Blank verse, and more specifically Milton's use of the form, represents an important test case for our methods of dealing with the relation between poetic and non-poetic language. It does so by unsettling any clear distinction between the two elements of the double pattern, the line and syntax. Read the following short extracts from Paradise Lost:
I thither went
With unexperienced thought, and laid me down On the green bank, to look into the clear Smooth lake, that to me seemed another sky.
I formed them free, and free they must remain, Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change Their nature
Consider these questions:
(i) Speaker and text. The two speakers are, respectively, Eve and God. Eve seems to hesitate ('The clear' was a widely used substantive form in the 17th century—like 'the sky' or 'the moonlight'). Is her uncertain negotiation of language's substantive and adjectival forms evidence of her intrinsic unreliability? If so could not the same be said of God's apparent hesitation between 'I else must change' (my mind? my plan?) and 'Their' (Adam and Eve's) 'nature'?
(ii) Speaker and context. We know from the extra-textual context (the Bible) that God should not be regarded, like Eve, as unreliable. How do we resolve this conundrum?
(iii) If we read both passages as prose (forget the line ending and the pentameter) then the uncertainties and hesitations seem to disappear. Should we allow context to interfere with text and read Eve's passage as verse and God's as prose?
(iv) Discourse and meaning. The enclosed tension between line and syntax seems to have transformed itself into a far more complex relation between poetry and prose, text and context. If we choose to ignore textual effects in one case and attend to them in the other do we implicitly acknowledge that the relation between poetry and the real world is more unreliable than with its non-poetic counterpart? Could a similar disjunction between our perception of who the characters are and what they say occur in an impartial prose account or in unverified speech acts?
(v) Poetry and criticism. With the above problems in mind reread Culler's judgement of how we impose meanings upon refractory poetic effects (pp. 13-17) and consider how similarly uncertain relationships between speaker, text and context can be created in modernist free verse (see Chapter 6, pp. 155-7).
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