Milton’s Words

One of the nice things about our Modern Library text is that it does NOT gloss every difficult word. Instead, you need to do a bit of dictionary work on your own. Luckily, you have access to the Oxford English Dictionary. Milton was an excellent linguist and often held a complex understanding of English words, using them to convey their common meanings, but also to convey meanings suggested by their roots in earlier languages (such as Greek, Hebrew, Latin, or French). Modern glosses do not always get at these earlier connotations.

Periodically, I’ll be posting words that I’ve looked up.

Endue is a word that strikingly is seldom footnoted as used by Milton in “Sonnet VII.”

And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
That some more timely-happy spirits endu’th.

“Timely-happy” gets annotated — “timely, at the appropriate time” — but not “endu’th.” What is it, “endureth” or “endowed”? A visit to the OED turns up the word “endue” or “indue,” a verb. Its primary meaning is “to bring in, or to introduce.” Figuratively it can mean “To take in, or inwardly digest.” Another definition includes “To invest with a power or quality, a spiritual gift,” and is almost synonymous with “endow.” It is under this definition heading that the OED quotes Milton’s use above, and defines it: “Of a quality, or to be inherent in.” So he is speaking of some inward readiness that others have had or perhaps have already achieved as an inherent quality.

Harbinger has come up in a couple of poems early on. In common use it means something like “one who comes before another,” but it had a range of meaning that Milton was probably aware of. First, it meant “one who provides lodging; an entertainer, a host; a harbourer” (OED). The examples in the OED of this use predate Milton’s birth by more than one hundred years, but he may have been aware of this meaning, which seems related but at odds with common use. Second, it meant literally “one sent on before to purvey lodgings for an army, a royal train, etc.; a purveyor of lodgings; in pl., an advance company of an army sent to prepare a camping-ground” (OED). This is more specific than the common usage, and also out of date for a hundred years by the time Milton was born, but I think well within his possible knowledge. The idea of fore-runner for someone or something “royal” (read God) may have appealed to him. Finally, the standard use he would have thought of quickly was something like “one that goes before and announces the approach of some one; a forerunner” (OED).

Whist is used in line 64 of “The Nativity Ode”: “The winds with wonder whist.” It means “keep quiet” and is related to words such as “shhh” and “hush.” It derives, presumably, from a command for silence made quickly and quite naturally, a sort of interjection. Think of the zip-it scene in Austin Powers where Doctor Evil is telling his son Scott to be quiet: sht, shttt, shhhtt. That’s right next door to “whist.” Eventually the word came to be used as a noun and adjective or verb.

I’m reminded of a Scots interjection, “wheest,” which also means hush or silence.

Inspire. We will have reason to talk about inspiration. The OED first lists literal meanings for “inspire” followed by figurative meanings. The literal all have to do with breathing: “to breathe or blow upon or into.” The word comes into English from Old French. The original root is Latin, inspirare to blow or breathe into. The figurative meanings derive from this same root: “To infuse some thought or feeling into (a person, etc.), as if by breathing; to animate or actuate by some mental or spiritual influence.” I’m reminded of Zephyr and Aurora in “L’Allegro” — their joining (a creation of Milton’s?) is part breathing, part sex, and part inspiration. Interesting to think about all of this when considering what Milton may have understood “inspiration” to mean.

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