Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Milton's Style: Brilliant Adaptation of a Latinate Style, or Tortured English?

So I'm rereading Paradise Lost, and am finding that I'm more keenly aware of Milton's style now that I have a bunch of Latin under my belt. In Latin, the verb most often comes at the end and things can be shoved up to the front of a clause for emphasis; both elements are difficult to copy in English, as it is a language which is heavily dependant on word order. This doesn't stop Milton, though, and I'm having trouble deciding whether, on the whole, Milton's efforts at adapting Latin word order to English were entirely successful.

There are passages in which this works quite well. Take this famous passage from Book 1:

Him the Almightly power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereral sky...

The direct object is right up at the front, which is technically ungrammatical in English. But, one can make sense of it, and this move on Milton's part is on par with his attempt to render English in a manner similar to that of Latin. Another good example is from Book 7:

This also thy request with caution asked
Obtain...

From the point of view of standard English word order and syntax, this is hideous. We could normally say something like "Have your request, which was cautiously asked for..." or something to that effect. The words "This" and "thy request", which stand in apposition to each other, are separated by "also"; this is exactly paralleled in Latin, where you could have an "etiam" or something separating two things which go together. Note also that the verb comes at the end of the clause. Another one, for good measure:

For what god after better worse would build?

Again, from the point of view of standard English, this is tortured. I can't decide what to think of it; on the one hand Milton's style is a good attempt at rendering English poetry in a style like that of Latin, but on the other, English just doesn't lend itself well to constructions of the sort that Latin allows.

I suppose he's done the best with what he has.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

I really gotta break out my copy of Paradise Lost again someday...

...and then translate it into Latin.