Voices of Earlier English: Milton's Special Pleading

T[his] poem invites readers to imagine that the poet pins this sonnet to his door to protect his property during a military attack. Milton, like most of London in 1642, probably did expect the King's forces to attack the city. Milton therefore frames the poem as a plea for special protection for poets in time of war. In its gesture, the poem alludes to Alexander the Great, who is said to have spared the house of the poet Pindar during his invasion of Thebes. 
— Luxon, Thomas H., ed. The Milton Reading Room
This seems like a good one to illustrate the sound effects of 17th century English poetry that may be rendered inaudible in modern accents.

First, an audio recording in a reconstruction of a somewhat conservative early-to-mid 17th century London accent:

On his Doore When the Citty expected an assault (written ca. 1642)
John Milton (b. 1608)

Captain or Colonel, or Knight in Arms,
Whose chance on these defenceless dores may sease,
If ever deed of honour did thee please,
Guard them, and him within protect from harms,

He can requite thee, for he knows the charms
That call Fame on such gentle acts as these,
And he can spred thy Name o're Lands and Seas,
What ever clime the Suns bright circle warms.

Lift not thy spear against the Muses' Bowre,
The great Emathian Conqueror bid spare
The house of Pindarus when Temple and Towre

Went to the ground: and the repeated air
Of sad Electra's Poet had the power
To save th' Athenian Walls from ruine bare.


L1: This line nicely illustrates the problem, or at least limitation, of using a reconstruction as a basis for phonaesthetic literary judgments. It is quite impossible to know what sound the <kn> of <knight> would have corresponded to in Milton's own reading voice. He may have pronounced it as [kʰn]. He could equally have had some other realization such as [tʰn], [n̥n] or simply [n̥]. Milton's work tells us nothing of his speech, and the only (flimsy) clue is that rhymes of the type sea/away, seat/meet (which are plentiful among many of his contemporaries) are conspicuous by their total absence in his work. His target speech was probably conservative in its vowel inventory, and the possibility exists that <kn> was still [kʰn] in his English, as it apparently was in the speech of his old teacher Alexander Gil (who did leave behind considerable documentation of his English.) Assuming for my purposes that Milton's English, or at least his target English, contained [kʰn], this line would contain a triple alliteration: captain/colonel/knight, reinforced by the vowel of the first and last syllables. 
Both captain and arms likely contained the same stressed vowel. 
If read in any modern standard accent, not only is the alliteration reduced and the vocalic bracketing obliterated, but the loss of the medial syllable in colonel alters the rhythm and makes it impossible to even scan the line as a pentameter. Then again, the speech a great many of Milton's contemporaries would also produce only a two-way alliteration. 

L2: Chance, again, could have the same vowel as arms, and echoes the previous line.

L4: Possible wordplay on the rhymewords arms/harms which might be pronounced as homophones even in educated speech. (Dropping of initial /h/ was not stigmatized at all before the 1750s, and did not become a provincial stereotype until the 1800s.)

L5: Another possible triple /k/ alliteration: can/requite/know. Here can and charms reinforce each other vocalically, echoing the effect of arms and captain in L1. So too does requite echo knight. The <kn> sound was rare, and relatively few English words had it. Its relative salience suggests a callback from Knows the charms to knight in arms. The whole auditory motif of L1 is recapitulated here, marking the beginning of the octave's second half.

L8: Warms is a perfect rhyme here. A more innovative "modern" variant with a lower and more rounded vowel also existed (and is in fact first attested by a phoneticist two years before the composition of this poem.)

L9-10: Spear/spare. In the (slightly innovative) pronunciation of Early Modern English I use in my recording, these are homophones. (They may not have been in Milton's target English. Milton does not interrhyme the reflex of Middle English /air a:r/ with words from Middle English /ɛ:r/, and treats e.g. fair/dear/are/near as rhyming ABAB. Wordplay involving the two need not depend on complete homophony, of course. It might have been contrastive, rather like the pun in the film title Meet the Fockers does not depend for its effect on identity of Modern English /ɒ ʌ/.) 

L10: The two words great and Emathian are more tightly linked than in modern accents, as the <th> in the latter was likely pronounced /t/ as in Thomas. It is hard to say what the value of the stressed vowel in Emathian was, assuming that a learn'd word like this necessarily had a single stable pronunciation in the first place. It's a toss-up between /æ/ and /ɛ:/. Given that the word Emathia has such strong Latinate associations, in the absence of other clues, it seems a plausible assumption that Milton might have used whatever pronunciation of this word was current in his Latin. In the contemporaneous English pronunciation of Latin, it seems that <a> in stressed antepenultimate syllables was normally "tense" when the following two syllables had vowels in hiatus. This would favor /ɛ:/. I thus choose /ɛ:/ in much the way Ash Ketchum chooses Pikachu.

L14: As in Emathian the <th> in Athenian was probably still /t/. The stressed /e:/ and (presumed) /ɛ:/ of Great Emathian are echoed (in reverse) with Save th'Athenian. Possible wordplay on ruin/rueing.  

1 comment:

  1. Much appreciated the rigor and the notes. I now henjoy the omophones more.
    I had to google Ash Ketchum and Pickachu to fully understand you choice of allophones. This explained it all: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbLbSUtMSQ8
    Having watched this I NOW understand your choice.