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STYLE: THE POETIC METER
The meter of Paradise Lost is iambic pentameter, the meter in which Shakespeare wrote his plays. It is often called "blank verse" because it doesn't rhyme. Each line consists of five heavy stresses and five minor 2stresses. In theory a line should read like this:
da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum
It happens to be the almost natural rhythm of the English language, which is why it is easy to read blank verse when you forget your fear of poetry.
Very few lines are strictly regular in the meter. Even the famous first line reverses the stress in at least two places, where da-dum is replaced by dum- da and dum-dum. It also has one more syllable than the ten prescribed by theory.
English poetic meter is not the simple matter of counting feet that is often taught. It is a very complex interaction of stress, length, and quality of sound. It is better to forget the complications and read the poetry as naturally as possible. You will then be able to appreciate how Milton varies his rhythm and the musical quality of the words to fit what he wants to say. Read it out loud whenever you can, especially in the places where the speeches alternate like those in a play.
NOTE: HOW TO QUOTE POETRY WHEN WRITING A PAPER Although you can ignore the line endings when you read the verse (and you should do so to make the reading move faster), please don't do that when you quote in an essay or paper. For quotations of two lines or less, you may run the quotation along within your paragraph, but then you must use quotation marks and slash marks to indicate where one line ends and the next begins: "Of man's first disobedience and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree...," for example.
When you are quoting three lines or more, put them separately from your own writing. Don't use quotation marks, and copy the lines exactly as you see them on the page:
Of Man's first disobedience and the fruit Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste Brought death into the world and all our woe. With loss of Eden...
If you need to indicate where the quotation comes from, use the Roman numeral for the number of the book and Arabic numbers for the lines. Put all this into parentheses, and place it after the final punctuation. For example, the last line of the quotation above would look like this:
With loss of Eden...