Milton's Grand Style in Paradise Lost Book 9

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      Milton himself would have deplored the notion that his poetry was reducible to points of literary technique. He would have considered such craftsmanship as belonging to: “The Skill of Artifice or office mean” and not to the quality which “justly gives Heroic name, To Person or to poem”. His frequent invocations to his ‘Celestial patroness’ are a clear indication that Milton regarded elevation of style as inseparable from a heroic subject dealing with the remoteness of cosmic affairs. Critics are divided about his grand manner, but what usually escapes notice is that Milton asked for an ‘answerable style’ (one that would meet the variety of demands he would make on it) and that, within the overall unity imposed by a poem of such length and diversity of interest, there is considerable flexibility of style in the various books of Paradise Lost. What is considered to be the characteristic note of Miltonic grandeur, what Dr. Johnson called his gigantic loftiness, is observable chiefly in the first two books where it is most appropriate.

to describe Races and Games,
Or tilting Furniture, emblazon’d Shields,
Impresses quaint, Caparisons and Steeds;
Bases and tinsel Trappings, gorgeous Knights
At joust and Tournament...

      Whatever disclaimers he may make, the opening of Book IX demonstrates that Milton did not lose the ability, but such a manner is clearly less desirable in those parts of the poem concerned with Eden, where the verse exhibits much subtlety and delicacy.

      There is always the danger in discussing Milton’s Grand style of assuming that it is merely grand. Milton’s grandeur and his subtlety often co-exist in the very same lines. The following lines would generally be agreed to belong to Milton’s sterner style, but their bareness is combined with subtlety to produce an effect of astonishing breadth and power:

So glisten’d the dire Snake, and into fraud
Led Eve, our credulous Mother, to the Tree
Of prohibition, root of all our woe.

      These lines stamp themselves at once as in the Grand Style. What is remarkable, though, is that they are verbally subtle and active without any fussiness or any blurring of the grand austerity. (Milton calls it the serpent fifteen times in Book IX; but the snake only three times: once literally, before Satan enters it; and twice with calculated brutality: ‘So talk’d the spirited sly Snake’, and here). There is the superbly suggestive diction ‘our credulous Mother’, which must be one of the finest, most delicate, and most moving of all the oxymorons in the poem. A mother ought to be everything that is reliable and wise—here she is credulous and ‘our’ clinches the effect; credulous is pinioned on each side (‘our....Mother’), and the full tragic pathos of the oxymoron is released, as Christopher Ricks points out.

      There is the majesty of ‘the Tree of prohibition’—no mere stilted Latinism, since it is literally true; the Tree is not just ‘the prohibited Tree’, but the Tree of all prohibition. And there is at this fatal moment the ringing echo of the opening lines of the poem in ‘all our woe’. But perhaps the most irresistible of all the effects here is syntactical. ‘Into fraud led Eve...’ overlaps magnificently with ‘....led Eve to the Tree’, so that what begins as a moving and ancient moral metaphor (lead us not into temptation) crystallizes with terrifying literalness. There is a touching change of focus, superbly compressed and yet without a shock or a jerk.

      One result of Milton’s inversion and unusual syntax is that he is able to place significant words in key positions, so that they acquire overtones, of meaning, often ironic, by their relationship to other words in the passage, as in the following:

Thoughts, whither have ye led me, with what sweet Compulsion thus transported to forget
What hither brought us, hate, not love, nor hope
Of paradise for Hell, hope here to taste
Of pleasure, but all pleasure to destroy
Save what is in destroying, other joy
To me is lost.

      In the same way Milton is able to give extra weight to certain words by placing them in emphatic positions in the line:

"Man he made, and for him built
Magnificent this world, an Earth his seat,
Him Lord pronounced and O indignities;
Subjected to his service angel-wings,
And flaming ministers to watch and tend
Their earthy charge..."

      Occasionally, says W. Graham this complexity is expressively imitative, as in the following passage, where the confusion of intention and hope and even the actual movement of Satan, as he scurries hither and thither in his search, are reproduced by the syntax, which clears into a simple descriptive line just as Satan comes upon Eve;

By Fountain or by shadie Rivulet
He sought them both, but wish’d his hap might find
Eve separate; he wish’d, but not with hope
Of what so seldom chanc’d; when to his wish,
Beyond his hope, Eve separate he spies.
Veil’d in a cloud of Fragrance, where she stood.... (Lines 420-425)

      By diction is meant choice of word and phrase to express an idea: and by ‘rhythm’ is meant a measured flow of the words and phrases thus chosen, so that they produce a pleasing effect on the ear.

      We may note first the pictorial quality of Milton’s diction. As we read, suddenly, verbal combinations emerge of which each one is a picture. Such are, for example, Eve being veiled ‘in a cloud of fragrance’ as she stands amidst the roses and myrtles; or Ceres being yet virgin of Proserpina from Jove’; or Adam and Eve, after eating, the fruit ‘swimming in mirth’; or that ‘Danite strong, Herculean Samson,’ rising from ‘the harlot-lap of philistine Delilah.’

      But the glory of Milton’s diction must be sought, in particular, in the unerring instinct with which he chooses his epithets. Here we have ‘sciential sap’, ‘ambrosial smell’, ‘lascivious eye’. Or, let us consider the following description of the serpent as it approaches Eve;

With burnished neck of verdant gold erect
Amidst his circling spires, that on the grass
Floated redundant.

      Sometimes the adjective is from a proper noun and a mere reference to classical or biblical dictionary may not explain the magic of it; like ‘Circean call’ or ‘Amazonian targe.’ The adjective, as used by Milton need not always go before the noun. Sometimes it comes after, as in ‘act intelligential’ or ‘tract oblique or goddess humane; or there is one adjective before the noun and another after it, the noun being sandwiched between the two, as in ‘exhilarating vapor bland’ or ‘Heavenly form angelic’ or ‘Hellish rancor imminent’.

      The rhythm’ of Milton’s poetry is a more subtle attribute of it than the diction. It would reveal itself as the reward of a very careful and oft-repeated study of the diction itself, not separately, but as it comes along in the verse. The main external constituents of this ‘rhythm’ of Milton’s style are his skill in alliteration—sometimes obvious and sometimes more subtle— and his unequaled mastery of assonance. The alliteration in a passage like. “Defaced, deflowered, and to Death devote.” (L. 901) “His bursting passion into plaints he poured” (L- 98) is obvious. But on the whole, Milton’s alliterative faculty is more a pervasive tendency in his verse than a trick of style deliberately aimed at. One certainly likes such gentle and delicate fare as is provided in ‘the savory fruit that solicited her longing eye,’ or ‘the solace of their sin’ and ‘sweet repast or sound repose’.

      Assonance, of which Milton is the greatest master in English, is a quality less easily evident than alliteration, except to the trained ear.

      Assonance means a gentle correspondence, or slight variation, in successive words, of similar sounds, especially of vowel and diphthongal sounds. Examples in Book IX are

where the sapient king
Held dalliance with his foir Egyptian spouse
Or, Adam’s moving words to Eve
How can I live without thee? Mow forgo
Thy sweet converse, and love so dearly ointed
To live again in these wild woods forlorn?

      Lastly, the employment of proper names by Milton in such a why that a mere stringing of them is made of yield all their musical quality, is a theme of endless admiration. Examples in Book IX are:

Sea he had searched and land,
From Eden over Pontus, and the Pool
Maeotis, up beyond the river Orb;
Downward as lar Antarctic; and, in length,
West from Orontes to the ocean barred
At Darien, thence to the where flows
Ganges and Indus.

....not those that in Illyria changed
Hermione and Cadmus, or the god
In Epidaurus; nor to which translbrnied
Ammonian Jove, or Capitoline, was seen,
He with Olympias, this with her who bore
Scipio, the highth of Rome....

      Milton’s employment of the ’Homeric’ simile, serves to illustrate what passages of beauty might be evolved out of mere outworn conventions of style if they could only be handled by a man of genius.

      In Book IX there are nine of them of which four are definitely long and have a distinct ‘Homeric’ flavor. They are introduced in the poem just when they would be relished, where they are so delightfully acceptable, when the narrative flags or the emotions are tense, and a pleasing digression would be appreciated by the reader.

University Questions

Make a critical evaluation of Milton’s style in Paradise Lost Book IX.
Illustrate from Paradise Lost Book IX Milton’s grand style.

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