Cum tabulis animum censoris sumet honesti:
Audebit, quæcunque parum splendoris habebunt,
Et sine pondere erunt, et honore indigna ferentur,
Verba movere loco, quamvis invita recedant,
Et versentur adhuc intra penetralia Vestæ.
Hor. Lib. ii. Ep. ii. 110.
But he that hath a curious piece designed,
When he begins must take a censor’s mind.
Severe and honest; and what words appear
Too light and trivial, or too weak to bear
The weighty sense, nor worth the reader’s care,
Shake off; though stubborn, they are loth to move,
And though we fancy, dearly though we love.
“There is no reputation for genius,” says Quintilian, “to be gained by writing on things, which, however necessary, have little splendour or shew. The height of a building attracts the eye, but the foundations lie without regard. Yet since there is not any way to the top of science, but from the lowest parts, I shall think nothing unconnected with the art of oratory, which he that wants cannot be an orator.”
Confirmed and animated by this illustrious precedent, I shall continue my inquiries into Milton’s art of versification. Since, however minute the employment may appear, of analysing lines into syllables, and whatever ridicule may be incurred by a solemn deliberation upon accents and pauses, it is certain that without this petty knowledge no man can be a poet; and that from the proper disposition of single sounds results that harmony that adds force to reason, and gives grace to sublimity; that shackles attention, and governs passions.
That verse may be melodious and pleasing, it is necessary, not only that the words be so ranged as that the accent may fall on its proper place, but that the syllables themselves be so chosen as to flow smoothly into one another. This is to be effected by a proportionate mixture of vowels and consonants, and, by tempering the mute consonants with liquids and semivowels. The Hebrew grammarians have observed, that it is impossible to pronounce two consonants without the intervention of a vowel, or without some emission of the breath between one and the other; this is longer and more perceptible, as the sounds of the consonants are less harmonically conjoined, and, by consequence, the flow of the verse is longer interrupted.
It is pronounced by Dryden, that a line of monosyllables is almost always harsh. This, with regard to our language, is evidently true, not because monosyllables cannot compose harmony, but because our monosyllables, being of Teutonick original, or formed by contraction, commonly begin and end with consonants, as,
————Every lower faculty
Of sense, whereby they hear, see, smell, touch, taste.
The difference of harmony arising principally from the collocation of vowels and consonants, will be sufficiently conceived by attending to the following passages:
Immortal Amarant——there grows
And flow’rs aloft, shading the fount of life,
And where the river of bliss through midst of heav’n
Rolls o’er Elysian flow’rs her amber stream;
With these that never fade, the spirits elect
Bind their resplendent locks inwreath’d with beams.
The same comparison that I propose to be made between  the fourth and sixth verses of this passage, may be repeated between the last lines of the following quotations:
————Under foot the violet,
Crocus, and hyacinth, with rich in-lay
Broider’d the ground, more colour’d than with stone
Of costliest emblem.
————Here in close recess,
With flowers, garlands, and sweet-smelling herbs,
Espoused Eve first deck’d her nuptial bed;
And heav’nly choirs the hymenean sung.
Milton, whose ear had been accustomed, not only to the musick of the ancient tongues, which, however vitiated by our pronunciation, excel all that are now in use, but to the softness of the Italian, the most mellifluous of all modern poetry, seems fully convinced of the unfitness of our language for smooth versification, and is therefore pleased with an opportunity of calling in a softer word to his assistance; 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.
————The richer seat
Of Atabalipa, and yet unspoil’d
Guiana, whose great city Gerion’s sons
Call El Dorado.——
The moon——The Tuscan artist views
At evening, from the top of Fesole
Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands.—
He has indeed been more attentive to his syllables than to his accents, and does not often offend by collisions of consonants, or openings of vowels upon each other, at least not more often than other writers who have had less important or complicated subjects to take off their care from the cadence of their lines.
The great peculiarity of Milton’s versification compared with that of later poets, is the elision of one vowel before another, or the suppression of the last syllable of a word ending with a vowel, when a vowel begins the following word. As
Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns
Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind.
This licence, though now disused in English poetry, was practised by our old writers, and is allowed in many other languages ancient and modern, and therefore the criticks on “Paradise Lost” have, without much deliberation, commended Milton for continuing it. But one language cannot communicate its rules to another. We have already tried and rejected the hexameter of the ancients, the double close of the Italians, and the alexandrine of the French; and the elision of vowels, however graceful it may seem to other nations, may be very unsuitable to the genius of the English tongue.
There is reason to believe that we have negligently lost part of our vowels, and that the silent e which our ancestors added to most of our monosyllables, was once vocal. By this detruncation of our syllables, our language is overstocked with consonants, and it is more necessary to add vowels to the beginning of words, than to cut them off from the end.
Milton therefore seems to have somewhat mistaken the nature of our language, of which the chief defect is ruggedness and asperity, and has left our harsh cadences yet harsher. But his elisions are not all equally to be censured; in some syllables they may be allowed, and perhaps in a few may be safely imitated. The abscission of a vowel is undoubtedly vicious when it is strongly sounded, and makes, with its associate consonant, a full and audible syllable.
————What he gives,
Spiritual, may to purest spirits be found,
No ingrateful food, and food alike these pure
Intelligential substances require.
Fruits,——Hesperian fables true,
If true, here only, and of delicious taste.
——Evening now approach’d,
For we have also our evening and our morn.
Of guests he makes them slaves,
Inhospitably, and kills their infant males.
And vital Virtue infus’d, and vital warmth
Throughout the fluid mass.——
God made thee of choice his own, and of his own
To serve him.
I believe every reader will agree, that in all those passages, though not equally in all, the musick is injured, and in some the meaning obscured. There are other lines in which the vowel is cut off, but it is so faintly pronounced in common speech, that the loss of it in poetry is scarcely perceived; and therefore such compliance with the measure may be allowed.
Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things,
Abominable, inutterable; and worse
Than fables yet have feigned.——
————From the shore
They view’d the vast immensurable abyss.
Impenetrable, impal’d with circling fire.
To none communicable in earth or heav’n.
Yet even these contractions increase the roughness of a language too rough already; and though in long poems they may be sometimes suffered, it never can be faulty to forbear them.
Milton frequently uses in his poems the hypermetrical or redundant line of eleven syllables.
————Thus it shall befall
Him who to worth in woman over-trusting
Lets her will rule.——
I also err’d in over much admiring.
Verses of this kind occur almost in every page; but though they are not unpleasing or dissonant, they ought not to be admitted into heroick poetry, since the narrow limits of our language allow us no other distinction of epick and tragick measures, than is afforded by the liberty of changing at will the terminations of the dramatick lines, and bringing them by that relaxation of metrical rigour nearer to prose.