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

XIII. Prosody from Chaucer to Spenser

§ 4. Chaucer and his successors

But the fifteenth century was fated to show that, in prosody, as in everything else, something unexpected is the only safe thing to expect. The actual versification of the successors of Chaucer has been discussed in the chapters appertaining to it; and it has there been pointed out that some authorities do not take so low a view of it as seems necessary to the present writer. But the fact remains that, in order to get the verses of Lydgate, Occleve and the rest into any kind of rhythmical system, satisfactory at once to calculation and to audition, enormous liberties have to be taken with the text; complicated arrangements of licence and exception have to be devised; and, in some cases, even then failing, the franker vindicators have to fall back on the supposition that mere accent, with unaccented syllables thrown in almost at pleasure, is the basis of Lydgatian and other prosody. Now, it may be so; but, in that case, the other fact remains that very small liberties, if any, need be taken with the text of Chaucer; that necessary exceptions and licences in his case are extremely few; and that, whether his metre be accentual or not, it is most certainly not merely accentual, in the sense that unaccented syllables may be peppered down at pleasure as a seasoning, still less in the sense that the number of accents itself may be altered at pleasure. In rime royal especially, Chaucer’s line-length and line-arrangement are almost meticulously correct. In his followers, examples of from seven to seventeen syllables, and of from four to seven apparent accents, are not merely occasionally, but constantly, found. And yet we know that almost all these writers had Chaucer constantly before them and regarded him with the highest admiration; and we know, further, that his followers in Scotland managed to imitate him with very considerable precision.

No real or full explanation of this singular decadence has ever yet been given; probably none is possible. But, in two respects, at least, something like an approach may be made to such an explanation. The first of these is that Chaucer, assisted by Genius but somewhat neglecting Time, “standardised” the language rather too soon. We know that, in his own day, the management of the final -e was far less uniform and systematic in the case of others than in his own; that it was, in fact, changing into something like its modern value. This, of itself, would suffice, with its consequent alternate use and disuse, forgetfulness and remembrance—nay, its positive temptation to make a convenience and licence of the thing—to dislocate and corrupt the metre. And there were certainly some, probably many, other changes which would help to produce a similar effect. Nor is it probable that many, if any, poets had a distinct theoretic understanding of the metres that they used—the best part of two hundred years had to pass after 1400 before we find trace of any such thing. They were “fingering” at Chaucer’s measures by “rule of thumb,” and with hands furnished with more thumbs than fingers.

But there was probably another cause which, while less certain, is highly probable though it needs careful study and application to its possible result. The alliterative-accentual revival had not only spread very far and taken great hold, but it had, as has been shown, exhibited a singular tendency to combine itself even with very elaborate metrical arrangements. Nor is there anything improbable in the supposition that this tendency spread itself much more widely than such unmistakable instances as the Awntyrs of Arthure, or the Epistill of Swete Susane, or even Gavin Douglas’s eighth prologue would, of themselves, indicate. Nay, it is probable that the admixture was not so much an “adultery of art” as an unconscious process.