Grand Style & Versification in Paradise Lost Book 2

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O mighty mouth’d inventor of harmonies,
O skill’d to sing of Time and Eternity,
God-gifted organ voice of England
Milton, a name to resound for ages.

      In these words Lord Tennyson has fixed for all time the characteristic achievement of Milton. His forte lay in lifting a meter which had become vulgar and debased by long usage on the stage to the heights of pure eloquence and harmony. He was helped in it by his long musical training. Music conditioned all his youth. His father taught him to sing tunably and to play upon the organ. He returned to it for solace in his blind old age. It is with the music of this instrument that our thoughts instinctively associate him.

      “The redemption after all,” said Quiller-Couch, ‘and the last high vindication of this most magnificent poem are not to be sought in its vast conception or in its framing, grand but imperfect as Titanic work always has been and ever will be. To find them you must lean your ear closely to its angelic language, to its cadenced music. Once grant that we have risen as Milton commends us to rise above humankind and the clogging of human passion, - where will you find, but in Paradise Lost, language fit for seraphs, speaking in the quiet of dawn in sentry before the gates of Heaven? And the secret of it? I believe the grand secret to be very simple. I believe you may convince yourself where it lies by watching the hands of any good organist as he plays?’

The Movement of the Verse

      It lies in the movement of the verse, “the exquisitely modulated slide.” Milton builds his “lofty rhyme,” no doubt, upon the iambic decasyllable blank verse line already popular on the stage, but his unit is not so much the line as the ‘period’ or the paragraph. There is considerable movement within the paragraph and the line to suggest the flute notes and the full swell of the pipes, which form so essential a feature of organ music. The movement or rhythm rises from the clear flute-note at the beginning, to a grand swelling burst, or diapason open and thundering in the middle, till it ends in a crush or shiver. The best way to realize all this is to read a ‘period’ aloud, avoiding any temptation to chant it, and paying special heed to the last line.

      Milton achieves this movement by making free and bold use of all the variations practiced before his time both within the line and the ‘period’. That which imparts fluidity to the verse within the ‘period’ is the skillful use he makes of the ‘caesura’, or the break in the middle of a metrical foot Rarely are the lines end-stopped, i.e., rarely does the sense stop with the end of the line, but it runs on from line to line, and when pauses are necessary, they are introduced within the line itself, not at the end of it. With some poets, and even with Shakespeare, these pauses in the intermediate parts of a ‘period’ occur regularly at the end of the second or the third foot in the line, but Milton observes no such rule. Skilfully he adjusts them, so that if in one line the break occurs at the end of the second foot, in the next it may occur at the end of the first, third, or the fourth foot, and so forth with the lines that follow. Nay, he delights in breaking up the foot itself, so that the pauses occur at the end of the first, or third, or fifth, or the seventh, or the ninth syllable in consecutive lines. These breaks or pauses impart the necessary volumes to the utterance. “It is because the sense is suspended through line after line, and because Milton takes pains to avoid coincidence of the rhetorical pauses with the line-end that we have the continuity of rhythm which is so characteristic a feature of his blank verse.”

      With the same freedom, and to achieve the same artistic and melodious effects, Milton introduces variations within the blank verse line. These variations are of two types. The ordinary line of blank verse used by Milton has ten syllables, with the stress regularly falling on the even number of syllables. This type of line is known as the iambic decasyllable line. In the first place, he drops one or other of these stresses, or adds a syllable to the foot, and then the pace is quickened; the effect is one of ease and lightness. In the second place, he doubles the stresses in the foot, or displaces it making the stress fall on the odd syllable, not on the even, and the pace is retarded; the effect, then, is one of strength and emphasis: as in.

For Hot, Cold, Moist, and Dry, four champions fierce.

      Thus Milton avoids the monotony of the regular decasyllabic blank verse by the use of these variations in stress. These impart greater rhythm to the line, and when line upon line follows in this fluid manner, with the pauses so adjusted as rarely to fall at the end of the line, the effect on the ear is of the “pealing organ.”

Variety of Words

      Milton was greatly aided in adjusting his musical stresses by the very variety of words in the language he used. English has many powerful monosyllabic words, both extended and abrupt (like strength and rang), which check the run of the line as by a curb. It has monosyllables of another kind (words like mourn and far) on which the voice lingers more gently and which it prolongs. It has polysyllables that carry on the breath and the sense together. It possesses also in its numerous enclitics, its idioms compounded of muted half-pronounced sounds that are hardly adverbs or prepositions, but rather small servants to the main words, an inexhaustible source for filling the crevices of the meter. English has within itself material for a multiple effects as great as any that language can proclaim. And yet with this language, as with any other, only the masters of the first rank can achieve that consistent and living variety in unity for which the universe is our model. [H.Belloc].

      But in his choice of words, Milton kept not only the rhythmical necessity in view, but he was also careful about its place in the order of thought. He never sacrificed the one to the other. His triumph consists ‘in the undisturbed precision of his thought throughout, and despite the complex demands of the rhythm. Each word, like a stone in a cathedral arch, has its place and duty, each seems chosen as if for no purpose other than to advance his meaning, to bear its portion of the weight of a vast structure, yet each, viewed from the other side, seems only chosen to play its part in the musical scheme. The pattern of the thought brooks no interference from that of the rhythm, nor that of the rhythm from the pattern of the thought.

      Milton was thus very careful in the choice of his words, and where the Saxon word was unsuited he used the Latin derivative. These words of Latin origin were already familiar in the language, but with vague connotations. But whenever Milton used them, he used them precisely, in their original signification. Thus are his usages of “afflict” in the sense “crush”, (L.86), “globe” in the sense of “compact body”, (L.512), “intend” in the sense of “attend to”, (L.456), “laboring” in the sense of “eclipsed”, (L.665) etc. Sometimes, as in “horrent” (bristling) and “torrent” (rushing) Milton was the first to introduce them. But the proportion of these words to the Saxon element in his diction is very little.

      In using these words of Latin derivation, Milton made them yield both their original significance and the more familiar but vaguer sense which they had acquired in the English air. Thus is the use of “afflict” or “intend” cited above, also “incensed” as descriptive of Satan’s appearance. Milton carried this practice even into the Saxon element of the language. Thus the word “uncouth” is used in the double-banelled sense of “unknown” and “horrible”, in the line “his uncouth way”. (L.407). Another means which he adopts to make his words both melodious and logical is to use one part of speech for another, such as a verb for the noun, as ‘consult’ for ‘consultation’, the adjectival form for the adverb or the noun, as ‘horrible’ in ‘grinned horrible’, for ‘horribly’; ‘obscure’ in ‘palpable obscure’ for ‘obscurity’: ‘abrupt’ in ‘the vast abrupt’ for ‘abruptness’.

      It is the same need for melody that is responsible for his collocation of words (usually monosyllables) as well as names. The line, for example, “o’er bog or steep, through strait, rough, dense, or rare”, is suggestive of the troublesome passage of Satan, while describing the roughness of the road taken by him. Similar is his description of the dolorous march of the fallen angels -

O’er many a frozen, many a fiery Alp,
Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death.

      No more heart-breaking effect of weariness and eternity of effort could be produced in a single line: ‘the slight stress and pause needed after each word to render the full meaning produced, when the words are short as well as emphatic, a line of terrific weight and impact.’

Use of Place-Names

      Such also are the conjunctions of place-names, like Ternate and Tidore, Damiata and Mount Casius, Calabria and Trinacrion, Barca and Cyrene. Milton was the first to make poetic use of lace-names. They are all taken from ancient history and geography, as well as more recent travel-books. Milton made a study of them with the help of maps. But even they seem to him at times too familiar, too little elevated and remote to furnish a resting place for a song that intended “no middle flight”. He therefore transforms his proper names, such as Hercules into Alcides, both to make them more melodious, and to make them familiar to the ear. ‘Milton’s use of proper names is a measure of his poetic genius.’ It is his most characteristic gift to English letters.

      In the arrangement and disposition of these picked words in the sentence Milton’s classical scholarship aided him in achieving melodious effects. It is not true to say that he deliberately set out to alter the genius of English by imposing on it an alien syntax: for, at the time he was writing, English literary composition whether in verse or prose, was in a state of flux; it had not released itself from the bondage to an alien construction imposed on it since the Renaissance. Milton’s own classical bent of mind roamed at will in the peccadilloes of foreign idioms and syntax, and when they suited his own objective of melody, he used them with the sure hand of a master.

      Of such syntactical peculiarities the grammarian will note the inversion of the natural order of words and phrases, especially the placing of a word between two others which depend upon it, or on which it depends, such as a noun between two adjectives, or a verb between two nouns; the omission of words not necessary to the sense; parenthesis and apposition; the absolute clauses, etc. ‘In his later poetry,’ wrote Raleigh, ‘there are no gliding connectives; no polysyllabic conjunctive clauses, which fill the mouth while the brain prepares itself for the next word of value; no otiose epithets, and very few that court neglect by their familiarity. His poetry is like the eloquence of the Lord Chancellor Bacon, as described by Ben Jonson:- “No man ever spake more neatly, more pressly, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness in what he uttered. No member of his speech but consisted of his own graces. His hearers could not cough, or look aside from him, without loss”.’ In effect he attains, therefore, ‘a carefully jeweled mosaic,’ and melodious style.

Sublime Effect

      But Milton’s purpose in thus exercising great care both in the choice of his diction and his use of an alien syntax, is not merely harmonic. It is to produce the necessary suggestion of sublimity to suit the lofty nature of his theme. His preference of the less familiar Latin derivative to the Saxon word, his more frequent use of a foreign syntax, and his deliberate attempt at a condensed style remove his style from the converse of daily speech and impart to it a certain stateliness and dignity, which may be truly called sublime. Milton is surprisingly able to enhance this effect by his descriptions. Descriptions are generally of a concrete nature, but it would be ludicrous to bring the realms of Heaven and Chaos within the concrete and tangible sphere; similarly the super-human powers cannot be brought within the sphere of reality. Milton by a judicious conjunction of concrete and abstract terms is able to suggest just that air of vagueness and substantiality, of unreality and reality, with which we usually associate these objects. He uses abstract terms magnificently, but almost always with a reference to concrete realities, not as the names of separate entities. By the substitution of abstract nouns for concrete he achieves a wonderful effect of majesty. He does not name, for instance, the particular form of wind instrument that the heralds blew in Hell “Four speedy cherubim put to their mouths the sounding alchemy.” He avoids defining his creatures by names that lend themselves to definite picture: of Death he says- “So spake the grisly Terror.” The same vagueness is habitually studied by Milton in such phrases as “the vast abrupt”, “the palpable obscure”, “the void immense”, “the wasteful deep”, where, by the use of an adjective in place of a substantive the danger of a definite and inadequate conception is avoided. Milton therefore describes the concrete, the specific, the individual, using general and abstract terms for the sake of the dignity and scope that they lend.

Figures of Speech

      The figures of speech that Milton employs are to the same end: they serve either to enhance the melody or to add to the sublimity. Of the former type is his use of onomatopoeia, the sound being adjusted to the sense. The most famous example in the poem is the description of the opening of Hell-gates:

on a sudden open fly,
With impetuous recoil and jarring sound
The infernal doors, and on their hinges grate
Harsh thunder, that the lowest bottom shook
Of Erebus.

      Milton is able to suggest his effects by the frequent use of the consonant ‘r’. He is said to have rolled his ‘r’s so as to give a sound much like a dog’s snarl. The notion of Death’s relentless disregard of persons is very well brought out by the ‘r’s employed in the description of Death: “Death grinned horrible a ghastly smile.” According to Verity, shuddering is suggested by the ‘r’s in “the parching air bums frore.”

      Of the figures that aid sublimity chief mention must be made of personification. It is a figure difficult to handle, and generally fails in effect through falling into one of two extremes. Either the quality, or the person, is forgotten. But with Milton, the vastness and vagueness of the abstract is combined with the precise and definite conception of a person. Such are the figures of Sin and Death.

      But the figure of speech most usually associated with his name, and by which he takes his place alongside Homer and Virgil, is the simile. In the first place, he uses it chiefly to attain that remoteness and loftiness which his theme requires. ‘Almost all his figures and comparisons illustrate concrete objects by concrete objects, and occurrences in time by other occurrences later in time. His figures may be called historic parallels, whereby the names and incidents of human history are made to elucidate and ennoble the less familiar names and incidents of his prehistoric theme. But he prefers to maintain dignity and distance by choosing comparisons from ancient history and mythology, or from those great things in Nature which repel intimacy - the sun, the moon, the sea, planets in opposition, a shooting star, an evening mist, the griffin pursuing the Arimaspian, the madness of Alcides in Oeta, and a hundred more reminiscences of the ancient world.’

Perfection of Language

      Another effect of the similes used by Milton is that they supply the “human interest”, the want of which is “always felt” - as by Jonson. Besides they bear testimony to the learning which he made the servant of his imagination. On the whole, they seem ‘to illustrate for us the saying of Longinus that “the sublime is a certain excellence and perfection of language.” Here, one might almost say, we may make acquaintance with the whole art of poetry, here is a liberal education for those who seek it.

      The second feature of the Miltonic simile is that it is homologous, i.e., there is perfect correspondence between each detail of the object and what it is compared with. ‘Even when Milton digresses in his similes he does not do so, as Homer and other poets do, for the sole reason of drawing a diverting picture. There is always some relevant suggestion to be found if one thinks of all the associations. It is, then, in the completeness of its correspondence with the object that the Miltonic simile is most unique and best demonstrates the control which he exercised over his artistic imagination.’

      The analysis of some of the similes in our poem will best illustrate these features. First, the simile of Satan being compared to a comet “that fires the length of Ophiuchus huge”. ‘Satan is like the comet in fiery radiance, in enormousness, in the fact that both are ominous of impending calamity. But there is still more. Satan is a serpent - “Ophiuchus” means “holder of serpents”; hence the comet is appropriately said to fire the length of this particular constellation. Furthermore Satan is always associated with the quarters of the North, for which reason Milton puts Ophiuchus in the arctic sky, though only with astronomical freedom.’

      Next is the simile of the warring atoms being compared with the sands of the deserts of Africa. These atoms in the realm of Chaos are like the sands in the desert, not only because of their minuteness, but also because they are upborne by the surge of the elements in Chaos, like the sands rising with the winds that blow them. A third point of comparison is that the ‘embryon atoms’ are as weighty in their destructive force, as the sands are which load the wind and carry destruction with them wherever they are blown about.

      A third simile, which we may consider here is the description of the rejoicings of the rebel angels in their matchless chief. It is a long drawn simile and the points of comparison are not at first apparent. But careful thinking will reveal that every part of the picture corresponds to the scene in Hell. The melancholy and despair which had seized the rebel angels in Hell is compared with the louring sky when dark clouds oppress it Satan’s cheerful acceptance of the adventure into the realm of Chaos is compared with the bright rays of the evening sun. Note here that the comparison extends even to minute detail. Satan, who is immediately to venture out into the unknown, leaving his comrades behind him is compared with the sun which is departing from the cloud. And the cheer that overspread the gloomy faces of the assembly, and the murmur of joy they gave vent to, are compared with the happiness that spreads over the face of nature, both animate and inanimate, and the songs and cries they indulge in. Thus the simile is completely homologous.

      Paradise Lost, outlined slightly and imperfectly, are some of the most noteworthy features of Milton’s grand style & Versification. By the measured roll of his verse, and the artful distribution of stress and pause to avoid monotony and to lift the successive lines in a climax; by the deliberate and choice character of his diction, and his wealth of vaguely emotional epithets; by the intuition which taught him to use no figures that do not heighten the majesty, and no names that do not help the music of his poem; by the vivid outlines of the concrete imagination that he imposes on us for real, and the cloudy brilliance that he weaves for them out of all great historical memories, and all far-reaching abstract conceptions, he attained to a finished style of perhaps a more consistent and unflagging elevation than is to be found elsewhere in literature. There is nothing to put beside him. “His natural port,” says Johnson, “is gigantic loftiness.” And Landor: “After I have been reading the Paradise Lost, I can take up no other poet with satisfaction. I seem to have left the music of Handel for the music of the streets, or, at best, for drums and fifes.” The secret of the style is lost; and no poet, since Milton’s day, has recaptured the solemnity and beauty of the large utterance of Gabriel, or Belial, or Satan.’

University Questions

How far do you agree with the statement that the word sublimity most well accords with the mature style of Milton? Discuss with reference to Paradise Lost Book II.
Critically evaluate Milton’s poetic style in Paradise Lost Book II. How does it illustrate the grand style?
Illustrate from Paradise Lost Book II the ingredients of Milton’s grand style.

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