Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Milton's Fiery Language

...Instead of Fruit Chew’d Bitter Ashes, Which th’Offended Taste with Spattering Noise Rejected...

John Milton may have had bad eyes, but his tongue and ears displayed masterful skill. The flames of his passionate language still leap from the page more than three hundred years later, as in this passage from Paradise Lost about how God tormented the demons as they tried to applaud after Satan bragged to them about his success in tempting man (Book X, lines 545-562) :

...Thus was th’applause they meant,

Turn’d to exploding hiss, triumph to shame

Cast on themselves from their own mouths. There stood

A Grove hard by, sprung up with this their change,

His will who reigns above, to aggravate

Their penance, laden with fair Fruit, like that

Which grew in Paradise, the bait of Eve

Us’d by the Tempter: on that prospect strange

Their earnest eyes they fix’d, imagining

For one forbidden Tree a multitude

Now ris’s, to work them further woe or shame;

Yet parcht with scalding thirst and hunger fierce,

Though to delude them sent, could not abstain,

But on they roll’d in heaps, and up the Trees

Climbing, sat thicker than the snaky locks

That curl’d Megaera: greedily they pluck’d

The Fruitage fair to sight, like that which grew

Near the bituminous Lake where Sodom flam’d....

Had I written this, no one would bother to read it:

They meant to applaud, but instead, they hissed very loudly! They had been feeling triumphant, but now they felt embarrassed, because the hissing had come from their own mouths.

There was a grove nearby, which grew up when they changed into snakes...

Unlike mine, Milton’s language is concise. The way he phrased his sentences allowed him to say a lot with few words. He rarely used more than one adjective or adverb per word, often opting to let the word fend for itself. Consequently, his verse is strong, like lemon juice concentrate.

The few words he did use are robust with energy. They are strong enough to carry the weight of the epic without assistance. He choose “stood” over “was,” “sprung up” rather than “grown up”; even “hard by” instead of dull-sounding “nearby.”

Milton was a painter. With a small number of strokes, he could conjure up entire scenes full of sensory detail. The reader can’t help but envision the fabulous events Milton describes in concrete detail. Instead of saying, “laden with fair fruit like the fruit of the Tree of Life,” Milton packed in a verb, a strong noun, and a haunting phrase, “the bait of Eve”—as if Eve were an animal baited by a demon hunter. Instead of saying simply, “the Fruitage fair to sight, like that which grew near Sodom,” he includes a grimy lake; moreover, Sodom doesn’t sit vague and dull—it burns. Milton rendered this clause so successfully that he created an aura of Hell, without explicitly reminding us where the scene in question was taking place.

Writing was the art that allowed this blind man to paint brilliant scenes, which like the picture of the Dawntreader in CS Lewis’ book, start to move when one looks at them, and are likely to swallow one up into the extraordinary story they comprise.

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