A Resounding Pun in Paradise Lost
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: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:O Father, gracious was that word which clos'd. . . 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)
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.
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 . . .