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"The Craft So Long to Lerne": Chaucer's Invention of Iambic Pentameter

From: The Chaucer Review
Volume 34, Number 3, 2000
pp. 269-288 | 10.1353/cr.2000.0010

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Chaucer Review 34.3 (2000) 269-288

In recent years two branches of mathematics, computation and statistical analysis, have helped settle some bitter and long-running disputes in the area of Chaucer's metrics. First Gasparov developed a statistical technique, probability modelling, that compared accentual configurations in verse with those found in prose, and thereby established that the Italian endecasillabo should be classified as intermediate between syllabic and stress-syllabic. Since Chaucer borrowed so much from Boccaccio, this clearly has implications on the typology of the English poet's long-line metre. Then the computer-based analysis of Barber and Barber established beyond doubt that Chaucer's long-line is decasyllabic and that some word-final schwas count as syllables (however archaic that may have sounded at the end of the fourteenth century). My own contribution to this statistical work was to apply the principle of probability modelling to Chaucer's long-line verse; this produced a conclusion on accentuation that was as clear as that of Barber and Barber on syllable count: Chaucer, unlike any previous poet before him, in any language, avoided placing prominent syllables in odd-numbered positions in the line (except the first). In other words, he invented the metre we call the iambic pentameter.

The iambic pentameter can be defined simply and economically in terms of the parameters of Hanson and Kiparsky. Its template has ten positions and is right-strong; if we denote weak and strong positions by the binary digits 0 and 1, respectively, the iambic pentameter is: 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1. Its correspondence rules are as follows: the maximum size of a position is one syllable, although the final strong position in the line may also contain an extrametrical unprominent syllable; no weak position in the line, other than the initial one, may contain a prominent syllable. Prominence in this metre is defined as "having a lexically determined greater stress than either of its neighbours"; or, in the terms of Hanson and Kiparsky, "weak positions are constrained from containing the strong syllables of polysyllabic words."

It should, of course, be no surprise that Chaucer decided to compose his mature works in decasyllables; the content of his verse makes it clear that Chaucer knew well both French and Italian decasyllabic poems. The remarkable fact is that Chaucer composed decasyllables such as no one previously had written (iambic pentameters), and it is important to trace the source of his innovation. The present article aims to do this by a qualitative analysis of decasyllable types, as defined by the interaction of metrical and grammatical structures within the line: caesurae (the traditional term) or the boundaries of cola (the term now used by linguisticians). But, before conducting my analysis, I wish to recapitulate some important points in the history of both the decasyllable and Chaucer's poetic apprenticeship (the "craft so long to lerne" of my title).

The earliest surviving decasyllables in a modern Romance language are found in the French Vie de Saint Alexis and the Occitan Boecis, and both date from the first quarter of the eleventh century. The correspondence rules of this early vers de dix made it equivalent to two independent shorter lines: they prohibited the same word from supplying the syllables in positions 4 and 5, and stipulated that both positions 4 and 10 must contain a stressed syllable (and may also contain an extrametrical syllable). The shorthand used by French metrists to describe this line is 4M/F + 6M/F. Other variants of the vers de dix have survived from only slightly later that were 5M/F + 5M/F or 6M/F + 4M/F, but no French poem mixes the variants. It should be noted that an extrametrical syllable at the caesura (4F) made the actual number of syllables (to the last stress in the line) eleven, not ten. The transformation of the two-part (4 + 6) line into a unified line (of 10) was achieved by writers of lyrics to be set to music. Because having a regular number of syllables is more important to syllabic music than lexical stress, writers of French lyrics avoided lines with a word break after 4F (termed...


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