"Of" in Paradise Lost as evidence for the metrical line

Fabb, Nigel (2019) "Of" in Paradise Lost as evidence for the metrical line. umanistica digitale, 6. pp. 1-25. ISSN 2532-8816

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    Abstract

    In this paper I discuss the distribution of grammatical monosyllables in the iambic pentameter line. I show that in Milton's Paradise Lost, the word OF appears with greater than expected frequency at the beginning of the line; 27% of all instances of OF are in the first of the ten metrical positions, and 5% of all the lines begin with OF, making it the second most frequent line-initial word. I suggest that this might reflect the way that Milton uses enjambement in the poem. It also means that OF may function as a clue to the beginning of the line, in the context of other evidence for lineation, essential if the audience is to establish the metrical form of the poem. In contrast, in the eighteenth century blank verse long poems of Thomson and Cowper, the word AND is relatively frequent at the beginning of the line. But Wordsworth uses both OF and AND as frequent line-initial words, merging Milton’s formal practice with the practice of other writers. The paper concludes by reflecting on the relation between statistical characteristics of text and probabilistic aspects of our knowledge of literary form.