Monday, January 31, 2011

John Milton's Eve: "She Stoops to Conquer"

Golden Eagle
"The Bird of Jove"
(Image from Thundafunda)

The title of Oliver Goldsmith's 18th-century drama could well fit Milton's Eve, albeit ironically, for she unknowingly 'stoops' in her attempt to 'conquer' heaven through a deceptively hopeful feeding on forbidden fruit. I've been looking into the effect of that Fall upon language, as readers have certainly noticed. The theme of unfallen and fallen language in Milton's thought is contested, however (as I've noted), but I think that there's something to it.

Milton's prelapsarian Adam appears to have a special linguistic gift for naming, as we see in the scene where he is made lord over the earth and given permission by God to name the animals:
. . . all the Earth
To thee and to thy Race I give; as Lords
Possess it, and all things that therein live, [ 340 ]
Or live in Sea, or Aire, Beast, Fish, and Fowle.
In signe whereof each Bird and Beast behold
After thir kindes; I bring them to receave
From thee thir Names, and pay thee fealtie
With low subjection; understand the same [ 345 ]
Of Fish within thir watry residence,
Not hither summon'd, since they cannot change
Thir Element to draw the thinner Aire.
As thus he spake, each Bird and Beast behold
Approaching two and two, These cowring low [ 350 ]
With blandishment, each Bird stoop'd on his wing.
I nam'd them, as they pass'd, and understood
Thir Nature, with such knowledg God endu'd
My sudden apprehension: (PL 8.338-354)
Walter H. Beale describes this linguistically gifted Adam "as the prelapsarian Adam, in command of a not yet fallen language" (Learning from Language: Symmetry, Asymmetry, and Literary Humanism, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009, page 27). One might readily infer this unfallen character of prelapsarian language from Milton's lines, given the close connection between understanding each animal's nature and naming each one as it passes, based on an intuitive knowledge guaranteed by God.

The animals, in turn, recognize Adam's lordship over creation, for they cower as though before royalty -- the birds even "stoop" on their wing. Alastair Fowler notes an intriguing point here, namely, that the word "stoop'd" has two possible meanings:
caused to bow down; brought to the ground (OED II 7); but with a secondary allusion to the intrans. sense, common of birds of prey: 'descend swiftly upon, swoop down on' (OED I 6) -- foreshadowing postlapsarian carnivorousness. See XI 182-90nn. (Alastair Fowler, ed., John Milton: Paradise Lost, London: Longman, 1971)
In the prelapsarian passage above from Paradise Lost, Milton intends the meaning of "caused to bow down." The postlapsarian passage noted by Fowler (XI 182-90nn), however, has the meaning "swoop down on," and as we also see, this postlapsarian passage is one of those treated in yesterday's blog entry, the one in which Eve's wish to remain in the Garden of Eden is cruelly thwarted:
So spake, so wish'd much-humbl'd Eve, but Fate
Subscrib'd not; Nature first gave Signs, imprest
On Bird, Beast, Aire, Aire suddenly eclips'd
After short blush of Morn; nigh in her sight
The Bird of Jove, stoopt from his aerie tour, [ 185 ]
Two Birds of gayest plume before him drove:
Down from a Hill the Beast that reigns in Woods,
First hunter then, pursu'd a gentle brace,
Goodliest of all the Forrest, Hart and Hinde;
Direct to th' Eastern Gate was bent thir flight. (PL 11.181-190 ]
What I want to call attention to first is that "stoop" has acquired an ambiguity in postlapsarian conditions that it did not yet have in the prelapsarian world. The new meaning reflects the fallen world's deadliness. Hence the "signe" (8.342) of Adam's lordship in the first meaning of "stoop" has become one of the "Signs" (11.182) of Adam's subjection to Death in the second meaning of "stoop," as the repetition of "Aire, Beast, . . . and Fowle" (8.341) inherent in "Bird, Beast, Aire" (11.183) reinforces.

This acquired polysemy of language offers not just material for an ironic pun; the slippage of signification in a fallen world turns deadly serious as evidenced in the word "stoop" acquiring a secondary, evil meaning, and this is perhaps what is meant by the so-called 'fall' of language.

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At 6:21 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Is this a Sign of Destiny! Right today, just few hours ago, I made

this drawing

referring to these words of Satan (PL 9.164-165) when he prepares to tempt Eve:

"With Gods (...) the highest, am now constrained
Into a beast, and mixed with bestial slime"

but, by twisting their meaning, the words are put into the mouth of Jove.

At 6:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

By Jove, I think you've got it!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:51 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

That is an odd coincidence!

"By Jove....."


I clicked the pic of the golden eagle, BTW, and the detail is stunning.

At 12:08 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

I am ambivalent towards the idea of "pre- or postlapsarian language," except for the conclusion that must of necessity proceed from the formulation--that the entire poem at all its levels is a product of fallen language, a fallen being, a fallen imagination, and a fallen mind.

What I think signifies, however, is the fact that by virtue of his prelapsarian sympathy with the Father Adam immediately connects with an understanding of the natural history of each beast, and yet--and yet!--for some reason he lacks prelapsarian knowledge of the movement of the stars and planets, as well as lacking prelapsarian knowledge of the war in heaven? Hello?

And of course the revelation of an understanding of the astronomical motions and the war in heaven is, as I have asserted, rendered by Raphael, respectively, in a prevarication masquerading as piety, and a down right bogus faery tale.

At 12:47 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, Adam's made lord over the earth and perhaps can legitimately have intuitive knowledge of animals' names.

As for the doubts about unfallen and fallen in PL, I also have some reservations, as I've indicated. But I still think that there's something to it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:49 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Thanx, Carter.

(in true fallen English)

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

English is already ab Anfang fallen German . . . (pace Carter).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:09 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

In this case, the son is better than the father.

(I love English, whereas I "can stand" German, tho' it is letting me earn my living even better than English now)

At 11:22 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've grown to like German, especially since I found that knowing it helped in analyzing Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Jeffery Hodges

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