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  • A Study of Milton's Greek
  • John K. Hale

If Shakespeare had small Latin and less Greek, Milton had much Latin but even more Greek. The Greek that he quotes in his voluminous Latin prose would amaze us, for variety and depth alike, if it were not so scattered. Translations further disadvantage the Greek whenever one of Milton's Latin texts appears solely in English translation, homogenizing the Greek that they include and losing its interplay with the Latin in the English: this practice forfeits the code-switch and obscures the purpose it had for Milton. Editors too belittle the Greek, being occupationally likelier to gloss Milton's contextual thrust than to dwell on the flavor of each Greek original and Milton's understanding of it. Instead, to bring out features of that understanding that have been obscured or forgotten, the present study gathers his most substantial or significant Greek quotations in order to examine how he appreciates and exploits them.1

By "substantial or significant" passages, two emphases are intended. First, the longer a quotation, the more opportunity to assess it; yet equal length does not mean equal significance. Contrariwise, quality, in a short stabbing thrust, may outweigh quantity. Second, the criterion points us to the Greek of poets. Milton's Latin prose tends to cite less from Greek prose writers [End Page 187] than from Greek poets. When it does cite Greek prose, in the Defences for instance, he routinely quotes only a few words of it, like a caption or lemma, before beginning again and continuing with the full passage quoted in a literal Latin translation. Now contrast how he cites Greek poets: only the full actual words will do, whether or not he then renders them into a literal Latin. To put the point with its full proper strength, Milton quotes Greek poets in their own, Greek words, since these are what make (say) Homer Homer. These hold the authority he finds, persistently, in Greek poets.

That authority contains two main elements—the pleasurable and the useful, mixed, in Horace's formulation.2 Each quotation supports Milton's local, rhetorical purpose. That purpose is aided by what his choice of resource antecedently shows, namely, his delight in its qualities or beauty. The proportioning varies, but both aspects deserve scrutiny here. If anything, since Greek is no longer at the fingertips of Milton's readership, I shall favor the pleasurable over the useful, since translations and editions favor the useful.

That is why my study dwells on the outstanding specimens, and arranges them more by Greek origins than by the chronology or genre of Milton's works. Greek poets come first, and are taken by priority of date and also genre. I begin with Homer, as used for the Second Defence and De doctrina Christiana, because for the Greeks and their reception history, Homer is first and foundational—for poetry, epic, and poetic diction; for myths of gods and social identity; and for festivals, cults, and culture. The trajectory continues into later poets who emulated Homer, writing the secondary (non-oral) epics that Milton valued for his entire life: these are viewed in the Second Defence again, and in the letter to Philaras. They are followed by the dramatists: the three tragedians and Aristophanes in the First Defence, where Milton crosses swords with Salmasius about drama itself. Greek prose authors are not considered except for the New Testament. Finally, Greek criticism (Aristotle and Longinus) is applied to the extracts and to Milton's extracting.3 [End Page 188]

Homer in the Second Defence

Although their occasion and tenor overlap, the Defences vary in scope and address, and so they do in their way with Greek authors. The First Defence aspires to be a comprehensive rebuttal, chapter by chapter, of Salmasius's defense of the king. Accordingly, its Greek helps to answer the notable humanist scholar, and this need controls Milton's choice of authors. Homer, however, figures so little, and the dramatists so prominently, that we postpone consideration of the First Defence. By contrast, the Second Defence serves two new purposes: it rebuts the accusations of the presumed new opponent, Morus, and it attacks Morus. The rebuttal...


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pp. 187-210
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