Some Remarks on the Study of English Verse

THE science of English verse is still in the formative stage. A large body of poetry — a body which seems in many ways the richest and noblest in the world — has grown up in the English language without the conscious adoption of a fixed and universal standard of measurement, or the dominance of a system of metrical rules of recognized authority. No doubt this body of poetry has developed in accordance with certain fundamental laws, — laws which belong to man’s psychical nature and control the sense of pleasure evoked in the human mind by the perception of rhythm. They may therefore be called, with propriety, natural laws.

But to discover what these laws are, and to order them in some kind of a system, we must approach the great body of poetry as it already exists in the English tongue and study it, not with a fixed theory, but with an observant ear and an open mind. We must take the art of English verse and its products, as the facts given, with which we have to deal, and upon which the science of English verse, if it is to have any value, must be founded.

We must examine and consider the verse structure of the best poems, those which have given pleasure to the rhythmical sense of the most intelligent readers, those which are regarded by persons of general knowledge and taste as representative examples of good metrical form. We must read these poems naturally and simply, not according to arbitrary rules drawn from the prosody of other languages, but according to the native rhythm of the English speech. From this reading we must seek to learn the actual balance and movement of the verse, the number and relation of the parts of which it is composed, the nature of the recurring cadence from which its charm is derived.

The art of poetry in English is not to be evolved out of the inner consciousness of professors, nor deduced from ancient metrical systems. It is to be studied inductively, from the material which has already been produced by the great poets who have written in our language. It is only through a study of this kind, based upon a broad and familiar intimacy with the best poetry, clarified and corrected by the constant practice of reading aloud in a natural tone of voice, and controlled by common sense as well as by literary culture, that we may hope to arrive, in the course of time, at something like an orderly and comprehensive knowledge of the laws and principles of English verse.

In my opinion, this study has much to commend it as a means of academic culture. I do not claim that it has any great advantages from what is called “the practical point of view.” For even if it were possible to teach men how to write poetry by lectures and lessons — which seems to me a very doubtful proposition — the profession of a poet is not one which brings in large pecuniary wages in any age; and just at present the outlook for one who sets out to earn a living by the production of verse is particularly unpromising. I think there is no real demand, in these times at least, for academic classes in the writing of poetry. The poet’s way is difficult, and few there be that find it. It is both safe and wise to leave the calling and election of these chosen few to that secret, inward power which impels genius to find its own best expression.

But the reading of poetry, with the spirit and the understanding, is a different thing. It is, in my judgment, one of the very finest instruments for the opening of the mind, the enlarging of the imagination, and the development of the character. I make this claim, in an especial sense, for English poetry. The study of it brings us into immediate touch with the high thoughts and ideals which have guided the progress of the race. It reveals many of the secret spiritual forces which have made our history. We cannot understand the age of Elizabeth, of the Puritans, of Queen Anne, of Victoria, without knowing Shakespeare, and Milton, and Pope, and Tennyson, and Browning. The accurate and sympathetic observation of Nature is stimulated and informed by the study of English poetry. It cultivates humane and noble feelings, broadens and deepens the range of our sentiments toward our fellow men, and adds a new interest and a larger significance to life. Even on the purely technical side, the study of metrical form and movement (which is more particularly the subject that I have in mind at present) trains the eye and the ear, enlightens the judgment and the taste, develops the faculties of careful observation and discrimination, and disciplines the mind, in the attempt to trace and verify the subtle laws, and to solve, at least tentatively, the interesting problems which we find in English verse.

It will be a long time, I fancy, before we come to the final solution of some of these problems. Many years, perhaps, will pass away before our knowledge of English metres is complete and capable of a truly scientific statement. The books which have recently been written upon the subject show that it is gaining in interest. Some of them are admirable contributions to an advancing study. But almost all of them present different theories and use different systems of nomenclature. Meantime we stand in need of certain terms, easily understood and commonly accepted, to describe the forms of verse which we are reading and studying. My object, in the present writing, is simply to suggest a few such terms, and to give the reasons why I think they may be useful.

It is generally admitted, to-day, that the controlling principle in English verse is not quantity but accent. In this it differs radically from Greek and Latin verse. A line of English poetry — for example,

“ To be, or not to be, that is the question ” — does not consist of a certain number of feet, each foot containing a certain number of syllables of a certain length arranged in a certain order. The attempt to read it in that way results in an intolerable sing-song. The length of syllables in English is not fixed and unvarying. It is not determined by rule. In the line quoted above it is impossible to say that there is any difference in the length of the first, second, third, fifth, and sixth vowels; the fourth, which is naturally short, ought to be long according to rule; the seventh, eighth,ninth, and tenth are equally short in quantity, though in the verse their value is quite different. But when the line is read naturally, according to the meaning of the sentence, the rhythm comes out clearly, and we cannot help feeling its simplicity and its strength.

Or take the familiar and exquisite lines from Wordsworth’s great Ode: —

“ The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose ;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare ;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair ;
The sunshine is a glorious birth
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath passed away a glory from the

It is impossible to scan these lines according to any known system of quantity. But when one reads them, following the sense and swing of the words, giving one’s self to the subtle and inevitable rhythm, the verses prove their rightness by their charm.

A line of English poetry, metrically considered, is built around a number of accents, recurring at certain intervals, each accent usually supporting a group of two or more syllables of varying length. The simplest and most natural way to measure the line, therefore, is not by attributing to it a fixed number of imaginary “feet,” —which in the majority of cases it does not contain, — but by counting the points of emphasis, which are really the structural factors of the verse.

These points of accentuation do not always coincide with the natural emphasis of the sentence. There must be a certain number of such coincidences,— and I should say a preponderance,— if the verse is to flow smooth and strong. A line in which the sense requires an altogether different accentuation from that which is demanded by the metre is both rough and weak. But it is permissible, and in many instances necessary, to make some of the accents mainly, if not altogether, metrical in character. That is to say, there is a certain stress of the voice, slightly marking words and syllables, which does not come merely from the meaning of what is written, but also, in part, from the fact that it is intended to be read not as prose but as verse. The poet’s art lies in the skill with which he orders his words so that this metrical emphasis blends with the natural emphasis and enhances, while it varies, the cadence of his phrases. Take, for instance, a stanza from Shelley : —

“In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,
O’er which clouds are bright’ning,
Thou dost float and run ;
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.”

The flow of the verse here requires a slight accent at several points which would not be at all emphatic if the sentence were written as prose. We need, therefore, a word to describe this recurring metrical accent (which may, or may not, fall upon the same syllable with the rhetorical accent), and to distinguish it for the use of poetry. The best word, in my judgment, for this purpose, is stress.

The easiest, clearest, and shortest way to describe the measure of a line of English poetry, in regard to length, is not to call it a trimeter, or a pentameter, or a heptameter verse, but simply a three-stress, a five-stress, or a seven-stress verse.

The name to be given to a group of syllables marked and bound together by a metrical stress is more difficult to determine. I will confess that it seems to me artificial and misleading to call such a group of syllables a “foot,” when the element of fixed quantity, which is essential to the “feet” of classical prosody, is wanting. Take another illustration from Shelley’s Skylark : —

“ If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,” —

here are three stresses in each line. But are there also three feet ? If so, what kind of feet are they ? How shall we mark the quantity of the syllables which they contain ? There is, in fact, not the slightest attention paid to the length or shortness of the syllables in the structure of the lines; and to speak of them as containing a certain number of feet is to pervert the meaning of the word.

Compare a good Latin hexameter with a good English six-stress verse.

Tityre tu patulæ recubans sub tegmine fagi.

Here are six regular feet, three dactyls, a spondee, a dactyl, and a spondee.

“ Earth! thou mother of numberless children,
the nurse and the mother ! ”

Here are the six stresses, and as many groups of syllables. But it is only by the most forced interpretation that these groups can he classified as dactyls and spondees.

It seems to me very desirable to get rid of this misleading term “foot,” and to use a name more accurate and descriptive. There is a close analogy between the cadence of English verse and the rhythmical structure of music. Take away the element of pitch from a musical measure, and it corresponds very nearly to a verse measure. The word bar, which is used in music to describe a group of notes bound together by a strong accent, would be an appropriate term for use in English metrics to denote a group of syllables bound together by a stress.

The question still remains, how are we to describe these bars which make up a measure of verse? Their quality and effect manifestly depend upon the place where the stress falls, and the number of syllables which they contain. Is it proper to make any use of the terms “trochaic,” “iambic,” and the like, to denote the differences of cadence which thus arise ?

This question is vigorously debated by the advocates of opposite metrical theories. In the main I agree with the opinion expressed by one of the latest and soundest writers on the subject,1 that a “carefully limited use ” of these terms is both admissible and advisable. For this opinion some reasons may be given.

In one particular there is an evident resemblance between the simpler rhythms of classical verse and those which are used in English: namely, in the order of arrangement of the syllables in a structural division. For example, a trochee consists of a long syllable, followed by a short syllable. This corresponds closely to the English rhythm in which the first syllable of the bar is accented, the second unaccented. We may not say that such a verse is composed of trochees, for, as already stated, the syllables cannot be distinguished, with any regularity, as long or short. But we may quite properly say that the general movement and effect of the verse are trochaic. For instance, —

“ Love took up the glass of Time, and turn’d
it in his glowing hands ”

is an eight-stress trochaic verse, with the light syllable of the last bar omitted.

In the same way the movement of English blank verse may be called iambic, not because it is composed of regular iambs, but because the normal stress in each bar falls upon the second and final syllable.

“ So all day long the noise of battle roll’d
Among the mountains by the winter sea ”

is five-stress iambic verse.

A metre in which the typical bar is composed of three syllables may be called anapæstic if the stress falls on the last syllable, dactylic if the stress falls on the first syllable. The cadence of such metres distinctly resembles that of classical anapaests and dactyls.

“Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly
null ”

is a seven-stress dactylic verse, with a trochaic variation in the second bar.

“ I remember the time, for the roots of my
hair were stirr’d”

is a six-stress anapaestic verse, with an iambic variation in the last bar.

The only alternative to this nomenclature, so far as I know, is that proposed by Mr. Robert Bridges, in his admirable little book on Milton’s Prosody. He suggests that we should speak of “dissyllabic rising rhythm, dissyllabic falling rhythm, trisyllabic rising rhythm, and trisyllabic falling rhythm.” But this seems to me more awkward and less accurate than the use of the words iambic, trochaic, anapæstic, and dactylic, not as nouns, let it be remembered, but merely as adjectives to describe the general cadence of the verse.

I shall conclude this paper with a few observations on rhyme. It is here, I think, that there is most need of an agreement, among students of English verse, upon a few simple and clearly defined terms.

Rhyme, in the broadest sense of the word, covers all agreements in tone (that is, quality of sound) between two or more syllables, or groups of syllables, in verse. This recurrence of similar tones is used in English poetry to enhance the pleasure which arises from the regular recurrence of equivalent accents.

Take a stanza from Shelley, for example : —

“ Swiftly walk o’er the western wave,
Spirit of Night!
Out of the misty eastern cave
Where, all the long and lone daylight,
Thou wovest dreams of joy and fear
Which make thee terrible and dear, —
Swift be thy flight.”

It is evident that the charm of this stanza, as a bit of verbal music, subtle and expressive, comes not only from the rhythmic movement of the recurrent stress, but also from the harmony in quality of the sounds which are so delicately marked and bound together by the accents. But this harmony is not all of one kind. There are at least three different ways in which the delightful agreement of tone is produced in this stanza.

In the first line there is an agreement in the initial sound of three words: “walk,” “western,” and “wave.” This kind of tonal agreement is called, in common usage, alliteration.

In the fourth line there is a harmony of the vowel sounds of the words “long” and “lone.” This is what is commonly known as assonance.

There are many good reasons why these particular varieties of tonal harmony should be distinguished by these names, and why the word rhyme should be kept exclusively for the third form of tonal harmony, which is now decidedly more frequent and more important in English verse.

This third form, as illustrated in Shelley’s stanza, consists of an agreement in the final sound of certain lines. Thus the closing tone of the first line is repeated in the third; the closing tone of the second line is repeated in the fourth and in the seventh; and the closing tones of the fifth and sixth lines are alike.

When we look at the nature of this particular tonal harmony more closely we see that it does not include all the letters of the words in which it occurs. The initial sounds of the harmonious words are different. The agreement lies in the accented vowel and the letters which follow it. This form of harmony is what is commonly known in English verse as rhyme.

Of course it has a general kinship with assonance and alliteration, in that it belongs, as they do, to the realm of tone. But its specific difference from them is so marked, its influence upon the structure and quality of the stanza is so much greater, that when it is absent it seems natural and proper to call the verse unrhymed.

The normal place for rhymes is at the end of the lines. Sometimes, however, one of the rhyming words is within the line, which then receives a more noticeable cadence and a richer effect. Rhymes of this kind are called “ internal ” or “Leonine.” When rhymes include more than one syllable they are called “feminine.” But if three or four syllables are included, they are called “triple” or “quadruple,” according to the number of rhyming syllables.

These names are in common use, and there is no need to change them. But it is in regard to the arrangement of rhymes in a stanza that we find ourselves in want of accurate and universally accepted terms.

Take, for example, a simple stanza of four lines, — a quatrain. There are several different orders in which the rhymes may be placed. It would be of considerable advantage to have definite names to describe them. Let me give some illustrations, and suggest a name for each.

Interwoven rhyme.

“ She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise,
And very few to love.”

Alternate rhyme.

“ He prayeth “best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”

Couplet rhyme.

“ Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory;
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.”

Close rhyme.

“ Love thou thy land with love far-brought
From out the storied past, and used
Within the present, but transfused
Thro’ future time by power of thought.”

Interrupted rhyme.

“ Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow ! ”

Some of these names are already in use, but it would be well, in my opinion, if all of them should be generally recognized and adopted by students of English verse.

We are in need, also, of a revised and improved nomenclature for the various forms of imperfect rhyme, some of which are allowable in English without real injury to the verse, while others are distinct blemishes.

The most striking instance of the latter kind of imperfection is that form of rhyme which the French call rime parfait, and which their verse sanctions. It consists in a complete agreement of sound, not only in the accented vowel and the letters which follow it, but also in the letters which precede it. Thus the two words, or syllables, which correspond are absolutely identical in tone. Corneille, in Le Cid, writes: —

De ses nobles efforts ces deux rois sont le prix;
Sa main les a vaincus, et sa main les a pris.

An English illustration may be found in Tennyson’s The Daisy: —

“ At Florence too what golden hours,
In those long galleries, were ours.”

Now the writers on English verse (I believe without exception) have translated the French term, rime parfait, with literal stupidity. They all speak of the recurrence of an identical sound as a “perfect rhyme.” At the same time they all agree that such a rhyme is not to be tolerated in modern English verseCould anything be more absurd than to call a thing perfect and then to rule it out?

We should have a new and better name for this kind of inadmissible rhyme. It is nothing but an echo of precisely the same sound in two words. It should be called an echo-rhyme, and carefully avoided.

There are four other principal kinds of imperfect rhyme, two of which are venial faults, while the second two are serious defects.

There is a rhyme in which the accented vowels differ slightly, but the final consonants agree. Thus Tennyson writes in The Palace of Art: —

“And one, an English home — gray twilight
On dewy pastures, dewy trees,
Softer than sleep — all things in order stor’d,
A haunt of ancient Peace.”

Trees —peace, I think, should be called an assonant rhyme, because the vowel sound is identical, but there is a slight difference in the sound of the final consonants.

Another variety of imperfect rhyme is found in the next stanza but one of the same poem : —

“ Or the maid-mother by a crucifix,
In tracts of pasture sunny-warm,
Beneath branch-work of costly sardonyx
Sat smiling, babe in arm.”

Warmarm, I think, should be called an approximate rhyme, because the vowel sounds are different, though the final consonants agree.

These two kinds of imperfect rhyme are not uncommon in the work of the best poets. In Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast, in Wordsworth’s Ode on the Intimations of Immortality, they stand in about the proportion of one to seven perfect rhymes. Of course, as this proportion rises, the effect of the verse is marred. A defect which is tolerable as an exception, becomes intolerable when it is constantly repeated.

An imperfection of the third kind is a much graver fault. There is one in The Lady of Shalott: —

“ From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror.”

Here both vowels and consonants fail to agree. I should call this a false rhyme.

An imperfection of the fourth kind is found in A Dream of Fair Women, where Tennyson rhymes sanctuaries with palaces. In order to produce any resemblance of tones a false accent must be put on the last syllable of each word. The effect is harsh and halting. I should call this a lame rhyme, and pray the Muse to keep me from it, or pardon it.

Henry van Dyke.

  1. English Verse. By RAYMOND M. ALDEN. New York : Henry Holt & Co. 1903.