[Milton-L] finding the bad good

Richard A. Strier rastrier at uchicago.edu
Thu Apr 14 15:01:41 EDT 2016

Dear John Creaser,

Thanks for your remarks.  There is a very elaborate conversation to be had here, and probably cannot be conducted properly in this format.  Perhaps an MLA or RSA session on "The Theories and Practices of Prosody"?

You are right that I do not distinguish between stresses and "beats."  I think the latter a matter of performance -- which, for me, is an entirely different matter than meter.  I'm glad you agree on the "promotion" of 'in."  I might indeed lessen the weight and time given to "in" rather than "old," but, for me, that is neither here nor there with regard to the metrical pattern.

As I scan the line, it is a pentameter because it has five feet -- that's what counts when one is counting in "classical" prosody.  And the feet are all, on my scansion, well-formed -- that is, they conform to the system (I am not sure about pyrrhics -- I tend to think that a metrical foot must include a stress -- but my mind remains open on that issue).

From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] on behalf of John Creaser [john.creaser at mansfield.ox.ac.uk]
Sent: Thursday, April 14, 2016 1:46 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] finding the bad good

I return from a few days away to find a lengthy thread of discussion in which my name is invoked several times (and very many thanks to John Leonard for his kind words, especially as I know he has reservations about my Attridgean approach to prosody). I haven't time to assimilate fully all the discussion, but the point I'd wish to emphasise is that nuances of prosody and of meaning are inseparable. In the line 'Purification in the old Law did save', it seems to me that the key point, unmentioned so far as I'm aware, is the weight to be given to 'old' (I take for granted the obvious running together of 'the' and 'old'). A reader such as Richard Strier who thinks in terms of the neo-classical prosody in which poets and critics thought they thought, while actually doing something very different, will tend to maintain regularity of feet by stressing 'in'. An Attridgean reader, open to the more flexible rhythms of Milton, will tend to create a stress-final pairing stressing 'old': 'PUR-if-i-CAtion in th'OLD LAW did SAVE'.  But Milton uses such pairings for expressive purposes, as in the emphatic contrast of: 'Illumine, what is LOW RAISE and support'. How much does the word 'old' justify such emphasis here? Milton normally denigrates the 'old law', seeing it annulled by the coming of Christ. But here he is not implying a 'new' law superior to the 'old' -- he has no reason to denigrate anything about his visionary lady. He is, it seems to me, more concerned that she is 'in' line with the law than that the law is 'old'.  I would, therefore, place a promoted stress on 'in' and a full stress on 'Law', but not give unusual weight to 'old'.

The point is that differing prosodic methods are not here in conflict. But what is prosodically impossible is Richard Strier's reading 'PUR-if-i-CAtion IN the OLD LAW did SAVE'. One of the many limitations of the kind of prosody Richard adheres to is that it makes no distinction between a stress and a metrical beat. A Miltonic pentameter has five such beats -- I don't think there's a single exception -- though the number of spoken stresses may vary from as few as three to as many as eight (as in the famous line cited by John Leonard). But to my ears Richard's version seems to have six BEATS and is a very clumsy hexameter. I am sure this is not really how he hears it and would utter the line. Intuitively, Richard, would you not lessen the weight and time given either 'IN' or 'OLD'? And I think we would in fact agree in giving more to 'in' than to 'old'.

All best,

John Creaser
From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] on behalf of Richard A. Strier [rastrier at uchicago.edu]
Sent: 14 April 2016 16:49
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] finding the bad good

I agree with John about the general principle but not the instance.  And I agree that the tone and rhetorical stance of Gregory's remarks are offensive.  However, I have addressed the issue of critics finding the bad good in an article on Donne's Holy Sonnets, in relation to which I found that strategy rampant.  See "John Donne Awry and Squint:  The 'Holy Sonnets,' 1608-10," Modern Philology 86 (May, 1989): 357-384.

And as to bad lines in Milton, the less said about the elephant waving his lithe proboscis, the better, not to mention the more important bad line:  "Him who disobeys / Me disobeys."


From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] on behalf of John K Leonard [jleonard at uwo.ca]
Sent: Thursday, April 14, 2016 10:23 AM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] milton's poor sonnet


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,


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/).


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