Blank Verse ‘n’ Milton’s poetry

Written by J.D. Ian Barton & Dr. Salvatore Ivan Italiano;
© (2017)

While most learners of the English language improve their level of knowledge and mental agility by eschewing literature and poetry in place of economics and politics, I wanted here to report a little of the background of the Italian versi sciolti and their relation to Milton’s poetry.

It is fairly common knowledge to anyone with a cursory appreciation of English literature that blank verse was introduced into English by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, in his translation of the Aeneid, a century before Milton. In the theatre, blank verse was brought to perfection by Marlowe, Shakespeare and their followers. Greek and Latin verse also eschewed rhyme, and the Italian rhymeless verses are called versi sciolti.

As far as I can remember from my reading of English literature – but I may have been a victim of fake news – the first documented use of blank verse in the English language was applied by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey in his translation of the Æneid (composed c. 1540; published 1554–1557). He was possibly inspired by the Latin original, as classical Latin verse (together with ancient Greek verse) did not use rhyme; alternatively he may have been inspired by the Italian verse form of versi sciolti, which also contained no rhyme.

There were lively debates during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I as to the merits of blank verse over rhyme, and they continued just as heatedly during the age of Dryden, who wrote a dramatisation of Paradise Lost in rhymed verse (having first obtained Milton’s permission: “Ay, you may tag my verses” is supposed to have been the formula of the great old man’s less than enthusiastic blessing!) under the title of The State of Innocence, which was intended as the libretto of an opera, but the music was never written and the play has never been staged. Although he eventually gave the palm to blank verse in drama, all of Dryden’s narrative verse is entirely in heroic couplets.

Dryden eventually varied his advocacy of rhymed heroic drama with “All for Love”, his first blank verse play (1677). Howard’s almost forgotten heroic blank verse drama, The Great Favourite, or The Duke of Lerma (1668) is, incidentally, a contender for the best non-comic play of the entire Restoration period (its preface led to the personal falling-out of the brothers-in-law and inaugurated their brief polemic in print over poetics). I recommend the excellent critical edition by Margaret Shrewring which covers the rhyme versus blank verse debate exhaustively.

I read Paradise Lost and, given that Milton did indeed ramble on for miles (like an endless, walking bass line) it was easy to lose my train of thought. I needed help to find my way through it: thank-you “Milton’s Paradise lost” by Michael Wilding, Sydney University Press (1969). I also liked the illustrations by Gustav Doré. When one combines the reading with Doré’s artwork with Satan (the ultimate scheming villain!) you get one hell of a good story.

As for the appeal of “Paradise Lost” today; I dare say its ability to challenge authority by arguing a case against serving it, while rallying the troops, has something to do with it. However, what I liked best about the poem was how truly sly it is. Satan argues his case well and you empathise with him but that is because he is dynamic and embodies all the “anti-hero” or anti-protagonist qualities we love to see.

In truth? You are drawn in while he is embracing the insanity of a bottomless pit and inhaling his own deluded nonsense. And you only see it after he has pulled the stunt with the apple. He stops being the anti-hero and reveals his true colours, which are wholly self-serving. The same colours, as it turns out, were worn by a hypocritical Church with close-ties to the State.

Milton wanted to free Christianity from the dark forces corrupting it rather than champion a case for hanging a poster of Lucifer on your wall. He drew too clever or sly a parallel. Most people think it concerns Satan’s fall from grace, etc, but it is actually about pulling the wool away from your eyes and seeing the necessity of separating Church and State.

Dr. Salvatore Ivan Italiano
Dr. Salvatore Ivan Italiano

Suggested reading: Thomas Campion, Observations in the Art of English Poesie, “against the vulgar and unartificial custom of riming” (1602); Samuel Daniel, Defence of Rhyme (1603); Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poetry (1667), and the polemic between Dryden and his brother-in-law Robert Howard in various prefaces during the late 1660s.

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