J. M. Pressley
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Marc Pressley
ENG 493 (Poetry Workshop)
Professor Richard Jones
October 29, 1996

A Brief History of the Rhyme Royale

The rhyme royale is a verse form originating in Middle English, rhyming ababbcc and traditionally composed, as most English verse of the day, in iambic pentameter. The form seems etymogically within the same family as the ottava rima—if the fifth line of the ottava rima (rhymed abababcc) is dropped, we have the seven-line form of the rhyme royale. There are, of course, other theories regarding how the form came about, as its birth has become obscured in history. Two prominent theories have it that the rhyme royale is based upon the seven-line lyric stanzas of Machaut and Deschamps, or that it is a variety of chant royale (a form used to celebrate the guild festivals of France and England, which were popular from the late 13th century well into Chaucer's time). The ottava rima theory seems most valid.

The earliest recorded usage in English is Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, giving it the alternate nickname of the "Troilus stanza" (Verse 1 excerpt below):

Troilus and Criseyde
by Geoffrey Chaucer
Book 1

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the kyng Priamus sone of Troye,
In louynge how his auentures fellen
Ffro wo to wele, and after out of ioie,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Thesiphone, thow help me for tendite
Thise woful vers that wepen as I write.

Chaucer also employed the rhyme royale form in The Parlement of Foules as well as several of the Canterbury Tales ("The Man of Law", "The Clerk", and "The Second Nun").

Despite its mysterious origins, the rhyme royale post-Chaucer grew widely in popularity among English poets, helped, no doubt, by the usage of the stanza by King James I of Scotland (of Biblical fame) in his King's Quair (c. 1425)—although the term "rhyme royale" would not be applied before John Quixley coined it around 1400. Gascione (Certayne Notes, 1575) further defined the term by using "royale" with reference to the gravity of its subject (i.e., Chaucer's usage) instead of its literal royal associations.

The popularity of the verse became dominant by the 15th century, typified by the writings of Barclay, Dunbar, Hawes, Henryson, Hoccleve, and Lydgate, and was used widely in the dramatic works of Bale and Skelton. Even as late as the latter half of the 16th century, Spenser (Four Hymnes) and Shakespeare (The Rape of Lucrece) demonstrated the lofty position held by the rhyme royale, that it was the chief English stanza for serious verse. Exampled below:

The Rape of Lucrece
by William Shakespeare
Stanza 1

From the besieged Ardea all in post,
Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
Lust-breathed Tarquin leaves the Roman host,
And to Collatium bears the lightless fire
Which, in pale embers hid, lurks to aspire
And girdle with embracing flames the waist
Of Collatine's fair love, Lucrece the chaste.

The rhyme royale would fall into disfavor, marked primarily by the pre-1619 revision of Michael Drayton's work, Mortimeriados, into an ottava rima narrative, renamed The Barron's Wars. Until the Neoclassical movement in poetry, the form seems to have languished in obscurity. Wordsworth provides an excellent example of the form in Resolution and Independence:

Resolution and Independence
by William Wordsworth
Stanza 1

There was a roaring in the wind all night;
The rain came heavily and fell in floods;
But now the sun is rising calm and bright;
The birds are singing in the distant woods;
Over his own sweet voice the Stock-dove broods;
The Jay makes answer as the Magpie chatters;
And all the air is filled with pleasant noise of waters.

Though the form cannot be considered as experiencing a rebirth of popularity (compared to, for instance, the sonnet forms and their endurance into the 20th century), it has seen something of a mini-Renaissance as typified by several poems of W. H. Auden (possibly building on the rediscovery tradition of Wordsworth), and done with great effect in Letter to Lord Byron:

Letter to Lord Byron
by W. H. Auden
Part I (Stanzas 1 - 5)

Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet's fan-mail will be nothing new.
And then a lord—Good Lord, you must be peppered,
Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard,

With notes from perfect strangers starting, "Sir,
I liked your lyrics, but Childe Harold's trash",
"My daughter writes, should I encourage her?"
Sometimes containing frank demands for cash,
Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash,
And sometimes, though I think this rather crude,
The correspondent's photo in the rude.

And as for manuscripts—by every post...
I can't improve on Pope's shrill indignation,
But hope that it will please his spiteful ghost
To learn the use in culture's prorogation
Of modern methods of communication;
New roads, new rails, new contacts, as we know
From documentaries by the G.P.O.

For since the British Isles went Protestant
A church confession is too high for most.
But still confession is a human want,
So Englishmen must make theirs now by post
And authors hear them over breakfast toast.
For, failing them, there's nothing but the wall
Of public lavatories on which to scrawl.

So if ostensibly I write to you
To chat about your poetry or mine
There're many other reasons; though it's true
That I have, at the age of twenty-nine
Just read Don Juan and I found it fine.
I read it on the boat to Reykjavik
Except when eating or asleep or sick.

As one might tell, the stanza seems used primarily as a sequence poem--using the stanza in an epic form (Rape of Lucrece, for instance, which runs for 266 stanzas). However, the rhyme royale is excellent for terse, simple poems of one or two stanzas. The poem I've chosen to write for this assignment is a one-stanza piece entitled Vanderdecken Rounds Cape Hope:

Vanderdecken Rounds Cape Hope
by Marc Pressley

Blow on, bastard Aeolus, loose your gale;
If this ship be a tomb then here I'll lie.
So blow your worst, shred mast and sail,
Let your lightning rip asunder the sky;
You'll get no tears, you'll hear no wailing cry;
Instead, a curse, as this vessel rolls low,
And descends to the shifting sand below.


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