Gower Bibliography

Chaucer, Gower, and the History of the Hendecasyllable

Duffell, Martin J.. "Chaucer, Gower, and the History of the Hendecasyllable." In In English Historical Metrics. Ed. McCully, C.B. and Anderson, J.J.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 210-218. ISBN 0521554640


Duffell's principal thesis is that Chaucer was the first medieval poet in any language to compose in iambic pentameter. Both to support his claim and to establish its significance, he begins with a brief historical survey of the appearance of the ten-syllable line in French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese in the centuries that preceded Chaucer. This is a tall order for such a brief essay, and difficult for a non-metrist to evaluate. Duffell explains most of his terms well enough (though "proparoxytone" required the reviewer to reach for his dictionary), and makes sufficiently clear how the French décasyllable or vers de dix (which despite the name, might have eleven or twelve syllables) and the Italian endacsillabi (which despite the name, might have only ten) are related to one another and to the English "pentameter" line. His argument does depend, however, on some rather broad claims about the perceptual bases of metrical patterning that one has to suspect might be discussable, and occasionally on Duffell's own choice of one previous scholar's arguments over another's. (It would also be a bit easier to follow if Duffell had marked the stresses in his examples.) Chaucer's innovation, Duffell argues, was to transform Boccaccio's endecasillabos (e.g. in Filostrato) by excluding all "triple time" lines (the reviewer learned these long ago as "dactylic") to create a consistent "duple-time" (i.e. iambic) rhythm for his ten-syllable lines. Such a claim depends upon accepting that final –e is syllabic in Chaucer's verse. Duffell invokes Samuels (1972) and Windeatt (1977) in his support, claiming that their arguments are "overwhelming," and goes on the present some more evidence of his own. This is where Gower comes in, but it is also, I am afraid, where I find the argument hardest to follow. Gower also used décasyllables in his Ballades, but instead of the fixed caesura of his French predecessors, he used a variable caesura in the manner of the Italians. He was able to do so because the words stress in Anglo-Norman, as in Italian, was stronger than in continental French. Humans aren't capable of perceiving rapid counts as high as ten, Duffell argues in the first section of his essay. The French poets, writing in a language in which the differences among levels of stress was not as perceptible, were obliged to base their meter upon the total number of syllables but would inevitably lose count before they got to ten, and therefore wrote décasyllables in lines of 4 and 6 (or less commonly 5 and 5), using the caesura to mark off regular quantities that could be perceived. Gower and the Italians were able to base their metrics on the count of stressed syllables instead and, since there were fewer, would not lose count before the end, allowing them far greater freedom in the internal construction of the line. Gower's lines are also predominantly "duple" (i.e. iambic), in approximately the same proportion as Petrarch's though not in as high a proportion as Chaucer's. "It is likely that the srrong-weak alternating structure of the English and Anglo-Norman languages made an entirely duple-time [ten-syllable line] acceptable to English ears long before it became the norm in Italian and Spanish," Duffell writes in conclusion (p. 218). Well, okay, that explains why "duple-time" might be more common in Anglo-Norman and English than in French, but Gower's use of "duple-time," proportionally nearly identical to Petrarch's, hardly explains why Chaucer abandoned "triple-time" so completely and so long before the Italians, whose language, Duffell judges had a word stress as strong as Anglo-Norman (p. 218). Duffell does attribute to Gower, however, an innovation in the use of the décasyllable that is just about as significant as Chaucer's was in English versification, or that would have been if he had had as many imitators. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 19.2]

Item Type:Book Section
Subjects:Style, Rhetoric, and Versification

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