Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 12. Its musical resources

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XX. The Language from Chaucer to Shakespeare

§ 12. Its musical resources

The freedom and brevity, the concrete and picturesque character, of Elizabethan English, were, therefore, among the qualities which rendered it an effective medium of literary thought. At the same time, the language is seen to lend itself easily to rhythmical and harmonious expression, and it is not improbable that the sixteenth century translators of the Bible were among the first to realise with any adequacy the musical resources of the vernacular, they themselves having been inspired by the harmonies of their Latin models. The language of the Vulgate was certainly familiar to sixteenth century readers, and the translators must have worked with its rhythm and its tones ringing in their ears; while the close resemblance between the constructions and word-order of the Latin text and those used in English would render it an easier task to reproduce other qualities of that text. At all events, in the Biblical translations and the liturgy of the sixteenth century we find the broad vowels, the musical rhythm and the tones which had been the glory of the Vulgate: the English ear had become attuned, for the first time, to the vocalic music of the vernacular. Consonantal effects, which were still more characteristic of English, had long been turned to account in the native alliteration.

For the purpose of working out these rhythmical effects and of heightening the natural harmonies of the spoken language, certain linguistic aids were available. In the unsettled state of the language, there were certain variant forms, some of which were obsolete, which could still be utilised in prose as well as in verse. For instance, verbal forms in -eth (3rd pers. pres. sing.) were seldom used in ordinary speech; but, in a line like “It blesseth him that gives and him that takes,” both the archaic and the current forms appear, to the improvement of the rhythm. Similarly, final -ed could be pronounced or not according to the required rhythm, as in the line “Thou changed and self-cover’d thing,” and these devices have since remained with the poets. Then, again, the particle “the” could, if necessary, be omitted in archaic fashion, for its modern definitive character had not yet been assumed. Advantage might, also, be taken of the unsettled state of the accent in Latin words, like “complete” and “extreme,” to accentuate such words in accordance with metrical exigencies; while the unemphatic “do,” though obsolescent at this date, might frequently help out the rhythm in both verse and prose.

As regards its musical resources, however, Elizabethan English, as well as later English, had certain marked limitations. It was a language overloaded with consonants, many of them harsh and dissonant in character; and it was the prevalence of consonantal endings that made the language poor in rimes, as contrasted with the Italian, which abounded in words with vowel terminations. It also possessed a great abundance of half-pronounced vowels, which were neither long nor short and which defeated the attempts of the Areopagites to make the language run into classical moulds. The choice of metrical forms, as a matter of fact, was largely determined by the native method of accentuation; the majority of words of more than one syllable developed, naturally, a trochaic, iambic, or dactylic rhythm, and these were the elements out of which the stately blank verse and the many lyrical forms were built. Another inherent disability under which Elizabethan English laboured was that its word-order was necessarily more fixed, and, therefore, less elastic, than was the case with the highly inflected languages of antiquity, which required no such rigidity of position. Furthermore, its grammatical forms lacked variety and, while it abounded in monosyllabic words, it was short of the much-resounding polysyllabic words, so that a rhythmical grace was not so inevitable as in Latin or Greek.

In the centuries which have followed the age of Elizabeth, the language has undergone many changes, and these changes may be roughly summarised, first, as the extension of the vocabulary to keep pace with the ever-widening thought, and, secondly, as the adaptation of the structure of the language to clearer and more precise expression. In the course of time, the numerous national activities, the pursuits of science and art, of commerce and politics, have enriched its expression with their various terminologies. Literal uses have become metaphorical, concrete terms, abstract; many words have depreciated in meaning, and the line has been drawn more rigidly between words literary and non-literary. There has been in the language what Coleridge calls “an instinct of growth … working progressively to desynonymise those words of originally the same meaning,” and this division of labour has enabled the language to express finer shades of thought. The verbal conjugation has been enriched, the elements which made for vagueness have been removed and in every way the language has adapted itself to a scientific age, which requires, before all things, clear, accurate and precise expression.