Sed ubi plira nitent in carmine, non ego paucis Offendar maculis."
The poetical tendency of the present and of the preceding
century has been divided in a manner singularly curious. One loud and conspicuous
faction of bards, giving way to the corrupt influences of a decaying general
culture, seems to have abandoned all the properties of versification and
reason in its mad scramble after sensational novelty; whilst the other
and quieter school constituting a more logical evolution from the poesy
of the Georgian period, demands an accuracy of rhyme and metre unknown
even to the polished artists of the age of Pope.
The rational contemporary disciple of the Nine, justly
ignoring the dissonant shrieks of the radicals, is therefore confronted
with a grave choice of technique. May he retain the liberties of imperfect
or "allowable" rhyming which were enjoyed by his ancestors, or must he
conform to the new ideals of perfection evolved during the past century?
The writer of this article is frankly an archaist in verse. He has not
scrupled to rhyme "toss'd" with "coast", "come" with "Rome", or "home"
with "gloom" in his very latest published efforts, thereby proclaiming
his maintenance of the old-fashioned pets as models; but sound modern criticism,
proceeding from Mr. Rheinhart Kleiner and from other sources which must
needs command respect, has impelled him there to rehearse the question
for public benefit, and particularly to present his own side, attempting
to justify his adherence to the style of two centuries ago.
The earliest English attempts at rhyming probably included
words whose agreement is so slight that it deserves the name of mere "assonance"
rather than that of actual rhyme. Thus in the original ballad of "Chevy-Chase,"
we encounter "King" and "within" supposedly rhymed, whilst in the similar
"Battle of Otterbourne" we behold "long" rhymed with "down," "ground" with
"Agurstonne," and "name" with "again". In the ballad of "Sir Patrick Spense,"
"morn" and "storm," and "deep" and "feet" are rhymed. But the infelicities
were obviously the result not of artistic negligence, but of plebeian ignorance,
since the old ballads were undoubtedly the careless products of a peasant
minstrelsy. In Chaucer, a poet of the Court, the allowable rhyme is but
infrequently discovered, hence we may assume that the original ideal in
English verse was the perfect rhyming sound.
Spenser uses allowable rhymes, giving in one of his characteristic
stanzas the three distinct sounds of "Lord", "ador'd", and "word," all
supposed to rhyme; but of his pronunciation we know little, and may justly
guess that to the ears of his contemporaries the sounds were not conspicuously
different. Ben Johnson's employment of imperfect rhyming was much like
Spenser's; moderate, and partially to be excused on account of a chaotic
pronunciation. The better poets of the Restoration were also sparing of
allowable rhymes; Cowley, Waller, Marvell, and many others being quite
regular in this respect.
It was therefore upon a world unprepared that Samuel Butler
burst forth with his immortal "Hudibras," whose comical familiarity of
diction is in grotesqueness surpassed only by its clever licentiousness
of rhyming. Butler's well-known double rhymes are of necessity forced and
inexact, and in ordinary single rhymes he seems to have had no more regard
for precision. "Vow'd" and "would," "talisman" and "slain," "restores"
and "devours" are a few specimens selected at random.
Close after Butler came Jon Oldham, a satirist whose force
and brilliance gained him universal praise, and whose enormous crudity
both in rhyme and in metre was forgiven amidst the splendor of his attacks.
Oldham was almost absolutely ungoverned by the demands of the ear, and
perpetrated such atrocious rhymes as "heads" and "besides," "devise" and
"this," "again" and "sin," "tool" and "foul," "end" and "design'd," and
even "prays" and "cause."
The glorious Dryden, refiner and purifier of English verse,
did less for rhyme than he did for metre. Though nowhere attaining the
extravagances of his friend Oldham, he lent the sanction of his great authority
to rhymes which Dr. Johnson admits are "open to objection." But one vast
difference betwixt Dryden and his loose predecessors must be observed.
Dryden had so far improved metrical cadence, that the final syllables of
heroic couplets stood out in especial eminence, displaying and emphasizing
every possible similarity of sound; that is, lending to sounds in the first
place approximately similar, the added similarity caused by the new prominence
of their perfectly corresponding positions in their respective lines.
It were needless to dwell upon the rhetorical polish of
the age immediately succeeding Dryden's. So far as English versification
is concerned, Pope was the world, and all the world was Pope. Dryden had
founded a new school of verse, but the development and ultimate perfections
of this art remained for the sickly lad who before the age of twelve begged
to be taken to Will's Coffee-House, that he might obtain a personal view
of the aged Dryden, his idol and model. Delicately attuned to the subtlest
harmonies of poetical construction, Alexander Pope brought English prosody
to its zenith, and still stands alone on the heights. yet he, exquisite
master of verse that he was, frowned not upon imperfect rhymes, provided
they were set in faultless metre. Though most of his allowable rhymes are
merely variations in the breadth and nature of vowel sounds, he in one
instance departs far enough from rigid perfection to rhyme the words "vice"
and "destroys." Yet who can take offence? The unvarying ebb and flow of
the refined metrical impulse conceals and condones all else.
Every argument by which English blank verse or Spanish
assonant verse is sustained, may with greater force be applied to the allowable
rhyme. Metre is the real essential of poetical technique, and when two
sounds of substantial resemblance are so placed that one follows the other
in a certain measured relation, the normal ear cannot without cavilling
find fault with a slight want of identity in the respective dominant vowels.
The rhyming of a long vowel with a short one is common in all the Georgian
poets, and when well recited cannot but be overlooked amidst the general
flow of the verse; as, for instance, the following from Pope:
But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
Of like nature is the rhyming of actually different vowels
whose sounds are, when pronounced in animated oration, by no means dissimilar.
Out of verse, such words as "join" and "line" are quite unlike, but Pope
well rhymes them when he writes:
His faithful dog shall bear him company.
While expletives their feeble aid do join,
It is the final consonantal sound in rhyming which can never
vary. This, above all else, gives the desired similarity. Syllables which
agree in vowels but not in the final consonants are not rhymes at all,
but simply assonants. Yet such is the inconsistent carelessness of the
average modern writer, that he often uses mere assonants to a greater extent
than his fathers ever employed actually allowable rhymes. The writer, in
his critical duties, has more than once been forced to point out the attempted
rhyming of such words as "fame" and "lane," "task" and "glass," or "feels"
and "yields" and in view of these impossible combinations he cannot blame
himself very seriously for rhyming "art" and "shot" in the March Conservative;
for this pair of words have at least identical consonants at the end.
and ten low words oft creep in one dull line.
That allowable rhymes have real advantages of a positive
sort is an opinion by no means lightly to be denied. The monotony of a
long heroic poem may often be pleasantly relieved by judicious interruptions
in the perfect successions of rhymes, just as the metre may sometimes be
adorned with occasional triplets and Alexandrines. Another advantage is
the greater latitude allowed for the expression of thought. How numerous
are the writers who, from restriction to perfect rhyming, are frequently
compelled to abandon a neat epigram, or brilliant antithesis, which allowable
rhyme would easily permit, or else to introduce a dull expletive merely
to supply a desired rhyme!
But a return to historical considerations shows us only
too clearly the logical trend of taste, and the reason Mr. Kleiner's demand
for absolute perfection is no idle cry. In Oliver Goldsmith there arose
one who, though retaining the familiar classical diction of Pope, yet advanced
further still toward what he deemed ideal polish by virtually abandoning
the allowable rhyme. In unvaried exactitude run the couplets of "The Traveler"
and of "The Deserted Village," and none can deny to them a certain urbanity
which pleases the critical ear. With but little less precision are molded
the simple rhymes of Cowper, whilst the pompous Erasmus Darwin likewise
shows more attention to identity of sound than do the Queen Anne Bards.
Gifford's translations of Juvenal and Persius show to an almost equal degree
the tendency of the age, and Campbell, Crabbe, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats,
and Thomas Moore are all inclined to refrain from the liberties practiced
by those of former times. To deny the importance of such a widespread change
of technique is fruitless, for its existence argues for its naturalness.
The best critics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries demand perfect
rhyming, and no aspirant for fame can afford to depart from a standard
so universal. It is evidently the true goal of the English, as well as
of the French bard; the goal from which we are but temporarily deflected
during the preceding age.
But exceptions should and must be made in the case of
a few who have somehow absorbed the atmosphere of other days, and who long
in their hearts for the stately sound of the old classic cadences. Well
may their predilection for imperfect rhyming be discouraged to a limited
extent, but to chain them wholly to modern rules would be barbarous. Every
limited mind demands a certain freedom of expression, and the man who cannot
express himself satisfactorily without the stimulation derived from the
spirited mode of two centuries ago should certainly be permitted to follow
without undue restraint a practice so harmless, so free from essential
error, and so sanctioned by precedent, as that of employing in his poetical
compositions the smooth and inoffensive allowable rhyme.