Thursday, February 10, 2011

R. A. Shoaf on Milton and Puns

R. A. Shoaf on Milton as Poet
(Image from Amazon)

R. A. Shoaf, author of Milton, Poet of Duality: A Study of Semiosis in the Poetry and the Prose, provides some interesting ideas on what it is "about a pun that makes it a figure for the effects of the Fall" in Paradise Lost (page 61). He suggests that "Geoffrey Hartman offers a helpful clue," namely:
You can define a pun as two meanings competing for the same phonemic space or as one sound bringing forth semantic twins, but, however you look at it, it's a crowded situation. Either there is too much sound for the sense or too much sense for the sound.
Shoaf quotes this on page 61, citing Hartman's article "The Voice of the Shuttle" (Beyond Formalism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970, page 347). Shoaf then argues that "[a] pun . . . is a moment of confusion, and confusion is the prime effect of the Fall" (page 61). He quotes Milton's Christian Doctrine: on the meaning of death as punishment for the first sin:
This death consists, first, in the loss or at least the extensive darkening of that right reason, whose function it was to discern the chief good, and which was as it were, the life of the understanding. [CD I.12, YE 6:395] (Shoaf, page 61)
Confusion therefore immediately results after partaking of the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Shoaf has already analyzed this confusion earlier in his article, showing the effect of the Fall upon Adam:
After Eve has sacrificed Adam, "fondly overcome with female charm" (PL 9.999), to her own desire and he has eaten of the fruit, he begins "to dalliance [to] move [her]":
'Eve, now I see thou art exact of taste,
And elegant, of sapience no small part,
Since to each meaning savour we apply,
And palate call judicious.' [PL 9.1016-20]
Much is readied in the word dalliance, of course: we know that what follows will be frivolous, not severe, and we also know that frivolity at this is tasteless. Adam's dalliance is a frivolous pun on sapience, which, however, for all its frivolity from his of view, from ours sounds heavy with the Fall itself -- it is the d(e)-alliance of the Fall (cf. PL 2.819 for the same pun) -- especially if, as readers of Milton, we remember Comus tempting the Lady just before her brothers rescue her: "'Be wise, and taste . . .'" (C 812) -- of course, ifi the Lady tastes (sapio, -ere), she is not wise (sapient). In the word sapience, Adam has confused the sense "taste" and the sense "wisdom" or "judiciousness," to each of which "savour we apply," where the sense "knowledge" (savoir) is replete, beyond Adam's knowing, with the crime he and Eve have just committed. The word sapience is now evidence of the Fall. (Shoaf, Milton, Poet of Duality, pages 60-61)
Shoaf argues that Eve ought to have used her right reason to recognize Satan's puns, distinguish their duality, and resist, but she is deceived by Satan's wordplay, "[a]nd then, convinced by this contradiction in terms, she eats the apple; and with this act, Milton will write, she 'knew not eating death' (PL 9.792), where the four words are syntactically what the pun is semantically -- the confusion of senses (she did not know she was eating death; she did not know [sense: 'connaƮtre'] death who eats [cf. PL 10.597,609]). (Shoaf, Milton, Poet of Duality, page 70)

Thus have we returned to where I left off in my analysis of "knew not eating death." I believe that I can make use of Shoaf's analysis to show how this line in Milton's Paradise Lost incorporates a confusion of languages that parallels the confusion of meanings in puns.

More later . . .

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At 4:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyway, I consider puns as vehicles for a greater revelation than the usual words.

The truly 'fallen' language is the shallow one...


At 5:38 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

(hope will do! Blogger deleted this message three times in these past 10 minutes! Fallen technology --- or technology as an expression of fallen mankind)

At 6:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've restored them, as you see. In future cases, perhaps just wait till I've caught the problem because I get an email immediately and can usually fix it quickly.

The technology, intended to 'repair' the effects of the Fall, is itself fallen . . .

Puns are great, but Shoaf (and Milton?) has a point about confusion.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, thank you --- well, now better delete two of them --- as well as this one...

(here in the office I am using 2 to 3 computers --- It's fAll, Folks!)

At 6:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've deleted two but will keep your most recent comment to make sense of my own.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:06 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Thanks... especially for saving my last pun :-)

(from Back home, 23:06)


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