Toward a Definition of Poetry Part IV: An Interlude on Critical Technique

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex . . .”

In the midst of my research for part four of this series, I received the first bit of criticism directed toward my articles. An admired acquaintance—a poet whose talent in description is first rate—was taken aback by a statement made in the second essay in my series. I had, in “Lifeless Meter” crowned Shakespeare as Iambic Pentameter’s great experimenter, and mentioned John Milton as one through whose work the Bard’s experiments echoed. This, my fellow poet argued, was simply not true; Milton, he claimed, wrote with a more expressive and inventive meter. Having read Milton and studied his prosody, I was doubtful, but decided to look into the matter nonetheless. In this search I discovered a text which afforded a fascinating study on the academic research of English versification. It is this text—whose mistakes appear in many other studies—which I must address before launching forth into my discussion of Shakespeare’s meter.

In the year 1889 the poet and critic Robert Bridges published a book titled Milton’s Prosody. In his study of the meter in Milton’s works, Bridges analyzes many obscure techniques he and many others believe Milton to have employed; methods which, in nearly every case, may be more simply explicated with an understanding of the common metrical devices found in basic Iambic Pentameter.

This is not to say Milton’s meter was not, at times, artful. As Bridges successfully describes, each half of the following alexandrine—a line consisting of six feet—possesses a “weak ending,” meant to beautifully represent the failure of the martial preparations Milton’s line discusses in Samson Agonistes:

     -        /     - /   -    /      /    -      -     /  -   /
Made arms ridiculous, useless the forgery

Both “ridiculous” and “forgery” conclude with syllables which are notably weaker in their stress than the word’s initial syllable, but—as in nearly all words containing more than two syllables—are used in the poet’s meter as stressed. This advanced use of meter—not merely to carry a line, but to represent the sense of the line—is lovely evidence of Milton’s brilliance.

Unfortunately, Bridges makes many errors which detract from his analysis, some of which critics before his time had claimed to note, and some unique observations which have subsequently been used to obfuscate the academic understanding of Milton’s meter. One such oddity Bridges mentions is Milton’s supposed wide use of dactyls—a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables; “My name is absurd too: Malachi Mulligan, two dactyls.”—especially in the line previously discussed—“Made arms ridiculous, useless the forgery”—where Bridges notes the appearance of three serperate dactyls! In truth, the line is, as I have shown, the most typical iambic alexandrine, consisting merely of iambs and a choriamb. How Bridges came to his conclusion seems to me to be a too-artistic impulse on the behalf of Milton’s critics, in which they wish to impose their own creative vision and thus evidence their own brilliance.

I must stress that Bridges is not alone in his blunders. I seldom will touch any book or essay which attempts to analyze meter, as the writers of nearly every text I have come upon have invented “new” techniques they claim to have discovered, or transpose the metrical techniques of former times or foreign languages onto the canonical works of English poetry, when a simpler explanation of the given poet’s prosody is, in every instance, readily available.

Where Bridges reads Milton having begun a line with two trochees, for example, I witness a common technique Milton artfully employs to account for the unique nature of the word “idolatrous.” The line in question, from Samson, reads thusly:

“By th’ idolatrous rout amidst their wine.”

If not for the elision of “the,” the line would read as simple pentameter, with an unmarked elision of the second and third syllables of “idolatrous:”

  -     /   -   /     -       /      -    /     -       /
By the idolatrous rout amidst their wine.

Why then did the great poet elide his second word? The explanation, as alluded to previously, may be seen if one considers the metrical value of the word “idolatrous,” where both the first and second syllables are naturally stressed. Milton, it seems, was determined to account for this in his meter, which I scan thusly:

 -       /       /  -      -        /       -   /         -       /
By th’ I | dola | trous rout | amidst | their wine.

A simple line in which a choriamb is used in the second and third feet. There is no reason to believe Milton would utterly compromise the prosody of his line by stressing “by.” I personally believe Milton would have been much better off not attempting to account for the unique nature of “idolatrous” and simply avoiding the elision.

Bridges lists many supposed examples of lines which open with two trochees, and—as others before and after—develops complex metrical theories to explain his discoveries, but each of these he has clearly misread, often due to his failure to account for the appearance of an epic caesura. The epic caesura is a mid-line pause after which the meter either behaves as though starting a new line, or makes use of the pause as its own stressed or un-stressed syllable; a device seen often in Shakespeare, Milton, and others. For further explanation, examine the following line, where Bridges mistakenly believes Milton’s meter to have lapsed from sense:

In slavish habit, ill-fitted weeds.

Our critic claims the line “beneath” Milton’s muse and, thus, to have been an intentional metrical error on Milton part, meant to “put the meter in rags,” as the character has been thus garbed. In Bridges’ scansion, the line possesses only four inconsistent feet, where I see a typical epic caesura, with the pause considered a stress in the line’s meter, after which appears a third epitrite:

 -    /    -     /  -   [/]  /    /  -       /
In slavish habit,    ill-fitted weeds.

In the most egregious example of intentional obfuscation I have personally witnessed in my years of study, Bridges is inspired by a fellow critic, Dr. Alexander Schmidt. Schmidt claimed to have noted a device known as “recession of accent” in the work of William Shakespeare. Bridges defines Schmidt’s discovery thusly: “disyllabic adjectives and participles accented on the last syllable will shift their accent back if they occur before a noun accented on the first syllable.” In first reading the definition of this supposed device, I laughed aloud, as this seems so recondite as to be outlandish. I did, however, continue with my reading and examined the evidence Bridges and Schmidt have offered.

Here follow a few of Schmdit’s illustrations of Shakespeare’s practice of recession of accent, which Bridges names “convincing.” The method at hand supposedly alters the stress of the italicized words to their first syllable, rather than their correct place in the second syllable:

Can pierce a complete bosom.
A maid of grace and complete majesty.
Than all the complete armour that thou wear’st.

It nearly baffles one’s mind that neither Bridges nor Schmidt appear to have seen the obvious metrical device employed in each line: the minor ionic foot.

– / – – / / –
Can pierce a complete bosom.
– / – / – – / / – /
A maid of grace and complete majesty.
– / – – / / – – / /
Than all the complete armour that thou wear’st.

In not one of the fifty supposedly convincing instances of “recession of accent” is there any reason to scan the line in a fashion which places the stress on the first syllable of these disyllabic words, yet Bridges carries this absurdity further and adds instances of his own discovery of the device, in Milton. In each instance, as in Schmidt’s examples in Shakespeare, there is no reason at all to scan in the line in the manner proposed:

About the supreme Throne.
In Regions mild of calm and serene Ayr.
And he, the Supreme good, t’whom all things ill.
Not any boast of skill, but extreme shift.
She, that hath that, is clad in complete shift.

The critic’s desire to attribute Milton’s verse with unique inventions–inventions of the critics mind rather than the poet’s–ultimately resulted in Bridges developing a new and complex accentual verse form he named Neo-Miltonic. Whatever developments he claims to have put to use, I see, in my scanning of this new verse form, but the most typical iambic alexandrines which occasionally employ an anapest; anapests which Bridges misuses by assigning the value of one-and-a-half feet, rather than the proper usage seen in other poets, where the anapest is considered a single foot in the line.

“What ask? You cannot know. “Twas by no choice of yours
that you mischanged for monkeys’ man’s society,
‘twas that British sailor drove you from Paradise —“
-Robert Bridges, from Poor Poll

This mistaken criticism of Milton’s prosody, which has spread throughout the academy for so many years, nearly makes the absurd misunderstandings of Post-modern critics forgivable. As our Chief Editor, Akshay Gollapalli, stated in a recent column, these overly-creative critics “exchange stolidness, reliability, and good sense for novelty” and thus critcism lapses, leaving the artist “unchecked.”

Read simply, allowing the basic rules of iambic versification to guide the rhythm of the words; aim not to reflect your own brilliance via “new” and complex discoveries, but to divine the artistry of those who’ve come before, that their light my shine within you.


Published by Matt Wildermuth

Matthew Wildermuth is a father and poet living near the banks of the Missouri in North Dakota. His work may be read at

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