Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
A Defence of Rhyme in Tragedy
By John Dryden (16311700)
From Essay of Dramatic Poesy
IT concerns me less than any, said Neander (seeing he had ended), to reply to this discourse; because when I should have proved, that verse may be natural in plays, yet I should always be ready to confess, that those which I have written in this kind come short of that perfection which is required. Yet since you are pleased I should undertake this province, I will do it, though with all imaginable respect and deference, both to that person from whom you have borrowed your strongest arguments, and to whose judgment, when I have said all, I finally submit. But before I proceed to answer your objections, I must first remember you, that I exclude all comedy from my defence; and next, that I deny not but blank verse may be also used; and content myself only to assert, that in serious plays, where the subject and characters are great, and the plot unmixed with mirth, which might allay or divert those concernments which are produced, rhyme is there as natural, and more effectual, than blank verse.
And now having laid down this as a foundationto begin with CritesI must crave leave to tell him, that some of his arguments against rhyme reach no further than, from the faults and defects of ill rhyme, to conclude against the use of it in general. May not I conclude against blank verse by the same reason? If the words of some poets, who write in it, are either ill-chosen or ill-placed (which makes not only rhyme, but all kinds of verse in any language unnatural), shall I, for their vicious affectation, condemn those excellent lines of Fletcher, which are written in that kind? Is there anything in rhyme more constrained than this line in blank verse?
I heaven invoke, and strong resistance make;
where you see both the clauses are placed unnaturally; that is, contrary to the common way of speaking, and that without the excuse of a rhyme to cause it: yet you would think me very ridiculous, if I should accuse the stubbornness of blank verse for this, and not rather the stiffness of the poet. Therefore, Crites, you must either prove that words, though well chosen and duly placed, yet render not rhyme natural in itself; or that, however natural and easy the rhyme may be, yet it is not proper for a play. If you insist on the former part, I would ask you what other conditions are required to make rhyme natural in itself, besides an election of right words, and a right disposition of them? For the due choice of your words expresses your sense naturally, and the due placing them adapts the rhyme to it. If you object, that one verse may be made for the sake of another, though both the words and rhyme be apt, I answer, it cannot possibly so fall out; for either there is a dependence of sense betwixt the first line and the second, or there is none; if there be that connexion, then in the natural position of the words the latter line must of necessity flow from the former; if there be no dependence, yet still the due ordering of words makes the last line as natural in itself as the other; so that the necessity of a rhyme never forces any but bad or lazy writers to say what they would not otherwise. Tis true, there is both care and art required to write in verse. A good poet never establishes the first line till he has sought out such a rhyme as may fit the sense, already prepared to heighten the second; many times the close of the sense falls into the middle of the next verse, or farther off, and he may often avail himself of the same advantages in English which Virgil had in Latin, he may break off in the hemistick, and begin another line. Indeed, the not observing these two last things, makes plays which are writ in verse so tedious; for though, most commonly, the sense is to be confined to the couplet, yet nothing that does perpetuo tenore fluere, run in the same channel, can please always. 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.
If then verse may be made natural in itself, how becomes it unnatural in a play? You say the stage is the representation of nature, and no man in ordinary conversation speaks in rhyme. But you foresaw, when you said this, that it might be answered; neither does any man speak in blank verse, or in measure without rhyme. Therefore you concluded, that which is nearest nature is still to be preferred. But you took no notice, that rhyme might be made as natural as blank verse, by the well placing of the words, etc. All the difference between them, when, they are both correct, is the sound in one, which the other wants; and if so, the sweetness of it, and all the advantage resulting from it, which are handled in the preface to the Rival Ladies, will yet stand good. As for that place in Aristotle, where he says plays should be writ in that kind of verse which is nearest prose, it makes little for you; blank verse being properly measured prose. Now measure alone, in any modern language, does not constitute verse; those of the ancients in Greek and Latin consisted in quantity of words, and a determinate number of feet. But when, by the inundation of the Goths and Vandals into Italy, new languages were introduced, and barbarously mingled with the Latin, of which the Italian, Spanish, French, and ours (made out of them and the Teutonic), are dialects, a new way of poesy was practised; new, I say, in those countries, for in all probability it was that of the conquerors in their own nations; at least we are able to prove that the eastern people have used it from all antiquity. This new way consisted in measure or number of feet and rhyme. The sweetness of rhyme and observation of accent, supplying the place of quantity in words, which could neither exactly be observed by those barbarians, who knew not the rules of it, neither was it suitable to their tongues as it had been to the Greek and Latin. No man is tied in modern poetry to observe any farther rule in the feet of his verse, but that they be dissyllables; whether spondee, trochee, or iambic, it matters not; only he is obliged to rhyme; neither do the Spanish, French, Italians, or Germans acknowledge at all, or very rarely, any such kind of poesy as blank verse amongst them. Therefore, at most tis but a poetic prose, a sermo pedestris; and as such, most fit for comedies, where I acknowledge rhyme to be improper. Further, as to that quotation of Aristotle, our couplet verses may be rendered as near prose as blank verse itself, by using those advantages I lately named; as breaks in an hemistick, or running the sense into another line; thereby making art and order appear as loose and free as nature; or, not tying ourselves to couplets strictly, we may use the benefit of the Pindaric way, practised in the Siege of Rhodes, where the numbers vary, and the rhyme is disposed carelessly, and far from often chiming. Neither is that other advantage of the ancients to be despised, of changing the kind of verse when they please, with the change of the scene, or some new entrance; for they confine not themselves always to iambics, but extend their liberty to all lyric numbers, and sometimes even to hexameter. But I need not go so far to prove, that rhyme, as it succeeds to all other offices of Greek and Latin verse, so especially to this of plays, since the custom of nations at this day confirms it; the French, Italian, and Spanish tragedies are generally writ in it; and sure the universal consent of the most civilized parts of the world, ought in this, as it doth in other customs, to include the rest.