Saturday, January 07, 2006


Miltonic Exegesis

John Milton, Paradise Lost 1.225-238, describing Satan's first moments in Hell:
Then with expanded wings he steers his flight
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky air,
That felt unusual weight, till on dry land
He lights, if it were land that ever burned
With solid, as the lake with liquid fire;
And such appeared in hue as when the force
Of subterranean wind transports a hill
Torn from Pelorus, or the shattered side
Of thundering Etna, whose combustible
And fueled entrails, thence conceiving fire,
Sublimed with mineral fury, aid the winds,
And leave a singéd bottom all involved
With stench and smoke: such resting found the sole
Of unblest feet.
The thought occurred to me that perhaps Milton, in lines 236-237 (a singéd bottom all involved with stench and smoke, where involved with = wrapped in), was making a veiled allusion to the vulgar practice of teenage boys known as "lighting farts." But this interpretation must be rejected. When farts are lit, the fueled entrails conceive wind, not fire; that wind is sublimed with vegetable fury, not mineral; and the wind aids the fire, not vice versa.

Milton unmistakably refers to the habits of undergraduates at 1.500-502:
                                                When night
Darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons
Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.
Flown = filled to excess, steeped. I wonder if anyone ever proposed to emend Belial to Balliol here.

For those whose organs of amusement are deficient, everything up to this point was intended as a joke.

The only copy of Milton's poem in my possession is the Modern Library College Edition by William G. Madsen (Random House, 1969), who writes in the introduction:
The editor has modernized the 1674 edition in spelling, capitalization, and use of italics, but the original punctuation, which is rhetorical rather than grammatical, has been tampered with as little as possible.
This edition has no critical apparatus. The rules of rhetorical, as opposed to grammatical, punctuation in Milton's day are way beyond my ken. In the first book, however, I recently marked a couple of passages where the punctuation in Madsen's edition hindered rather than helped my comprehension.

                                      Yet not for those,
Nor what the potent victor in his rage
Can else inflict, do I repent, or change,
Though changed in outward luster; that fixed mind
And high disdain from sense of injured merit,
That with the mightiest raised me to contend.
The semi-colon in line 97 obscures, as a comma would not, the fact that mind and disdain are the objects of the verbs repent and change.

Though of their names in heav'nly records now
Be no memorial blotted out and razed
By their rebellion, from the Books of Life.
It would seem preferable here to remove the comma after rebellion and place it instead after memorial.

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