If I had to pick a single sentence in Paradise Lost that is most linguistically intriguing (so far, anyway), it would be this one, from Book II, lines18-24:
Me though just right, and the fixed laws of Heav’n
Did first create your leader, next, free choice,
With what besides, in counsel or in fight,
Hath been achieved of merit, yet this loss
Thus far at least recovered, hath much more
Established in a safe unenvied throne
Yielded with full consent.
Take a little time with it. There’s no rush. We’re already almost twenty years late in reading Paradise Lost, so what’s the harm of five more minutes? There’s the baffling use of the first person objective pronoun “me” at the beginning of the sentence (Is it even possible in modern English to correctly begin a sentence with “me”? There’s the abominably incorrect “Me and my friend played soccer” construction that children seem to pick up for a while in elementary school, then blessedly outgrow, but the only way I can even imagine making this structure work in modern English is if somehow the “me” is the object of a preposition and the preposition itself is either understood or placed somewhere else in the sentence. So far I can’t think of a specific example that works, but I’ll keep trying). Then there’s the odd overuse of commas in line 19 and the general weird wordiness of “With what besides” and the two lines that follow it.
Oh, and the speaker of this passage is Satan, by the way. He’s the “me” in question.
The editors of my text do provide a footnote on this sentence. They acknowledge that the syntax is “tortuous” and help us through the grammar a bit. They identify “me” as the direct object of the sentence, and they point out that “just right” and “fixed laws” – both of which are principles valued by the Roman Stoic philosophers like Seneca and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius – make up the compound subject of the sentence. I got stuck at this point for a while. To me, it’s easy to understand that “fixed laws” is a subject and agrees with “did create”; fine. And while I do understand that “just right” (meaning, basically, justice – moral rectitude, all that is fair and right, etc.) pairs well with “fixed laws” (in other words, the higher laws of the universe and all that is fair and right put Satan in power) as subjects, I just couldn’t bring myself to understand what “though” is doing there. I must have checked the text twelve times to make sure Milton hadn’t actually written “through” – but no, it’s definitely “though.” Finally I made some sense of it (I think) by reading “though” as a qualifier of the previous sentence, in which Satan worries that the other fallen angels will spend too much time pining for heaven. So “though” is like a “however,” and Satan reasons that the “just right” and “fixed laws” that “did…create” HIM (a.k.a. the ME at the beginning of the sentence) as the angels’ leader, THOUGH… and, as the leader, he advises the angels not to pine for what they’ve lost but focus on creating a kingdom for themselves in heaven.
But all of this grammar is not really the reason I’m writing this post. I am writing this post to tell you that I think I’ve discovered something kind of cute about Milton. Something kind of charming. It’s well known, of course, that Milton was an expert in Latin composition and translation. His education emphasized both studying the Latin classics and not only translating them into English but also writing original argumentative essays and participating in debates in Latin. This was common practice in the 17th century, but Milton proved exceptionally talented in these areas. I’ve heard it said that Milton is considered one of the best stylists of the Latin language OF ALL TIME, meaning that he is right up there with Cicero and the rest of those toga-wearing characters who, you know, LIVED IN ROME and SPOKE LATIN AS THEIR FIRST LANGUAGE. Which you have to admit is totally impressive.
But here’s the thing – Milton was a Protestant, and one of the missions of the Protestant Reformation was to see the Bible and other religious texts published in vernacular language. The Catholic church persisted in publishing scriptures and holding religious services in Latin long after everyday Europeans had stopped speaking Latin conversationally. Milton and other Protestants believed that each person was entitled to an intimate relationship with God and felt that the use of Latin by the Catholic church was no less than a brick wall standing between individuals and religious understanding. So when Milton set out to write an epic poem whose purpose was “to justify the ways of God to man,” he could hardly write it in Latin.
Latin is an inflected language, meaning that its nouns take certain endings to indicate their function. Agricola (farmer) can be used as the subject of a sentence, but it becomes agricolae (when it’s used as a possessive) and also when it’s used as an indirect object (because that’s not confusing or anything), agricolam when it’s used as a direct object, and agricolā with a long “a” when it’s used as the object of a preposition. And then there are more endings for plurals and for pronouns and for the adjectives that modify the nouns. English and the Romance languages retain these inflections only for our pronouns. In fact, it was a seemingly-misinflected pronoun (“Me”) that got me started on this whole mess.
Because Latin declines its nouns, word order is much less important than it is in English. Writers of Latin followed certain customs about how to organize their sentences (they generally liked to put verbs at the ends of their sentences), and many writers had certain stylistic quirks that led to unconventional word order. But these patterns were customs, not rules. There are no rules in Latin about word order. In English, the following two sentences have two clearly distinct meanings:
The dog bit the man. (The man is at the ER, calling his lawyer from his cell phone)
The man bit the dog. (The man has a mouthful of hair; the dog is perhaps a bit annoyed but probably just fine)
Poets may play around with word order sometimes, but if they reverse the two nouns in either of these sentences, or if they suddenly decide, as Milton did, to begin the sentence with the direct object instead of the subject, their readers are going to be confused.
Which brings me to my point: is it possible that John Milton was – well – sort of an ESL student? He spoke English from birth, of course, but most of his academic literacy was in Latin (and Greek and Hebrew too, I think). He knew that the project he was working on (i.e. Paradise Lost) was a monumental and important one – that on some level he was creating a subscriptural religious text not only exploring the basic Christian archetypes of God, Satan, Christ, Adam, and Eve but also creating a seminal Protestant text that reveres rebellion even more than it reveres God and goodness and obedience. So he wrote in English – but is it possible that he just never really developed a natural feel for the sense of written English? Jill and I have spent the last twenty years feeling just the tiniest bit ashamed that we never “really” read Paradise Lost, and I don’t mind admitting that this epic stymies me more than any other book I’ve written about on this blog. Could it be that the poem’s difficulty is actually a translation problem – that Milton’s natural mode of writing was in Latin, and to write in English he needed to translate in his head (as many second-language learners do long after they can speak their new language fluently), and the result was not really Latin and not really English either?
I’ve worked with a lot of ESL students in my life, and I like the idea of Milton, with his dark glasses and cape, roaming around, dragging a wheeled suitcase and a cello in its black unwieldy case, asking questions like “Please I can where dinner time?”
And what do you mean, what cape? Of course he wore a cape.