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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.

IX. Stephen Hawes

§ 8. His Metre

Hawes employs the Chaucerian seven-line stanza almost exclusively. Exceptions have already been noted—the fantastic tour de force, and several passages in decasyllabic couplets. It must be set down to his defective sense of metrical fitness that he used rime royal so extensively. However suitable that measure is for serious and pathetic subjects, it is less suitable for much of Hawes’s work, a great part of The Passetyme, for instance, where a metre of superior narrative capacity is required. For continuous narrative, Hawes found the compartment nature of rime royal inconvenient, and, consequently, sentences overflow the stanza. In one instance, a whole stanza is occupied by the modifying parts of the sentence, while the main predicate is pushed into the next stanza, which, because the printer, or somebody else, blundered, happens to begin another chapter. In using decasyllabic couplets for the humorous Godfrey Gobelive scenes, Hawes proves himself not wholly insensible to metrical fitness. It is possible that he employed the two metres in the same poem in imitation of Lydgate’s Temple of Glass. If so, he missed Lydgate’s tolerably constant distinction of couplet for narrative, stanza for lyrical parts.

When we read a passage from Hawes, we feel that his verse is possessed of a strange hobbling gait; and when we seek to scan the lines, we are likely to become bewildered. Some of the lines, it is true, scan quite correctly; at times, they have a flow and cadence which competent critics have likened to the music of Spenser, as

  • I sawe come ryding in a valey farre
  • A goodly ladye, envyroned about
  • With tongues of fyre as bright as any starre,
  • That fyry flambes ensensed alway out.
  • The Passetyme, Chap. I;
  • or
  • Was never payne, but it had joye at last.Chap. XVII.
  • But we are not to expect to find in Hawes the artistic splendour of Spenser. Indeed, most of his lines are inartistic and unmusical. We must remember, however, that the nonexistence of a critical edition of Hawes renders it uncertain how far we may justly lay the blame on the writer. The text is undoubtedly corrupt, and Hawes was justified in praying that bad printing might not spoil his scansion. The following corrupt line does not show metre spoiled, but is given because it can be corrected from The Passetyme itself. We read in a stanza dealing with Gluttony,
  • The pomped clerkes with foles delicious,Chap. XLII,
  • which, in the context, is absolutely without meaning. A correction is easily got from the line in chap. V,
  • The pomped carkes wyth foode dilicious.
  • In chap. XXXIII three riming lines end thus: “craggy roche,” “hye flackes,” “tre toppes,” where the natural emendation is “rockes,” “flockes.” But, even then, “flockes,” “toppes,” is assonance and not rime. Taking the text, however, as we have it, we must conclude that Hawes possessed a very defective ear. This must be said, even after allowance has been made for the difficulty which Chaucer’s successors had in imitating his versification with words of changed and changing, not to say chaotic, pronunciation. The difficulty was a very real one for those who in diction and metre were slavish imitators of Chaucer. When Chaucer used an expression like “the yonge sonne” or “smale fowles” with final -e sounded, he was following grammatical usage and current pronunciation. But after these endings ceased to be sounded, such expressions had a different metrical value. Not knowing their rationale, Chaucer’s imitators adopted the final -e as a metrical licence, and only at haphazard did their use of it coincide with its etymological origin. Hawes neglects the final -e, when, for example, he rimes “mette” with “great,” The Passetyme, chap. XIX; he observes it in such lines as
  • You can not helpë in the case I trow,Ibid.;
  • and he adds it without historical justification,
  • A! tourë! tourë! all my joye is gone.Chap. XX.
  • The shifting accent is made use of, especially in words of French origin; and we find both accentuations in the same stanza, sometimes even in the same line, as
  • Mesure mesureth mesure in effecte.Chap. XXI.
  • This line also exemplifies the alliterative repetition of allied words or of forms of the same word. Those licences are comparatively harmless. Others disfigure the Chaucerian decasyllabic, whether in stanza or couplet, and tend to ruin all its harmony. Lines of four feet are common. Some are regular octosyllabics, as
  • Alas! what payne and mortall wo.Chap. XXXI.
  • Others have an additional final syllable, as
  • And on my way as I was riding,Chap. XXXI;
  • or a trisyllabic foot, as
  • Whose hart ever inwardly is fret,Chap. XXXV;
  • or two trisyllabic feet and consequently ten syllables, as
  • His good is his God, with his great ryches.Chap. XLII.
  • Again, lines of five feet occur with an unaccented syllable omitted at the caesura, a device which produces an awkward break, as
  • The minde of men chaungeth as the mone.Chap. XVIII.
  • Hawes may have learned this from Lydgate, in whose works Schick says it is more used than anywhere else. The numerous trisyllabic feet which Hawes, influenced, perhaps, by the freedom of versification in the popular poetry of his day, introduced into the seven-line stanza, spoil its rhythm, as
  • In the toure of Chyvalry I shall make me stronge.Chap. XIX.
  • Alexandrines are frequently found: some regular, others with one or two trisyllabic feet, which lengthen out to thirteen or fourteen syllables, as
  • The hye astronomier, that is God omnipotent.Chap. XXII.
  • Consequently, the same stanza may contain lines of different lengths riming together. This gives the impression of jolting, and suggests doggerel with its grotesque effect in serious poetry, as
  • In my maternall tonge opprest with ignoraunce,Chap. XXV,
  • riming with
  • He shall fynde all fruytfull pleasaunce.
  • Instead of seven lines, one stanza has six, chap. XVII; another only five, chap. XVIII. Instead of the regular rime sequence, ababbcc, we find, chap. XVIII, ababccc; chap. XXVIII, ababbcb; chap. XXXIV, ababbbb.

    Hawes is not a creator of familiar quotations. We find in him much sound sense, much homely wisdom, on such themes as the fickleness of fortune, the certainty of suffering, the seven deadly sins, the transitoriness of the world,

  • worldly joye and frayle prosperitie
  • What is it lyke, but a blast of wynde?Chap. XLV.
  • We meet with gnomic lines, as
  • Who spareth to speke he spareth to spede.Chap. XVII.
  • But he did not produce passages memorable for choice diction and for harmony of sweet sounds, passages familiar as household words; for the well-known couplet which is the earliest form, perhaps the original form, of a favourite sixteenth century saying, is solitary in its splendour. It occurs in Graund Amour’s epitaph, The Passetyme, chap. XLII. Death, says Hawes, is the end of all earthly happiness; the day is followed by the dark night,
  • For though the day be never so longe,
  • At last the belles ringeth to evensonge.
  • And with that we may take leave of Hawes, who, as a rule and, often, to an exaggerated extent, continues the defects of the fifteenth century poets—confused metre, slipshod construction, bizarre diction—defects which did not disappear from English poetry till it was influenced by the literary masterpieces of Italy, and of ancient Greece and Rome.