Academic journal article Style

Milton's Missing Rhymes

Academic journal article Style

Milton's Missing Rhymes

Article excerpt

In his prefatory note on "The Verse," attached to the second edition of Paradise Lost, Milton first explains "why the Poem Rimes not" by an appeal to cultural authority, aligning himself with a Classical and epic tradition--"that of Homer in Greek and of Virgil in Latin"--with "some both Italian and Spanish Poets of prime note," and with "our best English Tragedies." Eventually, though, the force of his explanation is to justify his poetic ways by invoking a higher authority. When he decries "the jingling sound of like endings" as "trivial and of no true musical delight" (my emphasis), he clearly implies that he derives his sense of decorum not from cultural norms but from a more absolute arbiter of what is "apt" and "fit."(1) Furthermore, when Milton aligns himself with "ancient liberty" while associating rhyme with "vexation, hindrance, and constraint" as well as calling it a "troublesome and modern bondage," although there is a historical and cultural context invoked, the essential opposition here is not ancient to modern, but liberty to bondage. Eventually, then, Milton's argument against rhyme rests on two values: truth and freedom. O.B. Hardison explains Milton's sense of the relationship between the two in this way: "Changes forced on the poem by the need to preserve rhyme falsify the words breathed into the poet by the Muse. In other words, they make truth into a lie" (272). Thus, while Milton's note on "The Verse" gestures in passing to a cultural context, the final authority invoked is Milton's divine muse and the final need is that the verse not be constrained from speaking the truth by the need to rhyme. Ultimately, this brings the focus of Milton's argument onto the relationship between his formal choices and the subject matter of Paradise Lost.(2)

However, to examine the local and general effects of Milton's method within the text of Paradise Lost, one must proceed in a peculiarly negative fashion, for an abiding effect of the note on "The Verse" is to encourage attention to that which is absent. Milton alerts us to the fact that the poem "Rimes not," then proceeds to explain "why the Poem Rimes not," thus leading us quite logically to wonder how the poem rhymes not. That is, how does the poem's absence of rhyme oppose itself to rhyme's alleged triviality and illusory pleasure? Surprisingly, though, in considering how Paradise Lost proceeds not to rhyme, one may wonder whether Milton has not made his own "truth into a lie," for it becomes apparent that in a variety of ways--most subtle, some less so--Paradise Lost does indeed rhyme. Consider these passages, for instance:

By Sacred Unction, thy deserved right. Go then thou Mightiest in thy Father's might. . . . (6.709-10)

One of the heav'nly Host, and by his Gait None of the meanest, some great Potentate. . . . (11.230-31)

It is couplets such as these that encouraged John Diekhoff, in one of the few discussions of rhyme in Paradise Lost, to comment upon "the vague impression of rhyme given by certain passages in Paradise Lost, and the presence of a few obvious rhymes" (539). Diekhoff identifies seventeen rhymed couplets and, in a poem of over ten thousand lines, it is possible that an argument might be made for the occurrence of a certain number of rhymes on the grounds of probability alone.(3) If this were the only way in which the poem rhymed such an argument might be plausible, but when one begins to examine the sound patterning in Paradise Lost, a systematic use of rhyming sounds is apparent: a pattern emerges in which rhyme manifests itself in a variety of ways, occasionally erupting into proper couplets such as those above.

In fact, despite Milton's protestations, rhyme may be construed as quite appropriate to Paradise Lost. Rhyme, a partial echo or phonemic sameness in difference, is a figure of equivalence.(4) Paradise Lost, like many epics founded on analogical structures, abounds with figures of narrative and thematic equivalence. …

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