[Milton-L] Re: "knew not eating death"

Aaron Shapiro aaronshapiro1 at gmail.com
Wed Jul 28 17:00:57 EDT 2010

I very much enjoyed Professor Skulsky's suggestions, and I'd like to add a
syntactical footnote. I'm pretty sure that 9.792 represents a normal Greek
construction and that a similar clause in Plato makes it more suggestive, if
not aesthetically attractive.

"Eating" here, acts like the Greek "supplementary" participle, which
"completes the idea of the verb by showing that to which its action
relates." A
quick look at the examples in Smyth's grammar (sections 2088-2090) will make
it clear that this construction, when set off by verbs of
knowing/perceiving, often stands in for an indirect statement (although, as
Professor Skulsky notes, it's not). "I see myself doing it" and "I see that
I do it" are not just closely related ideas, they are sometimes alternative
translations for this same construction.

An example comes to mind (which Milton may have been recalling at 9.792)
from Plato's myth of the cicadas (Phaedrus 259, after the four kinds of
mania): When the Muses first came into being, there were some people who
were so enraptured with singing that they forgot to eat and drink, and -
says Plato - kai elathon teleuthsantes 'autous. Lit.: "And, dying, they
missed themselves (escaped their own notice)." ("And they didn't even notice
when they died.") Eve, like these early devotees of the Muses, is so wrapped
up in sensuous pleasure that she fails to notice death. The seams and gaps
between the two situations add further poignancy (e.g., the Muses are
touched by this maniacal devotion and turn the singers into cicadas, which
sing their whole lives away; Eve, who also slides down on the chain of
being, will have no such reward).

I agree with Professor Skulsky that we should understand Milton's participle
as a nominative (as in the Plato above) but without the accusative pronoun.
Is this strange? Greek authors generally had the option to use the
supplementary participle in either the accusative or the nominative case.
However, "when the object is the same as the subject, [the object] is
commonly suppressed, and the participle agrees with the subject" (Smyth
2089a). So, Milton, composing an analogous construction for readers of
Greek, wouldn't need to write "she knew not herself eating," in order to
suggest "she knew not that she was eating death." Of course Milton isn't
just cooking up parallel constructions, he's writing English - and in
English these words can mean several things and may well irritate. But, for
me, 9.972 is admirable because 1) it echoes Plato with non-trivial
implications and 2) what fun to think that, as dense as it seems, this
clause (or rather, it's notional Greek analogue) isn't a poetic compression
at all!

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