Page images

of the termination as a distinct syllable to be clearly the rule and the prevailing practice, and the suppression of the vowel to be the rare exception. But even at so late a date as the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century, other short vowels as well as this were still occasionally pronounced, as they were almost always written. Both the genitive or possessive singular and the nominative plural of nouns were, down to this time, made by the addition not of s only, as now, but of es to the nominative singular; and the es makes a distinct syllable sometimes in Shakspeare, and often in Spenser. In Chaucer, therefore, it is only what we should expect that it should generally be so pronounced : it is evident that originally, or when it first appeared in the language, it always was, and that the practice of running it and the preceding syllable together, as we now do; has only been gradually introduced and established.

Up to this point Tyrwhitt's theory of Chaucer's versification may be said to be admitted on all hands. It is allowed that in reading Chaucer's verses we should generally sound as distinct syllables the ed at the end of verbs and the es when it is the plural or possessive termination of a noun; and also that we must give many words a different accentuation from what they now possess. But this is not enough to make the verse in all cases syllabically regular.

The deficiencies of Chaucer's metre, Tyrwhitt contends, are to be chiefly supplied by the pronunciation of what he calls "the e feminine;" by which he means the e which still terminates so many of our words, but is now either totally silent and ineffective in the pronunciation, or only lengthens or otherwise alters the sound of the

preceding vowel-in either case is entirely inoperative upon the syllabication. Thus, such words as large, strange, time, &c., he conceives to be often dissyllables; and such words as Romaine, sentence, often trisyllables in Chaucer. Some words also he holds to be lengthened a syllable by the intervention of such an e, now omitted both in speaking and writing, in the middle-as in jug-ement, command-e-ment, vouch-e-safe, &c.

Wallis, the distinguished mathematician, in his Grammar of the English Language (written in Latin, ana published about the middle of the seventeenth century) had suggested that the origin of this silent e probably was, that it had originally been pronounced, though somewhat obscurely, as a distinct syllable, like the French e feminine, which still counts for such in the prosody of that language. Wallis adds, that the surest proof of this is to be found in our old poets, with whom the said e sometimes makes a syllable, sometimes not, as the verse requires. "With respect to words imported directly from France," observes Tyrwhitt, "it is certainly quite natural to suppose that for some time they retained their native pronunciation." "We have not indeed," he continues, " so clear a proof of the original pronunciation of the Saxon part of our language; but we know, from general observation, that all changes of pronunciation are generally made by small degrees; and, therefore, when we find that a great number of those words which in Chaucer's time ended in e originally ended in a, we may reasonably presume that our ancestors first passed from the broader sound of a to the thinner sound of e feminine, and not at once from a to e mute. Besides, if the final e in such words was not pronounced, why was it added?

From the time that it has confessedly ceased to be pronounced it has been gradually omitted in them, except where it may be supposed of use to lengthen or soften the preceding syllable, as in hope, name, &c. But according to the ancient orthography it terminates many words of Saxon original where it cannot have been added for any such purpose, as herte, childe, olde, wilde, &c. In these, therefore, we must suppose that it was pronounced as e feminine, and made part of a second syllable, and so, by a parity of reason, in all others in which, as in these, it appears to have been substituted for the Saxon a." From all this Tyrwhitt concludes that "the pronunciation of the e feminine is founded on the very nature of both the French and Saxon parts of our language," and therefore that "what is generally considered as an e mute, either at the end or in the middle of words, was anciently pronounced, but obscurely, like the e feminine of the French." In a note, referring to an opinion expressed by Wallis, who, observing that the French very often suppressed this short e in their common speech, was led to think that the pronunciation of it would perhaps shortly be in all cases disused among them, as among ourselves, he adds: "The prediction has certainly failed; but, notwithstanding, I will venture to say that when it was made it was not unworthy of Wallis's sagacity. Unluckily for its success, a number of eminent writers happened at that very time to be growing up in France, whose works, having since been received as standards of style, must probably fix for many centuries the ancient usage of the e feminine in poetry, and of course give a considerable check to the natural progress of the language. If the age of Edward III. had been as favourable to

letters as that of Louis XIV.; if Chaucer and his contemporary poets had acquired the same authority here that Corneille, Molière, Racine, and Boileau have obtained in France; if their works had been published by themselves, and perpetuated in a genuine state by printing; I think it probable that the e feminine would still have preserved its place, in our poetical language at least, and certainly without any prejudice to the smoothness of our versification."

In supporting his views by these reasons, Tyrwhitt avoids having recourse to any arguments that might be drawn from the practice of Chaucer himself—that being in fact the matter in dispute; but his main proposition, to the extent at least of the alleged capacity of the now silent final e to make a distinct syllable in Chaucer's day, appears to be demonstrated by some instances in the poet's works. Thus, for example, in the following couplet from the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, unless the word Rome which ends the first line be pronounced as a dissyllable, there will be no rhyme :—

"That straight was comen from the court of Rome; Full loud he sang-Come hither, love, to me.'

So again, in the Canon Yeoman's Tale, we have the following lines:


"And whan this alchymister saw his time,

Ris'th up, Sir Priest, quod he, and stondeth by mc,"

in the first of which time must evidently in like manner be read as a word of two syllables. The same rhyme occurs in a quatrain in the Second Book of the Troilus and Cresseide:

"All easily now, for the love of Marte,

Quod Pandarus, for every thing hath time,
So long abide, till that the night departe

For all so sicker as thou liest here by me."

Finding Rome and time to be clearly dissyllables in these passages, it would seem that we ought, as Tyrwhitt remarks (Note on Prol. to Cant. Tales, 674), to have no scruple so to pronounce them and other similar words wherever the metre requires it.

Such is the outline of Tyrwhitt's theory, which, it must be admitted, is at least extremely plausible, and which was long universally assented to. Of late, however, it has been attacked from several quarters, and on various grounds. The question is one which is of fundamental and central importance in the history of our language and literature, and which therefore may not unprofitably detain us for a few pages more.

The first person, we believe, who intimated a distinct dissent from Tyrwhitt's conclusions was the late Dr. Nott, in an elaborate Dissertation on the State of English Poetry before the Sixteenth Century,' prefixed to his edition of The Works of the Earl of Surrey,' 4to. Lon. 1815. Dr. Nott's object is to prove that the present system of our versification, the principle of which is syllabical as well as accentual regularity, was the invention of Surrey in the middle of the sixteenth century, and that down to that date our verses of every kind were all what he is pleased to call "rhythmical and not metrical,"—that is, as he explains the expression, they did not consist, as our verses do at present, of a certain number of feet, each foot of two syllables, but they were constructed so as to be recited with a certain rhythmical

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »