Friday, January 31, 2014

Milton: A Master of Run-On Sentences


     I'm about halfway through the collected works of John Milton. It's a project that's taking some time. Mercifully the poetry is at the front of the volume. That's good because most of Milton's prose writings have little intrinsic interest. Aside from a few exceptions they are religious polemics against the high church prelates of his day. Reading such things tends to lower one's estimate of the author. Especially as their tone is beneath even the usual level of political polemics. I'll see if the tone improves with the more political pieces later in the book. It's hard to imagine the author of things like Paradise Lost and Sampson Agonistes using "fart jokes" as arguments, but it's there all right.

     Be that as it may there is another problem besides crudity to Milton's prose. I've discovered that he may be the ultimate master of the run-on sentence in the English language. Just to give the flavour of things here's a quote from one of his essays, 'Reason of Church Government Urged'. Take a deep breath:

     "For not to speak of that knowledge that rests in  the contemplation of natural causes and dimensions, which must need be a lower wisdom, as the object is low, certain it is, that he who hath obtained in more than the scantiest measure to know anything distinctly of God, and of his true worship, and what is infallibly good and happy in the state of man's life, though vulgarly not so esteemed; he that hath obtained to know this, the only high valuable wisdom indeed, remembering also that God, even to a strictness, requires the improvement of his intrusted gifts, cannot but sustain a sorer burden of mind, and more pressing, than any sustainable toil or weight which the body can labour under, how and in what manner he shall dispose and employ those sums of knowledge and illumination, which God has sent him into this world to trade with."

     Yes, that's all one sentence, and it is not an exception. I think it makes grammatical sense, but I'm not certain. Reading this sort of things is about as fun and as "educating" as reading post-modernist nonsense. I hereby nominate John Milton as the patron saint of post-modernism.



Anonymous said...

It's an issue with Milton's exposure to Latin scholarship of the day: we have to remember that Ciceronian prose had been re-discovered in the Italian Renaissance, and much as the Rococo period represented an over-florescence of the virtues expressed in Baroque art, the Reformation study of Latin, having been passed to them from Italian scholars, resulted in a prose style characterized by a surfeit of compound-complex clausal structures, historical and literary references, and extensive lists. Note also how I used the previous sentence to demonstrate the style. I am a Latin teacher, and hope this demonstration has provided some illumination of Milton's context, along with an explanation of some of his prose habits.

Kirby Evans said...

A courageous effort to actually read through the prose section of his work. Despite years of enjoying his poetry I have never bothered with the prose. I thought Milton scholars were the only ones who made the effort. However, if I think about there are very few great English poets whose prose has been worth reading for me. The most notable exception being Shelley.

Anyway, thanks for the post and for good measure I give you a link to Proust's longest sentence written on the site in both the original french and English translation.

Kirby Evans said...

The link didn't come out so I will try again -

mollymew said...

Thanks people

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