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  • "Bless Us! What a Word on a Title Page Is This!":Linguistic Purism and Milton's English Verse
  • Alexandra Reider

We have long known that there are many moments in Paradise Lost when non-English languages influence the diction and syntax of Milton's English verse. In 1712, Joseph Addison counted them among the "Defects of the Poem": "If, in the last Place, we consider the Language of this great Poet, we must allow what I have hinted at in a former Paper, that it is often too much labored, and sometimes obscured by old Words, Transpositions, and Foreign Idioms."1 Thomas Newton was more even-handed in his 1749 annotated edition of the poem when he noted that Milton, "in conformity with the practice of the ancient poets, and with Aristotle's rule, has infused a great many Latinisms as well as Graecisms, and sometimes Hebraisms, into the language of his poem."2 In his 1997 Milton's Languages: The Impact of Multilingualism on Style, John K. Hale applies the question of foreign influence to a larger set of works, seeking out instances of the influence of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Italian diction and syntax primarily on Milton's [End Page 211] English poetry, but also on some of the Latin prose.3 Hale carefully and abundantly documents points of influence and connections between individual languages, and his conclusion brooks no dissent by the work's end: yes, Milton's non-English languages absolutely shaped his writings, broadly considered. This conclusion makes a wider swathe of Milton's corpus available to the kind of observation, seen just now in Addison and Newton, most often made about Paradise Lost. Mining Milton's texts for subterranean signs of foreign-language influence has reaped considerable dividends for our understanding of the writer and will certainly continue to do so.

It is precisely because Milton drew on foreign languages more than most writers that he must have known he was inviting charges of "adulterating" English.4 And, I would suggest, he did know: at least one poem, Sonnet 11, discloses an awareness of linguistic purism, the belief that the best English, or the best form of any language, is one free from foreign influence.5 Then, subsequent poems that span Milton's career include scenes in which the "purity" of language features prominently—or in which such "purity" has conspicuously fallen away. I use "purity" to mean insulation from change and foreign influence, well aware that such insulation is more idealized than realized. The linguist Endre Brunstad puts it plainly: "From a linguistic point of view, there is no such thing as a 'pure' language."6

This essay articulates Milton's ongoing concern with the relationship of his work to the intellectual problem of the purity of language. It begins with a major revision of our understanding of Sonnet 11. I want to argue that this poem, far from being an exercise in nostalgia for classical learning, stages Milton's recognition of the pervasiveness of linguistic purism and of the role it may have played in the reception of Tetrachordon. This reading lays the foundation for a consideration of three moments in Milton's verse that bear on either the purity or the foreignness of language, on scales both large (discrete languages in contact) and small (one primary language). In other words, the concerns that Milton signals by giving voice to linguistic purists in Sonnet 11 haunt him [End Page 212] long after the poem's close. In Sonnet 12 and the Tower of Babel scene in book 12 of Paradise Lost, the collision of foreign languages poses seemingly insurmountable hurdles.7 Then, in book 4 of Paradise Regained, we learn that Jesus most values Hebrew and the culture that it preserves in its purity. In these episodes, linguistic purity proves the best and, in some instances, only engine of cultural achievement; conversely, the presence of more than one language is shown to impede human progress and triumph. Each scene differs in its particulars, but the underlying message is clear: Milton sees a benefit to purity of language. This is perhaps surprising, given that he so often chooses to inflect his English with...


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