Starting with Milton
Nearly 40 years ago when I was an undergraduate student, I was interested in the 17th century English poet John Milton. I continued my study of this poet in graduate school and became interested in how he perceived the nature and capacity of speech, which was his means for artistic expression. Here is a summary of the conclusion I reached:
The protagonists in Milton’s long poems are human beings and therefore naturally limited in their reasoning, knowledge and perception, and so they commit errors. But they make the maximum use of those attributes to recognize the cause and significance of their errors, and end up trusting the grace of God to manage their matters. This is the process where human language, which Milton calls the “process of speech,” attains the full awareness of its own nature and find salvation. (The “process of speech” is an expression that appears in Book VII of the epic poem Paradise Lost, and it means a predestined medium of wisdom for human beings who, unlike God and his angels, have only limited abilities. When the angel Raphael, sent by God to educate Adam and Eve who are in danger of fall, is telling the progenitor of the human race about things such as the creation of the world, he says that the work of God, which is immediate and so much faster than time and motion, can only be understood by people when it is explained in words: “to human ears/Cannot without process of speech be told.”) When Milton’s characters are faced with something beyond human understanding, such as mysterious fate or a supernatural event, they fear that they will never be able to understand or describe it properly by means of words. Being human, however, they have no choice but to accept language, which is the medium for their limited capacity, as their fate. They ought to fully explore the potential of language to express what is beyond human understanding or the mystical. Then, after doing what must be done and recognizing their own limitations, the characters achieve speech beyond words and attain the unification with prayer, which is the vessel of grace.
In my master’s thesis in 1981, I defined this unification of human speech and grace as “linguistic heroism” as opposed to the “linguistic fall” of Satan in Paradise Lost who is totally self-centered. The awareness of the limitation of human capacity presents the writer with the problem of whether words, the medium with which he works, can adequately express mysteries beyond human understanding and how he should deal with those mysteries. The writer himself must perform the linguistic heroism required of the characters. He is challenged to explore the maximum potential of speech while remaining aware of its limitations; he is under pressure to accept the paradox of his mistrust and command of language.
The paradoxical act of making the full use of language as a medium of expression while declaring mistrust in it is a traditional posture that we can find in classical antiquity, Dante, and Romantic and modern writers. Apart from Milton, I have discussed such stance of the 19th century English poet Alfred Tennyson in some detailin 1997, 1998 and 2002.
The outlook for future research
I have also explored Miltonic view of language of Robert Browning, an English poet contemporary with Tennyson, but kept myself to a preliminary report (2004) for a full-scale discussion. Also, while lecturing at my faculty since 2010 on English narrative poetry, I came to know that the same linguistic heroism as Milton’s can also be found in the work of 14th century English poet Chaucer and the 20th century poet and critic T.S. Eliot. I would like to present my research findings on these poets sometime.
What a former professor left to us
Not a specialist in medieval English literature I am able to lecture on Chaucer because I joined a study group held by the late Takuji Mine, a professor emeritus in English literature at the University of Tokyo. Mr. Mine passed away in 2011 at the age of 96. Retiring from the university in 1975 he started a private reading group with his former students, which continued until the end of 2010. I had the precious opportunity to study in that group for around 30 years. The last work that we learned about from the professor was Chaucer’s collection of stories, Canterbury Tales. After reading several important tales, Mr. Mine took up the poem The Knight’s Tale but passed away before we finished reading it. However, by utilizing what he taught us about Chaucer, I was able toread through the poem and now use it in my lecture.
Professor Mine left a great academic legacy not only to me and the other members of the reading group but also to Chuo University. I guess one reason for this is that many of his reading group’s members worked for Chuo University. He bequeathed an extremely substantial cash donation to our university as a contribution to English-related research and education. After a long discussion about ways to spend the donation, the reading group and Chuo University’s central library narrowed them down to ① purchasing databases of English-language materials and ② purchasing Kelmscott Press books and related books which the library has been working hard to collect. They submitted their report of the purchase plans to the president of Chuo University, Tadahiko Fukuhara, in March this year and received his approval.
In respect to ① above, the purchases of Literature Online (including many literary works from the 8th century to the modern day) and Eighteenth Century Collection Online (a database of all printed literature in Britain and the English-speaking world published in the 18th century) are worthy of special mention. Only a few universities in Japan currently have these databases, and their purchase will at a stroke elevate the English-related electronic information environment of Chuo University to the highest level in the country. They will dramatically increase the usefulness of the library not only for the teachers but for the students.
The Kelmscott Press in ② above was a publishing house established by the 19th century English poet, artistic craftsman and social thinker William Morris. The books it published are highly valued as works of art. Chuo University’s library will greatly enhance its presence with the purchase of Kelmscott Press books including The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer and other related rare publications which it has been unable to afford.
It is my personal feeling that Chuo University’s purchase of such a superb collection of the works of Chaucer, about whom Mr. Mine taught me last, is somewhat destined to be. Also, because he himself possessed such a uniquely diverse yet profound knowledge, I think the acquisition, thanks to him, of those databases that provide access to an enormous body of knowledge is a very fitting legacy of the late professor to us all.
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: 16th to 19th Century English Poetry and Drama
Professor Satoma was born in Niigata Prefecture in 1954. He graduated from the Faculty of Humanities, Niigata University in 1977 and gained a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Humanities, the University of Tokyo in 1982. He was a full-time lecturer at Nippon Medical School and a full-time lecturer and assistant professor on the Faculty of Law at Chuo University before taking up his current position in 1993. His main research subjects as of 2012 are British satirical verse from the latter half of the 17th century to the first half of the 18th century and British narrative poetry from Chaucer in the Middle Ages up to the works of T.S. Eliot in the modern era. His main publications are: The Transformation of Imagination—Aspects of British Literature [Sozoryoku no henyo—igirisu bungaku no shoso] (co-author, Kenkyusha, 1991); The Transformation of Comedy of Manners—From the Restoration Period to Jane Austen [Fushshukigeki no henyo—oseifukkoki kara jein osutin made] (co-author, Chuo University Press, 1996); The Discovery of Buried Landscapes—Literature and Culture in the Victorian Era [Umoreta fukeitachi no hakken—Vikutoria cho no bungei to bunka] (co-author, Chuo University Press, 2002); From Topographical Description to Lyricism —Tracing the Origin of English Romanticism [Chishi kara jojo e—igirisu romanha no genryu wo tadoru] (co-author, Meisei University Press, 2004); “Pope’s ‘Defence of Poetry’” [Pope no shi no yogo] (author, Eigo Seinen, September 2005 issue, Kenkyusha). His major translation is Theories of Discourse by Diane Macdonell (Shinyosha, 1990).