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GENERAL ESSAY

ON

MILTON'S ENGLISH & VERSIFICATION

VOL. III

B

GENERAL ESSAY

ON

MILTON'S ENGLISH & VERSIFICATION

WHILE much on this subject will be gathered best from the special Notes to the Poems, there are certain pervading characteristics and recurring peculiarities of which it may be well to take some account collectively in a general Essay. It is to be understood that the following remarks relate to Milton's Poetry only, any references to his Prose being but incidental. The remarks may arrange themselves under six

heads :

I. Milton's Vocabulary. II. Spelling and Pronunciation. III. Peculiarities of Grammatical Inflection. IV. Syntax and Idiom. V. The Punctuation. VI. Milton's Versification, and his place in the History of English

Verse.

I. MILTON'S VOCABULARY.

From the tolerably complete verbal Indexes that have been prepared for Milton's Poetical Works, it has been computed that

1 The chief of these Indexes are :-(1) The “ Verbal Index to the Poetry of Milton” which accompanied Todd's Second, or 1809, edition of Milton's Poetical Works, and which was also printed in the same year in a separate volume, containing Todd's “Account of the Life and Writings of the Poet.” This Index included the Greek, Latin, and Italian poems, as well as the English. (2) “A Complete Concordance to Milton's Poetical Works, by G. Lushington Prendergast," published in twelve quarto parts at Madras in 1857–9. (3) “A Complete Concordance to the Poetical Works of John Milton, by Charles Dexter Cleveland, LL.D.,” published in London in 1867: being an improvement on a Verbal Index, based on Todd's, which Mr. Cleveland had prepared for an American edition of the Poetical Works in 1853.

Milton's total vocabulary in these works, to the exclusion of his prose-writings, consists of about 8000 words. In this computation all separate parts of speech are counted as distinct words, but inflections of any one part of speech are not so counted. By a similar computation, on the same plan, it is found that Shakespeare's vocabulary in his Plays and Poems consists of about 15,000 words. The greater extent of Shakespeare's poetical vocabulary, as compared with Milton's, may be accounted for partly by the greater bulk of the poetical matter from which the vocabulary is gathered; but it is, doubtless, owing in part also to the greater multifariousness of that aggregate of things and notions amid which Shakespeare's imagination moved for the purposes of his dramas.

An interesting question with respect to any English writer the extent of whose total vocabulary may have been ascertained is the question what proportion of that vocabulary consists of words of the old native English or “Anglo-Saxon” stock, and what of words derived from the Latin or other non-Saxon sources that have contributed to our matured and composite English. “In the vocabulary of the English Bible,” says Mr. Marsh (Lect. on Eng. Lang., 4th American edit. pp. 123, 124), “sixty per cent are native; in that of Shakespeare the proportion is very nearly the same; while of the stock of words employed in the poetical works of Milton less than thirty-three per cent are Anglo-Saxon." In other words, while about two-fifths of Shakespeare's vocabulary, or about 6000 words out of the total 15,000 which he uses, are of non-Saxon derivation, the nonSaxon element in Milton's poetical vocabulary amounts to about twothirds, or to about 5300 words out of the total 8000. Milton's draught upon the Latin and other so-called “foreign ” constituents of our speech for the purposes of his poetry would thus appear to have been relatively, but not absolutely, larger than Shakespeare's.

But the proportions of the “Saxon and the “non-Saxon elements in an English writer's total vocabulary would by no means indicate the proportions of the same elements in his habitual style. The vocabulary gives the words, so to speak, in a state of quiescence, or as lying in the writer's cabinet for use; but in actual speech or writing some words are in such constant demand that they are continually being taken out of the cabinet and put back again, while others are not called out more than once or twice in a year or in a whole literary lifetime. In order, therefore, to ascertain the proportion of Teutonic and non-Teutonic in a writer's habitual style, a very different plan must be adopted from that of merely counting the Teutonic and non-Teutonic words in his vocabulary. Specimens of different lengths must be taken from his text; and every word in these specimens must be counted, not once only but every time that it occurs. Of various critics who have applied this method to the styles of the more important English writers, no one has taken greater pains than Mr. Marsh; and the result of his investigations has been in some cases to set aside previous conceptions on the subject. He finds, for example (Lect. on Eng. Lang., pp. 124126), that even in the last century, when the style of our writers was highly Latinised, the proportion of Saxon to non-Saxon words in any extensive and characteristic passage from the writings of the best authors very rarely falls beneath 70 per cent,—Swift, in the case of one Essay, falling as low as 68 per cent, but usually ranging higher; and Johnson's proportion being 72 per cent, Gibbon's 70 per cent, and Hume's 73 per cent. He finds, moreover, that, in spite of the additions to our Dictionary since that time, mainly of words from non-Teutonic sources, the proportion of Teutonic in the style of our best-known writers of the present century has risen rather than fallen. Macaulay he rates at 75 per cent (one non-Saxon word in four), and other recent prose-writers at about the same, while from examinations of long passages in Tennyson, Browning, and Longfellow, it actually appears that the proportion of Saxon in our poetry is hardly less at this day than it was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries or even earlier. Thus, Tennyson's Lotus Eaters yields 87 per cent of Saxon, and his In Memoriam 89 per cent; Browning's figure is 84 per cent, and Longfellow's 87 per cent; while Spenser, from the examination of a Canto, is rated at 86 per cent, Shakespeare at from 88 to 91 per cent, and even Chaucer only once reaches 93 per cent and is usually nearer 89 or 90. Milton's place in the list is assigned from these computations as follows :L'Allegro ·

90 per cent. Il Penseroso

83 per cent. Paradise Lost, Book VI.

80 per cent. From examinations of various passages in Paradise Lost, I am inclined to believe that Mr. Marsh's estimate of 80 per cent of Saxon words will be found about right for the whole poem, if, with him, we always omit the proper names in counting. In various passages of some length, counting the proper names as well, I have found the average to come out at about 75 per cent. But, just as the percentage of Saxon words in Paradise Lost is less than in Il Penseroso and much less than in L'Allegro, so within Paradise Lost itself the rate varies according to the poet's mood and the nature of his matter at particular moments. Passages may be hit on, or may be selected,—and not those only which abound in proper names, where the percentage of Saxon falls as low as 70 or lower. The principle, in short, is that it depends on the thought of a writer in any particular passage, on the class of things and notions with which he is there concerning himself, whether the expression shall show more or less of the Saxon.

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