Paradise Lost, 1668-1968: Three Centuries of Commentary

By Earl Miner; William Moeck et al. | Go to book overview

Excursus 6.616

LANGUAGE AND LAUGHTER

Although language and laughter are the two things often said to distinguish us from beasts, where Milton is concerned it is commonly thought that hardly enough can be said of the one and scarcely too little of the other. Using as it were the microscope of humor as the telescope of language may enable us to understand what is going on in Book 6 and the “gamesom mood” (620) of rebel wordplay on the morning of the second day of the War in Heaven. Satan and Belial's play with words rests on the mistaken belief that they have invented their cannon “With silent circumspection unespi'd” (523).

In Book 5, something not altogether different occurs. Satan has been drawing together his rebel party. “Mean while th'Eternal eye, whose sight discernes / Abstrusest thoughts … saw … Rebellion rising” (711–15). “And smiling to his onely Son thus said” (718): “Neerly it now concernes us to be sure / Of our Omnipotence … such a foe / Is rising, who intends to erect his Throne / Equal to ours” (721–26). The Son needs no instruction (735–37):

Mightie Father, thou thy foes Justly hast in derision, and secure Laugh'st at thir vain designes and tumults vain.

As early as 1.49 we had learned that Satan had unprofitably defied “th' Omnipotent to Arms.” Although “derision” may be based on “ridere, ” “to laugh, ” it is not the jollies and, as we shall see, Milton has been accused of what he derides.

Having led his troops overnight to invent gunpowder and cannon “unespi'd, ” Satan seeks to perform a similar trick with words. Seconded by Belial, he invents riddling remarks meaning one thing to him and his troops and another to the loyal angels. This use, or rather this congeries of uses, has borne many names: wordplay, equivocation, and puns being three of the English, paronomasia perhaps the best known Greek, adnominatio a Latin version familiar to the few students of rhetoric left amongst us. Whatever its name, its reputation is not high in serious circles. The pseudoCiceronian Ad Herennium gives a practical reason for rare usage in oratory: puns are “to be used very sparingly in an actual cause, because their invention seems impossible without labor and pains” (4.20.32), so suggesting devious artifice. Quintilian somewhat surprisingly has a good word for adnominatio, “a Device which is not unattractive save when carried to excess” (Institutes 9.3.74). That may be because of his pride in a witty remark by his father to a man he detested who returned early and empty-handed on an embassy from Rome (our translation), “I do not say you should have left your remains there but that you should have left and remained there” (9.3.73). “Even Cicero delighted in it, ” Quntilian said about “four different forms of play on verbal resemblances.” As it happens, Caesar's “Veni, vidi, vinci” illustrates all four with a fifth (alliteration) besides, and shows what a Serbonian bog rhetoric may quickly lead to.

“To the victor belong the smiles” makes sense today but is not paronomasia or equivocation or pun, as it would have been to Milton, who pronounced “spoils” to rhyme with “wiles” (Pope, Odyssey 4.593.94). Like Cicero, Milton took a delight in these wiles that is seldom noticed, in our time, that is. But 6.656, “Thir armor help'd thir harm, ” might be an Ovidian “turn” from some forgotten nook of Milton's favorite Latin poem, the Metamorphoses. And once noted, the sexual overtones of 482–91 are not forgot, any more than those of flatulence in that passage and again in 586–89 and elsewhere in the poem.

The riddling speeches by Satan and Belial are not as given over to double meanings as we are likely to recall. But once a field of doubly cast meanings is set up, we tend to think doubly so as not to be left behind. To avoid filling our notes with constant chatter we now turn to 6.485–627, setting forth the often equivocating words we seek to understand. The OED is our chief source. (Usual modern meanings are sometimes omitted.)

485 touch (of fire). Sexual contact. Touch powder or gunpowder.

514 Concocted and adusted. Mixed and heated; cooked and baked.

516 veins. Blood vessels; lines of minerals or other deposits in the earth.

517 Entrails. The bowels; the intestines. The inner parts of anything.

519 missive. Of a weapon of war, a shooting forth.

-461-

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Paradise Lost, 1668-1968: Three Centuries of Commentary
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Preface 9
  • Acknowledgments 11
  • Introduction 15
  • Early Comment 31
  • Book 1 - The Rebel Angels Awaken to Hell's Flames 51
  • Book 2 - Sin Opens the Doors of Hell 97
  • Book 3 - Satan's Hypocrisy Deceives Even Uriel 135
  • Book 4 - God Creates Adam and Eve 165
  • Book 5 - Adam Rids Eve of Satan's Dream 203
  • Book 6 - The Son Expels the Rebel Angels 237
  • Book 7 - Adam and Eve Listen Intently to Raphael 269
  • Book 8 - Raphael Departs After Warning Adam 287
  • Book 9 - The Fall 305
  • Book 10 - The Son Judges and Clothes the Human Pair 335
  • Book 11 - The Vision of Cain Slaying Abel 367
  • Book 12 - The Expulsion 393
  • The Illustrations 421
  • Excursus 1.50 427
  • Excursus 2.921 435
  • Excursus 2.967 439
  • Excursus 3.19 447
  • Excursus 5.791 451
  • Excursus 6.327 457
  • Excursus 6.616 461
  • Excursus 7.126 467
  • Excursus 7.594 471
  • Excursus 8.136 479
  • Excursus 9.512 489
  • Excursus 10.425 495
  • Excursus 11.385 499
  • Excursus 12.553 501
  • Bibliography 505
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