Friday, November 19, 2010

John Milton: Half in Love with "eating Death"?

Satan Tempts Milton?
Illustration by Edward Sorel
Watch out for Satan's Teutonic Faust!
(Image from The New Yorker)

In looking for information about John Milton's famous line on Eve's fall from innocence, "And knew not eating Death" (Paradise Lost 9.792) I came upon a reference to a presentation in 2007 at a Princeton University Conference on Renaissance Hellenism. The paper was titled "'And knew not eating death': Milton's Greek" and was presented by the Milton scholar Gordon Campbell, of the University of Leicester, in England.

I contacted Professor Campbell, who graciously sent me a copy of his unpublished paper, which has the following pertinent and quite helpful paragraph on the expression:
In Book 9 of Paradise Lost Eve eats the apple, and the narrator says 'Greedily she engorged without restraint,/ And knew not eating death'. If you try it in English, it might mean 'she was unaware while she ate death' or even 'she knew, not eating [imminent] death', neither of which is entirely convincing. If, however, you listen for Latin echoes, then mors edax emerges. That makes sense, but the Latinate sense of 'she knew not death that devours' is complemented by a Greek sense, because the phrase imitates a Greek construction in which the verb 'to know' is followed by a participle (in the nominative) without repetition of subject; in this syntax, it means 'and knew not that she was eating death'. This, I think is the primary meaning, and it is enriched by the secondary sense, which is Latin. Greek syntax flowed through Milton's veins.
The Latin "mors edax," of course, means "death devours," emphasizing Death's' action in devouring Eve ("eating" = "Death was eating"), a sense of death that we've recently learned quite well on this blog. The Greek influence turns the meaning to Eve's action in devouring Death ("eating" = "she was eating"), which Professor Campbell takes to express "the primary meaning," albeit "enriched by the secondary sense, which is Latin." He doesn't explicitly state why he takes the Greek to be primary here, but I think that he finds it so because it makes sense of the syntax, i.e., "the verb 'to know' is followed by a participle (in the nominative) without repetition of subject" ("eating" = "she was eating"). I'll need to reflect on this point some more, as well as upon possible English meanings that one could read into Milton's line without recourse to Latin or Greek, for I'm not sure that Professor Campbell two readings -- "she was unaware while she ate death" and "she knew, not eating [imminent] death" -- are the only ones. But such questions just make the line "And knew not eating Death" all the more fascinating for those readers intent on being among Milton's "fit audience . . . though few" (PL 8.31), a non-Calvinist, secular state of election achieved through hard work.

By the way, I've used Milton's capitalized "Death" because I take it to be the original and think that the majuscule better captures the personified character of Death in Paradise Lost than the minuscule, but I suppose that I need to check this point by seeing if Milton originally capitalized this fatal, fateful term.

Anyway, the expression remains awkward in English, despite the Greek explication, so Milton's' use of it remains to be explained.

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At 7:00 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

He doesn't explicitly state why he takes the Greek to be primary here

As a foreign-language reader, I always naturally interpreted the English sentence as meaning "Eve did not know that, by eating the fruit, he was eating her own (and our) death".

"Eating Death" as a critter being swallowed by Eve - as it were, sort of an Alien creeping into her - is surely a possibility, but, well, I think that it would add a grotesque, very Baroque detail in such a psychologically poignant scene.

So, she eats... and she doesn't know... A very simple action, a simple (missing) thought... with a lot of consequences.

Just an opinion.

At 7:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think that the meaning is that she is eating death, which is simultaneously eating her.

Milton's point is that one cannot eat death without being eaten by death.

Unless one is divine, of course, when "Death is swallowed up in victory" . . . or so it seems to me.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:20 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Milton's point is that one cannot eat death without being eaten by death

Ha, yeah, of course: those wonderful "mirror effects" in 17th century poetry and art. I was just referring to the "primary" sense of the verse. Tho' I knew not it in Jeff.

At 7:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But the interesting point, for me, is that the line is awkward, yet included in the poem.

There must be some sufficiently significant payoff.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:39 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

the interesting point, for me, is that the line is awkward

Being currently re-reading PL for a new project, I find that 'awkward' sentences were the rule with Milton. That is, they were not such to Milton's ear.

The classic bias, "I am not mad. All the others are."

At 5:29 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

All of this, in these last blog threads, makes the following PL verses even more interesting:

(...) About her middle round
A cry of hell-hounds never ceasing barked
With wide Cerberean mouths (...)
"And in embraces forcible and foul
Engend'ring with me, of that rape [Death] begot
These yelling monsters
(...) into the womb
That bred them they return, and howl and gnaw
My bowels, their repast (...)"

2.650ff, 790ff

At 6:06 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I don't find Milton generally awkward, but this line is strikingly awkward.

Yes, the dogs that hound Sin do take on new significance now.

Jeffery Hodges

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