Milton’s Latinisms

Zach Pickard © 2003



There is considerably less to say about Milton's Latinisms than one might think; there is, however, a considerable amount to say about what critics have said about Milton's Latinisms over the course of our rather polemical century.  What follows is a little bit of each: I begin with a quick summary of what is meant by the word Latinism as it is applied to Milton (quickly: "the felt presence of Latin diction and usage within the English, interacting with it" [Hale 105]), and then go on to summarize the debate that has raged about it in critical circles.  After this, I return somewhat to the topic itself, while bringing forward some of the more recent, level-headed scholarship on the question in the hope of presenting an understanding of Milton's Latinism that is both more flexible and more concrete.  Throughout, I will be drawing examples exclusively from Paradise Lost since it is both  the most familiar of Milton's poems and the most influential.


Latinism and Milton’s Latinism

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a Latinism as

an idiom or form of expression characteristic of the Latin language, esp. one used by a writer in another language; conformity in style to Latin models. (“Latinism”)

This, however, seems weighted towards syntax, and much of what Milton has been accused of concerns lexis, so perhaps Hale’s definition may prove more flexible:

The felt presence of Latin diction and usage within the English, interacting with it. (Hale 105)

However Hale has his own agenda, and that last adverbial clause is perhaps slightly polemical.  In what follows, then, the reader may assume that, by Latinism, I mean the felt presence of Latin lexis or syntax in English—something less than code-switching, but something more than using words of distant Latin origin. 


Latinate Lexis

In his own time and immediately after, Milton was credited with Latinism as a matter of course.  In fact, Johnson uses the following quotation from Addison in his dictionary to illustrate his definition of the word:

Milton had made use of frequent transpositions, Latinisms, antiquated words and phrases, that he might the better deviate from the vulgar and ordinary expressions. (Johnson, “Latinism”)

Milton was, after all, a Latin secretary by day, and lived his daily work life entirely in that language.  So, not surprisingly, his

                        eighteenth-century critics and editors left […] a considerable legacy of comment and annotation which attributed to Milton a penchant for using words of Latin origin in sense which are redolent of their classical signification rather than their current English meaning. (Corns 95)

For example, a certain knowledge of Latin is necessary to fully understand Milton's word choices in the following lines:

                                                   up stood the corny reed

                        Embattled in her field: add the humble shrub,

                        And bush with frizzled hair implicit: last

                        Rose as in dance the stately trees, and spread

                        Their branches hung with copious fruit; or gemmed

                        Their blossoms. (VII 322-326)

Corny alludes neither to a common grain nor a common foot-ailment, but to the Latin cornu, horn.  Similarly, implicit implies its Latin ancestor, implicare, to entangle, and gemmed the Latin gemmare, to bud.  Elsewhere, Milton describes Sin and Death building the bridge to earth with "wondrous art / Pontifical," punning, at the Pope's expense, on the Latin pons, bridge (X 313-4); he also coins Latinate words in English, using "omnific" (VII 217) and "petrific" (X 294), rather than more acceptably English equivalents such as ‘all-making’ or ‘petrifying‘.  Similarly, as many critics note, when Raphael describes the waters “With serpent error wandering” (VII 302), he uses Latin senses of both serpent (winding or twisting) and error (straying or meandering) to bring together what are, in English, two causes of the fall (the snake and the mistake).


Latinate Syntax

Milton's near contemporaries also detected an un-English turn of phrase in his writing.  As Johnson puts it,

                        the truth is, that, both in prose and verse, he had formed his style by a perverse and pedantic principle.  He was desirous to use English words with a foreign idiom. (qtd in Milton 491)

The (in)famous first sentence of the poem illustrates this point nicely, taking six lines, several prepositional phrases, and a very complicated relative clause to reach its subject and the finite half of its main phrasal verb before spilling off again into a slew of nested relative clauses and conditionals and finally coming to rest after some sixteen lines.  In this way, Milton's word order and sentence structure tend to the liberality and suspension that an inflected language such as Latin allows.  Just as his word use reflects a familiarity with Latin, his grammatical mechanics sometimes reflect Latin rather than English models.  While this is not always the case, choosing, as he does, to make his first sentence, in which he invokes his muse and defines his own poetics, so Latinate, warns his reader that he has every intention of mixing Latinate syntax with English. 


The Literary Effects of Latinism

Throughout the epic, Milton displays what John Hale, borrowing terms from Ann Moss, calls a "compound" bilingualism, one in which, "the two languages are `learnt in the same context and are more or less interdependent'" (13).  Latin is always present both within and alongside English, colouring if not commandeering it at every turn.

            So these, in a nutshell, are the charges Milton has faced, or, to some, the particular virtues of his style:

·        lexically, a tendency to use Latinate words in their Latin senses and

·        syntactically, a tendency to structure his clauses and sentences on Latin rather than English models.

Considering the climate in which Milton wrote, this is far from surprising.  As Sylvia Adamson points out, "the drive to establish a national literature" in the Early Modern Era "led writers to challenge the achievements of Latin literature by faithfully reproducing its genres and styles in the vernacular" (541-42).  Spenser notwithstanding, the epic was an essentially classical genre, and to write an epic in English was to import classical models.  By importing Latinate senses and syntax together with a Latinate genre, Milton invests his epic with both the authority of the Latin language and what John Hale calls "Latin density and gravitas" (7), and, less than a decade after Paradise Lost was published, Boileau's translation of Longinus's peri êpsoV (literally "Of Elevation"), gave European aesthetics a word for the literary effect achieved by Milton’s linguistic strategy, a word that has come to be associated with Milton more than any other author: the sublime.


The Debate:

For most of three centuries, critics saw both advantages and disadvantages to Milton’s Latinism.  In our own century, this has not always been the case, and, to the ascendant New Critics, Milton was the great villain, and his Latinism a particular source of ire. 


The Attack on Latinate Syntax

It was on the charge of odd word and clause order that Milton stood accused, and no one accused him quite as forcefully as F.R. Leavis:

                        So complete, and so mechanical, is Milton's departure from the English order, structure and accentuation that he often produces passages that have to be read through several times before one can see how they go. (53)

In Ezra Pound's more concrete argument, Milton does "wrong to his mother tongue" by writing

                        "Him who disobeys me disobeys,"

when he means

                        "Who disobeys him disobeys me,"

and he does so because he is "chock a block with Latin" (ABC 51; the quote is from V.611-12).  The imputation is that of slavishness, of Latinism for Latinism's sake, which, because of Milton's great influence on subsequent generations, results in what Eliot calls "the deterioration—the peculiar kind of deterioration—to which he subjected the language" (258).  Few of these attacks are argued in a comprehensive manner, or with examples, but tend to imply, rather, that Milton and his supporters are somehow low.  This is about more than just Latinism, as one of Eliot's more vicious ad hominem attacks shows:

                        Either from the moralists' point of view, or from the theologian's point of view, or from the psychologist's point of view, or from that of the political philosopher, or judging by the ordinary standards of likeableness in human beings, Milton is unsatisfactory. (258)

Ultimately, the anti-Miltonist position is less useful as a starting point for a discussion of Latinism in his poetry than as a reflection of the attitude towards language favoured by the Modernist project (Pound: "1. Direct treatment of the `thing' whether subjective or objective. 2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation. 3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome" [Literary 3]), itself a continuation of the Romantic impetus towards what Wordsworth called "the language really spoken by men" (254). 


Modernist intemperance notwithstanding, many Miltonists felt the need to come to their poet's aid, and Christopher Ricks, in his book on Milton's Grand Style, does an impressive job of responding to Leavis and company.  He first admits that

                        plainly there are times when Milton deviates from the usual word-order for the bad reason that he is in the habit of it.  And there are times when he does so for the inadequate and well-known reason that the result sounds more magniloquent. (27)

But he then goes on to show that in "the usual run of the verse," "the syntax is meaningfully controlled with great success" (27).  By using New-Critical terms and tools to defend some of Milton's more seemingly erratic syntactical choices, and by admitting both the fact that Milton is prone to Latinism and that, at times, this is a failing, Ricks is able to answer Milton's attackers without allowing that Latinism is a bad thing per se. 


The Scientific Defence

The argument should have ended there but did not, and in the fifties and sixties, some of Milton's defenders pursued the ill-advised strategy of attempting to refute the charge of Latinism altogether. 



The first to enter the fray was Lalia Phipps Boone, who argues in "The Language of Book VI, Paradise Lost," that Milton's diction is not, in fact, Latinate.  She focuses entirely on the question of vocabulary, and tries, using a statistical model, to "refute the popular opinion concerning the native content of Milton's vocabulary" (115).  There are a number of problems with Boone's methodology: she is concerned only with vocabulary, and leaves syntax aside even though the "popular opinion" of her day concerned the latter and not the former; she fails to provide any sort of control or context; her classification of words as foreign or native relies on etymology at the expense of usage; and she positions her analysis not against modern detractors, but against the testimony of Milton's earliest commentators, who, presumably, had good sense of which words sounded foreign to their ears.  



Ronald Emma's book-length Milton's Grammar, suffers from similar methodological flaws.  He bases his comparison on a small (8,000 word) sample of Milton's writing and uses even smaller samples from Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot as a control.  This is a calculated attack: Eliot famously wrote that "even in his most mature work, Milton does not infuse new life into the word, as Shakespeare does" (260).  Thomas Corns, who generally goes out of his way to be generous to Emma, laments that "the design of [Emma's] study fails to satisfy the rigorous expectations his methodology raises" (3).  Emma is also the first to make the rather odd assertion that despite "Milton's classical learning and his efforts to adapt foreign usages" his sentence structure is not essentially Latinate (140).  He bases this assertion on the idea that "the native English tradition is rooted in parataxis" (140); however, it is not parataxis of which Milton stands accused, but hypotaxis.  As Corns rather dryly sums it up, "interpretively, [Emma's] study fails badly" (2).



Despite the obvious flaws in both Boone and Emma's works, they are both cited approvingly by Alistair Fowler in his highly influential 1968 edition of and introduction to Paradise Lost.  Following Emma, Fowler asserts rather boldly that

                        the sentence structure of Paradise Lost has nothing overtly neo-classical about it […] It is anything but an ordinary structure; but it is not extraordinary in a manner foreign to the genius of English. (431)

Rather, the "many individual clauses or phrases that could be described as having Latin or Greek construction" are accidents since

                        the arrangements of words in Paradise Lost have their own poetic reasons.  If (subsequently, as it were) they can be made to correspond to Latin constructions, so much the better. (431)

It is surprising to see a scholar of Fowler's standing reduced to the argument that Milton’s English corresponds to Latin constructions accidentally.  Fowler also does a great deal in his notes and glosses to de-Latinize Milton's vocabulary, pointing to seventeenth-century English uses of words that had by earlier, that is, 17th- and 18th-century editors, been glossed as Latinate.  There is an intuitive problem here in that one must decide whether to trust Fowler and his dictionary or people living and writing within a century of Milton, including, for example, Samuel Johnson.  Fowler's position implies that a recorded English use of a word indicates that the word is unproblematically English, and it downplays the aura of Latinism that might well cling to a word long after it has entered the English language.  This bias comes out further when he describes the largest grouping of Latinisms as those in which

                        the latin usage is a secondary sense only.  The primary sense is an ordinary English usage, but a Latin usage is present in addition, as an allusion or ambiguity […] There are many 'Latinisms' of this type. (432)

The sarcastic quotation marks around "Latinisms" imply that paying too much attention to such "secondary" meanings is a failing.  Building on Boone’s dubious lexical revision and Emma’s flawed syntactical argument, Fowler somehow comes around to the position that there is nothing Latinate in Milton at all, at any level.


Moving On: Corns and Hale

From Leavis to Fowler, with the exception of Ricks, the critical discourse that surrounds Milton's Latinism traffics heavily in bias, places immense evaluative weight on what is, essentially, a matter of style, is either stingy as regards evidence or flawed as regards methodology, and is characterized throughout by either rampant polemics or underhanded partiality.  However, two more recent studies have managed to avoid most of these failings and produce refreshingly thoughtful and mercifully concrete discussions of Milton's Latinism.  Thomas Corns's Milton's Language is everything that Boone and Emma should be; it is scientific in approach, employs sound methodology, and presents solid, balanced analyses of Milton's language.  John Hale's Milton's Languages, on the other hand, does everything that Fowler should have; carefully, learnedly, and without polemics, Hale makes a case about how Latin Milton's English really is, without being arbitrary or dictatorial.  In preparing this survey, these two are the only critics I have felt willing to trust on even the most basic questions about the most common or obvious Latinate tendencies in Milton's writing.



Corns is careful to take a healthy sample from Milton, and, more importantly, to select an appropriate control sample from Milton's contemporaries, taking questions of genre into account (as Emma does not).  His findings regarding clause order within sentences are interesting.  Milton does not, as one might have thought "so order his sentences that the main clause is persistently interrupted or postponed" any more than do "the generality of other poets" (30).  However, Corns does find that the "degree of what we may term 'lower subordination', that is, of subordi­nate clauses which depend, not directly on main clauses, but on clauses which are themselves subordinate" offers a "sharp dis­tinction between Milton and his contemporaries" (22-23).  Whether or not this bears any concrete relationship to actual Latin practices is not established, but it coincides on an intuitive level with what is generally meant by the word Latinate.


Hale is more concrete about what is actually Latin in so-called Latinate syntax, pointing out two constructions that have bled over into Milton's English: the ablative absolute, and the use of a predic­ative past participle in the place of an abstract noun.  The ablative absolute finds its way into phrases like the following:

                        This inaccessible high strength, the seat

                        Of deity supreme, us dispossessed,

                        He trusted to have seized. (VII 141-3)

The phrase sounds like too-literally translated Latin, and would sound more English as "once we have dispossessed it" or "having been dispossessed by us."  The odd use of predicative past participles is more common, appearing most notably in the title of the poem, which really means "The Loss of Paradise," but also in the phrase "never since created man" (I 573) for "never since the creation of man."  Hale is a little evasive about just how common these constructions are, and, after pointing them out, retreats into a number of what he admits are isolated incidents of various other Latin constructions in the poem, but he certainly deserves credit for trying to move the discussion of Latinate syntax towards a greater specificity. 



Corns says little that is new about lexis, but Hale is at his most interesting in the discussion of individual words.  Before looking to the text, he shows very carefully just how comfortable Milton and his contemporaries were in Latin, and, therefore, how unlikely it is that any shade of Latin meaning would be lost on them.  Rather than try to de-Latinize Milton's English, which drains the "crucial element, pleasure," from it, he suggests we search out "Latinism of thought, of diction, of sound, of syntax, and of allusion" since

                        the spread of sense is simply fuller and more dynamic, more haunted, if we hear the Latin as equal or primary. (116-119, all italics original)

The aspect of allusion is particularly fruitful, as Hale draws out not only the Latin sense of certain words but the particular Latin contexts with which Milton and his audience would associate them.  This provides an opportunity to see in Milton's Latinism a literary merit more acceptable to a contemporary audience.  Where Milton's contemporaries could enjoy the sublimity of his Latinism, our own postmodern ears are more attuned to its multivalence, intertextuality, and hybridity.  By bringing this out, Hale, like Ricks, is able to use contemporary critical tools to reject the basic Leavisite premise that Latinism is, in and of itself, a bad thing.  But Hale goes considerably farther than this: he invokes the renaissance interest in imitatio and relates it to the question of intertextuality in the poem; he discusses the extent to which the different speakers in the poem employ varying degrees of Latinism; and he raises the question of Milton's other languages (all eight of them) and the effect they had on his English.  Hale's main failing is merely that he does too much.  His book is almost an overview of an entire new field of scholarship, and, as a result he is unable to cover anything thoroughly enough.  However, if nothing else, he has rescued Milton's Latinism from the critics.



That there is Latinism in Milton seems self-evident; that it was used as a stick with which to beat him during the early decades of this century seems a great shame, but that his defenders should accept the questionable premises of the New-Critical attack and try de-Latinize Milton altogether seems the greatest shame of all.  However, perhaps, there may now be room to address Milton’s Latinism for what it is, a stylistic feature based on certain linguistic habits that has its own strengths, weaknesses, and quirks.  We may, now,  have come, as Hale hopes, to the point where we can agree that

                        The approach through Latinism has much to offer: not through lumping or splitting, nor in carrying on the sterile debate between `native sinew' and alien poshness, but more simply as a heuristic device. (129)



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___. Literary Essays. Ed. T.S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1935.

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