Thursday, January 07, 2010

"Harvest" in John Milton's Paradise Lost

Unfallen Angels Threaten Satan
(Image from Art Passions)

In my blog entry of two days ago, I mentioned that the older English term for autumn was "harvest," which comes from the Old English hærfest, incidentally, and which Wikipedia claims is a compound word hær and fest, but I doubt the "fest" part because the Online Etymology Dictionary offers kharbitas as the Proto-Germanic term, and I don't see "fest" in that word. At any rate, curious to know how often Milton uses the term in Paradise Lost, I did a check and found three instances.

In the first instance, a band of unfallen angels threatens to 'harvest' Satan after his having been discovered lurking near Adam and Eve in Paradise:
While thus he spake, th' Angelic Squadron bright
Turnd fierie red, sharpning in mooned hornes
Thir Phalanx, and began to hemm him round
With ported Spears, as thick as when a field
Of Ceres ripe for harvest waving bends
Her bearded Grove of ears, which way the wind
Swayes them; the careful Plowman doubting stands
Least on the threshing floore his hopeful sheaves
Prove chaff. (PL 4.977-985)
This image of harvest suggests judgement and is therefore postlapsarian in intent even though it describes an event prior to the fall of mankind. In the second instance, Adam awaits a fallen Eve for whom he has woven a garland of flowers fit for a harvest queen:
. . . Adam the while
Waiting desirous her return, had wove
Of choicest Flours a Garland to adorne
Her Tresses, and her rural labours crown,
As Reapers oft are wont thir Harvest Queen. (PL 9.839-842)
The imagery of the harvest queen is pagan and thus again postlapsarian but at a midpoint in the fall of mankind, after Eve has fallen but before Adam has. Here, the term "harvest" could possibly refer to the season autumn, but it more likely means the event of harvesting. In a final, fully postlapsarian passage, the archangel Michael uses the term "harvest" to mean the season of autumn:
And makes a Covenant never to destroy
The Earth again by flood, nor let the Sea
Surpass his bounds, nor Rain to drown the World
With Man therein or Beast; but when he brings
Over the Earth a Cloud, will therein set
His triple-colour'd Bow, whereon to look
And call to mind his Cov'nant: Day and Night,
Seed time and Harvest, Heat and hoary Frost
Shall hold thir course, till fire purge all things new,
Both Heav'n and Earth, wherein the just shall dwell. (PL 11.892-901)

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, January 2009]
Ironically, the use here of "harvest" is more positive, despite being fully postlapsarian, for it conveys a promise that God will not again judge the world with a flood, and as obliquely already noted, only here does the term clearly serve as a synonym for "autumn."

I'm surprised to discover that Milton uses "harvest" merely three times, and each time in a clearly postlapsarian sense, but perhaps the connotation is so often of pagan festivals and of judgement that he preferred to use it rarely.

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At 12:58 PM, Blogger Chelise said...

What a beautiful blog you have!

At 4:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, but your praise surely flows from your own beauty.

Jeffery Hodges

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