TL;DR: The question remains open, with little progress having been made in the last century. Modern commentators on the issue mostly take a neutral or skeptical position, or suggest that the phenomenon might apply in some cases but not others. Evidence from Richard Bentley, however, shows that the phenomenon, if it ever existed, had disappeared by the late 17th century.
Whether recession of accent was in fact intended in cases like those before us is an issue that, a hundred years later, has still not been settled. Kiparsky† has argued pretty convincingly in favour of recession in cases of this kind; Attridge,‡ after discussing the matter at some length, remains largely non-committal. I am inclined to feel that recession was intended, at least in the two cases from Milton.§
David Keppel-Jones (2001). Strict Metrical Tradition: Variations in the Literary Iambic Pentameter, p. 84. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
† Paul Kiparsky (1975). ‘Stress, Syntax, and Meter.’ Language 51, pp. 575–616. Kiparsky uses the term “Rhythm Rule” rather than “recession of accent”.
‡ Derek Attridge (1982). The Rhythms of English Poetry. London: Longman.
§ I am not sure that we can trust Keppel-Jones’ inclination. The “two cases from Milton” that he cites are I.406 and I.735, both of which were objected to by Richard Bentley, as discussed below.
Sprott† denies the existence of stress-final pairing (in his terms, adjacent stresses within a single foot), and is able to allow adjacent stresses only if they fall in separate feet. Consequently, he is driven to suggest implausibly that XII.409 should be spoken: ‘ImPUTed BEcomes THEIRS by FAITH, his MERits’ with recession of stress on ‘becomes’ when there is clearly a stress-final pairing: ‘Imput-ed be-COMES THEIRS’. This is an extreme instance of the tendency to evade paired stresses by positing ‘recession of accent’, a phenomenon never certainly present in Milton and much rarer earlier than some prosodists have envisaged.
John Creaser (2007) ‘“Service Is Perfect Freedom”: Paradox and Prosodic Style in Paradise Lost’. The Review of English Studies, New Series 58:235, p. 277.
† Samuel Ernest Sprott (1953). Milton’s Art of Prosody. Oxford University Press.
(14) a. A maid of grace and complete majesty (Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost I.1)
b. His means of death, his obscure funeral (Shakespeare, Hamlet IV.5)
c. Sir, in good sooth, in sincere verity. (Shakespeare, King Lear II.2)
d. The divine property of her first being (Milton, Comus 469)
e. In profuse strains of unpremeditated art. (Shelley, ‘To a Skylark’ 6)
The examples in (14), which have been copied from Bridges 1921,† are frequently cited in
discussions of English meter. Bridges attributed these to “recession of accent…not now
heard” (p. 67). As the main (sole?) evidence for the accent recession is the scansion of the lines,
Bridges’s proposal is not compelling, especially since accent movement has not been adduced by
Bridges or anybody else as an explanation for the similar line-initial examples […]. In view
of this there is reason to question accent recession as an explanation for the facts in (14).
Morris Halle (2008). ‘On Stress and Meter and on English Iambics in Particular’. In Kristin Hanson and Sharon Inkelas, eds. (2008). The Nature of the Word: Studies in Honor of Paul Kiparsky. MIT Press.
† These are examples (4), (38), (47), (66), and (110) respectively, in Robert Bridges (1893). Milton’s Prosody, pp. 55–62. Oxford University Press.
The double iamb
The competing theory to “recession of accent” is that the “double iamb” (two unstressed syllables followed by two stressed syllables) was considered an admissible variation in iambic verse by many English poets. The double iamb theory has three features that make it more attractive than the “recession of accent” theory: it does not require us to hypothesize a feature of English speech that happened to disappear just before the first pronouncing dictionaries appeared; it does not depend on the number of syllables in the words, and so explains a wider variety of examples; and it applies to late modern verse (where we know recession of accent does not work) just as well as it does to early modern verse.
The double iamb does not seem to have been properly recognized until the mid-20th century. At the beginning of the century, the phenomenon was doubtful enough for C. M. Lewis to prefix it with a cautionary disclaimer, “Metrists usually say”:
Metrists usually say that the pyrrhic is sometimes admitted in iambic verse; and some leading authorities point out that it generally is found with a spondee immediately afterwards.
C. M. Lewis (1907). The Principles of English Verse, p. 42. New York: Henry Holt.
Robert Bridges noted it as “a common irregularity” in Milton, without seeming to realize that it covered all the cases that he put under the heading of “recession of accent” too.
The matter stands thus: in all Milton’s verse there is a frequent occurrence of the following rhythm, that is, a foot of two unstressed short syllables preceding a foot composed of two heavy syllables, as in these lines from Shakespeare’s Midsummer-Night’s Dream,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn.
Before milkwhite, now purple with love’s wound.
Love takes the meaning in love’s conference.
It is common in Milton’s early verse, which is much influenced by the verse of Shakespeare’s first style; and he always made use of it. Whatever the account may be, it is pleasant to the ear in the smoothest verse, and is so, no doubt, by a kind of compensation in it. In typical cases there is no possibility of stress in the first short foot, and the first heavy syllable of the next foot seems to carry what has been omitted, with an accentuation bearing relation to the sense.
Instances occur everywhere in Milton.
Robert Bridges (1893). Milton's Prosody, p. 58. Oxford University Press.
The double iamb was, I think, first stated in the form of a rule by American poet John Crowe Ransom:
These are substantially the exceptions as codified by Bridges in The Prosody of Milton [sic], the best handbook we have on iambic pentameters. What Bridges codified was Milton’s code, as it had been for several generations the code of Milton’s predecessors, and would be for his successors over a century and a half; since then it has been well known to poet-prosodists, and adhered to systematically when they pleased. But it is not quite complete, in my judgment. I wish Bridges had added:
- Any two successive iambic feet might be replaced by a double or ionic foot.
John Crowe Ransom (1956). ‘The Strange Music of English Verse’. The Kenyon Review 18:3, pp. 470-471.
The name “double iamb” was not introduced until the 1990s:
We should drop the pyrrhic foot and accept in its place the double-iamb, as one of the six foot-terms necessary: iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, spondee, double-iamb.
This change was suggested by John Crowe Ransom […] Ransom uses the Greek term “ionic foot”, but plain English seems preferable, carrying with it a reminder that a double-iamb counts as two feet, and having the advantage of suggesting that this pattern is quite normal to the iambic base.
Robert Wallace (1993). ‘Meter in English’. In David Baker, ed. (1996). Meter in English: A Critical Engagement. University of Arkansas Press.
Bentley’s edition of Milton
The difficulty in evaluating the “recession of accent” theory versus the “double iamb” theory is finding somewhere solid to start: we can’t simultaneously deduce the pronunciation from the scansion and the scansion from the pronunciation. But one possible place to start, as suggested in the question, is Richard Bentley’s 1732 edition of Paradise Lost. This is usually derided for the editor’s attempts to correct what he sees as the mistakes of Milton (see my discussion here). But because Bentley did not realise that correcting Milton’s verse was beyond his poetic powers, we can make use of his edition to identify cases where Milton’s rhythm did not seem “smooth” to the editor and so needed “correction”.
I went systematically through the first two books of Paradise Lost collecting lines containing double iambs, and where “recession of accent” would make the line scan as perfect iambic pentameter, and then I checked Bentley’s edition to see what, if anything, he says about them. I found seven such cases, and in all but one of them Bentley objects to the line and suggests an alternative that rearranges words to avoid the double iamb.
||Of unblest feet. Him followed his next Mate,
||Of feet unbless’d. Him follow’d his next Mate,
||Next Chemos, th’obscene dread of Moabs Sons,
||Next Chemos, Dread obscene of Moab’s sons,
||And sat as Princes, whom the supreme King
||And sat as Princes: whom the King supreme
||Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires
||Encamp thir Legions, or with obscure wing
||Encamp their legions; or with wing obscure
||Our Supream Foe in time may much remit
||Our Foe Supreme in time may much remit
||In confus’d march forlorn, th’ adventrous Bands
||In march confus’d forlorn th’adventurous Bands
This, I think, is evidence that “recession of accent”, if it had ever existed, had died out by the time Bentley (born 1662) was learning English. But that was the same period of time in which Milton was writing Paradise Lost, and so it seems unlikely that Milton relied on the phenomenon either. But then why did Bentley object to Milton’s scansion in these lines? The straightforward answer would seem to be that Milton considered the double iamb to be an admissible variation in English iambic verse, whereas Bentley (a classicist) did not. Additional support for this theory comes from the fact that in a few cases Bentley offers “corrections” to Milton’s double iambs in lines where “recession of accent” would not apply because the paired stresses are on single-syllable words:
||Thrive under evil, and work ease out of pain
||Thrive under evil, and out of pain work ease
||And my fair Son here showst me, the dear pledge
||And My fair Son here shew’st me; dearest pledge
||Undaunted to meet there what ever power
||Undaunted, there to meet whatever Pow’r
(In many more cases Bentley does not offer corrections to Milton’s double iambs, so it is hard to be sure exactly what Bentley’s theory of English prosody was, if he had one. However, his habit of criticizing the rhythm of a line only in tandem with offering a correction means that he may simply have remained silent in cases where he did not have a good enough suggestion. For example, of the seven lines I gave previously, II.7 “Thus high uplifted beyond hope” is the only case in which a simple rearrangement of words fails to regularize the line. In this line a rephrasing is needed, for example, “Thus high upraised beyond all hope”, but this would repeat “raised” from II.5, something which Bentley also frowned on, and “all” is an expletive. So it is possible that he simply gave up on attempting to correct this and other lines.)