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Let us understand in the first place that although Milton, in all probability, used those eight names of places with a clear idea of what place was signified by each one, we shall not get the whole good out of the passage when we know so much ourselves. Aspramont is six miles north of Nice, Montalban was a castle in Languedoc, and so on. Doubtless it is better, other things being equal, to know where these places were, but that knowledge alone does not give us much enjoyment.
There are, however, the literary allusions; they add an interest. They certainly do add an interest when one has them at his fingers' ends as Milton had. The half-legendary struggles between the Saracen knighthood and the Crusaders, the romantic adventures of the Paladins of Charlemagne, the final sacrifice of the Song of Roland, these are all called up, vaguely but effectively, by those few lines. And when Aspramont reminds of the great Orlando, and Montalban is the castle of Rinaldo, the passage certainly has grown in meaning. Still, there is more yet to be said. Even the geographical and literary allusions do not make up the whole atmosphere of the lines.
There is little doubt that to Milton and to many of his readers the mere mention of strange, well-sounding names had a certain effect, wholly aside from the definite ideas brought to mind by them. They have generally a sonorous, magnificent sound, often from their very unfamiliarity,--a half-mysterious, romantic feeling. When they are geographical, the very fact that they are but half known gives a sort of exhilarating, wide-ranging sensation. Indeed, absolute exactness rather interferes with our enjoyment. It is better, just now, to think of Aspramont as a medieval castle somewhere in the sunny south of France near the exquisite blue of the Mediterranean than to conceive of it more exactly as six miles north of Nice. It is better that the name Trebisond should carry our thoughts out beyond the civilization of Europe, along the Black Sea, with ideas of Eastern magnificence, running astray
to the rose-gardens of Persia, perhaps, or the southern spurs of the Caucasus.
Look at these passages from more recent poets, and you will see that the names themselves really have a sort of power, beyond geographical information or literary allusion.
“As having been
(Tennyson: "Lancelot and Elaine.") Of the nine places mentioned only Caerleon and Badon can be familiar to the ordinary reader; of the others it may almost be remarked that it does not matter where they were. They were strange wild places in that old legendary Britain, and that is enough.
In the following, from a great contemporary of Tennyson’s, some of the names are not unfamiliar, but the effect is much the same.
“ The Tartars of the Oxus, the King's guard,
First, with black sheep-skin caps and with long spears; Large men, large steeds; who from Bokhara come
And Khiva, and ferment the milk of mares.
(Matthew Arnold: “Sohrab and Rustum.”)
So let us not think that when we have learned what such names signify we have thus got everything. We must know something of them; in i. 381-505, we should lose a great deal if we knew nothing of the places mentioned. But if they do not appeal to us in the other way too, we should try to cultivate the appreciation of them. We shall thereby enjoy Milton the more, and other poets, too, for, as we have seen, the habit of Milton in this particular was not peculiar to himself.1
V. ON THE METRE.
We are very apt to read with the eye only, but in poetry, and especially in Milton's poetry, we must think of the ear as well; we must read aloud, or rather, when we read to ourselves, we must read as if we read aloud. Toward the end of his life Milton was blind, and so could never see how his poem looked when written or printed. He had to dictate it, to be written down by others, and when he
*The passage best illustrating this matter is xi. 385-411.
read it, so to speak, he had to listen to others who read it to him. So he was like the poets of less civilized peoples, poets who recite their own productions, poets who know their own poetry only as it is given form by the voice. Thus we must read Milton's poetry aloud, or at least appreciate the qualities which belong especially to reading aloud, of which the chief is the metre.
Concerning metre much that is pedantic has been written, so that some people regard any consideration of it as a useless and futile incumbrance to their enjoyment. But if one cannot read this poem aloud, one loses a great deal, and one cannot read it aloud well, without having some idea of the metre. We will try to look at it in as practical a way as possible.
There are in this case two considerations, which we must bear in mind in getting such an idea of our poem as will serve our purpose. First we want to know the way the poem ought to sound, the way it sounded when Milton dictated it, or when it was read to him; or, let us say, the general principles actually governing the flow of English blank verse in the minds of poets and readers alike. Some such study as this is important with every poem if we would know how to read it; we must know something about rhythm and apply it to the particular poem.
But with Paradise Lost, as with other poems, we have another matter. Milton was a deep student of the classics and of Italian literature; he was familiar with their systems of metre, and with the attempts, more or less successful, to accommodate English verse to them, or to accommodate them to English verse. We must then know what was the metrical system which Milton had in mind in writing his poem. It is nearly certain that he had a somewhat definite metrical system in mind, with which the verses of “ Paradise Lost were in good accord. But in all probability the rhythmical flow of the poem was guided chiefly by the poet's ear, and was indeed not always in keeping with the metrical system, or rather was
in keeping with it only by what we may call metrical fictions, as will appear later.
We have, then, in the metre of “Paradise Lost” both a condition and a theory. Milton dictated his verses, probably, according to his ear, which, we are told, was very delicate; but he made his poem conform to a system of versification which was in great measure founded upon classical usage and which to some degree was not represented in the pronunciation.
So, first, as to the rhythmical character as apprehended by the ear. Rhythm means, with us, a more or less regular recurrence of stress or accent, generally in a sound. When we listen to the noise of the sea, and hear the continual roar broken at recurrent intervals by the fall of the breakers, we call it a rhythmical noise. As applied to poetry, the rhythm is formed by the recurrence of syllables more strongly accented than the others. For example, take the line,
“O Prince! O chief of many thronèd Powers!” (i. 128.) In this line, the syllables Prince, chief, man, thron, Pow, are more strongly accented than the others, which makes a regular recurrence of accented and unaccented syllables. If we indicate the accented syllables by a and the unaccented syllables by x, we can write out the recurrences thus,
αα α α α α α α α α α.
Now, it is known that when we get such a sequence of accented and unaccented syllables in mind, and hear a sequence of words in which the regular accents approximate to that order, we take up the rhythm in our imagination and impose it upon every line that comes along, imagining the right stress at the proper place, even if it be
1 The contractions and elisions (see lower, pp. lv.-lvi.) in which the vowels omitted in the scansion are, in reading, actually pronounced.