in verse # 23 : mighty line versus ordered speech

It was Kit Marlowe who awakened in Will Shakespeare a hunger for a dramatic speech more nearly reflecting ordinary English speech.  It was Will Shakespeare who made it possible for Kris Kristofferson to write and sing the following lyrics as naturally as he might speak them — and Kristofferson is one performer, like Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash, who speaks, more than sings, his lyrics — and on a less noble but more human-scale subject than, say, kingship:

Well I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt,                 And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad, so I had one more for dessert,                      Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes and found my cleanest dirty shirt,         And I shaved my face and combed my hair and stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.

I’d smoked my brain the night before on cigarettes and songs that I’d been picking,          But I lit my first and watched a small kid cussing at a can that he was kicking,                 Then I crossed the empty street and caught the Sunday smell of someone frying chicken And it took me back to something that I’d lost somehow somewhere along the way. 

On the Sunday morning sidewalk                                                                                        Wishing Lord that I was stoned,                                                                                               Cause there’s something in a Sunday                                                                                             Makes a body feel alone —                                                                                                              And there’s nothing short of dying                                                                                               Half as lonesome as the sound                                                                                                       On the sleeping city sidewalk,                                                                                                          Sunday morning coming down.

In the park I saw a daddy with a laughing little girl who he was swinging,                           And I stopped beside a Sunday School and listened to the song that they was singing,    Then I headed back for home and somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringing —            And it echoed through the canyons like the disappearing dreams of yesterday.

On the Sunday morning sidewalk                                                                                        Wishing Lord that I was stoned,                                                                                               Cause there’s something in a Sunday                                                                                             Makes a body feel alone —                                                                                                              And there’s nothing short of dying                                                                                               Half as lonesome as the sound                                                                                                       On the sleeping city sidewalk,                                                                                                          Sunday morning coming down. [i]

And the third thing I’d like to call to your attention resulting from Shakespeare’s work, besides a more natural dramatic speech and a more naturalistic topic, is the nature of the introspection made possible by his invention of the soliloquy, which this song certainly exemplifies.  But first, a brief digression, which I know you will forgive me because you’re still reading.  The subject is blank verse, but, having introduced this song, I should point out how much alliteration Kristofferson deploys to make this song memorable:  the alliteration of  “Well I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt” on ‘w’ in the first part of the line, and ‘h’ in the second part, for example.  It overwhelms the rhyme, an effect aided and abetted by the use of internal rhymes like “one more for dessert” where the rhyming of “for” with “more” masks the rhyming of “hurt” and “dessert,” making it less noticeable and thus more effective.  That may well be the heritage of blank verse in English — a yearning for the earlier alliterative prosody. 

But let us move back towards Shakespeare.  The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics notes that, in dramatic blank verse following Shakespeare, “extrametrical syllables begin to appear within the line — first, nearly always following a strong stress and at the end of a phrase or clause at the caesura; later, elsewhere within the line.  In some late Jacobean and Caroline drama, the line has become so flexible that at times the five points of stress seem to become phrase centers, each capable of carrying with it unstressed syllables required by the sense rather than by the metrical count of syllables.” [ii]  Patient readers will note that this is a good description of alliteration in Anglo-Saxon prosody, except that the latter uses four points of stress, rather than five.

So what was it in Shakespeare that the late Jacobean and Caroline dramatists were departing from?  Well, the New Princeton encyclopedia notes five ways in which Shakespeare shaped dramatic blank verse in English:  (1) he “always mixed [blank verse] with other metrical modes … and … with prose;” (2) he used the “conventions of metrical patterning and … variation” common to Elizabethan verse to give his lines “great flexibility, variety, melody, and speech-like force;” (3) he employed “lines deviant in length or pattern”  to create “expressive variation beyond what was commonly available to Ren. writers of stanzaic verse,” which may seem a natural enough thing to do if you want to write a verse more like speech, but after the Restoration, dramatists wrote again in rhymed couplets, aping a modish French custom and favoring the speech over speech; (4) He packed his lines with “shrewdly-deployed syllabic ambiguity, esp. by devices of compression” so that they sounded longer than they were; and (5), he relied heavily on enjambment:  “sentences run from midline to midline, and even a speech or a scene may end in midline.  Conversely, metrically regular lines may comprise several short phrases or sentences and may be shared by characters…. [which], unlike Marlowe’s endstopped ‘mighty’ line, sounds more like speech.” [iii]

So here are two scenes displaying this shaping, the first from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, the second from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Note first the end-stopped lines in what may be the most famous, or at least most cited, speech from Tamburlaine.  The man himself is declaiming (in part I, act II, Scene viii, lines12-29) to the dying Cosroe his justification of his will to power, answering the latter’s declamation against “Bloody and insatiate Tamburlaine!”:

The thirst of reign and sweetness of a crown,                                                                            That caus’d the eldest son of heavenly Ops                                                                                  To thrust his doting father from his chair                                                                                   And place himself in the empyreal heaven,                                                                                     Mov’d me to manage arms against thy state.                                                                             What better precedent than mighty Jove?                                                                                     Nature that fram’d us of four elements,                                                                                   Warring within our breasts for regiment,                                                                                       Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.                                                                                      Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend                                                                               The wondrous architecture of the world                                                                                        And measure every wand’ring planet’s course                                                                         Still climbing after knowledge infinite,                                                                                        And always moving as the restless spheres,                                                                                    Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest                                                                                   Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,                                                                                              That perfect bliss and sole felicity,                                                                                                The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.[iv]

Even most of the lines without end punctuation are end-stopped, in that, for example, “Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest” is a clause dependent on a subject six lines earlier which is in the plural, but by this line has come to be Tamburlaine’s justification alone.  The following adverbial clause is grammatically unnecessary, which means that the speaker need not rush through to get to the end of his sentence.  This is a speech which takes full note of the resources of language available to the academic poet, one whose play is just that, a form of play for a multi-tasking man.  As he did for Shakespeare in Nothing like the sun, Anthony Burgess reimagined Marlowe’s life for us 400 years after in A dead man in Deptford [v] — but 400 years after his death, because in 1964, the anniversary of both Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s birth, Burgess was writing the former novel.  He imagines this speech, which is recalled by his narrator, one of Marlowe’s fellow actors, not merely as an example of lust for power, but as male lust:  “It was all Kit lusting, a male body augmented to a world his prey, and no retribution.”[vi]  In his biography of Marlowe, Charles Nicholl makes a similar assessment of the whole body of Marlowe’s work:  “Other Marlowe treatments — of Tamburlaine, of Dr Faustus, of Edward II — have the same ambiguity [as his portrayal of The Jew of Malta].  Here is a brutal tyrant, a heretical magician, a besotted homosexual unfit to rule.  And yet, and yet, there are these other ways of seeing them, these ambidextrous responses.”[vii]

I like best, however, Stephen Greenblatt’s response, especially when discussing Shakespeare’s likely reaction to the first performances of Tamburlaine.  “Arriving in London in the late 1580s, probably as a hired actor in a troupe of players, Shakespeare entered a relatively new scene, not so new that its basic outlines were unformed but new enough that it was still open and evolving.”[viii]  Greenblatt informs us that Shakespeare would likely have seen the play performed by the Lord Admiral’s Men with Edward Alleyn in the title role, “at the time only twenty-one years of age.  At the sight of the performance, Shakespeare, two years his senior, may have grasped, if he had not only begun to do so, that he was not likely to become one of the leading actors on the London stage.”[ix]  That owing to how good Alleyn was as an actor.  But, Greenblatt suggests, while “[t]he actor in Shakespeare would have perceived what was powerful in Alleyn’s interpretation of Tamburlaine…the poet in him understood something else…. The hushed crowd was already tasting Tamburlaine’s power in the unprecedented energy and commanding eloquence of the play’s blank verse” that Marlowe “had mastered for the stage.”[x]  So go back and re-read Tamburlaine’s speech, then read the following excerpt from Hamlet, and see how much Shakespeare had advanced the cause of drama in the form of blank verse:  the scene opens with Hamlet conversing with Horatio, after the gravedigger has exposed Yorick’s skull and Hamlet expostulated on it, which takes place in prose.  Hamlet notices the approach of the king, with the queen, Laertes and a corpse:

Hamlet:  But soft, but soft awhile!  Here comes the king —                                                      The queen, the courtiers.  Who is this they follow?                                                                         And with such maimèd rites?  This doth betoken                                                                         The corse they follow did with desp’rate hand                                                                           Fordo it own life.  ‘Twas of some estate.                                                                                        Couch we awhile, and mark.                                                                                                              [Retires with Horatio.]                                                                                                            Laertes:  What ceremony else?                                                                                             Hamlet:                                       That is Laertes,                                                                            a very noble youth.  Mark.                                                                                                           Laertes:  What ceremony else?                                                                                                     Doctor:  Her obsequies have been as far enlarged                                                                       As we have warranty.  Her death was doubtful,                                                                         And, but that great command o’ersways the order,                                                                      She should in ground unsanctified have lodged                                                                             Till the last trumpet.  For charitable prayers,                                                                             Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her.                                                                       Yet here she is allowed her virgin crants,                                                                                    Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home                                                                         Of bell and burial.
Laertes:  Must there no more be done?                                                                   Doctor:                                                    No more be done.                                                             We should profane the service of the dead                                                                                     To sing a requiem and such rest to her                                                                                         As to peace-parted souls.                                                                                                              Laertes:                            Lay her i’ th’ earth,                                                                              And from her fair and unpolluted flesh                                                                                       May violets spring!  I tell thee, churlish priest,                                                                               A minist’ring angel shall my sister be                                                                                        When thou liest howling.                                                                                                             Hamlet:                                What, the fair Ophelia?                                                               Queen:   Sweets to the sweet!  Farewell.                                                                                        [Scatters flowers.]                                                                                                                               I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife.                                                                      I thought thy bride-bed to have decked, sweet maid,                                                              And not have strewed thy grave.                                                                                               Laertes:                                       O, treble woe                                                                              Fall ten times treble on that cursèd head                                                                                    Whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense                                                                                Deprived thee of!  Hold off the earth a while,                                                                                  Till I have caught her once more in mine arms.                                                                                     [Leaps into the grave.]                                                                                                            Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead                                                                                  Till of this flat a mountain you have made                                                                                     T’ o’ertop old Pelion or the skyish head                                                                                         Of blue Olympus.                                                                                                                       Hamlet: [coming forward]   What is he whose grief                                                                    Bears such an emphasis? whose phrase of sorrow                                                             Conjures the wandering stars, and makes them stand                                                            Like wonder-wounded hearers?   This is I,                                                                                     Hamlet the Dane.                                                                                                                               [Leaps in after Laertes.]                                                                                                       Laertes:               The devil take thy soul!                                                                               [Grapples with him.]                                                                                                                       Hamlet:  Thou pray’st not well.                                                                                                      I prithee take thy fingers from my throat,                                                                                 For, though I am not splenitive and rash,                                                                                      Yet have I in me something dangerous,                                                                                   Which let thy wisdom fear.  Hold off thy hand.                                                                               King:  Pluck them asunder.                                                                                       Queen:                                  Hamlet, Hamlet!                                                                               All:  Gentlemen!                                                                                                                      Horatio:               Good my lord, be quiet.                                                                                [Attendants part them, and they come out of the grave.][xi]

This scene illustrates all of the changes in blank-verse drama laid out by the New Princeton encyclopedia that we owe to Shakespeare, including the rapid alternation between tragedy and comedy, and the overall comic quality of the grieving of these two young men.  And yet the tragic undertones would almost defeat the comic.  The rivalry between Hamlet and Laertes will soon enough turn deadly; here it is sad but still a little comical.  The stage-business here could not have been imagined, I submit, by Marlowe, who imagined the lives of the consequential and mighty, but only as figures in a theater of the mind.  Shakespeare here gives to Hamlet and Laertes the kind of bombast Marlowe wrote, but only as figures of fun.  Without Marlowe, Shakespeare “would no doubt have written plays,” if indeed he had not already, “but those plays would have been decisively different.”[xii]  Tamburlaine the Great is a paean to unbridled ambition unrestrained by ethical or moral consideration.  Ayn Rand would have approved of him.  But not Shakespeare.  As Greenblatt says, “Marlowe had put together the two parts of Tamburlaine out of his strange personal history — spy, double agent, counterfeiter, atheist — but also and as important, out of his voraciously wide reading.”[xiii]  Shakespeare also relied on his reading, but he appears to have put together his portrait of Henry VI at the beginning of his career, and of the melancholy Dane near the end, out of his knowledge of the open secrets of the heart, and the way a society functions.

But hold on, I hear you say; wasn’t Milton of the Devil’s party when he wrote of Lucifer in Paradise Lost?  How could Shakespeare have created a bloodthirsty creature like MacBeth and not been of the same party?

Your turn.


[i] transcribed by the author 23 November 2012, from Singer-Songwriter / Kris Kristofferson,  — s.l., Sony Music Special Products, p1986, disc 1, track 4, with the transcription compared with two other recordings, all apparently of the same performance.

[ii] 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, p. 139.  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 footnote readers will have noticed that already.

[iii] The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics, pp. 138-139.

[iv] Tamburlaine the Great. Parts I and II / Christopher Marlowe. – Edited by John D. Jump. – Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, c1967.  p. 41

[v] A dead man in Deptford / Anthony Burgess. – New York : Carroll & Graf, 1995.  Burgess discusses the timing of his novels in his author’s note, on pp. 271-272.

[vi] Ibid., p 120.

[vii] The reckoning : the murder of Christopher Marlowe / Charles Nicholl. – New York : Harcourt Brace, c1992, p. 170.

[viii] Will in the world : how Shakespeare became Shakespeare / Stephen Greenblatt. – New York : Norton, c2004, p. 188.

[ix] Ibid., p. 190-191.

[x] Ibid., p. 191.  I have commented elsewhere on the scholar’s tendency to speculate – and Greenblatt’s use of supposition here is openly acknowledged.  But he makes a very convincing case, for those who believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays attributed to him, for how the young provincial actor, lacking Marlowe’s fine Oxford education, could still outdo him as a playwright.  I recommend the book to each of you.

[xi] from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act V, scene i, lines 204-252, as printed in Complete Pelican Shakespeare : the tragedies / general editor, Alfred Harbage. – Three-volume ed. — Harmondsworth, England : Penguin, 1981, pp. 156-157.

[xii] Greenblatt, op. cit., p. 192.

[xiii] Ibid., p. 192.

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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2 Responses to in verse # 23 : mighty line versus ordered speech

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Very nice comparison of speeches.

    What strikes me here is the sinuosity of Shakespeare’s verse. Marlowe’s partakes of the flavor of speech, but it is unquestionably poetry. In contrast, Shakespeare’s use of blank verse holds dialogue together more tenuously in poetic form. I daresay that listening to an example like this, one starts to hear rhythms of verse in speech, as opposed to vice versa.

    Thanks again for your thought-provoking analysis, that awakens to a greater appreciation of poetic and linguistic craft.

  2. Dennis Clark says:

    You have read well, Jonathan. I think the sinuous line of Shakespeare also makes it a little difficult for the audience to hear the poetry as lines of verse, a problem no one would have with Marlowe. You may also be right that one starts to hear rhythms of verse in speech.

    The poetry is subsumed to the speaking voice, and that gives Shakespeare the same advantage the translators of the Authorized Version had in translating the great poetry of Isaiah and Ezekiel and Jeremiah: at their best, the poetry disappears into the text, becoming a flavor that heightens one’s enjoyment of the hearing rather than the glug of the outpouring.

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