The Poem “Rimes not”: Milton and Marvell at the Opening of Paradise Lost

Andrew David King
November 25, 2013
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It seems easy to forget that, while Paradise Lost technically begins with those immortal first lines of Book I (“Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree…”), a few other documents precede them. I’m speaking of the two commentaries that appear after the book’s title page but before Book I: a Latin text under a clump of lineated headings that read “In Paradisum Amissam, Summi Poetæ Johannis Miltoni,” supposed to have been written by Dr. Samuel Barrow (who, as a Dartmouth online commentary to Paradise Lost notes, was “a friend of Milton’s and a physician to Charles II”) and a poem-introduction, “On Paradise Lost,” by Andrew Marvell. For the purposes of this quick analysis I’ll focus on Marvell’s piece; what I want to focus on, above all, is its comments on the book’s relationship with rhyme. The Latin piece, since I can neither understand it in the original nor infer that it has a significant rhyme structure, I’ll bypass, though I realize this perhaps contributes to its general neglect in discussions of Paradise Lost. But that’s something I hope to rectify, at least in part, by what follows.

From what I can tell, critical discussions of Paradise Lost—or of any writer or philosopher of the early modern period, really—place a special emphasis on the landmark political moment out of which Milton was writing. An understanding of English history (not to mention the history of the classical epic and Biblical traditions, two wells from which Milton draws much water) is called for, especially, to situate Milton’s more transparently political writings, his pamphlets and the like, in a context in which they can be more fully and accurately understood. I don’t aim to dispute the relevance and productivity of historicizing Milton, whether such historicizing gets done under Jameson’s imperative or another critical motivation, even one less consciously critical of the ways in which ideological formations can shape and inform the literary products of a given period.

But I do think something is lost when even those more formal analyses of a work exhibit a tendency toward grouping the whole manifold of observable facts or impressions beneath a historical heading. What’s lost is the phenomenology—itself historically informed by our moment, no doubt, though I see this less as a problem and more as a fact of any reading experience whatsoever—of one’s first encounter with a work: what the eye lands on, what the light glances off of, what machinery seems to be present. To subjugate everything, at the outset of a critical analysis, to its historically-determined place is to lose, I think, another aspect of the work altogether, i.e., what it seems to us, if only for a moment, to be. Even if this is rooted in a sort of conjecture or phantasmagoria, its enunciation still makes clear something that catalyzes at the intersection of the reader and the work. We don’t—at least I don’t—read works of literature as though we were encyclopedias; neither do we read them as though we were in a historical vacuum.

Enough, though, with the caveats. Marvell’s introduction, “On Paradise Lost,” is worth paying attention to for a handful of reasons. For one, it’s thematically and tonally incongruous with Paradise Lost itself; the latter text is filled with towering invocations of the “Heav’nly Muse” and other muses, but Marvell begins his piece (I could say “Marvell’s piece begins,” but it seems uncontroversial to me to assert that he’s speaking as himself here) with a statement of doubt:

When I beheld the Poet blind, yet bold,
In slender Book his vast Design unfold,
Messiah Crown’d, God’s Reconcil’d Decree,
Rebelling Angels, the Forbidden Tree,
Heav’n, Hell, Earth, Chaos, All; the Argument
Held me a while misdoubting his Intent,
That he would ruin (for I saw him strong)
The sacred Truths to Fable and old Song
(So Sampson grop’d the Temple’s Posts in spite)
The World o’erwhelming to revenge his sight.

Milton as Samson (to adopt the more conventional spelling here): the blind poet as unaware of his own staggering strength, certainly, but was Marvell aware that Milton was working on another master dramatic poem, Samson Agonistes, which he would publish alongside Paradise Regain’d in 1671? The sing-songy straight rhymes also clash with the ostensive seriousness of the subject matter, not to mention Milton’s own attitude toward rhyme, which is absent from Paradise Lost—something I’ll get to in a bit. It’s true that, in a few senses, Marvell’s statement is wholly in keeping with Milton’s own treatment of his own blindness throughout the book. Marvells “invocation” plays it up, as many of Milton’s invocations within the book proper do; Marvell classes Milton with Tiresias, the blind (and, per certain accounts, transgender) Theban prophet whom Odysseus consults in The Odyssey (besides featuring in classical literature, he also shows up in The Waste Land, as many reading this probably know). And he accords such doubt to the feasibility of Milton’s project that, instead of being seen as denigrating, his skepticism could be understood as heightening Milton’s victory when he does succeed at completing it.

But what I want to focus on is the rhyme of Marvell’s poem-introduction. It is also, in an important way, sonically incongruous with Milton’s project, in that among its predominant formal apparatuses are heroic couplets and iambic pentameter—perhaps as close to the canon as you can get. And what might Marvell mean when he speaks of his worry that Milton might “ruin… sacred Truths to Fable and old Song”? It’s easy enough to grasp how reducing Biblical narrative to “Fable” could constitute a first-class shame among Christian poets and their audiences, but less easy, or so I think, to see how “Song,” particularly “old Song,” figures into this fretted-over denigration. Does not the epic lineage, especially its invocations, owe something to song? The only really adequate explanation that comes to my mind presently is the idea that “old Song” is something base, vulgar, common; something “profane,” as when Marvell praises how that majesty “which through thy [Milton’s] Work doth Reign / Draws the Devout, deterring the Profane.” And it might have something to do with the “tinkling Rime” Marvell disdains further on:

Well mights thou scorn thy Readers to allure
With tinkling Rime, of thy own sense secure…

Why, then, might Marvell have used “Rime” in a poem-introduction that goes on, in the service of Milton, to denigrate rhyme? On the one hand, Marvell was a rhymer; one look at the first four lines of “To His Coy Mistress” confirms this:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.

“Time”-“crime”, “way”-“day”, and heroic couplets that end on periods. Does Marvell think he escapes the sort of “tinkling Rime” he speaks of in his introduction? Perhaps, or perhaps not. A more radical reading of his introduction might understand it as a ceding of poetic power before Milton; the introduction ends with

And while I meant to Praise thee must Commend.
Thy Verse created like thy Theme sublime,
In Number, Weight, and Measure, needs not Rime.

Milton “needs not Rime,” but Marvell does—or, at the very least, he clings to it despite linking the lack of need for rhyme with a verse “created like thy Theme sublime.” At any rate, if Marvell’s attitude toward rhyme is not entirely elucidated by his poem-introduction, Milton’s attitude is made clear by what follows. After a short note from the printer to the “Courteous Reader,” indicating that, per the requests of many readers, an explanation follows about why the poem “Rimes not,” we receive just that explanation—and from Milton himself. It’s too long a text to quote in full here, so I’ll excerpt part of the first sentence. It contains, I think, the arrowhead of Milton’s invective, so to speak:

The measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meter…

He goes on, in a similarly frustrated fashion, for some time, before concluding with a comment about the “troublesome an modern bondage of Riming.” A number of inferences can be drawn from the above-quoted passage alone. First, that Milton locates himself and his work explicitly in the vein of the classical epic; second, that he must have been more than slightly vexed by critics who took issue with the lack of rhyme in Paradise Lost; and third, that his “shrugging off” of Rime conveys his conception of it as something of a hindrance, a superfluity that not only fails to enrich but encumbers as well.

But does this mean that some sort of rhythmically-aware formal inheritance escaped Milton? Far from it, as a reading of the beginning of Book I, which is chock-full of echoes and slant rhymes, shows; what’s more, as John S. Diekhoff has demonstrated in his seminal study, “Rhyme in Paradise Lost,” there exist in the poem a good number of not only straight rhymes but rhymes that adhere to other structures, too, e.g., a repeated straight rhyme with three non-rhyming lines interspersed between each pair of participating lines. Their plurality, he thinks, constitutes a reason to think that Milton’s rhymes were intentional—but what, then, of the defense of the poem’s predominantly non-straight-rhyming approach, which neglects to defend a more sophisticated use of rhyme, opting instead to attack it as a whole? And what, more generally, of the relationship between Paradise Lost and the curious introduction provided by Marvell, Milton’s peer, with Dryden, in Cromwell’s Office of the Secretary for Foreign Tongues? These are questions for another day—but hopefully they help to bring to the forefront of our attention the importance of rhyme, sound, and “old Song” for a poet who, at the outset, purports to have done away with these.

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