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

James Rovira jamesrovira at gmail.com
Sun Apr 17 11:39:09 EDT 2016


Harold Skulsky's post is yet another example of why the question and
discussion is worthwhile. I would ask,

1. Why *only* "historically" and not *also* theoretically or according to
(an articulated and defined) taste? That's only one kind of reading. I also
wouldn't reduce some of the claims made during this discussion to "taste"
(which sounds arbitrary), but as the impressions made on some practiced
ears. They're still somewhat subjective, and others can hear differently,
but they can be explained and defended as well.

2. Isn't the historical justification for Milton's inversions a topic
separate from how well the poem works when read, and especially read aloud,
in English? In that case, Harold Skulsky's reading can become a description
of the source of the problem rather than a defense of the poem. Milton
wasn't writing in Latin, which may make thinking in Latin problematic at
times. I think this is why we're discussing one or two potentially bad
lines rather than whether or not Milton is a bad poet. No one would make
that claim, even if this were the only poem he had written.

I've just reread the poem, and I can't escape the impression of somewhat
(though deliberately) mangled syntax in stanzas two and three. I also can't
help but read the word "So" at the beginning of stanza four as metrical
filler. And why 4-4-3-3 instead of 8-6? Obviously, because there is no turn
on line 9 -- that line is in the middle of a thought -- and because we have
something like an Elizabethan twist at the end in the last two lines. But,
it's not in a couplet. So the poem is like a Shakespearean sonnet
conceptually but follows a Petrarchan rhyme scheme and is arranged 4-4-3-3
rather than 8-6 or 4-4-4-2.

Is this clever or an abortion?

Now imagine writing a love poem to a woman with a Ph.D. in English and some
background in linguistics. Imagine you are trying to woo her. And then
imagine you write a poem with the line, "And such, as yet once more I trust
to have..."

I still wouldn't bring myself to say it's a bad poem, but these elements of
the poem register as defects to me. At the same time, I find the
possibilities of reading this poem against Milton's descriptions of angelic
sex in *Paradise Lost* intriguing, and I agree with Harold Skulsky's claims
about the source of the taint. The poem is interesting enough to merit all
of this discussion rather than just be ignored, as a truly bad poem should
be.

I was at the NCSA conference, or on the road back and forth to the
conference, on W-Th-F last week, so I apologize if I missed some posts. I
did try to follow the discussion closely and was reading it with interest,
but I see in responses that I missed some posts along the way.

Just curious, but is the punctuation of the poem at the Milton Reading Room
Milton's own, or has it been edited? I am assuming that it is Milton's own,
but I wanted to ask.

https://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/sonnets/sonnet_23/text.shtml

Thanks very much,

Jim R

On Sun, Apr 17, 2016 at 6:26 AM, Harold Skulsky <hskulsky at smith.edu> wrote:

> *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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-- 
Dr. James Rovira
Associate Professor of English
Tiffin University
http://www.jamesrovira.com
Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety
Continuum 2010
http://jamesrovira.com/blake-and-kierkegaard-creation-and-anxiety/
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