‘Paradise Lost’ in Prose
Dennis Danielson, a distinguished Miltonist, has just published a translation of “Paradise Lost
.” Into what language?, you ask. Into English, is the answer.
Danielson is well aware that it might seem odd to translate a poem into the language in which it is already written. Dryden turned some of “Paradise Lost” into rhymed verse for a libretto while Milton was still alive; but that was an adaptation, not a translation. There are of course the Classic Comics and Cliff Notes precedents; but these are abridgments designed for the students who don’t have time to, or don’t want to, read the book. Danielson’s is a word-for-word translation, probably longer than the original since its prose unpacks a very dense poetry. The value of his edition, he says, is that it “invites more readers than ever before to enjoy the magnificent story — to experience the grandeur, heroism, pathos, beauty and grace of Milton’s inimitable work.”
Danielson borrows the word “inimitable” from John Wesley, who in 1763 was already articulating the justification for a prose translation of the poem. Wesley reports that in the competition for the title of world’s greatest poem, “the preference has generally been given by impartial judges to Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’” but, he laments, “this inimitable work amidst all its beauties is unintelligible to [an] abundance of readers.” Two hundred and fifty years later, Harold Bloom made the same observation. Ordinary readers, he said, now “require mediation to read ‘Paradise Lost’ with full appreciation.”
What features of the poem require mediation? Danielson’s answer is the “linguistic obscurity” from which he proposes to “free” the story so that today’s readers can read it “in their own language.” By their own language he doesn’t mean the language of some “with-it” slang, but a language less Latinate in its syntax and less archaic in its diction than the original (which was archaic and stylized when it was written). 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.
Like Milton, these poets do not make it easy for readers to move through a poem. Roadblocks, in the form of ambiguities, deliberate obscurities, shifting grammatical paths and recondite allusions, are everywhere and one is expected to stop and try to figure things out, make connections or come to terms with an inability to make connections.
The experience of reading poetry like this was well described by the great critic F.R. Leavis, who said of Milton (he did not mean this as a compliment) that his verse “calls pervasively for a kind of attention … toward itself.” That is, when reading the poetry one is not encouraged to see it as a window on some other, more real, world; it is its own world, and when it refers it refers to other parts of itself. Milton, Leavis said, displays “a capacity for words rather than a capacity for feeling through words.” The poetry is not mimetic in the usual sense of representing something prior to it; it creates the facts and significances to which you are continually asked to attend.
It is from this strenuous and often frustrating labor that Danielson wants to free the reader, who, once liberated, will be able to go with the flow and enjoy the pleasures of a powerful narrative. But that is not what Milton had in mind, as Donald Davie, another prominent critic, saw when he observed (again in complaint) that, rather than facilitating forward movement, Milton’s verse tends to “check narrative impetus” and to “provoke interesting and important speculative questions,” the consideration of which interrupts our progress.
Here is an example. When Adam decides to join Eve in sin and eat the apple, the poem says that he was “fondly overcome by female charm.” The word that asks you to pause is “fondly,” which means both foolishly and affectionately. The two meanings have different relationships to the action they characterize. If you do something foolishly, you have no excuse, and it’s a bit of a mystery as to why you did; if you do it prompted by affection and love, the wrongness of it may still be asserted, but something like an explanation or an excuse has at least been suggested.
Full article at: http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/