Thursday, July 01, 2010

Peter Berek, Plain and Ornate Styles and the Structure of Paradise Lost

Peter Berek, “Plain” and “Ornate” Styles and the Structure of Paradise Lost, PMLA, March 1970, Volume 85, Number 2, pp. 237-246.

…what might in isolation seem like a failure of craft can in the context of the poem as a whole appear a powerful imaginative achievement. This essay will argue that the peculiarly stark and “unpoetic” exposition of doctrine in the opening episodes of Book III give the fit audience of Paradise Lost standards for the use of language indispensable for the proper response to the more immediately attractive parts of the poem. Milton’s choice of the contrast between “plain” and “ornate” styles as a way of making perceptible the difference between perfection and imperfection, innocent and sinfulness, can be explained and, in a sense, “justified” by the sensitivity to rhetorical distinctions the poet could expect from a mid-seventeenth-century audience. If we cannot always find the Father a more attractive speaker than Satan, we can at least understand why Milton might have expected his ideal reader to do so. (237)

In Answerable Style, Arnold Stein wrote of the speeches of the Father, “Language and cadence are as unsensuous as if Milton were writing a model for the Royal Society and attempting to speak purely to the understanding.” [Minneapolis, Minn., 1953, p. 128] Following this lead, Irene Samuel pointed out… The near tonelessness of his first speech at once proves itself the right tone… For the omniscient voice of the omnipotent moral law speaks simply what is. Here is no orator using rhetoric to persuade, … (237)

John M. Major… also briefly surveys the history of anti-rhetorical attitudes—a tradition whose chief figures are Plato, Augustine, Bacon, and seventeenth-century theorists of the sermon. [“Milton’s View of Rhetoric,” SP, LXIV (Oct. 1967), 685-711.] (238)

Jackson I. Cope… Cope’s interest in the changing modes of perceiving and describing the reality that arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—an interest in which he largely follows the work of Father Walter J. Ong—distracts him from describing the relatively simple structural patterns by which Milton makes his stylistic changes significant for the ordinary reader. Fish presupposes a reader at once so confused—in that he is unwilling or unable to parse out the plain sense of the poet’s syntax—and so sophisticated—in a later willingness to review the poem again and again as though he were preparing for a Ph. D. examination—that I cannot imagine any seventeenth-century man for whom Paradise Lost was not an assigned text responding in a fashion as complicated as Fish proposes. The demands of so public a genre as epic, and the didactic purposes avowed in the poem itself, surely suggest that if Milton if using stylistic variation as a resource for making clear to his readers the crucial distinctions between perfection and imperfection, innocent and corruption, he will do so in a manner that can be perceived and described without the elaborate machinery provided by Cope and Fish. Even if they are correct in their more complicated claims (I think Cope is and Fish is not), … (238)

Adam and Eve are eloquent, to be sure, but their eloquence is “prompt”—that is, the product of no Ciceronian rule book, no orator’s consideration of the available means of persuasion, but instead an “Unmediated” flowing of language… But one can define more precisely the uses of language that are condemned and those that are praised in Paradise Lost. Satan’s characteristic use of language treats words as entities of an independent value and existence, whose correspondence with the universe of things is a matter for speculation. This technique is most obvious in his manipulation of titles. He begins his exhortation to the not-yet-fallen angels in Book V: /

Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers,
If these magnific Titles yet remain
Not merely titular, since by Decree
Another now hath to himself ingross’t
All Power, and us eclipst under the name
Of King anointed. (v.772-777)
Satan is describing the Father’s proclamation of the Son as King anointed over all the angels… implies that the angels retain a right to certain powers and dignities because of their titles even if the Father should choose to take away these powers and dignities from them. Milton discussed the relationship between title and essence in The Christian Doctrine (Book I, Ch. V) and said the fact that the Son is sometimes called God, or that angels are sometimes referred to as gods in the Bible, in no way demonstrates that they are of the same essence and substance as the single true God. That is to say, powers and attributes, not titles, are what determine a being’s essential nature. But Satan ignores the truth… he is trying to suggest to his audience that the elevation of the Son is a verbal misunderstanding, that if He were called by some name other than “King,” His power would be less, and the angels restored to their former state. (239)

(v.794-797)… Language is being used not to reveal doctrinal truth, but to obscure truth by substituting for the logical appeal of good sense the rhetorical appeal of seductive patterns of sound. In commenting on this speech, T. S. Eliot claimed that it was nearly impossible to attend simultaneously to the paraphrasabel argument and the stirring aural effects. [“A Note on the Verse of John Milton,” Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, XXI (1936), 32-40] Eliot took this as evidence of Milton’s deplorable dissociation of the music of poetry from its meaning, but the blame, rightly allocated, belongs not to Milton but to Satan. (240)

The sense of passion produced by elaborate tropes and vivid description is exactly what is missing from the speeches of the Father. This is not to say that His speeches are barren of rhetorical devices—rhetoric is, after all, a discipline that describes the ways in which language can be used, and has names for figures that enhance clarity as well as for those that produce confusion. Like Satan and Belial, the Father repeats the same terms over and over in His speech, but the effect of the repetition is never to explore the wide range of possible meanings for ambiguous human language, but instead to insist on the sole relevance of a single, doctrinally correct meaning for each word. (240)

Quintiliam is typical of theoreticians of rhetoric in his admission that the arts of language are needed to persuade the corrupt of the dubious, not the elect of the truth. “Give me philosophers as judges, pack senates and assemblies with philosophers, … The fallen angels, themselves corrupt, are addressing others just as corrupt, and for this reason have need of all the resources of rhetorical eloquence. But god is speaking to His Son, … (241)

As J. B. Broadbent and Jackson I. Cope have pointed out, the style of God’s speeches tends to rely principally on schemes, while those of fallen creatures make more use of tropes. However, the Father’s second speech in Book III is rich in tropes—in metaphors—of a particular kind. …some of the most important and most vivid images in the poem. We see Adam “God-like erect” in Book IV, line 289, and Adam fallen, sprawled upon the ground in Book X, line 850. What looks like a simple metaphor of standing alludes to an prepares us for the most important action of the poem. Metaphor, in fact, turns out to be hardly metaphorical at all; man does indeed stumble on and deeper fall; … (241-242)

The tropes of the speakers in Hell are for the most synechdoches and metonymies used as pejorative periphrases to name God or His Son. But in God’s speech, most of the tropes are metaphors that strike us not simply as inventions of the speaker to make his speech rhetorically effective, but instead as part of the most fundamental fabric of the poem. (242)

It may be objected that the absence of emotional appeal in the Father’s speeches, however sound from the standpoint of doctrine and interesting in terms of Milton’s own ideas, is still a strategic error because the only audience for which a poet can write is one subject to all the failings of fallen men. But in the person of the Son, Milton gives his reader not only a doctrinal mediator between divine justice and human sinfulness, but also a character whose style of speech helps bridge the gap… In a sense, the Son can be considered a figure of speech—a metaphor—by which the Father expresses in a fashion comprehensible to imperfect creatures His own perfection. (242)

When Eve begins the long process of redemption in Book X, she offers a similar self-sacrifice in language clearly intended to remind us of the Son’s. … The reader discovers in the style of Eve’s speech a return to a world where there is no discontinuity between action and language; where the way something is said is an accurate and inevitable reflection of its real nature. (243)

In fact, the portrayal of the characters of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost recapitulates the pattern of stylistic alteration I have been describing in this essay. In their state of innocence, they are capable of using language not to manipulate the facts of the real world but simply to reveal it. When Eve explains to Adam the extent of her devotion to him, she does so by an elaborate simile that gives the impression of invoking, not just selected facts drawn from nature by a human observer, but the entire order of nature itself. … (IV. 639-656) … Eve fixes upon the loveliness of nature. But she singles out the process of nature, the break of day, rising of the sun, fall of showers, and fall of evening. … Language is used as an imitation of the orderliness of nature. Poetry is in keeping with what is known to be the truth about the way in which God’s creation works. (244)

As Eve begins to quarrel with Adam in Book IX, she changes from a speaker who uses words as counters that correspond exactly to the truths of the universe and begins instead to operate as a definer of terms, a questioner of the relationship between words and truth:
If this be our condition, thus to dwell
In narrow circuit strait’n’d’ by a Foe,
Subtle with like defense, wherever met,
How are we happy, still in fear of harm? (IX.322-326) (244)

In her debates with Satan and within her own mind just before the fall, Eve speculates about the meaning of “good” just as the fallen angels in Pandemonium speculated on the word “worse.” (244)

After the fall, Eve uses a metaphor of a particularly corrupt variety:
…but what if God have seen,
And Death ensue? Then I shall be no more,
And Adam wedded to another Eve,
Shall live with her enjoying, I extinct;
A death to think. (IX. 826-830)
Within one sentence Eve can think of death as the dreaded outcome of man’s disturbing of the order of the cosmos and also as a colloquial metaphorical resource to be used to gain an added touch of rhetorical emphasis. (244)

Like Eve, Adam prefaces his own fall with long passages of complex “reasoning” that play with the definitions of terms, passages that postulate a relationship between language and reality quite different from anything found in his earlier speeches. (244)

I have already indicated how the reconciliation of Adam and Eve with each other and with God takes place in language. … Despite the rhetorical skill of their fallen speeches to each other, they make no attempt to deceive God with elaborate language; Adam speaks like a child caught being naughty, and the Son rebukes him in the tones of a loving, disappointed parent. …Adam urges the language of gesture: prostration, tears, and sighs will speak to God far better than deceiving words: … (245-246)

The plainness of the dialogue in heaven, the “comedy” of the battle in Heaven, the absence of poetic display in Books XI and XII can all be seen as deliberate efforts to force the reader of Paradise Lost to qualify his admiration for effects of verbal virtuosity. Perhaps even the plain style of Paradise Regain’d and Jesus’ rejection of the arts and eloquence of Athens are part of the same pattern. (246)


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