- Prosodic Style and Conceptions of Liberty in Milton and Marvell
Seventeenth-century poets were as aware as any that verse-form is embodied meaning, not just an envelope. In Herbert’s “The Collar”—to take a clear-cut example—the violent irregularity of the line-length and rhyme is tempered by the orthodoxy of iambic rhythm, so expressing how the speaker is able in recollection to temper the state of rebellion through which he has now passed. In Waller’s “A Panegyric to my Lord Protector,” the poet’s need to reassure us that a land “torn with civil hate” is now restored and “made a glorious state” (ll. 13–14) is conveyed through couplets of insinuating smoothness and harmony. In Cowley’s irregular Pindaric, “Ode upon Liberty,” freedom of form expresses freedom of mind:
If Life should a well-order’d Poem be . . . The more Heroique strain let others take, Mine the Pindarique way I’le make. The Matter shall be Grave, the Numbers loose and free. 1
So at first glance it is surprising that the two great Puritan poets of the century, John Milton and Andrew Marvell, are so diverse in prosody. Opponents sometimes lumped them together—“the odds betwixt a Transproser and a Blank Verse Poet, is not great” 2 —and indeed there were personal, political, theological and literary affiliations between them. Milton sought to advance Marvell under Cromwell, and Marvell intervened to protect Milton at the Restoration and to defend him in The Rehearsal Transpros’d. 3 No living writer mattered so profoundly to Marvell as much as Milton did: he was the first poet to echo Milton repeatedly in his own verse, and he admired Milton so much he chose to memorize that substantial work, Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio Secunda or The Second Defence of the English People. 4 Moreover, both writers devoted their lives to the cause of liberty as they perceived it. Marvell was, as Warren Chernaik has written, “the consistent opponent of arbitrary power and champion of man’s rational freedom,” 5 while Milton presents all his writing as a defense of liberty in its manifold forms, “because the gaining or loosing of libertie is the greatest change to better or to worse that may befall a nation under civil goverment.” 6
Nevertheless, in verse technique the two poets are far apart. Milton stands for freedom of form, and is always a conspicuous innovator as a prosodist. The first lines in which the nineteen-year-old manifests his greatness and ambition break open the heroic couplet:
Such where the deep transported mind may soar Above the wheeling poles, and at heaven’s door Look in, and see each blissful deity How he before the thunderous throne doth lie, Listening to what unshorn Apollo sings To the touch of golden wires, while Hebe brings Immortal nectar to her kingly sire[.] 7
Soaring over the line-turns, opening the normally closed door of the couplet, and bringing the sense from one pair of lines to the next, the energies of the verse embody the energy of conception. A year later, in “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” Milton devises an expansive new stanza which blends popular and elevated modes of versification; in the Companion Poems, he creates a new freedom of movement through blending diverse prosodies 8 ; “Lycidas” transmutes the Italian canzone into a form of unprecedented openness. Even the sonnets are innovative, not only in rejecting English models [End Page 1] but in the freedom with which they exploit the intricacies of the Italian form. Samson Agonistes has some of the earli est passages of sustained free verse in English. In Paradise Lost, as he proclaims in his note on the verse, Milton eludes “the troublesome and modern bondage of rhym ing” through his greatest prosodic innovation—“English heroic verse without rhyme”—and he handles this virtual re-invention of blank verse with striking freedom. Milton’s is throughout a prosody which rejects constraint for the sake of expressiveness. In the words of David Norbrook: “If this is a poetics, it is almost an anti-poetics, pushing conventional forms to the limit”, and this is why Milton is for...