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The Great Vowel Shift was a series of changes in the pronunciation of English vowel sounds, marking the dividing line between Middle English and Modern English. A wholesale shift of sounds took place during the fifteenth century, including (most significantly for this question) the silencing of the terminal e sound in words like “ale” and “name”.

A well-known piece of linguistics humour exaggerates the rapidity of the shift:

May 5, 1403: The Great English Vowel Shift begins. Giles of Tottenham calls for ale at his favorite pub and is perplexed when the barmaid tells him that the fishmonger is next door.†

James D. McCawley (1978). ‘Dates in the Month of May that Are of Interest to Linguists’. In Tom Ernst and Evan Smith, eds. (1978). Lingua Pranca: An Anthology of Linguistic Humor. Indiana University Linguistics Club.

† The barmaid speaks pre-Shift English, so she pronounces “ale” as /a:le/ and “eel” as /e:l/, but Giles speaks post-Shift English, where “ale” is pronounced as /e:l/ and “eel” as /i:l/, hence when he says “ale” she hears “eel”.

Even if the process was not quite as rapid as this, it must have made it difficult for people post-Shift to scan the poetry written before it. Geoffrey Chaucer, writing in the late fourteenth century, has many lines that scan in Middle English but not in Modern English, for example:

And smale foweles maken melodye

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1400). General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. Ellesmere Manuscript, folio 1, line 9.

where you need the e sound at the end of “smale” to scan it as iambic pentameter.

So, my question is, to what extent were the poets and scholars of the sixteenth century onwards aware that a change in English pronunciation had taken place? If not, how did they explain the prosody of Chaucer? Did they think that he was incompetent, or that he was writing in some other form and not in iambic pentameter?

George Saintsbury writes:

The old and long prevalent idea that Chaucer could not scan was based upon, or rather was but another form of, the idea that he could not count; and this [was] partly the result of mere ignorance of the value of syllables, especially of the final e […]

George Saintsbury (1906). A History Of English Prosody, volume I, page 170. New York: Macmillan.

Unfortunately he does not give any references. Who were the critics who thought that Chaucer could not scan?

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  • I believe that before Chaucer and Gower invented iambic meters, English poets who used rhyme and not alliteration simply wrote lines of roughly the same length. I suspect people thought that Chaucer had continued on in this tradition. This poetic form was probably still practiced long after Chaucer. The two poets who first wrote sonnets to English were Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Surrey's poems seem to me to be in iambic pentameter, but while the majority of Wyatt's lines have ten syllables, they don't appear to be very iambic.
    – Peter Shor
    Nov 25 '20 at 13:33
  • 4
    It seems worth mentioning that when French stopped pronouncing the final “e” of words, it was retained (mostly) in songs and poetry, presumably so that works from before the change would continue to scan and rhyme, and that continues to the present day.
    – Mike Scott
    Nov 26 '20 at 9:52
  • 1
    @Andrei: The word iamb comes from Latin poetry, but it describes a meter with quite different rules than Chaucer's iambic tetrameter and pentameter. And the languages Chaucer knew — Latin, Italian, French, English — didn't have anything that sounded like Chaucer's iambic tetrameter and pentameter in them. There was very likely iambic poetry in other languages that preceded Chaucer, but as far as I know, nobody has proposed that Chaucer got ideas for his meters from anything other than French, Latin, Italian, and English poetry.
    – Peter Shor
    Nov 27 '20 at 19:12
  • 2
    This needs a new question, I think — how did iambic metres arise in English? The 12th-century Ormulum is already solidly iambic, though in fifteeners rather than pentameter: "Þiss boc | iss nemm- | nedd Orrm- | ulum | forrþi | þatt Orrm | itt wrohh- | te" Nov 27 '20 at 19:15
  • 1
    @Andrei: If you look in the literature, there's not much of a consensus on the scansion of most pre-Chaucerian Middle English rhymed poetry (although Gareth Rees points out a solidly iambic example from the 12th century). And the papers I've looked at say that Chaucer and Gower reinvented it.
    – Peter Shor
    Nov 27 '20 at 19:22
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TL;DR: As late as the beginning of the 17th century, the editor Thomas Speght claimed that it was possible for a skillful reader to scan Chaucer. But he modernized Chaucer’s spelling, making it hard for anyone after him to do the same!

It seems that in the mid-16th century, some people still knew, or thought they knew, how to scan Chaucer. Gavin Douglas, in the preface to his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, published 1533, praised Chaucer as “horleige and reguleir” (that is, as regular as a clock), and the antiquarian John Stow, in the preface to his 1561 edition of Chaucer’s works, wrote without further comment that the poet possessed “soche perfection in metre”. But by the end of the 16th century the skill must have fallen into desuetude, for Thomas Speght, the editor of The Workes of Our Ancient and learned English Poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, felt the need to justify the claim that Chaucer could be scanned. In his preface to the second edition (1602) he wrote thus:

And for his verses, although in divers places they may seeme to us to stand of unequall measures: yet a skilfull Reader, that can scan them in their nature, shall find it otherwise. And if a verse here and there fal out a sillable shorter or longer than another, I rather aret it to the negligence and rape of Adam Scrivener,† that I may speake as Chaucer doth, than to any unconning or oversight in the Author: For how fearfull he was to have his works miswritten, or his verse mismeasured, may appeare in the end of his fift booke of Troylus and Creseide, where he writeth thus:

And for there is so great diversitie
In English and in writing of our tongue,
So pray I God that none miswrite thee,
Ne thee mismetre for defaut of tongue, &c.

Moreover, whereas in the explanation of the old words, sundry of their significations by me given, may to some seeme conjectural, yet such as understand the Dialects of our tongue, especially in the North, and have knowledge in some other languages, will judge otherwise […]

Thomas Speght (1602). Preface to The Workes of Our Ancient and learned English Poet, Geoffrey Chaucer. London: Adam Islip.

† Chaucer’s scrivener (copyist), to whom he wrote a short complaint in verse.

This passage implies that Speght knew that the pronunciation of words had changed, and that Chaucer’s verse had scanned in the original. And he indicates that at that period there existed regional dialects which preserved old pronunciations and vocabulary, so that a skilful reader familiar with these dialects could make out Chaucer’s scansion. (Sadly Speght gives us no other clues as to how much he knew about the change in pronunciation—he was more concerned with explaining Chaucer’s “old and obscure words”.)

However, lacking knowledge of Middle English, Speght’s readers must have had difficulty in making out these implications. And sure enough, less than a century later, John Dryden read Speght’s claim that Chaucer could be scanned by a skilful reader and did not believe it:

’Tis true, I cannot go so far as he who publish’d the last Edition of him; for he would make us believe the Fault is in our Ears, and that there were really Ten Syllables in a Verse where we find but Nine: But this Opinion is not worth confuting; ’tis so gross and obvious an Errour, that common Sense (which is a Rule in everything but Matters of Faith and Revelation) must convince the Reader, that Equality of Numbers, in every Verse which we call Heroick, was either not known, or not always practis’d, in Chaucer’s Age. It were an easie Matter to produce some thousands of his Verses, which are lame for want of half a Foot, and sometimes a whole one, and which no Pronunciation can make otherwise. We can only say, that he liv’d in the Infancy of our Poetry, and that nothing is brought to Perfection at the first. We must be Children before we grow Men. There was an Ennius, and in process of Time a Lucilius, and a Lucretius, before Virgil and Horace; even after Chaucer there was a Spencer, a Harrington, a Fairfax, before Waller and Denham were in being: And our Numbers were in their Nonage till these last appear’d.

John Dryden (1700). Preface to Fables ancient and modern: translated into verse, from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, & Chaucer: with original poems. London: Jacob Tonson.

The reason that Dryden did not believe Speght, I think, is that the latter had modernized the spelling, thus erasing many clues to the Middle English pronunciation of the words! It is ironic because this is the very thing that Chaucer had prayed should not happen in the passage that Speght quoted from Troilus and Creseyde.

We can see the problem clearly a couple of pages later in Dryden’s Preface, where he quotes a passage from Chaucer’s General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (in Speght’s spelling) and complains that “you have likewise more than one Example of his unequal Numbers”. For example, in Speght’s spelling, the line:

Or feine things, or find words new

appears to have only eight syllables. But if we look at the 1542 edition of The Canterbury Tales, the spelling is:

Or feyne thynges, or fynde wordes newe

and with this spelling, there is little difficulty in finding ten syllables that scan.

The fact that Speght modernized Chaucer’s spelling casts some doubt on the possibility that he personally was able to scan Chaucer, for if he had known of the importance of the terminal e he would surely not have been so diligent in removing it. This suggests to me that Speght and his contemporaries in the late 16th century were still aware that Chaucer ought to scan, but no longer knew how to do it. Here’s a passage from George Gascoigne giving a similar impression:

Also our father Chaucer hath used the same libertie in féete and measures that the Latinists do use: and who so ever do peruse and well consider his workes, he shall finde that although his lines are not alwayes of one selfe same number of Syllables, yet beyng redde by one that hath understanding, the longest verse and that which hath most Syllables in it, will fall (to the eare) correspondent unto that whiche hath fewest sillables in it: and like wise that whiche hath in it fewest syllables, shal be founde yet to consist of woordes that haue suche naturall sounde, as may séeme equall in length to a verse which hath many moe sillables of lighter accentes.

George Gascoigne (1575). ‘Certayne notes of instruction in English verse’. In Edward Arber, ed. (1869). English Reprints: George Gascoigne, p. 34. London: 5 Queen Square, Bloomsbury.

In the same year as Dryden, Samuel Wesley published a similar account:

Of Chaucer’s Verse we scarce the Measures know,
So rough the Lines, and so unequal flow;
Whether by Injury of Time defac’d,
Or careless at the first, and writ in haste;
Or coursly, like old Ennius, he design’d
What After-days have polish’d and refin’d.

Samuel Wesley (1700). An Epistle to a Friend Concerning Poetry, p. 12. London: Charles Harper.

The comparison of Chaucer to Ennius, the “father of Roman poetry”, was a commonplace, for example Aston Cokayne called Chaucer “our true Ennius, whose old book / Hath taught our Nation so to Poetize” (‘A Remedy for Love’, 1658). Wesley, unlike Dryden, does realize that the difficulties may be due to “injury of time” (that is, to change of language) rather than incompetence of the poet.

A couple of decades after Dryden and Wesley, John Urry repeated Speght’s claim but affirmed Dryden’s skepticism. Chaucer’s pronunciation must have been truly lost at this point.

It is thought by some that his Verses every where consist of an equal number of feet; and that if read with a right accent, are no where deficient; but those nice discerning Persons would find it difficult, with all their straining and working, to spin out some of his Verses into a meafure of ten Syllables. He was not altogether regardless of his Numbers; but his thoughts were more intent upon solid sense than gingle, and he tells us plainly that we must not expect regularity in all his Verses.†

John Urry (1721). Preface to The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. London: Bernard Lintot.

The House of Fame, book III: “Yet make it somwhat agreable / Though some verse fayle in a syllable.”

(With thanks to Peter Shor, who found the passage from Dryden.)

3
  • 1
    And thanks for finding the quote from Thomas Speght. I was wondering who Dryden was referring to.
    – Peter Shor
    Nov 25 '20 at 23:05
  • I've been going through Shakespeare's sonnets, and I ran across a line in Sonnet XVII that makes me think that Shakespeare knew that Chaucer's meter was originally regular, but became defective when the English language changed. The line is "And stretched metre of an antique song." The line is part of a simile that works better if time "stretched" the meter. (And ironically, the meter of this line has also been "stretched" by time — Shakespeare stressed the first syllable of antique.)
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 8 '20 at 16:10
  • Here is the context of the line in the previous comment: If I could write the beauty of your eyes, // And in fresh numbers number all your graces, // The age to come would say 'This poet lies; // Such heavenly touches ne'er touched earthly faces.' // So should my papers, yellowed with their age, // Be scorn'd, like old men of less truth than tongue, // And your true rights be termed a poet's rage // And stretched metre of an antique song: There's a very nice parallelism here if time "stretched" the meter, like it yellowed the papers.
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 8 '20 at 16:10
9

One person who believed that Chaucer could not count syllables, and possibly the most prominent one, was the poet John Dryden. Certainly, Dryden was of the opinion that Chaucer's poetry did not scan properly. In the preface to his book Fables, Ancient and Modern (1700), that contains translations of poems by Chaucer and Ovid, Dryden writes that Chaucer's poetry was defective. But we can see from Dryden's quote below that, even then, there were scholars who realized that Chaucer had indeed written in iambic pentameter. Dryden simply refused to believe them.

And John Dryden attributed Chaucer's deficiency not to a deficiency in Chaucer himself, but to the general state of English poetry at that time. This makes sense; if you don't realize that silent e's were pronounced, no English poetry written in the 14th century or before will scan (let me note that I don't know when English stopped pronouncing silent e's, and it seems difficult to find the information on the web; further, it may have happened much earlier in some dialects than in others).

John Dryden wrote:

Chaucer's Meter Defective

'Tis true, I cannot go so far as he who publish'd the last Edition of him; for he would make us believe the Fault is in our Ears, and that there were really Ten Syllables in a Verse where we find but Nine: But this Opinion is not worth confuting; 'tis so gross and obvious an Errour, that common Sense (which is a Rule in everything but Matters of Faith and Revelation) must convince the Reader, that Equality of Numbers, in every Verse which we call Heroick, was either not known, or not always practis'd, in Chaucer's Age. It were an easie Matter to produce some thousands of his Verses, which are lame for want of half a Foot, and sometimes a whole one, and which no Pronunciation can make otherwise. We can only say, that he liv'd in the Infancy of our Poetry, and that nothing is brought to Perfection at the first. we must be Children before we grow Men. There was an Ennius, and in process of Time a Lucilius, and a Lucretius, before Virgil and Horace; even after Chaucer there was a Spencer, a Harrington, a Fairfax, before Waller and Denham were in being: And our Numbers were in their Nonage till these last appeared.

1
  • We have some examples of English poets in the 16th C mentioning Chaucer's "rough" metrically and versification
    – verbose
    Nov 26 '20 at 2:28

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