[Milton-L] Paradise Lost

Jameela Lares Jameela.Lares at usm.edu
Mon Nov 28 14:45:49 EST 2005

Quoting Horace Jeffery Hodges <jefferyhodges at yahoo.com>:

> If the paradigms were confused, then does this mean
> that Milton had a choice between using "eat" or "ate"
> for the past tense?

No, the paradigms to which I was refering were the seven very regular strong
verb paradigms from the Germanic--the ones we now think of as "irregular"
verbs.  Forms within the verb *paradigm* were confused, not forms for the verb
itself.  My colleague's name is Stanley Hauer, and I assume it is okay to send
along what he has since e-mailed me: 

> Yes, as we discussed it's to rhyme with "bet." Here's the OED's explanation 
of the variant:

> The accentuation of OE. MSS. shows that this verb differed, as in Goth. and 
ON., from other verbs of the same conjugation in having a long vowel in the 
pa. tense sing. t, whence the mod. eat (it); but a form æt, with short 
vowel, must also have existed, as is proved by the ME. form at, mod. ate. 
The pronunc. (t) is commonly associated with the written form ate, but perh. 
belongs rather to eat, with shortened vowel after analogy of wk. vbs. read, 
lead, etc.; cf. dial. (bt) pa. tense of beat.]

> Whether this is a dialectical matter or not I can't tell. (People in 
America, of course, still use it, far more than in England.) But it may also 
be a deliberate archaism. "PL" is full of them, e.g., "froren" for 
"frozen"--a term that reflects the sound shift known as Verner's Law, the 
great exception to Grimm's Law.

In any case, the word is in the past tense.  I would have to see loads of
evidence--probably unrecoverable--that Milton intended some kind of specific
meaning for using the form.  Moreover, the sound of the verb might be argued to
underscore the pastness of the action, since Anglo-Saxon strong verbs tend to
be higher and "tenser" in the present (e.g., "ring" vs. "rung").  

I don't think "sight puns" is a very promising option.  It's not so much that
Milton was blind--he still was concerned with his own spelling--as that
spelling was not yet standardized.

Jameela Lares, Ph.D.
Director of Graduate Studies
Department of English
The University of Southern Mississippi
118 College Drive, #5037
Hattiesburg, MS  39406-0001
601 266-6214 ofc
601 266-5757 fax

More information about the Milton-L mailing list