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of elaborate decorative art. Simple themes or realistic narratives are out of place in it. As each stanza is adaptable to a separate picture, the form is particularly fitted to leisurely, romantic, ornate story-telling. A good way to manage it is to use the couplet in the middle as a position of emphasis in the development of the stanza thought, which should sweep to a full close in the stately Alexandrine at the
Since Spenser's time the stanza has been in favor with many poets, both major and minor. Modified forms of it were used by several early seventeenth century poets, and in the eighteenth century its extensive revival marked one of the earlier stages of the romantic movement. In the nineteenth century it was used with superb effect by Shelley, Keats, and Byron. The following illustrations show different themes for which it has been used:
A shrilling trompet sounded from on hye,
(Faery Queene, I, 5, 6.)
Now strike your sails ye jolly Mariners,
(Ibid, I. 12. 42.)
I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
(Byron: Childe Harold, IV.)
The One remains, the many change and pass;
"For stanzas of more than nine lines used in the Middle English period, see R. M. Alden: op. cit., and Schipper: Englische Metrik.
The tetrameter couplet, although the oldest of the verse forms still in use, has not been such a favorite with modern poets as blank verse, or the heroic couplet. It has, however, a most respectable lineage, and in the hands of masters of versifying has shown itself capable of much interesting variety. It occurs extensively in middle English poetry, notably in the narrative work of Gower, and to some extent in Chaucer. It was the vehicle for many of the miracle plays, the moralities, and parts of Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar. The Elizabethans found it much less interesting than other narrative forms. In the seventeenth century it was used in short pieces by Jonson, Milton, Andrew Marvell, and others; and Butler, by employing it for his Hudibras, made it very popular for satire. He was followed by Swift and Prior in the next century, and later Parnell used it for reflective verse. In the romantic revival it was again extensively employed in narrative-by Burns and Wordsworth in a few pieces, by Coleridge in his Christabel, but particularly by Scott and Byron in their verse tales. Later, William Morris used the form for parts of his Earthly Paradise.
Each of the poets mentioned have used this couplet with a certain individuality. In spite of this, however, it is not capable of so wide variation as the heroic form. The changing characteristics of the pentameter couplet have been due chiefly to the manner of phrasing popular at different periods; but with the tetrameter couplet, variation has been, more than anything else, a matter of rhythm.
The rhythmical pattern of the tetrameter couplets written by Gower, Chaucer, and nearly all the poets of the last three centuries, has been very strictly duple. The convention as to the number of syllables to a line has been carefully observed so that such tetrameters are called octosyllabic couplets. The couplets of older English verse were quite irregular in rhythmical pattern, admitting feet of one, two, three or even four syllables. This, from its apparently haphazard effect, has been called tumbling verse, its only restriction being four approximately equal time parts to each line.
Tumbling verse was brought to its greatest perfection by Spenser's experiments with it in the sections of his Shepherd's Calendar for February, May, and September. Here is a passage that introduces most of the types of lines that Spenser admits in this meter.1
Sorrow ne neede be hastened on,
Usen we freely one felicitie;
We mought with our shoulders bear off the sharp showers;
And layen her faults the worlde beforne,
Let none mislike of that may not be mended;
Just how this may be best read is questionable, but nearly everyone familiar with the poem will agree that the lines were probably all intended for tetrameters. Lines 3, 4, 11, and 12 can easily be read as pentameters, but certainly fit the context better if divided into four feet thus:
1 There has been much question as to what Spenser was aiming at here. I suggest as an explanation that he was imitating the experimenter Skelton, many of whose attempts are in a cruder form of this tumbling rhythm.
While | times en- duren of tran- quilli- | tie,
Let / none mis- I like of that I may not be / mended.
Couplets of such irregular rhythm and with such ambiguous lines as those just quoted, have not been tried with the exception of William Morris's experiment since Spenser's day. The octosyllabic couplet, however, has been much used, and has gone through almost as many changes as the pentameter couplets, though the differences in type are subtler.
One of the finest examples in English is Milton's use. Let us analyze a passage.
Flowing with majestic train,
Over thy decent shoulders drawn.
even step, and musing gait, !
Thou fix them on the earth as fast.!
Spare Fast, that oft with gods doth diet,
In the first place, there is a constant change in the flow of the iambic movement by repeated variation at the beginning * The Folk-Mote by the River in Poems by the Way, 1896.