The Pause: An Underestimated Element in Poetry

By Robert Pinsky on 4.14.09

The fact of Milton’s blindness adds weight and meaning to the phrases “my fancied sight” and “she fled, and day brought back my night”—understated, immensely dignified allusions to his condition. They were married for less than two years, and after his blindness. Scholars believe that he never literally saw her.

An underestimated element in poetry, that reading aloud makes clear, is the pause. I mean especially the force of a pause or a couple of pauses close together, contrasted with a longer unit of grammar.

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Methought I saw my late espoused saint
     Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
     Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,
     Rescued from death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom washed from spot of childbed taint
     Purification in the old law did save,
     And such as yet once more I trust to have
     Full sight of her in heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind.
     Her face was veiled; yet to my fancied sight
     Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined
So clear as in no face with more delight.
     But, oh! as to embrace me she inclined,
     I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.

The force of that contrast is demonstrated for me by Milton’s long sentence beginning with the subject “Mine” in line 5, then the verb “Came” at the beginning of line 9—a long, rangy, complicated sentence that reaches into Old Testament practices, a vision of the veiled woman, a list of her “shining” qualities “so clear as in to face with more delight.”  In contrast with that prolonged, yearning, seeking energy, the next sentences pauses after it’s exclamation, “But O,”…and the devastating last line presents a set of one-syllable words, with two verbs like hammer blows: “I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.”

topics: Essential Pleasures