Thursday, November 24, 2005

Milton as a Reader of Nicander

In Milton's essay Of Education we learn that if only we should teach children, in addition to the usual arts and sciences, 'the helpful experience of hunters, fowlers, fisherman, shepherds, gardners, apothecaries,' then 'those poets which are now counted most hard will be both facile and pleasant: Orpheus, Hesiod, Theocritus, Aratus, Nicander, Oppian, Dionysius, and in Latin, Lucretius, Manilius, and the rural part of Virgil.'

It comes as no surprise then when we find Nicander creeping up in book X of Paradise Lost. Satan has returned triumphantly to Hell and makes a self-congratulatory speech which doesn't go over quite so well. Note, particularly, the list of snakes, which even includes a scorpion, from verses 524-529:

504    So having said, awhile he stood expecting
505    Their universal shout and high applause
506    To fill his ear; when, contrary, he hears
507    On all sides from innumerable tongues
508    A dismal universal hiss, the sound
509    Of public scorn. He wonder'd, but not long
510    Had leisure, wond'ring at himself now more:
511    His visage drawn he felt to sharp and spare,
512    His arms clung to his ribs, his legs entwining
513    Each other till, supplanted, down he fell
514    A monstrous serpent on his belly prone,
515    Reluctant but in vain: a greater power
516    Now rul'd him, punish'd in the shape he sinn'd,
517    According to his doom. He would have spoke,
518    But hiss for hiss return'd with forked tongue
519    To forked tongue; for now were all transform'd
520    Alike, to serpents all, as accessories
521    To his bold riot. Dreadful was the din
522    Of hissing through the hall, thick-swarming now
523    With complicated monsters, head and tail:
524    Scorpion and asp and amphisbaena dire,
525    Cerastes horn'd, hydrus, and ellops drear,
526    And dipsas (not so thick swarm'd once the soil
527    Bedropp'd with blood of Gorgon, or the isle
528    Ophiusa); but still greatest he, the midst,
529    Now dragon grown, larger than whom the sun
530    Engender'd in the Pythian vale on slime,
531    Huge Python; and his power no less he seem'd
532    Above the rest still to retain. They all
533    Him follow'd, issuing forth to th' open field,
534    Where all yet left of that revolted rout,
535    Heav'n-fall'n, in station stood or just array,
536    Sublime with expectation when to see
537    In triumph issuing forth their glorious Chief.
538    They saw, but other sight instead--a crowd
539    Of ugly serpents. Horror on them fell,
540    And horrid sympathy; for what they saw
541    They felt themselves now changing. Down their arms,
542    Down fell both spear and shield, down they as fast;
543    And the dire hiss renew'd, and the dire form
544    Catch'd by contagion, like in punishment
545    As in their crime. Thus was th' applause they meant
546    Turn'd to exploding hiss, triumph to shame
547    Cast on themselves from their own mouths. There stood
548    A grove hard by, sprung up with this their change
549    (His will who reigns above) to aggravate
550    Their penance, laden with fair fruit, like that
551    Which grew in Paradise, the bait of Eve
552    Us'd by the Tempter. ...

Milton has clearly read Apollonius, Nicander, and Lucan.

If only more of us had been educated in his manner, we'd more easily see the allusion.

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