[Milton-L] finding the bad in what you find good

Salwa skhoddam at cox.net
Sat Apr 16 06:19:09 EDT 2016

Dear Gregory,

Thanks for your opinions which are always fascinating and thought provoking.
I suppose I have a more sanguine approach to literary works and other art
works in general. As you know, there are flaws in great films, paintings,
and poetry. I agree that line 6 of Milton’s 23rd sonnet is awkward and does
not follow the metrical scansion of the English iambic line. I read it thus:
PUR-i-fi-CA-tion IN the OLD LAW (technically, a dactyl +2 trochees + a
spondee). But my main point is that one may dilute the beauty of a poem or a
dance, for example, if one focuses on one very small part of it. Think of a
great performance of a ballerina doing pirouettes. Everything is perfection
in her alignment and extensions but she is slightly tilted to one side in
one of her pirouettes. Also, what if a photographer took an unfortunate shot
of her when she had just started to do the arabesque with her legs not
aligned yet and the position not completed? Or if he took a shot of her from
an uncomplimentary angle? Or I’m sure you have seen in films that a
character has, for example disheveled hair in one frame, but in the next his
hair is different, etc. 

Milton’s sonnet is a successful example of the use of syncretism and
allusions. It also is deeply moving. Should it be considered a “poor sonnet”
for some weak lines? Not every line should sing. By the way I can see in my
mind this line put into a “pretty” dance: triple step to the right, two
steps to the left, and a chassé to the left (probably not a “pretty” dance
since I’m not a good dancer.)

Awaiting your “so what,”




Salwa Khoddam, PhD.

Professor of English, Emerita

Oklahoma City University


From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [mailto:milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu]
On Behalf Of Gregory Machacek
Sent: Saturday, April 16, 2016 12:56 AM
To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at richmond.edu>
Subject: [Milton-L] finding the bad in what you find good


Ok, several admirers have now weighed in with emphatic and in some cases
detailed praise of “Methought I saw.” 

It’s now my burden to put more fully than I so far have the case for sonnet
23 being considered a poor sonnet.  Sad task.  First, there’s little
likelihood that I will actually manage to dislodge such ardent and settled
affection.  And say I were to succeed; what would have succeed in but
stripping some dear colleague of the joy he or she takes in this sonnet?

Still, Johnson meant something when he unhesitatingly and categorically,
indeed almost nonchalantly, labeled the poem poor.  And I feel I have some
sense what he might have meant.  So here goes.

I’m going to work outward from what I’ve called the rhythmic dud of line 6.
It is a dud.  You just have to listen to Richardson’s beautiful recital to
hear how rhythmicality, sustained otherwise throughout the entirety of the
sonnet, falters as it hits the vacuity of that over-rapid succession of
syllables, “Purification in,” that a voicer just can’t do anything with. 

It’s not incorrect what’s been said several times: that both an initial
trochee and a pyrrhic spondee are  common deviations within the pentameter.
I think “Laurel and myrtle and what higher grew” could probably be marked
with the same scansion as this line.  Then what’s the problem here?  It’s
the five-syllable word.  I know we generally ignore word boundaries when we
scan, but words longer four syllables assert themselves on the rhythm in
ways that shorter words don’t.  Here “purification” has to hurry its
syllables along to keep itself together as a word.  No, not every line has
to sing; but this one gasps.  /xx/x is a poor line opening when it is one

Will Milton’s own practice elsewhere convince you?  In the 10,000+ lines of
PL, he only once has a five-syllable word with this /xx/x pattern of
accentuation at the opening of a line.  And that’s not due simply to the
rarity of five-syllable words in general, for we have abominations
irreconcilable, inexorably, deliberation, illimitable, uninterrupted,
insuperable, insinuating, inseparably and half a dozen others.  No, it’s
because he knows in general to stay away from /xx/x five-syllable words.
Moreover, in the single case where he does use an /xx/x word (Justification
towards God and peace), he more decisively returns to iambicity with the
sixth syllable than he does in “Purification . . .” (when it’s a disyllable,
towards is for Milton stressed on the first syllable).

Milton knows better than to do what he does in line 6 of Sonnet 23.

--All right, for heaven’s sakes, the first half of line 6 of sonnet 23, is
not, prosodically speaking, Milton’s finest second (the flaw you’re
highlighting lasts literally one second, Machacek!).  So what?*

Well, this is getting long and it’s getting late, so the “so what” will have
to wait.

*Sorry to speak on y’all’s behalf.  Do feel free to tell me if you don’t
gran’t me even as much as I’ve argued for here.

Greg Machacek
Professor of English
Marist College

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