Thursday 18 December 2008

Paradise Lost: parallel prose edition

Continuing our celebratory Milton theme, let me tell you about this very unusual – and quite remarkable – new book. Dennis Danielson, one of the world’s most distinguished interpreters of Milton (and a brilliant interpreter of Milton’s theology), has translated the whole of Paradise Lost into prose!

Paradise Lost: Parallel Prose Edition (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2008), 559 pp. (thanks to Regent College for a copy)

Milton’s poetry is notoriously difficult. T. S. Eliot famously remarked that Milton “invent[s] his own poetic language.” Every linguistic idiosyncrasy, Eliot said, “is a particular act of violence which Milton has been the first to commit”; his poetic style is “a perpetual sequence of original acts of lawlessness.” Milton’s verse is therefore “poetry at the farthest possible remove from prose” – thus explaining both its sheer difficulty and the extraordinary capacity of the language to captivate and beguile.

I must admit, I was at first skeptical when I heard about Danielson’s new edition. Sure, everyone admits that Paradise Lost is difficult. But conventional scholarship tries to meet this difficulty by arming students with annotations, introductions, and various other scholarly aids. In contrast, Danielson’s approach is startlingly unorthodox: he simply translates the poetry into prose. And after perusing this edition – once I had recovered from the initial shock – I have to say I’m very impressed.

Danielson’s edition contains no scholarly apparatus. You simply have the full text of the poem on one page, with a prose translation on the facing page. The translation is not a substitute for the text, then – but it’s an easy, enjoyable way for readers to interpret a given passage and to follow the larger movement of the narrative. In a poem like this, difficult interpretive decisions lurk around every corner (or behind every bush); so Danielson’s prose can also be profitably read as an extended interpretive commentary on the poem – albeit a commentary which artfully conceals its own immense learning and scholarly sophistication.

Of course, reading a prose translation like this will still introduce a regrettable distance between the reader and the poetry; but I suspect such distancing is even more pronounced where one’s reading is mediated by textual commentary and elaborate footnotes “in terrible array / Of hideous length.” A prose interpretation like Danielson’s at least encourages the reader to enjoy the poem, not merely to work at it; to become absorbed in the poem’s own peculiar world and in its strange, compelling narrative.

Let me give a few examples of Danielson’s translation. From the poem’s famous opening passage, here is Milton describing Satan’s fall from heaven:

Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,

Who durst defie th’ Omnipotent to Arms.

And here is Danielson’s rendering on the facing page: “But Omnipotence hurled him, flaming, from the dizzy height of heaven into the lost and fathomless depths, there, ruined and burnt out yet still on fire, to wear the unbreakable chains he earned by daring the Almighty to take up arms.”

For another example, here’s Milton describing the animals in Eden – the animals play together while Adam and Eve rest after a day’s work:

About them frisking playd
All Beasts of th’ Earth, since wilde, and of all chase
In Wood or Wilderness, Forrest or Den;

Sporting the Lion rampd, and in his paw

Dandl'd the Kid; Bears, Tygers, Ounces, Pards
Gambold before them, th’ unwieldy Elephant
To make them mirth us’d all his might, and wreathd
His Lithe Proboscis; close the Serpent sly
Insinuating, wove with Gordian twine

His breaded train, and of his fatal guile

Gave proof unheeded; others on the grass
Coucht, and now fild with pasture gazing sat,

Or Bedward ruminating: for the Sun

Declin’d was hasting now with prone carreer

To th’ Ocean Iles, and in th’ ascending Scale

Of Heav’n the Starrs that usher Evening rose.

And here’s Danielson: “All the animals of the earth (since become wild) and of every terrain, whether wood, wilderness, jungle or plain, frisked and played about with them. The lion reared up in sport, and in his paw he dandled a young goat as one might a small child. Bears, tigers, lynxes, and leopards frolicked in front of them. The unwieldy elephant used all his might to make them laugh and coiled his limber trunk. Nearby the sly snake, twisting and turning, wove his sinuous length into subtle knots, unheeded evidence of fateful cunning. Others reposed on the grass and, having grazed their fill, sat merely observing or sleepily chewing their cud. For the sinking sun was hastening now on its course toward the horizon and the islands of the west; and ascending the staircase of the heavens rose the stars that usher in the evening.”

Or, once more, here is Milton describing the world’s creation:

Darkness profound
Cover’d th’ Abyss: but on the watrie calme
His brooding wings the Spirit of God outspred,
And vital vertue infus’d, and vital warmth
Throughout the fluid Mass, but downward purg’d

The black tartareous cold Infernal dregs
Adverse to life: then founded, then conglob’d

Like things to like, the rest to several place
Disparted, and between spun out the Air,

And Earth self ballanc’t on her Center hung.

And here is Danielson: “Profound darkness obscured the abyss; but the Spirit of God stretched out his brooding wings upon the watery stillness, infusing that fluid mass with the power and warmth of life, flushing downward the dark abysmal cold infernal dregs, life’s antithesis. Then he fused like things with like, molding them into a sphere; and to the rest he assigned separate regions. Between them he spun out the air, and in its midst he hung the earth, balanced on nothing but itself.”

You can see what I mean when I say that this prose translation may actually help readers to stay closer to the text than they would when their reading is mediated by a clutter of scholarly footnotes and interpretive comments. In spite of the inherent limitations of prose, and in spite of the ways in which Milton’s style eludes any single rendering, Danielson nevertheless succeeds remarkably in drawing your attention back to the shape of the narrative action and to the structure of Milton’s own language.

Those with an expert knowledge of Paradise Lost will find Danielson’s prose to be a fascinating and engaging interpretation of the text. And those reading the poem for the first time – or teaching it – will find this edition to be an elegant and surefooted help, an aid which is delightful in its own right, and which “timely interposes” in those moments of poetic difficulty.


Anonymous said...

How lovely!

Can he do The Inferno and Faust prose interpretations for us!?

Anonymous said...

Love the description of footnotes!

elaborate footnotes “in terrible array / Of hideous length”.

Sheila said...

This is fascinating. Thanks for making me aware of it.

Anonymous said...

Good review. I like the prose. The theology leaves something to be desired.

Anonymous said...

Is the poetry really so hard to follow? Modernizing some of the spelling takes care of most of the difficulty, in my opinion. What effort remains is surely worth it!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, I've ordered a copy. Looks like I've finally run out of excuses not to read 'Paradise Lost'!

Anonymous said...

If anyone is ordering direct from the publishers, Regent Bookstore, they can ask for a signed copy (signed by Danielson, not Milton!!!). I saw a pile of signed copies there this morning.

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