[Milton-L] Pepys and Recitativo, a response to James Fleming

Alan Rudrum rudrum at sfu.ca
Tue Feb 24 09:07:59 EST 2004

Here is a passage from Pepys which I read recently, and which delighted me 
so much by its intelligence that I read it to my wife, currently disporting 
herself at the Huntington, on long-distance phone:

(1)  Pepys’s Diary, Feb 12, 1667.

Pepys hears some Italian music in the company of Tom Killigrew, Sir Rob. 
Murray, and the Italian Seignor Baptista – “who hath composed a play in 
Italian for the Opera which T. Killigrew doth intend to have up; and here 
he did sing one of the acts.  Himself is the poet as well as the Musician, 
which is very much; and did sing the whole from the words without any 
Musique pricked, and played all along upon a Harpsicon most admirably; and 
the composition most excellent.  The words I did not understand, and so 
know not how they are fitted; but believe very well, and in all the 
Recitativo very fine.  But I perceive there is a proper accent in every 
country’s discourse, and that doth reach in their settings of notes to 
words, which therefore cannot be natural to anybody else but them; so that 
I am not so much smitten with it as it may be I should be if I were 
acquainted with their accent....T. Killigrew and Sir R. Murray, who 
understood the words, did say was excellent.”

(2) I am currently making an attempt to learn German and am enrolled in a 
conversation class.  Assignment for the second week was show and tell.  I 
took along photocopies from a book of German literature with facing-page 
translations, and gave one to each class-member.   This was my 
“showing.”  My “telling” was to stand, fix my eye on the teacher, and 
recite two poems.   I found two advantages in this: one was that, in spite 
of a generally poor visual memory, I was able to visualize the 
capitalization of the nouns and, in the case of one poem, the alternation 
of long and short lines; another was that I was able to vocalize the music 
of the poem (“there is a proper accent in every country’s discourse, and 
that doth reach in their settings of notes to words” and there is also a 
proper accent in their setting of words to metre).    Another  exercise is 
to listen to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing Der Winterreise, and other 
Schubert lieder.

Incidentally, Der Winterreise was a favourite of Samuel Beckett; and I am 
reminded that Beckett’s evenings with one of his painter friends often 
included recitation, to each other, and together, of favourite poems; he 
and his friend would stand while saying poems by which they were especially 

I believe that early modern prose and verse are sufficiently remote from us 
for there to be a difficulty similar to that recorded by Pepys; so I do 
indeed believe that learning to vocalize both verse and prose accurately is 
an essential part of literary studies.   Poetry is, as James Fleming 
suggests, the making of meaning, and hearing it is an essential step to 
understanding that meaning.  I headed an earlier post, protesting that 
Milton could not possibly have written a passage ascribed to him, “On the 
education of the ear.”    If I had entered the great debate about PL 9:702 
(“Your fear itself of death removes the fear”) I might have given it the 
same heading: if you can follow the syntax from “Queen of this universe” 
(684) and then hear where the caesura falls in line 702 (after “itself”) 
the meaning is clear enough.

Finally, Frank Kermode, toward the end of his teaching career, came to the 
conclusion that “creative writing” ought to be an integral part of a 
literature course, - not as creative writing may be generally taught, but 
in order for students to learn the difficulties of various forms and metres 
(sonnet, blank verse and so on).  He thought, and I think rightly, that 
being aware of the difficulties they would be able to see how in a good 
poem they had been overcome.  Try writing ten lines of octosyllabics and 
then look at some Marvell!


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