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Who would suppose, from the style of this beautiful passage, that it had been written upwards of three centuries ago? Dr. Johnson knew very little of our old English poetry, or he would never have so egregiously overrated the improvements of the moderns. It is wonderful how slight a change has been effected in our language in so long a period as three hundred years. There is nothing in the lines just quoted to indicate their antiquity. There is a greater number of old phrases in some of our living poets than in the page of Chalkhill. Though we dislike the incongruous mixture of archaisms and neologisms which deform the productions of too many of the poets of the present day, we observe with great delight that the study of our elder writers has led to the introduction of a fresher style of description and a more varied music of verse than the public were accustomed to a few years ago.
The following description of the situation of the cell of the witch Orandra would have been worthy of Spenser himself:
Down in a gloomy valley thick with shade
Set full of box, and cypress, poplar, yew,
And hateful elder that in thickets grew,
Amongst whose boughs the screech-owl and night-crow
Where leather-winged bats, that hate the light,
The ground o'er-grown with weeds, and bushy shrubs,
Then follows a very striking description of the cell itself.
Her cell was hewn out in the marble rock,
The door stood always open, large and wide,
The ground was strow'd with flowers, whose sweet scent,
His credulous sense; the walls were gilt and set
To the quick'st eye they more than seem'd to grow.
Such as whereof loose Ovid sometimes sung.
The portrait of the witch herself, though powerfully drawn, is rather too disgusting in some of its details, to permit of my transferring it to these pages, as my sole object is to give pleasure to the reader. The following description of King Alexis (who turns out to be Clearchus), under the alternate influence of opposite emotions, is highly poetical and picturesque. The metre is singularly harmonious. It is a pity that the beauty of this little passage is somewhat marred by the word dropsy in the first line.
Now a fair day, anon a dropsy cloud
Puts out the sun, and, in a sable shroud,
The day seems buried; when the clouds are o'er,
But long it lasts not; so Alexis far'd:
In this beautiful old pastoral, a reader unacquainted with our elder English poets might find many lines that he would regard as strangely irregular and inharmonious. The very same pas sages, however, would seem perfectly smooth and accurate to an ear accustomed to our ancient pronunciation. In the following lines, for example, readers who have confined their poetical studies to modern verse, would feel themselves disappointed of the legitimate quantity of syllables.
But she, being unwilling to be known,
A hot spurred youth hight Hylas, such a one,
But a very superficial acquaintance with our elder poets would prevent a reader from falling into a mistake of this nature. A great number of such words as patience, partial, nation, &c. &c. that are now inelegantly shortened into two sounds, were invariably resolved into their component syllables by all our poets until about the middle of the sixteenth century. Mr. Gifford, in his edition of Massinger, speaks of this peculiarity of accent as more characteristic of that writer than of his cotemporaries; but on this point he is undoubtedly mistaken. It was not a characteristic of any individual writer: it was the universal practice of the age. Every reader of Shakspeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Ford and Marlowe, is aware that it is almost impossible to light on a single page of their productions in which they have not used such words as have been alluded to with a distinct trisyllabic sound. They frequently gave by this means a fluency and sweetness to their verse, of which the moderns have been deprived by the change in our pronunciation. The dactyle nasheón, (nation) is surely a richer and more pleasing sound, especially in a line of verse, than when cut down into the misera
ie modern trochee, nashun. The former has a tremulous vibraon of tone that often gives an inexpressible charm to the music f the line in which it may occur. I envy not that reader's ear who can prefer the heavy, monotonous march of our modern verse to the lighter and less regular, but more natural movement of our ancient metres. Shenstone has remarked, with that delicacy of taste for which he was so much distinguished, that there is a great beauty in the judicious use of dactyles in English heroic verse. He thought that Pope introduced it far too sparingly, and quotes from the "Windsor Forest" the second line of the following couplet, as an instance of its agreeable effect.
Swift trouts diversified with crimson stains,
And pikes, the tyrants of the watery plains.
Shenstone justly observes (though not perhaps precisely in these words, for I quote from memory) that the substitution of a trochee, such as the word liquid, would utterly destroy the finer harmony of the line. It would be easy to multiply examples in support of Shenstone's criticism, but I shall content myself with adding the following from the "Rape of the Lock."
Our humbler province is to tend the fair,
Not a less pleasing though less glorious care.
Though our modern poets have already destroyed so many beautiful dactyles, it will be long, I hope, before they turn the noble word glorious into glorus!
Besides the defects in the versification of Chalkhill that I have shown to be apparent and not real, there are a few peculiarities that are not to be defended with equal ease. I allude to the occasional inaccuracies of his rhyme. But if Chalkhill has sometimes deformed his verses with extremely imperfect rhymes, he is kept in countenance not only by the best writers of his time, but by one of the most correct of modern versifiers—namely, Pope himself. He who on the advice of Walsh, "the Muse's judge and friend,"
devoted his chief energies to the task of surpassing all his predecessors in point of accuracy, did not scruple to make use of such rhymes as thought fault-draught thought-skull fool—turn born-imbrued blood-fiend friend-speak take-debate that-join line-compelling Helen-fellow prunnella, and innumerable others of the same nature. I do not place any stress upon such trivial matters, but there are critics who would condemn in other poets what may pass unnoticed in the works of their own idol. Pope has himself observed, that poetry is an especially useful study to a foreigner desirous of speaking the language in which it may be written with accuracy and grace.
What will a child learn sooner than a song?
What better teach a foreigner the tongue ?
No Englishman, however, who has an ear or judgment of his own, could listen with gravity or patience to the sound of such words as we have just quoted from Pope, if they were enunciated in exact correspondence to the rhyme. Poor Kirke White's first volume of poems, which he had sent to the editor of the Monthly Review, with such feverish anxiety, was condemned by the savage and senseless Aristarchus, because boy and sky were used as corresponding terminations; and yet the same profound and impartial critic had doubtless seen rhymes greatly more imperfect in the works of Pope, without questioning for a moment that author's genius. It would be absurd, indeed, to judge of a poet's merits exclusively by his accuracy as a rhymester; but when an author's "absolute faultlessness"* (an expression applied by Lord Byron to the works of Pope) is too positively and frequently insisted upon, the attention of more sober critics is forced towards errors that would otherwise have escaped them entirely, or have been
What does even Pope himself say on this point?
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be."