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Faithful Labourers: A Reception History of Paradise Lost, 1667-1970Volume I: Style and Genre; Volume II: Interpretative Issues$

John Leonard

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199666553

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199666553.001.0001

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Sound and Sense: 1667–1800

Sound and Sense: 1667–1800

(p.3) 1 Sound and Sense: 1667–1800
Faithful Labourers: A Reception History of Paradise Lost, 1667-1970

John Leonard

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses early responses to Milton’s style. Modern critics often assume that ‘apt Numbers’ in the poem’s prefatory note on ‘the Verse’ advertises a routine metrical pattern (the number of syllables in the line), but early critics recognized that ‘apt’ signals a close correspondence between sound and sense, and they valued Milton as the pre-eminent poet of such correspondence. A change came with Johnson’s four Rambler papers on Paradise Lost (1751), which downplayed this aspect of Milton’s style, questioned whether it was possible for ‘the numbers’ to echo the sense, and faulted Milton for failing to match sound and sense. Johnson frequently builds his argument on passages that he misquotes, but his argument is often cited as authoritative, even to this day, even though it collapses when the misquotations are pointed out. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Lord Monboddo, one of Milton’s best but most neglected critics

Keywords:   style, prosody, Milton controversy, Samuel Johnson, Lord Monboddo, onomatopoeia

1.1 Prefatory Remarks

Paradise Lost has provoked controversy since the time of its publication. Dryden, on first reading the poem, reportedly said: ‘This Man…Cuts us All Out, and the Ancients too’; Waller (differently put out) reportedly wrote: ‘the old blind schoolmaster, John Milton, hath published a tedious poem on the fall of man; if its length be not considered a merit, it hath no other’.1 Both views will continue to be voiced throughout the ensuing three centuries. The case against Milton’s epic style is straightforward. Helen Gardner succinctly summarizes ‘the fundamental ground of complaint’: ‘that Milton’s epic style is highly artificial, that his syntax is very far from the syntax of common speech, that his idiom is “foreign”. To put it crudely, it is impossible to read Paradise Lost aloud without going far beyond the range of one’s normal mode of speech.’2 This complaint is very old. Dryden (1685, 1693), Addison (1712), and Johnson (1751, 1779) all express different versions of it, albeit with reservations and qualifications that blur the distinction between praise and blame.

Milton’s admirers usually adopt one of two defences. The first defence admits that Milton is idiomatically remote, but presents this as a virtue. Critics who take this line emphasize Milton’s sublimity, which they locate mostly in large effects rather than local felicities. Major critics in this tradition include Addison (1712), Arnold (1861), and Lewis (1942). The second possible defence downplays (though it does not deny) Milton’s sublimity, emphasizing instead his metaphorical suggestiveness and verbal wit. Such critics find plainness and even colloquialism amidst the splendours of the grand style. Proponents of this view include the Richardsons (1734), Benson (1739), Newton (1749), the unjustly neglected Lord Monboddo (1774–89), Cowper (1791–2), Empson (1935), and Ricks (1963).

(p.4) Let us begin with a critical comment of Milton’s own: his note on ‘The Verse’ prefaced to the 1668 issue of the first edition. I call it ‘Milton’s own’ because I share the common assumption that he wrote it, but we do not know for sure. Critics infer Milton’s authorship of this prefatory material (which includes the prose Argument) from Samuel Simmons’s note, ‘The Printer to the Reader’: ‘Courteous Reader, There was no Argument at first intended to the Book, but for the satisfaction of many that have desired it, I have procur’d it, and withal a reason of that which stumbled many others, why the Poem Rimes not.’ Simmons says that he ‘procur’d’ the added material; he does not say where he got it. Milton was nevertheless the obvious person to turn to. Both ‘the Argument’ and ‘the Verse’ have a voice, and it sounds like his. It would be typical of him to justify blank verse in political terms (‘ancient liberty’ versus ‘modern bondage’) and to mock ‘the jingling sound of like endings’ with a jingle of his own (‘wretched matter and lame Meeter’). In what follows, I assume Milton’s authorship of the metrical manifesto called ‘the Verse’.

‘True musical delight’, Milton argues, ‘consists onely in apt Numbers, fit quantity of Syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another’. The technical terms have been interpreted differently by those who have dared to ask what they mean. The most problematic terms are ‘apt’, ‘fit’, ‘variously’, and ‘quantity’. Everyone agrees that ‘variously drawn out from one Verse to another’ refers to enjambment (‘Verse’ means ‘line’), but critics disagree as to what is varied. Several possibilities have been suggested, including the placing of the caesura, the choice of poetic feet, and sentence length. The difficulty with ‘apt’ and ‘fit’ is deciding what the ‘Numbers’ and ‘quantity’ are apt and fit to. Most have understood Milton to mean that his verse conforms to a particular metrical pattern (though not everyone agrees as to what this is), but some have taken him to be making the very different point that verse should be ‘apt’ and ‘fit’ to the things it describes. This interpretation might seem strained, but eighteenth-century commentators like the Richardsons and Newton will cite many examples of mimetic rhythm or syntax. This interpretation does have one clear advantage: it works better with ‘variously’. Verse that is mimetic of many different things is more likely to admit variety than verse that conforms to a single pattern. The ‘mimetic’ understanding of ‘fit’ also has a respectable precedent in Sir Philip Sidney’s account of the nature and origin of verse: ‘indeed the Senate of Poets hath chosen verse as their fittest raiment: meaning as in matter, they passed all in all, so in maner, to go beyond them: not speaking table talke fashion, or like men in a dreame, words as they chanceably fall from the mouth, but peasing [weighing] each sillable of eache word by iust proportion according to the dignitie of the subiect’.3 A recurrent concern for the critics we shall examine in this and the next two chapters is the degree to which Milton succeeds in achieving a ‘iust proportion’ between ‘sillable’ and ‘subiect’, sound and sense.

Criticism of Milton’s style has for centuries focused on the relationship between sound and sense. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the overwhelming (p.5) majority of critics (with the important exception of Johnson) saw harmony between sound and sense as Milton’s distinctive virtue. Milton’s reputation remained high in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but the terms of praise changed. Victorian critics, especially those writing after Arnold (1861), saw Milton as the greatest poet of ‘the grand style’, which was understood as grandiloquent sound acting independently of sense. This view of Milton prepared the way for twentieth-century anti-Miltonists who accused Milton of divorcing sound from sense. If ‘apt Numbers’ and ‘fit quantity of Syllables’ in the note on ‘the Verse’ indeed advertise Milton’s intent to wed sound with sense, Milton would have had no objection to the critical principles by which the anti-Miltonists judged him.

The most problematic term in the note on ‘the Verse’ is ‘quantity’. The problem is that it was already well established as a technical term denoting length (not stress) of syllables. Dryden uses ‘quantity’ in this sense in Of Dramatick Poesie (1668) when he relates how accentual-syllabic verse, with rhyme, supplanted classical quantitative verse when Germanic barbarians overran the Roman empire: ‘This new way consisted in measure or number of feet and rhyme. The sweetness of Rhyme, and observation of Accent, supplying the place of quantity in words, which could neither exactly be observ’d by those Barbarians who knew not the Rules of it, neither was it suitable to their tongues as it had been to the Greek and Latine’ (63). For Dryden, ‘quantity’ means syllabic length. Is that what Milton means? He is certainly not saying that Paradise Lost conforms to rules of classical prosody. Sixteenth-century poets like Gabriel Harvey had experimented with quantitative verse in English, but their efforts had proved futile. So what is Milton saying? Some critics, such as Walter Thomas (1907), have tried to get around the problem by understanding ‘quantity of Syllables’ as ‘number of syllables in the line’. Quoting Milton’s phrase, Thomas intrudes an indefinite article: ‘We have it, indeed, on the poet’s own authority that the heroic line contains three principal elements which he calls “apt numbers”, a “fit quantity of syllables” and “the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another”. The poet, therefore…insisted on the due number of syllables.’4 Thomas’s quotation is not dishonest (he leaves his ‘a’ outside the quotation-mark), but it is tendentious and misleading, and he was rightly called to account for it in the following year by T. S. Omond, who replied: ‘I have always understood the words to mean suitable sound of syllables, “quantity” being used in its familiar technical sense.’5 Omond’s point is not that Milton uses classical prosody, but that he makes expressive use of syllabic length when the occasion calls for it. This might sound desperate, but Omond has the support of several authoritative critics and poets that we shall consider, including Newton (1749), Cowper (1791–2), Sprott (1953), and Fowler (1968). The topic of Milton’s prosody can easily become dry if it is reduced to technicalities. This happened in the nineteenth century when critics fiercely debated the question of whether Paradise Lost contains trisyllabic feet. The important questions, as Omond (p.6) recognizes, pertain to ‘suitable sound’. The best critics of Milton’s prosody have explored the ways in which sound and sense interact with each other in Paradise Lost. This has always been the prime issue in the debate about Milton’s style and it is here that the disagreements between Miltonists and anti-Miltonists become most interesting.

1.2 ‘words of such a compass’ (1674–1712)

Andrew Marvell’s ‘On Paradise Lost’ has a special claim on our attention, as it was written by Milton’s friend in Milton’s lifetime and published in the second edition of Paradise Lost (1674). An excellent poem in its own right, it is also an important work of criticism that anticipates (and may have influenced) several strands of subsequent debate. The most obvious stylistic comments are those that defend Milton’s rejection of rhyme, but as these are so well known, I shall pass them over and concentrate instead on two of Marvell’s comments that have drawn less notice.

The first of these comments touches on a question that will frequently recur in the next three centuries, though it will never be the subject of debate. The question is this: what is the right pace for reading Paradise Lost? Should we read quickly or slowly? Subsequent critics will give different answers to this question. Some, such as Wesley (1697) and Lewis (1942), will recommend a rapid pace: one that (in Lewis’s words) subordinates ‘the line to the paragraph and the paragraph to the Book’, thereby creating a forward momentum of ‘grand sweeping effects’. Lewis warns us not to slow down for ‘“good lines”—little ebullient patches of delight’.6 Others, such as Cowper (1791–2) and Bowra (1945), will give the opposite advice: read slowly so as to savour each line and phrase. Eliot (1935) will argue that Paradise Lost asks to be read ‘in two different ways, first solely for the sound, and second for the sense’.7 Eliot thought this a blemish, but one might argue that Milton’s verse is richer for satisfying ‘two different’ kinds of attention. I shall discuss this further when I return to Eliot. The important point for our present purpose is that Eliot opens the possibility that Paradise Lost has two speeds. Strong arguments have been made for all of these views, which suggests that the question ‘what pace?’ is more complicated than at first appears. In cases like this it is best to examine the question. The word ‘pace’ (from Latin passus, ‘a step’) encourages us to think in pedestrian terms. Marvell uses a different metaphor:

  • Thou singst with so much gravity and ease;
  • And above humane flight dost soar aloft
  • With Plume so strong, so equal, and so soft.
  • The Bird nam’d from that Paradise you sing
  • So never flaggs but always keeps on Wing. (36–40)

Birds of Paradise were imagined to have no feet. Francis Willoughby (writing a few years before Marvell wrote ‘On Paradise Lost’) says that they ‘flew perpetually without any intermission, and took no rest but on high in the Air, their Wings being spread’.8 Marvell’s Bird of Paradise glides effortlessly, making slow seem swift and swift seem slow. This is one of the best descriptions of the experience of reading Paradise Lost. Innumerable later critics will try to make Milton’s verse walk on prosodic feet. Marvell’s image implies that this is the wrong way to think about Milton’s rhythm, which neither scuttles hurriedly nor goes footing slow, ‘but always keeps on Wing’. Marvell does ‘equal’ justice to Milton’s ‘strong’ and ‘soft’ movements, ‘gravity and ease’, and so helps us to see that the rival traditions of Lewis and Bowra are both half-truths. Eliot may have spoken more truly than he realized when he said that the poem must be read ‘in two different ways’.

Marvell’s next lines touch on another contentious issue: diction. ‘Where couldst thou words of such a compass find? / Whence furnish such a vast expence of mind?’ (41–2). Many later critics will share Marvell’s curiosity about Milton’s ‘words’. They will want to know where he got them and what he thought he was doing with them. Two of Marvell’s own words, ‘expence’ and ‘furnish’, warrant closer scrutiny. Marvell offers both as praise, but they also have a pejorative potential. ‘Expence’ is disorienting because it suggests another word that would lend itself more readily as approbation. As Nigel Smith notes, ‘“expense” carries echoes of “expanse”’. The hint is stronger for the proximity of ‘vast’—a word Milton often uses of vast expanses. In the first two books alone we hear of ‘the vast Abyss’, ‘the vast and boundless Deep’, ‘this vast recess’, ‘the vast Abrupt’, ‘Created vast and round’, and a ‘vast vacuitie’. As Smith notes, ‘vast spaces’ have ‘always been centrally connected to the “sublimity” of Paradise Lost’. He cites ‘the wilde expanse’ of Chaos and the pure ‘expanse of heav’n’.9 These ‘echoes’ are so strong that it is tempting to believe that Marvell meant ‘expanse’, but both the 1674 text and Miscellaneous Poems (1681) read ‘expence’. The two words (which have different etymologies) were orthographically distinct even in the seventeenth century. Marvell might be punning, but ‘expence’ must have priority.

This is a problem because expenses (especially vast ones) are liabilities, not assets. Milton in The Readie and Easie Way had warned that the restored Charles II would live in ‘vast expence and luxurie’.10 Milton too is a big spender, but (unlike Charles) he pays his way. ‘Furnish’ has the now obsolete sense ‘provide for (expenses)’ (OED 3). Marvell is expressing awe at Milton’s seemingly inexhaustible verbal resourcefulness. In part, Marvell might be thinking of neologisms—the ‘words’ Milton ‘found’ by coining them from other languages. Intriguingly, the OED identifies ‘expanse’ as one such coinage, first used as a noun in Paradise Lost.11 This might help to explain why ‘“expence” carries echoes of “expanse”’: (p.8) Milton furnishes his ‘expence’ by expanding English. But Marvell’s tribute, however sincere, opens the door to a pejorative criticism that will resound down the centuries. Many critics will argue that Milton’s ‘words’ fail to ‘furnish’ his exorbitant demands. This criticism will not always be a disparagement. It can be either approbatory or disapprobatory, depending on whether one emphasizes the imaginativeness of the demands or the inadequacy of the words. Dennis (1692) and Addison (1712) will applaud Milton’s soaring imagination, but Dryden (1685) and Johnson (1779) will fault his ‘words’ for falling short of his sublime conceptions. Leavis (1933) will complain that Milton ‘exhibits a feeling for words rather than a capacity for feeling through words’. Eliot (1920) will claim that ‘Milton’s celestial and infernal regions are large but insufficiently furnished apartments filled by heavy conversation.’ ‘Whence furnish such a vast expence?’ Eliot’s answer: Milton doesn’t. ‘Heavy conversation’, however impressive in bulk, does not suffice to furnish expanses or expenses. This conclusion is the opposite of Marvell’s, but Eliot answers Marvell in Marvell’s terms. This will not be the last time that we shall see an anti-Miltonist co-opt the language of praise and turn it into dispraise.

Marvell concludes his tribute by assuring Milton that he ‘needs not Rhime’ (54). Thomas Rymer disagrees. He mentions Milton very briefly, in The Tragedies of the Last Age (1678), a neoclassical critique of Jacobean tragedy. Having, as he thinks, put paid to Beaumont and Fletcher, Rymer in his final paragraph promises to write a follow-up volume on ‘the remaining Tragedies’ in which he will offer ‘some reflections on that Paradise lost of Miltons, which some are pleas’d to call a Poem, and assert Rime against the slender Sophistry wherewith he attacques it’ (143). Rymer did write a sequel, A Short View of Tragedy (1692), in which he notoriously disparaged Othello, but he did not deliver his promised critique of Paradise Lost.

John Dryden (Preface to Sylvae, or the Second Part of Poetical Miscellanies, 1685) admires Milton’s imagination but does not share Marvell’s enthusiasm for his ‘words’. Where Marvell’s Milton ‘always keeps on Wing’, Dryden’s Milton often ‘creeps’:

Milton’s Paradise Lost is admirable; but am I therefore bound to maintain, that there are no flats amongst his Elevations, when ’tis evident he creeps along sometimes, for above an Hundred lines together? cannot I admire the height of his invention, and the strength of his expression, without defending his antiquated words, and the perpetual harshness of their sound? ’Tis as much commendation as a Man can bear, to own him excellent; all beyond it is Idolatory.12

Dryden is unusual in faulting Milton’s diction for being ‘harsh’. Most critics (even hostile ones) have described Milton’s ‘sound’ as ‘soft’. G. Wilson Knight (1939) will complain that his verse is ‘like a soft substance drawn out stringily’ (97). Dryden is not quite alone in objecting to Milton’s ‘harshness’. Johnson (1779) will call his language ‘harsh and barbarous’. But Dryden’s criticism differs from Johnson’s in one respect. Johnson will object to Milton’s Graecisms, Latinisms, and Italianisms; when Dryden speaks of ‘antiquated words’ he means English archaisms (p.9) (‘wight’, ‘welkin’, ‘frore’, etc.). He does not make this explicit here, but eight years later he will again deplore Milton’s ‘antiquated words’ and claim that Milton imitated Spenser’s archaic diction. Far from being ‘perpetual’, English archaisms are actually quite rare in Paradise Lost, but they evidently caught Dryden’s eye and ear. Latinisms did not. This lends some support to critics like Fowler (1968), who will argue that many alleged ‘Latinisms’ in Paradise Lost were actually normal English prose usage.

John Dennis (Preface to The Passion of Byblis, 1692) agrees with Dryden that Milton’s invention soars beyond the reach of his language, but where Dryden had emphasized the shortcomings of Milton’s diction, Dennis emphasizes the triumph of his imagination. He is free from one of Dryden’s prejudices: he does not fault Milton for rejecting rhyme. Even when defending his own decision to use rhyme in translating Ovid, he speaks respectfully, even reverently, of Milton’s preference for blank verse:

I am not so miserably mistaken, as to think riming essential to our English Poetry. I am far better acquainted with Milton, than that comes too. Who without the assistance of Rime, is one of the most sublime of our English Poets. Nay, there is something so transcendently sublime in his first, second, and sixth Books, that were the Language as pure as the Images are vast and daring, I do not believe it could be equall’d, no, not in all Antiquity. (C1r)

Dennis does not say just how ‘the Language’ lacks purity. Later critics will chide Milton for writing impure English, but Dennis might be making the very different point that English is less pure than Greek or Latin. Several eighteenth-century critics, including Addison (1712) and Johnson (1751), will blur the distinction between these two very different arguments.

An anonymous contributor to The Athenian Mercury (Vol. 5, No. 14, 16 January 1691 [i.e. 1692]) asks ‘Whether Milton and Waller were not the best English Poets? and which the better of the two?’ The implicit question is whether blank verse is better than rhyme. This was still a divisive issue in 1692, so the anonymous author gives the ‘double Question’ a diplomatic answer:

They were both excellent in their kind, and exceeded each other, and all besides. Milton was the fullest and loftiest, Waller the neatest and most correct Poet we ever had. But yet we think Milton wrote too little in Verse, and too much in Prose, to carry the Name of Best from all others; and Mr. Waller, tho’ a full and noble Writer, yet comes not up in our Judgments to that,—Mens divinior atque os—Magna Sonatorum, as Horace calls it, which Milton has, and wherein we think he was never equalled. (1)

Milton’s verse is ‘great of sound’, but resembles ‘Prose’. The anonymous critic is in awe of Paradise Lost, but shares Rymer’s scepticism as to whether it should be called a poem. He or she is tolerant, nevertheless, of Milton’s style: ‘even that antique Style which he uses, seems to become the Subject, like the strange dresses wherein we represent the old Heroes’ (1). It is unclear whether ‘antique Style’ there means Graecisms, Latinisms, or English archaisms. The reference to ‘old Heroes’ probably points towards the classics. If so, this is evidence that at least one early reader considered Milton’s style to be not just archaic but un-English.

(p.10) Dryden returns to the topic of Milton’s ‘antiquated words’ in his ‘Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire’, prefaced to his translation of Juvenal’s Satires (1693). Rymer (1678) had promised a critique of Paradise Lost, and Dryden begins his discussion of Milton by giving Rymer a deferential nod:

But I will not take Mr. Rhymer’s Work out of his Hands: He has promis’d the World a Critique on that Author; wherein, tho’ he will not allow his Poem for Heroick, I hope he will grant us, that his Thoughts are elevated, his Words sounding, and that no Man has so happily copy’d the Manner of Homer; or so copiously translated his Grecisms, and the Latin Elegancies of Virgil. (xiii)

This clearly does refer to Milton’s use of classical idioms, but Dryden thinks that these deserve praise, not blame. As in 1685, it is English archaisms that draw Dryden’s censure:

His antiquated Words were his Choice, not his Necessity; for therein he imitated Spencer, as Spencer did Chaucer. And tho’, perhaps, the love of their Masters, may have transported both too far, in the frequent use of them; yet in my Opinion, obsolete Words may then be laudably reviv’d, when either they are more sounding, or more significant than those in practice: And when their Obscurity is taken away, by joining other Words to them, which clear the Sence; according to the Rule of Horace, for the admission of new Words. But in both cases, a Moderation is to be observ’d in the use of them: For unnecessary Coinage, as well as unnecessary Revival, runs into Affectation; a Fault to be avoided on either hand. (xiii–xiv)

Dryden here repeatedly swerves between praise and blame. When he says that ‘obsolete Words’ may be ‘laudably reviv’d’, he sounds as if he is going to applaud Milton for reviving them, but then comes the inevitable ‘But’, followed by ‘a Fault to be avoided’. Dryden does not condemn ‘obsolete Words’, but he is clearly uncomfortable with them. Even when he imagines two possible justifications (‘more sounding, or more significant’), he assumes that Milton can plead ‘either’ one or the other, not both. He effectively divorces sound from sense. This complicates his ‘hope’ that Rymer will ‘grant’ that Milton’s words are ‘sounding’. Rymer might accept that description, but not ‘grant’ it as a concession. Anti-Miltonists will often complain about Milton’s ‘sound’.

At the end of his preface, Dryden mentions one thing he does not find in Milton: ‘beautiful Turns of Words and Thoughts’. By ‘Turns’ he means rhetorical figures. He confesses that he had given no thought to ‘these Beautiful Turns’ until ‘that Noble Wit of Scotland, Sir George Mackenzy’ asked him why he did not make use of them in his own poetry. Dryden, being ‘sensible’ of his ‘own Wants’, then looked for ‘Turns’ in other English poets. In Milton, he found ‘a true Sublimity, lofty Thoughts, which were clothed with admirable Grecisms, and ancient Words, which he had been digging from the Mines of Chaucer and Spencer.…But I found not…that for which I look’d’. Only in Spenser did he find ‘that which I had been looking for so long in vain’ (lxxxiv–v). It is strange that Dryden found no ‘Turns’ in Paradise Lost. As Addison (1709) will point out, Milton uses them often. Whatever the explanation for Dryden’s oversight, his comment will spur later critics to read Milton more attentively. Benson (1739) will attend closely to (p.11) Milton’s rhetorical ‘Turns’. As he had done in 1685, Dryden again neglects to mention Latinisms when discussing ‘ancient Words’. He now includes ‘Grecisms’ in this category, but Latinisms are still conspicuous by their absence.

Charles Gildon (‘To Mr. T. S. in Vindication of Paradise Lost’, in Miscellaneous Letters and Essays, 1694) takes a more sympathetic view of Milton’s diction: ‘Those Ancient and consequently less Intelligible Words, Phrases, and Similes, by which he frequently and purposedly affects to express his Meaning, in my Opinion do well suit with the Venerable Antiquity and Sublime Grandeur of his Subject.’ ‘Affects’ is a dangerous word to offer as praise. The pejorative sense was already well established. Dryden had used it in the previous year when he called the ‘unnecessary Revival’ of old words ‘Affectation’. Gildon acknowledges that Milton ‘affects’, but argues that he does so ‘purposedly’, in a way that suits ‘his Subject’. This anticipates C. S. Lewis’s vindication of epic artificiality: grand subjects demand a grand style. But Gildon does not base his defence on sound alone. Sense matters too. Dryden had tolerated old words when ‘either they are more sounding, or more significant’. Gildon rejects that ‘either…or’ and insists that both sound and sense are necessary. He never names Dryden in his letter to ‘Mr. T. S.’, but it is Dryden he is thinking of when he goes on to defend Milton’s choice of words:

And how much soever some Unthinking have Condemn’d this his Choice, You, who have Maturely weigh’d how much deeper an Impression less us’d (so they be what you will grant his always are) Significant words make on a Readers fancy than such as are more common,—you, I say, must pay a vast deference to Mr. Milton’s great Judiciousness in this particular. (41)

Gildon insists that old words must be ‘Significant’ if they are to earn their keep; poets should not reject ‘more common’ words just to make ‘an Impression’. Gildon here stands at the head of a tradition of Milton criticism that will run through Newton (1749) and Monboddo (1774) to Empson (1935) and Ricks (1963).

A few sentences later, Gildon defends Milton’s occasional use of a humbler style in Paradise Lost. Dryden (1685) had complained that Milton ‘creeps along sometimes’. Gildon (again refuting Dryden without naming him) replies that Milton creeps for the same reason that he soars: he matches style to subject. Paradise Lost is not all ‘Thund’ring Fire-works’. Sublimity is appropriate to Heaven and Hell, but Milton is also capable of quieter notes:

if his Matter requires a Meaner Style, how much soever he speaks Loftily at one time, at another does, even to a Miracle, suit his Speech to his Subject. This (I well know) has been rashly or maliciously censur’d in him for Servile creeping; but if ’tis well consider’d, upon what proper Occasion he thus humbles his Style, ’twill be Accounted, (as really it is) his Great Commendation. (42–3)

Gildon does not give any examples of ‘proper Occasion’. Dryden had likely been thinking of the last two books, which even C. S. Lewis will dislike. Critics still disagree as to whether dramatic propriety (the matching of ‘his Speech to his Subject’) is an adequate justification of the ‘creeping’ style of these final books.

(p.12) Gildon concludes his letter by raising the important question of whether Milton’s blindness was an asset or a liability for his poetry. Eliot (1935) will argue that blindness caused Milton’s visual imagination to atrophy. Gildon takes the very different view that blindness helped Milton to imagine the unimaginable:

tho’ the Composing such a compleat Poem on such, a no less Obscure, than weighty Subject, was a Task to be perform’d by Mr. Milton only, yet ’tis not out of doubt, whether himself had ever been able so to Sing of Unrevealed Heavenly Mysteries, had he not been altogether depriv’d of his Outward Sight, and thereby made capable of such continued Strenuous Inward Speculations: as he who has the use of his Bodily Eyes, cannot possibly become possest with. (43)

In some ways, this is the opposite of Eliot’s conclusion, but both critics agree that blindness turned Milton’s imagination away from concrete particulars.

‘P. H.’, the anonymous author of Annotations on Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ (1695), was identified by Newton (1749) as Patrick Hume and the identification is now so widely accepted that most critics take it as an established fact. I too shall refer to ‘P.H.’ as ‘Hume’, though it should be noted that the identification is likely rather than certain. Hume occupies a special place in the history of English literary criticism, since he is often credited as ‘the first person…who tried to deal with a great English poet in the thorough manner of classical philology’.13 The claim can be disputed. E. K., the unidentified commentator on Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender (1579), had offered philological glosses and pointed out Spenser’s imitations of Theocritus, Virgil, Marot, or Mantuan. Hume’s annotations are nevertheless unprecedented in scope and scale. Opinion is divided as to their value as criticism. Oras is unimpressed: ‘only a small percentage of Hume’s remarks are of any very particular interest’. On the other hand, Ricks draws frequently on Hume to illustrate Milton’s ‘quieter virtues’.14 There is truth in both these views. Newton gives a balanced judgment of Hume’s achievement:

P. H. or Patrick Hume, as he was the first, so is the most copious annotator. He laid the foundation, but he laid it among infinite heaps of rubbish. The greater part of his work is a dull dictionary of the most common words, a tedious fardel of the most trivial observations, explaining what requires no explanation: but take away what is superfluous, and there will still remain a great deal that is useful; there is gold among his dross, and I have been careful to separate the one from the other.15

If we open Hume at random, it is the ‘dross’ we are most likely to see. When the devils rise from their seats with a noise like ‘Thunder heard remote’ (II. 477), Hume adds the gloss ‘Remotus, Lat. removed, farther off’ even though ‘remote’ had been a common English word since the fifteenth century and so ‘requires no (p.13) explanation’ (Newton). But some of his other notes are ‘gold’. Ricks uses them to show how Milton brings ‘ancient metaphors back to life’ (57). When Beelzebub laments ‘all our Glory extinct’ (I. 141), Hume notes: ‘Extinctus. Lat. put out, as a Flame, or any thing that burns and shines, a word well expressing the loss of that Angelick Beauty, which like a Glory attended on their Innocency, which by their foul Rebellion they had forfeited, covered now with Shame and black Confusion’ (11). This valuable note not only rekindles ‘extinct’, it also illumines ‘Glory’, bringing out the old sense ‘halo’. Ricks cites other triumphs, among them Hume’s gloss on Beelzebub’s description of humankind as ‘punie habitants’ (II. 367): ‘The weak infirm Possessors, the late made Inmates of this new World: Puisné, born since, created long since us’ (65). As Ricks notes, this makes ‘explicit the double meaning’, and so brings out Beelzebub’s malevolent contempt: ‘That Man was “born since” the fallen angels is precisely the great reason why they hate him’ (65). On the same page that he notes this pun, Hume brings out a metaphor in ‘hatch’: ‘Advise if this be worth / Attempting, or to sit in darkness here / Hatching vain Empires’ (II. 376–8). ‘Hatch’ had long been used in the figurative sense ‘contrive’, often implying ‘a covert or clandestine process’ (OED 6a), but Hume also insists on the original sense: ‘Hatching vain Empires; Dreaming of Designs that never will succeed: A mean Metaphor from a Hen sitting on, and hatching her Eggs, well applied to the trifling Endeavours of these exiled Angels’ (65). In part, it is the proximity of ‘sit in darkness’ that activates the image of ‘a Hen sitting’. True, ‘sit in darkness’ alludes to Psalm 107 (‘Such as sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, being bound in affliction and iron; because they rebelled against the words of God’), but the biblical echo adds dramatic irony to Beelzebub’s insult. He imagines that it is only devils like Belial and Mammon who ‘sit in darkness here / Hatching’; he does not see that he too is ‘bound in affliction’. The metaphor of hatching eggs also looks back to the poem’s opening invocation: ‘Dove-like satst brooding’ (I. 21). Hume does not trace these connections, but his alertness to metaphor helps to make them visible.

One of Hume’s notes has never been equalled. When the fallen angels rally in Hell, Satan weeps to see ‘Millions of Spirits for his fault amerc’t / Of Heav’n’ (I. 609–10). Commentators are divided as the meaning of ‘amerc’t’. The Richardsons (1734) hear the legal sense ‘Mulcted’ (‘fined’), which had been current since medieval times, but Newton (1749) rejects this ‘law-sense’ in favour of ‘the Greek αμερδω, to deprive, to take away’ (1:59). The Canadian editor Francis Storr (1878) dismisses Newton’s reading: ‘Amerc’d. From the French, “à merci”; Latin, “ad misericordiam”. In Law Latin “poni in misericordiâ” means to be placed at the mercy of the court; i.e. to have a fine imposed at the discretion of the court. The commentators absurdly compare the Greek ἄμερσε, with which the word has nothing in common.’16 Most editors have followed the Richardsons and Storr. Hume hears a pun:

(p.14) amerc’d, &c. Punish’d with loss of Heaven, Fined by Eternal Banishment from Bliss. Amerciament is a Law-Term, signifying a Pecuniary Punishment of an Offender against the King or other Lord, who is in misericordia, that is, who has transgress’d, and is to stand to the Mercy of the Lord: But Amerc’d has a strange Affinity with the Greek Àμείρω to deprive, to take away, as Homer has used it much to our purpose. (40)

Hume then quotes the Odyssey VIII. 64, which he translates as follows: ‘The Muse Amerc’d him of his Eyes, but gave him the faculty of singing sweetly’ (40). It will not do to snort that ‘no seventeenth-century reader could possibly have seen all this’. Milton’s one seventeenth-century annotator (‘much to our purpose’) did see it. Storr does Milton a disservice when he claims that the Greek verb ‘has nothing in common’ with ‘amerc’t’. It has everything in common, both sound and sense. But the idea of being at God’s mercy is also relevant, as Hume clearly saw. Hume’s reading suggests both the helplessness of being at God’s mercy and the terror of being deprived of it.

Samuel Wesley uses rhyming couplets in his ten-book epicThe Life of Our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (1697), but in his prefatory ‘Essay on Heroic Poetry’ he defends Milton’s decision to write in blank verse:

For his antique Words I’m not like to blame him whoever does: And for his blank Verse, I’m of a different mind from most others, and think they rather excuse his uncorrectness than the contraries; for I find its easier to run into it, in that sort of Verse, than in Rhyming Works where the Thought is oftner turned; whereas here the Fancy flows on, without check or control. (b1)

This sounds like a rebuttal of Dryden. The defence of ‘antique Words’ recalls Dryden’s condemnation of Milton’s ‘antiquated words’, while ‘oftner turned’ recalls Dryden’s claim that Milton offers no ‘beautiful Turns’. But Wesley has changed the meaning of the latter phrase. Dryden’s ‘Turns’ were rhetorical figures; Wesley is referring to line-endings. The distinction is not hard and fast, for many rhetorical figures are built around line-endings. Benson (1739) will argue that Milton makes expressive use of both kinds of ‘turn’. Wesley answers Dryden in a different way: by challenging his principles, not his conclusions. Instead of arguing that Milton does use ‘Turns’, Wesley claims that their absence is a strength, not a weakness, making blank verse ‘easier to run’. Like Lewis (1942), he thinks that Milton should be read quickly; critics who linger over ‘turns’ are less inclined ‘to run’.

John Dennis (The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry, 1701) reaffirms his view that Milton’s imagination soars beyond the reach of his language. As he had done in 1692, he offers this criticism as an approbation (he thrills to the soaring), but he also identifies Milton’s ‘Language’ as a liability. Milton ‘excels Virgil’ in the sublimity of his thoughts, but Virgil has ‘a greater Genius’:

When I say that Milton excels Virgil, I mean, that he does so sometimes both in his Thought and in his Spirit, purely by the advantage of his Religion. But at the same time, I am very far from thinking that he so much as equals him either in the continual harmony of his Versification; or the constant Beauty of his expression, or his perpetual exaltation. He writ in a Language that was not capable of so much Beauty, or so much (p.15) Harmony; and his Inequality proceeded from his want of Art to manage his subject, and make it constantly great. (201)

When Dennis had criticized Milton’s ‘language’ nine years before, he had been unclear as to whether he was faulting English itself or Milton’s use of it. He now finds shortcomings in both. English is less harmonious than Latin, but Milton also suffers from ‘want of Art’. Despite ‘these vast disadvantages’, Milton ‘very often excell’d, even the Prince of the Roman Poets, both in the Greatness of his Thought, and his Spirit’ (201). Dennis effectively presents Milton as a poet of towering sublimity who refuses to be confined by the limitations of English. This view of Milton will be very influential down the centuries, and will eventually give ammunition to Milton’s detractors.

Joseph Addison and Richard Steele (The Tatler, No. 114, 31 December 1709, repr. 1713) bring a breath of fresh air to critical discussion of Milton’s style by challenging some hitherto unchallenged assertions. Dryden (1693) had confidently announced that Paradise Lost lacks ‘Turns of Words and Thoughts’, and Wesley (1697) had conceded the point. Addison and Steele take Dryden head on and point out that as a matter of fact Milton does have ‘beautiful Turns’. They quote Eve’s love-lyric:

  • With thee conversing I forget all time,
  • All seasons and thir change, all please alike.
  • Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet,
  • With charm of earliest Birds; pleasant the Sun
  • When first on this delightful Land he spreads
  • His orient Beams, on herb, tree, fruit, and flour,
  • Glistring with dew; fragrant the fertil earth
  • After soft showers; and sweet the coming on
  • Of grateful Eevning milde, then silent Night
  • With this her solemn Bird and this fair Moon,
  • And these the Gems of Heav’n, her starrie train:
  • But neither breath of Morn when she ascends
  • With charm of earliest Birds, nor rising Sun
  • On this delightful land, nor herb, fruit, floure,
  • Glistring with dew, nor fragrance after showers,
  • Nor grateful Eevning mild, nor silent Night
  • With this her solemn Bird, nor walk by Moon,
  • Or glittering Starr-light without thee is sweet. (IV. 639–56)

This justly celebrated passage is a rhetorical tour de force that employs enumeratio, epanalepsis, epanodos, irmus, and merismus. Modern critics have likened it to a sonnet. My own view is that Milton is imitating the elaborate rhetorical patterning of Hector’s farewell to Andromache in the Iliad.17 But the crucial point is that Dryden was simply wrong when he said that Milton has no ‘Turns’. As Addison and Steele note,

(p.16) The Variety of Images in this Passage is infinitely pleasing, and the Recapitulation of each particular Image, with a little varying of the Expression, makes one of the finest Turns of Words that I have ever seen: Which I rather mention, because Mr. Dryden has said in his Preface to Juvenal, That he could meet with no Turn of Words in Milton. (2:449)

Addison and Steele go on to find more ‘Turns’ in the lines describing Hell’s philosophical mazes (II. 559–61): ‘he describes the Fallen Angels engaged in the intricate Disputes of Predestination, Free-Will, and Fore-knowledge; and to humour the Perplexity, makes a Kind of Labyrinth in the very Words that describe it’ (2:450). Here the syntactical ‘Turns’ are mimetic. It is strange that Dryden should not have noticed Milton’s use of such effects, since he himself makes excellent use of them in his translation of The Aeneid.

1.3 ‘our language sunk under him’ (1712–1734)

Joseph Addison’s eighteen Spectator papers on Paradise Lost have had more influence, and been reprinted more often, than any other work of Milton criticism. The first six papers range broadly over the poem, while the following twelve examine each book in sequence. Addison discusses Milton’s style in the fourth paper (Spectator 285, 26 January 1712), on ‘The Language’, and the sixth (Spectator 297, 9 February 1712), on the poem’s ‘Defects’.18 Eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century critics revered Addison, but his reputation declined in the latter half of the nineteenth century, especially after Arnold (1877) dismissed his Milton criticism (‘once so celebrated’) as superficial and conventional.19 Early twentieth-century critics were also dismissive. Oras (1931) called the paper on Milton’s style ‘hap-hazard and under-illustrated’ (154). Addison’s historical importance is nevertheless undeniable. He is sometimes credited with making Paradise Lost a classic. That is an overstatement, since Hume (1695) had already given Milton the kind of attention hitherto reserved for Greek and Latin poets, but Addison did bring Paradise Lost a wide readership. A large part of his appeal was his accessibility. His paper on ‘The Language’ is in large part an attempt to acquit Milton of the charge of obscurity. ‘It is requisite’, he writes, ‘that the Language of an heroick Poem should be both perspicuous and sublime’, and of these two requirements ‘Perspicuity is the first and most necessary’. This statement is often overlooked. Addison did so much to establish the idea that Paradise Lost is sublime that it is easy to miss his further claim that it is perspicuous. Addison’s point is not that Milton is safely idiomatic but that his unidiomatic constructions are tolerably clear. Addison does not see all of Milton’s departures from English idiom as deliberate choices. He (p.17) thinks that he committed solecisms in the white heat of composition. But he is willing to forgive these so long as the basic meaning is clear. If poets are intelligible, readers can tolerate ‘a little Slip, even in the Grammar or Syntax’ (191).

Addison cites two examples of such slips in Paradise Lost. Both will be important in later criticism, so we should look at them in some detail. They are: ‘God and his Son except, / Created thing naught valu’d he nor shun’d’ (II. 678–9) and ‘Adam the goodliest man of men since borne / His Sons, the fairest of her Daughters Eve’ (IV. 323–4). Addison, like many after him, finds the syntax illogical: ‘it is plain that in the former of these Passages, according to the natural Syntax, the Divine Persons mentioned in the first Line are represented as created Beings, and that in the other Adam and Eve are confounded with their Sons and Daughters’. Bentley (1732) will aggressively emend both passages, but Addison tolerates them as ‘a pardonable Inadvertency’ arising from ‘the Weakness of humane Nature, which cannot attend to each minute Particular…in so long a Work’ (192). Provided that ‘it is impossible…to mistake the Poet’s Sense’, ‘a good-natured Reader’ will forgive ‘little Blemishes’ (191–2).

The problem with this argument is that it holds Milton accountable to low standards. Some critics have therefore looked for a different defence—one that will justify, not excuse, Milton’s locutions. Two justifications have been offered. Hume (1695) stands at the head of one tradition, when he acknowledges that the idiom in ‘fairest of her Daughters’ is exotic, but justifies the exoticism on the grounds that it is peculiarly expressive: ‘There is in these two Verses something so plain, and yet so full and so close couched, that it is hard to be expressed so fully, and yet so concisely’ (146). Hume is followed by the Richardsons (1734) and Newton (1749), who cite precedents in Homer and Horace. Appeals to classical precedent are dangerous, for they ignore the core of Bentley’s case, which is that this idiom does not work in English. The Richardsons quietly concede the point: ‘though the Words are very Intelligible, This place more needs to be Expounded than most of the Difficult places in Milton’ (156). Addison also knows that Milton’s idiom is classical, but instead of citing Greek and Latin poets as respectable precedents, he argues that they too made forgivable slips. Ancient literary critics then dignified their errors by giving them fancy names: ‘The ancient Critics…invented certain Figures of Speech, on purpose to palliate little Errors of this Nature in the Writings of those Authors, who had so many greater Beauties to atone for them’ (192). Whatever the merits of this theory, Addison strains credibility when he asks us to believe that Milton and Homer both erred spontaneously. Milton is more likely to be imitating classical models.

Some critics therefore prefer a different defence—one that downplays Milton’s classicism. Several twentieth-century editors have argued that Milton’s idiom in both passages was standard seventeenth-century English. Bush (1965) says that the idiom was ‘English as well as classical’, and Fowler (1968) claims that the syntax was that ‘of ordinary prose, and would not have been noticed as having any special pattern’. Bush cites parallels from Shakespeare and Dekker, and both he and Fowler quote Browne’s Vulgar Errors (1646), where Adam is called ‘the wisest of all men since’. This is close to Milton, and one can see why Bush and Fowler would think (p.18) that it removes the problem. But we should be wary of concluding that Milton’s idiom ‘would not have been noticed’. Hume (writing in the seventeenth century) noticed it. Bentley (born in 1662) and Addison (born in 1672) had also grown up hearing seventeenth-century English. Bush and Fowler ignore their responses. English admittedly changed between Shakespeare’s time and Hume’s, but for that very reason Milton’s idiom may have looked antiquated in 1667. Fowler denies the lines ‘any special pattern’ because he wants to pre-empt the anti-Miltonists’ claim that Milton is callously ‘un-English’. His goal is admirable, but he sells Milton short when he denies that the lines are ‘special’. In his 1998 edition he goes so far as to say that the book four lines are ‘not specially poetic’—a dangerous defence to offer of a poet. A better argument would be that seventeenth-century English was more adventurous and exploratory than it has since become, and that Shakespeare, Dekker, Browne, and Milton all experimented with the same idiom. Their usage has not stood the test of time, but that does not mean that the experiment was doomed to fail or that it was futile in the event. The crucial point is that Milton did aim for a ‘special pattern’ and he wanted it to be ‘noticed’. He did not hope in vain. All early editors remark his remarkable idiom and all except Addison and Bentley like what they see. Even Addison tolerates it. Only modern editors tell us that it was unremarkable. Hume is a better guide when he calls the locution ‘plain…yet…full’. The compressed syntax has expressive work to do, for it implies the presence of Adam and Eve (and their sin) in all their descendants. As Broadbent (1960) notes, ‘their children spring eternally from a syntactical union’ (190).

It is strange that Addison should see these two passages as blemishes, for he at once goes on to argue that ‘a Poet should take particular Care to guard himself against idiomatick Ways of Speaking’. Phrases ‘used in ordinary Conversation’ are ‘too familiar to the Ear, and contract a Kind of Meanness by passing through the Mouths of the Vulgar’ (192–3). Poets should therefore shun ‘the common Roads of Expression’ (194) and instead ‘make Use of the Idioms of other Tongues’, especially ‘Greek Forms of Speech’ (195). Milton uses ‘Transposition of Words’, Addison continues, ‘to give his Verse the greater Sound’ (196). This is of course the very thing anti-Miltonists dislike. It would seem that the argument is over before it begins, since the two sides cannot agree as to what a poem should be. Lewis (1942) will glumly conclude that he and Leavis have nothing to share, since ‘Dr Leavis…sees and hates the very same that I see and love’ (130). But Addison does not just draw the battle-lines. He opens the possibility of a middle ground. He does this in two ways. Firstly, he acknowledges that Milton is not always sublime, and secondly, he concedes that he is sometimes sublime in a bad way. Later critics like Lord Monboddo (1774) and Ricks (1963) will praise Milton for occasionally descending to a style that is plain or even colloquial. Addison agrees that Milton’s style sinks, but he does not see this as deliberate, or a virtue. His view is that even Milton sometimes fails to be ‘elevated’. ‘Milton has but few Failings in this Kind’ (193), but Addison has no doubt that they are failings. He cites as an example Adam’s use of colloquial idiom when he imagines how his descendants will talk about him:

  • (p.19) Who of all Ages to succeed, but feeling
  • The evil on him brought by me, will curse
  • My Head, Ill fare our Ancestor impure,
  • For this we may thank Adam. (X. 733–6)

Addison deplores ‘For this we may thank’ as Milton’s own lapse into the flaccid demotic. It does not occur to him that Adam might speak in ‘alterd stile’ (IX. 1132) because he is fallen or because he is imagining the kind of speech that will pass through ‘the mouths of the vulgar’. Addison dislikes Milton’s ‘Idiomatic Stile’ (194), but at least he recognizes that he has one.

Addison also warns against the opposite fault: ‘Affectation of Greatness’. Some poets ‘swell into a false Sublime, by endeavoring to avoid the other Extream’ (194). Intriguingly, Addison names Shakespeare as one of the poets guilty of this fault. This is intriguing because anti-Miltonists have often contrasted Milton’s artificial style with Shakespeare’s natural one. I should like to know why Addison thought Shakespeare affected. Unfortunately, he does not tell us. He simply names him alongside Aeschylus, Sophocles, Claudian, Statius, and Nathaniel Lee as poets whose ‘Ways of Speech…seem stiff and unnatural’ (194). Addison does not at first include Milton in this group, but after a few pages he admits that Milton too is sometimes guilty: ‘I must confess, that I think his Stile, tho’ admirable in general, is in some Places too much stiffened, and obscured by the frequent Use of those Methods, which Aristotle has prescribed for the raising of it’ (197–8).

Addison does not develop this criticism in his paper on ‘The Language’, but he comes back to it in the closing paragraphs of his paper on the ‘Defects of the Poem’: ‘If, in the last Place, we consider the Language of this great Poet, we must allow what I have hinted in a former Paper, that it is often too much labored, and sometimes obscured by old Words, Transpositions, and Foreign Idioms.’ Addison goes on to use an expression that will become a catch-phrase in later criticism. But we should pay careful attention to the way he uses it, for later critics will quote it out of context and give it a meaning that Addison never intended. ‘Milton’s Sentiments and Ideas were so wonderfully sublime’, he writes, ‘that it would have been impossible for him to have represented them in their full Strength and Beauty, without having Recourse to these Foreign Assistances. Our Language sunk under him, and was unequal to that Greatness of Soul, which furnished him with such glorious Conceptions’ (266). ‘Our Language sunk under him’: the phrase will be a rallying cry for anti-Miltonists, but Addison does not use it pejoratively. His point is not that Milton let English down, but that English let Milton down. It ‘sunk under’ him in the way that Satan’s ‘cloudy Chair ascending’ sank under Satan in Chaos (II. 930): it failed to bear him up. In his paper on ‘The Language’, Addison had written: ‘Milton…carried our Language to a greater Height than any of the English poets have ever done before or after him’ (197). Milton carried English up, but English did not return the compliment. Later critics, beginning with Johnson (1779), will lift Addison’s words out of context and use them to make the very different point that Milton oppressed his native tongue.

(p.20) Addison does not accuse Milton of oppressing English, but he does chide him for abusing it with puns. He broaches the topic in his sixth paper, while identifying what he sees as defects in the poem’s ‘sentiments’. ‘If we look into the Sentiments’, he writes, ‘I think they are sometimes defective under the following Heads; First, as there are several of them too much pointed, and some that degenerate even into Punns’ (265). He cites as an example ‘that small infantry / Warr’d on by Cranes’ (I. 575–6). The pun on infantry had passed over Hume’s head: ‘Pigmies…about three spans high…whom though our Poet terms Infantry, (a word importing Soldiers serving on Foot) yet they were…mounted on Rams’ (36). Bentley (1732) will share Addison’s view that ‘infantry’ is a pun, but refuse to believe that Milton wrote it. The Richardsons (1734) will deny that it is a pun. Modern critics agree that the pun is there and that it expresses contempt. This line of argument is also used to defend puns where both senses are sounded out, as in ‘tempted our attempt’ (I. 642), ‘Beseeching or besieging’ (V. 869), and ‘At one slight bound high overleap’d all bound’ (IV. 181). Addison deplores such puns as ‘a Kind of Jingle’ (266). The issue, as so often with Milton, is the relationship of sound to sense. Addison’s objection to ‘infantry’ is that there is too much sense for the sound; his objection to ‘jingles’ is that there is too much sound for the sense.

Leonard Welsted (‘Remarks on the English Poets’, appended to Welsted’s translation of Longinus, On the Sublime, 1712) follows Dryden, Dennis, and Addison in arguing that Milton’s imagination soars beyond the reach of his native tongue. Like Addison, he employs the image of Milton flying higher than English can go, but where Addison pictures English as falling behind, Welsted depicts Milton as spiralling out of control:

It is undoubtedly true of Milton, that no Man ever had a Genius so happily form’d for the Sublime: He found one only Theme capable enough to employ his Thoughts, but he could find no Language copious enough to express them.

  • His vigorous and active Mind was hurl’d
  • Beyond the flaming Limits of this world,
  • Into the mighty Space.—

When I view him thus, in his most exalted Flights, peircing beyond the Boundaries of the Universe, he appears to me as a vast Comet, that for want of room is ready to burst its Orb and grow eccentrick. (156–7)

Welsted does not identify the lines of verse he quotes, but they are from Thomas Creech’s translation of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (1683).20 Lucretius is eulogizing the atomist philosopher Epicurus, whose mighty intellectual being (vivida vis animi) wandered in thought (peragravit mente animoque) through the universe. The passage is very Miltonic, and Milton himself alludes to it when Belial speaks of ‘this intellectual being, / Those thoughts that wander through Eternity’ (II. 147–8). But Creech mistranslates one key word. Lucretius did not say that Epicurus ‘was hurl’d’ into space; he said that he ‘marched forth’ (processit). ‘Hurl’d’ recalls the (p.21) ignominious fall of Milton’s Satan: ‘Him the Almighty Power / Hurld headlong’ (I. 44–5). The echo of Paradise Lost does not bode well for Milton’s lofty aspirations. We might dismiss the resemblance as a coincidence, were it not that Welsted immediately goes on to liken Milton to a wayward comet. This again recalls Satan, who ‘like a Comet burn’d, / That fires the length of Ophiucus huge’ (II. 708–9). Welsted is clearly in awe of Milton, but he also has misgivings about ‘a genius’ so ‘eccentric’. Where Addison admires Milton for soaring boldly, Welsted implies that he would have been wiser to work within ‘Limits’. Too high aspiring can lead to a Luciferian fall.

Welsted is more forthright in his criticism twelve years later (‘A Dissertation concerning the Perfection of the English Language, the State of Poetry’, prefixed to Epistles, Odes, &c. Written on Several Subjects, 1724). He now likens Milton’s language to the Confusion at Babel:

Nor does any thing, I conceive, require greater Skill or Delicacy, than to improve a Language by introducing foreign Treasures into it; the Words, so introduced, ought to be such, as, in a manner, naturalize Themselves; that is, they ought to fall into the Idiom, and suit with the Genius of the Tongue, they are brought into, so luckily, as almost to seem, originally, of its own Growth; otherwise, the Attempt will end in nothing but an uncouth unnatural Jargon, like the Phrase and Stile of Milton, which is a second Babel, or Confusion of all Languages; a Fault, that can never be enough regretted in that immortal Poet, and which if he had wanted, he had perhaps wanted a Superior. (ix)

Johnson (1779) will write in similar terms, when (co-opting a phrase of Samuel Butler’s) he will speak of Milton’s ‘Babylonish dialect’. Welsted’s complaint is that Milton’s Latinisms and Graecisms refuse ‘to fall into the Idiom’. It is strange that Welsted can use the metaphor of Babel and still fail to see the implications of his own word ‘fall’. Newton (1749) will argue that Milton uses ‘words in their proper and primary signification’ (1:105) in order to create something imaginatively analogous to prelapsarian language.

Richard Bentley (Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, 1732) is the most notorious of Milton’s editors. The foremost English classicist of his day (he had edited Terence and Manilius), he was seventy when he unleashed his talents on Paradise Lost. He believed that the received text was hopelessly corrupt, due partly to Milton’s blindness, partly to the incompetence of his amanuensis, and partly to the supposed interpolations of a ‘suppos’d Friend, (call’d in these Notes the Editor)’ (a2). Bentley set himself the task of purifying Milton’s text—and made himself a laughing-stock. The laughter still echoes today. Most subsequent critics have dismissed Bentley as a crank, but Empson (1935) has shown how his close scrutiny of the text, however stubborn or wrongheaded, brings out verbal felicities even (and especially) when his avowed purpose is to deplore. Empson has not convinced everyone. Hanford (1949) and Adams (1955) dismiss him as a crank cut from the same cloth as Bentley. Ricks (1963) reveres Empson, but even he voices a warning: ‘provocative and valuable though Bentley is, it is misleading to give a central position to one who is incorrigibly eccentric’ (10). Ricks emphasizes ‘the quieter virtues’ of Milton’s (p.22) other early commentators, especially the Richardsons (1734) and Newton (1749). They are indeed more reliable, but some of their best insights are built on foundations that Bentley laid. Newton offers this measured judgment of Bentley’s contribution:

Dr. Bentley’s is a great name in criticism, but he has not acquired any additional honor by his new edition of the Paradise Lost.…But prejudice apart, he was a very great man, of parts inferior to few, of learning superior to most men; and he has made some very judicious and useful remarks upon the Paradise Lost, though in the general they may rather be called the dotages of Dr. Bentley. He was more sagacious in finding faults, than happy in mending them; and if he had confined himself only to the former, he might have had better success; but when he attempted the latter, and substituted verse of his own in the room of Milton’s, he commonly made most miserable bungling work, being no poet himself, and having little or no taste of poetry. (a3r)

Some of Bentley’s criticisms are indeed ‘judicious’, and even when they are not, they have an uncanny ability to make us see things we might not otherwise have seen. Even the emendations are not all awful. Two have been universally adopted.21

But it is the criticisms that will engage our attention here. Start with a ‘judicious’ one:

  • at each behind
  • A Seraph stood, and in his hand a Reed
  • Stood waving tipt with fire; while we suspense,
  • Collected stood within our thoughts amus’d. (VI. 578–81)

Bentley: ‘This is very low. A Seraph stood, and in his hand a Reed stood, and in the next Line the Angels stood’ (203). The writing is indeed flabby, but not because Milton has nodded off. He is trying to build suspense. ‘Stand’ can mean ‘await an onset’ (OED 10) and Satan has just told the gunners to ‘Stand readie’ (561). Both armies then wait expectantly until the literal sense of ‘stand’ breaks out: ‘none on thir feet might stand, / Though standing else as Rocks’ (VI. 592–3). Bentley is right to protest, but the fault is one of over-writing, not under-writing. Bentley finds more flabbiness when the good angels resort to mountain-tossing: ‘they stood / A while in trouble; but they stood not long, / Rage prompted them at length’ (633–5). Bentley: ‘This is unwarily put; for if Rage did but prompt them at length, they must needs have stood long’ (205). This is unanswerable. In his eagerness to pack meaning into ‘stood’ (and the pun gains nothing from repetition), Milton falls into flat contradiction.

In these instances Bentley’s criticisms hit home. But they are the exception, not the rule. More often than not, his attempts to show what is wrong with the text bring out what is right with it. As Ricks (1963) remarks, ‘Bentley, like the anti-Miltonists, has a great gift for getting hold of the right thing—by the wrong end’ (14). Bentley is particularly useful on Milton’s diction, though here his criticism runs in the opposite direction from that taken by ‘the anti-Miltonists’. They will (p.23) argue that Milton’s diction is stilted; Bentley voices the opposite complaint that it is creeping and low. Many of his emendations are attempts to elevate the style. This is interesting because it helps (however backhandedly) to bring out a virtue for which Milton has yet to receive due credit: his use of suggestive understatement. Let me illustrate the point by citing another eighteenth-century editor. John Callander’s 1750 edition of book one of Paradise Lost contains few original notes, but it offers one excellent comment on Milton’s choice of an unexpected verb: ‘when with fierce Winds Orion arm’d / Hath vext the Red Sea Coast’ (I. 305–6). Callander thinks that Milton borrowed ‘vext’ from Virgil, who in his sixth eclogue uses vexasse to describe Scylla’s harrying of Odysseus’s ships. The suggestion is plausible, for Milton elsewhere uses ‘vex’ in connection with Scylla (‘Far less abhorrd than these / Vex’d Scylla’, II. 660). Callander’s point is not that ‘vext’ is a Latinism (though the Latin sense ‘agitate’ suits storm-tossed waves), but that Milton imitates a key feature of Virgil’s style: the understated sublime. ‘Milton’, he writes, ‘uses this word with the same energy as Virgil.…Gellius tells us that some of the ancient grammarians found fault with this term of Virgil’s, as not expressive enough of the terrible destruction occasioned by this monster. But Gellius justly observes, that, “Vexasse grave verbum est”.’ Callander concludes: ‘With what delicacy and propriety does our poet here use a word, common indeed in itself, but when examined, his sense of it is a strong demonstration of his learning and judgment.’22 This fine comment brings out a significant feature of Milton’s style. A lesser poet would have eschewed ‘vex’ and taken it to the max; Milton, like Virgil, knows that less is sometimes more.

Bentley fails to appreciate this aspect of Milton’s style, but his objections to what he sees as banal diction can help us to appreciate an effect that might otherwise escape notice. In the morning hymn Adam and Eve call upon the sun to praise God and ‘Acknowledge him thy Greater’ (V. 172). For Bentley, this is an intolerable understatement: ‘Thy Greater? that’s a poor low Acknowledgement indeed, that our Sun should confess God Almighty, that made Him and Millions of Fix’d Stars, Suns all equal to him, to be Greater than He. I’ll vindicate the Poet from this Blemish; who certainly gave it, Acknowledge him CREATOR’ (152). The objection would be just if Milton expected us to thrill to the comparative, but that surely is not his point. His point is that all praise, even that of the most splendid heavenly body, falls short of God’s glory. As Adam later says, ‘To attaine / The highth and depth of thy Eternal wayes / All human thoughts come short, Supream of things’ (VIII. 412–14). ‘Things’ there has the same kind of understated sublimity that I am arguing for in ‘Greater’. Adam does not need Bentley to tell him that God is not a ‘thing’. Adam chooses the words ‘Greater’ and ‘things’ because they are inadequate. Bentley’s emendation actually lowers the style—by aiming high too confidently.

Milton again has recourse to the understated sublime when, on the second day’s fighting, the rebel angels return to the field with ‘Sad resolution and secure’ (VI. 541). Modern editors tell us that ‘sad’ means ‘steadfast’, but the modern (p.24) sense existed and Bentley hears it: ‘Sad resolution and secure.] That’s but a sad Epithet for Resolution: The Poet gave it,STAID Resolution and secure; Or STERN’ (201). Bentley’s inflection (‘That’s…sad’) could be that of a modern American teenager. In a strange way he is right to feel that the diction is unheroic, but he is wrong to deplore it. There is something abject and mournful about the rebel army’s deportment even when they are ‘secure’ (confident) of victory. Like Satan when he looks ‘towards Eden’ and ‘his grievd look…fixes sad’ (IV. 28), the marching devils are dauntless and despairing. Bentley again tries to elevate the diction when Belial refers to Moloch as ‘he who most excels in fact of Arms’ (II. 124). To Bentley’s ears, ‘fact’ falls flat: ‘W[h]o can question, but he spoke it, Excels in FEATS of Arms’ (41). There are three possible answers to this. The easy answer is that ‘fact’ means ‘feat’ (they were originally the same word, from Latin factum, ‘a thing done’). Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabetical (1604) defines ‘fact’ as ‘deede’, and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine performs ‘facts of war and blood’ (III. ii. 45). But the modern sense gained currency throughout the seventeenth century and by 1667 ‘fact’ had a different resonance than it had had in 1586. Some have therefore inferred that ‘fact of arms’ translates a French and Italian idiom (faite d’armes, fatto d’arme) common in romantic epics. That is plausible, but it ignores Bentley’s objection that ‘fact’ sounds unheroic in English. Bentley supports his emendation by citing ‘with feats of Arms / From either end of Heav’n the welkin burns’ (II. 537–8). He has a point. The welkin would flame less brightly were it to burn with ‘facts’. Bentley is right, I think, to hear a note of deflation in ‘fact of Arms’, but far from being a blemish, this is a rhetorical masterstroke by Belial, who manages to cut Moloch down to size even while paying him a sham compliment. Belial’s whole point is that devils like Moloch need to face facts: the derring-do has been derring-done, and feats have led to defeat. ‘Fact of Arms’ allows Moloch to see himself as a Tamburlaine or Rodomonte, but it also casts ominous conjecture on the whole heroic enterprise and so helps Belial to shift the agenda from deeds to words.

Anti-Miltonists, before and after Bentley, have winced at Milton’s puns. For the most part, Bentley shares their distaste, though he invokes classical precedent to defend the devils’ puns on the battlefield (204). It is overt ‘jingles’ that most offend his ear. Like Addison, he takes exception to ‘tempted our attempt’ (I. 642): ‘This Jingle, that seems studiously sought, has been censur’d deservedly. But let it lie at the Editor’s Door’ (29). Faced with a ‘jingle’, Bentley does at least notice it. Quieter puns often slip by him unnoticed even when he annunciates their separate senses. A memorable instance is his note on the ‘aires, vernal aires’ that ‘attune / The trembling leaves’ (IV. 264–6). He protests at the plural ‘aires’ because ‘Air, when taken for the Element, has no Plural Number, in Greek, Latin, or English; where Airs signify Tunes. Therefore he must give it here, AIR…ATTUNES’ (215). As Empson (1935) will remark, ‘it is strange that Bentley should actually use the word tunes, and then quote the word attunes, and still not see there is a pun’ (157). This is not the only occasion where Bentley fails to see a pun under his nose. Entering Pandaemonium, the lesser devils ‘Reduc’d thir shapes immense, and were at large’ (I. 790). Bentley: ‘By being at large, the Author means, being not crouded.…but here it’s shocking at first Reading: contracting their Shapes to the smallest Size, and (p.25) yet being at large’ (35). It is strange that Bentley should actually use the word ‘smallest’, and then quote ‘at large’, and still not see that there is a pun.

He is more open-minded about Graecisms and Latinisms. When Milton, addressing ‘holy Light’, asks ‘hear’st thou rather’ (meaning ‘would you prefer to be called?’), Bentley coolly notes: ‘A fine Latinism’ (77). When Satan, eavesdropping, ‘Turnd him all eare to hear new utterance flow’ (IV. 410), Bentley’s ear listens delighted: ‘Turn’d him all Ear.] A pretty Expression, borrow’d from the Latin’ (121). The phrase indeed imitates a Latin idiom, and Bentley will not be the last critic to conjecture that Milton’s use of it is innovative. Fowler (1968) will note that this ‘is perhaps the earliest instance in English’. There are precedents. William Drummond had used the same idiom in his Sonnet 25, published in 1616, and Milton had used it in A Masque, when Thyrsis ‘was all eare’ to the Lady’s song (560). Bentley and Fowler are nevertheless right to feel that there is something exploratory about Milton’s usage, and he may well have helped to make it current. The fact that it is now common parlance should give us pause. Miltonists and anti-Miltonists alike often assume that Milton uses Latinisms solely for nostalgic purposes—to reach back to an earlier purity. Some of Milton’s Latinisms are like that, but we should not forget that early modern European writers coined words and idioms from Latin in the hope of invigorating their vernaculars. Their aim was not to go back to the Romans, but to go forward with them. Some neologisms caught on, with the result that we do not now hear them as ‘Latinisms’. It is the ones that did not catch on that stand out. This has implications for Leavis’s claim that Milton exhibits a ‘callousness to the intrinsic nature of English’. If English does have an ‘intrinsic nature’, it is not fixed for all time, but allows room for what Eliot called ‘that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations, meanings perpetually eingeschachtelt into meanings’.23 Eliot denied this virtue to Milton, but Bentley finds in ‘Turnd him all eare’ a splendid example of just such a ‘new and sudden combination’. It startles by its novelty even though it is ‘borrow’d from the Latin’.

Bentley has his limits. Foreign idioms sometimes offend his rigid rationality. I have already mentioned his contempt for the idiom Addison had forgiven as ‘a little Slip’. Bentley is unforgiving: ‘I’ll not believe this Distich to be Milton’s’, he growls, ‘the Diction is very vitious. Adam the goodliest of his Sons, Eve the fairest of her Daughters. Which, in strict Construction, implies Him to be one of his Sons, and Her one of her Daughters. Besides, His Sons, Her Daughters; as if His Sons were not Her’s too, and Her Daughters His’ (118). Bentley finds more vicious expressions in the invocation to light. Just a few lines after praising ‘hear’st thou rather’, he would rather not hear ‘Yet not the more / Cease I’ (III. 26–7) and ‘nor sometimes forget’ (III. 32). ‘The more cease’, he writes, ‘is not an allowable Expression: for there’s no more or less, no gradation in Ceasing’. ‘Nor sometimes forget’ is also ‘unjustifiable’, for ‘if he does not sometimes forget, He always remembers; which (p.26) is not what He means’ (78). We should not take the easy route and dismiss these objections because Bentley’s emendations (‘not for That’, ‘Nor AT TIMES’) are risible. Bentley raises a real issue about Latinisms. Most modern editors gloss ‘nor sometimes forget’ as ‘often remember’. That makes sense, but it matters that Milton couches a laudatory positive in measured negatives.

Bentley likes Latinisms, but insists that they must work in English too. He deplores another delivery of ‘the Editor’s’ when Eve is likened to ‘Ceres in her Prime, / Yet Virgin of Proserpina from Jove’ (IX. 395–6). ‘What Monster of a Phrase is that’, he splutters, ‘Virgin of Proserpina, Virgin of her Daughter? Any one else that was minded to speak Human Language, would have said, Like Ceres in her prime, Not Mother yet of Proserpin by Jove’ (281). Bentley’s emendation is abysmal (partly due to his unintended echo of the colloquial expletive ‘by Jove!’), but his criticism can survive one rebuttal. William Warburton, in a note contributed to Newton’s 1749 edition, tries to rebut Bentley by pointing out that Milton is imitating a Greek idiom found in Theocritus. ‘This seems to be a Grecism’, he writes, ‘’Tis the same turn of expression in both. So that Dr. Bentley was strangely mistaken in calling it a monster of an expression, and not human language’ (2:153). Bentley’s comment about ‘Human Language’ lays him open to this riposte (were Greeks not human?), but Bentley does not need Warburton to tell him that the idiom is Greek. His point is that the Graecism itself is a ‘Monster’ (a misshapen birth) unchastely begotten by one language upon another. Warburton sidesteps this argument. He does go on to say that Milton’s expression has ‘an elegance superior in my opinion to the English phrase—“A virgin, not having yet conceived Proserpina who was begot by Jove”’, but he does not develop this thread. It will remain for Monboddo (1774) and Ricks (1963) to argue that Milton uses Graecisms and Latinisms to create a style that is ‘perfectly straightforward, memorable and succinct, so simple and clear as to withstand any charge of being un-English’.24

I have said that Newton and the Richardsons built on foundations that Bentley laid. This statement might seem perverse, since Bentley’s immediate successors usually disagree with him. Some of their best comments are nevertheless responses to his original insights. This is especially true of those occasions when Newton and the Richardsons praise Milton’s imitative harmonies: his use of pauses, sound patterns, or word order to make the verse resemble the things it describes. I shall discuss these effects in more detail in the next section of this chapter, but I should first prepare the ground by noting how Bentley prepared it. He is unusually responsive to mimetic syntax, though he distrusts his own responses:

  • Into this wilde Abyss,
  • The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
  • Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
  • But all these in thir pregnant causes mixt
  • Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
  • Unless th’Almighty Maker them ordain
  • (p.27) His dark materials to create more Worlds,
  • Into this wild Abyss the warie fiend
  • Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,
  • Pondering his Voyage. (II. 910–19)

Bentley: ‘Here’s an absurd and ridiculous Blunder, that has pass’d through all the Editions. Satan STOOD INTO the Abyss; and he did not stand into it, but stood on the firm ground, the Brink of Hell. No doubt the Author gave it; LOOK’D into it, not STOOD into it.’ Bentley accordingly emends to ‘LOOK’D FROM the Brink of Hell, and STOOD a while’ (71). This robs the lines of a surprise. The repeated ‘Into this wild Abyss…Into this wild Abyss’ leads us to expect a verb of motion. We expect Satan to leap, or soar, or spring, but instead Milton springs a surprise with ‘Stood’. The anti-climactic verb is all the more arresting for being placed so prominently at the beginning of a new line. Milton draws up short; Bentley presses forward—but with a look, not a leap. The best comment on these lines is that of the Richardsons (1734):

Here is a Remarkable Transposition of the Words, the Sense however is very clear…’tis Observable the Poet Himself seems to be Doing what he Describes, for the Period begins at 910. Then he goes not On Directly, but Lingers; giving an Idea of Chaos before he Enters into it. ’tis very Artful! if his Stile is Somewhat Abrupt after Such Pondering it Better Paints the Image he Intended to give. (81)

Ben Jonson had identified ‘the abrupt style’ as one that ‘hath many breaches, and doth not seeme to end, but fall’.25 An abrupt style is well-suited to ‘the vast abrupt’ (II. 409). Hume (1695) had glossed the latter phrase: ‘Of Abruptus, Lat. broken off’ (66). Satan too breaks off abruptly, and Milton breaks off with him, aborting the expected plunge ‘in that abortive gulf’ (II. 441). The Richardsons are superb on Milton’s art of ‘Doing what he Describes’, but they are also indebted, however backhandedly, to Bentley. Their note does not name him, but they were surely thinking of him when they wrote: ‘the Sense however is very clear’. The Richardsons’ note is a leap forward, but they might not have taken it had Bentley not looked hesitantly over the brink.

Bentley has many half-formed insights of this kind. They often emerge from his rigid notions of prosody. He has strict ideas about where the accents should come in a line of iambic pentameter, and is quick to complain if they do not behave themselves. A few lines after the passage just quoted, Satan does leap into Chaos—and promptly plummets in a vacuum. Bentley thinks the style sinks with him:

  • All unawares
  • Fluttring his pennons vain plumb down he drops
  • Ten thousand fadom deep, and to this hour
  • Down had been falling, had not by ill chance
  • The strong rebuff of som tumultuous cloud
  • Instinct with Fire and Nitre hurried him
  • (p.28) As many miles aloft. (II. 932–8)

Bentley: ‘Hurried him, where the Accent falls upon Him, is a poor Close of a Verse. Had he not better have given it thus? HURL’D him BACK’ (71). To Bentley’s ears, ‘hurried him’ is too quick and light. Iambic pentameter should move with a surer step, especially at the end of the line, but ‘the Editor’, violating decorum, allows ‘him’ to be weakly swept away. This brilliantly stupid comment brings out what is right with ‘hurried him’. A lightweight in Chaos, Satan is swept away, hurried and harried by the rhythm.

Bentley pounces on another alleged metrical fault when Mammon announces that Hell might turn out not to be all that bad:

  • great things of small,
  • Useful of hurtful, prosperous of adverse
  • We can create, and in what place so e’re
  • Thrive under evil, and work ease out of pain
  • Through labour and indurance. (II. 258–62)

Bentley hears ‘ease out’ as a maladroit trochee. ‘Better Accent’, he writes, ‘if thus inverted, And out of Pain work Ease’ (46). By moving ‘ease’ to the end of the line, Bentley makes Hell more laid back—like Paradise, where work served only ‘To recommend coole Zephyr, and made ease / More easie’ (IV. 329–30). But Mammon does not say that Hell will be easy; he says it can be eased. His policy demands ‘labour and indurance’ and ‘long process of time’ (II. 297). His rhythm accordingly conveys both strenuous effort and calm resolve. Bentley objects to an inversion of ‘Accent’, but to my ears ‘ease’ stands out not so much by accent as quantity. In his note on ‘the Verse’, Milton had spoken of ‘fit quantity of Syllables’ as well as ‘apt Numbers’. Most critics have shied away from discussing quantity in Milton’s verse, but it would rash to suppose that Milton has no interest in the expressive use that can be made of vowel length in accentual-syllabic verse. Mammon’s line is not the only place where Milton gives ‘fit quantity’ to ‘ease’. He had employed a similar effect in A Masque. Comus, proffering his cup, promises the Lady ‘Refreshment after toil, ease after pain’ (687). Here too ‘ease’ comes in an inverted fourth foot, and here too it drawls languidly. The effect is bewitching, almost hypnotic. It has been plausibly suggested that Comus echoes another tempter, Spenser’s Despair:

  • Is not short payne well borne, that bringes long ease,
  • And layes the soule to sleepe in quiet graue?
  • Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas,
  • Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please. (I. ix. 40)

Here too there are suggestive inversions (though none in the fourth foot), and both occurrences of ‘ease’ are long. In the first, ‘short payne’ is explicitly contrasted with ‘long ease’, while in the second, the anadiplosis ‘seas / Ease’ is calculated to stretch ‘ease’ out. We might have expected ‘Peace after warre’, but a plosive at this pivotal moment would break the spell. Suicide seems all the more peaceful for being ‘Ease’. (p.29) Mammon too casts a spell over his audience with ‘ease out of pain’. Bentley’s ‘Better Accent’ breaks the spell, but his note can help us to hear it.

Bentley’s rigid ideas about rhythm do not always blind him to verbal felicities. He rightly finds an imitative harmony in the following lines, though he gets it wrong:

  • Bears, Tygers, Ounces, Pards
  • Gambold before them, th’ unwieldy Elephant
  • To make them mirth us’d all his might, and wreathd
  • His Lithe Proboscis. (IV. 344–7)

Bentley notices the metrical unwieldiness of line 345, but for once does not complain. Instead of blaming ‘the Editor’, he applauds Milton: ‘Th’ únwieldy ̀ Elephant.] Mind the Accent of Unwieldy in the first Syllable. The Author knew the common Pronounciation to be in the Second.…But with great Art and Judgment…he made the Verse itself unwieldy; that the Reader might feel it, as well as understand it’ (119). As Fowler (1998) notes, Bentley sees ‘the mimetic rhythm’, but scans ‘wrongly’. Determined on iambic regularity, he leans on ‘unwieldy’ with all his might and turns cumbrous cavorting into a lubberly lurch. His elephantine efforts make us mirth, but he is right to find unwieldiness in ‘the Verse itself’.

1.4 ‘Doing what he Describes’ (1734–1762)

Enthusiasm for ‘iconic’ or ‘echoic’ effects was not new with Bentley or the Richardsons. Homer and Virgil had long been credited with this kind of expressiveness, and Dryden and Pope had emulated it in their translations of those poets. Pope combines theory with practice in An Essay on Criticism (1711):

  • ’Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
  • The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
  • Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
  • And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
  • But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
  • The hoarse, rough Verse shou’d like the Torrent roar.
  • When Ajax strives, some Rock’s vast Weight to throw,
  • The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
  • Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
  • Flies o’er th’unbending Corn, and skims along the Main. (364–73)

In the period we are about to consider, editors and critics are keenly alert to echoic ‘sound’ in Paradise Lost. Only Johnson (1751) discusses the issue in a theoretical way, but the Richardsons (1734), Benson (1739), and Newton (1749) all have a keen eye and ear for particular instances, and these have far-reaching implications for the debate about Milton’s style. Anti-Miltonists often complain that Milton attends to sound at the expense of sense. Eliot (1935) will go so far as to claim that the poem must be read twice, ‘first solely for the sound, and second for the (p.30) sense’ (38). But if the verse does what it describes, one can argue that it unifies sound and sense.

Two objections immediately arise to this defence. Firstly, the very notion of co-operation between sound and sense might be dismissed as a philosophical fallacy. If (as we are often told) ‘the sign’ is ‘arbitrary’, there can be no natural correspondence between words and their referents and so onomatopoeia and other such echoic effects are a myth. The second possible counter-argument is that such effects, even if they do exist, are trivial. Let us briefly consider these objections in turn.

It certainly is dangerous to argue for mimetic effects. Even critics who make such arguments acknowledge this. Ricks (1963) begins his analysis of the topic by noting that it ‘is more entangled with the merely subjective than any other kind of criticism’. Johnson agrees ‘that on many occasions we make the musick which we imagine ourselves to hear; that we modulate the poem by our own disposition, and ascribe to the numbers the effects of the sense’.26 The warning is salutary and many have come to grief by failing to heed it.27 But ‘many occasions’ is not the same as ‘all occasions’, and we should not suppose that Johnson denies the very possibility of embodying ‘the sense’ in ‘the sound’. Discussion of this issue has for centuries been bedevilled by the slipperiness of one key term: ‘arbitrary’. The word is treacherous, for it has a wide range of meanings from ‘capricious’ through ‘discretionary’ to ‘despotic’, so it behoves us to be clear as to what we mean by it. This difficulty with ‘arbitrary’ is old (it long predates the ‘Theory wars’ of the 1980s). Leibniz took issue with Locke on just this point. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke had insisted that human languages are not based on any ‘natural connexion’, since ‘a Word is made arbitrarily the Mark of such an Idea’. Leibniz in Nouveaux essais sur l’entendement humain then replied that the first human language might have been based on ‘raisons physiques’ or ‘une institution arbitraire, sage et digne du premier auteur’.28 For Leibniz, ‘arbitraire’ does not stand in a stable and manifest contradistinction to ‘raisons physiques’, but opens up a middle ground where both nature and convention have a role to play. Milton too allowed room for principled arbitration: ‘to stand or fall / Free in thine own Arbitrement it lies’ (VIII. 640–1). Even Ferdinand de Saussure, the linguist whose name is most closely associated with ‘l’arbitraire du signe’, was less dogmatic than both his admirers and detractors sometimes suppose. He was willing to compromise on the question of onomatopoeia. His thoughts on the matter are tantalizingly brief and it would be perilous to place too much weight on them, but he does allow a modicum of natural connection when he says that onomatopoeia is ‘en quelque mesure arbitraire’ (‘to a certain extent arbitrary’) and ‘l’imitation approximative et déjà à demi conventionelle de certain bruits’ (‘the approximate imitation, already partly conventionalized, of certain sounds’). Saussure’s (p.31) concession is admittedly grudging, but it is a concession. As an example of an approximate imitation he cites ‘le français ouaoua et l’allemand wauwau’ (‘a French dog’s ouaoua and a German dog’s wauwau’).29 To my ears, these are like each other, and both are close approximations to the sound a dog actually makes. Convention and nature both play a role (also in English bow wow), and Saussure is right to acknowledge this. It is refreshing to see the middle ground affirmed. Saussure might not have had much enthusiasm for the kind of mimetic effects that eighteenth-century critics admired in Milton, but he did not rule them out tout court and neither should we.

The second objection is more difficult to answer. Mimetic effects of sound or syntax, even when acknowledged to be possible, are often deemed trivial. Johnson (1751) concludes his otherwise balanced discussion of this topic by dismissing it with something like contempt. Milton, he writes, had

a greater and a nobler work to perform; a single sentiment of moral or religious truth, a single image of life or nature, would have been cheaply lost for a thousand echoes of the cadence to the sense; and he who had undertaken to vindicate the ways of God to man, might have been accused of neglecting his cause, had he lavished much of his attention upon syllables and sounds.30

This comment brings out a deep-seated ambivalence in critical responses to imitative harmonies. On the one hand, they are decorous; on the other, frivolous. In either case they are distractions. They are valued primarily for being ingenious, but the more ingenious they are, the less serious they are deemed to be. Not every eighteenth-century critic shares Johnson’s slighting approach. Where Johnson sees isolated special effects, impressive but dispensable, most of the commentators we shall examine in this section see the close co-operation of sound and sense as an essential feature of Milton’s style.

Jonathan Richardson, father and son (Explanatory Notes and Remarks on Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, 1734) are keen close readers. Towards the end of his preface, the elder Richardson discusses the demands made by Milton’s style. The ‘Reader of Milton’, he writes,

must be Always upon Duty; he is Surrounded with Sense, it rises in every Line, every Word is to the Purpose; There are no Lazy Intervals, All has been Consider’d, and Demands, and Merits Observation. Even in the Best Writers you Sometimes find Words and Sentences which hang on so Loosely you may Blow’em off; Milton’s are all Substance and Weight; Fewer would not have Serv’d the Turn, and More would have been Superfluous.

His Silence has the Same Effect, not only that he leaves Work for the Imagination when he has Entertain’d it, and Furnish’d it with Noble Materials; but he Expresses himself So Concisely, Employs Words So Sparingly, that whoever will Possess His Ideas must Dig for them, and Oftentimes pretty far below the Surface. (cxliv)

(p.32) This passage has often been applauded. Ricks (1963) and Fish (1967) both find it inspiring. For Ricks, it justifies close attention to ‘subtle examples’ (132–3); for Fish, it affirms the reader’s duty of vigilant introspection (54). Richardson accommodates both of these views, but we should not miss one small but significant difference between his two paragraphs. In the first, he says that sense ‘rises in every Line’; in the second, he says we ‘must Dig’ for it. This is not a contradiction, for the paragraphs refer to different things. The first refers to ‘Words’, the second to ‘Silence’.

Richardson’s distinction between ‘Words’ and ‘Silence’ has implications for the topic we are now discussing. Critics who write on imitative harmonies usually focus on the words. This is reasonable, since words are what poets give us. But Milton also makes expressive use of omissions. Consider the philosophical devils who ‘reason’d high’

  • Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will and Fate,
  • Fixt Fate, free will, foreknowledg absolute
  • And found no end, in wandring mazes lost. (II. 559–61)

This is one of the most celebrated examples of imitative harmony in the whole poem. Addison (1709) had noted how Milton ‘makes a Kind of Labyrinth in the very Words’, and the Richardsons follow his lead when they note how ‘Homer and Virgil, and after them the Best Poets have endeavour’d, besides the Words, to Express what they Conceiv’d, by the Order of them: This is done Here to a Degree perhaps beyond what is to be found Elsewhere; ’tis a Maze indeed!’ (62–3). But the Richardsons take Addison’s insight still further when they draw attention to the omission of one key word. ‘Foreknowledge, Will and Fate’ recur as dead-ends, but one word does not come back: ‘There seems however to be an Inaccuracy, there is a Beautiful Repetition, but ’tis with the Omission of One of the particulars, Providence; but Providence is included in Foreknowledge Absolute’ (63). This is a splendid observation, but the Richardsons miss the import of their own discovery. They assume that Milton has either nodded (‘an Inaccuracy’) or silently ‘included’ the missing term. This misses the point. Milton omits Providence not for the bad reason that he has forgotten it, but for the good reason that Paradise Lost does not ‘assert Eternal Providence’ (I. 25) to devils. They forfeited Providence when they rejected the Son, and now they are doomed to wander Hell’s multicursal mazes. A unicursal maze would end where it began, but Hell has no exit marked ‘Providence’. Milton does not spell this out. We must ‘Dig for’ the idea. On this occasion even the Richardsons do not dig deep enough. But they dig in the right place.

They have a complete success with another suggestive omission:

  • The other shape,
  • If shape it might be call’d that shape had none
  • Distinguishable in member, joynt, or limb,
  • Or substance might be call’d that shadow seem’d,
  • For each seem’d either; black it stood as Night. (II. 666–70)

As the Richardsons note, ‘the Syntax is broken. There either wants a Verb in the Former Part of the Sentence, or if Stood is the Verb then it Abounds’ (74). This sounds at first like one of Bentley’s grumbles. He often faults the grammar and then (in Empson’s wonderful phrase) lets ‘in a couple of main verbs, like ferrets’.31 But the Richardsons are digging for riches, not ferreting out faults. They describe the syntax as ‘broken’, but it would be more accurate to say that it dissipates. It loses its own ‘shape’ in the act of trying to distinguish one. By the time we reach the mid-line caesura after ‘either’, the sentence is at its last gasp. The main verb has still not appeared, and now seems unlikely to. Then, just as the sentence is about to expire, it starts up again: ‘black it stood as Night, / Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell’. ‘It’ (in the Richardsons’ excellent phrase) ‘Abounds’. Theologians tell us that evil is privative and so does not truly exist. Death, the ultimate privation, has only a tenuous grasp on existence, but just as the ‘shadow’ is about to disappear, it wrests shape and form from the movement of the verse to stride forth on two feet as an ‘it’.

In these instances Milton uses words ‘Sparingly’. But the Richardsons note another way in which he ‘leaves Work for the Imagination’. He is a master of the unspoken pun. The Richardsons are not always open to puns. They share the prejudices of their age. Like Addison and Bentley, they dislike ‘small infantry’ (I. 575). Addison had blamed Milton; Bentley had blamed ‘the editor’. The Richardsons try to convince themselves that the pun does not exist: ‘the Pun is made by Those that Imagine it to be One’ (37). This acquits Milton of indecorousness, but makes him look careless. Only an inattentive poet could juxtapose ‘small’ with ‘infantry’ and not see that this activates the sense ‘infants’. Since Milton at this moment is mocking the jejunity of human chivalry, a pun seems inescapable (and I for one have no wish to escape it). In this instance the Richardsons are unimaginative.

But most of the time they are ‘upon Duty’. They are particularly attentive to etymological wordplay. They recognize that Latinate puns are not the same as Latinisms. The distinction can be illustrated by their excellent note on the ‘reluctant flames’ that issue from God’s throne when war breaks out in Heaven (VI. 58): ‘they pour’d not forth but Roll’d Backward as Unwilling; according to Isa. xxviii. 21. Wrath is God’s Strange Work’ (249). The flames writhe through the smoke (Latin reluctare, ‘to struggle’) and burn reluctantly, as befits the anger of a merciful God. Milton does not dismiss the English sense with lordly hauteur: he brings both senses into play. Most subsequent editors have followed the Richardsons and heard ‘reluctant’ as a pun, but the 2007 Modern Library edition rejects this reading. The Modern Library editors point out that ‘the OED does not cite an example of the modern sense before the eighteenth century’. If this is right, the Richardsons have led us astray by imposing a meaning that dates only from their own time. But it is dangerous to make assumptions based on one entry in the OED. A different story emerges if we look beyond ‘reluctant’ to the OED’s entries for ‘reluctance’ and ‘reluctancy’. The physical sense was current (it is cited from 1641), but so was (p.34) ‘aversion, disinclination’ (from 1634), ‘mental struggle’ (from 1621), and ‘regret’ (from 1654, based on a false association with Latin luctus, ‘grief’). These senses all support the Richardsons, and so does Milton elsewhere in Paradise Lost when he speaks of Eve’s ‘sweet reluctant amorous delay’ (IV. 311). The Modern Library editors bravely insist that even this ‘reluctant’ signals physical struggle: ‘As uncomfortable as some readers may be with the suggestion of erotic struggle, the modern sense of reluctant as “unwilling” was not current in the seventeenth century, according to the OED’.32 But the OED itself offers sweeter possibilities under ‘reluctancy’. We should be grateful to the Modern Library editors for informing us that the physical sense was good English, but ungrateful to them for telling us that the modern sense was ‘not current’. Such misinformation makes wild work in the bower and robs God’s ‘reluctant flames’ of an enhancing suggestion. On this occasion the Richardsons are better guides.

The Richardsons are alert to more than just Latinate puns. They also notice puns drawn from the Teutonic languages. A few lines after God’s flames roll reluctantly, a different kind of fire comes into view:

  • Farr in th’ Horizon to the North appeer’d
  • From skirt to skirt a fierie Region, stretcht
  • In battailous aspect, and neerer view
  • Bristl’d with upright beams innumerable
  • Of rigid Spears. (VI. 79–83)

The Richardsons comment: ‘Horrent, Bristled, the Stiff Spears as Bristles stood up, and shining, seem’d Upright Beams’ (250). This is another tacit correction of Bentley (1732), who had wanted to read: ‘FROM rigid Spears’ (184). Bentley’s ‘beams’ are shafts of light only. Flannagan (1998) and Kastan (2005) take the opposite view that ‘beams’ are wooden shafts. Flannagan explicitly warns: ‘Not “beam” in the sense of “sunbeam”’.33 But the Richardsons are surely right to see both kinds of beam. There is an etymological connection. The original sense in all Teutonic languages was ‘tree’, but the OED tells us that a ‘remarkable’ extension to ‘beam of light’ arose in Old English. Milton need not be aware of this semantic history to make a suggestive play on words. Arising as a false dawn in the north, Lucifer son of the morning is not yet ‘Shorn of his Beams’ (I. 596), but his ‘Upright Beams’ harden into ‘Horrent…Bristles’.

When the loyal angels advance in ‘Cubic Phalanx’ (VI. 399), the Richardsons are again our best guide, and their note is again a rebuttal of Bentley, who had offered this square note: ‘In Cubic Phalanx.] This is an Expression unknown before. To make it Cubic, it must be as high, as it’s broad. So that if a Thousand Square march’d on the Ground, a Thousand times as many flew in the Air. Change the Word’ (196). The Richardsons reply: ‘a Body of Warriours not only Square…but (p.35) in Height too, in the form of a Dye, or Cube, for they flew v. 71.’Tis a New Image, but Never were Such Armies Describ’d’ (267). This observation has implications for T. S. Eliot’s oft-quoted argument that Milton lacks a visual imagination. If the Richardsons are right, Milton visualizes flying angels with the kind of imaginative precision found in science fiction. I think that the Richardsons are right, but several later commentators disagree. Even Fowler (1968), usually a champion of Milton’s visual imagination, is on this occasion dismissive:

cubic phalanx] The shape of virtue and stability.…It is idle to debate whether a cube proper or a square is meant here; since M. himself did not have to decide that question. Even if the angels moved as if on a single plane surface, their spears could adumbrate a tidy enough cube, after the manner of illustrations in seventeenth-century arts of war. (747)

That is a lovely point about the spears, but it would have been even better if Fowler had allowed them to protrude from all six surfaces. He thinks this kind of imagination ‘idle’ because he prefers to focus on moral symbolism. But why not have it both ways? The Richardsons urge us to do just that when Satan conceals his artillery by deploying his forces in ‘in hollow Cube’ (VI. 552). Referring us back the earlier lines, they write:

Milton had the Same Thought of a Cubic Body; Here such a One was More Necessary, to Hide the Fraud.…This Cube then consists of Angels on All the Four Sides, and Above.

Not but that (after all) ’tis possible Milton might Mean no more by these Cubic Bodies than what he saies in his Reason of Ch. Gov.Those Squares in Battle Unite in one great Cube, the Main Phalanx, but as the Sence we have chose is more Poetical as giving a Greater, and more Uncommon Idea and Such a One as the Text will allow we Believe ’tis what was Intended. (274)

This is a splendid statement of principle as well as a finely judged conclusion. The Richardsons have done their homework. They have read Milton’s prose and know that a cube symbolizes virtue and stability, but they also have an eye for ‘more Poetical’ particulars. As they note, a cubic formation is necessary to conceal the cannons. If the rebel army marched on foot, their upright spears might present ‘a tidy enough cube’ (Fowler), but it could not keep out the prying eyes of flying enemy scouts. When Raphael says that they placed themselves ‘On every side with shaddowing Squadrons Deep / To hide the fraud’ (VI. 554–5), ‘every side’ means all six sides. The Richardsons are again our best guide.

William Benson (Letters Concerning Poetical Translations, and Virgil’s and Milton’s Arts and Verse, 1739) is remembered today (when he is remembered at all) as one of Pope’s dunces. Pope mocked his pretensions to literary acumen: ‘On two unequal crutches propt he came, / Milton’s on this, on that one Johnston’s name’.34 The reference is to two monuments Benson had erected in Westminster Abbey: one to Milton, the other to a minor Latin poet, a Dr Arthur Johnston (p.36) (1587–1641). For Pope, this equal honouring of ‘unequal’ talents betrays Benson’s idiocy. Benson does seem to have been incompetent in his official capacity as Surveyor of the King’s Works. He had displaced the aged Sir Christopher Wren in that office in 1718, but was relieved of his position after only fifteen months, having provoked panic in the House of Lords by announcing that their Chamber was in imminent danger of collapse. Most subsequent critics have assumed that he can have nothing valuable to say.

His Milton criticism is actually very good. He discusses Paradise Lost in two of his ten Letters. In ‘Letter II’, dated 13 September 1736, he offers some excellent comments on Milton’s expressive use of monosyllables. He begins by quoting a line from Pope’s Essay on Criticism (I. 347): ‘And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line’. ‘Mr. Dryden’, he continues, ‘has said in several Places, that the vast Number of Monosyllables in our Language makes it barbarous and rough, and unfit for Poetry’. Benson disagrees:

I am apt to think that Mr. Pope gave into Mr. Dryden’s Sentiment a little too hastily. I own ten low Words too frequently creep on in one dull Line, in a Poet’s Works, whom Mr. Pope has formerly celebrated with no mean Encomiums.…And miserable is the Metre in which they creep on. But hundreds of monosyllable Lines are to be found in Milton that are as sublime, as beautiful, and as harmonious as can possibly be written. (11–12)

Benson is referring to Pope’s praise of Cowley. (Pope would get his revenge three years later with that acid remark about ‘unequal crutches’.) Benson is unfair when he says that Pope ‘absolutely condemn’d’ monosyllabic lines (11). Pope condemned their misuse. But what matters for our purposes is Benson’s appreciation of Milton’s monosyllables. He gives several examples from the morning hymn (V. 153–208):

Look only into the Morning Hymn in the fifth Book.

‘Speak ye who best can tell, ye Sons of Light.


‘Thou Sun! of this great World both Eye and Soul.


‘And when high Noon hast gain’d, and when thou fall’st.


‘With the fixt Stars, fixt in their Orb that flies.


‘Breathe soft or loud; and wave your Tops, ye Pines.


‘Bear on your Wings and in your Notes his Praise.

Can it be said that ten dull Words creep on dully in any one of these Lines? (12–13)

For Benson, Milton’s monosyllables do not creep but fly, dance, and sing. They are especially frequent in the morning hymn, where they are conspicuous even in lines they do not monopolize (‘Moon, that now meetst the orient Sun, now fli’st’, ‘His praise, who out of Darkness call’d up Light’, ‘Varie to our great Maker still new praise’). The effect is to suggest a creation full of energies and wills, all going their (p.37) own way, yet all uniting to ‘Joyn voices’. Even low creeping has a place in this multifariousness, but the hymn itself does not ‘creep on dully’:

  • Yee that in Waters glide, and yee that walk
  • The Earth, and stately tread, or lowly creep;
  • Witness if I be silent, Morn or Eeven,
  • To Hill, or Valley, Fountain, or fresh shade
  • Made vocal by my Song, and taught his praise. (V. 200–4)

The hymn is ‘stately’, but still finds room for low words like ‘tread’. (To appreciate the down-to-earthiness, we need only recall Shakespeare: ‘My Mistres when shee walkes treads on the ground’.) Benson’s point is not that Milton’s style is low (he calls the monosyllables ‘sublime’), but that it has ‘lowliness Majestic’ (VIII. 42). He finds nothing flaccid in Milton’s diction. ‘Monosyllables’, he continues, are ‘of great consequence on another account. The Strength of the English Language is greatly owing to them: For to them it is principally obliged for its Conciseness; and Conciseness is Strength’ (14). Milton has seldom been called ‘concise’, but Benson’s insight will find strong support in Lord Monboddo (1776).

In ‘Letter V’, dated 11 October 1736, Benson notes how Milton ‘raises the Stile’ by placing ‘the Adjective after the Substantive’. After noting such obvious examples as ‘Trumpets loud’ (I. 532) and ‘Cherube tall’ (I. 534), he proceeds to more remarkable cases:

But the utmost of his Art in this respect consists in his removing of the Adjective, the Substantive, and even the Verb, from the Line or Verse in which the Sense is previously contained, and the grammatical Construction inverted, to the Beginning of the next Line. This has a wonderful Effect; especially when the Word is a Monosyllable.

‘Here finish’d he, and all that he had made

View’d—and behold all was entirely good.


‘Over their Heads triumphant Death his Dart

Shook—But refus’d to strike.

This artful Collocation commands the Attention, and makes the Reader feel and see what is offer’d to him. (45–6)

It must be admitted that Benson here lapses into misquotation. Death ‘delaid’ (not ‘refus’d’) to strike (XI. 492). But ‘delaid’ actually helps Benson, for the inversion he praises is a delay, not a refusal. He asks us to imagine how the lines might have appeared:

This Passage makes the Reader see Death with his Dart in his Hand, shaking it over the Heads of the unhappy Creatures describ’d in the Lazar-house, as plainly as if the whole was painted upon Canvas. But let this Line be alter’d thus:

‘Over their Heads Death shook his dreadful Dart.

How much of the Fire and Spirit of this Passage is lost, will be easily perceiv’d. (46)

Donald Davie (1960) will use the term ‘flicker of hesitation’ to describe the delay imposed by a suspenseful Miltonic line-ending. In ‘Death his Dart / Shook’ the delay is a torment that Death inflicts.

(p.38) Benson does not limit such effects to single monosyllables. He goes on to note how Milton ‘sometimes places two Monosyllables at the End of the Line, stopping at the 4th Foot, to adapt the Measure of the Verse to the Sense; and then begins the next Line in the same manner, which has a wonderful Effect’. He directs us to IV. 720–2, quoting the lines as follows:

  • Now at their shady Lodge arriv’d, both stopt,
  • Both turn’d, and under open Sky ador’d
  • The God who made, &c.

‘This artful Manner of writing’, Benson observes, ‘makes the Reader see them Stop and Turn to worship God before they went into their Bower’. He again fortifies his point by asking us to imagine how the lines might have been:

If this Manner was alter’d, much of the Effect of the Painting would be lost.

‘And now arriving at their shady Lodge

Both stopt, both turn’d, and under open Sky

‘Ador’d the God, &c.

This falls very short of the Original. (48)

Ricks (1963) agrees: ‘the verse wheels, just as Adam and Eve wheel’ (80). It has to be admitted that Benson again misquotes. Both in his supposedly accurate version and in his experimental rewriting, he changes the pivotal word. Milton has ‘stood’, not ‘stopt’. But as with Death’s delay, the correct version helps Benson’s argument. ‘Stopt’ is too heavy and abrupt for the wheeling movement the lines describe and enact. Adam and Eve do not stop ‘at their shady Lodge’ (any more than the lines describing their movement come to a full rest): they stand and turn in one smooth flowing motion. Benson has misquoted, but his point stands.

He has another triumph when he notes how Milton can achieve an ‘extraordinary Effect’ by placing his monosyllables ‘at the Conclusion of a Line, so as to divide the last Foot’. He cites as an example: ‘Silence, ye troubl’d waves, and thou Deep, peace’ (VII. 216). Bentley, wanting to maintain regular rhythm, had emended this to: ‘Silence, ye troubled Waves, and Peace, thou Deep’. Even so astute a critic as Johnson (1751) will lament the fact that Milton places heavy pauses near the ends of his lines. But Benson is surely right to hear this particular pause as a deliberate matching of sound with sense. It is not that ‘peace’ receives a heavy stress. ‘Deep’ might have the heavier stress, but ‘peace’ is longer. The assonance seems calculated to bring out this difference. This line lends some support to those critics who argue that ‘fit quantity of Syllables’ means syllabic length.

Benson is much drawn to ‘The adapting the Sound to the Sense’. Commenting on ‘Brusht with the hiss of russling wings’ (I. 768), he asks ‘Who does not hear…the Rustling of Wings?’ (42). This case is relatively straightforward, since it matches sound with sound. More difficult are those cases where Benson claims that sound paints a picture:

  • on smooth the Seale,
  • And bended Dolphins play: part huge of bulk
  • Wallowing unweildie, enormous in thir Gate
  • Tempest the Ocean. (VII. 409–12)

Benson: ‘Who does not see Porpoises and Dolphins tumbling about in the Ocean when he reads this Line?’ (43). The rhetorical question is dangerous, for it invites a curt response from anyone who does ‘not see’ what Benson sees. Recall Johnson: ‘on many occasions we make the music which we imagine ourselves to hear’.35 But even Johnson agrees that these lines adapt the sound to the sense, and he is supported by Newton (1749), who writes:

how smooth is the verse that describes the seal and dolphin spouting upon the smooth water!

—on smooth the seal,

And bended dolphins play.

It is much finer than if it had all been express’d in a single line. The verse is bent, as I may say, to be better suited to the bended dolphin: as in the rough measures following one almost sees porpoises and other unwieldy creatures tumbling about in the ocean. (2:41)

There is admittedly some tension between these readings. ‘Tumbling about’ (Benson’s phrase, repeated by Newton) implies quick movements; Johnson will see ‘a slow and heavy motion’. But even this difference can be accounted for, as we shall see when we come to Johnson.

Benson is keenly alert to Milton’s prosody, especially his ‘Varying of the Pause, which is the Soul of all Versification in all Languages’. He begins ‘Letter V’ by remarking the difference between Milton’s practice and that of other English poets:

In order to judge of the varying of English Versification, I first endeavour’d…to find out the common Pause in English Verse, that is, where the Voice naturally makes some sort of Stop when a Verse is read. To this purpose I look’d into Mr. Cowley’s Davideis…and there I soon found the common Pause to be upon the last Syllable of the second Foot. (39)

Cowley’s practice is a narrow base on which to build generalizations, but Benson’s conclusion is close to that of Pope. Newton (1749) will quote one of Pope’s letters opining that ‘in any smooth English verse of ten syllables, there is naturally a pause at the fourth, fifth, or sixth syllable’.36 Milton’s pauses, as Benson and Newton recognize, can come anywhere in the line. Johnson (1751) will grumble at Milton’s practice, and venture the opinion that his varied placing of the caesura was not a matter of art, but an inconvenience necessitated by blank verse. Benson sees Milton as master, not slave, of the varied pause. He most admires the way in which the opening lines of Paradise Lost build suspense by making us wait for ‘the common Pause’. Benson thinks that Milton here imitates one of Virgil’s stylistic effects, but overgoes his master but making us wait for one more line:

Virgil uses the common Pause at the fifth Line of the Georgicks, but Milton does not use it till he comes to the sixth Line in his Paradise Lost.

(p.40) ‘Of Man’s first Disobedience │ and the Fruit

‘Of that forbidden Tree │ whose mortal Taste

‘Brought Death into the World │ and all our Woe,

‘With Loss of Eden │’till one greater Man

‘Restore us │ and regain the blissful Seat,

‘Sing Heavenly Muse │ (40)

The caesura in the sixth line is more restful than those that precede it. Matthew Arnold (1861) tells us why this is so: ‘So chary of a sentence is he, so resolute not to let it escape him till he has crowded into it all he can, that is not till the thirty-ninth word in the sentence that he will give us the key to it, the word of action, the verb.’37 Ricks (1963) adds: ‘the verb is, as Arnold saw, the “key” to the sentence—in the sense that it embodies Milton’s power to open the subjects of his poem. Yet we would not be very interested in, or impressed by, a key unless we had first been given some idea of what riches we will be shown’ (29). Pursuing Arnold’s metaphor, the pause after ‘Sing Heav’nly Muse’ is the moment of release as the key ‘in the key-hole turns / Th’ intricate wards, and every Bolt and Bar / Of massie Iron or sollid Rock with ease / Unfast’ns’ (II. 876–9). Yet this moment of release is not quite as restful as Benson’s excellent comment might lead us to suppose. Milton might have chosen this gratifying pause as the moment to end his sentence. Virgil, in the lines to which Benson directs us, does just that. But Milton’s sentence continues for another ten lines, only one of which contains ‘the common Pause’. Numerous critics have commented on the muscular energy of the lines, and the sense they impart of breathless, dizzy anticipation. Lewis (1942) is typical: ‘our very muscles respond as we read’ (40). Benson also remarks this effect, but he does not value the sound for its own sake, as if it were divorced from the sense. He sees a close co-operation between sound and sense.

Francis Peck (New Memoirs of the Life and Poetical Works of Mr. John Milton, 1740) devotes a chapter to ‘An Examination of Milton’s Stile’. Oras (1931) thinks this an innovation: ‘the general idea of a systematic chapter on Milton’s style, with abundant illustrations, is new’. Addison (1712) had written a Spectator paper on Milton’s language, but Oras (1931) gives priority to Peck because he believes that Addison’s study is ‘under-illustrated’ (154). It is true that Peck’s analysis is more detailed than Addison’s, but it is neither as thorough nor as coherent as Benson’s study of the previous year. As Oras himself admits, Peck’s study is ‘casual and unsystematic’, ‘a medley of notes, rather than a regular commentary’ (141). Peck has a peculiar purpose. He had found an English translation of George Buchanan’s Latin play Baptistes, and wanted to establish Milton’s authorship. Hence a chapter on style. Peck calls it a ‘chapter’, but it is really a hotchpotch of fifty notes, spread over twenty-eight pages, covering a variety of stylistic features. Each note has a self-explanatory title, such as: ‘12. He often makes the substantive an adjective, 13. or verb, 14. or participle’ (105). The notes themselves mostly consist of lists of illustrative examples, often single words or phrases. At first glance, then, Peck (p.41) looks pedestrian, and most subsequent commentators have ignored him. This is a pity. His ‘examination’ is thin on argument, but his local insights are valuable. Some will not be made again until the twentieth century when Thomas Corns will make some of the same points independently. To cite but one example, Peck notes how Milton conveys the perils of Chaos by making ‘the adjective a substantive’ (114) in such phrases as ‘the palpable obscure’ (II. 406) and ‘the vast abrupt’ (II. 409). Corns, writing in 1990, will note how the use of adjectives for nouns in both these phrases plunges the reader, as well as the would-be space-traveller, in an ‘abortive gulf’ (II. 441): ‘readers too are left groping for some familiar substantive to fix upon: we find instead the shaky premise of a new noun’.38

Peck also offers valuable insights into Milton’s elisions, though he has a poor ear for scansion. He scans ‘Least entring on the Canaanite alarmd’ (XII. 217) as follows: ‘Least én/ter íng/on the Cán/aaníte/alármed’, thereby intruding an ‘anapaest foot’. A better scansion (guided by the original spelling) would be: ‘Léast ént/ring on/the Cán/aaníte/allármd’. Peck’s ‘én/teríng’ is a fault, and an ugly one, but it is closely related to one of his virtues. Many later critics will go to extraordinary lengths to crush Milton’s lines into ten syllables—and then deplore the consequences of their own procrusteanism. Peck recognizes that Milton can glide two vowels together without annihilating either one. This practice, known as synaloepha (the Greek word means ‘melting together’) should not be confused with elision, where one of the vowels is omitted (literally ‘crushed out’, Latin elido) in pronunciation. Synaloepha softens verse; elision makes it harsh. Numerous critics of Milton’s prosody, including Johnson (1751), will come to grief by failing to distinguish synaloepha from elision. Peck does not use the term ‘synaloepha’, but he does talk of Milton’s ‘melting of syllables’: ‘As to his elisions, melting of syllables, & using something like an English dactyl foot: he generally cuts off the letter y in the word many, when the next word begins with a vowel (which yet seems not to be cut off, but rather to remain) whereby he gives a particular softness to the foot, & makes it read like an English dactyl’ (112). Johnson will think statements of this kind an intolerable contradiction. How can syllables ‘remain’ when they have been ‘cut off’? But Peck is right. ‘Melting’ syllables do ‘remain’—even when they yield to the decasyllabic norm. That said, it must be admitted that Peck again spoils a good insight by scanning amiss. As an example of ‘an English dactyl’ he cites the following two instances of ‘many a’: ‘so over many a tract / Of Heav’n they march’d, and many a Province wide’ (VI. 76–7). The vowels melt, but they do not form dactyls. If we divide the lines into feet (as Peck thinks we should), then both instances of ‘many’ straddle two feet, not one (‘mán/y a tráct’, ‘and mán/y a Próv/ince’). Peck is most likely using the term ‘dactyl’ loosely, to make the point that ‘many a’ would be a dactyl were it to coincide with one metrical foot. This probability is reinforced by one of his subsequent examples. He tells us that VI. 658 reads ‘as if it had two dactyl feet’, and he marks these for us by printing them in Roman font: ‘which wrought them pain/Implacable, & many a dolorous groan’ (112). Here, as before, Peck’s (p.42) dactyls are really iambs or melting anapests (‘y a dól/orous gróan’). But this is to niggle. Peck’s essential point is that Milton admits trisyllabic feet (or ‘something like’ them) by melting, not eliding. The result, as he notes, is ‘softness’. This is a valuable insight and one to which we shall return when we come to Johnson’s criticism that Milton’s elisions are harsh.39

Edward Manwaring (Of Harmony and Numbers, in Latin and English Prose, and in English Poetry, 1744) is unusual (possibly unique) in complaining that Milton’s verse is too English. Hostile critics usually complain that it is ‘un-English’. Manwaring admires the ‘beautiful Transpositions’ (43), but deplores the prosody. The root of the problem, in his view, is ‘our Pentametre’, which lacks the harmony of dactylic hexameter. Manwaring does not go so far as to say that iambic pentameter can never be harmonious, but he has narrow notions as to how it might. He has a bizarre theory of ‘musical Concords’ that recognizes only three places where the caesura can legitimately appear: ‘if there is not a Division in the Composition of this Verse, at the End of a Word, in the third, seventh, or fifth half Foot, this Composition will have no Modulation; for ten Syllables are no more Poetry, without these Syllables are artfully disposed, than any Section of ten Syllables in Prose’ (51). Since Milton places caesurae ‘variously’, he sometimes does measure up to Manwaring’s measures, but usually does not, and Manwaring pronounces sternly on those lines that go astray. Like Bentley, he has unshakable confidence in his own taste. ‘Should any one suspect this Reduction’, he announces, ‘let him read the following…and this, or nothing, will teach him the Truth’ (48). He then quotes ‘Thrones, Dominations, Princedomes, Virtues, Powers’ as an example of a line that is self-evidently execrable. Unfortunately for him, this is one of Milton’s most celebrated single lines. Even when Milton puts the caesura where Manwaring says he should, Manwaring finds fault with his scansion:

This Verse is defective both in Accent and Quantity. B. iii. v. 266.

His Words here ended; // but his meek Aspect.

Here the first Syllable in Aspect is acuted and long, whereas this Syllable should be short and grav’d. (49)

Manwaring assumes that ‘aspect’ has its familiar English pronunciation. It does not occur to him that iambic rhythm might prevail. Many modern editors print ‘aspéct’ to indicate that in this instance it does prevail. We should be cautious, for no one knows how Milton read the line. But Manwaring’s contemporaries were familiar with the idea that poetic rhythms can prevail over colloquial pronunciations. Capel Lofft (1792) will praise Milton for frequently enforcing ‘a more solemn and peculiar pronunciation’. Manwaring has his own way of being ‘solemn and peculiar’, but he does not have a good ear for Milton’s verse.

James Harris (Three Treatises,1744) points to the first six lines of Paradise Lost as proof that poetry can please by ‘its Numbers only’ (92). He does not quote the lines, but presents them in abstract tabular form so as to bring out their music:

(p.43) Sound and Sense: 1667–1800 Benson (1739) had seen the same pattern, but with a difference. He had quoted the words and noted how the strong pause in line 6 gives special weight to the delayed main verb. Harris values the lines primarily for their music, which (to his ear) works independently from the meaning:

That there is a Charm inPoetry, arising from its Numbers only, may be made evident from the five or six first Lines of the Paradise Lost; where, without any Pomp of Phrase, Sublimity of Sentiment, or the least Degree of Imitation, every Reader must find himself to be sensibly delighted; and that, only from the graceful and simple Cadence of the Numbers, and that artful Variation of the Caesura or Pause, so essential to the Harmony of every good Poem. (92)

The difference between Harris and Benson emerges in Harris’s reference to ‘the five or six first Lines’. Harris does not care whether we read five or six. Five suffice to make his point. For Benson, line 6 is essential. It is this line (with its main verb and satisfying pause) that brings everything together. Benson, in short, attends to sound and sense, while Harris notes the ‘Numbers only’. No admirer of Milton would deny that there is a pleasure to be derived from the ‘Cadence of the Numbers’, but by emphasizing ‘Numbers only’, ‘without…the least Degree of Imitation’, Harris opens the door to anti-Miltonists, who will argue that Milton attends to sound at the expense of sense.

Thomas Newton (‘Paradise Lost’…with Notes of Various Authors, 2 vols., 1749) finds close co-operation between sound and sense. He examines Milton’s versification in a long note (really a short essay) on the poem’s first line. Discussing the preface on ‘the Verse’, he ponders the precise meaning of ‘the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another’. Many have asked the same question, but few have been as succinct or persuasive as Newton. He identifies two main ways in which the verse is ‘various’. First, there is variety of rhythm: ‘Sometimes he gives us almost pure Iambics…Sometimes the Pyrrichius…Sometimes the Dactyle…Sometimes the Anapaest…Sometimes the Tribrachus or foot of three short syllables…And sometimes there is variety of these measures in the same verse, and seldom or never the same measures in two verses together’ (1:5). Newton is unusual for his time in admitting trisyllabic feet into Paradise Lost. Most eighteenth-century commentators balk at the idea, and the issue will be hotly debated in the next century. Newton’s other explanation of ‘variously’ is the varied placing of the caesura:

(p.44) Mr. Pope, in a letter to Mr. Walsh containing some critical observations on English versification, remarks that in any smooth English verse of ten syllables, there is naturally a pause at the fourth, fifth, or sixth syllable, and upon the judicious change and management of these depends the variety of versification. But Milton varies the pause according to the sense, and varies it through all the ten syllables, by which means he is a master of greater harmony than any other English poet: and he is continually varying the pause, and scarce ever suffers it to rest upon the same syllable in more than two, and seldom in so many as two, verses together. (1:3)

Like Benson, Newton thinks that Milton places his pauses ‘according to the sense’. He cites several examples (still in the same long note), including this from the War in Heaven: ‘such as in thir Soules infix’d / Plagues; they astonisht all resistance lost’ (VI. 837–8). For Newton, the strong pause after ‘Plagues’ is calculated to convey the devils’ shock:

And these changes are not only rung for the sake of the greater variety, but are so contriv’d as to make the sound more expressive of the sense. And this is another great art of versification, the adapting of the very sounds, as well as words, to the subject matter, the stile of sound, as Mr. Pope calls it: and in this Milton is excellent as in all the rest, and we shall give several instances of it in the course of these remarks. So that he has abundantly exemplified in his own practice the rules laid down by himself in his preface, his versification having all the requisites of true musical delight, which as he says consists only in apt numbers, fit quantity of syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another. (1:5)

For Newton, the ‘numbers’ and ‘quantity’ are ‘apt’ and ‘fit’ to the things they describe. It is not clear just how he understands ‘quantity’, but it is likely that he takes it to refer to syllable length. He certainly allows a place for this kind of quantity in English verse. Earlier in the same note he writes: ‘The English heroic verse approaches nearest to the Iambic of the Ancients, of which it wants only a foot; but then it is to be measur’d by the tone and accent, as well as by the time and quantity’ (1:4). ‘As well as’, not ‘instead of’. I noted earlier how Mammon makes expressive use of ‘time and quantity’ when he urges the devils to ‘work ease out of pain’ (II. 261). Newton would see this as an instance of ‘fit quantity’. He has no note on ‘ease out’, but he does find a mimetic lengthening in ‘So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-Fiend lay’ (I. 209). ‘The length of this verse’, he writes, ‘consisting of so many monosyllables, and pronounc’d so slowly, is excellently adapted to the subject that it would describe’ (25–6). Many have agreed, but Johnson (1751) will be sceptical, urging us not to confuse length of time with physical extension.

Whatever the merits of this particular case, Newton’s other examples of imitative harmony have won general assent. Like Addison (1709) and the Richardsons (1734), he notes the labyrinthine syntax with which Milton describes the intricate arguments of the debating devils (II. 558–61), and he adds the further insight that ‘the turn of the words is greatly improv’d, and render’d still more beautiful by the addition of an epithet to each of them’ (119). The addition of epithets (‘Foreknowledge, Will and Fate, / Fixt Fate, free will, foreknowledg absolute’) has a retarding (p.45) effect and so is another example of ‘fit quantity’. As William Smith had noted ten years earlier, ‘the very Structure of the Words expresses the Intricacy of the Discourse, and the Repetition of some of the Words with Epithets of slow Pronunciation, shews the Difficulty of making Advancements in such unfathomable Points’.40 Newton finds another in example in these lines, where ‘The difficulty of Satan’s voyage…is very well express’d by…monosyllables…which cannot be pronounced but slowly’ (1:149):

  • So eagerly the fiend
  • Ore bog or steep, through strait, rough, dense, or rare,
  • With head, hands, wings or feet pursues his way,
  • And swims or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flyes. (II. 947–50)

Sprott (1953), followed by Fowler (1968), will explicitly evoke ‘fit quantity’ to account for the effect of these lines.

Newton finds a different kind of mimetic effect in the fallen angels’ singing:

  • Thir Song was partial, but the harmony
  • (What could it less when Spirits immortal sing?)
  • Suspended Hell, and took with ravishment
  • The thronging audience. (II. 552–5)

Newton: ‘The harmony suspended Hell; but is it not much better with the parenthesis coming between? which suspends as it were the event, raises the reader’s attention, and gives a greater force to the sentence’ (118). Ricks (1963) applauds this comment and hears a play on ‘suspension as a technical harmonic term’ (79). This is appealing, but the technical sense (the prolonging of one chord into another to create a temporary discord) seems not to have existed before the nineteenth century (OED 8). But there is a pun. ‘Suspend’ means both ‘bring about the temporary cessation of (a condition)’ (OED 2f) and ‘rivet the attention of’ (OED 5a). Like Orpheus, the singing angels defer Hell by delighting it.

Newton is superb on moments like this, but such ‘special effects’ can become tiring if used too frequently. They need to be balanced with quieter virtues. Newton notices less obvious imitative harmonies as well as conspicuous tours de force. He is especially alert to tiny rhythmic variations. Some of his best notes of this kind are rebuttals of Bentley, who had frequently changed Milton’s word order to make it regularly iambic. Wanting a ‘Smoother and stronger Accent’, Bentley had proposed changing ‘never will’ to ‘will never’ in Satan’s line: ‘To do ought good never will be our task’ (I. 159). Newton replies: ‘Dr. Bentley would read it thus, To do ought good will never be our task, as of a smoother and stronger accent: but I conceive that Milton intended to vary the accent of never and ever in the next verse’ (21). ‘To do ought good never will be our task, / But ever to do ill our sole delight’: in a sense, Bentley was right. ‘Never’ goes against the grain. But so does Satan’s perverse morality, so Milton’s ‘apt Numbers’ aptly rub the wrong way. As Newton recognizes, (p.46) ‘never’ and ‘ever’ plant their metrical feet in opposite directions. ‘Never’ pushes back, refusing ‘To do ought good’, while ‘ever’ falls compliantly into line, acquiescing in the will ‘to do ill’. The detail is tiny, but we should not undervalue it, even though no one might have noticed it had Bentley not hammered the lines into deadpan inertia.

Newton catches another suggestive rhythm when Sin betrays her charge as custodian of Hell:

  • the fatal Key,
  • Sad instrument of all our woe, she took;
  • And towards the Gate rouling her bestial train,
  • Forthwith the huge Porcullis high up drew. (II. 871–4)

‘Rouling’ is another mid-line inversion. ‘A modern riming poet’, Newton conjectures, ‘would perhaps have said And rolling tow’rds the gate her bestial train, and no bad line neither: but how much better doth Milton’s express the rolling of her serpentine train, and how well the sound agrees with the sense!’ (142). The verse rolls, just as Sin rolls, and the bumpy rhythm imparts a strange sense of purposeful menace to her perverse undulations.

Newton has a keen ear not only for expressive departures from the rhythmic norm, but also for those moments when Milton exploits a well-timed return to it:

  • nor sometimes forget
  • Those other two equal’d with me in Fate,
  • So were I equal’d with them in renown,
  • Blind Thamyris and blind Maeonides
  • And Tiresias and Phineus Prophets old.
  • Then feed on thoughts, that voluntarie move
  • Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful Bird
  • Sings darkling. (III. 32–9)


that voluntary move Harmonious numbers; &c.] And the reader will observe the flowing of the numbers here with all of the ease and harmony of the finest voluntary. The words seem of themselves to have fall’n naturally into verse almost without the poet’s thinking of it. And this harmony appears to greater advantage for the roughness of some of the preceding verses, which is an artifice frequently practic’d by Milton, to be careless of his numbers in some places, the better to set off the musical flow of those which immediately follow. (1:167–8)

Bentley had also noticed the ‘roughness’ of ‘the preceding verses’, and had delivered tongue-twisters in an attempt to scan them (‘the Editor’s Fist again…the bad Accent…Tiresias; the Tone in the Fourth Syllable, unus’d and unnatural’). The names flow easily enough if we allow ourselves to ‘sometimes forget’ iambic regularity, but Newton is right to remark the sudden ‘flow’ when we remember it again.

(p.47) He also offers some excellent comments on etymological puns. When the devils parade with ‘horrent Arms’ (II. 513), he recalls Latin horrens (‘bristly’): ‘Horrent includes the idea both of terrible and prickly, set up like the bristles of a wild boar’ (1:114). When Satan falls ‘supplanted’ (X. 513), metamorphosed into serpent form against his will, Newton notes:

We may observe here a singular beauty and elegance in Milton’s language, and that is his using words in their strict and litteral sense, which are commonly apply’d to a metaphorical meaning, whereby he gives peculiar force to his expressions, and the litteral meaning appears more new and striking than the metaphor itself. We have an instance of this in the word supplanted, which is deriv’d from the Latin supplanto, to trip up one’s heels. (2:252)

As Ricks (1963) remarks, the pun ‘judges crime and punishment’ (65). Newton notes another etymological pun when Beelzebub urges the devils to strike at earth’s ‘punie habitants’ (II. 367). Developing a point first made by Hume, he writes: ‘It is possible that the author by puny might mean no more than weak or little; but yet if we reflect how frequently he uses words in their proper and primary signification, it seems probable that he might include likewise the sense of the French (from whence it is deriv’d) puis né, born since, created long after us’ (1:105). For Ricks, the pun compresses hatred with contempt: ‘To the fallen angels, men are weak just because they are a sort of divine afterthought, a poor attempt, to make up the numbers in Heaven. The comment of Hume and Newton this one word radiates into the whole of the poem—a mark of good criticism and of a great poem’ (66).

Despite these triumphs, Newton misses some puns. He has a pedestrian note on ‘Globe of fierie Seraphim’ (II. 512): ‘A globe signifies here a battalion in circle surrounding him, as Virgil says’ (1:114). Yes, globus means ‘troop’, but that sense is only enriched if we admit the added suggestion that this troop flies in spherical formation. Newton is less imaginative with ‘Globe’ than the Richardsons had been with ‘Cube’. He again misses a pun (though just barely) when Raphael describes the unfamiliarity of war in Heaven:

  • strange to us it seemd
  • At first, that Angel should with Angel warr,
  • And in fierce hosting meet, who wont to meet
  • So oft in Festivals of joy and love
  • Unanimous. (VI. 91–5)

‘This word hosting’, Newton writes, ‘seems to have been first coin’d by our author. It is a very expressive word, and plainly form’d from the substantive host: And if ever it is right to make new words, it is when the occasion is so new and extraordinary’ (1:393). ‘Hosting’ was in fact an old word. Keightley (1859) explains:

hosting, i.e. mustering, assembling of troops. This appears to be an Anglo-Irish term; for it is only in writings relative to Ireland that it occurs. It is frequent in the State Papers relating to Ireland in the Tudor times. Milton probably met with it in Spenser’s (p.48) View of Ireland, which we know he had read, and from which Todd quotes, ‘Lords have had the leading of their own followers to the general hosting’.41

There is a difference between this usage and Milton’s. Spenser had described the muster of one host; Raphael describes fighting between two hosts. The latter sense might be new in English and it is certainly new in Heaven. As Newton notes, Raphael coins his ‘very expressive’ word ‘from the substantive host’. But the word is even more expressive for signalling two kinds of host. Newton sees just one sense, ‘army’; he misses the other sense, ‘host’ as the correlative of ‘guest’. Before Satan rebelled, angels had hosted each other ‘in Festivals of joy and love’; now their hostings are hostile. There is an etymological connection, for both senses derive from Latin hostis (‘enemy’, ‘stranger’). ‘Fierce hosting’ is an oxymoron as well as a tautology, and Raphael hankers after the benign sense even as he steels himself to the malign one. Newton, to his cost, misses the pun, but he is right to recognize that Raphael needs a ‘new word’ to describe an ‘occasion…so new and extraordinary’.

John Mason (An Essay on the Power of Numbers, and the Principles of Harmony in Poetical Composition, 1749) discusses Milton’s prosodic style in a chapter entitled ‘An Examination of Milton’s Numbers’. Like Newton, he admires the expressiveness of Milton’s rhythms, but he has strict ideas about prosody and there are limits to the liberties he will allow. Where Newton sees subtle imitative harmonies, Mason sees a mess. He is not another Bentley. He acknowledges that ‘judicious Mixture of Numbers and Change of Measures is the true Sourse of that Pleasure which the Ear finds in the Flow of Milton’s Verse’ (55) and he especially admires the ‘just and judicious Mixture of the short Numbers with the long, and the quick with the slow’ (57). He protests, nevertheless, when blank verse gallops with an anapaestic rhythm. He cannot believe that Milton wanted trisyllabic feet, and he condemns them as careless slips:

But this great Master of Poetick Numbers was not without his Faults, even in this very Point in which he so much excelled; nay, so negligent is he sometimes of his Measure, that he hath now and then so disposed of his Numbers as quite to destroy the Form and Structure of Iambic Verse. e.g.

˘˘ ‐˘ ˘‐ ‐˘ ˘‐

In their ∣triple ∣ Degrees; ∣ Regions, ∣to which B. v. l. 750.

Every Ear will perceive this to be no Verse; much less Iambic. (57)

Scanning the line, Mason imposes disyllabic feet, but that is not what he hears:

Now as the first three Feet are a Pyrrhic, Trochee, and Iambic, in this Order they make two Anapæsts; and the Line concluding with a Trochee and Iambic, makes the last Foot also an Anapæst. And there are wanting only two short Syllables at the End of the third Foot to make the whole Line purely Anapæstic.…And the rapid Flow of Anapæstics, is of all Things most contrary to the stately Movement of Iambics. And (p.49) the Line being a Composition of these two contrary Measures, and neither the one nor the other, it is no Verse, but downright Prose. (57–8)

Mason assumes that Milton has merely lapsed into a ‘rapid Flow of Anapæstics’. Newton also notices such moments, but where Mason sees careless slips, Newton sees deliberate echoic effects. He does not comment on the line Mason quotes here, but he comments on others like it. One of his examples—‘Shoots invisible vertue even to the deep’ (III. 586)—has long given grief to prosodists. Bentley was curt: ‘The Fault of this Word Invisible…is visible at first Sight. It spoils the measure.’ Pearce replied: ‘Milton seems to have thought this no blemish…for he frequently in the beginning of [a] verse chooses this artificial negligence’. True, but in this instance the ‘artificial negligence’ extends beyond ‘the beginning’ of the line. Newton, having quoted Bentley and Pearce, makes the essential point: ‘The number of syllables in this verse seems not ill contriv’d to express the depth to which the sun’s beams penetrated’ (1:211). Instead of deploring the ‘rapid Flow’, Newton thinks that Milton uses it to describe a darting movement over a vast expanse of space. Many of the ‘Anapæstic’ rhythms in Paradise Lost work in this way. Another instance is ‘Burnt after them to the bottomless pit’ (VI. 866). For Newton, the ‘uncommon measure of this verse, with only one Iambic foot in it, and that the last, is admirably contriv’d to express the idea. The beauty of it arises chiefly from the Pyrrichius in the third, and the Trochee in the fourth place’ (1:454). Newton, unlike Mason, welcomes the expressiveness of unusual rhythms.

Newton clearly agrees with the Richardsons that Milton’s reader ‘is Surrounded with Sense, it rises in every Line’.42 We are at the opposite pole from Leavis (1933), who will claim that Milton’s verse ‘has no particular expressive work to do, but functions by rote, of its own momentum, in the manner of a ritual’ (126). For Newton, as for the Richardsons, ‘every Line’ has expressive work to do, even at the minutest level. His enthusiasm will be shared by such later critics as Monboddo (1774) and Ricks (1963). But Leavis also has a bit of tradition behind him. Not every important eighteenth-century critic admired Milton’s prosodic style. Benson, Newton, and the Richardsons are wonderfully observant readers, but a sceptic might be suspicious of a critical method that finds riches ‘in every Line’. Are Milton’s rhythms really as expressive as all that or is Newton projecting his own ingenuity onto Milton? Readers inclined to be ask this question will be especially interested in the critic we are to consider next.

Samuel Johnson discusses Milton’s versification in four issues of The Rambler (January–February 1751, repr. 1752). It is remarkable that he should have written about Milton at all in 1751. The topic was awkward for him at that time, for he had recently been embroiled in an ugly controversy about Milton. William Lauder had tried to blacken Milton’s name by claiming that he had plagiarized large sections of Paradise Lost from modern Latin poets. The claim was fraudulent. Lauder had presented Latin translations of Milton as if they were original texts that Milton had (p.50) translated. Johnson, who bore an antipathy to Milton the man, supported Lauder, even to the extent of writing under his name—though he subsequently claimed to have been a victim of the hoax. Lauder’s fraud was exposed towards the end of 1750, so it was brave of Johnson to criticize Milton in early 1751, when his name was linked with that of the now disgraced Lauder. He may have wanted to repair his damaged reputation by interjecting a note of calm, rational debate into what had become a noisy fracas. His Rambler essays aim at a measured judgement—one that gives Milton his due while recognizing his flaws. The question for our purposes is whether Johnson is right about those flaws.

Broaching the topic of Milton’s versification in Rambler 86 (12 January 1751), he acknowledges that it would be ‘not only very difficult but tiresome and disgusting’ if iambic pentameter were never varied. ‘Necessity has therefore enforced the mixed measure, in which some variation of the accents is allowed; this, though it always injures the harmony of the line considered by itself, yet compensates the loss by relieving us from the continual tyranny of the same sound, and makes us more sensible of the harmony of the pure measure’ (139). Johnson cites these lines as an example, using italics to show where ‘the accent is equally upon two syllables together, and in both strong’ (141):

  • Thus at their shady lodge arriv’d, both stood,
  • Both turn’d, and under open sky ador’d
  • The God that made both sky, air, earth, and heav’n.

Benson (1739) had also praised the artful turn in ‘both stood, / Both turn’d’, but where Benson had pointed to the line-end pivot, Johnson seizes on a supposed sequence of spondees. He might be right to hear triple heavy accents in ‘sky, air, earth’, but there is no ‘strong’ accent on the word ‘both’. In all three instances (‘both stood, / Both turn’d’, ‘both sky’) ‘both’ is unstressed. Even in the case of ‘sky, air, earth’, it is not necessary to give all three words a strong accent. ‘Air’ might be distinguished by quantity rather than accent. Guest (1838) will argue that Johnson’s comment on ‘both stood, / Both turn’d’ confuses accent with quantity. Johnson throughout these essays has an unreliable ear for prosody.

Still discussing Adam and Eve’s evening prayer, Johnson goes on to fault Milton for two ill-judged departures from ‘the harmony of the pure measure’:

There are two lines in this passage more remarkably unharmonious.

This delicious place,

For us too large; where thy abundance wants

Partakers, and uncrop’d falls to the ground.

Here the third pair of syllables in the first, and fourth pair in the second verse, have their accents retrograde or inverted; the first syllable being strong or acute, and the second weak. The detriment which the measure suffers by this inversion of the accents…is remarkably striking in this place, where the vicious verse concludes a period. (142)

Johnson concludes that ‘the law of metre is very grossly violated’ and ends his essay by accusing Milton of ‘committing short and long’—the very fault Milton had (p.51) condemned ‘in his sonnet’ (142–3).43 But again it is Johnson’s feet that stumble by being too big for their metrical boots: ‘For us too large: where thy abundance wants’. The ‘retrograde’ accent to which Johnson objects (‘whére thy’) is just not there. ‘Where thy’ is a pyrrhic balancing the spondee ‘too large’. The point stands even if we discard terms like ‘pyrrhic’ and ‘trochee’ as neoclassical anachronisms. The long and the short of it is that it is Johnson, not Milton, who scans with Midas’ ears.

Johnson is on stronger ground with ‘falls to’. Here the accent is ‘inverted’, and (as Johnson notes) is more ‘striking’ for coming at the end of the sentence (‘fálls to the gróund’). But the abrupt change to falling rhythm can be defended. In the Richardsons’ terms, Milton is ‘Doing what he Describes’. The ‘striking’ emphasis on ‘falls’ serves another purpose too. It signals that the word is as yet untainted by the Fall. The effect is like that moment in the morning hymn when Adam and Eve call on the sun to praise God ‘both when thou climb’st, / And when high Noon hast gaind, and when thou fallst’ (V. 173–4). I admit that the present instance falls foul of an error. Milton has forgotten that ripe fruit should not fall in a deathless world where Spring and Autumn dance hand in hand. As Eve later informs us, ungathered fruit in Paradise ‘ripe for use hangs on the stalk’ (V. 323), ‘Still hanging incorruptible’ (IX. 622). ‘Falls to the ground’ flatly contradicts this picture. Johnson is right to sense a problem in ‘falls’, but it is not one of prosody.

In Rambler 88 (19 January 1751), Johnson turns to elisions. The topic might seem dry, but it has far-reaching implications for the debate about Milton’s style. Johnson lends his authority to those who fault Milton for writing English as if it were a foreign language. Specifically, he chides him for applying an Italian solution to an English problem. The problem is the abundance of consonants in English, especially in ‘our monosyllables’, which ‘being of Teutonic original, or formed by contraction, commonly begin, and end with consonants’ (154). Italian has the opposite problem: too many vowels. Johnson believes that Milton tried to achieve ‘the softness of the Italian, the most mellifluous of all modern poetry’, by imitating Italian elisions (155). The experiment failed, he believes, due to an inherent difference between Italian and English. Italian has too many vowels and so needs to elide some; English has too few and so needs the few it has. Milton’s elisions therefore exacerbate the harshness they strive to ameliorate. Like other renaissance experimenters in English verse, Milton has failed to realize that ‘one language cannot communicate its rules to another. We have already tried and rejected the hexameter of the antients, the double close of the Italians, and the alexandrine of the French; and therefore the elision of vowels, however graceful it may seem to other nations, is not consequently suitable to the genius of the English tongue.’ Milton has ‘mistaken the nature of our language, of which the chief defect is ruggedness and asperity, and has left our harsh cadences yet harsher’ (157–8).

(p.52) This sounds plausible, but is it true? The first thing to note is that Johnson argues in two opposite directions. Even as he deplores Milton’s alleged harshness, he notes how he often calls ‘a softer word to his assistance’: it is ‘for this reason, and I believe for this only, he sometimes indulges himself in a long series of proper names, and introduces them where they add little but musick to his poem’ (156). The phrase ‘little but musick’ is ominously prophetic of Eliot’s judgement that Milton chooses words for their ‘musical value’. Johnson goes on to quote from the same long catalogue (XI. 387f.) that Eliot (1935) will dismiss as ‘a solemn game’ (39). Johnson need not be contradicting himself when he complains in one breath of Milton’s harshness and in the next of his softness. It is possible that Milton uses soft-sounding names to compensate for habitual harshness. But is his verse harsh? Few have thought so. Even hostile critics usually argue that his verse is too soft, not too harsh. G. Wilson Knight will liken it to ‘a soft substance drawn out stringily’.44 How can we account for this difference of opinion? The explanation lies in Johnson’s notion of elision. Peck (1740) had described Milton’s elisions as a ‘melting of syllables’, in which the elided vowel ‘seems not to be cut off, but rather to remain’.45 For Johnson, the elided syllable really is ‘cut off’. ‘The abscision of a vowel’, he writes, ‘is undoubtedly vicious when it is strongly sounded, and makes, with its associate consonant, a full and audible syllable’ (158). Johnson again uses italics to pinpoint the problem. Some examples:

No ingrateful food: and food alike those pure…(V. 407)

If true, here only, and of delicious taste…(IV. 251)

And vital vertue infus’d, and vital warmth…(VII. 236)

God made thee of choice his own, and of his own…(X. 766)

I should like to know how Johnson read these lines aloud. It is hard to believe that he said ‘N’ingrateful’, ‘onl’and’, ‘vert’in’, and ‘th’of’, but he states explicitly that ‘the vowel is cut off’, and his whole case is that the elisions grate on a scrannel pipe of wretched consonants: ‘I believe every reader will agree that in all those passages, though not equally in all, the music is injured, and in some the meaning obscured’ (159). Where Peck had allowed the syllables to melt, even if this meant admitting ‘something like an English dactyl’, Johnson pares each line to ten syllables. The fact that he deplores the ‘harsh cadences’ his own scansion renders is evidence that it renders and rends amiss. If we accept Peck’s argument that melting vowels impart ‘a particular softness’, Johnson’s objection to Milton’s ‘harshness’ melts away. Milton does not add vowels just to cut them off: he is as aware as Johnson of the harshness of English, and his honeyed drawing out is calculated to ameliorate it. Johnson has misunderstood Milton’s use of elision, but later critics might not have appreciated Milton’s achievement had Johnson not recognized the influence upon him of the ‘the softness of the Italian, the most mellifluous of all modern poetry’.

(p.53) In Rambler 90 (26 January 1751), Johnson examines ‘the variety and choice of the pauses’ with which Milton ‘diversified his numbers’ (170). He thinks that Milton subjected himself to ‘inconveniences’ by choosing ‘poets of Greece and Rome’ as ‘models’ for ‘his scheme of versification’. The chief problem, Johnson believes, is the paucity of syllables in a line of blank verse, ‘our heroick measure’ (171). Homer and Virgil wrote in dactylic hexameter and so had more syllables at their disposal and more choice as to where to place their pauses. Even fragments of a hexameter line have a euphony that English poets can only envy:

the hexameter of the ancients may be considered as consisting of fifteen syllables, so melodiously disposed, that, as every one knows who has examined the poetical authors, very pleasing and sonorous lyrick measures are formed from the fragments of the heroick. It is, indeed, scarce possible to break them in such a manner but that…some harmony will still remain. (172)

Blank verse, by contrast, is barely distinguishable from prose: ‘Milton was constrained within the narrow limits of a measure not very harmonious in the utmost perfection; the single parts, therefore, into which it was to be sometimes broken by pauses, were in danger of losing the very form of verse. This has, perhaps, notwithstanding all his care, sometimes happened’ (172). In some ways, this criticism chimes with that of Mason (1749), who had faulted Milton for lapsing into ‘downright prose’. But Johnson is less severe. Mason had accused Milton of ‘negligence’; Johnson thinks he did the best he could in a tight spot. He faced ‘inconveniences’, but ‘it is no reproach’ to him ‘not to have overcome’ them, for ‘they are in their own nature insuperable’. He ‘has struggled with so much art and diligence, that he may at least be said to have deserved success’ (171).

Like Manwaring (1744), Johnson has specific expectations as to where the pauses should come in blank verse. Manwaring had insisted they come only after the third, fifth, or seventh syllables, and then only ‘at the End of a Word’.46 Johnson is not that picky, but he has his limits. He does not like it ‘when a single syllable is cut off from the rest’, to stand alone at the beginning or end of the line. A single syllable, isolated in this way, may or may not be connected to an adjacent line, but whether it is or not, it offends Johnson’s ear: ‘If it be united to the other line, it corrupts its harmony; if disjoined, it must, with regard to musick, be superfluous; for there is no harmony in a single sound’ (173–4). Johnson cites one example:

  • Hypocrites austerely talk…
  • Defaming as impure what God declares
  • Pure, and commands to som, leaves free to all. (IV. 744, 746–7)

It is a pity that he does not cite additional examples. I should have liked to hear him respond to Benson’s praise of ‘all that he had made / View’d’ (VII. 548–9) and ‘Death his Dart / Shook’ (XI. 491–2). Here too ‘a single syllable is cut off’ (p.54) (Johnson), but Benson finds ‘artful Collocation’, not cacophony.47 In both these cases the isolated word is a verb, but Benson goes on to cite another instance where (as in Johnson’s example) Milton isolates an adjective:

  • Under his forming hands a Creature grew,
  • Manlike, but different sex, so lovly faire,
  • That what seemd fair in all the World, seemed now
  • Mean, or in her summd up. (VIII. 470–3)

‘What a Force’, Benson exclaims, ‘has that Word mean, as it is plac’d!’ (49). What a force too has that word ‘Pure’, as it is placed: ‘Defaming as impure what God declares / Pure’. Johnson defames this as impure (‘united to the other line, it corrupts’), but the whole point of these lines is that a lawful union does not corrupt, so it is only proper that Milton (doing what he describes) should get his leg over with a robust enjambment.

Johnson also thinks it a ‘defect’ when ‘the pause is at the second syllable from the beginning’. He takes particular exception to the abrupt stop that silences Orpheus:

  • the Race
  • Of that wilde Rout that tore the Thracian Bard
  • In Rhodope, where Woods and Rocks had Eares
  • To rapture, till the savage clamor dround
  • Both Harp and Voice; nor could the Muse defend
  • Her Son. So fail not thou, who thee implores. (VII. 33–8)

Johnson’s ear cannot endure the isolation of ‘Her Son’. ‘When two syllables…are abscinded from the rest’, he writes, they ‘want some associate sounds to make them harmonious’ (174). In a sense, he is right. ‘Her Son’ jars with the preceding euphony. The pauses after ‘Rhodope’ and ‘Voice’ come upon Johnson’s favourite resting place, the fourth syllable, while that following ‘rapture’ falls ‘upon the third’, one of the ‘weak syllables’, appropriate for ‘pauses which only suspend the Sense’ (176). ‘Rapture’ is especially suspensive, for it hangs between two opposite senses. Orpheus excites ‘rapture’ (ecstasy), but is about to be rapt (torn). ‘Her Son’ is ‘abscinded’ because Orpheus is. The sudden stop shatters the line: ‘Her Son. So fail not thou, who thee implores’. An anti-Miltonist might point to ‘thou, who thee’ as another example of unidiomatic ‘callousness’. The phrase does create a moment’s confusion as to who is ‘who’ (it is Milton himself, ‘him’ being understood between ‘thou’ and ‘who’). The pronouns are disorienting, but this suits the context. ‘Thou, who thee’ suggests both the poet’s vulnerability (he draws himself into the Muse’s bosom) and his self-assertion (grammatically, he stakes his claim to be a subject, even as Orpheus disintegrates into objects). Milton in line 38 literally pulls himself together, but the effect would not have been the same without that show-stopping pause.

(p.55) Lest this be thought over-ingenious, let me turn to another occasion where Milton makes expressive use of abscinded syllables:

  • Thus with the Year
  • Seasons return, but not to me returns
  • Day, or the sweet approach of Ev’n or Morn,
  • Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summers Rose,
  • Or flocks, or heards, or human face divine;
  • But cloud in stead, and ever-during dark
  • Surrounds me, from the chearful ways of men
  • Cut off, and for the Book of knowledge fair
  • Presented with a Universal blanc
  • Of Natures works to mee expung’d and ras’d. (III. 40–9)

‘Day’ and ‘Cut off’ are (in Johnson’s words) ‘cut off from the rest’, and yes, this makes them look lonely (‘when two syllables…are abscinded from the rest, they evidently want some associate sounds’). But this is a triumph, not a fault. Nothing could more effectively convey the blind poet’s isolation. In fairness to Johnson, I should acknowledge that he does (in theory) allow room for effects like these. Having laid it down as a ‘rule’ that English poets should ‘never make a full pause at less distance than that of three syllables from the beginning or end of a verse’, he suddenly admits the possibility of exceptions: ‘That this rule should be universally and indispensably established, perhaps cannot be granted; something may be allowed to variety, and something to the adaptation of the numbers to the subject’ (173). Johnson never mentions the lines on Milton’s blindness in Rambler 90, so we do not know whether he saw ‘Cut off’ as a legitimate exception. If he did, he likely saw it as a case where Milton adapts ‘the numbers to the subject’.

In Rambler 94 (9 February 1751) Johnson turns his full attention to ‘the resemblance of poetick numbers to the subject which they mention or describe’. ‘The general resemblance of the sound to the sense’, he writes, ‘is to be found in every language which admits of poetry’, for ‘it is natural’ for a poet ‘to change his measures with his subject, even without any effort of the understanding, or intervention of the judgment’. ‘To revolve jollity and mirth necessarily tunes the voice of a poet to gay and sprightly notes, as it fires his eye with vivacity; and reflection on gloomy situations and disastrous events, will sadden his numbers’ (210–11). There is much of value here. Firstly, Johnson recognizes that echoic effects are more a matter of rhythm (‘measures’) than of particular vowels and consonants. This neatly sidesteps the debate about ‘arbitrary’ signs. But Johnson does believe that onomatopoeia exists. ‘Every language has many words formed in imitation of the noises which they signify. Such are Stridor, Balo, and Boatus, in Latin; and in English to growl, to hiss, and to jarr.’ By allowing imitative powers to ‘every language’, Johnson opens the middle ground and so avoids a trap that Locke had fallen into. Locke had confidently opined that there can be no ‘natural connexion’ between words and their referents, for if there were, ‘there would be but one Language amongst all Men’. This is an all-or-nothing dichotomy, and (p.56) Leibniz was right to object to it. Johnson, like Leibniz, recognizes that ‘every language’ makes imperfect approximations. In poetry, these ‘undeniably contribute to enforce the impression of the idea’ (215). As one of ‘many beauties of this kind’ in Paradise Lost, Johnson cites the opening of Hell’s gate, where ‘we hear…the creaking’:

  • op’n flie
  • With impetuous recoile and jarring sound
  • Th’infernal dores, and on thir hinges grate
  • Harsh Thunder, that the lowest bottom shook
  • Of Erebus. (II. 879–83)

Many have thought these lines onomatopoeic. Hume (1695) went so far as to claim that ‘jar’ was a neologism ‘Coined on purpose from the Noise so made’ (86). ‘Jar’ actually dates from the sixteenth century, but the OED agrees that it was ‘in origin…echoic…representing (with trilled r) a continued harsh vibratory sound’. Dryden (reported by Aubrey) tells us that Milton pronounced the letter r ‘very hard’.48 He no doubt dictated these lines with a thrilling trill.

This case is relatively straightforward, since sound imitates sound. Johnson is sceptical of more ambitious claims. He recognizes three ways in which ‘the sound’ can echo ‘the sense’: (1) onomatopoeia, (2) the use of rhythm to suggest physical movement, and (3) the use of rhythm to convey emotion. Johnson thinks that we lapse into subjective impressions when we stray from these three categories. He ridicules Dionysius of Halicarnassus for having argued that ‘the sound of Homer’s verses sometimes exhibits the idea of corporeal bulk’. For Johnson, this is ‘the product of blind reverence acting upon fancy’, an absurdity like ‘that of the blind man, who after long enquiry into the nature of the scarlet colour, found that it represented nothing so much as the clangor of a trumpet’. ‘Sound’, Johnson concludes, ‘can resemble nothing but sound, and time can measure nothing but motion and duration’ (216). This might seem prohibitive, but ‘motion and duration’ give a lot of scope. ‘The measure or time of pronouncing may be varied so as very strongly to represent, not only the modes of external motion, but the quick or slow succession of ideas, and consequently the passions of the mind’ (218). Johnson says no more about ‘passions of the mind’ (which is a pity, for this is the most intriguing part of his argument), but he gives two splendid examples of how Milton conveys ‘external motion’.

The first is ‘the toil of Satan struggling through chaos’: ‘So he with difficulty and labour hard / Mov’d on, with difficulty and labour hee’ (II. 1021–2). By ‘encumbering and retarding the line’, Milton conveys ‘the difficulty of a progress made by strong efforts and with frequent interruptions’ (218). The encumbrance comes from the final vowel of ‘difficulty’, which Johnson (despite his earlier remarks on elision) sounds, not elides. Johnson’s next example of imitative ‘encumbering’ is the tempestuous thrashing about of the newly created ‘leviathans or whales’, but this time he spoils a good insight by misrepresenting the line he praises. Milton has (p.57) ‘Wallowing unweildie, enormous in their Gate’ (VII. 411). Johnson adds a comma after ‘Wallowing’. This is a small change, easily missed, but it matters. If we notice it, we can solve a problem I noted earlier. Benson (1739) and Newton (1749) had seen the leviathans as ‘tumbling about’; Johnson sees ‘a slow and heavy motion’ (218). A sceptic might pounce on this difference as proof that both readings are subjective. Had not Johnson himself admitted that ‘on many occasions we make the musick which we imagine ourselves to hear’?49 A sceptic, noting the clash between Benson’s music and Johnson’s, might want to change ‘many occasions’ to ‘all occasions’. But the comma makes all the difference. Milton’s version—‘Wallowing unweildie, enormous in thir Gate’—leaps along the line; Johnson’s moves in fits and starts. The revised fourth edition of The Rambler (1756), accepted as authoritative by many modern editors, introduces an even more serious change. It adds a liquid consonant to ‘unweildie’ and so misquotes the whole line as follows: ‘Wallowing, unweildly, enormous in their gait’. Johnson’s leviathans are significantly slower and clumsier than Milton’s. ‘Unweildly’ looks like an adverb, but that spurious comma makes it flounder as an adjective. ‘Unweildie’, by contrast, is genuinely sprightly. It looks like an adjective, but acts like an adverb: the leviathans do not just wallow—they wallow unweildie, sporting in their element. It would be a mistake, then, to describe Johnson’s ‘slow and heavy motion’ as ‘merely subjective’. His description fits the line as he quotes it. But it is he, not Milton, who has executed this ungainly belly-flop.

Misquotation vitiates another of Johnson’s close readings in Rambler 94. In the case we are about to consider, he does not praise an echoic effect, but faults Milton for having ‘neglected such representations’ by admitting an inappropriate one. ‘It is not indeed to be expected’, he writes, ‘that the sound should always assist the meaning, but it ought never to counteract it’ (219). Johnson thinks ‘the sound’ counteracts ‘the meaning’ when Moloch harangues the other fallen angels:

  • in our proper motion we ascend
  • Up to our native seat: descent and fall
  • To us is adverse. Who but felt of late,
  • When the fierce Foe hung on our brok’n Rear
  • Insulting, and pursu’d us through the Deep,
  • With what compulsion and laborious flight
  • We sunk thus low? Th’ ascent is easie then. (II. 75–81)

Johnson complains that these lines use ‘volubility and levity’ of ‘sound’ to ‘express an action tardy and reluctant’ (218). Milton has therefore ‘committed a fault like that of the player, who looked on the earth when he implored the heavens, and to the heavens when he addressed the earth’ (219). My own view is that this passage is one of the most masterly examples of imitative harmony in the whole poem. Moloch does not (as Johnson imagines) match light rhythms with ‘tardy’ actions; he uses light and heavy inflections, and uses both expressively. He is describing two diametrically opposed actions: ascent and descent. The ‘levity’ is audible in ‘Up to (p.58) our native seat’ and ‘Th’ ascent is easie’, but Moloch’s other rhythms (‘Whó but félt’, ‘fiérce fóe húng’, ‘súnk thús lów’) are ponderous. Johnson obscures this by misquoting one word. In line 80 (‘With what compulsion and laborious flight’) he changes ‘compulsion’ to ‘confusion’. This one error of transcription wreaks havoc with the entire passage. Moloch’s whole point is that the rebel forces did not flee as a confused rout (even though we later learn that they did). As Moloch tells the story, the rebel angels did not flee at all. They flew. But theirs was a ‘laborious flight’ because they were forced to fly in the wrong direction. Their ‘proper motion’ was to ‘ascend / Up’, but God drove them down. God being stronger, they went, but Moloch’s ‘tardy and reluctant’ rhythms suggest the ‘Untam’d reluctance’ (II. 337) with which flying angels sank. The very sound of his words hints at the effort required, even from God, to reverse the ‘proper motion’. Look at the vowels: ‘Up’, ‘us’, ‘hung’, ‘insulting’, ‘compulsion’, ‘sunk’, ‘thus’. By changing ‘compulsion’ to ‘confusion’, Johnson intrudes a different kind of u and so breaks solidarity in sound even as he capitulates in sense. Moloch’s vowels do not break solidarity, but give ground grudgingly, contesting every foot. The order of his words conveys stubborn resistance. ‘Up’, placed at the beginning of the sequence, is full of upward yearning. Reading aloud, one has a tendency to lift the head when saying ‘Up’, and Milton gives the word special force by placing it at the beginning of the line. ‘Sunk thus low’, at the end of the sequence, has a different effect. Reading aloud, one has a tendency, in pronouncing all three words, to drop the jaw. Between these extremes, ‘hung’ hangs in the balance. Even the half rhyme ‘insulting’/‘compulsion’ has expressive work to do, for it contrasts the agile leaping (Latin insultare, ‘to leap’) of the eager pursuers with the slow descent of the reluctant sinkers. The pursuers add insult to injury by leaping down when all angels should spring up. But the prime virtue of ‘compulsion’ is that it pushes back. Even when forced to go down, Moloch exerts an upward pressure. Johnson’s substitution of ‘confusion’ for ‘compulsion’ robs Moloch of this pressure. Johnson is right to hear a note of ‘volubility and levity’ in ‘Th’ ascent is easie then’, but it is because the preceding rhythms have been so weighty that these five words sound so exultant. Moloch has held them back so they can spring up. The effect I have described is not onomatopoeic, but it does satisfy Johnson’s other two prerequisites for an imitative harmony: it conveys ‘external motion’ and ‘passions of the mind’. When angels ascend, Moloch’s spirits soar; when they fall, he droops.

Johnson is willing to match sound with sound and rhythm with movement, but he brusquely dismisses the idea that sound or rhythm can suggest the spatial dimensions of an unmoving body. I have mentioned his disdain for Dionysius’s argument that Homer uses sound to convey ‘the idea of corporeal bulk’ (216). At the end of his essay, he brings his scepticism to bear on critics who make a similar claim for ‘So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay’ (I. 209). ‘There are readers’, he begins ominously, ‘who discover that in this passage…a long form is described in a long line; but the truth is, that length of body is only mentioned in a slow line, to which it has only the resemblance of time to space, of an hour to a maypole’ (220). This is witty, but it ignores a couple of things. First, it ignores the linguistic fact that speakers of English (and other languages) use the same word to (p.59) describe spatial and temporal extension. Even if we concede that an hour is not ‘long’ in the same way as a maypole, the fact that both can be said to be ‘long’ might justify some kind of association, even if it is based only on custom and convention. But the point can be made more strongly than this, for the line Johnson dismisses as ‘a slow line’ is not just slow. It is long too—visibly long, on the physical page. Of the thirty-four lines on page 8 of the 1674 edition (and the twenty-four lines on page 10 of the manuscript of book one now in the Pierpont Morgan Library), this line is by far the longest. I do not want to make too much of this detail. It is unlikely that a blind poet would have even been aware of it. But he would have known that a line containing many words will also contain many spaces between the words, and spaces add to line length. There is something false and falsifying about Johnson’s curt reductio ad absurdum (‘an hour to a maypole’). The line is ‘long’ in both senses, and (pace Johnson) this creates an imitative harmony. The effect might be trivial, but the ‘readers’ Johnson mentions have not just imagined it. Johnson never names them, so we cannot know for sure who he was thinking of. I suspect that he was thinking of Newton, whose note on this line I cited earlier. I would go further and suggest that all four of Johnson’s Rambler essays implicitly engage Newton in an attempt to demote Milton from the exalted position Newton had put him in. Johnson adds greatly to our understanding of the critical principles pertaining to imitative harmony, but Newton has the better ear for Milton’s blank verse and he is a better guide to the interactions between sound and sense in Paradise Lost.

1.5 ‘rising gradually, like the swell of an organ’ (1762–1800)

I take the epigraph to this section from Daniel Webb’s Remarks on the Beauties of Poetry (1762). So far as I have been able to ascertain, Webb is the first critic to compare Milton’s blank verse to organ music. He is not, of course, the first to remark Milton’s love of the organ. Aubrey tells us that ‘he had an Organ in his house’ and ‘played on that most’.50 Milton’s enthusiasm for this instrument is evident from his earliest poems. ‘The Base of Heav’ns deep Organ’ resounds in ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ (131); the ‘pealing Organ’ blows in ‘Il Penseroso’ (161); the angels in Paradise Lost play ‘Organs of sweet stop’ (VII. 596); Jubal solaces fallen humankind by inventing the organ and mastering its ‘stops and chords’ with ‘volant touch’ (XI. 551). But it is Hell that delivers the most memorable organ in Milton’s poetry:

  • A third as soon had form’d within the ground
  • A various mould, and from the boyling cells
  • By strange conveyance fill’d each hollow nook,
  • (p.60) As in an Organ from one blast of wind
  • To many a row of Pipes the sound-board breathes. (I. 705–9)

Peck (1740), discussing Milton’s use of technical words, remarks of this simile: ‘from which two last lines only I am satisfied that, before his eyes failed him, our author could take an organ to pieces, & clean it, & put it together again, without any other person to help him’ (111). Webb’s metaphor will eventually degenerate into cliché, but it was fresh when Webb first used it and we should make an effort to appreciate its imaginative precision.

The resemblances are close. The ‘one blast of wind’ corresponds to the forward drive of the run-on lines. Eliot (1947) will credit Milton with the ‘ability to work in larger musical units than any other poet’, and acknowledge his power to create ‘almost a physical sensation of a breathless leap’ (73). But Milton’s verse does not just pant breathlessly; it ‘breathes’ (is ‘variously drawn out’) through the ‘various mould’ of ever-varying stops. It is the interplay between these forces (one surging forward, the other gently checking or channelling) that gives the verse its expressive life. Webb illustrates the point with these lines:

  • Th’infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
  • Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d
  • The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
  • Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his Host
  • Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
  • To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
  • He trusted to have equal’d the most High,
  • If he oppos’d; and with ambitious aim
  • Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
  • Rais’d impious War in Heav’n and Battel proud
  • With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
  • Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie
  • With hideous ruine and combustion down
  • To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
  • In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
  • Who durst defie th’ Omnipotent to Arms. (I. 34–49)

‘The poet sets out’, Webb notes, ‘with almost a prosaic weakness of verse; thence rising gradually, like the swell of an organ, he soars into the highest dignity of sound’ (13). Milton literally pulls out all the stops to convey Satan’s impious aspiring and headlong fall. He rises in the unpunctuated lines 42–3, culminating in ‘proud’, and then falls in the unpunctuated lines 45–6, which counter with the mocking half-rhyme ‘down’. The turning point is the abrupt stop after ‘With vain attempt’—a ‘Miltonic half-line of derision’.51 A mighty contortion of rhythm and syntax then forces Satan to change direction: ‘Him the Almighty Power / Hurld headlong’. Satan falls further than he had soared, for the pause after ‘bottomless (p.61) perdition’ comes later in its line than the one after ‘vain attempt’ and it neither arrests nor retards his dizzying descent, which continues through a pattern of alliterating consonants. The breathy aspirates yield first to plosives (‘bottomless perdition’ is a mocking retort to ‘Battel proud’) before the jaws of Satan’s prison close over him in hard dentals. As Webb rightly notes, the music rises ‘like the swell of an organ’. It ebbs like one too, as Milton manipulates his stops and chords with volant touch through all proportions high and low. The music heard by Webb swells and ebbs with the sense; nineteenth-century critics will use the organ metaphor differently. Leigh Hunt (1825) will claim that Milton’s ‘sonorous proper names’ have ‘no other’ purpose than ‘to charm and exalt the ear with an organ-like music’; Tennyson (1863) will write of Milton’s ‘mighty-mouthed…organ-voice’; James Russell Lowell (1876) will praise his ‘epical organ-pipes’ for having ‘thrilled the English ear’ with ‘sonorous metal’. A little later in the same essay Lowell tells us that Milton loved words ‘as much for their music as for their meaning,—perhaps more’.52 Lowell means this as approbation, but his elevation of ‘music’ over ‘meaning’ opens the way to Eliot’s disapprobatory argument that Milton arranges words ‘for the sake of musical value, not for significance’.53 My aim in this section is to show how the organ music heard by eighteenth-century critics worked with (not against or independently from) Milton’s ‘meaning’.

There were, as always, dissenting voices. Henry Home, Lord Kames (Elements of Criticism, 1762) emphasizes the musical qualities of Milton’s blank verse. Weighing the rival claims of blank verse and rhyming couplets, he argues that blank verse has the better sound, but rhyme makes better sense. The chief advantage of blank verse is that it easily accommodates inversions, and ‘nothing contributes more than inversion to the force and elevation of language’. ‘It is universally agreed that the loftiness of Milton’s style…arises chiefly from inversion’ (2:439). Blank verse is so musical ‘as in some measure to rival music properly so called’ (2:440). Milton’s music nevertheless comes at a price. Rhyme may place ‘a cramp upon composition’, but it also brings sound and sense into ‘intimate union’ (2:436). Such union is harder to achieve in blank verse, where individual lines are easily lost. Kames therefore makes it a rule that blank verse must pause at the end of each line:

There must be a musical pause at the end of every line; but it is not necessary that it be accompanied with a pause in the sense. The sense may be carried on through different lines; till a period of the utmost extent be completed, by a full close both in the sense and the sound. There is no restraint, other than that this full close be at the end of a line. This restraint is necessary in order to preserve a coincidence betwixt sense and sound; which ought to be aimed at in general, and is indispensable in the case of a full close, because it has a striking effect. (2:438)

(p.62) Kames is really imposing two rules, not one. It is one thing to require ‘a musical pause at the end of every line’, another to insist that a ‘full close’ must come only ‘at the end of a line’. Lord Monboddo (1789) will argue that Milton does introduce a slight pause at the end of each line, and some modern critics have agreed.54 But there is no doubt about Milton’s non-compliance with Kames’s second rule. He frequently ends sentences mid-line. Kames thinks this a serious blemish: ‘the great defect of Milton’s versification, in other respects admirable, is the want of coincidence betwixt the pauses of the sense and sound’ (2:445). Kames thinks that sentences must end at the line end if they are to be ‘striking’, but one might argue that Milton’s sentences are all the more striking for ending unpredictably. We saw a moment ago how sound and sense work together in the sudden stop after ‘With vain attempt’. But when Kames speaks of ‘a coincidence between sense and sound’, he is not referring to echoic effects. His point is that ‘the sound’ rests naturally at the line end, and ‘the sense’ should accord with this pattern. He thinks that Milton has ‘many careless lines’ in which sound and sense fail to rest in the same place (2:440).

Kames does not go so far as to say that Milton’s verse is hard to follow, but James Buchanan (The first Six Books of Milton’s Paradise lost, 1773) does say this, and boldly offers his own prose paraphrase. He declares his intent in the full title of his edition: The first Six Books of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Rendered into Grammatical Construction; The Words of the TEXT being arranged, at the bottom of each Page, in the same natural Order with the Conceptions of the mind. Buchanan divides each page into three parts: Milton’s text at the top, the ‘natural’ version just below it, and explanatory notes below that. As he explains in his ‘Advertisement’, he is writing for the benefit of ‘young gentlemen at our Latin schools’, who can familiarize themselves with Latin grammar and syntax ‘in this epic poem in their mother-tongue’ before turning to ‘a difficult and dead language’ (1). ‘Our Ladies too, for whose interest the author professes a very great regard, will now be enabled to read the whole poem with pleasure’ (2). In a lengthy subsection entitled ‘Of Ellipsis and Transposition’, he explains why Milton’s verse is ‘almost unintelligible to youth, and obscure even to grown persons’. The first obstacle is ellipsis, ‘the suppression or the leaving out of a word’. Milton uses ellipsis ‘to favour the measure’ or ‘express a thought concisely’, but he confuses readers when he omits words that are necessary for the meaning. The second obstacle, transposition, is even more serious. ‘Milton’s stile is more violently inverted than that of any other English poet’ (2). The result is again confusion, for Milton substitutes ‘artificial’ for ‘natural’ word order: ‘Natural order is, when the words of a sentence naturally follow one another, in the same order with the conceptions of our minds. Artificial order is, when words are so arranged as to make them most agreeable and harmonious to the ear’ (3). Like Kames, Buchanan thinks that Milton’s repudiation of rhyme elevates sound above sense: ‘Rhime, without any other assistance, throws the language off from prose; (p.63) but, in blank verse, the poet is obliged to use inversion, as well as pomp of sound, and energy of expression, in order to give harmony and variety to his numbers, and keep his stile from falling into the flatness of prose’ (4). ‘Pomp’ there is ominous. The unspoken criticism, lurking just under the surface, is that Milton uses pompous inversions to pump himself up. This statement would have shocked Buchanan. His aim is not to disparage Milton, but to train ‘young gentlemen’ to become ‘masters of ellipsis and transposition’ (15). There is evidence, nevertheless, that some ‘young gentlemen’ were less than enthusiastic learners. If they read Buchanan, they must have done so with groans and murmured complaints that he had pinpointed exactly what was wrong with Milton’s style.

James Burnet, Lord Monboddo, is not one of the murmurers, but he tells us about them in his monumental Of the Origin and Progress of Language (6 vols., 1773–92). His references to Milton are brief and intermittent, but they will be influential throughout the nineteenth century, thanks partly to Todd, who will incorporate several of them in his variorum edition (1801). Sadly, they are no longer influential today. As Shawcross (1972) observes, Monboddo is ‘almost totally unknown to students of Milton’ (2:259). He deserves to be better known. He is particularly good on transpositions, to which he devotes several insightful pages in his second volume, entitled On the Art of Language (1774). He invokes Milton while defending Greek and Latin authors (especially Demosthenes) against some unnamed modern detractors, whom he refers to only as ‘those gentlemen’. It is tempting to identify these with Buchanan’s ‘young gentlemen’. Monboddo’s gentlemen use Buchanan’s terms—but do so disparagingly. The core of their case is that all writers (ancient or modern) should choose a word order that is ‘natural’, not ‘artificial’. ‘Transposition’ and ‘ellipsis’ make writers and orators unintelligible.

Monboddo replies by interrogating the notion of ‘natural’ word order: ‘I will begin with considering what those gentlemen call the natural order of words in a sentence, and inquire for what reason the order we observe is dignified with that appellation’ (2:345). At this stage in his argument, he is defending Demosthenes, not Milton: ‘I remember I heard one of those gentlemen go so far as to say, that it was impossible that Demosthenes’s orations could have been understood, if the words had been spoken in the unnatural order in which we read them’ (2:344–5). Monboddo replies that inversions can sometimes aid the expression of thought. It is in this context that he turns to Milton. He cites Satan’s speech from the throne of Hell as an example of oratory that is all the more ‘natural’ for being ‘artificial’:

  • Mee though just right, and the fixt Laws of Heav’n
  • Did first create your Leader, next free choice,
  • With what besides, in Counsel or in Fight,
  • Hath bin achievd of merit, yet this loss
  • Thus farr at least recover’d, hath much more
  • Establisht in a safe unenvied Throne
  • Yielded with full consent. (II. 18–24)

Monboddo begins by imagining the ‘many objections’ that might ‘be made by the advocates for the natural order’. The chief difficulty is the placing of ‘Mee’, ‘an accusative’,

at the head of the sentence, at a great distance from its verb established; so that we do not know what he would be at, till we come to the sixth line; and instead of saying plainly, and naturally, ‘That the loss they had sustained had established him much more firmly than ever in his throne’, he has contrived to express it in the most perplexed way, throwing in betwixt the verb and the word it governs, which naturally ought to have followed it immediately, whole sentences concerning the laws of Heaven, the free choice of his subjects, the achievements in battle and in council, and the recovery of their loss so far; and some of these are parentheses…having no necessary connection with what goes before and follows, and serving only to make the connection more remote betwixt the verb and the pronoun which it governs.…This, I think, is the opinion of those gentlemen fairly stated. (2:356–7)

It is not, of course, Monboddo’s opinion. Like Buchanan, he offers a paraphrase, but where Buchanan had done this to remove obscurity, Monboddo asks us to hear what is lost:

Now, I ask any reader of taste or judgment, whether the period thus frittered down, does not lose one half of the strength and vigour of the expression, as well as of the beauty and pomp of sound? and whether there be not wanting in it, not only that roundness, which fills and pleases the ear so much of a popular assembly, but likewise that density of sense? (2:358)

In Monboddo’s view, a simplified arrangement would not so much clarify the sense as make ‘a kind of pap of it, fit only to feed the minds of children’. Milton’s word order, ‘so interwoven and compounded’, follows the movements of ‘the mind’ (2:361). ‘Mee’ is ‘naturally made the leading word’ because Satan speaks proudly ‘of himself’ (2:357). ‘Naturally’ there is a nice touch, reminding us that even extreme periodicity can unfold with psychological truth. Satan also has compelling political reasons to be indirect. He declines to come right out and say ‘what he would be at’ (Monboddo), for what he ‘would be at’ is absolute monarchy.

He stakes his claim cautiously, with consummate timing. Only the greatest of egotists would begin a sentence with ‘Mee’, but the accusative throws Satan’s audience off guard. ‘Mee’ commands attention, but it does not seem likely to issue commands. When Satan does stake his claim, it both startles and falls satisfyingly into place. Monboddo: ‘For the suspense which those gentlemen complain of, must necessarily have that effect, as it obliges the mind to carry along with it the whole sense, often to the very last word of the sentence: and if this be a principal word, as it often is, the suspense makes it strike the mind with double force’ (2:361). The ‘principal’ words in Satan’s speech are ‘Establisht in a…Throne’. ‘Throne’ cannot come as a complete surprise when Satan is speaking from one, but this is still a dangerous moment: a throne speech delivered in Hell after a failed revolt against the throne of Heaven. There is a possibility of political unrest and so Satan must use all his rhetorical skill to secure his new Establishment. As Monboddo recognizes, ‘Establisht’ strikes ‘the mind with double force’. It is a (p.65) climax, ending grammatical ‘suspense’, but it is also strangely unclimactic. Lurking in a list of participial adjectives (‘achievd’, ‘recover’d’, ‘Establish’t’, ‘unenvied’, ‘Yielded’), ‘Establisht’ seems less of an event. The delayed active verb strikes with ‘double force’, but it strikes with the force of an iron fist in a velvet glove. Where a less astute politician would have ascended his throne with a fanfare of trumpets, Satan uses oily coercions and circumventions to announce Hell’s new Establishment as a fait accompli.

Transposition and ellipsis: these, according to Buchanan, are the obstacles to enjoyment and comprehension of Milton’s verse. Having defended transposition, Monboddo turns to ellipsis. He touches on the subject at the end of his second volume, when he draws attention to an aspect of Milton’s style that even admirers often overlook: plainness. Milton is not always sublime. He has many passages ‘without metaphor or figure, or any thing of what is now called fine language’ (2:559). As examples of this ‘noble simplicity’, Monboddo cites ‘nor appear’d / Less then Arch Angel ruind’ (I. 592–3) and ‘Battel dangerous / To less then Gods’ (II. 107–8), ‘expressions which the reader may be assured no man would have used who had not formed his taste upon the chastest and most correct models’ (2:565). As Monboddo recognizes, the beauty of these expressions comes not so much from what Milton puts in, as from what he leaves out. Buchanan in his paraphrase had felt the need to add words (‘and dangerous battle to any less than gods’), but Milton’s version is not less clear for being tight and terse.

Monboddo returns to the topic of ellipsis in his third volume, entitled Of Style (1776). He again argues that many of Milton’s Graecisms and Latinisms are a paring down, not a padding out. He cites Adam’s farewell to Raphael: ‘Since to part, / Go heavenly Guest, Ethereal Messenger, / Sent from whose sovran goodness I adore’ (VIII. 645–7). Monboddo finds two ellipses:

In the first we must supply, it is necessary; so that the full phrase is, since to part is necessary. This is an ellipsis common enough in Greek, where the word δες, signifying it must be, is understood. The other is the ellipsis of the pronoun him; so that the complete phrase is, sent from him, whose goodness I adore. (70)

Leavis (1933) will argue that Milton ‘exhibits a feeling for words rather than a capacity for feeling through words’ (129), but these lines are spare to the point of being laconic. The effect adds greatly to Adam’s dignity. Only the most exalted being could tell an angel ‘Since to part, / Go’. ‘Sent from whose sovran goodness’ is even bolder, since the omitted ‘him’ is God. Adam is being pious, not curt, for it is ‘understood’ that God is goodness.

Monboddo gives several other examples of Milton’s Greek chasteness, among them the line Bentley had deplored as a ‘Monster’: ‘Yet Virgin of Proserpina from Jove’ (IX. 396). Warburton had thought it enough to give the idiom a Greek provenance, but Monboddo knows that it must earn its keep in English: ‘This expression, virgin of Proserpina, is certainly not common English, and many will deny it to be English at all; but let any man try to express the same thought otherwise, and he will be convinced how much Milton has raised and ennobled his style by an idiom so uncommon, but which is, notwithstanding, sufficiently (p.66) intelligible’ (101). This defence paves the way for modern critics like Ricks (1963) and Fowler (1968). Ricks will use the same argument to exonerate ‘His journies end and our beginning woe’ (III. 633). Countering John Peter (1960), who had deplored the phrase, Ricks retorts: ‘What is wrong with it? It seems perfectly straightforward, memorable and succinct, so simple and clear as to withstand any charge of being un-English. The “un-English” of Scrutiny critics is always in danger of turning into the vague and apoplectic splutter which goes with unBritish’ (33). Monboddo too knows that the best defence is sometimes a short ‘What is wrong with it?’—especially when the offending phrase is short. Fowler offers the same argument, short and sweet, in defence of ‘though after Heaven seen’ (III. 552). The phrase is ‘first concise, spare and pungent; then Latinate’ (13). ‘Latinate’ is not the same as ‘long-winded’. Milton’s ‘poetical style’, Monboddo concludes, ‘is, in many passages, by far the most sublime we have in English; yet it has less froth or bombast than any modern composition of the kind that I know’ (3:112).

Monboddo is not the first critic to appreciate what he calls ‘the modesty’ of Milton’s style (3:112). The elder Richardson (1734) had noted how Milton, unlike other poets, never uses words ‘so Loosely you may Blow’em off’ (cxliv). Monboddo nevertheless takes this insight to a new level, recognizing Milton’s understated sublimity as well as his economy. He cites as an example the brief simile describing the sound the devils make as they rise from their seats in Pandaemonium: ‘Thir rising all at once was as the sound / Of Thunder heard remote’ (II. 476–7). He points out that Milton is here all the more sublime for refusing gigantic loftiness. Rising from their assembly, the devils make a sound ‘the noise of which a less correct and judicious author would have compared to loud thunder; but he compares it to thunder heard at a distance…which is a sound not loud or strong, but awful, and very like that produced by the movement of a great multitude’ (3:113). This superb comment (numerous nineteenth-century editors will cite it) captures the imaginative precision by which Milton conveys a brooding sense of menace. The devils are as yet ‘remote’ from our world, but they rise from their seats with a malevolent purpose that places them threateningly on our horizon.

In his fourth volume (1787), Monboddo discusses ‘variety’ in ancient and modern poetry and prose. The word ‘variety’ runs like a refrain through the four pages he devotes to Milton, but he never quotes or discusses ‘the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another’. He does briefly mention the ‘preface to the Paradise Lost’ (he calls it a ‘good example’ of Milton’s ‘plain stile’, ‘not so much varied…as his rhetorical stile’, 4:271), but he ignores the fact that this very preface uses the word ‘variously’. Newton (1749) had referred ‘variously drawn out’ to rhythm and the placing of the caesura. Since Monboddo never quotes the phrase, we cannot know how he understood it, but we can say that his notion of Miltonic ‘variety’ differs from Newton’s. He argues that Milton ‘has varied his verse by composition in periods of different lengths’ (4:271). This is not irreconcilable with Newton’s interpretation. The two views complement each other, for variety in period length will result in variety of pauses. Monboddo recognizes this when he notes how ‘the periods and their several members cut the verse, and run into different verses’ (4:268). A few pages later he expands his understanding (p.67) of ‘variety’ to include variety of rhythm and even subject matter (4:271–2). But it is variety of period length that matters most to him. One advantage of his understanding is that it works better with ‘drawn out’, which clearly refers to enjambment.

Monboddo concludes his fifth volume (1789) by defending Milton’s blank verse against those who contest that is barely distinguishable from prose:

It may be objected to Milton’s versification, that, by his periods and members of periods, he has made his composition so perfectly prosaical, that the verse is lost. But to this I answer, that he has always contrived to terminate his verse with a word upon which the sense requires that some emphasis be laid, even if the composition were altogether prose. Now, where an emphasis is laid upon a word, there is always some stop of the voice more or less, and that stop will mark the verse: But…it is a matter of delicacy just to mark this stop, but not to mark it too long; for that would destroy the beauty of the composition in periods, and even make the sense obscure. (5:468–9)

Kames (1762) had made it a rule that blank verse ‘must’ have ‘a musical pause at the end of every line’ and had chided Milton for failing to deliver it.55 Monboddo agrees that there should be ‘some stop of the voice’, but he thinks that Milton has ‘always contrived…just to mark this stop’. By ‘mark’ he does not mean ‘punctuate’. He finds a special ‘delicacy’ at the end of run-on lines. He does not give any examples, but his point may be illustrated by a line-ending I discussed earlier: ‘Defaming as impure what God declares / Pure’ (IV. 746–7). The conspicuous pause comes after ‘Pure’, not before it, but the effect is enhanced if we also admit a slight ‘musical pause’ at the line break. There is a moment’s suspense, however brief, before God delivers his verdict and the hypocrites reel. Monboddo exaggerates when he says that Milton ‘always’ ends his lines with ‘some stop’. We have seen how Bentley noted one line-ending (‘hurried him / As many miles aloft’) where the enjambment is conspicuous, even for Milton. True, Bentley’s objection was to a missing stress, not a missing pause, but the weak line-ending causes the verse to be mimetically ‘hurried’. The fact that this line-ending stood out for Bentley lends some support to Monboddo’s argument that Milton’s general practice is ‘to terminate his verse with a word upon which the sense requires that some emphasis be laid’.

James Beattie discusses Milton in several of his Essays (1776), some of which he had written ‘many years ago’ for oral delivery ‘in a private literary society’ (348). One such essay, ‘On Poetry and Music, as they Affect the Mind’, contains a very good ‘chapter’ on ‘the Sound of Poetical Language’. Beattie has no time for the idea that poetry can be valued for its sound alone, but he does not fall into the opposite error of dismissing sound as irrelevant: ‘It is folly to prefer sound to sense. Yet the ear, like every other perceptive faculty, is capable of gratification; and therefore to the sound of words some regard is to be had, even in prose. For ill-sounding language can never be agreeable’ (561). Like Johnson, Beattie takes a middle position on the vexed question of whether sound can fit sense. He admits the possibility of ‘imitative harmony’, and (like Johnson) distinguishes different (p.68) categories. Most of his categories tally with Johnson’s. He recognizes that ‘certain vocal tones accompany certain mental emotions’ (568) and he allows that ‘words by their sound may imitate sound’ (571):

Since the tones of natural language are so various, Poetry, which imitates the language of nature, must also vary its tones; and, in respect of sound as well as of meaning, be framed after that model of ideal perfection, which the variety and energy of the human articulate voice render probable. This is the more easily accomplished, because, in every language, there is between the sound and sense of certain words a perceptible analogy; which, though not so accurate as to lead a foreigner from the sound to the signification, is yet accurate enough to show, that, in forming such words, regard has been had to the imitative qualities of vocal sound. Such, in English, are the words yell, crash, crack, hiss, roar, murmur, and many others. (569–70)

Beattie cites several examples of onomatopoeia from ancient and modern poets. From Milton, he cites the description of Hell’s jarring gates (II. 879–82). He also allows for the possibility of mimetic rhythms. As an example he cites the wallowing Leviathans (VII. 411). Johnson would have no quarrel with any of this, for he had cited the same examples to make the same points. But Beattie also admits a category that Johnson had rejected. Johnson (1751) had rejected the idea that sound can convey ‘the idea of corporeal bulk’ (216). He had ridiculed those (such as Newton) who perceive mimetic harmony in the line describing Hell’s Leviathan: ‘So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-Fiend lay’ (I. 209). Beattie cites the same line to admit what Johnson had rejected: ‘Moreover, when we describe great bulk, it is natural for us to articulate slowly…and therefore a line of poetry that requires a slow pronunciation, or seems longer than it should be, may be used with good effect in describing vastness of size’ (574). Johnson had drawn a firm distinction between ‘slow’ and ‘long’; Beattie recognizes the distinction (‘slow…longer’) but still maintains that the line ‘seems longer’. I prefer Beattie’s reading, but he misses an opportunity when he falls back on ‘seems’. As I noted earlier, line 209 does not just seem longer; it really is longer (to the eye as well as the ear).

Beattie also offers some excellent comments on metaphors. Most critics have either condemned Milton’s metaphors or warned us not to expect too much from them. Even Ricks (1963) will argue that ‘Milton’s Grand Style is seldom metaphorical’. Ricks concedes that Milton’s metaphors do not exhibit the kind of ‘boldness’ that we find in ‘Donne or Hopkins’. This is because Donne and Hopkins ‘dramatize a moment rather than tell a gigantic story’:

The skills and beauty of the epic poet will be those of the long-distance runner, rather than of the boxer. Our pleasure will not be that of surprise, of jolt and jerk, but of anticipation and of suspense.…It is not an accident that Hopkins should have chosen for an effect he admired the word explode. Explosion, fusion—such are the terms in which modern criticism rightly praises a certain kind of effect. But the vitality in Milton’s style will not be that of a bomb, but rather that of a scent, active and beautiful both as a harbinger and as a memory. (48)

Ricks’s description (itself richly metaphorical) is true to much of Paradise Lost, but Beattie asks us to see that some of Milton’s images do ‘dramatize a moment’, do have (p.69) the vitality ‘of surprise, of jolt and jerk’. Chaos is nothing if not jerky and Satan ascends with explosive energy: ‘With fresh alacritie and force renew’d / Springs upward like a Pyramid of fire’ (II. 1012–13). Beattie:

To take in the full meaning of which figure, we must imagine ourselves in chaos, and a vast luminous body rising upward, near the place where we are, so swiftly as to appear a continued track of light, and lessening to the view according to the increase of distance, till it end in a point, and then disappear; and all this must be suppos’d to strike our eye at one instant. (538)

‘Pyramid’, as Hume first noted, was anciently (and perhaps accurately) derived from the Greek word for ‘fire’ and so is well suited to Satan’s pyrotechnics. Milton revivifies the word, and this supports Ricks’s case that a Miltonic metaphor ‘brings back to life the original force’ (58); but in this particular case the original force is ‘that of a bomb’ and Beattie is right to see that it is calculated ‘to strike’.

Beattie is also alert to quieter metaphors: ‘Satan flying among the stars is said by Milton to “Sail between worlds and worlds”; which has an elegance and force far superior to the proper word Fly. For by this allusion to a ship, we are made to form a lively idea of his great size, and to conceive of his motion, that it was equable and majestic’ (539). It is actually Raphael who ‘Sailes between worlds and worlds’ (V. 268). Beattie’s slip does not seriously damage his argument. He is right to insist that ‘Flies’ would be an impoverishment. But the beauty of ‘Sailes’ is not that it conveys ‘great size’ (Raphael soon assumes the shape of a phoenix); the metaphor is ‘lively’ because it turns other worlds into inviting islands. Milton’s universe is as blue as an azure sea. I shall return to this image in my chapter on Milton’s epic universe.

In another essay, ‘On the Utility of Classical Learning’, Beattie discusses Milton’s bad influence. Most eighteenth-century critics are silent on this topic, but it will become central to the twentieth-century ‘Milton Controversy’. Beattie, looking around him, sees the same dismal picture that twentieth-century critics will see, but he does not blame Milton for the sins of his imitators:

The style of his numbers has not often been imitated with success. It is not merely the want of rhyme, nor the diversified position of pauses, nor the drawing out of the sense from one line to another; far less is it the mixture of antiquated words and strange idioms, that constitutes the charm of Milton’s versification; though many of his imitators, when they copy him in these or in some of these respects, think they have acquitted themselves very well. (739)

Beattie’s point is not that Milton is inimitable, but that poets have imitated him in the wrong way. Beattie has his own recipe for success. His aim is to defend classical learning, and he sees learning as the heart of Milton’s mystery: ‘one must study the best classical authors with as much critical skill as Milton did, before one can pretend to rival him in the art of harmonious writing. For, after all the rules that can be given, there is something in this art, which cannot be acquired but by a careful study of the ancient masters.’ Many have been put off by Milton’s learning. Waller, (p.70) soon after Paradise Lost appeared, called Milton ‘the old blind schoolmaster’. Waller did not pay attention in class. But Beattie does. At least he says he does:

I am not offended at that profusion of learning which here and there appears in the Paradise Lost. It gives a classical air to the poem: it refreshes the mind with new ideas; and there is something, in the very sound of the names of places and persons whom he celebrates, that is wonderfully pleasing to the ear. Admit all this to be no better than pedantic superfluity; yet will it not follow, that Milton’s learning did him any harm upon the whole, provided it appear to have improved him in matters of higher importance. (739)

Beattie’s enthusiasm admittedly flags in that last sentence, but he does not desert his master.

The same cannot be said of Samuel Johnson (The Lives of the English Poets and a Criticism of their Works, 3 vols., 1779–81). Johnson does not share Waller’s contempt for schoolmasters. He had been one himself and in the biographical part of his essay he refers to Milton’s ‘honest and useful employment’ (1:146). But even Johnson admits to playing truant from Milton’s class: ‘In reading Paradise Lost’, he writes, ‘we read a book of universal knowledge’. This sounds like praise until we come to the next breath: ‘one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master and seek for companions’ (1:221). When he revised these sentences for the 1783 edition, Johnson could not resist adding a further sentence right after ‘forgets to take up again’: ‘None ever wished it longer than it is.’ Many have smiled at this, and it would be futile to pretend that Johnson is not exercising his wit at Milton’s expense. But judicious critics (and Johnson was judicious) weigh their words carefully. ‘None ever wished it longer’ is often taken as a sly hint that Johnson wishes it shorter, but he does not say that, and an earlier remark in his discussion of Paradise Lost should give us pause before we draw too hasty an inference. Discussing the poem’s ‘design’, he writes: ‘every part appears to be necessary; and scarcely any recital is wished shorter for the sake of quickening the progress of the main action’ (1:209). ‘None ever wished it longer’, but ‘scarcely any recital is wished shorter’. We must weigh these utterances against each other if we are to appreciate Johnson’s judiciousness.

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost is remarkable for the way it treads a fine line between approbation and disapprobation. Ricks (1963), discussing Eliot’s 1947 essay on Milton, supposedly a recantation, calls Eliot’s praise of Milton ‘exceptionally feline’ as it ‘trembles on the edge of blame’ (5–6). Johnson too is a master of ‘feline’ praise, especially in his final pages, where he picks up seemingly approbatory words and phrases from earlier in the essay and gives them a new twist (sometimes of the knife). This twist is especially effective when the earlier occurrence had itself contained the barest hint of disapprobation, but we had persuaded ourselves it was not there. To give one example: early in his discussion of Paradise Lost, Johnson says that Milton ‘can please when pleasure is required; but it is his peculiar power to astonish’ (1:215). Johnson does not say that Milton fails to please; he says he ‘can (p.71) please’. But the added words ‘when pleasure is required’ hint that pleasure does not come easily to or from Milton. On this occasion we may choose to give both Milton and Johnson the benefit of the doubt, but a seed of doubt has been sown and it sprouts when ‘please’ and ‘astonish’ come back on the final page. Johnson is discussing Milton’s rejection of rhyme. Having devoted two paragraphs to a defence of rhyme, he makes a sudden and unexpected concession:

But, whatever be the advantage of rhyme, I cannot prevail on myself to wish that Milton had been a rhymer; for I cannot wish his work to be other than it is; yet, like other heroes, he is to be admired rather than imitated. He that thinks himself capable of astonishing may write blank verse; but those that hope only to please, must condescend to rhyme. (1:230)

That ‘only to please’ is feline almost to the point of being catty. Johnson does not really value astonishment above pleasure. He sees pleasure as a sine qua non of poetry and he hints that astonishment without pleasure is likely to be arid.

Despite his concession that Milton ‘can please’, Johnson devotes a significant portion of his essay to arguing that he doesn’t. His argument is important because it paves the way for anti-Miltonists who will identify sublimity (traditionally, Milton’s greatest asset) as a liability. Johnson himself does not go that far. He praises Milton for choosing the right subject for his talents:

He seems to have been well acquainted with his own genius, and to know what it was that Nature had bestowed upon him more bountifully than upon others: the power of displaying the vast, illuminating the splendid, enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating the dreadful; he therefore chose a subject on which too much could not be said, on which he might tire his fancy without the censure of extravagance. (1:215)

Addison and Dennis had thought this enough to raise Milton to first rank of poets; Johnson feels that something is missing. Like Eliot (1935), he thinks that Milton’s imagination lacks concrete specificity. ‘To paint things as they are’, he writes, ‘requires a minute attention, and employs the memory rather than the fancy. Milton’s delight was to sport in the wide regions of possibility; reality was a scene too narrow for his mind.’ Here it is ‘reality’, not Milton, that is ‘narrow’, but the roles are reversed a few sentences later: ‘his images and descriptions of the scenes or operations of Nature do not seem to be always copied from original form, nor to have the freshness, raciness and energy of immediate observation. He saw Nature, as Dryden expresses it, through the spectacles of books; and on most occasions calls learning to his assistance’ (1:216). Dryden had likened books to spectacles in Of Dramatick Poesie (1668), but he had been referring to Shakespeare, not Milton, and his point was that Shakespeare did not need them: ‘he was naturally learn’d; he needed not the spectacles of Books to read Nature; he look’d inwards, and found her there’ (47). In applying Dryden’s metaphor to Milton, Johnson implicitly contrasts Milton’s bookish genius with Shakespeare’s natural one. The contrast will become commonplace in later criticism. The mention of ‘spectacles’ also glances at Milton’s blindness. Milton may imagine ‘the vast’, ‘the awful’, and ‘the (p.72) gloomy’, but Johnson thinks that he is at a loss with everyday objects in the physical world. This is close to T. S. Eliot’s argument that Milton lacks a visual imagination.

Johnson offers more feline criticism when he turns to Milton’s foreign idioms: ‘Of him, at last, may be said what Jonson says of Spenser, that he wrote no language, but has formed what Butler calls a Babylonish dialect, in itself harsh and barbarous; but made by exalted genius and extensive learning, the vehicle of so much instruction and so much pleasure, that, like other lovers, we find grace in its deformity’ (1:228). This is again reminiscent of Eliot in the way it argues on both sides of the question simultaneously. The phrase ‘Babylonish dialect’ comes from Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (I. i. 93). Hudibras was published before Paradise Lost, so Butler cannot have been referring to Milton.56 To be fair, Johnson does not say that he was. He simply co-opts his phrase. It was to stick. Innumerable later commentators will apply it to Milton. Johnson may have been influenced by Welsted (1724), who had called ‘the Phrase and Stile of Milton’ ‘a second Babel’ (ix).

Still discussing Milton’s use of foreign idioms, Johnson lifts another phrase, this time from Addison:

Our language, says Addison, sunk under him. But the truth is, that, both in prose and verse, he had formed his stile by a perverse and pedantick principle. He was desirous to use English words with a foreign idiom. This in all his prose is discovered and condemned, for there judgement operates freely, neither softened by the beauty nor awed by the dignity of his thoughts; but such is the power of his poetry, that his call is obeyed without resistance, the reader feels himself in captivity to a higher and nobler mind, and criticism sinks in admiration. (1:227)

When Addison said ‘our Language sunk under him’ he did not mean what later critics have often taken him to mean. His point was that English let Milton down, not that Milton pushed English down. Johnson turns this around so that it is English that collapses under Milton’s oppressive weight. Johnson has not misread Addison; he knows he is disagreeing with him. But Addison’s words will never be the same again. Henceforward, critics will quote them as if they bore Johnson’s meaning. Keats (1819) was likely thinking of Johnson when (criticizing Milton) he wrote: ‘English must be kept up’. Addison thought that Milton did keep English up (he ‘carried our language to a greater height than any of the English poets have ever done’), but that English in the end could not keep up with him. Keats, following Johnson, presents Milton as a poet who keeps English down. But in the end it is Johnson who goes down: ‘criticism sinks in admiration’. Or does he? On the surface, ‘sinks in admiration’ is a compliment. Milton brings critics to their knees. That is Johnson’s ostensible meaning, and perhaps his only conscious one, but coming so soon after ‘Our language…sunk’, ‘sinks in admiration’ sounds strangely bathetic. Johnson acknowledges Milton’s greatness, but does so with a sinking heart and a tone of exasperated defeat.

(p.73) He concludes his discussion of Paradise Lost by weighing the rival claims of rhyme and blank verse. He repeats the points he had made in his Rambler essays almost thirty years earlier (‘one language cannot communicate its rules to another’, ‘music…can be only obtained by the preservation of every verse unmingled with another’), but he now makes explicit what his earlier essays had left implicit:

The variety of pauses, so much boasted by the lovers of blank verse, changes the measures of an English poet to the periods of a declaimer, and there are only a few skilful and happy readers of Milton, who enable their audience to perceive where the lines end or begin. Blank verse, said an ingenious critick, seems to be verse only to the eye. (1:229)

This clearly differs from Monboddo’s view that Milton signals line-endings to the ear. Johnson’s might seem to be the stronger argument, since his claim that ‘only a few’ readers can hear line-endings in blank verse probably does match most readers’ experience. But ‘only to the eye’ is too dismissive of the role the eye plays in the reading of poetry.

Philip Neve (Cursory Remarks on Some of the Ancient English Poets, Particularly Milton, 1789) takes a middle position between Newton and Johnson. He writes warmly of the former, whom he credits with ‘taste, judgment, and erudition’ (133), and coolly of the latter, whom he charges with ‘prejudice, envy, nay malignity’ (134). But Neve’s own estimate of Milton is close to Johnson’s. He too thinks that Milton is overrated. He is especially suspicious of those who make extravagant claims for expressive prosody: ‘To metre and accent, of which many readers affect to perceive so much grace and harmony in the verse of Milton, he appears to have been, in general, very little attentive. Among his blank heroics are found both rhyming couplets and alexandrines’ (128). It is true that rhymes occasionally appear in Paradise Lost. Some have thought this deliberate; Neve takes the less flattering view that Milton is a rhyming poet and doesn’t know it. He is not scoffing at Milton. His point is that rhyme has a tendency to creep into blank verse uninvited, and it is hard (especially for a blind poet) to keep it out. Clearly, much depends on particular cases (Neve does not cite any) and one’s general estimate of Milton.

William Cowper (‘Fragment of an Intended Commentary on Paradise Lost’, 1791–2)57 also notices rhymes in Paradise Lost and he too assumes that they are unintended. He cites just one example, from Belial’s speech in the debate in Hell:

  • This horror will grow milde, this darkness light,
  • Besides what hope the never-ending flight
  • Of future dayes may bring, what chance, what change
  • Worth waiting. (II. 220–3)

‘The rhime, it must be acknowledged, is unfortunate, but rhime is apt to come uncalled, and to writers of Blank Verse is often extremely troublesome’ (209). Cowper’s opinion should not be set aside lightly, for he was himself an (p.74) accomplished writer of blank verse—arguably the best between Milton and Wordsworth. But there are good reasons for thinking that he underestimates Milton on this occasion. Firstly (as Ricks will point out in 1977) there is the demonstrable fact that Milton was repeatedly drawn to rhymes on ‘light’ and ‘sight’. Ricks cites several such rhymes from the invocation to light.58 Secondly, the rhyme is particularly expressive here, for it helps to bring out a pun. Eighteenth-century critics did not realize that ‘light’ was a pun. Bentley (1732) proposed changing ‘light’ to ‘less’, since ‘an Adjective answers better to mild, than the Substantive Light’: ‘’Tis quite too much, that the Darkness should turn into Light: ’tis as if he had made Horror turn to Joy’ (44–5). Newton (1749) replied that no emendation is necessary, since ‘light’ already is ‘an adjective’ and ‘the meaning is, This darkness will in time become easy’. The problem with this reading is that it asks us to believe that Milton could write ‘darkness light’ and just not see that the juxtaposition awakens the sense ‘luminosity’. Newton, seeing the problem, ends with a weak concession: ‘It is not well express’d, and the worse as it rimes with the following line’ (2:94). Cowper agrees that the rhyme is ‘unfortunate’, but defends ‘darkness light’ by arguing that ‘light’ means what Bentley thought it could not mean: ‘Nothing is necessary to justify it as a substantive, but to recollect what all have experienced, that a feeble light which at first seems darkness, by degrees becomes sufficient for the purposes of vision, the eye accommodating itself to the inconvenience.’ Cowper adds that ‘the darkness of Milton’s Hell is not absolute, but a kind of sublustris nox, or as he calls it himself, darkness visible’ (209). This is a step forward. Cowper recognizes, as Bentley and Newton had not, that Belial imagines ‘a feeble light’, just enough to make the darkness bearable. It is odd that Cowper can take this step and still not see the pun. The breakthrough will not come until 1935, when Empson will write: ‘both…senses are present, and the combination allows Belial to suggest high hopes without obvious absurdity’.59 Belial knows better than to promise daylight in Hell, but he does hold out hope of a glimmering gloom. The rhyme (not mentioned by Empson) fortifies Empson’s argument by providing what Fowler (1968) calls ‘a suitably jingling accompaniment to Belial’s cheerful fantasy’ (II. 220n).

Cowper on this occasion underestimates Milton, but he is more imaginative than the other eighteenth-century commentators, and his note prepares the way for Empson. It is a pity that his ‘Commentary’ is not longer (it covers only the first three books of Paradise Lost and was left unfinished when he died in 1800). The notes we have are nevertheless valuable, especially on the topic of Milton’s prosody. Cowper has no doubt that ‘fit quantity of Syllables’ in the note on ‘The Verse’ refers to vowel length. He knows that English verse is accentual-syllabic, but still insists that English poets can avail themselves of ‘syllabic quantity’: ‘though our syllables are not strictly reducible to the rules either of Greek or Latin prosody, they are nevertheless all long or short in the judgment of an accurate ear, and…without (p.75) close attention to syllabic quantity in the construction of our verse, we can give it neither melody nor dignity’. Cowper is not using ‘long’ and ‘short’ as loose synonyms for ‘stressed’ and ‘unstressed’: he really does think that ‘long syllables’ take more time. While agreeing with ‘Mr. Addison’ that Milton ‘deals much in the Iambic and in the Trochee’, Cowper thinks that ‘the grand secret to which his verse is principally indebted for its stately movement, is his more frequent use of the Spondee’. ‘The more long syllables there are in a verse, the more the time of it is protracted, and consequently the pace with which it moves is the more majestic’ (187). Modern critics may frown at this, but the poet of The Task was no ignoramus about blank verse. His point is not that Milton employs classical quantity throughout Paradise Lost, but that he has recourse to ‘fit quantity’ when the subject calls for it. This is clear from his excellent note on the beautiful simile with which Milton concludes the debate in Hell:

  • As when from mountain tops the dusky clouds
  • Ascending, while the North wind sleeps, o’respread
  • Heav’ns chearful face, the lowring Element
  • Scowls ore the dark’nd lantskip Snow, or showre;
  • If chance the radiant Sun with farewell sweet
  • Extend his ev’ning beam, the fields revive,
  • The birds thir notes renew, and bleating herds
  • Attest thir joy, that hill and valley rings. (II. 488–95)

‘The reader loses half the beauty of this charming Simile’, Cowper writes, ‘who does not give particular attention to the numbers’.

There is a majesty in them not often equalled, and never surpassed even by this great poet himself; the movement is uncommonly slow; an effect produced by means already hinted at, the assemblage of a greater proportion of long syllables than usual. The pauses are also managed with great skill and judgment; while the clouds rise, and the heavens gather blackness, they fall in those parts of the verse, where they retard the reader most, and thus become expressive of the solemnity of the subject; but in the latter part of the simile, where the sun breaks out, and the scene brightens, they are so disposed as to allow the verse an easier, and less interrupted flow, more suited to the cheerfulness of the occasion. (213–14)

The ‘movement is uncommonly slow’ in ‘North wind sleeps’ and ‘Snow, or showre’. Both phrases consist of just three syllables, yet arguably they take as much time as the six syllables ‘that hill and valley rings’. The difference is not that the earlier phrases have a heavier stress. No word in the simile is stressed more ringingly than ‘rings’, but it ‘breaks out’; it does not ‘retard’.

In exhorting us to pay ‘attention to the numbers’, Cowper exhibits a higher estimation of Milton than Neve had shown two years earlier when he claimed that Milton was ‘little attentive’ to ‘metre and accent’. The question of how (or whether) Milton attends to ‘the numbers’ will long be an issue in criticism. Leavis (1933) will describe Milton’s prosodic style as an ‘inescapable monotony’ (124) that bludgeons readers with ‘the foreseen thud in the foreseen place’ (125). Cowper hears a variety of unforeseen pauses and accents (not thuds). Some might find Leavis’s account (p.76) more persuasive, but no one can accuse Cowper (as Leavis will accuse modern Miltonists) of ignoring the specifics.

Cowper also attends to grammar. Like Monboddo, he thinks that Milton uses ellipses to make his verse spare, not to inflate it. He notes how Belial’s phrase ‘Ages of hopeless end’ (II. 186) is strictly ungrammatical: ‘Syntax required that he should have said—Ages hopeless of end—concerning which there could be no hope that they should ever terminate. But trusting to the candour and sagacity of his reader, he has deviated a little from rule, for the sake of more grace and harmony than were compatible with the observance of it’ (208). In some ways this recalls Addison urging the ‘good-natured reader’ to turn a blind eye to ‘little Blemishes’.60 The appeal to ‘grace and harmony’ is dangerous, as it amounts to saying that Milton sacrifices sense to sound—one of the anti-Miltonists’ charges against him. It is possible to give Milton a better defence than this, and Cowper himself opens the way to it when he imagines how the lines might have been. ‘Ages of hopeless end’ is preferable to ‘Ages hopeless of end’ not just because it sounds smoother (Cowper’s defence) but because it is richer in meaning. ‘Ages hopeless of end’ would limit the devils’ despair to one cause only: Hell will never end. ‘Ages of hopeless end’ includes that sense, but adds the further suggestion that hopelessness itself is one of Hell’s endless miseries.

Cowper finds another creative solecism when Belial expresses a hope that if the devils leave God alone, he might leave them alone, ‘satisfi’d / With what is punish’t’ (II. 212–13). ‘The sense’, Cowper notes, ‘is evidently—satisfied with the punishment, which he has already inflicted—and the expression is here also irregular in its construction. But the brevity of it is clear and beautiful. Nor does Milton ever transgress grammatical propriety, but for the sake of an advantage more than equivalent’ (208–9). This is excellent, but it takes us only half way. ‘The brevity’ is ‘clear and beautiful’, but Belial’s wishful truncation also betrays his inability to imagine the kind of satisfaction that God’s justice will demand. To cite just some of the poem’s other instances: ‘The rigid satisfaction, death for death’ (III. 212), ‘Man…/Shall satisfie for Man’ (III. 294–5), ‘to satisfie his rigour / Satisfi’d never’ (X. 803–4). Belial imagines that the devils can escape further punishment by ignoring God until he goes away, ‘satisfi’d’. Belial’s locution is, as Cowper says, ‘irregular’, and even verges on the banal, but the banality is Belial’s, not Milton’s. Milton exploits an ambiguity in ‘satisfy’, which can mean either ‘fulfil completely’ (OED 1) or ‘fulfil…all that could be reasonably desired’ (OED 4). In English universities, ‘to satisfy the examiners’ was a technical phrase indicating that a person has ‘passed’ but is not entitled to ‘honours’. In Cambridge parlance, Belial hopes to scrape by with ‘a Gentleman’s Third’. My point is not that Milton is punning on this academic sense, but that his phrase allows us to see two very different standards: the low one to which Belial holds himself accountable and the high one to which the Son will submit.

(p.77) Capel Lofft’s edition advertises itself as Paradise Lost. A Poem in Twelve Books (1792), but only the first two books were published. Lofft’s aim, as he declares on his title-page, was to restore Milton’s ‘original system of orthography’. Lofft was not the first critic to believe that Milton employed such a ‘system’. The elder Richardson had noted ‘Some Peculiarities in the Spelling of certain Words in Paradise Lost, not by Accident, but from One End to the Other’. Noting that the 1668 errata correct ‘we’ (II. 414) to ‘wee’, Richardson (1734) had concluded that ‘He, we, me, ye, are with a Double or a Single e, as the Emphasis lies upon them, or does not’ (cxxx). Richardson did not pursue this idea, since ‘to go into a Detail of These would be Dry to the Reader, nor is it Agreeable to Me’ (cxxxi–cxxxii). Lofft does pursue it, and some modern editors, including Helen Darbishire, B. A. Wright, and Merritt Hughes, have followed his lead. The theory that Milton used emphatic spellings is now discredited. The chief problem is that no two proponents of an ‘original system’ can agree as to what it was or how it worked. The first two editions differ both from each other and from the manuscript of book one, and all three texts must be extensively revised before proponents of emphatic spelling can deliver (their version of) Milton’s ‘original system’. Even the 1668 erratum was ignored by the printer of the 1674 edition. Like Richardson, I find this topic ‘Dry’, and I shall not go into it.

But Lofft raises a matter of genuine interest when he relates the issue of emphatic spellings to the far more important question of expressive pronunciation. Lofft thinks that iambic rhythms are sometimes so strong as to impose an unfamiliar sound on familiar words:

In general, where the Accent falls, with no more than its usual force, in such words as supreme, the old English Spelling, by the ea dipthong, prevails: otherwise when the Accent is enforced by a more solemn and peculiar pronunciation. The difference will be found in vóluble and volúbil: where, with the different position in the verse, the Orthography, and the place itself of the Accent changes. (x)

Lofft’s point is that Milton uses orthography to signal departures from colloquial pronunciation. He thinks that Milton distinguishes forms like ‘supream’ (with the accent on the second syllable) from ‘supreme’ (with the accent on the first). There are two issues here: does Milton enforce ‘solemn and peculiar’ pronunciations and does he use orthography to signal them? Twenty of the twenty-one occurrences of ‘supreme’ in Paradise Lost are spelled ‘supream’. Of these twenty instances, nineteen are accented on the second syllable and so support Lofft’s system. The one exception is: ‘Our Supream Foe in time may much remit / His anger’ (II. 210). Most editors have noted that ‘Supream’ there is accented on the first syllable. If they are right, Lofft’s orthographic system breaks down. But it does not break down because there is no such thing as ‘solemn and peculiar’ pronunciations; it breaks down because such pronunciations do occur and Lofft’s orthographic system is an imperfect guide to them. Lofft is not inflexible. He thinks that the poem’s one instance of ‘supreme’ (spelled that way) is stressed on the second syllable, even though his system requires it to be stressed on the first: ‘And sat as Princes, whom the supreme King / Exalted’ (I. 735). Lofft: ‘I have deled [sic] the accent on súpreme, (p.78) which I do not believe to have been meant by MILTON’ (I. 735n). Ironically, most subsequent editors have thought that this instance of ‘supreme’ is ‘stressed on the first syllable’ (Fowler), a conclusion that actually supports Lofft’s system. In this case Lofft may have conceded too much. But the important issue is rhythm, not orthography. Does Milton enforce ‘solemn and peculiar’ pronunciations and (if he does) what purpose do they serve?

To many readers, the whole issue of ‘peculiar’ pronunciations appears hopelessly subjective. It is true that we cannot know for certain how Milton pronounced any particular line. Editors, early and modern, have often had recourse to the word ‘probably’ when venturing their conjectures. Fowler (1968), in his note on II. 210, writes: ‘supreme] Often stressed on the first syllable, as here probably’. Lofft uses the same word in his note on II. 301 (‘With grave / Aspect he rose’): ‘The word aspect is purposely left unaccented here, as it well admits being accented on the first: though intended probably on the second’. ‘Probably’ has its dangers, especially in literary criticism, where it is all too often a bolt-hole. But Lofft and Fowler are here being honest, not evasive. While we cannot know what pronunciation Milton ‘intended probably’, we should not dismiss the whole issue of ‘solemn and peculiar’ pronunciations. These have often been valued because they add grandeur or dignity to the sound of the verse. But they can also enhance the sense.

I shall conclude with two brief examples. Lofft mentions neither (they come after the books he edited), but both illustrate the kind of effect he valued. The first example comes when Satan announces his invention of gunpowder:

  • Which of us who beholds the bright surface
  • Of this Ethereous mould whereon we stand,
  • This continent of spacious Heav’n, adornd
  • With Plant, Fruit, Flour Ambrosial, Gemms & Gold,
  • Whose Eye so superficially surveyes
  • These things, as not to mind from whence they grow
  • Deep under ground, materials dark and crude. (VI. 472–8)

Most critics who have commented on the pronunciation of line 472 tell us that ‘surface’ is stressed on the second syllable. I share this view, and stand by it, even though John Creaser has rejected this scansion on the grounds that the pronunciation ‘surFACE’ is unprecedented in English poetry. That may well be the case, but the whole point about ‘peculiar’ pronunciations is that they are peculiar. There is evidence to support the case for an unusual pronunciation of ‘surface’. It is to be found not in earlier poets but in these very lines. ‘Surfáce’ (so pronounced) rhymes with ‘surveyes’ four lines later. There is a further echo in ‘spacious’, and another connection (both in sound and sense) with ‘superficially’, which is etymologically the same word. (‘Surface’ and ‘superficial’ derive from Latin superficies, which literally means ‘face on top’.) The strongest stresses in line 476 are on the third syllable of ‘superficially’ and the final syllable of ‘surveys’. Admittedly, these words come after ‘surface’. By the time we come to ‘superficially surveyes’, we have already chosen either ‘surface’ or ‘surfáce’. But the pull of rhythm against common pronunciation has forced us to choose and ‘superficially surveyes’ now calls us to (p.79) account. If we have skimmed the surface, ‘surveyes’ asks us to look again. That is of course exactly what Satan asks the angels to do. He wants them to probe beneath a familiar surface to uncover dark materials. He is exhorting the devils to look beneath the face of things—a temptation that he will reiterate in Eve’s dream when he speaks of the moon that ‘Shadowie sets off the face of things, in vain, / If none regard’ (V. 43–4). ‘Bright surfáce’ also has implications for Satan’s own deceptively bright face, his ‘count’nance, as the Morning Starr’ (V. 708) that has already led the angels to dark places and will soon lead them to a darker deep.

Creaser, discussing these lines, misses an opportunity. He raises the possibility of an imitative harmony only to reject it. He even uses the word ‘superficial’—but still misses the web of sound and sense that connects ‘surface’ with ‘superficially surveyes’. Referring to his own scansion, he acknowledges that ‘it would, I suspect, be a misplaced critical ingenuity’ to argue that ‘Satan is out to dislodge the superficial perceptions of his fellows with an odd rhythm that brings the word “surface” into question’.61 This is odd. Creaser (with laudable honesty) admits that his own scansion (‘an odd rhythm’) is not mimetic (as indeed it is not), yet fails to see that the scansion he rejects does convey ‘superficial perceptions’. The ‘critical ingenuity’ that would be ‘misplaced’ if applied to Creaser’s scansion would not be misplaced if it were applied to the ‘solemn and peculiar’ alternative (an odd pronunciation rather than ‘an odd rhythm’). It is strange that Creaser does not see this. It must be a powerful prejudice indeed that can blind so fine a critic to the expressive beauty of these lines.

A similar argument can be made in defence of my second example of expressive ‘peculiar pronunciation’. When fallen Adam describes himself as ‘miserable / Beyond all past example and future’ (X. 839–40), editors again inform us (I think rightly) that ‘future’ is stressed on the second syllable. Creaser again demurs on the grounds that there is no English precedent. Several editors have suggested that Milton is imitating Latin futurus, but Creaser thinks that this is insufficient justification for the arresting pronunciation ‘futúre’. He argues for the colloquial pronunciation and quotes with approval Robert Bridges’s verdict that it is ‘very beautiful’. But just what is beautiful about it? To my ears it falls flat: ‘Beyond all past example and future’. Yes, that has a ripple, but it is dull and prosaic. Bridges’s Adam sounds like an investor bewailing the collapse of the futures market. Creaser, dissenting with those editors (he names Fowler and me) who have printed ‘surfáce’ and ‘futúre’, points to ‘the stubborn fact’ that ‘no matching emphases of these words can be traced in Milton or elsewhere in Renaissance verse’ (301). This may be a ‘fact’, but why call it ‘stubborn’? Pronunciations are more, not less, solemn for being peculiar. Creaser is right to look for ‘matching emphases’, but he looks in the wrong place. The place to look is not in earlier poets or Milton’s other writings, but in the immediate context and meaning of these particular lines. ‘Surfáce’ finds an exact ‘matching emphasis’ in ‘surveyes’. It is not mere preciosity that enforces the pronunciations ‘surfáce’ and ‘futúre’. When Adam claims that his misery is ‘Beyond (p.80) all past example and future’, future gropes helplessly at the end of the line—at once a termination and a prolongation. The effect would be hammered into inertia were we to insist on the colloquial pronunciation.

Lofft’s theory of emphatic spellings has proved to be a dead-end. But his work on prosody and pronunciation is still vital and relevant. He is most useful when he tells us how to hear the verse. Like Webb thirty years before, he draws an analogy with organ music, and like Webb he uses this metaphor intelligently, not tritely. He hears more than a mighty toccata:

I consider the majestic flow of numbers in this Poem, as analogous to a grand Concerto Composition for the favourite instrument of MILTON, the ORGAN: in which the Movements are so sublime, and so awfully regulated; the contrivance and disposition of the parts so deep; the execution itself so complex; and depending for its full effect on such and so various circumstances, that the system of Notation relative to it cannot be too much studied, with reference to the understanding, the ear, and the heart. (xvii–xviii)

Milton’s organ music charms ‘the ear’ but also speaks to ‘the understanding’ and ‘the heart’. Lofft is perhaps the last critic to use the organ metaphor in the way that Webb intended it. Nineteenth-century critics will use the same metaphor, but they will use it differently—in a way that divorces sound from sense. It is to the nineteenth-century notions of Miltonic grandeur that we now turn.


(1) The story about Dryden is late. It comes to us via the elder Jonathan Richardson, who heard it from Dr Tancred Robinson, who heard it ‘from Fleet Shephard, at the Grecian Coffee-House, and who often told the Story’. Shephard claimed to have been present when Dryden spoke the words ascribed to him. See Jonathan Richardson, Father and Son, Explanatory Notes and Remarks on Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ (1734), cxix–cxx. The story about Waller was current in the nineteenth century, when it was traced to a letter, but no letter containing this statement is now known to exist. See J. Milton French, The Life Records of John Milton, 5 vols. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1949–58), 4:440.

(2) Helen Gardner, A Reading of ‘Paradise Lost’ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 1.

(3) Sir Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesie (1595), C3.

(4) Walter Thomas, ‘Milton’s Heroic Line Viewed from an Historical Standpoint’, MLR 2 (1907), 289–315 (see p. 301).

(5) T. S. Omond, ‘Milton and Syllabism’, MLR 4 (1908), 92–101 (see p. 93).

(6) C. S. Lewis, A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’ (London: Oxford University Press, 1942), 1.

(7) T. S. Eliot, ‘A Note on the Verse of John Milton’, E&S 21 (1935 [misdated 1936]), 32–40 (see p. 38).

(8) Francis Willoughby, Ornithology (London, 1678), 90. Willoughby adds that this is a superstition, albeit one ‘not long since believed by learned men and great Naturalists’.

(9) Nigel Smith, ed., The Poems of Andrew Marvell (London: Pearson Longman, 2003), 184.

(10) CPW 7:425.

(11) Milton’s is the OED’s earliest recorded use of the noun ‘expanse’. ‘Expansion’ is cited from 1611.

(12) Page 4v of signature a4 of the unpaginated preface.

(13) Ants Oras, Milton’s Editors and Commentators from Patrick Hume to Henry John Todd (London: Oxford University Press, 1931), 24.

(14) Oras, Milton’s Editors, 38. Christopher Ricks, Milton’s Grand Style (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 10.

(15) Thomas Newton, ed., ‘Paradise Lost’: a Poem in Twelve Books…with Notes of Various Authors, 2 vols. (1749), 1: a2v.

(16) Francis Storr, ed., Paradise Lost Books I and II (Toronto, 1878), 56.

(17) See below, pp. 217–18.

(18) All citations of The Spectator are from the first collected edition, which appeared in eight volumes between 1712 and 1715. The first ten papers on Paradise Lost appear in volume four, and the last eight in volume five.

(19) Matthew Arnold, ‘A French Critic on Milton’, Quarterly Review 143 (January 1877), 186–204. See below, p. 148.

(20) The quoted lines translate 1.72–4 of the Latin text. I shall return to these lines (and Welsted’s comments on them) in my chapter on Milton’s universe. See below, p. 716.

(21) ‘Swelling’ for ‘smelling’ (VII. 321), and ‘Soul’ for ‘fowl’ (VII. 451).

(22) John Callander, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, Book I (Glasgow, 1750), 45–6.

(23) On Milton’s alleged ‘callousness’, see F. R. Leavis, ‘Milton’s Verse’, Scrutiny 2 (September 1933), 123–36 (p. 131). Eliot discusses ‘that perpetual slight alteration of language’ in his essay ‘Philip Massinger’ (1920), in Selected Essays 1917–1932 (London: Faber and Faber, 1932), 209.

(24) Ricks, Milton’s Grand Style, 33.

(25) Timber: or Discoveries (1641), in Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, 10 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925–52), 8:623.

(26) Rambler 94 (9 February 1751, repr. 1752), 211.

(27) Ricks cites some amusing examples of critics who have become ‘entangled with the merely subjective’ while ‘discussing rhythm and music’. See Milton’s Grand Style, 25.

(28) G. W. Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding (1765), trans. Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 279. The French is cited from Nouveaux essais sur l’entendement humain, ed. Jacques Brunschwig (Paris: Flammarion, 1966), 241.

(29) Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours de Linguistique Général, edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with the Collaboration of Albert Riedlinger (Paris: Payot, 1972), 102. The English translation is by Roy Harris, Course in General Linguistics (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1986), 69.

(30) Rambler 94 (9 February 1751, repr. 1752), 221.

(31) Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto & Windus, 1935), 160.

(32) The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton, edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 394–5.

(33) Roy Flannagan, ed., The Riverside Milton (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), 510.

(34) The Dunciad, IV. 111–12.

(35) The Rambler, No. 94 (9 February 1751), 211. Johnson’s warning is discussed below, p. 57.

(36) Newton (1749), 1:3, discussed below, p. 44.

(37) On Translating Homer (London, 1861), 72.

(38) Thomas N. Corns, Milton’s Language (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 88.

(39) The Rambler, No. 88 (19 January 1751), discussed below, p. 51.

(40) William Smith, Dionysius Longinus on the Sublime (London, 1739), 183.

(41) The Poems of John Milton, with Notes, 2 vols. (1859), 1:421–2.

(42) Explanatory Notes, cxliv.

(43) The reference is to Milton’s sonnet to Henry Lawes. Johnson misapplies the phrase ‘committing short and long’, which is not a rebuke of bad poets for tripping over their own feet, but of bad composers for obscuring the meaning of words when setting them to music.

(44) G. Wilson Knight, The Burning Oracle: Studies in the Poetry of Action (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), 97.

(45) Peck, New Memoirs (1740), 112. See above, pp. 41–2.

(46) See above, p. 42.

(47) Benson, Letters Concerning Poetical Translations, 46. See above, p. 37.

(48) The Early Lives of Milton, ed. Helen Darbishire (London: Constable, 1932), 6.

(49) Rambler, 94 (9 February 1751), 211. See above, pp. 30, 39.

(50) Darbishire, The Early Lives, 6.

(51) I take this phrase from John Broadbent, Some Graver Subject: An Essay on ‘Paradise Lost’ (London: Chatto & Windus, 1960), 69.

(52) James Russell Lowell, ‘Milton’ (1876) in Among My Books, vol. 5 of The Complete Writings of James Russell Lowell, 16 vols. (New York: AMS Press, 1966), 289, 308.

(53) Eliot, ‘A Note on the Verse of John Milton’, 36.

(54) See below, pp. 67, 96, 153, 209, 248–9, 263.

(55) Kames, 2:438, discussed above, pp. 61–2.

(56) Butler does, however, satirize Milton in another (unpublished) poem, where he pokes fun at the Latin polemical prose: ‘As he who fought at barriers with Salmasius, / Engaged with nothing but his style and phrases’. See John Shawcross, ed., John Milton: The Critical Heritage, 2 vols. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1995), 1:76.

(57) Cowper wrote his ‘Commentary’ in 1791–2, but it was published posthumously as an appendix to his translation of Latin and Italian Poems of Milton (1808).

(58) Christopher Ricks, ‘Sound and Sense in Paradise Lost’, Essays by Divers Hands n.s. 39 (1977), repr. in The Force of Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 60–79 (see pp. 73f.).

(59) Some Versions of Pastoral, 159.

(60) Spectator 285 (26 January 1712), 192. Discussed above, p. 17.

(61) John Creaser, ‘“Service is Perfect Freedom”: Paradox and Prosodic Style in Paradise Lost’, RES 58 (2007), 268–316 (see p. 301).