Page images

merely in "the jingling sound of like endings,” and in fact “a troublesome and modern bondage” to poets. Though this is said of it more especially in relation to "longer works,” the application is hardly limited to them, but is extended even to shorter works, save in so far as one might be weak enough to yield to custom in their case.

This is not the place to discuss the question of theory so raised, about which a great deal might be said for Rhyme that is left unsuggested in Milton's brief decision. It is more relevant to glance at Milton's sketch of the history of the question :- Rhyme, he truly says, had been utterly unrecognised, if it was not even systematically discountenanced, in Greek and Latin poetry. It was a mere invention of the Middle Ages, he adds, without inquiring, as later research has done, whether its origin was Celtic or Oriental, or to what natural causes its origin among the races that first used it, and its rapid adoption everywhere in the vernacular poetry of modern Europe, are to be attributed. The fact of such universal adoption, sanctioned by the example of the first famous poets of the different nations, he admits—not caring, apparently, to qualify the admission by any reference to the Anglo-Saxon Alliterated Rhythm which persisted some time among the English in competition with the Rhymed Metres of Chaucer and others, and which had its analogues among other Northern nations. At length, however,--.e. in the sixteenth century—there had been an awakening on the subject. “Some both Italian and Spanish poets of prime note” had rejected Rhyme both in longer and shorter works. Among the Italian poets whom Milton may have had in view in this reference Todd and other commentators recognise these — Trissino (1478 1550), Rucellai (1475–1525), Alamanni (1495—1556), and Tasso (1544 - 1595). The use of versi sciolti, or blank verse, among the Italians may be traced farther back than any of these ; but all of them had stamped that kind of verse with their approval in at least portions of their writings— Tasso, for example, in his Sette Giornate del Mondo Creato. Among the first noted Spanish writers of blank verse Bowle and Todd mention Aldana, in a translation of Ovid's Epistles, Gonsalvo Perez, in a translation of the Odyssey, Boscan (1500–1544), and Garcilasso de la Vega (15031536).

Milton takes no notice of early French attempts in Blank Verse; nor does he notice Surrey's memorable first introduction of the same into English in his translation of the Second and Fourth Books of the Æneid, written before 1547, though not published till 1557: He passes over likewise Surrey's immediate English successors in the practice of Blank Verse even in non-dramatic subjects, to note more expressly the remarkable phenomenon of the sudden adoption of Blank Verse for English Tragedy by Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, in 1561, and the general persistence in that form by all the subsequent Elizabethan dramatists. But, though citing this prevalence of Blank Verse in English Dramatic Poetry for nearly a century past as a precedent in his favour, and though doubtless aware that there had been stray specimens of


English non-dramatic poetry in blank verse subsequent to Surrey's, he closes his Preface, truly enough, with a claim for his own Paradise Lost “to be esteemed an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of riming.” In other words, Milton regarded himself as the first to apply English Blank Verse to a great epic subject and to show how the music of Blank Verse might be modified for epic purposes.

I have said that this Preface of Milton to his Paradise Lost is perhaps the most thoroughgoing invective against Rhyme to be found in the English language. Nearly a hundred years before, however (1570), Roger Ascham had written against Rhyme more at length and as strongly. The passage is in his Schoolmaster, and must have been known to Milton. “ This matter," says Ascham, after expressing his opinion that the verse of Plautus and Terence and of the oldest Latin poets generally is very poor and crude, “maketh me gladly remember “my sweet time spent at Cambridge, and the pleasant talk which I had “oft with M. Cheke and M. Watson of this fault not only in the old "Latin poets, but also in our new English rhymers at this day. They “ wished, as Virgil and Horace were not wedded to follow the faults of “ former fathers (a shrewd marriage in greater matters), but by right “ imitation of the perfet Grecians had brought Poetry to perfetness also “in the Latin tongue, that we Englishmen likewise would acknow“ledge and understand rightfully our rude beggarly Rhyming, brought “first into Italy by Goths and Huns when all good verses and all good "learning too were destroyed by them, and after carried into France “ and Germany, and at last received into England, by men of excel“lent wit indeed, but of small learning and less judgment in that behalf. “But now, when men know the difference, and have the examples both “ of the best and of the worst, surely to follow rather the Goths in rhyming than the Greeks in true versifying were to eat acorns with

swine when we may freely eat wheat bread amongst men. . . . Some " that make Chaucer in English and Petrarch in Italian their gods in

verses, and yet be not able to make a true difference, what is a fault "and what is a just praise in these two worthy wits, will much mislike “ this my writing. But such men be even like followers of Chaucer and “ Petrarch as one here in England did follow Sir Tho. More : who, “being most unlike him in wit and learning, nevertheless, in wearing his

gown awry upon the one shoulder, as Sir Tho. More was wont to do, “would needs be counted like unto him. This misliking of Rhyming

beginneth not now of any newfangle singularity, but hath been long “misliked of many, and that of men of greatest learning and deepest “ judgment.. The noble Lord Th. Earl of Surrey, first of all

Englishmen, in translating the Fourth Book of Virgil, and Gonsalvo “ Perez, that most excellent man and Secretary to King Philip of Spain, “ in translating the Ulysses of Homer out of Greek into Spanish, have “both, by good judgment, avoided the fault of Rhyming; yet neither of

[ocr errors]

“them hath fully hit the perfet and true versifying.

The “spying of this fault now is not the curiosity of English eyes, but even "the good judgment also of the best that write in these days in Italy; "and namely of that worthy Felice Figlinecio, who, writing upon “ Aristotle's Éthics so excellently in Italian as never did yet any one in “mine opinion either in Greek or Latin, amongst other things doth most

earnestly inveigh against the rude rhyming of verses in that tongue : “and, whensoever he expresseth Aristotle's precepts with any example

out of Homer or Euripides, he translateth them not after the rhymes of "Petrarch, but into such kind of perfit verse, with like feet and quantity “of syllables, as he found them before in the Greek tongue--exhorting

earnestly all the Italian nation to leave off their rude barbariousness in “rhyming, and follow diligently the excellent Greek and Latin examples " in true versifying.”

Milton's invective against Rhyme, I suspect, is to be received cum grano. He was probably provoked to strength of statement by having heard of the “stumbling" of many of the first readers of Paradise Lost, and perhaps of the outcry of some critics, at the novelty of the verse. Meaning mainly to defend his choice of Blank Verse for a poem of such an order, he may have let his expression sweep beyond the exact bounds of his intention. For, though he had used Blank Verse in his own earlier poetry, as in Comus, had not the bulk of that poetry been in rhyme ? Nay, though he was to persist in Blank Verse, with fresh liberties and variations, in the two remaining poems of his life-Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes—was he not, in the choruses of Samson Agonistes, to revert occasionally to Rhyme, and to use it in a most conscious and most cunningly artistic manner?

[merged small][ocr errors]





1-26. “Of Man's first disobedience ... sing, Heavenly Muse," &c. There is a characteristic peculiarity in this “Invocation,” with which Milton, following so far the established custom of great poets, has opened his epic. It is expressly the HEBREW Muse that he invokesthe Muse that may be supposed to have inspired the shepherd Moses, either on Mount Horeb, when he was keeping the flocks of his fatherin-law Jethro, and the Angel of the Lord appeared to him out of the burning bush (Exod. iii. I, 2), or at a later date on Mount Sinai, when he was alone with the Lord for forty days, receiving the Law (Exod. xxiv. 12–18). On either of these occasions Milton supposes Moses to have received that inspiration which enabled him to reveal, in Genesis, how the Heavens and the Earth were made ; and it was the same Heavenly Muse, he assumes, that afterwards, by Siloa's brook or pool, near the Temple at Jerusalem (Isaiah viii. 6, and Nehem. iii. 15), inspired also David and the Prophets. This Muse, and no other, must inspire the present poet. For the theme that he proposes requires such aid; his song is one that intends to soar above the Aonian Mounti.e. above that Mount Helicon, in old Aonia or Baotia, which, with the neighbouring region, was the fabled haunt of the Grecian Muses. In the end, however, this form of an invocation even of what might be called, by a bold adaptation of classic terms, the true, primeval, or Heavenly Muse (Milton afterwards, P. L., VII. 1, calls her Urania), passes into a direct prayer to the Divine Spirit. Compare the passage from The Reason of Church Government, quoted Introd. p. 48. That Milton believed himself to be, in some real sense, an inspired man, admits of little doubt.

6. The secret top.Some interpret secret here in its Latin sense of "separate," "retired," or "solitary;" but Milton may have had in view

the “ thick cloud and “smoke" that covered Mount Sinai, and the "glory of the Lord like a devouring fire on the top of the mount," at the giving of the Law to Moses (Exod. xix, 16—18, and xxiv. 15–18). Compare also Par, Lost, V. 598.

16." Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.So, as Bentley pointed out, Ariosto, Orl, Fur., Cant. i. Stanza 2 :

Cosa non detta in prosa mai nè in rima.”


Rime being the more correct spelling (from the A.-S. rim, numbering, not from the Greek pvQuós, rhythm), recent editors of Milton have printed the word so in this passage. But Milton's own spelling here is rhime; and, as in his prose preface on “ The Verse," he has uniformly spelt the word rime, his deviation here must be supposed intentional. Nor is it difficult to see the reason. By rime in the prose-preface he means the special kind of verse which consists in “ the jingling sound of like endings," whereas here by rhime he means verse in general. So also in the only other passage of his poetry in which the word occursLycid., line 11. There also he means verse in general, and there he spells the word rhyme,

19. " Instruct me, for Thou know'st.Newton quotes Theocritus, Idyll xxii. 116: είπε θεά, συ γαρ οίσθα.

Dove-like sat'st brooding.In Gen. i. 1, 2, the phrase is " And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters ;” but “ brooded," or “ hovered,” is said to be a more exact rendering of the Hebrew word than “moved ;” and the very comparison “ dove-like;" to illustrate the meaning of “brooding" in the passage, is said to occur in the Talmudists or Jewish commentators on the Bible. There may be a recollection also of Luke iii. 22.

27. Say first,&c. Compared by Hume with Iliad, ii. 484-6.

32. For one restraint, lords of the world besides.Mr. Keightley understands For to mean But for, and points as if the passage meant “being lords of the world besides, but for one restraint.” But surely the more natural interpretation is, “transgress his will on account of one restraint (though they were) lords of the world besides;" and this is the interpretation suggested by the original pointing.

33, 34. "Who first seduced them," &c. Compared by Hume with Iliad, i. 8:

Τίς τ' άρ σφωε θεών έριδι ξυνέηκε μάχεσθαι ;
Λητούς και Διός υιός:


He trusted to have equalled," &c. : Isaiah xiv. 12--14.

« PreviousContinue »