[Milton-L] milton's poor sonnet

Michael Gillum mgillum at unca.edu
Thu Apr 14 12:01:17 EDT 2016


Greg--Regarding "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."

In *The Rhythms of English Poetry*, he does rewrite some lines to make them
unmetrical, in order to ask how we recognize lines as unmetrical:

Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
Headlong hurled flaming from the ethereal sky

There are very few unmetrical lines in actual canonical iambic verse
through the 18th century, or the 19th if you accept Wordsworth's allowing
free double offbeats (anapestic substitution). And that's the point--there
is this elaborate system of correspondence rules that all the competent
poets grasped intuitively and used consistently, and we should be able to
follow them in recognizing how lines are metrical. Sometimes it helps us
interpret lines.

Actual unmetrical lines tend to be deliberately so, like Pope's "Each
word-catcher, that lives on syllables."

I agree with a lot of your rant, though, including the point that the
"Purification" line is ragged and unmusical (though metrical). I would like
the sonnet better if the syntax in lines 5-6 were untangled, but I agree
with Louis and John that the deferred predicate is effective. And the last
line is one of the great moments in lyric poetry.

Michael






On Thu, Apr 14, 2016 at 10:39 AM, 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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