William Blake was Milton’s son. But it was no easy birth. In his fine article on Milton’s prosody, John Creaser describes how Milton was able to work so well within the conventions of blank verse. Creaser begins by summarizing the description by Derek Attridge of “the prevailing norms” of verse rhythm in English:
Fundamental to the rhythm of English speech are (1) isochrony — the tendency, allowing for sense “breathings,” to perceive stressed syllables as falling at equal intervals of time; and (2) duple movement — the tendency for stressed and unstressed syllables to alternate.[i]
These are our Anglo-Saxon heritage, the stresses of our Germanic past, lingering in English only in the rhythms of our speech, reflecting the stripping away of most inflections in our grammar, yet the retention of that old 4-beat prosody irrespective of syllable counts. Of the iambic foot, Creaser describes Attridge as concluding that “in lines of any rhythmic complexity, the foot cannot be felt as a unit.”[ii] This is what makes the later Shakespeare plays so wonderfully adaptive to the actor’s voice. I would argue that this is what makes Milton’s verse so rewarding to read aloud. Which is how you should read it, of course.
Before we begin reading it, and before we get to William Blake’s paternity, a few more points from Attridge, by way of Creaser’s summary:
Attridge has shown that all the variety in five centuries of regular iambics is released by only three deviations from the basic duple alternation: (1) Demotion: when three stresses occur in sequence, careful utterance gives the second the time of a stress, but slightly less emphasis (as in “good white wine,” where “white” would only take, or be felt as taking, full stress to mark a distinction from, say, “good red wine”).[iii]
Let me break in here to point out that the small caps mark stresses in Creaser’s article. I should point also that the parenthetical phrase is describing a condition contrary to Attridge’s finding, and note that this is “careful utterance” under discussion, the English tongue, not its line. The second deviation identified by Attridge is
(2) Promotion: in a sequence of three non-stresses, the second is given a little extra weight or time (at PL 4.74, “Infinite wrath, and infinite despair,” the second “infinite” is felt as drawn out by a secondary stress on its final syllable).[iv]
This is worth a little excursion into Milton. The speaker is Satan, debating himself:
Hadst thou the same free Will and Power to stand? Thou hadst: whom has thou then or what to accuse, But Heav’n’s free Love dealt equally to all? Be then his Love accurst, since love or hate, To me alike, it deals eternal woe. Nay curs’d be thou; since against his thy will Chose freely what it now so justly rues. Me miserable ! which way shall I fly Infinite wrath, and infinite despair. Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell; And in the lowest deep a lower deep Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n. O then at last relent: is there no place Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?[v]
In its context, it is easy to hear how that stress on the last syllable of the second “infinite” in line 74 carries a little more stress than the same syllable in the first occurrence of the word. I want to come back to that speech in a few minutes, and examine what it means to be “of the devil’s party,” but first let’s look at Attridge’s third deviation:
(3) Pairing: where only two stresses are adjacent and demotion is therefore impossible, an iambic line is thrown off balance; the imbalance is kept as brief as possible by immediately following or preceding the pair of stresses with two (and only two) non-stresses…. A demoted syllable is a stress that is not a metrical beat (that is, one of the five structural emphases in a pentameter); a promoted syllable is a beat without being fully stressed; a pairing comprises two beats and two off-beats.[vi]
I have noticed all three of these deviations in my own verse, and thought myself very clever to have produced such fine turns of phrase. And here it turns out I was only following along in the footsteps of my iambic forebears. In this speech by Satan, continuing where we left off, note that the first line is strictly iambic, but in the second line, the first syllable takes a stress, the second and third are unstressed, and the fourth restores the expected iambic foot. In the next line, the fourth iambic stress falls on “and,” not a word usually stressed; but the third stress leaks into the end of “submission,” forming a pairing, leaving “and that” unstressed. Again, read the poem aloud, being Satan without giving up your self, as he continues to examine his life:
O then at last relent: is there no place Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left? None left but by submission; and that word Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame Among the spirits beneath, whom I seduc’d With other promises and other vaunts Than to submit, boasting I could subdue Th’ Omnipotent. Ay me, they little know How dearly I abide that boast so vain, Under what torments inwardly I groan; While they adore me on the Throne of Hell, With Diadem and Scepter high advanc’d The lower still I fall, only Supreme In misery; such joy Ambition finds. But say I could repent and could obtain By Act of Grace my former state; how soon Would highth recall high thoughts, how soon unsay What feign’d submission swore: ease would recant Vows made in pain, as violent and void. For never can true reconcilement grow Where wounds of deadly hate have peirc’d so deep: Which would but lead me to a worse relapse And heavier fall: so should I purchase dear Short intermission bought with double smart. This knows my punisher; therefore as far From granting he, as I from begging peace: All hope excluded thus, behold instead Of us out-cast, exil’d, his new delight, Mankind created, and for him this World. So farewell Hope, and with Hope farewell Fear, Farewell Remorse: all Good to me is lost; Evil be thou my Good; by thee at least Divided Empire with Heav’n’s King I hold By thee, and more than half perhaps will reign; As Man ere long, and this new World shall know. [lines 78-113]
This is not quite the Satan whom William Blake had in mind when he said, in The marriage of Heaven and Hell, that Milton “was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.” But, in his defiance of submission to God, he comes close. It’s worth looking at that strange hybrid book of Blakean innovation for a few lines, to see the exact context in which Blake made his statement. That assertion smacks to me of the son eager to both acknowledge the father and to repudiate him. I would suggest that it displays a proper filial ambivalence. The work itself is written in lines that do not scan, and this section is regarded as prose, so when I reproduce it largely as sentences, without any paragraphing, it is because that is the way Blake engraved it. To appreciate it full, you need to see the engraved plates:
Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer of reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.
And being restraind it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.
The history of this written in Paradise Lost, & the Governor or Reason is call’d Messiah.
And the original Archangel or possessor of the command of the heavenly host, is call’d the Devil or Satan and his children are call’d Sin & Death.
But in the Book of Job Miltons Messiah is call’d Satan.
For this history has been adopted by both parties.
It indeed appear’d to Reason as if Desire was cast out, but the Devils account is that the Messiah fell, & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss.
This is shewn in the Gospel, where he prays to the Father to send the comforter or Desire that Reason may have Ideas to build on, the Jehovah of the Bible being no other than he who dwells in flaming fire.
Know that after Christs death, he became Jehovah.
But in Milton; the Father is Destiny, the Son, a Ratio of the five senses, & the Holy-ghost, Vacuum!
Note. The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.[vii]
Clearly this is a far more private world than the one Milton references, a Hell that Blake is both journeying through and delighting in. Milton does not portray Satan as the romantic rebel Blake would have him be. And Blake declares here both his debt to Milton and his independence from him. Just as Milton ignored the dominant verse form of his day — the classical couplet of Dryden and Pope — so Blake ignores the attempt of his younger contemporaries amongst the Romantics, in their revival of Greek odes and lyric forms, choosing instead a far simpler language than they, but for all that one more welcome to us today.
Milton’s influence is with us today in many ways, including in giving Philip Pullman both the name of his trilogy His dark materials (from book I. lines 915-916 of Paradise lost) and the structure of his tale, as well as a chance to rebel once more against the Christianity of Milton’s epic. Milton the poet should be read more, and embraced more, and rebelled against more. But hold on, I hear you say: What about that absurd war in heaven?
[i] “Prosody” / John Creaser, pp. 297-301 in The Milton encyclopedia / edited by Thomas N. Corns. New Haven : Yale University Press, c2012. The quotation above is from pp. 297-8.
[ii] Ibid., p. 298.
[v] Paradise lost : a poem in twelve books / John Milton. – A new edition / edited by Merritt Y. Hughes. – New York : Odyssey, c1962; book 4, lines 66-80.
[vi] Creaser, op. cit.
[vii] The marriage of Heaven and Hell / William Blake. – Introduction by Clark Emery. – Coral Gables, Florida : University of Miami Press, c1963. This volume, no. 1 in the University of Miami critical studies series, reproduces the plates as photographs of a facsimile reproduction of a copy in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; they are not easy to read. The text quoted above is transcribed from plates 5 and 6 of Blake’s book.