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Full Online Book HomeEssaysAmong My Books - Second Series - MILTON. Continues 2
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Among My Books - Second Series - MILTON. Continues 2 Post by :Terry_Doherty Category :Essays Author :James Russell Lowell Date :April 2012 Read :3785

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Among My Books - Second Series - MILTON. Continues 2

MILTON. Continues 2

There can be little doubt that the rhymes in the first passage cited were intentional, and perhaps they were so in the others; but Milton's ear has tolerated not a few perfectly rhyming couplets, and others in which the assonance almost becomes rhyme, certainly a fault in blankverse:--

"From the Asian Kings (and Parthian among these),
From India and the Golden Chersonese";

"That soon refreshed him wearied, and repaired
What hunger, if aught hunger, had impaired";

"And will alike be punished, whether thou
Reign or reign not, though to that gentle brow";

"Of pleasure, but all pleasure to destroy,
Save what is in destroying, other joy";

"Shall all be Paradise, far happier place
Than this of Eden, and far happier days";

"This my long sufferance and my day of grace
They who neglect and scorn shall never taste";

"So far remote with diminution seen,
First in his East the glorious lamp was seen."(371)

These examples (and others might be adduced) serve to show that Milton's ear was too busy about the larger interests of his measures to be always careful of the lesser. He was a strategist rather than a drill-sergeant in verse, capable, beyond any other English poet, of putting great masses through the most complicated evolutions without clash or confusion, but he was not curious that every foot should be at the same angle. In reading "Paradise Lost" one has a feeling of vastness. You float under an illimitable sky, brimmed with sunshine or hung with constellations; the abysses of space are about you; you hear the cadenced surges of an unseen ocean; thunders mutter round the horizon; and if the scene change, it is with an elemental movement like the shifting of mighty winds. His imagination seldom condenses, like Shakespeare's, in the kindling flash of a single epithet, but loves better to diffuse itself. Witness his descriptions, wherein he seems to circle like an eagle bathing in the blue streams of air, controlling with his eye broad sweeps of champaign or of sea, and rarely fulmining in the sudden swoop of intenser expression. He was fonder of the vague, perhaps I should rather say the indefinite, where more is meant than meets the ear, than any other of our poets. He loved epithets (like _old and _far_) that suggest great reaches, whether of space or time. This bias shows itself already in his earlier poems, as where he hears

"The _far off curfew sound
Over some _widewatered shore,"

or where he fancies the shores(372) and sounding seas washing Lycidas far away; but it reaches its climax in the "Paradise Lost." He produces his effects by dilating our imaginations with an impalpable hint rather than by concentrating them upon too precise particulars. Thus in a famous comparison of his, the fleet has no definite port, but plies stemming nightly toward the pole in a wide ocean of conjecture. He generalizes always instead of specifying,--the true secret of the ideal treatment in which he is without peer, and, though everywhere grandiose, he is never turgid. Tasso begins finely with

"Chiama gli abitator dell' ombre eterne
II rauco suon della tartarea tromba;
Treman le spaziose atre caverne,
E l'aer cieco a quel rumor rimbomba,"

but soon spoils all by condescending to definite comparisons with thunder and intestinal convulsions of the earth; in other words, he is unwary enough to give us a standard of measurement, and the moment you furnish Imagination with a yardstick she abdicates in favor of her statistical poor-relation Commonplace. Milton, with this passage in his memory, is too wise to hamper himself with any statement for which he can be brought to book, but wraps himself in a mist of looming indefiniteness;

"He called so loud that all the hollow deep
Of hell resounded,"

thus amplifying more nobly by abstention from his usual method of prolonged evolution. No caverns, however spacious, will serve his turn, because they have limits. He could practise this self-denial when his artistic sense found it needful, whether for variety of verse or for the greater intensity of effect to be gained by abruptness. His more elaborate passages have the multitudinous roll of thunder, dying away to gather a sullen force again from its own reverberations, but he knew that the attention is recalled and arrested by those claps that stop short without echo and leave us listening. There are no such vistas and avenues of verse as his. In reading the "Paradise Lost" one has a feeling of spaciousness such as no other poet gives. Milton's respect for himself and for his own mind and its movements rises wellnigh to veneration. He prepares the way for his thought and spreads on the ground before the sacred feet of his verse tapestries inwoven with figures of mythology and romance. There is no such unfailing dignity as his. Observe at what a reverent distance he begins when he is about to speak of himself, as at the beginning of the Third Book and the Seventh. His sustained strength is especially felt in his beginnings. He seems always to start full-sail; the wind and tide always serve; there is never any fluttering of the canvas In this he offers a striking contrast with Wordsworth, who has to go through with a great deal of _yo-heave-ohing before he gets under way. And though, in the didactic parts of "Paradise Lost," the wind dies away sometimes, there is a long swell that will not let us forget it, and ever and anon some eminent verse lifts its long ridge above its tamer peers heaped with stormy memories. And the poem never becomes incoherent; we feel all through it, as in the symphonies of Beethoven, a great controlling reason in whose safe-conduct we trust implicitly.

Mr. Masson's discussions of Milton's English are, it seems to me, for the most part unsatisfactory He occupies some ten pages, for example, with a history of the genitival form _its_, which adds nothing to our previous knowledge on the subject and which has no relation to Milton except for its bearing on the authorship of some verses attributed to him against the most overwhelming internal evidence to the contrary. Mr. Masson is altogether too resolute to find traces of what he calls oddly enough "recollectiveness of Latin constructions" in Milton, and scents them sometimes in what would seem to the uninstructed reader very idiomatic English. More than once, at least, he has fancied them by misunderstanding the passage in which they seem to occur. Thus, in "Paradise Lost," XI. 520, 521,

"Therefore so abject is their punishment,
Disfiguring not God's likeness but their own,"

has no analogy with _eorum deformantium_, for the context shows that it is the _punishment which disfigures. Indeed, Mr. Masson so often finds constructions difficult, ellipses strange, and words needing annotation that are common to all poetry, nay, sometimes to all English, that his notes seem not seldom to have been written by a foreigner. On this passage in "Comus,"--

"I do not think my sister so to seek
Or so unprincipled in virtue's book
And the sweet peace that virtue bosoms ever
As that the single want of light and noise
* * * * *
"(Not being in danger, as I trust she is not)
Could stir the constant mood of her calm thoughts,"

Mr. Masson tells us, that "in very strict construction, _not being would cling to _want as its substantive; but the phrase passes for the Latin ablative absolute." So on the words _forestalling night_, "i. e. anticipating. Forestall is literally to anticipate the market by purchasing goods before they are brought to the stall." In the verse

"Thou hast immanacled while Heaven sees good,"

he explains that "_while here has the sense of _so long as_." But Mr. Masson's notes on the language are his weakest. He is careful to tell us, for example, "that there are instances of the use of _shine as a substantive in Spenser, Ben Jonson, and other poets." It is but another way of spelling _sheen_, and if Mr. Masson never heard a shoeblack in the street say, "Shall I give you a shine, sir?" his experience has been singular.(373) His notes in general are very good (though too long). Those on the astronomy of Milton are particularly valuable. I think he is sometimes a little too scornful of parallel passages,(374) for if there is one thing more striking than another in this poet, it is that his great and original imagination was almost wholly nourished by books, perhaps I should rather say set in motion by them. It is wonderful how, from the most withered and juiceless hint gathered in his reading, his grand images rise like an exhalation; how from the most battered old lamp caught in that huge drag-net with which he swept the waters of learning, he could conjure a tall genius to build his palaces. Whatever he touches swells and towers. That wonderful passage in Comus of the airy tongues, perhaps the most imaginative in suggestion he ever wrote, was conjured out of a dry sentence in Purchas's abstract of Marco Polo. Such examples help us to understand the poet. When I find that Sir Thomas Browne had said before Milton, that Adam "was _the wisest of all men since_," I am glad to find this link between the most profound and the most stately imagination of that age. Such parallels sometimes give a hint also of the historical development of our poetry, of its apostolical succession, so to speak. Every one has noticed Milton's fondness of sonorous proper names, which have not only an acquired imaginative value by association, and so serve to awaken our poetic sensibilities, but have likewise a merely musical significance. This he probably caught from Marlowe, traces of whom are frequent in him. There is certainly something of what afterwards came to be called Miltonic in more than one passage of "Tamburlaine," a play in which gigantic force seems struggling from the block, as in Michel Angelo's Dawn.

Mr. Masson's remarks on the versification of Milton are, in the main, judicious, but when he ventures on particulars, one cannot always agree with him. He seems to understand that our prosody is accentual merely, and yet, when he comes to what he calls _variations_, he talks of the "substitution of the Trochee, the Pyrrhic, or the Spondee, for the regular Iambus, or of the Anapaest, the Dactyl, the Tribrach, etc., for the same." This is always misleading. The shift of the accent in what Mr. Masson calls "dissyllabic variations" is common to all pentameter verse, and, in the other case, most of the words cited as trisyllables either were not so in Milton's day,(375) or were so or not at choice of the poet, according to their place in the verse. There is not an elision of Milton's without precedent in the dramatists from whom he learned to write blank-verse. Milton was a greater metrist than any of them, except Marlowe and Shakespeare, and he employed the elision (or the slur) oftener than they to give a faint undulation or retardation to his verse, only because his epic form demanded it more for variety's sake. How Milton would have _read them, is another question. He certainly often marked them by an apostrophe in his manuscripts. He doubtless composed according to quantity, so far as that is possible in English, and as Cowper somewhat extravagantly says, "gives almost as many proofs of it in his 'Paradise Lost' as there are lines in the poem."(376) But when Mr. Masson tells us that

"Self-fed and self-consumed: if this fail,"

and

"Dwells in all Heaven charity so rare,"

are "only nine syllables," and that in

"Created hugest that swim the ocean-stream,"

"either the third foot must be read as an _anapaest or the word _hugest must be pronounced as one syllable, _hug'st_," I think Milton would have invoked the soul of Sir John Cheek. Of course Milton read it

"Created hugest that swim th' ocean-stream,"

just as he wrote (if we may trust Mr. Masson's facsimile)

"Thus sang the uncouth swain to th' oaks and rills,"

a verse in which both hiatus and elision occur precisely as in the Italian poets.(377)

"Gest that swim" would be rather a knotty _anapaest_, an insupportable foot indeed! And why is even _hug'st worse than Shakespeare's

"_Young'st follower of thy drum"?

In the same way he says of

"For we have also our evening and our morn,"

that "the metre of this line is irregular," and of the rapidly fine

"Came flying and in mid air aloud thus cried,"

that it is "a line of unusual metre." Why more unusual than

"As being the contrary to his high will"?

What would Mr. Masson say to these three verses from Dekkar?--

"And _knowing so much, I muse thou art so poor";

"I fan away the dust _flying in mine eyes";

"_Flowing o'er with court news only of you and them."

All such participles (where no consonant divided the vowels) were normally of one syllable, permissibly of two.(378) If Mr. Masson had studied the poets who preceded Milton as he has studied _him_, he would never have said that the verse

"Not this rock only; his omnipresence fills,"

was "peculiar as having a distinct syllable of overmeasure." He retains Milton's spelling of _hunderd without perceiving the metrical reason for it, that _d, t, p, b, &c., followed by _l or _r_, might be either of two or of three syllables. In Marlowe we find it both ways in two consecutive verses:--

"A hundred (hundered) and fifty thousand horse,
Two hundred thousand foot, brave men at arms."(379)

Mr. Masson is especially puzzled by verses ending in one or more unaccented syllables, and even argues in his Introduction that some of them might be reckoned Alexandrines. He cites some lines of Spenser as confirming his theory, forgetting that rhyme wholly changes the conditions of the case by throwing the accent (appreciably even now, but more emphatically in Spenser's day) on the last syllable.

"A spirit and judgment equal or superior,"

he calls "a remarkably anomalous line, consisting of twelve or even thirteen syllables." Surely Milton's ear would never have tolerated a dissyllabic "spirit" in such a position. The word was then more commonly of one syllable, though it might be two, and was accordingly spelt _spreet (still surviving in _sprite_), _sprit_, and even _spirt_, as Milton himself spells it in one of Mr. Masson's facsimiles.(380) Shakespeare, in the verse

"Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,"

uses the word admirably well in a position where it _cannot have a metrical value of more than one syllable, while it gives a dancing movement to the verse in keeping with the sense. Our old metrists were careful of elasticity, a quality which modern verse has lost in proportion as our language has stiffened into uniformity under the benumbing fingers of pedants.

This discussion of the value of syllables is not so trifling as it seems. A great deal of nonsense has been written about imperfect measures in Shakespeare, and of the admirable dramatic effect produced by filling up the gaps of missing syllables with pauses or prolongations of the voice in reading. In rapid, abrupt, and passionate dialogue this is possible, but in passages of continuously level speech it is barbarously absurd. I do not believe that any of our old dramatists has knowingly left us a single imperfect verse. Seeing in what a haphazard way and in how mutilated a form their plays have mostly reached us, we should attribute such _faults (as a geologist would call them) to anything rather than to the deliberate design of the poets. Marlowe and Shakespeare, the two best metrists among them, have given us a standard by which to measure what licenses they took in versification,--the one in his translations, the other in his poems. The unmanageable verses in Milton are very few, and all of them occur in works printed after his blindness had lessened the chances of supervision and increased those of error. There are only two, indeed, which seem to me wholly indigestible as they stand. These are,

"Burnt after them to the bottomless pit,"

and

"With them from bliss to the bottomless deep."

This certainly looks like a case where a word had dropped out or had been stricken out by some proof-reader who limited the number of syllables in a pentameter verse by that of his finger-ends. Mr. Masson notices only the first of these lines, and says that to make it regular by accenting the word _bottomless on the second syllable would be "too horrible." Certainly not, if Milton so accented it, any more than _blasphemous and twenty more which sound oddly to us now. However that may be, Milton could not have intended to close not only a period, but a paragraph also, with an unmusical verse, and in the only other passage where the word occurs it is accented as now on the first syllable:

"With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell."

As _bottom is a word which, like _bosom and _besom_, may be monosyllabic or dissyllabic according to circumstances, I am persuaded that the last passage quoted (and all three refer to the same event) gives us the word wanting in the two others, and that Milton wrote, or meant to write,--

"Burnt after them down to the bottomless pit,"

which leaves in the verse precisely the kind of ripple that Milton liked best.(381)

Much of what Mr. Masson says in his Introduction of the way in which the verses of Milton should be read is judicious enough, though some of the examples he gives, of the "comicality" which would ensue from compressing every verse into an exact measure of ten syllables, are based on a surprising ignorance of the laws which guided our poets just before and during Milton's time in the structure of their verses. Thus he seems to think that a strict scansion would require us in the verses

"So he with difficulty and labor hard,"

and

"Carnation, purple, azure, or specked with gold,"

to pronounce _diffikty and _purp'_. Though Mr. Masson talks of "slurs and elisions," his ear would seem somewhat insensible to their exact nature or office. His _diffikty supposes a hiatus where none is intended, and his making _purple of one syllable wrecks the whole verse, the real slur in the latter case being on _azure or_.(382) When he asks whether Milton required "these pronunciations in his verse," no positive answer can be given, but I very much doubt whether he would have thought that some of the lines Mr. Masson cites "remain perfectly good Blank Verse even with the most leisurely natural enunciation of the spare syllable," and I am sure he would have stared if told that "the number of accents" in a pentameter verse was "variable." It may be doubted whether elisions and compressions which would be thought in bad taste or even vulgar now were more abhorrent to the ears of Milton's generation than to a cultivated Italian would be the hearing Dante read as prose. After all, what Mr. Masson says may be reduced to the infallible axiom that poetry should be read as poetry.

Mr. Masson seems to be right in his main principles, but the examples he quotes make one doubt whether he knows what a verse is. For example, he thinks it would be a "horror," if in the verse

"That invincible Samson far renowned"

we should lay the stress on the first syllable of _invincible_. It is hard to see why this should be worse than _conventicle or _remonstrance or _successor or _incompatible_, (the three latter used by the correct Daniel) or why Mr. Masson should clap an accent on _surface merely because it comes at the end of a verse, and deny it to _invincible_. If one read the verse just cited with those that go with it, he will find that the accent _must come on the first syllable of _invincible or else the whole passage becomes chaos.(383) Should we refuse to say _obleeged with Pope because the fashion has changed? From its apparently greater freedom in skilful hands, blank-verse gives more scope to sciolistic theorizing and dogmatism than the rhyming pentameter couplet, but it is safe to say that no verse is good in the one that would not be good in the other when handled by a master like Dryden. Milton, like other great poets, wrote some bad verses, and it is wiser to confess that they are so than to conjure up some unimaginable reason why the reader should accept them as the better for their badness. Such a bad verse is

"Rocks, caves, lakes, _fens_, bogs, _dens and shapes of death,"

which might be cited to illustrate Pope's

"And ten low words oft creep in one dull line."

Milton cannot certainly be taxed with any partiality for low words. He rather loved them tall, as the Prussian King loved men to be six feet high in their stockings, and fit to go into the grenadiers. He loved them as much for their music as for their meaning,--perhaps more. His style, therefore, when it has to deal with commoner things, is apt to grow a little cumbrous and unwieldy. A Persian poet says that when the owl would boast he boasts of catching mice at the edge of a hole. Shakespeare would have understood this. Milton would have made him talk like an eagle. His influence is not to be left out of account as partially contributing to that decline toward poetic diction which was already beginning ere he died. If it would not be fair to say that he is the most artistic, he may be called in the highest sense the most scientific of our poets. If to Spenser younger poets have gone to be sung-to, they have sat at the feet of Milton to be taught. Our language has no finer poem than "Samson Agonistes," if any so fine in the quality of austere dignity or in the skill with which the poet's personal experience is generalized into a classic tragedy.

Gentle as Milton's earlier portraits would seem to show him, he had in him by nature, or bred into him by fate, something of the haughty and defiant self-assertion of Dante and Michel Angelo. In no other English author is the man so large a part of his works. Milton's haughty conception of himself enters into all he says and does. Always the necessity of this one man became that of the whole human race for the moment. There were no walls so sacred but must go to the ground when _he wanted elbow-room; and he wanted a great deal. Did Mary Powell, the cavalier's daughter, find the abode of a roundhead schoolmaster _incompatible and leave it, forthwith the cry of the universe was for an easier dissolution of the marriage covenant. If _he is blind, it is with excess of light, it is a divine partiality, an over-shadowing with angels' wings. Phineus and Teiresias are admitted among the prophets because they, too, had lost their sight, and the blindness of Homer is of more account than his Iliad. After writing in rhyme till he was past fifty, he finds it unsuitable for his epic, and it at once becomes "the invention of a barbarous age to set off wretched matter and lame metre." If the structure of _his mind be undramatic, why, then, the English drama is naught, learned Jonson, sweetest Shakespeare, and the rest notwithstanding, and he will compose a tragedy on a Greek model with the blinded Samson for its hero, and he will compose it partly in rhyme. Plainly he belongs to the intenser kind of men whose yesterdays are in no way responsible for their to-morrows. And this makes him perennially interesting even to those who hate his politics, despise his Socinianism, and find his greatest poem a bore. A new edition of his poems is always welcome, for, as he is really great, he presents a fresh side to each new student, and Mr. Masson, in his three handsome volumes, has given us, with much that is superfluous and even erroneous, much more that is a solid and permanent acquisition to our knowledge.

It results from the almost scornful withdrawal of Milton into the fortress of his absolute personality that no great poet is so uniformly self-conscious as he. We should say of Shakespeare that he had the power of transforming himself into everything; of Milton, that he had that of transforming everything into himself. Dante is individual rather than self-conscious, and he, the cast-iron man, grows pliable as a field of grain at the breath of Beatrice, and flows away in waves of sunshine. But Milton never let himself go for a moment. As other poets are possessed by their theme, so is he _self_-possessed, his great theme being John Milton, and his great duty that of interpreter between him and the world. I say it with all respect, for he was well worthy translation, and it is out of Hebrew that the version is made. Pope says he makes God the Father reason "like a school divine." The criticism is witty, but inaccurate. He makes Deity a mouthpiece for his present theology, and had the poem been written a few years later, the Almighty would have become more heterodox. Since Dante, no one had stood on these visiting terms with heaven.

Now it is precisely this audacity of self-reliance, I suspect, which goes far toward making the sublime, and which, falling by a hair's-breadth short thereof, makes the ridiculous. Puritanism showed both the strength and weakness of its prophetic nurture; enough of the latter to be scoffed out of England by the very men it had conquered in the field, enough of the former to intrench itself in three or four immortal memories. It has left an abiding mark in politics and religion, but its great monuments are the prose of Bunyan and the verse of Milton. It is a high inspiration to be the neighbor of great events; to have been a partaker in them and to have seen noble purposes by their own self-confidence become the very means of ignoble ends, if it do not wholly depress, may kindle a passion of regret deepening the song which dares not tell the reason of its sorrow. The grand loneliness of Milton in his latter years, while it makes him the most impressive figure in our literary history, is reflected also in his maturer poems by a sublime independence of human sympathy like that with which mountains fascinate and rebuff us. But it is idle to talk of the loneliness of one the habitual companions of whose mind were the Past and Future. I always seem to see him leaning in his blindness a hand on the shoulder of each, sure that the one will guard the song which the other had inspired.

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MILTON. Continues 1Mr. Masson assures us that "there are touches in this description (as, for example, the _ordering of arms at the moment of halt, and without word of command) too exact and technical to have occurred to a mere civilian. Again, at the same review...."'He now prepared To speak; whereat their doubled ranks they bend From wing to wing, and half enclose him round With all his peers; _attention held them mute.'(360)"To the present day this is the very process, or one of the processes, when a commander wishes to address his men. They wheel inward and stand at 'attention.'"
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