Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bonehead Milton

Bonehead Student
Or in PC-Speak, 'Cerebrally Challenged'
(Image from Free Dictionary)

In the latter 80s, I taught two years of freshman composition at UC Berkeley in a course called "Subject A" . . . but in the abusive usage known as 'Bonehead English'. Well, I learned so much by teaching that course -- for the first time, I came to understand what a thesis statement is -- that I was forced to conclude that I myself was a bit of a bonehead.

By certain 'standards', so was John Milton.

Bear with me a bit. Recently on the Milton List, one Milton acolyte declared that "no greater writer ever lived" than John Milton. Several of us took issue with that, not because we don't like Milton but because we also like other writers as well and don't believe that one can legitimately declare that some writer or other is the best of all writers (or, more moderately put, has no superior).

The discussion turned humorous, and Cristine Soliz -- who goes by "Cristina" -- joked that Milton wouldn't pass basic writing:
In today's academies of consumer-based politics, Milton might have gotten stuck in basic or developmental writing until he learned to have a clear thesis statement.
I responded:
Good point, Cristina! Johnny can't write! I mean, look at this tangled mess:
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's Brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men. (PL 1.1-26)
[Thomas H. Luxon, ed., The Milton Reading Room, December, 2008.]
Johnny, this just won't do as an introductory paragraph. Even ignoring the capitalization of common nouns (e.g., "Argument"?!), there are problems of punctuation. But more fundamentally still -- and likely the cause of punctuation problems -- the sentence is too long. Break it down into separate clauses and rework these as independent sentences. Build toward that 'Argument' that you mention. And stop talking about the writing process! Just write! The reader isn't interested in how difficult this assignment was -- and was it really harder than climbing (soaring?!) over a mountain? Get to the point more efficiently. You say that you have an 'Argument', so tell us what it is, exactly. I'm afraid the reader is going to be enormously frustrated with this introduction. Why not tell us at the beginning, in simple, thesis-statement form, precisely how you are going to "assert Eternal Providence, / And justifie the wayes of God to men"? I should warn you, however, that an argument of this sort is likely to be too broad. Don't undertake to explain God, the universe, and everything. It can't be done, not even if you were the greatest writer who ever lived!
You see, we're not always serious over at the Milton List.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home