Milton's Paradise Lost had an effect upon the compositional and interpretive conventions of the eighteenth century that is comparable with the effect of free verse upon our own. In the sixteenth century there had been a number of attempts, notably by Surrey, to establish blank verse as an acceptable medium for the non-dramatic poem, but by 1667 it was agreed, by general consensus, that its role was limited to drama. There are a number of reasons for this demarcation between formal and generic types, and these are most clearly summarised by Dryden in his Essay of Dramatic Poesy, published, with ironic timing, barely a year after Milton's poem. Correct blank verse observes the conventions of the iambic pentameter, but it does not rhyme, and, as Dryden and the vast majority of his contemporaries believed, rhyme was the only device by which accentual, rather than quantitative verse, could signal the presence of the double pattern. Dryden called blank verse prose mesuree, and he regarded the measuring of syntax into iambic, decasyllabic units as insufficient to guarantee, for the hearer, the definitive component of poetic discourse, the line. Milton, in his note on The Verse' of Paradise Lost, disagreed. He claimed that in his poem the 'sense' would be 'variously drawn out from one verse into another', and by establishing a flexible relation between the two elements of the double pattern, he also claimed—contra Dryden and practically everyone else—that the unrhymed pentameter possessed a sufficient degree of formal palpability to register as the point of regularity and stability against which syntactic movements could be counterpointed.
This summary is a gross simplication of the creative and interpretative problems that have attended Milton's revolutionary gesture. These problems resonate through the history of English poetry and its criticism, and a number remain unresolved. To consider what they are let us examine the formal unit that, far more powerfully than the stanza, was to present itself as the alternative to the eighteenth-century closed couplet.
now conscience wakes despair That slumbered, wakes the bitter memory Of what he was, what is, and what must be Worse
John Hollander (1975) has commented on how the double pattern is here thrown into a state of conflict. Line 25 appears to complete an echo of the prayer-book formula, 'what must be', yet the syntax moves on to connect this with an even more compelling existential state, 'Worse'. There are different ways of naturalising this effect.
We might assume that the poetic function (in this case the line ending) is foregrounded to create the effect of the gradual awakening of Satan to the true nature of his condition. The problem with this is that we know that it is Milton rather than his fictive creation who is speaking here. One solution to this conundrum would be that Milton is attempting to transpose his own first-person account with the projected speech patterns of his characters, and this brings us to an issue that has received little attention in analyses of the history of English blank verse. A great deal of work has gone into comparing and contrasting the metrical and syntactic structures of blank verse texts by Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth etc. (see for example Fowler's Three Blank Verse Textures', The Languages of Literature, 1971), but the crucial issue of how Milton and his successors dealt with adapting this form from the dramatic to the non-dramatic mode has been marginalised. In effect he altered the function of the contact mode and consequently threw the addresser-addressee relation into a state of uncertainty. With dramatic blank verse the physical presence of the speaker and the apparently contingent immediacy of the utterance would promote the contact mode to a level comparable with the poetic function. In short, the addresser-
addressee relation would be split between exchanges within the text and between text and listener. Paradise Lost partakes of this model to the extent that the structure and narrative movement of the poem is comprised entirely of speaking presences. The most significant difference is that one of these is the author: it is almost as though Shakespeare were to appear on stage in order to comment, in blank verse, on the condition of his characters and advise the listener of the progress of the plot. The reason for this interpolation of the authorial voice is that non-dramatic texts would either be read aloud by a single performer or alone, and probably silently, by someone with a copy of the text. Milton operates as a kind of master of ceremonies, replacing the physical presences of actors and the contextual framework of the stage as a figure who coordinates the progress of the narrative. We know from the basic deictic features when Milton, Satan or Adam is speaking but this effect of individuality is compromised in three ways: first, each of these characters, including their creator, adheres to the same metrical and syntactic patterns that have come to be known as the Miltonic idiom. Second, the contact mode of the single voice, either silent or audible, increases the dominance of collective textuality over separate presences. Most significantly it is the structural function of blank verse that throws the addresser-text-addressee relation into a constant state of flux. Verse without rhyme might well satisfy the abstract criterion of the regular iambic pentameter, but when, as in Paradise Lost, this is supplemented by interlinea! syntactic promiscuities, inversions, extended parentheses, delayed verbs, it becomes difficult to properly distinguish between verse design and verse instance.
It is this tension between the two elements of the double pattern that allows Hollander to identify an effect he calls 'closure and flow.the warp and weft of the verse fabric'. This, he argues, accounts for the polysemous nature of 'must be' and 'must be/ Worse'. It would be wrong, however, to regard the tension between verse design (the metrical structure of the line) and verse instance (the interlineal movements of syntax) simply as an addition to the signifying procedures of the more regular rhymed poems we have already encountered, because with Paradise Lost it could be argued that this element of the poetic function depends as much upon the disposition and interpretive faculties of the reader as it does upon the intrinsic structure of the text.
Christopher Ricks (1963) has commented on the following lines,
Thus saying, from her husband's hand her hand Soft she withdrew.
Ricks points out that an initial reading of 'Soft' as an adverb 'softly' or 'yielding' can be modified by the more straightforward literal, adjectival usage of her 'soft hand'. This produces, 'a delicate fusion of two points of view, since the adverb has the neutrality of an onlooker, while the adjective puts us in the place of Adam as he feels Eve's hand' (p. 90). This would be consistent with Milton's double function both as 'onlooker' and creator of the events that he observes, but we will find disturbingly similar effects discharged by Eve's own speeches. Hollander considers her account to Adam of her first experiences of existence.
and from that time I see
How beauty is excelled by manly grace.
She is comparing her narcissistic admiration of her own reflection in the lake with her vision of Adam, and Hollander comments on how 'the literal sense of "see" dissolves into a figurative one ("see how" as "understand that") with a lingering hedging of her commitment' (98). Hollander has identified the same effect in Eve's speech that Ricks uncovered in Milton's account of her physical actions. Indeed Eve's entire speech in Book IV is sewn with uneasy tensions between verse design and verse instance, each of which could be naturalised as textual clues to her intrinsic unreliability (see Bradford, 1988).
Let us now pause to consider how we have reached these conclusions. First of all we might wonder how it is that we and Hollander can discern a degree of unreliability in Eve's discourse while this does not become apparent to the person to which this is originally, and orally, addressed, i.e. Adam. We could resolve this problem by recognising that the characters of the poem are essentially functions of its overall textual-poetic function. The formal similarities between Milton's and his character's foregroundings of the design-instance tension grants the reader a command of the text that is denied to its spoken inhabitants. From this we might assume that the exchanges that take place within the text (such as those between Adam and Eve) give greater register to verse instance (the more transparent interlineal pattern) while the exchange between text and reader allows us to consider the full signifying potential of design in conflict with instance. To clarify this distinction between two separate addresser-addressee relationships we should note that as readers we have more opportunity to pause and reread each exchange than would its participants, whose awareness of meaning is limited to a single vocal utterance. John Hollander offers an intriguing formula for this distinction by suggesting that seeing and hearing poems are separate engagements analogous to the Saussurian division of language into a differential system (langue) and specific speech events (parole).
It is on the second of these axes that I would pose the ear, the individual talent, the voice, the parole; on the first are ranged the eye, the tradition, the mask through which the voice sounds, and the langue. The ear responds to the dimension of natural experience, the eye to that of convention (248).
The binary opposition offered by Hollander relates to Jakobson's distinction between the selective-paradigmatic (langue, eye, tradition, mask) and the combinative-syntagmatic (parole, ear, individual, voice) axes. This would account for Hollander's and Ricks's balancing of the arbitrary double pattern against the transparent register of meaning. What Hollander, Ricks and we ourselves encounter is a productive conflict between syntagmatic progress ('must be worse', 'hand soft', 'see how') and what Jakobson calls the projection of the axis of selection into the axis of combination: our awareness of design (line ending) in conflict with instance (syntactic movement) does indeed transform, in Hollander's terms, the literal (syntagmatic) into the figurative (paradigmatic).
In short, we have encountered in Milton's poem a far more problematic and innovative relation between the text and the voice (s) within the text than occurs in the poems of Donne, Herbert, Marvell and Pope. Why did Milton do this? It could be argued that in a poem which seeks to address the origins and conditions of humanity he deliberately created a tension between language as granting a transparent access to fact and truth (which seems to occur within the exchanges of the text) and language, in this case poetic language, as capable of creating multi-levels of uncertainty, indecision and ever-increasing distance as a reminder of the primary communicative condition of our fallen state.
By establishing a precedent in which the two elements of the double pattern become unstable Milton set in motion a sub tradition of anti-formalism that would eventually manifest itself in the modernist programme of free verse. We shall return to this issue in our discussion of the Romantics and the modernists, but it is important to note that Milton's flexible deployment of the double pattern caused a debate in the eighteenth century that preempts the more recent controversies over whether certain textual effects are intrinsic to the structure of language or whether they are signals that will activate the reader's interpretive resources (see Chapter 1, pp. 13-17). Samuel Johnson's much quoted judgement of Paradise Lost as 'verse only to the eye' (see Bradford, 1988) is a straightforward anticipation of Stanley Fish's reader-centred model of interpretation:
I appropriate the Tine ending' and treat it as a fact of nature
[but] what is noticed is what has been made noticeable, not by a clear and undistorting glass, but by an interpretive strategy.
Both critics base their claims upon an assumed distinction between sign and substance. In Johnson's view the line on the page should be a visual sign of intrinsic poetic structures (rhyme, syntactic and metrical closure) and when these are absent only the signal will remain. Fish takes up this point and claims that a good deal of what we call interpreting poetic structure is in fact the imposition of interpretive strategies upon a network of textual signals that in themselves possess no intrinsic meaning. Their case could be justified by citing the above sequences from Paradise Lost as examples of the reader's choice either to interpret the tension between verse design and instance or give primary emphasis to the verse instance.
Johnson's judgement represents an economic summary of a debate that had lasted a century. Some eighteenth-century critics suggested that the unrhymed pentameter was a meaningless concession to printing habit and that Paradise Lost, and by implication other unrhymed poems, should be printed as free verse. Others argued that conventions of writing should be developed to accommodate and effectively diffuse the tension between interlineal syntactic progress and the iambic pentameter (see Bradford, 1992). As will be shown in the following section the latter, at least for the poet, won the case.
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