in verse #26 : organ music

If the last three letters of the f-word are what seems most repellent about it — the sound of “uck” — that would explain how some other words ending that way still seem a bit odd, if not funny or repellent.  Suck, duck, buck, cluck, yuck, muck, guck — and now BYUCK.  Or why others, like ruck and snuck, are fading away.  And why a word like luck, which leads in with a liquid consonant, doesn’t seem quite as bad, or why pluck, which leads with a plosive followed by a liquid consonant, seem positively upbeat.  It would also explain why all of our substitutes begin with “f,” as in flippin’, fetchin’ and friggin’.[i]

If you apply such a general, and no doubt faulty, rule[ii] to some of the other less-genteel words kicking around in English, like the c-word, you come up with bunt, punt, hunt, runt, grunt, all of which have that same feature of being punched in the stomach and feeling your breath rush out.  Or there’s “ass,” a perfectly fine, acceptable word for a pack animal, until it became conflated with the part of the human body that sits astride it[iii].  Gas, mass, bass, jass, lass, class, pass, sass — and especially in combinations like “pass gas” — all smack of the unsavory, even though some have perfectly acceptable contemporary uses, and some, like “lass,” are fading into poetic diction.  And then there’s the t-word, which shares its nether end with bird, heard, curd, word, furred, lured, gird, nerd, purred, surd, and so on.  These words appear to have fallen in with the t-word as much due to the great vowel movement as to anything else.

What most of these words have in common is a Germanic origin:  even though we seem to have borrowed the f-word from a Dutch word meaning “to strike,” apparently coming into Middle-English through commerce with the Netherlands, most of these words go back to Anglo-Saxon roots, like, to use a perfectly unrelated word, the “egg” of “to egg him on,” which comes from the Anglo-Saxon “ecg,” also yielding our “edge” as in the edge of a blade — to prod someone as with the edge of a blade.  For each of these blunt Anglo-Saxon words there is a more-acceptable Latin name, often sounding more clinical, like vagina or rectum, or a phrase like “to have sexual intercourse with” which, in one of the more interesting developments in word-lore, has freed the word considered obscene to expand its bailiwick, suck in more forms of speech, and extend its reach.

Milton, like Shakespeare, was very aware of this development:  Shakespeare exploited it to the hilt, but Milton avoided it as much as possible.  From his long practice in writing an elegant and sinuous Latin prose in defence of the Commonwealth — one aimed at a Continenal audience — he was able to develop an elegant and irriguous English blank verse for Paradise lost, one suited to be read in churches, as was the prose of the King James Bible.  This conversation between Adam and Raphael demonstrates his mastery; in it, the unfallen Adam hopes to detain the angel and extend their conversation, not wanting him to leave:

Bear with me then, if lawful what I ask;                                                                                       Love not the heav’nly Spirits, and how thir Love                                                                      Express they, by looks only, or do they mix                                                                                  Irradiance, virtual or immediate touch?                                                                                          To whom the Angel with a smile that glow’d                                                                               Celestial rosy red, Love’s proper hue,                                                                                Answer’d.  Let it suffice thee that thou know’st                                                                            Us happy, and without Love no happiness.                                                                                 Whatever pure thou in the body enjoy’st                                                                                         (And pure thou wert created) we enjoy                                                                                           In eminence, and obstacle find none                                                                                                  Of membrane, joint, or limb, exclusive bars:                                                                                  Easier than Air with Air, if Spirits embrace,                                                                                Total they mix, Union of Pure with Pure                                                                                     Desiring; nor restrained conveyance need                                                                                        As Flesh to mix with Flesh, or Soul with Soul.[iv]

At which point the congenial Raphael notes that the sun is going down, and it’s time for him to head for home — Adam (and Eve) have detained him long enough.  Milton here is not being coy; in fact Merritt Y. Hughes, his editor in the present text, points out in paragraphs 36 & 37 of his introduction that Milton was giving expression to his materialist philosophy of Christianity, on which, in the treatise De doctrina Christiana, he was working at about the same time.[v]  An earlier instance of the expression of this materialism is found in Adam’s invitation to Raphael:

…Heav’nly stranger, please to taste                                                                                                These bounties which our Nourisher, from whom                                                                           All perfet good unmeasur’d out, descends,                                                                                      To us for food and for delight hath caus’d                                                                                        The Earth to yield; unsavoury food perhaps                                                                                   To spiritual Natures; only this I know,                                                                                             That one Celestial Father gives to all.

To whom the Angel. Therefore what he gives                                                                                 (Whose praise be ever sung) to man in part                                                                                  Spiritual, may of purest Spirits be found                                                                                         No ingrateful food: and food alike those pure                                                                                   Intelligential substances require                                                                                                       As doth your Rational; and both contain                                                                                         Within them every lower faculty                                                                                                     Of sense, whereby they hear, see, smell, touch, taste,                                                                   Tasting concoct, digest, assimilate,                                                                                                 And corporeal to incorporeal turn.                                                                                                 For know, whatever was created, needs                                                                                           To be sustain’d and fed; of Elements                                                                                                The grosser feeds the purer, Earth the Sea,                                                                                  Earth and the Sea feed Air, the Air those Fires                                                                               Ethereal, and as lowest first the Moon;                                                                                       Whence in her visage round those spots, unpurg’d                                                                         Vapours not yet into her substance turn’d.                                                                                     Nor doth the Moon no nourishment exhale                                                                                     From her moist Continent to higher Orbs.                                                                                      The Sun that light imparts to all, receives                                                                                        From all his alimental recompence                                                                                                    In humid exhalations, and at Even                                                                                             Sups with the Ocean: though in Heav’n the Trees                                                                        Of life ambrosial fruitage bear, and vines                                                                                        Yield Nectar, though from off the boughs each Morn                                                                 We brush mellifluous Dews, and find the ground                                                                Cover’d with pearly grain: yet God hath here                                                                               Varied his bounty so with new delights,                                                                                          As may compare with Heaven; and to taste                                                                                    Think not I shall be nice. So down they sat,                                                                                And to thir viands fell, nor seemingly                                                                                              The Angel, nor in mist, the common gloss                                                                                        Of Theologians, but with keen dispatch                                                                                        Of real hunger, and concoctive heat                                                                                               To transubstantiate; what redounds, transpires                                                                             Through Spirits with ease; nor wonder; if by fire                                                                          Of sooty coal the Empiric Alchemist                                                                                                 Can turn, or holds it possible to turn                                                                                                Metals of drossiest Ore to perfet Gold                                                                                           As from the Mine. Meanwhile at Table Eve                                                                               Minister’d naked, and thir flowing cups                                                                                          With pleasant liquors crown’d:  O innocence                                                                                   Deserving Paradise! if ever, then,                                                                                              Then had the Sons of God excuse to have been                                                                              Enamour’d at that sight; but in those hearts                                                                                Love unlibidinous reign’d, nor jealousy                                                                                             Was understood, the injur’d Lovers Hell.[vi]

Now, since I just threw two long passages from Paradise lost at you, undigested by commentary or editorial intrusion, you might, with some justice, ask how long this will go on.  Well, I’ve reached the end of my labours for the day; I could go on quoting Milton for a long time, and delighting in his mastery of blank verse, and pointing out how well he integrates his Latin and Italianate vocabulary into his matrix of English grammar; but you can observe that as well by re-reading the passages above; I find them convincing examples of his mastery of blank verse (of which I will say much more in my next post), and of his discounting of Rime as “the Invention of a barbarous Age.”[vii]  One thing I learned in working on this post that I had only dimly sensed before was the full extent of Milton’s love of languages, and proficiency in them.  As Wikipedia has it[viii], “… Milton had command of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and Italian from his school and undergraduate days; he also added Old English to his linguistic repertoire in the 1650s while researching his History of Britain, and probably acquired proficiency in Dutch soon after.”  So it can hardly be argued that Milton didn’t know the Germanic roots of his native tongue, but rather that he was so proficient in it that he could with elegance and ease incorporate the vocabulary he had labored so diligently to master.

That, and he was dictating the poem to amanuenses, since he was stone-blind by the time he had to retire from public life, which was when he started Paradise lost.  And here I’m going to make a huge leap, and I hope you will grasp my outstretched hand and jump with me, even though we won’t land for several more posts.  Like, say, sometime in September:  although Joseph Smith lacked Milton’s formal education, and modeled his revelations on the language of the King James Bible, in his practice of dictating them to scribes some of that same ease with spoken English, some of that same fluency, comes through.

But hold on, I hear you bellow:  Joseph Smith, a poet?  Over my dead body!

Your turn.


[i] Yeah, I know, Stephen Sondheim used “Krup You” in his lyrics to West side story, but when have you ever heard one of your children say that?  Or your parents, for that matter?

[ii] And it probably would belong more to the area of sociolinguistics, rather than phonetics.

[iii] In more ways than one, as Geoffrey Nunberg has amply demonstrated in his new book Ascent of the A-word : assholism, the first sixty years. – New York : PublicAffairs, c2012.

[iv] Paradise lost : a poem in twelve books / John Milton. – A new edition / edited by Merritt Y. Hughes. – New York : Odyssey, c1962; book 8, lines 614-629.

[v] Ibid., xxxvii.

[vi] Ibid., 5:397-450.

[vii] Ibid., p. 4, Milton’s preface on “The Verse.”

[viii], citing The Life of John Milton / Barbara K. Lewalski. –  Oxford: Blackwells Publishers, 2003, citing p. 103.


About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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9 Responses to in verse #26 : organ music

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    I find myself admiring the chance to admire Milton again, and without much else to say in response to this post.

    If polyglottism opened up Milton’s possibilities, what do you think were his guiding principles in deciding which words to use and when? If that makes sense. And how do those compare to the guiding principles of other poets, both in his day and since?

    • Dennis Clark says:

      Yes, I found myself admiring it again as I transcribed it. And if you had to read it in Internet Explorer 9, I apologize (see my comment following).

      As for his guiding principles, I think they were aural — Milton was blind, old, suffering from gout and possibly facing a prison sentence for his sentences as the Puritan Secretary for Foreign Tongues serving Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth, and yet he could dictate this marvelous verse. Or perhaps “and thus”. My next post will explore Peter Levi’s contention that *Paradise lost* is “essentially blind man’s poetry” (in his *Eden renewed*).

      Much has been made of Milton’s playing the organ and then dictating the day’s composition, as if the organ music shaped his verse. I think he composed as he wanted the poem to be heard — he was speaking to be heard in churches, exploiting his every resource in the service of his flexible blank verse to give magnificent voice to Christian myth.

      So I agree with Peter Levi that this is “blind man’s verse” — would that we all could speak our verse as if we, too, were blind!

  2. Dennis Clark says:

    Having just had to rebuild my laptop, I have just learned something dismaying about my posts: they look just fine in Firefox, but in Internet Explorer — at least IE9 — the verse looks all jumbled (as above, if you’re reading this in IE9).

    Because WordPress insists that following a line-feed, a new paragraph has to start, I long ago had recourse to transcribing verse by filling out the line with spaces, which I can do in Word and adjust in WordPress so that they look like verse (and maybe this is not just a WordPress problem; I’ve seen verse quoted in the New York Times online that does the same thing, double-spacing the poem, which I find annoying — so maybe it’s a problem with HTML?).

    So if my post looks really annoying to you, as the jumble in IE9 does to me, would you mind really switching to Firefox to read the post? (I don’t know how it looks in Chrome, Safari or Opera, among others.)

  3. Bruce Crow says:

    It looks fine in Chrome.

    Reading through this reminded me that I could never just read Paradise Lost. I had to read it out loud. Thank you for this.

  4. Th. says:


    Don’t overlook the power of good old AngloSaxon sounds. Just read this interesting article on a word I’d never even heard of till I went to college. College! So educational!

    • Dennis Clark says:

      You never heard that word until college? So that’s part of the BYUCK factor? The article strikes me as disingenuous — the extensive etymological work done by the editors of the 2nd edition, and now online, OED, point out that, for example, Gropecuntlane would doubtless have been a phrase not to be used when discussing civic affairs with the queen, although the quean might not object.

      • Th. says:


        It’s not, in my mind, part of Byuck, but more than one person has pointed it out to me. It’s more about the seeming portmanteaux of BYU and yuck.

        Although that didn’t stop me from using it with the same sort of grammatic looseness that is one of the remarkable strengths of that other word.

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