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SATURDAY, January, 19, 1751.
Cum tabulis animum censoris sumet honesti:
“ THERE is no reputation for genius,” says Quintilian, “ to be gained by writing on things, which, however necessary, have little splendour or shew. The height of a building attracts the eye, but the foundations lie without regard. Yet since there is not any way to the top of science, but from the lowest parts, I shall think nothing unconnected with the art of oratory, which he that wants cannot be an orator.”
Confirmed and animated by this illustrious precedent, I shall continue my enquiries into Milton's art of versification. Since, however minute the employment may appear, of analysing lines into syllables, and whatever ridicule may be incurred by a solemn deliberation upon accents and pauses, it is certain that without this petty knowledge no man can be a poet; and that from the proper disposition of single sounds results that harmony that adds force to reason, and gives grace to sublimity; that shackles attention, and governs passions.
That verse may be melodious and pleasing, it is necessary, not only that the words be so ranged as that the accent may fall on its proper place, but that the syllables themselves be so chosen as to flow smoothly into one another. This is to be effected by a proportionate mixture of vowels and consonants, and by tempering the mute consonants with liquids and semivowels. The Hebrew grammarians have observed, that it is impossible to pronounce two consonants without the intervention of a vowel, or without some emission of the breath between one and the other; this is longer and more perceptible, as the sounds of the consonants are less barmonically conjoined, and by consequence, the flow of the verse is longer interrupted.
It is pronounced by Dryden, that a line of monosyllables is almost always harsh. This, with regard to our language, is evidently true, not because monosyllables cannot compose harmony, but because our monosyllables being of Teutonick original, or formed by contraction, commonly begin and end with consonants, as,
-Every lower faculty
The difference of harmony arising principally from the collocation of vowels and consonants, will be sufficiently conceived by attending to the following passages:
The same comparison that I propose to be made between the fourth and sixth verses of this passage, may be repeated between the last lines of the following quotations :
Under foot the violet,
Here in close recess,
Milton, whose ear had been accustomed, not only to the musick of the ancient tongues, which, however vitiated by our pronunciation, excel all that are now in use, but to the softness of the Italian, the most mellifluous of all modern poetry, seems fully convinced of the unfitness of our language for smooth versification, and is therefore pleased with an opportunity of calling in a softer word to his assistance; for this reason, and I believe for this only, he sometimes indulges himself in a long series of proper names, and introduces them where they add little but musick to his poem.
The richer seat
-The Tuscan artist views
Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands. He has indeed been more attentive to his syllables than to his accents, and does not often offend by collisions of consonants, or openings of vowels upon each other, at least not more often than other writers who have had less important or complicated subjects to take off their care from the cadence of their lines.
The great peculiarity of Milton's versification, compared with that of later poets, is the elision of one vowel before another, or the suppression of the last syllable of a word ending with a vowel, when a vowel begins the following word. As
- Knowledge Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns
Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind. This licence, though now disused in English poetry, was practised by our old writers, and is allowed in many other languages ancient and modern, and therefore the criticks on “ Paradise Lost” have, without much deliberation, commended Milton for continuing it*. But one language cannot communi
• In the original Rambler, in folio, our author's opinion appears different, and is thus expressed :-“ This licence, though an innovation in English poetry, is yet allowed in many other languages ancient and modern ; and therefore the criticks on Paradise Lost have, without much deliberation, commended Milton for introducing it." C.
cate its rules to another. We have already tried and rejected the hexameter of the ancients, the double close of the Italians, and the alexandrine of the French; and the elision of vowels, however graceful it may seem to other nations, may be very unsuitable to the genius of the English tongue.
There is reason to believe that we have negligently lost part of our vowels, and that the silent e which our ancestors added to most of our monosyllables, was once vocal. By this detruncation of our syllables, our language is overstocked with consonants, and it is more necessary to add vowels to the beginning of words, than to cut them off from the end.
Milton therefore seems to have somewhat mistaken the nature of our language, of which the chief defect is ruggedness and asperity, and has left our harsh cadences yet harsher. But his elisions are not all equally to be censured; in some syllables they may be allowed, and perhaps in a few may be safely imitated. The abscission of a vowel is undoubtedly vicious when it is strongly sounded, and makes, with its associate consonant, a full and audible syllable.
What he gives,
Fruits, Hesperian fables true,
Evening now approach'd,