John Milton's Eve: "She Stoops to Conquer"
The title of Oliver Goldsmith's 18th-century drama could well fit Milton's Eve, albeit ironically, for she unknowingly 'stoops' in her attempt to 'conquer' heaven through a deceptively hopeful feeding on forbidden fruit. I've been looking into the effect of that Fall upon language, as readers have certainly noticed. The theme of unfallen and fallen language in Milton's thought is contested, however (as I've noted), but I think that there's something to it.
Milton's prelapsarian Adam appears to have a special linguistic gift for naming, as we see in the scene where he is made lord over the earth and given permission by God to name the animals:
. . . all the EarthWalter H. Beale describes this linguistically gifted Adam "as the prelapsarian Adam, in command of a not yet fallen language" (Learning from Language: Symmetry, Asymmetry, and Literary Humanism, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009, page 27). One might readily infer this unfallen character of prelapsarian language from Milton's lines, given the close connection between understanding each animal's nature and naming each one as it passes, based on an intuitive knowledge guaranteed by God.
To thee and to thy Race I give; as Lords
Possess it, and all things that therein live, [ 340 ]
Or live in Sea, or Aire, Beast, Fish, and Fowle.
In signe whereof each Bird and Beast behold
After thir kindes; I bring them to receave
From thee thir Names, and pay thee fealtie
With low subjection; understand the same [ 345 ]
Of Fish within thir watry residence,
Not hither summon'd, since they cannot change
Thir Element to draw the thinner Aire.
As thus he spake, each Bird and Beast behold
Approaching two and two, These cowring low [ 350 ]
With blandishment, each Bird stoop'd on his wing.
I nam'd them, as they pass'd, and understood
Thir Nature, with such knowledg God endu'd
My sudden apprehension: (PL 8.338-354)
The animals, in turn, recognize Adam's lordship over creation, for they cower as though before royalty -- the birds even "stoop" on their wing. Alastair Fowler notes an intriguing point here, namely, that the word "stoop'd" has two possible meanings:
caused to bow down; brought to the ground (OED II 7); but with a secondary allusion to the intrans. sense, common of birds of prey: 'descend swiftly upon, swoop down on' (OED I 6) -- foreshadowing postlapsarian carnivorousness. See XI 182-90nn. (Alastair Fowler, ed., John Milton: Paradise Lost, London: Longman, 1971)In the prelapsarian passage above from Paradise Lost, Milton intends the meaning of "caused to bow down." The postlapsarian passage noted by Fowler (XI 182-90nn), however, has the meaning "swoop down on," and as we also see, this postlapsarian passage is one of those treated in yesterday's blog entry, the one in which Eve's wish to remain in the Garden of Eden is cruelly thwarted:
So spake, so wish'd much-humbl'd Eve, but FateWhat I want to call attention to first is that "stoop" has acquired an ambiguity in postlapsarian conditions that it did not yet have in the prelapsarian world. The new meaning reflects the fallen world's deadliness. Hence the "signe" (8.342) of Adam's lordship in the first meaning of "stoop" has become one of the "Signs" (11.182) of Adam's subjection to Death in the second meaning of "stoop," as the repetition of "Aire, Beast, . . . and Fowle" (8.341) inherent in "Bird, Beast, Aire" (11.183) reinforces.
Subscrib'd not; Nature first gave Signs, imprest
On Bird, Beast, Aire, Aire suddenly eclips'd
After short blush of Morn; nigh in her sight
The Bird of Jove, stoopt from his aerie tour, [ 185 ]
Two Birds of gayest plume before him drove:
Down from a Hill the Beast that reigns in Woods,
First hunter then, pursu'd a gentle brace,
Goodliest of all the Forrest, Hart and Hinde;
Direct to th' Eastern Gate was bent thir flight. (PL 11.181-190 ]
This acquired polysemy of language offers not just material for an ironic pun; the slippage of signification in a fallen world turns deadly serious as evidenced in the word "stoop" acquiring a secondary, evil meaning, and this is perhaps what is meant by the so-called 'fall' of language.