Page images

nunciation of this now mute final e, has been attacked, or at least denounced, on other grounds and by a higher authority. The late Mr. Richard Price, in his edition of ' Warton's History of English Poetry' (4 vols. 8vo. Lon. 1824), assigns an origin to this termination which he considers to be altogether reconcilable with Tyrwhitt's view of it. The change of orthography from the AngloSaxon forms which has taken place in a numerous class of our English words, Mr. Price maintains, “has arisen solely from the abolition of the accentual marks which distinguished the long and short syllables." "As a substitute for the former," he says, "the Norman scribes, or at least the disciples of the Norman school of writing, had recourse to the analogy which governed the French language; and, to avoid the confusion which would have sprung from observing the same form in writing a certain number of letters differently enounced and bearing a different meaning, they elongated the word, or attached as it were an accent instead of superscribing it. From hence has emanated an extensive list of terms having final e's and duplicate consonants; which were no more the representatives of additional syllables than the acute or grave accent in the Greek language is a mark of metrical quantity." And he adds in a note :— "The converse of this can only be maintained under an assumption that the Anglo-Saxon words of one syllable multiplied their numbers after the Conquest, and in some succeeding century subsided into their primitive simplicity.' ."* Again, he observes in another place, "The Anglo-Saxon á was pronounced like the Danish aa, the Swedish å, or our modern o in more, fore, &c. The * Preface to Warton, p. (114).


strong intonation given to the words in which it occurred would strike a Norman ear as indicating the same orthography that marked the long syllables of his native tongue, and he would accordingly write them with an e final. It is from this cause that we find hár, sár, hát, bát, wá, án, bán, stán, &c., written hore (hore), sore, hote (hot), bote (boat), woe, one, bone, stone, some of which have been retained. The same principle of elongation was extended to all the Anglo-Saxon vowels that were accentuated; such us réc, reke (reek), líf, life, gód, gode (good), scúr, shure (shower); and hence the majority of those e's mute upon which Mr. Tyrwhitt has expended so much unfounded speculation.” * And the complete development of these doctrines is promised in a supplementary volume, which was actually announced under the title of Illustrations of Warton's History of English Poetry, containing [among other things] an examination of Mr. Tyrwhitt's Essay on the Language and Versification of Chaucer;' but which has never appeared. Price's views, however, have in their turn been combated from a very lofty summit of pretension to Anglo-Saxon scholarship by Mr. Guest, although Mr. Price is one of the very few persons, dead or living, whose acquirements or judgment that gentleman professes to hold in any respect, and Tyrwhitt is the object of his especial contempt and vituperation. "The most frequent vowel endings of Anglo-Saxon substantives," says Mr. Guest (Hist. of Eng. Rhythms, i. 26), 66 were a, e, u. All the three were in the fourteenth century represented by the e final." And afterwards, in explaining the origin of our present mode of indicating the long *Note to Warton, Vol I. p. c. ii.

quantity of a vowel preceding a single consonant by the annexation of an e, he observes (Id. p. 108):—" In the Anglo-Saxon there was a great number of words which had, as it were, two forms; one ending in a consonant, the other in a vowel. In the time of Chaucer all the different vowel endings were represented by the e final; and so great is the number of words which this writer uses, sometimes as monosyllables, and sometimes as dissyllables, with the addition of the e, that he has been accused of adding to the number of his syllables whenever it suited the convenience of his rhythm. In his works we find hert and herte, bed and bedde, erth and erthe, &c. In the Anglo-Saxon we find corresponding duplicates, the additional syllable giving to the noun, in almost every case a new declension, and in most a new gender. In some few cases the final e had become mute even before the time of Chaucer, and was wholly lost in the period which elapsed between his death and the accession of the Tudors. Still, however, it has its ground in our manuscripts, and ure our, rose a rose, &c., though pronounced as monosyllables, were still written according to the old spelling. Hence it came gradually to be considered as a rule, that when a syllable ended in a single consonant and mute e the vowel was long." "Such," concludes Mr. Guest, "is clearly the origin of this very peculiar mode of indicating the long vowel; and it seems to me so obvious, that I always felt surprise at the many and various opinions that have been hazarded upon the subject. We could not expect much inforniation from men who, like Tyrwhitt, were avowedly ignorant of the carly state of our language; but even Hickes had his doubts whether the final e of the Anglo


Saxon words were mute or vocal; and Rask, notwithstanding his triumph over that far superior scholar, has fallen into this his greatest blunder. Price, whose good sense does not often fail him, supposes this mode of spelling to be the work of the Norman, and the same as the orthography that marked the long syllables of his native tongue.' As if the e final were mute in Norman French!" Throughout his work, Mr. Guest assumes the syllabic quality of the final e in Chaucer's verse, exactly as is done by Tyrwhitt. "After the death of Chaucer," he asserts (vol. i. p. 80), "the final e, so commonly used by that poet and his contemporaries, fell into disuse. Hence many dissyllables became words of one syllable, mone became moon, and sunne sun; and the compounds into which they entered were curtailed of a syllable." If it be meant that the change spoken of took place immediately or very soon after the death of Chaucer, the assertion is one which it would probably be somewhat difficult to make good. We doubt if the new pronunciation was generally introduced before the commencement of the sixteenth century.

A fact elsewhere noticed by Mr. Guest, we may just remark, although not adduced by him for that purpose, meets Mr. Price's objection about the unlikelihood or impossibility of many Anglo-Saxon monosyllables having after the Conquest been elongated into dissyllables, and then in some succeeding century reverted to their original monosyllabic condition. If it were necessary to make such an assumption as this in order to vindicate Tyrwhitt's theory of Chaucer's versification, the thing supposed is unquestionably no more than what has actually happened. As Mr. Guest has observed (vol. i.

p. 40), "The dissyllables containing y and w seem to have been once so numerous in our language, that many words, both English and foreign, were adapted to their pronunciation, and thus gained a syllable: scur A. S. became shower, and fleur Fr. became flower. Change of pronunciation has again reduced them to their original dimensions."

We have gone into this question of the nature of our early versification at the greater length, that it has nowhere been fully discussed even in works professing to treat specially of the subject, and where we might reasonably expect to find it examined in all its bearings. It is believed that the preceding pages contain at least a methodical summary of the various views that have been proposed up to this time. On the whole, we cannot help thinking that little or no impression has yet been made upon the substantial correctness of Tyrwhitt's conclusions; and we shall, in the sequel, assume that the mode proposed by him of reading the verse of Chaucer and his contemporaries is the true one. The reader, to whom it may be new, will find, after a very little practice, that the ear soon gets accustomed to the peculiarities of pronunciation required; and we should say that the slight air of archaism which they impart rather adds to the effect of the poetry, so that we should prefer the retention of these obsolete forms to any substitution, however delicately made, that would aim at modernizing it or making it more intelligible. We shall not, however, in our transcripts, attempt to indicate the pronunciation by any accentual or other marks; being of opinion with Tyrwhitt that "a reader who cannot perform such operations for himself had better not trouble his head about the

« PreviousContinue »