For Better for Verse: An interactive learning tool that can help you understand what makes metered poetry in English tick.

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from Paradise Lost (IV.222-44)(1667)

John Milton

Southward through Eden went a river large,
MeterSouthward through Eden went a river large,
Nor chang’d his course, but through the shaggy hill
MeterNor chang’d his course, but through the shaggy hill
Pass’d underneath ingulft, for God had thrown
MeterPass’d underneath ingulft, for God had thrown
That mountain as his garden mould high rais’d
MeterThat mountain as his garden mould high rais’d
Upon the rapid current, which through veins
MeterUpon the rapid current, which through veins
Of porous Earth with kindly thirst up-drawn,
MeterOf porous Earth with kindly thirst up-drawn,
Rose a fresh fountain, and with many a rill
MeterRose a fresh fountain, and with many a rill

Note on line 7: Anyone who has gotten this far in 4B4V will take the trochaic and spondaic substitutions of feet 1 and 2 in stride, and will find feet 4 and 5 unproblematic. The third foot, though, should prompt hesitation: iamb (reinforced by the comma before “and”) or pyrrhic (holding the line to 5 stresses, and taking it easy after the thump of the spondee just before)? It depends how you visualize, or with the blind Milton feel, the hydraulic flow of the waters the line describes. Regular like a pump, or scattered like a cascade? (Coleridge wondered about this too, when dreaming up his own sacred river in “Kubla Khan.”) This passage will confront you with similar choices later, e.g. in line 11.

Water’d the Garden; thence united fell
MeterWater’d the Garden; thence united fell
Down the steep glade, and met the nether Flood,
MeterDown the steep glade, and met the nether Flood,
Which from his darksome passage now appears,
MeterWhich from his darksome passage now appears,
And now divided into four main Streams,
MeterAnd now divided into four main Streams,
Runs diverse, wand’ring many a famous Realm
MeterRuns diverse, wand’ring many a famous Realm

Note on line 12: “Diverse”: Milton probably stressed the first syllable; you probably stress the second. This seems a good spot to admit some diversity, so long as we all agree the iambic pentameter runs into a little dam just here. (If you haven’t done so already, try clicking on the Caesura button below, to get a graphic sense of the variable rapids and sloughs through which Milton runs the current of his blank verse.)

And country whereof here needs no account,
MeterAnd country whereof here needs no account,

Note on line 13: Alternative scansions are certainly possible here. Our rules after all say to stress “needs,” a monosyllabic verb; and in deference to that stress “no” might be a slack and the shadowy term “whereof” might go unstressed entirely. But then the resulting scansion, with its pyrrhic second foot and trochaic fourth foot, would be so irregular as to call attention to just what Milton means to dismiss. 4B4V proposes straight iambics instead, which serenely bypass those unnamed “famous Realms” and fasten the imagination instead on Paradise, a realm made by God not man, and infinitely more beautiful.

But rather to tell how, if Art could tell,
MeterBut rather to tell how, if Art could tell,
How from that Sapphire Fount the crisped Brooks,
MeterHow from that Sapphire Fount the crisped Brooks,
Rolling on Orient Pearl and sands of Gold,
MeterRolling on Orient Pearl and sands of Gold,
With mazy error under pendant shades
MeterWith mazy error under pendant shades
Ran nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
MeterRan nectar, visiting each plant, and fed

Note on line 18: The double caesura assigned to this line is admittedly debatable, especially where the clearly punctuated lines 2 and 9 get no caesura at all. As with most subtleties of metrical calibration, these all bespeak a reader’s judgment as to how a given line should sound, which is entwined with judgment as to what a line is saying and doing. Line 18 here is (like the river) paying visits, taking its sweet attentive time. In contrast lines 2 and 9 are (like the river) moving right along: their commas mark a syntactic division rather than a pause in the flow, so there 4B4V prefers to skip the caesura and step it up.

Flow’rs worthy of Paradise, which not nice Art
MeterFlow’rs worthy of Paradise, which not nice Art
In Beds and curious Knots, but Nature boon
MeterIn Beds and curious Knots, but Nature boon
Pour’d forth profuse on Hill and Dale and Plain.
MeterPour’d forth profuse on Hill and Dale and Plain.

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