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they were probably pronounced alike. In Marlowe's Faustus
two consecutive sentences (in prose) begin with the words " Cursed
be he that struck." In a note on the passage Mr. Dyce tells us
that the old editions (there were three) have stroke and strooke in
the first instance, and all agree on strucke in the second. No in*
f erence can be drawn from such casualties.


lables, and to avoid harsh or difficult conjunctions
of consonants, except when there might be a mu
sical reason for harshness or difficulty. In the
management of the letter s, the frequency of which
in English is one of the faults of the speech, he
will be found, I believe, most careful and skilful.
More rarely, I think, than in Shakespeare will one
word ending in s be found followed immediately
in Milton by another word beginning with the same
letter ; or, if he does occasionally pen such a phrase
as MoaVs sows, it will be difficult to find in him,
I believe, such a harsher example as earth's sub
stance, of which many writers would think nothing.
[With the index to back him Mr. Masson could
safely say this.] The same delicacy of ear is even
more apparent in his management of the sh sound.
He has it often, of course ; but it may be noted
that he rejects it in his verse when he can. He
writes Basan for Bashan, Sittim for SMttim,
Silo for /Shiloh, Asdod for Ashdod. Still more,
however, does he seem to have been wary of the
compound sound ch as in church. Of his sensitive
ness to this sound in excess there is a curious proof
in his prose pamphlet entitled ' An Apology against
a Pamphlet, called A Modest Completion, etc.,'
where, having occasion to quote these lines from
one of the Satires l of his opponent, Bishop Hall,

1 The lines are not " from one of the Satires," and Milton made
them worse by misquoting and bringing love jinglingly near to
grove. Hall's verse (in his Satires) is always vigorous and often
harmonious. He long before Milton spoke of rhyme almost in
the very terms of the preface to Paradise Lost.


' Teach each hollow grove to sound his love,
Wearying echo with one changeless word,'

he adds, ironically, ' And so he well might, and all
his auditory besides, with his teach each 1 ' : Gen
eralizations are always risky, but when extempo
rized from a single hint they are maliciously so.
Surely it needed no great sensitiveness of ear to be
set on edge by Hall's echo of teach each. Did
Milton reject the h from Bashan and the rest be
cause he disliked the sound of sh, or because he
had found it already rejected by the Vulgate and
by some of the earlier translators of the Bible into
English? Oddly enough, Milton uses words be
ginning with sh seven hundred and fifty -four times
in his poetry, not to speak of others in which the
sound occurs, as, for instance, those ending in tion.
Hall, had he lived long enough, might have retorted
on Milton his own

" Manliest, resolutesf, "breast,
As the magnetick hardest iron draws, ' '

or his

" What moves thy inquisition ?
Know'st thou not that my rising is thy fall,
And my promotion thy destruction ? "

With the playful controversial wit of the day he
would have hinted that too much est-est is as fatal
to a blank-verse as to a bishop, and that danger
was often incurred by those who too eagerly
shunned it. Nay, he might even have found an
echo almost tallying with his own in

" To hegirt the almighty throne
Beseeching or hesieging,"


a pun worthy of Milton's worst prose. Or he
might have twitted him with " a sequent king who
seeks." As for the sh sound, a poet could hardly
have found it ungracious to his ear who wrote,

" GnasAing for anguisA and despite and sAame,

or again,

" Then bursting forth

Afresh with conscious terrors vex me round
That rest or intermission none I find.
Before mine eyes in opposition sits
Grim Death, my son."

And if Milton disliked the cJi sound, he gave his
ears unnecessary pain by verses such as these,

' ' Straight coucAes close ; then, rising, changes oft
His coucAant watch, as one who chose his ground " ;

still more by such a juxtaposition as "matchless
chief." i

The truth is, that Milton was a harmonist rather
than a melodist. There are, no doubt, some exqui
site melodies (like the " Sabrina Fair ") among his
earlier poems, as could hardly fail to be the case

1 Mr. Masson goes so far as to conceive it possible that Milton
may have committed the vulgarism of leaving a t out of slep'st,
"for ease of sound." Yet the poet could bear boast'st and one
stares and gasps at it doaCdst. There is, by the way, a fami
liar passage in which the ch sound predominates, not without a
touch of sh in a single couplet :

" Can any mortal mixture of earth's mould

Breathe such divine encAanting ravisAment ? "

" Blotches and blains must all his flesh emboss,"
and perhaps

" I see his tents
Pitched about Sechem "
might be added.


in an age which produced or trained the authors of
our best English glees, as ravishing in their instinc
tive felicity as the songs of our dramatists, but he
also showed from the first that larger style which
was to be his peculiar distinction. The strain heard
in the " Nativity Ode," in the " Solemn Music," and
in '^Lycidas," is of a higher mood, as regards met
rical construction, than anything that had thrilled
the English ear before, giving no uncertain augury
of him who was to show what sonorous metal lay
silent till he touched the keys in the epical organ-
pipes of our various language, that have never
since felt the strain of such prevailing breath. It
was in the larger movements of metre that Milton
was great and original. I have spoken elsewhere of
Spenser's fondness for dilation as respects thoughts
and images. In Milton it extends to the language
also, and often to the single words of which a pe
riod is composed. He loved phrases of towering
port, in which every member dilated stands like
Teneriffe or Atlas. In those poems and passages
that stamp him great, the verses do not dance inter
weaving to soft Lydian airs, but march rather with
resounding tread and clang of martial music. It is
true that he is cunning in alliterations, so scatter
ing them that they tell in his orchestra without be
ing obvious, but it is in the more scientific region
of open-voweled assonances which seem to proffer
rhyme and yet withhold it (rhyme-wraiths one
might call them), that he is an artist and a master.
He even sometimes introduces rhyme with mislead
ing intervals between and unobviously in his blank-
verse :


" There rest, if any rest can harbour there ;
And, reassembling our afflicted powers,
Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from hope,
If not, what resolution from despair." 1

There is one almost perfect quatrain, _

" Before thy fellows, ambitious to win
From me some plume, that thy success may show
Destruction to the rest. This pause between
(Unanswered lest thou boast) to let thee know " ;

and another hardly less so, of a rhyme and an as*

" If once they hear that voice, their liveliest pledge
Of hope in fears and dangers, heard so oft
In worst extremes and on the perilous edge
Of battle when it raged, in all assaults. "

There can be little doubt that the rhymes in
the first passage cited were intentional, and perhaps
they were so in the others ; but Milton's ear has
tolerated not a few perfectly rhyming couplets, and
others in which the assonance almost becomes
rhyme, certainly a fault in blank-verse :

" From the Asian Kings (and Parthian among these),
From India and the Golden Chersonese " ;

" That soon refreshed him wearied, and repaired
What hunger, if aught hunger, had impaired " ;

" And will alike be punished, whether thou
Reign or reign not, though to that gentle brow " ;

- I think Coleridge's nice ear would have blamed the nearness
af enemy and calamity in this passage. Mr. Masson leaves out the
comma after If not, the pause of which is needful, I think, to the
sense, and certainly to keep not a little farther apart from what,
("teach each"!)


"Of pleasure, but all pleasure to destroy,
Save what is in destroying, other joy " ;

" Shall all be Paradise, far happier place
Than this of Eden, and far happier days " ;

" This my long sufferance and my day of grace
They who neglect and scorn shall never taste ' ' ;

" So far remote with diminution seen,

First in his East the glorious lamp was seen." 1

These examples (and others might be adduced)
serve to show that Milton's ear was too busy about
the larger interests of his measures to be always
careful of the lesser. He was a strategist rather
than a drill-sergeant in verse, capable, beyond any
other English poet, of putting great masses through
the most complicated evolutions without clash or
confusion, but he was not curious that every foot
should be at the same angle. In reading " Para
dise Lost " one has a feeling of vastness. You
float under an illimitable sky, brimmed with sun
shine or hung with constellations ; the abysses of
space are about you ; you hear the cadenced surges
of an unseen ocean ; thunders mutter round the
horizon ; and if the scene change, it is with an ele
mental movement like the shifting of mighty winds.
His imagination seldom condenses, like Shake
speare's, in the kindling flash of a single epithet,
but loves better to diffuse itself. Witness his de
scriptions, wherein he seems to circle like an eagle
bathing in the blue streams of air, controlling with
his eye broad sweeps of champaign or of sea, and
rarely fulmining in the sudden swoop of intenser

1 " First in his East," is not soothing to the ear.


expression. He was fonder of the vague, perhaps
I should rather say the indefinite, where more is
meant than meets the ear, than any other of our
poets. He loved epithets (like old and far) that
suggest great reaches, whether of space or time.
This bias shows itself already in his earlier poems,
as where he hears

' ' The far off curfew sound
Over some widewatered shore,"

or where he fancies the shores * and sounding seas
washing Lycidas far away ; but it reaches its cli
max in the " Paradise Lost." He produces his
effects by dilating our imaginations with an impal
pable hint rather than by concentrating them upon
too precise particulars. Thus in a famous compar
ison of his, the fleet has no definite port, but plies
stemming nightly toward the pole in a wide ocean
of conjecture. He generalizes always instead of
specifying, the true secret of the ideal treatment
in which he is without peer, and, though every
where grandiose, he is never turgid. Tasso begins
finely with

" Chiama gli abitator dell' ombre eterne
II rauco suon della tartarea tromba ;
Treman le spaziose atre caverne,
E 1' aer cieco a quel rumor rimbomba,"

but soon spoils all by condescending to definite
comparisons with thunder and intestinal convul
sions of the earth ; in other words, he is unwary
enough to give us a standard of measurement, and

1 There seems to be something wrong in this word shores. Did
Milton write shoals ?


the moment you furnish Imagination with a yard
stick she abdicates in favor of her statistical poor-
relation Commonplace. Milton, with this passage
in his memory, is too wise to hamper himself with
any statement for which he can be brought to book,
but wraps himself in a mist of looming indefinite-

" He called so loud that all the hollow deep
Of hell resounded,"

thus amplifying more nobly by abstention from his
usual method of prolonged evolution. No caverns,
however spacious, will serve his turn, because they
have limits. He could practise this self-denial when
his artistic sense found it needful, whether for vari
ety of verse or for the greater intensity of effect to
be gained by abruptness. His more elaborate pas
sages have, the multitudinous roll of thunder, dying
away to gather a sullen force again from its own
reverberations, but he knew that the attention is
recalled and arrested by those claps that stop short
without echo and leave us listening. There are no
such vistas and avenues of verse as his. In reading
the " Paradise Lost " one has a feeling of spacious
ness such as no other poet gives. Milton's respect
for himself and for his own mind and its move
ments rises wellnigh to veneration. He prepares
the way for his thought and spreads on the ground
before the sacred feet of his verse tapestries inwoven
with figures of mythology and romance. There is
no such unfailing dignity as his. Observe at what
a reverent distance he begins when he is about to
speak of himself, as at the beginning of the Third


Book and the Seventh. His sustained strength is
especially felt in his beginnings. He seems always
to start full-sail ; the wind and tide always serve ;
there is never any fluttering of the canvas. In this
he offers a striking contrast with Wordsworth, who
has to go through with a great deal of yo-heave-
ohing before he gets under way. And though, in
the didactic parts of "Paradise Lost," the wind
dies away sometimes, there is a long swell that will
not let us forget it, and ever and anon some emi
nent verse lifts its long ridge above its tamer peers
heaped with stormy memories. And the poem
never becomes incoherent ; we feel all through it,
as in the symphonies of Beethoven, a great control
ling reason in whose safe-conduct we trust impli

Mr. Masson's discussions of Milton's English are,
it seems to me, for the most part unsatisfactory.
He occupies some ten pages, for example, with a
history of the genitival form its, which adds noth
ing to our previous knowledge on the subject and
which has no relation to Milton except for its bear
ing on the authorship of some verses attributed to
him against the most overwhelming internal evi
dence to the contrary. Mr. Masson is altogether
too resolute to find traces of what he calls oddly
enough " recollectiveness of Latin constructions "
in Milton, and scents them sometimes in what
would seem to the uninstructed reader very idio
matic English. More than once, at least, he has
fancied them by misunderstanding the passage in
which they seem to occur. Thus, in "Paradise
Lost," XI. 520, 521,


" Therefore so abject is their punishment,
Disfiguring not God's likeness but their own,"

has no analogy with eorum deformantium, for the
context shows that it is the punishment which dis
figures. Indeed, Mr. Masson so often finds con
structions difficult, ellipses strange, and words
needing annotation that are common to all poetry,
nay, sometimes to all English, that his notes seem
not seldom to have been written by a foreigner.
On this passage in " Comus,"

" I do not think my sister so to seek
Or so unprincipled in virtue's book
And the sweet peace that virtue bosoms ever
As that the single want of light and noise
(Not being in danger, as I trust she is not)
Could stir the constant mood of her calm thoughts,"

Mr. Masson tells us, that " in very strict construc
tion, not being would cling to want as its substan
tive ; but the phrase passes for the Latin ablative
absolute." So on the words forestalling night,
" i. e. anticipating. Forestall is literally to antici
pate the market by purchasing goods before they
are brought to the stall." In the verse

" Thou hast immanacled while Heaven sees good,"

he explains that "while here has the sense of so
long as." But Mr. Masson's notes on the language
are his weakest. He is careful to tell us, for exam
ple, " that there are instances of the use of shine as
a substantive in Spenser, Ben Jonson, and other
poets." It is but another way of spelling sheen,
and if Mr. Masson never heard a shoeblack in the
street say, "Shall I give you a shine, sir?" his


experience Las been singular. l His notes in gen
eral are very good (though too long). Those on
the astronomy of Milton are particularly valuable.
I think he is sometimes a little too scornful of par
allel passages, 2 for if there is one thing more strik
ing than another in this poet, it is that his great
and original imagination was almost wholly nour
ished by books, perhaps I should rather say set in
motion by them. It is wonderful how, from the
most withered and juiceless hint gathered iu his
reading, his grand images rise like an exhalation ;
how from the most battered old lamp caught in
that huge drag-net with which he swept the waters

1 But his etymological notes are worse. For example, " recreant,
renouncing the faith, from the old French recroire, which again is
from the mediaeval Latin recredere, to ' believe hack, ' or aposta
tize." This is pure fancy. The word had no such meaning in
either language. He derives serenate from sera, and says that
parle means treaty, negotiation, though it is the same word as par
ley, had the same meanings, and was commonly pronounced like
it, as in Marlowe's

" What, shall we parle with this Christian ? "

It certainly never meant treaty, though it may have meant negotia
tion. When it did it implied the meeting face to face of the prin
cipals. On the verses

" And some flowers and some hays

For thy hearse to strew the ways,"

he has a note to tell us that hearse is not to be taken " in our sense
of a carriage for the dead, but in the older sense of a tomb or
framework over a tomb," though the obvious meaning is "to
strew the ways for thy hearse." How could one do that for a
tomb or the framework over it ?

2 A passage from Dante (Inferno, XI. 96-105), with its refer
ence to Aristotle, would have given him the meaning of " Nature
taught art," which seems to puzzle him. A study of Dante and
of his earlier commentators would also have been of great service
in the astronomical notes.


of learning, he could conjure a tall genius to build
his palaces. Whatever he touches swells and tow
ers. That wonderful passage in " Comus " of the
airy tongues, perhaps the most imaginative in sug
gestion he ever wrote, was conjured out of a dry
sentence in Purchas's abstract of Marco Polo. Such
examples help us to understand the poet. When I
find that Sir Thomas Browne had said before Mil
ton, that Adam " was the wisest of all men since,"
I am glad to find this link between the most pro
found and the most stately imagination of that age.
Such parallels sometimes give a hint also of the
historical development of our poetry, of its apostol
ical succession, so to speak. Every one has noticed
Milton's fondness of sonorous proper names, which
have not only an acquired imaginative value by as
sociation, and so serve to awaken our poetic sensi
bilities, but have likewise a merely musical signi
ficance. This he probably caught from Marlowe,
traces of whom are frequent in him. There is cer
tainly something of what afterwards came to be
called Miltonic in more than one passage of " Tam-
burlaine," a play in which gigantic force seems
struggling from the block, as in Michael Angelo's

Mr. Masson's remarks on the versification of
Milton are, in the main, judicious, but when he
ventures on particulars, one cannot always agree
with him. He seems to understand that our pros
ody is accentual merely, and yet, when he comes to
what he calls variations, he talks of the " substitu
tion of the Trochee, the Pyrrhic, or the Spondee,


for the regular Iambus, or of the Anapaest, the
Dactyl, the Tribrach, etc., for the same." This is
always misleading. The shift of the accent in
what Mr. Masson calls " dissyllabic variations " is
common to all pentameter verse, and, in the other
case, most of the words cited as trisyllables either
were not so in Milton's day, 1 or were so or not at
choice of the poet, according to their place in the
verse. There is not an elision of Milton's without
precedent in the dramatists from whom he learned
to write blank-verse. Milton was a greater metrist
than any of them, except Marlowe and Shake
speare, and he employed the elision (or the slur)
oftener than they to give a faint undulation or re
tardation to his verse, only because his epic form
demanded it more for variety's sake. How Milton
would have read them, is another question. He
certainly often marked them by an apostrophe in
his manuscripts. He doubtless composed accord
ing to quantity, so far as that is possible in Eng
lish, and as Cowper somewhat extravagantly says,
" gives almost as many proofs of it in his ' Paradise
Lost ' as there are lines in the poem." 2 But when
Mr. Masson tells us that

" Self -fed and self -consumed : if this fail,"


" Dwells in all Heaven charity so rare,"

are " only nine syllables," and that in

1 Almost every combination of two vowels might in those days
be a diphthong or not, at will. Milton's practice of elision was
confirmed and sometimes (perhaps) modified by his study of the
Italians, with whose usage in this respect he closely conforms.

2 Letter to Rev. W. Bagot, 4th January, 1791.


" Created hugest that swim the ocean-stream,"

" either the third foot must be read as an anapcest
or the word hugest must be pronounced as one syl
lable, hug'st" I think Milton would have invoked
the soul of Sir John Cheek. Of course Milton
read it

" Created hugest that swim th' ocean-stream,"

just as he wrote (if we may trust Mr. Masson's

" Thus sang the uncouth swain to th' oaks and rills,"

a verse in which both hiatus and elision occur pre
cisely as in the Italian poets. 1 " Gest that swim "
would be rather a knotty anapcest, an insupporta
ble foot indeed ! And why is even hug'st worse
than Shakespeare's

" Young'st follower of thy drum " ?

In the same way he says of

" For we have also our evening and our morn,"

that " the metre of this line is irregular," and of
the rapidly fine

" Came flying and in mid air aloud thus cried,"

that it is " a line of unusual metre." Why more
unusual than

" As being the contrary to his high will " ?

What would Mr. Masson say to these three verses
from Dekkar ?

1 So Dante :

" Ma sapienza e amore e virtute."
So Donne :

" Simony and sodomy in churchmen's lives."


" And knowing so much, I muse thou art so poor " ;

" I fan away the dust flying in mine eyes " ;

" Flowing o'er with court news only of you and them."

All such participles (where no consonant divided
the vowels) were normally of one syllable, permis
sibly of two. 1 If Mr. Masson had studied the
poets who preceded Milton as he has studied him,
he would never have said that the verse

" Not this rock only ; his omnipresence fills,"

was " peculiar as having a distinct syllable of over-
measure." He retains Milton's spelling of hunderd
without perceiving the metrical reason for it, that
e?, , j9, 6, &c., followed by I or r, might be either
of two or of three syllables. In Marlowe we find
it both ways in two consecutive verses :

" A hundred [hundered] and fifty thousand horse,
Two hundred thousand foot, brave men at arms." 2

Mr. Masson is especially puzzled by verses ending
in one or more unaccented syllables, and even ar
gues in his Introduction that some of them might
be reckoned Alexandrines. He cites some lines of
Spenser as confirming his theory, forgetting that
rhyme wholly changes the conditions of the case

1 Mr. Masson is evidently not very familiar at first hand with
the versification to which Milton's youthful ear had been trained,
but seems to have learned something from Abbott's Shakespearian
Grammar in the interval between writing his notes and his Intro
duction. Walker's Shakespeare's Versification would have been a
great help to him in default of original knowledge.

2 Milton has a verse in Comus where the e is elided from the
word sister by its preceding a vowel :

" Heaven keep my sister ! again, again, and near! "
This would have been impossible before a consonant.


by throwing the accent (appreciably even now, but
more emphatically in Spenser's day) on the last

" A spirit and judgment equal or superior,"

he calls " a remarkably anomalous line, consisting
of twelve or even thirteen syllables." Surely Mil
ton's ear would never have tolerated a dissyllabic
" spirit " in such a position. The word was then
more commonly of one syllable, though it might be
two, and was accordingly spelt spreet (still surviv
ing in sprite), sprit, and even spirt, as Milton him
self spells it in one of Mr. Masson's facsimiles. 1
Shakespeare, in the verse

" Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,"

Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 7 of 28)