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Then as I am I'll be no more,
Subscribed, immediately under the last line, are two initials, the first unfortunately so blurred by the Museum Library stamp that it cannot be distinctly made out, but the second distinctly "M"; and appended is the date "Iober 1647", i.e. "December 1647."
Professor Henry Morley, of University College, London, having been attracted by the lines, and imagining the handwriting to be Milton's, and the signature to be "J. M.," concluded that the piece was a hitherto unknown poem by Milton, written by him for preservation, in Dec. 1647, in one of his copies of his volume of Minor Poems printed two years before. He communicated it, therefore, to the Times newspaper, where it was published under the title "An unpublished Poem by Milton," and with the signature as "J. M.," on the 16th of July, 1868. Immediately there arose a controversy on the subject, which lasted some weeks. Important and relevant evidence on the negative side came out at once. Mr. Bond and Mr. Rye of the British Museum, and Mr. W. Aldis Wright of Cambridge, with other authorities, at once declared the handwriting not to be Milton's,—to be so different from Milton's that it was inconceivable how anyone acquainted with Milton's hand could possibly mistake the one for the other. It was found also, on close examination of the dubious initial of the signature, that it was most probably not a "J"; and Mr. Bond made so sure that it was a P that, in sending to the Times (July 30) an exact transcript of the original, letter for letter, he gave the subscription as positively “ P. M., 10ber, 1647.” These items of evidence at once arrested the tendency to agree with Mr. Morley in ascribing the poem to Milton. Nevertheless, as people had taken a liking for the quaint little thing itself, argument for the possibility of its being Milton's did not wholly cease; and I believe there are still some persons who think that, after all, it may be Milton's.
This is not the place for renewing the controversy in its whole extent; and I need only repeat my conviction that the sum of the evidence, external and internal, taken in every possible form of both kinds, is absolutely conclusive
against the hypothesis that the poem is Milton's. One item of the internal argument, however, does concern us here. It may be called the argument from the its test. I proposed this test at the time, and I still rely upon it. We have seen Milton's habit in respect of the word its. We have seen how wonderfully he eludes the very necessity for using such a word, how the word occurs but three times in all his poetry, and how in every other case, where the necessity for such a word is not eluded, he uses his or her where we should now use its. How stands the Epitaph in this respect? It consists of but fifty-four lines, and yet the word its occurs four times in it :
"Ere the day
Budded forth its tender ray.'
Can it be supposed that a pronominal form which Milton avoided so systematically that it occurs but three times in the whole body of his poetry, ranging over the entire fifty years of his literary life from 1624 to 1674, should have occurred four times in a single piece of fifty-four lines written by him in some one fell hour in December 1647? Must not the Epitaph have been written by one of those persons 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 them.
IV. SYNTAX AND IDIOM.
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. 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.
There is variety, no doubt. There are 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. There are other parts and passages, however, where the close syntactical regulation takes, as before, the form of compact musical weight. Finally, there are 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 harmonizing 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 highly-inflected 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,
"He, after Eve seduced, unminded slunk
Into the wood fast by, and, changing shape