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

richard strier rastrier at uchicago.edu
Tue Jul 27 18:17:59 EDT 2010

As always, I am in awe of Howard Skulsky's erudition, and it MAY explain how 
the line came to be the way that it is, but I remain firmly of the opinion that it is 
quite a poor line of English poetry.   

---- Original message ----
>Date: Mon, 26 Jul 2010 15:11:18 -0400
>From: "Harold Skulsky" <hskulsky at smith.edu>  
>Subject: [Milton-L] Re: one more remark on"knew not eatingdeath."  
>To: "John Milton Discussion List" <milton-l at lists.richmond.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
>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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