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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The diabolically clever acrostics in the 17-year old Milton’s In Quintum Novembris

Yesterday, in Milton-L, I posed the following quiz:

Does anyone notice anything unusual in each of the below-quoted, Latin  passages from “In Quintum Novembris” (IQN)? 

Attamen interea populi miserescit ab alto 
Aethereus pater, et crudelibus obstitit ausis
Papicolum, capti poenas raptantur ad acres.
At pia thura Deo et grati solvuntur honores, 
Compita laeta focis genialibus omnia fumant,
Turba choros iuvenilis agit: quintoque Novembris
Nulla dies toto occurrit celebratior anno.

Protinus ipse igitur quoscumque habet Anglia fidos
Propositi, factique mone: quisquamne tuorum         
Audebit summi non iussa facessere Papae?
Perculsosque metu subito, casuque stupentes
Invadat vel Gallus atrox, vel saevus Iberus.
Saecula sic illic tandem Mariana redibunt,
Tuque in belligeros iterum dominaberis Anglos.
 IQN is the precocious 17-year old Milton’s famous poem about Satan, Guy Fawkes, and the Pope vis a vis the Gunpowder Plot, a theme which several Milton scholars have noted as being (obviously) revisited by Milton 4 decades later in Paradise Lost.  I first read about IQN yesterday, and I just noticed something very unusual today in these two passages, and wonder if I’m the first to see it.

Hint #1:  the two passages are both unusual in the same way, and are especially connected to each other by what is unusual in each.
Hint #2: What is unusual in these two passages is the same as what is unusual in numerous passages in Shakespeare's plays, and also in some in Paradise Lost.
Hint #3: Based on my prior interpretations of Paradise Lost, I predicted that I would find at least one of these unusual things in IQN, even before I read it. 
Hint #4: You don’t need to understand a word of Latin in order to see this unusual thing in each of these two passages -- although understanding Latin (or reading a translation) is necessary in order to begin to understand what it means!

Within a day, I received two correct answers in Milton-L, as follows:

First John Savoie replied as follows:  
“Papae (124), Papicolum (222), and PAPIST, as acrostic spanning 123-28,  I presume? In any longer poem, though IQN is not particularly long, there are bound to be  coincidental acrostics, but this one, as with SATAN across PL 9.510-14, does precisely fit the context, and these two acrostics, despite the decades between, do lend each other a curious bit of harmonic support as well.”

John Leonard then also replied:  
“Also "A PACT" (between God and England?) in the poem's final lines (first passage). One possible sceptical response: why use English acrostics in a Latin poem? Are there precedents for this practice?

Thank you, gentlemen, your two correct answers are already sufficient for me to jump in and give my own explication as to why I believe both are incontrovertibly genuine, intentional acrostics on Milton’s part.


Atque dare in cineres, nitrati pulveris igne
Aedibus iniecto, qua convenere, sub imis.
Protinus ipse igitur quoscumque habet Anglia fidos 

P    Propositi, factique mone: quisquamne tuorum          [PAPIST acrostic going down]
A   Audebit summi non iussa facessere PAPAE?
P    Perculsosque metu subito, casuque stupentes
I     Invadat vel Gallus atrox, vel saevus Iberus.
S    Saecula sic illic tandem Mariana redibunt,
T   Tuque in belligeros iterum dominaberis Anglos.

Et necquid timeas, divos divasque secundas
Accipe, quotque tuis celebrantur numina fastis.” 130
Dixit, et ascitos ponens malefidus amictus
Fugit ad infandam, regnum illaetabile, Lethen.
Iam rosea eoas pandens Tithonia portas
Vestit inauratas redeunti lumine terras,
Maestaque adhuc nigri deplorans funera nati
Irrigat ambrosiis montana cacumina guttis,
Cum somnos pepulit stellatae ianitor aulae,
Nocturnos visus et somnia grata revolvens. locus aeterna septus caligine noctis….

Here is an English translation of lines 122-129, the excerpt which contains the entire “papist” acrostic: “Further, you must warn whomever of the faithful England still possess of your intention and of the deed. Will none of your countrymen dare carry out the mandates of the supreme Pope? When they are stricken by sudden terror and amazed at their misfortune, either the cruel Frenchman or the fierce Spaniard will invade. Thus at length the Marian centuries will return there, and you will gain mastery of the warlike English.

Even standing alone, it is, as John Savoie observes, beyond the realm of coincidence, but for more reasons than he stated. To find the Latin word “Papae” (“the Pope”) in the second line of a perfect 6-letter acrostic of the word “papist” (“follower of the Pope”), in a sentence which warns of the danger to England of an invasion by two nearby Catholic (i.e., papist) countries, which would lead to a return to the kind of rule England experience under Catholic (i.e., ‘papist”) Queen “Bloody” Mary I, cannot possibly be coincidental, the odds are astronomical against such a quadruple coincidence, especially in a work written by a genius of clever literary construction like Milton. It is noteworthy, however, to see him doing this at age 17!

However, this does not stand alone, it’s only the first part of a larger matrix of covert wordplay:


Attamen interea populi miserescit ab alto
Aethereus pater, et crudelibus obstitit ausis 

P    PAPICOLUM, capti poenas raptantur ad acres.   [PACT acrostic going down]
A   At pia thura Deo et grati solvuntur honores,
C   Compita laeta focis genialibus omnia fumant,
T   Turba choros iuvenilis agit: quintoque Novembris

Nulla dies toto occurrit celebratior anno.

Here is an English translation:  “But meanwhile the heavenly father looked down from above with pity on his people, and thwarted the Papists' cruel attempt. They are seized and taken off to severe punishments. Sacred incense is burned and grateful honours paid to God. All the joyous crossroads smoke with genial fumes; the young people dance in crowds, for in all the year there is no day more celebrated than the fifth of November.

The perfect acrostic “PACT” occurs right before the end of IQN at line # 226. As such, it is a virtually perfect bookend to the meaning conveyed explicitly in the initial lines of IQN:

Iam pius extrema veniens Iacobus ab arcto
Teucrigenas populos, lateque patentia regna
Albionum tenuit, iamque inviolabile FOEDUS
Sceptra Caledoniis coniunxerat Anglica Scotis, 
Pacificusque novo felix divesque sedebat 5
In solio, occultique doli securus et hostis:
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.
Hic tempestates medio ciet aere diras,
Illic unanimes odium struit inter amicos,

This 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. Here he stirred up great storms in mid-air, there he sowed hatred between like-minded friends, armed unconquered nations against each others’ vitals, overturned kingdoms flourishing in peace that bears the olive branch, and whoever he saw to be enamored of pure virtue, these he craved to add to his empire.”

“Foedus” is Latin for “treaty” or “compact” (“pact” for short). So we have Milton at the beginning of IQN referring explicitly to “the inviolable pact” which united the English and the Scots; and then, at the end of IQN, Milton implicitly (via the acrostic “pact”) summarizes how James fulfilled and preserved that “inviolable pact”! Talk about a rounded Aristotelian unity!

And, finally, getting back to the excerpt containing the “pact” acrostic, I also note that it contains the word “Papicolum”, which means “Papists” --- who are the ones, led by Satan, who are endangering that pact, as described in that excerpt, and who are the villains skewered by that earlier “papist” acrostic!

So, taking the above two acrostics and the passages they occur in as a unit, they could not be more tightly interlinked, with the two acrostics serving as subliminal thematic glue.

But still there’s another piece –when Milton writes James as preserving the “inviolable pact” that united the United Kingdom, he is also reacting to the following passage regarding the Gunpowder Plot which is found in Francis Herring’s Latin poem “Pietas Pontificia” (1606). I am sure a number of you know that Estelle Haan, a quarter century ago,  made an overwhelming case for Herring’s poem as one of Milton’s primary allusive sources for IQN. And guess what? Herring’s poem refers to a “wicked pact” between Percy, referred to as the Pope’s attendant and vassal, and  the bad guys (the “Papists”) in this passage:

“But it is better to go to the sly Sinon (whom we have recently left walking about in the splendid court). When he turns over the undertaking in his cunning mind, he goes to meet Percy (he was the king's attendant and vassall to the pope), and discloses the business entrusted to him. He eagerly embraces both the message and the man, they both promise steadfast loyalty (which neither of them possessed), and joining hands they swear a wicked PACT. Lords of the world, you are fostering dreaded Vipers in your bosoms, you who admit PAPISTS inside your dwelling. A serpent lies hidden, concealed in the grass. Infamous betrayal, pernicious rebellion, dreadful slaugther and poisons reeking of Stygian fraud constitute their pursuits, already notorious to the whole world, and are the eternai monuments of the Catholic sect. By these services they ascend to the heavens; in this way they proceed to the stars.”


So we see we have the convergence of three distinct lines of textual evidence-- each of them sufficient in its own right, but taken together they are exponentially more sufficient!

But I have one final tidbit to add to this spicy mix, which I had seen but not fully appreciated its significance until I had already posted my quiz.

As Estelle Haan also explained in lavish detail 25 years ago, one of Milton’s primary allusive sources in writing IQN was Vergil’s Aeneid, and, in particular, how the goddess Juno (of course, Rome’s name for the Greek “Hera”) stirred up conflict, and how Juno was particularly reflected in IQN by the character of Satan, doing exactly what is described in its opening passage. What Hahn did not realize, is thatl at the end of the initial lines of IQN, we find the following acrostic “Hera” in the very same lines which describe how Satan turned country against country:

Hic tempestates medio ciet aere diras,
Illic unanimes odium struit inter amicos,

A    Armat et invictas in mutua viscera gentes,
R    Regnaque olivifera vertit florentia pace,
E     Et quoscunque videt purae virtutis amantes,
H     Hos cupit adiicere imperio, fraudumque magister   [HERA acrostic going up]

Tentat inaccessum sceleri corrumpere pectus,
Insidiasque locat tacitas, cassesque latentes
Tendit, ut incautos rapiat, ceu Caspia tigris 
Insequitur trepidam deserta per avia praedam
Nocte sub illuni, et somno nictantibus astris. 

Standing alone, an intentional “Hera” acrostic would not have been certain, I freely ackowledge. But given all of the above evidence in this post, I believe that “Hera” it is yet another part of the young Milton’s extraordinary wordplay hidden in plain sight (as all acrostics are by definition hidden)!


Before I conclude, I want to tie up a few loose ends:

“Hint #2: What is unusual in these two passages is the same as what is unusual in numerous passages in Shakespeare's plays, and also in some in Paradise Lost.

What I meant by this, is that Milton’s use of acrostics in his youthful poem about Satan is not only (as John Savoie’s answer suggests) a harbinger of the “SATAN” acrostic in Paradise Lost - which Paul Klemp was the first to discover in 1977. It’s also, I now see, Milton’s first allusive reaction to the “SATAN” acrostic in Friar Laurence’s speech to Juliet in Romeo & Juliet -- an acrostic hidden in plain sight in the particular lines in which the Friar describes the future effect of the sleeping potion he is giving her:

To rouse thee from thy bed, there art thou dead:

in several posts in 2014, including these two:           
I had previously argued that Milton’s “SATAN” acrostic in PL (which in part includes the verbiage ‘the heighth of ROME”, sounds a lot like “ROMEO”!) was Milton’s reaction to Friar Laurence’s “SATAN”. But now I see that IQN is a way station, forty years earlier, on the way to the “SATAN” acrostic in PL.

And in that same regard, note also that in IQN, Satan comes to the Pope in a dream disguised as a mendicant Franciscan monk, which is exactly what the “diabolical” Friar Laurence is – and which taps into that deep well of Protestant anti-Catholicism which runs through Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Milton, among many other writers of that religiously divided time in England.

“Hint #3: Based on my prior interpretations of Paradise Lost, I hoped that I would find at least one of these unusual things in IQN, even before I read it.”

I hoped I would find at least one acrostic in IQN, because I already knew about the “SATAN” acrostic in PL, and I saw IQN as a primordial version of PL. So I wasn’t psychic, I just knew Milton loved acrostics, and it made sense that he would already have loved them at 17.

Hint #4: You don’t need to understand a word of Latin in order to see this unusual thing in each of these two passages -- although understanding Latin (or reading a translation) is necessary in order to begin to understand what it means!”

Responding to John Leonard, that Milton wrote these acrostics in English makes perfect sense to me, when I consider that all of his intended readers would be fluent in English, whereas not all would have been fluent in Latin. But you raise another interesting possibility --- I would ask anyone reading this who IS fluent in Latin (my JHS Latin 50 years ago wont cut it!) 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!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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