[Milton-L] "Four-Letter Words"

Carol Barton, Ph.D., CPCM cbartonphd1 at verizon.net
Fri Apr 18 17:54:35 EDT 2014


Thanks, Salwa. Voltaire was famously appalled by Satan's coupling with Sin, and Death's with Sin (see An Essay Upon the Civil Wars of France And also Upon the Epick Poetry of the European Nations From Homer to Milton [1727]): 

The fiction of Death and Sin seems to have in it some great beauties and many gross defects. In order to canvass this matter with order, we must first lay down that such shadowy beings as Death, Sin, Chaos are intolerable when they are not allegorical, for fiction is nothing but truth in disguise. It must be granted too that an allegory must be short, decent, and noble. For an allegory carried too far or too low is like a beautiful woman who wears always a mask. An allegory is a long metaphor, and to speak too long in metaphors must be tiresome because unnatural. This being premised, I must say that in general those fictions, those imaginary beings, are more aggreeable to the nature of Milton's poem than to any other, because he has but two natural persons for his actors, I mean Adam and Eve. A great part of the action lies in imaginary worlds, and must of course admit of imaginary beings.

Then, Sin springing out of the head of Satan seems a beautiful allegory of pride, which is looked upon as the first offense committed against God. But I question if Satan getting his daughter with child is an invention to be approved of. I am afraid that fiction is but a mere quibble; for if sin was of a masculine gender in English, as it is in all the other languages, that whole affair drops, and the fiction vanishes away. But suppose we are not so nice, and we allow Satan to be in love with Sin, because this word is made feminine in English (as death passes also for masculine), what a horrid and loathsome idea does Milton present to the mind in this fiction? Sin brings forth Death; this monster, inflamed with lust and rage, lies with his mother, as she had done with her father. From that new commerce, springs a swarm of serpents, which creep in and out of their mother's womb, and gnaw and tear the bowels they are born from.

Let such a picture be ever so beautifully drawn, let the allegory be ever so obvious, and so clear, still it will be intolerable on the account of its foulness. That complication of horrors, that mixture of incest, that heap of monsters, that loathsomeness so far fetched, cannot but shock a reader of delicate taste.

But what is more intolerable, there are parts in that fiction which, bearing no allegory at all, have no manner of excuse. There is no meaning in the communication between Death and Sin, 'tis distasteful without any purpose; or if any allegory lies under it, the filthy abomination of the thing is certainly more obvious than the allegory.

But please do read the rest of the essay (available at that site). If Voltaire was as shocked as this by the incestuous relationships--what do you suppose he would have made of this recent "foul" thread?


Best to all,

Carol Barton 


From: Salwa Khoddam 
Sent: Friday, April 18, 2014 5:37 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List 
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] "Four-Letter Words"


That's a great thought, Carol. I suppose all these "prurient" sexual practices will be located in Hell in the future, as in Dante's Inferno? But Eden, just fallen, does not seem to be the right place for all this intense aberrant sexual activity that we've been burdening A & E with. In my opinion, these various acts of sexualitly (like those from the Kama Sutra) do not suddenly appear overnight (literally). There is shame, guilt, and lust, yes, but Eden is not a den of iniquity and perversity. 
How much are those "puns" and "connotations" we have been discussing a product of a modern unearthing of meanings in words used in a different culture and a different place and a different time? As Lewis writes, in an essay,"Prudery and Philology," The Spectator ( 22 Jan. 1955)," [W]ords, like every medium, have their own proper powers and limitations" (63). He objected to Milton's description of sex in pre-lapsarian Eden for this reason.
Salwa

Salwa Khoddam PhD
Professor of English Emerita
Oklahoma City University
Author of *Mythopoeic Narnia:
Memory, Metaphor, and Metamorphoses 
in The Chronicles of Narnia*
skhoddam at cox.net
  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Carol Barton, Ph.D., CPCM 
  To: John Milton Discussion List 
  Sent: Friday, April 18, 2014 3:38 PM
  Subject: Re: [Milton-L] "Four-Letter Words"


  Salwa, I know you addressed your comments to John, but I can't resist asking (so I hope you will forgive me the intrusion): if Milton seriously intended to introduce what in some circles are still considered aberrant sexual behaviors--fellatio being after all a species of Onanism, in that it ensures that procreation will not occur--why would he have done so in Eden, and why would he have so degraded his heretofore exemplary human pair, knowing (because the pre-narrative dictates it) that they are about to be redeemed? The Satan/Sin/Death triad overtly involves incest (and so, to a far less blatant and I believe less intentional degree, does Adam's coupling with Eve); but the former is framed to evoke our disgust, whereas in the latter case, the de facto incest isn't even mentioned.

  I would think that, had Milton been keen to delve into these more prurient practices vicariously, he'd have introduced them in Hell--not in the Garden.

  Best to all, 

  Carol Barton


  From: Salwa Khoddam 
  Sent: Friday, April 18, 2014 3:48 PM
  To: John Milton Discussion List 
  Subject: [Milton-L] "Four-Letter Words"


  Dear John,
  Thanks for pointing out Lewis's discussion in "Four-Letter Words" i.e., "obscene words," (*Selected Literary Essays)* on what he calls "the most unsavoury of all perversions" (cunnus). (I tried to avoid typing this word, but I couldn't because my meaning wouldn't be clear.)  His point is that these "obscene" words were satirized in literature up to Milton's time. His essay is prompted by a note from D. H. Lawrence  in defense of *Lady Chatterley's Lover*: "We are to-day, as human beings, evolved and cultured far beyond the taboos which are inherent in our culture. . . .The evocative power of the so-called obscene words must have been very dangerous to the dim-minded, obscure, violent natures of the Middle Ages, and perhaps is still too strong for slow-minded, half-evoked natures to-day."  So . . . why would Milton want to arouse readers' supposedly intense feelings about "fellatio" and "cunnilingus," in a culture filled with taboos about these words/acts? Professor Fleming offered an answer, that these sexual acts are "a significant part of the content and meaning of the fall." That made me think, if these connotations and puns are there in the poem (which I'm not convinced of yet), would they also be extended to apply to same-sex relationships, or just restricted between relationships of the opposite sex?
  Salwa 


  Salwa Khoddam PhD
  Professor of English Emerita
  Oklahoma City University
  Author of *Mythopoeic Narnia:
  Memory, Metaphor, and Metamorphoses 
  in The Chronicles of Narnia*
  skhoddam at cox.net
    ----- Original Message ----- 
    From: John K Leonard 
    To: John Milton Discussion List 
    Sent: Thursday, April 17, 2014 2:11 PM
    Subject: Re: [Milton-L] An antidote . . .


     Excellent point by Louis below. It might also be relevant that "seal" was a common early modern pun for sexual penetration (Donne uses it frequently). Much more plausible than the other pun that has so distracted us.

    John Leonard

    On 04/17/14, "Schwartz, Louis" <lschwart at richmond.edu> wrote 


          For me the key and most poetically brilliant touch—and it happens to come right before we’re told that the force of the “fallacious Fruit” with its “exhilerating vapor bland” is “exhal’d” out of the bodies of Adam and Eve—is the way that Milton has the narrator call Adam’s and Eve’s taking their “fill of Love and Loves disport” both the “seal” of “thir mutual guilt” and “The solace of thir sin [italics mine].”  “Seal” and “solace.”  A pact, a union, a broken union, a consolation, isolation, impression; “seis’d” and taken largely, nothing loath.  Sole alas, unsavory of itself, but also soul, associate soul, one heart one flesh one soul.  It’s a striking bit of overdetermination (it starts with the more conventional “seal” of guilt and then branches off unchecked from the addition of “solace”—and the further roving is supported by a series of puns and echoes).   























           

         




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