[Milton-L] Scansion and line 1

Richard A. Strier rastrier at uchicago.edu
Mon Sep 16 12:43:56 EDT 2013

Don't have much time, but here's a brief response to Greg.  If we count -- crucial, as has been established -- and note that we have 10 syllables, and -- of course this matters -- we know we are reading poem (page not set up as prose) -- we tend, as readers of English poetry -- to assume iambic pentameter.  Of course, we could be wrong, but that will be the normal reader of poetry's initial assumption.  The the question (for me) becomes, can we see the line intelligibly as that?  I agree that, rhythmically, the line trails off.  But four unstressed syllables in a row is not part of a metrical pattern, so we see whether we can see the second half of the line as iambic.  The syntax (and punctuation) lead us to see the possibility of taking "and" as a stressed (or metrically prominent) syllable.  And yes, that leaves us with a bit of a problem -- what to do with "dience."  But we know how to solve that within the metrical game, so we do.  Why Milton would have wanted to begin the poem with a somewhat difficult to scan line is a reasonable question, but as the note on the verse that he added to the 2nd edition suggests, he wanted to assert freedom within the rules (and perhaps call for an attentive and somewhat athletic reader).  Metrical ambiguity, within the rules -- i.e. whether or not to consider "first" and/or "dis" as metrically stressed -- is not a problem, I think.

From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] on behalf of Gregory Machacek [Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu]
Sent: Monday, September 16, 2013 9:17 AM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Scansion and line 1

If we came upon what is the first line of Paradise Lost in isolation, before we knew what we should see-it-as, would we have any way of working out that it was iambic pentameter?

All of our ideas about demoting "first" and promoting "and," and what level of emphasis "dis-" should get presuppose that we already know what the meter, or rhythm, of this line is.  Even rendering "ience" as a single syllable is driven by our knowing (as a reader coming to it absolutely cold does not know) that this is ten-syllable verse.

As we encounter this line for the first time, using what Richard Strier calls "dictionary or inherent stress," would we not mark it x / / x x / x x x x / ? (I'm rendering the secondary accent "dis-" unstressed because here it follows two stressed syllables so our mouths are waiting to relax; and note I give disobedience five syllables.)  And if we backed away from that set of markings (or the fourth mark as /,  if you like), could we find any pattern in it whatsoever?

And compounding this rhythmic incertitude, we don't know yet have a way of knowing how much emphasis "first" should receive conceptually (the basis for some prosodists giving it, or insisting that it must take, a metrical stress).

Of course one never does encounter lines of verse in isolation (except in prosody manuals (a practice which distorts some of their arguments, incidentally)), and readers are willing to read a way into what presents itself on the page as verse before they settle in on its meter, and then retroactively apply that knowledge to earlier portions of the utterance.  And so we've all effectively been asking "given everything we know about what Milton does elsewhere in PL, how are we to take this line?"

But for all that, what do you make of the fact that Milton chooses to start readers out so much at sea, rhythmically speaking?  He could (presumably) have opened with a more rhythmically straightforward line.

Even the very first syllables of the second line don't yet help us know what we should see-this-as. It's not until the end of the second line, "forbidden tree whose mortal taste," where things become rhythmically unambiguous.

And even once the "metrical set" has been established, the line allows for the level of disagreement that this thread has already witnessed.  I'm not sure the "dis-" (stressable or demotable as a secondary accent in a word) and the "first" (stressable by part of speech and perhaps by rhetorical emphasis, but demotable as the middle of three stresses, if "dis-" is stressed) ever really settle into a hierarchy relative to one another.

"Outlawry" has been proposed, and that's Creaser's core sense of this line:  "Once you discover what my poem's metrical set is, you'll realize that I began my poem with a rare, even unique, deviation from that set."

Narrator as metrical outlaw?  Reading as requiring the reader's active and deliberate intervention?

If the line is rhythmically unsettled, to what end?

Greg Machacek
Professor of English
Marist College
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