[Milton-L] Final lines -- an observation

Hannibal Hamlin hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
Thu Feb 24 10:33:18 EST 2011

I'd add to this wonderful discussion the story of Saul in 1 Samuel. That, I
think, provides the biblical link that others have suggested. One of the
most powerful and moving details of the meeting of Achilles and Priam in the
last book of the Iliad is their sharing of food together, a secular
communion that brings the epic down to the most basic human level -- but it
is on this level that the killer of Hector and Hector's father can connect.
"So come -- we too, old king, must think of food," Achilles says, and we are
told then that "Achilles served the meat." A strikingly similar, and equally
powerful, moment occurs in 1 Samuel, when Saul, rejected by God, on the
verge of final defeat and death, goes to the Witch of Endor to call up the
ghost of Samuel. Saul's desperation is clear -- he is forced to resort to
one of the very magicians he has sought to drive from the land, and he seeks
help from the man who was his worst enemy in life, the one who dragged him
from his home to be king, kicking and screaming, who may have engineered his
downfall, and who pronounced his condemnation by God. The information Saul
gets from Samuel is that tomorrow Israel will hall, and he and his sons will
die. At this low point, however, we have a surprising moment of human
connection between the dejected king and the witch -- they share a meal. She
kills a fatted calf, bakes bread, and "they did eat." Brilliant. And the end
of 1 Samuel too is much like the end of the Iliad. Saul and his sons are
killed, but the book closes not with their death, but with the "inhabitants
of Jabesh-gilead," the small city saved by the young King Saul at the start
of his reign, taking the desecrated bodies down from the walls of Beth-shan
by night and giving them a proper burial (followed by seven days of
fasting). Surely Milton knew well both 1 Samuel 28-31 and Iliad 24, given
how crucial meals are to Paradise Lost (bad meals, of course, like eating
the forbidden fruit, but also the shared meal in Eden with Raphael). And as
others have noted, these three epic tales all close on notes of ordinary
human experience -- not with the gods but with people, eating, journeying,
mourning together.


On Thu, Feb 24, 2011 at 8:15 AM, Gregory Machacek <
Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu> wrote:

> 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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Hannibal Hamlin
Associate Professor of English
Editor, Reformation
Organizer, The King James Bible and its Cultural Afterlife
The Ohio State University
164 West 17th Ave., 421 Denney Hall
Columbus, OH 43210-1340
hamlin.22 at osu.edu/
hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
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