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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Comprehending the Young John Milton’s ‘Aspicious’ Acrostic in his In Quintum Novembris

I ended my previous message about the “papist”, “pact”, and “Hera” acrostics in Milton’s In Quintum Novembris (IQN) as follows:

“I’d ask anyone reading this who IS fluent in Latin…to give IQN a once-over:
It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to learn that the already diabolically clever 17 year old John Milton had slipped in a thematically relevant Latin acrostic there as well!”

Not long afterwards, despite my not being a Latin scholar, I decided, just for fun, to skim through this short poem, and see if anything looking remotely like a Latin word might pop out at me. Instead, I was surprised to find yet another English-language acrostic hiding in plain sight, which, as I’ll argue below, I’m confident was also intentional on Milton’s part.

The word is “aspic” and it is found in lines 3-8, at the very start of the poem; and, what’s more, the first line of the acrostic is the very same line that containing the Latin word “foedus”, which means “pact”, which is the bookend to the “pact” acrostic at the end of the poem, as I argued in my first post. Here it is:

Iam pius extrema veniens Iacobus ab arcto
Teucrigenas populos, lateque patentia regna 

A    Albionum tenuit, iamque inviolabile FOEDUS
S     Sceptra Caledoniis coniunxerat Anglica Scotis, 
P     Pacificusque novo felix divesque sedebat 5
I      In solio, occultique doli securus et hostis:
C     Cum ferus ignifluo regnans Acheronte tyrannus,

Eumenidum pater, aethero vagus exul Olympo,
Forte per immensum terrarum erraverat orbem, 
Dinumerans sceleris socios, vernasque fideles        10
Participes regni post funera moesta futuros.

The above excerpt is translated as follows:
“Now pious James, coming from the extreme North, possessed the Teucer-born peoples and the widespread realms of the folk of Albion, and now an inviolable PACT conjoined English scepters to the Caledonian Scots, and James sat as a peacemaker and a prosperous man on his new throne, secure from hidden wiles and any foe, when the savage tyrant of Acheron, flowing with fire, the father of the Eumenides, the vagrant exile from celestial Olympus, chanced to be wandering through the world, counting his allies in crime, his loyal servants, destined to be partners in his kingdom after their sad demise.”

It also comes right before that “Hera” acrostic I identified in my prior post, which, again, is contained in a passage describing Satan, like Vergil’s Juno, stirring up discord.

When I had originally scanned the above passage looking for acrostics, I did see the English word “spice”, but I couldn’t see how that related thematically to Milton’s portrayal of Satan, so I initially dismissed it as coincidental. However, this second time around, my eye moved, and I saw “aspic”, and recalled instantly that this related to Shakespeare using that word in the very famous climactic scene of Antony & Cleopatra.

First, just before Cleopatra allows the asp to bite her, she kisses her attendant Iras, who then falls and dies, leading the Queen to ask:

Not long after that, Cleopatra puts the asp on her breast, it bites her, she dies, and then we read:


So, it is clear from the above that “aspic” in Shakespeare’s lexicon referred to both the fluid left behind by an asp, but also to the asp itself –i.e., aspic was just another word for asp.

There are two more, very interesting usages of “aspic” in Shakespeare:

In a tragic context, Othello uses it metaphorically, after he has been sufficiently provoked by Iago’s subtly serpentine campaign of slanderous innuendoes of Desdemona:

Othello’s unwittingly describes how his trust of Desdemona has been destroyed by the “poison” from Iago’s tongue.

And there’s also a comic, inadvertently punny usage by Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, which is shocking resonant with the above speech by Othello:

DOGBERRY  One word, sir: our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two ASPICIOUS persons, and we would have them this morning examined before your worship.

In his malapropism, Dogberry inadvertently correctly describes Don John & Borachio’s subtly serpentine (‘aspicious’, meaning, literally, like an ‘asp’!) scheme to slander Hero in Claudio’s eyes. This is the identical situation as with Iago and Othello, with both Iago and Don John/Borachio sowing discord between a man and the woman he (initially) loves. And that tells me that Shakespare used the word “aspic” and “aspicious” to connect both of these passages.

Speaking of asps, note also that at line 90-91 of IQN, we read:

Subdolus at tali SERPENS velatus amictu
Solvit in has fallax ora execrantia voces;

Translation:  Thus disguised, the crafty SERPENT parted his foul lips and uttered these words…

Given all of the above, I am certain that Milton intended his “ASPIC” acrostic at the very start of In Quintum Novembris to evoke his erudite readers’ recall of all these Shakespearean antecedents, to inform the portrait of Satan as an Iago-like serpent sowing discord in the United Kingdom.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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