[Milton-L] Antinomian Occupations. musical Milton

carl bellinger bcarlb at comcast.net
Wed Mar 28 17:15:11 EDT 2007

[22 March, Michael Dobiel posed some questions, copied below, about Milton's knowledge of music.] 

I agree, Michael, that your series of questions on Milton and music is too big for any adequate response. Nor am I qualified myself, as others are, to help much with them. 

Yes, Milton was into music, big time. You'll need a bibliography or half-a-dozen bibliographies, to work on it. To start, check some of the many general introductions available in recent Milton texts such as, for instance, the intro to Paradise Lost in Roy Flannagan's "Riverside Milton," which includes discussion of "poetry as musical composition," p. 314.

For what it's worth, you might note, Michael, that while on his tour to Italy Milton "shipped home a collection of books that he had amassed ..., including at least one case of music books..." This from the April 1639 entry in Gordon Campbell's _A Milton Chronology_.   "At lease one case" sounds like a heap of music books to me, although I have no clue how big a 17th century shipping case might have been.

It is said of Milton's description of a fugue, PL 11.559, that it remains the finest in our literature. [[ "His volant touch /Instinct through all proportions low and high /Fled and pursu'd transverse the resonant fugue." ]]

You mentioned my sentence, "How musical is divine philosophy." It's not actually mine, just a collapsed quotation from M's 'Comus'  476: 
How charming is divine Philosophy!
Not harsh, and crabbed as dull fools suppose,
But musical as is Apollo's lute

So that folks can ignore a heap of dense description I will tuck away at the far end of this post some comments on what I feel is the music, and the anti-music, in the above three lines.



  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Michael Dobiel 
  To: John Milton Discussion List 
  Sent: Thursday, March 22, 2007 11:49 PM
  Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Antinomian Occupations. musical platonist it might be.
  [text clipped out]
  I do not quite know how to relate everything I have just said to "divine philosophy," as Mr. Bellinger phrases it.  In that regard I would be interested what anyone has to say about the subjects I have mentioned.  To provide focus to my questions, I will limit it to PL. What poetic elements unify PL?  In what ways do they unify it?  Did Milton have musical training, perhaps received from his father, which informed the musical qualities of his poetry?  There are many mentions of musical instruments and of musical action in PL.  For example, the angels sing in Book 7 after the story of the creation of the earth is related.  What function do these musical descriptions serve?  
  I fear that I have asked questions which may be of considerable magnitude.  But I would very much appreciate any responses that provide insight into them.  

Some notes on Comus lines 476-8:

]   How charming is divine Philosophy!
]        Not harsh, and crabbed as dull fools suppose,
]   But musical as is Apollo's lute.

These three lines [indented for the argument]  you might take as an introduction A) to Milton's eloquent "musical" use, in the first and third lines, of the English pentameter line, and B) Milton's elegant abuse[!], in the middle line, of the pentameter conventions. 

The outer two lines are melodically easy and fine in the recitation; partially so because they each carry only three --not five-- strong stresses, which gives the movement a prose-like fluidity: 

how char'ming is divi'ne philo'sophy
- - -
but mu'sical as is apo'llo's lu'te

To mark the stresses as i've attempted above makes a visual mess, but the three-stress pronunciation is quite fluid I think.

Note too this pair of outer lines represents an "isocolon," one of the "figures and schemes" of formal rhetoric. They echo each other in cadence, length, and syntactic form. In this case the isocolon extends its precision even to the grammatical parts of speech: 

[ adjective ] + [ "is" ] + [ adjective//noun ]

[ charming] +  [ "is" ] + [ divine//philosophy ]
[  musical ]  +  [ "is" ] + [ Apollo's//Lute ]

If you're interested in alliterative details, look at the gorgeous sound echoes that support the isocolon across the distance of three lines: 

-- "charming" is linked with "musical" in the 'm' alliteration

-- a remarkable collocation of sounds link "philosophy" to "Apollo's lute:"  

    ** the strong 'L' on no less than three of the stressed syllables, 

    ** the series: short- 'o' plus long- 'o,' which occurs both in "phil_oso_" and "Ap _ollo_"

finally, "musical" not only leans backwards to "charming" but also forwards, in no less than three additional points:
"musical = M__U__Z__ic__aL 

** the prominent long- 'u' rhymes with lute

** the 'z' sound repeats in the verb "is" and in the possessive apollo's

** and again the frequent "L"

But what of the middle line: 

]] Not harsh, and crabbed as dull fools suppose,

Here are presented the five conventionally anticipated stresses, the five "feet" of the pentameter, namely:

iamb, iamb, pyrrhic--spondee, iamb. 

But far from being fluid in recitation, this line --to me [this may be a point of controversy]-- is plainly crabbéd. Note how the semantically unnecessary comma after the first foot [found both in the Trinity manuscript and the 1637 London printing] brings to the forefront the affected (not to say High Anglican**) two-syllable pronunciation of "crabbed."  Also, the closing word group, "dull fools suppose," doesn't exactly roll off the tongue; in fact, to me the thick 'L' and 'z/s' alliterations of "dull fools suppose," clot things up pretty well, and yield, in fine, a distinctly cloggéd, five-stress line.

 [But the line would not seem nearly so crabbed, perhaps, in a context of rhyming couplets. Blank verse is a very different animal to end-stopped verse.]

(** Pace, yee of the Western Rite!)

Well, to conclude I guess with a flourish, look at the three-stress line and adjacent five-stress line in the magnificent couplet at the close of _Hamlet_:

]]  Absent thee from felicity awhile,
]]  And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain.

Felicity is easy, harsh is harsh.


It is of course very difficult to attempt this sort of description/analysis in cold hard text, as I've done here. You want the pentameters up on the wall in big letters, so you can point at particular syllables and feet and caesurae and whatever, and while pointing, be pronouncing what needs pronouncing. Although I hope the above is not without at least some interest to a few on Milton-l, I've made this effort in part, also, to prepare for some engagements, and I've buried it at the end of an over-long email hoping to make it the more easily passéd over.

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