Wednesday, March 14, 2012

John Addington Symonds, Blank Verse

John Addington Symonds, Blank Verse, John C. Nimmo, 14 King William Street Strand, London, 1895.

Marlowe … left his own peculiar imprint on it, and that his metre is marked by an almost extravagant exuberance, impetuosity, and height of colouring. It seems to flow from his with the rapidity of improvisation, and to follow a law of melody rather felt than studied by its author.

Shakespeare has more than Marlowe’s versatility and power; but his metre is never so extravagant in its pomp of verbal grandeur. He restrains his own luxuriance, and does not allow himself to be seduced by pleasing sounds. His finest passages owe none of their beauty to alliteration, and yet he knew most exquisitely how to use that meretricious handmaid of melody. Nothing can be more seductive than the charm of repeated liquids and vowels in the following lines:

On such a night
Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
Upon the wild sea banks and waft her love
To come again to Carthage.

Nor again did Shakespeare employ big sounding words so profusely as Marlowe, but reserved them for effects of especial solemnity, as in the speech of Timon:

Come not to me again: but say to Athens,
Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beached verge of the salt flood;
Whom once a day with his embossed froth
The turbulent surge shall cover; thither come,
And let my gravestone be your oracle.

But Shakespeare did not always, or indeed often, employ these somewhat obvious artifices of harmonious diction. The characteristic of his verse is that it is naturally, unobtrusively, and enduringly musical. We hardly know why his words are melodious, or what makes them [29] always fresh. (29-30)

Inferior artists have systems of melody, pauses which they repeat, favourite terminations, and accelerations or retardations of the rhythm, prompts them. [30]… Shakespeare’s… power of varying his cadences and suiting them to the dramatic utterance of his characters. (30-1)

Coleridge observes that “Ben Jonson’s blank verse is very masterly and individual.” To this criticism might be added that it is the blank verse of a scholar—pointed, polished, and free from the lyricism of his age. It lacks harmony and is often labored: but vigorous and solid it never fails to be. (32)

Beaumont and Fletcher… in a very short time we discover the trick of these great versifiers and learn to expect their luxurious alliterations, and repeated caesuras at the end of the fifth syllable. … a decided preference for all words in which there is a predominance of liquids and of vowels. For instance, in this line: Showers, hails, shows, frosts, and two-edged winds that prime/ The maiden blossoms, ... (34)

Another peculiarity is the substitution of hendecasyllabic lines for the usual decasyllable blank verse through long periods of dialogue. … It is also noticeable that this weak ending is frequently constructed by the addition of some emphatic monosyllable. Thus:

I do remember him; he was my guardian,
Appointed by the senate to preserve me:
What a full majesty sits his face yet.


The desolations that this great eclipse works.

The natural consequence of these delays and langours in the rhythm is that the versification of Beaumont and Fletcher has always a meandering and rotary movement. (35)

Marston condensed much thought into his lines…. We find both quaintness of language and roughness of rhythm in these lines; but how weighty … (39)

Facility for expressing every shade of sentiment or reflection in clear and simple lines belonged peculiarly to Decker, Heywood, Middleton, and Rowley, poets who made but little pretension to melodious charms and flowers of fancy [39] …

The same praise belongs to Massinger, who was, indeed, associated with Decker in the production of the play from which these lines are quoted. Coleridge remarks that he has reconciled the language of everyday life with poetical diction more thoroughly than any other writer of dramatic blank verse, and for this reason he recommends him as a better model for young writers than Shakespeare, who is far too individual, and Fletcher, who is too monotonously lyrical. (40)

It has been thought that Ford imitated Shakespeare in his style as much as in the situations of the his dramas. I cannot myself perceive much trace of Shakespeare in the verse of Ford; [42] … The lines are much more broken up than is usual with our dramatists. They sparkle with short sentences and quick successions of reiterated sounds. … This is a sculpted and incisive style. (43)

Webster… His language is remarkably condensed, elliptical, and even crabbed. His verse is broken up into strange blocks and masses, often reading like rhythmical prose. … Yet close analysis will always prove that there was method in the aberrations of Webster, and that he used his metre as the most delicate and responsive instrument… [45] he perfected a style which depends for its effect upon the emphases and pauses of the reciter. One of the most striking lines in his tragedy of the “Duchess of Malfi” proves how boldly and how successfully Webster sacrificed metre to expression. A brother is looking for the first time after death on the form of a sister whom he has caused to be murdered:

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

There is no caesura, no regular flow of verse, in this line, though in point of syllables it is not more redundant that half of Fletcher’s. Each sentence has to be said separately, with long intervals and sighs, that indicate the working of remorseful thought. … in writing it he no doubt imagined his actors declaiming with great variety of intonation, with frequent and lengthy pauses, and with considerable difference in the rapidity of their utterances. (47)

To analyse Miltonic blank verse… paragraphs… In these structures there are many pauses which enable the ear and voice to rest themselves, but none are perfect, none satisfy the want created by the opening hemistich, until the final and deliberate close is reached. Then the sense of harmony is gratified and we proceed with pleasure to a new and different sequence. (57)

Milton… After perusing this quotation, let the reader compared it with Claudio’s speech on Death in “Measure for Measure,” and observe the difference between Shakespearean and Miltonic, between dramatic and epical blank verse. The one is simple in construction and progressive, the other is complex and stationary; but both are musical beyond the possibility of imitation. The one exhibits a thought, in the process of formation, developing itself form the excited fancy of the speaker. The other presents to us an image crystallized and perfect in the poet’s mind; the one is in time, the other in space— (58)

Byron needed rhyme as an assistance to his defective melody. He did not feel that inner music which is the soul of true blank verse and sounding prose. In Keats at last we reach this power. His “Hyperion” is sung, not written, … (64)

Blank verse is better suited for dialogues, descriptions, eloquent appeals, rhetorical declamations, for all those forms of poetry which imply a continuity a development of thought for the setting forth of someone perfect and full-formed idea. The thought or “moment” which is sufficient for a sonnet would seem poor and fragmentary in fourteen lines of blank verse, unless they were distinctly understood to form a part of some continuous poem of dramatic dialogue. When, therefore, blank verse is used lyrically, the poet who manipulates it has to deceive the ear by structures analogous to those of rhymed stanzas. The harmony of our language is such as to admit of exquisite finish in this style; but blank verse sacrifices a portion of its characteristic freedom, and assimilates itself to another type of metrical expression, in the process. (71)


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