Reference > Cambridge History > Renascence and Reformation > Prosody from Chaucer to Spenser > “Doggerel”
  Chaucer and his successors The influence of music  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XIII. Prosody from Chaucer to Spenser.

§ 5. “Doggerel”.


Its results, however, were (except in one important respect to be noted later) rather unfortunate, and even in not a few cases very ugly. For exactly how much the combination counted in the degradation of rime royal and, in a less degree, of the decasyllabic couplet—the octosyllabic, always an easy-going form, escaped better—it would be rash to attempt to determine. But, almost indisputably, it counted for a great deal—for next to everything—in the rise of the curious phenomenon called “doggerel” which we perceive during this century, and which, towards the close of it, and at the beginning of the next, usurps a very great position in the realm of verse.   11
  Chaucer applies the term “doggerel” to undistinguished and unpoetic verse or rime, apparently of any kind; and the widest modern use of it is not dissimilar. But, at the time of which we are speaking—the whole (probably) of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth—the word is wanted for a peculiar kind of verse, rimed, indeed, all but invariably, and deriving almost its whole poetical claim from rime, but possessing characteristics in some respects approaching, on one side, unrimed accentual structure of various lengths, and, on the other, the rimed “fourteener” or its offspring, the common measure.   12
  We saw, in treating of Gamelyn (which is pretty certainly older than the fifteenth century, though it is impossible to say how much), that the metre of that remarkable piece is the fourteener of Robert of Gloucester, “fingered” in a peculiar way—first by freely lengthening and shortening the iambic constitutents and, secondly, by utilising the middle pause in such a fashion as to make of the line two counter-running halves, rather than one uniform current with only a slight centre-halt. It is from the neglect of fingering in this process, and from the increase of attention to occasional accent only, that the “doggerel” of which we are speaking, which is dominant in the Middle Drama, very frequent elsewhere and, perhaps, actually present in not a little literary rime royal verse, takes its rise. It varies greatly in length; but most writers group their doggerel, roughly, in passages, if not in whole pieces. The shortest form (except the pure Skeltonics) vaguely represents octosyllabic or “four-accent” verse; the middle, decasyllables; the longest, alexandrines or fourteeners, though, in many instances, this telescopes itself out to sixteen or seventeen syllables, if not more, and tempts the reader or reciter to “patter,” to take them or even four “short” syllables in the stride from one “long” to another. 3  The effect is sometimes suitable enough for the lower kind of comic verse; but, for the higher kind, even of that, it is utterly unsuitable; while, for anything passionate or serious, it is fatal. It is the prevalence of it, in combination with the similar but even worse welter in serious verse, which has given the fifteenth century in English poetry so bad a name that some native historians have often said little about it, and that some famous foreign critics have dismissed it, almost or altogether, with a kind of contemptuous kick.   13
  The result, however, if of doubtful beauty in itself, was probably necessary, and can be shown to be a beneficent chapter in the history of English verse. For, in the first place, the Chaucerian “standardising,” as has been shown, had been attempted a little too early; and, in the second, there was a danger that it might have been carried yet further into a French uniformity and regularity which would have caused the abortion of most of the special beauties of English verse. And, though the main literary versification lacked music—even when, as, for instance, in Occleve, it had a certain mechanical correctness—while the doggerel was not so much poetry as jog-trot, or capering prose, there was a third division of verse which, until lately, has received very little attention, but which far exceeded the other two in poetical beauty and also in real prosodic interest. This is the great body of mostly, if not wholly, anonymous ballads, carols, nursery rimes, folk songs and miscellaneous popular lyrics generally—much of our oldest supply of which probably comes from this century—as Chevy Chace, The Nut Brown Maid, the exquisite carol I sing of a maiden certainly do.   14

Note 3. Some examples may be desirable:

Skeltonic:
       
And as full of good wyll
As faire Isaphyll:
Coryaunder.
Swete pomaunder,
Goode Cassaunder.

Pseudo-octosyllabic:

Very common—a fair sample is in Heywood’s Husband, Wife and Priest,
       
But by my soul I never go to Sir John
But I find him like a holy man,
where the very next lines slide into pseudo-heroics:
       
For either he is saying his devotion,
Or else he is going in procession.

Pseudo-alexandrine: Bale’s Kyng Johan:
       
Monkes, chanons and nones in dyvers colours and shape,
Both whyte, blacke, and pyed, God send their increase yll happe.

Pseudo-fourteeners: Thersites:
       
To augment their joy and the commons felicity,
Fare ye well, sweet audience God grant you prosperity.

But it is important to observe that by “pattering” or dwelling, these kinds may be run into one another to a great extent. [ back ]


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