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

XIV. Elizabethan Criticism

§ 5. Gascoigne’s Notes of Instruction

The first remarks of a critical kind upon English verse may be found, unexpectedly enough, in the dry desert of A Mirror for Magistrates, among the intermixed conversations of the earlier part. And, some years later, the first wholly and really critical tractate devoted to English letters is again prosodic. This is the somewhat famous Certayne notes of Instruction concerning the making of verse or ryme in English, written at the request of Master Eduardo Donati by George Gascoigne. It may have been, to some extent, suggested by Ronsard’s ten years earlier Abrégé de l’art Poétique Français, but, if so, there is nothing in it of the awkward and irrelevant transference to one matter of observations originally made on matter quite different, which sometimes occurs in such cases. Indeed, the first point of likeness—that both insist upon “some fine invention” (le principal point est l’invention)—is publica materies from the ancients. And Gascoigne’s genuine absorption in his actual subject appears by his early reference to alliterative poetry in the very words of Chaucer’s parson: “to thunder in Rym, Ram, Ruff, by letter (quoth my master Chaucer).” Nor does he waste much time in generalities, though those which he has are well to the point, as in the remark “If I should undertake to write in praise of a gentlewoman, I would neither praise her crystal eye nor her cherry lip, etc. For these are trita et obvia.” Nay, he even anticipates Wordsworth’s heroic petitio principii by saying that invention “being found, pleasant words will follow well enough and fast enough.” A brief caution against obscurity leads to an advice to keep just measure, “hold the same measure wherwith you begin,” for the apparent obviousness of which he apologises, observing, with only too much reason, that it was constantly neglected. A further caution, equally obvious and equally necessary, follows, on keeping natural emphasis or sound, using every word as it is commonly pronounced or used—a caution which, it is hardly necessary to say, was needed even by such a poet as Wyatt, was not quite superfluous long after Gascoigne’s time and would, if observed, have killed the classical “versing,” which Gascoigne nowhere notices save by innuendo, in its cradle.

But it is immediately after, and in connection with, this that the most interesting and important point in the whole treatise appears, in a statement which helps us to understand, if not to accept, an impression which evidently held its ground in English poetical theory for the best part of two centuries and more. It is that “commonly now a dayes in English rimes” (for, though he does not recommend “versing,” he “dare not call them English verses”) “we use none other order but a foot of two syllables, whereof the first is depressed or made short, and the second is elevate or made long,” i.e. the iamb. “We have,” he says, “used in times past other kinds of metres,” quoting an anapaestic line; and he makes the very remarkable statement that “our father Chaucer hath used the same liberty in feet and measures that the Latinists do use.” He, apparently, laments the limitation, but says we must “take the ford as we find it,” and again insists that no word is to be wrested “from his natural and usual sound,” illustrating his position. He deprecates the use of polysyllables as unEnglish and unpleasnat; of rime without reason; of unusual words, save with “discretion,” in order to “draw attentive reading”; of too great insecurity and too great facility; of unnatural inversion. But he allows that “shrewd fellow … poetical license.” These things, though in most, but not all, cases right and sensible and quite novel from an English pen, are almost trivial. Not so his pronouncement on pauses—“rests” or “ceasures.” He admits these to be “at discretion,” especially in rime royal, but again exhibits the stream of tendency in the most invaluable manner, by prescribing, as best, the middle syllable in octosyllables and alexandrines, the fourth in decasyllables and the eighth in fourteeners. The term rime royal reminds him that he should explain it and other technicalities, which he proceeds to do, including in his explanation the somewhat famous term “poulter’s measure” for the couplet of alexandrine and fourteener popular in the mid-sixteenth century. And he had forgotten “a notable kind of ryme, called ryding ryme, such as our Mayster and Father Chaucer used in his Canterburie tales.” It is, he thinks, most apt for a merry tale, rime royal for a grave discourse. And so, judiciously relegating “poulter’s measure” by a kind of afterthought to psalms and hymns, he ends the first, one of the shortest but, taking it altogether, one of the most sensible and soundest, of all tractates on prosody in English and one of our first documents in criticism generally. Incidentally, it supplies us with some important historical facts as to language, such as that “treasure” was not pronounced “treasùre,” that to make a dissyllable of “Heaven” was a licence—Mitford, two centuries later, thought the monosyllabic pronunciation vulgar and almost impossible—and the like.

It is very difficult to exaggerate the importance of the appearance in this work—the first prosodic treatise in English, and one written just on the eve of the great Elizabethan period—of the distinct admission, all the more distinct because of its obvious reluctance, that the iamb is the only foot in English serious rime, and of the preference for middle caesuras. As symptoms, these things show us the not unnatural recoil and reaction from the prosodic disorderliness of the fifteenth century and the earliest part of the sixteenth, just as Gascoigne’s protests against wrenching accent show the sense of dissatisfaction even with the much improved rhythm of Wyatt and Surrey. But they also forecast, in the most noteworthy fashion, the whole tendency towards a closely restricted syllabic and rhythmical uniformity which, after several breakings-away, resulted in the long supremacy of the stopped, centrally divided, decasyllabic couplet as the metre of metres, from which, or compared with which, all others were declensions and licences. The reader may be reminded that, even before Gascoigne, there are interesting, and not much noticed, evidences of the same revulsion from irregular metres in the prose inter-chapters of A Mirror for Magistrates.