Tuesday, January 05, 2010

"Fall" as "Autumn" in Milton's Knowledge?

Autumn Leaves (1856)
(Image from Wikipedia)

In yesterday's blog entry, I made the following remark about one of John Milton's intentions in Paradise Lost:
The other term for "autumn" is, after all, "fall," which Milton seems to avoid in Paradise Lost as a synonym for "autumn," but I'll have to check more carefully to be sure of this point.
I've now checked more carefully, and Milton never uses "fall" to mean "autumn" in Paradise Lost. That wouldn't necessarily mean that he 'avoided' the word, for the term "fall" was not the most common one for the harvest season. The commonly used word by the 16th century was, of course, "autumn" (the older English term being "harvest"). But Milton must have known the less common use of "fall" to refer to the harvest season, as I will show.

My 1971 copy of the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary dates the 'autumnal' use of "fall" to 1545, though more clearly to 1599 and most clearly to 1664:
2. (In early use also more fully [now obsolete] . . . fall of the leaf.) That part of the year when leaves fall from the trees; autumn. In N. Amer. the ordinary name for autumn; in England now rare in literary use, though found in some dialects; spring and fall, the fall of the year, are, however, in fairly common use.

1545 R. ASCHAM Toxoph. I. (Arb.) 48 Spring tyme, Somer, faule of the leafe, and winter. 1599 RALEIGH Reply to Marlowe Poems (Aldine ed.) 11 A honey tongue, a heart of gall Is fancies spring, but sorrows fall. a 1631 CAPT. SMITH Eng. Improvement Revived III. (1673) 59 The best time to . . remove younger trees is at . . the fall of the leaf. 1664 EVELYN Sylva (1679) 15 His . . leaves . . becoming yellow at the fall, do commonly clothe it all the winter. (OED, page 953)
The OED cites Roger Ascham's 1545 text on archery, Toxophilus, for the expression "faule of the leafe" (i.e., "fall of the leaf"), which more fully states:
The hole yere is deuided into, iiii. partes, Spring tyme, Somer, faule of the leafe, and winter wherof the whole winter, for the roughneffe of it, is cleane taken away from fhoting : except it be one day amonges. xx . or one yeare amonges. xl . In Somer, for the feruent heate, a man maye faye likewyfe : except it be fomtyme agaynft night. Now then fpring tyme and faule of the leafe be thofe which we abufe in fhoting. (page 48)
Unfortunately, the uncapitalized letters "f" and "s" look the same in my rendering above (and look almost identical in the original), as do the small letters "u" and "v," so let me 'transliterate' and also modernize the spelling and punctuation generally (and note that "shooting" refers to the shooting of arrows):
The whole year is divided into four parts: springtime, summer, fall of the leaf, and winter, whereof the whole winter, for the roughness of it, is clean taken away from shooting, except it be one day amongst twenty or one year amongst forty. In summer, for the fervent heat, a man may say likewise, except it be sometime against night. Now then springtime and fall of the leaf be those which we abuse in shooting.
That's certainly more readable, if quaint-sounding, but for the more abbreviated expression "fall" (short for "fall of the leaf"), we must turn to Sir Walter Raleigh's poem of 1599, which itself was a satirical reply to Christopher Marlowe's pastoral poem "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," so let's first remind ourselves of that earlier poem by Marlowe, also first published in 1599 but written some time prior to 1593, when Marlowe died of a fatal stabbing:
The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my love.

The shepherds' swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.
Nothing seems to be said about marriage here in Marlowe's lines, a lapse that may have prompted Raleigh's retort in "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd":
The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.

Time drives the flocks from field to fold
When rivers rage and rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb;
The rest complains of cares to come.

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields;
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall,

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten--
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

Thy belt of straw and ivy buds,
Thy coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.

But could youth last and love still breed,
Had joys no date nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind may move
To live with thee and be thy love.
Both poems were published in 1599, it seems, but they also appeared in Izaak Walton's 1653 book, The Compleat Angler, under the titles "The Milk maids Song" and "The Milk maids mothers answer." John Milton would thus surely have been aware of the lines "A honey tongue, a heart of gall, / Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall," which puns not only on the fall season and on one's downfall but could even well punningly describe the Satanic temptation of Eve in Milton's very own Paradise Lost, which brings about the great fall of mankind.

Whether or not Milton was aware of Ascham's 1545 text on archery, Toxophilus, I don't know, but the expression "fall of the leaf" was not uncommon, it seems, given the OED's evidence, which cites (as we have seen) Captain John Smith's book England's Improvement Revived, written sometime before Smith's death in 1631 but first published in 1673 (or 1670?), so Milton would surely not have known of the work. Nor would he have known of John Evelyn's 1664 book on trees, Sylva (second edition in 1679, it seems), which refers to a hardy oak (apparently the quercus silvestris) as "distinguished by its fulness of leaves, which tarnish, and becoming yellow at the fall, do commonly clothe it all the winter." Milton's ignorance of these two texts hardly matters since they merely record an expression (fall of the leaf) and a term (fall) already in use during Milton's lifetime.

At any rate, Milton himself does not use the term "fall" in his epic poem Paradise Lost, and given the negative associations of the word "fall," he had good reason to avoid it as a reference to the season of harvest in his prelapsarian Eden and good reason to prefer the terms that he does use -- the French-derived "autumn" and the etymologically Germanic "harvest" -- for that season.

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At 4:29 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...


Are you writing all of these incredibly EDUCATIONAL blog posts just so you don't have to put up with all of us ordinary Arkansas comment people?!!

Well, just kidding-I thought that I would just say "Hi there", and tell you that I am still here in the back of the class.

have a good day(or evening or whatever part of the day it is around the world from here),

Jeanie Oliver
(oh, and we have snow, 10 degrees, and more to come tomorrow here in good ole Salem, Arkansas!)

At 6:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Actually, such posts seem to drive everybody away . . . except for the occasional oddball.

I'm writing such boring posts because I want to work up a paper on Milton if I can find an equally boring point to make.

We've got cold and snow here in Seoul as well -- ten inches of the white stuff . . . though much of it dirty brown by now where the cars have packed it down.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:48 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...


Now I didn't say that these posts were boring. I said, "Educational"!
Am I an oddball for choosing to speak here.....
Also, sorry for not responding sooner, but blogger and I are at odds. Your response will not come into my e-mail.

At 10:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, I'm disreputable, so my emails deserve to be blocked.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:16 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

As an "oddball" though not so "occasional"! these posts are a rich harvest.Of course, Milton did know these famous paired poems as they became the models for L'Allegro and Il Penseroso.

At 8:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ah, thank you, Eshuneutics, for that gem. You are a fount of knowledge!

Jeffery Hodges

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