Bridges' analysis of Paradise Lost

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In his book Milton's Prosody, Robert Bridges undertakes a detailed analysis of the prosody of John Milton's Paradise Lost. Bridges shows that there are no lines in Paradise Lost with fewer than ten syllables, and furthermore, that with a suitable definition of elision, there are no mid-line extra-metrical syllables. He also demonstrates that the stresses may fall at any point in the line, and that although most lines have the standard five stresses, there are examples of lines with only three and four stresses. All this amounts to a statement that Milton was writing a form of Syllabic verse. Bridges explains this in historical terms by observing that Milton followed the practice of Geoffrey Chaucer, who — in Bridges' view[1] — adopted the Romance prosody of French verse, which was syllabic, having itself derived from the practice of Latin poets who through a corruption of Greek quantitative meters also counted syllables. Bridges notes that the approach Milton takes in Paradise Lost represents a certain tightening of the rules, compared to his earlier work, such as Comus, in which he allowed himself the Shakespearian 'liberty' of a feminine ending before a caesura.

Bridges' approach[edit]

Bridges takes an empirical approach to his analysis of the blank verse of Paradise Lost, and tabulates all the exceptions to the regular iambic pentameter line, although he avoids this classical description of the line, preferring to describe it as a 'decasyllabic line on a disyllabic basis and in rising rhythm (i.e. with accents or stresses on the alternate even syllables)'. He categorizes the exceptions into three groups, citing lines where:

  1. the number of syllables is not ten
  2. the number of stresses is not five
  3. the position of the stresses is not standard

Lines where the number of syllables is not ten[edit]

Bridges describes the cases where there are:

  1. fewer than 10 syllables
  2. more than 10 syllables

He notes that there are no examples in Paradise Lost of a line having fewer than ten syllables, other than X.827 as it appeared in the first edition. It was corrected to a ten syllable line in the 1674 edition. He also notes that Milton would have been aware of Chaucer's practice of omitting the first unaccented syllable on rare occasions.

The section on where there are more than ten syllables in a line is mainly taken up with a detailed description of elision; see Robert Bridges' theory of elision for more details of this. He does categorize lines with extra syllables thus:

  1. lines with an extra syllable (or syllables) at the end
  2. lines with an extra syllable mid-line

Lines with an extra syllable at the end[edit]

This is the standard feminine ending, where there is an extra unstressed syllable at the end. Bridges cites two examples of where there are two extra unstressed syllables at the end of the line, the final 'foot' being 'no satietie' (VIII.216) and 'best societie' (IX.249), although he suggests that these could be counted as a single extra syllable by means of elision.

Lines with an extra syllable mid-line[edit]

Bridges notes that in Milton's earlier work, such as Comus, Milton had permitted the use of the feminine ending, mid-line, directly preceding a caesura, (as had Shakespeare). Here is an example:

Root-bound, that fled Apollo. Fool do not boast — (Comus, 662)

However, Bridges holds that in Paradise Lost there are no examples of this. Lines such as:

Of high collateral glorie: him Thrones and Powers (P.L. X.86)

he treats as a ten syllable line by virtue of elision.

Lines where the number of stresses is not five[edit]

Bridges cites examples of four-stress and three-stress lines. He also states that there can never be more than five stresses in a line, refuting the example

Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens and Shades of Death (P.L., II.621)

Lines with non-standard stresses[edit]

Bridges examines the inversion of each of the five feet.

  1. the first foot is commonly inverted to give freshness to the rhythm
  2. the second foot is rarely inverted
  3. the inversion of the third foot is fairly common
  4. the inversion of the fourth foot is fairly common
  5. the inversion of the fifth foot is very rare, and considered by some to be impossible; Bridges cites two clear examples


  1. ^ see page 15 of Milton's Prosody