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ANOTHER factor in the construction of verse is what is technically termed "quantity." By this is meant the bulk of syllables (quantus, "how great"), as measured by the time they take to utter. Time-value reigns again supreme, though in a narrower field. "Quantity" is sometimes given a wider sense, to include silent spaces as well as syllables, being thus made virtually synonymous with time. Here, for the sake of clearness, it shall be restricted to its more definite use, which is that familiar to English metrists. As applied to syllables it takes account of structure only, not of accentuation, unless the latter can be shown to affect the time taken in pronouncing.
When this definition is laid before an English reader, he may be inclined to ask whether it has any real meaning. Do syllables differ in time of pronouncing? "I know," he may say, “what you mean by more or less strongly accented syllables. I recognize a difference between these, though I may not be able to define its exact nature and degree. But a difference in time-value is much more doubtful. Do not all syllables take practically the same time to
utter, unless perhaps the strongly accented take a shade longer than the weakly accented? Are you not simply reintroducing under a new name the distinction already taken cognizance of in last chapter?”
He will not be alone in feeling these doubts. Very eminent critics have expressed them. The conception comes from Classic metre, and Classical scholars seem particularly incredulous of its applicability to English verse; the late Prof. H. A. J. Munro, of Cambridge, proclaimed this incredulity in remarkably strong terms. Our poets, on the other hand, incline to believe in it; Tennyson's "Life," by his son, shows him an earnest student of quantity. Whom shall we trust, poet or critic? Neither, if we are wise, but examine for ourselves, and draw our own conclusions. In so doing, it will be necessary to refer briefly to the structure of Greek and Latin metre, that we may be able to distinguish-as even eminent critics have not always done the fact of "quantity" from the Classic rules for its observance.
The very notion of quantity is unfamiliar to us in English. We pay no attention to this characteristic of syllables, and often neglect differences due to it, slurring unaccented syllables till they are barely heard. Other nations have different habits. The old Greeks and Romans gave such distinction and prominence to time-value, that it became the index
1 See Cambridge Philosophical Society's "Transactions,” vol. x. (1864), pp. 374-402. Munro's paper is dated February, 1860, and an appendix is dated July, 1861. The paper is often quoted in contemporary controversy.
2 "Alfred, Lord Tennyson. A Memoir." 2 vols. (1897).
of their verse; they used it, as we use accent, to emphasize rhythm. They classified all syllables as either long or short, and accounted one long syllable exactly equal to two short. (This last was probably a metrical convention; but to secure acceptance it must have accorded in the main with fact.) A few syllables were exceptional, might change their quantity under special conditions. All others remained long or short, absolutely and under all circumstances. To make an error in quantity showed clownish ignorance, comparable to our wrongly accenting a familiar word. It is still held to disgrace anyone pretending to knowledge of the Classics, though he must have learned by rule what living languages teach by ear.
Two principles created this quantity. A syllable containing a long vowel was always long. (Short vowels and long were doubtless distinguished in speech; the Greeks had different letters for long O and short O, long E and short E.) And a syllable containing a short vowel followed by two or more consonants was also long. Many grammars confuse matters by stating that in this latter case the vowel became long, but this seems erroneous; the best authorities say only that the syllable was reckoned long. It was so reckoned, I imagine, simply because a plurality of consonants took as long to pronounce as did a long vowel. They computed, it should be said, always from vowel to vowel, so that all consonants preceding a vowel in any syllable affected the quantity, not of that syllable, but of its predecessor. And so nice were their ears that two
consonants following a vowel were sufficient to constitute length; the only short syllable was that containing a short vowel separated by but one consonant from the vowel of the following syllable.
Now there is no reason to suppose that their rules regarding quantity hold good in English. Our habits of speech are different, our ears are differently trained. But the fact of quantity remains, and is based on the same broad principles. For, first, we also have differences among our vowels, which our grammarians hold to be differences in length. Recent philology, indeed, tends to call these differences of quality rather than quantity, and speaks of open and shut more than of long and short vowels. But the difference at any rate exists, and can be used for ' metrical purposes. We all recognize a difference between the vowel-sounds in bat and bar, net and neat, ill and isle, hop and hope, luff and lure. The alternative pronunciations of knowledge and knowledge, primer and primer, turn wholly on this difference. And, as it is commonly regarded as a difference in length, our poets would be justified in treating it as such.
The second distinction is still more palpable. A syllable encumbered with many consonants must, in the nature of things, take more time to pronounce than one with fewer. Here, again, our philologists complicate issues by talking of long and short consonants, and of consonants whose effect is to shorten a weak vowel. But it seems doubtful whether such niceties appeal to an ordinary reader, seeing that (as above said) our ears are habitually insensitive to
minute differences of quantity. They are not, however, so hopelessly dulled as to be unable to realize that a syllable like shouldst must take longer to pronounce fully than a syllable like shut. A broad distinction of this kind is all we really want. It is sufficient to create metrical difference, and there is no necessity to push analysis further.
It does not follow that our poets use these differences consciously, much less that they are bound by fixed rules. The Latin rules are almost certainly too narrow for our usage. Our speech so abounds in consonants, and we are accustomed to get over them so glibly, that two consonants are probably insufficient to create an idea of length. One English poet, at any rate, proposed a much wider range.1 Again, our spelling is a much less safe guide than was the Latin. Quantity of course depends on sound, and letters should represent vocal utterances. But our alphabet is notoriously chaotic in this respect. Single letters represent double or even triple sounds, and double letters represent single sounds, while our pronunciation is very far from being reproduced in our spelling. Our habits of speech, moreover, are often peculiar. When the modern Italian pronounces words like bocca, donna, he sounds both the doubled consonants; and there can be little doubt that the ancient Italian did the same. But in our utterance of words like bucket or bonnet only one consonantal sound divides the syllables, and the first syllables of these words cannot possibly be ac
1 Charles Kingsley, "Life and Letters," vol. i., p. 347.