Versification in The Writing of John Milton

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Wordsworth in referring to Milton’s verse wrote,

Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea.

      Tennyson called him “God-gifted organ-voice of England,” and “mighty-mouthed inventor of harmonies.” Milton easily takes the first place among the masters of English music. All the poetry from the Ode on. Nativity to Samson Agonistes is marked by a unique musical quality. He excels in all kinds of verse—in the ode, lyric and elegy, in the sonnet, in the epic and in the tragedy; and the meters are variously adapted to the poetic forms. He is equally the master of the stanza form (Ode on Nativity), of the octosyllabic couplet (L’Allegro and II Penseroso), and of rhymed and blank verse, but his greatest triumph is in the handling of blank verse in Paradise Lost. In fact, Miltonic verse has almost come to mean grand stately march of blank verse lines in Paradise Lost; this is not because his other verse is less musical or less Miltonic, but because the most magnificent of his poetical work, Paradise Lost, is written in blank verse, and because this verse possesses that musical quality which makes Tennyson call Milton “the organ-voice of England.”

      The verse of Paradise Lost is blank verse—the unrhymed meter of five accents and ten syllables, which had been first used by Surrey in his translation of the Aeneid. Milton says in his preface that his use of blank verse is “an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem.” Perhaps he did not take notice of Surrey’s attempt because it was a mere translation. Blank verse had of course been used in the drama and Milton also used it in his Comus and Samson Agonistes. But the Elizabethan dramatists after Shakespeare used too many liberties, so that blank verse tended to become conversational. The dramatic blank verse, when Milton took it up for his “heroic poem”, had become loose and lost its true heroic character. Milton ‘mended the shambling gait of the loose dramatic blank verse, and made of it a worthy epic meter.’

      The first thing that Milton did was to make the verse strong and vertebrate. This he did by giving up almost all the licenses that dramatists had used. He makes a sparing use of the double ending (the extra unaccented syllable at the end of a line), and abandons the use of a redundant syllable in the middle of a line. Thus he tightened the joints and stiffened the texture of blank verse. The next thing he did was to secure variety. In a long poem, variety is indispensable, and so he adopted some devices, which contribute not only to the variety of the verse but to its stately music. He “varies the stresses in the line, their number, their weight and their incidence.” The pauses or stops are also variously distributed; generally, they occur at the end of the third foot, but they may fall at the end of any of the ten syllables. Their frequent change gives great variety to the verse, and often great beauty and force. Thirdly, Milton uses, according to his sense of poetic fitness, the trochee, or the spondee, instead of the iambus, in the ordinary line of ten syllables. His chief study, however, says Raleigh, “is to vary the word in relation to the foot, and the sentence in relation to the line.” He makes splendid use of the freedom and variety which blank verse, more than any meter, allows; and the manner in which he does it, defies analysis, and no other poet, handling blank verse, has approached Milton in this respect.

      Milton demanded for true musical delight “apt numbers, fit quantities of syllables and the sense variously drawn out from one verse to another.” (i) By ‘apt numbers,’ he meant that the quality of letter-sounds and the flow of rhythm should fit the sense. He studied the aptness of his numbers, and diligently tutored an ear which nature had gifted with the most delicate sensibility. “In the flow of his rhythm, in the number of his letter sounds, in the disposition of his pauses, his verse almost ever fits the subject, so that the reader may sometimes doubt whether it be the thought itself or merely the happiness of its expression, which is the source of a gratification so deeply felt.” (Guest), (ii) By ‘fit quantity of syllables”, Milton perhaps meant that it was enough if every line contained requisite number of accents within the limits of variety allowed to blank verse. He stretched these limits sometimes to their utmost extent; but the rule of five accents is seldom violated though accents are placed with a freedom and audacity, which can be exercised—only by a great artist, (iii) The last of the three elements of musical delight—’sense variously drawn out from one verse to another’ is the essential of Miltonic blank verse. We do not generally find a pause at the end of a line in Milton’s blank verse; the sense is carried on from one line to another, and the pause comes where the sense requires it. The length of a sentence is thus adjusted to the thought, not vice versa as in the heroic couplet. In the hands of inferior artists (not excluding even Wordsworth and Tennyson) blank verse tends to become prosaic, tame or monotonous.

      “No analysis of his prosody”, says Raleigh, “can explain wonders of his workmanship.” “His verse, even in its least admirable passages, does not sing nor trip with regular alternate stress: its movement suggests neither dance nor song, but rather the advancing march of a body of troops skilfully handled, with incessant changes in their disposition as they pass over broken ground. He can furnish them with wings when it so pleases him.” De Quincey calls the movement of his verse “slow planetary wheeling”—having double motion viz. (i) the natural movement of the line, and (ii) its movement with reference to a group of lines. And again, Milton adjusts the sound to the sense. No one can miss the contrast between the opening of the gales of Heaven and the opening of those in Hell; the gates of Heaven open with a sweet harmonious sound:

Heaven opened wide
Her ever-during gales, harmonious sounds
On golden hinges moving.

      The gates of Hell open with harsh jarring noise:

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, reaching perfect mastery of his blank verse, uses perfect freedom in handling it, without in any way diminishing its essential dignity and grandeur. Milton was, in the words of T.S Eliot, “the greatest master in our language of freedom within from.” We can have an idea of his mastery of blank verse when we compare the concluding lines of Paradise Lost with their five regular accents, with the concluding lines of Samson Agonistes:

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow.
Through Eden took their solitary way (Paradise Lost)
His servants He, with new acquist
Of true experience from this great event
With peace and consolation hath dismissed
And calm of mind all passion spent. (Samson Agonistes)

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