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This article is taken from PN Review 170, Volume 32 Number 6, July - August 2006.

The Word in Time 3: 'Marlowe's mighty line' Chris McCully

3: 'Marlowe's mighty line'

No less an authority than Ben Jonson invoked 'Marlowe's mighty line'. Jonson offered this conclusion in a poem celebrating Shakespeare, and the implicit comparison is just. Certainly there's evidence from the poetry of both Marlowe and Shakespeare that the two young men reacted to each other's talents, and not just in terms of subject-matter, use of sources, or dramatic technique. They reacted with a more alert discomfort. Their relationship - with language, as well as with each other - is a matter of speech-rhythms, and of metre.

The ten-syllable line that English literary history has come to know as the iambic pentameter makes its first appearance in Chaucer. It's the vehicle of much of The Canterbury Tales, and it was Chaucer's invention. In his hands the line is largely alternating - de-Dum, de-Dum, de-Dum, et-Ce-te-Ra - although it's saved from tedium by Chaucer's lightness of touch, and his sense of where not to end a line. That is, if every Chaucerian pentametric line had been end-stopped, co-extensive with a syntactic phrase, then the result would have been repetitious doggerel. But Chaucer varies both pace and structure, slyly, knowingly allowing the syntax of many of his lines to rove over the ten-syllable break. Speaking of his Prioress, for example, Chaucer writes that

Hir over-lyppe wiped she so clene
That in hir coppe ther was no ferthyng sene
Of grece, whan she drunken hadde hir ...


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