Milton's 'Awkward' Grecism: "know" with nominative participle?
I'm returning to my old interest in Paradise Lost for today's blog entry, but this time for what some scholars, Richard Strier for instance, have considered a bad line of poetry. Several other scholars on the Milton List, for that matter, have noted the awkwardness in the description of Eve's gustatory activity in Paradise Lost 9.792:
And knew not eating death . . .Perhaps some context would help us understand the awkwardness. As depicted in the Doré illustration above, the serpent possessed by Satan has just seduced Eve to the first human-committed sin and is slinking off into the forest primeval, leaving Eve to finish her first fallen meal:
Greedily she ingorg'd without restraint,Eve goes on to praise the tree for its excellent fruit. The expression "And knew not eating Death," nearly everyone agrees, is very awkward English but has been explained as a Miltonic Grecism. According to Kenneth Haynes, for example, in English Literature and Ancient Languages (Oxford University Press, 2003):
And knew not eating Death: Satiate at length,
And hight'nd as with Wine, jocond and boon,
Thus to her self she pleasingly began. (PL 9.791-4)
(Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, August, 2010.)
Greek may use a participle after verbs of knowledge or perception, and the line, modeled after Greek, means "and knew not that she ate Death." But the unusual syntax is not limited to its Greek model; rather it concentrates several meanings in the line: Eve did not know (that is, she was ignorant for the last time) while she was eating death; she did not know what she did (she ate death); she did not know the eating, devouring power of death. (page 79)Other scholars offer the same explanation about the Greek model. But knowing this fails to reduce the awkwardness, so why does Milton borrow Greek syntax? Partly, to achieve ambiguity -- Eve is eating death even as death is eating her. Maybe that's enough, though surely the same point could have been made without turning to such an awkward Grecism . . . so there might be more.
Haynes, we should note, suggests that the strangeness of the syntax "emphasizes the momentous, mysterious nature of Eve's action: by eating the apple she is bringing death into the world" (page 79).
I would take this one step further. English syntax is here broken to allow the entrance of something foreign, "eating death" as the all-devouring death that follows from sin in Milton's scripturally inspired thinking. This death enters now through the break. The colon in the line -- the very caesura that divides "And knew not eating Death" from "Satiate at length" -- punctuates this break.
My colleagues at the Milton List, e.g., Michael Gillum, are generally agreed that the line holds more or less to iambic pentameter, but I would like to note that the awkward syntax and the use of caesura work against a smooth metrical reading. The line is awkward, and we are forced to pause, a hesitation reinforced by the single deviation from iambic in this line -- the stress on "Death," followed by stress on the initial syllable of "Satiate."
After that break, after that pause, Eve becomes evil, Satanic, "satiate at length," as though serpentine in sound and shape -- if one might draw out the length to which Milton goes to emphasize Eve's radical alteration. Think on the description of Satan "stretcht out huge in length" (PL 1.209), or even more clearly in Satan's own description of being "sated at length" (PL 9.598; emphasis again mine) in his deceptive claim to have himself eaten the forbidden fruit, an unmistakable verbal parallel that conforms Eve to Satan's image.
More on this break at length . . . after a pause.