Jensen 2When Milton added the arguments to
, itwasn’t the first time that he had seen fit to explain his work tohis readers by way of summary preface. A short description of
, added to the text after an initial printing.So important was the summary, that the table of contents for “The
listed it as a part of the title. “Lycidas. Inthis Monody the Author bewails a learned Friend, unfortunatelydrown'd in his Passage from Chester on the Irish Seas, 1637.And by occasion foretels the ruine of our corrupted Clergy thenin their height.” (Milton 422) One year later with the publicationof the Latin
, a poem that calls on the lifeof Virgil in memory of Milton’s friend Charles Diodati, Miltonincludes an “Argumentum.” Though in Latin, (the languagewhich arguably taught Milton his convoluted syntax), the prosehere is straightforward; its sentences remarkably simple:
Argumentum.THYRSIS et DAMON, ejusdem viciniae pastores,eadem studia sequuti, a pueritia amici erant, ut qui plurimum. THYRSIS, auimi causa profectus, peregrede obitu DAMONIS nuncium accepit. Doraum posteareversus, et rem ita esse comperto, se suamquesolitudinem hoc carmine deplorat…
(Milton 522).In it, Milton explains that Thyrsis and Damon, shepherdneighbors, had studied together and were friends fromchildhood. While traveling to improve himself, Thyrsis learns of the the death of Damon. When he returns and finds that it wastrue, he deplores himself and his solitude with this poem.Seeing this simple summary, one is reminded that theLatin
has a range of meanings far greater than itsEnglish equivalent implies, especially to contemporaryspeakers.
’s primary definition is “subject, story,representation, statement; theme, matter, contents; plot,drama, tale,” only in the secondary definition do the closer connections we have with the word occur (Handford, 44). Infact, looking at “Epitaphium Damonis” without knowledge of Milton’s later use of the English word “argument,” one wouldeasily translate the word as summary, plot or contents. Evenwithin the realm of rhetoric,
is translated as“appeal” as in
argumentum ad hominem.
Milton’s word choiceand the associations it implies in an English speaker’s mindcannot be accidental. Stanley Fish claims that “Milton’sprogramme of reader harassment begins in the opening lines”(Fish 4) but I would argue that it begins with the arguments, inhis very selection of the word.Which leads us to the convention that Milton invents for these summaries. They are distinct enough that one couldeasily identify them from one sentence or phrase. (I’d bet theGRE English Subject Exam has done exactly that). Book I’sargument is the most distinctive. It begins with a statement of the whole poem’s purpose, as well with a miniature descriptionof the plot of the entire epic. It also establishes the poem asEpic, within the Homeric tradition by claiming that the action“hasts into the midst of things,” a pretty direct translation of
(Milton 1). By establishing the epic nature of thework, Milton’s mind game with the reader continues by theargument establishing (well prior to Satan’s first speech on line84) the Prince of Darkness as the poem’s Achilles/Aeneas.“Man” is mentioned first, but only in the general, not specificterms that might refer to Adam. Man is not the chief player,Satan is the “prime cause.”After Book I, the arguments follow a very similar format. A chief player or speaker is identified in connectionwith a primary action. “…Satan Debates” (II), “God sitting onhis Throne sees Satan Flying…” (III), “Satan now inprospect…” (IV), “Morning approach’t, Eve relates…” (V),“Raphael continues…” (VI), “Raphael at the request of Adam