[Milton-L] victory conditions

Bryson, Michael E michael.bryson at csun.edu
Thu Apr 14 15:14:21 EDT 2016

A good deal of this argument appears to over subjective taste. Issues of scansion and meter (regular and otherwise), imagery and phrasing, even a poem's handling of thematic concerns, do not always serve us as secure foundations from which to render objective judgments about the quality of a poem. I would contend (and often do when teaching) that The Passion is a howler, a bad poem whose badness is legendary, and not to be exceeded by many (if any) poets of Milton's overall stature. I base that contention, however, partly on the poet's own opinion, and partly on a subjective sense of the poem's inability to get beyond a kind of exaggerated throat-clearing about how "sad" the subject that it never gets around to treating would be, if it ever got around to treating it. I don't respond to it primarily (or even secondarily) on a prosodic level.

With sonnet 23, I do respond to the prosody, and have always found the second quatrain awkward. Does that reaction, and/or the awkwardness that I (and others, but by no means all) find in the poem make it a poor sonnet? I would have to say yes, but I cannot escape a sense that in saying that, I am saying as much about myself as I am about the poem at that point. Frankly, other than 7 and 19, I have always found Milton's English sonnets to be on the forgettable side--for me, nothing like Shakespeare's 130 or 138 is among them.

Without the great works of the end of Milton's life, would we find room for these sonnets on a seventeenth-century English literature syllabus? Would these sonnets have flourished beyond the scholar's gaze (the kind so brilliantly described by Yeats in "The Scholars")? Maybe. But I suspect the odds would have been better for "Lycidas" or "L'Allegro" or "Il Penseroso."

But such judgments cannot be completely separated from the judge.

Michael Bryson

From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu <milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> on behalf of Carol Barton, Ph.D., CPCM <cbartonphd1 at verizon.net>
Sent: Thursday, April 14, 2016 11:50 AM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] victory conditions

Greg, your argument has merits in se, as far as I'm concerned, as I tried to say earlier. If you don't like the poem, you don't like the poem--and that's that. (Different, if you're a student who is unskilled at reading poetry, and needs to be taught that not every line is end-stopped; but I think even Milton would agree that any member of "that fit audience" who is unmoved by a particular work has the right to be immobile--just as anyone who *is* touched by it has the right to find it compelling.)

You don't have to defend your aesthetic. I love the phrase "Handed they went" and the significance of hands throughout PL--but that's probably because my first Milton professor was someone whom I adored, and he was in love with that image, too. To me, it's symbolic of unfallen Eden--the Fall--and the resolution. To someone else, it might be just an awkward construction, or a clumsy one.

Best to all,

Carol Barton

From: Gregory Machacek<mailto:Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu>
Sent: Thursday, April 14, 2016 2:29 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List<mailto:milton-l at richmond.edu>
Subject: [Milton-L] victory conditions

For me to declare victory, I would have to convince a site full of Miltonists (all who weigh in; lurkers don't count one direction or the other) that "Methought I saw" is a poor sonnet.  I think I've made the stakes for myself sufficiently demanding.  Our era's tendency interpretively to recuperate poorly crafted verses is just a sub-issue of this larger challenge to which I've engaged myself.

Greg Machacek
Professor of English
Marist College

-----milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu wrote: -----
To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at richmond.edu>
From: John K Leonard
Sent by: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu
Date: 04/14/2016 01:58PM
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] is "egypt, divided by the river nile" a poor line of verse, then?

On 04/14/16, Gregory Machacek <Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu> wrote:

Ok, so can we get it confirmed by all of y'all that "Egypt, divided by the river Nile" is a poor line of verse?

Because the other candidate for a bad line--"casting a dim religious light"--got championed within fourteen minutes of its being proposed as a poor line.


What would it take to "get it confirmed by all of y'all"? A post from every single subscriber (to be checked by you against a central database of names)? What if even one lurker remains silent? Does that mean you win your bet that someone out there is willing to pretend that bad lines are good? And what if the Egypt line is now "championed within fourteen minutes"? Does that mean everyone ("y'all") is implicated in a bad faith endeavour to make bad lines look good? What if I (who offered this an instance of a bad line) am persuaded by A. N. Other's argument that it is good? Would that make me complicit in a bad faith conspiracy? There is something false about your "Greg against the Miltonists" rhetoric. The cards are hugely stacked in your favour because any disagreement on the part of "y'all" (everyone but you) can be presented by you as evidence of "y'all's" bad faith. But for you to claim victory you have only to agree with yourself (and who among us does not find that easy?).

All best,


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