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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

VII. Chaucer

§ 18. The Tale of Gamelyn

One afterthought of special interest may perhaps be appended. Supposing Skeat’s very interesting and quite probable conjecture to be true, and granting that The Tale of Gamelyn lay among Chaucer’s papers for the more or less distinct purpose of being worked up into a Canterbury “number,” it is not idle to speculate on the probable result, especially in the prosodic direction. In all his other models or stores of material, the form of the original had been French, or Latin, or Italian prose or verse, or else English verse or (perhaps in rare cases) prose, itself modelled more or less on Latin or on French. In all his workings on and after these models and materials, his own form had been a greatly improved following of the same kind, governed not slavishly, but distinctly, by an inclination towards the Latin-French models themselves in so far as they could be adapted, without loss, to English. Pure unmetrical alliteration he had definitely rejected, or was definitely to reject, in the famous words of the Parson. But in Gamelyn he had or would have had, an original standing between the two—and representing the earliest, or almost the earliest, concordat or compromise between them. As was observed in the account given of Gamelyn itself in the chapter on Metrical Romances, it is, generally speaking, of the “Robert-of-Gloucester” type—the type in which the centrally divided, alliterative, non-metrical line has retained its central division but has discarded alliterative-accentual necessity, has taken on rime and has adopted a roughly but distinctly metrical cadence. If, however, we compare Gamelyn (which is put by philologists at about 1340) with Robert himself (who probably finished writing some forty years earlier) some interesting differences will be seen, which become more interesting still in connection with the certainly contemporary rise of the ballad metre of four short lines, taking the place of the two centre-broken long ones. Comparing the Gamelyn execution with that of Robert, that, say, of the Judas ballad and that of the earliest Robin Hood pieces and others, one may note in it interesting variations of what may be called an elliptic-eccentric kind. The centre pin of the verse-division is steady; but it works not in a round socket proportionate to itself so much as in a round socket proportionate to itself so much as in a kind of curved slot, and, as it slips up and down this, the resulting verse takes curiously different, though always homogeneous, forms. The exact “fourteener,” or eight and six without either lengthening or shortening, is not extremely common, but it occurs often enough. More commonly the halves (especially the second) are slightly shortened; and, not unfrequently, they are lengthened by the admission of trisyllabic feet. There is an especial tendency to make the second half up of every short feet as in

  • Sik &pipe; ther &pipe; he lay &pipe;
  • where an attempt to scan
  • Sir ther &pipe; he lay
  • will disturb the whole rhythm; and a tendency (which fore-warns us of Milton) to cut the first syllable and begin with a trochee as in the refrain beginning
  • Litheth and listeneth
  • in
  • Al thi londe that he hadde
  • and so on. While, sometimes, we get the full anapaestic extension
  • The frankeley seyde to the champioun: of him stood him noon eye.
  • And, in the same way, the individual lines indicate, in various directions, the settlement of the old long line towards the decasyllale, towards the alexandrine, towards the “fourteener” and towards the various forms of doggerel, themselves giving birth to the pure four-anapaest line which we find in the early sixteenth century. Now the question is: “Would the necessary attention to these metrical peculiarities, implied in the process of (in Dryden’s sense) ‘translation’, have produced any visible effect on Chaucer’s own prosody?” Nor is this by any means an idle question. That Chaucer was a great mimic in metre, we know from Sir Thopas, where he has exactly hit off the namby-pamby amble of the “romance six” in its feeblest examples. Now this romance six is very near to the ballad four—some have even guessed that the latter is a “crushed” form of it, though this is, perhaps, reversing the natural order of thought. Would Chaucer have tried the ballad four itself—regularising and characterising it as he did other metres? Or would his study of the extremely composite and germinal kind of verse in which, as has been shown, Gamelyn is written, have resulted in the earlier development of some of these germs?

    The question, let it be repeated, is by no means idle. That the developments actually took place in the next century and a half, at the hands of lesser men, shows, conclusively, that they might have taken place, and probably would, at the hands of a greater one earlier. But: “Ought we to be sorry that they did not?”—though again not idle—is a very different question and one to which the answer should probably be “No” and not “Yes.”

    For the impending linguistic changes, which ruined Chaucer’s actual decasyllable in the hands of his actual successors, would, probably, have played even greater havoc with freer and looser measures, if he had attempted them. And if he had made a strict eight and six, as he did a strict eight and six in Sir Thopas, the danger of rigid syllabic uniformity being regarded as the law of English prosody—a danger actual for centuries—would have been very much increased. As it was, these half-wildings of verse continued to grow in thei natural way, without being converted into “hybrid perpetuals” by the skill of any capital horticulturist. They remained in striking contrast to the formal couplets and stanzas: reliefs from them, outlets, escapes. It did not matter if they were badly, done, for they carried no weight as models or masters: it mattered supremely if they were well done, for they helped to tune the national ear. They were in no vituperative sense the corpora vilia in which experiment could be freely and inexpensively made: though the experiments themselves were sometimes far from vile. Therefore, one need not weep that Chaucer let Gamelyn alone. He would have given us a delightful story, but the story is full of delight for competent readers as it is. If he had made it into “riding rime” it would not have been better, as such, than its companions. If he had made it into anything else it might have been a doubtful gain. And, lastly, the copy might, as in so many other cases, have killed the original. Now, even for more Chaucer, of which we fortunately have so much already, we could not afford to have no Gamelyn, which is practically unique.