Influence of Milton on English Language

According to Gavin Alexander, Milton is responsible for introducing some 630 words  to the English language that are still in the Oxford English Dictionary, making him the country's greatest neologist, ahead of Ben Jonson with 558, John Donne with 342 and Shakespeare with 229. Without the great poet there would be no liturgical, debauchery, besottedly, unhealthily, padlock, dismissive, terrific, embellishing, fragrance, didactic or love-lorn and certainly no complacency.

Milton's coinages can be loosely divided into five categories. A new meaning for an existing word - he was the first to use space to mean "outer space"; a new form of an existing word, by making a noun from a verb or a verb from an adjective, such as stunning and literalism; negative forms, such as unprincipled, unaccountable and irresponsible - he was especially fond of these, with 135 entries beginning with un-; new compounds, such as arch-fiend and self-delusion; and completely new words, such as pandemonium and sensuous.

While acknowledging his linguistic debt to Shakespeare in "On Shakespeare," introducing his 1632 folio, Milton followed in Shakespeare's footsteps by expanding the English language for poetic and dramatic effect. He, too, like Shakespeare, altered syntax and grammar to most effectively express an idea, or to most dramatically express it. He too relied on extended simile and metaphor, like in epic similes. He also coined words from Latin borrowed words. Some of these dropped out of the lexicon with Milton, but many coined words are still active contributors to the English lexicon. A few examples of these are: embellishing, besotted, unadventurous, reforming, slow-motion, chastening, unintended, defensively, padlock, disregard, attacks, enjoyable, awe-struck.

Milton's use of blank verse, in addition to his stylistic innovations (such as grandiloquence of voice and vision, peculiar diction and phraseology) influenced later poets. At the time, poetic blank verse was considered distinct from its use in verse drama, and Paradise Lost was taken as a unique example. "Miltonic verse" might be synonymous for a century with blank verse as poetry, a new poetic terrain independent from both the drama and the heroic couplet. Lack of rhyme was sometimes taken as Milton's defining innovation. He himself considered the rhymeless quality of Paradise Lost to be an extension of his own personal liberty.

A second aspect of Milton's blank verse was the use of unconventional rhythm. His blank-verse paragraph, and his audacious and victorious attempt to combine blank and rhymed verse in Lycidas, lay down indestructible models and patterns of English verse-rhythm, as distinguished from the narrower and more strait-laced forms of traditional English metre. Before Milton, English poetry was marked by the sense of regular rhythm. The "Heroick measure", according to Samuel Johnson, "is pure ... when the accent rests upon every second syllable through the whole line." Caesural (a complete pause) pauses, most agreed, were best placed at the middle and the end of the line. In order to support this symmetry, lines were most often octo- or deca-syllabic, with no enjambed endings. To this schema Milton introduced modifications, which included hypermetrical syllables (trisyllabic feet), inversion or slighting of stresses, and the shifting of pauses to all parts of the line. Milton deemed these features to be reflective of "the transcendental union of order and freedom".

While neo-classical diction was as restrictive as its prosody, and narrow imagery paired with uniformity of sentence structure resulted in a small set of 800 nouns circumscribing the vocabulary of 90% of heroic couplets ever written up to the eighteenth century, and tradition required that the same adjectives attach to the same nouns, followed by the same verbs.  Milton's pursuit of liberty extended into his vocabulary as well. It included many Latinate neologisms, as well as obsolete words already dropped from popular usage so completely that their meanings were no longer understood. In 1740, Francis Peck identified some examples of Milton's "old" words (now popular). They included ‘self-same’, ‘hue’, ‘minstrelsy’, ‘murky’, ‘carol’, and ‘chaunt’. Among Milton's naturalized Latin words were ‘humid’, ‘orient’, ‘hostil’, ‘facil’, ‘fervid’, ‘jubilant’, ‘ire’, ‘bland’, ‘reluctant’, ‘palpable’, ‘fragil’, and ‘ornate’.  

The ‘Miltonian dialect’ as it was called, was emulated by later poets; Pope used the diction of Paradise Lost in his Homer translation, while the lyric poetry of Gray and Collins was frequently criticised for their use of ‘obsolete words out of Spenser and Milton’. Following Milton, English poetry from Pope to John Keats exhibits a steadily increasing attention to the connotative (the emotions and associations connected to a word), the imaginative and poetic, value of words.

According to Gavin Alexander, Milton is responsible for introducing some 630 words  to the English language that are still in the Oxford English Dictionary, making him the country's greatest neologist, ahead of Ben Jonson with 558, John Donne with 342 and Shakespeare with 229. Without the great poet there would be no liturgical, debauchery, besottedly, unhealthily, padlock, dismissive, terrific, embellishing, fragrance, didactic or love-lorn and certainly no complacency.

Milton's coinages can be loosely divided into five categories. A new meaning for an existing word - he was the first to use space to mean "outer space"; a new form of an existing word, by making a noun from a verb or a verb from an adjective, such as stunning and literalism; negative forms, such as unprincipled, unaccountable and irresponsible - he was especially fond of these, with 135 entries beginning with un-; new compounds, such as arch-fiend and self-delusion; and completely new words, such as pandemonium and sensuous.

While acknowledging his linguistic debt to Shakespeare in "On Shakespeare," introducing his 1632 folio, Milton followed in Shakespeare's footsteps by expanding the English language for poetic and dramatic effect. He, too, like Shakespeare, altered syntax and grammar to most effectively express an idea, or to most dramatically express it. He too relied on extended simile and metaphor, like in epic similes. He also coined words from Latin borrowed words. Some of these dropped out of the lexicon with Milton, but many coined words are still active contributors to the English lexicon. A few examples of these are: embellishing, besotted, unadventurous, reforming, slow-motion, chastening, unintended, defensively, padlock, disregard, attacks, enjoyable, awe-struck.

Milton's use of blank verse, in addition to his stylistic innovations (such as grandiloquence of voice and vision, peculiar diction and phraseology) influenced later poets. At the time, poetic blank verse was considered distinct from its use in verse drama, and Paradise Lost was taken as a unique example. "Miltonic verse" might be synonymous for a century with blank verse as poetry, a new poetic terrain independent from both the drama and the heroic couplet. Lack of rhyme was sometimes taken as Milton's defining innovation. He himself considered the rhymeless quality of Paradise Lost to be an extension of his own personal liberty.

A second aspect of Milton's blank verse was the use of unconventional rhythm. His blank-verse paragraph, and his audacious and victorious attempt to combine blank and rhymed verse in Lycidas, lay down indestructible models and patterns of English verse-rhythm, as distinguished from the narrower and more strait-laced forms of traditional English metre. Before Milton, English poetry was marked by the sense of regular rhythm. The "Heroick measure", according to Samuel Johnson, "is pure ... when the accent rests upon every second syllable through the whole line." Caesural (a complete pause) pauses, most agreed, were best placed at the middle and the end of the line. In order to support this symmetry, lines were most often octo- or deca-syllabic, with no enjambed endings. To this schema Milton introduced modifications, which included hypermetrical syllables (trisyllabic feet), inversion or slighting of stresses, and the shifting of pauses to all parts of the line. Milton deemed these features to be reflective of "the transcendental union of order and freedom".

While neo-classical diction was as restrictive as its prosody, and narrow imagery paired with uniformity of sentence structure resulted in a small set of 800 nouns circumscribing the vocabulary of 90% of heroic couplets ever written up to the eighteenth century, and tradition required that the same adjectives attach to the same nouns, followed by the same verbs.  Milton's pursuit of liberty extended into his vocabulary as well. It included many Latinate neologisms, as well as obsolete words already dropped from popular usage so completely that their meanings were no longer understood. In 1740, Francis Peck identified some examples of Milton's "old" words (now popular). They included ‘self-same’, ‘hue’, ‘minstrelsy’, ‘murky’, ‘carol’, and ‘chaunt’. Among Milton's naturalized Latin words were ‘humid’, ‘orient’, ‘hostil’, ‘facil’, ‘fervid’, ‘jubilant’, ‘ire’, ‘bland’, ‘reluctant’, ‘palpable’, ‘fragil’, and ‘ornate’.  

The ‘Miltonian dialect’ as it was called, was emulated by later poets; Pope used the diction of Paradise Lost in his Homer translation, while the lyric poetry of Gray and Collins was frequently criticised for their use of ‘obsolete words out of Spenser and Milton’. Following Milton, English poetry from Pope to John Keats exhibits a steadily increasing attention to the connotative (the emotions and associations connected to a word), the imaginative and poetic, value of words.

Last modified: Tuesday, 3 April 2018, 1:58 AM