Numme Feete: Meter in Early Modern England
Joseph Tate
University of Washington

Tate, Joseph. "Numme Feete: Meter in Early Modern England", Early Modern Literary Studies 7.1/Special Issue 8 (May, 2001): 3.1-31 <URL:


1. In his 1589 treatise, The Arte of English Poesie, George Puttenham registered the following complaint on behalf of poets: "… in these dayes (although some learned Princes may take delight in them) yet vniuersally it is not so. For as well Poets and Poesie are despised, & the name become, of honorable infamous, subiect to scorne and derision" (13-14). He speculates: "peradventure in this iron and malitious age of ours, Princes are lesse delighted in it, being ouer earnestly bent and affected to the affaires of Empire & ambition" (16). And so it goes today. The prevailing modes of late 20th century literary criticism privilege the "affaires of Empire & ambition" and systematically marginalize discourse on poetry qua poetry.[1] For example, Puttenham's definition of poetry as, "a skill to speake & write harmonically: and verses or rime be a kind of Musicall vtterance, by rason of a certaine congruitie in sounds pleasing the eare" (53), strikes the postmodern "eare" as unpleasantly antiquated or, for lack of a better term, charming in its quaintness. Sir Philip Sidney terms poetry, "words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for, the well-enchanting skill of music" (Sidney 124). Admission of " a certaine congruitie" in poetry is not now routine, and perhaps the most often overlooked congruity is prosody. [2]

2. Of course, it is easy to deconstuct Puttenham's contrast between "Empire," or the administration of colonial power, and poetry: poetry bears the inscriptions of power and other cultural variables, as we well know. Yet, unfairly vilified by critics as a preoccupation with "untranslatable formal perfection" (Greenblatt 4), prosody endures untouched by the prodigious changes in critical practice. The commentary of early modern practitioners and critics themselves, however, refute the current neglect of prosodic research. Many of the period's rhetorical manuals, private letters, book prefaces and academic treatises affirm the importance of meter as both an aurally and physically affecting phenomenological experience and a crucial participant in the ideologically-bound codes signaling the economic, moral, and racial status of both subjects and objects, for better or worse. Consequently, the following pages explore meter in theory, now and then, with special attention given to re-examining conventional writings that depict the effects of rhythm on the body and the relation of poetic form to the politics of cultural identity. This is formalism, but not "empty formalism" (Veeser xi). The ultimate goal is to articulate, provisionally, a new theoretical and historical contextualization of early modern prosody.

3. A precedent for this task is set by Bruce Smith in The Acoustic World of Early Modern England, a book with much to offer our sense of how language reverberated within the wooden O. Smith's mapping of the early modern soundscape is deep and compelling, and I hope this essay is seen as complementing it by appending metrical verse to the theatre's sonic range. Excavating the aural texture of human voices, or metered voices, that once pervaded early modern theatres, Smith notes, is a nearly unattainable illusion, but some lineaments of the early modern voice may be retrieved, such as "volume, pitch, and rhythm … three quantitative reference points for plotting the repertory of voice sounds that scripts for the public stage imply" (223). With estimable discipline, Smith's inquiry anatomizes vocal volume and pitch, yet rhythm receives scant attention and, not surprisingly, scrutiny of poetic meter is wanting. [3]

4. Theorist Amittai Aviram contends that modern scholars consider meter a symbol of "bourgeois conformism, and musicality is always, oddly, discovered in sounds that are repeated but have no regularity" (192). Smith's neglect of poetic meter, willful or not, is reminiscent of Julia Kristeva's in Revolution in Poetic Language. As Aviram notes, Kristeva excludes from her consideration of poetic rhythm, "the most obvious and most effective rhythmic principle in most poetry, audible meter" (Aviram 188). In Smith's defense, not all dramatic language was in verse, and not all of that verse was metrically regular, but an abundance was, and this certainly impacted how playgoers and actors would have experienced and assimilated dramatic poetry.

5. For example, here is a satiric image from Joseph Hall's Virgidemarium of playgoers remarkably absorbed in an actor's iambs during a staging of Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine:

      There if he can with termes Italianate,
      Big sounding sentences, and words of state
      Faire patch me up his pure Iambicke verse,
      He ravishes the gazing Scaffolders (qtd. in Gurr 219)

Attaining a ravished state from exposure to blank verse was probably not a common occurrence. Nevertheless, Hall seemed assured his audience would laugh at the "gazing Scaffolders," if not with them. To complicate matters further, being ravished in the early modern period could have denoted a more abstract mental state, yet in the context of Hall's detail a few lines before of "poore hearers" with "hayre quite upright" suggests auditors in a metrically induced trance. [4]

6. Thomas May's The Heir, a Fletcherian tragicomedy, includes an interesting homage to Richard Burbage. High above "gazing Scaffolders,"

… Ladies in the boxes
Kept time with sighs and tears to his sad accents
As he had been the man he seem'd. (qtd. in Gurr 44) [5]

In both of the above descriptions, the authors ascribe notable affective powers to meter as they also imply a patent and bizarre weakness for meter in the audiences.

7. Conversely, Stephen Gosson, in The School of Abuse, thinks this weakness a dangerous moral deficiency. Gosson explains why music is used in battle, "not to tickle the eare, but to teach euery souldier when to strike and when to stay, when to flye, and when to followe" (25). The purpose of music is to teach, or instruct, not to tickle, or delight the ear. Gosson sides with "Pythagoras," who "bequeathes them a Clookebagg, and condemnes them for fooles, that iudge Musicke by sounde and eare" (26). When Puttenham and Sidney relate poetry to music, they invite harsh criticism on two fronts, not just one. Poetry causes moral degeneration for Gossen, as does music, and the prime device of that evil is the ear, instrument of the insubordinate passions that, inevitably, overcome reason:

There set they abroche straunge consortes of melody, to tickle the eare; costly apparel, to flatter the sight; effeminate gesture, to rauish the sence; and wanton speache, to whet desire too inordinate lust ... But these by the priuie entires of the eare, slip down into the hart, and with gunshotte of affection gaule the minde, where reason and vertue should rule the roste (32).

The insurgent ear does not act in isolation. Gosson's imagined combat between the sensorium and reason leads, oddly enough, into the writings of his well known respondent, Sir Philip Sidney.

8. In 1583, Sidney grumbled that much of the bad poetry circulating in England was but "a tingling sound of rhyme, barely accompanied with reason" (148). This form of poetry was inferior for Sidney because rhyme for rhyme's sake, or the ear's sake, was purposeless. Sidney's position on meter, like many writers, suffers from inconsistency for which he cannot be held culpable. Sidney expressed indifference to prosody: "… the greatest part of poets have appareled their poetical inventions in that numbrous kind of writing which is called verse—indeed but appareled, verse being but an ornament and no cause to poetry" (111). He maintains, "it is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet." Nonetheless, Sidney has praise for contemporary English poetry that, "with his rhyme, striketh a certain music to the eare" (155), yet he qualifies: "poesy must not be drawn by the ears" (146). If not, then how does one hear "the planetlike music of poetry" (Sidney 157)?

9. Numerous early modern writers on poetry meditated on the paradoxical strengths and weaknesses of metrical verse, but few do so with the indiscriminate appetite of George Puttenham, whose critique exemplifies the heterodox range of narratives constituting early modern prosody. In the third book entitled "Of Ornament" in The Arte of English Poesie, he supplies an exegesis of "ornament poeticall," which, he asserts, is of two types:

one to satisfie & delight th'eare onely by a goodly outwarde shew set vpon the matter with wordes and speaches smothly and tunably running, another by certaine intendments or sence of such wordes & speaches inwardly working a stirre to the mynde. (119)

The division invoked between delighting the ear and stirring the mind warrants inspection: What kind of pleasure does Puttenham believe an early modern auditor would have derived from poetry with "th'eare onely," that is, without the aid of the mind?

10. At first glance, the distinction between the "outwarde shew" that delights the ear and the inward stirring of the "mynde" seems to prefigure the tired partitioning of external form and internal content. This is not the case. Though figures work in one of two ways, "some of them serue th'eare onely, some serue the conceit onely and not the'eare," (119),: "There be of them also that serue both turnes as common seruitours appointed for th'one and th'other purpose" (119). The first type

doth serue th'eare onely and may be therefore called Auricular: your second serues the conceit onely and not th'eare, and may be called sensable, not sensible nor yet sententious: your third sort serues as well th'eare as the conceit, and may be called sententious figures. (166) [6]

The polar opposition becomes a spectrum: the ear and the mind are separate, yet interdependent and the two poles of the spectrum represent functions of language. One to "delight th'eare onely" with smoothly running speech, the other to work "a stirre to the mynde," a differentiation analogous to that made by modern theorists between the semantic and nonsemantic functions of poetic utterance.

11. In The Rhythms of English Poetry, Derek Attridge distinguishes

between semantic and nonsemantic functions of poetic rhythm, that is, between those aspects which operate within the same space as the meanings of the poem's words, whether to reinforce, limit, expand, or modify them, and those which operate on some other axis, contributing to the total working of the poem but not to its meaning' in the narrow sense. (Attridge 286)

This "other axis" entails response that is not strictly intellectual, but is best characterized as "muscular participation, whether in the tapping of a finger or the movement of the whole body in dance" (Attridge 77).

12. But, how can one discuss nonsemantic functions in language that is obdurately semantic? The critic Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht concedes that, "scholarly description cannot be achieved without semantics and the dimension of representation," yet, he continues, "This does not mean, however, that all phenomena that become the object of scholarly description are themselves descriptions and must therefore be presented with the question of what they mean or want to express" (171). Kristeva in Revolution in Poetic Language makes a related claim pertaining to representation of the chora which is "analogous only to vocal or kinetic rhythm" (26). She writes,

Although our theoretical description of the chora is itself part of the discourse of representation that offers it as evidence, the chora, as ruptures and articulations (rhythm), precedes evidence, verisimilitude, spatiality, and temporality. (26)

The chora's operations, then, "precede or transcend language" (27), yet it is not exempted from discursive practice entirely.

13. In like manner, Aviram confirms: "Words, as meaningful signs, can describe rhythm or define it, but cannot replace it, that is, be it" (sic, 20). Thus, he continues, "the power of rhythm is not a meaning effect; it does not participate in the process of signification. It is a power without rational meaning, a sublime force" (223). The sublime in Aviram's theory is "a sense of infinitude, or excess, specifically in relation to language" (19), thereby rhythm exists beyond the contingencies of semantic meaning. Aviram allows that poetic form alludes to "certain traditions and authority figures," but he emphasizes the "effect of rhythm that goes beyond signs, beyond meaning in a semiotic sense" (21). Aviram explicitly positions himself alongside Nicolas Abraham who states succinctly: "we know rhythm only by our experience of it" (Abraham 70).

14. What, then, was the early modern experience of metrical rhythm? It had much to do with physical movement, with running, walking, and limping. As quoted above, the purpose of form, Puttenham states, is "to satisfie & delight th'eare onely by a goodly outwarde shew set vpon the matter with wordes and speaches smothly and tunably running" (119). This appears to be a rather uncomplicated representation with which we are relatively familiar: the image of a poem running along smoothly. It is, instead, an especially suggestive image of the physical effects of audible, metrical rhythm.

15. Puttenham opens his discussion of form in book two by describing verse feet in terms of literal human feet.[7] He states:

a foote by his sence naturall is a member of office and function, and serueth to three purposes, that is to say, to go, to runne, & to stand still; so as he sometimes must be swift, sometimes slow, sometime unegally marching or peradventure steddy. (55-6)

Puttenham continues with what he deems the best metrical analogy:

nothing can better shew the qualitie [of meter] then these runners at common games, who setting forth from the first goale, one giueth the start speedely & perhaps before he come half way to th'other goale, decayeth his pace, as a man weary & fainting: another is slow at the start, but by amending his pace keepes euen with his fellow or perchance gets before him; another one while gets ground, another while loseth it again, either in the beginning or middle of his race, and so proceedes unegally, sometimes swift sometimes slow, as his breath or forces serue him: another sort there be that plod on, & will never change their pace, whether they win or lose the game ... (57).

The oddity of this elaborate metaphor involving verse and human feet should not go unnoticed. In fact, once noticed, it seems singularly ubiquitous. What follows is a collection of similar examples in the work of various early modern authors.

16. Perhaps the most famous instance of the metaphor occurs in Act 3 of Shakespeare's As You Like It, in the guise of a pun when Touchstone belittles Orlando's attempts at poetry after Rosalind enters reading the verses aloud. Touchstone jeers sarcastically: "I'll rhyme you so eight years together, dinners and suppers and sleeping hours excepted. It is the right butter-women's rank to market" (3.2.94-96) [8]. After Touchstone teases Rosalind with a sample of his own extemporaneous poetry, he continues to mock Orlando's versifying: "This is the very false gallop of verses. Why do you infect yourself with them?" (3.2.111-12)[9]. Shortly thereafter, Rosalind and a new participant join in the taunting:

Celia: Didst thou hear these verses?
Rosalind: O, yes, I heard them all, and more too, for some of them had in them more feet than the verses would bear.
Celia: That's no matter. The feet might bear the verses.
Rosalind: Ay, but the feet were lame and could not bear themselves without the verse and therefore stood lamely in the verse. (3.2.161-68)

Scholars have explored the textual issues and gender implications of Touchstone's enigmatic reference to "butter-women," while bypassing the enthusiastic pun on feet. [10]

17. In Henry IV, 1, Hotspur disparages Glendower's upbringing, in which he "framèd to the harp / Many an English ditty lovely well" (3.1.120-1), and makes known his loathing of "meter balladmongers" (3.1.126). Nonetheless, Hotspur's abusive censure embraces the kinesthetic imagery used to discuss meter:

I had rather hear a brazen can'stick turned
Or a dry wheel grate on the axletree,
And that would set my teeth nothing on edge,
Nothing so much as mincing poetry.
‘Tis like the forced gait of a shuffling nag.


These aural images of ballad meter, as a "brazen can'stick turned," a "dry wheel," and "the forced gait of a shuffling nag," evokes the noise of ear-grating physical motions.[11] The last animal image of "a shuffling nag" resonates with the correspondence of Edmund Spenser and Gabriel Harvey on prosody.

18. Harvey wrote to Spenser that good quantitative verse in English is like "A good horse, that trippeth not once in a iourney" (Harvey and Spenser 96). Spenser replied by shifting the equestrian focus to other animals. The "chiefest hardnesse," he writes, of composing quantitative hexameters in English is:

in the Accente ... and sometime the measure of the Number, as in Carpenter the middle sillable, being vsed shorte in speache, when it shall be read long in Verse, seemeth like a lame Gosling that draweth one legge after hir: and Heauen, beeing vsed shorte as one sillable, when it is in Verse stretched out with a Diastole, is like a lame Dogge that holdes vp one legge. (99)

These literally "lame" animals impart bizarre connotations to the commentary on Orlando's metrical fumblings in As You Like It. When Touchstone terms Orlando's meter "the very false gallop of verses" (3.2.111), theatre audiences were likely very familiar with the pun, given that equivalent metaphors saturated dialogues on meter.

19. The origin of this analogy dates back at least to the opening poem of Ovid's Amores where the speaker mourns an unusual theft:

Arma graui numero uiolentaque bella parabam
edere, materia conueniente modis.
par erat inferior uersus: risisse Cupido
dicitur atque unum surripuisse pedem. (Ovid 40) [12]

[I was preparing to bear arms in solemn numbers, with subject-matter appropriate to the measure. The subsequent line was well-matched: Cupid is said to have laughed and stolen one foot.]

Hexameters are the epic meter; by stealing a foot in the second line, Cupid has turned it into elegiac meter, used for love poetry. The speaker proceeds to reprimand Cupid for ignoring poetry's province as the reserve of the Muses. Cupid responds to the accusation with an arrow that quickly inflames the speaker's heart, who sullenly resigns:

sex mihi surgat opus numeris, in quinque residat;
ferrea cum uestris bella ualete modis. (Ovid 42)

[Let my work march in six numbers, and fall in five; farewell iron wars with your measures.] [13]

The verb "surgat" (from surgo, surgere) denotes "to rise, to stand up," but also has the connotation "to march" in war-like contexts, as in the mock military epic tone of this poem. Given Ovid's proposed preparation to write heroic war poetry, this allows a translation to read "Let my work march in six numbers" instead of the less concrete "rise in six numbers" preferred by most translators.

20. Samuel Daniel, who certainly read his Ovid, disliked the way in which Latin poets took license with modifiers, claiming that they were too often "disioyning such as naturally should ... march together" (14). Like so many others, Daniel adopted the imagery of "running" (17, 42): English trochaic verse "runnes" similar to ancient verse (34), no verses "runne" (38) free from disgrace if they are "idle", and some "bare numbers," he claimed, that are forced to "runne" in "our slow language" will never be popular (7). Thomas Nashe also had reservations concerning Latin prosody. Latin "Hexamiter," he proclaimed, is the meter which "goes twitching and hopping in our language like a man running vpon quagmiers, vp the hill in one Syllable, and down the dale in another, retaining no part of that stately smooth gate" (Strange Newes 299).

21. Nashe's representation of meter as clumsy ambling does not have quite the same derogatory force as the more disquieting images of the halting or limping poem, images likening metrical defects to human physical disabilities. A familiar and relatively tame usage occurs in Hamlet, when mulling over his advice to the players before they arrive, Hamlet worries that "the lady shall say her mind freely, or the blank verse shall halt for't" (2.2.325-326). Later, when he expounds upon "the purpose of playing," Hamlet asks that the player speak his speech, "trippingly on the tongue," in other words, using a tripping, gamboling motion of the tongue. [14] He then remembers players "that, neither having th' accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed" (3.2.30-32). In a chiasmatic conflation of speech with physical movement, Hamlet mirrors in one sentence accent with gait and strutting with bellowing.

22. Recalling Hamlet's halting blank verse, in Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio mocks Benedict's "halting sonnet" (5.4.86). Similarly, the speaker of Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, having sought for "words to paint the blackest face of woe," bemoans that "words came halting forth, wanting Inventions stay" (Poems 165), and Francisco in John Webster's The White Devil proclaims:

I am in love,
In love with Corombona, and my suit
Thus halts to her in verse. (4.1.120-2)

Thomas Campion, disparaging native English rhyming, also described nonsensical ballads, which one is unable to read "without blushing," as "lame halting rhymes" (6), and John Gower's attempt in Shakespeare's Pericles to "carry wingèd Time / Post on the lame feet of my rhyme" (4.47-48) prefigures John Milton's headnote to Paradise Lost that flouts the "wretched matter and lame Meeter" (352) of most rhyming poetry.

23. In 1570, the educator Roger Ascham gently chided Cicero who "in his verse doth halt a little" (34), but harshly criticized the verse of two translations. Ascham had a qualm with the "noble Lord Th. Earle of Surrey, first of all English men in translating the fourth booke of Virgill, and Gonsaluo Periz, that excellent learned man, and Secretarie to kyng Philip of Spaine, in translating the Vlisses of Homer out of Greke into Spanish." While he commended them for avoiding "the fault of Ryming," he nevertheless argued that their lines were not "perfite and trew versifying" (32). Rather he considered their meter to be as "numme feete" that

turne and runne roundly withall as feete of brasse or wood be vnweeldie to go well withall. And as a foote of wood is a plaine shew of a manifest maime, euen so feete in our English versifing without quantitie and ioyntes be sure signes that the verse is verie vnseemlie ... (33)

While prosthetic body parts were not the most common early modern representation of metrically unsound feet, Ascham is in ample company when it comes to equating lame verse with human lameness.

24. Bad poetry was frequently imaged as human physical disability. The problematic comparisons drew upon assumptions, such as Francis Bacon's, whereby "Deformed persons," were "(as the Scripture saith) devoid of natural affection" (Bacon 426). Deformity, he argued, was not a sign, but a cause of ill behavior, a cause that "seldom faileth of the effect" (426). Bacon's words take on remarkable resonance considering they were published during the reign of a king known for his physical disability: "his legs were very weake, having had (as was thought) some foul play in his youth, or rather before he was born, that he was not able to stand at seven years of age, that weaknesse made him ever leaning on other mens shoulders" (Weldon) [15]. In this context, accusation of metrical deformity by way of human infirmity accrues an unusually multi-valent derisiveness.

25. The common denominator of this compendium of images is the consistent visual imaging of verse feet as human feet. Bruce Smith is cogent on such figuration. As he has argued concerning analogous images, "the phenomenon [a writer] is attempting to describe is fundamentally aural ... And the link between these two sets of phenomena, visual and aural, is the human body" (97). Admittedly, asserting a definite link between sight, sound and the human body from such a historical distance is fraught with problems. It is, as critics will censure, the "reaffirmation of presence in a different guise" ("Premodern," Smith 326). Smith's response: "And so it is." The full rejoinder, actually, is the proposal of a different critical approach he terms "historical phenomenology."

26. In this critical formulation, "Texts not only represent bodily experience; they imply it in the way they asked to be touched, seen, heard, even smelled and tasted" (326). Most historicist treatment of the body tends to elide physicality, treating the body instead as one discursive nexus among many, rendering it invisible by way of the very same critical methodology originally meant to foreground it. In this formulation, the body becomes important insofar as it provides access to discursive meaning, and thus a familiar hierarchy is invoked. As the critic Antony Dawson maintains, in new historicist scholarship, the body/mind dichotomy, "is replaced by body/abstract meaning, with [discursive] meaning given the position of dominance" (31). The goal of historical phenomenology is not only to deepen our knowledge of subjectivity formation, but to augment what we know about the sensory exchange between actor and audience to the end of recognizing "the embodiedness of historical subjects" and "the materiality of the evidence they have left behind," while also acknowledging "the embodiedness of the investigator in the face of that evidence" ("Premodern," Smith 325) [16]. Therefore, this essay seeks to initiate the task of recovering, if only partially, the complex experience of metrical language for actors and spectators.

27. To conclude, I turn from feet to fingers and hands. The critic Bertram Joseph has suggested that actor's hands "responded to the metre of declaimed verse":

Bulwer ... speaks in Chironomia of the "action of the hand" resembling the "sweet cadencies of numbers." His great authority, Cresollius, disapproved of orators using "ictus or musicall cadence of the fingers" in free prose, "though it may be tollerable for the setting of the intervalls of restrained numbers." If this was allowed in oratory, it is probable that stage players, not bound by academic restraints, suited the movements of their hands to those of the verses in their lines. (79) [17]

Stage players, Abraham Fraunce believed in 1588, were not bound by any restraints. In cautioning his readers how "gesture must followe the change and varietie of the voyce," Fraunce notes that "the bodie" should be moved "not parasiticallie as stage plaiers use, but graulie and decentlie as becommeth men of greater calling" (120). Hamlet, we know, concurs: "do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently" (3.2.4-5).

28. Less conspicious than the sawing of hands, Thomas Campion avers that the best way to tell the rhythm of a poem is with motion of the hand. To show that "Latine verses of six feete ... are in nature all the same length of sound with our English verse of fiue feete," Campion recommends the reader to "time these verses with his hand" (10). Following this Campion juxtaposes select Latin verses with English verses so that they may be "tim'd with the hand." Likewise, in a letter to Spenser, Harvey in passing told that he counted meter through the "curious scanning and fingering" of feet (96). Other examples abound. William Webbe also refers to native English meter as a "base kind of fingering" (228). William Bathe, the music instructor, insisted that rhythmic time is "schewed to learners, By stricking the hand or foote" (6) and the Master in Thomas Morley's A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke likewise instructed his student Philomathes that a musical stroke is a "successive motion of the hand" (9). Counting beats with the hand or fingers was as common in the early modern period as it is now, and we can trace the practice in poetry at least as far back as Horace who argued that critics need the ability to detect "true rhythm by the ear and the finger" (72). [18]

29. Tapping fingers to a metrical beat is considered now to be a relatively harmless exercise, but then it had its appropriate place, which, if ignored, could ensure scorn. Thomas Nashe declared that some "Bussards" writing "ragged Rimes ... thinke knowledge a burthen, tapping it before they have half tunde it" ("From The Anatomie of Absurditie," 327). What the hand comes to represent is anxiety concerning meter's ability to support and, in many cases, determine a poem’s semantic content. Essentially, a poem’s meter was never to prevail over semantic meaning:

Now there can not be in a maker a fowler fault, then to falsifie his accent to serue his cadence, or by vntrue orthographie to wrench his words to helpe his rime, for it is a signe that such a maker [is] not copious in his owne language, or (as they are wont to say) not halfe his crafts maister. (Puttenham 67)

For respectable poets, the words came first, and the meter, or music, later. George Gascoigne warns that the budding writer, for the sake of rhyme, should not "willingly alter the meanyng of your Inuention" (52). Thomas Morley’s character Master, a music instructor, goes on at some length concerning how to "dispose your musicke according to the nature of the words which you are therein to expresse, as whatsoeuer matter it be which you haue in hand, such a kind of musike must you frame to it" (177) [19]. Campion concurred that meter and rhyme were little more than an ornament to the poem’s matter, and even worse, "Rime," that "foolish figuratiue repetition," could even cause " a man oftentimes to abiure his matter" (4-6). [20]

30. The phobia of abjuring the poem's subject matter, which is suggestive of the mind-body split, was translated into an issue of class. Nashe's "Bussards" were writers of lower class, or folk, poetry, and they were everywhere. Ballads were so popular that Campion complained "The facilitie and popularitie of Rime creates as many Poets as a hot sommer flies" (330). Richard Stanyhurst protested, "Good God, what frye of such wooden rythmours dooth swarme in stacioners shops" (sic, 141). William Webbe criticized the "uncountable rabble of ryming Ballet makers and compylers of senceless sonets, who be most busy to stuffe every stall full of grosse devises and unlearned Pamphlets" (246). Nashe expressed indignation over the "baling Ballets, and our new found Songs & Sonets, which every rednose Fidler hath at his fingers end, and euery ignorant Ale Knight will breath foorth ouer the potte, as soone as his braine waxeth hote" (Anatomie of Absurditie 23-4). The result of this popularity: "It makes the learned sort to be silent, when as they see vnlearned sots so insolent" (24). The prosody of the masses, however similar, was judged inferior.

31. What might this and more such research on prosody tell us? As a colleague asked, what can this prove beyond the obvious fact that English poets were aware of the flow of lines and larger structures? It may prove such awareness, but what begins to crystallize is the fundamentally and resolutely somatic awareness the period's writers brought to meter. Nonetheless, such a question misses the point: the fact of their awareness is not at stake, but an understanding of how they were aware of prosodical structures, culturally and physically, has the potential to reshape our methods, culturally and physically, of approaching early modern verse.


From the earliest stages, Charles Frey especially and my dear colleague Amittai Aviram provided invaluable feedback on this essay. I am indebted also to Hazard Adams, Marshall Brown, Lisa Hogan, Bruce Smith and Cody Walker for their advice, interest and encouragement

[1] More forcefully, Coburn Freer has leveled the following indictment: "As far as the bulk of published criticism on English Renaissance drama is concerned, including criticism of Shakespeare, the plays might as well have been written in prose-highly figurative prose, but prose nonetheless" (1-2).

[2] Prosody is rarely even acknowledged as a potential field of study. Treatments of both meter and prosody are absent from these important reference books: The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, Critical Terms for Literary Study, and The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory. Following suit, the recent Norton edition of Shakespeare's works includes no mention whatsoever of prosody, meter, blank verse or iambic pentameter.

[3] At one point, Smith does look at meter, but only briefly in Campion's 1601 songbook, A Booke of Ayres (Smith 296-7).

[4] Sidney refers to the "heart-ravishing knowledge" of poetry (Sidney 106). The image of the heart in early modern literature is, as Scott Manning Stevens has argued, "both metaphorical and physical in a way" that causes it very often to seem as if it were "on the verge of losing its materiality" (Stevens 276-7).

[5] For a discussion of women in early modern theatre audiences, See Richard Levin's essay, "Women in the Renaissance Theatre Audience."

[6] Metrical patterning is not now classified as a figure. However, Puttenham writes: "I say that auricular figures be those which worke alteration in th'eare by sound, accent, time, and slipper volubilitie in vtterance, such as for that respect was called by the auncients numerositie of speach" (134).

[7] The OED confirms that the prosodic "foot" (a translation of Latin pes) is ordinarily thought to refer to the motion of the foot in beating time.

[8] David Bevington glosses this line: "the rhymes, all alike follow each other precisely like a line of butter-women or dairy women jogging along to market" (Bevington 307). The reference here to "butter-women" in a rank on their way to market has been the subject of at least three essays in the 1980's (Holdsworth, Parsons, and Taylor). Alan Brissenden's commentary in the Oxford edition of As You Like It provides helpful context for Touchstone's puns. All Shakespeare quotations are from Bevington's edition.

[9] To H. J. Oliver, editor of the New Penguin Shakespeare As You Like It, this line suggests a similar usage by Nashe: "I would trot a false gallop through the rest of his Verses, but that if I should retort his rime dogrell aright, I must make my verses (as he doth his) run hobling like a Brewers cart vpon the stones" (Strange Newes 275).

[10] Such puns, generally thought of as "the lowest form of verbal joke" (Freud 50), pass unremarked, as is the case here. The term "pun" entered the English langauge around 1650, and since that time puns have been considered less than imitable rhetorical devices, and even something to accuse someone of: Dryden faulted Shakespeare with deigning to employ "clenches," or puns. There is a sizeable amount of recent scholarly work on puns, however. Derrida discusses them in "White Mythology," Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982). Puns, like metaphors, Derrida argues, were originally "sensory and material" (211). Abstraction, especially philosophical abstraction and other forms of "interminably explicative discourse" (213), elides the traces of this "primitive meaning" and has in its course "erased piles of physical discourse" (212). Also, Jonathan Culler's On Puns (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988) contains a wealth of informative essays.

[11] Images, despite the visual connotations of the word, do appeal to senses other than sight. Norman Friedman has written: "Psychologists have identified seven kinds of mental images: visual (sight, then brightness, clarity, color, and motion), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), tactile (touch, then temperature, texture), organic (awareness of heartbeat, pulse, breathing, digestion), and kinesthetic (awareness of muscle tension and movement)" (560)

[12] Latin Scholar J. C. McKeown has noted that there is "no precedent for this conceit" of the stolen foot (13).

[13] Marlowe's translation of these lines does not support my own, but neither is it terribly faithful to the original:
Let my verse be six, my last five feet;
Farewell stern war, for blunter poets meet. (lines 31-32)

[14] The kinds of tongue movements Hamlet may mean are suggested in Ben Jonson's English Grammar. For nearly every letter of the alphabet, Jonson gives an account of the necessary tongue motion. When pronouncing 'a' before the letter 'l' it is uttered with "the tongue bent back from the teeth" (Jonson 471). The sound of 'e' is made with "the tongue turn'd to the inner roofe of the palate, and softly striking the upper great teeth" (471), and 'i' is formed by "a lesse opening of the mouth; the tongue brought backe to the palate, and striking the teeth next the cheeke-teeth" (472). "O, Is pronounced with a round mouth, the tongue drawne back to the root" (475) and 'u' is sounded with "some depression of the middle of the tongue" (476). Jonson also gives an interesting account of 'r' which is "the Dogs Letter, and hurreth in the sound; the tongue striking the inner palate, with a trembling about the teeth" (491).

[15] This work was published posthumously as Weldon is believed to have died in 1649. The title page declares that he was an "eye, and eare witnesse" to James I.

[16] For more on the intersection of history and phenomenology, see Jean-François Lyotard's section on "Phenomenology and History" in Phenomenology. Also, for a more systematic treatment of historical phenomenology see Bruce Smith's essay "Premodern Sexualities" in PMLA.

[17] Joseph has argued also that couplets may have been voiced by Elizabethan acotrs in a manner "not unlike the full-close in opera" (63). Joseph's evidence for acting style is disputed by O. B. Hardison.

[18] Or as Ben Jonson translated it, the good poet "can / A lawful verse, by the ear or finger scan" (Lines 403-4). The passage reads in Latin:
… si modo ego et uos
scimus inurbanum lepido seponere dicto
legitimumque sonum digitis callemus et aure.

(lines 272-274)

[19] Antony Easthope usefully points us to John Stevens's discussion (Music and Poetry in the Early Tudor Court, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979) of the relation between song and music in the Renaissance: "... in the fourteenth century 'the natural and necessary union of music and poetry finally broke up' [Stevens 53]. Each achieved the status of autonomous arts, and the autonomy became the basis for a new relationship between them. From now on in song words and meaning dominate music. The music is treated as a kind of ornament or addition to the 'subject matter' of the words, being made to resemble or imitate meaning in various ways" (Easthope 96).

[20] Against such a notion, Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that poetry has its origin in music. Lyric poetry, he says, is "the imitative fulguration of music in images and concepts" (55). Poetry for him was words set to music, not music set to words.


Works Cited



Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).