PROSODY AND SHAKESPEARE.* WE have noticed recently in these columns
a small book called The Measures of Me Poets, by Mr. Bayfield, which attempted to provide a scientific system of prosody for students of English verso. Mr. Bayfield has now given us A Study of Shalvspeare's Versification, which is of course the logical application of his system to the work of one particular poet. It raises a great many problems of textual criticism and emendation which we can only indicate, the main question being still that which concerns the trochaic base of prosody. It has occasioned scene controversy, and Mr. Bayfield has been censured for matters which might have been settled by a reference to the origin of our heroic verse. He has been blamed for finding sa.pphies in ordinary iambic lines, for example, as though this were a dangerous novelty, or a mental aberration. But Gray, a poet who was also a musician, in his "Observations on English Metre" says :— " We probably took it from the Italians. Their heroie measure has indeed eleven syllables, because of the rhyme, which is double ; but as our language requires single rhyme, the verse was reduced to ten syllables ; the run of it is the same to the ear."
Turn to the Italian verse ; Mr. Bickersteth in his Carducci says:— " As far back as the fifteenth century Italian metrists had observed, for instance, that the Latin Sapphic (minor) verse. . . if read with due emphasis of the speech accent had the same rhythm as an Italian endecasillabo piano (a mineri)" ; and, in a note, he refers to Mr. Bridges's confident guess that "the five foot metres of our English blank verse OM 3 from the Sapphic line."
The question of the trochaic base may be treated in a similar way. Putting aside refinements of metrical science, it is true that primitive verse is trochaic and dactylic, and that iambic and anapaestic measures are later. It should be remembered that metre is not imposed on language, but that, on the contrary, language is imposed on metre. The ideal rhythm is something apart from the syllables, or feet, or notes composing it. If we take a people at a comparatively naive and unsophisticated stage of culture imitating the forme of another people who have attained the last refinements of art, the results are instructive. The primitive verse of the Latins was trochaic when it fell under the influence of Greek models; one result is noted in Jebb's Life of Bentley :— " The characteristic of Bentley's views on •Terentian metre consisted in taking account 'of accent (` prosody ' in the proper sense), and not solely of quantity. To judge from some of Bentley's emendations in poetry, his ear for sound was not very fine, but his ear for rhythm was exact. Guided by this, he could see that the influence of accent in Roman Comedy sometimes overruled the epic and lyric canons of quantitative metre. . . . In Latin, he says, no word of two or more syllables is accented on the last syllable ; thus it is 'Arum, not virlint. Comic poets, he urges, writing for popular audiences, had to guard as much as possible against laying a metrical stress on these final syllables which could not support an accent. In the iambic trimeter they could not observe this rule everywhere."
Jebb had another object in discussing Bentley's notes ; and we have quoted the passage mainly as an instance of a primitive form persisting under a more elaborate and self-conscious art. Aristotle leads us to suppose that the iambic trimeter was itself evolved from an earlier trochaic measure ; yet in Terenoe we find the two clearly opposed, and the popular ear rejecting what cannot be brought into accord with its native accentual verse. We are inclined to accept a trochaic base, therefore, because, apart from any problems of metrical science, we find that trochaic measures are the beginnings of verse, expressing the primitive sense of rhythm, which a later art elaborates; and these trochaic measures, with their continuity of rhythm, subsist under the more varied and broken metres which refine upon them.
When Mr. Bayfield applies his system to Shakespeare he is • 4 Study of Shakespeare's Venifteat4on. it, A. Sayttald.11..A. Cambigdge
Inevitably met by many textual difficulties, chief of which is the question of abbreviations. His work naturally leads him
to inquire into the trustworthiness of the early texts, and for the purpose of comparison he examines the 1616 folio of Ben Jonson's works, and he gives us a revised text of Antony and
Cleopatra. We have once again to praise his zeal, and the careful patience of his work. The difficulties, however, seem to us insuperable. We are able to understand Milton's versification because we have some manuscripts, we have recorded opinions, we have Phillips as a witness. Shakespeare is hidden from us. Criticism of the Quartos and Folios may make us dissatisfied with them, and yet, however admirable it may be in itself, it cannot take their place. We remember that Bentley edited Milton, and Bentley's example is perhaps a sufficient warning. Mr. Bayfield is rightly scornful of modern editors, who "habitually alter th' to the, th'art to thou'rt, and (naturally not daring to leave it) y'are to you're, retaining the rest ; but this is an arbitrary and partial method of procedure which does not solve the problem or even touch it." It is quite just ; and incidentally we may remark that we prefer y'are to you're, both because it preserves an older form, and because it prevents confusion with the possessive pronoun. A consistent principle is unnecessary in this matter of contraction ; commonly it is an affair of caprice. Mr. Bayfield assumes, with reason, that copies of the plays were made from dictation :—
" Certain contractions were made merely to save time, and did not imply that the elided vowel was silent. While an author, and especially a dramatist, would probably refrain from using some of these lest his work should be misinterpreted, a scribe need not be supposed to have felt the same scruple ; In any case, however good his intentions, he would be liable to employ them by inadvertence."
The opportunities for error were almost unlimited in these circumstances, even before the manuscript came into the printer's hands. There are two points, however, which may be interpreted
in an opposite sense to Mr. Bayfield's ; Shakespeare was a dramatic poet and an actor ; his scribes were probably actors.
How far, then, was Shakespeare's own speech corrupted by the usage of the theatre ? This question is quite distinct from those which consider the metrical usage of Shakespeare's day, or the habits of contemporary speech, or the fashion of words employed by any courtly, or rustic, character. It would be a misguided criticism which assumed that Shakespeare was invariably
perfect, or that he Was a poet first and a dramatist only by the way. We do not believe that Mr. Bayfiold makes these assumptions ; but in considering Shakespeare's versification to the exclusion of other marvels in his genius they seem, at
times, to be implied. Even if we assume perfection in this matter, metrical questions have not the same importance in our dramatic as in our lyric and epic verse ; metrical science is not the same keen critical tool in dealing with accentual verse as in dealing with quantitative verse ; the laws which have governed the development of poetry among us have been elastic and flexible ; we are not a classic people, we are too wanton, too adventurous.
We prefer, then, to read Shakespeare with something of a bias derived from Mr. Bayfield's study of his versification, than to read a text amended as Mr. Bayfield would amend it.
We have that conservative prejudice which prefers even a faulty and erroneous text which is early to one over which modern scholarship has worked until it resembles a palimpsest. Mr. Bayfield will forgive us our reverence. His work is so valuable in itself, simply as a study of metre, in its appreciation of the lyric measures, and of the periodic music underlying our heroic verse ; the principles upon which it is based are so sound ; it illuminates so many passages, that we wish to place its excellence in the fullest light.