top of page

  (to return to PL Table of Contents, click here)


                              9. The Fragility of Language

                     And the Fullness of God--More Thoughts on the Prologue, PL I.1-26


Everyone who has taught and written knows that one of the most difficult things to assure is that your hearers/readers understand what you mean to communicate. Words are wisps of sound or twigs of meaning thrown together, beating against the ears of those who often have tons of other thoughts vying for their attention at the moment your idea hits them. In addition, the words themselves can be imprecise or not well-chosen, or spoken or written in ways that don't enhance understanding. But, if communication is done well, with words neatly selected and ideas engagingly presented, it is almost as if one is brought face to face with God in the writing. This essay probes the way that Milton communicates in PL, reviews how scholars see Milton's style, and points to several uses of language from the prologue (I.1-26) that help us form a preliminary judgment on the effectiveness of Milton's words.

                                                    Hearing Milton First

It has been pointed out since the first edition of PL was published in 1667 that Milton has done something remarkably new in the poem--or he has done something not traditional-- and that is that he has not written in rhyme. Everyone wrote poetry in rhyme in his day; that is simply the way that you did it. Milton didn't. Not until the second edition in 1674 did he defend his practice:

     "The measure (of PL) is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek,        and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or            good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off      wretched matter and lame Meter..." The Verse [before Book I].

One can almost hear in this a mingled weariness and pugnaciousness that not only defends his practice but also, for good measure, tars his opponents with a derivative from "barbarian." But I think there is more to be said for Milton's method that he himself says. First, this method allows him to have "run-on" lines or "enjambed lines," which means that chunks of meaning don't always coincide with the line of verse. Milton is thus free to let meaning "hit us" anywhere in the line. We not only need to stay alert as we read, but we begin to settle into the special rhythm of the poem, a rhythm that isn't, as it were, imposed from without but rises up from within. In addition, enjambment is the literary correlate of a theological view which holds, as Milton did, that God is diffused or present in the entire universe. Milton's style is compatible with the notion that God, like meaning, is diffused throughout the text. It, like the universe, is filled with all the fullness of God. 

Thus, the careful reader ought to realize that Milton is placing incredible pressure on words, compressing them like a video file sent through email, so that they can spring back to life in an uncompressed way as our minds gently unravel the layers of the words. Or, to use a different analogy, Milton's words are like cherry tomatoes which, when placed in our mouths, explode with meaning. Abandoning rhyme allowed words to take on new and powerful signficance for him. 


Time would fail if we were to illustrate the freedom of Milton's verse, but here are a few examples of stress falling or the thought ending on other than the last of the ten syllables/stresses in Milton's line. The line, by the way, is known as iambic pentameter or blank verse or, as he calls it, "English Heroic Verse." I take the following examples from Richard Newton's 1749 variorum on PL, where he often cites comments of his predecessors like the Richardsons, father and son (1734), Addison (1712), Bentley (1732), Patrick Hume (1695) and others. Emphasis on the first sound? From VI.837-38:


     "such as in their souls infix'd
     Plagues; they astonish'd all resistance lost."

How about the second? From V.267:


     Down thither prone in flight
     He speeds, and through the vast ethereal sky."


Idea ending on a later, enjambed, syllable? From the prologue, I.23,


     "what in me is dark
     Illumine, what is low raise and support."


Or, from the beautiful Hymn to Holy Light (III.39):

     "as the wakeful bird 
     Sings darkling, and in shadiest Covert hid.."


So as not to continue this interminably, let me close with a reference to another thought ending after the later beat (IV.798):

     "on he led his radiant files,
     Dazzling the moon; these to the bow'r direct.."

Meaning thus is sprinkled through the lines of PL like water in the thirsty Kansas wheat field. The rhythm of the story, rather than meaning at the end of the line, is what grabs our attention. 


                                        Milton in the Critics Den

During the first two centuries after PL's publication, Milton's reputation as the greatest English-language poet was solidified. People occasionally might complain about unclear passages or a style that was "grandiloquent" and not just "grand," but the name of Milton quickly assumed a place in the starry firmament, much like a maiden in Greek mythology who, after being pursued, is caught up to become a constellation in the sky. 

Yet Milton began to suffer at the hands of critics in the early 20th century, especially in the person of T.S. Eliot and others who felt that he sacrificed the clarity of ideas and real-life conversation for the pleasant-sounding phraseology of rhythm. As Eliot said in an influential essay in 1936, 

"     "The arrangement [of words] is for the sake of musical value, not for significance..the           syntax is determined by the musical significance, by the auditory imagination, rather           than by the attempt to follow actual speech or thought," quoted in Ricks, Milton's Grand              Style, p. 5.

A pushback began in the 1960s in the writing of CS Lewis and, more helpfully, Christopher Ricks. Their purpose was to vindicate Milton's "grand style." Ricks' argument, in a nutshell, was that Milton did use a style of "musical value," but that this style in no way detracted from the subtlety and delicacy of a finely crafted speech or developed thought (Ricks, p. 22). In fact, Ricks argued that Milton's use of rhythm or music, syntax, metaphor and word-play all contribute to a style that not only tells a story nobly, but tells it through effective words and thoughts.

One example of one of these methods will have to suffice. Commentators have often remarked on the "breathlessness" of the opening lines of the epic. Let's hear them again, for they are among the most noted in English literature (I.1-6):

"     "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."

Nineteenth century critic Matthew Arnold commented: 


"     "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 it is not till the thirty-ninth word ("Sing") in the sentence that he will     give us the key to it, the word of action, the verb," quoted in Ricks, Op. cit., 28. 

Notably, it is not until Arnold's 39th word or the previous sentence that he introduces his main verb. How Miltonian! Parody, of course, but gratitude nevertheless. But his sentence has content. We see how Milton is "resolute" not to let the sentence "escape him" until he has packed into it everything he can. That, for Ricks and for modern critics, captures some of the value of Milton's syntax. It may at times be difficult to read him, but the reader ought to be aware that he may be expressing or trying to express the entire universe in one sentence. Be aware of how he does this, and don't lose patience. Soon you, too, will be speaking and writing better..

bottom of page