Voices of Earlier English: Thomas Wyatt on the Execution of Anne Boleyn

On the 17th of May, in 1536, from his prison window in the Bell Tower, Sir Thomas Wyatt witnessed the executions of George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton. Two days later he was to witness the execution of his Queen and friend, Anne Boleyn. He wrote this poem on the horror of it. "Circa Regna Tonat" is Latin for "It thunders about the throne."

Reading with a moderately conservative, aristocratic early 16th century courtly London accent.




Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei
Thomas Wyatt (b. 1503)

Who lyst his welthe and eas Retayne,
Hym selffe let hym vnknowne contayne;
Presse not to ffast in at that gatte
Wher the Retorne standes by desdayne:
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

The hye montaynis ar blastyd oft,
When the lowe vaylye ys myld and soft;
Ffortune with helthe stondis at debate;
The ffall ys grevous ffrome Aloffte:
And sure, circa Regna tonat.

These blodye dayes haue brok my hart;
My lust, my youth dyd then departe,
And blynd desyre of astate;
Who hastis to clyme sekes to reuerte:
Of truthe, circa Regna tonat.

The bell towre showed me suche syght
That in my hed stekys day and nyght;
Ther dyd I lerne out of a grate,
Ffor all vauore, glory or myght,
That yet circa Regna tonat.

By proffe, I say, ther dyd I lerne,
Wyt helpythe not deffence to yerne,
Of innocence to pled or prate;
Ber low, therffor, geve god the sterne,
Ffor sure, circa Regna tonat.

Philological notes:

Like other Renaissance poets, Wyatt could and did use different pronunciations of the same word to make rhyme that would have been impossible for a writer restricting himself to one dialect, or with the misfortune to be born in a more phonologically stable era with a more dialectally hidebound literary language.

Middle English /a:/ — Wyatt's English had not raised the a of name. For him, rhymes such as sake/lack, haste/fast, face/pass (i.e. sa:k/lak, ha:st/fast, fa:s/pas) were acceptable, and the important distinction was primarily of length. Wyatt commonly interrhymes historical /a:/ or /a/ with each other. Very rarely does he rhyme either of them with anything higher as he does in cast/rest/best, suggesting that such raising was not the norm for his target variety of EnglishRhymes such as wrest/haste indicate only that wrest had a different vowel in his dialect than in the one which yielded the modern standard form of the word. (The manuscript in Wyatt's own hand has wrast which is what one would expect from Mercian Old English wrǣstan <- Proto-Germanic *wraistijaną, like last from OE lǣstan <- PGmc. *laistijaną. The standard pronunciation of the related word "wrestle" was "wrassle" until the 18th century when a spelling-pronunciation took effect.)
In this poem, the vowel of GRATE rhymes with Latin tonat, which would be very unlikely if this vowel had moved very farIn 1536 in cultivated courtly speech, it cannot have been any higher than [æ:] at the very most, and was probably lower than that. Italians, Germans and French-speakers continue for another fifty years or so to equate this vowel with the A of their own languages, and the orthoepist John Hart writing later in the middle of the century describes this vowel as distinctly a-like. I decided to aim for the articulatory range of cardinal [a:], allowing for somewhat higher variants, but never lower ones.

Middle English /ixt/ — I decided to give the "innovative" form of words like sight, night, might without the velar-palatal fricative. Thus /sɛit/ rather than /sɛixt/ for sight. Englishes with /sɛixt~sixt/ and with /sɛit/ coexisted in London for the entirety of the century, and probably coexisted in the individual speech of many people. Speakers with the fricatives (in some but not all such words) seem to have continued to exist into the 1600s. But throughout this period, rhymes like sight/quite, right/white are admissible in poetry. They are used in great profusion by Wyatt's younger, and very courtly, contemporary Henry Howard of Surrey.
Wyatt usually keeps etymological /ixt/ and etymological /i:t/ separate. Cross-rhymes between them are not common in his work. There are a handful: e.g. white/brightsprites/nights and right/quite. But Wyatt also didn't mind inexact rhymes (e.g. man/am) and one could argue that these are instances of such. (The same stanza that rhymes sprites/nights also rhymes both of these with strikes.)
He does commonly rhyme words of the night type with delight (<- MidEng. delite). But this word in particular seems to have have acquired an alternate folk-etymologized pronunciation /dɪlɛɪxt/ based on Latin dilectus. Compare the modern pronunciations of interdict, edict, verdict, perfect ending in /kt/. This is an etymologizing pronunciation which, under the influence of more recent loans like predict, has replaced the earlier pronunciations which had no /k/ sound. (MidEng perfet, enterdite, edite, verdite.) The pronunciation of verdict as verditt survived into the mid-18th century. Today the only remaining relic of the older state of affairs are the pronunciation of indict, and words like respite where the Latin etymology didn't wind up bleeding into the standard orthography.
All in all, Wyatt himself may well have pronounced /sɛixt/ /nɛixt/ etc. But many (very possibly most) of his contemporaries, including some at Henry's Court, definitely did not. On balance, it seemed the innovative form was both a safe choice and completely justifiable.

/ɛi ɔu/ for MIND and MOUND — These are the sounds that orthoepists throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth century actually describe. The common view that they must have begun as centralized /ǝi ǝu/ is misguided. An exact parallel to the diphthongization of Middle English /i:/ -> /ɛi/ is provided by Dutch. Middle Dutch /i:/ (written <ij>) shifted directly to /eɪ~ɛi/ in the Early Modern period without any centralization stage. Extending the analogy, some modern Dutch speakers have now begun to shift /ɛi ɔu/ to /ai au/.

In any case, as Roger Lass puts it:
Claims for early centralisation are not based on the orthoepic record; they are purely theoretical, based on assumptions about the nature of sound change, considerations of economy and simplicity, etc. It’s proper (even necessary) to use theoretical argument when harder evidence is lacking, or as a guide to interpretation...but not when it forces one to disregard harder and safer evidence...Crucially, no orthoepist before Hodges (1644) reports anything interpretable as a central vowel in the relevant positions; most report something quite different. If we disregard our good early sources on this issue, it’s hard to justify our faith in them on others. And indeed, writers who have a problem with early [ei, ou], etc. generally have other axes to grind (e.g. Kökeritz wants a ‘modern’-sounding Shakespeare). Without very good grounds indeed, it is dangerous to assume mass ineptitude on the part of virtually all primary sources in just those cases where their descriptions fail to harmonise with a preconceived view.
To this I would add that Hodges is also the first to describe stressed centralized unrounded vowels in words like us, son. The rise of a centralized vowel as a semi-distinct phoneme seems to come hand in hand with the first description of diphthongs with a centralized onset.

There is some additional evidence for an early modern realization of /ɔu/ for ME /u:/ that has not yet been integrated into discussions of Early Modern English Phonology. The first English poem written by a Welshman is Ieuan ap Hywel Swrdal's (1436 - 1470) ode to the Blessed Virgin. It is in Welsh metrical forms, and is transcribed more or less phonetically into Middle Welsh graphemes. Ieuan's transcription <ei> for ME /i:/ is ambiguous, but his <ow> for ME /u:/ is telling. 

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