In tune with the times?: English Renaissance metrics and the Lexicons of Early Modern English

  1. 1. Jennifer Roberts-Smith

    University of Toronto

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The Lexicons of Early Modern English is a database of more than 120 keyed, thoroughly proofed electronic transcriptions, minimally tagged for lexical content, of lexical works dating from 1480 to 1702. They are accompanied by a bibliography and a search engine. LEME’s coherence, simplicity and accuracy are its key attractions.

These conditions are essential to a project like mine, which I suspect is typical of many humanities research projects in that it requires efficient access to a large corpus of related works free from the interpretive intervention of modern habits of thinking. Trusting an instinct I felt as an actor, I set out to discover whether Shakespeare systematically used syllable-duration in the metre of his plays. There are, of course, no scanned transcriptions of complete verse works for the stage dating from Shakespeare’s lifetime extant; nor were Shakespeare and most of his contemporary playwrights inclined to write prosodies. However, the analogy between metre and music that is implied by my hypothesis — that if syllables have durations, they are like musical notes — was commonplace in the works of literary prosodists writing during Shakespeare’s lifetime. This analogy has been attributed by scholars for at least 100 years as belonging to the sixteenth-century movement which aimed to dignify English poetry by showing that it was similar to Classical poetry. But modern linguists have shown that the analogy was linguistically sound: Philip Sidney, for one, accurately identified the phonological durations of the English syllables he employed in his quantitative verse (Kristin Hanson 2001). Sidney, however, was arguably an elitist, whose work was not published during his lifetime and whose esoteric quantitative metrical experiments even he lost faith in: he abandoned them. The question is, were the musical-metrical prosodists also arguably esoteric elitists? They use musical vocabulary to describe English, as well as Classical, metres; but can their accounts of English metres be trusted to be accurate, empirical, and accessible to the ordinary auditor, rather than eccentric, abstract, and nationalistically ambitious? LEME makes this question answerable.

LEME’s evidence is provided in five ways. First, the corpus is comprised entirely of lexical works. This limits the potential for the errors of interpretation that can easily be made when a modern reader is trying to deduce meaning from a word’s literary context: lexical works name the things in the world to which words point and place words in the context of their synonyms. Second, LEME returns search results in the context of entire word entries, identifies the sections of works in which results appear, and provides electronic links to the entire works cited in the search results. This minimises the alternative hazard of interpreting a citation too far out of context. Third, the LEME works represent a broad range of linguistic contexts: they are bilingual dictionaries, monolingual dictionaries, glossaries of hard or foreign words, rhetoric handbooks, grammars, glossaries of technical terms or words of art. Patterns of word usage can hence be analysed according to topical context and register. Fourth, since LEME searches entire lexical works, not merely representative quotations as, for example, the Oxford English Dictionary does, patterns of word usage can be analysed statistically. It is possible, for example, to say confidently that the English metrical term tune is used in four of the thirteen works in the corpus in which it occurs, exclusively in the sense employed by George Puttenham (attrib.) in his Arte of English Poesie. (Roberts-Smith 2003) Fifth, the minimal tagging structure of the LEME database provides efficient access to patterns of equivalence that may not be apparent in un-tagged searchable texts. The LEMEheadword tag, for example, is used to identify words being explained, a status indicated by a variety of conventions in the original texts which may not be apparent in the keyed text: the graphical arrangement of words on a page, perhaps, or the kind of type in which the word is set. A search for the word tune will return a result showing that in none of 251 occurrences of the word in the LEME corpus is it used as a headword (Roberts-Smith 2003). These five avenues of access have allowed me to assess the demographic and chronological currency of the usages of a series of metrical terms common in literary prosodies.

For prosodists such as Puttenham, Webbe, Gascoigne, and Campion, these terms fall into two categories: English words, like tune or ditty, and words borrowed from Classical languages, like accent and iambic. When they use the unfamiliar Classical terms, they are at pains to explain them using the plain English words; but their explanations do not always match those given in contemporary bilingual and monolingual English dictionaries, as they are represented in LEME database. LEME shows that English Renaissance prosodists' lexical eccentricities reveal the limitations of their comparison between English metre and Classical metre. In some cases, they find it necessary to broaden the signification of Classical metrical terms to include elements they believe to be unique to English metre (stress, for example); in other cases, they limit Classical terms to exclude elements of English metre which have fallen out of fashion (rhyme, for example). These observations will not be surprising to scholars of English metrics: they show the neo-Classical reform project at work. What may be surprising is that a comparison of the lexical ranges of Classical and English metrical terms in the Lexicons database reveals that the English terms were inherently musical: they indicated syllable duration and vocal pitch in addition to stress and number and they could almost always be used to refer to spoken or sung compositions with equal accuracy and frequency. So the comparison between metre and music was widespread, commonplace, and English; it was not merely a function of the metrical reform project which coloured the prosodies.

In combination with lexical analyses of the same words in Shakespeare’s works, this evidence argues that Shakespeare thought of his own verse in musical terms. A survey of Shakespeare’s works shows that his usage of metrical terms matches those found in the dictionaries rather than those found in the prosodies. In other words, this aural and vernacular poet still saw the gulf between Classical metrics and traditional, native English metrics. He thought of himself as writing English metre, tuneful iambics, perhaps.

The LEME database, then, has provided me with an empirical basis for further investigation of my topic. If Shakespeare equates tune with time in As You Like It (5.3.32) does he think of the metre of his own dramatic verse, which William Webbe the prosodist and Robert Cawdrey the lexicographer would both call its tune, as literally incorporating time in the form of relative syllable duration? Is Shakespeare writing musical verse with an inherent temporal rhythm that guides actors as to the relative pace of their delivery? If this is the case, do we need to revisit our understanding of the English Renaissance dramatic iambic, to locate it in the context of the native English metrical tradition revealed by the lexical works in the LEME database?


Campion, Thomas
Obseruations in the art of English poesie
Smith, G.G.
Elizabethan Critical Essays
Oxford University Press
1602; 1904

Cawdry, Robert
A table alphabeticall
Lancashire, I.
Lexicons of Early Modern English
University of Toronto Libraries and University of Toronto Press
Alpha vers. Dec. 10, 2004

Gascoigne, George
Certayne Notes of Instruction
Smith, G.G.
Elizabethan Critical Essays
Oxford University Press
1574; 1904

Hanson, Kristen
Quantitative meter in English: the lesson of Sir Philip
English Language & Linguistics

Lancashire, I.
Lexicons of Early Modern English
University of Toronto Libraries and University of Toronto Press
Alpha vers. Dec. 10, 2004

Puttenham, George, attrib.
The Arte of Poesie
Lancashire, I.
Representative Poetry Online (Vers. 3.0)
Web Development Group,
InformationTechnology Services, U. Toronto Library
1589; 2002

Puttenham, Richard, attrib.
The Arte of English Poesie
Early English Books Online
ProQuest Information and Learning
1589 STC 20519.

Roberts-Smith, Jennifer
Musical-metrical vocabulary in Early Modern
English: a preliminary lexicon
Renaissance Society of America

Roberts-Smith, Jennifer
Puttenham rehabilitated: the significance of 'tune' in The Arte of English Poesie
Computing in the Humanities Working Papers/Text Technology
September 2003

Shakespeare, William
Latham, Agnes
As You Like It

Sidney, Philip
Robertson, J.
The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia
Clarendon Press
1590; 1973

Webbe, William
A Discourse of English Poetrie
Smith, G.G.
Elizabethan Critical Essays
Oxford University Press
1602; 1904

Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Victoria

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

June 15, 2005 - June 18, 2005

139 works by 236 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double checked.

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (25), ALLC/EADH (32), ACH/ALLC (17)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None