Blog Post

Reported speech in the heroic couplet

While Beckett once advised another writer to stop "blazing away at the microcosmic moon," it's sometimes an irresisitible temptation to try to "flush the coverts of the microglot," as J.L. Austin put it (in "A Plea for Excuses"). And why resist it? Part of what literary criticism, if it exists, should be is a kind of proselytizing: Here's something great, and here's what will convince you! That attitude will naturally lead to the pronouncement of strictures as well: How can you think that's good? It's just a poor imitation of this truly great thing. The first attitude can and often ought to regard the great in a very colloquial sense: you want to say, or get someone else to see something and say, "Wow, that's great," as in, really nifty, worth noticing, pleasure giving. Where better than in a blog to blog about nifty effects? To do practical criticism, rather than the theory of practical criticism?

So I want to remark on a couple of things I've noticed about the heroic couplet

, especially in the hands of Dryden and Pope. The form, end-stopped, well-balanced, and extremely predictable, is very hard to keep interesting. And yet because its demands are so constraining, the resourcefulness displayed by those who meet those demands with grace and freshness is all the more delightful. It's like what Proust says about "the tyranny or rhyme" leading poets to their greatest lines. Saintsbury has a great (in the colloquial sense) and hilarious (and self-delightingly sexist and salacious) paragraph about the exquisite skill the writers of heroic couplets must cultivate, and what this will do to them:

The fact is (and it may be set as people please on either side of the account) that special aptitude and predilection for the stopped couplet seems, save perhaps in the solitary case of Dryden, to preclude aptitude for any other measure. It may be that this couplet is Aphrodite Urania, and that he who loves her can tolerate no meaner love. It may go more nearly to be thought by some that an opposite explanation is correct. Or, without being thus personal, it may be said, and perhaps most philosophically as well as most politely, that the measure is so extremely specialised that tongue and ear and finger, once thoroughly subdued to it, can adapt themselves to no other. But the fact, with the rule-proving exception of the gigantic if not god-like craftsmanship of Dryden, is the fact.

Leave aside the over-the-top reference to Aphrodite and stick with the gigantic and god-like craftsmanship of Dryden, in composing couplets at least. What extremely subtle effects can such extremely specialized sensitivity to the form produce? Dryden thought a lot about the necessity of variation within what might otherwise be a deadening context, as he has his stand-in Neander say in his "Essay of Dramatick Poesie:"

there is both care and Art requir'd to write in Verse; A good Poet never concludes upon the first line, till he has sought out such a rhime as may fit the sense, already prepar'd to heighten the second: many times the close of the sense falls into the middle of the next verse, or farther of, and he may often prevail himself of the same advantages in English which Virgil had in Latine. He may break off in the Hemystich, and begin another line: indeed, the not observing these two last things, makes Playes which are writ in verse so tedious: for though, most commonly, the sence is to be confin'd to the Couplet, yet nothing that does perpetuo tenore fluere, run in the same channel, can please alwayes. 'Tis like the murmuring of a stream, which not varying in the fall, causes at first attention, at last drowsiness. Variety of cadences is the best rule, the greatest help to the Actors, and refreshment to the Audience.

One place to look is in reported speech in a poem written in heroic couplets, since (as in drama) variation in speech indexes differences in character.  (Dryden practiced this a lot in using rhyme in drama, though later he took Milton's rebuke to heart, as in All For Love.

You would think that such speech would just take on the prosody of the poem that reports it, perhaps with the added advantage of the break in the hemistich, that is the interruption of a line.  And Dryden does interrupt lines a lot in his discursive poetry, but rarely when he's reporting speech.  It's usually the narrator or poet who will interrupt himself, not one of the characters whose speech he is reporting.  Just to clarify what he means by this break at the hemistitch, here's a telling example from Religio Laici:

Canst thou, by reason, more of God-head know
Than Plutarch, Seneca, or Cicero?
Those giant wits, in happier ages born,
(When arms, and arts did Greece and Rome adorn)
Knew no such system; no such piles could raise
Of natural worship, built on pray'r and praise,
To one sole God.
Nor did remorse, to expiate sin, prescribe:
But slew their fellow creatures for a bribe:
The guiltless victim groan'd for their offence;
And cruelty, and blood was penitence. (ll. 78-88)

Note that the striking line is self-describing: it stands out for its severe concentration and simplicity.

Sometimes, too, the interruption is made very prominent when Dryden makes a single iamb stand alone in a line, as in his translation of the account of love and procreation given by Lucretius in Book IV of De Rerum NaturaTwice Dryden introduces a turn in thought with a line of a single iamb: Besides-- (l. 93); In vain-- (l. 109).  In each case the turn is a kind of cry, if not of despair at least of dissatisfaction. (I think it's not sufficiently recognized how much Dryden's sometimes-broken prosody owes to Herbert's similar experiments, e.g. in "Denial".  The fact that he sometimes makes fun of him may be telling.)

These single iambs are a kind of counterpart to the hexameter Alexandrines that will sometimes end a couplet or a triplet (more on triplets in a minute).  They could almost be the first foot of the next line, if that line could be a hexameter, but couplets never begin with Alexandrines.  The Alexandrine always has something conclusive about it, at least to ears trained (like Fairfax's and Milton's, and so Dryden's) by the Spenserian stanzas of The Faerie Queene.

They are counterparts, though and this helps underscore the effect of the Alexandrine as well: the way it makes the reader do a quick stutter-step, as we have to adjust our timed expectation of the end of the line.  This is one of the ways that we're aroused and refreshed by the "variety of cadences."

Another form of stutter-step occurs when you get a triplet rather than a couplet.  Pope and Johnson complained of Dryden's penchant for triplets.  Though Pope used them frequently in his translations, he thought they detracted from the purity of Dryden's verse.  (He also objected to Dryden's willingness to put pauses anywhere in the line.  Pope liked his pauses after the second or third foot.)  Johnson complained of the number of (triplet-signaling) braces on a page of Dryden (for an example of the typography, see the link to the monometrical iambs in the translation of Lucretius about): I'm interested in the fact that it was conventional to signal them.  I take it that the braces partly tempered the surprise of finding a rhymed word where you expected an onset word.

The triplets always do come as a surprise in poems written in heroic couplets, and this suggests that we sometimes expect unrhymed words.  The end of a couplet resets our receptive state, and we expect the last word of the next line to be (as yet) unrhymed.  Being unrhymed is therefore a feature of a word marked in advance, by which I mean it is something we can expect, just as we expect a rhyme in the second line of a couplet and are surprised when we don't get one.

Browning provides a helpful point of reference here.  He makes only one speaker in The Ring and the Book ever rhyme.  John Hollander once told me (wrongly but only barely so), that there are no rhymes at all in the poem, so of course I read it with this in mind; and it's true that Browning keeps any potentially rhyming words far enough apart that we won't notice their chiming, except in the case of Book 8, where the bon vivant lawyer Hyacinthus de Archangelis rhymes several times, once at least intentionally.  His first rhymes are a triplet, in ll. 2-4 of the book, and boy oh boy are they meant to be noticed -- because we're expecting unrhymed lines.  It's like a negative version of expecting a rhyme.  Here in a poem as antipodal to couplets as they come, the triplet is needed to override our assumption that the poem just doesn't rhyme, even if we've just read what seems an accidental couplet.  As with the German Enigma machine which never coded a letter as itself, thus permitting Turing and his colleagues to break it, the lack of correspondence becomes itself a positive fact.   Non-rhyming is something we can learn to expect just as much as we expect rhymes.  And Dryden exploits this fact in his triplets.

Let's get back to the thing I thought I was going to be concentrating on when I started this post, namely reported speech in the context of heroic couplets.  There's a wide range of different degrees of conformity between reported speech and reporting context. I have a theory that one can directly correlate conformity to prosodical context with the narrator's approval of the speech reported or endorsement of the character speaking. Well, that's too simple, but it's a start. The idea would be that Pope's sense of ease in the couplet -- "those move easiest who have learned to dance" -- would allow a poem to distinguish degrees of grace and self-possession among its characters. Let me give an example or two of some of these prosodical tricks and wiles.

Sometimes a reported speech will rhyme with its reporting context (the poet's words), even though it jars when read simply as a speech.  Thus in Absalom and Achitophel, the latter tempts the former in a speech that begins: "Th'eternal God, supremely good and wise, / Imparts not these prodigious gifts in vain" (ll. 376-77). After that he falls into couplets, but the point is that the speech begins a little roughly.  Dryden of course has rhymed the first line of his speech too:

Him staggering so when hell's dire angel found,
While fainting virture scarce maintained her ground,
He pours fresh forces in and thus replies:
     "Th'eternal God, supremely good and wise,
Imparts not these prodigious gifts in vain;
What wonders are reserved to bless your reign?" (ll. 373-378)

I am including inverted commas to indicate the reported speech, though they hadn't come into use yet in the seventeenth century. (I can't find a facsimile early edition on-line -- I guess I'll have to try that library I've heard so much about.  I did once write an article on "The Poetics of the Speech Tag," which was partly about how pre-eighteenth century speech tags function the way modern quotation marks do, to indicate the boundary of a reported set of words, to which, like quotation marks or French dashes, they're always contiguous.) Without the inverted commas, the increased concentration needed to parse the speech as a separate entity would make the failure of the first line to rhyme within the speech all the more noticeable.

Now I am far from claiming that failure to rhyme in a speech is a sign of disapproval, or that successful rhyming means the poem endorses a character.  I just want to point out one subtle effect available to the form, and some variations on that effect.  In Dryden's translation of Virgil, he'll frequently give his martial characters single lines, rhymed with their context but too direct to rhyme internally: "'Bear to the rocky shore and shun the main.'" Or even just clipped hemistitchial orders: "'Let others bear to sea.'"  Jupiter, if not one sole God at least their king, will order, "'Now cease at my command.'"  And Aeneas, by contrast to Achitophel, will sometimes end a speech with a line whose line Dryden then adds on afterwards:

"'A golden belt shall gird his manly side,
Which with a sparkling diamond shall be tied;
The third this Grecian helmet shall content.'
He said; to their appointed base they went."

 The counterpart to this directness is a smarminess which is too easy with its narrative context, as when Absalom, Mark Antony-like, addresses his countrymen, saying of the good King David:

"He, only he, can make the nation bleed,
And he alone from my revenge is freed.
Take then my tears" (with that he wiped his eyes);
" 'Tis all the aid my present power supplies;
No court informer can these arms accuse,
These arms may sons against their fathers use."

The parenethesis frames the action of wiping his eyes like a quotation (Geoffrey Nunberg remarks that quotation marks and parentheses are the only punctuation marks in modern usage that require both opening and closing), which emphasizes the artifice that by which Absalom rhymes his misleading gestures with his misleading words.

The point (again) is to contrast the kinds of language, and prosody, in Achitophel's and in Absalom's speeches with those in David's final speech, which is direct, secure, self-confident, severe, and stably based on a conclusive and calmly self-referential that sums up the whole: " 'For lawful pow'r is still superior found, / When long driven back, at length it stands the ground.' "  (David's last line emphasizes the very way a far less malleable quantitative meter is replacing the quick and flighty stresses of the language that precedes it.)

I do seem to have gone on -- that's one problem with blazing or gazing at the microcosmic moon. But let me give one last example, from Pope, since we've been looking at parentheses and all.

In Pope's Rape of the Lock, Thalestris demands that Sir Plume accost the Baron for his clipping of a lock of Belinda's hair against her will, and he tries to bluster his way through it:

She said; then raging to Sir Plume repairs,
And bids her beau demand the precious hairs:
(Sir Plume, of amber snuff-box justly vain,
And the nice conduct of a clouded cane)
With earnest eyes, and round unthinking face,
He first the snuffbox open'd, then the case,
And thus broke out—"My Lord, why, what the devil?
Z——ds! damn the lock! 'fore Gad, you must be civil!
Plague on't! 'tis past a jest—nay prithee, pox!
Give her the hair"—he spoke, and rapp'd his box.

"It grieves me much," replied the peer again
"Who speaks so well should ever speak in vain.
But by this lock, this sacred lock I swear,
(Which never more shall join its parted hair;
Which never more its honours shall renew,
Clipp'd from the lovely head where late it grew)
That while my nostrils draw the vital air,
This hand, which won it, shall for ever wear."

Sir Plume's speech is about as close to prose as a speech distribtued over four lines can be in a poem in couplets.  Here it is as prose: "My lord, why, what the devil? Z——ds! damn the lock! 'fore Gad, you must be civil! Plague on't! 'tis past a jest—nay prithee, pox! Give her the hair."  How could a rhyme be better disguised?

And yet his speech is continuous.  Not so the baron's: a speech tag interrupts it, and then he interrupts himself with a parenthesis.  And yet he assimilates himself with perfect grace to the context in which he appears.  The speech tag -- "replied the peer again" -- occurs as he pauses for a moment in his discourse (you can almost imagine Chris Marker narrating this. No? Maybe it's just me), and then resumes so that the pause has an effect of a musical rest.  And then there's his parenthesis, which occurs (like some of the quotations I cited above) in mid-couplet, between swear and hair.  That can look like a problem (even though he's in command of his own speech) since we tend to read sentences with long parantheses twice, first with the parenthesis and then skipping them.  Do that and, presto! here's what you get:

"But by this lock, this sacred lock I swear,
That while my nostrils draw the vital air,
This hand, which won it, shall for ever wear." 

Instead of an unrhymed first line (the rhyme abandoned in the parenthesis), we get an unexpected triplet!  I think that's pretty neat.

William Flesch's picture
William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).