Tuesday, June 07, 2005

That "mortal tast"

I posted yesterday the somewhat obscure invocation to Book 1 of Paradise Lost. The first three lines seem fairly clear:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,

But what's this "tast"? A typo for "taste"? Well, it does mean "taste," but Milton spelled it without the final "e." Perhaps that was a common spelling at the time, but I haven't yet looked carefully enough to know. Here's some information from an online etymological dictionary:

"taste (n.): c.1300, 'act of tasting,' from O.Fr. tast (Fr. tât), from taster."

This suggests that an older spelling may have been "tast" since the word comes into English from Old French "tast." The meaning may go in several directions, which is part of what makes Milton fun. Here's more from the etymological dictionary:

"Meaning 'faculty or sense by which flavor of a thing is discerned' is attested from c.1380. Meaning 'savor, sapidity, flavor' is from 1382. Sense of 'aesthetic judgment' is first attested 1671."

Here, we find three meanings: sense of taste, flavor, and judgement. Milton primarily intends the second of these, flavor. But he may be thinking of the others. In a different place, I think that he is. See Book 9.1017-1020:

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;

In these lines, Milton uses "taste" (note the spelling!) in two of the above senses: 1) faculty by which a "flavor" is discerned and 2) sense of "aesthetic judgment." Milton's reference to a judicious palate fits this latter sense. These lines have been borrowed from the 1674 edition of Paradise Lost, but they are the same in the 1667 edition, where they appear (due to different division of the text) in Book 8.1017-1020. This means that Milton's use of "taste" to mean "aesthetic judgment" precedes by four years the 1671 occurence that is cited as the first attestation of this sense in English.

Obviously, this deserves looking into further.

Note also that Milton could have used the spelling "taste" in the invocation to Book 1 rather than "tast" since he does use "taste" here in speaking of Eve's sense of taste. So, why does he use "tast"?

Was he punning on "test"? This is possible, for "test" in the "Sense of "trial or examination to determine the correctness of something" is recorded from 1594," the fruit of the tree of knowledge was certainly a "mortal tast" for a moral test (though this would need to be checked in Milton's works).

Finally, note that "taste" as a verb had an interesting older meaning:

"taste (v.): c.1290, 'to touch, to handle,' from O.Fr. taster 'to taste' (13c.), earlier 'to feel, touch' (12c.), from V.L. *tastare, apparently an alteration of taxtare, a frequentative form of L. taxare 'evaluate, handle.'"

Given his multilingual knowledge, Milton would be aware of all of these. So "mortal tast" would also have meant "mortal touch," which fits both the biblical and Miltonic contexts, for as Eve tells the serpent in Book 9.659-663:

. . . Of the Fruit
Of each Tree in the Garden we may eate, [ 660 ]
But of the Fruit of this fair Tree amidst
The Garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eate
Thereof, nor shall ye touch it, least ye die.

Milton is drawing on Genesis 3:2-3 here. Does "mortal tast" thus also mean "mortal touch"? I think so, but to be sure, I'd need to do more digging around first.


At 10:52 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

nice information sir

At 11:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Glad to be of help.

Jeffery Hodges

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