Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Indefatigable Milton

With my normal skewed sense of immediate priorities, I'm reading around towards the Milton course I'll be teaching this coming Fall (get it – "fall"?). Paradise Lost moves along nicely at a book a sitting, especially in David Kastan's better-than-excellent Hackett edition (a revision of the Merritt Hughes standby). J. came back from the Shakespeare Association with a stack of book table display copies for me, including the luscious recent biography, John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought by Gordon Campbell and Thomas M. Corns. I've only read two lives of JM: Peter Levi's Eden Renewed (well-written but bad) and Barbara Lewalski's enormous biography-of-record.

But the real prize is Annabel Patterson's latest book, Milton's Words (OUP, 2009), a little examination of how Milton uses various "keywords" over his career. I'm only far enough in to be delighted with Patterson's deft prose and amazing gift for analytic summary, but she gives a lovely taste of what's to come in the introduction, where she looks at the fortunes of the rather rare word "indefatigable" (one of those polysyllabic Latin borrowings – Seneca, De Ira – that give my students headaches). Milton uses it only twice, once in Areopagitica (referring to Parliament's "indefatigable Vertue") and once in Paradise Lost.

But before Milton's epic, it was used twice by Milton's friend Andrew Marvell, both times in connection with Oliver Cromwell. In the "Horatian Ode," he addresses the Lord Protector thus:
But thou the Wars and Fortunes Son
March indefatigably on.
(Whoosh – three whole feet of the tetrameter taken up with a single latinate adverb – don't try this at home, kids!) And in "The First Anniversary of the Government under O.C.," Marvell writes of how "indefatigable Cromwell hyes / And cuts his way still nearer to the Skyes."

For his part, Milton takes the word and gives it – yes – to Satan, as the fallen angel describes to his comrades the dangers of his prospective venture to the newly-created Eden:
Who shall tempt with wandring feet
The dark unbottom'd infinite Abyss
and through the palpable obscure find out
His uncouth way, or spread his aery flight
Upborne with indefatigable wings
Over the vast abrupt. (2.404-9)
Of this, Patterson writes:
You can see that Milton has learned from Marvell the art of fitting that "uncouth" word smoothly into verse. You can see that here the first two un-words are not positives disguised as negatives but actual negatives, scary with the idea of free fall and unknown territory. You might infer, therefore, and especially because it is Satan speaking, speaking speciously, that 'indefatigable' is here also not a positive disguised by syntax as a negative, but a negative doubly darkened by its context. So what does it say to Marvell's second Cromwellian 'indefatigable', which also imagines a flying superhuman figure? I cannot believe that these astonishing words, used only twice by Milton, are not cross-references to each other and Marvell's, implying that Satan is the dark shadow of Marvell's heroic Cromwell. We know that by 1667, when he published Paradise Lost, Milton no longer shared his friend's admiration for Cromwell; he had also, by the way, demolished his own image of a heroic Long Parliament. (7-8)
I don't know whether Patterson will keep up this kind of wonderful intellectual nimbleness over all 200 pages of this small book, but I anticipate a kind of heaven of close reading, concordance work, and historical contextualization.


Vance Maverick said...

Thanks! This will become my test of my public library's interlibrary request capacity, something that just became visible on their website after a recent overhaul.

undine said...

Nice! I didn't think people even wrote criticism like this any more; thanks for sharing it.

plainwater said...

I like how the OUP website informs us that the book is "Written in clear, colloquial style with no footnotes."

No footnotes!

And by 'like' I mean 'bemused, though mildly troubled.'

Mark Scroggins said...

Well, Plainwater, it's definitely in "clear, colloquial style," and by "no footnotes" they mean something like "MLA style" -- references in the back. But Patterson doesn't cite other scholars very often at all: I suspect that's a case of "I'm emerita, dammit, this is my 14th book, I don't really have time for jumping these hoops, trust me to know my sh*t."

I'm hoping to live so long.

plainwater said...

Yes, I suppose you're right; I forget about the MLA, coming from the art history world as I do.

Also, I think Marjorie Perloff has the same attitude about citing. Or at least I think I remember her saying somewhere that scholars should be more self-reliant.

Here's hoping we all live so long!

Steven Fama said...

Milton: all right! I'll take all you got!

It's a long-shot, but does Annabel Patterson write anything about "black fire," the phrase found in Paradise Lost, II:67? I love that one, and it turns up in Lamantia's poetry too.

Archambeau said...

Your students might like this:

Mine did.