It is very difficult to write on the minuter parts of literature without failing either to please or instruct. Too much nicety of detail disgusts the greatest part of readers, and to throw a multitude of particulars under general heads, and lay down rules of extensive comprehension, is to common understandings of little use. They who undertake these subjects are therefore always in danger, as one or other inconvenience arises to their imagination, of frighting us with rugged science, or amusing us with empty sound.Johnson is going to discuss pauses in Milton's epic blank verse poem "Paradise Lost." Blank verse is, to quote The Laws of Verse, "a coherent mass, breaking up into irregular portions consisting of a number, small or great, of verses and parts of verses, welded together by the unrestrained flow of thought from verse to verse. Each verse by no means necessarily contains a complete thought-sentence, nor does every sentence necessarily occupy a whole verse. When broken, the verses are broken irregularly, and the rime-facets are altogether absent." Chaucer, in "The Canterbury Tales," wrote many of the pieces in heroic couplets, which rhyme. Milton wrote "Paradise Lost" in blank verse, which contains no rhyming couplets.
In criticising the work of Milton, there is, indeed, opportunity to intersperse passages that can hardly fail to relieve the languors of attention; and since, in examining the variety and choice of the pauses with which he has diversified his numbers, it will be necessary to exhibit the lines in which they are to be found, perhaps the remarks may be well compensated by the examples, and the irksomeness of grammatical disquisitions somewhat alleviated.
At the risk of exposing myself as one of Johnson's "greatest part of readers" who will fail to comprehend his meaning, I confess myself confused by Johnson's criticism of Milton's use of pauses, the caesuras in the middles of verses caused by grammatical stops such as semicolons or periods. Johnson calls some of these pauses stronger or weaker depending on where they fall relative to the start of the poetic line, ignoring the distance of the pause from the start of the actual grammatical sentence. Who reads a poem this way? What am I talking about? I will give you an example, I guess.
Milton formed his scheme of versification by the poets of Greece and Rome, whom he proposed to himself for his models, so far as the difference of his language from theirs would permit the imitation. [...] The hexameter of the ancients may be considered as consisting of fifteen syllables, so melodiously disposed, that, as every one knows who has examined the poetical authors, very pleasing and sonorous lyrick measures are formed from the fragments of the heroic. It is, indeed, scarce possible to break them in such a manner but that invenias etiam disjecti membra poetæ, some harmony will still remain, and the due proportions of sound will always be discovered. [...] Milton was constrained within the narrow limits of a measure not very harmonious in the utmost perfection; the single parts, therefore, into which it was to be sometimes broken by pauses, were in danger of losing the very form of verse. This has, perhaps, notwithstanding all his care, sometimes happened.Pure is the word where Milton inserts a pause, you see, with the semicolon, and Johnson's objection is that it falls on the first syllable of the poetic line and thus it is "disjointed" and "must stand alone."
As harmony is the end of poetical measures, no part of a verse ought to be so separated from the rest as not to remain still more harmonious than prose, or to show, by the disposition of the tones, that it is part of a verse. This rule in the old hexameter might be easily observed, but in English will very frequently be in danger of violation; for the order and regularity of accents cannot well be perceived in a succession of fewer than three syllables[...], he should never make a full pause at less distance than that of three syllables from the beginning or end of a verse. [...] Thus when a single syllable is cut off from the rest, it must either be united to the line with which the sense connects it, or be sounded alone. If it be united to the other line, it corrupts its harmony; if disjoined, it must stand alone, and with regard to music be superfluous; for there is no harmony in a single sound, because it has no proportion to another.
——Hypocrites austerely talk,
Defaming as impure what God declares
Pure; and commands to some, leaves free to all.
It's as if Johnson reads this poetry line-by-line, as displayed immediately above, as written on the page. When I read it, I read it like this:
--Hypocrites austerely talk, defaming as impure what God declares pure;I don't read it as if Pure was a separate line, a single syllable floating free. Is this not the correct way to read blank verse?
and commands to some, leaves free to all.
Johnson goes on to point out Milton's pauses on other syllables in the poetic line, declaring which are successful and which are failures, based purely on where the pause falls and ignoring the length, sound and rhythm of the grammatical sentence which the pause concludes.
Below, Johnson dislikes it when after a pause in a poetic line, two syllables remain:
When two syllables likewise are abscinded from the rest, they evidently want some associate sounds to make them harmonious.Again I interrupt the good doctor to ask, who reads poetry this way? I don't find any of these two-syllable fragments to be defective or to sound out of place, but again that's because in my reading, they are not two-syllable fragments:
——more wakeful than to drouze,
Charm'd with Arcadian pipe, the pastoral reed
Of Hermes, or his opiate rod. Meanwhile
To re-salute the world with sacred light
He ended, and the sun gave signal high
To the bright minister that watch'd: he blew
First in the east his glorious lamp was seen,
Regent of day; and all th' horizon round
Invested with bright rays, jocund to run
His longitude through heav'n's high road; the gray
Dawn, and the Pleiades, before him danc'd,
Shedding sweet influence.
The same defect is perceived in the following line, where the pause is at the second syllable from the beginning.
First in the east his glorious lamp was seen, regent of day; and all th' horizon round invested with bright rays, jocund to run his longitude through heav'n's high road; the gray dawn, and the Pleiades, before him danc'd, shedding sweet influence.
Certainly I am missing subtleties (or basics, even) of blank verse in my readings, and am probably just attempting to steam-roller over Mr Milton's work and flatten it into prose, which I understand much better than I understand verse. I am, however, at least thinking about this stuff. That's something, right?