Wednesday, July 1, 2015

stumbling through Paradise (or, "What's up, Doc?")

Samuel Johnson, from an essay originally published in The Rambler, 26 January 1751:
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.

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.
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.

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.

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.
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."

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;
and commands to some, leaves free to all.
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?

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.

——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
Leucothea wak'd.

He ended, and the sun gave signal high
To the bright minister that watch'd: he blew
His trumpet.

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.
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:

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?


  1. who reads poetry this way? Welcome to 18th century prosody! Good luck!

    1. Luckily, I don't need Johnson to read Milton. And I've already read Milton. But the 18th century seems pretty wacky in re literary criticism. Everyone was trying to poke holes in Shakespeare.

    2. They read differently back then. & wrote differently. I wonder if I have read this essay. It does not sound familiar, but why would I remember it? It is not much help.

      As for holes in Shakespeare, have you Maurice Morgann, by any chance? An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff? What is the opposite of poking holes? It is the greatest example of Art Misunderstood and Poetry Misread I know. I believe I have publicly called it the greatest piece of literary criticism ever written, which I may or may not mean, depending.

    3. I have read about Morgann's essay, but never actually seen the thing itself. I'll poke around at home; I think we have it on the shelf in a volume of 18th century essays, or in one of my books of Shakespeareana.

  2. I hate to admit it (as it seems very nitpicky, I suppose), but I find all this very interesting. I love the minutiae of how an earlier time thought about prosody and the strength and unity and integrity of a line.

    The beginnings and endings of lines do carry weight and importance, simply from their position... Words there already have a kind emphasis, and help propel the verse. For that reason, I'd probably object to you turning blank verse into prose by way of an example.

    Samuel Johnson: "If blank verse be not tumid and gorgeous, it is crippled prose; and familiar images in labored language have nothing to recommend them but absurd novelty which, wanting the attractions of Nature, cannot please long." He can be daunting!

    It would be fun to look at somebody like Wallace Stevens, who loves short blank verse, in the light of Johnson's ideas. I'm wondering how my own blank verse stands up to his strictures, as I haven't thought about blank verse lines in quite this way.

    1. This is helpful, not nitpicky at all! My relationship to poetry remains one of mostly bumfuzzlement, so any correctives/suggestions are welcome.

      I understand--though certainly not at the level of a practitioner--how the formal requirements of verse forms (15 syllables per line, etc) would inform the creation of poems, how the restrictions help spark creative solutions, etc. I guess what I don't understand is how this translates into actually reading the poem, hearing the words in my head (or spoken aloud).

      If the grammatical sentence is not constrained by the line length, and can begin and end anywhere within any number of lines, how is the position of the first or final word in a sentence or phrase emphasized aurally and not merely typographically? Oh wait: I am forgetting that poetry is not merely heard but also seen, right? But that has nothing to do with Johnson's claims about the necessity of needing at least three syllables before/after a pause in a line. So I'm back where I began, not understanding. I know that poetry is not prose. But "not prose" doesn't say what it is.

      I cannot seem to move beyond the question of how one reads a poem, at a basic "this is how it should sound in your head" level. Maybe that's actually one of the advanced problems of poetry and I don't know it? I do realize that all poetry can't be read the same way, with the same toolkit, but all I got is a hammer, so every poem is a nail.

    2. And yes, stupidly I have overlooked that word placement within a prose sentence can create emphasis, which is neither necessarily an audible stress on that word nor a typographical trick. I re-read the examples from Milton above and it was obvious. So this blank verse, clearly, is a lot more intricately constructed than I thought, at least when Milton wrote it. Now I wish I could take a few days to lock myself away somewhere and read "Paradise Lost" again, just to look at the construction details. Huh.

    3. The answer to "how should it sound" has varied, too. Have you heard anyone take a shot at declaiming Shakespeare in the anti-naturalistic 17th or 18th century style, with the stagey stock hand gestures and so on? It is pretty weird. Whatever it is, it ain't prose.

      One good way to go after blank verse is to listen to Gielgud or Olivier or someone like that. They use the line as well as the punctuation.

    4. "declaiming Shakespeare in the anti-naturalistic 17th or 18th century style"

      Well, we've all been put to sleep hearing our grade school classmates forced to read "Romeo and Juliet" in English class, yes?

  3. Tom, that mode is no more stagey than the mode of the 60's and after, with the sort of deadpan read with rising inflection at the end of lines! It was hugely popular and can still be heard.

    Yes, there's a kind of tension between the syntax of what we can call sentences, and the arrangement and breakage in the lines. Some people put an infintesimal break between lines, others read blank verse as if the breaks were absent. I expect that Johnson is one who would use the tiny pause! But there's a further issue in that each line should be pleasing on its own, as well as a part of the whole. Which is a lot to ask... but he asks it.

    You know, I had agreed to write a poem on July 4th as part of, and I kept thinking about the Johnsonian strictures!

    We erode the integrity of line, even in blank verse, because most of the time we no longer capitalize at the start of a line. I went back to that because I wanted that sense of frame in my lines.

    Well, I think iambic pentameter is in the bones after a while--you don't think about syllables and breakage so much. It just happens. At least I felt that way when I wrote Thaliad, and I had felt it before when writing blank verse or rhyming poems. And I think in earlier times, that was even more so. By the time boys (it was, of course, usually boys) were teens, they had already dealt with a lot of translation in English, and so thought about form in a technical way but also on some primitive, poem-making, feeling-one's-way sort of level.

    1. The blank verse in Thaliad is convincing as the blank verse of our English. Or really, fitting the story of the poem, a version of our English that put more value on blank verse and epic poetry. It never felt mannered.

    2. Oh, thanks for saying so! Much appreciated.