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ESSAY ON MILTON'S
ENGLISH AND VERSIFICATION.
The following remarks relate to Milton's Poetry only, any references to his Prose being but incidental. The remarks may arrange themselves under five heads :
I. Milton's Vocabulary.
of English Verse.
I. MILTON'S VOCABULARY.
It has been computed that Milton's total vocabulary in his poetry, to the exclusion of his prose-writings, consists of about 8000 words. In this computation all separate parts of speech are counted as distinct words, but inflections of any one part of speech are not so counted. By a similar computation it is found that Shakespeare's vocabulary in his Plays and Poems consists of about 15,000 words. The greater extent of Shakespeare's poetical vocabulary, as compared with Milton's, may be accounted for partly by the greater bulk of the poetical matter from which the vocabulary is gathered ; but it is, doubtless, owing in part also to the greater multifariousness of that aggregate of things and notions amid which Shakespeare's imagination moved for the purposes of his dramas.
An interesting question with respect to any English writer the extent of whose total vocabulary may have been ascertained is the question what proportion of that vocabulary consists of words of the old native English or “ AngloSaxon" stock, and what of words derived from the Latin or other non-Saxon sources that have contributed to our matured and composite English. “In the vocabulary of the English Bible,” says Mr. Marsh in his Lectures on the English Language, “sixty per cent are native ; in that of Shakespeare the proportion is very nearly the same ; while of the stock of words employed in the poetical works of Milton less than thirty-three per cent are Anglo-Saxon." In other words, while about two-fifths of Shakespeare's vocabulary, or about 6000 words out of the total 15,000 which he uses, are of non-Saxon derivation, the non-Saxon element in Milton's poetical vocabulary amounts to about two-thirds, or to about 5300 words out of the total 8000. Milton's draught upon the Latin and other so-called “foreign” constituents of our speech for the purposes of his poetry would thus appear to have been relatively, but not absolutely, larger than Shakespeare's. But the proportions of the “Saxon” and the “non-Saxon” elements in a writer's total vocabulary by no means indicate the proportions of the same elements in his habitual style. The vocabulary gives the words as lying in the writer's cabinet for use ; but in actual speech or writing some words are in such constant demand that they are continually being taken out of the cabinet and put back again, while others are not called out more than once or twice in a year, or in a whole literary lifetime. In order, therefore, to ascertain the proportion of Teutonic and non-Teutonic in a writer's habitual style, a very different plan must be adopted from that of merely counting the Teutonic and non-Teutonic words in his vocabulary. Specimens of different length must be taken from his text ; and every word in these specimens must be counted, not once only, but every time that it occurs. Of various critics who have applied this method to the styles of the more important English writers, no one has taken greater pains than Mr. Marsh; and the result of his investigations has been to set aside some previous conceptions on the subject. He finds, for example, that even in the last century, when the style of our writers was highly Latinized, the proportion of Saxon to non-Saxon words in any extensive and characteristic passage from the writings of the best authors very rarely falls beneath 70 per cent, -Swist, in one Essay, falling as low as 68 per cent, but usually ranging higher; and Johnson's proportion being 72 per cent, Gibbon's 70 per cent, and Hume's 73 per cent. He finds, moreover, that, in spite of the additions to our Dictionary since that time, mainly of words from non - Teutonic sources, the proportion of Teutonic in the style of our best-known writers of the present century has risen rather than fallen. Macaulay he rates at 75 per cent, and other recent prose-writers at about the same, while from examinations of long passages in Tennyson, Browning, and Longfellow, it actually appears that the proportion of Saxon in our poetry is hardly less at this day than it was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries or even earlier. Thus Tennyson's Lotus Eaters yields 87 per cent of Saxon, and his In Memoriam 89 per cent ; Browning's figure is 84 per cent, and Longfellow's 87 per cent; while Spenser, from the examination of a Canto, is rated at 86 per cent, Shakespeare at from 88 to 91 per cent, and even Chaucer only once reaches 93 per cent, and is usually nearer 89 or 90. Milton's place in the list is assigned from these computations as follows :
L'Allegro . . . . 90 per cent.
83 per cent. Paradise Lost, Book VI. . 80 per cent. From examinations of various passages in Paradise Lost, I am inclined to believe that Mr. Marsh's estimate of 80 per cent of Saxon words will be found about right for the whole poem, if, with him, we always omit the proper names in counting. In various passages of some length, counting the proper names as well, I have found the average to come out at about 75 per cent. But, just as the percentage of Saxon words in Paradise Lost is less than in Il Penseroso and much less than in L'Allegro, so within Paradise Lost itself the rate varies according to the poet's mood and the nature of his matter at particular moments. Passages may be hit on, or may be selected,—and not those only which abound in proper names,—where the percentage of Saxon falls as low as 70 or lower. The principle, in short, is that it depends on the thought of a writer in any particular passage, on the class of things and notions with which he is there concerning himself, whether the expression shall show more or less of the Saxon.
There is one way in which a perfect verbal index to a
writer might be made a most important key to his mind. It might be noted not only that a word did occur, but also how many times it occurred; and from the relative degrees of frequency thus noted in the occurrence of words instructive inferences might be drawn. The frequency or infrequency of a word in any writer depends on a composition of causes. Some objects and notions are, in their nature, so much nearer or easier than others to the human apprehension in general that the words denoting them, or associated with them, may fairly be expected to occur in any writer with the corresponding greater degree of frequency. All men, for example, think more frequently of fire than of the zodiac. Again, the constitutional bent of an individual writer, the prevalent direction of his thoughts, and the nature of his theme or purpose at any particular time, occasion a more than average frequency of recourse to certain words and classes of words. For example, one would expect the words, God, grandeur, eternity, and the like, more frequently in the mouths and the writings of some men than of others, for inherent constitutional reasons; such words as lesion, fracture, tissue, gas, pressure, piston, invoice, shares, noun, diphthong, more frequently in the thoughts, and therefore in the talk, of certain classes of persons than of others, for mere reasons of profession or habitual occupation; and, for reasons which may be as easily discerned, the words angels and heaven oftener in Paradise Lost than in most other poems. In the third place, the mere form of a particular work may be such as to preclude, or at least discourage, the use in it of words perfectly well-known to the writer and used by him on other occasions. There are words, for example, which, from their pronunciation or structure, as well as from their intellectual associations, will not so readily be brought into verse as into prose. Lastly, a word which is common now may have been far less common at a former period in the history of the language, so that, though it is occasionally to be found in a writer of that period, it is not found so often as we should expect from the nature of its meaning.
A thorough application of these remarks to the vocabularies of Shakespeare and Milton would yield curious results. As respects Milton, an indication or two must here suffice. -Just as, from the mere statement that Milton's poetica?