Milton, Meter, and Style
Or, a philosophy of iambic pentameter
Iambic pentameter: it’s the line of Chaucer, and Shakespeare, and Milton; the line of Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost. It’s the line Ezra Pound wanted to “break,” to create an English-language free verse and, with it, literary modernism. Students of poetry in English must become its master. But we’re in luck, because we all learned in high school what iambic pentameter is. Ten syllables, alternating weak-strong: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM, as when Romeo, seeing Juliet emerge onto the balcony, says,
• But SOFT, what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS?
Or Faust who, when a devil presents to him as Helen of Troy, asks,
• Was THIS the FACE that LAUNCHED a THOsand SHIPS?
For a long time, I thought that’s all there was to it. But it’s obvious, if you’re paying attention, that it’s not so simple.
Romeo answers his “But soft?” with the line
• It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
But we would only laugh if he pronounced this as
• It IS the EAST, and JULiet IS the SUN!
In a famous moment early in Paradise Lost, after Satan has volunteered to check out this new “earth” place they’ve heard rumors about, the fallen angels disperse, and some “adventurous bands” set out to explore hell, and pass
• O’er many a frozen, many a fiery alp, • Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death—
But it would be horrible to bounce along the second line, accenting the even syllables, and say that the devils passed over
• Rocks, CAVES, lakes, FENS, bogs, DENS, and SHADES of DEATH.
No, the six nouns that head this line bear equal stress. But how can that be? Could it be that Milton and Shakespeare break the rules of iambic pentameter—all the time?
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