[Milton-L] Final lines -- an observation

Gregory Machacek Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu
Thu Feb 24 08:15:02 EST 2011


For what it might prove to be worth to these considerations, the phrase "of
Hector breaker of horses" is formulaic (as one would expect of a
noun-epithet combination), appearing three other times in the Iliad.  But
the earlier half of the line "thus they managed the funeral" does not
appear elsewhere in Homer's verse.  By itself, for Parry, that wouldn't
necessarily disqualify the phrase as formulaic.  But in this case, the
phrase doesn't have the other qualities that might prompt us to label it
formulaic even in the absence of another instance.  This is the only case
in which the verb (amphiepon) is used in conjunction with the world taphon,
funeral rites.  It is the only case where either amphiepon or taphon occur
at just this spot in the verse.  So there's a good chance that, in the
Iliad's closing line, Homer's original audience would have heard precisely
a mix of precedented and unprecedented language.  This funeral is special,
but Hector is Hector.

As John Leonard has suggested, the relation between Milton's closing line
and Homer's is not what would usually get labeled an "allusion," since none
of Homer's language gets picked up.  If we feel, as has been suggested
here, that both epics are closing with a similar focus on "mere mortals
engaged in the most commonplace of activities," we might call it a tonal
allusion, I suppose

I'm torn between following that reading and wondering if Milton wants his
last line to be precisely un-Iliadic.  Death vs ongoing life.  Communal vs
solitary.  Ritual vs exploration.  The trappings of "wars, hitherto the
only argument heroic deemed" vs A &E's upcoming opportunities for a
"greater fortitude of patience."

If so, if Milton wants to start his epic with an evocation of the ancient
epics, but end it by studiously *avoiding* such an evocation, that's no
mean artistic feat in itself.  It's the form of originality that for
Johnson earns PL the second place among the productions of the human mind,
second *only* to Homer (who had the insurmountable advantage of actual
temporal priority).

Greg Machacek
Professor of English
Marist College



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