[Milton-L] milton's poor sonnet

Michael Bauman mbauman at hillsdale.edu
Thu Apr 14 11:13:22 EDT 2016

Well stated and well argued, Greg.  Thank you.

My nomination for a stinker line is from “Lycidas":  “his oozy locks he laves.”   It’s forced, lamely alliterative, and can’t proceed without resort to foreign words because no English word quite says what Milton wants to say in the right number of syllables.  If that is really the case, then perhaps Milton should not have tried to say it.  He needed to suppress that line and to build a more suitable alternative.  But he was too busy grabbing his blue mantle that he left the line in an unpolished state.

From: <milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu<mailto:milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu>> on behalf of Gregory Machacek <Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu<mailto:Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu>>
Reply-To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at richmond.edu<mailto:milton-l at richmond.edu>>
Date: Thursday, April 14, 2016 at 10:39 AM
To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at richmond.edu<mailto:milton-l at richmond.edu>>
Subject: [Milton-L] milton's poor sonnet

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

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From: Michael Gillum
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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 vestedall 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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