John Milton's Writing Style of Language

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Scholarly and Poetically Perfect

      The name of Milton, says Raleigh, “is become the mark, not of a biography nor of a theme, but of a style—the most distinguished in our poetry.” In all that he has written, he has impressed his indomitable personality and irrepressible originality. John Milton is not only in every line of Paradise Lost but in every line of poetry that he has written. As Mackail has said, “There is not a square inch of his poetry from first to last of which one could not confidently say, This is Milton and no one else.” His accent and speech alike in Ode to Nativity and in Paradise Lost are his own and in marked contrast to any other English poet. What is this peculiarly Miltonic accent?

      Since style is the expression of personality, we have to find the peculiar quality of Milton’s style in his personality and character. In the first place, Milton’s mind was “nourished upon the best thoughts and finest words of all ages”, and that his is the language, says Pattison, of one “who lives in the companionship of the great and the wise of the past time.” Secondly, Milton was a man of lofty character, whose “soul was like a star that dwelt apart”, and “who in all that is known about him, his life, his character, and his poetry, shows something for which the only fit word is sublime.” Thirdly, Milton was a supreme artist. “Poetry,” says Beiley, “has been by far our greatest artistic achievement, and he (Milton) is by far our greatest poetic artist. Tennyson truly called him the “God gifted organ-voice of England.” “To live with Milton”, says Bailey, “is necessary to learn that the art of poetry is no triviality, no mere amusement, but a high and grave thing, a thing of the choicest discipline of phrase, the finest craftsmanship of structure, the most nobly ordered music of sound.” So in Milton’s poetic style we inevitably find the imprint of a cultured mind, a lofty soul and an artistic conscience. “In the sure and flawless perfection of his rhythm and diction, he (Milton) is as admirable as Virgil or Dante, and in this respect, he is unique amongst us. No one else in English literature possesses the like distinction.....Shakespeare is divinely strong, rich and attractive. But sureness of perfect style Shakespeare himself does not possess. Milton from one end of Paradise Lost to the other, is in his diction and rhythm constantly a great artist in the great style.” (Matthew Arnold), “The study of his verse is one that never exhausts itself so that the appreciation of it has been called the last reward of consummate scholarship.” Above all, there is a certain loftiness about the style of Milton, which is found alike in his Ode to Nativity and in Paradise Lost, and so Bailey says that “it is precisely ‘majesty’ which is the unique and essential Miltonic quality.”

      In reply to the observation that Shakespeare never blotted a line, Ben Jonson said, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand! No one has ever uttered such a wish with regard to Milton’s poetry. Milton as a poetic artist is never careless or slipshod. There is hardly a line in his poetic work which is unpoetical—hardly a word which is superfluous. All the words used by him were deliberately chosen for fulfilling these three functions: the exact expression of thought, their power of suggestion, and the musical effects required for the verse. And this artistic perfection characterizes his poetry from his first important poem (Ode to Nativity) to his last, one, Samson Agonistes. Milton has written all types of poetry—lyric, epic and dramatic, and his style in each reaches the high watermark of poetic art.

Early Poems

      Milton wrote the Ode to Nativity when he was only twenty-one and he was even “then an incomparable artist.” He handled the stanza form with the skill of a master and combined in it romantic movement with classical strength. In lines like, “The wakeful trump of doom must thunder through the deep” no one mistakes the essential Miltonic accent. After he had used the stanza form to perfection, he handled with equal mastery the octosyllabic couplet in L’ Allegro and ll Penaeroso. The verse in L’ Allegro is borne along by the very spirit of joy, and provides a remarkable instance of sound echoing the sense:

Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful jollity,
Quips and cranks and wanton wiles,
Nods, and becks, and wreathed smiles
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek
And love to live in dimple sleek.

      In II Penseroso, the same meter (octo-syllabic couplet) is used, but, in consonance with the mood and thought expressed in the poem, the verse moves with slow gravity.

Come; but keep thy wonted state
With even step, and musing gait,
And looks commercing with the skies
Thy wrapt soul sitting in thine eyes.

      The lyric music of these two poems, describing the cheerful and pensive elements of the poet’s nature, has seldom been equaled in English.

      Next comes Comus, which is in the form of a drama and is written in blank verse. It strikes the high note at once (rather unusual in a masque) in the opening speech of the Attendant Spirit:

Before the starry threshold of Jove’s court
My mansion is, where those immortal shapes
Of bright aerial sprits live insphered
In regions mild of calm and serene air.....

      This noble verse “looks forward to Paradise Lost, not backward to the masques of the previous generations of poets.” The blank verse of Comus, produced by a young man of twenty-six, does not possess of course the grandeur and stateliness of Paradise Lost but it gives of an ample promise of what is to come. The style of Comus is full of gorgeous imagery, and evoked the complaint of Dr. Johnson that it is ‘inelegantly splendid.’ It is marked, says Stopford Brooke, “by a greater grandeur of style and thoughts, by a graver beauty, and by a more exercised and self-conscious art than any poem of its character which England had as yet known.” The lyrics of Comus have a subtle and airy grace, and the songs, “Sweet Echo, sweetest Nymph”, and “Sabrina fair” are unmatched for their melody and for the elaborate and intricate perfection of their art and language.

      Lycidas is an elegy, in which “Milton outdistances all previous English elegy almost as easily as in Comus he had outdistanced all the earlier masks.” It is a poem of lamentation lifted to a higher plane by the power of heart and imagination. The verse is complicated in its structure, and follows the changing moods of passion. “One of its strange charms is its solemn undertone rising like a religious chant through the elegiac music.” (S.A. Brooke).

      Milton wrote a few sonnets, through which he blew soul-animating strains; they show the same dignity of thought and expression which we find in his more ambitious works, though the sonnets are few in number, they are some of the best in English poetry.

Paradise Lost and Later Poems

      The greatest work of Milton is Paradise Lost, and when we speak of the style of Milton, we generally think of the majestic style of this great epic. When Wordsworth wrote, “Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea,” he had in his mind the grand style of Paradise Lost. When Tennyson spoke of Milton as being the “God-gifted organ-voice of England”, he was no doubt referring to the majestic blank verse of Paradise Lost.

      The style of the epic is always great. On the whole, it is greatest in the whole range of English poetry. Fullness of sound, weight of march, compactness of finish, fitness of words to things, fitness of pauses to thought, a strong grasp of the main idea while other ideas play round it, equality of power over vast spaces of imagination, sustained splendor when he soars.

With plume so strong, so equal and so soft,

      A majesty in the conduct of thought, and music in the majesty which fills it with solemn beauty—belong one and all to the style: and it gains its highest influence on us, and fulfills the ultimate need of a grand style in being the easy and necessary expression of the very character and nature of the man. It reveals Milton, as much, sometimes more than his thought.” (Stofford A. Brooke).

      The theme of Paradise Lost is stupendous. “The horizon of Paradise Lost is not narrower than all space; its chronology not shorter than eternity; the globe of our earth becomes a mere spot in the physical universe, and that universe itself a drop suspended in the infinite empyrean.” (Pattison). Its characters are God and His creatures, and it concerns itself with the fortunes of the whole human race. Such a great theme required a great style for adequate presentation.

      The style of Paradise Lost fully rise to the height of the theme. It is the solitary instance of sustained grand style in English poetry (though Prof. Saintsbuiy has shown instances of grand style in Shakespeare). It rises to a lofty plane by virtue of the poet’s imaginative power, passionate emotion and moral earnestness. Everything in Paradise Lost is conceived in a mighty way. When the poet describes Satan he calls up the picture of the huge Leviathan, whom “the pilot of some small night-foundered skiff” deemed “some island”. The shield of Satan is

like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan artist views
At evening from the top of Fesole.
The fallen angels floating on the lake of Hell
lay entranced
Thick as Autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
In Vallombrosa

      When they spring upon the wing, they look like a cloud of locusts:

As when the potent rod
Of Amram’s son, in Egypt’s evil day
Waved round the coast, up-called a pitchy cloud
Of locusts, warping on the eastern wind,
So numberless were those bad Angels seen
Hovering on wing under the cope of Hell.

      The poet’s imagination does not submit to any limitations of space and time; the whole history of the human race and the geography of the entire globe are brought within its compass. When the poet seeks to convey the idea of the vastness of the multitude of the fallen angels his imagination goes back to the past, and passes over the entire continent of Europe:

A multitude, like which the populous North
Poured never from her frozen loins, to pass
Rhene or the Danaw, when her barbarous sons
Came like a deluge on the South and spread
Beneath Gibralter to the Lybian sands.

      Satan’s throne in Pandemonium calls up the vision of the whole of “gorgeous East.”

High on a throne of royal state, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with ricest hand
Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,
Satan exalted sat.

      No one, says Raleigh, “has known so well how to portray in a few strokes effects of multitude and vastness.” The warrior host of Hell is thus described:

He spake; and to confirm his words, outflew
Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs
Of mighty Cherubim; the sudden blaze
Far round illumined Hell.

      The ruin and prostration of the rebel angels is made vivid in two lines:

Cherub and Seraph rolling in the flood
With scattered arms and ensigns.

      In his description Milton studies “large decorum and majesty.” He is never tempted into detail, and never loses the whole in the part. This is the description of Chaos, as the King of Glory, from the verge of his heavenly domain beholds it:

On Heavenly ground they stood, and from the shore
They viewed the vast immeasurable Abyss,
Outrageous as a sea, dark wasteful, wild
Up from the bottom turned by furious winds
And surging waves, as mountains to assault
Heaven’s heighth, and with the centre mix the pole,

      There is no minute detail to interfere with the view of the whole.

      Milton often uses abstract terms for concrete realities, and by so doing he achieves a wonderful effect of majesty. He “describes the concrete, the specific, the individual, using general and abstract terms for the sake of the dignity and scope that they lend.” The wind instrument blown by the heralds in Hell is called ‘the sounding alchemy.” Death is called “the grisly terror.” Milton’s avoidance of familiar realistic details was necessitated by his lofty theme, which precluded everything having a mean or vulgar association. He deliberately creates an effect of vagueness where concrete details would be out of place. This vagueness is created by 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 noun the danger of a definite and inadequate conception is avoided.” [This practice of Milton, necessary in his great epic was abused by the poets in the eighteenth century, and led to artificial poetic diction.]

      Of all English styles, says Raleigh, “Milton’s is best entitled to the name of classic.” In Milton’s style, we have the compactness, force and reserve and the unity of emotional impression, which are the distinctive characteristics of true classical style. Milton was a conscientious artist and weighed every word he used for its meaning, weight and sound. “He taxes every line to its fullest capacity, and wrings the last drop of value from each word.” His poetry, says Macaulay, acts like an incantation. “Its merit lies less in its obvious meaning than in its occult power. There would seem at first sight to be no more in his words than in other words. But they are words of enchantment. No sooner are they pronounced than the past is present and the distant near. Change the structure of the sentence; substitute one synonym for another, and the whole effect is destroyed.” Milton is often not satisfied with one meaning of a word, but will make it double duty. Words derived from Latin served this double purpose. To the ordinary reader, they convey one meaning and to the scholar they suggest also another. This gives a suggestive power to Milton’s language. “The most striking characteristic of the poetry of Milton is the extreme remoteness of the associations by which it acts on the reader. Its effect is produced, not so much by what it expresses, as by what it suggests, not so much by the ideas which it directly conveys as by other ideas which are connected with them. He electrifies the mind through conductors. The works of Milton cannot be comprehended or enjoyed unless the mind of the reader co-operates with that of the writer. He does not paint a finished picture, or play for a mere passive listener. He sketches and leaves others to fill up the outline. He strikes the key-note and expects his hearers to make out the melody.” (Macaulay)

      An essential quality of Milton’s poetic style is its allusiveness. He no doubt pressed to the service of his poetry all that he observed in life and nature;—but his vision was often colored by his knowledge. The whole treasury of poetry, ancient and modem, and the whole storehouse of learning were at his command; and he seemed to assume that they were also at the command of his reader, and so he loaded every rift of his verse with myth and legend, historical, literary, and scientific fact. Classical and Biblical allusions are most abundant, and are woven into the very texture of his language. Hence Pattison remarks: “The appreciation of Milton is the last reward of consummate scholarship.” His scholarly habit of mind is illustrated in the comparison of the army of Satan to various military assemblages, mentioned in legend and history at the close of Book I of Paradise Lost

.....for never since created man
Met such imbodied force, as named with these....

      A striking feature of Milton’s style in Paradise Lost is his use of epic similes. These similes go for beyond the limits of comparison, and expanded to draw complete pictures. Satan’s huge bulk is compared to the huge Leviathan, who is mistaken for an island:

Him, haply slumbering on the Norway foam
The pilot of some small night-foundered skiff

      Milton uses these expanded similes to ennoble his narrative rather than merely to illustrate it.

      By all these devices and many more (too many to be mentioned here), “he attained to a finished style of perhaps a more consistent and unflagging elevation than is to be found elsewhere in literature.....No poet, since Milton’s day has recaptured the solemnity and beauty of the large utterance of Gabriel; or Belail or Satan,” (Raleigh).

Did Milton “Corrupt the Language”?

      Dr. Johnson called attention to the peculiarity of Miltonic diction, saying that it is so far removed from common use that an unlearned reader when he first opens the book, finds himself surprised by a new language.” “Our language”, Addition had said before, “sunk under him.” Milton’s is a personal style, which T.S. Eliot point out, is “not based upon common speech or common prose, or direct communication of meaning. “It violates the accepted rules of English grammar and syntax, so much so that Dr. Johnson said that he, “wrote no language”. Milton had a preference for the unusual and recondite in vocabulary and construction, which led him to archaism on the one hand, and to the substitution of foreign idioms, particularly Latin, for English idioms on the other. In general, Milton’s style may be described as almost uniquely literary and intellectual. But, freighted as it is with learning and bookish phrase, and elaborate as it is in the construction and alien in vocabulary, it achieves a uniform effect of dignity, and becomes a perfect means for expressing the elevated and intensely passionate personality of its author.

      Some of the characteristics of Miltonic style, (which are at variance with the English literary usage) are mentioned below:

1. Inversion of the natural order of words and phrases, often with relative clauses:

So prayed they innocent, and to their thoughts
Firm peace recovered soon and wonted calm.
Him who disobeys
Me disobeys, breaks union
Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste

2. Omission of words:

extended wide
In circuit, undermined square or round.

3. Parenthesis:

There song was partial, but the harmony
(What could it less, when Spirits immortal sing?)
Suspended Hell.....

4. Use of one part of speech for another: verb as noun, “the great consult began”; adjectives as noun, “the palpable obscure,” “dark with excessive bright.”

5. Unusual compound epithets: “Heaven-banished host”, “nightwarbling bird.”

6. Archaism or Latinism in vocabulary; ‘emprise” for enterprise, ‘frore’ for frozen.

      All these characteristics may be found in English literature before Milton, but in Milton, they become habitual features of language style. Spenser, for instance, uses archaisms much more persistently than Milton. The use of Latinisms was common enough in English prose in the seventeenth century. But no other poet before Milton has resorted to Latinised diction as a means of removing his speech from the sphere of daily life. But Milton was dealing with a subject which was removed from “the sphere of daily life”, and he therefore employed a style, corresponding to the dignity of his subject. And this style, which has been called’ grand style’, was something personal to Milton, with his classical training and vast intellectual equipment. This style was quite suitable for Milton, dealing with a subject ‘unattempted in prose and rhyme’, but when the pseudo-classical poets of the eighteenth century employed the devices of Miltonic style, the result was the artificial poetic diction, which was vehemently condemned by Wordsworth.

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