A new “translation” of Paradise Lost has been published. Translation, you ask? Into what language, sir? Well–English, of course. It is a prose translation, meant to disencumber the modern reader from the “linguistic obscurity” of Milton’s unrhymed iambic pentameter, aka blank verse. This is an understandable aim. Unlike, say, Chaucer, Milton wrote in modern English, but his sentences are very long, his syntax wacked-out, his vocabulary monstrous. Or as Stanley Fish says, “Milton’s language is not like Chaucer’s — a dialect modern readers must learn; it is our language structured into a syntax more convoluted than the syntax of ordinary speech, but less convoluted or cryptic than the syntax of modern poets like Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery.” Fish also makes the excellent point that the effect of Milton’s words was archaic and obscure in its own time: PL was supposed to sound something like the Bible, Greek epic, and a scientific treatise, all wrapped into a moral poem of the highest art.
Actually, I don’t think Stevens’s or Ashbery’s syntax is all that tough–I think their subjects are tough! But in any case, today we’re going to read Paradise Lost. Kidding! People, it’s 12 books of something like 1000 lines each. And yet, and yet… his techniques are not totally foreign to our typical format. PL is actually a bit of a hodge-podge, containing within its epic structure elements of novel, prose-poem, lyric poetry, and, particularly, renaissance drama. One example is the plenitude of potentially stand-alone sonnets embedded within the books.
Consider lines 886-899 of Book IV. One way to analyze this poem would be to ask one brave reader to do the work that Dennis Danielson has just done with his new book, and “translate” it for us. Another intrepid soul might offer his/her thoughts about what is lost, what is gained, in the explanatory process. This is a scene after Satan has escaped from Hell and is making his way to earth to wreak havoc on Adam and Eve, God’s new favorites. Gabriel, guarding the gates of the earthly paradise, asks him, Yo, you were locked up in hell as punishment for disobeying God’s will. Why’d you hafta go and escape? Satan replies:
Gabriel, thou hadst in Heav’n th’ esteem of wise,
And such I held thee; but this question askt
Puts me in doubt. Lives ther who loves his pain?
Who would not, finding way, break loose from Hell,
Though thither doomd? Thou wouldst thyself, no doubt,
And boldly venture to whatever place
Farthest from pain, where thou mightst hope to change
Torment with ease, and; soonest recompence
Dole with delight, which in this place I sought;
To thee no reason; who knowst only good,
But evil hast not tri’d: and wilt object
His will who bound us? let him surer barr
His Iron Gates, if he intends our stay
In that dark durance: thus much what was askt.