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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

V. Milton

§ 21. Milton’s literary form

At this point, we may naturally pass to a general consideration of Milton’s literary form, which, in his case, is almost more important than in that of any other very great English writer. In general style, Milton’s peculiarity appears, as has been pointed out, so early as the poem On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity: and it perseveres until Samson. Even the furious welter of the prose cannot prevent the calm and stately phraseology from emerging—at least occasionally—the mighty rhythm from subjugating the chaotic throng of words, now and then. In the verse, the phenomena go all the other way. It is only on the rarest occasions—when he attempts humour, or when he becomes simply didactic—that the style is other than consummate in its own way. To that way, hardly more than one epithet of praise, in the wider and higher range, can be denied. Milton’s style is never exactly natural; it never has even the quaint eccentric nature which the conceit of the time sometimes takes on, as, for instance, eminently in Browne. It is always confessed and almost ostentatious art: art attained, to some extent, by definite and obvious rhetorical devices, such as apposition; the old Chaucerian posing of the substantive between two epithets for the special purpose of drawing attention to some connection or opposition between the two; the reversal of the order of noun and adjective in the same line, or clause. In his poetry, he particularly affects proper names of resonance and colour—scattering them over his verse paragraphs with an effect that is almost pyrotechnical.

But these verse paragraphs themselves are almost the central secret and peculiarity of the Miltonic manner—serving as a bridge between his style proper and his versification. It is perfectly clear that he was dimly aiming at something of the same kind in prose; and he sometimes came near it. In verse, he attained it very early, and perfected it more and more. The thing is not, of course, of his own invention: it is an inspiration from drama and, especially, from the soliloquies of Shakespeare. But non-dramatic blank verse had been little practised by anyone, and the first and chief example of it, Surrey’s translation of the Aeneid, though Vergil gives excellent opportunity, was not likely to arrive at any such mastery. The early blank verse writer was too glad to get safely to the end of his line to think about playing tricks with that line, so as to put it in concatenation with others. But the dramatist had to do this; and, in doing it, he discovered—in Shakespeare’s case perfectly, in others less so—the various secrets of the mystery. And the average dramatist had not only discovered them, but, about the time when Milton entered upon serious verse writing, had begun to abuse and degrade the art—making his lines battered deformities and his verse sentences ruinous heaps.

To Milton’s sense of stately order, such things must have been abhorrent; and his musical training, no doubt, strengthened his aversion. His first finished poems are in tight, not loose, verse—the sonnet, the solemn stanzas of On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, the easy, but fairly regular and uniform, as well as uncomplicated, sevens and eights of L’Allegro and its companion. When he makes a serious attempt with blank verse in Comus, there is even noticeable a tendency to fall back on the single-moulded line of Marlowe, accurately constructed in itself and correctly accumulated, but not jointed, and continued, and twined into a contrasted pattern of various but homogeneous design. Yet, even here, the power of his own genius for verse, and his matchless daring in experiment, introduced variety. And when, some twenty years after, he perhaps began, and some thirty years after definitely set to work on and completed, Paradise Lost, he had become an absolute master of the blank verse line, single and combined.