Milton & Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter)

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  • Revised & improved April 12, 2009.

The Creation of Eve

Milton’s blank verse is exceedingly conservative and easy to scan. It’s a testament to Milton’s skill as a poet john-miltonthat his beautiful language and careful phrasing triumphs over his monotonous meter – in many cases subtly disrupting it without violating it. It’s a miracle, really. (For an example of a poet who didn’t pull it off, read Spencer’s Fairy Queen.) It was as if the experimentation of the Elizabethans, let alone the Jacobeans, had never occurred. Milton came of age in an exceedingly conservative era- poetically. Meter, in those days, was as dominant then as free verse now, and as unadventurous. Just the fact that Milton wrote blank verse (when everyone else was writing heroic couplets) was an act of defiance.

Most of the trouble surrounding Milton and scansion (for modern readers) comes down to differences in pronunciation – some of it has to do with historical changes; and some, if you’re American, has to do with differences in British and American pronunciation (especially problematic when reading Chaucer).

I cooked up a table that, with its “scientific” terminology, gives you an idea of Milton’s metrical habits and preferences. I haven’t gone line by line to exhaustively prove the accuracy of my table, but I can assert, for example, that Milton (despite claims to the contrary) never wrote a trochee in the final foot. Here’s an extract, to that effect, from my review of M.L. Harvey’s Book Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning: A Study in Generative Metrics (Studies in Comparative Literature):

A more egregious example of misreading, due to changes in habits of pronunciation and even to present day differences between the continents, comes when Mr. Harvey examines Milton. Words like “contest” and “blasphemous” and “surface” (all taken from Paradise Lost) were still accented on the second syllable. “Which of us beholds the bright surface.” (P.L. 6.472 MacMillan. Roy Flannagan Editor.) Mr. Harvey, offering an example of a “very rare `inverted foot’” (the credit for its recognition he gives to Robert Bridges) gives the following line: “Of Thrones and mighty Seraphim Prostrate (P.L. 6.841) In fact, Robert Bridges and Mr. Harvey are both mistaken in reading the fifth foot as inverted and one need not be a seventeenth century scholar to recognize it. Webster’s International Dictionary: Second Edition, in fact, provides the following pronunciation key. (pros [stressed] trat [unstressed]; formerly, and still by some. Esp. Brit., pros [unstressed] trat [stressed]). Any laboratory of Americans, nearly without fail, would also misread this line, and so the danger of overwhelming empirical evidence!

On to my table… Each division represents an equivalent foot in an Iambic Pentameter line.

Milton's Metrics

The Scansion

Here is one of my favorite passages, already alluded to in a previous post – Iambic Pentameter Variants – I. To simplify matters, I haven’t marked any of the Iambic feet , I’ve only marked variant feet or feet that, for one reason another, might be read incorrectly.

Milton Scansion: Book 8

Elision

Elision, a standard practice in Milton’s day and more or less assumed whether marked or not, eliminates the vast majority of Milton’s “variant” feet.

still-glorious

Glorious, if treated as a three syllable word, would make the second foot Anapestic, not criminal,  but if you can elide, you  should.

body-enjoyest

This elision might make some metrists squirm. Given just how conservative metrical practice tended to be in Milton’s day, I would be inclined to elide these two vowels. Given how Milton can barely bring himself to so much as use a feminine ending in the final foot, I seriously doubt he expected readers to treat this foot as an anapest. My advice is to elide it.

The final example of elision, above, is the word Spirits. Interestingly, Milton seems to treat this word opportunistically. In line 466, for example, he treats spirits as a two syllable word. In other lines, throughout Paradise Lost and in the latter line, he treats the word as a monosyllabic word. This sort of inconsistency in pronunciation is found as far back as Chaucer, as with his pronunciation of the word sweete – sometimes one syllable, sometimes two. Such inconsistency is permitted once one has obtained a poetic license.

Reading with the Meter

Modern readers may sometimes be tempted to read as though they were reading prose. Sometimes, though, poets play the line against the meter, wanting us to emphasize certain words we might not otherwise. That’s the beauty of meter in poetry. Milton, as with all the great poets, was skilled at this sort of counterpoint:

mean-or-in-her

In the line above, the modern reader might be tempted to stress the line as follows:

Mean, or in her summ’d up, in in her containd

This would be putting the emphasis on the words in. In free verse, ok, but not Iambic Pentameter and especially not with a metrically conservative poet like Milton. Milton wants us to put the emphasis on her. Maybe the line above doesn’t seem such a stretch? Try this one:

bone-of-my-bone

Any modern reader would put the emphasis on Bone and Flesh:

Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self

But they would be missing the point of Milton’s line – the closing my Self! That is, it’s not the Bone or Flesh that amazes Adam, it’s that the Bone and Flesh are of his Bone and of his Flesh. His Self! This contrapuntal exploitation of the meter is a master stroke and to miss it is to miss Milton’s genius. If it’s read in this light, stressing the prepositional of might not feel so strained or artificial.

Pentameter at all costs!

Milton’s obeisance to the demands of Iambic Pentameter aren’t always entirely successful.

amiable

This, to me, is a reach, but it’s probably what Milton intended and even how he pronounced it. Practice it with studied e-nunc-i-a-tion and the line may make a little more sense. An alternative is to read the line as Iambic Tetrameter.

tetrameter-amiable

Given Milton’s metrical squeamishness, I seriously doubt that, in the entirety of Paradise Lost, he decided, for just one moment, to write one Tetrameter line. There are other alternative Tetrameter readings, but they get uglier and uglier.

That said, ambiguities like these, along with the examples that follow, are what disrupt the seeming monotony of Milton’s meter. His use of them defines Milton’s skill as a poet. Roy Flannagan’s introduction to Paradise Lost (page 37) is worth quoting in this regard:

Milton writes lines of poetry that appear to be iambic pentameter if you count them regularly but really contain hidden reversed feet or elongated or truncated sounds that echo meaning and substance rather than a regular and hence monotonous beat. He builds his poetry on syllable count and on stress; William B. Hunter, following the analysis of Milton’s prosody by the poet Robert Bridges in 1921, counts lines that vary in the number of stresses from three all the way up to eight, but with the syllabic count remaining fixed almost always at ten (“The Sources” 198). Milton heavily favors ending his line on a masculine , accented syllable, with frequent enjambment or continuous rhythm from one line to the next… He avoids feminine feet or feet with final unstressed syllables at the ends of lines. He varies the caesura, or the definitive pause within the line, placing it more freely than any other dramatist or non-dramatic writer Hunter could locate (199). He controls elisions or the elided syllables in words most carefully, allowing the reader to choose between pronouncing a word like spirit as a monosyllable (and perhaps pronounced “sprite”) or disyllable, or Israel as a disyllable or trisyllable.

Extra Syllables: Milton’s Amphibrachs (Feminine Endings & Epic Caesuras)

The amphibrach is a metrical foot if three syllables – unstressed-stressed-unstressed. In poets prior to the 20th Century it is always associated with feminine endings or epic caesuras. In the passages above, Milton offers us two examples, one in the second foot (by far the norm) and one in the first foot.

second-foot-amphibrach

This would be an epic caesura. The comma indicates a sort of midline break (a break in the syntactic sense or phrase). Amphibrach’s, at least in Milton, are always associated with this sort of syntactic pause or break. Epic Caesuras and Feminine Endings are easily the primary reason for extra syllables in Milton’s line. Anapests make up the rest, but they are far less frequent and can be frequently elided.

first-foot-amphibrach

This would be a much rarer Epic Caesura in the first foot. Notice, once again, that the amphibrachic foot occurs with a syntactic break, the comma.

Differences in Pronunciation

If you just can’t make sense of the metrical flow, it might be because you aren’t pronouncing the words the same way Milton and his peers did.

pronuncation-1

Most modern readers would probably pronounce discourse and dis’course. However, in Milton’s day and among some modern British, it was and is pronounced discourse’.

pronuncation-2

Adam & EveThis one is trickier. In modern English, we pronounce attribute as att’ribute when used as a noun and attri’bute when used as a verb. Milton, in a rather Elizabethan twist, is using attributing in its nominal sense, rather than verbal sense. He therefore keeps the nominal pronunciation: att’tributing.

The arch-Angel says to Adam, as concerns Eve:

Dismiss not her…by attributing overmuch to things Less excellent…

It’s phenomenally good marital advice. In other words. Don’t dismiss her by just tallying up her negative attributes, to the exclusion of her positive attributes. There is more to any friendship, relationship, or marriage than the negative. Think on the positive.

Metrical Ambiguity

Some of Milton’s metrical feet are simply ambiguous – effectively breaking the monotony of the meter. In the example below, one could read the first foot as trochaic or as Iambic:

ambiguous-feet

|Led by|

or

|Led by|?

I chose a trochaic foot – the first option. If this foot had been in the fifth foot (or the last foot of the line) I would have read it as Iambic. Milton doesn’t write trochaic feet in the fifth foot. In the first foot, however, trochaic feet aren’t uncommon and in this instant it seems to make sense. I don’t sense that there’s any crucial meaning lost by de-emphasizing by.  Perhaps the best answer, in cases of metrical ambiguity, is to consider at what point in the line the ambiguity is occuring.

Similarly, I read the following line as having a spondee in the fourth foot:

ambiguous-feet-2

One could also read it as trochaic or iambic. Iambic, given the metrical practice of the day, is far more likely than a trochaic foot – especially, given Milton’s practice, this close to the final foot. I scanned the foot as spondaic. Spondaic feet, in Milton’s day, were considered the least disruptive variant foot and so were acceptable at just about any point of the line.

My Favorite Passages

The passages excerpted above just about cover every metrical exigency you will run into in reading Milton. The other reason I chose them is because they’re, well, juicy. I love them. I especially like the following lines for their sense of humor (and, yes, Milton does have a sense of humor).

like-folly1

What boyfriend or husband hasn’t had this experience? No matter how rational we think we are, all our intellectual bravado crumbles to folly – men are from Mars, women are from Venus.

Did Adam & Eve have sex? Why, yes, says Milton, but it wasn’t pornographic. That came after the fall:

pure-love

Lastly, and most importantly, is there sex in heaven (or do we have to go to hell for that)? Milton gives us the answer:

angels-and-sex

If you enjoyed this post and found it helpful, comment! Let me know. And if you have further questions or corrections, I appreciate those too.

23 responses

  1. Just read this, and it has been extremely helpful! We are learning about Paradise Lost for Eng Lit and its in our exam – a big focus on its technical language as well, so thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks very much for this. Interesting and insightful post. Good balance of academic terms and accessible explanations. Adds another dimension and clears up a few questions for a novice Milton reader.

    • Hi Pete, that balance between the academic and accessible is something that matters to me. I’ve never been much for academia, so I take your compliment to heart. I do try to keep things accessible and comprehensible. You won’t find any epistemological discussions here.

  3. This is a very helpful post indeed. Thank you. I am a classics student and having fallen under the sway of the epic poets, I took to Milton (and Dante) as a fish to water. So getting a handle on his meter is swell.

  4. Fascinating post, I applaud your efforts on this blog which I’ve just found. I appreciate how much detail you’ve gone into, and I will definitely look through your archives. I have one thought/suggestion. Above you discuss the reading of the line,

    “Mean, or in her summ’d up, in in her containd”

    It may be easier for readers to understand your take on the reading of that line if you provide the lines leading up to it, and perhaps after it, for context. (or maybe just remind them that the text you’re discussing is in full above.) I know that for myself, as a reader, I find that there’s a certain momentum that builds up (rhythmically and in terms of meaning) that often influences how I read a line, especially if there’s enjambment.

    For example, I begin my reading at “Under his form” and continue on to that line. When I read that line in context, I absolutely see what you mean about the emphasis on “her”. I also accent “up” and the second syllable of containd, which I think flows well with accenting the hers and which I’ll assume you would have marked if not just marking variants in that excerpt. Just a couple of cents on that.

    Also, I’m glad to see you address metrical ambiguity.

    Good work, Sir; glad to meet you in the net.

    • Thanks, and good to meet you. You make a valid point. I probably won’t take your suggestion though. Adding more lines means having to specify exactly which of the lines I’m addressing. I guess I don’t mind it if the reader has to sweat a little. :-)

  5. I would suggest Milton did not use epic caesuras: every single possible example of an epic caesura in Paradise Lost, can instead be interpreted as examples of synaloepha (for the benefit of readers:- synaloepha is the gliding together of the last syllable of a word that ends with a vowel sound with the first syllable of an adjacent word that begins with a vowel sound).
    Milton uses synaloepha abundantly: it’s a very distinctive feature of his style. If there were any genuine examples of epic caesurae in his poem, I would expect at least some of them not to be interpretable as examples of synaloepha.

    • Hi Keir, you’re right. It’s possible to read the epic caesuras, those that involve vowel sounds, as synaloepha. I don’t know that Milton’s intentions can be deduced. However, you’re wrong that every single possible example is amenable to synaloepha. The first example isn’t:

      Father and Mother, and to his wife adhere

      If you really wanted to be hard-nosed about it, I guess you could read this as Father and Mother‘nd to his wife adhere. The problem is that Milton encourages a break (between these two syllables) with a comma — a syntactic break (unless that comma is absent in the original?).

      Likewise, it is possible to read the other examples as synaloepha, but there too you have to be willing, in most (if not all?) cases, to run over (ignore) punctuation. The punctuation, really, is what makes me hesitate. Would be interesting to find out if the punctuation is Milton’s or editorial. If the latter, then that would argue, perhaps, in your favor.

  6. Yes, I did indeed interpret your first example as being elided to ”mother’nd”, which seems to me much in keeping with Milton’s compressed style. Compare bk. 7, line 479,
    ‘With SPOTS of GOLD and PURple, AZure_and GREEN’.
    Also, there is possibly a greater likelihood that the punctuation isn’t always exactly as Milton would have intended given that he was blind by this time, and dictated the words, rather than writing them himself.

    • So, I got my copy out, edited by Roy Flannagan. (So you know, I don’t have a dog in the hunt; I’m just curious to see if you could make your argument stick.) First, arguing that Milton was blind (and so not responsible for the punctuation) could be argued either way. It was certainly within Milton’s power to say “comma”, “apostrophe”, and “period”. I don’t see why he would make the copyist guess (can’t think of his name right now).

      Anyway, here’s a line from 4:581:

      Well known from Heav’n; and since Meridian hour

      Milton could have had an epic caasura, but elided Heav’n. This argues both for and against you. In your favor, it shows that he preferred avoiding the extra syllable. Against your favor, then why didn’t he do it elsewhere? Here’s another example:

      Ministring light prepar’d, they set and rise 4:664

      This elision of ‘ed happens quite a bit.

      Here are two beautiful lines that works in your favor, I think:

      Be but the shadow of Heav’n, and things therein
      Each to other like, more then on earth is thought?

      Neither of them work without unmarked elisions:

      Be but the shadow’f Heav’n, and things therein
      Each t’other like, more then on earth is thought?

      So, I think we can say, with strong certainty, that Milton would have wanted these elided though they’re unmarked. And that works in favor of your argument. Milton doesn’t mark all elisions (or at least they’re not all marked in the text).

      So, should all epic ceasura’s be elided? I think you’re right that, if one wishes to follow the letter of the law, they could be. However, in a line like this:

      Some Capitol City; or less than if this frame 2:924

      I think the pentameter is more honored in the breach — like Milton’s opportunistic use of Heav’n or Heaven (you know, whatever works). You can certainly elide the City’r less, but then there’s that semi-colon that really encourages more of a full stop. But then again, some copies show a comma instead of a semi-colon.

      So, I think you could make your argument successfully — that, technically, there are no epic caesuras. But it’s that ambiguity that makes Milton’s verse feel more irregular and varied than it really is. The ambiguity breaks the monotony. So, like all the very greatest poets, he gets his cake and eats it too. We can point to a metrical irregularity and Milton can slyly wiggle out of it. He always crosses the intersection when the light’s yellow, you know what I mean? :-)

  7. The difficulty I have in accepting that there are lines in Paradise Lost that could be legitimately interpreted as containing epic caesurae – even putting aside the fact that it seems a big coincidence that every possible example can be synaloephised (is that a real word?!) – is that, as you pointed out yourself, Milton could barely even bring himself to use feminine endings. Would he not have been even more averse to using epic caesurae?

    According to Wright, the use of the epic caesura in poetry had been dropped by Shakespeare’s day. Certainly Shakespeare himself (who frequently used them to expressive effect in his plays; and was unafraid to be metrically adventurous) never used them in his poetry.

    If poetry was even more conservative by the time Milton wrote Paradise Lost, and Milton himself avoided even feminine endings as much as possible, is it really plausible he would have used epic caesurae? Have you found other contemporary examples of the epic caesura being reintroduced?

    I would certainly agree that the use of elision across a punctuation mark is unusual and striking. Personally, I find the effect exciting, and I feel it serves the compressed energy of his verse. And certainly, in urgent or intense speech, we don’t necessarily pause at phrasal junctures.

    I’m not too sure about the idea of ambiguity breaking the monotony of the metre; after all, when you read the verse out loud (or even in your own head), you have to decide one way or the other how to deliver it. Certainly, his abundant use of elision does break the monotony of the metre; as well as helping to enable impressive economy in his writing, resulting in lines packed with meaning.

    • “Would he not have been even more averse to using epic caesurae?”

      Yes? Probably? I think your argument is legitimate. At the end of the day though, one has to admit that he’s playing just a little fast and loose with the meter. He’s following the spirit of the law, if not the letter. While Milton was fairly strict with his “numbers”, he was less so than his contemporaries, who were still writing closed heroic couplets.

      When one read’s the verse aloud, yes, I suppose, one has to decide, but the very fact of that (at least in the text as we have it), is more of an ambiguity than one finds in his contemporaries (though I haven’t strictly tested this assertion). I mean, it sounds like we’re essentially in agreement. I think you’re on sound footing. it’s as if we were looking at the color green: I see more blue, you see more yellow. If you want to assert that there are no epic caesura’s in Milton, then you can; but you have to qualify that. That is, they’re there on the page, but one can hide them with synalopeha.

      But it sounds like you’d rather eliminate them altogether (and perhaps read that as Milton’s intention). Maybe so. To commit to that, I think we really have to see the MS. Don’t you?

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