No. 285. Saturday, January 26, 1712. Addison.

Ne, quicunque Deus, quicunque adhibebitur heros, Regali conspectus in auro nuper et ostro, Migret in Obscuras humili sermone tabernas: Aut, dum vitat humum, nubes et inania captet.

Having already treated of the Fable, the Characters, and Sentiments in the Paradise Lost, we are in the last Place to consider the Language; and as the Learned World is very much divided upon Milton as to this Point, I hope they will excuse me if I appear particular in any of my Opinions, and encline to those who judge the most advantageously of the Author.

It is requisite that the Language of an Heroic Poem should be both Perspicuous and Sublime. [1] In proportion as either of these two Qualities are wanting, the Language is imperfect. Perspicuity is the first and most necessary Qualification; insomuch that a good-natur'd Reader sometimes overlooks a little Slip even in the Grammar or Syntax, where it is impossible for him to mistake the Poets Sense. Of this Kind is that Passage in Milton, wherein he speaks of Satan.

--God and his Son except, Created thing nought valu'd he nor shunn'd.

And that in which he describes Adam and Eve.

Adam the goodliest Man of Men since born His Sons, the fairest of her Daughters Eve.

It is plain, that in the former of these Passages according to the natural Syntax, the Divine Persons mentioned in the first Line are represented as created Beings; and that, in the other, Adam and Eve are confounded with their Sons and Daughters. Such little Blemishes as these, when the Thought is great and natural, we should, with Horace [2] impute to a pardonable Inadvertency, or to the Weakness of human Nature, which cannot attend to each minute Particular, and give the last Finishing to every Circumstance in so long a Work. The Ancient Criticks therefore, who were acted by a Spirit of Candour, rather than that of Cavilling, invented certain Figures of Speech, on purpose to palliate little Errors of this nature in the Writings of those Authors who had so many greater Beauties to attone for them.

If Clearness and Perspicuity were only to be consulted, the Poet would have nothing else to do but to cloath his Thoughts in the most plain and natural Expressions. But since it often happens that the most obvious Phrases, and those which are used in ordinary Conversation, become too familiar to the Ear, and contract a kind of Meanness by passing through the Mouths of the Vulgar, a Poet should take particular Care to guard himself against Idiomatick Ways of Speaking. Ovid and Lucan have many Poornesses of Expression upon this Account, as taking up with the first Phrases that offered, without putting themselves to the Trouble of looking after such as would not only have been natural, but also elevated and sublime. Milton has but few Failings in this Kind, of which, however, you may [meet with some Instances, as [3] in the following Passages.

Embrios and Idiots, Eremites and Fryars, White, Black, and Grey,--with all their Trumpery, Here Pilgrims roam--

--A while discourse they hold, No fear lest Dinner cool;--when thus began Our Author--

Who of all Ages to succeed, but feeling The Evil on him brought by me, will curse My Head, ill fare our Ancestor impure, For this we may thank Adam--

The Great Masters in Composition, knew very well that many an elegant Phrase becomes improper for a Poet or an Orator, when it has been debased by common Use. For this Reason the Works of Ancient Authors, which are written in dead Languages, have a great Advantage over those which are written in Languages that are now spoken. Were there any mean Phrases or Idioms in Virgil and Homer, they would not shock the Ear of the most delicate Modern Reader, so much as they would have done that of an old Greek or Roman, because we never hear them pronounced in our Streets, or in ordinary Conversation.

It is not therefore sufficient, that the Language of an Epic Poem be Perspicuous, unless it be also Sublime. To this end it ought to deviate from the common Forms and ordinary Phrases of Speech. The Judgment of a Poet very much discovers it self in shunning the common Roads of Expression, without falling into such ways of Speech as may seem stiff and unnatural; he must not swell into a false Sublime, by endeavouring to avoid the other Extream. Among the Greeks, Æschylus, and sometimes Sophocles, were guilty of this Fault; among the Latins, Claudian and Statius; and among our own Countrymen, Shakespear and Lee. In these Authors the Affectation of Greatness often hurts the Perspicuity of the Stile, as in many others the Endeavour after Perspicuity prejudices its Greatness.

Aristotle has observed, that the Idiomatick Stile may be avoided, and the Sublime formed, by the following Methods. [4]

First, by the Use of Metaphors [: Such are those of Milton. [5]]

Imparadised in one anothers Arms.

--And in his Hand a Reed Stood waving tipt with Fire.--

The grassie Clods now calvd,--

[Spangled with Eyes--]

In these and innumerable other Instances, the Metaphors are very bold but just; I must however observe that the Metaphors are not [so] thick sown in Milton which always savours too much of Wit; that they never clash with one another, which, as Aristotle observes, turns a Sentence into a kind of an Enigma or Riddle; [6] and that he seldom has recourse to them where the proper and natural Words will do as well.

Another way of raising the Language, and giving it a Poetical Turn, is to make use of the Idioms of other Tongues. Virgil is full of the Greek Forms of Speech, which the Criticks call Hellenisms, as Horace in his Odes abounds with them much more than Virgil. I need not mention the several Dialects which Homer has made use of for this end. Milton, in conformity with the Practice of the Ancient Poets, and with Aristotle's Rule, has infused a great many Latinisms, as well as Græcisms, and sometimes Hebraisms, into the Language of his Poem; as towards the Beginning of it.

Nor did they not perceive the evil Plight In which they were, or the fierce Pains not feel, Yet to their Genrals Voice they soon obey'd.--

--Who shall tempt with wandring Feet The dark unbottom'd Infinite Abyss, And through the palpable Obscure find out His uncouth way, or spread his airy Flight Upborn with indefatigable Wings Over the vast Abrupt!

[--So both ascend In the Visions of God-- Book 2.]

Under this Head may be reckon'd the placing the Adjective after the Substantive, the Transposition of Words, the turning the Adjective into a Substantive, with several other Foreign Modes of Speech which this Poet has naturalized to give his Verse the greater Sound, and throw it out of Prose.

The third Method mentioned by Aristotle is what agrees with the Genius of the Greek Language more than with that of any other Tongue, and is therefore more used by Homer than by any other Poet. I mean the lengthning of a Phrase by the Addition of Words, which may either be inserted or omitted, as also by the extending or contracting of particular Words by the Insertion or Omission of certain Syllables. Milton has put in practice this Method of raising his Language, as far as the Nature of our Tongue will permit, as in the Passage above-mentioned, Eremite, [for] what is Hermit, in common Discourse. If you observe the Measure of his Verse, he has with great Judgment suppressed a Syllable in several Words, and shortned those of two Syllables into one, by which Method, besides the above-mentioned Advantage, he has given a greater Variety to his Numbers. But this Practice is more particularly remarkable in the Names of Persons and of Countries, as Beëlzebub, Hessebon, and in many other Particulars, wherein he has either changed the Name, or made use of that which is not the most commonly known, that he might the better depart from the Language of the Vulgar.

The same Reason recommended to him several old Words, which also makes his Poem appear the more venerable, and gives it a greater Air of Antiquity.

I must likewise take notice, that there are in Milton several Words of his own coining, as Cerberean, miscreated, Hell-doom'd, Embryon Atoms, and many others. If the Reader is offended at this Liberty in our English Poet, I would recommend him to a Discourse in Plutarch, [7] which shews us how frequently Homer has made use of the same Liberty.

Milton, by the above-mentioned Helps, and by the Choice of the noblest Words and Phrases which our Tongue would afford him, has carried our Language to a greater Height than any of the English Poets have ever done before or after him, and made the Sublimity of his Stile equal to that of his Sentiments.

I have been the more particular in these Observations on Milton's Stile, because it is that Part of him in which he appears the most singular. The Remarks I have here made upon the Practice of other Poets, with my Observations out of Aristotle, will perhaps alleviate the Prejudice which some have taken to his Poem upon this Account; tho after all, I must confess that I think his Stile, tho admirable in general, is in some places too much stiffened and obscured by the frequent Use of those Methods, which Aristotle has prescribed for the raising of it.

This Redundancy of those several Ways of Speech, which Aristotle calls foreign Language, and with which Milton has so very much enriched, and in some Places darkned the Language of his Poem, was the more proper for his use, because his Poem is written in Blank Verse. Rhyme, without any other Assistance, throws the Language off from Prose, and very often makes an indifferent Phrase pass unregarded; but where the Verse is not built upon Rhymes, there Pomp of Sound, and Energy of Expression, are indispensably necessary to support the Stile, and keep it from falling into the Flatness of Prose.

Those who have not a Taste for this Elevation of Stile, and are apt to ridicule a Poet when he departs from the common Forms of Expression, would do well to see how Aristotle has treated an Ancient Author called Euclid, [8] for his insipid Mirth upon this Occasion. Mr. Dryden used to call [these [9]]sort of Men his Prose-Criticks.

I should, under this Head of the Language, consider Milton's Numbers, in which he has made use of several Elisions, which are not customary among other English Poets, as may be particularly observed in his cutting off the Letter Y, when it precedes a Vowel. [10] This, and some other Innovation in the Measure of his Verse, has varied his Numbers in such a manner, as makes them incapable of satiating the Ear, and cloying the Reader, which the same uniform Measure would certainly have done, and which the perpetual Returns of Rhime never fail to do in long Narrative Poems. I shall close these Reflections upon the Language of Paradise Lost, with observing that Milton has copied after Homer rather than Virgil in the length of his Periods, the Copiousness of his Phrases, and the running of his Verses into one another.


[Footnote 1: Aristotle, Poetics, ii. §26.

The excellence of Diction consists in being perspicuous without being mean.]

[Footnote 2:

Verum ubi plura nitent in carmine, non ego paucis Offendar maculis, quas aut incuria fudit, Aut humana parum cavit natura.

De Ar. Poet., II. 351-3.]

[Footnote 3: [see an Instance or two]]

[Footnote 4: Poetics, ii. § 26]

[Footnote 5: [,like those in Milton]]

[Footnote 6:

That language is elevated and remote from the vulgar idiom which employs unusual words: by unusual, I mean foreign, metaphorical, extended--all, in short, that are not common words. Yet, should a poet compose his Diction entirely of such words, the result would be either an enigma or a barbarous jargon: an enigma if composed of metaphors, a barbarous jargon if composed of foreign words. For the essence of an enigma consists in putting together things apparently inconsistent and impossible, and at the same time saying nothing but what is true. Now this cannot be effected by the mere arrangement of words; by the metaphorical use of them it may.]

[Footnote 7: On Life and Poetry of Homer, wrongly ascribed to Plutarch, Bk. I. § 16.]

[Footnote 8: Poetics, II. § 26.

A judicious intermixture is requisite ... It is without reason, therefore, that some critics have censured these modes of speech, and ridiculed the poet for the use of them; as old Euclid did, objecting that versification would be an easy business, if it were permitted to lengthen words at pleasure, and then giving a burlesque example of that sort of diction... In the employment of all the species of unusual words, moderation is necessary: for metaphors, foreign words, or any of the others improperly used, and with a design to be ridiculous, would produce the same effect. But how great a difference is made by a proper and temperate use of such words may be seen in heroic verse. Let any one put common words in the place of the metaphorical, the foreign, and others of the same kind, and he will be convinced of the truth of what I say.

He then gives two or three examples of the effect of changing poetical for common words. As, that (in plays now lost):

the same Iambic verse occurs in Æschylus and Euripides; but by means of a single alteration--the substitution of a foreign for a common and usual word--one of these verses appears beautiful, the other ordinary. For Æschylus in his Philoctetes says, "The poisonous wound that eats my flesh." But Euripides for ([Greek: esthiei]) "eats" says ([Greek: thoinatai]) "banquets on."]

[Footnote 9: [this]]

[Footnote 10: This is not particularly observed. On the very first page of P. L. we have a line with the final y twice sounded before a vowel,

Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song.

Again a few lines later,

That to the height of this great argument I may assert Eternal Providence.

Ten lines farther we read of the Serpent

Stirr'd up with envy and revenge.

We have only an apparent elision of y a few lines later in his aspiring

To set himself in glory above his peers,

for the line would be ruined were the y to be omitted by a reader. The extreme shortness of the two unaccented syllables, y and a, gives them the quantity of one in the metre, and allows by the turn of voice a suggestion of exuberance, heightening the force of the word glory. Three lines lower Milton has no elision of the y before a vowel in the line,

Against the throne and monarchy of God.

Nor eight lines after that in the words day and night. There is elision of y in the line,

That were an ignominy and shame beneath This downfall.

But none a few lines lower down in

Sole reigning holds the tyranny of heaven.

When the y stands by itself, unaccented, immediately after an accented syllable, and precedes a vowel that is part of another unaccented syllable standing immediately before an accented one, Milton accepts the consequence, and does not attempt to give it the force of a distinct syllable. But Addison's vague notion that it was Milton's custom to cut off the final y when it precedes a vowel, and that for the sake of being uncommon, came of inaccurate observation. For the reasons just given, the y of the word glory runs into the succeeding syllable, and most assuredly is not cut off, when we read of

the excess

Of Glory obscured: as when the sun, new ris'n, Looks through the horizontal misty air,

but the y in misty stands as a full syllable because the word air is accented. So again in

Death as oft accused Of tardy execution, since denounc'd The day of his offence.

The y of tardy is a syllable because the vowel following it is accented; the y also of day remains, because, although an unaccented vowel follows, it is itself part of an accented syllable.]

Translation of motto:
HOR. Ars Poet. ver. 227.
'But then they did not wrong themselves so much,
To make a god, a hero, or a king,
(Stript of his golden crown, and purple robe)
Descend to a mechanic dialect;
Nor (to avoid such meanness) soaring high,
With empty sound, and airy notions fly.'