Thursday, October 30, 2008

Readings: Paradise Summed


I’ve been wandering through the archives again. On this trip, in another not-quite-so-dusty box as the one from which I pulled the little wonders described here, I found something else that struck me as way cool. In the Milton Quarterly, Volume Twenty/Number One, March 1986, I found the article “Tetragrammic Numbers: Gematria and the Line Total of the 1674 Paradise Lost” by a scholar named Eve Keller.

To me, this article is a prime example of the rewards available from scholarship in general, and the study of literature specifically. I was not able to find a link to an electronic version of Ms. Keller’s groovy piece (although I did find a blog featuring a post on the same topic, written twenty years later), so I will have to quote Ms. Keller’s words extensively below:

XXXIn the year of his death, Milton expanded his ten-book epic [i.e. Paradise Lost] into twelve by dividing roughly in half each of the two longest books of the poem and by adding fifteen lines to the total. Book 7 of the 1667 edition became Books 7 and 8 in 1674, and Book 10 became Books 11 and 12. Of the fifteen new lines, three were added to Book 5, three to new book 8, four to Book 11, and five to Book 12. From the ten-book, 10,550 line form of 1667, Paradise Lost became in 1674 a poem in twelve books, comprising 10, 565 lines.
XXReaders have puzzled over the possible symbolic intentions of the line additions for quite some time, but none has reached a successful conclusion.

Starting the question posed by the above, Ms. Keller’s research proceeds to make her the first person, three centuries after the fact, to explain exactly why Milton added those lines in restructuring his masterpiece. Would you believe that the solution to the puzzle is to be found in gematria, a tool of Jewish Kabbalistic mysticism? As readers of Rodak Riffs most likely already know, but as, nonetheless, Ms. Keller explains:

XXThe art of gematria is a mystical method of interpretation built on a system of correspondences which assigns a specific number to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Deriving etymologically from a conflation of gramma and geometria, gematria joins number to language, allowing words, phrases, or any other combination of letters to have numerical value.

Keller adds this crucial bit of speculation:

XXAlthough Milton may not have learned gematria directly from the medieval sources of Jewish Kabbalism, he certainly had access to the technique through the Christian Kabbalists of the Renaissance.

And formulates this “startling” conclusion:

XXWith gematria as a guide, we may now suggest a significance of the 1674 line total. By simply juxtaposing the Hebrew letters which correspond to each number of the total 10, 565, the startling justification of Milton’s emendation appears. In Hebrew, the letter ‘yod’ (I) corresponds to the number 10, ‘heh’ (H) to the number 5, ‘fvav’ (V) to the number 6, and again ‘heh’ (H) to the number 5. Write these letters in sequence, yod-heh-fvav-heh, and the result is IHVH, the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, the most holy Name of God. The total humber of verse lines in Paradise Lost, in other words, pronounces the ineffable, speaking in silent numbers the Name of the Divine.

Way to go, Eve Keller! I find this to be every bit as wonderful, awe-inspiring, and intellectually rewarding as was the discovery of that nifty 1915 sonnet in the previous dusty old box that I delved into in the vaults. English Majors of the World Unite!

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