[Milton-L] Syntax of Sonnet 23

Richard A. Strier rastrier at uchicago.edu
Wed Apr 13 18:00:50 EDT 2016

Quick reply (little time at moment):  for me, the key is number of feet and number of syllables, not number of stresses.  On my understanding, the key thing is pentameter.  In iambic pentameter, the iambic foot will be the most dominant (i.e. there will be the greatest number of them), but a particular line can have a spondaic foot without in any way endangering the system (the other feet could be all iambs, or, as here, iambs and a trochee).

Yes, I would have "PURificAtion IN th'OLD LAW did SAVE" but I would rather indicate it in terms of feet, since it seems to me that feet are what determine the scansion, and make the pattern clear:

PURif / icA / tion IN / th'OLD LAW / did SAVE

trochee, iamb, iamb, spondee, iamb

John, you do not have to hear the stress on "in"-- only the contrast between the level of stress of "tion" and "in."  That's my (and Steele's) point (he, by the way, is a metrical poet, and a very good one).

Cheers, and scansion is always, interestingly, a source of contention.

From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] on behalf of John K Leonard [jleonard at uwo.ca]
Sent: Wednesday, April 13, 2016 4:34 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Syntax of Sonnet 23

For Richard: So would you scan the line with six stresses? (PURificATion IN th'OLD LAW did SAVE)? The scansion I suggested (trochee, iamb, pyrrhic, spondee, iamb) preserves the traditional five (pyrrhic balancing spondee) and so would better fit the expectations of iambic pentameter. That said, I do think Milton is willing to go beyond five stresses in a line when he wants to. "Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death" (2.621) has 8 stresses to my ear, and the internal rhymes urges us to give full weight to the rhyming words. But I just do not hear the stress on "IN" that you hear in "Purification in the old law". I hope I do not sound dogmatic. I think there can be more than one right way of scanning a line. I think it was De Quincey who said that a prosodist can be put down with shame by "another man" reading the line with a different emphasis, and I have heard Milton read beautifully by many different people (including and especially John Creaser). Like you, I have some reservations about the Attridge system. I think it has the potential to be as schematic and reductive and reifying as the prosodic system it would supplant. But in Creaser's hands it is a supple and versatile tool, and Creaser is quite aware that poets in our period "thought in terms of" feet, but thinking in terms of is not the same as procrustean prescription. I think it was Puttenham who used the phrase "something like an iamb". That "something like" is a salutory reminder that prosody should be descriptive, not prescriptive. The danger with any system in my view (even Attridge's) is that it can become an end in itself rather than a tool to facilitate description. Creaser is wonderful on the line "Shoots invisible virtue even to the deep".  Eighteenth-century editors recognized that the line was mimetic of rapid movement. When you are flying at the speed of light you don't have time to count pedantic feet!

All best,


On 04/13/16, "Richard A. Strier" <rastrier at uchicago.edu> wrote:

I disagree with Creaser with regard to foot prosody, which is what all poets of our period thought and wrote in terms of.  But that is a MUCH longer discussion.

As to the particular line in question, I really do think that we must consider "in" as receiving metrical stress.  The reason for this is not just to eliminate some excessive weirdness, but also because there IS in fact a difference in stress between "tion" and "in," however small.  As Tim Steele points out in his terrific book on formal effects in poetry, all that is needed to produce a metrical pattern is some difference between syllables.  (This is why the old Trager and Smith "levels of stress" prosody -- which bedeviled Arnold Stein's book on Herbert -- was so unhelpful with regard to meter, however useful it may have been with regard to performance).


Richard Strier
Sulzberger Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus
Editor, Modern Philology
Department of English
University of Chicago
1115 E. 58th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] on behalf of John K Leonard [jleonard at uwo.ca]
Sent: Wednesday, April 13, 2016 2:52 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Syntax of Sonnet 23

Adrian Poole has a lovely reading of this sonnet, which he discusses (alongside Euripides' Alcestis) in Tragedy: Shakespeare and the Greek Example (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987)., pp. 148-9. He is especially good on "the massively recalcitrant syntax of the lines beginning 'Mine as whom'", which he relates to the dreamer's wish that the dream not end (the sentence refuses to let go, as dreamers do, when they decide, even in sleep, to keep dreaming). Johnson probably disliked the way the sentence continues into the sestet, refusing the "restraint" of strong punctuation at the end of the octave, but "without restraint" tells us that Milton knew exactly what he was doing and the main verb "Came" is perfectly timed and placed to signal the dreamer's refusal to let go of his vision.

As for the scansion, I think problems arise only if we insist on imposing reified feet or (worse) confuse elision with synaloepha. Milton in his mature verse rarely "elides" a syllable in the sense of cutting it out. He prefers to melt two vowels together. I think this is what happens with "the old Law" where "the old" is a slur rather than an aggressively lopped monosyllable ("th'old"). We mangle the line if we start lopping syllables off (a mistake Johnson makes when scanning Milton in his four Rambler papers on Paradise Lost).  To prune "Purification" to "Pur'fication" (and I recognize that Louis was not advocating that) would be to scan with Midas' ears.  I don't hear any stress on "in". If we are going to use neoclassical terms, I would scan trochee, iamb, pyrrhic, spondee, iamb (PURifiCATion in thEOLD LAW did SAVE). But John Creaser has argued that neoclassical foot prosody is a crude instrument for reading Milton, and this line lends some support to his view.

John Leonard

On 04/13/16, Michael Gillum <mgillum at unca.edu> wrote:
Would Johnson have been annoyed by catching a whiff of Puritanism in the way Milton uses "saint" and in the reference to OT law?

On Wed, Apr 13, 2016 at 2:51 PM, Richard A. Strier <rastrier at uchicago.edu<mailto:rastrier at uchicago.edu>> wrote:
I think Michael's scansion is the right one.  "Th' old" is a normal elision.

So I would scan the line:  ' _ / _' / _' / ' ' / _ '

This gives a normal inversion in the first foot (most common of all metrical variants in iambic pentameter) and a spondee in the 4th foot (not too weird).  The metrical stress on "in" is required.

From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu<mailto:milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> [milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu<mailto:milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu>] on behalf of Schwartz, Louis [lschwart at richmond.edu<mailto:lschwart at richmond.edu>]
Sent: Wednesday, April 13, 2016 1:23 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Syntax of Sonnet 23

That’s very good!  I’d add two things:

1)      I think the elided syllable could be the second one in “purification” instead, which might not have pleased Johnson, but allows for a somewhat less complex metrical reading of the line [/x/xx//x/]—although I actually prefer the rhythm of the line without elision.  And maybe Milton intended the irregularity in number?

2)      You are right that Johnson probably did not like the long syntactic tangle, and I imagine he also did not like the way it delays the predicate until after the end of the octave violating a structural expectation.  The end-stopped line break at “restraint” is brilliant to my ears, however, because of the way it both fulfills the restraint of the form on the level of the rhyme and also marks the moment at which Milton’s syntax pushes past it (ending one part of the sentence only to be followed immediately by the bigger syntactic ending introduced in the next line—and right on that first syllable).  And I like the way the twists and stretching in the syntax lends energy to the ricocheting in time, from the remembered moment of the dream, back to the biblical past, and then headlong forward into a hoped for Christian afterlife, before then returning to the night and the bedroom.  When he finally gets back to the dream at “came,” the imagined spouse is imbued with all of that history, theological and typological resonance, and longing.
Louis Schwartz
Professor of English
Chair, English Department
University of Richmond
28 Westhampton Way
Richmond, VA  23173
Office:  Ryland Hall 308
Phone:  (804) 289-8315<tel:%28804%29%20289-8315>
Email:  lschwart at richmond.edu<mailto:lschwart at richmond.edu>
From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu<mailto:milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> [mailto:milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu<mailto:milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu>] On Behalf Of Michael Gillum
Sent: Wednesday, April 13, 2016 1:53 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: [Milton-L] Syntax of Sonnet 23

I wonder why Sam Johnson judged Sonnet 23 “a poor sonnet.” Maybe it was the tangled syntax of this part:
Mine as whom washt from spot of child-bed taint, [ 5 ]
Purification in the old Law did save,
And such, as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind:
Is the following a correct parsing?
 The subject and predicate of the main clause are “Mine [my wife, not Alcestis] . . . Came vested all in white . . . ,” with the predicate turning up five lines after the subject. A pronoun must be implied: “as [one] whom.” Grammatically, “washt from spot of child-bed taint “ is parenthetical, with “washt” as a participle, not a predicate, and modifying “whom” or the implied “one.” The relative clause is then “whom . . . Purification in the Old Law did save.” Rearranged, then, “Mine, as [one] whom purification in the Old Law did save, washt  from spot of child-bed taint . . . came vested all in white.” “As” in line 5 seems to be a preposition rather than a conjunction, and seems to mean “like,” although Milton normally maintains the like-as distinction. Is there another way to read “as” here? In line 7, “as” is a conjunction subordinating an adjective clause that extends the periodic suspension between subject and verb.
Here is another “as whom” with implied pronoun (“they”): “in bulk as huge /As whom the fables name of monstrous size.” But “as huge as” is a different situation.
In line 6, “the Old” must be metrically elided to prevent a triple offbeat. I’m sure Milton intended “th’Old.” Even so, it is excessively complex by Johnson’s standards, with a falling inversion followed by a rising inversion that includes an elision (/xx/xx//x/).

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