[Milton-L] milton's poor sonnet

Carol Barton, Ph.D., CPCM cbartonphd1 at verizon.net
Thu Apr 14 13:12:40 EDT 2016


Greg opined that, "The knock against evaluating literature is that such evaluations are subjective or are merely a function of a given period’s standards of taste." I would suggest that, rather than a given [historical] period, such evaluations are a function of the *reader's* "era" (that is, level of maturity and experience), too. There are things I loathed when I was a young scholar (such as Henry James' "Beast in the Jungle") that I both enjoy and appreciate now, and things (such as most of Milton's poetry and prose, and Huckleberry Finn) that have always loved, that have only grown richer for me, over time.

That said, the value of art (of any kind) is measured by the extent to which it "speaks to" you. Picasso's "Guernica" is wonderful in my estimation because it achieves its goal of disturbing and horrifying me . . . but I wouldn't want it in my living room, even were someone to will it to me. Some of Milton's works are inferior to some of his others, and often, that has more to do with his maturity as a poet/polemicist and his ability to separate his subjective feelings about someone or something from his art. (Some of Shakespeare's works are inferior to some of his others, too--but the worst of their efforts is invariably superior to many other poets'/playwrights' best.)

Best to all,

Carol Barton


From: Gardner Campbell 
Sent: Thursday, April 14, 2016 12:46 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List 
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] milton's poor sonnet


I understand, Lee, and respect your differing judgment.  


For the record, I've always enjoyed the lithe proboscis line myself. 


It is interesting and perhaps fruitful to talk about these things.


Gardner


On Thu, Apr 14, 2016 at 11:58 AM, <LEEJACOBUS at aol.com> wrote:

  Gardner,

  Standing in Chartres late in the afternoon, I quoted this line to myself. Shallow? Not then, not now. 

  Lee

  In a message dated 4/14/2016 11:43:44 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, gardner.campbell at gmail.com writes:
    I'm with John Leonard on this one. Right argument, wrong poem. 


    So to demonstrate I am no mere fan-boy, here's my candidate for Bad Milton.



    I have always thought this line from Il Penseroso disappointingly shallow, particularly from this poet:


    "Casting a dim religious light"


    Gardner






    On Thu, Apr 14, 2016 at 11:23 AM, John K Leonard <jleonard at uwo.ca> wrote:

      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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