Fighting For Milton

The greatness of Milton’s Paradise Lost irradiates like the sun all the poetry written before it, in any language, and the poetry written during his lifetime, and after it till now (2001), and what will be written in the future, and which all reflect back on it. This is what all great poetry does. And so like an old knight I put on my pieces of armor and sally forth:

For some battles never end. The dead fight the not-yet-dead. However bizarre this sounds, this is so among literary critics. This battle is between the late Dr. F.R. Leavis and the not-yet-late myself. And by the rules of combat, the living challenge the dead to a duel. The dead can only use the weapons they used when alive, the living can use anything. Later, of course, the living cohorts of the dead join in, and then all hell breaks loose.

This battle is the latest in a war started by the denigration by Leavis (with help from T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound) of the sound of Milton’s verse along with its meaning. The attack by Leavis was brave because it went against the generally accepted unthinking opinion of the time that Milton was the greatest poet in English and it occurred in his chapter on Milton in his non-sensuous book Revaluation, first printed in 1936 (the word sensuous was coined by the sensuous puritan, Milton). I first read Revaluation in 1945 and then read the pros and cons about it in the writings of the participants of the battles that it occasioned over the 25 years after its publication, and have thought often about it till now, and this essay is the result. And though the anti-Leavisites scored some points it did not seem to me they defeated Leavis and his cohorts. And this was because though right was on their side, they did not have a decisive weapon.

Because, though there is one (and I am about to use it), it was never used because it was not known as a blanket defence in the critical sense. In practice, it only existed in the minds of some, in their silent listening. They heard Milton in their minds, more or less, but could not speak him, much less discuss what they actually heard. Hence their resort to other less satisfactory defences, such as Milton’s images and ideas and grandeur and the influence and value of his classical education and biblical beliefs.

But this new defense, through sound, is crucial and applies, more or less, to many poets, in probably all languages. The enormous number of recent translations into English, of Dante, the great Italian, has often been facilitated by the technical deafness of the translators, whereas, it seems to me, a major reason he was so belatedly and little translated before, was that would-be translators still had some awareness both of his sound and their own, and that stopped them.

The battlefield, chosen by Dr. Leavis, consists of lines 730-747 from Book 1 of Paradise Lost, second edition, the last in Milton’s lifetime (1608-1674), and the battle was about the sound of them: (but before reading them, know that hundreds of thousands of fallen reprobate angels, who in Milton’s scheme of things react very much like human beings even though immortal, are crowding in through a huge gateway in hell to get their first view of the interior of a vast building that has just been put up there).

                           The hasty multitude
Admiring enter’d, and the work some praise
And some the Architect: his hand was known
In Heav’n by many a Towred structure high,
Where Scepter’d Angels held thir residence,
And sat as Princes, whom the supreme King
Exalted to such power, and gave to rule,
Each in his Hierarchie, the Orders bright,
Nor was his name unheard or unador’d
In ancient Greece; and in Ausonian land
Men called him Mulciber; and how he fell
From Heav’n, they fabl’d, thrown by angry Jove
Sheer o’re the Christal Battlements: from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summers day; and with the setting Sun
Dropt from the Zenith like a falling Star,
On Lemnos th’ Aegean Ile: thus they relate,
Erring . . .

Of this Leavis said:

"The opening exhibits the usual heavy rhythmic pattern, the hieratic stylization, the swaying ritual movement back and forth, the steep cadences. Italics will serve to suggest how, when the reader’s resistance has weakened, he is brought inevitably down with the foreseen thud in the foreseen place:
The hasty multitude
Admiring enter’d, and the wórk some praise
And some the Architect: his hánd was known
In Héav’n by many a Tówerd structure high,
Where Scépter’d Angels held thir résidence,
And sat as Princes . . .
"But from ’Nor was his name unheard’ onwards the effect changes. One no longer feels oneself carried along, resigned or protesting, by an automatic ritual, responding automatically with body gestures — swayed head and shoulders — to the commanding emphasis: the verse seems suddenly to have come to life."

This is an excellent example of how not to read it.

The few recorded readings that exist of parts of Paradise Lost have on the whole a tenuous relation between the sound and the meaning, and are very inadequate. The readers didn’t know how to do it. (This paragraph was written some years ago when there seemed to be only two recordings, since when I have heard two more that are better but still not good enough).

Now to the first detail:

                           The hasty multitude
Admiring entered.

When an entrance-way is narrower than a crowd that is squeezing through it, those who have gone through spread out on the other side of it if there is room enough (and there is here –"ample spaces" says Milton in line 725) and this spreading out occurs in Admiring with its long and spread out vowel in mir contrasted to the short vowels of the compressed crowd in the hasty multitude ad (all seven of whose vowels are short).

entered is the next wave, that (with less force and needing less space) comes on the heels of the admiring portion of the crowd that has already squeezed through and spread out. It also is a further dispersing and thinning of the admiring wave of those already through.

Admiring’s gaping vowel has something of the openmouthed slack-jawedness of the admiration-struck.

The held-in then short release of the breath with which Ad is preferably spoken represents what the pressed-in crowd does with its breath in squeezing through the doorway. The A of Ad is pronounced with the indefinite vowel sound, being more squeezed in than the fuller sound of the vowel in the word "add" whose vowel would be fine in some contexts.

This sort of lengthy and detailed analysis is a terrible long way to go about explaining things when it may seem that all one has to do is say the lines in the short time that it takes. But the fact is that even if I could speak it to you the way I would like to, people mostly don’t know what to look for and so don’t hear it; for as regards hearing Milton, who is to poetry as Bach is to classical music, the analogy is with music. Most of those who for the first time hear or heard Beethoven’s last quartets or the atonal Schoenberg, berg and Webern can’t make head or tail of them, and subsequent hearings (if they are brave and curious), often don’t enlighten them, even if it was well played, and even though some are very cultured, and knowledgeable about the music they like. Why, even the first performances of Bizet’s Carmen and Debussy’s L’apres midi d’une faun were denounced. But back to our muttons, as the saying went once upon a time, in a less vegetarian age.

The hasty multitude has a peppery quality, like many grains of pepper, like the constituents (units) of a crowd.

The syllabization of The/ ha/sty mul/ti/tude — all short syllables — suggests a multitude by comparison with the slow length of miring.

Just as the behaviour of people when they are with someone often differs from when they are alone or with others, the pronunciation of spoken words are modified by their contexts and neighbouring words. So that the usual pronunciation of hasty and multitude, alone or together, with long and short vowels, is changed to conform with their situation in the text.

So hasty can be heard as 2 short syllables consisting of ha and sty to indicate speed; or can be heard as a short syllable followed by a long one, usually with a meaning like "Serve you right"; or with both syllables long, sometimes meaning "Let that be a lesson to you" when, say, shouting "hasty" to someone far away who drew a gun on you only to be disarmed by your faster draw which hit his revolver out of his hand before he could fire it. But the speaking of hasty can also be changed from ha and sty to has and ty to, say, slow someone down; or to hast and y to tell someone that they were too fast; and so on. So the speaker or hearer is always using a choice, consciously made or not, that is more or less appropriate to the context.

The vowels in both ha and sty are shoved forward as if by their consonants (with help from the spirit of one’s breath) and this is like what is done to people in the outskirts of a crowd by those who are behind them and trying to get further in. But when we reach the word multitude and the sound of it is heard, it is as if the crowd of angels is nearer the gate and more squashed in, and the vowels in multitude are hemmed in by their consonants with no room to move; and the i, which doesn’t have a consonant of its own after it, is already so squashed that the pushing by its preceding consonant is ineffective. The consonants in mul and tude can be considered as the wings furled protectingly round the bodies of the angel vowels. And in contrast the lack of a final and enclosing vowel in the syllables ha and sty suggests that the wings of their angels are together as one, behind them, because they have no need to protect themselves as yet though they are about to need to, and as for the poor angel residing in ti, the lack of a consonant on his other side suggests that he did not protect himself in time, so that his wings forced together behind his back and crushed by the crowd must be very uncomfortable. ("For so, to interpose a little ease,/ Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise," as Milton says elsewhere.) Of course, I take it for granted that no one will think that I say this is what Milton actually thought. We don’t know. And if there is a coincidence, most or all of his details would be different. This does not mean that the relation of the sound and meaning of the text is not of prime importance.

The hasty multitude sounds fast and compressed compared to its slow and open predecessor Yielded light/ As from a sky (lines 729-730) with its spread-out-ness and few individuations in it (though the dees and tee could be like striking waves of light in an otherwise almost flat sea of light). Milton’s method is always comparative, and often enables him to get similar effects from otherwise quite different phrases.

So far, this is the crowd seen horizontally; but vertically the different pitches of the vowels and the different positions in one’s mouth of the blade of the tongue in sounding the consonants give a sample of the differences in height of individual angels in that crowd. This brings me immediately to a major question in interpretation: how much is me (or any other interpreter, for every reading is an interpretation) and how much is Milton (or any other poet)? I can’t answer this in a few words and so must postpone an answer (if I have one). But it is certainly a matter of bringing one’s experience of life to bear on the words, and if one can do this, the words when spoken sound more right and convincing than if one can’t or doesn’t. This can be learnt if it doesn’t come naturally.

The next nexus of meaning is:

              and the work some praise And some the Architect:

And it differs fom the 5 preceding words in having an unusual word order instead of the straightforward "and some praise the work," The effect is to slow the movement of the crowd even more and even stop it with the force of the consonants and the syntax. So that groupings of words are formed appropriately like two small and one larger knot of listening and talking people. That rk at the end of the first phrase is a statement that temporarily puts an end to discussion. But is that what Milton says? Haven’t I gone off whirligigging on my own? But the sad fact is that only the sounds of words are always exactly measurable, no matter how they are said, and though not necessarily rightly said: whereas their meaning is never precise, so we have to fill in with images taken from one or more of our more than five senses. To use a very simple example of this, take "The cat sat on the mat." Does "The" refer to a particular cat in isolation, or to a cat as compared to a mouse that was most definitely not sitting on the mat whatever else it was doing. Or does it refer to a dog already on the mat, and is the cat being friendly or provocative? As for the cat of the word "cat," What is its size, gender, weight, colour, breed, personality and habits, age, health and so on, and when did it last eat. And when it sat, in what way did it carry out that procedure? And having done that, was its sitting with its forelegs straight, or bent at the knees? And was it on the centre of the mat, or on one side of it, or with its hind feet off of it. And the "the" in "the mat" does that refer to the only mat in the place or to the only one in front of the fire? And as for the word "mat," what sort of mat are we talking about, what size, what colours, what thickness, and so on?

So when we use words about what is not present to our senses, or no longer present, our minds fill in (for most of us), with images drawn from our senses and our past experiences, so avoiding meaningless agglomerations of the familiar sounds of words which we know carry the potential for meaning which comes into existence when speaker or hearer activates their meaning. For example, activating the meaning of the sound of the word "table" by looking at a present table or by bringing up past images of tables or of an image that is a variation developed from these images of things and that has not yet had an existence outside of oneself. (Images, in this sense, need not have a visual element; for example, they can represent a table felt, by hands roaming over it, as cool, smooth, horizontal, just so wide, and so on; a table constructed from an accumulation of sensations of the skin, instead of one constructed by movements ofone’s eyes. This can of course be elaborated and modified, but not here.) But back to our muttons:

             and the work/ some praise//
And some/ the Architect//

What this is not, as sound, is each line split in two, as above.

What it splits into is

             and the work/ some praise//
And some the Architect//

The second line has no split because the second time some appears, it is a pun using some as sum up, and so there’s no change or pause after it (as there is before the first some praise) and it is pronounced as a short unstressed syllable followed by a longer stressed syllable. The first some praise lasts as long as and the work and so its syllables are more drawn out as if one were being thoughtful while praising. This reading is not jejune, the other (Leavis’s) is.

             the work some praise
And some the Architect

will mean more to anyone who has attended the opening of a "fashionable" art show.

Of Architect’s three vowels the first is its longest and its last the shortest, prefiguring the signature triplet of the three words in Towred structure high, and identifying the buildings as peculiarly his.

To go on:

                          his hand was known
In Heav’n by many a Towred structure high

After the 3 cupped smaller handfuls of the sound of

                           his hand was known
In Heav’n

the sown and thrown scattering of the two longer fast phrases.

                           his hand was known
In Heav’n by many a Towred structure high

splits in two: the first four clusters of his hand was known In Heav’n by many a versus the rest. The first part is full of aitches and ens, and vowels, softnesses that contrast with the hard tees and dees and hard cee, and the hard trilled north-british ahrs attested to by the poet Dryden as used by Milton when he met him.

We get a panoramic view of three buildings in heaven, fairly evenly spaced out, not huddled together, in the three stressed phrases in his hand was known/ In Heav’n. Or of one building with a repetitive motif. Or of one wider building and its neighbour taking up half its area but shooting up higher. All of these are simultaneous.

by many a speeds up the glancing review by one’s eye of more buildings, which comes to a stop with a close-up when it comes up against Towred structure high, four stories of four distinct syllables, each of whose successively shortening vowels gives us the foreshortening of the buildings as seen from the ground up (and echoes a quality innate in the word Architect). Towred is one syllable. The hard ahrs in structure demarcate the two stories it represents more effectively than soft ahrs would have. The T of Towred and the A of Architect relate the two words in some way. And just as in some TV commercials they say "And that’s not all" and throw in another value for free, I say that the eye that is seeing the four sections of Towred structure high sees them in three takes consisting of the bottom section and then the two middle sections and then the top one, corresponding to the three words.

Alternatively, reversing the perspective, the two syllables of the smaller his hand compared to the larger four syllables of was known/ in heav’n compared to by many a Towred structure high make the buildings appear to spill out into the sky like a birdseye or helicopter view of New York from above. (How does this effect the reading aloud?) This three-split increases the size of the buildings as it goes along . . .

Adjectives that contain a noun are capitalized as in Sceptered Angels and Towred structure. Why? Why are some words capitalized and not others?

The pronunciation of his hand, should separate his and hand so the effect is like a hand deliberately moving and pausing and again moving and pausing (in the doing of something).

high is therefore at the end because of the job it does, dividing and structuring the building by adding another story to one particular building or adding another building in the distance. Because high doesn’t end with a final rooflike consonant, this final story may be an enclosure open to the sky, and may contain one or more viewing apertures if we are willing to use the pun on "eye" in high and don’t find it too far-fetched. If it is not too far-fetched, then after a close-up on Towred structures, we focus on high and draw out its vowel.

Split the line in two after Heav’n. Now zooming one’s lens from the city into the buildings themselves,

Where Scepterd Angels held thir residence,
And sat as Princes

can at first sight seem more abstract than the preceding lines, and so seem to signal a falling off in Milton’s sensuous imagination. But that isn’t so when one thinks of the implied busyness of a prince’s court in action: giving audiences, judgements, etc. while seated, holding residence, partaking in ceremonies and policy meetings, and so on. These princes are not hermits or anchorites.

The length of the line ending in residence has an extended, unopposed, unbroken sweep which establishes the extensive grounds and area of the building itself and the unhindered power of the resident angel.

The two halves of the residence line are pitched differently, and opposingly (the words in each kept together by the sense). The upholding is supported by the stressing of held. And the stress on res rolls out the rest of the length of the word residence like a long length of carpet to be viewed, the shorter vowels in idence giving the shortening effect of perspective on distant things.

Combined with its consonantal sounds, the line’s seven ee’s, and three other vowels that can have nearly the same sounds as the ee’s, give to the course of life held there a grave ease and evenness and lightness.

By putting the greatest stresses in

And sat as princes

on the inside of it, and not on And and es, the power of each prince is gathered up into himself.

                           whom the Supreme King

God’s supremacy is stressed physically — by the series of five equal stresses (the the here is best pronounced thee) with their internal ceasura at the end of "the," after which the stresses are at their most potent -- / ---.

The raised scepter is held high by the angels because the e in scept is higher in pitch than the A in An(gels). Scept is also more swollen and knobbier than the spindly staff which is erd, as befits the head of a scepter.

What I said about And sat as princes applies to Exalted to such power, but the more extended sound of the latter phrase makes it even more powerful, as befits the power of God relative to that of angels. The eks (or egz) of Exalted, by holding then releasing the sound, provides the force for the exaltation, and one’s mouth yawns open and the a explodes and spreads out in every direction but more so upward, because its pitch is raised to accord with a meaning of exalt.

                           and gave to rule,
Each in his Hierarchie, the Orders bright.

The regularity of the iambs of and gave to rule and the Orders bright gives regularity to the rule over the angels and puts the rank and file of the angels into their positions within each order of angels. To achieve this regularity bright had to be put after Orders in Orders bright. This inversion also symbolizes the finalization of order with fricatives that curb, and hard consonants that bring it all to a final stop. The consonants in and gave to rule are comparatively gentler.

his refers both to the ruler and each of the ruled angels.

Each in his Hierarchie uses dactyls to suggest vast quantities of angels, and is typical of the musical use, of a stressed syllable followed by unstressed syllables, already encountered, to suggest quantity and vastness and speed.

The enclosure of the phrase: Each in his Hierarchie, by putting it in the middle of and gave to rule the Orders bright is part of the subjugation into order of this vast number of angels. This way of using syntax increases the meaning and is not used by Milton just because some of the best Latin poets did so. Although Milton learnt from their technique, he learnt from Spenser’s and others’ too. This parries the thrust Leavis makes somewhere — that only the classically trained can stress the variety of his verse and that to all others it has a ritualistic monotony. I myself had no classical training. And even at age fifteen I sensed that at least one part of Leavis’s reading was wrong and killing.

This interpretation of several lines shows them to be on the level of the famous ones that follow them, but prevents the delightful effect that a Leavisite reading gives of a glorious sunrise bursting out on one’s sight after one has been detained in some benighted wasteland.

As for the cinematic quality of some of the above, the Russian film director, S.M. Eisenstein, devotes some space in one of his books to a cinematic analysis of a few lines of the poem, and the late John Collier, inventive as always, went further and wrote an interesting published filmscript called "Paradise Lost."

© David Kozubei 1993