Friday, August 27, 2010

John R. Cooper, Voice in Ben Jonson's Tetrameter Lyrics

John R. Cooper, Voice in Ben Jonson’s Tetrameter Lyrics, in The Ben Jonson Journal, Volume 12, 2005.

Yet it was his tetrameter lyrics that first gave me the impression long ago of a distinctively Jonsonian voice, and it was also those lyrics that seem to have been most influential on his “sons.” Trimpi acknowledged this when he said that it was Jonson’s “slighter poems rather than his more original and more didactic verse” that had the most influence among “his most talented admirers”. (94)

That a syllable on the ictus of an iambic pentameter line may be either accented or merely stressed is the reason for the expressive flexibility of this verse form. While Surrey, the inventor of the iambic pentameter line in Early Modern English, generally put words that were semantically important and therefore accented before a caesura and at the end of a line, later poets, starting with Sidney, started putting semantically accented syllables at various places in the line so that the intonational contours of the lines varied. That, in fact, was Sidney’s great stylistic contribution to English verse. (97)

Shakespeare took increasingly advantage of the potential flexibility of iambic verse. Through his career there is a steady decrease in the importance of end-of-line words in his blank verse. Sidney also taught poets to vary the pace of iambic pentameter lines, slowing them by placing stressed syllables off the metrical beat (e.g., “With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies”) or speeding them by having only unstressed syllables off the beat (e.g., “In martial sports I had my cunning tried”). (98)

Metrically, and even rhythmically, these poems are very similar. The most prominent rhythmical feature of each of them is an obvious four-beat meter. Yet, at least impressionistically, Jonson’s poem seems quieter and less obviously song-like. Jonson’s text gives more resistance to the meter. /
In the first place, Marlowe’s metrical accenting adheres to the standard pattern, with the second and fourth beat in each line being accented more than the first and third. … Here the even-numbered beats are all on semantically more important syllables than the odd-numbered ones. (101)

Meter will also encourage an unidiomatic accenting of “to” in the last stanza. In the poem by Jonson, by contrast, the meter is less insistent and does not force stressing or accenting hat is different from ordinary speech. (102)

Nevertheless, Jonson’s practice is, in important ways, different from Marlowe’s. His syntactic structures do not coincide with the verse structures so precisely. There is first of all a good deal more pausing within the lines in Jonson, and his caesura’s are of a different character from Marlowe’s. Marlowe’s mid-line pauses are all between the second and third beats, the normal break in a four-beat line. Moreover Marlowe supports the structure by creating parallels in sound or sense… Very few of Jonson’s caesura’s produce this kind of symmetry. Instead, his internal pauses produce various kinds of asymmetry in the lines… (102)

Indeed, much of the subtlety of Jonson’s art lies in the way that he varies the syntax form the line to line and couplet to couplet, much as Sidney did with iambic pentameter. No line or couplet has the same syntactic structure as the one next to it. Moreover he employs a more complex syntax than Marlowe, making in particular freer use of parenthetical phrases marked by punctuation. As a result, performing Jonson’s verse produces a good deal of variety in intonation. (102-3)

Not only is Jonson’s syntax not tied to the structure of the four-beat line, but the syntax is itself more complex than in the Marlovean poem or, indeed, in earlier four-beat poems in general. (105)

The more complex syntax, not surprisingly, is connected to a more complex ordering of ideas. (106)

While in Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd,” the relation of concepts is roughly “and, and, and,” a linear presentation of equivalent ideas, Jonson’s thought pattern in these four lines is “this (by implication not that)” and “even if… then.” The next four lines are even more complex conceptually, with a still freer relationship between syntax and verse line. The distinction made by the “not so much…as” structure is not represented schematically by “not x but y,” but rather “not merely though possibly x (honoring thee) but rather and perhaps also y which implies x (preserving the wreath also honors the lady).” (106-7)

All of these generalizations have been based on a few poems, but they will survive a comparison of other Elizabethan tetrameter kinds of words metrically stressed or accented. Jonson regularly raises more syllables metrically than do the Elizabethan poets, by placing function words on the metrical beat, with a consequent slowing of the pace. Still more significant from the point of view of intonation, however, is Jonson’s greater freedom in fitting syntax to verse line. The Elizabethans make their natural syntactic breaks coincide almost invariably with their line endings and their caesuras occur between the second and third foot more regularly than Jonson does. (108)

…consider the meaning of the words that get metrical accents, then we see not only that Jonson accents fewer nouns and function words than Marlowe and other Elizabethan lyric poets, but also that his nouns are more abstract than theirs. Marlowe’s catalogue of sensuous delights with which the passionate shepherd tempts his nymph is perhaps too obvious a contrast, but even Shakespeare’s funeral song from Cymbeline, with its references to “golden lads,” “chimney sweepers,” and “dust,” uses more concrete language than Jonson’s erotic appeal to Celia in “Come my Celia.” Jonson’s poem eschews all sensuous imagery and offers only the unspecified “sports of live” and the “sweet theft” of stealing “love’s fruit.” “Sweet” has, of course, noting to do with the sense of taste, and for “fruit” Jonson probably had in mind the original meaning from the Latin fructus, namely, something to be enjoyed. Putting all of these stylistic features together—Jonson’s varied syntax, the way that his syntax produces intonation and pausing that work against rather than with the structure of the four-beat line, the softening and slowing of the bat by the raising and lowering of syllables by the meter, and the abstractness of the language—we have, I believe, a good explanation of why Jonson’s tetrameter lyrics sound more like rational speech and less like song than earlier tetrameter lyrics. (109)

In locating, on Marxist grounds, the historical context for the rise of iambic pentameter, Easthope associates the rise of iambic pentameter with bourgeois civilization, and it could certainly be argued that iambic pentameter was invented to suit an age of increasing individualism. I have tried to show that what Jonson did to the tetrameter lyric echoed developments in iambic pentameter. The traditional four-beat poem, song, or ballad was a form suited to communal performances. Song can be performed by a chorus, but even when performed by an individual, the form is so conventional that the author becomes in effect—as often literally—anonymous. Jonson by contrast presents himself explicitly in his poetry. He published his Works with his name in an act of unprecedented self-assertion. While the real Donne remains obscure behind the various personae of his poems, Jonson insists on his own actual identity… (111-112)

Jonson’s successors, though they learned from him how to use the tetrameter lyric to make a graceful social gesture, did not use the form didactically as he did. Jonson wished to be read correctly and heard correctly because he spoke not as a member of an essentially aristocratic culture but as its teacher. His didacticism is obviously more evident in his pentameter poems, but even his supposedly “slighter” lyrics involve serious attempts at persuasion and not just seduction. (112)


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