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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

IX. The Prosody of the Seventeenth Century

§ 8. Milton’s Metrical Development

This admirable practice in lyric was itself of great value in that regulative process which has been pointed out as one of the chief duties incumbent on prosody during the century for counterbalancing the tendency of blank verse in its decadence and that of the enjambed couplet. But one of the names mentioned at the close of the last paragraph indicates by itself at once this process of regularisation and one of sanctioning and arranging liberty. The progress of Milton’s metrical development and practice, and the way in which he ranks with Chaucer, Spenser and Shakespeare as one of the four chief pillars of English prosody, have been explained in the chapter specially devoted to him. It may, however, be summarised here, in a slight variation of the words used above, as the ordering of freedom. His verse paragraphs, the use of the pause which helps powerfully to constitute them, the majestic adaptation of his diction to his metre, his cunning management of word sound and word colour—all these things must fill a great place in the estimate of him as poet and prosodist. In the general history of the latter subject, they become not insignificant but of minor importance, compared with the iambic and trochaic equivalence of his octosyllabic couplets in L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, Arcades and Comus, and of still less importance when compared with the so-called “irregularity” (call it what you will and explain it on what theory you choose) of the blank verse of Paradise Lost. The first of these inspires Dyer in the early eighteenth century and Blake in the later with measures almost miraculously alterative of the prevalent tunes; the second, though it produces, at least up to Cowper’s latest work, nothing equally beautiful as imitation, works in a fashion less delightful, perhaps, but more beneficial still. For these Miltonic anomalies—call them trochaic and anapaestic substitution, elision, slur, irregularity of stress, wrenched accent or, once more, what you will—insist, in any case, on receiving attention. They will not let you alone: and you cannot let them alone. It is admitted, with unimportant exceptions, throughout the eighteenth century that Milton is a very great poet; and yet he is constantly out of apparent harmony, at least with the accepted rules of poetry. Even if you edit or alter him out of his own character, as did Bentley and Pemberton; if you elide him into cacophony like most people of that time; if you scold him for licentious conduct like Bysshe and Scott of Amwell and Vicesimus Knox and even Johnson, the “shameless stones” of his actual verse architecture remain unaltered, massive, resplendent. At any moment, some one may come who will read their lesson aright; at all moments, they keep that lesson ready. Unless you cut Shakespeare and Milton out of the book of English literature, the secret of English prosody remains and will remain open.