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not actually there. So in the line following the one just quoted:
“That led the embattled Seraphim to war” (i. 129),
the last syllable of Seraphim is not really accented to the same degree as the first, but, having the rhythm in mind, we impose it, as it were, upon the line. We even accept lines like
“ Transfix us to the bottom of this gulf” (i. 329),
“The sojourners of Goshen, who beheld.” (i. 309.)
Although the words to and of in the first line, and the syllable -ers and who in the second, are not in good reading especially accented, we have the rhythm in mind, and a slight additional emphasis is sufficient to make the line harmonious; or even if not accented by the voice in reading they are accented by the mind.
So also if there be a slight variation of the rhythm, provided it be such as makes no serious difference in the time between stress and stress, either we do not notice it, or, if we do notice it, our attention is especially directed to the word in question so as to give it emphasis. In the line
“Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues” (i. 15),
we hurry over the A so quickly, and over -ian, that the two vowels in each case seem no longer than one, and the rhythm goes on as usual. The extra syllable may come at the end of a line, as in i. 128, quoted above.
In the line
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky” (i. 45),
the word hurled must evidently be accented, which makes
the rhythm run a x 2 a x a instead of x a x a x a. But here the break in the rhythm is so slight that it merely concentrates our attention for an instant upon hurled, where it may well rest, for it is an important word.
Thus we have a long recurrence of unaccented and accented syllables. Out of convention we print ten syllables to a line, but it would be blank verse even were it not so printed, just as it would be blank verse even without the capital letter with which modern habit begins each line. The poem is not divided into sets of ten syllables as we read it; the pauses come almost anywhere.
Such is the main structure of English Blank Verse; it is language so arranged that every other syllable is accented, so that a rhythmical effect is produced. Variations in the rhythm occur often, serving sometimes to emphasize a word, sometimes merely to hasten our utterance, which may in itself have a harmonious effect, and these variations serve also to break what would be otherwise rather a monotonous recurrence. The variations, however, are never such as to break the flow of the rhythm, which is both pleasing in itself and effective of a sort of glow of interest on the part of the reader.
But the classical verse, having been carefully studied by grammarians and others, had proved to have a system, just as English blank verse may have, and Milton was too good a scholar not to be aware of the first point and to aim at the second. So along with the simple rhythmical effect of blank verse of which we have been speaking, we have the following systematic arrangement which we may call the metre.
A. The basis of the metre is a verse of five feet, called iambic, in imitation of classical usage, each consisting of two syllables; the first unaccented, the second accented.
In this scheme certain exceptions are allowed, and, indeed, occur frequently, thus breaking what might otherwise seem a monotony. * The classical iambic foot was a short syllable followed by a long.
1. Addition.—An additional syllable may occur at the end of the verse.
“Of sovran power, with awful ceremoni y.” (i. 753.)
“Wide gaping, and with utter loss of be | ing.” (ii. 440.)
Here belong also some verses ending with r or n, which, as in fire, sometimes develops an extra syllable. In other words, the unstressed vowel before r or n is disregarded as in 3 b.
“In clusters; they among fresh dews and flow | ers.”
“As far removed from God and light of Heaven."
2. Elision.—A vowel is said to be elided when it is disregarded in scansion, although generally pronounced in reading. Unaccented vowels may be elided :
a. Before another vowel.
“His trust was with the Eternal to be deemed.” (ii. 46.)
“Exile, or ignominy, or bonds, or pain.” (ii. 207.)
“By herald's voice explained; the hollow Abyss." (ii. 518.)
b. When followed by r, l, n, and another unaccented vowel.
The sentence of their conqueror.
This is now.”
“A multitude, like which the populous North.” (i. 351.)
“In equal ruin; into what pit, thou seest.” (i. 91.)
3. Contraction.-A vowel is said to be contracted when it is assumed by the scansion to be a consonant. As in elision, these vowels are to be pronounced as such in reading. Unaccented vowels only may be contracted.
a. Before another unaccented vowel i and u become consonantal, i.e., more like y and w.
Victorious. Thus repulsed, our final hope.” (ii. 142.) “Drew audience and attention still as night.” (ii. 308.)
Though full of pain, this intellectual being.” (ii. 147.)
“Then most conspicuous, when great things of small.”
b. Before r, l, or n, followed by an unstressed vowel. Practically the vowel 1, l, n, are regarded as consonants.
“A pillar of state: deep on his front engraven.” (ii. 302.)
“Abominable, inutterable, and worse."
“Hath lost us Heaven, and all this mighty host." (i. 136.)
4. Inversion.—The accent may be inverted in any foot; i.e., the first syllable may be accented and the second unaccented. This in version is quite common in the first and third feet, and very rare in the last. “Róse out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill.” (i. 10.)
Who now tríumphs, and in the excess of joy." (i. 123.)
“For one restraint, lórds of the world besides." (i. 32.) “ Into the Euboic sea. Others more mild.' (ii. 546.) This inversion must not be disguised in reading, for it is often useful, as in the examples above, to give emphasis.
5. Substitution.-In place of two iambic feet we may have a combination 'of a pyrrhic and a spondee; i.e., two unaccented syllables followed by two accented. This combination
any part of the line, but is most common at the beginning. “Nor the deep tráct of Hell—say first, what cause.
(i. 28.) That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed."
“Could merit more than that smáll ínfantry.” (i. 575.) “Mixed with Tartarean sulphur and strange fíre."
This accentuation must not be disregarded in reading, for, as with Inversion, one gains emphasis by it.
Such, omitting some details, is the metrical system of English blank verse as understood by Milton. It does not differ much from the usage of other poets. But all this system is merely a way of stating definitely the analysis of the cases in which, according to Milton's ear, extra syllables or inversion might occur without interrupting the flow of the rhythm. The real test is always the spoken verse: if this be euphonious, some place in the scheme of metre will be found for it; or, if not, a new exception will be made. A person totally ignorant of the cases in which Milton allowed variations from the normal verse can learn to read the poem perfectly well by trusting to his ear (if it be fairly good), and this is the main thing to be attained. If you cannot read the poem aloud, you have not yet got to the bottom of it.
We may appropriately print here Milton's own remarks upon the verse. They were printed in the original editions at the beginning of the poem.
* According to Mr. Bridges (p. 16) Shakespeare was rather looser in his use of extra syllables and of contractions.