A better poetry guide than mine: Dr. Johnson on Prosody

PROSODY.

It is common for those that deliver the grammar of modern languages, to omit the Prosody. So that of the Italians is neglected by Buomattei; that of the French by Desmarais; aad that of the English by Wallis, Cooper, and even by Jonson, though a poet. But as the laws of metre are included in the idea of grammar, I have thought proper to insert them.

PROSODY comprises orthoepy, or the rules of pronunciation; and orthometry, or the laws of versification.

Pronunciation is just, when every letter has its proper sound, and every syllable has its proper accent, or, which in English versification is the same, its proper quantity.

The sounds of the letters have been already explained; and rules for the accent or quantity are not easily to be given, being subject to innumerable exceptions. Such, however, as I have read or formed, I shall here propose.

1. Of dissyllables, formed by affixing a termination, the former syllable is commonly accented, as chíldish, kíngdom, áctest, ácted, tóilsome, lóver, scóffer, faírer, fóremost, zéalous, fúlness, gódly, meékly, ártist.

2. Dissyllables formed by prefixing a syllable to the radical word, have commonly the accent on the latter; as to begét, to beseém, to bestów.

3. Of dissyllables, which are at once nouns and verbs, the verb has commonly the accent on the latter, and the noun on the former syllable; as, to descánt, a déscant; to cemént, a cément; to contráct, a cóntract.

This rule has many exceptions. Though verbs seldom have their accent on the former, yet nouns often have it on the latter syllable; as delíght, perfúme.

4. All dissyllables ending in y, as cránny; in our, as lábour, fávour; in ow, as wíllow, wállow, except allów; in le, as báttle, bíble; in ish, as bánish; in ck, as cámbrick, cássock; in ter, as to bátter; in age, as coúrage, in en, as fásten; in et, as quíet; accent the former syllable.

5. Dissyllable nouns in er, as cánker, bútter, have the accent on the former syllable.

6. Dissyllable verbs terminating in a consonant and e final, as compríse, escápe; or having a diphthong in the last syllable, as appéase, revéal; or ending in two consonants, as atténd; have the accent on the latter syllable.

7. Dissyllable nouns having a diphthong in the latter syllable, have commonly their accent on the latter syllable, as appláuse; except words in ain, cértain, moúntain.

8. Trissyllables formed by adding a termination, or prefixing a syllable, retain the accent of the radical word; as, lóveliness, ténderness, contémner, wágonner, phýsical, bespátter, cómmenting, comménding, assúrance.

9. Trissyllables ending in ous, as grácious, árduous; in al, as cápital; in ion, as méntion; accent the first.

10. Trissyllables ending in ce, ent, and ate, accent the first syllable, as cóuntenance, cóntinence, ármament, ímminent, élegant, própagate, except they be derived from words having the accent on the last, as connívance, acquáintance; or the middle syllable hath a vowel before two consonants, as promúlgate.

11. Trissyllables ending in y, as éntity, spécify, líberty, víctory, súbsidy, commonly accent the first syllable.

12. Trissyllables in re or le accent the [34] first syllable, as légible, théatre, except discíple, and some words which have a position, as exámple, epístle.

13. Trissyllables in ude commonly accent the first syllable, as plénitude.

14. Trissyllables ending in ator or atour, as creátour; or having in the middle syllable a diphthong, as endeávour; or a vowel before two consonants, as doméstick; accent the middle syllable.

15. Trissyllables that have their accent on the last syllable are commonly French, as acquiésce, repartée, magazíne, or words formed by prefixing one or two syllables to an acute syllable, as immatúre, overchárge.

16. Polysyllables, or words of more than three syllables, follow the accent of the words from which they are derived, as árrogating, cóntinency, incóntinently, comméndable, commúnicableness. We should therefore say dispútable, indispútable; rather than dísputable, indísputable; and advertísement, rather than advértisement.

17. Words in ion have the accent upon the antepenult, as salvátion, perturbátion, concóction; words in atour or ator on the penult, as dedicátor.

18. Words ending in le commonly have the accent on the first syllable, as ámicable, unless the second syllable have a vowel before two consonants, as combústible.

19. Words ending in ous have the accents on the antepenult, as uxórious, volúptuous.

20. Words ending in ty have their accent on the antepenult, as pusillanímity, actívity.

These rules are not advanced as complete or infallible, but proposed as useful. Almost every rule of every language has its exceptions; and in English, as in other tongues, much must be learned by example and authority. Perhaps more and better rules may be given that have escaped my observation.

VERSIFICATION is the arrangement of a certain number of syllables according to certain laws.

The feet of our verses are either iambick, as alóft, creáte; or trochaick, as hóly, lófty.

Our iambick measure comprises verses

Of four syllables,

Most good, most fair,
Or things as rare,
To call you’s lost;
For all the cost
Words can bestow,
So poorly show
Upon your praise,
That all the ways
Sense hath, come short.           Drayton.

With ravish’d ears
The monarch hears.           Dryden.

Of six,

This while we are abroad,
Shall we not touch our lyre?
Shall we not sing an ode?
Or shall that holy fire,
In us that strongly glow’d,
In this cold air expire?

Though in the utmost peak,
A while we do remain,
Amongst the mountains bleak,
Expos’d to sleet and rain,
No sport our hours shall break,
To exercise our vein.

What though bright Phœbus’ beams
Refresh the southern ground,
And though the princely Thames
With beauteous nymphs abound,
And by old Camber’s streams
Be many wonders found:

Yet many rivers clear
Here glide in silver swathes,
And what of all most dear,
Buxton’s delicious baths,
Strong ale and noble chear,
T’ asswage breem winters scathes.

In places far or near,
Or famous, or obscure,
Where wholsom is the air,
Or where the most impure,
All times, and every where,
The muse is still in ure.           Drayton.

Of eight, which is the usual measure for short poems,

And may at last my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage,
The hairy gown, and mossy cell,
Where I may sit, and nightly spell
Of ev’ry star the sky doth shew,
And ev’ry herb that sips the dew.           Milton.

Of ten, which is the common measure of heroick and tragick poetry,

Full in the midst of this created space,
Betwixt heav’n, earth, and skies, there stands a place
Confining on all three; with triple bound;
Whence all things, though remote, are view’d around,
And thither bring their undulating sound.
The palace of loud Fame, her seat of pow’r,
Plac’d on the summit of a lofty tow’r;
A thousand winding entries long and wide
Receive of fresh reports a flowing tide.
A thousand crannies in the walls are made;
Nor gate nor bars exclude the busy trade.
Tis built of brass, the better to diffuse
The spreading sounds, and multiply the news;
Where echoes in repeated echoes play:
A mart for ever full; and open night and day.
Nor silence is within, nor voice express,
But a deaf noise of sounds that never cease;
Confus’d and chiding, like the hollow roar
Of tides, receding from th’ insulted shore;
Or like the broken thunder heard from far,
When Jove to distance drives the rolling war.
The courts are fill’d with a tumultuous din,
Of crouds, or issuing forth, or ent’ring in:
A thorough-fare of news; where some devise
Things never heard, some mingle truth with lies:
The troubled air with empty sounds they beat,
Intent to hear, and eager to repeat.                Dryden.

In all these measures the accents are to be placed on even syllables; and every line considered by itself is more harmonious, as this rule is more strictly observed. The variations necessary to pleasure belong to the art of poetry, not the rules of grammar.

Our trochaick measures are

Of three syllables,

Here we may
Think and pray,
Before death
Stops our breath:
Other joys
Are but toys.           Walton’s Angler.

Of five,

In the days of old,
Stories plainly told,
Lovers felt annoy.           Old Ballad.

Of seven,

Fairest piece of well form’d earth,
Urge not thus your haughty birth.           Waller.

In these measures the accent is to be placed on the odd syllables.

These are the measures which are now in use, and above the rest those of seven, eight, and ten syllables. Our ancient poets wrote verses sometimes of twelve syllables, as Drayton’s Polyolbion.

Of all the Cambrian shires their heads that bear so high,
And farth’st survey their soils with an ambitious eye,
Mervinia for her hills, as for their matchless crouds,
The nearest that are said to kiss the wand’ring clouds,
Especial audience craves, offended with the throng,
That she of all the rest neglected was so long;
Alledging for herself, when, through the Saxons’ pride,
The godlike race of Brute to Severn’s setting side
Were cruelly inforc’d, her mountains did relieve
Those whom devouring war else every where did grieve.
And when all Wales beside (by fortune or by might)
Unto her ancient foe resign’d her ancient right,
A constant maiden still she only did remain,
The last her genuine laws which stoutly did retain.
And as each one is prais’d for her peculiar things;
So only she is rich, in mountains, meres and springs,
And holds herself as great in her superfluous waste,
As others by their towns, and fruitful tillage grac’d.

And of fourteen, as Chapman’s Homer.

And as the mind of such a man, that hath a long way gone,
And either knoweth not his way, or else would let alone,
His purpos’d journey, is distract.

The measures of twelve and fourteen syllables were often mingled by our old poets, sometimes in alternate lines, and sometimes in alternate couplets.

The verse of twelve syllables, called an Alexandrine, is now only used to diversify heroick lines.

Waller was smooth, but Dryden taught to join
The varying verse, the full resounding line,
The long majestick march, and energy divine.           Pope.

The pause in the Alexandrine must be at the sixth syllable.

The verse of fourteen syllables is now broken into a soft lyrick measure of verses, consisting alternately of eight syllables and six.

She to receive thy radiant name,
Selects a whiter space.           Fenton.

When all shall praise, and ev’ry lay
Devote a wreath to thee,
That day, for come it will, that day
Shall I lament to see.           Lewis to Pope.

Beneath this tomb an infant lies
To earth whose body lent,
Hereafter shall more glorious rise,
But not more innocent.
When the Archangel’s trump shall blow,
And souls to bodies join,
What crowds shall wish their lives below
Had been as short as thine!           Wesley.

We have another measure very quick and lively, and therefore much used in songs, which may be called the anapestick, in which the accent rests upon every third syllable.

May I góvern my pássions with ábsolute swáy,
And grow wíser and bétter as lífe wears awáy.           Dr. Pope.

In this measure a syllable is often retrenched from the first foot, as

Diógenes súrly and próud.           Dr. Pope.

When présent, we lóve, and when ábsent agrée,
I thínk not of Íris, nor Íris of me.           Dryden.

These measures are varied by many combinations, and sometimes by double endings, either with or without rhyme, as in the heroick measure.

‘Tis the divinity that stirs within us,
‘Tis heaven itself that points out an hereafter,
And intimates eternity to man.           Addison.

So in that of eight syllables,

They neither added nor confounded,
They neither wanted nor abounded.           Prior.

In that of seven,

For resistance I could fear none,
But with twenty ships had done,
What thou, brave and happy Vernon,
Hast atchiev’d with six alone.           Glover.

In that of six,

‘Twas when the seas were roaring,
With hollow blasts of wind,
A damsel lay deploring,
All on a rock reclin’d.           Gay.

In the anapestick,

When terrible tempests assail us.
And mountainous billows affright,
Nor power nor wealth can avail us,
But skilful industry steers right.           Ballad.

To these measures and their laws, may be reduced every species of English verse.

Our versification admits of few licences, except a synalœpha, or elision of e in the before a vowel, as th’ eternal; and more rarely of o in to, as t’ accept; and a synaresis, by which two short vowels coalesce into one syllable, as question, special; or a word is contracted by the expulsion of a short vowel before a liquid, as av’rice, temp’rance.

Thus have I collected rules and examples, by which the English language may be learned, if the reader be already acquainted with grammatical terms, or taught by a master to those that are more ignorant. To have written a grammar for such as are not yet initiated in the schools, would have been tedious, and perhaps at last ineffectual.

(From Samuel Johnson’s A Grammar of the English Tongue.)

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Laurence Thompson

Laurence Thompson is an English writer. He is almost certainly drunk.

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