[Milton-L] 17th-C Prosody and the Meaning of Sonnet 23

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at smith.edu
Sun Apr 17 06:26:04 EDT 2016

*From where I sit, Milton's prosodic practice had better be approached
historically, and not from the standpoint of theory or taste. THe
historical situation, I think, is roughly as follows.*
*Thanks to Horace, classically trained Latin poets of the sixteenth and
seventeenth century, including Milton, inherited** the bountiful repertoire
of Horatian quantitative metres, including the flexibility of allowable
substitutions for a range of metrical feet. Of course converting that
repertoire for accentual use in the vernacular could--and notoriously
did--lead to absurdities, like Sidney's unhappy experiment with the lesser
asclepiad in The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. *
*But in handling the most popular iambic measure--the "iambic licentiate, "
as Campion calls it--I think the flexibility of the substitution system
pretty much held its own. "In the third and fifth place," says Campion, "we
must of force hold the iambic foot; in the first, second, and fourth place
we may use a spondee, and sometime a tribrach, but rarely an anapestic
foot, and that in the second and or fourth place."  Campion doesn't
consider trochaic substitution in the first and other places, but on
spondaic substitution he comes near enough as makes no matter, I think, to
customary practice among 17th-century English poets--at least those with
the standard education. *

*As for the alleged dissonance of spondaic substitution in the fourth place
of "PŪRĭ/fĭcā/tiŏn  īn/ TH'ŌLD  LĀW /dĭd sāve" (Sonnet 23, line 6)--or in
the second and fourth place of "whŏm  Jōve's /GRĒAT SŌN/ tŏ hēr/ GLĀD
HŪS/bănd gāve" (line 3), for that matter--I beg to differ. In particular,
the spondaic emphasis on "old law" in the allegedly clunky sixth line is
telling: the old law the speaker would be better off emphasizing in the
context of his dream is the law of love (Galatians 5:14) expressed in his
wife's last interrupted gesture.*

*Take a second look at the dream report.*

*Milton seemed to see his sainted wife, brought back to him from the dead
as Alcestis was brought back to Admetus. His wife ("Mine"), if not
Admetus's, is as pure as a mother purged of childbed taint under the Old
Ritual Law. This was the kind of purity he is confident he will find in
heaven, when he has an unobstructed view of her. But In spite of her veil,
the love, sweetness, and goodness visible in her person were as obvious to
his imagination as her face will be without the veil. Unfortunately, at the
moment when she leaned forward to embrace him, he awakened, she vanished,
and he was back in a day that might as well be night for all he can see of
it. *

*It seems clear that, if anything, childbed taint is not the threat to
"purity" that the dreamer should be worrying about, and that that is the
point of asking us to think of Alcestis. *

*At the end of Euripides' play, Heracles warns Admetus not to touch his
wife, newly released by Thanatos, for three days. The Old Law contains
similar warnings. So does the Gospel, in Jesus's noli me tangere  to Mary
Magdalene (John 20:17).  In short, the dreamer (Milton's surrogate, not
Milton) needs to reckon with the taint of mortality--his mortality, not
hers. Consider what she's trying to do just before she's interrupted:
"Enclining" (leaning in) to embrace him--and doing with no trace of
misgivings about "taint." Once again from where I sit, the dream report in
Sonnet 23, line six included, has the kind of charged subtlety and pathos
and paradox we expect in a great sonnet.*
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