[Milton-L] Re: one more remark on"knew not eatingdeath."

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at smith.edu
Mon Jul 26 15:11:18 EDT 2010

When the “knew not eating death”  crux came up a while back, I was
in a rush but sent in a quick and cryptic suggestion that prompted a
colleague to ask me offline where I got it from. Actually I got it from
mysellf. It was a perfectly casual reaction based on years of reading
stuff in Greek, and also wondering about the phrase in question. My take
on the conceptual deep structure of the phrase is (I now see clearly)
speculative, controversial, and probably mistaken. But in for a penny,
in for a pound. Here the suggestion is in full, for what it’s worth
— for those with the hardihood and time to stick with it to the

Greek syntax reserves a special participial construction for indirect
discourse after a verb of knowing or feeling: instead of the usual
infinitive or participial clause in the accusative, e.g. 

       Eve knew not Jack [accusative] to be eating death, 

the infinitive is replaced with an (accusative) participle. 

But what’s especially interesting is the peculiar Greek treatment of
the knowledge situation in which the knower knows a fact about HERSELF
– say, that SHE is eating death. 

Here we don’t get a full participial clause at all; instead of 

        She knew not HERSELF [subject] EATING [accusative participle]
DEATH [predicate],

we have:

         She knew not eating [nominative participle without 
         subject] death.

In short, what follows “knew” is not a clause at all – not a fact
about the knower. Instead, the verb of knowing behaves like copulative
“is”; “knew”  couples the knower with her known act or
property (death-eating). (In Gk: “ouk eide [she knew not] ton thanaton
[death] esthiousa [eating, nominative case in agreement with
‘she’].”). This is not indirect discourse. It’s as direct
as can be.  It’s perverse. It sticks out like a sore thumb (for a
newcomer to Attic). What’s going on here?

What’s going on, I think, is best seen by canceling “not” and
(once again) considering the successful case of self-knowledge –
expressed in the now familiar but none the less peculiar construction: 

          She knew not [perverse copula] eating-death [perverse 
          predicate complement in the nominative].

As presented by the construction, self-awareness DIRECTLY INSERTS THE
KNOWER into the known situation; she confronts the truth directly, not
via a concept or chain of concepts (subject-predicate clause expressing
proposition). Self-knowledge is one of the few examples of radical
intuition available to human experience – at least on the Greek view
reflected in the syntax; maybe that’s why we are encouraged to embrace
self-knowledge by the Apolline injunction on the temple at Delphi. If I
am not mistaken, its failure in the garden at a crucial moment signals
one important piece of the loss that gives PL its name.

In short, I submit that Milton embraces the Greek understanding of
introspection by embracing the Greek construction. On the other hand,
the expressive move is a gamble. Does the gamble pay off? I don't know.
Its success (if I'm right) depends on (a) the reader’s recognition of
the grecism, or willingness to be reminded of it, and (b) the reader's
tolerance for the poet's Humpty Dumpty-ish attempt to bend the
vernacular to his will. Perhaps (a) and (b) are too much to ask.


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