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I pass, like night
, from land to land;
Coleridge: The Ancient Mariner.
Shakespeare: Julius Cæsar, III, i. c. It occasionally happens that the metrical beat does not fall upon a syllable normally accented in prose, and, to preserve the metre, it becomes necessary to shift the accent to an otherwise unaccented syllable. Thus, in the speech of Shylock (Merchant of Venice, iv, i),
I have a daughter;
of the stock of Barrabas Had been her husband rather than a Christian, the usual prose pronunciation, “ Barrabas,” is sacrificed to metrical need, and the stress is made to fall upon the first and last syllables instead of on the second.
Sometimes, when the prose accent and the metrical beat do not coincide, the stress is distributed between the two conflicting syllables and a compromise is thus brought about which satisfies, in a measure, both the metrical and the etymological requirements. This sentence from Hamlet, 1, iv, affords a good illustration.
Here the usual pronunciation, “ complete,” is modified by a division of the stress between the two syllables of the word, the first syllable receiving the greater stress, the last somewhat less than in prose utterance.1
d. Not only should the metre of verse be observed be cause poetic form demands it, but it will be found that the problem of rendering the meaning of difficult lines will often be simplified by giving due regard to metrical accent. A good example of this is found in the opening lines of Shakespeare's Hamlet :
Francisco at his post. Enter to him Bernardo
Many students, reading Francisco's first speech, will give emphasis to “ answer,” and little or none to “me.” But analysis of the situation will make it apparent that such reading fails to give the significance that the line is intended to convey. Bernardo, suddenly coming upon Francisco, who is standing guard before the king's castle at midnight, exclaims: “Who's there?” But it is not for him to challenge the guard. Why does he do it? The truth is that Bernardo knows of the appearance of the ghost of the dead king on two previous occasions and on this very platform where the men now face each other, and he half expects to encounter the apparition again. His hasty exclamation upon seeing the guard, and Francisco's prompt
1 It should be explained here that, in conforming to the metrical stress required by the lines quoted from Shakespeare above, we are pronouncing the words as they were commonly spoken by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The point is that, though words may undergo change in accent and pronunciation, we are not justified in ignoring metrical form.
ORAL READING counter-challenge, “Nay, answer me ; stand and unfold yourself” in which he reminds Bernardo that he, not Ber. nardo, is on duty, makes it clear that the latter has allowed his apprehension and excitement to get the better of his judgment. Even though the lines are being read for the first time, and the reader is ignorant of the situation, which is explained in the subsequent conversation, the accurate rendering of Francisco's speech will make him aware of the fact that, for some reason, both men are strangely alert and apprehensive of some ominous event. And this accurate rendering depends upon observing the metrical construction. It will be observed also that the effect of excitement is heightened by the short speeches of the two
Note how attention to the metrical beat in the following quotations helps to an accurate and forceful rendering of the lines. Were the sentences read as prose, more or less hastily, the importance of the words metrically emphasized in the verses might easily be overlooked.
O that a man might know
Shakespeare: Julius Cæsar, v, i.
For Brutus only, overcame himself,
You wrong'd yourself to write in such a case.
Ibid., iv, iii.
He hates our sacred nation ; and he rails
well-worn thrift, Which he calls interest. Cursed be
my If I forgive him!
Shakespeare: Merchant of Venice, I, iii. 2. Line length. a. As it is essential that the rhythm of metrical beats should be observed in reading poetry, it is likewise important that the reader should regard the individual lines, or verses, of a poem as integral parts of it, and he should be careful to preserve, whenever possible, the integrity of the line as a whole. Generally speaking the rhetorical or sense pause falls with the usual verse pause at the end of the line, as in the following:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
Shakespeare: Hamlet, 1, iii. But there are many instances in which the sense is not complete with the end of the verse and the thought is carried over into the next, in what are known as run-on " lines. Such constructions are frequent in blank verse. Here is a good example from the Merchant of Venice, 1, ii.
Within these two months, that's a month before
Of thrice three times the value of this bond. The careful reader, in voicing these lines, will mark the end of the verses with a slight suspending of the tone on “ before ” and “return,” and, while guarding against a forced or mechanical rendering, will not sacrifice the pleasurable sense of rhythmic order and completeness to the
demand of prosaic ears. It will be found that the sense of line completeness may sometimes be given by a barely perceptible pause, or by a slight upward inflection, or by a change in pitch, which the sense of the line and the reader's ear must determine. More often, however, the end of the line is indicated, as in the foregoing example, by suspending the voice a little on the metrically accented vowel of the last word of the verse. Other examples are:
And Arthur yet had done no deed of arms,
Tennyson: The Coming of Arthur.
There is sweet music here that softer falls
Tennyson: The Lotus-Eaters.
We two will lie i' the shadow of
That líving mýstic tree.
Rossetti: The Blessed Damozel.
b. It may be worth while, in this connection, to call attention to the tendency of untrained readers of poetry to elide the sometimes metrically accented final syllable « ed” of words in which the syllable is not sounded in prose and
1 The ability to render “run-on” lines with due regard at once to the rhythm and the thought, and with an effect of naturalness withal, comes only with the education of a sense of poetic form and much practice in reading verse aloud.
“It should be noted,” says Professor Alden, in his Introduction to Poetry, p. 264," that, even where there is little or no rhetorical pause indicated, a good reader may easily make a slight metrical pause at the end of the verse without dropping the pitch of the voice and thus injuring the rhetorical expression. No matter how free be the use of run-on lines, poetry is not well read when a listener cannot distinguish it from prose.” (The author wishes to acknowledge here his indebtedness in the preparation of this chapter to the volume mentioned, and also to Professor Alden's English Verse. To those interested in the technique and art of poetry these books are especially commended.)