In tenui labor.
Virg. Geor. iv. 6.
What toil in slender things!
It is very difficult to write on the minuter parts of literature without failing either to please or instruct. Too much nicety of detail disgusts the greatest part of readers, and to throw a multitude of particulars under general heads, and lay down rules of extensive comprehension, is to common understandings of little use. They who undertake these subjects are therefore always in danger, as one or other inconvenience arises to their imagination, of frighting us with rugged science, or amusing us with empty sound.
In criticising the work of Milton, there is, indeed, opportunity to intersperse passages that can hardly fail to relieve the languors of attention; and since, in examining the variety and choice of the pauses with which he has diversified his numbers, it will be necessary to exhibit the lines in which they are to be found, perhaps the remarks may be well compensated by the examples, and the irksomeness of grammatical disquisitions somewhat alleviated.
Milton formed his scheme of versification by the poets of Greece and Rome, whom he proposed to himself for his models, so far as the difference of his language from theirs would permit the imitation. There are indeed many inconveniencies inseparable from our heroick measure compared with that of Homer and Virgil; inconveniencies, which it is no reproach to Milton not to have overcome, because they are in their own nature insuperable; but against which he has struggled with so much art and diligence, that he may at least be said to have deserved success.
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 invenias etiam disjecti membra poetæ, some harmony will still remain, and the due proportions of sound will always be discovered. This measure therefore allowed great variety of pauses, and great liberties of connecting one verse with another, because wherever the line was interrupted, either part singly was musical. But the ancients seem to have confined this privilege to hexameters; for in their other measures, though longer than the English heroick, those who wrote after the refinements of versification, venture so seldom to change their pauses, that every variation may be supposed rather a compliance with necessity than the choice of judgment.
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.
As harmony is the end of poetical measures, no part of a verse ought to be so separated from the rest as not to remain still more harmonious than prose, or to show, by the disposition of the tones, that it is part of a verse. This rule in the old hexameter might be easily observed, but in English will very frequently be in danger of violation; for the order and regularity of accents cannot well be perceived in a succession of fewer than three syllables, which will confine the English poet to only five pauses; it being supposed, that when he connects one line with another, he should never make a full pause at less distance than that of three syllables from the beginning or end of a verse.
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; but it will be found generally necessary, and the ear will seldom fail to suffer by its neglect.
Thus when a single syllable is cut off from the rest, it must either be united to the line with which the sense connects it, or be sounded alone. If it be united to the other line, it corrupts its harmony; if disjoined, it must stand alone, and with regard to musick be superfluous; for there is no harmony in a single sound, because it has no proportion to another.
——Hypocrites austerely talk,
Defaming as impure what God declares
Pure; and commands to some, leaves free to all.
When two syllables likewise are abscinded from the rest, they evidently want some associate sounds to make them harmonious.
——more wakeful than to drouze,
Charm’d with Arcadian pipe, the pastoral reed
Of Hermes, or his opiate rod. Meanwhile
To re-salute the world with sacred light
He ended, and the sun gave signal high
To the bright minister that watch’d: he blew
First in the east his glorious lamp was seen,
Regent of day; and all th’ horizon round
Invested with bright rays, jocund to run
His longitude through heav’n’s high road; the gray
Dawn, and the Pleiades, before him danc’d,
Shedding sweet influence.
The same defect is perceived in the following line, where the pause is at the second syllable from the beginning.
Of that wild rout that tore the Thracian bard
In Rhodope, where woods and rocks had ears
To rapture, ’till the savage clamour drown’d
Both harp and voice; nor could the muse defend
Her son. So fail not thou, who thee implores.
When the pause falls upon the third syllable or the seventh, the harmony is the better preserved; but as the third and seventh are weak syllables, the period leaves the ear unsatisfied, and in expectation of the remaining part of the verse.
——He, with his horrid crew,
Lay vanquish’d, rolling in the fiery gulph,
Confounded though immortal. But his doom
Reserv’d him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
God,—with frequent intercourse,
Thither will send his winged messengers
On errands of supernal grace. So sung
The glorious train ascending.
It may be, I think, established as a rule, that a pause which concludes a period should be made for the most part upon a strong syllable, as the fourth and sixth; but those pauses which only suspend the sense may be placed upon the weaker. Thus the rest in the third line of the first passage satisfies the ear better than in the fourth, and the close of the second quotation better than of the third.
————The evil soon
Drawn back, redounded (as a flood) on those
From whom it sprung; impossible to mix
————What we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,
One night or two with wanton growth derides,
Tending to wild.
The paths and bow’rs doubt not but our joint hands
Will keep from wilderness with ease as wide
As we need walk, till younger hands ere long
The rest in the fifth place has the same inconvenience as in the seventh and third, that the syllable is weak.
Beast now with beast ‘gan war, and fowl with fowl,
And fish with fish, to graze the herb all leaving,
Devour’d each other: Nor stood much in awe
Of man, but fled him, or with countenance grim,
Glar’d on him passing.
The noblest and most majestick pauses which our versification admits, are upon the fourth and sixth syllables, which are both strongly sounded in a pure and regular verse, and at either of which the line is so divided, that both members participate of harmony.
But now at last the sacred influence
Of light appears, and from the walls of heav’n
Shoots far into the bosom of dim night
A glimmering dawn: here nature first begins
Her farthest verge, and chaos to retire.
But far above all others, if I can give any credit to my own ear, is the rest upon the sixth syllable, which, taking in a complete compass of sound, such as is sufficient to constitute one of our lyrick measures, makes a full and solemn close. Some passages which conclude at this stop, I could never read without some strong emotions of delight or admiration.
Before the hills appear’d, or fountain flow’d,
Thou with the eternal wisdom didst converse,
Wisdom thy sister, and with her didst play
In presence of the almighty Father, pleas’d
With thy celestial song.
Or other worlds they seem’d, or happy isles,
Like those Hesperian gardens fam’d of old,
Fortunate fields, and groves, and flowery vales,
Thrice happy isles! But who dwelt happy there,
He stayed not to inquire.
His trumpet, heard in Oreb since, perhaps
When God descended; and, perhaps, once more
To sound at general doom.
If the poetry of Milton be examined, with regard to the pauses and flow of his verses into each other, it will appear, that he has performed all that our language would admit; and the comparison of his numbers with those who have cultivated the same manner of writing, will show that he excelled as much in the lower as the higher parts of his art, and that his skill in harmony was not less than his invention or his learning.