These are a few of my favorite lines of Shakespearean poetry:

Methinks I am a prophet new inspir’d,
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

What I don't understand, though, is the removal of the 'e' by Shakespeare, and other poets who do this, like Tennyson. I've always read diacritics are applied by some poets to change the pronunciation, so as to keep the meter, but how on Earth is inspired pronounced differently from inspir'd, or sceptered from scepter'd? Why are they doing this?

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    Didn't a lot of the words in Shakespearean English have a separate syllable for the "-ed"? For example, "interred" was pronounced "in-ter-ed". I don't know much about this though, just wondering. This would have to imply that "inspired" was pronounced "in-spy-red" which seems odd. – Lotus Notes Jun 30 '11 at 21:18
  • From all I've come to understand, that "oddity" was the norm. The -tion ending also appears to have been pronounced "tee-an". – Daniel Jun 30 '11 at 21:23
  • Shakespeare suffered from chronic, periodic hick-ups. These are merely places where his hand moved from a hick, while writing the manuscript. (Actually, it should be "up-I-hick", to be grammatically correct.) Don't forget this is the guy who can't pronounce a name consistently, to keep his rhyme. (Rosoline -> "Ros-o-lioned") – Mike Christian Jun 30 '11 at 23:29

This was to signify that the syllable was omitted. In most cases today, we don't pronounce the final syllable in many -ed endings that used to always be articulated. You can see a remnant of this in the word learned: We say that word in one syllable in the sentence

I learned a lot from him.

but pronounce it as two syllables in

He was a very learned individual.

The idea of the apostrophe was to show that the syllable was being left out so that the line would scan correctly. In the first line of your example, pronouncing the final syllable -ed *inspired* would ruin the iambic pentameter and leave the last syllable unstressed.

At one time, inspired would have been pronounced as in•spi•red, and sceptered would have been scep•ter•ed. Shakespeare, Tennyson, and other poets were just making sure their verses would scan for the reader.

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    And as late as the mid-Nineteenth Century, dropping the "e" would have been considered a little déclassé in "proper" society. English has always been going to the dogs. – bye Jun 30 '11 at 22:00
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    Are you sure about that, Stan? My impression was that when Tennyson writes it it's an archaism. – Colin Fine Jul 1 '11 at 15:03
  • Is "wicked" also an example of the old pronunciation being used in modern English? – Giorgio Sep 15 '11 at 18:28
  • @Giorgio; that's a very good question. Wick-ed is not a participle: it's an adjective. Wicked (one syllable) is the past participle (or past tense) of the verb 'to wick', which was not uncommon until the 19th century (all those candles), but fell out of use until recently, when it was revived by the makers of outdoor clothing. – Tim Lymington Oct 18 '11 at 11:48
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    @TimLymington: So, if I understand correctly, there is a parallel between learned / wicked as adjectives (two syllables) and learned / wicked as past participles (one syllable). I wonder if there are any further examples. – Giorgio Oct 18 '11 at 12:21

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