Wednesday, February 09, 2011

A Resounding Pun in Paradise Lost

Thomas Sprat
"mathematical plainness"
(Image from Wikipedia)

I've just recently read an interesting paper by Paul Sutton, "Puns Lost, Puns Regain'd: The Pun in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regain'd," which appears to have been a presentation given at the ANZAMEMS Conference in Adelaide, 7-10 2007, i.e., the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Mr. Sutton was a PhD student at the time and was expecting to finish his thesis later in 2007, though I've not yet discovered if he wrote more on puns in works by John Milton.

But his paper will suffice. Mr. Sutton helpfully points out that "What we term an act of punning would, in actual fact, be one of five rhetorical techniques . . . . Paranomasia, Antanaclasis, Asteismus, Syllepsis, and Polyptoton." By "one of five," he means any of them, not just one. In other words, all five are types of puns . . . though things are a bit more complicated than that, as we shall see. (I'm also now no longer sure that I used "Paronomasia" in a strictly technical sense, though I think that I spelled it correctly, whereas Mr. Sutton appears to have misspelled, or used a variant spelling.)

One problem that punning occasions for language is that with overuse, it "tests the limits of the word . . . to signify meaning." Recognition of this tendency moved some to radical solutions:
The poets and critics of the eighteenth century were well aware of this problem inherent in language. Several times people called for language to be cleaned up and become more mathmatical in nature, most famously, perhaps, by Thomas Sprat in his History of the Royal Society who piped up with a call for a "mathematical plainness" in language. As we are all well aware, theory and practice rarely meet. (Sutton, "Puns Lost, Puns Regain'd," page 2)
What does Milton think about such a mathematical solution? He does have Jesus tell Satan in Paradise Regain'd 1.434-5, "But what have been thy answers, what but dark / Ambiguous and with double sense deluding" (Sutton, page 3). A reader might therefore imagine that Milton favored simplicity and plainness in language, much as Sprat praised in the Royal Society's usage:
They have exacted from all their members, a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions; clear senses; a native easiness: bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness, as they can. (Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal Society of London, 1667, page 113)
The "naked, natural way" would surely fit the prelapsarian Adam and Eve -- perhaps some of the other characteristics would as well -- and Mr. Sutton notes that "common view of critics, as expressed by Christ in Paradise Regain'd, is that ambiguity is a hallmark of the Satanic style" (Sutton, page 4), so a bit of mathematical plainness might help since Milton believed that "[t]he end . . . of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents" and "that language is . . . the instrument conveying to us things useful to be known" (Of Education).

Milton, however, has the Son use at least one pun, possibly several, as a passage from Mr. Sutton's paper demonstrates:
It is polyptoton that becomes the central pun technique of Milton's new poetic because it is the favoured technique of Christ. Polyptoton, is where a word is repeated but in a different case or inflection. As evidenced here, in book 3 [lines 144-155] of Paradise Lost where we first meet Christ:
O Father, gracious was that word which clos'd
Thy sovran sentence, that Man should find grace;
For which both Heav'n and Earth shall high extoll
Thy praises, with th'innumerable sound
Of Hymns and sacred Songs, wherewith thy Throne
Encompass'd shall resound thee ever blest.
For should Man finally be lost, should Man
Thy creature late so lov'd, thy youngest Son
Fall circumvented thus by fraud, though joynd
With his own folly? that be from thee farr,
That farr be from thee, Father, who art Judg
Of all things made, and judgest onely right.
. . . What I would claim is that polyptoton is a rhetorical technique that works in English but that it only carries the disruption of being a pun in some instances. The changing of 'gracious' to 'grace' and 'judge' to 'judgest' do not stike me as being puns but are instances of polyptoton. 'Sound' to 'resound', is a pun and a polyptoton. What polyptoton allows the poet to do is to utilize the polysemous potential of language by explicitly calling attention to the changing of the word and meaning. Instead of making one word, or one sound, or the repetition of one word carry multiple denotations, polyptoton allows multiple meanings to build up through multiple words. It shows how language is linked, how one sound is linked to another similar sound and how meanings are built up and differentiated. (Sutton, "Puns Lost, Puns Regain'd," pages 7-8)
Mr. Sutton admits of only one pun -- "resound" upon "sound" -- but of several instances of polyptoton, which are at least some sorts of wordplay. Punning and wordplay are thus not intrinsically qualities of fallen language, so long as they're not being used deceptively. All the more interesting, then, the following passage from Mr. Sutton:
Milton attempts to redeem language through Christ and . . . . [move] from a freer, Satanic, play to a more restrained, more focussed, Christ like play, where the ideal is not necessarily for one word one meaning -- that is a pipe dream, as Milton knew and Paradise Lost is a testament to that. Much of the power and sublimity of Paradise Lost comes from Milton's struggle to represent God, Christ, and Paradise through an imperfect, fallen, language. Milton, as I hope I have demonstrated in some small way in this paper, attempted to compensate for the Satanic elements in our fallen language through the use of polyptoton . . . . [and thereby] subdue the logic of the pun" (Sutton, "Puns Lost, Puns Regain'd," page 9).
I think that we can all see a taint of tension here in subduing the logic of the pun even while allowing the Son his one use of a pun in heaven. My point is that the 'fallenness' of language lies not in the polysemous quality of words but in the use of multiple meanings to deceive. I'd thus like to know more about what Mr. Sutton meant by "the Satanic elements in our fallen language."

Knowing that would offer food for thought . . .

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At 7:18 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

My comment is not about puns --- but about an even 'worse' shift in language --- more than that: a shift in knowledge, in "truth".

In PL 5.600 ff the Father says:

"Hear, all ye angels...
This day I have begot whom I declare
My only Son..."

but in vv. 835 ff Abdiel will say, against Satan:

"Equal to Him, begotten Son, by whom
As by his Word the mighty Father made
All things, ev'n thee..."

So, when was the Son begotten? Before the angels (see Abdiel) or after them (see vv. 579 ff, "on a day" after the creation of angels)? And, did he create the angels? Satan does not remember about that (vv. 853 ff)...

At 7:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting point, Dario, about when the Son was begotten. Perhaps as Word of God, he was unbegotten, but as Son of God he was begotten.

I think that this issue ought to be raised on the Milton List.

The "truth" issue might find resolution . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:43 AM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

Interesting. I'm not entirely convinced by this "pun" business and what is and what isn't "fallen" language, but I am very curious about the notion of mathematical language in Paradise Lost...and divine numerology, as ever. It brings to mind a research discussion I had some years ago with W B Hunter and the image of Galileo and the place of Mathematics; what might be the connection between Galileo, Raphael, the Hermetic angel, and language. Curious, that Galileo is on the horizon of your thinking at this time.

At 8:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm not entirely clear on what is meant by 'fallen' language, though many in the Christian tradition have often assumed a fall of language.

Some in the 17th century do seem to have meant a fall from mathematical precision, but I'm not sure that a mathematically precise language be workable even for prelapsarian individuals like Milton's Adam and Eve, who don't use language mathematically, anyway.

Numerology seems more along Milton's line.

The Galileo connection is interesting . . . though my merging of horizons on him and Milton is purely accidental.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:07 AM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

"from an original state of purity where meaning was immanent in words and words mirrored things..."

That "mirrored" is key. Unfortunately, that image is hardly touched by the authors of the quote. Eve's mirror is a Hermetic reflection on language. As is Galileo's search for objective observation in Paradise Lost.

At 9:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But language is so much more than a mirror in which words reflect things, so that idea of purity held by the Royal Society reflects an unreflective view on language.

Besides, even mirrors mistake left for right . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:38 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

I think that this issue ought to be raised on the Milton List

Hmm, it has surfaced many times, even recently, but without leading to meaningful conclusions, imho. Scholars simply split between traditional theology and its opposite. I feel that sort of a 'third way' would be needed.

Very interesting are the issues dealt with by Eshuneutics and you, instead.

At 3:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But if presented as a distinction between a preexistent Word and a begotten Son, more interest might be raised.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:58 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Just do it.

At 4:10 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'll look into it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:19 AM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

It depends on how you interpret that "mirror". Eve's mirror owes its capability to Neo-Platonic thought and arcane readings of the Narcissus myth in the Renaissance. Too many Miltonists forget Milton's massive debt, even in Paradise Lost, to Hermetic thought. Hermeticism is constructed on doubles; not all doubles imply duplicity. Jung was correct, in his deeper speculations (mirrorings), when he saw Hermeticism as creating a new-linguistic centre in the psyche/cosmos, a redemptive centre. Milton's creative Putitanism was focused on the androgynous nature of language, light and shadow. It's worth noting that the 1667 view of The Royal Society simply echoes the 1620 view of Bacon's Novum Organum.

At 6:21 AM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

creative Puritanism...

At 6:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Perhaps it's a magic mirror . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Also, thanks for the thoughtful comments. I still know too little about Hermetic views.

Jeffery Hodges

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