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

John Hale john.hale at stonebow.otago.ac.nz
Tue Jul 27 01:01:44 EDT 2010

Dear Harold (and Everyone Else):
     I'm very glad you did pursue this further.
     To the best of my own knowledge you have got the Greek aspects right.
     Someone could still argue that Milton is compressing or  
contorting English ALONE, as he does at time in Samson Ag; but what  
with the number of his Latinisms, and his even greater mastery of  
Greek than of Latin, the odds are against it.
     Instead, what we get is a defamiliarisation of the Greek idiom.  
The result might startle a Greek, in the same way that an etymology  
might, but that's a bonus for that Greek.
     To press and adapt syntax is normal enough in poetry. In such  
forms as nouning a verb or verbing a noun it's not only poets, but any  
of us using orplaying with language. But me no buts; Much virtue in  
If. However, Milton is inventive and unusual in some of the forms  
which the habit takes in him.
     A couple of mild queries:
1. I didn't grasp the opening sentence of the para. about canceling  
("What's going on, I think, is...")
2. Invoking Humpty Dumpty is being too concessive (assuming you meant  
"Words mean what I want them to mean"). Milton's words do mean what  
you think they mean, in this instance, and you have shown this.
     What else could they mean instead?! Some other examples are even  
more startling and strenuous (and that's why he did it), as I  
discussed in Milton's Languages, p. 121.
     So I hope that any and all who are writing commentary to PL IX  
are reading or will be reading what you have written here. It would be  
interesting to hear from them what the early editors, from Hume  
onwards, made of it all.
     John Hale

Quoting Harold Skulsky <hskulsky at smith.edu>:

> 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
> end.
> 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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