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

Michael Gillum mgillum at unca.edu
Sun Apr 17 11:53:10 EDT 2016


Granted, every educated person understood Latin quantitative foot-prosody
(LQFP). At issue is whether English accentual-syllabic meters were created
by analogy with LQFP. The answer might determine whether we need to be
drawing foot-bars.

"Iambic licentiate"  was developed in the 1580's by Sidney and Spenser.
Campion's theorizing of it in 1602 does not determine their intentions,
especially given that Sidney's stated theory was syllable-count "with some
attention to the accent."

Regular iambic was developed by Surrey et al. in the 1530's and partially
theorized by Gascoigne in 1575--I think he was the only 16th c. poet who
stated the analogy to LQFP. However, Wyatt and Surrey, lie Chaucer before
them, were probably inspired by the example of syllable-counting in French
and Italian verse. All the early modern poets were conscious of syllable
coin (which is not a necessary feature of LQFP).

The analogy did not readily present itself because the 161th c. English
pronounced classical Latin with an accentual rhythm that did not correspond
to the quantitative pattern. LQFP to them was a barely audible, mainly
visual, pattern..

I suggest that the principle of alternating beats and offbeats was
discovered and disseminated simply by ear. One does not need any theory to
grasp and imitate a pattern like /x/x/x/.

About your remarks on spondees--one of the real advances in Attridge's
theory is recognizing that the term *spondee* covers two very different
things. In "Jove's great son," the second syllable is a stressed offbeat
(part of a heavy iamb in foot-speak). In "to her glad husb-," both stressed
syllables realize beats (part of a rising inversion or ionic foot, xx//.


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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