Friday, February 26, 2010

Multifaced style

One of the properties of Paradise Lost that we are already beginning to note is the poem's multiplicity of styles. From the grandiloquence of Satan in Books I and II, to the uninflated speech in Heaven (though, let's face it, God's sermo humilis -- "plain speech" -- is fraught with complications) to the scabrous allegories of Satan Sin and Death (speaking of whom: some interesting images here) and soon, in Book III,

o're the backside of the World farr off
Into a Limbo large and broad, since calld [ 495 ]
The Paradise of Fools

a satiric dustbin of misplaced human aspiration, which, thanks to Satan's enterprise, we're soon to visit.

The stylistic contrasts within the poem, not just in levels and qualities of tone and diction, but in genre, are sharper than in the Classical epic, which tends to move within a certain range of "high" rhetorical style. For his poem (which by virtue of its imaginative return to origins, anticipates and contains the seeds of all "later" poems, even those that precede it chronologically), the poet forges an elastic mode that encompasses high and low, transcendent, human, and repulsive, and moves from one to the other with virtuoso mastery. (We've touched on the classical levels of style before, e.g., here).

In An Apology for Smectymnuus, one of Milton's more vitrolic pamphlets (where he's defending both himself and his cause from pro-high church enemy pampheteers during the controversies of the time), the poet traces his use of a spectrum of stylistic levels and genres to the figure of Jesus in the New Testament -- fitting for a poet who would see him as the embodiment of the Logos. Here's how Milton speaks of style there:
Our Saviour, who had all gifts in him, was Lord to express his indoctrinating power in what sort him best seemed; sometimes by a mild and familiar converse; sometimes with plain and impartial home-speaking, regardless of those whom the auditors might think he should have had in more respect; other while, with bitter and ireful rebukes, if not teaching, yet leaving excuseless those his wilful impugners. 
Others who followed expressed themselves in one or another mode of speech, each exemplifying part of that range exemplified by the savior:
What was all in him, was divided among many others the teachers of his church; some to be severe and ever of a sad gravity, that they may win such, and check sometimes those who be of nature over-confident and jocund; others were sent more cheerful, free, and still as it were at large, in the midst of an untrespassing honesty; that they who are so tempered, may have by whom they might be drawn to salvation, and they who are too scrupulous, and dejected of spirit, might be often strengthened with wise consolations and revivings: no man being forced wholly to dissolve that groundwork of nature which God created in him, the sanguine to empty out all his sociable liveliness, the choleric to expel quite the unsinning predominance of his anger; but that each radical humour and passion, wrought upon and corrected as it ought, might be made the proper mould and foundation of every man’s peculiar gifts and virtues. 
In the next passage, the engine of Milton's prose begins to emulate the change in styles that he's discussing, revving up as he asks permission to "soar awhile," then blasts off:
Some also were indued with a staid moderation and soundness of argument, to teach and convince the rational and soberminded; yet not therefore that to be thought the only expedient course of teaching, for in times of opposition, when either against new herersies arising, or old corruptions to be reformed, this cool unpassionate mildness of positive wisdom is not enough to damp and astonish the proud resistance of carnal and false doctors, then (that I may have leave to soar awhile as the poets use) Zeal, whose substance is ethereal, arming in complete diamond, ascends his fiery chariot drawn with two blazing meteors, figured like beasts, out of a higher breed than any the zodiac yields, resembling two of those four which Ezekiel* and St. John saw; the one visaged like a lion, to express power, high authority, and indignation; the other of countenance like a man, to cast derision and scorn upon perverse and fraudulent seducers: with these the invincible warrior, Zeal, shaking loosely the slack reins, drives over the heads of scarlet prelates, and such as are insolent to maintain traditions, bruising their stiff necks under his flaming wheels.
With such authorities, Milton concludes his defense of "sanctified bitterness" of speech:
 Thus did the true prophets of old combat with the false; thus Christ himself, the fountain of meekness, found acrimony enough to be still galling and vexing the prelatical pharisees. But ye will say, these had immediate warrant from God to be thus bitter; and I say so much the plainer is it proved, that there may be a sanctified bitterness against the enemies of truth.
It should be noted that Milton is here looking to the uses of style. For him, language has power. It can "teach and convince the rational and soberminded," but those who are enemies of truth, it can damp and astonish -- and pedestrian enemies will want to be careful before getting anywhere near the wheels of the Chariot of zeal. (Prof. Rogers talks about Milton's deep concern with power.)

*Note that Milton turns the four-faced figures of Ezekiel into symbols of genres, poetic forms:

Ezekiel 10.14:
14  And every one259 had four702 faces:6440 the first259 face6440 was the face6440 of a cherub,3742 and the second8145 face6440 was the face6440 of a man,120 and the third7992 the face6440 of a lion,738 and the fourth7243 the face6440 of an eagle.5404

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