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

VIII. The New English Poetry

§ 7. “Poulter’s measure”

A favourite metre of Surrey—a metre used now and then by Wyatt, too—is one of which the student of this period may grow tired as he traces its decadence through Turbervile, Googe and others, to its brief restoration to honour in the hands of Southwell. It was of English origin, being, probably, a development of the ballad quatrain, and was commonly called “poulter’s measure,” from the dozen of eggs that varies, or varied then, between twelve and fourteen. An example will explain the name:

  • Suche waiward waies hath love, that most part in discord
  • Our willes do stand, whereby our hartes but seldom doe accord.
  • Disceit is his delight, and to begile, and mock
  • The simple hartes whom he doth strike with froward divers strok.
  • It is, as the reader will see, the “common time” of the hymn-book; a combination of two sixes with a fourteener; or, as later writers preferred to have it printed, a stanza of 6686, only the second and fourth lines riming. It is easy to write, because there is no doubt about the accent, and because it saves rimes; and while, in feeble hands, it can become a monotonous jog-trot, it is lyrical in quality, and has in Wyatt’s hands a strength, in Surrey’s, an elegance, and in Southwell’s, a brilliance which should redeem it from total condemnation. One of Surrey’s most delightful poems, Complaint of the absence of her lover being upon the sea, is written in this metre, in the management of which, as in that of all the others he attempts, he shows himself a born poet, with a good ear and a knowledge of the necessity of relating line to line and cadence to cadence, so that a poem may become a symphonic whole.