[Milton-L] milton's poor sonnet

John K Leonard jleonard at uwo.ca
Thu Apr 14 11:23:19 EDT 2016


Greg,

I agree with your principle (there is such a thing as bad writing), but not the instance (this sonnet). I stand by my view that the "massively recalcitrant syntax" (Poole) is expressive of the speaker's state of mind, though I take your point that critics do sometimes invoke "enactment" (and other expressive devices) as a bolt hole. I think you have attached the right protest to the wrong poem. I also find your rhetoric a bit heavy-handed and (forgive me) disingenuous. When you write "Milton is, for us, axiomatically incapable of having written a bad line of verse", what you mean by "us" is "you lot." Since you "defy any one of [us] to instance a bad line of verse from anywhere in Milton[']s oeuvre," let me rise to the challenge with "Egypt, divided by the River Nile" (PL XII. 157).


All best,


John


On 04/14/16, Gregory Machacek  <Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu> wrote:
> 
> Johnson probably judged
> Sonnet 23 a poor sonnet because it is a poor sonnet.  
>  
> If one focuses for the
> moment only on the two things that have so far come up, (1) "Purification
> in the old Law did save" is a dud of a line, a clinker, utterly
> unmusical. In performance, one could hurry over it so that one’s auditors
> didn’t register how bad it was, but one can’t through any delivery make it
> sing.
>  
>  And, (2) the tortured
> syntax in the center of the poem is just that, tortured syntax (tortured in
> part for the worst of all reasons: just to get a fourth –ave rhyme. (Most of the things that go wrong in this poem go wrong as a result of Milton's vexing himself for a fourth –ave rhyme)).
>  
> Literary criticism was
> healthier back in Johnson’s day when critics could simply indicate places where
> poets, even otherwise great poets, fell short.
>  
>  Us, we're always scribbling to save appearances. We find--seemingly cannot but find--tortured syntax mimetic of a dreamer grasping
> after a fleeting dream. 
>  
>  The critical catch-all is
> simply to assert some way in which an infelicity is actually mimetic of the
> thing that is being described.
>  
> (The knock against
> evaluating literature is that such evaluations are subjective or are merely a
> function of a given period’s standards of taste. But how are these little interpretive rescues
> any less subjective than straightforward evaluative judgments, or our susceptibility to them any less a function of our
> era’s standards of taste?)
>  
> Attridge writes his entire
> prosody, with an elaborate set of rules supposedly indicating what can and
> cannot qualify as metrical, without once instancing a line that is a poor verse
> because it fails to satisfy those rules.
>  
> Any verse (by a great poet)
> that does fail to satisfy the rules at worst only ever “strains at the limits
> of metricality.” With sure returns of
> “and isn’t that a brilliant stroke at just this moment in the poem?”
>  
>  Milton is, for us,
> axiomatically incapable of having written a bad line of verse. 
>  
>  Don't believe me? I
> defy any one of you to instance a bad line of verse from anywhere in Milton’s
> oeuvre (after he stops telling us how old he was when he wrote the poem) that
> some other one of you won't salvage as “wonderfully expressive” of this or that
> phenomenon that the line is describing. 90% of you literally won’t be able to think of a bad line Milton wrote
> (really? he’s prosodically inerrant?). And anything that the other 10% of you propose 100% of you will stand
> ready to explain as actually, given what the line is describing, brilliantly
> expressive of that thing.
>  
>  
> 
> Greg Machacek
> Professor of English
> Marist College
> 
> 
> -----milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu wrote: -----To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
> From: Michael Gillum 
> Sent by: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu
> Date: 04/13/2016 01:55PM
> 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/).
> 
> 
> 
> 
> Michael
>  
>  
>  
> 
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> 
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