In the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a theory that certain oddities in the rhythms of Shakespeare and other early modern English poets could best be explained by recession of accent.

The history of this theory seems to be as follows. In the 1870s, Alexander Schmidt compiled a collection of examples of “Changeable accent of dissyllable adjectives and participles” in Shakespare’s iambic verse. By this he meant two-syllable words which Shakespeare placed starting on an odd syllable in one line, and on an even syllable in another, so that in order to scan both lines as perfect iambic pentameter, the word has to be pronounced with different stress in the two instances. Schmidt’s examples include:

Therefore my verse to constancy confined, [Sonnet 105]
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom. [Sonnet 107]

He means, my lord, that we are too remiss. [Richard II III.2]
That thus we die, while remiss traitors sleep. [I Henry VI IV.3]

Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe. [Taming of the Shrew V.2]
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole. [Hamlet I.5]

Alexander Schmidt (1875). Shakespare-Lexicon, volume II, p. 1413–1415. London: Williams and Norgate.

Schmidt concluded:

And thus it may be stated as a general rule, that dissyllabic oxytonical† adjectives and participles become paroxytonical‡ before nouns accented on the first syllable.

Schmidt, p. 1413.

† stressed on the last syllable ‡ stressed on the penultimate syllable

In his influential Milton’s Prosody (1893), Robert Bridges described this as the “rule of the recession, or retreating of accent” (p. 13), and in a detailed discussion of the rule, he argued for an expanded definition:

The only fault to find with [Schmidt’s] definition is that it confines recession of accent to adjectives and participles, and that it requires the determining (following) word to be a noun, which it is true that it is in all his instances; but I should be inclined to consider this unessential, and treat the recession as being due entirely to collision of accents. I do not see that it has anything to do with the sense, or with the adjective being in the predicate or not, as implied by Dr. Schmidt’s remarks.

Robert Bridges (1893). Milton's Prosody, p. 54. Oxford University Press.

The theory continued to be accepted at least into the 1920s:

The deliberate violation of normal word-accent to fit the metrical stress […] is not such an entirely arbitrary procedure as it might at first seem; for at one period in the history of the language the accent of many words (especially those of French origin) was uncertain. Chaucer could say, without forcing, either ture or natúre. The revival of English poetry in the sixteenth century owed a great deal to Chaucerian example, and thus a tradition of variable accent was accepted and became practically a convention, not limited to those words in which it had originally occurred. […] The wrenching of accent for metrical purposes, moreover, is not confined to the dissyllabic words which show the simple recession of accent.

Paull Franklin Baum (1922). The Principles Of English Versification, p. 190. Harvard University Press.

However, what I have been unable to find, is the body of evidence for the theory, beyond the pairs of lines from Shakespeare collected by Schmidt, and other examples of lines that are difficult to scan as iambic verse. The theory seems to rely on the assumption that the scansion is given, so that we can work out the pronunciation of the words from the scansion. But absent an independent body of evidence, we have no justification for proceding this way: it makes just as much sense to take the pronunciation of the words as given, and work out the scansion from the pronunciation. So the theory, at least insofar as it is presented by the authors I have quoted here, seems unconvincing.

I find in Richard Bentley’s 1732 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the following note on Milton’s line “Encamp their Legions; or with obscure wing”:

I suspect, He gave it, with more Art, and smoother Accent, “Encamp their Legions; oft with wing obscure

Richard Bentley (1732). Milton’s Paradise Lost, note to book II, line 132. London: Jacob Tonson.

Under the “recession of accent” theory the accent was smooth in the original line so that Bentley had nothing to object to, unless the practice had already died out the early 18th century.

So my questions are,

  1. What is the modern consensus, if any, on the “recession of accent” theory?
  2. Is there a body of independent evidence for the theory?
  3. If so, what is it? If not, how was the record corrected?
  • By "independent body of evidence" do you mean information about main stress that is not based on the scansion of verse?
    – Tsundoku
    Apr 29 '20 at 16:39
  • Not based on modern scansion of verse. If a contemporary of Shakespeare had written about scansion of Shakespeare's (or anyone's) verse, that would be admissible evidence. Apr 29 '20 at 16:54
  • 1
    @Tsundoku: I added an example to show the kind of independent evidence we might be able to find — in 1732, Bentley complained about "obscure wing", suggesting that recession of accent did not work for him. Apr 29 '20 at 17:48
  • It's interesting that Bentley didn't object to "render all access" just a few lines higher; based on the scansion, one expects the stress on the second syllable of "access".
    – Tsundoku
    Apr 29 '20 at 17:58
  • @Tsundoku: I think the stress has genuinely shifted on "access" between 1732 and now. But this shows the difficulty in getting reliable information about pronunciation. Apr 30 '20 at 11:36

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