Noting the Delirious Footnote

Having a job (for now) and a family means reading much less than one might. My current re-reading of Paradise Lost began in March; I’m in Book X now. Given such a pitiful pace, I have mostly ignored the notes in Gordon Teskey’s Norton Critical Edition, 2005. (Teskey, the author of Delirious Milton, is a well-loved teacher at Harvard; I’ve never met him.) Fortunately, given that I need them from time-to-time, the notes are footnotes (at the bottom of the page) and not endnotes. If they were endnotes, I’d probably ignore them altogether. Anyway, Saturday, pretty much the only day that I can read, I was surprised to find the following note:

498-99: surging maze: This picture of the rising, moving complicatedly twisted loops of the serpent’s body is amoung the finest poetic images in the poem. (pg. 210)

Really?! I simply cannot imagine the “surging maze” in any memorable way. Here’s the passage (from The John Milton Reading Room) for your own assessment:

So spake the Enemie of Mankind, enclos’d
In Serpent, Inmate bad, and toward Eve
Address’d his way, not with indented wave,
Prone on the ground, as since, but on his reare,
Circular base of rising foulds, that tour’d
Fould above fould a surging Maze, his Head
Crested aloft, and Carbuncle his Eyes;
With burnisht Neck of verdant Gold, erect
Amidst his circling Spires, that on the grass
Floted redundant: pleasing was his shape,
And lovely, never since of Serpent kind
Lovelier, not those that in Illyria chang’d
Hermione and Cadmus, or the God
In Epidaurus; nor to which transformd
Ammonian Jove, or Capitoline was seen,
Hee with Olympias, this with her who bore
Scipio the highth of Rome. (9.494-510)

It’s just too complex for me–Milton made the possessed serpent partly a massive snake with burning red eyes and partly a Disney castle floating across the lawn of paradise. This, however (and apart from the fact that I disagree), is all beside the point … or is it the point? I might think Milton’s serpent moves with unimaginable complexity, but would I say so in the footnotes of “a critical edition”?

In other words, Teskey let a bit of marginalia slip into his textual annotations. This discovery has slowed my progress; I have pulled every edition from my shelves to compare notes and I have searched for others online. Most editors note that “spires” refers to the serpent’s coils; only Thomas Newton allowed himself a bit of emotion.

But our author has not only imitated Ovid, but has ransack’d all the good poets, who have ever made a remarkable description of a serpent …. (Milton, John. 1758. Paradise lost A poem, in twelve books. The author John Milton. From the text of Thomas Newton D.D. Birmingham: printed by John Baskerville for J. and R. Tonson in London. p. 168)

Although I am a bit surprised at Teskey’s subjective effusion, should we object? Should the editor step aside and let the readers find their own “finest poetic images”? Or, does such an admission from the editor win the poem a more engaged reading? I favor the first, but must confess that I am now pausing to skim backwards through the previous eight books of footnotes. (Also see, 9.372n: “they stay … more. The truest thing said in this poem.”) Add a few more weeks to my re-reading. After all, a man with two maternal grandmothers cannot be ignored.

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3 responses to “Noting the Delirious Footnote

  1. OH lovely a careful reader! Don’t forget Teskey’s speciality is allegory, which is a two-d reading – and poetry does not really play into that, so a maze surging, or a surging maze, for Teskey is probably beautiful, if we could all see the backbones of what we are looking at. This comment of Teskey’s means he was only thinking of structure, rather than what the image conveyed. I hope what I say, makes sense.

  2. Thanks for the helpful comment.

    I think I understand. Is it that Teskey (fond of allegory) appreciates the image for its allegorical suggestiveness? Namely, that the possessed serpent might be thought of as a maze (but not a passive maze, a surging maze) in which one might quickly become “lost” … in all senses of the word? I think, perhaps, Milton’s image of the serpent also displays his protestant suspicion of ornate and overly complicated religious disputations. But, allegory is not image. Structure might be image. I suppose I like my allegories to succeed (when they are also images) as images first and allegories second. The image of a surging maze of a snake folded upon itself works for me (I’m not sure I’d call it beautiful), but Milton complicates the image with the “circling spires, that on the grass / floated redundant”.

    Do you really think that poetry does not support allegorical (two-d) readings? Does prose do a better job?

  3. OH I simply meant that an academic, or an editor, would at some point concentrate on seeing and understanding the poem, for its structure, in this sense – meaning is not conveyed by image – (and allegory is the easiest sort of structure to identify), but by the reader’s own imagination upon reading – or rather than an academic would read the surging maze to be referring to the structure of the passage literally as a maze work of works rising into form – which for an editor would be beautiful because it exposes the form and speaks directly to the editor who is doubtlessly looking for an affirmation in the poetry from the poet to him directly – to answer your question, poetry does support allegorical reading – as long as that satisfies the reader, but ultimately good imagery does not need dissecting or illuminating, it just does it – on it’s own, like jokes that should not have to be explained. And of course some prose is poetry, and some poetry is prose – I think. But then again, I am not an academic – I am a bookseller, you are a reader, and your observations are precious because they are fresh, and untrammelled by structure which sometimes restricts rather than releases meaning and understanding. What is interesting, what I meant is that this is the observation of the editor, who is like a dentist for the poem. He literally sees the surging maze, and in this case in the poem, and in the structure of the poem. The closest I can get is to say it must have something to do with ‘relief’ or contrast – that lovely feeling of suddenly seeing the form and shape of what previous looked two d becomes three d. I keep answering you more precisely in my mind, and when it comes to putting words to computer – they escape. You may edit this ….

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