Caxton's Blanchardyn and Eglantine, c. 1489 : from Lord Spencer's unique imperfect copy, completed by the original French and the second English version of 1595
edited by Leon Kellner
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§ 17. Impersonal Verbs.

(A.) The Impersonal Verbs denoting natural or else external events, as raining, thundering, freezing, etc., have remained the same, with regard to their syntactical use, from Old English down to modern times. We say still: it rains (O. E. hit rînð), it thunders (O. E. hit þunrað), it freezes (O. E. hit freóseð), it*. [This it is a false subject, to throw the true subject after the verb.] happens that, &c.; (O. E. hit gelimpeð), etc.

But those Verbs which express states or actions of the human mind have undergone an important change. As stated above (see p. xi, 'Nominative Case'), many once Impersonal Verbs became personal, and we have now but a few instances of such verbs as 'it*. [This it is a false subject, to throw the true subject after the verb.] seems to me, it*. [This it is a false subject, to throw the true subject after the verb.] pleases me.'

In Caxton we see this tendency at work, but the change from impersonal to personal verbs is far from being complete. Here is an alphabetical list of the impersonal verbs in Caxton and Malory; those used personally, too, are marked with *:—

  • *ail, Middle English eilen, impersonal, and so it is in Caxton. 'Ha broder, what yelleth you?' Aymon, 226/26; what eyleth you, fayr cosyns, that ye make so euyll chere? ibid. 322/1.

    Once personal. And when the duchesse sawe him, she began to wepe full sore; and the duke knewe wel what she eylede (Original: yeelde), Aymon, 66/2.

  • *be better. 'Me were better' is the rule, but there is an instance of the personal use. 'A, foole, said she, thou were better flee by tymes,' Morte Darthur, 228/33.

  • forthynke (cf. rewe, repent), to repent. Middle English only impersonal, see Stratmann, s. v. There are exceptions in the Ayenbite (pp. 5, 29), but there Dan Michel apparently copied too faithfully his French original.

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    Caxton does not use the word, which he replaces by 'rewe' and 'repent'; but there are several instances in Morte Darthur: 'Me forthynketh of your displeasyr,' 97/32; 'that me forthynketh,' 82/2. Cf. 324/17.

  • *hap = happen, generally impersonal as in Middle English. Once personal in Morte Darthur: 'And so he happed upon a daye he came to the herd men' . . . 369/20. Einenkel quotes an earlier instance from the Life of saynt Elisabeth, Wülcker's Lesebuch, II., p. 15: 'For who . . . In that holy iurne happe for to deye . . . he goth a siker weye To heuenwarde.'

  • *be leuer,generally impersonal (Caxton, however, prefers 'have leuer.' Cf. Aymon, 37/17, 148/12); but there is apparently the beginning of the personal construction in the following mixed expression: 'Ha, false and renyed strompet, I were me leuer ded, than that I sholde byleue nor doo thi cursed counseyll,' Blanchardyn, 185/32. It is composed out of the two constructions struggling one with another in the author's mind. Similar absurdities occur in Chaucer: Him hadde wel leever . . . That she hadde a ship, II. 109; Him lever had himselfe to mordre and dye, V. 323. See Einenkel, p. 112; Zupitza, note to Guy, l. 5077.

  • Like is still impersonal. (Caxton prefers please.) 'Sir, like it you (may it like, that is, please you) that we have doon,' Aymon, 568/25; me lyketh better the swerd, sayd Arthur: Malory, Morte Darthur, 74/3; I assente, sayd the kynge, lyke as ye haue deuysed, and at crystmas there to be crowned, and to holde my round table with my knyghtes as me lyketh, ibid. 182/10. Cf. 222/10, 230/8. I don't notice any instance of personal use in Caxton; but there is one as early as 1440: 'Here me, and þou shalt like it for euer,' Gesta Romanorum, p. 281.

  • Like is used impersonally (and intransitively) in Elizabethan authors:

    'Therefore 'tis best, if so it like you all,
    To send my thousand horse incontinent.'

    Marlowe, Tamburlaine, l. 51.
    'And I'll dispose them as it likes me best.'

    ibid. 3839.Cf. Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, p. 159, a.; Greene, James IV., p. 202, a.; George-a-Greene, p. 260, a.

  • *list, used both personally and impersonally.

    Impersonal. Whan the kynge hath dyned, who that wyl may goo playe where hym lyste,—Charles the Grete, 118/11; Breuse was so wel horsed, that whan hym lyst to flee, he myght wel flee, and also abyde whan hym lyst,—Morte Darthur, 398/8, 9. Cf. 245/8, 256/4.

    Personal. Ye shall now here and understande from the hensfourthon a terryble and a pyteous songe, yf ye therafter liste to herken, Aymon, 59/7; ye shall understonde, yf ye liste to herken, ibid. 90/21.

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    There are two instances of the personal use in Chaucer. For he to vertu listeth not entende, III. 1; As doon this fooles that hire sorw eche with sorowe . . . and listen nought to seche hem oother cure, IV. 136.

  • *ben loth.

    Impersonal. I wold well kepe me, and be loth for to denounce thynge unto you that shulde tourne you to a displeasure, Blanchardyn, 76/17; that is me loth, said the knyght, Morte Darthur, 69/24.

    Personal. I knowe thou arte a good knyghte, and loth I were to slee thee, Morte Darthur, 203/17; therfor ony of hem will be loth to haue adoo with other . . . ibid. 279/2; I am ful loth to haue adoo with that knyght, ibid. 383/22.

    There is an instance of the personal use in Chaucer. 'My soverayn lady . . . Whom I most drede and love, as I best can, and lothest were of all this world displese,' 111/19. But perhaps this use may be traced back to as early as the Cursor Mundi. One line shows the state of transition between the impersonal and personal. 'Of chastite has lichour leth' (loath), l. 31, Cotton MS. The Fairfax MS. reads: 'of chastite ys licchour loþ.' Göttingen and Trinity MSS. read: 'of chastite has lecchour lite.'

    In another line, loth seems to be used quite personally: (these names) þat lath er for to lie in rim, 9240, MSS. C. F. T.

  • *myster = need, be in need of; avail.

    Impersonal. lady moder, gramercy of so fayre a yefte as here is, For it mystreth me wel, Aymon, 129/14; borgons, thys worde mystre not to you for to saye, for ye must nedes defende yourselfe, ibid. 141/5; what mystreth hym (to Aeneas) to edifie cartage, and enhabyte emonge his enmies . . . Eneydos, 62/13.

    Personal. Wherefore I mystered gretly of thayde and socours of you and of other, Blanchardyn, 77/33. (Of your helpe I had grete myster, Morte Darthur, 224/34. Cf. 59/5.)

  • need seems to be used only impersonally by Caxton and Malory. It needeth not to be doubted that he is come to his extremite of prowes and valyauntnes, Blanchardyn, 72/17; it nedeth not to be asked, yf he was therof gladde, ibid. 101/4; it nede not to you to make eny sorowe, ibid. 278/15. Cf. Aymon, 167/7, 490/6; Morte Darthur, 278/15. Often used so by Spenser:

    Now needeth him no lenger labour spend, His foes have slain themselves.—Faerie Queene, I. i. 26; Him needed not long call, ibid. II. vi. 19; Me little needed from my right way to have strayed, II. vi. 22. Also by Shakspere, 3 Henry VI., I. iv. 125; Venus, 250.

  • owe = behove. Alas, said sir Lamorak, ful wel me ought to knowe you, for ye are the man that most haue done for me, Morte Darthur, 337/24. Cf. Chaucer, II. 313: and ther she was honoured as hir oughte; Gesta Romanorum, p. 215: (she) mette him as hir owte to do.

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  • please only impersonal. It playse me wel, Aymon, 75/8. Cf. 29/25, 159/28, 226/22, etc.; Morte Darthur, 198/3, etc.

  • *repent.

    Impersonal. Yf ye abide here ony lenger, it shall repente you full sore, Aymon, 472/30; Me sore repenteth it, said sir gauayn, Morte Darthur, 107/27; that me repenteth, sayd syr Turquyne, ibid. 185/25.

    Personal. Wherof I me repente sore, Aymon, 38/21; I truste in god myn eure is not suche but some neuer of them may sore repente thys, Morte Darthur, 59/7; I repente me, ibid. 469/23.

  • rew, impersonal. That rewyth me, sayd the provost, Blanchardyn, 156/10.

  • *seem not only means 'appear,' but also 'think, believe,' as in Old English, when used personally. There are two passages in Blanchardyn which can be interpreted in this way: 'To my seming ye sholde forclose and take awaye out of your herte all inutyle sorowfulnesse,' 53/5; 'I am sure that he hath in his house a rote that, as to my semyng shal gyf me help,' 70/17; Me semeth him a servaunt nothing able, Courtesye, l. 455.

    There are two passages in the E. E. Wills which sanction this interpretation: 'like as mine executours seme best,' 79/21; and still more indisputable: 'as they seme that gode ys,' 111/26.

  • shame, only impersonal.

    'Me shamed at that tyme to haue more adoo wyth you,' Morte Darthur, 332/5; 'for me shameth of that I haue done,' 324/6.

    In Middle English it is impersonal and personal; cf. Trevisa's translation of Higden's Polychronicon: 'I knewe myn own pouert, and schamede and dradde,' I., p. 11. Cf. I., p. 9: 'me schamed and dradde to fynde so grete and so gostliche a bone to graunte.'

  • thynken = seem, always impersonal. Charles, 55/11; Aymon, 410/30; Morte Darthur, 65/9, etc.

(B.) There is another sort of Impersonal Verbs, which denote neither external events nor actions of the mind. These are the verbs reherce, show, tell, occurring in Malory, as in Middle English, without any subject. The context proves that we have to supply 'the author,' 'the book,' though sometimes we find 'in the booke':—

After they were wedded, as it telleth in the booke, Morte Darthur, 63/18; as it telleth after, 63/35; as it telleth in the book of aventures folowynge, 64/31; as it reherceth after in the book of Balyn le saueage, that foloweth next after, 75/17; as it telleth after in the sangraylle, 91/27; as it reherceth afore, 105/11. I found only one instance in Caxton. The heading of chapter xvii. of Aymon runs as follows:—Here sheweth how reynawde faught agenst rowland, the whiche he conquered by the wyll of God, etc., 389/12.

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This is an old Middle English use:—

Ase hit seið þer = as is said there, i. e. in the salutations, Ancren Riwle, p. 34; hi scule habben þat brad þe seið iþe godspel (which is spoken of in the gospel), O. E. Hom., I. 241; so it her telleð, Bestiary (in O. E. Miscellany), l. 257. Cf. l. 630. (There is another explanation in Grimm, IV. 53.)

(C.) There is often a striking want of inflexion in the Impersonal Verbs, especially in thynk = seem:—

Bote ne þinche ham nawt ȝet þat he is ful pinet (but it seems to them that he is not yet fully tormented).—Þe wohunge of ure Lauerd, O. E. Hom., I. p. 283. In the Cursor Mundi, me thinc is the rule! Cf. 225, 248, 2224, 2941, 3030, 5192, 5863, 6670, etc.; otherwise as hem thenke, E. E. Wills, 124/10; as it please the seid Denys, Bury Wills, p. 46; as them best seme to doon, E. E. Wills, 86/4. In Caxton—Me thynke that ye ought to take that the erle proffereth to you, Aymon, 410/30; It playse me well, sayd the kynge, ibid. 75/8; thys worde mystre not for you to saye, ibid. 141/5. Lyst is nearly always without s. See above.

I suppose that this want of inflection is due to the analogy of the frequent me lyst, which is the regular Old English form. Cf. fæst (inf. fæstan), grét (inf. grétan). Sievers, A. S. Grammar, § 359/3.

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