[Milton-L] "knew not eating metrical death"

Michael Gillum mgillum at unca.edu
Tue Aug 3 10:00:02 EDT 2010

Carl, referring to the pessimistic gobbets you quoted, the study of English
meter has been deeply confused since its inception, but some writers are
much less confused than others; in fact, some writers, for example John
Creaser, may not be confused at all. Robert Bridges was confused to an
average extent.

The system of meter is analogous to the linguistic system, but it is a
different system, and much simpler. The similarity is that both systems are
known to their users tacitly rather than explicitly. The test of mastery is
not the ability to describe the system abstractly. Rather it is the ability
to compose and register metric verse according to the system that the poets
have evolved--or, in the case of language, to use English in a way that
native speakers recognize as competent. Only a very limited understanding of
English grammar was made explicit before the rise of linguistics in the 20th
century, and some of what grammarians thought they knew was false.

The key question in English metrics is, "What is the nature of metric accent
and how is it related to linguistic stress?" If one wants to have a coherent
theory of meter, one needs to understand clearly the range of answers that
have been proposed, and one needs to choose the answer that is correct. One
characteristic of a  good theory is that it would include an understanding
of what linguistic stress is in English.


>"Analysts of verse form in English--many of whom have themselves been
poets of some distinction--have been (variously) responsive, acute, learned,
and articulate. And still their writings contradict one another hopelessly."

That's the bad news. Here's the worse. This is in the intro. to T. V. F.
Brogan's  magisterial annotated bibliography referencing essentially all
published discussions on Eng prosody (over four centuries worth) among them
roughly one hundred twenty on Milton's metrics. From
_English Versification, 1570-1980, A Reference Guide_:

"The study of versification is "... a field which in historical terms has
been (it is not too extreme to say) a great mass of ignorance, confusion,
superficial thinking, category mistakes, argument by spurious analogy,
persuasive definitions, and gross abuses of both concepts and terms...
[I]n studies of the structure of verse the use of terms such as poetry,
verse, accent, quantity, Numbers, Measure, rhythm, meter, prosody,
versification, onomatopoeia, and rhyme/rime/ryme,  historically and
consistently has been nothing short of Pandemonium. It was so in 1580 and it
remains so in 1980."
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