It is one of the guiding principles of in verse that verse should always be read aloud. This includes Shakespeare and Isaiah, Dante and Jeremiah, Milton and John of Patmos. It includes Pope and Chaucer, Beowulf and Homer, Dryden and Langland. It includes verse in the original tongue and in translation. Verse differs from prose in that it is meant to be tasted by the tongue and to tickle the ear. It is in the human voice that the poetry of verse resides.
One of my fondest memories is of hearing my father read “The highwayman” aloud to us. It was not unusual for him to keep himself awake on long drives, and keep us quiet, by telling us the stories of the literature he studied, and later taught. I particularly recall him telling the story one night of a Sicilian boy who is shot by his father for betraying a member of his family to the police (and if any of you know what that story was, speak up). It was more unusual for him to read aloud to us — although on certain family home evenings he did. I recall him reading the poem to us at our new house on Oak Lane in Provo, gathered around the hearth he and my mother had built with their own hands. These lines from the poem will give you some sense of the poem. Read them aloud:
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard. He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred. He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter, Bess, the landlord’s daughter, Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked Where Tim the ostler listened. His face was white and peaked. His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay, But he loved the landlord’s daughter, The landlord’s red-lipped daughter. Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—
“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night, But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light; Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day, Then look for me by moonlight, Watch for me by moonlight, I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”
He rose upright in the stirrups. He scarce could reach her hand, But she loosened her hair in the casement. His face burnt like a brand As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast; And he kissed its waves in the moonlight, (O, sweet black waves in the moonlight!) Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.[i]
This was made all the more romantic for me because my mother was named Bess,[ii] and I could hear in my father’s voice as he read the love he bore for her. It is that kind of association which makes poetry live.
It was not until Shakespeare that blank verse would earn the same memorability, the same ease off the tongue, as Alfred Noyes displays in “The highwayman,” although not for want of melodrama. As you will recall, blank verse — the unrhymed iambic pentameter so brilliantly deployed by Shakespeare, especially in his later plays — was the invention of the English renaissance, and specifically of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-47). So how did it come to Shakespeare’s attention? Who used it between Surrey’s translation of books 2 and 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid and Shakespeare’s advent in the theater? And thereafter, who besides Shakespeare? Marlowe. And after Shakespeare, Milton.[iii] That’s a slight oversimplification. According to The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics, “The first Eng. dramatic b. v., Thomas Norton’s in the first three acts of Gorboduc (1561), is smooth but heavily end-stopped, giving the impression of contrivance, of a diction shaped — and often padded out — to fit the meter.”[iv] But what of the other two acts, I hear you asking? Well might you ask, but the answer will come a bit later. Brooke and Shaaber point out that the Tragedy of Gorboduc was also the earliest English tragedy, written for and presented to Queen Elizabeth by “the gentlemen of the Inner Temple,” and that both authors were also members of Parliament.[v] That is, neither was a professional poet nor actor. The other author was Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset. Here is an example of Norton’s blank verse, a speech by “Videna, Queen and wife to king Gorboduc” (Act I, scene I, lines 54-67):
There resteth all, but if they fail thereof, And if the end bring forth an evil success, On them and theirs the mischief shall befall, And so I pray the Gods requite it them, And so they will, for so is wont to be When Lords and trusted Rulers under kings To please the present fancy of the Prince, With wrong transpose the course of governance Murders, mischief, or civil sword at length, Or mutual treason, or a just revenge, When right succeeding Line returns again By Jove’s just Judgment and deserved wrath Brings them to civil and reproachful death, And roots their names and kindred’s from the earth.[vi]
You almost don’t need the context for this oration, but it is the Queen discussing with her elder son Ferrex the plan of her husband, king Gorboduc, to make the younger son Porrex his successor in place of Ferrex. The tragedy that ensues is predictable, as summarized in the play’s Argument (whether supplied by the authors or the printer I do not know, but printed with the edition of 1565):
Gorboduc, king of Britain, divided his Realm in his lifetime to his Sons, Ferrex and Porrex. The Sons fell to division and dissention. The younger killed the elder. The Mother that more dearly loved the elder, for revenge killed the younger. The people moved with the Cruelty of the fact, rose in Rebellion and slew both father and mother. The Nobility assembled and most terribly destroyed the Rebels. And afterwards for want of Issue of the Prince whereby the Succession of the Crown became uncertain. They fell to Civil war in which both they and many of their Issues were slain, and the Land for a long time almost desolate and miserably wasted.[vii]
And as for Sackville’s verse, the opening speech of Act 4, in which Videna vows vengeance on Porrex for having murdered Ferrex, will do to indicate the differences between the two authors (Act 4, scene 1, lines 53-77):
Or if needs, needs this hand must slaughter make Moughtest thou not have reached a mortal wound And with thy sword have pierced this cursed womb? That thee accursed Porrex brought to light And given me a just reward therefore. So Ferrex, yet sweet life might have enjoyed And to his aged father comfort brought, With some young son in whom they both might live But whereunto waste I this ruthful speech To thee that hast thy brother’s blood thus shed Shall I still think that from this womb thou sprung That I thee bear or take thee for my son No traitor, no; I thee refuse for mine, Murderer I thee renounce, thou are not mine: Never, O wretch, this womb conceived thee, Nor never bode I painful throes for thee: Changeling to me thou art, and not my child Nor to no wight, that spark of pity knew, Ruthless, unkind, Monster of Nature’s work. Thou never sucked the milk of woman’s breast But from thy birth the cruel Tiger’s teats Have nursed, nor yet of flesh and blood Formed is thy heart, but of hard Iron wrought. And wild and desert woods bred thee to life: But canst thou hope to scrape my just revenge?[viii]
Of Sackville’s verse, The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics says that it is “more alive, more like the verse of Surrey’s Aeneid. But the artificial regularization of Norton’s verse came to characterize Eng. dramatic poetry until Marlowe came fully into his powers.”[ix] Brooke and Shaaber are a little kinder to another dramatist in this sequence:
It was Thomas Kyd (1558-1594), and a little after him the subtler, nobler Marlowe, who succeeded around 1585 in producing an English adaptation of Latin tragedy that not only gained the approval of the people as a whole, but aroused an excited enthusiasm such as no other productions of the English theatre have quite equaled.[x]
This was about the time that Shakespeare made his way to London, and about the time that I had intended to begin this post at — but having no copy of Gorboduc, not even a scrap of it in Lamson and Smith,[xi] who represent Sackville only by his “Induction” from The mirror for magistrates (1563) and Norton not at all, I was curious. King Gorboduc turns out to be a figure from British mythology, and has some of the same faults as King Lear. I was able to find the text on-line, which is one of the great blessings of the internet to someone as dilatory as I am. So I wanted to explore the play a little. It is little wonder that it is rarely performed, being rather stiff and oratorical. Thus when The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics says that “Marlowe showed what rhetorical and tonal effects b. v. was capable of … and Shakespeare’s early works show what he learned from Marlowe,” [xii] I will take Gorboduc as a gift from cyberspace extending my stay in the pre-Shakespearean England of Elizabeth and laying out the course of my next post.
But hold on, I hear you say, when do we get to Milton?
[i] The highwayman / by Alfred Noyes. The poem is not in either of my anthologies of Victorian poetry and prose, so I stole these stanzas from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171940, accessed 25 October 2012. If you’re willing to read a footnote about the poem, go read the whole poem. I’ll still be here when you get back.
[ii] Technically, she was Bessie Lloyd Soderborg, and recently said to me, with a tone of injury in her voice, that they had given her a nickname for a name. At the time of this reading, my father, Marden J Clark, always referred to her as Bess.
[iii] that is, according to The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics / edited by Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan ; Frank J. Warnke, O.B. Hardison, Jr., and Earl Miner, associate editors. — New York : MJF Books, c1993. The entry on “Blank Verse” begins in page 137 and runs through 141. I am heavily indebted to this source for my understanding of English blank verse, although faithful readers will have noticed that already.
[iv] Ibid., p. 138.
[v] As laid out in A literary history of England / edited by Albert C. Baugh. – Book II : The Renaissance (1500-1660) / Tucker Brooke, Matthias A. Shaaber. – New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, c1967, p. 461
[vi] http://www.luminarium.org/renascence-editions/gorboduc.html#_ednref12, accessed 25 October 2012. It seems to me that line 61 should end with a period, but there is not one in the source.
[viii] Ibid.; line 66 has the extra two syllables that are missing in line 74.
[ix] Op. cit.
[x] Op. cit., p. 463
[xi] Renaissance England : poetry and prose from the Reformation to the Restoration / selected and edited by Roy Lamson and Hallett Smith. – New York : Norton, c1956 (pp. 149-166 for Sackville).
[xii] Op. cit.