Renaissance, Eighteenth-Century, and Modern Language in English Poetry: A Tabular View

By Josephine Miles | Go to book overview

TABLE 1

Of the two hundred poets listed in Table 1, the first ten were born in the century or so before 1470. From birth date 1470 on, there are ten poets in each thirty or forty years; that is, thirty in each century. The order is chronological, with the fifty American poets of 1770-1930 following the fifty British of 1770- 1930. Texts are the first thousand consecutive lines of a major poem or sequence of poems, with exceptions noted, and with editions chosen, when possible, for availability. Measures are indicated by line length and line grouping. The fairly stable four-accent or five-accent lines provide 7,000 or 8,000 words in a thousand lines. Of these total words, the total terms of reference -- that is adjectives, nouns, and verbs -- as distinguished from articles, pronouns, connectives, and most adverbs, amount to about half. Within these terms of reference, the proportions vary, from Minot's five adjectives, fourteen nouns, and ten verbs in ten lines, a dominance of verbs over adjectives of two to one, or Langland's three to one, to Lydgate, James, and Henryson, for whom verbs still dominate, but only by a small proportion. We find as we turn the pages to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that the weight of verbs lessens, that Chaucer's 7A-15- 11V establishes a fair norm, but that not until Fletcher in 1582 do we get any strong adjectival emphasis. Such proportions as 10A-10V, or 9A-8V may be called balanced, and, we shall find, tend to be accompanied by a special sort of vocabulary. The adjectival emphasis of Fletcher is to be noted again in Milton and More and then very strongly in the eighteenth century; the predicative recurs in the early nineteenth century; and the balanced, in the late nineteenth and twentieth in both England and America.

A summary of this pattern of change is shown in Table 3, and is one I have discussed in Eras and Modes: the basic agreement among the poets of the Renaissance in the use of a language complexly clausal and highly predicated; the slow beginnings in the "aureate" poets like Hawes and Dunbar, and then Spenser, then the swift rise through Milton to the eighteenth century, of an opposite stress, the use of modification instead of predication, of participles instead of clauses. And meanwhile the persistent, in our day dominant, emphasis of some poets on a balance of these two extremes -- in Shakespeare's sonnets, for example, and in Fairfax's epic translation -- of the classical norm of Horace, Ovid, Virgil, the 10-20-10 of the balanced style: two nouns, one adjective, one verb in the line.

Nouns, we may note, do not seem to provide the basis for an emphasis of their own, but seem to equal the total of verbs plus adjectives, with a few early exceptions in lesser nouns, as for Hoccleve, Heywood, Wyatt, Donne, and some of the particularly strong Miltonic users of adjectives, and with certain modern exceptions in strong nouns, as for Halleck, Whitman, Whittier, Sterling, Pound, Lowell in America, and Sitwell, Raine, Nicholson, Thomas in England. In these few exceptions, indeed, we may see an eventually significant shift toward a more heavily substantive verse in the twentieth century.

But these suggestions which have interested me are only a small part of what may be seen even in Table 1. The reader interested in any individual poet -- in Langland, for example, on the first page of the table, -- may learn much about him just from these simple figures. Reading from right to left, one may note his large number of total words, reflective of his long and full lines, and then secondly his unusually large number of repeated adjectives, nouns, and verbs in relation to total words. Repetition is poetry's basic device of form, but few use it so strongly for simple, basic terms as Langland does. Few also use so many verbs in proportion to adjectives: 18 to 6, or 3 to 1. And few until later use a measure of lines without any repetitive pattern of rhyme. From these brief figures, then, we may draw a sense of the difference between Langland's language and that beginning to flourish in his day, as in Chaucer for example. Langland's long line was controlled by accent and by repetitions within rather than at the end of lines -- by repetitions of major references, especially of actions rather than of qualities.

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Renaissance, Eighteenth-Century, and Modern Language in English Poetry: A Tabular View
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  • Title Page i
  • Contents iii
  • Renaissance, Eighteenth-Century, and Modern Language in English Poetry 1
  • Table 1 3
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