Rhythmical Forms in Lorna Doone

— Prophecies so often fail to be fulfilled, especially in regard to literary works, that it might be hazardous to predict that Lorna Doone will be ranked among English classics ; but certainly there are few novels by living authors which seem so likely to keep a secure, distinguished place in literature. Critical study of such a work can never be untimely, and I wish to call attention to a curious and interesting feature in the construction of this pastoral romance.

I suppose that most readers of Lorna Doone, particularly if they have read it aloud, have noticed the author ’s tendency to fall into rhythmical forms of expression. A glance over a few pages gives us : “ Then life and joy sprang reassured from every crouching hollow ; ” “ And every man had much to say, and women wanted praising; ” “ So, like half a wedge of wild fowl, to and fro we swept the field ; ” “ These had bloodless hands put upward, white as wax and firm as death ; ” ‘‘ I love you more than tongue can tell, or heart can hold in silence.” Instances like these abound ; these swinging rhythms are noticeable throughout the entire book. But there are also three brief passages which are strictly metrical in construction,—passages which really are verse, although printed as prose.

The first of these occurs in the closing paragraph of the twenty-eighth chapter. In the beginning of the paragraph prose and verse alternate, and seem to strive together for the mastery, the one asserting itself only to be repressed by the other, until finally verse can no longer be curbed ; it prevails, and, like a brook freed from obstructions, the words flow onward in a smooth and beautiful rhythm. Here is the paragraph : —

“ Upon that she laughed at me in the sweetest manner, and with such provoking ways, and such come-and-go of glances, and beginning of quick blushes, which she tried to laugh away, that I knew, as well as if she herself had told me, by some knowledge (void of reasoning, and the surer for it),—

I knew quite well, while all my heart was burning hot within me,
And mine eyes were shy of hers,
And her eyes were shy of mine ;
For certain and forever this I knew—as in a glory —
That Lorna Doone had now begun and would go on to love me.”

The second of these little poems is in the twenty-ninth chapter. Visions of Lorna have come to John as he works in the grain-field. He gives over his reaping, and stands idle, lost in day-dreams, until he sees that the laborers have taken advantage of his reverie, and have left the field. The final transition to prose is startlingly abrupt: —

“ But, confound it, while I ponder,
With delicious dreams suspended,
With my right arm hanging frustrate
And the giant sickle drooped,
With my left arm bowed for clasping
Something more germane than wheat,
And my eyes not minding business,
But intent on distant woods — confound it,
What are the men about, and why am I left vaporing ? ”

Upon first reading these lines, I had a perplexing sense of their resemblance to something quite well known to me. After vainly puzzling over the matter for a while, I presently found myself humming the lines to a familiar air, and was amused to find that the rhythm was that of one of the Pinafore songs, — “ Never mind the why and wherefore.”

The third passage is in the fifty-eighth chapter, telling how John broke the great rock in Master Huckaback’s gold mine:

“ Then I swung me on high to the swing of the sledge,
As a thresher bends back to the rise of his flail,
And with all my power descending
Delivered the ponderous onset.”

It would be interesting to know the history of these verses. Were they framed with deliberate purpose, and laboriously chiseled and polished into artistic symmetry ? Or did they spring from the author’s mind as natural, spontaneous utterances ? It is scarcely conceivable that such work could have been done without design, or without consciousness of its real character.