Iambic Pentameter & Chaucer

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In my post on Shakespeare I wrote that a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. With the Prologue, meter tells us the story of Chaucer’s language and how he spoke it.

Iambic Pentameter  & Blank Verse

In my previous post on Iambic Pentameter (The Basics), I quoted the opening to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, saying I would take a look at it in a later post. This is the later post.  And here are the opening lines, once again.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
geoffrey-chaucerThe droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

There are some sites that credit Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, with first introducing Iambic Pentameter to the English Language. The confusion seems to stem from the difference between Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter. Chaucer did not write Blank Verse. All of Chaucer’s Iambic Pentameter is rhymed – using a form called Open Heroic Couplets or Riding Rhymes. Judging by the literature left to us, Henry Howard was indeed the first to introduce Iambic Pentameter Blank Verse to English literature, but he wasn’t the first to introduce Iambic Pentameter. The first record we have of Iambic Pentameter is in Chaucer’s verse.

The trick to recognizing Chaucer’s use of Iambic Pentameter is in knowing how to pronounce the words. The first key is in recognizing that English is a Germanic language and that in Chaucer’s day the split between English and proto-German was still relatively fresh. Why is that important? Because in German all vowels are pronounced.  There is no silent e as in the English word Rose (as in the flower).  The German word for  Rose is die Rose.  The word is the same in English and German. However, in German, it is pronounced something like  Ros-uh (having two syllables). And in Chaucer’s day, this pronunciation still held sway in many English words. The other key is a familiarity with the Iambic Pentameter pattern. Knowing that Chaucer was writing Iambic Pentameter helps us to know which –e was silent, in which word, and which –e was not. (Note: Some modern editions appear to only include the -e in words in which it was pronounced.)

Also, this post isn’t about translating the text into modern English. The Gypsy Scholar provides a good translation and I’m all for supporting another scholarly blogger!

Now to the Scansion

From the very first line of the Canterbury tales, Chaucer shows us that he’s not going to be hide-bound in his use of Iambic Pentameter. His first line is a headless line with a feminine ending. (Now, having said that, there are some scholars who insist that aprill was originally spelled aprille and should be three syllables. I don’t buy it. But I’ve thrown in an interesting discussion at the bottom of the post to show to what degree scholars will debate such matters – and how it is only through meter that we have a clue.)Whan that...

You might ask how a reader should know whether the final word soote is one or two syllables. Scansion doesn’t help us because we could just as easily read the word as being one syllable. (Pronouncing the e was not a hard and fast rule – as with droughte – some editions, I notice, omit the e in this word.) In the case of soote, the only reason we know is that Chaucer uses the word, midline, later in The Second Nun’s Tale: “The soote savour, lilie was hir name.” In this line, if we don’t pronounce soote as two syllables soot-uh, the iambic pattern will be broken.

the Droghte

Notice that perced should be pronounced percèd. In textual parlance, it shouldn’t be clipped. If we clip the pronunciation, the Iambic pattern will be broken. The tradition of pronouncing -ed words continued well into the Victorian Era.

and bathed

Once again, bathed should be pronounced bathèd. Just as in modern english, we want the strong stress (or ictus) to be on the first syllable of every. Unless we pronounce bathed with two syllables, the iambic pattern will be broken. Every is also elided to read as two syllables, just as in modern English. Note also that we don’t pronounce the e at the end of veyne. If you did, you would introduce an anapestic foot into the line (two unstressed syllables before a stressed syllable) and Chaucer simply does not write anapests – which is helpful to know. (If someone does find one, I’m ready to stand corrected.)

of which virtu

The only real stickler is the word virtu which can be safely understood as virtue in modern English. In modern English however, it’s the first syllable which is stressed, not the second. An expertise on Latin and French is pushing the limits of my knowledge (I’m a carpenter for a living) but a little research shows us two things: the word comes from the Latin virtus (stress on the first syllable); but also that the Anglo-Saxons absorbed the word from the Normans (middle-French) and that even the proto-French had to do everything differently. That is, they accented the second syllable of the word, pronouncing it vertu. Because trochaic feet are very rare in Chaucer, and because we know the English language absorbed an astonishing number of French words (80% of our vocabulary) as a result of the Norman invasion (just a couple hundred years prior to Chaucer), we can safely say that the Iambic Foot is retained. When reading Chaucer, and when in doubt, always read it iambically.

These first four lines cover just about every exigency you will find in Chaucer’s verse.

When Zephirus ii

The first of the four lines is interesting in that one might be tempted to scan it as a tetramter line, thus:


This would make the line, in effect, octasyllabic – an iambic tetrameter line. 400 years later this might be an acceptable iambic variant, but not in Chaucer’s day. The second interesting question is how to pronounce sweete – one or two syllables. Here are two possiblities if we pronounce sweete with two syllables:


In the first instance, the first foot is an amphibrach. This might go in Modern English, but an amphibrach is an all but unacceptable iambic variant in Chaucer’s day. If you read an amphibrach in Chaucer, you should find probably find another way to pronounce the word. In fact, in Chaucer’s day, Zephirus was pronounced with a long i – Zeph-irus. The second reading retains this pronunciation but gives us two inverted feet – two trochaic feet – in the first and second foot. All this to grant sweete two syllables. Since two consecutive trochaic feet just don’t happen in Chaucer’s meter, and since iambic feet are the rule – the first reading is most likely the way Chaucer heard the line – a headless line.

Interestingly, Chaucer seems to have pronounced sweete with either one or two syllables, depending on what he needed for the sake of the meter. In the Miller’s Tale one reads the two pronunciations even in the same sentence:

What do ye, hony-comb, (sweete) Al-i-soun,
My fair-e bryd, my (sweet-e) cy-na-mome?

In the first line, sweete is pronounced with one syllable, in the second, with two. So, like every poet after him, Chaucer wasn’t above inconsistency for the sake of meter. I personally like the effect that changing the pronunciation produces. It gives the speaker a sort of sly ingratiating tone as he flatters the girl – some things never change.

In the lines above, croppes and yonge are pronounced with two syllables to retain the meter. The line containing the words is headless. Sonne was probably pronounced with two syllables, making the ending a feminine ending. I say probably, because in other lines where the word sonne is in the middle, Chaucer treats it as a two syllable word: Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe.

and smalle foweles

Corages and pilgrimages both end the lines with feminine endings. The only word that is likely trip up a modern reader, trying to read according to Chaucer’s meter, is nature. As with virtu, nature is pronounced na-ture, the stress on the second syllable. If you check Webster’s, you will find that the etymology of the word places it with middle english and middle french – and as with virtu, middle french (as with modern French) tends to stress the second syllable in words like these. At the end of this post, I have provided a link to a performance of the prologue. Notice how the reader pronounces nature.

and palmeres

You can see that Chaucer’s lines are carefully iambic. For instance, you might have been tempted to pronounce the -e at the end of kowthe, but knowing that Chaucer was careful to preserve the meter you might rightly guess that the -e remained silent. The rest is fairly self-explanatory. The only word which might trip you up is Canterbury. Nowadays, in America at least, we pronounce the word as having four full syllables. But in Chaucer’s day (and the meter is our only clue) the word was apparently pronounced with three syllables – Cant-er-b’ry. Listen to the linked reading  below. It’s somewhat similar to the modern day difference in the American and English pronunciation of secretary. Americans give it four syllables – se-cre-tar-y, the Brits give it three – se-cre-t’ry. Several of the lines end with feminine endings, a favorite iambic variant in Chaucer’s metrical toolkit, along with headless lines (though some don’t believe Chaucer didn’t write headless lines – see the note below).

Anyway, if I think of something I left out, I’ll add it.

If this post was helpful, let me know.

Now listen to it read. The wave file is linked from the following site which offers a pronunciation guide. Once Iambic Pentameter becomes second nature, though, you may find you no longer need pronunciation guides to the same extent. Enjoy.