Monday, November 29, 2010

John Milton: Tweaking the Text of Paradise Lost

I'm not yet certain what to call Milton's technique of manipulating his epic poem by reliance on obscure clues to signal something going on in the story. Here's a well-known example from Paradise Lost 5.558-670:
Satan, so call him now, his former name
Is heard no more in Heav'n; he of the first,
If not the first Arch-Angel, great in Power,
In favour and præeminence, yet fraught
With envie against the Son of God, that day
Honourd by his great Father, and proclaimd
Messiah King anointed, could not beare
Through pride that sight, & thought himself impaird.
Deep malice thence conceiving and disdain,
Soon as midnight brought on the duskie houre
Friendliest to sleep and silence, he resolv'd
With all his Legions to dislodge, and leave
Unworshipt, unobey'd the Throne supream
The clause "Deep malice thence conceiving and disdain," which expresses Satan's adverse reaction to the revelation of the Son of God and the Son's coronation as Messiah, i.e., as "Christ," comes in line 666 and thereby hints at Satan's identity as "The Beast" of Revelation 13:18, often interpreted in Christian tradition as "The Antichrist" referred to in 1 John 18 and 22, which identifies "The Antichrist" as one who denies that Jesus is the Christ and denies the Father and the Son. There's no "Jesus" in Paradise Lost, but Satan does deny the Son as the Christ and, moreover, rejects the Son Himself. Milton thus uses something external to the story itself, a number recognizable only by one counting lines, to reinforce the story's meaning.

There's also the infamous acrostic in Paradise Lost 9.510-514:
Scipio the highth of Rome. With tract oblique
At first, as one who sought access, but feard
To interrupt, side-long he works his way.
As when a Ship by skilful Stearsman wrought
Nigh Rivers mouth or Foreland, where the Wind
This acrostic "SATAN" -- taking the first letter of each line -- comes in a passage as the serpent approaches Eve to tempt her into eating of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. As with the previous example, this is an external hint to the reader, a reminder in this case that Satan is the one who possesses the serpent, though one hardly needs reminding since lines 494-495 have already noted this. Perhaps the point is therefore to remind the reader that the one approaching Eve is the "Adversary," which is what the word "Satan" literally means.

Anyway, I wonder what this technique employed by Milton is called and if it was a Renaissance habit or if Milton was unusual.

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At 4:03 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

I wonder (...) if it was a Renaissance habit

The most famous example in Italian literature is Dante's Purgatorio 12.25 ff, where a series of episodes of punished pride is sculpted / engraven in the rock. Three episodes are described by a sentence beginning with the word "Vedea" (I saw), three with "O", three with "Mostrava" (It showed). So, the acrostic reads VOM, i.e. UOM in Latin letters (Uomo, Man).

The pictures themselves summarize the whole of human history in the light of the Fall, rebellion against God etc.: Satan, the evil Giants, Babel...

At 4:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I just checked and found four, four, and four. But why not VOMO?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:06 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

"Uom" is the brief form commonly used by Dante, as well as in some Italian dialects still nowadays. As far as I can remember, he never or nearly never employs the form "uomo".

"Uom" might also have an impersonal sense, "it is (said), they (say)" like "on" in current French; and "man" in German.


3? 4? Excuse me, er, Maths is not my field...

At 6:10 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the further explanation. It's helpful.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:17 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

P.S. In Purgatorio 23.32 Dante uses, just once, a different Italianization of the Latin word "homo", that is "omo", but because he here refers to a Medieval 'optical pun'.

At 7:29 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

As for the number 666, Dante devotes (Inferno, canto) 6 and (Purgatorio, canto) 6 and (Paradiso, canto) 6 to the issue of 'politics' = the evils of the world.

That is usually taught in schools, but omitting the Satanic reference.

At 7:37 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting that Paradiso has one of the Satanic sixes . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:24 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Yep. The three parts of the Divine Comedy are much more 'entangled' than it may seem at a first glance.

That is a major issue in my lectures, incidentally.

See also the Divine Comedy illustrated by Salvador Dalí
where there is deliberaly no difference in the way of representing the three realms.

At 9:32 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, I'll take a look.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:42 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

a reminder in this case that Satan is the one who possesses the [beast]

Another fine case, I think, is PL 4.196:


the letter T being nearly mute.

At 3:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That one's less clearly a case, and I want to rely only on undeniable instances, but thanks for pointing out the possibility.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:55 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Well, I found it quite strange that Milton used a verb like "to sit" referring to a bird on a tree. So, I suspected that there might be a second, hidden meaning within that verse, a pun which required a verb that was more awkward than the usual one. The kind, as when he wrote "knew not eating death" :-)

"Undeniable instances"?! I do deny the existence of such things!


At 5:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The verb doesn't seem odd to me, but we'd have to look into its use in Milton's time.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:12 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Anyway, it was just a sudden and odd (it is) suggestion, the kind I love.

"Se son rose, fioriranno" i.e. Time will tell, but literally: If they happen to be roses, they will show it by flowering.

At 7:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, que sera, sera.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:56 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

It is about a different kind of pun / tweak, but I just came across PL 4.772-3:

And on their naked limbs the flow'ry roof
Show'red roses...

where the image of "red roses" seems to be implied.

At 6:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Perhaps "show red roses"? In Renaissance flower language, what did red roses signify?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:42 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

In Italy - and probably worldwide - they meant and mean passionate love. In a religious sense also: see Dante, Purgatorio 29.148.

In Catholic art (but later than the Middle Ages, I think), roses are often referred to Virgin Mary. For a modern example, see Salvador Dalí.

I would directly connect that verse to PL 4.764.

At 7:45 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

I forgot! Dante, Purgatorio 32.58, the Adam Tree (see a former discussion in this website).

At 7:52 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Last hint (but I can hardly imagine Milton following this specific devout tradition): the red roses are sometimes a symbol of Christ's wounds.

At 8:09 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Hey, now that you make me think of it. The second part of that PL verse:

[Show'red roses] which the morn repaired...

looks like a citation from Dante's Purgatorio i.e. Eden, though the context and the plant varies a lot: Purgatorio 1.134-136. And it happens in the morning, v. 115.

At 10:06 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I just checked the Dartmouth Milton Reading Room and found this Paradise Lost 4.772-773:

And on thir naked limbs the flourie roof
Showrd Roses, which the Morn repair'd.

That somewhat reduces the probability, I suppose.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:08 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Of "show red roses," I mean. The other things might still be correct.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:46 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

This raises a question that I already wanted to ask you: I noticed that the PL English version I owe is a much 'updated' one. Is that the rule among English scholars, students etc. or do you usually refer to the 17th century text 'as was'?

Yeah, right: the pun "red roses" practically disappears, that way. Although, red is the first color we imagine in a rose (its name notwithstanding), and all these flowers mean Love, in general.

At 6:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Scholars rely on the 1667 version or the 1674 version, of ten and twelve books, respectively. One would need to check both, I suppose.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:11 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Oh, yes, but what still arouses my curiosity is: Do they usually quote PL in the 17th century language ("Showrd") or in the current reader-friendly version ("Show'red")?

The same happens, in Italian, with not only Dante but also the Renaissance poets. Even scholars quote those verses by spelling the words as they are spelled nowadays, not then. Usually in the Introduction the criterions are listed. E.g. Dante, Inferno 1.1, "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita", it is a modern usage to write a double Z.

At 8:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I don't know the answer to that one, but someone on the Milton List would certainly know.

Jeffery Hodges

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