[Milton-L] finding the bad in what you find good, installment 3

Schwartz, Louis lschwart at richmond.edu
Mon Apr 18 15:59:50 EDT 2016


As I mentioned in my earlier comments to this thread, “Purification in the Old Law” is, I think, there to freight the lines with typological and allusive weight—something Milton does even at the risk of (maybe) awkward irregularity and bookishness.  I don’t think the reference is to the Virgin Mary in a specific way, but the reference does suggest her, and she’s the nexus of the poem’s typological structure.  The suggestion also ties the reference to childbed to the poem’s biographical level, both because of the relationship between the Virgin’s purification and the later Christian rite of Churching and because her name suggests Milton’s first wife, while “purification” suggests the name of his second wife, who also died, I might add, just to show how unreasonably much can be found freighted into the lines if you choose to follow out these implications, on February 3, 1658, a day after the date of the celebration of the Feast of the Purification that year (this was first noted by Fitzroy Pyle in 1949 as part of his argument that the sonnet is about Katherine Woodcock—while Parker was arguing that it is about Mary Powell).  More about why I think all of this matters can be found in chapter 7 of Milton and Maternal Mortality.

I think the slight strain in the reference to salvation in the old law (and I agree that it’s there) is part of the general straining toward “big meaning” that I think the sonnet is, among other things, about.

I’m reminded, as I often am, of what my late teacher Allen Grossman used to say:  “a poem is about something the way a cat is about the house.”

Lots of large and small rooms in this particular poem.  Some have a view. Some are dark and interior.  A few have leaning walls and uneven flooring.  Strong basic architecture.  Dense, antique decorative scheme.  Unsettling foundation.

Louis

===========================
Louis Schwartz
Professor of English
Chair, English Department
University of Richmond
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Email:  lschwart at richmond.edu<mailto:lschwart at richmond.edu>




From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [mailto:milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Matthew Jordan
Sent: Monday, April 18, 2016 2:26 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] finding the bad in what you find good, installment 3

I've always wondered whether (in the sense of one day meaning to find out) it's Mary as in Luke 2:22. The reading Greg would thus give it is the one I've presumed, despite my relative lack of theological wherewithal ....."As whom" meaning something like "Just like Mary"....

Best, Matt





Sent from my iPhone

On 18 Apr 2016, at 18:36, Gregory Machacek <Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu<mailto:Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu>> wrote:
I anticipated that one way of saving “save” might be the first of Michael G.’s suggestions here:  that is, to understand it as coming along with a “in the sense (or to the extent) that the Old Covenant understood salvation.”  I’ll address that possibility at the end of this post.
I’m more interested in his second suggestion, and I asked my question as a genuine question in order to suss out answers precisely like this second one that he gives:  that, yes, pre-Christian figures were in fact held to be capable of salvation, salvation full-stop; that elements of the law, operating as typological prefigurements of Christ, could save in the full Christian sense of “save.”  And as soon as Michael G. says this, I remember Dante, for example, who can’t bear not to have certain great Old Testament figures like Moses and Abraham and Adam in Heaven, so he invokes essentially this principle as explaining why they ascended at the time of the Harrowing of Hell.  (Or—why go so far afield?—Adam interpreting the protoevengeilum in PL.)  So, thank you, Michael.
If we avail ourselves of this second possibility, we would have to understand Milton’s lines here as saying that this dream figure of his wife appeared to him “as an ancient Israelite woman who, in her post-child-birth purification ritual, experienced a typological prefigurement of Christ so powerful as to operate, through the faith she placed in it, salvifically.”  That’s a lot to pack in to this phrase, but great poetry often works by condensing a lot of meaning into few words, so, if the total context of the poem demands that we take “Purification in the old Law did save” as meaning what I just laid out, then we take it that way (and credit Milton with how much meaning he can pack into so few words).
That meaning, though, does require that we imaginatively construct this hypothetical ancient Israelite (not a Moses or an Adam) for whom one of the relatively mundane codicils in the Law operated as a salvific prefigurement of Christ.  And that (imaginatively constructing a hypothetical figure with a fairly unusual life experience) is one step more than just “packing a lot of meaning into few words.”   What I mean is this:  the phrase after “whom” is supposed to be helping us understand how Milton experienced the dream figure of the late-espoused saint, but instead of getting some relatively straightforward (or even Miltonically complex) way in which this “whom” helps us understand the “Mine,” we launch off on an elaborate piecing together of the kind of person this “whom” must be.  And what’s the yield for the “mine,” once we’ve unscrambled the sort of person this “whom” must be?  My saint was brought to me (from Heaven, as line 8 says explicitly, but as we've had to assume even from as early as 2) like a woman whose pre-Christian faith in Christ secured her a place in Heaven. No yield.
(I understand, secondhand through Honingmann, that Fitzroy Pyle has proposed that “whom” is not just some random “one whom” but a very particular “the one whom”:  Mary.  Her purification is mentioned in Luke and was celebrated as a feast day.  Could I ask how widely accepted that interpretation is among the admirers of the poem?  How many readers slot “Mary” in as the referent for “whom”?  It hasn't come up yet in our discussion of the poem.)
Michael’s first suggestion is less attractive to me, and I’ll say why.  If we adopt the extremely strict dichotomy from Paul’s insistence that the Law can’t save, and we read Milton’s lines as implying “save, according to their belief,” the strict Pauline mind is going by reflex to supply a qualification to this implication, and the totality will run as follows:  “save, according to their (mistaken) belief (that anything under the Law could save),”  And that would simply return us to the thing about “save” that needs solving.  The line would in effect have scare quotes:  “Purification in the old Law did ‘save.’”  I don’t think one wants scare quotes around one of the key words in one’s sonnet.
The second solution, the reference to the idea represented in the Westminster Cathecism, is the better solution, though even it, as I hope I have shown, comes with its own problems in how this “save” runs athwart other things the sonnet is trying to get expressed.



Greg Machacek
Professor of English
Marist College


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From: Michael Gillum
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Subject: Re: [Milton-L] finding the bad in what you find good, installment 3
The word "save" effectively reinforces the typological significance of purification rituals. Milton might be using it with an implied "according to their belief," or perhaps with a touch of irony. But some Protestants believed that holy persons in the Hebrew Bible actually could have been saved by grace but through the influence of "types" on their faith. Consider this from the Westminster Larger Catechism:

The covenant of grace was administered under the Old Testament, by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the passover, and other types and ordinances, which did all fore-signify Christ then to come, and were for that time sufficient to build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they then had full remission of sin, and eternal salvation. (Answer to Question 34)
Michael

On Sun, Apr 17, 2016 at 7:27 PM, Horace Jeffery Hodges <horacejeffery at gmail.com<mailto:horacejeffery at gmail.com>> wrote:
I'd want to leave open both possibilities. but in either case, Milton's views on the holy, the unclean, the clean, and the common would be (potentionally) relevant to a poem of this sort.

Jeffery Hodges

On Sun, Apr 17, 2016 at 3:22 PM, Gregory Machacek <Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu<mailto:Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu>> wrote:
Well, one often tries to leave open the possibility that the speaker of a poem is not simply to be equated with the author.  Harold Skulsky's reading calls for us to speak of Milton's "surrogate" in the poem.

But insofar as you regard the speaker and Milton as equivalent, feel free to answer for Milton.  (Milton in communication with whatever audience you imagine he was trying to reach.)



Greg Machacek
Professor of English
Marist College


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Subject: Re: [Milton-L] finding the bad in what you find good, installment 3

Gregory Machacek:  Should a Christian speaker speak of anything in the old law as “saving”?  Can a Christian speaker use that theologically charged word in such a context as this?  Isn’t almost the most fundamental difference that Christians understand between the old law and the new law that nothing under the old law can save (but can only convict)?

Jeffery Hodges: Shouldn't the questions be about Milton specifically rather than a hypothetical Christian?

Jeffery Hodges

On Sun, Apr 17, 2016 at 11:54 PM, Gregory Machacek <Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu<mailto:Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu>> wrote:
So, in connection with Jeffery’s comment, I’ll take what was going to be installment 4 and offer it as installment 3.
To Jeffery:  Please know that I’m not opposed to reading “old” as carrying the semantic weight that you propose it could carry (and therefore, prosodically, pyrrhic spondee).  But to the extent that one does place a vocal stress on “old,” as John C. has remarked, one implies a contrast (as you yourself point out, with the new law), and that contrast is one that the poem doesn’t (explicitly, at least) reference.  All I’m saying is that with “th’old law” one has to make a choice between two options, both of which are bad:  1) downplay the word, in which case it’s filler, or 2) stress it, in which case it implies a contrast that no other portion of the poem explicitly picks up—one half of a contrast that kind of hangs there without its other half.
Now to everyone: But the old law and the new law bear on another thing that’s troublesome about this line.  Let me get to it through a series of questions, questions that I put to the list in all sincerity (I genuinely want to hear people’s answers), even though you will soon see they are also tendentious.
In English, to speak of an Israelite woman who had completed her post child-birth purification ritual, is the expression that one would choose (if one weren’t under the exigency of rhyme) to say that she had been “saved”?  My first question is just that:  is what the Levitical post child-birth purification ritual does well described, in English, as “saving” a woman?  And not even “saving” her from uncleanliness, which is to my ears itself an awkward enough expression, but “saving” her full-stop (since by this stage of the poem she doesn’t need to be “saved” from impurity; she’s in the previous line already been described as “washt” from that).  Is what purification in the old law does well expressed as to “save”?
And now I’ll ask a more pointed version of that same question.  Should a Christian speaker speak of anything in the old law as “saving”?  Can a Christian speaker use that theologically charged word in such a context as this?  Isn’t almost the most fundamental difference that Christians understand between the old law and the new law that nothing under the old law can save (but can only convict)?
You can likely see where these questions are driving.  I think this is one of these cases where rhyme constrained an author to “express things otherwise, and for the most part worse, then else he would have expressed them.”  I think the dimension of the dream image that Milton is trying to describe in these two lines (When I saw my late espoused saint in a dream she appeared to me to be pure) brings in its trail, given one of the words Milton uses to describe that purity, a very theologically discordant assertion—that purification in the old law saves—and that discordance comes about largely just because Milton needs another –ave rhyme (it’s a sound that has relatively few rhyme words) to complete his octave.
P.S.  It’s becoming clear to me that I am going to have simultaneously to demonstrate why sonnet 23 is a poor poem and defend engaging in such an enterprise at all, since we have both conversations running through this thread.  Why would anybody even engage in such a perverse undertaking as to demonstrate that a poem many people report as finding profound and touching is “in fact” poor? So, as a rapid-fire set of answers to this:
“If a poem can be read meaningfully it is good, and irregularity can be meaningful. Bad verse should simply be ignored, not labored over. Our role is to enhance appreciation, not diminish it.”
from Hugh R.  One, I agree whole-heartedly that irregularity can be meaningful.  I’m not looking for regularity in “Purification in”; I’m looking either for regularity or for meaningful irregularity and finding that “Purification in” is not a meaningful irregularity, but simply a weak stretch within the overall rhythm.  Two, we can’t ignore bad verse and enhance appreciation of good without a prior determination of which is which, so evaluation was at some stage presumably a necessary activity.  Three, I’d want you to know that I spend 90% of my work life believing in and trying to achieve precisely that ideal that you articulate of enhancing people’s appreciation of literature.  But four, we’re all adults here; if the flaws I point out in sonnet 23 aren’t flaws, they won’t diminish the appreciation of this sonnet of anyone here.  Five, if they are flaws, pointing them out might come with the compensating value of enhancing readers’ appreciation of better composed passages.  (There's a sixth and lastly that wouldn't be quick, so I'll look for another occasion).



Greg Machacek
Professor of English
Marist College


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From: Horace Jeffery Hodges
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Subject: Re: [Milton-L] finding the bad in what you find good, installment 2
Greg Machacek: In fact, there isn’t an old law and a new law; there’s an old covenant (of the law) and a new covenant, of grace.  “Old Law” is redundant; the word “Law” all by itself would have conveyed the notion old.  “Old” here is what in newspaper verse we can recognize as filler.

Jeffery Hodges: But one finds in the New Testament these opposing expressions: "old law" vs. "new law" and "law of works" vs. "law of grace," and they are used throughout the Christian tradition all the way down to our time. The term "old" need not be considered mere "filler."
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