Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Milton's garden of unfallen roots

Jutta points us to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal that suggests that religion is a natural, biologically significant part of the survival equipage of the species.

Lionel Tiger writes:
 there is a strange but durable connection between surviving in this world and contemplating another. There may or may not be such a world, but our sapient brain finds the idea easy to learn and entertain. Religion tastes sweet to the brain
Milton's vision of Paradise certainly seems richly sweet. Take the passage commented upon by Professor Rogers in Lecture 14 that begins at line 233:

And now divided into four main Streams,
Run divers, wand'ring many a famous Realm
And Country whereof here needs no account,
But rather to tell how, if Art could tell,
How from that Sapphire Fount the crisped Brooks,
Rolling on Orient Pearl and sands of Gold,
With mazy error under pendant shades
Ran Nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
Flow'rs worthy of Paradise which not nice Art
In Beds and curious Knots, but Nature boon
Pour'd forth profuse on Hill and Dale and Plain…

And a little further on:

        Thus was this place,
A happy rural seat of various view;
Groves whose rich Trees wept odorous Gumms and Balme,
Others whose fruit burnisht with Golden Rinde
Hung amiableHesperian Fables true, [ 250 ]
If true, here only, and of delicious taste:

Edwards observes that Milton, in attempting to represent an unfallen world, resorts to a strategy of using words whose roots remind us of their original, "innocent" sense even as the "fallen" sense -- as in the word "error" in the first passage -- insinuates itself:
Now of course, "error" is one of the most resonant words in the entire poem. Error is the moral category, or we can think of it as the theological category, most often applied to the Fall and to Adam and Eve's eventual sin.. . . But Milton, of course, is using the word "error" in a special sense. He's doing what he does so often: he employs a word solely to evoke its etymological root sense, which in this case simply means "wandering.". . . Milton will remind us of the Fall with his use of such a word as "error," but at the same time, of course, he's attempting to create in us -- and it's a remarkable move -- to create in us a memory for a time in which a word like "error" had not yet been infected by its morally pejorative modern connotation.. . . but it's as if a memory is being instilled in us by means of Milton's poetry. He condenses into a single word what is essentially the entire poetic problem besetting the description of unfallen Eden.
With this hint, one might probe other roots in the passage -- for example, the "pendant shades" might suggest the suspenseful state of humankind, for whom everything hangs in perfect balance, and whose pending tilt will only be decided by the actions flowing from free will; the "mazy" error predicts the ambiguities and complexities of the maze of the fallen world, in contrast to the simple clarity of this unfallen realm; and the "nectar" visiting each plant derives from the Greek for "overcoming death":

1555, from L. nectar "drink of the gods," from Gk. nektar, which is said to be a compound of nek- "death" (see necro-) + -tar "overcoming." Meaning "sweet liquid in flowers" first recorded 1609.

There's plenty of sweetness in Paradise, and Milton manages even to tune the loaded verb, "fall," to an innocent note:

to thir Supper Fruits they fell,
Nectarine Fruits which the compliant boughes
Yielded them, side-long as they sat recline
On the soft downie Bank damaskt with flours:
The savourie pulp they chew, and in the rinde [ 335 ]

Still as they thirsted scoop the brimming stream;

The sap of plants and trees has its roots in Latin, sapere, which means "to taste, perceive," and ultimately is linked with sapience, knowledge. If "religion tastes sweet to the brain," its nectar runs through the tree of knowledge.

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