John Milton didn’t know jack about free verse, and yet when he explicated his reason for shunning rime he sounded like he understood the reasoning of the free versifiers at the turn of the last century. In introducing Paradise lost he averred this:
The measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meter…[i]
Milton makes a distinction between “Poem” and “good verse” as if he had been reading this blog, one that seems to me more than rhetorical, as if the Poem being invoked were a short work, and “English Heroic Verse” the longer, unrimed, work. And if the phrase “English Heroic Verse” sounds vaguely familiar, you may have read about blank verse in an earlier post in this blog. It is one of the two great achievements of the short-lived Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-47). Substitute the word “epic” for “Heroic” and you can make the connection Milton asserts: Surrey’s development of blank verse for his revision of a translation of two books of the Aeneid.[ii] Surrey is also the father of the English sonnet, now, in an instance of the greater absorbing the lesser, commonly called the Shakespearean sonnet, not because “the Surrey sonnet” would suggest a poem with a fringe on top, but because Shakespeare brought this form to its finest expression, as he did with blank verse in drama.
Nor is Milton condemning Shakespeare and the previous generation for riming. No, Milton is clearly referring to his age as “the barbarous Age,” excoriating its
… wretched matter and lame Meter; grac’t indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest them. Not without cause therefore some both Italian and Spanish Poets of prime note have rejected Rime both in longer and shorter works, as have also long since our best English tragedies, as a thing of itself, to judicious ears, trivial and of no true musical delight…[iii]
Milton’s extensive reading in Continental literature allows him to recognize the Italian roots of versi sciolti da rima, ‘verse freed from rhyme.’ For all I know Milton may have actually read some of those verses freed from rime; it is not unlikely. Of greater interest to me is Milton’s reference to “our best English tragedies.” To me that means Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. Shakespeare had pretty well abandoned rime in tragedy when he finished Romeo and Juliet (if the latter be a tragedy — it strikes me as more of a melodrama). Milton is not done yet: he next defines “musical delight:”
… which consists only in apt Numbers, fit quantity of Syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings, a fault avoided by the learned Ancients both in Poetry and all good Oratory. This neglect then of Rime so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers, that it rather is to be esteem’d an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recover’d to Heroic Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of Riming.[iv]
Note that Milton here includes Poetry and good Oratory in his commendable models. Like Shakespeare, Milton intended his poems to be read aloud, to be persuasive, especially Paradise lost and Paradise regained. Samson Agonistes was Milton’s attempt at adding to the corpus of English tragedy, again in Heroic meter. But since, as we all know, Milton also wrote sonnets and other rimes, his rejection of rime for his English epic verse can said to be based on some familiarity with the practice of riming. Milton wrote comfortably in Latin as well as in English, and in his English verse at times betrays a familiarity with the metaphysical wit fashionable in his contemporaries Donne and Marvell, as in this elegy:
WHAT needs my Shakespear for his honour’d Bones, The labour of an age in piled Stones, Or that his hallow’d reliques should be hid Under a Star-ypointing Pyramid? Dear son of memory, great heir of Fame, What need’st thou such weak witnes of thy name? Thou in our wonder and astonishment Hast built thy self a live-long Monument. For whilst to th’shame of slow-endeavouring art, Thy easie numbers flow, and that each heart Hath from the leaves of thy unvalu’d Book, Those Delphick lines with deep impression took, Then thou our fancy of it self bereaving, Dost make us Marble with too much conceaving; And so Sepulcher’d in such pomp dost lie, That Kings for such a Tomb would wish to die.[v]
That poem illustrates well Milton’s animadversion against rime, as well as providing a fine example of “slow-endeavouring art” in contrast to the easy flow of Shakespeare’s lines in his later blank verse. Milton is very accurate in his claim to have produced an exemplar “of ancient liberty recover’d to Heroic Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of Riming” in Paradise lost, and announces that production proudly in the opening lines of that masterpiece:
Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree whose mortal taste Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, Sing, Heav’nly Muse, that, on the secret top Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed, In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth Rose out of Chaos: Or, if Sion hill Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence Invoke thy aid to my advent’rous song, That with no middle flight intends to soar Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme. And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure, Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread, Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark Illumine, what is low raise and support; That, to the height of this great argument, I may assert Eternal Providence, And justify the ways of God to men.
Thus Milton invokes his muse. His skill in the last two lines of this invocation show well his schooling in rhetoric; he hopes both to justify to men the ways of God, and justify the ways of God in his actions towards men. But he is after greater game, pursuing “Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme” [and here you can hear Milton snicker, since he has just led into this with his rant contra rime]. Milton is fashioning a supple verse that will allow him to explore the wildness of the human heart, and he does it so well that no-one after him will match either his daring or his achievement. And perhaps his greatest achievement is to justify the ways of Satan to man, which is a subject for my next post.
But hold on, Clark, I hear you say. All you’ve done in this post is quote John Milton, and slathered onto the bread of life a little rancid butter of your personal commentary.[vi]
[i] Paradise lost : a poem in twelve books / John Milton. – A new edition / edited by Merritt Y. Hughes. – New York : Odyssey, c1962; p. 4, an introductory paragraph titled “The Verse.” This text is based on the second edition of 1674, in twelve books instead of the ten of the first edition of 1667; it modernizes Milton’s spelling and punctuation whilst retaining “most of his seventeenth century typographical peculiarities, especially the italicization of proper names and places…. Emphatic [i.e. stressed] pronominal forms (mee, wee, hee, shee, and their) are distinguished from the unemphatic me, we, he, she and thir.” I didn’t know that difference existed, but it will make a difference in how you read the poem aloud, and I emphatically urge you to read it aloud. “No poetry aloud” means no poetry, period! See, you can learn from the footnotes.
[ii] All the bibliographic niceties are laid out in that linked post, yo.
[iii] Milton, Op. cit. One of the “famous modern poets” referred to here may well have been Abraham Cowley, whose Davidies, an epic in four books, was published in 1656, though not finished. Hughes, in a footnote to this introductory paragraph, says: “E.M.W. Tillyard shrewdly suggests that ‘the acrid tone of Milton’s note on Paradise Lost’ sprang from his dislike of the rhymed couplets of Cowley’s Davideis, ‘the first original poem in English to affect the growingly fashionable neo-classic form in all its strictness and using the couplet in a new and vital way’”, i.e. the rhymed couplet made famous by Dryden and Pope. Hughes then notes that “Perhaps … the success of the Davideis …may have contributed to the acridity of the note.”
[v] http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/milton/shakespeare.htm, accessed 25 March 2013. In contrast, the unnamed editors of my wife’s volume The poetical works of John Milton. — Reprinted from the best editions, with biographical notice, etc. – New York : Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., n.d., use “air” in line 5 instead of “heir.” Best editions indeed!
[vi] So you would prefer impersonal commentary?