Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Milton’s Style: Its Grandeur and Loftiness

Abundance of Allusions and References: Difficulty
The first characteristic of Milton’s poetry that meets the eye, is its extremely difficult nature, and this difficulty largely lies in his style. An appreciation of Milton, said Mark Pattison, “is the last reward of consummate scholarship”. He is a poet not for the masses, but for the learned few.
A whole treasury of allusions and references to classical myth, history and literature, to Biblical mythology, and contemporary literatures, lies scattered all over his poetry, even his early poetry. For example, in order to describe the vastness of Satan’s troops, he brings in the names of the mightiest armies known to history and legend. As Hanford points out, “The whole treasury of poetry and the whole storehouse of learning are at his command. He assumes that they are also at the command of his reader and accordingly he loads every rift of his verse with the ore of myth and legend, and with historical, literary, and scientific fact. Of no other English style is erudition so integral a part. Classical and Biblical allusion is, of course, the most abundant, constituting a kind of current coin of expression where­with to convey a meaning rich in poetic and cultural suggestion.”
Extreme Terseness and Condensation
This difficulty of Milton’s poetry is further heightened by the extreme condensation and terseness of his style. Raleigh calls Milton’s lines “packed lines” and writes, “The packed line introduced by Milton is of a greater density and conciseness than anything to be found in English literature before it. It is our nearest native counterpart to the force and reserve of the high Virgilian diction.” He packs his meaning into the fewest possible words and studies economy in every trifle. A reader of Milton must be always upon duty; he is surrounded with sense; it rises in every line, every word is to the purpose. There are no lazy intervals; all has been considered, and demands and merits observation. Even in the best writers you sometimes find words and sentences which hang on so loosely, you may blow them off. Milton’s are all subs­tance and weight; fewer would not have served his turn, and more would have been superfluous. He expresses himself so concisely, employs words so sparingly, that whoever will possess his ideas must dig for them, and often-times pretty far below the surface.” Connec­tives and conjunctives are often missing, and all superfluous graces are usually discarded and the poet continues to move forward giving the reader no rest. Each word is of value; there is no mortar bet­ween the stones, each is held in place by the weight of the others, and helps to uphold the building. He can enclose vast concepts within little space. Thus in the following from Book II, the whole dreariness of the fallen angel’s march to their retreats after the conference is expressed in the last line which is just a catalogue with­out any cement :
Through many a dark and dreary vale
They passed, and many a region dolorous,
O’er many a frozen, many a fiery Alp.
Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death.
And in Book I the mightiest army one can imagine is rendered in less than six lines:
All in a moment through the gloom were seen
Ten thousand banners rise into the air,
With orient colours waving; with them rose
A forest huge of spears; and thronging helms
Appeared, and serried shields in thick array of depth immeasurable.
Latinisms; Loftiness and Sublimity
Milton’s genius for terseness and condensation accounts for many of the peculiarities of his diction. His use of words in their original Latin sense, Latin constructions, and inversions is not pedantry or vulgar show of knowledge. Through his Latinisms the poet achieves conciseness as well as that elevation and remoteness, that distancing from the speech of everyday life, that grandeur and sublimity, which are the key-notes of an epic. He was writing an epic in which the characters are God, His Son, the angels, both good and bad. Naturally, he had to use words which would be suitable for such super-human characters, and the order in which these words are used must also be different from their order in the speech of ordinary mortals. That is why he uses old English words in their original Latin sense. Thus the quaint expression ‘sounding alchemy” is used for ‘trumpets of brass’, ‘Landskip’ for ‘landscape’, ‘highth’ for ‘height’, and ‘strucken’ for ‘striken’, ‘sublime’ is constantly used by him in the Latin sense of ‘aloft’ or ‘in the air’, ‘sovran’ is used instead of ‘sovereignty’, and  ‘author’ is used in the Latin sense of ‘informant’. Many of his Elisions and contractions also result from his passion for conciseness.
Inverted Constructions:
(a) Impart Brevity
Similarly the construction of his sentences is not the normal familiar construction of ordinary speech. His construction aims at maximum of condensation and loftiness. In his sentences, says Raleigh, “You cannot guess the adjective from the substantive, nor the end of the phrase from its beginning. He is much given to inverting the natural English order of epithet and noun, that he may gain a greater emphasis for the epithet.” For instance he places a noun between its two qualifying adjectives, though the English idiom requires both to be placed before the noun: ‘the upright heart and pure’, ‘the dismal situation waste and wild’, ‘ever burning sulphur unconsumed’. Sometimes he prefers the Latin idiom to English, as in never, since created Man Met such embodied force,
Here, as in Latin, the past participle ‘created’ and the noun ‘Man’, both combined, mean an event—the creation of man, and the pre­position ‘since’ governs the event.

(b) Impart Force and Effectiveness
Inversion often forces our attention on a specific point which the poet wishes to stress. Take for example the following opening lines of Book I:
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 
Normally the words “sing Heavenly Muse” should open the poem. But Milton brings the object just in the forefront, and stresses in one breath “man’s first disobedience”, “the Fruit”, the “Forbidden Tree”, ‘‘mortal taste”, and these are central to the poem. Thus by inverting the normal order, he is able to focus our attention on the theme, and raise before our imagination the dramatic and historical dimensions of his cosmic stage.
He inverts the normal word-order to make his communication snore effective and to focus our attention exactly where he wishes. “The violation of the normal English, which have upset some purists” says Daiches, “are carefully and systematically employed in order to achieve different kind of emotional pitch, to effect conti­nuity and integration in the weaving of epic design, and above all to sustain the poem as a poem and to keep it from disintegrating into isolated fragments of high rhetoric.”
Catalogues of Proper Names
The long catalogues of proper names which we come across so frequently in Paradise Lost also enable him to achieve terseness, to dilate the imagination of his readers by opening out large vistas before their mind’s eyes, as well as to surprise and delight them by their music and melody. Milton was a conscious artist who chases his words both with reference to their sense and their sound. Indeed, many of the proper names are chosen for their sonorous music. On a small scale we have “Busiris and his Memphian chivalry”, “Vallombrosa where the Etrurian shades”. On a bigger scale we have those famous lines in Book I:
Begirt with British and Armoric Knights,
And all who since, baptized or infidel,
Jousted in Aspramont, or Montalban, Damasco, or Morocco, or Trebisond.
and so on, till the catalogue of musical names ends with Fortarabbia. By all these means, “he attained to a finished style of perhaps a more consistent and unflagging elevation than is to be found elsewhere in literature”—(Raleigh). This cataloguing is not a cheap ‘rhetorical device, or display of erudition as has been objected, to by some critics, it is integral to Milton’s epic-purpose.
Closely allied to condensation, is suggestiveness, another important characteristic of Milton’s style. Milton suggests much more than he actually states or describes. His poetry must be read imaginatively. The poet was dealing with events and situations prior to known history, even prior to creation itself. He was dealing with characters supernatural who lie beyond the pale of human experience, and so can only be comprehended imaginatively. Even the human characters, Adam and Eve, are quite different from any known human being. Thus the very subject of Milton made it unavoidable that he should suggest much more than he actually states, that he should constantly evoke and bring into play the imagination of his readers. Thus the vastness of Satan’s figure, the immensity of his shield and spear, is conveyed through a few deft strokes. For example, the very fact that a “horrid vale” is formed in the Lake of Fire when Satan comes out of it, is sufficient to give us an idea of his huge bulk. Writes Rose Macaulay in this connection, “the most unimaginative man must understand Homer. Homer gives him no choice, and requires from him no exertion ; but takes the whole upon himself, and sets the images in so clear a light, that it is impossible to be blind to them. The works of Milton cannot be comprehended or enjoyed, unless the mind of the reader co-operate, with that of the writer. He does not paint a finished picture, or play for a mere passive listener. He sketches and leaves others to fill up the outline. He strikes the keynote and expects his hearers to make out the melody.”
The use of Homeric or epic-similes helps the poet a great deal to secure the co-operation of his readers. Richard-Garnett considers Milton’s epic-similes more arresting, more grand and more numerous, at least in Book I, than they are even in Homer. Such similes impart variety, grandeur and expressiveness to the poet’s style. They serve to introduce that human interest into his epic in which a number of critics, following Dr. Johnson, have found it lacking. Milton’s similes are elaborate and learned. The army of the fallen angels lying dazed in a stupor in Book I is illustrated by three or four different similes drawn from natural history, and from the scriptures. The re-assembled forces of these spirits are again illustrated with five similes drawn from scripture and history. As Professor Raleigh writes: “From Herodotus to Olaus Magnus and onward to the latest discoveries in geography, and astronomy, the researches of Galileo and the description given by contemporary travellers of China and the Chinese, or of the North American Indians, Milton compels the authors he had read, both ancient and modern, to contribute to the gracing of his work.”
Verbal Music
A word may now be said about Milton’s verbal-music. As already pointed out above, he chooses words both with reference to their sound and their sense. Many of the proper nouns used by him have a grand sonorous music. Many of his Latinisms as, “resounding alchemy”, are also accounted for by his fondness for sound affects. The music both of polysyllabic Latin words and of monosyllables is fully exploited. The music in the following lines arises from skilful balancing of vowel sounds:
…… chance the radiant sun, with farewell sweet,
Extend his evening beam, the fields revive,
The birds their notes renew, and bleating herds,
Attest their joy, that hill and valley rings.
use of alliteration, assonance (correspondence in sound) onometopoea (sound-echoing sense), repetition, etc., are some other devices used by Milton to impart music and, melody to his diction.
Some Faults
Milton’s style has been criticised on a number of counts, and some of his faults may now be noted. First, his style is heavily overloaded with his learning and is far beyond the reach of the average reader. Secondly, he avoids the commonplace and often uses a roundabout way of expression or circumlocution. Dr. Johnson, therefore, criticised his style as, “perverse and pedantic”. Thirdly, his frequent Latinisms and inverted constructions have exposed him to the charge of corrupting the English language, and writing, “as if he were writing a foreign language.” Fourthly, his use of high sounding words and phrases and his long cataloguing of proper names have been condemned as theoretical by no less a critic than T.S. Eliot. Fifthly, often he is guilty of using mixed metaphors which result in obscurity, and needless perplexity and confusion for the readers. And lastly, there is his fondness for ‘puns’ and word-play. Thus we have, “At one slight bound high overkapt all bound”, and “Beseeching or besieging”, etc.
Conclusion: Milton’s Grand Style
However, such faults are only minor flaws in the chastity, the sonority and girded majesty of Milton’s diction. Milton remains in the final analysis the great master of the great or grand style which arises when a noble nature poetically gifted treats with severity or simplicity a noble subject. In the noblest tradition of the epic, big thoughts are uttered by him in a big way. As Dr. Johnson rightly pointed out, “His natural port is gigantic loftiness”. For want of a better word his style has been called ‘Miltonic’, a thing apart in English literature. Loftiness of thought and majesty of expression combine to make Milton’s style ‘sublime’ in the real sense of the word.

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