Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sir Philip Sydney extols poetic qualities of English

On a snowy afternoon, I am reading Sir Philip Sydney's "In Defense of Poetry." He writes about the
superiority of English as a poetic language, something I had not considered, ever, after listening to Spanish, Cherokee, Greek, Welsh, Ojibwa, French, Chinese, Kiowa, and other languages. However, here is his argument:

  "Now of versifying there are two sorts, the one ancient, the other modern. (1) The
ancient marked the quantity of each syllable, and according to that framed his verse; (2) the modern observing only number, with some regard of the accent, the chief life of it stands in that like sounding of the words, which we call rime. Whether of these be the more excellent would bear many speeches; the ancient no doubt more fit for music, both words and tune observing quantity; and more fit lively to express divers passions, by the low or lofty sound of the well-weighed syllable. The latter likewise with his rime strikes a certain music to the ear; and, in fine, since it doth delight, though by another way, it obtains the same purpose; there being in either, sweetness, and wanting in neither, majesty. Truly the English, before any other vulgar language I know, is fit for both sorts. For, for the ancient, the Italian is so full of vowels that it must ever be cumbered with elisions; the Dutch so, of the other side, with consonants, that they cannot yield the sweet sliding fit for a verse. The French in his whole language hath not one word that hath his accent in the last syllable saving two, called antepenultima, and little more hath the Spanish; and therefore very gracelessly may they use dactyls. The English is subject to none of these defects. Now for rime, 54 though we do not observe quantity, yet we observe the accent very precisely, which other languages either cannot do, or will not do so absolutely. That c├Žsura, or breathing-place in the midst of the verse, neither Italian nor Spanish have, the French and we never almost fail of."