gen | &ebreve;răl eār | with hor | rid speech,
Make mad | the guil | ty and | appal | the free—
Confound | the ig | n&obreve;rănt ānd | amaze | indeed
The ve | ry fa | culties | of eyes | and ears.
Yet I |
and so forth. Here, you have a mode of procedure as different as possible. Even if anyone objects to the alexandrine in “What ’s Hecuba,” he will have to allow redundance to the extravagant extent of three syllables; even if, as pointed out above, he denies the trisyllabic feet “-neral ear,” “-norant and,” preferring “th’ ignō | rant” or “the ign’ | rant” or some other monstrosity or cacophony, the racked or erased syllables will still confront him. There is redundance which cannot be explained away in “pass | ion”; there is overrunning not merely of sense or grammar but in the whole rhetorical prosodic cadence and complexion of the passage. And the fragmentary lines “For Hecuba” and “Yet I,” if this last be taken separately (and, if it be not, as in the folio, it will make another alexandrine or another trisyllabic redundance), are perfectly regular—two feet in the one case, one in the other.
Now to lyric. This piece of Turbervile
The green | that you | did wish | me wear
Aye for | your love
And on | my helm | a branch | to bear
Not to | remove—
Was ev | er you | to have | in mind
Whom Cu | pid hath | my fere | assigned
is pretty enough; but, if its grammar is rather poetically free, its metre is as prosodically strict and limited as possible. Once more, nothing but dissyllabic feet and, once more, all those feet evidently intended for iambs—any doubt about “Aye for” and “Not to” being removed by comparison with the other stanzas. Compare Ariel:
Where | the &vdot; bee | sucks &vdot; there | suck I
In | a &vdot; cow | slip’s &vdot; bell | I &vdot; lie
There | I &vdot; couch | when &vdot; Owls | do cry
On | the &vdot; bat’s | back &vdot; do | I &vdot; fly
Af | ter &vdot; sum | mer &vdot; merrily—
Mer | rily &vdot; mer | rily &vdot; shall | I live &vdot; now
Un | der the &vdot; blos | som that &vdot; hangs | on the &vdot; bough.

Here, there are two possible ways of scansion indicated by the straight and dotted lines respectively—the one representing iambic-anapaestic with anacrusis, the other trochaic dactylic, but both far from the straight and direct iambic run. And so Amiens, in actually corresponding lines:
Who doth | ambi | tion shun |,
strict iambs; but
And loves | to lie | i’ the sun |
with anapaest substituted in one place.

It is only necessary to add that an objection sometimes made, “Oh! but these are different tunes,” is quite beside the mark. The tunes may have been instrumental in suggesting prosodic arrangements; but the difference of the arrangements themselves remains. [ back ]

  Loss of Elasticity and Diversity Insufficient Understanding as to Equivalence in Feet  

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