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syntax that this differentia appears, and often, for many lines together, the words fall exactly and punctiliously into their ordinary prose places. - -Not the less does it appear, both from a theoretical consideration of the subject, and from a study of the actual syntax of our truest poets, Tennyson and Wordsworth himself included, that the precept, as it was first put forth by Wordsworth, was too absolute. Besides those illegitimate inversions of prose-syntax which arise from a lazy or slovenly forcing of the metre and rhyme, there certainly are other inversions natural to verse as such, and not illegitimate. These seem to be of two sorts :-(1) There are inversions natural to the peculiar elevation of mood or feeling which prompts to verse and which verse presupposes. After all, syntax has its root in thought, and every state of mind has its own syntax. This is seen within prose itself. “Great is Diana of the Ephesians is a different construction from “Diana of the Ephesians is great,” simply because the thought is not the same. And so, in prose itself, there are all varieties of syntax, from the regularly-repeated concatenation of subject, copula, and predicate, natural to the coolest statement of facts and propositions, on to the irregular rhythm of complex meditation and emotion, verging on verse, and in fact often passing into verse. Nor, when the express limit is passed, and one leaves prose avowedly for verse, is the variability of the syntax with the movement of the thought or meaning so wholly concluded already that there can be no natural variation farther. Verse is itself a proclamation that the mood of the highest prose moments is to be prolonged and sustained; and the very devices that constitute verse not only serve for the prolongation of the mood, but occasion perpetual involutions of it and incalculable excitements. (2) Study of beauty of all kinds is natural to every artist; and the poet, when he comes to be an artist in verse, will seek beauty in sound. Here, too, though we call it art, nature dictates.
The writer in verse may lawfully aim at musical effects on the ear not consistent with prose syntax. In fact, this is not a distinct principle from the last, but only a particular implication of that principle, worthy of separate notice.
The syntax of Milton's poetry certainly is affected by the verse to a larger extent than we might guess from Wordsworth's enthusiastic references to him as the perfect model for poets at the very time when he was expounding his Reform of Poetic Diction.
In no poet do we see the movement of ideas, and therefore the order of the words, swayed more manifestly by that elevation of feeling, that glow of mood, which comes upon the poet when he has risen above "the cool element of prose," and is “soaring in the high region of his fancies with his garland and singing-robes about him." Indeed all through his life the leading characteristic of Milton's mind was that it could not be prosaic. He lived in song; it was his most natural mode of speech. Even in his prose-writings, all that were not mere hackwork, he every now and then spurns the ground, grows metrical, and begins to ascend. And so, when he actually was in his proper element of verse, his thoughts came in an order ruled not only by the logic of custom and reason, or by that modified by the Latinism of his syntax as it would have told in prose, but also by the conditions of roused feeling musically moved. In the following passage of At a Solemn Music is there not an inversion of ordinary syntax greater in amount, and more subtle in kind, than can be debited to Latin habits of construction or to any other cause than the verse excitement ?
“ Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heaven's joy,
Sphere-born harmonious sisters, Voice and Verse,
In such a passage as this, and all through Milton's poetry, instances of deviation from ordinary prose syntax may be noted as incessant, and we cannot always or often dismiss them as mere Latinisms. They are often clearly proper to English verse-syntax as such. Whether there are not cases, especially in the rhymed poems, where the inversions are too evidently compelled by the verse-mechanism, is a question that may be left to the varying tastes of readers. Generally, however, in seeming cases of this kind the quest of minute beauty of sound may be detected. Perhaps the best instance of this is the frequency with which the adjective old is put after its substantive. The word old occurs about sixty times in the poems; and nineteen times it occurs in this manner. “And last of kings and queens and heroes old” is, I think, the first case (Vac. Ex. 47); in the same piece we have “A Sibyl old” (69); after which we have “Melibæus old” (Com. 822), “Bellerus old" (Lyc. 160), “Kishon old” (Ps. LXXXIII. 37), “Saturn old” (P. L., I. 519), “heroes old” again (P. L., I. 552), “ warriors old” (P. L., I. 565), “Mount Casius old” (P. I., II. 593), “the Anarch old” (P. I., II. 988), “ Tiresias and Phineus, prophets old” (P. L., III. 36), “ Darkness old” (P. L., III. 421), “ fables old” (P. L., XI. II), “kings and heroes old” again (P. L., XI. 243), “Salem old” (P. R., II. 21), “seers old” (P. R., III. 15), “prophets old” again (P. R., III. 178), “ Ninus old” (P. R., III. 276), and “giants old” (S. A. 148).
V. THE PUNCTUATION.
Milton was singularly indifferent, not to say careless, about punctuation. His own manuscripts prove this. While sufficiently neat in the general mechanical arrangement, and in such particulars as the paragraphing of his poems, the indentation of lines to show the metre, etc., he either did not point at all, or merely now and then ticked in a comma or semicolon at random. No objection can be made to his habit of using small letters at the beginning of his lines of verse where they do not also begin a sentence; and, indeed, much might be said for that practice, though we have now disused it. Nor is there anything remarkable in his omission of full stops at the ends of his sentences, especially where these come also at the ends of lines. Many writers omit points in this way, and trust such minutiæ to the printer. But Milton's neglect in this particular exceeds the usual, and contrasts strikingly with the extreme accuracy, the logical perfection, of his syntax, even when it is most knotty and complex Here is an average specimen of the pointing of his MSS.
“ Begin then Sisters of the sacred well
that from beneath the seate of Jove doth spring
Here we have not only commas and other points omitted where any ordinary writer would insert them, with commas ticked in here and there to make their general absence more evident; but also sentences begun with small letters instead of capitals. Often, however, where Milton does point, the pointing is not merely arbitrary, but positively wrong. Here, for example, is a passage from Milton's sketch of the plot of a drama on the subject of the destruction of Sodom, pointed as in the draft in his own hand among the Cambridge MSS.
“Lot that knows thire drift answers thwartly at last of which notice given to the whole assembly they hasten thither taxe him of presumption, singularity, breach of citty customs, in fine offer violence, the chorus of Shepherds præpare resistance in thire maisters defence calling the rest of the serviture, but beeing forc't to give back, the Angels open the dore rescue Lot, discover themselves, warne him to gather his freinds and sons in Law out of the citty, he goes and returns as having met with some incredulous, some other freind or Son in Law out of the way when Lot came to his house, overtakes him to know his buisnes, heer is disputed of incredulity of divine judgements and such like matter, at last is describ’d the parting from the citty the Chorus depart with thir maister, the Angels doe the deed with all dreadfull execution, the Ch. and nobles of the citty may come forth and serve to set out the terror a Chorus of Angels concluding and the Angels relating the event of Lots journy, and of his wife.”
Now, it must not be supposed that Milton was thus neglectful or lawless in his pointing because there was no attention to pointing, no rule on the subject, among his contemporaries. There was very good punctuation in Milton's time, though not on that strict logical principle which ought now to be accepted as the only proper one for systematic pointing, but rather on a combination of that principle with regard for the vocal pauses convenient in reading. In Butler's English Grammar of 1633 there are very good rules, according to the system of that day, for the use of points. The rules would serve very well yet, though they recommend more use of the colon than is now common, and take no account of inverted commas for quotation-marks, or of other occasional points that have been found convenient. Milton's neglect of points in his MSS., therefore, was not the mere custom of his time; it was the voluntary carelessness in this matter of a man peculiarly accurate and punctilious in his syntax and rhythms.
Of course, he intended that, when his drafts were published, the pointing should be set right by the printer, or by the printer and himself together. What, then, of the pointing of his Minor Poems in the First or 1645 edition, as published by Moseley ? The printer of that volume was Ruth Raworth ; but Milton himself, if not Moseley too, must be supposed to have revised the sheets as they came from that lady's printing-office, and so to be responsible for the pointing. The best that can be said for it is that it is passable. It is such that one can read without discomfort; and in the Latin Poems, as one would naturally expect, Milton's care in the revision seems to have distinctly included the pointing. Not unfrequently, however, in the English poems one comes upon passages where the pointing is by no means correct, and would not have been called correct at the time. Thus, from Arcades :
" Fame that her high worth to raise,
Less then half we find exprest,
Envy bid conceal the rest.
Sitting like a Goddes bright,
In the center of her light.” My impression, from general recollection, is that the pointing in those of Milton's prose-pamphlets which were printed before he became blind is not, on the average, better than that of the First Edition of his poems, and so that, during that whole period of Milton's literary life when he could see his publications through the press for himself
, he gave but moderate attention to the particular of pointing, and left it very much to the readers in the divers printing-offices with which he had dealings. There were differences of skill in this matter in the printing-offices; and so some of the pamphlets were better pointed than others.
Milton's blindness was total in 1652; and from that time, if not for a year or two before, he was unable to revise the proofs of his publications for himself. Probably his English pamphlets published in those circumstances were not worse pointed than their predecessors had been; but I have noted in some of the Latin pamphlets gross errors of pointing, marring even the sense, and indicating the absence even of such revision as Milton would have given had he been able. All the more fortunate, therefore, it was that Paradise Lost came into such good hands. Whether from the care bestowed on that poem by the printer Simmons, or through special precautions taken by Milton for the revision of the proofs under his own direction, the First or 1667 edition of Paradise Lost is by far the best printed of all Milton's books published in his lifetime. The pointing is much better than that of the First edition of the Minor Poems, and, though on that system of compromise between clause-marks and pause-marks which may now be voted obsolete, is yet altogether a fair specimen of pointing after that system.
Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, printed for Milton 1671 by John Starkey, did not fare so well as Paradise Lost had fared in the hands of Simmons. The paper is thicker, and the type more widely spaced; but the press-work is less careful, and the pointing much worse. Sometimes it is very bad. Thus, Par. Reg., II. 25 et seq.
“ Then on the bank of Jordan, by a Creek :
Where winds with Reeds, and Osiers whisp’ring play