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

Michael Gillum mgillum at unca.edu
Sun Apr 17 13:25:21 EDT 2016

Sorry for the typo-- syllable coin for syllable count. I hope someone will
respond to my historical argument.


On Sun, Apr 17, 2016 at 11:53 AM, Michael Gillum <mgillum at unca.edu> wrote:

> Harold--
> 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//.
> Best,
> Michael
> 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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