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in Britain in 1647 who had adopted the word its regularly into their vocabulary, and whose thinking had taken on the peculiar syntactical trick which familiarity with the word prompts and facilitates. Milton, most conspicuously, was not one of those persons.
IV. SYNTAX AND IDIOM.
Prefixed to Dr. E. A. Abbott's excellent Shakespearian Grammar is a little essay, in which the author sums up his observations of the differences between Elizabethan English and the present English. Although he includes all parts of Grammar, the stress of his remarks is on what we here call Syntax and Idiom.
“Elizabethan English, on a superficial view, appears to present " this great point of difference from the English of modern times, " that in the former any irregularities whatever, whether in the “formation of words or in the combination of words into sentences, “are allowable.”- Such is Mr. Abbott's general proposition; and he goes on to class under two heads the most notable of the so-called “irregularities” :-1. “In the first place, almost any part of speech
can be used as any other part of speech. An adverb can be used
as a verb, “They askance their eyes'; as a noun, “the backward " and abysm of time’; or as an adjective, 'a seldom pleasure.' Any noun, adjective, or neuter verb can be used as an active verb. You can happy' your friend, malice' or 'foot' your enemy, or
'fall' an axe on his neck. An adjective can be used as an adverb, " and you can speak and act 'easy,' 'free,'' excellent'; or as a noun, "and you can talk of 'fair' instead of beauty,' and 'a pale' instead " of a paleness.' ...” II. “In the second place, every variety of apparent grammatical inaccuracy meets us :-he for him, him for he; spoke and took for spoken and taken ; plural nominatives with singular verbs; relatives omitted where they are now considered necessary; unnecessary antecedents inserted; shall for will, should "for would, would for wish; to omitted after 'I ought,' inserted “after “I durst'; double negatives; double comparatives and superlatives; such followed by which, that by as; as used for 'as if;' " that for ‘so that'; and, lastly, some verbs apparently with two “ nominatives, and others without any nominative at alf. To this " long list of irregularities it may be added that many words, and "particularly prepositions and the infinitives of verbs, are used in a
sense different from the modern.". -Some of Mr. Abbott's accompanying explanations are worth remembering. He points out that the origin of some of the apparent anomalies of the Elizabethan idiom is to be sought for farther back, in the earlier state of the
native speech, and that, in fact, though English had by Shakespeare's time shaken off most of its once abundant inflections, and was ready to shake off such as remained, yet the old grammar survived in certain strong radical mechanisms, to which all the new matter of the composite and still growing vocabulary had to adjust itself, and also in a lingering habit, or blind occasional trick, of inflections that had been forgotten. He calls attention to the wealth and variety of matter with which, in the age of Elizabeth, this apparatus of speech, and the English mind that owned it, had to deal. There were not only the hereditary notions, and those already imported and represented in the Romance and other additions to the old native vocabulary; there were also the new thoughts and feelings bred by the energetic inquiries, actions, and discoveries of the age itself. Especially, there was an influx of new knowledge, including new ideas and speculations about language itself, and about scholarship and literary taste, from those classical studies which had been recently revived, and from the translations of Latin and Greek authors which had become common. Here was certainly a vast strain upon the grammatical apparatus; and some of the effects can be marked. What of the influence of classical studies in particular? Mr. Abbott is of opinion that it was confined mainly “to single words and to the rhythm of the sentence,” and that the syntax remained English. In saying this, however, he recognises within the word "English" a certain spirited power of the English writers of the Elizabethan time to make syntax bend to their whim or will. Hence anomalies in the Elizabethan style, especially redundancies and ellipses, that cannot be otherwise accounted for. “Clearness," says Mr. Abbott, "was “preferred to grammatical correctness, and brevity both to correctness and clearness.
Hence it was common to place words in the “ order in which they came uppermost in the mind, without much “ regard to syntax; and the result was a forcible and perfectly
unambiguous, but ungrammatical, sentence.” For the rest, though Mr. Abbott admits that the regularising of the English syntax and idiom which has gone on from Elizabeth's time to this has been a natural process, determined by that law of specialisation of function or division of labour which holds among words as among other things, and one form of which is the passing of the real and literal into the merely algebraic and symbolic, he yet regrets some of the results. “For freedom, for brevity, and for vigour," he says, " Elizabethan is superior to modern English”; and, after recapitulating his previous observations, and adding, as yet one other influence in the formation of the Elizabethan book-English, a certain humorsome deference of the popular writers to the spoken idiom round them, with its colloquialisms and rapid contractions, he concludes that all causes together “combined to give a liveliness and wakefulness to Shakespearian
“ English which are wanting in the grammatical monotony of the “present day."
This general conclusion may be disputed. Take Shakespeare away, and there have certainly been English writers of the present century as great, as strong, as lively, as racy, as any of the Elizabethans. Add the irregularities and flashing freedoms of syntax to be found in the writings of such men, the true compeers of the higher Elizabethans, to the irregularities of a different kind diffused through that public slip-shod to which a great deal of the lower Elizabethan literature really corresponds, and it may be doubted whether "grammatical monotony” is yet our characteristic. Indeed, many of those very Elizabethanisms which Mr. Abbott has noted so carefully in the body of his work, and which our strict School Grammars now ignore as obsolete, are not obsolete at all, but will be found current yet in conversation and in books, if we choose to look for them. Nor are some of the details of Mr. Abbott's philological exposition free from exception. Apart from these, however, his description of the actual Elizabethan English is the best yet given, and even in the few sentences we have quoted from it there is the essence of much exact information, acquired by no superficial survey, but by a careful collection and study of instances.
Well, the Elizabethan syntax, such as Mr. Abbott has described it, was that which Milton inherited. Though he was but beginning to speak, read, and write, when Shakespeare died, and though his life stretched forward sixty years from that point, Shakespeare's syntax, in its main features, is to be traced through all his English writings. All or most of those irregularities or apparent anomalies of idiom which Mr. Abbott has enumerated as most essentially Elizabethan or Shakespearian might be illustrated also by examples from Milton.
With all this, however, and without denying that freedom, ease, and alertness from moment to moment, were qualities of the Elizabethan syntax, one may venture at once on the assertion that one of the most marked characteristics of Milton from first to last was his adoption and use of a highly disciplined syntax.
One cannot pass from a reading in Spenser or a reading in Shakespeare to any of Milton's poems without a feeling of the fact. Accuracy, disciplined accuracy, is discernible in the word-texture of all his poems. There is, however, a gradation chronologically. In the Minor Poems, grace, harmony, sweetness, and beauty of image and colouring, all but veil the strictness of the purely logical connexion of idea with idea and clause with clause. Sometimes even, as in parts of Comus, the Shakespearian syntax seems to suffice, or the syntax seems as easy as the Shakespearian, and it is only the unfailing perfection of the finish, with perhaps a greater slowness in the movement, that suggests the presence of a something different. When it is inquired what this is, one can only say, in reading the more level passages, that it consists in a greater scholarliness, a more habitual consciousness that there is a thing called syntax to trouble writers at all. One remembers here Milton's treatise of Latin Grammar, entitled Accedence commenc't Grammar. Syntaxis or Construction,” he there
says, “consisteth either in the agreement of words together in “number, gender, case, and person, which is called Concord, or the “governing of one the other in such case or mood as is to follow." Shakespeare, of course, knew as much, and could have discoursed about Syntaxis as well as about any other subject, if necessary; but, in fact, he had left his Syntaxis behind him at Stratford Grammar School, and went through the world practising Syntaxis without thinking about Syntaxis. Not so Milton. Concord and government were ideas of his daily drill, and, when he wrote English, he carried them with him. Hence that scholarly care rather than mere Shakespearian ease which we discern in the style of his Minor Poems, even where the ease is greatest. Then we may call it finish. Even in those Minor Poems, however, when the thought becomes more powerful or complex, the syntax passes farther away from the Shakespearian, and what was finish before becomes weight or musical density. Some of the most Miltonic passages in the Minor Poems exhibit this density of syntax. In the series of Sonnets written between 1640 and 1660 the density is even more apparent, from the necessary stringency of the Sonnet form itself; and these, like a chain of islets, bring us from the earlier poems to the great poems of the later life. In Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, the Miltonic, in syntax as in all else, is seen at its fullest. It is in them that Milton's most formed syntax is to be studied. Variety, no doubt! Parts and passages of rich, or even sweet and simple beauty, as in the earlier poems, and where still the effect of the disciplined accuracy of idiom is that of consummate finish! Other parts and passages, however, where the close syntactical regulation takes, as before, the form of compact musical weight! Finally, passages and parts which so pass all previous bounds, both in length of sentence and in multiplicity of ideas to be organised into one sentence, that Milton's syntactical art is taxed to its utmost, and even then, but for the harmonising majesty of the verse, the resulting structure might be called not dense merely, but contorted or gnarled /
But we may be more precise. That highly-disciplined syntax which Milton favoured from the first, and to which he tended more and more, was, in fact, the classical syntax, or, to be more exact, an adaptation of the syntax of the Latin tongue. It could hardly fail to be so. The very notion of a syntax, or system of concord and government among words, seems to belong only to an inflected language; for what is concord but amicable correspondency of inflection, or government but enforced variation of inflection ? It is only because English retains a few habits of inflection still that it can be said to have a syntax at all in any other sense than that of a usual way of ordering or arranging words; and, even now, questions in English syntax are often settled best practically, if a settlement is wanted, by a reference to Latin construction. If I say “Admitting that you are right, you will be blamed,” or if I even venture on so hideous a variety of the same form as “Proceeding half a mile along the pathway, a magnificent cascade burst into view,” who is to check me, or who is likely to check me, if it be not one who thinks of concord in the Latin participle and is shocked accordingly? Hence, in fact, the unrelated or misrelated participle is by far the most common form of English slip-shod at the present day. In Shakespeare's time, too, or in Milton's, any weakness in the native syntactical instinct that had come down from the times of the highlyinflected Old English either had to remain a weakness, an easy tolerance of variety, or had to be remedied by an importation of rule from the Latin. Now, whatever Shakespeare did on such occasions (and decided Latinisms in construction are very rare in him), Milton did import rule from the Latin. Even in his Minor Poems, where the syntax is most like the easy native syntax of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, Latin constructions and idioms, and even positive flakes of translated Latin, may be detected. But the Latinism grew upon him, and its increase seems to have kept pace with that very progress of his syntax, from scholarly finish to compact musical density, and so to occasional gnarled complexity, which we have described. In his middle life, it is to be remembered, Milton was a writer of great prose-pamphlets of laboured Latin, intended for European circulation. It was after this rebaptism in Latin that he returned to English in his Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson. Need we wonder that, for this among other reasons, the Latinism of his English style there attained its maximum? Such, at all events, is the fact.
An example or two will verify what has been said. Let the scholarly reader observe microscopically the syntax of the following passages from Paradise Lost :
- This was at first resolved,
This is now