Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1967

John Milton 1608–1674

Illustration of PDF document

Download John Milton Study Guide

Subscribe Now

English poet, essayist, dramatist, and historian.

See also, Paradise Lost Criticism.

Milton is recognized as one of the greatest writers in the English language and as a thinker of world importance. He is best known for Paradise Lost (1667), an epic poem recounting the Biblical story of humanity's fall from grace. This work and its sequel Paradise Regained (1671) are celebrated for their consummate artistry and searching consideration of God's relationship with the human race. In addition to these great works, Milton also wrote "Lycidas," "Il Penseroso" and "L'Allegro," a series of sonnets on personal and political themes, as well as a number of fine minor poems. His prose works include Areopagitica (1644) and The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), both powerful essays in defense of individual liberty.

Biographical Information

Born in Cheapside, London in 1608, the son of a prosperous scrivener and notary, Milton was from an early age immersed in literary and intellectual activity. His father provided his son with a private tutor, retaining him even after Milton had entered St. Paul's School. Milton was a model student: he excelled in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; wrote poetry in Latin and English; and studied the classics, modern languages, and music voraciously. (Milton acknowledged that in his youth he rarely quit his books before midnight, and he attributed his later blindness to excessive reading by lampand candlelight.) His studies—especially music and the classics—remained lifelong interests for Milton and colored much of his literary work. Milton entered Christ's College, Cambridge in 1625. There, his handsome face, delicate appearance, and lofty but unpretentious bearing earned him the sobriquet "the Lady of Christ's." At first unpopular, Milton eventually made a name for himself as a rhetorician and public speaker. While at Cambridge he probably wrote "L'Allegro," and "II Penseroso," and "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," three of his earliest great poems in English. Upon leaving the university in 1632 with an A.M. degree, Milton retired to Hammersmith for three years and later to Horton, Buckinghamshire, where he devoted himself to intense study and writing. To this period scholars ascribe the composition of some of Milton's finest non-epic poems, including "Lycidas," "Arcades," and the sonnet "How Soon Hath Time." While still in Hammersmith, he also wrote his first extended work, Comus (1637), a masque, on commission for the Bridgewater family. In May 1638, Milton embarked on an Italian journey which was to last

nearly fifteen months. The experience, which he described in Defensio secunda pro populo anglicano (Second Defense of the People of England, 1654), brought him into contact with the leading men of letters in Florence, Rome, and Naples, including Giovanni Battista Manso, Marquis of Villa, who had been an intimate of the epic poet Torquato Tasso. Scholars view the Italian tour as seminal in Milton's literary development; a new self-confidence emerged in the letters he wrote during his travels, and it was in Italy that Milton first proposed to write a great epic. Upon his return to England, Milton wrote the Italian-inspired Epitaphium Damonis (Damon, 1640) a Latin elegy on his longtime friend Charles Diodati. Critics have seen this work as Milton's first heralding of his ambition to be a great poet inthe Renaissance vein, the author of classically inspired works on elevated themes. With the coming of the English Civil War and Commonwealth, Milton's life changed utterly as his attentions shifted from private to public concerns. Abruptly he left off writing poetry for prose, pouring out pamphlets during the early 1640s in which he opposed what he considered rampant episcopal tyranny. Around this time, Milton also published The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, in which he maintained that incompatibility is a valid reason for divorce (a work presumably inspired by his own unhappy marriage to Mary Powell) and Areopagitica, a now-classic plea for unlicensed printing in England. Over the next few years Milton worked on other prose works, including his History of Britain (1670) and De doctrina Christiana (A Treatise of Christian Doctrine, unpublished until 1825). The execution of Charles I in 1649 prompted The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, a radical assertion of the right of a people to depose or execute a ruling tyrant, which confirmed Milton's leftwing politics. The Restoration of Charles Il in 1660 left Milton disillusioned and hastened his departure from public life; he lived for a time in peril of his life, but for reasons not entirely clear he was spared harsh punishment.

The remaining fourteen years of Milton's life were spent in relatively peaceful retirement in and around London. Now completely blind—he had been since 1652—Milton increasingly devoted his time to poetry. Secretaries, assisted sometimes by Milton's two nephews and his daughter Deborah, were employed to take dictation, correct copy, and read aloud, and Milton made rapid progress on projects he had put off many years before. During the making of Paradise Lost, Milton spent mornings dictating passages he had composed in his head at night. Paradise Lost was published in 1667, followed in 1671 by Paradise Regained. Samson Agonistes, a metrical tragedy, appeared in the same volume as Paradise Regained. Milton died in November 1674, apparently of heart failure. His funeral, wrote John Toland in 1698, was attended by "All his learned and great friends in London, not without a friendly concourse of the Vulgar…."

Major Works

Most of Milton's works (with the exception of the verse dramas Comus and Samson Agonistes) fall neatly into two categories, poetry and prose, and there is very little crossover of theme or purpose from one category to the other; poetry was chiefly an artistic medium for Milton, prose being reserved for exposition only. In his first poetic successes, the twin lyrics "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," Milton contrasted the active and contemplative lives. The imagery, drawn from classical mythology and English folklore, is cultivated and stylized, and both works are tightly argued. Critics agree that with "Lycidas," his next major work, Milton came into his own as a poet. In editing his poems in 1645, he called this pastoral a "Monody" in which "the Author bewails a learned Friend, unfortunately drown'd … on the Irish Seas, 1637. And by occasion foretells the ruin of our corrupted Clergy then in their height." The purpose of the poem was twofold: to honor the late Edward King, a former schoolmate of Christ's College, and to denounce hireling, incompetent clergy—a perennial concern of Milton's. Incidentally, the poem reveals Milton's own philosophical ambitions, later undertaken in Paradise Lost: to justify God's ways to men. Many critics consider "Lycidas" the finest short poem in the English language.

Milton's best-known works are also his longest ones: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes. Of these, Paradise Lost is deemed the supreme achievement by far. Milton had long planned an epic which was to be to England what Homer's works were to Greece and the Aeneid was to Rome. Originally, he contemplated an Arthurian subject for his national poem, but later adopted a Biblical subject: the Fall of Man as described in the Book of Genesis. As a classicist, Milton was powerfully aware of his antique precedents; he therefore began the poem in medias res, invoking his muse and plunging into the action with a description of Satan in Hell—actually the poem's third crisis, which chronologically follows Satan's revolt in Heaven and descent with his followers through Chaos to Hell. The remainder of the poem treats Satan's deception of Eve in Eden, her deception of Adam, their fall from perfect fellowship with god and with each other, and their banishment from Paradise. Everywhere the poem is strong in its appeal to the ear, the intellect, and the visual imagination. While the iambic pentameter is the norm, Milton played with the model, contriving syllable and stresses to complement the sense. (Commentators attribute many of Milton's superb metrical effects to his deep knowledge of music and his acutely sensitive ear.) Descriptive passages evoke images at once vague and minute, exposing in precise detail the character (but usually not the exact composition) of Heaven, Pandemonium, Chaos, and the universe. Eden is revealed as a sensuous feast. Milton's high purpose in the poem, to "justify the ways of God to men," is ever in the forefront of the action. Critics agree that this challenging objective, made all the more difficult by the complicated issue of divine foreknowledge of the Fall, is effected chiefly by imbuing Adam with a will as well as a mind of his own, enabling him to disobey God and thus mar an omnipotent Creator's perfect creation. Paradise Regained—more a dramatic poem than an epic—completes the action of Paradise Lost. Shorter and conceptually much simpler that the earlier work, it depicts Christ in the wilderness overcoming Satan the tempter. By this action, Christ proves his fitness as the Son of God, thereby preparing himself for his human, substitutionary role in the Crucifixion. Written in the tradition of dramatic tragedy, Samson Agonistes departs from the form and theme of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, but it is clear that Milton recognized affinities among the three works. Like Christ in Paradise Regained, Samson is terribly isolated, "Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves," and undergoes a severe testing of his spiritual strength. He triumphs, gaining renewed faith in God and an improved understanding of his soul.

Critical Reception

More criticism has been devoted to Milton than to any English author save Shakespeare and perhaps Chaucer. While celebrated as a poet in his lifetime, Milton was scorned by many contemporaries for his anti-clerical and anti-moralist stances, although some noted persons, such as Andrew Marvell, rose to his defense. Soon after Milton's death, Paradise Lost began to draw increased attention and praise from such critics as John Dryden, who considered Milton as an epic poet comparable in stature to Homer and Virgil. With the notable exception of Samuel Johnson, who dismissed "Lycidas" as cold and mechanical and Paradise Lost as stylistically flawed, critics throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries upheld Milton's achievement unabated, for various reasons: William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley considered Paradise Lost a precursor of Romanticism, ennobling Satan as a tragic rebel; William Wordsworth hailed Milton's libertarian ideals; Matthew Arnold viewed Milton as exemplifying English genius. In the 1920, a group of critics, led by T. S. Eliot, began to attack what they perceived as the wooden style and structure of Milton's epics; Eliot, while conceding Milton's talent, lamented his influence on later poets, who, he argued, often created torturously boring, rhetorical verse in imitation of the earlier poet. In the 1940s and 50s, Milton's puritan ideology and grand style drew fire from some of the New Critics, most notably the English academic F. R. Leavis. For Leavis, as for Robert Graves, aesthetic judgement was curiously close to a visceral, strangely personal dislike of Milton himself. Milton's star, however, was on the ascendent. Critics including Cleanth Brooks, C. S. Lewis, William Empson, and Frank Kermode sympathetically defended the poet's brilliance and integrity, drawing a fresh generation of readers to the epic splendors of Milton's poetry. While the rise of the women's movement in the 1970s provoked controversy over sexism in Paradise Lost, Harold Bloom made Milton's poetry central to his theory of literary influence, reinstating the poet's dominant role in English literature. It would be difficult to overestimate Milton's importance in English letters. In Paradise Lost he gave his country its greatest epic, surpassing, most commentators believe, even Spenser in the magnitude of his achievement in this form. And as the author of "Lycidas," "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" he established himself as a master of the shorter poem. His scope was wide, his sweep broad, and his capacity for thought deep—the touchstone of intellectual achievement. For, in the words of James Russell Lowell, "If [Milton] is blind, it is with excess of light, it is a divine partiality, an overshadowing with angels' wings."

Principal Works

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 295


"Lycidas" 1638; published in Obsequies to the Memorie of Mr. Edward King, Anno. Dom. 1638

Epitaphium Damonis 1640

Poems of Mr. John Milton, Both English and Latin, Compos'd at Several Times 1645

Paradise Lost: A Poem Written in Ten Books 1667; also published as Paradise Lost: A Poem in Twelve Books [enlarged edition] 1674

Paradise Regained Poem in TV Books. To Which Is Added Samson Agonistes 1671

The Poetical Works of Mr. John Milton 1697

A Complete Collection of the Historical, Political, and Miscellaneous Works of John Milton, Both English and Latin, with Some Papers Never Before Publish'd 1698

A Common-place Book of John Milton 1876

The Sonnets of John Milton 1883

The Works of John Milton. 18 vols. 1931-1938

Other Major Works

*A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634, on Michaelmas Night, before the Right Honorable John Earle of Bridgewater, Viscount Brackly (drama) 1637

The Reason of Church-Government Urg'd against Prelaty (essay) 1642

The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Restor'd to the Good of Both Sexes from the Bondage of Canon Law (essay) 1643

Areopagitica: A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc'd Printing, to the Parliament of England (essay) 1644

The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Proving That It is Lawfull, and Hath Been Held So Through All Ages, for Any Who Have the Power, to Call to Account a Tyrant, or Wicked King (essay) 1649

Pro populo anglicano defensio, contra Claudii Anonymi (essay) 1651

Defense of the People of England, 1692

Defensio secunda pro populo anglicano (essay) 1654

The History of Britain, That Part Especially Now Call'd England, from the First Traditional Beginning, Continu 'd to the Norman Conquest (history) 1670

The Works of Mr. John Milton (essays) 1697

De doctrina Christiana libri duo posthumi [A Treatise of Christian Doctrine] (essay) 1825

Complete Prose Works of John Milton. 8 vols, (essay, history, and letters) 1953

* This work is commonly known as Cornus: A Maske.

William Hazlitt (essay date 1818)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4486

SOURCE: "Of Shakespeare and Milton," in Lectures on the English Poets, Humphrey Milford and Oxford University Press, 1924, pp. 85-103.

[In the following excerpt, Hazlitt provides an overview of Milton's religious sensibilities, his political commitments, and his literary influences from Biblical and Classical writings.]

… Milton's works are a perpetual invocation to the Muses; a hymn to Fame. He had his thoughts constantly fixed on the contemplation of the Hebrew theocracy, and of a perfect commonwealth; and he seized the pen with a hand just warm from the touch of the ark of faith. His religious zeal infused its character into his imagination; so that he devotes himself with the same sense of duty to the cultivation of his genius, as he did to the exercise of virtue, or the good of his country. The spirit of the poet, the patriot, and the prophet, vied with each other in his breast. His mind appears to have held equal communion with the inspired writers, and with the bards and sages of ancient Greece and Rome;—

Blind Thamyris, and blind Mæonides,
And Tiresias, and Phineus, prophets old.

He had a high standard, with which he was always comparing himself, nothing short of which could satisfy his jealous ambition. He thought of nobler forms and nobler things than those he found about him. He lived apart, in the solitude of his own thoughts, carefully excluding from his mind whatever might distract its purposes or alloy its purity, or damp its zeal. "With darkness and with dangers compassed round," he had the mighty models of antiquity always present to his thoughts, and determined to raise a monument of equal height and glory, "piling up every stone of lustre from the brook," for the delight and wonder of posterity. He had girded himself up, and as it were, sanctified his genius to this service from his youth. "For after," he says, "I had from my first years, by the ceaseless diligence and care of my father, been exercised to the tongues, and some sciences as my age could suffer, by sundry masters and teachers, it was found that whether aught was imposed upon me by them, or betaken to of my own choice, the style by certain vital signs it had, was likely to live; but much latelier, in the private academies of Italy, perceiving that some trifles which I had in memory, composed at under twenty or thereabout, met with acceptance above what was looked for; I began thus far to assent both to them and divers of my friends here at home, and not less to an inward prompting which now grew daily upon me, that by labour and intense study (which I take to be my portion in this life), joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to after-times as they should not willingly let it die. The accomplishment of these intentions, which have lived within me ever since I could conceive myself anything worth to my country, lies not but in a power above man's to promise; but that none hath by more studious ways endeavoured, and with more unwearied spirit that none shall, that I dare almost aver of myself, as far as life and free leisure will extend. Neither do I think it shame to covenant with any knowing reader, that for some few years yet, I may go on trust with him toward the payment of what I am now indebted, as being a work not to be raised from the heat of youth or the vapours of wine; like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amourist, or the trencher fury of a rhyming parasite, nor to be obtained by the invocation of Dame Memory and her Siren daughters, but by devout prayer to that eternal spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his Seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases: to this must be added industrious and select reading, steady observation, and insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs. Although it nothing content me to have disclosed thus much beforehand; but that I trust hereby to make it manifest with what small willingness I endure to interrupt the pursuit of no less hopes than these, and leave a calm and pleasing solitariness, fed with cheerful and confident thoughts, to embark in a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes, from beholding the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies."

So that of Spenser:

Milton, therefore, did not write from casual impulse, but after a severe examination of his own strength, and with a resolution to leave nothing undone which it was in his power to do. He always labours, and almost always succeeds. He strives hard to say the finest things in the world, and he does say them. He adorns and dignifies his subject to the utmost: he surrounds it with every possible association of beauty or grandeur, whether moral, intellectual, or physical. He refines on his descriptions of beauty; loading sweets on sweets, till the sense aches at them; and raises his images of terror to a gigantic elevation, that "makes Ossa like a wart," In Milton, there is always an appearance of effort: in Shakespeare, scarcely any.

Milton has borrowed more than any other writer, and exhausted every source of imitation, sacred or profane; yet he is perfectly distinct from every other writer. He is a writer of centos, and yet in originality scarcely inferior to Homer. The power of his mind is stamped on every line. The fervour of his imagination melts down and renders malleable, as in a furnace, the most contradictory materials. In reading his works, we feel ourselves under the influence of a mighty intellect, that the nearer it approaches to others, becomes more distinct from them. The quantity of art in him shows the strength of his genius: the weight of his intellectual obligations would have oppressed any otherwriter. Milton's learning has the effect of intuition. He describes objects, of which he could only have read in books, with the vividness of actual observation. His imagination has the force of nature. He makes words tell as pictures.

Him followed Rimmon, whose delightful seat
Was fair Damascus, on the fertile banks
Of Abbana and Pharphar, lucid streams.

The word lucid here gives to the idea all the sparkling effect of the most perfect landscape.

And again:

As when a vulture on Imaus bred,
Whose snowy ridge the roving Tartar bounds,
Dislodging from a region scarce of prey,
To gorge the flesh of lambs and yeanling kids
On hills where flocks are fed, flies towards the springs
Of Ganges or Hydaspes, Indian streams;
But in his way lights on the barren plains

Of Sericana, where Chineses drive
With sails and wind their cany waggons light.

If Milton had taken a journey for the express purpose, he could not have described this scenery and mode of life better. Such passages are like demonstrations of natural history. Instances might be multiplied without end.

We might be tempted to suppose that the vividness with which he describes visible objects, was owing to their having acquired an unusual degree of strength in his mind, after the privation of his sight; but we find the same palpableness and truth in the descriptions which occur in his early poems. In "Lycidas" he speaks of 'the great vision of the guarded mount,' with that preternatural weight of impression with which it would present itself suddenly to 'the pilot of some small night-foundered skiff: and the Unes in the "Penseroso," describing 'the wandering moon,

Riding near her highest noon,
Like one that had been led astray
Through the heaven's wide pathless way,'

are as if he had gazed himself blind in looking at her. There is also the same depth of impression in his descriptions of the objects of all the different senses, whether colours, or sounds, or smells—the same absorption of his mind in whatever engaged his attention at the time. It has been indeed objected to Milton, by a common perversity of criticism, that his ideas were musical rather than picturesque, as if because they were in the highest degree musical, they must be (to keep the sage critical balance even, and to allow no one man to possess two qualities at the same time) proportionably deficient in other respects. But Milton's poetry is not cast in any such narrow, common-place mould; it is not so barren of resources. His worship of the Muse was not so simpleor confined. A sound arises "like a steam of rich distilled perfumes"; we hear the pealing organ, but the incense on the altars is also there, and the statues of the gods are ranged around! The ear indeed predominates over the eye, because it is more immediately affected, and because the language of music blends more immediately with, and forms a more natural accompaniment to, the variable and indefinite associations of ideas conveyed by words. But where the associations of the imagination are not the principal thing, the individual object is given by Milton with equal force and beauty. The strongest and best proof of this, as a characteristic power of his mind, is, that the persons of Adam and Eve, of Satan, &c. are always accompanied, in our imagination, with the grandeur of the naked figure; they convey to us the ideas of sculpture. As an instance, take the following:

The figures introduced here have all the elegance and precision of a Greek statue; glossy and impurpled, tinged with golden light, and musical as the strings of Memnon's harp!

Again, nothing can be more magnificent than the portrait of Beelzebub:

With Atlantean shoulders fit to bear
The weight of mightiest monarchies:

Or the comparison of Satan, as he 'lay floating many a rood,' to 'that sea beast,'

Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim the ocean-stream!

What a force of imagination is there in this last expression! What an idea it conveys of the size of that hugest of created beings, as if it shrunk up the ocean to a stream, and took up the sea in its nostrils as a very little thing! Force of style is one of Milton's greatest excellences. Hence, perhaps, he stimulates us more in the reading, and less afterwards. The way to defend Milton against all impugners, is to take down the book and read it.

Milton's blank verse is the only blank verse in the language (except Shakespeare's) that deserves the name of verse. Dr. Johnson, who had modelled his ideas of versification on the regular sing-song of Pope, condemns the Paradise Lost as harsh and unequal. I shall not pretend to say that this is not sometimes the case; for where a degree of excellence beyond the mechanical rules of art is attempted, the poet must sometimes fail. But I imagine that there are more perfect examples in Milton of musical expression, or of an adaptation of the sound and movement of the verse to the meaning of the passage, than in all our other writers, whether of rhyme or blank verse, put together (with the exception already mentioned). Spenser is the most harmonious of our stanza writers, as Dryden is the most sounding and varied of our rhymists. But in neither is there anything like the same ear for music, the same power of approximating the varieties of poetical to those of musical rhythm, as there is in our great epic poet. The sound of his lines is moulded into the expression of the sentiment, almost of the very image. They rise or fall, pause or hurry rapidly on, with exquisite art, but without the least trick or affectation, as the occasion seems to require….

Dr. Johnson and Pope would have converted his vaulting Pegasus into a rocking-horse. Read any other blank verse but Milton's,—Thomson's, Young's, Cowper's, Wordsworth's,—and it will be found, from the want of the same insight into 'the hidden soul of harmony,' to be mere lumbering prose.

To proceed to a consideration of the merits of Paradise Lost, in the most essential point of view, I mean as to the poetry of character and passion. I shall say nothing of the fable, or of other technical objections or excellences; but I shall try to explain at once the foundation of the interest belonging to the poem. I am ready to give up the dialogues in Heaven, where, as Pope justly observes, "God the Father turns a school-divine"; nor do I consider the battle of the angels as the climax of sublimity, or the most successful effort of Milton's pen. In a word, the interest of the poem arises from the daring ambition and fierce passions of Satan, and from the account of the paradisaical happiness, and the loss of it by our first parents. Three-fourths of the work are taken up with these characters, and nearly all that relates to them is unmixed sublimity and beauty. The two first books alone are like two massy pillars of solid gold.

Satan is the most heroic subject that ever was chosen for a poem; and the execution is as perfect as the design is lofty. He was the first of created beings, who, for endeavouring to be equal with the highest, and to divide the empire of heaven with the Almighty, was hurled down to hell. His aim was no less than the throne of the universe; his means, myriads of angelic armies bright, the third part of the heavens, whom he lured after him with his countenance, and who durst defy the Omnipotent in arms. His ambition was the greatest, and his punishment was the greatest; but not so his despair, for his fortitude was as great as his sufferings. His strength of mind was matchless as his strength of body; the vastness of his designs did not surpass the firm, inflexible determination with which he submitted to his irreversible doom, and final loss of all good. His power of action and of suffering was equal. He was the greatest power that was ever overthrown, with the strongest will left to resist or to endure. He was baffled, not confounded. He stood like a tower; or

He was still surrounded with hosts of rebel angels, armed warriors, who own him as their sovereign leader, and with whose fate he sympathizes as he views them round, far as the eye can reach; though he keeps aloof from them in his own mind, and holds supreme counsel only with his own breast. An outcast from Heaven, Hell trembles beneath his feet, Sin and Death are at his heels, and mankind are his easy prey.

All is not lost; th' unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield,
And what is else not to be overcome,

are still his. The sense of his punishment seems lost in the magnitude of it; the fierceness of tormenting flames is qualified and made innoxious by the greater fierceness of his pride; the loss of infinite happiness to himself is compensated in thought, by the power of inflicting infinite misery on others. Yet Satan is not the principle of malignity, or of the abstract love of evil—but of the abstract love of power, of pride, of self-will personified, to which last principle all other good and evil, and even his own, are subordinate. From this principle he never once flinches. His love of power and contempt for suffering are never once relaxed from the highest pitch of intensity. His thoughts burn like a hell within him; but the power of thought holds dominion in his mind over every other consideration. The consciousness of a determined purpose, of "that intellectual being, those thoughts that wander through eternity," though accompanied with endless pain, he prefers to nonentity, to "being swallowed up and lost in the wide womb of uncreated night." He expresses the sum and substance of all ambition in one line. "Fallen cherub, to be weak is miserable, doing or suffering!" After such a conflict as his, and such a defeat, to retreat in order, to rally, to make terms, to exist at all, is something; but he does more than this—he founds a new empire in hell, and from it conquers this new world, whither he bends his undaunted flight, forcing his way through nether and surrounding fires. The poet has not in all this given us a mere shadowy outline; the strength is equal to the magnitude of the conception. The Achilles of Homer is not more distinct; the Titans were not more vast; Prometheus chained to his rock was not a more terrific examples of suffering and of crime. Wherever the figure of Satan is introduced, whether he walks or flies, "rising aloft incumbent on the dusky air," it is illustrated with the most striking and appropriate images: so that we see it always before us, gigantic, irregular, portentous, uneasy, and disturbed—but dazzling in its faded splendour, the clouded ruins of a god. The deformity of Satan is only in the depravity of his will; he has no bodily deformity to excite our loathing or disgust. The horns and tail are not there, poor emblems of the unbending, unconquered spirit, of the writhing agonies within. Milton was too magnanimous and open an antagonist to support his argument by the by-tricks of a hump and cloven foot; to bring into the fair field of controversy the good old catholic prejudices of which Tasso and Dante have availed themselves, and which the mystic German critics would restore. He relied on the justice of his cause, and did not scruple to give the devil his due. Some persons may think that he has carried his liberality too far, and injured the cause he professed to espouse by making him the chief person in his poem. Considering the nature of his subject, he would be equally in danger of running into this fault, from his faith in religion, and his love of rebellion; and perhaps each of these motives had its full share in determining the choice of his subject.

Not only the figure of Satan, but his speeches in council, his soliloquies, his address to Eve, his share in the war in heaven, or in the fall of man, show the same decided superiority of character. To give only one instance, almost the first speech he makes:

Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,
Said then the lost archangel, this the seat
That we must change for Heaven; this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
Who now is sov'rain can dispose and bid
What shall be right: farthest from him is best,
Whom reason hath equal'd, force hath made supreme
Above his equals. Farewel happy fields,
Where joy for ever dwells: Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor; one who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.

The whole of the speeches and debates in Pandemonium are well worthy of the place and the occasion—with Gods for speakers, and angels and archangels for hearers. There is a decided manly tone in the arguments and sentiments, an eloquent dogmatism, as if each person spoke from thorough conviction; an excellence which Milton probably borrowed from his spirit of partisanship, or else his spirit of partisanship from the natural firmness and vigour of his mind. In this respect Milton resembles Dante (the only modern writer with whom he has anything in common), and it is remarkable that Dante, as well as Milton, was a political partisan. That approximation to the severity of impassioned prose which has been made an objection to Milton's poetry, and which is chiefly to be met with in these bitter invectives, is one of its great excellences. The author might here turn his philippics against Salmasius to good account. The rout in Heaven is like the fall of some mighty structure, nodding to its base, "with hideous ruin and combustion down." But, perhaps, of all the passages in Paradise Lost, the description of the employments of the angels during the absence of Satan, some of whom "retreated in a silent valley, sing with notes angelical to many a harp their own heroic deeds and hapless fall by doom of battle," is the most perfect example of mingled pathos and sublimity. What proves the truth of this noble picture in every part, and that the frequent complaint of want of interest in it is the fault of the reader, not of the poet, is that when any interest of a practical kind takes a shape that can be at all turned into this, (and there is little doubt that Milton had some such in his eye in writing it), each party converts it to its own purposes, feels the absolute identity of these abstracted and high speculations; and that, in fact, a noted political writer of the present day has exhausted nearly the whole account of Satan in the Paradise Lost, by applying it to a character whom he considered as after the devil (though I do not know whether he would make even that exception) the greatest enemy of the human race. This may serve to show that Milton's Satan is not a very insipid personage.

Of Adam and Eve it has been said, that the ordinary reader can feel little interest in them, because they have none of the passions, pursuits, or even relations of human life, except that of man and wife, the least interesting of all others, if not to the parties concerned, at least to the bystanders. The preference has on this account been given to Homer, who, it is said, has left very vivid and infinitely diversified pictures of all the passions and affections, public and private, incident to human nature—the relations of son, of brother, parent, friend, citizen, and many others. Longinus preferred the Iliad to the Odyssey, on account of the greater number of battles it contains; but I can neither agree to his criticism, nor assent to the present objection. It is true, there is little action in this part of Milton's poem; but there is much repose, and more enjoyment. There are none of the everyday occurrences, contentions, disputes, wars, fightings, feuds, jealousies, trades, professions, liveries, and common handicrafts of life; "no kind of traffic; letters are not known; no use of service, of riches, poverty, contract, succession, bourne, bound of land, tilth, vineyard none; no occupation, no treason, felony, sword, pike, knife, gun, nor need of any engine." So much the better; thank Heaven, all these were yet to come. But still the die was cast, and in them our doom was sealed. In them

The generations were prepared; the pangs,
The internal pangs, were ready, the dread strife
Of poor humanity's afflicted will,
Struggling in vain with ruthless destiny.

In their first false step we trace all our future woe, with loss of Eden. But there was a short and precious interval between, like the first blush of morning before the day is overcast with tempest, the dawn of the world, the birth of nature from "the unapparent deep," with its first dews and freshness on its cheek, breathing odours. Theirs was the first delicious taste of life, and on them depended all that was to come of it. In them hung trembling all our hopes and fears. They were as yet alone in the world, in the eye of nature, wondering at their new being, full of enjoyment and enraptured with one another, with the voice of their Maker walking in the garden, and ministering angels attendant on their steps, winged messengers from heaven like rosy clouds descending in their sight. Nature played around them her virgin fancies wild; and spread for them a repast where no crude surfeit reigned. Was there nothing in this scene, which God and nature alone witnessed, to interest a modern critic? What need was there of action, where the heart was full of bliss and innocence without it! They had nothing to do but feel their own happiness, and "know to know no more." They toiled not, neither did they spin; yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." All things seem to acquire fresh sweetness, and to be clothed with fresh beauty in their sight. They tasted as it were for themselves and us, of all that there ever was pure in human bliss. "In them the burthen of the mystery, the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world, is lightened." They stood awhile perfect, but they afterwards fell, and were driven out of Paradise, tasting the first fruits of bitterness as they had done of bliss. But their pangs were such as a pure spirit might feel at the sight—their tears "such as angels weep." The pathos is of that mild contemplative kind which arises from regret for the loss of unspeakable happiness, and resignation to inevitable fate. There is none of the fierceness of intemperate passion, none of the agony of mind and turbulence of action, which is the result of the habitual struggles of the will with circumstances, irritated by repeated disappointment, and constantly setting its desires most eagerly on that which there is an impossibility of attaining. This would have destroyed the beauty of the whole picture. They had received their unlooked-for happiness as a free gift from their Creator's hands, and they submitted to its loss, not without sorrow, but without impious and stubborn repining.

In either hand the hast'ning angel caught
Our ling'ring parents, and to th' eastern gate
Led them direct, and down the cliff as fast
To the subjected plain; then disappear'd.
They looking back, all th' eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Wav'd over by that flaming brand, the gate
With dreadful faces throng'd, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropt, but wip'd them soon
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (essay date 1818)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2840

SOURCE: "Milton," in Coleridge's Miscellaneous Criticism, Constable & Co., 1936, pp. 157-65.

[In the following excerpt, Coleridge praises the sublime simplicity of Paradise Lost.]

If we divide the period from the accession of Elizabeth to the Protectorate of Cromwell into two unequal portions, the first ending with the death of James I. the other comprehending the reign of Charles and the brief glories of the Republic, we are forcibly struck with a difference in the character of the illustrious actors, by whom each period is rendered severally memorable. Or rather, the difference in the characters of the great men in each period, leads us to make this division. Eminent as the intellectual powers were that were displayed in both; yet in the number of great men, in the various sorts of excellence, and not merely in the variety but almost diversity of talents united in the same individual, the age of Charles falls short of its predecessor; and the stars of the Parliament, keen as their radiance was, in fulness and richness of lustre, yield to the constellation at the court of Elizabeth;—which can only be paralleled by Greece in her brightest moment, when the titles of the poet, the philosopher, the historian, the statesman and the general not seldom formed a garland round the same head, as in the instances of our Sidneys and Raleighs. But then, on the other hand, there was a vehemence of will, an enthusiasm of principle, a depth and an earnestness of spirit, which the charms of individual fame and personal aggrandisement could not pacify,—an aspiration after reality, permanence, and general good,—in short, a moral grandeur in the latter period, with which the the low intrigues, Machiavellic maxims, and selfish and servile ambition of the former, stand in painful contrast.

The causes of this it belongs not to the present occasion to detail at length; but a mere allusion to the quick succession of revolutions in religion, breeding a political indifference in the mass of men to religion itself, the enormous increase of the royal power in consequence of the humiliation of the nobility and the clergy—the transference of the papal authority to the crown,—the unfixed state of Elizabeth's own opinions, whose inclinations were as popish as her interests were protestant—the controversial extravagance and practical imbecility of her successor—will help to explain the former period; and the persecutions that had given a life and soul-interest to the disputes so imprudently fostered by James,—the ardour of a conscious increase of power in the commons, and the greater austerity of manners and maxims, the natural product and most formidable weapon of religious disputation, not merely in conjunction, but in closest combination, with newly awakened political and republican zeal, these perhaps account for the character of the latter aera.

In the close of the former period, and during the bloom of the latter, the poet Milton was educated and formed; and he survived the latter, and all the fond hopes and aspirations which had been its life; and so in evil days, standing as the representative of the combined excellence of both periods, he produced the Paradise Lost as by an after-throe of nature. "There are some persons (observes a divine, a contemporary of Milton's) of whom the grace of God takes early hold, and the good spirit inhabiting them, carries them on in an even constancy through innocence into virtue, their Christianity bearing equal date with their manhood, and reason and religion, like warp and woof, running together, make up one web of a wise and exemplary life. This (he adds) is a most happy case, wherever it happens; for, besides that there is no sweeter or more lovely thing on earth than the early buds of piety, which drew from our Saviour signal affection to the beloved disciple, it is better to have no wound than to experience the most sovereign balsam, which, if it work a cure, yet usually leaves a scar behind." Although it was and is my intention to defer the consideration of Milton's own character to the conclusion of this Lecture, yet I could not prevail on myself to approach the Paradise Lost without impressing on your minds the conditions under which such a work was in fact producible at all, the original genius having been assumed as the immediate agent and efficientcause; and these conditions I find in the character of the times and in his own character. The age in which the foundations of his mind were laid, was congenial to it as one golden aera of profound erudition and individual genius;—that in which the superstructure was carried up, was no less favourable to it by a sternness of discipline and a show of self-control, highly flattering to the imaginative dignity of an heir of fame, and which won Milton over from the dear-loved delights of academic groves and cathedral aisles to the anti-prelatic party. It acted on him, too, no doubt, and modified his studies by a characteristic controversial spirit, (his presentation of God is tinted with it)—a spirit not less busy indeed in political than in theological and ecclesiastical dispute, but carrying on the former almost always, more or less, in the guise of the latter. And so far as Pope's censure of our poet,—that he makes God the Father a school divine—is just, we must attribute it to the character of his age, from which the men of genius, who escaped, escaped by a worse disease, the licentious indifference of a Frenchified court.

Such was the nidus or soil, which constituted, in the strict sense of the word, the circumstances of Milton's mind. In his mind itself there were purity and piety absolute; an imagination to which neither the past nor the present were interesting, except as far as they called forth and enlivened the great ideal, in which and for which he lived; a keen love of truth, which, after many weary pursuits, found a harbour in a sublime listening to the still voice in his own spirit, and as keen a love of his country, which, after a disappointment still more depressive, expanded and soared into a love of man as a probationer of immortality. These were, these alone could be, the conditions under which such a work as the Paradise Lost could be conceived and accomplished. By a life-long study Milton had known—

and he left the imperishable total, as a bequest to the ages coming, in the Paradise Lost.

Difficult as I shall find it to turn over these leaves without catching some passage, which would tempt me to stop, I propose to consider, 1st, the general plan and arrangement of the work;—2ndly, the subject with its difficulties and advantages;—3rdly, the poet's object, the spirit in the letter, the ἔνθύμίoν ἔν μύθω, the true school-divinity; and lastly, the characteristic excellencies of the poem, in what they consist, and by what means they were produced.

1. As to the plan and ordonnance of the Poem.

Compare it with the Iliad, many of the books of which might change places without any injury to the thread of the story. Indeed, I doubt the original existence of the Iliad as one poem; it seems more probable that it was put together about the time of the Pisistratidae. The Iliad—and, more or less, all epic poems, the subjects of which are taken from history—have no rounded conclusion; they remain, after all, but single chapters from the volume of history, although they are ornamental chapters. Consider the exquisite simplicity of the Paradise Lost. It and it alone really possesses a beginning, a middle, and an end; it has the totality of the poem as distinguished from the ab ovo birth and parentage, or straight line, of history.

2. As to the subject.

In Homer, the supposed importance of the subject, as the first effort of confederated Greece, is an after-thought of the critics; and the interest, such as it is, derived from the events themselves, as distinguished from the manner of representing them, is very languid to all but Greeks. It is a Greek poem. The superiority of the Paradise Lost is obvious in this respect, that the interest transcends the limits of a nation. But we do not generally dwell on this excellence of the Paradise Lost, because it seems attributable to Christianity itself;—yet in fact the interest is wider than Christendom, and comprehends the Jewish and Mohammedan worlds;—nay, still further, inasmuch as it represents the origin of evil, and the combat of evil and good, it contains matter of deep interest to all mankind, as forming the basis of all religion, and the true occasion of all philosophy whatsoever.

The FALL of Man is the subject; Satan is the cause; man's blissful state the immediate object of his enmity and attack; man is warned by an angel who gives him an account of all that was requisite to be known, to make the warning at once intelligible and awful; then the temptation ensues, and the Fall; then the immediate sensible consequence; then the consolation, wherein an angel presents a vision of the history of men with the ultimate triumph of the Redeemer. Nothing is touched in this vision but what is of general interest in religion; anything else would have been improper.

The inferiority of Klopstock's Messiah is inexpressible. I admit the prerogative of poetic feeling, and poetic faith; but I cannot suspend the judgment even for a moment. A poem may in one sense be a dream, but it must be a waking dream. In Milton you have a religious faith combined with the moral nature; it is an efflux; you go along with it. In Klopstock there is a wilfulness; he makes things so and so. The feigned speeches and events in the Messiah shock us like falsehoods; but nothing of that sort is felt in the Paradise Lost, in which no particulars, at least very few indeed, are touched which can come into collision or juxtaposition with recorded matter.

But notwithstanding the advantages in Milton's subject, there were concomitant insuperable difficulties, and Milton has exhibited marvellous skill in keeping most of them out of sight. High poetry is the translation of reality into the ideal under the predicament of succession of time only. The poet is an historian, upon condition of moral power being the only force in the universe. The very grandeur of his subject ministered a difficulty to Milton. The statement of a being of high intellect, warring against the supreme Being, seems to contradict the idea of a supreme Being. Milton precludes our feeling this, as much as possible, by keeping the peculiar attributes of divinity less in sight, making them to a certain extent allegorical only. Again, poetry implies the language of excitement; yet how to reconcile such language with God? Hence Milton confines the poetic passion in God's speeches to the language of scripture; and once only allows the passio vera, or quasihumana to appear, in the passage, where the Father contemplates his own likeness in the Son before the battle:—

Go then, thou Mightiest, in thy Father's might,
Ascend my chariot, guide the rapid wheels
That shake Heaven's basis, bring forth all my war,
My bow and thunder; my almighty arms
Gird on, and sword upon thy puissant thigh;
Pursue these sons of darkness, drive them out
From all Heaven's bounds into the utter deep:
There let them learn, as likes them, to despise
God and Messiah his anointed king.

3. As to Milton's object:—

It was to justify the ways of God to man! The controversial spirit observable in many parts of the poem, especially in God's speeches, is immediately attributable to the great controversy of that age, the origination of evil. The Arminians considered it a mere calamity. The Calvinists took away all human will. Milton asserted the will, but declared for the enslavement of the will out of an act of the will itself. There are three powers in us, which distinguish us from the beasts that perish;—1, reason; 2, the power of viewing universal truth; and 3, the power of contracting universal truth into particulars. Religion is the will in the reason, and love in the will.

The character of Satan is pride and sensual indulgence, finding in self the sole motive of action. It is the character so often seen in little on the political stage. It exhibits all the restlessness, temerity, and cunning which have marked the mighty hunters of mankind from Nimrod to Napoleon. The common fascination of men is, that these great men, as they are called, must act from some great motive. Milton has carefully marked in his Satan the intense selfishness, the alcohol of egotism, which would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. To place this lust of self in opposition to denial of self or duty, and to show what exertions it would make, and what pains endure to accomplish its end, is Milton's particular object in the character of Satan. But around this character he has thrown a singularity of daring, a grandeur of sufferance, and a ruined splendour, which constitute the very height of poetic sublimity.

Lastly, as to the execution:—

The language and versification of the Paradise Lost are peculiar in being so much more necessarily correspondent to each than those in any other poem or poet. The connexion of the sentences and the position of the words are exquisitely artificial; but the position is rather according to the logic of passion or universal logic, than to the logic of grammar. Milton attempted to make the English language obey the logic of passion as perfectly as the Greek and Latin. Hence the occasional harshness in the construction.

Sublimity is the pre-eminent characteristic of the Paradise Lost. It is not an arithmetical sublime like Klopstock's, whose rule always is to treat what we might think large as contemptibly small. Klopstock mistakes bigness for greatness. There is a greatness arising from images of effort and daring, and also from those of moral endurance; in Milton both are united. The fallen angels are human passions, invested with a dramatic reality.

The apostrophe to light at the commencement of the third book is particularly beautiful as an intermediate link between Hell and Heaven; and observe, how the second and third book support the subjective character of the poem. In all modern poetry in Christendom there is an under consciousness of a sinful nature, a fleeting away of external things, the mind or subject greater than the object, the reflective character predominant. In the Paradise Lost the sublimest parts are the revelations of Milton's own mind, producing itself and evolving its own greatness; and this is so truly so, that when that which is merely entertaining for its objective beauty is introduced, it at first seems a discord.

In the description of Paradise itself you have Milton's sunny side as a man; here his descriptive powers are exercised to the utmost, and he draws deep upon his Italian resources. In the description of Eve, and throughout this part of the poem, the poet is predominant over the theologian. Dress is the symbol of the Fall, but the mark of intellect; and the metaphysics of dress are, the hiding what is not symbolic and displaying by discrimination what is. The love of Adam and Eve in Paradise is of the highest merit—not phantomatic, and yet removed from every thing degrading. It is the sentiment of one rational being towards another made tender by a specific difference in that which is essentially the same in both; it is a union of opposites, a giving and receiving mutually of the permanent in either, a completion of each in the other.

Milton is not a picturesque, but a musical, poet; although he has this merit that the object chosen by him for any particular foreground always remains prominent to the end, enriched, but not incumbered, by the opulence of descriptive details furnished by an exhaustless imagination. I wish the Paradise Lost were more carefully read and studied than I can see any ground for believing it is, especially those parts which, from the habit of always looking for a story in poetry, are scarcely read at all,—as for example, Adam's vision of future events in the 11th and 12th books. No one can rise from the perusal of this immortal poem without a deep sense of the grandeur and the purity of Milton's soul, or without feeling how susceptible of domestic enjoyments he really was, notwithstanding the discomforts which actually resulted from an apparently unhappy choice in marriage. He was, as every truly great poet has ever been, a good man; but finding it impossible to realize his own aspirations, either in religion, or politics, or society, he gave up his heart to the living spirit and light within him, and avenged himself on the world by enriching it with this record of his own transcendant ideal.

Matthew Arnold (essay date 1879)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 828

SOURCE: "A French Critic on Milton," in Mixed Essays, Smith, Elder, & Co., 1903, pp. 266-70.

[In the following excerpt, Arnold describes Milton as the supreme English poet.]

Milton has always the sure, strong touch of the master. His power both of diction and of rhythm is unsurpassable, and it is characterised by being always present—not depending on an access of" emotion, not intermittent, but, like the grace of Raphael, working in its possessor as a constant gift of nature Milton's style, moreover, has the same propriety and soundness in presenting plain matters, as in the comparatively smooth task for a poet of presenting grand ones. His rhythm is as admirable where, as in the line

And Tiresias and Phineus, prophets old—

it is unusual, as in such lines as—

With dreadful faces throng'd and fiery arms—

where it is simplest. And what high praise this is, we may best appreciate by considering the ever-recurring failure, both in rhythm and in diction, which we find in the so-called Miltonic blank verse of Thomson, Cowper, Wordsworth. What leagues of lumbering movement! what desperate endeavours, as in Wordsworth's

And at the 'Hoop' alighted, famous inn,

to tender a platitude endurable by making it pompous! Shakespeare himself, divine as are his gifts, has not, of the marks of the master, this one: perfect sureness of hand in his style. Alone of English poets, alone in English art, Milton has it; he is our great artist in style, our one first-rate master in the grand style. He is as truly a master in this style as the great Greeks are, or Virgil, or Dante. The number of such masters is so limited that a man acquires a world-rank in poetry and art, instead of a mere local rank, by being counted among them. But Milton's importance to us Englishmen, by virtue of this distinction of his, is incalculable. The charm of a master's unfailing touch in diction and in rhythm, no one, after all, can feel so intimately, so profoundly, as his own countrymen. Invention, plan, wit, pathos, thought, all of them are in great measure capable of being detached from the original work itself, and of being exported for admiration abroad. Diction and rhythm are not. Even when a foreigner can read the work in its own language, they are not, perhaps, easily appreciable by him…. We natives must naturally feel it yet more powerfully. Be it remembered, too, that English literature, full of vigour and genius as it is, is peculiarly impaired by gropings and inadequacies in form. And the same with English art. Therefore for the English artist in any line, if he is a true artist, the study of Milton may well have an indescribable attraction. It gives him lessons which nowhere else from an Englishman's work can be obtain, and feeds a sense which English work, in general, seems bent on disappointing and baffling. And this sense is yet so deep-seated in human nature,—this sense of style,—that probably not for artists alone, but for all intelligent Englishmen who read him, its gratification by Milton's poetry is a large though often not fully recognised part of his charm, and a very wholesome and fruitful one.

As a man, too, not less than as a poet, Milton has a side of unsurpassable grandeur. A master's touch is the gift of nature. Moral qualities, it is commonly thought, are in our own power. Perhaps the germs of such qualities are in their greater or less strength as much a part of our natural constitution as the sense for style. The range open to our own will and power, however, in developing and establishing them, is evidently much larger. Certain high moral dispositions Milton had from nature, and he sedulously trained and developed them until they became habits of great power.

Some moral qualities seem to be connected in a man with his power of style. Milton's power of style, for instance, has for its great character elevation; and Milton's elevation clearly comes, in the main, from a moral quality in him,—his pureness. 'By pureness, by kindness!' says St. Paul. These two, pureness and kindness, are, in very truth, the two signal Christian virtues, the two mighty wings of Christianity, with which it winnowed and renewed, and still winnows and renews, the world. In kindness, and in all which that word conveys or suggests, Milton does not shine. He had the temper of his Puritan party. We often hear the boast, on behalf of the Puritans, that they produced 'our great epic poet.' Alas! one might not unjustly retort that they spoiled him. However, let Milton bear his own burden; in his temper he had natural affinities with the Puritans. He has paid for it by limitations as a poet. But, on the other hand, how high, clear, and splendid is his pureness; and how intimately does its might enter into the voice of his poetry!

G. K. Chesterton (essay date 1908)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 651

SOURCE: "The Taste for Milton," in A Handful of Authors, Sheed and Ward, 1953, pp. 75-7.

[In the following excerpt, Chesterton sees Milton as a seventeenth-century individualist, standing apart from the Classical tradition on which he drew.]

Of all poets Milton is the one whom it is the most difficult to praise with real delicacy and sincerity of definition. Of all poets Milton is the one whom it is most easy to praise with mere facile phraseology and conventional awe. There is one thing about Milton which must have been generally observed—that he is really a matured taste, a taste that grows. Shakespeare is really for all ages, for all the seven ages of man.

But Milton at his best is absolutely nothing to childhood. I do not mean that children cannot enjoy Milton; children can enjoy the Post Office directory. That is the kingdom of heaven; to enjoy things without understanding them. But I say that children cannot enjoy the Miltonism of Milton; the thing that no one but Milton can do. A boy does not appreciate that wonderful and controlled style, which, like a well-managed war-horse, even capers and caracoles rather by restraint than impetus. A boy does not feel the lift of those great lines, as of a great eagle leaving the nest,

That with no middle flight presumes to soar
Above the Aonian mount.

I think a great part of the trouble which the ordinary mind has in appreciating Milton (or, rather, Milton in pleasing the ordinary mind, for please remember that the popular mind is much more important than Milton) lies in the mistake of always describing him as a pure and classicalwriter. Really he was a highly complex and in some ways too modern writer. The perfectly classical can be understood by anybody. No charwoman would say that the tale of Ulysses coming back in rags to the woman who had been faithful to him was not a touching tale. No dog-fancier in the street would be indifferent to the death of Argus. No man in the street could ever say upon his conscience that the Venus of Milo was not a fine woman.

It is the secondary and distorted art which really and suddenly loses the sympathies of the people. The charwoman would fail in seeing the peculiar pathos of Mr. Robert Elsmere, who wanted to be a curate and also an agnostic. The dog-fancier would be justly indifferent to the rhetoric of the numerous modern animal lovers who could not look after a dog for a day. And the man in the street will not admit that the women of Aubrey Beardsley are fine women, because they are not. The tastes of the man in the street are classical.

And if Milton were really as straightforward as Homer or the Elgin Marbles he would be, in practice, uproariously popular. The real reason that he cannot make his glory quite as broad as it is undoubtedly deep and high is that there was in him something of the modern individualist, something of the social schismatic. He had that weird and wicked ambition of the modern artist; he wanted "to think for himself". But Dante and Dickens wanted to think for other people also.

Milton stands between the very social society in which Dante lived and the very social society which Dickens always desired and occasionally experienced, with that fastidious isolation which belongs to art in our time and belonged to religion in his time. He is the seventeenth-century individualist. He is the perfect Calvinist; the man alone with his God. He is also the perfect artist; the man alone with his art. No man, perhaps, has ever had such power over his art since the arts of humanity were made. And yet there is something that makes one turn to the firesides of the Pickwick Papers, and even to the fires of the Purgatorio.

Douglas Bush (essay date 1939)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6613

SOURCE: "Milton," in The Renaissance and English Humanism, University of Toronto Press, 1939, pp. 101-29.

[In the following essay, Bush analyzes the influence of Christian humanism on Milton's poetry.]

It may be more candid than diplomatic to acknowledge at the start that admirers of Milton have always been, consciously or not, on the defensive. They certainly must be nowadays, when for the first time since the seventeenth century Milton has ceased to be an active force in poetry. We may think that modern poets could still learn something from him, and if the poets thought so too we might be spared some headaches. But, so far from being an influence in contemporary work, Milton is damned as the man who crushed the fruitful metaphysical movement and kept poetry in bondage for three centuries. Mr. Eliot has even complained of Milton's obscurity. One may have, as I have, a great admiration for Mr. Eliot's writing in both verse and prose and still find a certain pleasure in visualizing the author of The Waste Land as he struggles with the meaning of Paradise Lost.

Among the various reasons for Milton's unpopularity doubtless the chief one is that in his major poems he treated on a heroic scale, and with a too confident simplicity, themes and problems which seem remote and no longer of vital concern to us. We think in purely human terms and know that

Instead of Milton, who expounds a lofty faith in God and human reason, we prefer a smaller poet like Donne, whose sceptical uncertainties and staccato realism are more congenial to a generation which has lost its way. Milton is too big, too sternly strenuous, to allow us to feel at ease in his presence; he could never be taken under the maternal wing of Christopher Morley. Like Dante, Milton is not what P. G. Wodehouse would call a "matey" person. Put beside Chaucer or Shakespeare, with their crowd of human characters, with their benevolent interest, half humorous, half divine, in the stuff of common life, Milton seems cold, inhuman, an unapproachable Jehovah of poetry.

But this discourse is not supposed to be an arraignment of Milton. I am merely indicating a consciousness of these and all the other charges, old and new, and if some are damaging to Milton, some are damaging to the reader. My purpose is to outline the growth and the main principles of Milton's thought, with reference to our general theme. I say "main principles" because there are many subtleties and ramifications which must be neglected, at the risk of making his mind appear more simple than it was. I shall not, therefore, be discussing Milton's poetry as poetry, and in discussing his major ideas and attitudes I shall have to incur the guilt of repeating commonplaces both about him and about Christian humanism. There is no other way of showing that he is the last voice of an essentially medieval tradition, that, with due allowance for the lapse of five centuries, Milton stands shoulder to shoulder with that twelfth-century humanist—and defender of tyrannicide—John of Salisbury. Yet Milton appears at a moment when Christian humanism is succumbing to such internal and external enemies as have been described. In England and Europe generally, in the troubled period of Milton's lifetime, humanism has grown less religious and religion less humane. We shall try to see in him the normal fusion and the occasional friction of classical and Christian elements. We shall try to see also what a noble anachronism the old humanistic faith has become in an increasingly modern and scientific world.

Milton's ardent study began in childhood and, no less than Bacon, he took all knowledge for his province. It was partly as a young Baconian, partly as a young Platonist, that he attacked the sterile Aristotelianism of the Cambridge curriculum and pleaded for genuine and fruitful examination of man's outer and inner world. What might be called Milton's academic valedictory, on the theme that learning brings more blessings to men than ignorance, at first sight seems only a tissue of Renaissance platitudes. But it also sets forth an intensely personal faith, the boundless optimism and ambition of a young idealist of genius who feels himself standing on the threshold of a new era, who sees no obstacle in the way of man's conquest of nature and of all individual and social problems. And he aspires, with a half-concealed but proud self-confidence, to be one of the makers of that new era, to be the oracle of many nations, whose home comes to be visited as a shrine. When we follow the course of Milton's life and work, we can measure the depth of his later pessimism only by appreciating the sublime and, as we cynically say, the unrealistic optimism of his earlier years.

That is one aspect of Milton's youthful humanism. We have other aspects in his Latin poems. These too are outwardly conventional—as long as bishops and beadles were subject to mortality Milton did not lack a theme—but in the personal pieces the obscurity of a learned language encouraged the young poet to express his own moods with more spontaneous frankness than he allowed himself in his native tongue. It is springtime and Cupid is busy everywhere. The young man's pulses are stirred by the awakening life of nature and by the beauty of girls in the parks, yet they are no Corinnas or Circes, and Milton's sensuous paganism is quite innocent. Indeed, lest he give a wrong impression, he assures his friend Diodati that, like Ulysses, he clings to the magical herb moly, by which he means Christian virtue. Thus the young Renaissance artist and the young puritan live in happy harmony together and, while Milton is finding that he cannot subscribe slave by taking holy orders, he has conceived of heroic poetry as a not less but more sacred and exalted calling. No other English poet has so earnestly and so repeatedly dedicated himself to the classical office of poet-priest, and most of his important poems may be regarded, directly or indirectly, as successive spiritual stock-takings.

We may read "L'AIlegro" and "Il Penseroso" simply as tone poems, two ideal moods of a bookish and high-minded young man in the country, as lovely expressions of a serene tranquillity which their militant author never again enjoyed. But these companion pieces, written probably during Milton's later days at Cambridge, we may take also as an ave atque vale, a half-unconscious good-bye to carefree youth and an embracing of a life of mature seriousness. Keats, surveying Milton's work as a whole, discerned in him a conflict between the pleasures and the ardours of song, a conflict which is writ large in Keats himself. In Milton's twin poems there is no conflict as yet, but we who know what is to come can foresee possible discord between two modes of art and life. In fact he had already, in his sixth elegy, contrasted the irresponsible singer of wine and gaiety with the ascetic poet of truly heroic themes. And in the sonnet on his twenty-fourth birthday, written, it would seem, after the two lyrical pieces, Milton pledges himself to a religious life:

Yet, be it less or more, or soon or slow,
It shall be still in strictest measure even
To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven.
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great Task-Master's eye.

In this solemn acceptance of the divine will we are accustomed to hear the puritan note, the sense of personal responsibility to God, but these lines are also a partial echo of one of the most religious of ancient poets, Pindar.

When we look forward five or six years to the most elaborate and impassioned of Milton's earlier self-examinations, namely "Lycidas," we find that the cheerful and the thoughtful ideals are no longer complementary but antagonistic. "L'Allegro," we might say, raises his voice for the last time to ask:

Alas! what boots it with uncessant care
To tend the homely, slighted, shepherd's trade,
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?
Were it not better done, as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neaera's hair?

But Milton has put away childish things, and "Il Penseroso" replies, in a sterner mood than his earlier self had felt:

Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights and live laborious days….

If the whole passage on the heavenly reward of the virtuous and arduous life, for all its classical ornament, suggests that Milton's Hebraic zeal is drying up his aesthetic sensibility, we may remember the letter written to Diodati in the same year as "Lycidas." In it Milton declares his God-given passion for beauty in all the forms and appearances of things. The words are both an aesthetic and a religious affirmation.

The conflict in Milton has more than one aspect. He felt keenly both the charms of contemplative retirement and the duties of the active life. But that conflict did not become a reality until he returned from abroad in 1639. A more immediate problem for a young poet of the Renaissance was the conflict between the sensuous and the ethical impulses in his nature. There was never, of course, any question of an actual lapse from his own high stan dards of personal conduct, but it was more difficult for him, with his temperament and in his age, than it had been for Spenser to reconcile the two motives in his poetry. Three years before "Lycidas" he had written Comus. The traditional masque glorified youth and love and jollity; Comus is a sermon on temperance. With all the sensuous passions of a young man and a poet, Milton still holds the precious moly and has not stooped to sensual gratification. Comus is allowed to plead the case for "natural" license, but his arguments—like Satan's—betray their own speciousness; he is the representative, not of true freedom, but of slavery. And the Lady, meeting him first on the level of the natural reason, rises with "sacred vehemence" to the religious defence of "sun-clad" Chastity. If her or Milton's ideal seems at moments negative, there is a far more powerful positive impulse which we can understand if we look back a little into his spiritual evolution. In a pamphlet of 1642, defending himself as usual, Milton recalled some of his earlier reading. At first he had been captured by the smooth elegiac poets of Rome, but their fleshliness was less satisfying than their art. He had passed on to the two famous renowners of Beatrice and Laura. There grew the belief that "he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem; that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honourablest things…." From Dante and Petrarch, Milton was led to the fables and romances of knighthood, and such works proved, not the fuel of loose living, but incitements to virtue. Next came Plato, with his lofty idealism, his conception of the Eros which leads to divine knowledge and beauty. And, finally, there was St. Paul, with his ultimate claim that "the body is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body." The ideal of chasity in Comus, then, is not merely negative, it is a positive and all-embracing way of life. And the best evidence is found, not in the exposition of Pauline or Platonic or Spenserian moral ideas, but in that indefinable purity of tone which instantly possesses and elevates us when we begin—

Before the starry threshold of Jove's court
My mansion is….

Milton returned from his prolonged continental travels to maintain himself as a private schoolmaster and to follow with eager interest the course of events which was soon to issue in civil war. But in such a time it was reserved only for God and angels to be lookers-on, and Milton was not God nor, except at rare moments, an angel. With mingled zeal and reluctance he plunged into pamphleteering. The heroic poem which was to win immortal fame had to be indefinitely postponed for the writing of prose tracts which are now, except for scholars, mostly dead. But we need not lament the twenty years Milton gave to prose and public affairs. He would not have been Milton if he had not been able to sacrifice his hopes to the claims of public duty. He belongs to that great tradition which stretches back through Spenser and Dante to the writers of Greece and Rome, the tradition of the poet who is an active citizen and a leader of his age. To Milton the romantic notion of the artist as an isolated or anti-social figure would have been not only reprehensible but unintelligible. Further, though he knew the magnitude of his sacrifice, since poetry was his right hand and prose his left, yet he had always desired the fame of a great leader, an oracle of nations, and his work as a publicist, if in one sense a forced betrayal of his destiny, was also an integral part of its fulfilment. It consoles him in his blindness to recall his defence of liberty, "Of which all Europe talks from side to side." Finally, the poetry itself was not altogether a loser. The noble sonnets on public men and events are close in spirit to the patriotic odes in which Horace reminded decadent Rome of the old Roman virtues. And the major poems were strengthened by their author's experience in the arena. As he says in one of his apologies for delaying his appointed task, the truly heroic poet must have, among other things, "insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs." To echo Gibbon, the secretary to the Council was not useless to the historian of Pandemonium.

Most of us, if we have any radical instincts at all, manifest them in youth, and then our arteries harden and our heads soften. The circumstances of Milton's early life might well have made him a contented conservative, but the older he grew the more radical he became. I can barely mention the chief battle-fronts on which he served.

First in importance among his prose works stands Areopagitica, the most eloquent defence of individual liberty and the power of truth in the language. The tract is a vivid reminder of its author's double affiliations. In form it is a classical oration, but it grew out of a puritan controversy over the rights of religious minorities. While for the modern reader it stands alone, at the time it was unheeded by the host of other pamphleteers.

Milton's early notoriety was especially due to the treatises in which he pleaded for divorce on the ground of incompatibility. I will say just three things about these works. First, modern research has freed Milton from the odium of having begun the series during his honeymoon; we know now that he began it a year later. Secondly, his plea for easier divorce was based, not on a week-end view of marriage, but on a high conception of its sanctity, of that marriage of minds which the Bible and the law did not recognize. Thirdly, notwithstanding the common prejudice against Milton's "Turkish contempt of females," he did not ignore the right of women as well as men to release from unworthy mates. If Milton always regarded man as the superior being, so did everyone else; how many men really think otherwise now?

To proceed with the main ideas of the prose tracts, in religious faith Milton moved from trinitarianism toward Arian and other heresies—though in essentials the theology of Paradise Lost remained orthodox enough to darken Sunday afternoon for many generations of evangelical readers. Milton's huge treatise on Christian doctrine, which was not published till 1825, was an attempt to define his own beliefs and, apparently, to provide a fundamental creed which all Christians might accept. As for religion on its external or institutional side, he changed from Anglicanism to Presbyterianism; then, seeing that the Presbyterians did not want religious freedom but only wanted to be top dog, he became an Independent with a capital "I"; his final position was independency with a small "i." Milton himself declared: "I never knew that time in England, when men of truest religion were not counted sectaries"; and, as Sir Herbert Grierson says, "he was a sect."

In politics, the supporter of monarchy became the defender of the regicides, a champion of a free republic who observed Cromwell's growing power with uneasiness.

In education, Milton damned the logical studies of the universities as an asinine feast of sow-thistles and brambles, and urged a more practical and certainly a more heroically comprehensive curriculum. His letter on education is the last of the long series of humanistic treatises which had begun nearly three hundred years before, and it has all the main features of the tradition. It is aristocratic. It aims at training the ablest young men to be useful and cultivated citizens, not scholars. In substance the programme is mainly classical, though less predominantly literary than that of most earlier humanists, for Milton recognizes the study of nature and science generally. His emphasis on religion and virtue, on the discipline of the moral judgment and the will, is no special mark of puritan zeal, for that had been the chief end of Christian humanism in all ages and all countries.

When we survey Milton's whole body of writing in prose and verse, we see that his various ideas and principles start from a passionate belief in the freedom of the will. There, of course, he breaks utterly with Calvinistic doctrine. Over a century earlier Erasmus had challenged Luther on just that ground. No humanist who had learned from the ancients the dignity of human reason could accept predestination and the depravity of man. In all problems, divorce, religion, politics, education, censorship of the press, Milton goes where reason leads him. No ordinance, he declares—in words which from a religious man at that time are rather bold—no ordinance, human or from heaven, can bind against the good of man. People have a way of associating the classics with mellow Toryism, but for Milton the classics were a trumpet and a sword. While Milton the artist learned his art chiefly from the ancient poets, to Milton the humanist and publicist Athens and Rome were the nurseries of individual and republican liberty. No wonder that Hobbes, recoiling from the chaos of the times to plead for absolutism in government, exclaims, with men like Milton in mind:

And by reading of these Greek and Latin authors men from their childhood have gotten a habit, under a false show of liberty, of favouring tumults, and of licentious controlling the actions of their sovereigns, and again of controlling those controllers; with the effusion of so much blood as I think I may truly say there was never anything so dearly bought as these western parts have bought the learning of the Greek and Latin tongues.

At the same time we should remember the Protestant conception of "Christian liberty" which Professor Wood-house has emphasized, that aristocratic distinction between the regenerate and the unregenerate which in Milton coalesces with the aristocratic principle of classical humanism. And, to echo Professor Woodhouse further, Milton's classical humanism sets him apart from merely religious puritans and leads him to interpret the regenerate state in humanistic, that is, in rational and ethical terms.

Dr. Tillyard remarks that if Milton had been stranded in his own paradise, he would have eaten the apple and immediately justified the act in a polemical pamphlet. We need not query a cheerful epigram, but we may notice that romantic idea which is still to be met, outside universities—namely, that Milton was of the devil's party without knowing it, that Satan was his real hero. Certainly the Satan of the first two books of Paradise Lost would not be the splendid figure he is if Milton himself had not been a rebel against authority, yet we are intended to see that from the very beginning Satan's heroic strength is vitiated by a fatal taint. For Satan is an example, on the grand scale, of perverted reason and perverted will, and the later books record his progressively shameful degradation. Milton never fought for the right of the individual to do as he pleases. While the traditional orthodoxy of the humanistic creed was modified by Milton's vigorous individualism, none the less he conceives of liberty as the right of man's disciplined reason to self-government, and one who loves liberty must first be wise and good. Hence the supreme importance of education, above all in the sacred and humane writings which provide ethical as well as intellectual training.

It is no accident that Milton's four long poems deal with one great theme, the human will confronted by temptation. Among the various motives inherent in, or read into, the chosen fables, perhaps the most obvious and recurrent are the sensual. Such emphasis is partly puritan and partly Miltonic. Milton's first marriage, apparently, gave a shock to his self-confidence which reverberates in the poems composed many years later. If he, a man elect, had not allowed his senses to betray his reason, he had at least shown a terrible lack of discernment. However large or small the personal factor, and in our days it is only too likely to be exaggerated, it is clear in the first place that Milton's ethical doctrine was not a copy-book abstraction but a vital reality which was proved on his pulses. In the second place, and this is what concerns us here, Milton's various treatments of the theme of temptation are as much classical as Christian. The battle is not merely between the love of God and the sinful flesh, it is between reason and unreason, "knowledge" and "ignorance." Milton uses the ethical psychology of Plato which had contributed so much to the rational framework of Spenser's moral allegory. Plato's thought, as Professor Hughes says, is built into the ethics of Milton's poems as substantially as some parts of the Bible are built into their plots. (One may sometimes wish for more gleams in Milton of that white light of Platonism which glows in Vaughan or Browne, but in the main the humanistic tradition had been unmystical.) If one may venture, in these days of psychological laboratories when moral responsibility has been shifted to defective glands, to recall again the naïve ideas of ancient thinkers, the kernel of the matter is that reason, the highest and most human of human faculties, should control the irrational passions and appetites.

Here I must quote those eloquent and familiar sentences from the central passage of Areopagitica which explain the ethical substance and purpose of Milton's major poems, explain indeed the whole character of his Christian humanism. It may be observed that his conception of God's plan that human virtue should prove itself by resisting evil is a favourite idea of Lactantius, and Milton quoteshim in his Commonplace Book:

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness. Which was the reason why our sage and serious poet Spenser, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas, describing true temperance under the person of Guyon, brings him in with his palmer through the cave of Mammon, and the bower of earthly bliss, that he might see and know, and yet abstain….

Many there be that complain of divine Providence for suffering Adam to transgress; foolish tongues! When God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had been else a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions. We ourselves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force: God therefore left him free, set before him a provoking object, ever almost in his eyes; herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence. Wherefore did he create passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly tempered are the very ingredients of virtue? …

This justifies the high providence of God, who, though he commands us temperance, justice, continence, yet pours out before us even to a profuseness all desirable things, and gives us minds that can wander beyond all limit and satiety.

This last sentence, with its verbal anticipations of Paradise Lost, is a particular reminder of Milton's method of justifying the ways of God to men. He distorts the biblical fable in order to put it on a humanistic and rational basis. Adam and Eve do not simply disobey an arbitrary decree, they allow their reason, their faculty of moral choice, to be overruled by their passions and appetites. Coming to Paradise Regained, the uninstructed reader might naturally expect the subject to be the crucifixion and redemption, but the doctrine of vicarious atonement, though central in traditional Christianity, is distasteful to Milton; he accepts it, of course, but in a dryly legal way. For him paradise is regained when Christ, the personification of ideal human reason and will, conquers the conqueror of Adam.

But if Milton's ethical scheme is always rational, it is not always equally human and humane. In Comus, beautiful as the writing is, the ethical sermon, despite its Platonic and Christian radiance, has the unrealistic, inflexible assurance that goes with the exalted idealism of youth. In Paradise Regained, as Professor Rice has made clear, Milton is consciously trying to show Christ's human humility and constancy of faith; yet his hero is perfect and cannot sin, and the poem, as the presentation of a moral struggle and victory, is relatively unreal and cold. In Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve are at first artificial beings in an artificial world, but they are humanized by sin and suffering, and their author is too when he contemplates them. In dealing with the fall itself Milton turns from epic narrative to intimate drama, and the deep sympathy manifested there culminates in the marvellous close. The great cosmic and supernatural background, the epic war between God and Satan, which had been rendered with such heroic pomp and circumstance, with such sweep of imagination—all this, in Professor Stoll's words, gives place to a twilight picture of two human beings alone in the world:

Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Milton is an unfailing master of the classical quiet ending, but here, as in Greek drama, quietness means serenity only to those who miss the mingled tragedy and hope, irony and pity, in a symbolic picture of life itself reduced to its elemental terms. And if in Paradise Lost the theological frame melts away, no such frame obtrudes at all in Samson Agonistes. This, the one great English drama on the Greek model, is the most deeply humanized treatment of Milton's perennial theme, and it remains, not the most beautiful, but the most wholly alive, the most permanently moving, of all his works. Samson is a completely human being in a completely real world, a great man who has lived greatly and sinned greatly. If he differs from his Greek counterparts, Heracles, Prometheus, and the aged Oedipus, through his faith in the God of Israel, what we feel most is the tragic drama that goes on in Samson's own soul.

There is profound pessimism in the later books of Paradise Lost, and it reaches its depth in Samson, where the hero's triumphant martyrdom scarcely mitigates the effect of Milton's arraignment of God. The sheltered idealist had grown up thinking that England was full of John Miltons who had only to be shown the right way to follow it. In Areopagitica his optimism runs high. When God is beginning a new and greater reformation, "what does He then but reveal Himself to His servants, and, as His manner is, first to His Englishmen?" Among the first to be informed of divine intentions would be John Milton, who craved an honourable share in the great work. Now the fields are white for harvest; there can be no lack of reapers.

Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks. Methinks I see her as an eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full mid-day beam, purging and unsealing her long-abused sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance….

Sixteen years later, when the wheels are moving rapidly to bring back Charles Stuart, Milton makes a last appeal for a free republic. But with all its detailed plans this tract is an admission of defeat. The vision of a noble and puissant nation has faded into the light of common day, and men worthy to be for ever slaves are rushing to put their heads under the yoke. The good old cause is dead, and the work of a large part of Milton's life is undone. While he seems, outwardly, to have had a fairly cheerful old age, the stress and stimulus of composition heightened his realization of heroic past and ignoble present. He can declare himself still able to sing with voice unchanged,

but his voice is changed, even in these very lines.

Milton had never been a democrat in the modern sense of the word. He did not believe that one man's opinion was as good as another's. But, both as humanist and as puritan, he had believed passionately in the collective wisdom, inspiration, and effectual power of the best men, whether Platonic philosopher-kings or puritan "Saints." There is little of that faith left in his later works. Samson, God's chosen hero, is now "Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves." Milton tries to find a basis for hope in the scroll of future history revealed to Adam, but Adam hears no such story of national courage and triumph as Aeneas heard from Anchises:

Milton's hope of a new reformation, then, will be realized only at the day of judgment, when the evil world is cleansed by fire, and that is small comfort here and now. But if his old faith in men has proved vain, something can still be done by individual man; he can at least rule himself. So when Adam has learned the rational and Christian virtues, he has no need of an earthly paradise, he has a paradise within him, happier far. So Christ, man's perfect model, maintains his integrity against the allurements of the world. So Samson, resisting selfish and sensual temptations, achieves an inner regeneration which makes his outward fate of no account.

There are two special topics, both related to Milton's Christian humanism, with which we may end. When we think of his lifelong devotion to the classical authors who taught him his craft, who inspired alike his love of liberty and his love of discipline, it cannot be other than a painful shock to come upon that violent denunciation of Greek culture in Paradise Regained. And the shock is all the greater for the eulogy of Hellenism which precedes it:

Athens, the eye of Greece, mother of arts
And eloquence, native to famous wits
Or hospitable, in her sweet recess,
City or suburban, studious walks and shades.
See there the olive-grove of Academe,
Plato's retirement, where the Attic bird
Trills her thick-warbled notes the summer long….

And so on. But this beautiful evocation of Athens and her legacy to the world, written from the heart if ever anything was, is put in the mouth of Satan, and in an almost strident voice Christ answers with a repudiation of the vain philosophy, oratory, and poetry of Greece, which cannot approach the sacred truth of Hebrew writings.

It is painful indeed to watch Milton turn and rend some main roots of his being, but we must try to understand him. His harsh condemnation is relative rather than absolute; we know that his favourite authors up to the end were ancients, and this very poem owes much to them. Yet, with a strenuous and disappointed life behind him, Milton has come more and more to hold fast to ultimate things. If he, a warfaring Christian, must choose between the classical light of nature and the Hebrew light of revelation, he cannot hesitate, whatever the cost. For if our supreme task in this world is the conduct of our own lives, then Christ comes before Plato. It would be wrong to say simply that in old age the puritan has conquered the humanist. What is true is that Milton holds the traditional attitude of the Christian humanist with a more than traditional fervour inspired by the conditions of his age and by his own intense character.

The place of the Bible and the church in the humanistic tradition we have seen, and Milton himself had always put the sacred writings first, even if his own reason had sometimes strained their elasticity. So this outburst in Paradise Regained, uniquely elaborate and vehement though it is, contains nothing essentially new. One could trace a consistent attitude from the beginning. We have seen how his conception of love and chastity rose from Ovid to Plato and finally St. Paul. Though the classics form the staple of his educational programme, Milton expressly puts the Bible on a higher level. In apologizing, as a pamphleteer, for the postponement of that heroic poem he is going to write, he affirms its superiority to the ancient epics, not because he is a greater artist than Homer and Virgil—as artist Milton is humble enough—but because he is a Christian. His epic is not "to be obtained by the invocation of dame memory and her siren daughters; but by devout prayer to that eternal Spirit, who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his ser aphim, with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases." The claim is repeated in those several invocations in Paradise Lost which, outwardly imitations of classical addresses to the Muse, are really prayers. And while throughout the poem he employs mythological allusions, many of them among the most beautiful things he ever wrote, so sternly does he feel that the highest truth must be kept pure that again and again he takes pains to label these myths pagan fiction. Such facts testify to the sincerity and consistency of Milton's Christian faith. They testify also to the dilemma facing a puritan bred in the tradition of Renaissance classicism.

The second and last topic involves a similar question of apparent inconsistency. Along with temperance in the moral sphere Adam learns the necessity of temperance in the pursuit of secular and scientific knowledge. This is not an incidental but an integral part of Milton's subject, and we may ask how such a position can be taken by the man who had been receptive to Baconian ideas, who had given science an exceptional place in his educational scheme, and who had written with such power in defence of free inquiry. A partial answer to this question has, I hope, already been given. We have seen that from the Middle Ages onward the Christian humanists, under the banner of Cicero, Plato, and Christ, attacked the various tribes of Aristotelians because neither logic nor natural science, however good in themselves, taught the right conduct of life. For that highest wisdom, they said, one must go first to the sacred, secondly to the classical, authors. Like all intelligent men Milton was interested in the new astronomy, but, like all Christian humanists, he feared the danger of confusing wisdom and knowledge, law for man and law for thing. In 1642, for instance, he had distinguished between "that knowledge that rests in the contemplation of natural causes and dimensions, which must needs be a lower wisdom, as the object is low," and "the only high valuable wisdom," which is the knowledge of God and the true end of man's life.

In the following decades it might well seem that the rising tide of science and scientific philosophy threatened to sweep away religious and humane values altogether, and a consciousness of that movement, along with larger and sadder experience of life, would only intensify Milton's religious and humanistic reaction. Even if individual scientists retained their Christian faith, the implications of science seemed plain. For Milton as for Christian humanists of all ages (including the Cambridge Platonists), the physical and metaphysical world is a divine order with a divine purpose, and man is a being endowed with divine reason and divine will. For the scientific philosopher, such as Hobbes, the universe is a purely mechanical system of bodies moving in time and space. God and man alike have been pushed out of the real world, for real knowledge is mathematical knowledge. God is the initial cause of motion. The human faculties, which for the humanist are all that matters, have become mere bundles of secondary qualities which cannot be measured. The human mind is a blank wall which receives physical sensations. Memory, the mother of the Muses, is decayed sensation. The will, for Milton the helm of man's ship, is only the last, the effectual, appetite. Is it any wonder the Christian humanist believes that free speculation has undermined fundamental values, that Adam is taught to check the roving mind or fancy, which lures men into philosophic mazes, and to recognize that the prime wisdom is that which illuminates the moral problems of daily life?

The inevitable and basic antithesis which Miss Nicolson has pointed out between Milton and Hobbes is the same as that between Petrarch and the Averroists—or between Arnold and Huxley. The end of all learning and eloquence, said Erasmus, is to know Christ and honour Him. Of the two definitions of education in Milton's prose tract the less familiar but not less Miltonic one is this:

The end, then, of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love Him, to imitate Him, to be like Him, as we may the nearest, by possessing our souls of true virtue, which, being united to the heavenly grace of faith, makes up the highest perfection.

Nearly a quarter of a century later that definition is expanded, one might say, in Milton's final summing-up of the lesson of Paradise Lost. If in his early days he had had some Baconian dreams of the conquest of nature, now, in his age, he has no thought of an earthly paradise; Adam-to repeat that all-important line-has a paradise within him, happier far….

F. R. Leavis (essay date 1947)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4751

SOURCE: "Milton's Verse," in Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry, W.W. Norton & Co., 1963, pp. 42-61.

[In the following essay. Leavis dismisses Milton's poetry as puritanical and pedantic]

Milton's dislodgment, in the past decade, after his two centuries of predominance, was effected with remarkably little fuss. The irresistible argument was, of course, Mr. Eliot's creative achievement; it gave his few critical asides—potent, it is true, by context—their finality, and made it unnecessary to elaborate a case. Mr. Middleton Murry also, it should be remembered, came out against Milton at much the same time. His Problem of Style contains an acute page or two comparing Milton with Shakespeare, and there was a review of Bridges' Milton's Prosody in The Athenœum that one would like to see reprinted along with a good deal more of Mr. Murry's weekly journalism of that time. But the case remained unelaborated, and now that Mr. Eliot has become academically respectable those who refer to it show commonly that they cannot understand it. And when a writer of Mr. Allen Tate's repute as critic, poet and intellectual leader, telling us that Milton should be "made" to "influence poetry once more," shows that he too doesn't understand, then one may overcome, perhaps, one's shyness of saying the obvious.

Mr. Tate thinks that if we don't like Milton it is because of a prejudice against myth and fable and a preference for the fragmentary: "When we read poetry we bring to it the pseudo-scientific habit of mind; we are used to joining things up in vague disconnected processes in terms that are abstract and thin, and so our sensuous enjoyment is confined to the immediate field of sensation. We are bewildered, helpless, confronted with one of those immensely remote, highly sensuous and perfectly make-believe worlds that rise above our scattered notions of process."

Not every one will find this impressive. If we are affected by the pseudo-scientific habit of mind to that degree, some would suggest, we probably cannot read poetry at all. But if we can and do read poetry, then our objection to Milton, it must be insisted, is that we dislike his verse and believe that in such verse no "highly sensuous and perfectly make-believe world" could be evoked. Even in the first two books of Paradise Lost, where the myth has vigorous life and one can admire the magnificent invention that Milton's verse is, we feel, after a few hundred lines, our sense of dissatisfaction growing into something stronger. In the end we find ourselves protesting—protesting against the routine gesture, the heavy fall, of the verse, flinching from the foreseen thud that comes so inevitably, and, at last, irresistibly: for reading Paradise Lost is a matter of resisting, of standing up against, the verse-movement, of subduing it into something tolerably like sensitiveness, and in the end our resistance is worn down; we surrender at last to the inescapable monotony of the ritual. Monotony: the variety attributed to Milton's Grand Style in the orthodox account can be discoursed on and illustrated at great length, but the stress could be left on "variety," after an honest interrogation of experience, only by the classically trained.

Here, if this were a lecture, would come illustrative reading-out—say of the famous opening to Book III. As it is, the point seems best enforcible (though it should be obvious at once to any one capable of being convinced at all) by turning to one of the exceptionally good passages—for every one will agree at any rate that there are places where the verse glows with an unusual life. One of these, it will again be agreed, is the Mulciber passage at the end of Book I:

The opening exhibits the usual heavy rhythmic pattern, the hieratic stylization, the swaying ritual movement back and forth, the steep cadences. Italics will serve to suggest how, when the reader's resistance has weakened, he is brought inevitably down with the foreseen thud in the foreseen place:

But from "Nor was his name unheard" onwards the effect changes. One no longer feels oneself carried along, resigned or protesting, by an automatic ritual, responding automatically with bodily gestures—swayed head and lifted shoulders—to the commanding emphasis: the verse seems suddenly to have come to life. Yet the pattern remains the same; there are the same heavy stresses, the same rhythmic gestures and the same cadences, and if one thought a graph of the verse-movement worth drawing it would not show the difference. The change of feeling cannot at first be related to any point of form; it comes in with "ancient Greece" and "Ausonian land," and seems to be immediately due to the evocation of that serene, clear, ideally remote classical world so potent upon Milton's sensibility. But what is most important to note is that the heavy stresses, the characteristic cadences, turns and returns of the verse, have here a peculiar expressive felicity. What would elsewhere have been the routine thump of "Sheer" and "Dropt" is here, in either case, obviously functional, and the other rhythmic features of the verse are correspondingly appropriate. The stress given by the end-position to the first "fell," with the accompanying pause, in what looks like a common, limply pompous Miltonicism—

—is here uncommonly right; the heavy "thrown" is right, and so are the following rise and fall, the slopes and curves, of the verse.

There is no need to particularize further. This much room has been given to the fairly obvious merely by way of insisting that the usual pattern of Milton's verse has here an unusual expressive function—becomes, indeed, something else. If any one should question the unusualness, the doubt would be soon settled by a little exploration. And to admit the unusualness is to admit that commonly the pattern, the stylized gesture and movement, has no particular expressive work to do, but functions by rote, of its own momentum, in the manner of a ritual.

Milton has difficult places to cross, runs the orthodox eulogy, but his style always carries him through. The sense that Milton's style is of that kind, the dissatisfied sense of a certain hollowness, would by most readers who share it be first of all referred to a characteristic not yet specified—that which evoked from Mr. Eliot the damaging word magniloquence.' To say that Milton's verse is magniloquent is to say that it is not doing as much as its impressive pomp and volume seem to be asserting; that mere orotundity is a disproportionate part of the whole effect; and that it demands more deference than it merits. It is to call attention to a lack of something in the stuff of the verse, to a certain sensuous poverty.

This poverty is best established by contrast, and tactical considerations suggest taking the example from Milton himself:

Wherefore did Nature powre her bounties forth,
With such a full and unwithdrawing hand,
Covering the earth with odours, fruits, and flocks,
Thronging the Seas with spawn innumerable,
But all to please, and sate the curious taste?
And set to work millions of spinning Worms,
That in their green shops weave the smooth-hair'd silk
To deck her Sons, and that no corner might
Be vacant of her plenty, in her own loyns
She hutch't th' all-worshipt ore, and precious gems
To store her children with; if all the world
Should in a pet of temperance feed on Pulse,
Drink the clear stream, and nothing wear but Freize
Th' all-giver would be unthank't, would be unprais'd,
Not half his riches known, and yet despis'd,
And we should serve him as a grudging master,
As a Penurious niggard of his wealth,
And live like Natures bastards, not her sons,
Who would be quite surcharged with her own weight,
And strangl'd with her waste fertility;
Th' earth cumber'd, and the wing'd air dark't with plumes,
The herds would over-multitude their Lords,
The Sea o'refraught would swell, and th' unsought diamonds
Would so emblaze the forhead of the Deep,
And so bestudd with Stars, that they below
Would grow inur'd to light, and com at last
To gaze upon the Sun with shameless brows.

This is very unlike anything in Paradise Lost (indeed, it is not very like most of Comus). If one could forget where one had read it, and were faced with assigning it to its author, one would not soon fix with conviction on any dramatist. And yet it is too like dramatic verse to suggest Milton. It shows, in fact, the momentary predominance in Milton of Shakespeare. It may look less mature, less developed, than the verse of Paradise Lost; it is, as a matter of fact, richer, subtler and more sensitive than anything in Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained or Samson Agonistes.

Its comparative sensuous richness, which is pervasive, lends itself fairly readily to analysis at various points; for instance:

And set to work millions of spinning Worms,
That in their green shops weave the smooth-hair'd silk …

The Shakespearian life of this is to be explained largely by the swift diversity of associations that are run together. The impression of the swarming worms is telescoped with that of the ordered industry of the workshop, and a further vividness results from the contrasting "green," with its suggestion of leafy tranquillity. "Smooth-hair'd" plays off against the energy of the verse the tactual luxury of stroking human hair or the living coat of an animal. The texture of actual sounds, the run of vowels and consonants, with the variety of action and effort, rich in subtle analogical suggestion, demanded in pronouncing them, plays an essential part, though this is not to be analysed in abstraction from the meaning. The total effect is as if words as words withdrew themselves from the focus of our attention and we were directly aware of a tissue of feelings and perceptions.

No such effect is possible in the verse of Paradise Lost, where the use of the medium, the poet's relation to his words, is completely different. This, for instance, is from the description, in Book IV, of the Garden of Eden, which, most admirers of Milton will agree, exemplifies sensuous richness if that is to be found in Paradise Lost:

And now divided into four main Streams,
Runs divers, wandring many a famous Realme
And Country whereof here needs no account,
But rather to tell how, if Art could tell,
How from that Sapphire Fount the crisped Brooks,
Rowling on Orient Pearl and sands of Gold,
With mazie error under pendant shades
Ran Nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
Flours worthy of Paradise which not nice Art
In Beds and curious Knots, but Nature boon
Powrd forth profuse on Hill and Dale and Plaine,
Both where the morning Sun first warmly smote
The open field, and where the unpierc't shade
Imbround the noontide Bowrs: Thus was this place,
A happy rural seat of various view:
Groves whose rich Trees wept odorous Gumms and Balme,
Others whose fruit burnisht with Golden Rinde
Hung amiable, Hesperian Fables true,
If true, here onely, and of delicious taste …

It should be plain at once that the difference was not exaggerated. As the laboured, pedantic artifice of the diction suggests, Milton seems here to be focussing rather upon words than upon perceptions, sensations or things. "Sapphire," "Orient Pearl," "sands of Gold," "odorous Gumms and Balme," and so on, convey no doubt a vague sense of opulence, but this is not what we mean by "sensuous richness." The loose judgment that it is a verbal opulence has a plain enough meaning if we look for contrast at the "bestudd with Stars" of Comus's speech; there we feel (the alliteration is of a different kind from that of the Grand Style) the solid lumps of gold studding the "forhead of the Deep." In the description of Eden, a little before the passage quoted, we have:

And all amid them stood the Tree of Life,
High eminent, blooming Ambrosial Fruit
Of vegetable Gold …

It would be of no use to try and argue with any one who contended that "vegetable Gold" exemplified the same kind of fusion as "green shops."

It needs no unusual sensitiveness to language to perceive that, in this Grand Style, the medium calls pervasively for a kind of attention, compels an attitude towards itself, that is incompatible with sharp, concrete realization; just as it would seem to be, in the mind of the poet, incompatible with an interest in sensuous particularity. He exhibits a feeling for words rather than a capacity for feeling through words; we are often, in reading him, moved to comment that he is "external" or that he "works from the outside." The Grand Style, at its best, compels us to recognize it as an impressive stylization, but it functions very readily, and even impressively, at low tension, and its tendency is betrayed, even in a show piece like the description of Eden, by such offences as:

—If the Eighteenth Century thought that poetry was something that could be applied from the outside, it found the precedent as well as the apparatus in Milton.

The extreme and consistent remoteness of Milton's medium from any English that was ever spokenis an immediately relevant consideration. It became, of course, habitual to him; but habituation could not sensitize a medium so cut off from speech—speech that belongs to the emotional and sensory texture of actual living and is in resonance with the nervous system; it could only confirm an impoverishment of sensibility. In any case, the Grand Style barred Milton from essential expressive resources of English that he had once commanded. Comus, in the passage quoted, imagining the consequences of the Lady's doctrine, says that Nature

To cut the passage short here is to lame it, for the effect of Nature's being strangled with her waste fertility is partly conveyed by the ejaculatory piling-up of clauses, as the reader, by turning back, can verify. But one way in which the verse acts the meaning—not merely says but does—is fairly represented in the line,

Th' earth cumber'd, and the wing'd air dark't with plumes,

where the crowding of stressed words, the consonantal clusters and the clogged movement have a function that needs no analysis. This kind of action in the verse, together with the attendant effects of movement and intonation in the whole passage, would be quite impossible in the Grand Style: the tyrannical stylization forbids. But then, the mind that invented Milton's Grand Style had renounced the English language, and with that, inevitably, Milton being an Englishman, a great deal else.

"Milton wrote Latin as readily as he did English." And: "Critics sometimes forget that before the 'Nativity Ode' Milton wrote more Latin than English, and one may suggest that the best of the Latin is at least as good as the best of the English." At any rate, one can believe that, after a decade of Latin polemic, Latin idiom came very naturally to him, and was associated with some of his strongest, if not necessarily most interesting, habits of feeling. But however admirable his Latin may be judged to be, to latinize in English is quite another matter, and it is a testimony to the effect of the "fortifying curriculum" that the price of Milton's latinizing should have been so little recognized.

"This charm of the exceptional and the irregular in diction," writes Mr. Logan Pearsall Smith in his extremely valuable essay on English Idioms, "accounts for the fact that we can enjoy the use of idiom even in a dead language which we do not know very well; it also explains the subtlety of effect which Milton achieved by transfusing Greek or Latin constructions into his English verse." But Milton's transfusing is regular and unremitting, and involves, not pleasant occasional surprises, but a consistent rejection of English idiom, as the passage quoted from Book IV sufficiently shows. So complete, and so mechanically habitual, is Milton's departure from the English order, structure and accentuation that he often produces passages that have to be read through several times before one can see how they go, though the Miltonic mind has nothing to offer that could justify obscurity—no obscurity was intended: it is merely that Milton has forgotten the English language. There is, however, a much more important point to be made: it is that, cultivating so complete and systematic a callousness to the intrinsic nature of English, Milton forfeits all possibility of subtle or delicate life in his verse.

It should be plain, for instance, that subtlety of movement in English verse depends upon the play of the natural sense movement and intonation against the verse structure, and that "natural," here, involves a reference, more or less direct, to idiomatic speech. The development in Shakespeare can be studied as a more and more complex and subtle play of speech movement and intonation against the verse. There is growing complexity of imagery and thought too, of course, but it is not to this mainly that one would refer in analysing the difference between a characteristic passage of Othello and Romeo's dying lament: the difference is very largely a matter of subtle tensions within, pressures upon, the still smooth curves of the still "regular" verse of Othello. No such play is possible in a medium in which the life of idiom, the pressure of speech, is as completely absent as in Milton's Grand Style. That is why even in the most lively books of Paradise Lost the verse, brilliant as it is, has to the ear that appreciates Shakespeare a wearying deadness about it. That skill we are told of, the skill with which Milton varies the beat without losing touch with the underlying norm, slides the cæsura backwards and forwards, and so on, is certainly there. But the kind of appreciation this skill demands is that which one gives—if one is a classic—to a piece of Latin (we find writers on Milton "appreciating" his Latin verse in the same tone and spirit as they do his English).

"An appreciation of Milton is the last reward of consummated scholarship." Qualified as Mark Pattison prescribes, one may, with Raleigh, find that Milton's style is "all substance and weight," that he is almost too packed to be read aloud, and go on to acclaim the "top of his skill" in the choruses of Samson Agonistes. But the ear trained on Shakespeare will believe that it would lose little at the first hearing of a moderately well-declaimed passage, and that Samson Agonistes read aloud would be hardly tolerable, because of its desolating exposure of utter loss—loss in the poet of all feeling for his native English. The rhythmic deadness, the mechanical externality with which the movement is varied, is the more pitifully evident because of the personal urgency of the theme and the austerity: there is no magniloquence here. To arrive here, of course, took genius, and the consummation can be analytically admired. But then, there have been critics who found rhythmic subtlety in Phæbus with Admetus and Love in the Valley.

Up to this point the stress has fallen upon Milton's latinizing. To leave it there would be to suggest an inadequate view of his significance. His influence is seen in Tennyson as well as in Thomson, and to say that he groups with Tennyson and Spenser in contrast to Shakespeare and Donne is to say something more important about him than that he latinized. The force of associating him with Spenser is not that he was himself "sage and serious", and in contrasting him with Donne one is not, as seems also commonly to be thought, lamenting that he chose not to become a Metaphysical. The qualities of Donne that invite the opposition are what is shown in this:

This is the Shakespearian use of English; one might say that it is the English use—the use, in the essential spirit of the language, of its characteristic resources. The words seem to do what they say; a very obvious example of what, in more or less subtle forms, is pervasive being given in the image of reaching that the reader has to enact when he passes from the second to the third line. But a comparison will save analysis:

For so to interpose a little ease,
Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise.
Ay me! Whilst thee the shores, and sounding Seas
Wash far away, where ere thy bones are hurld,
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
Visit'st the bottom of the monstrous world;
Or whether thou to our moist vows denied,
Sleep'st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great vision of the guarded Mount
Looks toward Namancos and Bayona's hold …

The contrast is sharp; the use of the medium, the attitude towards it in both writer and reader, is as different as possible. Though the words are doing so much less work than in Donne, they seem to value themselves more highly—they seem, comparatively, to be occupied with valuing themselves rather than with doing anything. This last clause would have to be saved for Tennyson if it were a question of distinguishing fairly between Milton and him, but, faced with the passage from Donne, Milton and Tennyson go together. Tennyson descends from Spenser by way of Milton and Keats, and it was not for nothing that Milton, to the puzzlement of some critics, named Spenser as his "original": the mention of Tennyson gives the statement (however intended) an obvious significance.

The consummate art of "Lycidas," personal as it is, exhibits a use of language in the spirit of Spenser—incantatory, remote from speech. Certain feelings are expressed, but there is no pressure behind the words; what predominates in the handling of them is not the tension of something precise to be defined and fixed, but a concern for mellifluousness—for liquid sequences and a pleasing opening and closing of the vowels. This is the bent revealed in the early work; the Shakespearian passage in Comus is exceptional. Milton, that is, some one will observe of the comparison, is trying to do something quite other than Donne; his bent is quite different. Exactly: the point is to be clear which way it tends.

The most admired things in Comus—it is significant—are the songs.

Quite plainly, the intention here is not merely to flatter the singing voice and suit the air, but to produce in words effects analogous to those of music, and the exquisite achievement has been sufficiently praised. The undertaking was congenial to Milton. Already he had shown his capacity for a weightier kind of music, a more impressive and less delicate instrument:

Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heav'ns joy,
Sphear-born harmonious Sisters, Voice, and Vers,
Wed your divine sounds, and mixt power employ
Dead things with inbreath'd sense able to pierce,
And …

We remember the Tennysonian felicity: "God-gifted organ voice." "At a Solemn Mustek," though coming from not long after 1630, anticipates unmistakably the "melodious noise" of Paradise Lost, and suggests a further account of that sustained impressiveness, that booming swell, which becomes so intolerable.

This, then, and not any incapacity to be interested in myth, is why we find Milton unexhilarating. The myth of Paradise Lost, indeed, suffers from deficiencies related to those of the verse. "Milton's celestial and infernal regions are large but insufficiently furnished apartments filled by heavy conversation," remarks Mr. Eliot, and suggests that the divorce from Rome, following the earlier breach with the Teutonic past, may have something to do with this mythological thinness. But it is enough to point to the limitations in range and depth of Milton's interests, their patent inadequacy to inform a "sense of myth, of fable, of ordered wholes in experience." His strength is of the kind that we indicate when, distinguishing between intelligence and character, we lay the stress on the latter; it is a strength, that is, involving sad disabilities. He has "character," moral grandeur, moral force; but he is, for the purposes of his undertaking, disastrously single-minded and simple-minded. He reveals everywhere a dominating sense of righteousness and a complete incapacity to question or explore its significance and conditions. This defect of intelligence is a defect of imagination. He offers as ultimate for our worship mere brute assertive will, though he condemns it unwittingly by his argument and by glimpses of his own finer human standard. His volume of moral passion owes its strength too much to innocence—a guileless unawareness of the subtleties of egotism—to be an apt agent for projecting an "ordered whole of experience." It involves, too, a great poverty of interest. After the first two books, magnificent in their simple force (party politics in the Grand Style Milton can compass), Paradise Lost, though there are intervals of relief, becomes dull and empty: "all," as Raleigh says, "is power, vagueness and grandeur." Milton's inadequacy to myth, in fact, is so inescapable, and so much is conceded in sanctioned comment, that the routine eulogy of his "architectonic" power is plainly a matter of mere inert convention.

But even if the realized effect were much less remote than it actually is from the abstract design, even if the life and interest were much better distributed, the orthodox praise of Milton's architectonics would still be questionable in its implications. It would still be most commonly found to harbour the incomprehensions betrayed by the critic cited in the opening of this chapter.

'In his time (as in ours) there was a good deal to be said for the Spenserian school against the technical break down to which the Jacobean dramatists had ridden English verse. Webster is a great moment in English style, but the drama was falling off, and blank verse had to survive in a non-dramatic form, which required a more rigid treatment than the stage could offer it. In substance, it needed stiffer and less sensitive perceptions, a more artificial grasp of sensation, to offset the supersensitive awareness of the school of Shakespeare, a versification less imitative of the flow of sensation and more architectural. What poetry needed, Milton was able to give. It was Arnold who, in the 1853 preface to his own poems, remarked that the sensational imagery of the Shakespearian tradition had not been without its baleful effect on poetry down to Keats: one may imitate a passage in Shakespeare without penetrating to the mind that wrote it, but to imitate Milton one must be Milton; one must have all of Milton's resources in myth behind the impulse: it is the myth, ingrained in his very being, that makes the style.'

If that is so, the style, as we have seen, condemns the myth. Behind the whole muddled passage, of course, and not far behind, is the old distinction between the "Classical style" and the "Romantic"—the "Romantic" including Shelley (and one presumes, Swinburne) along with Shakespeare. It is enough here to say that the inability to read Shakespeare (or the remoteness from the reading of him) revealed in such a passage and such a distinction throws the most damaging suspicion upon the term "architectural." The critic clearly implies that because Shakespeare exhibits "more sensitive perceptions," and offers a "versification more imitative of the flow of sensation," he is therefore indifferent to total effect and dissipates the attention by focussing, and asking us to focus, on the immediate at the expense of the whole. As a matter of fact, any one of the great tragedies is an incomparably better whole than Paradise Lost, so finely and subtly organized that architectural analogies seem inappropriate (a good deal of Paradise Lost strikes one as being almost as mechanical as bricklaying). The analysis of a Shakespeare passage showing that "supersensitive awareness" leads one into the essential structure of the whole organism: Shakespeare's marvellous faculty of intense local realization is a faculty of realizing the whole locally.

A Shakespeare play, says Professor Wilson Knight, may be considered as "an extended metaphor," and the phrase suggests with great felicity this almost inconceivably close and delicate organic wholeness. The belief that "architectural" qualities like Milton's represent a higher kind of unity goes with the kind of intellectual bent that produced Humanism—that takes satisfaction in inertly orthodox generalities, and is impressed by invocations of Order from minds that have no glimmer of intelligence about contemporary literature and could not safely risk even elementary particular appreciation.

Robert Graves (essay date 1947)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1439

SOURCE: "The Ghost of Milton," in The Common Asphodel: Collected Essays on Poetry, 1922-1949, Hamish Hamilton, 1949, pp. 321-5.

[In the following excerpt, Graves assesses Milton as "a minor poet with a remarkable ear for music, before diabolic ambition impelled him to renounce the true Muse and bloat himself up … into a towering rugged poet."]

… With all possible deference to his admirers, Milton was not a great poet, in the sense in which Shakespeare was great. He was a minor poet with a remarkable ear for music, before diabolic ambition impelled him to renounce the true Muse and bloat himself up, like Virgil (another minor poet with the same musical gift) into a towering, rugged major poet. There is strong evidence that he consciously composed only a part of Paradise Lost; the rest was communicated to him by what he regarded as a supernatural agency.

The effect of Paradise Lost on sensitive readers is, of course, over-powering. But is the function of poetry to overpower? To be over-powered is to accept spiritual defeat. Shakespeare never overpowers: he raises up. To put the matter in simple terms, so as not to get involved in the language of the morbid psychologist: it was not the Holy Ghost that dictated Paradise Lost—the poem which has caused more unhappiness, to the young especially, than any other in the language—but Satan the protagonist, demon of pride. The majesty of certain passages is superhuman, but their effect is finally depressing and therefore evil. Parts of the poem, as for example his accounts of the rebel angels' military tactics with concealed artillery, and of the architecture of Hell, are downright vulgar: vulgarity and classical vapidity are characteristic of the passages which intervene between the high flights, the communicated diabolisms.

The very familiarity of "Lycidas" discourages critical comment and it is usually assumed—though I disagree with this—that Dr. Johnson showed a lack of poetic feeling when he criticized the falsity of its sentiments and imagery:

It is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion: for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. Passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of rough satyrs and fauns with cloven hoof. Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief.

Milton's effusion was certainly not spontaneous; in 1637 he had been invited to collaborate in a projected memorial anthology in honour of Edward King, his late fellow-student at King's College, Cambridge, and was apparently the last to send in his piece. It is unlikely that his grief for King was any more sincere than the admiration he had expressed for Shakespeare seven years previously when similarly invited to compose a commendatory sonnet for a new edition of the Plays (the first of his poems to be printed); and young King's appointment by Royal mandate to a vacant College Fellowship seems to have so embittered Milton, who considered that he had the first claim to it himself, as to turn him into an anti-monarchist. There is authentic emotion in "Lycidas," but it springs, as in his "Lament for Damon," from the realization that young intellectuals of his generation are as liable as anyone else to die suddenly; Fate's latest victim might well have been John Milton, not Edward King; which would have been a far more serious literary disaster. It also springs, but more obscurely, from the Fellowship grudge—apparently the irrelevant attack, in the second part of the poem, on Bishops who are unfaithful to their flocks, was aimed at William Chappell, his hated former College tutor, recently promoted Bishop of Ross, as being the enemy who had secured King his Fellowship. Dr. Johnson was rightly scandalized by the sudden change at this point in the poem from "the vulgar pastoral … in which appear the heathen deities Jove and Phoebus, Neptune and Aeolus …" to a satire on contemporary Church Government. He writes:

The shepherd is now a feeder of sheep and afterwards an ecclesiastical pastor, a superintendent of a Christian flock. Such equivocations are always unskilful; but here they are indecent.

When he adds that "Lycidas" "has no art," this is true only in the sense that it is a poem strangled by art. Johnson sturdily resisted the musical spell which the opening lines cast on more sensitive readers:

Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear,
I com to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc'd fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.

and did not trouble to examine carefully the principles on which they were written.

So far as I know, nobody has ever pointed out that in the extravagantly artful interlacing of alliteration throughout this passage Milton is adapting to English metrical use the device of cynghanedd, or recurrent consonantal sequences, used by the Welsh bards whom he mentions appreciatively early in the poem. It may well be that he learned of the device when he visited the Court of the President of Wales, for whom he had written Comus, in 1634.

The initial consonants of the first lines are an alliterative interlace of Y.M.L. which is interrupted by the harshness of the alliterative pairs B.B., C.C., and F.F., and which, after Shatter, reappears to decorate the "dying close." The interlace of C.S.D. in the next two lines is linked to the foregoing with another B.B.:

… leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due …

Then follows a more complicated interlace: a P.H.N.L. sequence connected to the C.S.D. sequence by a bridge of D's, and followed by a watery succession of W's to close the stanza.

For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer:
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not flote upon his watry bear
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of som melodious tear.

It was naughty of Johnson to pretend that 'the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, the numbers unpleasing': the sound of the poem is magnificent; only the sense is deficient. In the opening lines Brown, introduced for its resonance and as an alliterative partner to Berries, suggests a false contrast between myrtle leaves which go brown and ivy leaves that stay green; whereas both sorts of leaf go brown in old age and fall off after younger leaves have taken their place. Laurel is sacred to Apollo, the god of poetry; ivy to Dionysus-Osiris, the god of resurrection; myrtle to Venus, goddess of love. But ivy and myrtle drop out of the poem immediately and seem to have been introduced only for the melodious sound of their names; and though it is clear from the next lines that Lycidas' death, in August before the year has mellowed, has unseasonably forced Milton's hand, he does not explain why he has to shatter the leaves of these trees while plucking the unripe berries. If he needs the berries, though of these three sorts only myrtle berries are edible, when they ripen in mid-winter, he does not have to disturb the leaves; if he needs a wreath he can cut a young shoot and shatter neither berries nor leaves. Clearly Shatter is used merely for its violence of sound; the presumed sense is "I have come to pluck your berries and leaves before the year has mellowed," but this is not conveyed.

And if he needs a wreath, for whom is it intended? For himself, later to converse with Apollo and have his ears encouragingly touched, or for the laureate hearse of his fellow-poet? The exigencies of his complicated metrical scheme have blurred the logic of the stanza—parching and melodious are further examples of words chosen for their sound at the expense of meaning—but his musical craftsmanship has lulled successive generations of readers into delighted acquiescence, and in Johnson's words "driven away the eye from nice examination." It is enough for them to catch the general drift: that a poet has died before his time, shattering the hopes of his friends, and that a fellowpoet, suddenly aware that he is human too, is fumbling broken-heartedly among the evergreens with a confused notion that he ought to weave someone—but whom?—a garland of some sort or other; and that he feels vaguely (but is too downhearted to work the theory out) that the Bishops are to blame for everything.

Frank Kermode (essay date 1953)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5114

SOURCE: "Milton's Hero," in Review of English Studies, Vol. IV, No. XVI, October, 1953, pp. 317-30.

[In the following essay, Kermode examines the depiction of Christ in Paradise Regained, establishing Christian heroic virtue as distinct from pagan.]

The heroic poem, said Davenant, should "exhibit a venerable and amiable image of heroic vertue"; this virtue, he considered, had best be Christian. Cowley, choosing a Christian hero, concurred, and Milton, dealing as usual with the substance and not the shadow, made Jesus his exemplary hero. From the virtue of the angry Achilles, even from that of the dedicated Aeneas, to that of Christ, is a long step, but recent scholarship has shown how the magnanimity of the Aristotelian prescription had been Christianized, so that "the extinction of appetite by reason," could be an heroic agony, and Milton's Christ could debel Satan and appetite not by acting but by suffering. My purpose here is not so much to develop these inquiries as to show that Paradise Regain'd contains within itself the reasons why its hero is as he is and not otherwise, and that Milton's thought was, on this deeply important subject, always and heroically consistent.

It is essential, to begin with, that we should not hesitate to accept Milton as a hero. He clearly aspired, in a remarkably unaffected way, to heroism, and thought it necessary to his day labour, "not presuming to sing high praises of heroick men … unlesse he have in himselfe the experience and the practice of all which is praiseworthy." This is not merely to say that Milton was in love with the breathed and exercised virtue of Guyon; that in his life and work he honoured the virtue which heroically rejects. He had in mind a more sharply defined heroic pattern. He cast himself as well as his Christ in this heroic mould; hence a degree of resemblance between them which has dangerously and unnecessarily been called identity. We know that from early days Milton called Christ "Most perfect Heroe"; what more does he say of his own heroism?

Like Adam, Milton was formed for contemplation and valour, not for either, but for both. He thought of his long secluded nonage as the formal period of preparation for the heroic life. The "degree of merriment" which, on Dr. Johnson's orders, we are to allow ourselves at the story of his return from Italy, need not obscure the fact that the long preparation was over; the hero went forth into the world. While he was still at Horton, Milton commented elaborately upon his long holding back from the world in the letter, written in 1632 and preserved in the Trinity MS., which ends with the sonnet on his twenty-third birthday. This letter, written perhaps to no one in particular, is a careful apology for his long seclusion, an apology perhaps the more necessary in that his long stay at Horton was only just beginning. His seclusion, he says, is not the result of an affected love of learning, "whereby a man cutts him self off from all action and becomes the most helplesse, pusilanimous & unweapon'd creature in the world, the most unable & unfit to doe that which all mortals aspire to." Rather is it the desire to be properly equipped for the great action when the time comes, "not taking thought of being late, so it give advantage to be more fit, for those that were latest lost nothing when the maister of the vineyard came to give each one his hire"; thus he excuses himself from the reproach that, having reached an age to obey Christ's command that all should "labour while yet there is light," he remains inactive. His is not the crime which preceded "the terrible seasing of him that hid the talent"; for he is preparing for the day when the talent matures.

Here Milton is conscious not only of the biblical loci, but also of the traditional Stoic positions on the life of retirement and the life of action. Apart from an orthodox defence of learning, he has a fairly open allusion to Seneca's De Tranquillitate Animi, with its debate between the philosopher and the young student Serenus, whose longing for glory disturbs his studies. The dialogue concerns the nature and purpose of different kinds of retirement. That Milton was thinking of this dialogue is confirmed by the sonnet "When I consider how my light is spent," written twenty years later. Its opening line is reminiscent of the sonnet "On his being arrived at the age of twenty-three"; it is as if Milton had refreshed his memory of the earlier poem and the letter of which it was a part. Christ commanded us to labour while there was light; but does he require our labour when there is no light? "There is," as Warton said, "a pun on the doctrine in the Gospel." But there is also a reference to the letter in which this parable was earlier quoted, and the later sonnet alludes also to the other parable, the parable of the one talent which is death to hide. Now Patience prevents the fond question "Can anything be asked of me in this hopeless plight?" by another amalgam of Seneca and Christian imagery in the sestet. This new seclusion of blindness is another retreat. What is recommended to the devotee of Virtue who is driven by Fortune from the active life? Not inertia; he is not useless. "Nunquam enim quamvis obscura virtus latet, sed mittit sua signa." His proper course is to serve still; for Milton to wait upon the Lord; for Seneca to champion the cause of Virtue…. And this is true no matter what gifts Fortune may have withdrawn….

Thus Milton, in two poems separated by twenty years, considers the pattern of heroic retirement, and seeks authority not only in the Scriptures but also in classical antiquity. The retreat at Horton, and the retreat of his blindness are alike considered in relation to a classical heroic scheme.

He grew up in the privacy of his own family, and till his age was quite mature and settled, which he also passed in private, was chiefly known for his attendance upon the purer worship, and for his integrity of life. He had cherished his confidence in God, he had nursed his great spirit in silence…. He was a soldier above all the most exercised in knowledge of himself; he had either destroyed, or reduced to his own control, all enemies within his own breast—vain hopes, fears, desires…. To evince his extraordinary, his little less than divine virtue, this mark will suffice; that there lived in him an energy, whether of spirit or genius, or of discipline established … by the rule of Christ and of sanctity.

The first two sentences could have been spoken of Christ, and the whole, with small change, of Milton himself, though the hero here celebrated is Cromwell,

Milton offers us a Cromwell on the model of the younger Scipio, though he has Christianized the model. And a little later in the Second Defence he speaks of Fairfax and how he unites "exemplary sanctity of life with the highest courage." "In your present secession, like that of Scipio Africanus of old at Liternaum, you hide yourself as much as possible from the public view. It is not the enemy alone you have conquered; you have conquered ambition, and what itself conquers the most excellent of mortals, you have conquered glory." So does Milton shape the Parliamentary generals by the pattern of Christian heroic virtue. Scipio, the model of ancient heroism, the true exemplar of the nice balance of active and contemplative, who understood the causes of retreat and was never less alone than when alone; Scipio has a key position in the pattern, whether the issue of heroism be conquest or 'the better fortitude Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom.'

Christian heroism may take either of these courses, though the latter is more Christ-like, "above Heroic." In Milton's tragedy Samson, Manoah, and the Chorus, in the course of their patient inquiry into the true significance of Samson's life, have to treat of this topic. The sham coderidden honour of Harapha is discomfited, and the Chorus comments upon his departure; heroism is comely and reviving, but the higher heroism is the active, which quells 'the mighty of the earth' "with plain Heroic magnitude of mind And celestial vigour arm'd." But the chorus supposes, ironically, that Samson is no longer to be thought of as an active hero:

But Samson is precisely the hero who debels the tyrant by plain heroic magnitude, having with Job-like patience endured suffering. The lesson of Samson becomes clear: God seems to desert his heroes, but does not. Virtue, the staple of heroism, is never allowed to die, but always rises from the ashes of suffering and acting heroes. This is the new acquist of true experience, that virtue is "vigorous most When most unactive deem'd." To the end Milton was preoccupied with the hero as the Christian electus, with the reconciliation of Christian and classical schemes of heroism, and the problem of why God apparently deserts his champion and allows him to be maimed and humiliated. Samson Agonistes is particularly concerned with the last of these issues, which is raised insistently by the accounts of the Old Testament heroes and also by Milton's own life. The Passion of Christ presents it in its most acute and terrible form. This accounts for that likeness which has been so often held against the poet.

To make his Christ unchallengeably exemplary Milton shaped Paradise Regain'd to contain a hero who complete and transcends the heroic data, not merely exemplary in his patience and heroic martyrdom, but gaining exemplary rewards, which transcend the rewards of pagan heroism—sensual satisfactions, glory, power, even secular knowledge.

The action of Paradise Regain'd concerns the primary heroic crisis, the emergence of the hero from seclusion. He is tempted; this is what Milton calls a "good temptation … whereby God tempts even the righteous for the purpose of exercising or manifesting their faith and patience, as in the case of Abraham and Job." This ordeal is necessary to the Redeemer. "For that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted." It is also necessary to Christ as Hero; he must be refined for a greater conquest, he must "lay down the rudiments of his great warfare" before the battle with Sin and Death.

Having established the situation of crisis, the poem looks back to the youth of Christ. It had been spent in learning. Like Cato, like Cromwell, Christ had been

Serious to learn and know, and thence to do,
What might be publick good.

"Therefore, above my years The Law of God I read," says Christ, perhaps, as Dunster suggests, with an allusion to the Aeneid—ante annos animumque gerens curamque virilem. He aspired to heroic acts, to rid Israel of the Roman yoke "till truth were freed"; the comely and reviving acts of the chosen hero of God. He is intended to carry out, in his own way, the prophecy of Anchises, "to teach the erring soul … the stubborn only to subdue." His mother has cautioned him against haste:

High are thy thoughts
O Son, but nourish them and let them soar
To what highth sacred vertue and true worth
Can raise them, though above example high.

And so "The time prefixt I waited", living "private, unactive, calm, contemplative" and addicted … To contemplation and profound dispute." Now, at the moment of emergence, he finds "all his great work to come before him set." The faithful cannot understand his departure into the wilderness, nor can his mother; he himself has a serene confidence in, but no rational understanding of, this vocation. But he knows, as they do not (though his mother hints at it) that his moment has come, as it came to Aeneas and Cato, to Cromwell and Milton.

So he goes forth, not like the pagan heroes to honour, but to "trouble." He goes not to act but to suffer, not to receive but to reject; to achieve "by Humiliation and strong Sufferance," and by his weakness to "o'ercome Satanic strength." He must resist the permitted strength of Satan as Job did; this is a different heroism from that of any pagan. The contrast between these heroisms is a leading theme of the poem, which resounds with the names of heroes who augment or illuminate by contrast the total and exemplary heroism of Christ.

The name of Scipio dominates the allusions to pagan heroism, and he is often present when not named. When Christ is led into loneliness,

But with such thoughts …
Lodg'd in his brest, as well might recommend
Such Solitude before choicest Society

Milton is referring us to the delicious solitude of Cicero's Scipio; so too when Christ is "Sole but with holiest meditations fed." As Scipio and Alexander rejected women, Belial need not expect Christ to fall to them. In the Third Book Satan flatters Christ; he is wise, he is capable of glory; but how shall he achieve it, sunk in his affection for the private life? Glory is "the flame of most erected spirits"; in failing to seek it, Christ lags behind some more timely happy spirits who had gone in quest of it—Alexander, Pompey, Machabeus, Scipio … But the answer is firm: Satan is himself the type of those insatiable for glory; and

If young African for fame
His wasted Country freed from Punic rage,
The deed becomes unprais'd, the man at least …

In fact Scipio had explicitly rejected this devil's idea of glory, and was free from the vulgar error which makes honour dependent upon reputation and the verdict of the mob. In no detail does Christ fall short of the model of ancient heroes.

In another place Christ compares himself with the heroes of the past—with "Quintus, Fabricius, Curius, Regulus"; those who accomplished great things in poverty, or by self-sacrifice. To rule oneself is better than to be a king, and, as Regulus showed, "to lay down Far more magnanimous, then to assume." This group of heroes is named, together with the Old Testament group—Jephtha, David, and Gideon, Heros rege major—in Christ's reply to the temptation of wealth, which is carried on entirely in these terms.

And what in me seems wanting, but that I
May also in this poverty as soon
Accomplish what they did, perhaps and more?

The virtues of these heroes are included in Christ. There are others, chiefly Job and Socrates, Christ's heathen type, "for truths sake suffering death unjust." Socrates had achieved what might be achieved by the light of nature; he was the hardest of the pagans to reject, but he did not know the truth as Christ and his successors knew it; and the new way of knowing it is the key to the heroism of humiliation. It was not available to Socrates and Scipio, and so no pagan equivalent of the true heroism will do, not even that which despises honour and gain, and drinks the cup of humiliation.

Satan professes his inability to understand how Christ proposes to be a hero. "What dost thou in this World?" he asks. The answer, we know, is suffer and reject. Satan's bewilderment, though feigned, is not uncongenial to us, however, for in dismissing the old hero Milton has dismissed the old rewards of heroism; and one consequence of the relative neglect of the poem is that the exact nature of the new rewards proposed for the new hero escapes the modern reader. Milton for excellent reasons describes them very obliquely; they are suggested by the very rewards they displace; they supersede the old rewards exactly as the new hero supersedes the old. I propose to examine this process of supersession as it occurs at four places in the poem: the banquet, the debate upon honour, the rejection of Rome, and the rejection of Athens.

There has been some debate as to why Milton, having recorded in the First Book the temptation of the stone, proceeds to an account of Satan's illusory banquet; a device which appears to repeat the initial appeal to Christ's hunger. The reason is that the first temptation is canonical, the second a quasi-allegorical development of it which is essential to the structure of the poem. Milton follows the hint in St. Matthew, who alone speaks of the angels ministering to Jesus after the temptations. This ministration, it is natural to assume, was partly of food; and Milton balances this celestial banquet with a banquet of sense, which Jesus rejects so that he may attain to the higher angelicbanquet. There is a suggestion of this scheme in Giles Fletcher's Christs Victorie on Earth. In both poems Satan offers Christ a banquet of sense. We are perhaps most familiar with this expression from Chapman's poem, which describes a systematic assault on the senses of the erotic Ovid; each sense in turn is elaborately described. Ultimately the banquet of sense is the antitype of the celestial banquet of the Symposium as Ficino explained it. The theme occurs with rich suggestiveness in Timon of Athens—the banquet having satisfied all the senses save sight, Cupid brings in a masque for its benefit:

This banquet is associated with Timon's self-deception on the issues of honour, friendship, nature, and so forth. The obscurer banquet in The Tempest concerns the depravity of Antonio and his friends. Milton uses a banquet to enforce the sensual arguments of Comus in his Masque. Now, in Paradise Regain 'd, Satan appeals to the sight with the beautiful youths and nymphs, to the smell with "the wine That fragrant smell diffus'd"; to the ear—"Harmonious Airs were heard Of chiming strings, or charming pipes"; and then he completes the tale with taste and touch:

No interdict
Defends the touching of these viands pure,
Thir taste no knowledge works, at least of evil….

The sensual impact proceeds from the highest, "the eye itself, That most pure spirit of sense," to the lowest, touch and taste.

The adverbs describing the tone of Christ's responses to the temptations of Satan are always significant. At this point he replies "temperately." Temperance is not so appropriate to his continued fast as to his rejection of sensuality as it is summed up in the banquet. Christ says that he may have at will a celestial banquet,

And call swift flights of Angels ministrant
Array'd in Glory on my cup to attend.

At the end of the poem he has his proper reward:

A table of Celestial Food, Divine,
Ambrosial, Fruits fetcht from the tree of life,
And from the fount of life Ambrosial drink.

In place of the sensual banquet, the material gratifications of the conqueror, he has a celestial banquet, a banquet of love and of heavenly glory.

I have already, in speaking of Scipio's function in the poem, alluded to Christ's rejection of honour, and I need not dwell long upon it here. Christ, like Milton, distinguishes between honour which depends on opinion—insipientium opinio—and honour more absolute, of which Cicero spoke as "amplitudinem animi et quasi quandam exaggerationem quam altissimam animi" which enables a man in conquering himself to conquer all things. This distinction is as old as Plato, and its most familiar exposition in English is the debate on honour between Hector and his brothers in Troilus and Cressida; Hector holds that true honour

Holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein 'tis precious of itself
As in the prizer.

This is the most explicit statement of one of Shakespeare's most insistent themes. Milton develops the idea in a predictable way; the honour which resides in reputation is the honour of the old hero, and it is subject to envious and calumniating time. With it go all temporal distinctions and rewards. But the Christian equivalent of honour is not appraised by the common breath, and certainly does not derive its life from that source. The truth and the rewards of honour are determined "by perfet witnes of all judging Jove." No Christian can be in doubt about the distinction.

Fame, I confess, I find more eagerly pursued by the heathen than by the Christians of these times. The immortality (as they thought) of their name was to them, as the immortality of the soul to us: a strong reason to persuade to worthiness. Their knowledge halted in the latter; so they rested in the first; which often made them sacrifice their lives to that which they esteemed above their lives, their fame. Christians know a thing beyond it: and that knowledge causes them to give but a secondary respect to fame; there being no reason why we should neglect that whereon all our future happiness depends, for that which is nothing but a name and empty air. Virtue were a kind of misery, if fame alone were all the garland that did crown her. Glory alone were a reward incompetent for the toils of industrious man. This follows him but on earth; in heaven is laid up a more noble, more essential recompense.

So the poet of "Lycidas" dismisses his fears; so, in the Horton letter and sonnet, he justifies his calling. So, to Satan's reproaches concerning his tardiness in the pursuit of fame, Jesus "calmly" replies:

For what is glory but the blaze of fame,
The peoples praise, if always praise unmixt?
And what the people but a herd confus'd,
A miscellaneous rabble, who extol
Things vulgar, & well weigh'd, scarce worth the praise? …
This is true glory and renown, when God
Looking on the Earth, with approbation marks
The just man, and divulges him through Heaven
To all his Angels, who with true applause
Recount his praises; thus he did to Job….

In exchange for the glory which resides in the opinion of the rabble, the Christian hero receives that which is measured by the knowledge of God. Christ's conquest "unarm'd" is celebrated at the end of the poem by a choir of angels, singing "Heavenly Anthems of his victory."

In the Third Book Satan offers Jesus the military power of Parthia. Jesus is "unmov'd" in his rejection. The "cumbersome Luggage of war" is "argument Of human weakness rather then of strength." But immediately, at the opening of the Fourth Book, Satan returns to the argument of earthly power. Milton takes extraordinary measures to emphasize the desperation of Satan's case, for his return to the attack is signalled by three powerful formal similes which are all the more impressive in that the poem is so stripped of "ornament." The Tempter embarks on his great eulogy of Rome,

To this temptation Jesus also replies "unmov'd." Rome is degenerate and base, though "once just"; it conquered well, but governs ill; his own kingdom, when it comes, "shall be like a tree Spreading and overshadowing all the Earth, Or as a stone that shall to pieces dash All Monarchies besides throughout the world."

It has recently been observed that Satan's eulogy of Rome is cast in the form of an encomium urbis. The prototype is the prophecy of Anchises in Aeneid, vi, but Milton may here be borrowing more directly from Claudian. On the Roman valuation, Rome was urbs aeterna, and the culmination of the Roman imperium was the great climax of history. When Satan showed Christ the vision of Rome he was offering him the sum of pre-Christian civilization; wealth, glory, military power. Now Christ has truly been shown "The kingdoms of the world in all their glory." But his kingdom is not of this world. Just as the sensual banquet and the earthly glory have their heavenly counterparts, so the civitas terrena is replaced by the civitas Dei. Christ could no more be in doubt about the true nature of the earthly city than was the Red Cross Knight when he had seen the true Jerusalem;

For this great Citie that does far surpas,
And this bright Angels towre quite dims that towre of glas.

St. Augustine tolerated the Roman imperium, but expected it to give way to the heavenly justice. The Romans had never made good their boast, parcere mbiectis, and their imperfect justice would be superseded by the civitas Dei. Milton repeats the charge against Rome; and the hero, in rejecting the earthly city makes certain of the heavenly, to which he alludes in the language of Daniel's prophecy of the stone and the tree. Since Rome stands for temporal power and glory, and, under Tiberius, for brutality and vicious sensuality, this is an inclusive temptation, and the unmoved rejection of it is the refusal of all the rewards possible to un-Christian heroism of the active sort. Dunster, who is usually acute, remarks that it provokes the crisis of recognition, the impudent requirement that Christ should "fall down, And worship" which provokes the retort, "plain thou nowappear'st That Evil one."

There remains one more temptation before the explicit challenge of the supernatural battle over Jerusalem. It seems the cruellest and most difficult of all; the sweetness of the tempter's suggestions, the uncompromising austerity of Christ's reply, are more than anything else responsible for the coldness with which this poem has always been received.

Satan, arguing somewhat too easily, contends that since Christ is not active he must be contemplative. He therefore tempts him with the learning of Greece

There follows the glorious encomium of Athens; most modern readers know very well that they are here if nowhere else of the devil's party. But Christ makes a "sage" reply. It disturbs us that Milton, who in the past had resoundingly acknowledged his love of Greek learning and philosophy, should write this calm rejection; but its consistency is undeniable. The light of nature is superseded by "Light from above, from the fountain of light"—it is characteristic of the situation that this line should itself be redolent of Platonism. The heroes of pagan contemplation are systematically rejected: Socrates because of the avowed and inevitable uncertainty of his knowledge, Plato, who "to fabling fell"—an objection to Plato which is, ultimately, Platonic—Sceptics, Epicureans, Stoics—these because they failed to understand the impossibility of virtue without grace. The lack of divine knowledge renders all Greek learning supererogatory.

It has been observed that the force of Christ's reply is not independent of classical allusion; in fact it seems to me to owe something to Seneca's Epistle lxxxviii, which treats of intemperate learning and the tenuous relationship of learning to virtue. There is a conventional element in the rejection of useless learning which was heard in English long before Milton; but Milton specializes in the Puritan manner, identifying useful learning with the Law, and dismissing, like St. Augustine who is throughout this passage not far from his mind, the dissensions of the gentile philosophers in favour of the concord of the canonical scriptures. The hero willingly forgoes Athens for Sinai, and Parnassus for Sion. The rejection of Greek poetry in favour of 'Sion's songs, to all true tasts excelling' echoes previous attempts in English to establish the supremacy of Hebrew poetry, and Milton himself had always given a notional credence to the doctrine. Here, as elsewhere, he applies the full weight of his humanism to the antihumanist cause. He himself was a hero, but not the exemplar of heroism.

Pagan learning, then, is to Christian learning as Socrates is to Christ; as Scipio is to Christ; as the earthly honour to the heavenly and the earthly city to the heavenly; as nature to grace. Milton's devotion to his theme is responsible for the cold, unrhetorical diction of the poem, from which he has banished "swelling Epithetes" and much that might recall the pagan epic. But he does not make such sacrifices "unmov'd"; and there is in this section of the poem a profound and moving turbulence.

The last temptation translates the conflict to the plane of violent action. Christ will not throw himself down from the pinnacle; it is Satan-Antaeus who must fall, with such consolation as he can derive from his at last certain knowledge of the nature of his antagonist. At this point the supernatural powers of Christ are asserted, at first simply in his standing inactive. Immediately he receives his supernatural rewards, heavenly glory, and the banquet of celestial love; the angels also affirm his divine nature, "light of light Conceiving," and his coming reign.

The whole poem, then, is concerned to establish the character of Christian heroic virtue as distinct from pagan, and to establish the heavenly nature of the rewards which supersede the earthly recompense of the old heroes.

This is certainly in accordance with the doctrines of Tasso in his Discorso della Virtù Heroica, et delia Charità. There we learn that heroic virtue includes all the other virtues in a nobler recension, but that pagan heroism and charity are only shadows of the Christian type; even Scipio's saving his father's life is only "ombra e figura della Christiana Charità, la quale nel nascimento di Christo cominciò, & in Christo hebbe la sua perfettione …." Heroic Virtue and Charity resemble each other in many ways, and both seek a reward of glory. But Charity is the greater; and it is Charity that inspires the Christian hero.

niun Heroe espose cosi lietamente la vita per la patria, come l'huom caritativo l'espone per Christo; e i Curtii, e i Decii, e i Marcelli, e gli altri famosi Romani, Barbari, e Greci, non possono in alcu[n]o modo a i Martiri di Christo, o a' Machabei esser' agguagliati.

This is, as M. Y. Hughes suggested, the background of the poem; but Paradise Regain'd is self-supporting, and thus far more complicated structurally than is usually supposed. Milton had a terrible appetite for essentials. He took no ready-made theodicy for Paradise Lost, no prefabricated hero for Paradise Regain'd. We learn, and we find the lesson hard, why Christ is the exemplary hero by watching him in the act of confuting or transcending all the known modes of heroism. We are taught the rewards of Christian heroism by a demonstration based on the superseded rewards of the old heroes. We are shown the difficult victory of a love superior to that expounded by Plato and his equal Xenophon. The "first and chiefest office" of this love is to die. When the struggle was over, Christ, like Socrates after his victory for love, "home to his Mothers house private return'd." The "heir of both worlds" had shown how the Christian hero must deserve his reward. "Blessed is the man that endureth temptation; for when he is tried he shall receive the crown of life."

M. H. Abrams (essay date 1961)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7537

SOURCE: "Five Types of Lycidas," in Milton's Lycidas: The Tradition and the Poem, University of Missouri Press, 1983, pp. 216-35.

[In the following essay, Abrams surveys interpretations of "Lycidas."]

Most modern critics base their theories on the proposition that a poem is an object in itself. And all critics endorse enthusiastically at least one statement by Matthew Arnold, that the function of criticism is "to see the object as in itself it really is." The undertaking is surely valid, and laudable; the results, however, are disconcerting. For in this age of unexampled critical activity, as one poetic object after another is analyzed under rigidly controlled conditions, the object proves to be highly unstable, and disintegrates. In the pages of the critics we increasingly find, under a single title, not one poem but a variety of poems.

Milton's "Lycidas" is a convenient case in point, because it is short enough to be easily manageable, has been explicated many times, and is almost universally esteemed. If not every reader goes all the way with Mark Pattison's judgment that it is "the high-water mark of English Poesy," still critics agree about its excellence as closely as they ever do in evaluating a lyric poem. My point is that, on the evidence of their own commentaries, critics agree about the excellence of quite different poems. They present us not with one "Lycidas" but with discriminable types of "Lycidas"—five types, I have announced in my title. I feel confident that with a little more perseverance I could have distinguished at least seven, to equal William Empson's types of ambiguity. But in these matters distinctions, as Mr. Empson's procedure demonstrates, can be rather arbitrary. And even five types of "Lycidas" are enough to confront the literary theorist with an embarrassing problem: Is a poem one or many? And if it is one, how are we to decide which one?

For the first type, take "Lycidas" as it was commonly described in the period between the first volume of Masson's monumental Life of Milton (1859) and the critical age ushered in by T. S. Eliot and I. A. Richards a generation ago. This traditional reading (in which I was educated) was conveniently epitomized by J. H. Hanford in his Milton Handbook. Individual discussions varied in emphasis and detail; but when in that lost paradise of critical innocence readers looked at "Lycidas," they agreed that they saw an elegiac poem about Edward King, a contemporary of Milton's at Christ's College, who had been drowned when his ship suddenly foundered in the Irish Sea. To depersonalize his grief and elevate its occasion, Milton chose to follow the elaborate conventions of the pastoral elegy, as these had evolved over the 1800 years between the Sicilian Theocritus and the English Spenser; he ended the poem with a traditional consolation at the thought of Lycidas resurrected in heaven, and found in this thought the strength to carry on his own concerns. In two passages, many commentators agreed—they often called them digressions—Milton uttered his personal concerns in a thin fictional disguise. In one of these Milton expressed his own fear that "th' abhorred shears" might cut him off before he could achieve the poetic fame to which he had dedicated his life. In the other Milton, through St. Peter, voiced a grim warning to the corrupt English clergy of his time.

Writing in 1926, on the extreme verge of the New Criticism, Professor Hanford was so imprudent as to close his discussion with the statement that "Lycidas" bears its meaning plainly enough on its face." It contains, to be sure, a minor verbal crux or two, such as the nature of the "two-handed engine at the door"; but, he roundly asserted, "there has been little room for disagreement regarding its larger features."

Only four years later E. M. W. Tillyard published in his Milton an analysis of "Lycidas" which in its opening tucket sounded the new note in criticism: Most criticism of "Lycidas" is off the mark, because it fails to distinguish between the nominal and the real subject, what the poem professes to be about and what it is about. It assumes that Edward King is the real whereas he is but the nominal subject. Fundamentally "Lycidas" concerns—

But before we hear what "Lycidas" is really about, we ought to attend to Tillyard's distinction between "nominal" and "real" poetic meaning. For this modern polysemism, which splits all poems—or at least the most noteworthy poems—into two or more levels of meaning, one overt and nominal (which other readers have detected) and the other covert but essential (whose discovery has usually been reserved for the critic making the distinction) is extraordinarily widespread, and we shall find it repeatedly applied to "Lycidas." The lamination of poetic significance is variously named. Tillyard elsewhere distinguishes between conscious and unconscious, and direct and oblique meanings. Other critics make a parallel distinction between manifest and latent, ostensible and actual, literal and symbolic, or particular and archetypal significance. And at the risk of giving away a trade secret, it must be confessed that most of the time, when we critics come out with a startling new interpretation of a well-known work, it is through the application of this very useful interpretative stratagem.

The procedure is indispensable in analyzing works for which there is convincing evidence that they were written in the mode of allegory or symbolism. But it is worth noting that the distinction was developed by Greek commentators, interested in establishing Homer's reputation as a doctor of universal wisdom, who dismissed Homer's scandalous stories about the gods as only the veil for an esoteric and edifying undermeaning. The same strategy was adapted by Philo to bring the Old Testament into harmony with Greek philosophy, and by the Church Fathers to prove that the Old Testament prefigured the New Testament, and by medieval and Renaissance moralists in order to disclose, behind Ovid's pagan and ostensibly licentious fables, austere ethical precepts and anticipations of the Christian mysteries. From the vantage of our altered cultural prepossessions, it appears that the distinction between nominal and real meaning has not infrequently been used as a handy gadget to replace what an author has said with what a commentator would prefer him to have said.

We are braced now for Tillyard's disclosure of the real subject of "Lycidas." Fundamentally "Lycidas" concerns Milton himself; King is but the excuse for one of Milton's most personalpoems." The main argument for this interpretation is that "Lycidas" is generally admitted to be a great poem, but "if it is great, it must contain deep feeling of some sort"; since this feeling is obviously not about King, it must be about Milton himself. Milton, Tillyard maintains, expresses his own situation and feelings and attitudes, not only in the obviously allegorical passages about driving afield and piping with Lycidas, or in the passages on fame and the corrupt clergy which had been called personal by earlier critics, but from beginning to end of the poem. How radical Tillyard's formula is for translating objective references to subjective equivalents is indicated by his analysis of the poem's climactic passage:

The fourth section purports to describe the resurrection of Lycidas and his entry into heaven. More truly it solves the whole poem by describing the resurrection into a new kind of life of Milton's hopes, should they be ruined by premature death or by the moral collapse of his country…. Above all the fourth section describes the renunciation of earthly fame, the abnegation of self by the great egotist, and the spiritual purgation of gaining one's life after losing it.

Only such an interpretation, Tillyard claims, will reveal the integrity of the poem, by making it possible "to see in 'Lycidas' a unity of purpose which cannot be seen in it if the death of King is taken as the real subject." Furthermore, the value of the poem really resides in the ordered and harmonized mental impulses for which the objective references are merely a projected correlative: "What makes 'Lycidas' one of the greatest poems in English is that it expresses with success a state of mind whose high value can hardly be limited to a particular religious creed."

From this interpretation and these grounds of value John Crowe Ransom (to speak in understatement) disagrees. His premise is that "anonymity … is a condition of poetry." Milton very properly undertook to keep himself and his private concerns out of his memorial verses, and to do so assumed the identity of a Greek shepherd, the "uncouth swain" of the last stanza, who serves as a dramatis persona, a "qualified spokesman" for the public performance of a ritual elegy. As for the problem with which Tillyard confronted us—if the passion is not for King, for whom can it be except Milton himself?—Ransom solves it by dissolving it. There is no passion in the poem, and so no problem. "For Lycidas [Milton] mourns with a very technical piety." The pastoral conventions are part of the poetic "make-believe," and the whole poem, whatever more it may be, is "an exercise in pure linguistic technique, or metrics; it was also an exercise in the technique of what our critics of fiction refer to as 'point of view.'"

This is the poem, at any rate, that Milton set out to write and almost succeeded in writing. But his youth and character interfered and forced into the writing three defiant gestures of "rebellion against the formalism of his art." One of these is the liberty he took with his stanzas, which are almost anarchically irregular and include ten lines which do not rhyme at all. Another is St. Peter's speech; in Ransom's comment on this passage, we hear a voice out of the past—the Cavalier critic gracefully but firmly putting the stiff-necked and surly Puritan in his place: it expresses, he says, "a Milton who is angry, violent, and perhaps a little bit vulgar … Peter sounds like another Puritan zealot, and less than apostolic." The third instance of Milton's self-assertion is his "breach in the logic of composition"; that is, he shifts from the first-person monologue with which the poem opens to dialogues with Phoebus and others, then abruptly to the third person in the last stanza, where the uncouth swain is presented in "a pure narrative conclusion in the past [tense]." It follows that Ransom's concluding evaluation turns Tillyard's precisely inside-out. The sustained self-expression, on which Tillyard had grounded both the unity and excellence of the elegy, according to Ransom breaks out only sporadically, and then so as to violate the integrity and flaw the perfection of the poem. "So 'Lycidas,' for the most part a work of great art, is sometimes artful and tricky. We are disturbingly conscious of a man behind the artist."

One might, of course, demur that given Ransom's own criteria, two of the items he decries as arrogant gestures of Milton's originality are exactly those in which he closely follows established conventions. The scholarly annotators—at whom, as he passes, Ransom turns to smile—tell us that the models for Milton's stanzas, the elaborate canzone employed by several Italian lyrists of the sixteenth century, were not only variable in structure, but also included unrhymed lines for the sake of that seeming ease and freedom which is the aim of an art that hides art. As for St. Peter's diatribe, Milton inherited the right to introduce rough satire against the clergy into a pastoral from a widespread convention established by Petrarch, who was hardly vulgar, nor a Puritan, nor even a Protestant. In Ransom's third exhibit, one element—Milton's putting the elegy into a narrative context in the conclusion, without a matching narrative introduction—is not, apparently, traditional. But it is at any rate odd to make Milton out to assert his own egoism in the passage which specifically assigns the elegy to another person than himself; a person, moreover, who is the entirely conventional rural singer of a pastoral elegy.

But this begins to seem captious, and does not represent the measure of my admiration for the charm and deftness of Mr. Ransom's essay, which thrusts home some important and timely truths about the dramatic construction of 'Lycidas' by the artful device of overstatement. It is, one might hazard, a virtuoso exercise in critical point of view.

Let the commentary by Cleanth Brooks and John Hardy, in their edition of Milton's Poems of 1645, represent 'Lycidas,' type four. At first glance it might seem that to these explicators the poem is not really about King, nor about Milton, but mainly about water. They turn to the first mention of water in lines 12-14 and discover at once the paradox that the "tear" which is the "meed" paid to Lycidas by the elegiac singer is of the same substance, salt water, as the "wat'ry bier," the sea on which the body welters. As the poem develops, they say, "the 'melodious tear' promises to overwhelm the 'sounding Seas.'" For the tear is the elegy itself, which derives its inspiration from the "sacred well" of the muses, and flows on through a profusion of fountains, rivers, and streams, in richly ambiguous interrelations of harmonies, contrasts, and ironies, until, by the agency of "resurrection images," all of which "have to do with a circumvention of the sea," we are transferred to a transcendent pastoral realm where Lycidas walks "other streams along" and the saints wipe the tears forever from his eyes.

The base of the critical operation here is the assumption that "the 'poetry' resides in the total structure of meanings." The primary component in this structure is "imagery," of which the component parts are so organically related, through mutual reflection and implication, that it does not matter where you start: any part will lead you to the center and the whole. The key to both the form and value of "Lycidas," then, which Tillyard had found in the ordering of mental impulses, and Ransom in the all-but-successful maintenance of impersonal elegiac conventions, Brooks and Hardy locate in the evolution and integration of the imagery: "Lycidas" is a good poem not because it is appropriately and simply pastoral and elegiac—with … all the standard equipment-but because of its unique formal wholeness, because of the rich 'integrity' of even such a single figure as that in the lines 'He must not flote upon his wat'ry bear / Un-wept…."

It turns out, however, that these images are only provisionally the elements of the poem, since in Milton they are used as vehicles for a more basic component, "certain dominant, recurrent symbolic motives." The fact, hitherto mainly overlooked, is that "Milton is a symbolist poet to a considerable extent." Accordingly we must again, as in Tillyard's essay, penetrate the ostensible meaning to discover the real meaning of "Lycidas," though a real meaning which in this case is an abstract concept. "What," they ask, "is the real subject" of "Lycidas"?

If Milton is not deeply concerned with King as a person, he is deeply concerned, and as a young poet personally involved, with a theme—which is that of the place and meaning of poetry in a world which seems at many points inimical to it.

Specifically, the early part of the poem presents the despairing theme that nature is neutral, emptied of the old pastoral deities ("to say nymphs are ineffectual is tantamount to denying their existence"); and this concept is transcended only by the movement from philosophic naturalism to Christian supernaturalism, in the pastoral imagery of the conclusion in heaven.

Perhaps other readers share my disquiet at this discovery. Leaving aside the validity of assuming that "Lycidas" is essentially a symbolist poem of which the real subject is a theme, there remains the difficulty that the theme seems to be startlingly anachronistic. Milton, we are told, writing in 1637, and echoing a complaint about the nymphs which is as old as Theocritus' first Idyll, presents us with the world-view involving "an emptied nature, a nature which allows us to personify it only in the sense that its sounds seem mournful…. The music of nature … has also been stilled." But wasn't it Tennyson who said this, in an elegy published in 1850?

As for the concept imputed to Milton, with respect to the place of poetry in an inimical world, that "Nature is neutral: it is not positively malignant, but neither is it beneficent"—isn't this exactly the thesis laid down in 1926 by I. A. Richards in a very influential little book, Science and Poetry? In our own age, Mr. Richards said,

the central dominant change may be described as the Neutralization of Nature, the tranference from the Magical View of the world to the scientific…. There is some evidence that Poetry … arose with this Magical View. It is a possibility to be seriously considered that Poetry may pass away with it.

At any rate, it is by a notable sleight of explication that Brooks and Hardy convert to the real meaning that Nature does not sympathize with the poet's sorrow and "has no apparent respect for the memory of Lycidas" the very passage in which Milton explicitly states the contrary: that nature, which had responded joyously to Lycidas' soft lays when he was alive, now mourns his death:

Thee Shepherd, thee the Woods, and desert Caves,
With wilde Thyme and the gadding Vine o'regrown,
And all their echoes mourn.

We go on to the fifth type of "Lycidas," the archetypal version, which entered the critical ken after the vogue of the writings in comparative anthropology of James G. Frazer and in analytical psychology of C. G. Jung. This mode of criticism, like the last, begins by isolating images or patterns of imagery; now, however, the focus is on images which reflect the agents and events of myth or folklore. The favorite legends are those which (according to some folklorists) concern beings who were once nature deities—the dead and risen gods of Syria, Egypt, and Greece associated with the dying or reaping of the crops in the fall and their revival in the spring.

Richard P. Adams, investigating "The Archetypal Pattern of Death and Rebirth in "Lycidas," discovers that the poem is throughout "a remarkably tight amalgam of deathand-rebirth imagery." These images begin with the initial reference to the evergreen plants, the laurel, myrtle, and ivy, and continue through the allusions to the hyacinth, the rose, and the violet, which had their mythical genesis in the blood of a mortal or deity. The many water-images are here interpreted as fertility symbols; the allusion to the death of Orpheus is said to bring in a myth whose similarities to "the deaths of Adonis, Attis, Osiris, and other fertility demigods have been pointed out by modern scholars"; while the poet's speculation that the body of Lycidas perhaps visits "the bottom of the monstrous world" parallels the descent into water and the dragon fight "which is often a feature of death-and-rebirth cycles."

Adams is content with a fairly traditional interpretation of the subject of "Lycidas": Milton's concern was not with Edward King, but "with the life, death, and resurrection of the dedicated poet, and specifically with his own situation at the time." Northrop Frye, however, in his essay on "Literature as Context: Milton's "Lycidas," contends that the "structural principle" of the poem, the formal cause which "assimilates all details in the realizing of its unity," is "the Adonis myth," and that "Lycidas is, poetically speaking, a god or spirit of nature, who eventually becomes a saint in heaven." The archetypal reading here provides us with a new principle of unity, a new distinction between ostensible and implicit meaning, and a new version of what the poem is really rather than nominally about. In an earlier essay, Frye put the matter bluntly: "Poetry demands, as Milton saw it, that the elements of his theme should be assimilated to their archetypes…. Hence the poem will not be about King, but about his archetype, Adonis, the dying and rising god, called Lycidas in Milton's poem."

It will not do to say, as one is tempted to say, that these five versions of "Lycidas" really give us the same poem, in diversely selected aspects and details. The versions differ not in selection or emphasis, but in essentials. Each strikes for the heart of the poem; each claims to have discovered the key element, or structural principle, which has controlled the choice, order, and interrelations of the parts, and which establishes for the reader the meaning, unity, and value of the whole. Nor will it help put Humpty Dumpty together again to carry out the proposal we sometimes hear, to combine all these critical modes into a single criticism which has the virtues of each and the deficiency ofnone. To provide a coherent reading, a critical procedure must itself be coherent; it cannot be divided against itself in its first principles. A syncretic criticism is invertebrate, and will yield not an integral poem, but a ragout.

When there is such radical and many-sided disagreement about the real but nonliteral and esoteric meaning of the poem, the best hope of remedy, I think, lies in going back to Milton's text and reading it with a dogged literalness, except when there is clear evidence that some part of it is to be read allegorically or symbolically. This is what I propose, very briefly, to attempt. In a way, this puts me in a favorable position. A drawback in writing as a new critic is that it would be embarrassing to come out with an old reading; while I can plead that I have deliberately set out to labor the obvious, and can take comfort from the number of earlier critiques with which I find myself in agreement.

Looked at in this way, "Lycidas" turns out to be in some sense—although in some cases a very loose sense—about Edward King, about Milton, about water, about the problem of being a poet in an inimical world; and it is undoubtedly about at least one God (Christ) who died to be reborn. But it is about none of these in the central way that it is about certain other things that, to the literal-minded reader, constitute the essential poem Milton chose to write.

First, it is about—in the sense that it presents as the poetic datum, Milton's elected fiction—a nameless shepherd, sitting from morn to evening in a rural setting and hymning the death of a fellow poet-pastor, who is not Edward King but, specifically, Lycidas. The reason all our interpreters except Ransom treat the stated elegist rather casually, if at all, is that they tend to take as premise that a poem is an object made of words, or "a structure of meanings." So indeed it is. But as a starting point for criticism, it would be more inclusive and suggestive to say that a poem is made of speech, because the term "speech" entails a particular speaker. In "Lycidas" the speaker is an unnamed rustic singer whose speech refers to a state of affairs, describes the appearance and quotes the statements of other speakers, including Phoebus, Camus, and St. Peter, expresses his own thoughts and changing mood, and conveys, by immediate implication, something of his own character. The poem is therefore clearly a dramatic lyric, with a setting, an occasion, a chief character, and several subordinate characters (who may, however, be regarded as representing the speaker's own thoughts, objectified for dramatic purposes as standard personae of the pastoral ritual).

Tillyard is surely right, as against Ransom (and earlier, Dr. Johnson), in finding deep feeling in the poem, but he confronts us with the spurious alternative that the feeling must be either about King or about Milton himself. The feeling is occasioned by the death of Lycidas and the thoughts plausibly evoked by that event; and it is experienced and expressed not by Milton, but by a singer Milton is at considerable pains to identify as someone other than himself. Precisely what Milton himself thought and felt during the many hours—probably days—in which he labored over "Lycidas," despite Tillyard's assurance, is beyond all but the most tenuous conjecture; although it is safe to say that, among other things, he was thinking how he might put together the best possible pastoral elegy. But we know precisely what the uncouth swain thought and felt, because the expression of his thoughts and feelings constitutes the poem, from the bold opening, "Yet once more, O ye Laurels…," up to, but not including, the closing eight lines, when the author takes over as omniscient narrator: "Thus sang the uncouth Swain…."

Readers of the poem at its first appearance knew that it was one of thirteen Obsequies to the Memorie of Mr. Edward King, and undoubtedly some also knew that the J.M. who signed the last obsequy was John Milton, whose circumstances and relations to King bore some resemblance to those presented in the poem. Such knowledge, however, does not displace but adds a particular historical reference to the two chief persons of the literal poem. "Lycidas" is not simply "about" King; it is a public ceremonial on the occasion of King's death, and the decorum of such a performance requires that the individual be not only lamented but also honored. And how could King be honored more greatly than to be made an instance of the type of poet-priest, identified by the traditional name "Lycidas," and to be lamented by a typical pastoral singer—in Ransom's phrase, a "qualified spokesman" for the public performance of a ritual elegy—whose single voice is resonant with echoes of poets through the ages mourning other poets untimely cut off? My insistence here may seem to be much ado about trivia, and, provided we are ready to fill out the details when pertinent, it can be a harmless critical shorthand to say that it is Milton who sings a lament for Edward King. But entirely to disregard these elementary circumstances may be the beginning of critical arrogance, which can end in our substituting our own poem for the one Milton chose to write.

The pastoral singer sets out, then, both to lament and to celebrate Lycidas. But consideration of this particular death raises in his mind a general question about the pointless contingencies of life, with its constant threat that fate may slit the thin-spun thread of any dedicated mortal prior to fulfillment and so render profitless his self-denial. This doubt, it should be noted, is not an ulterior "theme" beneath the ostensible surface of the poem. It is, explicitly, a topic in the thought of the lyric speaker, a stage in his soliloquy, which the speaker's continued meditation, guided by the comments of other imagined characters, goes on to resolve. This turn away from Lycidas to the circumstance of those who have survived him is not insincere, nor does it constitute a digression or an indecorously personal intrusion. It is entirely natural and appropriate; just as (to borrow a parallel from J. M. French) it is altogether fitting and proper for Lincoln, in the course of the Gettysburg Address, to turn from "these honored dead" to concern for "us the living." After all, the doubts and fears of the lyric speaker concern the insecurity of his own life only in so far as he, like Lycidas, is a member of the genus Poet, and concern the class of poets only in so far as they share the universal human condition.

While initially, then, we may say that the presented subject of "Lycidas" is a pastoral singer memorializing the death of a dedicated shepherd poet-and-priest, we must go on to say that—in a second and important sense of "subject" as the dynamic center, or controlling principle, of a poem—its subject is a question about the seeming profitlessness of the dedicated life and the seeming deficiency of divine justice raised by that shocking death in the mind of the lyric speaker. That the rise, evolution, and resolution of the troubled thought of the elegist is the key to the structure of "Lycidas," Milton made as emphatic as he could. He forced it on our attention by the startling device of ending the elegy, in a passage set off as a stanza in ottava rima, not with Lycidas, but with the elegist himself as, reassured, he faces his own destiny with confidence. But there is no occasion for Lycidas to feel slighted by this dereliction, for has he not been left in heaven, entertained and comforted by a chorus of saints, and given an office equivalent to St. Michael's, as guardian of the western shore?

If this, in barest outline, is the subject and the structural principle of the poem, what are we to make of the thematic imagery which, in the alternative interpretation by Brooks and Hardy, motivate andcontrol its development?

"Lycidas" indeed, as these critics point out, incorporates many water and sheep-and-shepherd images; it also has song-and-singer images, flower images, stellar images, wide-ranging geographical images, even a surprising number of eye, ear, and mouth images. The usual strategy of the imagist critic is to pull out a selection of such items and to set them up in an order which is largely independent of who utters them, on what occasion, and for what dramatic purpose. Freed from the controls imposed by their specific verbal and dramatic contexts, the selected images readily send out shoots and tendrils of significance, which can be twined into a symbolic pattern—and if the critic is sensitive, learned, and adroit, often a very interesting pattern. The danger is, that the pattern may be largely an artifact of the implicit scheme governing the critical analysis.

From our elected point of view, the images in "Lycidas" constitute elements in the speech—some of it literal and some figurative, allegoric, or symbolic—which serve primarily to express the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of the lyric speaker. These images constitute for the reader a sensuous texture, and they set up among themselves, as Brooks and Hardy point out, various ambiguities, contrasts, and harmonies. But in "Lycidas," the procession of images is less determining than determined. If they steer the meditation of the speaker, it is only in so far as they cooperate in doing so with more authoritative principles: with the inherited formulas of the elegiac ritual, and with these formulas as they in turn (in Milton's inventive use of pastoral conventions) are subtly subordinated to the evolving meditation of the lyric speaker himself. In effect, then, the imagery does not displace, but corroborates the process of feelingful thought in the mind of a specified character. This, it seems to me, is the way Milton wrote "Lycidas"; there is no valid evidence, in or out of the poem, that he constructed it—as T. S. Eliot might have done—out of a set of ownerless symbols which he endowed with an implicit dynamism and set to acting out a thematic plot.

For the mythic and archetypal interpretation of "Lycidas," as it happens, there is a more plausible basis in Milton's ideas and characteristic procedures. As a Christian humanist of the Renaissance, Milton was eager to save the phenomena of classical culture, and thus shared with the modern archetypist an interest in synthesizing the ancient and modern, the primitive and civilized, pagan fable and Christian dogma, into an all-encompassing whole. And Milton knew, from divers ancient and Renaissance mythographers, about the parallel to the death and resurrection of Christ in ancient fables and fertility cults—about what in Paradise Lost he called the "reviv'd Adonis," and the "annual wound" of Thammuz, identified with Adonis by the Syrian damsels who lamented his fate "in amorous ditties all a Summer's day." But these facts are not adequate to validate a reading of "Lycidas" as a poem which is really about Adonis, or any other pagan fertility god. In "Lycidas" Milton makes no allusion whatever to Adonis, and he refers to Orpheus only to voice despair that even the Muse his mother was helpless to prevent his hideous death. In his references to these fables in Paradise Lost, Milton specifies that the story of the Garden of revived Adonis is "feign'd," lists Thammuz-Adonis among the "Devils [adored] for Deities," and describes the mother of Orpheus as "an empty dream." For though a humanist, Milton is a Christian humanist, to whom revelation is not one more echo of archetypal myths but the archetype itself, the one Truth, which had been either corrupted or distortedly foreshadowed, "prefigured," in various pagan deities and fables. There is a world of difference between Milton's assumption that there is only one religion and Blake'sarchetypal assertion that "All Religions are One."

By conflating Christian and non-Christian story into equivalent variations on a single rebirth pattern, the tendency of an archetypal reading is to cancel dramatic structure by flattening the poem out, or even—in the extreme but common view that we get closer to the archetype as we move back along the scale toward the vegetational cycle itself—by turning the poem inside out. For if we regard the rebirth theme as having been revealed in the opening passage on the unwithering laurel, myrtle, and ivy, and as merely reiterated in later passages on Orpheus, on water, on sanguine flowers, and in the allusion to Christ and the risen Lycidas, then the denouement of the poem lies in its exordium and its movement is not a progress but an eddy.

The movement of "Lycidas," on the contrary, is patently from despair through a series of insights to triumphant joy. We can put it this way: read literally, the elegy proper opens with the statement "Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime"; it concludes with the flatly opposing statement "Lycidas your sorrow is not dead." Everything that intervenes has been planned to constitute a plausible sequence of thoughts and insights that will finally convert a logical contradiction into a lyric reversal by the anagnorisis, the discovery, that for a worthy Christian poet-priest a seeming defeat by death is actually an immortal triumph.

Milton achieves this reversal by a gradual shift from the natural, pastoral, and pagan viewpoint to the viewpoint of Christian revelation and its promise of another world, the Kingdom of Heaven. He carefully marks for us the stages of this ascent by what, to contemporary readers, was the conspicuous device of grading the levels of his style. For as Milton said in the treatise Of Education, issued seven years after "Lycidas," decorum (including "the fitted stile of lofty, mean, or lowly" to the height of the matter) "is the grand master peece to observe." The problem of stylistic decorum had been particularly debated in connection with the pastoral, which had troubled Renaissance theorists by the duplicity of its stylistic requirements, since it typically dealt with high matters under the lowly guise of a conversation between two uncouth swains. Milton's comment on the fitted style probably was an echo of Puttenham's statement that "decencie," or "decorum"—the just proportioning of the "high, meane, and base stile"—is "the chiefe praise of any writer"; and Puttenham had also pointed out that, though the normal level of pastoral was the "base and humble stile," the form was often used "under the vaile of homely persons and in rude speeches to insinuate and glaunce at greater matters."

Accordingly Milton's singer opens the poem with a style higher than the pastoral norm: "Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string" is what he bids the muses, echo ing the "Sicelides Musae, paulo maiora canamus" with which Virgil had elevated the pitch of his Fourth, or "Messianic," Eclogue. (Puttenham had remarked concerning this pastoral that, because of its lofty subject, "Virgill used a somewhat swelling stile" and that under the circumstances, "this was decent.") The initial level of "Lycidas" suffices for the early pastoral and pagan sections on sympathizing nature, the nymphs, and the death of Orpheus. But this last reference evokes the despairing thought: what boots the ascetic life for those who, like Lycidas, stake everything on a treacherous future? The immediate comfort is vouchsafed the singer in a thought in which the highest pagan ethics comes closest to the Christian: the distinction between mere earthly reputation and the meed of true fame awarded by a divine and infallible judge. The concept is only tangentially Christian, however, for the deities namedin this passage, Phoebus and Jove, are pagan ones. Nevertheless "that strain," the singer observes, "was of a higher mood," and he therefore fore readdresses himself to Arethuse and Mincius, waters associated with the classical pastoralists, as a transition back to the initial key: "But now my Oat proceeds…."

The next modulation comes when St. Peter raises by implication the even more searching question why a faithful shepherd is taken early, while the corrupt ones prosper. He himself gives the obscurely terrifying answer: the two-handed engine stands ready to smite at the door; infallible justice dispenses punishment as well as rewards. This time the "dread voice" has been not merely of "a higher mood," but of an entirely different ontological and stylistic order, for it has "shrunk" the pastoral stream and frightened away the "Sicilian Muse" altogether. It is not only that the voice has been raised in the harsh rhetoric of anger, but that it belongs to a pastor, and expresses a matter, alien to the world of pagan pastoral. A Christian subject is here for the first time explicit. The appearance and speech of Peter, although brought in, as Milton said in his subtitle, "by occasion," is far from a digression. It turns out, indeed, to be nothing less than the climax and turning point of the lyric meditation, for without it the resolution, inadequately grounded, would seem to have been contrived through Christ as a patent Deus ex machina. The speech of Peter has in fact closely paraphrased Christ's own pastoral parable (John 9:39-41; 10:1-18), addressed to the Pharisees, in which He too had denounced those who remain blind to the truth, who climb into the sheepfold, and who abandon their sheep to the marauding wolf, and had then identified Himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep—but only, He adds, "that I might take it again." Once Christ, the shepherd who died to be born again, is paralleled to the dead shepherd Lycidas, though by allusion only, the resolution of the elegy is assured—especially since Peter, the Pilot of the Galilean Lake, is the very Apostle who had been taught by Christ, through faith and force of example, to walk on the water in which he would otherwise have drowned (Matthew 14:25-31). The elegiac singer, however, is momentarily occupied with the specific references rather than the Scriptural overtones of Peter's comment, with the result that the resolution, so skillfully planted in his evolving thought, is delayed until he has tried to in terpose a little case by strewing imaginary flowers on Lycidas' imagined hearse. But this evasion only brings home the horror of the actual condition of the lost and weltering corpse. By extraordinary dramatic management, it is at this point of profoundest depression that the thought of Lycidas' body sinking to "the bottom of the monstrous world" releases the full implication of St. Peter's speech, and we make the leap from nature to revelation, in the great lyric peripety:

Weep no more, woful Shepherds weep no more,
For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the watry floar …
So Lycidas, sunk low, but mounted high,
Through the dear might of him that walk'd the waves….

This consolation is total, where the two earlier ones were partial. For one thing, we now move from the strict judgment of merit and demerit to the God who rewards us beyond the requirements of justice by the free gift of a life eternal. Also, the elegist has had the earlier promises of reward and retribution by hearsay from Apollo and Peter, but now, in a passage thronged with echoes from the Book of Revelation and soaring, accordantly, into an assured sublimity of style, he has his own imaginative revelation, so that he, like St. John in that Book, might say: "And I saw a new heaven and a new earth." His vision is of Lycidas having lost his life to find a better life in a felicity without tears; in which even that last infirmity of noble mind, the desire for fame, has been purged "in the blest Kingdoms meek of joy and love," the earthly inclination to Amaryllis and Neaera has been sublimated into the "unexpressive nuptial Song" of the marriage of the Lamb, and the pastoral properties of grove, stream, and song serve only to shadow forth a Kingdom outside of space and beyond the vicissitude of the seasons. But the meditation of the lyric singer, as I have said, is ultimately concerned with the dead as they affect the living; so, by way of the Genius of the shore, we redescend to the stylistic level of plain utterance and conclude with the solitary piper at evening, facing with restored confidence the contingencies of a world in which the set and rise of the material sun are only the emblematic promise of another life.

We are all aware by now of a considerable irony: I undertook to resolve the five types of "Lycidas" into one, and instead have added a sixth. But of course, that is all a critic can do. A critique does not give us the poem, but only a description of the poem. Whatever the ontological status of "Lycidas" as an object-in-itself, there are many possible descriptions of "Lycidas"—as many, in fact, as there are diverse critical premises and procedures which can be applied to the text.

In the bewildering proliferation of assumptions and procedures that characterizes the present age, we need a safeguard against confusion, and a safeguard as well against the sceptical temptation to throw all criticism overboard as a waste of time. I would suggest that we regard any critique of a poem as a persuasive description; that is, as an attempt, under the guise of statements of fact, to persuade the reader to look at a poem in a particular way. Thus when a critic says, with assurance, "A poem means X," consider him to say: "Try reading it as though it meant X." When he says, "Lycidas" is really about Milton himself," quietly translate: "I recommend that you entertain the hypothesis that "Lycidas" is about Milton, and see how it applies." From this point of view, the best interpretation of "Lycidas"—we can say, if we like to use that philosophical idiom, the reading which approximates most closely to Lycidas as an object-in-itself—is the one among the interpretations at present available which provides the best fit to all the parts of the poem in their actual order, emphases, and emotional effects, and which is in addition consistent with itself and with what we know of Milton's literary and intellectual inheritance and his characteristic poetic procedures.

The persuasive description of "Lycidas" which I have sketched must be judged by the degree to which it satisfies these criteria of correspondence and coherence. To be sure it has a serious handicap, when measured against the startling discoveries in recent years of what "Lycidas" is really about. It is singularly unexciting to be told at this date that "Lycidas" is really what it seems—a dramatic presentation of a traditional pastoral singer uttering a ritual lament and raising in its course questions about untimely death and God's providence which are resolved by the recognition that God's Kingdom is not of this world. But surely this is the great commonplace in terms of which Milton, as a thoroughly Christian poet, inevitably thought. We cannot expect his innovations, on this crucial issue, to be doctrinal; the novelty (and it is entirely sufficient to make this an immense feat of lyric invention) consists in the way that the pastoral conventions and Christian concepts are newly realized, reconciled, and dramatized in the minute particulars of this unique and splendid poem.

I would not be understood to claim that the alternative readings of "Lycidas" I have described are illegitimate, or their discoveries unrewarding. They freshen our sense of old and familiar poems, and they force readers into novel points of vantage that yield interesting insights, of which some hold good for other critical viewpoints as well. I am as susceptible as most readers to the charm of suddenly being brought to see a solidly dramatic lyric flattened into an ornate texture of thematic images, or to the thrill of the archetypal revelation whereby, as Jane Harrison described it, behind the "bright splendors" of "great things in literature" one sees moving "darker and older shapes." But in our fascination with the ultra-violet and infra-red discoveries made possible by modern speculative instruments, we must take care not to overlook the middle of the poetic spectrum. The necessary, though not sufficient condition for a competent reader of poetry remains what it has always been—a keen eye for the obvious.

Stanley Fish (essay date 1975)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8537

SOURCE: "What It's Like to Read 'L'Allegro' and Ί1 Penseroso,'" Milton Studies, Vol. VII, 1975, pp. 77-98.

[In the following essay, Fish offers a performative reading of "L'AUegro" and "Il Penseroso."]

I have only one point to make and everything else follows from it: "L'Allegro" is easier to read than "Il Penseroso." This I assume is hardly news, but if one were a subscriber to the Times Literary Supplement in 1934, the matter might seem to be shrouded in considerable doubt, for on October 18 of that year J. P. Curgenven initiated a remarkable correspondence by asking and answering the question, "Who comes to the window in "L'Allegro," line 46?" Curgenven is disturbed by those who construe "come" as dependent on "hear," which thus, he says, "gives the crude rendering: 'to hear the lark … to come, in spite of sorrow, and at my window bid good morrow!'" "Surely," he exclaims, "'come' is dependent on 'admit' and parallel to 'live' and 'hear,' and thus it is "L'Allegro" who comes to his own window and bids good morrow". Curgenven attributes the alternative mistaken reading to two causes: "the expectation of finding inaccuracies in Milton's descriptions of natural phenomena" and the presence in earlier poetry of "some striking references to birds singing their good morrows" and among these, some larks. He duly cites these references, admitting in passing that Milton had no doubt read the poems in question. It is only the first of many curiosities in this exchange that Curgenven spends so much time marshaling evidence in support of the position he opposes.

One week later (October 25) the question is taken up again by T. Sturge Moore, who finds Curgenven's reading "unnatural." "Yet," he goes on, "I agree … that to make the lark come is absurd." Moore, it seems, has another candidate. "Surely [a word that appears often in this correspondence, but with a diminishing force], it is Mirth [who] is begged to come to the window. The poet has asked to be admitted of her crew … and runs on to enumerate advantages he hopes to gain … breaking off he resumes his petition: Then, as lark and sun rise, is the moment for the Goddess to come and bid him good morrow." A third week (November 1) finds Professor Grierson joining the fray to argue for the one reading that both Moore and Curgenven dismiss out of hand. It is the lark who comes, not in nature, but in the mind of the speaker who might well think, in spiteof the natural error, that he was being wakened by the bird. A poet, Grierson reminds us, "is not a scientist,… he tells truth in his own way." On November 8, B. A. Wright becomes the first of several fence straddlers. He agrees with Curgenven that the syntax and the pronunciation of lines 39-48 are "perfectly clear" (a statement belied by the existence of his letter) and that the poet is himself the subject of the infinitive "come" as he is of the infinitives "live" and "hear." Noting, however, that Mr. Moore understands Mirth to be the subject of "come," Wright admits that this makes good sense and is grammatically typical of Milton. "Either of these interpretations," he concludes, "seems to me possible," although he "cannot with Professor Grierson imagine Milton imagining the lark first 'at his watch towre in the skies' and then still singing at his own bedroom window." (Notice that this assumes what is by no means certain, that it is the lark, not "dull night," who is "startled.") Grierson for his part continues to defend the lark (on November 15) but concedes that "if we are to judge by strict grammar then the most defensible meaning is that it is the cheerful man who comes to the window". "If I am in error," he continues, "I should prefer to take 'Then to come' as a boldly elliptical construction which leaves it quite indefinite who it is that comes." This retreat of course is more strategical than sincere, but it points toward the only conclusion the exchange will finally allow.

In the weeks that follow, old positions are restated and new ones put forward. Tillyard appears (November 15) to support Wright and the cheerful man by alluding, as he often did, to the First Prolusion. Joan Sargeaunt offers to remind us "of Bishop Copleston's sly dig at the literal seriousness of critics," presumably (although I am not sure) she intends some sly dig at the length and heat of the present correspondence and agrees with Grierson when he declares, "It is vain to argue these questions." Wright, however, will have none of that. It is a matter, he insists, of "Milton's poetic honour. Professor Grierson would seem to imply that any reader is entitled to his own interpretation of the lines," but no one, Wright thunders, is entitled to an interpretation which "makes Milton talk nonsense." Grierson's reading of the lines, he continues, is possible only "when they are isolated from their context." Grierson rather wearily replies "I am afraid Mr. Wright is growing indignant with me which is a sign I should stop." He goes on long enough, however, to insist that "there remain some difficulties" (an understatement, I think) and to declare that where there is doubt, "surely [that word again] one may allow some freedom of interpretation." And indeed the limits of freedom had already been extended by B. R. Rowbottom, who on November 22 had proposed still another interpretation. "Neither 'Mirth' nor The Lark' nor 'The Cheerful Man' is 'then' to come and bid good-morrow at the window through the Sweet-Briar, or the Vine, or the twisted Eglantine, in spite of sorrow, but the 'Dawn' … while the Cock scatters the rear of darkness thin.'

The controversy ends on November 29 with a letter from W. A. Jones, The County School, Cardiganshire, who reports that his classes of school children "invariably and without noticing any difficulty understand the lines." Whether or not the editors took this as a comment on the entire affair is a matter of conjecture, but at any rate they append a footnote to Jones' letter: "We cannot continue this correspondence."

The point, of course, is that this correspondence could have been continued indefinitely, but even in its abbreviated form, it allows us to make some observations.

1. The proponent of each reading makes concessions, usually by acknowledging that there is evidence for the readings he opposes.

2. Each critic is able to point to details which do in fact support his position.

3. But in order fully to support his respective position every one of the critics is moved to make sense of the lines by supplying connections more firm and delimiting than the connections available in the text.

4. This making of sense always involves an attempt to arrange the images and events of the passage into a sequence of logical action.

Thus V. B. Halpert, a latecomer to the controversy in 1963, argues for the lark on the basis of the temporal adverb "then," which, she says, signals a break from the simple infinitive construction of "to live" and "to hear" and therefore indicates the beginning of a new action with a new agent—the lark, who "after startling the dull night will then leave its watch tower and come to the poet's window." "In other words," Halpert concludes, "the word then signifies a sequence of events." Perhaps so, but it is a sequence which Edith Riggs, who is also committed to making the lines "make perfect sense," finds "unhappy" and "dangerously close to non-sense." She proposes a new sequence, one that puts "night" rather than the lark in the watchtower: "The lark, the first of day's forces, startles the enemy from his watch tower in the sky … Night is routed and forced to flee." Whether or not the routed night also stops at the poet's window to bid him good-morrow, Miss Riggs does not say (although nothing I can think of would debar her from saying it); she simply concludes on a note of triumph I find impossible to share: "The new reading thus rids the poem of a jarring image and replaces it by one … more meaningful within the total context of the passage."

What are we to make of all this? I find myself at least partly in Grierson's camp, and finally in the camp of Jones' children; for if the entire exchange proves anything, it is that Milton does not wish to bind us to any one of these interpretations. I do not mean (as Grierson seems to) that he left us free to choose whatever interpretation we might prefer, but that he left us free not to choose, or more simply, that he left us free. As Brooks and Hardy observe, the reader of these lines "is hurried through a series of infinitives … the last of which is completely ambiguous in its subject." I would only add that the ambiguity is so complete that unless someone asks us to, we do not worry about it, and we do not worry about it (or even notice it) because while no subject is specified for "come," any number of subjects—lark, poet, Mirth, Dawn, Night—are available. What is not available is the connecting word or sustained syntactical unit which would pressure us to decide between them, and in the absence of that pressure, we are not obliged to decide. Nor are we obliged to decide between the different (and plausible) sequences which choosing any one of these subjects would generate:

1. If it is the lark who comes to the window, he does so while the cock "with lively din" scatters the rear of darkness thin, and the two birds thus perform complementary actions.

2. If it is the dawn that comes to the window, she does so while the cock with lively din scatters the rear of darkness thin and is thus faithful to our understanding of the relationship between cock's crowing and dawn.

3. If it is the poet (L'Allegro) who comes to the window, he does so in response to lark, cock, and dawn; that is, while they are performing their related functions.

4. And if it is Mirth who comes to the window, the action allies her with lark, cock, and dawn in the awakening of L'Allegro.

All of these readings hang on the word "while" in line 49, but since "while" is less time-specific than other temporal adverbs, it does not firmly call for any one of these and, more to the point, it functions equally well, that is, equally loosely, in all of them. Rather than insisting on a clear temporal relationship among the events it connects, "while" acts as a fulcrum around which those events swirl, supplying just enough of a sense of order to allow us to continue, but not so much that we feel compelled to arrange the components of the passage into an intelligible sequence. In short, "while" neither directs nor requires choice; instead, it frees us from choice and allows us—and I mean this literally—to be careless. This is also the effect of the two "ors" in the preceding couplet: "Through the Sweet-Briar or the Vine, / Or the twisted Eglantine." The "ors" divide alternative images, each of which registers only for a split second before it is supplanted by the next. We are neither committed to any one of them, nor required to combine them into a single coherent picture. The effect of the couplet extends both backward—softening the outline of the window and of whoever or whatever has come to it—and forward—removing the pressure of specificity from the weakly transitional "while."

I intend the phrase "weakly transitional" precisely, for it exactly captures the balance Milton achieves by deploying his connectives. If there were no transitions, the freedom of the poem's experience would become a burden, since a reader would first notice it and then worry about it; and if the transitions were firmly directing, a reader would be obliged to follow the directions they gave. Milton has it both ways, just as he does with a syntax that is not so much ambiguous as it is loose. Twentieth-century criticism has taught us to value ambiguities because they are meaningful, but these ambiguities, if they can be called that, protect us from meaning by protecting us from working. They are there, not to be noticed, but to assure that whatever track a reader happens to come in on, he will have no trouble keeping to it; no choice that he makes (of lark, poet, Goddess, etc.) will conflict with a word or a phrase he meets later. Anything fits with anything else, so that it is never necessary to go back and retrace one's effortless steps.

Rosemond Tuve has written that the pleasures enumerated in "L'Allegro" all have "the flat absence of any relation to responsibility which we sometimes call innocence." What I am suggesting is that the experience of reading the poem is itself such a pleasure, involving just that absence; for at no point are we held responsible for an action or an image beyond the moment of its fleeting appearance in a line or a couplet. Moreover it is a flat absence in the sense that we are not even aware of having been relieved of it. That is why Cleanth Brooks is not quite right when he declares that the unreproved pleasures of "L'Allegro" "can be had for the asking"; they can be had without the asking.

The result is an experience very much like that described by William Strode in "Against Melancholy," a poem that has been suggested by J. B. Leishman as a possible source for "L'Allegro":

Free wandring thoughts not ty'de to muse
Which thinke on all things, nothing choose,
Which ere we see them come are gone.

"Take no care," Strode enjoins in line 18, but Milton goes him one better by giving no care, by not asking that we put things together, or supply connections, or make inferences, or do anything at all. Rather than compelling attention, the verse operates to diffuse attention, either by blurring the focus of its descriptions—the Sweet-Briar or the Vine or the twisted Eglantine—or by breaking off a description if its focus threatens to become too sharp, or by providing so many possible and plausible sequences that it finally insists on none. As a result we move from linguistic event to linguistic event with almost no hostages from our previous experience and therefore with no obligation to relate what we are reading to what we have read.

Critics have always been aware of the curious discreteness that characterizes "L'Allegro," both as an object and as an experience, but in general they have responded either by downgrading the poem, so capable, as D. C. Allen observes, of "desultory rearrangement," or by attempting to rescue it from the charge of disunity and frag mentation. In 1958 Robert Graves went so far as to sug gest that in the course of composing "L'Allegro" Milton misplaced sixteen lines, probably over the weekend. The lines beginning "Oft listening" and ending with every shepherd telling his tale under the hawthorn in the dale originally followed the account of the Lubber fiend as "Crop full out of the door he flings, / Ere the first cock his matins rings." By restoring the original order, Graves asserts, we make the poem very much less of a "muddle" (that is, we make sense of it). Otherwise, he points out, we are left with this improbable sequence of events:

While distractedly bidding good-morrow, at the window, to Mirth, with one ear cocked for the hounds and horn … [he] sometimes, we are told, "goes walking, not unseen, by hedgerow elms, on Hillocks green." Either Milton had forgotten that he was still supposedly standing naked at the open window—(the Jacobeans always slept raw)—or the subject of "walking" is the cock, who escapes from the barnyard, deserts his dames, ceases to strut, and anxiously aware of the distant hunt, trudges far afield among ploughmen and shepherds in the dale. But why should Milton give twenty lines to the adventures of the neighbor's wandering cock? And why, "walking not unseen"? Not unseen by whom?

Graves is not unaware of the impression he is making. "Please do not think I am joking," he implores, and at least one critic has taken him seriously. Herbert F. West, Jr., admits that such an accident of misplacement is "possible" and that Graves' emendation "does little apparent danger to the text" and even seems to "smooth over some difficult spots." And so it does. The poet now looks out of his window to say, quite naturally, "Straight mine eye hath caught new pleasures," and it is the Lubber fiend who walks not unseen on hillocks green where he is espied, one assumes, by plowman, milkmaid, mower, and shepherd. The sequence ends as he listens to each shepherd tell his tale under the hawthorn in the dale, making for a perfect transition to the next section, which begins with line 115: "Thus done the Tales, to bed they creep." Yet Graves' emendation should, I think, be rejected and rejected precisely because of its advantages; for by providing continuity to the plot line of the poem, it gives us something to keep track of, and therefore it gives us care. It is Milton's wish, however, to liberate us from care, and the nonsequiturs that bother Graves are meant to prevent us from searching after the kind of sense he wants to make. "Not unseen by whom?" he asks, and he might well have asked, why not unseen, a formula which neither relates the figure of the walker to other figures nor declares categorically the absence of such a relation, leaving the matter not so much ambiguous as unexamined. Or he might have asked (perhaps did ask) what precisely is the "it" that in line 77 "sees"? This question would only lead to another, for the pronoun subject is no more indeterminate than the object of "its" seeing—the beauty who is the cynosure of neighboring eyes. Is she there or is she not? "Perhaps," answers Milton in line 79, relieving us of any responsibility to her or even to her existence. This in turn removes the specificity from the adverbial of place which introduces the following line: "Hard by, a Cottage chimney smokes." Hard by what? Graves might well ask. In this context or noncontext the phrase has no pointing function at all. It merely gets us unburdened into the next line and into the next discrete scene, where with Corydon and Thyrsis we rest in "secure delight," that is, in delight se cura, delight without, or free from, care.

It is the promise of "secure delight," of course, that is at the heart of the pastoral vision, although it is the literary strength of the pastoral always to default on that promise by failing to exclude from its landscape the concerns of the real world. Milton, however, chooses to sacrifice that strength in order to secure the peculiar flatness of effect that makes reading "L'Allegro" so effortless. The details of this landscape are without resonance; they refer to nothing beyond themselves and they ask from us no response beyond the minimal and literary response of recognition. This lack of resonance is attributable in part to the swift succession of images, no one of which claims our attention for more than a couplet. Each couplet is self-enclosed by ringing monosyllabic rhymes, and the enclosures remain discrete. Continuity is provided by patterns of alliteration and assonance (mountains-meadows), which carry us along but do not move us to acts of association or reflection. The "new pleasures" which the eyes of both speaker and reader catch are new in the sense of novel, continually new, following one another but not firmly related to one another. From lawns to mountains to meadows and then to towers, the sequence is so arranged as to discourage us from extrapolating from it a composite scene, the details of which would then be interpretable. Neither time's winged chariot nor anything else is at the back of these shepherds, and the verse in no way compels us to translate them into figures for the young poet or the weary courtier or the faithful feeder of a Christian flock. In other words, we know and understand the quality of their untroubled (careless) joy because it is precisely reflected in the absence of any pressure on us to make more of their landscape than its surfaces present. (This introduces the interesting possibility that while "L'Allegro" is the easier of the two poems to read, it was the more difficult to write. In "Il Penseroso" Milton can exploit the traditions his verse invades; in "L'Allegro" he must simultaneously introduce them and denude them of their implications, employing a diction and vocabulary rich in complex associations without the slightest gesture in the direction of that complexity. In "L'Allegro" it is not so much what the images do, but what they do not do. The poem is a triumph of absence.)

There is then here, as elsewhere, a one-to-one correspondence between the pleasures celebrated in the poem and the pleasure of reading it, and this correspondence inheres in the careless freedom with which any activity, including the activity of reading, can be enjoyed. The tournaments of lines 119-24 belong in "L'Allegro" because the knights and barons bold who take part in them hazard nothing, not life or death or even honor. Their high triumphs are triumphs of style and involve a fidelity to forms which have no meaning beyond the moment of their execution. Like us they areengaged in an activity from which the consequences (hostages to time) have been carefully removed.

The activities of "L'Allegro" are consistently like this, without consequences as they are without antecedents. Only once is a consequence even threatened, when the Lydian airs are said to "pierce" the meeting soul—"Lap me in soft Lydian Airs, / Married to immortal verse, / Such as the meeting soul may pierce"; but the first two words of the following line, "In notes," blunt the potential thrust of "pierce" exactly as the lances and swords of the knights and barons bold are blunted and rendered harmless. It has been suggested that Milton's conception of Lydian music is taken from Cassiodorus, who attributes to it the power to restore us with relaxation and delight, "being invented against excessive cares and worries." Whether or not this is Milton's source, it is surely a description of the effect his music, his invention, has on us. We are delighted because we are relaxed, and we are relaxed because the cares to which other poems bind us—the care of attending to implications, the care of carrying into one line or couplet the syntax and sense of previous lines and couplets, the care of arranging and ordering the details of a poetic landscape, the care of rendering judgments and drawing conclusions, the care, in sum, of sustained (and consecutive) thought—these are here not present. The figure of Orpheus as he appears in lines 145-50 is thus a perfect surrogate for the reader; the music he hears calls him to nothing, as we have been called to nothing by the verse. He is enwrapped in its harmonies, resting on "heapt Elysian flow'rs" as we rest, unexercised, on the heaped (not arranged) flowers of the poem's images and scenes, insulated from the resonances and complications which might be activated in another context (the context, in fact, of "Il Penseroso"). This music merely meets the ear and the ear it meets has no answering responsibility (of which there is the "flat absence") beyond the passive responsibility of involuntary delight. When Graves discovered that "L'Allegro" was "rather a muddle," it was after many years of reading the poem. I had however, he explains, never before "read it carefully." The point that I have been making is that no one asked him to, and that his period of m/ireading began when he decided to accord the poem the kind of careful attention from which it was Milton's gift to set us free.

If I am right about "L'Allegro," the other critics who have written on it are necessarily wrong; for to a man they have sought to interpret the poem, while it is my contention that interpretation is precisely what it does not invite, because its parts are arranged in such a way as to exert no interpretive pressures. Of course it would be easy to turn this argument into a criticism by saying that what I have demonstrated here is that "L'Allegro" lacks unity. This would certainly be true if unity were defined (narrowly) as the coherence of formal elements, but it is the absence of that coherence which is responsible for the unity I have been describing, a unity not of form, but of experience. That is to say, what unifies "L'Allegro" is the consistency of the demands it makes, or rather declines to make, on the reader, who is thus permitted the freedom from care ("secure delight") which is the poem's subject. It is this freedom which is banished when "Il Penseroso" opens by declaring "Hence vain deluding joys." "Vain" here is to be taken as fruitless or without purpose, and it refers not to an abstraction, but to a mode of experiencing, a mode in which the brain is quite literally "idle" because it is "possessed" by a succession of "gaudy shapes" and fancies "which ere we see them come are gone." This is of course the experiential mode of "L'Allegro," and it should not surprise us to find that the experience of reading "Il Penseroso" is quite different.

Like "L'Allegro," "Il Penseroso" offers alternative genealogies in its opening lines; but where in the first poem these are indifferently presented, in the second, one is specifically preferred to theother; and the fact of the preference is rooted in a judgment we are required to understand and in a distinction (or series of distinctions) we are pressured to make. That pressure is felt as soon as we hear, "Hail divinest Melancholy, / Whose Saintly visage is too bright / To hit the sense of human sight." These lines turn on a paradox, and it is in the nature of a paradox that a reader who recognizes it is already responding to the question it poses. What kind of light is so bright that it dazzles and, in effect, darkens the sense of human sight? An answer to this question is readily available in the Christian-neo-Platonic opposition between the light of ordinary day and the "Celestial light" which "shines inward" revealing "things invisible to mortal sight." There is no more familiar commonplace in Renaissance thought, but even so, in order to recall it, a reader must reach for it; that is, he must do something, engage in an activity, and it is an activity in which he is asked to continue as the passage unfolds:

And therefore to our weaker view,
O'erlaid with black staid Wisdom's hue.
Black, but such as in esteem,
Prince Memnon's sister might beseem,
Or that Starr'd Ethiop Queen that strove
To set her beauties praise above
The Sea Nymphs, and their powers offended.
Yet thou art higher far descended.

The single word "therefore" in line 15 can stand for everything that distinguishes the companion poems. It is a word that could never appear in "L'Allegro" because it operates to enjoin the responsibility (to backward and forward contexts) from which that poem sets us free. The lines that follow "therefore" add to the responsibility, for in the course of reading them we are asked to do several things at once. First we must suspend one line of argument and attend to another, but that argument in turn unfolds in stages, so that we are continually revising our understanding of what we have just read; and, moreover, the effect of our revised understanding extends in every instance backward to the Goddess Melancholy, whose precise characterization remains the goal of our consecutive attention. Obviously, that attention is not only consecutive, but strenuous. A phrase like "Black, but" asks us simultaneously to recall the pejorative associations of black and to prepare ourselves for a more positive view of the color; but no sooner has that view been established than it too is challenged, first by the imputation to Cassiopeia of impiety and then (more directly) by the qualificatory "Yet" of line 22. In this context (the context not of the verse, but of our experience of the verse), there are at least three possible readings of that line: (1) the obvious literal reading: "Your lineage is more impressive than that of Memnon's sister or Cassiopeia." (2) The secondary literal reading: "You come to us from a loftier height than does Memnon's sister or Cassiopeia, that is, from the stars." (3) What we might call the moral reading: "You are higher precisely because you have descended, because you have been willing to accommodate yourself to our 'weaker view' by being black and low rather than bright and high ('starry')."

In "L'Allegro," the availability of alternative readings operates to minimize our responsibility to any one of them and therefore to any consecutive argument; here it is precisely because we have been following a consecutive argument that the alternative readings become available. In neither poem are we required to choose between the readings; but whereas in one the absence of choice is a function of the absence of interpretive pressure, in the other that pressure is so great that we are asked to choose every reading, because each of them goes with one of the interpretive strains we have been led to pursue and distinguish.

Here then is a way of answering the questions that have so often been put to these two poems. Do they share patterns of imagery, or is the presence in them of light and shadow consistently and meaningfully opposed? Are they to be read as the hyperbolic rhetoric of their invocations suggests, or are those invocations directed at the excess of the complementary means they present? Is there mirth in "Il Penseroso"'s melancholy and melancholy in "L'Allegro"'s mirth? So long as these (and other) questions have been asked in the context of an examination of the text, there has been no hope of answering them, for as the history of the criticism shows, the observable evidence will support any number of answers. But if we turn our attention from the text to the experience it gives, an unambiguous and verifiable answer is immediately forthcoming. Every point of contact is a point of contrast, not in the poems (where the details could be made to point in either direction), but in the nature of the activities they require of their readers. The activities required of us by "Il Penseroso" are consistently strenuous. Rather than permitting us to move from one discrete unit to another, the verse of the second poem continually insists that we carry into the present context whatever insights we have won from previous contexts, which are in turn altered or expanded retroactively. As a result our attention is not diffused but concentrated, and the distinction made in the opening lines—between an idle brain captive to a succession of unrelated images and a mind that is "fixed"—is precisely realized in the reading experiences of the two poems.

A fixed mind is one that keeps steadily before it an idea or a project to which it relates whatever new particulars come into its ken. Here the idea is the Goddess Melancholy and the project is the understanding of the way of life she presents. It is of course our project, and because it is ours, it gives interpretive direction to our movement through the poem, providing us with ready-made contexts—it is we who have made them—into which the details of the verse are immediately drawn. Thus when the Goddess Melancholy materializes in the form of the "pensive Nun," the lines describing her habit and gait are resonant with significance because we bring the significances with us. The Nun's "robe of darkest grain" is capable of any number of interpretations, but the reader who has negotiated the preceding lines will immediately identify its color as the dark hue of staid Wisdom and distinguish it from the boasting blackness of Cassiopeia. Forgetting oneself to marble and gazing downward with an unseeing stare is at the very least ambiguous behavior, but it is disambiguated when the same reader recalls that the dimming of natural vision and the stilling of bodily motion are preliminary to the descrying of a light that is too bright to hit the sense of human sight. As a figure in the landscape, the Nun displays less and less energy, but at the same time she is being energized from within by the meanings we attach to her dress and actions, until at line 45 she stands (frozen) before us as an embodiment of all the mythological and philosophical associations to which we have been called by the verse.

In a way I am simply giving body to an observation made by D. C. Allen. In "L'Allegro," Allen points out, "there is an abrupt division between the invitation and the main body of the poem," while in "Il Penseroso," the transition is "more fluid and skillful." For Allen, however, abruptness and fluidity are properties of formal structures, and his distinction is a value judgment (presumably if the transitions of "L'Allegro" were more fluid, it would be a better poem). But in my terms, abruptness and fluidity are properties of experiences, and the distinction is not between a skillful and an unskillful arrangement, but between the different experiences provided by arrangements that are indifferently skillful. The components of either poem offer ample possibilities for making connections (that is, for fluidity), but it is only while reading "Il Penseroso" that we are pressured to make them. The source of that pressure is the verse, and it is exerted both silently and explicitly: silently when we are asked to manage units of sense and syntax larger than the couplet, and explicitly when we are directed in line 49 to add ("And add to these retired Leisure"). What we are to add are Melancholy's companions, Peace, Quiet, Spare Fast, the Muses, retired Leisure, and first and chiefest (although last to be called) the Cherub Contemplation. Were this list in "L'AUegro," we would receive its items discretely ("Straight mine eye hath caught new pleasures"); but here we are asked to relate them both to each other and to the master abstraction of which they are all manifestations. Moreover, the point of relation is not something they share on the surface—on its face the list is quite heterogeneous—but something that is available only when we extrapolate from the surface to an underlying pattern of significance. The content of that pattern is a two-stage sequence—withdrawal from the busy companies of men followed by an ascent to the realm of pure and heavenly forms—and this of course is precisely the sequence that has just been acted out by the pensive Nun, who is herself a realization of the paradoxes exploited in the opening lines. "The poetic components of Ίl Penseroso,'" declares Allen, "seem to glide out of each other by brilliant acts of association." The point I have been making is that these acts are ours, and we perform them with a self-consciousness that is continually returning us to the first link in the associative chain, which in every case is found to be isomorphic with the last. The Cherub Contemplation is the first and chiefest even though he brings up the rear, because the values he declares explicitly, that is by name, were present in the first and in every other of their incarnations.

We see then that the pattern of experience in "Il Penseroso" is as consistent as the quite different pattern in "L'Allegro." It is a pattern of continually exerted pressure, and it moves us to a set of sustained and related activities: generalizing, abstracting, reflecting, recalling, synthesizing. Not only are these activities sustained, but they have a single object, the precise elucidation of the nature of melancholy; and this continues to be true when the focus of the poem shifts to the speaker, for in his wanderings he repeatedly acts out the sequence that joins the other figures we have encountered. Three times he retires from the light of day into an enclosure: first in some "removed place" where light is taught to counterfeit a gloom, later in twilight groves that have been sought specifically to escape the Sun's flaring beams, and finally in the "Cloister's pale" where the light streaming through the windows is deemed religious because it is "dim." Three times as day's garish eye is shut out and earthly sounds are stilled, Il Penseroso becomes physically inactive, sitting in some high and lonely tower, or asleep by a hallowed brook, or standing motionless as the pealing organ blows to the full-voiced choir below. And three times, as his body forgets itself to marble, his spirit soars, in the company of Plato (as together they explore "what vast Regions hold / The immortal mind that hath forsook / Her mansion in this fleshly nook," under the aegis of "some strange mysterious dream," and in response to the ecstasymaking sounds of the "Service high and Anthems clear":

With antic Pillars massy proof
And storied windows richly dight,
Casting a dim religious light.

There let the pealing Organ blow,
To the full voic'd choir below,
In Service high and Anthems clear,
As may with sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all Heav'n before mine eyes.

In this penultimate scene we are once again returned to the master images whose exfoliation has been the stimulus to our interpretive efforts. The worshiper in the "Cloister's pale" assumes exactly the position assumed earlier by the pensive Nun, and like her he is the very embodiment of Peace, Quiet, Spare Fast, the Muses, retired Leisure, and the Cherub Contemplation. Even the pattern of word play is the pattern we experienced in the opening lines, and we are moved by it to make the same distinctions we made then. The basic distinction is between two kinds of perception, the physical and the spiritual. They share a vocabulary, but that vocabulary is so placed that we cannot help but be aware of its two fields of reference. In line 160 the ruling adjective is "dim," but line 163 ends with a strong stress on the adjective "clear." The same apparent clash exists between the adverb "below" in line 162, which refers to the spatial positioning of the organ and the choir, and the adjective "high" in line 163. The clash in both cases is only apparent, because as we come upon them we understand "high" and "clear" to refer not to spatial and sensible, but to spiritual categories; but since that understanding follows immediately upon a sequence in which spatial and sensible categories are operative, it signals a transference from outer to inner space. That transference is completed by the pointed juxtaposition in lines 164 and 166 of "through mine ear" and "before mine eyes." No word in the poem is more emphasized than "eyes"; it marks the end of a line, of a couplet, and of a section; and as we read it we know, with the full weight of everything we have learned, that it cannot be read literally, and that this is the eye of the mind which now opens, as it has opened so many times before, to a light that is too bright to hit the sense of human sight. Milton, the Variorum Commentary observes at this point, "is here summing up the whole process of self-education described in the poem"; but whatever has been described in the poem (and that has long been a matter of dispute), the process and the education have taken place in the reader.

Let me say, lest there be any misunderstanding, that I am not here offering an interpretation of "Il Penseroso," but arguing that interpretation is the activity to which the poem moves us, and that it is this which distinguishes it from "Il Allegro." In another sense, however, the poems are not to be distinguished; for in both there is a congruence of experience with thematic materials. The bards in "Il Penseroso" sing of "Trophies hung" and therefore of tournaments in which something more than the applause of ladies is at stake. In place of a domesticated goblin who performs kitchen chores in return for a "cream bowl," the voice of "Il Penseroso" speaks to us of Daemons "Whose power hath a true consent / With Planet or with Element"; and it is precisely this "power" that Orpheus displays when he bests Pluto in a line whose stresses communicate and create a sense of urgency that is wholly alien to "L'Allegro": "And made Hell grant what Love did seek."

The singing of Orpheus, like everything else in "Il Penseroso," has both purpose and consequence; and purpose and consequence are also what characterize our efforts as readers. There is here as in "L'Allegro" a one-to-one correspondence between the activities in the poem and the activity of reading it, and these activities merge in a single line: "Where more is meant than meets the ear." More is indeed meant by "Il Penseroso" than meets the ear, and the responsibility for that meaningrests with the ear that is met, an ear that is asked not only to take in a succession of sounds, but to relate them to each other and to a complex of significances in which they are implicated. It is just this kind of sustained mental effort, the effort of synthesizing, generalizing, and abstracting, to which the pensive man pledges himself in the poem's closing lines:

Where I may sit and rightly spell
Of every star that Heav'n doth shew,
And every Herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain,
To something like Prophetic strain.

To spell is to decipher, to puzzle out, to consider, to think; to engage in just those actions the poem requires of its readers. Here then is another point of contact between the two poems that is finally a point of contrast. In both, the speaker and reader are united by the kind of acts they do or do not perform. In "Il Penseroso," as Bridget Lyons has observed, we are continually aware of a consciousness through which the phenomena of experience are being filtered. In other words, we are continually aware of the presence in the poem of a mind, and our awareness takes the form of matching exertions. "L'Allegro," on the other hand, is striking for the absence of mind; there is, it would seem, no one at home. The first-person pronoun only occurs once before the final couplet, and it is followed immediately by the lines that were the occasion of the TLS correspondence. They are in turn so variously interpretable that any sense of a continuous and controlling presence is progressively weakened; nor is it reinforced when the speaker appears again in line 69 as a disembodied eye: "Straight mine eye hath caught new pleasures." Even this synecdochical identity is blurred when it is absorbed into a speculation about "neighboring eyes" (the progression is from "I" to "eye" to "eyes") which may or may not be there. The same imprecision of reference and sequence that removes the pressure of consecutive thought also prevents us from finding in the poem a consecutive thinker; and in the absence of a consciousness whose continuing and active presence would give the poem unity, we are that much less inclined to unify it. If no one is at home, then we can be on holiday too.

In both poems, then, the speaker and the reader are to be identified, and this identification suggests a new answer to an old question: who or what are "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso"? "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" are the reader; that is, they stand for modes of being which the reader realizes in his response to the poems bearing their names. The formal and thematic features of each poem are intimately related to its meaning, not because they reflect it, but because they produce it, by moving the reader to a characteristic activity. In short, the poems mean the experience they give; and because they so mean, the conditionals with which they end are false:

These delights if thou canst give,
Mirth with thee I mean to live.

These pleasures Melancholy give,
And I with thee will choose to live.

These conditionals are false because the conditions they specify have already been met. The delights and pleasures of Mirth and Melancholy are even now ours, for in the very act of reading we have been theirs.

In conclusion, I would like to turn away from the poems to consider the larger implications of my analysis. More specifically, I would like to pose a question. What is it that a procedure focusing on the reader's experience can do? First of all it can deal with "L'Allegro," which has, for the most part, been unavailable to other critical vocabularies. This is not to say that the experience of "L'Allegro" has been unavailable, but that the readers who have had that experience have been compelled by their theoretical assumptions either to allegorize it or to devalue it. In fact it is difficult to see how a formalist criticism, committed as it is to "care" both as a criterion for composition and as a condition of serious reading, could accept my description of "L'Allegro." For the formalist, reading poetry is equivalent to noticing and sharing in the craft and labor that produced it. A poem that asked for no such answering attention would therefore be suspect; and indeed when this paper was first read at a public meeting, a member of the audience rose to ask, with some indignation, why I was attacking "L'Allegro." Presumably it was inconceivable to him that an account of the poem that did not tie up, but multiplied loose ends could be praise. In this connection, the recently published Variorum Commentary is instructive. Time and again the editors note the presence in the poem of interpretive puzzles, and time and again the sifting of evidence leads to an indeterminate conclusion. The question, who comes to the window at line 46, is debated for a full four pages which end with the recording of a difference of opinion between the two editors. A discussion of alternative versions of line 104 breaks off with the admission that in either version the syntax is "somewhat obscure" and suggests a "degree of carelessness." (Carelessness indeed?) Even the simple phrase "tells his tale" in "every Shepherd tells his tale" has had, we are told, "alternative explanations," but after a survey of those explanations, we read that "all that is certain is that the shepherds were sitting"; anything else, "the reader must decide for himself."

The point of course is that he need not, and that these and other "obscurities" exist precisely so that he will not feel pressured to make the sense the editors seek. These same editors are continually turning up evidence for the reading offered in this paper (when for example they gloss "wanton" as "uncontrolled by plan or purpose" and "giddy" as "incapable of steady attention"), but they are unable to see the evidence for what it is because they are committed to a single criterion of formal unity (which is at base a criterion of cognitive clarity). As it turns out, however, that is exactly the wrong criterion to apply to a poem like "L'Allegro" which grows out of what Thomas Rosenmeyer has recently called the "disconnective decorum" of the Theocritan pastoral. As Rosenmeyer describes it, this decorum is tied to "a perception of a world that is not continuous, but a series of discrete units, each to be savored for its own sake." A poem displaying this decorum will be "best analyzed as a loose combination of independent elements," since "the poet provides few if any clues … for consolidation." The poem, Rosenmeyer continues, does not have a plot, so that it is protected "against the profundities and syntheses which … plot … is always on the verge of triggering." "Consequently," he concludes, "the artlessness of the poem is not there for a reason, but exists of itself, which also means that it is harder to explain." An analysis in terms of the reading experience has, I submit, been able to explain it, because it is not tied to an evaluative bias which both directs and crowns its procedures.

This success (if you will agree that it is one) is finally attributable to a larger capability I would claim for experiential analysis: it provides a firm basis for the resolving of critical controversies. As I have argued elsewhere, formalist procedures are unable to settle anything, because in the absence of constraints the observable regularities in a text can be made to point in any number of directions. But if the focus of analysis is the reader's experience, a description of that experience will at the same time be an interpretation of its materials. Rather than two operations (description and interpretation) whose relationship is problematical, there is only one, and consequently many of the directions in which values might have been irresponsibly assigned are automatically eliminated.

As a final example, consider the question most often asked of "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso." Is the mode of being presented in one poem to be preferred to the mode of being presented in the other? As it is usually posed, this is a spatial question: that is, it is to be answered by examining the two poems as objects and toting up the attitudes or judgments they contain. Not surprisingly, this procedure has led only to disagreement and dispute. If, however, we turn the spatial question into a temporal one, an unambiguous answer is immediately forthcoming because preference or choice is no longer an issue. The pressure for choice is the creation of the assumptions of the critics who make it. The experience of the poems, however, exerts no such pressure, because in the order of their reading the faculties of judgment and discrimination come into play only in "Il Penseroso." Were that order reversed, the reflective self-consciousness encouraged by "Il Penseroso" would also encourage a critical attitude toward the flatness of implication characteristic of "L'Allegro," and we would be unable to read that poem with the innocence (absence of responsibility) which is both its subject and its gift. The present order, the order Milton gave us, allows the pleasure of reading "L'AHegro" to be an unreproved pleasure free, and only then does it introduce us to another pleasure (by giving us another experience) which does not so much reprove the first as remove it from memory. Allen ends his fine essay on the poems by speaking of "a ceaseless passing from one chamber of experience to the next." It is that passing, rather than any after-the-fact judgment one could make on it, that I have tried to describe.

Harold Bloom (essay date 1975)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5293

SOURCE: "Milton and His Precursors," in A Map of Misreading, Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 125-43.

[In the following essay, Bloom identifies the literary antecedents of Paradise Lost.]

No poet compares to Milton in his intensity of self-consciousness as an artist and in his ability to overcome all negative consequences of such concern. Milton's highly deliberate and knowingly ambitious program necessarily involved him in direct competition with Homer, Virgil, Lucretius, Ovid, Dante and Tasso, among other major precursors. More anxiously, it brought him very close to Spenser, whose actual influence on Paradise Lost is deeper, subtler and more extensive than scholarship so far has recognized. Most anxiously, the ultimate ambitions of Paradise Lost gave Milton the problem of expanding Scripture without distorting the Word of God.

A reader, thinking of Milton's style, is very likely to recognize that style's most distinctive characteristic as being the density of its allusiveness. Perhaps only Gray compares to Milton in this regard, and Gray is only a footnote, though an important and valuable one, to the Miltonic splendor. Milton's allusiveness has a distinct design, which is to enhance both the quality and the extent of his inventiveness. His handling of allusion is his highly individual and original defense against poetic tradition, his revisionary stance in writing what is in effect a tertiary epic, following after Homer in primary epic and Virgil, Ovid, and Dante in secondary epic. Most vitally, Miltonic allusion is the crucial revisionary ratio by which Paradise Lost distances itself from its most dangerous precursor, The Faerie Queene, for Spenser had achieved a national romance, of epic greatness, in the vernacular, and in the service of moral and theological beliefs not far from Milton's own.

The map of misprision move[s] between the poles of illusio—irony as a figure of speech, or the reaction-formation I have termed clinamen—and allusion, particularly as the scheme of transumption or metaleptic reversal that I have named apophrades and analogized to the defenses of introjection and projection. As the common root of their names indicates, illusio and allusion are curiously related, both being a kind of mockery, rather in the sense intended by the title of Geoffrey Hill's poem on Campanella, that "Men are a mockery of Angels." The history of "allusion" as an English word goes from an initial meaning of "illusion" on to an early Renaissance use as meaning a pun, or word-play in general. But by the time of Bacon it meant any symbolic likening, whether in allegory, parable or metaphor, as when in The Advancement of Learning poetry is divided into "Narrative, representative, and allusive." A fourth meaning, which is still the correct modern one, follows rapidly by the very early seventeenth century, and involves any implied, indirect or hidden reference. The fifth meaning, still incorrect but bound to establish itself, now equates allusion with direct, overt reference. Since the root meaning is "to play with, mock, jest at," allusion is uneasily allied to words like "ludicrous" and "elusion," as we will remember later.

Thomas McFarland, formidably defending Coleridge against endlessly repetitive charges of plagiarism, has suggested that "plagiarism" ought to be added as a seventh revisionary ratio. Allusion is a comprehensive enough ratio to contain "plagiarism" also under the heading of apophrades, which the Lurianic Kabbalists called gilgul… Allusion as covert reference became in Milton's control the most powerful and successful figuration that any strong poet has ever employed against his strong precursors.

Milton, who would not sunder spirit from matter, would not let himself be a receiver, object to a subject's influencings. His stance against dualism and influence alike is related to his exaltation of unfallen pleasure, his appeal not so much to his reader's senses as to his reader's yearning for the expanded senses of Eden. Precisely here is the center of Milton's own influence upon the Romantics, and here also is why he surpassed them in greatness, since what he could do for himself was the cause of their becoming unable to do the same for themselves. His achievement became at once their starting point, their inspiration, yet also their goad, their torment.

Yet he too had his starting point: Spenser. Spenser was "the soothest shepherd that e'er piped on plains," "sage and serious." "Milton has acknowledged to me, that Spenser was his original," Dryden testified, but the paternity required no acknowledgment. A darker acknowledgment can be read in Milton's astonishing mistake about Spenser in Areopagitica, written more than twenty years before Paradise Lost was completed:

… It was from out the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil. As therefore the state of man is, what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear, without the knowledge of evil? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness; which was the reason why our sage and serious poet Spenser, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas, describing true temperance under the person of Guyon, brings him in with his palmer through the cave of Mammon, and the bower of earthly bliss, that he might see and know, and yet abstain….

Spenser's cave of Mammon is Milton's Hell; far more than the descents to the underworld of Homer and Virgil, more even than Dante's vision, the prefigurement of Books I and Il of Paradise Lost reverberates in Book II of The Faerie Queene. Against Acrasia's bower, Guyon enjoys the moral guidance of his unfaltering Palmer, but necessarily in Mammon's cave Guyon has to be wholly on his own, even as Adam and Eve must withstand temptation in the absence of the affable Raphael. Guyon stands, though at some cost; Adam and Eve fall, but both the endurance and the failure are independent. Milton's is no ordinary error, no mere lapse in memory, but is itself a powerful misinterpretation of Spenser, and a strong defense against him. For Guyon is not so much Adam's precursor as he is Milton's own, the giant model imitated by the Abdiel of Paradise Lost. Milton re-writes Spenser so as to increase the distance between his poetic father and himself. St. Augustine identified memory with the father, and we may surmise that a lapse in a memory as preternatural as Milton's is a movement against the father.

Milton's full relation to Spenser is too complex and hidden for any rapid description or analysis to suffice, even for my limited purposes in this [essay]. Here I will venture that Milton's transumptive stance in regard to all his precursors, including Spenser, is founded on Spenser's resourceful and bewildering (even Joycean) way of subsuming his precursors, particularly Virgil, through his labyrinthine syncretism. Spenserian allusiveness has been described by Angus Fletcher as collage: "Collage is parody drawing attention to the materials of art and life." Fletcher follows Harry Berger's description of the technique of conspicuous allusion in Spenser: "the depiction of stock literary motifs, characters, and genres in a manner which emphasizes their conventionality, displaying at once their debt to and their existence in a conventional climate—Classical, medieval, romance, etc.—which is archaic when seen from Spenser's retrospective view-point." This allusive collage or conspicuousness is readily assimilated to Spenser's peculiarly metamorphic elegiacism, which becomes the particular legacy of Spenser to all his poetic descendants, from Drayton and Milton down to Yeats and Stevens. For Spenser began that internalization of quest-romance that is or became what we call Romanticism. It is the Colin Clout of Spenser's Book VI who is the father of Milton's "Il Penseroso," and from Milton's visionary stem the later Spenserian transformations of Wordsworth's Solitary, and all of the Solitary's children in the wanderers of Keats, Shelley, Browning, Tennyson and Yeats until the parodistic climax in Stevens' comedian Crispin. Fletcher, in his study of Spenser, The Prophetic Moment, charts this genealogy of introspection, stressing the intervention of Shakespeare between Spenser and Milton, since from Shakespeare Milton learned to contain the Spenserian elegiacism or "prophetic strain" within what Fletcher calls "transcendental forms." In his study of Comus as such a form, The Transcendental Masque, Fletcher emphasizes the "enclosed vastness" in which Milton, like Shakespeare, allows reverberations of the Spenserian resonance, a poetic diction richly dependent on allusive echoings of precursors. Comus abounds in apophrades, the return of many poets dead and gone, with Spenser and Shakespeare especially prominent among them. Following Berger and Fletcher, I would call the allusiveness of Comus still "conspicuous" and so still Spenserian, still part of the principle of echo. But, with Paradise Last, Miltonic allusion is transformed into a mode of transumption, and poetic tradition is radically altered in consequence.

Fletcher, the most daemonic and inventive of modern allegorists, is again the right guide into the mysteries of transumptive allusion, through one of the brilliant footnotes in his early book, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Studying what he calls "difficult ornament" and the transition to modern allegory, Fletcher meditates on Johnson's ambivalence towards Milton's style. In his Life of Milton, Johnson observes that "the heat of Milton's mind might be said to sublimate his learning." Hazlitt, a less ambivalent admirer of Milton, asserted that Milton's learning had the effect of intuition. Johnson, though so much more grudging, actually renders the greater homage, for Johnson's own immense hunger of imagination was overmatched by Milton's, as he recognized:

Whatever be his subject, he never fails to fill the imagination. But his images and descriptions of the scenes or operations of Nature do not seem to be always copied from original form, nor to have the freshness, raciness, and energy of immediate observation. He saw Nature, as Dryden expresses it, through the spectacles of books; and on most occasions calls learning to his assistance….

But he does not confine himself within the limits of rigorous comparison: his great excellence is amplitude, and he expands the adventitious image beyond the dimensions which the occasion required. Thus, comparing the shield of Satan to the orb of the Moon, he crowds the imagination with the discovery of the telescope, and all the wonders which the telescope discovers.

This Johnsonian emphasis upon allusion in Milton inspires Fletcher to compare Miltonic allusion to the trope of transumption or metalepsis, Puttenham's "far-fetcher":

Johnson stresses allusion in Milton: "the spectacles of books" are a means of sublimity, since at every point the reader is led from one scene to an allusive second scene, to a third, and so on. Johnson's Milton has, we might say, a "transumptive" style….

Here is the passage that moved Johnson's observation, Paradise Lost, Book I, 283-313. Beelzebub has urged Satan to address his fallen legions, who still lie "astounded and amazed" on the lake of fire:

The transumption of the precursors here is managed by the juxtaposition between the far-fetching of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Tasso, Spenser, the Bible and the single near-contemporary reference to Galileo, "the Tuscan artist," and his telescope. Milton's aim is to make his own belatedness into an earliness, and his tradition's priority over him into a lateness. The critical question to be asked of this passage is: why is Johnson's "adventitious image," Galileo and the telescope, present at all? Johnson, despite his judgment that the image is extrinsic, implies the right answer: because the expansion of this apparently extrinsic image crowds the reader's imagination, by giving Milton the true priority of interpretation, the powerful reading that insists upon its own uniqueness and its own accuracy. Troping upon his forerunners' tropes, Milton compels us to read as he reads, and to accept his stance and vision as our origin, his time as true time. His allusiveness introjects the past, and projects the future, but at the paradoxical cost of the present, which is not voided but is yielded up to an experiential darkness, as we will see, to a mingling of wonder (discovery) and woe (the fallen Church's imprisonment of the discoverer). As Frank Kermode remarks, Paradise Lost is a wholly contemporary poem, yet surely its sense of the present is necessarily more of loss than of delight.

Milton's giant simile comparing Satan's shield to the moon alludes to the shield of Achilles in the Iliad, XIX, 373-80:

Milton is glancing also at the shield of Radigund in The Faerie Queene, V, v, 3:

Radigund, Princess of the Amazons, is dominated by pride and anger, like Achilles. Satan, excelling both in his bad eminence, is seen accurately through the optic glass of the British artist's transumptive vision, even as Galileo sees what no one before him has seen on the moon's surface. Galileo, when visited by Milton (as he tells us in Areopagitica), was working while under house arrest by the Inquisition, a condition not wholly unlike Milton's own in the early days of the Restoration. Homer and Spenser emphasize the moonlike brightness and shining of the shields of Achilles and Radigund; Milton emphasizes size, shape, weight as the common feature of Satan's shield and the moon, for Milton's post-Galilean moon is more of a world and less of a light. Milton and Galileo are late, yet they see more, and more significantly, than Homer and Spenser, who were early. Milton gives his readers the light, yet also the true dimensions and features of reality, even though Milton, like the Tuscan artist, must work on while compassed around by experiential darkness, in a world of woe.

Milton will not stop with his true vision of Satan's shield, but transumes his precursors also in regard to Satan's spear, and to the fallen-leaves aspect of the Satanic host. Satan's spear evokes passages of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Tasso and Spenser, allusions transumed by the contemporary reference to a flagship ("ammiral") with its mast made of Norwegian fir. The central allusion is probably to Ovid's vision of the Golden Age (Golding's version, I, 109-16):

The loftie Pyntree was not hewen from mountaines where it stood,

In seeking straunge and forren landes to rove upon the flood.
Men knew none other countries yet, than where themselves did keepe:
There was no towne enclosed yet, with walles and ditches deepe.
No home nor trumpet was in use, no sword nor helmet worne.
The worlde was suche, that souldiers helpe might easly be forborne.
The fertile earth as yet was free, untoucht of spade or plough,
And yet it yeelded of it selfe of every things inough.

Ovid's emblem of the passage from Golden Age to Iron Age is reduced to "but a wand," for Satan will more truly cause the fall from Golden to Iron. As earlier Satan subsumed Achilles and Radigund, now he contains and metaleptically reverses the Polyphemus of Homer and of Virgil, the Tancredi and Argantes of Tasso, and the proud giant Orgoglio of Spenser:

a club, or staff, lay there along the fold—
an olive tree, felled green and left to season
for Kyklops' hand. And it was like a mast
a lugger of twenty oars, broad in the beam—
a deep-sea-going craft—might carry:
so long, so big around, it seemed.
(Odyssey, IX, 322-27, Fitzgerald version)

… we saw
upon a peak the shepherd Polyphemus;
he lugged his mammoth hulk among the flocks,
searching along familiar shores—an awful
misshapen monster, huge, his eyelight lost.
His steps are steadied by the lopped-off pine
he grips….
(Aerteid, HI, 660-66; Mandelbaum version)

The Wild Men, Polyphemus the Cyclops and the crudely proud Orgoglio, as well as the Catholic and Circassian champions, Tancredi and Argantes, all become late and lesser versions of Milton's earlier and greater Satan. The tree and the mast become interchangeable with the club, and all three become emblematic of the brutality of Satan as the Antichrist, the fallen son of God who walks in the darkness of his vainglory and perverts nature to the ends of war-by-sea and war-by-land, Job's Leviathan and Behemoth. Milton's present age is again an experiential darkness—of naval warfare—but his backward glance to Satanic origins reveals the full truth of which Homer, Virgil, Tasso give only incomplete reflections. Whether the transumption truly overcomes Spenser's Orgoglio is more dubious, for he remains nearly as Satanic as Milton's Satan, except that Satan is more complex and poignant, being a son of heaven and not, like the gross Orgoglio, a child of earth.

The third transumption of the passage, the fiction of the leaves, is surely the subtlest, and the one most worthy of Milton's greatness. He tropes here on the tropes of Isaiah, Homer, Virgil and Dante, and with the Orion allusion on Job and Virgil. The series is capped by the references to Exodus and Ovid, with the equation of Busiris and Satan. This movement from fallen leaves to starry influence over storms to the overwhelming of a tyrannous host is itself a kind of transumption, as Milton moves from metonymy to metonymy before accomplishing a final reduction.

Satan's fallen hosts, poignantly still called "angel forms," most directly allude to a prophetic outcry of Isaiah 34:4:

And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll; and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree.

Milton is too wary to mark this for transumption; his trope works upon a series of Homer, Virgil, Dante:

… why ask of my generation?
As is the generation of leaves, so is that of
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the
fine timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring
So one generation of men will grow while another
(Iliad, VI, 145-50, Lattimore version)

thick as the leaves that with the early frost
of autumn drop and fall within the forest,
or as the birds that flock along the beaches,
in flight from frenzied seas when the chill season
drives them across the waves to lands of sun.
They stand; each pleads to be the first to cross
the stream; their hands reach out in longing for

the farther shore. But Charon, sullen boatman,
now takes these souls, now those; the rest he leaves;
thrusting them back, he keeps them from the beach.
(Aeneid, VI, 310-19; Mandelbaum version)

… But those forlorn and naked souls changed color, their teeth chattering, as soon as they heard the cruel words. They cursed God, their parents, the human race, the place, the time, the seed of their begetting and of their birth. Then, weeping loudly, all drew to the evil shore that awaits every man who fears not God. The demon Charon, his eyes like glowing coals, beckons to them and collects them all, beating with his oar whoever lingers.

As the leaves fall away in autumn, one after another, till the bough sees all its spoils upon the ground, so there the evil seed of Adam: one by one they cast themselves from that shore at signals, like a bird at its call. Thus they go over the dark water, and before they have landed on the other shore, on this side a new throng gathers.

(nferno, III, 100-120, Singleton version)

Homer accepts grim process; Virgil accepts yet plangently laments, with his unforgettable vision of those who stretch forth their hands out of love for the farther shore. Dante, lovingly close to Virgil, is more terrible, since his leaves fall even as the evil seed of Adam falls. Milton remembers standing, younger and then able to see, in the woods at Vallombrosa, watching the autumn leaves strew the brooks. His characteristic metonymy of shades for woods allusively puns on Virgil's and Dante's images of the shades gathering for Charon, and by a metalepsis carries across Dante and Virgil to their tragic Homeric origin. Once again, the precursors are projected into belatedness, as Milton introjects the prophetic source of Isaiah. Leaves fall from trees, generations of men die, because once one-third of the heavenly host came falling down. Milton's present time again is experiential loss; he watches no more autumns, but the optic glass of his art sees fully what his precursors saw only darkly, or in the vegetable glass of nature.

By a transition to the "scattered sedge" of the Red Sea, Milton calls up Virgil again, compounding two passages on Orion:

Our prows were pointed there when suddenly,
rising upon the surge, stormy Orion
drove us against blind shoals….
(Aeneid, I, 534-36; Mandelbaum version)

… he marks Arcturus,
the twin Bears and the rainy Hyades,
Orion armed with gold; and seeing all
together in the tranquil heavens, loudly
he signals….
(Aeneid, III, 517-21; Mandelbaum version)

Alastair Fowler notes the contrast to the parallel Biblical allusions:

He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength: who hath hardened himself against him, and hath prospered?

… Which alone spreadeth out the heavens, and treadeth upon the waves of the sea.

Which maketh Arcturus, Orion, and Pleiades, and the chambers of the south.

(Job 9:4, 8-9)

Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion, and turneth the shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night: that calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth: The LORD is his name….

(Amos 5:8)

In Virgil, Orion rising marks the seasonal onset of storms. In the Bible, Orion and all the stars are put into place as a mere sign-system, demoted from their pagan status as powers. Milton says "hath vexed" to indicate that the sign-system continues in his own day, but he says "o'erthrew" to show that the Satanic stars and the hosts of Busiris the Pharaoh fell once for all, Pharaoh being a type of Satan. Virgil, still caught in a vision that held Orion as a potency, is himself again transumed into a sign of error.

I have worked through this passage's allusions in some detail so as to provide one full instance of a transumptive scheme in Paradise Lost. Johnson's insight is validated, for the "adventitious image" of the optic glass is shown to be not extrinsic at all, but rather to be the device that "crowds the imagination," compressing or hastening much transumption into a little space. By arranging his precursors in series, Milton figuratively reverses his obligation to them, for his stationing crowds them between the visionary truth of his poem (carefully aligned with Biblical truth) and his darkened present (which he shares with Galileo). Transumption murders time, for by troping on a trope, you enforce a state of rhetoricity or word-consciousness, and you negate fallen history. Milton does what Bacon hoped to do; Milton and Galileo become ancients, and Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Tasso, Spenser become belated moderns. The cost is a loss in the immediacy of the living moment. Milton's meaning is remarkably freed of the burden of anteriority, but only because Milton himself is already one with the future, which he introjects.

It would occupy too many pages to demonstrate another of Milton's transumptive schemes in its largest and therefore most powerful dimensions, but I will outline one, summarizing rather than quoting the text and citing rather than giving the allusions. My motive is not only to show that the "optic glass" passage is hardly unique in its arrangement, but to analyze more thoroughly Milton's selfawareness of both his war against influence and his use of rhetoricity as a defense. Of many possibilities, Book I, lines 670-798, seems to me the best, for this concluding movement of the epic's initial book has as its hidden subject both the anxiety of influence and an anxiety of morality about the secondariness of any poetic creation, even Milton's own. The passage describes the sudden building, out of the deep, of Pandaemonium, the palace of Satan, and ends with the infernal peers sitting there in council.

This sequence works to transume the crucial precursors again—Homer, Virgil, Ovid and Spenser—but there are triumphant allusions here to Lucretius and Shakespeare also (as Fowler notes). In some sense, the extraordinary and reverberating power of the Pandaemonium masque (as John Hollander terms it, likening it to transformation scenes in court masques) depends on its being a continuous and unified allusion to the very idea of poetic tradition, and to the moral problematic of that idea. Metalepsis or transumption can be described as an extended trope with a missing or weakened middle, and for Milton literary tradition is such a trope. The illusionistic sets and complex machinery of the masque transformation scene are emblematic, in the Pandaemonium sequence, of the self-deceptions and morally misleading machinery of epic and tragic convention.

Cunningly, Milton starts the sequence with a transumption to the fallen near-present, evoking the royal army in the Civil War as precise analogue to the Satanic army. Mammon leads on the advance party, in an opening allusion to Spenser's Cave of Mammon canto, since both Mammons direct gold-mining operations. With the next major allusion, to the same passage in Ovid's Metamorphoses I that was evoked in the Galileo sequence, Milton probes the morality of art:

Milton presumably would not have termed the Iliad or the Aeneid "precious bane," yet the force of his condemnation extends to them, and his anxiety necessarily touches his own poem as well. Pandaemonium rises in baroque splendor, with a backward allusion to Ovid's Palace of the Sun, also designed by Mulciber (Metamorphoses II, 1-4), and with a near-contemporary allusion to St. Peter's at Rome and, according to Fowler, to Bernini's colonnade in the piazza of St. Peter's. Mulciber, archetype not only of Bernini but more darkly of all artists, including epic poets, becomes the center of the sequence:

Men call'd him Mulciber; and how he fell
From Heav'n, they fabl'd, thrown by angry Jove
Sheer o'er the Crystal Battlements: from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summer's day; and with the setting Sun
Dropt from the Zenith like a falling Star,
On Lemnos th' Ægœan Isle: thus they relate,
Erring; for he with this rebellious rout
Fell long before; nor aught avai'd him now
To have built in Heav'n high Towrs; nor did he scape
By all his Engines, but was headlong sent
With is industrious crew to build in hell.

The devastating "Erring" of line 747 is a smack at Homer by way of the errat of Lucretius (De rerum natura, I, 393, as Fowler notes). The contrast with Homer's passage illuminates the transumptive function of Milton's allusiveness, for Homer's Hephaistos (whose Latin name was Vulcan or Mulciber) gently fables his own downfall:

… It is too hard to fight against the Olympian.
There was a time once before now I was minded to help you, and he caught
me by the foot and threw me from the magic threshold,
and all day long I dropped helpless, and about sunset
I landed in Lemnos….
(Iliad, I, 589-93, Lattimore version)

Milton first mocks Homer by over-accentuating the idyllic nature of this fall, and then reverses Homer completely. In the dark present, Mulciber's work is still done when the bad eminence of baroque glory is turned to the purposes of a fallen Church. So, at line 756, Pandaemonium is called "the high capital" of Satan, alluding to two lines of Virgil (Aeneid, VI, 836 and VIII, 348), but the allusion is qualified by the complex simile of the bees that continues throughout lines 768-75, and which relies on further allusions to Iliad, II, 87-90 and Aeneid, 430-36, where Achaian and Carthaginian heroes respectively are compared to bees. One of the most remarkable of Milton's transumptive returns to present time is then accomplished by an allusion to Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, II, i, 28ff. A "belated peasant" beholds the "Faery Elves" even as we, Milton's readers, see the giant demons shrink in size. Yet our belatedness is again redressed by metaleptic reversal, with an allusion to Aeneid, VI, 451-54, where Aeneas recognizes Dido's "dim shape among the shadows (just as one who either sees or thinks he sees … the moon rising)." So the belated peasant "sees, or dreams he sees" the elves, but like Milton we know we see the fallen angels metamorphosed from giants into pygmies. The Pandaemonium sequence ends with the great conclave of "a thousand demi-gods on golden seats," in clear parody of ecclesiastical assemblies re-convened after the Restoration. As with the opening reference to the advanceparty of the royal army, the present is seen as fallen on evil days, but it provides vantage for Milton's enduring vision.

So prevalent throughout the poem is this scheme of allusion that any possibility of inadvertence can be ruled out. Milton's design is wholly definite, and its effect is to reverse literary tradition, at the expense of the presentness of the present. The precursors return in Milton, but only at his will, and they return to be corrected. Perhaps only Shakespeare can be judged Milton's rival in allusive triumph over tradition, yet Shakespeare had no Spenser to subsume, but only a Marlowe, and Shakespeare is less clearly in overt competition with Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides than Milton is with Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Tasso.

Hobbes, in his Answer to Davenant's Preface (1650), had subordinated wit to judgment, and so implied also that rhetoric was subordinate to dialectic:

From knowing much, proceedeth the admirable variety and novelty of metaphors and similitudes, which are not possibly to be lighted on in the compass of a narrow knowledge. And the want whereof compelleth a writer to expressions that are either defaced by time or sullied with vulgar or long use. For the phrases of poesy, as the airs of music, with often hearing become insipid; the reader having no more sense of their force, than our flesh is sensible of the bones that sustain it. As the sense we have of bodies, consisteth in change and variety of impression, so also does the sense of language in the variety and changeable use of words. I mean not in the affectation of words newly brought home from travel, but in new (and withal, significant) translation to our purposes, of those that be already received, and in far fetched (but withal, apt, instructive, and comely) similitudes….

Had Milton deliberately accepted this as challenge, he could have done no more both to fulfill and to refute Hobbes than Paradise Lost already does. What Davenant and Cowley could not manage was a complete translation to their own purposes of received rhetoric; but Milton raised such translation to sublimity. In doing so, he also raised rhetoric over dialectic, contra Hobbes, for his farfetchedness (Puttenham's term for transumption) gave similitudes the status and function of complex arguments. Milton's wit, his control of rhetoric, was again the exercise of the mind through all her powers, and not a lower faculty subordinate to judgment. Had Hobbes written his Answer twenty years later, and after reading Paradise Lost, he might have been less confident of the authority of philosophy over poetry.

Sandra M. Gilbert (essay date 1978)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9705

SOURCE: "Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections on Milton's Bogey," Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. LXXXXIII, No. 3, May, 1978, pp. 368-81.

[In the following essay, Gilbert studies the influence of Paradise Lost on female writers.]

To resusrrect "the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister," Virginia Woolf declares in A Room of One's Own, literate women must "look past Milton's bogey, for no human being should shut out the view." The perfunctory reference to Milton is curiously enigmatic, for the allusion has had no significant prior development, and Woolf, in the midst of her peroration, does not stop to explain it. Yet the context in which she places this apparently mysterious bogey is highly suggestive. Shutting out the view, Milton's bogey cuts women off from the spaciousness of possibility, the predominantly male landscapes of fulfillment Woolf has been describing throughout A Room. Worse, locking women into "the common sitting room" that denies them individuality, it is a murderous phantom that, if it didn't actually kill "Judith Shakespeare," has helped to keep her dead for hundreds of years, over and over again separating her creative spirit from "the body which she has so often laid down."

Nevertheless, the mystery of Woolf's phrase persists. For who (or what) is Milton's bogey? Not only is the phrase enigmatic, it is ambiguous. It may refer to Milton himself, the real patriarchal specter or—to use Harold Bloom's critical terminology—"Covering Cherub" who blocks the view for women poets. It may refer to Adam, who is Milton's (and God's) favored creature, and therefore also a Covering Cherub of sorts. Or it may refer to another fictitious specter, one more bogey created by Milton: his inferior and Satanically inspired Eve, who has also intimidated women and blocked their view of possibilities both real and literary. That Woolf does not definitely indicate which of these meanings she intended suggests that the ambiguity of her phrase may have been deliberate. Certainly other Woolfian allusions to Milton reinforce the idea that for her, as for most other women writers, both he and the creatures of his imagination constitute the misogynistic essence of what Gertrude Stein called "patriarchal poetry…."

Literary women, readers and writers alike, have long been "confused" and intimidated by the patriarchal etiology that defines a solitary Father God as the only creator of all things. For what if such a fiercely masculine cosmic Author is the sole legitimate model for all earthly authors? Milton's myth of origins, summarizing a long misogynistic tradition, clearly implied this question to the many women writers who directly or indirectly recorded anxieties about patriarchal poetry. A minimal list of such figures would include Margaret Cavendish, Anne Finch, Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, H.D., and Sylvia Plath, as well as Stein, Nin, and Woolf herself. In addition, in an effort to come to terms with the institutionalized and often elaborately metaphorical misogyny Milton's epic expresses, many of these women devised their own revisionary myths and metaphors.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for instance, is at least in part a despairingly acquiescent "misreading" of Paradise Lost, with Eve-Sin apparently exorcised from the story but really translated into the monster that Milton hints she is. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, by contrast, is a radically corrective "misreading" of Milton, a kind of Blakean Bible of Hell, with the fall from heaven to hell transformed into a fall from a realm that conventional theology would associate with "hell" (the Heights) to a place that parodies "heaven" (the Grange). Similarly, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "A Drama of Exile," Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, and Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" all include or imply revisionary critiques of Paradise Lost, while George Eliot's Middlemarch uses Dorothea's worship of that "affable archangel" Casaubon specifically to comment upon the disastrous relationship between Milton and his daughters. And in her undaughterly rebellion against that "Papa above" whom she also called "a God of Hint" and "Burglar! Banker—Father," Emily Dickinson, as Albert Gelpi has perceptively noted, was "passionately Byronic," and therefore, as we shall see, subtly anti-Miltonic. For all these women, in other words, the question of Milton's misogyny was not in any sense an academic one. On the contrary, since it was only through patriarchal poetry that they learned "their origin and their history"—learned, that is, to define themselves as misogynistic theology defined them—most of these writers read Milton with painful absorption.

Considering all this, Woolf's 1918 diary entry on Paradise Lost, an apparently causal summary of reactions to a belated study of that poem, may well represent all female anxieties about "Milton's bogey," and is thus worth quoting in its entirety.

Though I am not the only person in Sussex who reads Milton, I mean to write down my impressions of Paradhe Lost while I am about it. Impressions fairly well describes the sort of thing left in my mind. I have left many riddles unread. I have slipped on too easily to taste the full flavour. However I see, and agree to some extent in believing, that this full flavour is the reward of highest scholarship. I am struck by the extreme difference between this poem and any other. It lies, I think, in the sublime aloofness and impersonality of the emotion. I have never read Cowper on the sofa, but I can imagine that the sofa is a degraded substitute for Paradise Lost. The substance of Milton is all made of wonderful, beautiful, and masterly descriptions of angels' bodies, battles, flights, dwelling places. He deals in horror and immensity and squalor and sublimity but never in the passions of the human heart. Has any great poem ever let in so little light upon one's own joys and sorrows? I get no help in judging life; I scarcely feel that Milton lived or knew men and women; except for the peevish personalities about marriage and the woman's duties. He was the first of the masculinists, but his disparagement rises from his own ill luck and seems even a spiteful last word in his domestic quarrels. But how smooth, strong and elaborate it all is! What poetry! I can conceive that even Shakespeare after this would seem a little troubled, personal, hot and imperfect. I can conceive that this is the essence, of which almost all other poetry is the dilution. The inexpressible fineness of the style, in which shade after shade is perceptible, would alone keep one gazing into it, long after the surface business in progress has been despatched. Deep down one catches still further combinations, rejections, felicities and masteries. Moreover, though there is nothing like Lady Macbeth's terror or Hamlet's cry, no pity or sympathy or intuition, the figures are majestic; in them is summed up much of what men thought of our place in the universe, of our duty to God, our religion.

Interestingly, even the diffident first sentence of this paragraph expresses an uncharacteristic humility, even ner vousness, in the presence of Milton's "sublime aloofness and impersonality." By 1918 Woolf was herself an experienced, widely published literary critic, as well as the author of one accomplished novel, with another in progress. In the preceding pages she has confidently set down judgments of Christina Rossetti ("She has the natural singing power"), Byron ("He has at least the male virtues"), Sophocles' Electra ("It's not so fearfully difficult after all"), and a number of other serious literary subjects. Yet Milton, and Milton alone, leaves her feeling puzzled, excluded, inferior, and even a little guilty. Like Greek or metaphysics, those other bastions of intellectual masculinity, Milton is for Woolf a sort of inordinately complex algebraic equation, an insoluble problem that she feels obliged—but unable—to solve ("I have left many riddles unread"). At the same time, his magnum opus seems to have little or nothing to do with her own, distinctively female perception of things ("Has any great poem ever let in so little light upon one's own joys and sorrows?"). Her admiration, moreover, is cast in peculiarly vague, even abstract language ("how smooth, strong and elaborate it all is"). And her feeling that Milton's verse (not the dramas of her beloved, androgynous Shakespeare) must be "the essence, of which almost all other poetry is the dilution" perhaps explains her dutiful conclusion, with its strained insistence that in the depths of Milton's verse "is summed up much of what men thought of our place in the universe, of our duty to God, our religion." Our? Surely Woolf is speaking here "as a woman," to borrow one of her own favorite phrases, and surely her conscious or unconscious statement is clear: Milton's bogey, whatever else it may be, is ultimately his cosmology, his vision of "what men thought" and his powerful rendering of the culture myth that Woolf, like most other literary women, sensed at the heart of Western literary patriarchy.

The story that Milton, "the first of the masculinists," most notably tells to women is of course the story of woman's secondness, her otherness, and how that otherness leads inexorably to her demonic anger, her sin, her fall, and her exclusion from that garden of the gods which is also, for her, the garden of poetry. In an extraordinarily important and yet also extraordinarily distinctive way, therefore, Milton is for women what Harold Bloom (who might here be paraphrasing Woolf) calls "the great Inhibitor, the Sphinx who strangles even strong imaginations in their cradles." In a lineeven more appropriate to women, Bloom adds that "the motto to English poetry since Milton was stated by Keats: 'life to him would be death to me'". And interestingly, Woolf herself echoes just this line in speaking of her father years after his death. Had Sir Leslie Stephen lived into his nineties, she remarks, "His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books;—inconceivable." For whatever Milton is to the male imagination, to the female imagination Milton and the inhibiting Father—the Patriarch of patriarchs—are one.

For Woolf, indeed, even Milton's manuscripts are dramatically associated with male hegemony and female subordination. One of the key confrontations in A Room occurs when she decides to consult the manuscript of "Lycidas" in the "Oxbridge" library and is forbidden entrance by an agitated male librarian

like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.

Locked away from female contamination at the heart of "Oxbridge's" paradigmatically patriarchal library—in the very heaven of libraries, so to speak—there is a Word of power, and the Word is Milton's.

Although A Room merely hints at the cryptic but crucial power of the Miltonic text and its misogynistic context, Woolf clearly defined Milton as a frightening "Inhibitor" in the fictional (rather than critical) uses she made or did not make of Milton throughout her literary career. Both Orlando and Between the Acts, for instance, her two most ambitious and feminist revisions of history, appear quite deliberately to exclude Milton from their radically transformed chronicles of literary events. Hermaphroditic Orlando meets Shakespeare, the enigmatic androgyne, and effeminate Alexander Pope—but John Milton simply does not exist for him-her, just as he doesn't exist for Miss La Trobe, the revisionary historian of Between the Acts. As Bloom notes, one way in which a poet evades anxiety is to deny even the existence of the precursor poet who causes anxiety.

When, however, Woolf does allude to Milton in her fiction, as she does in her first novel, The Voyage Out, her reference grants him his pernicious power in its entirety. Indeed, the motto of the heroine, Rachel Vinrace, might well be Keats's "Life to him would be death to me," for twenty-four-year-old Rachel, dying of some unnamed disease mysteriously related to her sexual initiation by Terence Hewet, seems to drown in waves of Miltonic verse. "… Terence was reading Milton aloud, because he said the words of Milton had substance and shape, so that it was not necessary to understand what he was saying…. [But] the words, in spite of what Terence had said, seemed to be laden with meaning, and perhaps it was for this reason that it was painful to listen to them." Milton's invocation to "Sabrina Fair," the goddess "under the glassy, cool, translucent wave," seeks the salvation of a maiden who has been turned to stone, but these words from Comus have a very different effect on Rachel. Heralding illness, they draw her toward a "deep pool of sticky water," murky with images derived from Woolf's own episodes of madness, and ultimately they plunge her into the darkness "at the bottom of the sea". Would death to Milton, one wonders, have been life for Rachel?

Charlotte Brontë would certainly have thought so. Because Woolf was such a sophisticated literary critic, she may have been at once the most conscious and the most anxious heiress of the Miltonic culture myth. But among earlier women writers it was Charlotte Brontë who seemed most aware of Milton's threatening qualities, particularly of the extent to which his influence upon women's fate might be seen as—to borrow a pun from Bloom—an unhealthy influenza. In Shirley she specifically attacked the patriarchal Miltonic cosmology, within whose baleful context she saw both her female protagonists sickening, orphaned and starved by a male-dominated society. "Milton was great; but was he good?" asks Shirley Keeldar, the novel's eponymous heroine.

[He] tried to see the first woman, but … he saw her not…. It was his cook that he saw; or it was Mrs. Gill, as I have seen her, making custards, in the heat of summer, in the cool dairy, with rosetrees and nasturtiums about the latticed window, preparing a cold collation for the reactors,—preserves, and "dulcet creams"—puzzled "What choice to choose for delicacy best…."

Shirley's allusion is to the passage in Book V of Paradise Lost in which housewifely Eve, "on hospitable thoughts intent," serves Adam and his angelic guest an Edenic cold collation of fruits and nuts, berries and "dulcet creams." With its descriptions of mouth-watering seraphic banquets and its almost Victorian depiction of primordial domestic bliss, this scene is especially vulnerable to the sort of parodic wit Brontë has Shirley turn against it. But the alternative that Brontë and Shirley propose to Milton's Eve-as-little-woman is more serious and implies an even severer criticism of Paradise Lost's visionary misogyny. The first woman, Shirley hypothesizes, was not an Eve, "half doll, half angel," and always potential fiend. Rather, she was a Titan, and a distinctively Promethean one at that:

"… from her sprang Saturn, Hyperion, Oceanus; she bore Prometheus…. The first woman's breast that heaved with life on this world yielded the daring which could contend with Omnipotence: the strength which could bear a thousand years of bondage,—the vitality which could feed that vulture death through uncounted ages,—the unexhausted life and uncorrupted excellence, sisters to immortality, which … could conceive and bring forth a Messiah … I saw—I now see—a woman-Titan…. she reclines her bosom on the ridge of Stilbro' Moor; her mighty hands are joined beneath it. So kneeling, face to face she speaks with God. That Eve is Jehovah's daughter, as Adam was his son."

Like Woolf's concept of "Milton's bogey," this apparently bold vision of a titanic Eve is interestingly (and perhaps necessarily) ambiguous. It is possible, for instance, to read the passage as a comparatively conventional evocation of maternal Nature giving birth to male greatness. Because she "bore Prometheus," the first woman's breast nursed daring, strength, vitality. At the same time, however, the syntax here suggests that "the daring which could contend with Omnipotence" and "the strength which could bear a thousand years of bondage" belonged—like the qualities they parallel, "the unexhausted life and uncorrupted excellence … which … could … bring forth a Messiah"—to the first woman herself. Not only did Shirley's Eve bring forth a Prometheus, then, she was herself a Prometheus, contending with Omnipotence and defying bondage. Thus, where Milton's Eve is apparently submissive, except for one moment of disastrous rebellion in which she listens to the wrong voice, Shirley's is strong, assertive, vital. Where Milton's Eve is domestic, Shirley's is daring. Where Milton's Eve is from the first curiously hollow, as if somehow created corrupt, "in outwardshow / Elaborate, of inward less exact," Shirley's is filled with "unexhausted life and uncorrupted excellence." Where Milton's Eve is a sort of divine afterthought, an almost superfluous and mostly material being created from Adam's "supernumerary" rib, Shirley's is spiritual, primary, "heavenborn." Finally, and perhaps most significantly, where Milton's Eve is usually excluded from God's sight and, at crucial moments in the history of Eden, drugged and silenced by divinely ordained sleep, Shirley's speaks "face to face" with God. We may even speculate that, supplanted by a servile and destructive specter, Shirley's Eve is the first avatar of that dead poet whom Woolf, in her revision of this myth, called Judith Shakespeare and who was herself condemned to death by Milton's bogey.

Besides having interesting descendants, however, Shirley's titanic woman has interesting ancestors. For instance, if she is herself a sort of Prometheus as well as Prometheus' mother, she is in a sense closer to Milton's Satan than to his Eve. Certainly "the daring which could contend with Omnipotence" and "the strength which could bear a thousand years of bondage" are qualities that recall not only the firm resolve of Shelley's Prometheus (or Byron's or Goethe's or Aeschylus') but "the unconquerable will" Milton's fiend opposes to the "tyranny of Heav'n." In addition, the gigantic size of Milton's fallen angel ("in bulk as huge / As whom the Fables name of monstrous size, / Titanian, or Earthborn') is repeated in the enormity of Shirley's Eve. She "reclines her bosom on the ridge of Stillbro' Moor" just as Satan lies "stretched out huge in length" in Book I of Paradise Lost and just as Blake's fallen Albion (another neo-Miltonic figure) appears with his right foot "on Dover cliffs, his heel / On Canterburys ruins; his right hand [covering] lofty Wales / His left Scotland." But of course Milton's Satan is himself the ancestor of all the Promethean heroes conceived by the Romantic poets who influenced Brontë. And as if to acknowledge that fact, she has Shirley remark that under her Titan-woman's breast "I see her zone, purple like that horizon: through its blush shines the star of evening"—Lucifer, the "son of the morning" and the evening star, who is Satan in his unfallen state.

Milton's Satan transformed into a Promethean Eve may at first sound like a rather unlikely literary development. But even the briefest reflection of Paradise Lost should remind us that, despite Eve's apparent passivity and domesticity, Milton himself seems deliberately to have sketched so many parallels between her and Satan that it is hard at times for the unwary reader to distinguish the sinfulness of one from that of the other. As Stanley Fish has pointed out, for instance, Eve's temptation speech to Adam in Book IX is "a tissue of Satanic echoes," with its central argument, "Look on me. / Do not believe," an exact duplicate of the antireligious empiricism embedded in Satan's earlier temptation speech to her. Moreover, where Adam falls out of uxorious "fondness," out of a self-sacrificing love for Eve, which, at least to the modern reader, seems quite noble, Milton's Eve falls for exactly the same reason that Satan does: because she wants to be "as Gods" and because, like him, she is secretly dissatisfied with her place, secretly preoccupied with questions of "equality." After his fall, Satan makes a pseudolibertarian speech to his fellow angels in which he asks, "Who can in reason then or right assume / Monarchy over such as live by right / His equals, if in power and splendor less, / In freedom equal?" After her fall, Eve considers the possibility of keeping the fruit to herself "so to add what wants / In Female Sex, the more to draw [Adam's] Love, / And render me more equal."

Again, just as Milton's Satan—despite his pretensions to equality with the divine—dwindles from anangel into a dreadful (though subtle) serpent, so Eve is gradually reduced from an angelic being to a monstrous and serpentine creature, listening sadly as Adam thunders, "Out of my sight, thou Serpent, that name best / Befits thee with him leagu'd, thyself as false / And hateful; nothing wants, but that thy shape, / Like his, and colour Serpentine may show / Thy inward fraud." The enmity God sets between the woman and the serpent is thus the discord necessary to divide those who are not opposed or mutually hostile but too much alike, too much attracted to each other. In addition, just as Satan feeds Eve with the forbidden fruit, so Eve—who is consistently associated with fruit, not only as Edenic chef but also as the womb, the bearer of fruit—feeds the fruit to Adam. And finally, just as Satan's was a fall into generation, its first consequence being the appearance of the material world of Sin and Death, so Eve's (and not Adam's) fall completes the human entry into generation, since its consequence is the pain of birth, death's necessary opposite and mirror image. And just as Satan is humbled and enslaved by his desire for the bitter fruit, so Eve is humbled by becoming a slave not only to Adam the individual man but to Adam the archetypal man, a slave not only to her husband but, as de Beauvoir notes, to the species. By contrast, Adam's fall is fortunate, among other reasons because, from the woman's point of view, his punishment seems almost like a reward, as he himself suggests when he remarks that "On mee the Curse aslope / Glanc'd on the ground, with labour I must earn / My bread; what harm? Idleness had been worse …"

We must remember, however, that Eve's relationship to Satan, as Milton delineates it, is even richer, deeper, and more complex than these few points suggest. Her bond with the fiend is strengthened not only by the striking similarities between them but also by her resemblance to Sin, who is, as it were, his female avatar and, indeed, the only other female who graces (or, rather, disgraces) Paradise Lost. Brontë's Shirley, whose titanic Eve is reminiscent of the Promethean aspects of Milton's devil, does not appear to have noticed this relationship, even in her bitter attack upon Milton's little woman. But we can be sure that Brontë herself, like many other female readers, did—if only unconsciously—perceive the likeness. For not only is Sin female, like Eve, she is serpentine, as Satan is and as Adam tells Eve she is. Her body, "woman to the waist, and fair, / But [ending] foul in many a scaly fold / Voluminous and vast, a serpent arm'd / With mortal sting," seems to exaggerate and parody female anatomy just as the monstrous bodies of Spenser's Error and Duessa do. In addition, with her fairness ironically set against foulness, Sin parodies Adam's fearful sense of the tension between Eve's "outward show / Elaborate" and her "inward less exact." Moreover, just as Eve is a secondary and contingent creation, made from Adam's rib, so Sin, Satan's "Daughter," burst from the fallen angel's brain like a grotesque subversion of the Greco-Roman story of wise Minerva's birth from the head of Jove. In a patriarchal Christian context the pagan goddess Wisdom may, Milton suggests, become the loathsome demoness Sin, for the intelligence of heaven is made up exclusively of "Spirits Masculine," and the woman, like her dark double, Sin, is a "fair defect / Of Nature."

If Eve's punishment, moreover, is her condemnation to the anguish of maternity, Sin is the only model of maternity other than the "wide womb of Chaos" with which Paradise Lost presents her, and as a model Milton's monster provides a hideous warning of what it means to be a "slave to the species." Birthing innumerable Hell Hounds in a dreadful cycle, Sin is endlessly devoured by her children, who continually emerge from and return to her womb, where they bark and howl unseen. Their bestial sounds remind us that to bear young is to be, not spiritual, but animal, a thing of flesh, an incomprehensible and uncomprehending body, while their ceaseless suckling presages the exhaustion that leads to death, companion of birth. And Death is indeed their sibling as well as the father who has raped (and thus fused with) his mother, Sin, in order to bring this pain into being, just as "he" will meld with Eve when in eating the apple she ends up "eating Death."

Of course, Sin's pride and her vulnerability to Satan's seductive wiles make her Eve's double too. It is at Satan's behest, after all, that Sin disobeys God's commandments and opens the gates of hell to let the first cause of evil loose in the world, and this act of hers is clearly analogous to Eve's disobedient eating of the apple, with its similar consequences. Like both Eve and Satan, moreover, Sin wants to be "as Gods," to reign in a "new world of light and bliss." And surely it is not insignificant that her moving but blasphemous pledge of allegiance to Satan ("Thou art my Father, thou my Author, thou / My being gav'st me: whom should I obey / But thee, whom follow?") foreshadows Eve's most poignant speech to Adam ("but now lead on;/ … with thee to go, / Is to stay here; without thee here to stay, / Is to go hence unwilling; thou to mee / Art all things under Heav'n …," as if in some part of himself Milton meant not to instruct the reader by contrasting two modes of obedience but to undercut even Eve's "goodness" in advance. Perhaps it is for this reason that, in the grim shade of Sin's Medusa-like snakiness, Eve's beauty, too, begins (to an experienced reader of Paradise Lost) to seem suspect: her golden tresses waving in wanton, wandering ringlets suggest at least a sinister potential, and it hardly helps matters that so keen a critic as Hazlitt thought her nakedness made her luscious as a piece of fruit.

Despite Milton's well-known misogyny, however, and the highly developed philosophical tradition in which it can be placed, all these connections, parallels, and doublings among Satan, Eve, and Sin are shadowy messages, embedded in the text of Paradise Lost, rather than carefully illuminated overt statements. Still, for sensitive female readers brought up in the bosom of a "masculinist," patristic, neo-Manichean church, the latent as well as the manifest content of such a powerful work as Paradise Lost was (and is) bruisingly real. To such women the unholy trinity of Satan, Sin, and Eve, diabolically mimicking the holy trinity of God, Christ, and Adam, must have seemed even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to illustrate that historical dispossession and degradation of the female principle which was to be imaginatively analyzed in the twentieth century by Robert Graves, among others. "The new God," Graves wrote in The White Goddess, speaking of the rise of the Judaic-Pythagorean tradition whose culture myth Milton recounts,

claimed to be dominant as Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, pure Holiness, pure Good, pure Logic, able to exist without the aid of woman; but it was natural to identify him with one of the original rivals of the Theme of the [White Goddess] and to ally the woman and the other rival permanently against him. The outcome was philosophical dualism with all the tragi-comic woes attendant on spiritual dichotomy. If the True God, the God of the Logos, was pure thought, pure good, whence came evil and error? Two separate creations had to be assumed: the true spiritual Creation and the false material Creation. In terms of the heavenly bodies, Sun and Saturn were now jointly opposed to Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Venus. The five heavenly bodies in opposition made a strong partnership, with a woman at the beginning and a woman at the end. Jupiter and the Moon Goddess paired together as the rulers of the material World, the lovers Mars and Venus paired together as the lustful Flesh, and between the pairs stood Mercury who was the Devil, the Cosmocrator or author of the false creation. It was these five who composed the Pythagorean hyle, or grove, of the five material senses; and spiritually minded men, coming to regard them as sources of error, tried to rise superior to them by pure meditation. This policy was carried to extreme lengthsby the God-fearing Essenes, who formed their monkish communities within compounds topped by acacia hedges, from which all women were excluded; lived ascetically, cultivated a morbid disgust for their own natural functions and turned their eyes away from World, Flesh and Devil.

Milton, who offers at least lip service to the institution of matrimony, is never so intensely misogynistic as the fanatically celibate Essenes. But a similar misogyny, though more disguised, obviously contributes to Adam's espousal of Right Reason as a means of transcending the worldly falsehoods propounded by Eve and Satan (and by his vision of the "bevy of fair women" whose wiles betrayed the "sons of God"). And that the Right Reason of Paradise Lost did have such implications was powerfully understood by William Blake, whose fallen Urizenic Milton must reunite with his female Emanation in order to cast off his fetters and achieve imaginative wholeness. Perhaps even more important for our purposes here, in the visionary epic Milton, Blake reveals a sure grasp of the psychohistorical effects he thought Milton's misguided "chastity" had not only upon Milton, but upon women themselves. While Milton-as-noble-bard, for instance, ponders "the intricate mazes of Providence," Blake has his "six-fold Emanation" howl and wail, "Scatter'd thro' the deep / In torment." Made up of his three wives and three daughters, this archetypal abandoned woman knows very well that Milton's antifeminism has deadly implications for her own character as well as for her fate. "Is this our Feminine Portion," Blake has her demand despairingly. "Are we Contraries O Milton, Thou & I / O Immortal! how were we led to War the Wars of Death[?]." And, as if to describe the moral deformity such misogyny fosters in women, she explains that "Altho' our Human Power can sustain the severe contentions … our Sexual cannot: but flies into the [hell of] the Ulro. / Hence arose all our terrors in Eternity!"

Still, although he was troubled by Milton's misogyny and was radically opposed to the Cartesian dualism that Milton's vaguely Manichean cosmology anticipated, Blake did portray the author of Paradise Lost as the hero—the redeemer even—of the poem that bears his name. Beyond or behind Milton's bogey, the later poet saw, there was a more charismatic and congenial figure, a figure that Shirley and her author, like most other female readers, must also have perceived, judging by the ambiguous responses to Milton recorded by so many women. For though the epic voice of Paradise Lost often sounds censorious and "masculinist" as it recounts and comments upon Western patriarchy's central culture myth, the epic's creator often seems to display such dramatic affinities with rebels against the censorship of heaven that Romantic readers might well conclude with Blake that Milton wrote of God "in fetters" and was "of the Devils party without knowing it." And so Blake, blazing a path for Shirley and for Shelley, for Byron and for Mary Shelley, and for all the Brontës, presented what was to become his famous interpretation of Satan as the real, burningly visionary god—the Los—of Paradise Lost, with "God" as the rigid and death-dealing Urizenic demon. His extraordinarily significant misreading clarifies not only the lineage of, say, Shelley's Prometheus but also the ancestry of Shirley's titanic Eve. For if Eve is in so many negative ways like Satan the serpentine tempter, why should she not also be akin to Satan the Romantic outlaw, the character whom T. S. Eliot considered "Milton's curly-haired Byronic hero"?

That Satan is throughout much of Paradise Lost a handsome devil and therefore a paradigm for the Byronic hero at his most attractive is, of course, a point frequently made by critics of all persuasions, including those less hostile than Eliot was to both Byron and Milton. Indeed, Satan's Prometheanism, the indomitable will and courage he bequeathed to characters like Shirley's Eve, almost seems to have been created to illustrate some of the crucial features of Romanticism in general. Refusing, like Shelley's Prometheus, to submit to the "tyranny of Heaven," and stalking "apart in joyless revery" like Byron's Childe Harold, Milton's Satan is as alienated from celestial society as any of the early nineteenth-century poets maudit who made him their emblem. Accursed and self-cursing, paradoxical and mystical ("Which way I fly is hell; myself am Hell … Evil be thou my Good," he experiences the guilty double consciousness, the sense of a stupendous self capable of nameless and perhaps criminal enormities, that Byron redefined in Manfred and Cain as marks of superiority. To the extent, moreover, that the tyranny of heaven is associated with Right Reason, Satan is Romantically antirational in his exploration of the secret depths of himself and of the cosmos. He is antirational, too—and Romantic—in his indecorous yielding to excesses of passion, his Byronic "gesture fierce" and "mad demeanor." At the same time, his aristocratic egalitarianism, manifested in his war against the heavenly system of primogeniture that has unjustly elevated God's "Son" above even the highest angels, suggests a Byronic (and Shelleyan and Godwinian) concern with liberty and justice for all. Thunder-scarred and world-weary, this black-browed devil would not, one feels, have been out of place at Missolonghi.

Significantly, Eve is the only character in Paradise Lost for whom a rebellion against the hierarchical status quo is as necessary as it is for Satan. Though in one sense oppressed, or at least manipulated, by God, Adam is after all to his own realm what God is to his: absolute master and guardian of the patriarchal rights of primogeniture. Eve's docile speech in Book IV emphasizes this: "My Author and Disposer, what thou bidd'st / Unargu'd I obey; so God ordains, / God is thy Law, thou mine: to know no more / Is woman's happiest knowledge and her praise." But the dream she has shortly after speaking these words to Adam seems to reveal her true feelings about the matter in its fantasy of a Satanic flight of escape from the garden and its oppressions: "Up to the clouds / … I flew and underneath beheld / The Earth outstretcht immense, a prospect wide / And various …," a redefined prospect of happy knowledge not unlike the one Woolf imagines women viewing from their opened windows. And interestingly, brief as is the passage describing Eve's flight, it foreshadowed fantasies that would recur frequently and compellingly in the writings of both women and Romantic poets. Byron's Cain, for instance, disenchanted by what his author called the "politics of paradise," flies through space with his seductive Lucifer like a masculine version of Milton's Eve, and though Shirley's Eve is earthbound—almost earthlike—innumerable other "Eves" of female origin have flown, fallen, surfaced, or feared to fly, as if to acknowledge in a backhanded sort of way the power of the dream Milton let Satan grant to Eve. But whether female dreams of flying escapes are derived from Miltonic or Romantic ideas, or from some collective female unconscious, is a difficult question to answer. For the connections among Satan, Romanticism, and concealed or incipient feminism are intricate and far-reaching indeed.

Certainly, if both Satan and Eve are in some sense alienated, rebellious, and therefore Byronic figures, the same is true for women writers as a class—for Shirley's creator as well as for Shirley, for Virginia Woolf as well as for "Judith Shakespeare." Dispossessed by her older brothers (the "Sons of God"), educated to submission, enjoined to silence, the woman writer—in fantasy if not in reality—must often have "stalked apart in joyless revery," like Byron's heroes, like Satan, like Prometheus. Feeling keenly the discrepancy between the angel she was supposed to be and the angry demon she knew she often was, she must have experienced the same paradoxical double consciousness of guilt and greatness that afflicts both Satan and, say, Manfred. Composing herself to saintly stillness, brooding narcissistically like Eve over her own image and like Satan over her own power, she may even have feared occasionally that like Satan—or Lara, or Manfred—she would betray her secret fury by "gestures fierce" or a "mad demeanor." Asleep in the bower of domesticity, she would be unable to silence the Romantic-Satanic whisper—"Why sleepst thou Eve?"—with its invitation to join the visionary world of those who fly by night.

Again, though Milton goes to great lengths to associate visionary prophetic powers with Adam, God, Christ, and the angels, that visionary night world of poetry and imagination, insofar as it is a demonic world, is more often subtly associated in Paradise Lost with Eve, Satan, and femaleness than with any of the "good" characters except the epic speaker himself. Blake, of course, saw this quite clearly. It is the main reason for the Satan-God role reversal he postulates. But his friend Mary Wollstonecraft and her Romantic female descendants must have seen it too, just as Byron and Shelley did. For though Adam is magically shown, as in a crystal ball, what the future holds, Satan and Eve are the real dreamers of Paradise Lost, possessed in the Romantic sense by seductive reflections and uncontrollable imaginings of alternative lives to the point where, like Manfred or Christabel or the Keats of "The Fall of Hyperion," they are so scorched by visionary longings they become fevers of themselves, to echo Moneta's words to Keats. But even Satan's and Eve's suffering sense of the hellish discrepancy between their aspiration and their position is a model of esthetic nobility to the Romantic poet and the Romantically inspired feminist. Contemplating the "lovely pair" of Adam and Eve in their cozily unfallen state, Mary Wollstonecraft confesses that she feels "an emotion similar to what we feel when children are playing or animals sporting," and on such occasions "I have, with conscious dignity, or Satanic pride, turned to hell for sublimer subjects." Her deliberate, ironic confusion of "conscious dignity" and "Satanic pride," together with her Romantic reverence for the sublime, prefigures Shelley's Titan as clearly as Shirley's titanic woman. The imagining of more "sublime" alternative lives, moreover, as Blake and Wollstonecraft also saw, reinforces the revolutionary fervor that Satan the visionary poet, like Satan the aristocratic Byronic rebel, defined for women and Romantics alike.

That the Romantic esthetic has often been linked with visionary politics is, of course, almost a truism. From the apocalyptic revolutions of Blake and Shelley to those of Yeats and D. H. Lawrence, moreover, revisions of the Miltonic culture myth have been associated with such repudiations of the conservative, hierarchical "politics of paradise." "In terrible majesty," Blake's Satanic Milton thunders, "Obey thou the words of the Inspired Man. / All that can be annihilated must be annihilated / That the children of Jerusalem may be saved from slavery." Like him, Byron's Lucifer offers autonomy and knowledge—the prerequisites of freedom—to Cain, while Shelley's Prometheus, overthrowing the tyranny of heaven, ushers in "Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory" for all of humanity. Even D. H. Lawrence's Satanic snake, emerging one hundred years later from the hellishly bumingbowels of the earth, seems to be "one of the lords / of life," an exiled king "now due to be crowned again," signaling a reborn society. For in the revolutionary cosmologies of all these Romantic poets, both Satan and his other self, Lucifer ("son of the morning"), were emblematic of that liberated dawn in which it would be bliss to be alive.

It is not surprising, then, that women, identifying at their most rebellious with Satan, at their least with rebellious Eve, and almost all the time with the Romantic poets, should have been similarly obsessed with the apocalyptic social transformations a revision of Milton might bring about. Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Women often reads like an outraged commentary on Paradise Lost, combined a Blakean enthusiasm for the French Revolution—at least in its early days—with her "pre-Romantic" reverence for the Satanic Sublime and her feminist anger at Milton's misogyny. But complicated as it was, that complex of interrelated feelings was not hers alone. For not only have feminism and Romantic radicalism been consciously associated in the minds of many women writers, Byronically (and Satanically) rebellious visionary politics have often been used by women as metaphorical disguises for sexual politics. Thus Brontë, in addition to creating an anti-Miltonic Eve in Shirley, uses the revolutionary anger of the frame-breaking workers with whom the novel is crucially concerned as an image for the fury of its dispossessed heroines. Similarly, as Ellen Moers has perceptively noted, Englishwomen's factory novels (like Gaskell's Mary Barton) and American women's antislavery novels (like Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin) submerged or disguised "private, brooding, female resentment" in ostensibly disinterested examinations of larger public issues. More recently, even Virginia Woolf's angrily feminist Three Guineas purports to have begun not primarily as a consideration of the woman question but as an almost Shelleyan dream of transforming the world—abolishing war, tyranny, ignorance, and so on—through the formation of a female "Society of Outsiders."

But of course such a society would be curiously Satanic, since in the politics of paradise the Prince of Darkness was literally the first Outsider. And even if Woolf herself did not see far enough past Milton's bogey to recognize this, a number of other women, both feminists and antifeminists, did. In late nineteenth-century America a well-known journal of Romantically radical politics and feminism was called Lucifer the Light-Bearer, for instance, and in Victorian England Mrs. Rigby wrote of Charlotte Bronte's Byronic and feminist Jane Eyre that "the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home"—in other words, a Byronic, Promethean, Satanic, and Jacobin tone of mind—"is the same which has also written Jane Eyre."

Paradoxically, however, Brontë herself may have been less conscious of the extraordinary complex of visionary and revisionary impulses that went into Jane Eyre than Mrs. Rigby was, at least in part because, like many other women, she found her own anger and its intellectual consequences almost too painful to confront. Commenting on the so-called "condition of women" question, she told Mrs. Gaskell that there are "evils—deep-rooted in the foundation of the social system—which no efforts of ours can touch; of which we cannot complain: of which it is advisable not too often to think." Still, despite her refusal to "complain," Bronte's unwillingness to think of social inequities was more likely a function of her anxiety about her own rebelliously Satanic impulses than a sign of blind resignation to what Yeats called "the injustice of the skies."

The relationship between women writers and Milton's curly-haired Byronic hero is, however, even more complicated than I have so far suggested. And in the intricate tangle of this relationship resides still another reason for the refusal of writers like Brontë consciously to confront their obsessive interest in the impulses incarnated in the villain of Paradise Lost. For not only is Milton's Satan in certain crucial ways very much like women, he is also, much more obviously, enormously attractive to women. Indeed, as Eliot's phrase suggests—and as Byron's own life indicates—he is in most ways the incarnation of worldly male sexuality: fierce, powerful, experienced, simultaneously brutal and seductive, devil enough to overwhelm the body and yet enough a fallen angel to charm the soul. As such, however, in his relations with women he is a sort of Nietzchean Übermensch, giving orders and expecting homage to his "natural"—that is, masculine—superiority, as if he were God's shadow self, the id of heaven, Satanically reduplicating the politics of paradise wherever he goes. And yet, wherever he goes, women follow him, even when they refuse to follow the God whose domination he parodies. As Sylvia Plath so famously noted, "Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you." Speaking of "Daddy," Plath was of course speaking also of Satan, "a man in black with a Mein Kampf look." And the masochistic phenomenon she described helps explain the unspeakable, even unthinkable sense of sin that also caused women like Woolf and Brontë to avert their eyes from their own Satanic impulses. For if Eve is Sin's as well as Satan's double, then Satan is to Eve what he is to Sin—both a lover and a daddy.

That the Romantic fascination with incest derived in part from Milton's portrayal of the Sin-Satan relationship may be true but is in a sense beside the point here. That both women and Romantic poets must have found at least an analogue for their relationship to each other in Satan's incestuous affair with Sin is, however, very much to the point. Admiring, even adoring Satan's Byronic rebelliousness, his scorn of conventional virtues, his raging energy, the woman writer may have secretly fantasized that she was Satan—or Cain, or Manfred, or Prometheus. But at the same time her feelings of female powerlessness manifested themselves in her conviction that the closest she could really get to being Satan was to be his creature, his tool, the witchlike daughter-mistress who sits on his right hand. Leslie Marchand tells a revealing little story of Mary Shelley's stepsister, Claire Clairmont, that brilliantly illuminates this movement from self-assertive identification to masochistic self-denial. Begging Byron to criticize her half-finished novel, rebellious Claire (who was later to follow the poet to Geneva and bear his daughter Allegra) is said to have explained that he must read the manuscript because "the creator ought not to destroy his creature."

Despite Brontë's vision of a Promethean Eve, Shirley betrays a similar sense of the difficulty of direct identification with the assertive Satanic principle and the need for women to accept their own instrumentality, for her first ecstatic description of an active, indomitable Eve is followed by a more chastened story. In this second parable, the "first woman" passively wanders alone in an alienating landscape, wondering whether she is "thus to burn out and perish, her living light doing no good, never seen, never needed" even though "the flame of her intelligence burn[s] so vivid" and "something within her stir[s] disquieted…." Instead of coming from that Promethean fire within her, however, as the first Eve's salvation implicitly did, this Eva's redemption comes through a Byronic-Satanic god of the night, called "Genius," who claims her, a "lost atom of life," as his bride. "I take from thy vision, darkness…. I, with my presence, fill vacancy," he declares, explaining that "Unhumbled, I can take what is mine. Did I not give from the altar the very flame which lit Eva's being?" Superficially, this allegorical narrative may be seen as a woman's attempt to imagine a malemuse with whom she can interact in a way that will parallel the male poet's congress with his female muse. But the incestuous Byronic love story in which Brontë embodies her allegorical message is more significant here than the message itself.

It suggests to begin with that, like Claire Clairmont, Brontë may have seen herself as at best a creation of male "Genius"—whether artwork or daughter is left deliberately vague—and therefore a being ultimately lacking in autonomy. Finding her ideas astonishingly close to those of an admired male (Byron, Satan, "Genius") and accustomed to assuming that male thought is the source of all female thinking, just as Adam's rib is the source of Eve's body, she supposes that he has, as it were, invented her. Her autonomy is further denied even by the incestuous coupling that appears to link her to her creator and to make them equals. For, as Helene Moglen notes, the devouring ego of the Satanic-Byronic hero found the fantasy (or reality) of incest the best strategy for metaphorically annihilating the otherness—the autonomy—of the female. "In his union with [his half-sister] Augusta Leigh," Moglen points out, "Byron was in fact striving to achieve union with himself," just as Manfred expresses his solipsistic self-absorption by indulging his forbidden passion for his sister, Astarte. Similarly, the enormity of Satan's ego is manifested in the sexual cycle of his solipsistic production and reproduction of himself, first as Sin and later as Death. Like Byron, he seems to be "attempting to become purely self-dependent by possessing his past in his present, affirming a more complete identity by enveloping and containing his other, complementary self." But, as Moglen goes on to remark, "to incorporate 'the other' is also after all to negate it. No space remains for the female. She can either allow herself to be devoured or she can retreat into isolation."

It is not insignificant, then, that the fruit of Satan's solipsistic union with Sin is Death, just as death is the fruit of Manfred's love for Astarte and ultimately, I would argue, of all the incestuous neo-Satanic couplings envisioned by women writers from Mary Shelley to Sylvia Plath. To the extent that the desire to violate the incest taboo is a desire to be self-sufficient—self-begetting—it is a divinely interdicted wish to be "as Gods," like the desire for the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, whose taste also meant death. For the woman writer, moreover, even the reflection that the Byronic hero is as much a creature of her mind—an incarnation of her "private, brooding, female resentments"—as she is an invention of his offers little solace. For if in loving her he loves himself, in loving him she loves herself, and is therefore similarly condemned to the death of the soul that punishes solipsism.

But of course such a death of the soul is implied in any case by Satan's conception of his unholy creatures: Sin, Death, and Eve. As a figure of the heavenly interloper who plays the part of false "cosmocrator" in the dualistic patriarchal cosmology that Milton inherited from Christian tradition, Satan is in fact a sort of artist of death, the paradigmatic master of all those perverse esthetic techniques that pleasure the body rather than the soul and serve the world rather than God. From the golden palace he erects at Pandemonium to his angelic impersonations in the garden and the devilish machines he engineers as part of his war against God, he practices false, fleshly, death-devoted arts (though a few of them are very much the kinds of arts a Romantic sensualist like Keats sometimes admired). As if following Milton even here, Byron makes the Satanic Manfred similarly the master of false, diabolical arts. And defining herself as the "creature" of one or the other of these irreligious artists, the woman writer would be confirmed not only in her sense that she was part of the "effeminate slackness" of the "false creation" but also in her fear that she was herself a false creator, one of the seductive "bevy of fair women" for whom the arts of language, like those of dance and music, are techniques "Bred only … to the taste / Of lustful appetance," sinister parodies of the language of the angels and the music of the spheres. In the shadow of such a fear, even her housewifely arts would begin, like Eve's cookery—her choosing of delicacies "so contriv'd as not to mix / Tastes"—to seem suspect, while the poetry she conceived might well appear to be a monster birth, like Satan's horrible child Death. Fallen like Anne Finch into domesticity, into the "dull mannage of a servile house" as well as into the slavery of generation, she would not even have the satisfaction Manfred has of dying nobly. Rather, dwindling by degrees into an infertile drone, she might well conclude that this image of Satan and Eve as the false artists of creation was finally the most demeaning and discouraging avatar of Milton's bogey.

What would have made her perception of this last bogey even more galling, of course, would have been the magisterial calm with which Milton, as the epic speaker of Paradise Lost, continually calls attention to his own art, for the express purpose, so it seems, of defining himself throughout the poem as a type of the true artist, the virtuous poet who, rather than merely delighting (like Eve and Satan), delights while instructing. A prophet or priestly bard and therefore a guardian of the sacred mysteries of patriarchy, he serenely proposes to justify the ways of God to men, calls upon subservient female muses for the assistance that is his due (and in real life upon slavish daughters for the same sort of assistance), and at the same time wars upon women with a barrage of angry words, just as God wars upon Satan. Indeed, as a figure of the true artist, God's emissary and defender on earth, Milton himself, as he appears in Paradise Lost, might well have seemed to female readers to be as much akin to God as they themselves were to Satan, Eve, or Sin.

Like God, for instance, Milton-as-epic-speaker creates heaven and earth (or their verbal equivalents) out of a bewildering chaos of history, legend, and philosophy. Like God, he has mental powers that penetrate to the furthest corners of the cosmos he has created, to the depths of hell and the heights of heaven, soaring with "no middle flight" toward ontological subjects "unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme." Like God, too, he knows the consequence of every action and event, his comments upon them indicating an almost divine consciousness of the simultaneity of past, present, and future. Like God, he punishes Satan, rebukes Adam and Eve, moves angels from one battle station to another, and grants all mankind glimpses of apocalyptic futurity, when a "greater Man" shall arrive to restore paradisal bliss. And like God—like the Redeemer, like the Creator, like the Holy Ghost—he is male. Indeed, as a male poet justifying the ways of a male deity to male readers, he rigorously excludes all females from the heaven of his poem, except insofar as he can beget new ideas upon their chaotic fecundity, like the Holy Spirit "brooding on the vast Abyss" and making it pregnant.

Even the blindness to which this epic speaker occasionally refers makes him appear godlike rather than handicapped. Cutting him off from "the cheerful ways" of ordinary mortals and reducing Satan's and Eve's domain of material nature to "a universal blanc," it elevates him above trivial fleshly concerns and causes "Celestial light" to "shine inward" upon him so that, like Tiresias, Homer, and God, he may see the mysteries of the spiritual world and "tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight." And finally, even the syntax in which he speaks of these "things invisible" seems somehow godlike. Certainly the imposition of a Latinate sentence structure on English suggests both supreme confidence and supreme power. Paradise Lost is the "most remarkable Production of the world," Keats dryly decided in one of his more anti-Miltonic moments, because of the way its author forceda "northern dialect" to accommodate itself "to greek and latin inversions and intonations." But not only are Greek and Latin the quintessential languages of masculine scholarship (as Virginia Woolf, for instance, never tired of noting), they are also the languages of the Church, of patristic and patriarchal ritual and theology. Imposed upon English, moreover, their periodic sentences, perhaps more than any other stylistic device in Paradise Lost, flaunt the poet's divine fore-knowledge. When Milton begins a sentence "Him the Almighty," the reader knows perfectly well that only the poet and God know how the sentence—like the verse, the book, and the epic of humanity itself—will come out in the end.

That the Romantics perceived, admired, and occasionally identified with Milton's bardlike godliness while at the same time identifying with Satan's Promethean energy and fortitude is one of the more understandable paradoxes of literary history. Though they might sometimes have been irreligious and radically visionary with Satan, poets like Wordsworth and Shelley were after all fundamentally "masculinist" with Milton, even if they revered Mary Wollstonecraft (as Shelley did) or praised Anne Finch (as Wordsworth did). In this respect, their metaphors for the poet and "his" art are as revealing as Milton's. Both Wordsworth and Shelley, for instance, conceive of the poet as a sort of divine ruler, an "unacknowledged legislator" in Shelley's famous phrase and "an upholder and preserver" in Wordsworth's more conservative words. As such a ruler, a sort of inspired patriarch, he is, like Milton, the guardian and hierophant of sacred mysteries, unalterably opposed to the "idleness and unmanly despair" of the false, effeminate creation. More, he is a virile trumpet that calls mankind to battle, a fiercely phallic sword that consumes its scabbard, and—most Miltonic of all—a godlike "influence which is moved not, but moves," modeled upon Aristotle's Unmoved Mover.

No wonder then that, as Joseph Wittreich puts it, the author of Paradise Lost was "the quintessence of everything the Romantics most admired … the Knower moved by truth alone, the Doer … causing divine deeds to issue forth from divine ideas, the Sayer who translates the divine idea into poetry…. Thus to know Milton was to know the answers to the indistinguishable questions—What is a poet? What is poetry?" Virginia Woolf, living in a world where the dead female poet who was "Judith Shakespeare" had laid aside her body so many times, made the same point in different words: "This is the essence, of which almost all other poetry is the dilution." Such an assertion might seem jubilant if made by a man. But the protean shadow of Milton's bogey seems to darken the page as Woolf writes.

Michael Wilding (essay date 1987)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5941

SOURCE: "Milton's Early Radicalism," in Dragons Teeth: Literature in the English Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1987, pp. 7-27.

[Wilding argues that Milton's democratic radicalism was present in his early work as well as his later writings.]

How radical was the young Milton? Can we find evidence of a political commitment in the poetry associated with his Cambridge years? Is there anything in the early work that looks forward to the revolutionary?

Milton's Poems of 1645 has generally been seen as an unpolitical or apolitical volume, as embodying Milton's youthful poems of the age before the revolution. For those who find the image of Milton the revolutionary politically embarrassing, it is still possible to preserve Milton in the pantheon of great literary, figures, by focusing on this allegedly prepolitical gathering of the "minor poems." The "New Critical" reading of the 1645 volume offered in the commentary by Cleanth Brooks and John E. Hardy, presented a poet shorn of the political. The New Critical, depoliticizing approach to Milton was never as critically exciting as the application of the approach to the metaphysical poets. Milton never became a central figure in new critical practice, despite the earlier essay on "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" in Brooks's The Well Wrought Urn But the negative aspects of the approach, the removal of the socio-political context, had their effect and the Brooks and Hardy readings achieved a pervasive influence.

Louis Martz developed the approach in his elegant essay, "The Rising Poet, 1645."

Here is the picture of a youthful poet, free from adult cares, sometimes wandering alone, amusing himself, sometimes making music for his friends or acquaintances, sometimes writing in his native vein, sometimes evoking a strain from idealized antiquity—but with a light and dancing posture that we do not usually associate with John Milton: et humum vix tetigit pede. It is clear, from many indications, that Milton has designed his book with great care to create this impression.

The entire volume strives to create a tribute to a youthful era now past—not only the poet's own youth, but a state of mind, a point of view, ways of writing, ways of living, an old culture and outlook now shattered by the pressures of maturity and by the actions of political man.

But whereas Brooks and Hardy had essentially ignored the political, Martz presents a political motive behind the nonpolitical impression. He argues that the volume is contrived to present an unpolitical impression, a commitment to "the transcendent values of art" rather than "the political situation."

Meanwhile, the facing title page prepares us for a volume that will contain songs of unlabored elegance, in the recent courtly style: "The Songs were set in Music by Mr. Henry Lawes Gentleman of the Kings Chappel, and one of His Maiesties Private Musick"—a notice quite in line with Moseley's preface, which associates Milton's volume with the poems of Waller that Moseley had published a year before. Waller, as everyone knew, had been exiled for his plot against Parliament on the King's behalf; nevertheless Moseley insists on saying: "that incouragement I have already received from the most ingenious men in their clear and courtious entertainment of Mr. Waller's late choice Peeces, hath once more made me adventure into the World, presenting it with these ever-green, and not to be blasted Laurels." This bland ignoring, or bold confronting, of the political situation, with its emphasis upon the transcendent values of art, is maintained by reprinting here from the 1637 edition, Henry Lawes's eloquent dedication of Milton's Mask to a young nobleman with strong Royalist associations; by the Latin poems in memory of the bishops of Winchester and Ely; by the complimentary writings prefixed to the Latin poems, showing the high regard that Milton had won in Catholic Italy; by Milton's admiration for Manso, the fine old Catholicpatron of Tasso; and by other aspects of the volume, notably the sonnet beginning: "Captain or Colonel, or Knight in Arms, / Whose chance on these defenceless dores may sease." This is not a poem of presumptuous naïveté but of mature awareness, in which the poet, as Brooks and Hardy say, with a "wry humor … contemplates a little ruefully but still with a fine inner confidence, the place of the poet in a jostling world of men at arms."

Immediately certain separations need to be made in Martz's account between Milton's activities and those of his publisher. Martz stresses the Waller connection. Milton may not have known of Moseley's intention, may not have agreed with it, may have gone along with it as many an author has gone along with a publisher's promotional strategy that he or she was not in agreement with. Milton may have tacitly accepted the image Moseley was creating. At the same time, the head-notes to the poems themselves and the arrangement of the volume allow a radical theme to be perceived in the volume. Both Moseley as publisher and Milton as writer would have been aware of the advantages of appealing both to Protestant radicals and to royalist aesthetes: a larger audience than appealing to only one sectarian group. Moseley may have endured Milton's radicalism as Milton may have endured Moseley's conservatism. The permutations are multiple. My point is to stress the multifaceted nature of the 1645 volume. Thomas Corns has argued that the 1645 Poems show Milton engaged in "a further attempt to dissociate himself from the archetypal sectary," an image with which his polemical writings had identified him. "It contains a number of poems which in no way square with his ideological position by 1645, but which serve to restate his social status and aspirations." And Corns concludes

Milton's volume of poetry indicates clearly enough in its maturer items the Puritanism of the poet. Milton draws attention to it. "Lycidas" is introduced as foretelling "the ruine of our corrupted Clergy then in their height" … The abiding impression, however, of any browser selecting this volume in Moseley's bookshop early in 1646 must surely have been of the eminent respectability of its author. Over and over again the volume declares his wealth, his establishment connexions, his contact with European culture, and his scholarship.

Dr Corns is surely right in pointing to the contradictions within the 1645 volume between Milton's gestures at respectability and his gestures at radicalism. In part the contradictions may have been tactical, in part they may have expressed contradictions within Milton's own political thinking. But in exploring these contradictions it is necessary that both the conservative and the radical impulses should be explored. And though the apolitical, conservative, and respectable reference of the 1645 volume has been established, the radical impetus has been comparatively little examined. Christopher Hill has stressed that

Although at the age of seventeen Milton wrote conventional Latin elegies on two bishops, the Vice-Chancellor and the university bedel, he never composed poems to royalty. Edward King, his junior contemporary, between 1631 and 1637 contributed to six collections of Latin verse celebrating royal births, marriages, etc.

But apart from such important negative, contextual evidence, what signs of radicalism can be read in the poems themselves?

When "Lycidas" was reprinted as the culminating item in the English poems in the 1645 volume, it was prefaced by an introductory five lines not present on its first appearance in the memorial volume for Edward King:

In this monody the author bewails a learned friend, unfortunately drowned in his passage from Chester on the Irish Seas, 1637. And by occasion foretells the ruin of our corrupted clergy then in their height.

The first sentence exists in the Trinity manuscript. But the reference to "our corrupted clergy" appears only in the 1645 volume. It is a sentence that draws attention to the radical attack from the Pilot of the Galilean lake:

How well could I have spared for thee, young swain,
Enow of such as for their bellies' sake,
Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?

If the reader of 1638 missed decoding the pastoral, the reader of 1645 could not avoid the denunciation, could not avoid seeing the poet as placed unambiguously with the forces of reform. And the poet's gifts of political prophecy are likewise made unavoidable:

But that two-handed engine at the door,
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.

The attack and the promise of doom were written when the clergy were "then in their height." It is not a convenient piece of hindsight, but a committed exercise of radical foresight. As Haller remarked in The Rise of Puritanism,

The blazing distinction of its author's genius and character has made it difficult for later generations to understand clearly how intimately and completely he was related to his own time. Milton's poem, with its extraordinary denunciation of the prelatical church, has become one of the most admired poems in literature. Yet, it was an expression of the same spirit which had been long making itself heard in the Puritan pulpit and which was at the moment clamoring in the reckless pamphlets of Prynne and Lilburne.

The 1645 superscription draws attention to the apocalyptic political note in "Lycidas." But the careful reader in 1638 as well as in 1645 would have detected a threatening gesture to established order in the poem's opening phrase, "Yet once more …." Brooks and Hardy remark that "Evidently this is not the first time he has come forward with an immature performance, and this is the usual gloss. But, as a number of commentators "have remarked, there is a heavy resonance to "Yet once more," for all its seeming innocuousness. The allusion is to the Epistle to the Hebrews 12: 25-7:

See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven: whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.

Both the King James and the Geneva Bibles make crossreference to Haggai 2: 6-7:

For thus saith the Lord of hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.

The opening phrase, then, establishes the note of doom, of the judgement of the Lord, of the Second Coming. The earth and the heavens will be shaken, and those things that do not stand firm will be removed. And the conclusion of the poem, with Lycidas entertained by

makes an allusion to Revelation 7: 17, "wipe away all tears from their eyes." The references are inescapably apocalyptic. The political pressures about to erupt in the revolution are sensed by the poet-prophet. Doom is spelled out for the corrupt clergy. And the vision of renewal, of the New Jerusalem, is caught in the final line:

Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

The two indisputable points of emphasis in any collection of poems are the opening and closing positions. If we would argue that Milton deliberately used the concluding position to make a radical political assertion with "Lycidas," then it is likely that he would make similar use of the opening position. And we notice there is a brief, situating gloss attached to the title of the first poem of the 1645 volume: 'On the Morning of CHRISTS / Nativity. Compos'd 1629.' Typographically "Compos'd 1629" is presented as part of the title. It does not have the explicit political proclamation of the head-note to "Lycidas," but it clearly makes some proclamation; why else is it there?

The frequent assumption that Milton was somehow apologizing for early work, distancing himself from juvenilia by attaching dates in this volume has never seemed to me persuasive. Milton does not seem the sort of writer to be apologetic. There were a few poems from the Cambridge years not included in the 1645 volume; if he did not feel the poems were adequate to stand alone, then why not leave them with the uncollected? Rather than see the attached date as an apology, we might better see it as a political hint. The date worked into the "Lycidas" head-note, 1637, serves to establish that the poem denounced the clergy at the time of their height and foretold their ruin. The date 1629 puts "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" way back in the prerevolutionary days. And in those days the poet is shown as looking forward to better times to come. We are offered a glimpse of the apocalypse, delayed but promised.

The process has begun. And even though "The babe lies yet in smiling infancy," Milton looks forward to the Cru cifixion, and from the Crucifixion forward again to the Second Coming:

Commentators have remarked how Milton moves from his ostensible theme of the nativity to a vision of apocalypse. What I would stress here are the political uses of apocalypse. Although millenarian beliefs were not confined to the radicals, their expression increasingly implied a revolutionary component. At the time the poem was composed, millenarian speculations were suppressed. Joseph Mede's Key to Revelation had appeared in Latin two years earlier, but no English translation appeared until 1643 when a committee of the House of Commons ordered one. Hill points out that "no vernacular translation of the seminal works on Revelation and Daniel by Brightman, Mede, Pareus or Alsted was published in England until after the meeting of the Long Parliament."

"On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," then, introduces a vernacular glimpse of apocalypse at a historical moment when such visions were suppressed because of their radical Utopian political implications. The poet reminds us of the date. And it is reissued as the opening proclamation to a collection of poems at an historical moment when apocalyptic pronouncements were part of the vanguard of rev olutionary ideology. Between composing and publishing the poem Milton had written that powerful apocalyptic vision concluding Of Reformation Touching Church-Discipline in England (1641), looking forward to:

that day when thou the Etemall and shortly-expected King shalt open the Clouds to judge the severall Kingdomes of the World, and distributing Nationall Honours and Rewards to Religious and just Commonwealths, shalt put an end to all Earthly Tyrannies, proclaiming thy universal and milde Monarchy through Heaven and Earth.

It is a vision that reminds us that apocalyptic imagery was not a "purely literary" matter, nota matter of pure aesthetics. In the context of the 1640s, a vision of apocalypse was a revolutionary vision. And in 1645 the parade of defeated pagan gods invited a reading that allowed an analogy with the parade of defeated bishops, clergy, and courtiers—Strafford, Laud, and the rest of that crew.

That 'arched roof invites a Gothic image. Here we can see the English unpurged church as much as any remote Hellenic ritual, the priest and the cell allowing a ready impression of Roman Catholic leanings.

We are accustomed to the critical procedure that glosses "all-judging Jove" in "Lycidas" as the Christian God. Classical references can be decoded for a contemporary, Christian meaning. It is no remote or illegitimate reading that would see in "consecrated earth" "altars," and "service quaint" a reference to established Anglican ceremonial, the resented altar rather than the table, the quaint idolatrous rituals. As Milton was to write in Of Reformation:

the Table of Communion now become a Table of separation stands like an exalted platforme upon the brow of the quire, fortifi'd with bulwark, and barricado, to keep off the profane touch of the Laicks, whilst the obscene and surfeted Priest scruples not to paw, and mammock the sacramentall bread, as familiarly as his Tavern Bisket.

Peor, and Baalim,
Forsake their temples dim …

English churches are readily referred to as temples particularly if the fetishism of church buildings is being denounced. "O Spirit, that dost prefer / Before all temples the upright heart and pure" Milton was to write in Paradise Lost

Once the pursuit of correspondence is begun, it is hard not to read this as a dismissal of the Roman Catholic cult of Mary.

In vain with timbrelled anthems dark
The sable-stoled sorcerers bear his worshipped ark.

What are these but black surpliced clergy promenading to church music—music so denounced by radical Puritans who held it was the work of Antichrist, introduced by the Pope in 666 AD. And to see this whole "damned crew" "troop to the infernal jail" had an undoubted prophetic touch when the twelve bishops did indeed troop off to jail in the Tower in 1641/2.

This is a contextual reading. The events of the early 1640s draw out a reading that was only prophetically implicit in the Cambridge of 1629. But the arrangement of the 1645 volume encourages the emergence of this reading, not only with the opening poem balancing the explicitly radical attack on the clergy of the concluding poem, but with the two psalms immediately following "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." Again they are prefaced with a temporal headnote. "This and the following Psalm were done by the Author at fifteen years old." There is no need to read in this any apology for immaturity. Psalm 136 has endured more widely than any of Milton's verses through its incorporation and happy popular acceptance in the English hymn book. If any implication of immaturity remains, it is in the context of truth spoken out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, of powerful, irrefutable, prophetic, Christian utterance from the young poet.

Our babe to show his Godhead true,
Can in his swaddling bands control the damned crew

Not a blasphemous assumption of Godhead; but none the less a clear indication of prophetic possession in youth, the year preceding his matriculation at Cambridge. For what is the subject of these two psalms? We tend too readily to pass them by, see them as part of that psalmversifying of Protestant tradition, and disregard their quite specific content.

When the blest seed of Terah's faithful son,
After long toil their liberty had won
(Psalm 114, 1-2)

In bloody battle he brought down
Kings of prowess and renown.
(Psalm 136, 62-3)

In 1634 Milton turned to Psalm 114 again, translating it into Greek hexameters and sending a copy to Alexander Gill. With the victories of the Parliamentary army of 1645, these versions take on a prophetic significance.

To bring out the full political implications of the young Milton's prophetic vision, we need to look at that recurrent image of the Cambridge poems, the music of the spheres. As Arthur Barker remarked, "The force with which this idea struck Milton's imagination is indicated by the fact that from the '[Nativity] Ode' to 'Lycidas' he was almost incapable of writing on a serious subject without introducing the music." In the context of the image of the music of the spheres, the prophetic note takes on an unavoidable millenarian political edge. The lost music can be regained; there can be a new golden age.

Ring out, ye crystal spheres,
Once bless our human ears.

And the poet begs the music to ring out for a quite specific social purpose:

The age of gold is glossed in political terms, not only in moral terms. "Lep'rous sin will melt from earthly mould," but also

Truth, Justice, and Mercy have their undeniable reference to earthly administrations as well as to any larger spiritual context. As J. B. Broadbent remarked, "The second descent, of Mercy, Truth and Justice, has only the abstract effect of a reference to eschatology, because Milton is thinking of political rather than spiritual qualities". And the conclusion of "At a Solemn Music" suggests the achievement of that music on earth prior to the transcending of the material realm:

O may we soon again renew that song,
And keep in tune with Heav'n, till God ere long
To his celestial consort us unite,
To live with him, and sing in endless morn of light.

It might be argued that truth, justice, and mercy are easy abstractions. Is there any social specificity in Milton's vision that would entitle us to see a more fleshed-out incipient radicalism? The description of "the Heav'n-born-child / All meanly wrapp'd in the rude manger" "On the Nativity,"30-l) certainly allows a sympathy for the poor.

Milton was later to use the circumstances of Christ's humble birth to make a radical point. "For notwithstanding the gaudy superstition of som devoted still ignorantly to temples, we may be well assur'd that he who disdaind not to be laid in a manger, disdains not to be preachd in a barn" (Considerations touching the likeliest means to remove hirelings out of the church, 1659). And the vision of the shepherds "Sat simply chatting in a rustic row" again asserts a lowly simplicity. It serves to contrast Christ's heavenly majesty with the humility of his descent to earth, but it serves too to elevate the humble and to devalue the earthly proud; the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Hugh Richmond has remarked on the aesthetic consequences of this note of humility, this rejection of an elitist standpoint.

The theme of a saviour "All meanly wrapt in the rude manger" encourages in Milton a quaint particularity more characteristic of the humble craftsman than the sophisticated academic … the virtues admired in "On the Nativity" derive from this modest recognition of the Christian rhythm: its acceptance of the humble, quaint, discontinuous nature of experience, which gave the art of anonymous medieval craftsmen a vivid particularity denied to the arid theorizing of the pretentious Schoolmen. Few but scholars and specialists now regularly read even an Aquinas, while millions still delight in the statuary and paintings of the forgotten artisans who were his contemporaries.

Although, as Milton wrote in the vacation exercise of 1628, "my hand has never grown horny with driving the plough … I was never a farm hand at seven or laid myself down full length in the midday sun," he did not fail to remind himself in The Reason of Church-government Urg'd against Prelaty (1641) that "ease and leasure was given thee for thy retired thoughts out of the sweat of other men." Against the often-presented image of the élitist Milton, we need to reassert his stress on Christ's humble birth, on the simplicity of the shepherds, on the simple manual labour of Adam and Eve, contrasted with the tyrannical pomp of Satan's authoritarian regime in Paradise Lost.

So far we have stressed the threatening aspect of the apocalyptic note, the warnings of doom on the ungodly. But the vision of the Second Coming was a vision of universal peace. And so in "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity"

No war, or battle's sound
Was heard the world around …

Rosemond Tuve has stressed the theme of peace in the poem:

Encouraged to do so by Milton's own unifying use of great ancient images towards one thematic end, we could make shift to indicate the theme of this nativity hymn in two symbolic words: our peace. Only, however, if they are understood to carry all those wide and deep meanings he has gathered in, touching the redemption of all nature from guilty error, reconciliation and restored participation in the divine harmony, and final union with the divine light; traditional in poetry and liturgy of the season, these were to Milton most familiarly accepted and most natural in the form given them in the New Testament epistles.

But in noting "all those wide and deep meanings" gathered around peace, Miss Tuve ignores the political. Yet a vision of peace is of course a political vision. It cuts across those vested power-interests that need and create and maintain war. The political context is presented clearly enough by Milton; the implements of warfare—the products of organized political societies—are stressed:

It is organized warfare that is alluded to; not just spear and shield but the chariot, product of a technological state; not something that can be dismissed as a small brawl, but "the armed throng." And the political organization behind the warfare now brought to a halt is spelled out as monarchy:

And kings sat still with awful eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.

They sit there still before the wand of peace. Their reactions are not shown; the blankness of their portrayal is indication enough that Milton could not spell out what had happened to them, a lack of comment that indicates the inexpressible anti-monarchical feeling. In times of press censorship and severe repression, it is the negative evidence that we need to turn to. When monarchy appears again in the poem it is in connection with the Satanic reaction to the beginning of the new age:

It is a kingdom; and the phrase "usurped sway" evokes the idea of other usurping kings; the Norman Yoke, that imposition of tyranny on the English people by the usurping power of William the Conqueror, one of the most powerful radical images of the revolutionary and pre-revolutionary period.

To find political radicalism in the non-prophetic early poems as well as in the prophetic ones would strengthen our case. "L'Allegro" seems an initially unlikely locus for the political: but the force with which the political has been denied here suggests a significant repression.

Come, and trip it as you go
On the light fantastic toe,
And in thy right hand lead with thee,
The mountain nymph, sweet Liberty;
And if I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew
To live with her, and live with thee,
In unreproved pleasures free …

It is hard to see how "sweet Liberty" could be construed as anything other than liberty. It is not luxury or licence or anything pejorative. It is a positive value that has an unavoidable political meaning. Switzerland, that Protestant mountainous stronghold of religious freedom, may be implied. Yet Cleanth Brooks in his influential essay in The Well Wrought Urn dismisses this natural reading:

If, under the influence of Milton's later political career, we tend to give Liberty any political significance, we find her in "L'Allegro" in very strange company, consorting with

Jest and youthful Jollity
Quips and Cranks, and wanton Wiles
Nods, and Becks, and Wreathed smiles …

Sport that wrincled Care derides
And Laughter holding both his sides.

But the passage Brooks quotes precedes the introduction of "Liberty"; jest, jollity, quips, and cranks are presented as the qualities or companions of Mirth. Liberty is a more serious quality that Milton distinguishes from Mirth. Brooks offers no argument for his rejection of the political reading of liberty here. He implies that a knowledge of Milton's later career pollutes the reading, but liberty would have meant liberty whatever Milton's later career. And the introduction of Dr Johnson does not clinch Brooks's case. "Dr Johnson, always on the alert to ruffle up at the presence of Milton's somewhat aggressively republican goddess, does not betray any irritation at the presence of Liberty here." That Dr Johnson made no political interpretation here does not preclude such an interpretation. Brooks went on to make another distortion that has proved remarkably influential in later readings:

The first scene is a dawn scene—sunrise and people going to work: the ploughman, the milkmaid, the mower, and the shepherd. But though we see people going to work, we never see them at their work.

But when we turn to that first scene, Brooks's case simply falls down:

While the ploughman near at hand,
Whistles o'er the furrowed land,
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his scythe,
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale.

Stanley Fish has pointed to the pervasive ambiguity of syntax and image and reference in "L'Allegro" and "II Penseroso." What Brooks did was to accentuate one aspect of the ambiguous and repress the other. The phrases in the poem that can be read as indicating people going to work can as readily be interpreted as accounts of their being engaged in work. The ploughman who "whistles o'er the furrowed land" may be whistling across a ploughed field on his way to work; or the whistles may express the song of his labour and the speed with which he is ploughing. The milkmaid who "singeth blithe" may as readily be singing while she works as not. The shepherd who "tells his tale" can be telling a tale while keeping an eye on the sheep; or he may be counting them, telling his sheep, keeping tally. The clinching case is the mower who "whets his scythe." Cleanth Brooks writes as if the sharpening of the scythe was not work, but some relaxed occupation of the mower's leisure time. But the scythe has to be constantly resharpened, and the whetting is part of the rhythm and activity of mowing as much as the strokes cutting the grass.

The work presented is joyous. In "L'Allegro" labour is delight. It is a vision like William Morris's haymaking in News from Nowhere; fulfilling, enjoyable. Yet the exhausting quality of the labour is not repressed: this is not a false or purely decorative pastoral. To read of

Mountains on whose barren breast
The labouring clouds do often rest

is to be reminded of the hardship of physical rural labour, of the need for rest, of the harshness of the places of rest available to the labourer. When we are shown the cottage "hard by" the towers and battlements, the "hard" picks up the "barren breast" of the mountains on which the "labouring clouds … rest" to remind us of the hard life of the cottager; its implications spread into the cottage life, not the castle or crenellated manor-house. And it is not easy to see how labour can be evacuated from the picture of the cottagers

Hard by, a cottage chimney smokes,
From betwixt two aged oaks,
Where Corydon and Thyrsis met,
Are at their savoury dinner set
Of herbs, and other country messes,
Which the neat-handed Phillis dresses;
And then in haste her bower she leaves,
With Thestylis to bind the sheaves;
Or if the earlier season lead
To the tanned haycock in the mead …

Brooks comments "we do not accompany them to the haycock, nor do we feel the sun which tans it." But the demands of labour cannot that easily be denied. The emphatic present tense stresses the present activity of dressing the dinner and rushing off to work; the "haste" with which Phillis leaves the bower to bind the sheaves emphatically stresses a hurried meal, hurried because of the pressing demand of labour; and the alternative "or if the earlier season lead" similarly stresses that whatever season there is pressing work. There is always some demand.

As a result of his case, Brooks has to distort the poem further by treating unambiguous images of labour as somehow exceptions. He writes:

Nobody sweats in the world of "L'Allegro"—except the goblin:

(Perhaps it is overingenious to suggest that in this scene—the only depiction of strenuous activity in the poem—Milton has "cooled" it off by making the flail "shadowy," by presenting it as part of a night scene, and by making the labourer, not a flesh-and-blood man, but a goblin. And yet the scene has been carefully patterned: it is balanced by the passage in "II Penseroso," where the spectator having taken refuge from the sun listens

While the Bee with Honied thie,
… at her flowry work doth sing …

Goblins and bees are the only creatures presented "at work" in the two poems.)

But rather than excepting goblins and bees, we might more profitably see them as thematic reinforcements of the image of labour. All nature labours: human male and female—ploughman and milkmaid; the labouring clouds; the insect world, the bee, type and reminder of human social labour here as in Marvell's "The Garden"; and the supernatural world. Labour is not something separate from life, either here, or in Adam and Eve's gardening labour in Eden, or in the description of God as "my great taskmaster" in "Sonnet 7."

The significance of Brooks's denial of the presence of labouring activity in "L'Allegro" is brought into political focus by some comments of Raymond Williams in The Country and the City:

The whole result of the fall from paradise was that instead of picking easily from an all-providing nature, man had to earn his bread in the sweat of his brow; that he incurred, as a common fate, the curse of labour. What is really happening, in Jonson's and Carew's celebrations of a rural order, is an extraction of just this curse, by the power of art: a magical recreation of what can be seen as a natural bounty and then a willing charity: both serving to ratify and bless the country landowner, or, by a characteristic reification, his house. Yet this magical extraction of the curse of labour is in fact achieved by a simple extraction of the existence of the labourers. The actual men and women who rear the animals and drive them to the house and kill them and prepare them for meat; who trap the pheasants and partridges and catch the fish; who plant and manure and prune and harvest the fruit trees; these are not present; their work is all done for them by a natural order. When they do at last appear, it is merely as the "rout of rural folke" or, more simply, as "much poore" …

It is this extraction of the existence of the rural labourers in the representative rural poetry of the early seventeenth century that Milton confronts and resists. Brooks attempts to subsume "L'Allegro" to this dominant, quasi-pastoral, patrician, land-owning vision. And his attempt to do so when detected reveals the politics of Milton's vision more clearly. The labourers are present; indeed, the labourers are introduced before the landowners, gentry, and aristocrats are encountered in the poem. The labour of the rural workers is recognized, given a dignity and an aesthetic beauty in commemoration, and its hardships acknowledged. The human basis for Milton's stand against the forces of oppression—bishops, monarchs, all the figures of power and authority that he confronted—lies here in a recognition and sympathy for the labouring class.

And "labour and intent study" are the destined lot of the prophetic poet. Inspiration works dialectically with the medium; the medium needs to have a store of knowledge and a developed wisdom, across which inspiration can play. Describing the first steps in his decision to become a writer, Milton recalled in The Reason of Church-Government Urg'd Against Prelaty that, encouraged by the response his early poems had received from members of the private Academies of Italy,

I began thus farre to assent both to them and divers of my friends here at home, and not lesse to an inward prompting which now grew daily upon me, that by labour and intent study (which I take to be my portion in this life) joyn'd with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die.

Labour and intent study and inward prompting—the Protestant drive. And prophetic millenarianism has a long tradition of radical, revolutionary associations. The surprise would be if Milton's prophetic apocalyptic note were unpolitical. The repression of apocalyptic commentary under Laud was from a recognition of its revolutionary potential. In that time of brutal censorship, the political had to be expressed covertly, in literary code. By 1645 the political situation had changed and the code could be openly translated. From that perspective we can rediscover the radicalism of Milton's earlier years.

Catherine Gimelli Martin (essay date 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6878

SOURCE: "Demystifying Disguises: Adam, Eve, and the Subject of Desire," in Renaissance Discourses of Desire, University of Missouri Press, 1993, pp. 237-58.

[Martin explores the role of desire in Milton's depictions of Paradise.]

One of the chief innovations in Milton's conception of paradise is his frank acceptance of desire as an essential and inalienable attribute of the human condition. Free of "dishonest shame," Adam and Eve need neither the "mere shows of seeming pure" nor any of the other "troublesome disguises which wee wear." Yet not merely the "Hypocrites austere" the poet condemns for "defaming as impure what God declares / Pure," but many modern readers also question the innocence of this portrayal of uninhibited "connubial Love." What seems to be "free to all"—desire—may not be free and, in fact, has been interpreted as something less than pure and more than patriarchal, as the mystified voice of patriarchy itself.

In fact, though Adam demanded, and God seemed to grant, a consort fit "to participate / All rational delight," our first view of the human pair suggests that they are unequal, "as thir sex not equal seem'd." However, since this observation is conveyed not only through the potentially misleading verb of "seeming," but actually through the eyes of Satan himself, many of the poem's more sympathetic readers have been inclined to reject these "appearances" as deceptive. Yet unfortunately for this line of defense, all else that Satan observes about our "Grand Parents" turns out to be accurate not only from his own but from the narrator's point of view. If we are to dispute the inequality he attributes to Eve, then we must doubt both that she and Adam are "Lords of all," since they only seem so, and also suppose that Satan's gaze is no more correct in observing how they are formed than how they seem. Furthermore, although both male and female merely seem worthy of the image of their maker, it is their "seeming" to reflect this image that allows them to be "plac't" in "true filial freedom," while their purported inequality is reinforced by the description of Eve being "form'd" for "softness" and "sweet attractive grace," Adam "for contemplation … and valor." Finally, since Satan's observations prove especially reliable whenever his success is at stake, and since his observations here are not only useful to his plans but mixed with an unfeigned if ambivalent sense of admiration, it seems most plausible to assume that not merely his torment but his gaze is sharpened as he spies upon the pair, seeing

Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,
Godlike erect, with native Honor clad
In naked Majesty seem'd Lords of all,
And worthy seem'd, for in thir looks Divine
The image of thir glorious Maker shone,
Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude severe and pure,
Severe, but in true filial freedom plac't;
Whence true autority in men; though both
Not equal, as thir sex not equal seem'd;
For contemplation hee and valor form'd,
For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace,
He for God only, shee for God in him.

Whatever the conflicting connotations of the verbs in this passage, their ultimate effect is to confirm the ironically appropriate inconsistency of Satan's gaze, a gaze not fundamentally different from our own. Sharing some of his dis-ease but also his awe, we are thus led into a paradisal paradox without any "seeming" resolution.

At the heart of this paradox lie the unresolved questions of whether Eve's weaker attributes can be reconciled with her full reflection of God's image, and whether her belatedness also implies a secondariness in dignity and power. The centrality of these issues is further stressed by the fact that the observation of her inherent "softness" is immediately followed and seemingly summarized by the most decisive statement of the difference between the two, their sequential and apparently subordinationist creation, "He for God only, Shee for God in Him." If this difference is taken literally, what, if anything, can remain of their "true filial freedom"; does it not thereby become an empty technicality, or even a covert form of domination that, as Christine Froula concludes, not only "transsexualizes" Eve's autonomous desire, but also serves as a means of "silencing and voiding … female creativity"? However, like the defense of Edenic desire that would dismiss Satan's "seeming" point of view entirely, an unproblematic acceptance of this point of view—which requires dismissing Eve entirely—raises as many problems as it resolves. Like a large number of the solutions proposed both by Milton's detractors and his defenders, Froula's account omits many of the epic's actual ambiguities by drawing upon inherited assumptions about the "orthodoxly" Puritan, patriarchal poet and, consequently, about the uniform, didactic purpose supposedly informing what is actually an unconventional, evolutionary epic. Yet just as surely as Milton's Eden contrasts with the conventionally static Paradise, his portrayal of the "yet sinless" Adam and Eve resists the conventional treatment by emphasizing the constant alteration, development, and reciprocity of capacities that belong at once to general human subjects and to specific male and female prototypes.

Thus any atemporal reading of this "allegory of desire" tends to ignore how the poem exploits traditional, even courtly models of male and female subjectivity only to subvert them, just as it exploits Edenic gates and boundaries primarily to subordinate them to individual choice. As Adam's "sudden apprehension" reveals in the aftermath of Eve's "tainted" dream, even Satan's most forceful incursions into Eden can easily be undone by the willing subject: "Evil into the mind of God or Man / May come and go, so unapprov'd, and leave / No spot or blame behind." Similarly, God's provisions for "advent'rous Eve" are not only ambiguous but also ultimately impermanent. Although she is initially depicted as the vine to Adam's elm, she later proves more of a quester, at least in the physical, heroic sense, than he is, while he takes on the guiding and corrective functions that Spenser would assign a feminine "conscience" or soul like Una's. In this way not only are both sexes "transsexualized," but the substitutions and transferences of this process are never stabilized into a new hierarchy. A dialectic of assertion and subversion is finally the most characteristic element of the landscape and life of this paradise; and in spite of the intimate connections between the former and the latter, no permanent alteration in matter or spirit ever occurs that is not subject to the reversal implicit in the free act of the desiring subject. Hence, lacking Eve's permission, Satan proves no Archimago; he can impose on her only the most transitory and ultimately unreal loss, a mere inquietude. Correspondingly, since all Edenic boundaries exist primarily to mark the threshold of choice, not of purity or contamination, its gender roles like its other "barriers" characteristically remain "virtue proof because—not in spite of—the potentially "errant" suggestions that surround them.

For these as well as a number of related reasons, the paradisal paradox can only be untangled by emphasizing that although the epic portrayal of gender (as of all physical appearances) grants each a power and a dignity of their own, the poem's characteristic mode of emblematic outline and qualification, statement and revision, ultimately depicts Eve's subjection to Adam's authority as more apparent than real. "Impli'd" but not coerced, even the most fundamental precept of her submission—that it be "requir'd with gentle sway"—remains open to her own as well as to Adam's interpretation. In fact, the multiple meanings of "requir'd" underscore the ambiguity of Milton's interpretation of biblical headship (1 Cor. 11:3-10; Eph. 5:23) in ways that make the verbal qualifications surrounding this "sway" far more meaningful than those surrounding "seeming." To require can mean either to request or to exact, but since the "yet sinless" Eve is not always "submiss," the former, not the latter sense predominates. Similarly, her emblematic role as Adam's vine fails to limit her to a largely passive or decorative function; while she may (and does) choose simply to complement his "masculine" sturdiness, she equally may and does choose to surpass and enthrall this "elm." Yet these like the poem's other vicissitudes are no more "tainted" than Eve's dream. While many critics have condemned this along with other aspects of her supposedly coy or flirtatious femininity, the variety of her moods, like the various walks and "seasons" of Eden, and like the "sweet reluctant amorous delay" with which she responds to Adam, supply an ambiguity necessary not only to the representation of her own freedom, but to that which she shares with all God's creation. The conditionality of her response and its complex potential for acceptance, withdrawal, or both, is the source and warrant of its independence as well as of its "attractive grace." Significantly, then, while J. Hillis Miller objects to Eve's admixture of "coy submission" and "modest pride," qualities that for him suggest a "wantonness" too experienced for innocence, he cannot help noting that it effectively places "her above Adam or outside his control and identifies her with Milton's independent power of poetry. Eve's curly tendrils imply independence as well as subjection."

Yet if these observations cast considerable doubt upon Froula's charge that "Eve is not a self, a subject at all; she is rather a substanceless image, a mere 'shadow' without object until the voice unites her to Adam," in some respects the human pair does appear to be separate and not equal in away that clearly implies Eve's inferiority. Although both receive "true autority" in reflecting their maker's "Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude severe and pure," Adam seems the more exact copy, as the contemplation of "His fair large Front and Eye" declare. As noted above, Eve's gifts seem considerably less: softness, sweetness, attractiveness and Grace, even if the latter is taken to include spiritual as well as physical gifts. If this in turn implies a relay system of sexual authority and desire whereby Adam is made for God and Eve for God-in-him, the "part-ness" of his partner can in fact be taken as literally as Froula does. Must Eve interpret her creator only through Adam, or even worship him only through him—a seemingly idolatrous possibility? Furthermore, if she independently understands the will of the "presence Divine" directly, why does she so often need Adam's guidance, even in interpreting her own dream? In order accurately to define the nature of Eve's "subjection" to the God-in-him and the nature of a difference posed as a series of continuities-within-difference—as Eve's loose tendrils, for instance, at once repeat and modify the "manly clusters" of Adam's hair—we must then turn to the archetypal descriptions of awakening life to which Froula also turns: Eve's creation narrative in book 4, and Adam's parallel narrative in book 8. Only here and in what follows can we discover the cumulative effect of comparing Adam to Eve as contemplation to Grace, as clusters to tendrils, truth to quest, and finally, as vision to revision—comparisons that on at least three occasions relate them not only to each other, but to Raphael and finally to the whole heavenly order.

Although Eve relates the story of her awakening consciousness first, this fact need not, as several feminist critics remind us, grant it any kind of priority. First and last, like "Great / Or Bright infers not Excellence," as Raphael is at some pains to teach Adam. And while Adam finally understands what Eve earlier had "suddenly apprehended," that "to know / That which before us lies in daily life, / Is the prime Wisdom," Raphael's implicit approval of her reliance on experience over abstraction, like his mild disapproval of Adam's more abstract "roving," fails wholly to elevate her form of apprehension over his. As book 9 will make abundantly clear, not only do both modes have their dangers, but each is tied to clear-cut sexual differences that Raphael's ritual hailing of the pair reinforces. Playing upon his name, Raphael greets Adam as more than clay, as a creature fit to invite "Spirits of Heaven." Eve is on the other hand hailed as a type of Mary, "Mother of Mankind, whose fruitful Womb / Shall fill the World." The implication here is that Adam is intrinsically closer to the Spirits of Heaven, and Eve to her nursery, for whose "tendance" she leaves the discourse on astronomy. Hence once again the apparent mutuality of gender roles appears to dissolve into what Froula terms the "ontological hierarchy" of Paradise Lost.

However, this hierarchy is again modified or "corrected" by Raphael's narration of Satan's fall. The moral of this story is that "filial freedom" is opposed to the rigid "Orders and Degrees" that Satan upholds in the spurious name of "liberty" and depends instead upon an acceptance of difference. Since Adam's role in regard to Eve is far less priestly or exalted than that which Satan envied in the Son, both humans uttering prayers "unanimous," we must then question if their difference can also be a form of freedom, if not of equality as we have come to know it. This problem is magnified by the tremendous evolution in recent concepts of equality. As Joseph Wittreich points out in Feminist Milton, earlier female readers were likely to interpret gender differences as "evidence of distinction, not inequality"; early feminists, too, generally supported a concept of male and female mutuality in which "ideally their different qualities blend." For modern feminists after Freud, however, difference signifies domination. Thus for Froula, the whole point of the temporal priority of Eve's birth narration is to subsume it in Adam's; to inculcate the idea that "Eve can only 'read' the world in oneway, by making herself the mirror of the patriarchal authority of Adam." The mothering waters of the lake to which Eve is intuitively drawn, like her own reflected image, are thus canceled by the "invisible voice" that leads her to Adam, the voice at once of God/Adam/Milton and Patriarchy.

Yet as suggested above, this interpretation fails to account for the full scope of the mirroring process that connects Adam to Eve as vitally as Eve to her lake. In this process a recognition of difference precedes one of continuity, which in both narratives is represented as a gradual series of differentiations and corrections. The uniformity of this process is underscored by the fact that Eve's awakening response is not in fact to her own reflection, but like Adam's, to the questions surrounding her existence: "what I was, when thither brought, and how." Her next response is to a "murmuring sound / Of waters" that brings her to "a liquid Plain … Pure as th' expanse of Heav'n." Already aware of the existence of the Heavens, which symbolize the mental orientation of both human genders, her fascination with their replication both beneath and above her then causes her to seek an answering existence. While unlike Adam she finds this in the form of her own reflection, which Narcissus-like responds with "looks / Of sympathy and love," Eve is an unfallen anti- Narcissus who, as she later acknowledges, is merely "unexperienc't." Unlike the conceited creature who prefers self-absorption to another's love, but like the child of Lacan's mirror stage, initially incapable of separating self (the form recumbent on the green bank) from Other (reflection, watery womb, or Mother), and like Adam, she needs an external stimulus, God's voice, to help her make this distinction and hail her into the symbolic order. In this respect Eve provides an archetypal model of awakening consciousness fully as much as Adam does; her "hailing" into the symbolic order, like his, initiates her disand re-union with a creature like herself ("whose image thou art,") but without any confusion or shadow-barrier between them.

Entering the landscape of names/language/difference, Eve thus gains a new title and position, "Mother of human Race." This title, along with the acceptance and the renunciation it implies, exalts more than it limits her, since it allies her with the Son. Like him, she becomes an example of the interdependence of growth and sacrifice: both are able to reflect the Father's creative design only by renouncing self-love, yet both are appropriately rewarded by achieving the potential to produce "Multitudes like thyself," not merely like the Father or Adam. Hence, just as the Son's descent "to assume / Man's Nature" neither lessens nor degrades his own but grants him even greater equality with God, "equally enjoying / God-like fruition," so Eve can enjoy "God-like fruition" only by quitting her virgin, self-mirroring independence. In return she, too, gains restoration and exaltation within an expanded mirroring process, the potential for limitless reflexivity in the space of Edenic marriage, an exchange of desire mat is alone fecund.

Hence the poet's striking revision, in fact reversal, of the Narcissus myth also illuminates his use of pagan images to describe Eve in another controversial passage, when Adam on Eve

Smil'd with superior Love, as Jupiter
On Juno smiles, when he impregns the Clouds
That shed May Flowers; and press'd her Matron lip
With kisses pure …

This, too, suggests that love, like life itself, can be created only by the alternation of similarity with difference—as when God "conglob'd / Like things to like, the rest to several place / Disparted." Extending the metaphor, Adam and Eve may be understood as a primally innocent Jove and Juno "disparted" from all negative connotation, representatives of the masculine and feminine principles of sunbeam and cloud, male seed and female mist mingling in a flowerlike, gentle form of "sway." The sun shines down on the cloud for purposes of propagation inseparable from sexual delight, but inseparable also from the mysterious, asexual process of equality-within-difference imaged by Father and Son. Yet here we must once again address our recurrent problem; if Eve is represented as Son/Juno/cloud, the necessary principle of reception and nurture, then perhaps, as Mary Nyquist proposes, her desire is after all secondary: her-story actually a his-story of learning the "value of submitting desire to the paternal law." Continuing to weigh these stories, then, as to whether they blend into a kind of ur-story, we must next turn to Adam's reminiscences to Raphael in book 8 to see what actual limitations are imposed on Eve's desires by their different births.

Adam's first sensation, unlike Eve's, is tactile. While it is natural enough for him first to feel the sunlight on his skin, given that he awakes in sunlight, Eve in shade, this difference again suggests that Adam is to Eve as strong "male" light of the Sun to shaded "female" light of the Moon. However, the passage primarily serves to emphasize that Adam's natural affiliation, like Eve's, is with the heavens; the sun causes him to look upward much as the reflection of the heavenly expanse led her to gaze downward. In both cases a sensation of touch or sound motivates their sight, and causes them to assume the "Godlike erect" inclination they share with the angels. This is the essence not of Adam's but of their kind, which "upright with Front Serene" displays a "Sanctity of Reason" made "to correspond with Heav'n." Like the Son worshiping equally "with heart and voice and eyes," the love they render the Father like that they give each other is the exclusive prerogative of neither. Yet as the contrast between their awakening in shade or sunlight and then gazing either upward or downward also suggests, the organs of "voice and eyes" are experienced differently by male and female. Eve is led upon her awakening from sounds to sights, and thence back again to the invisible voice. Adam, on the other hand, is led from tactile sensations to gaze at the "ample Sky," and finally to see a "shape Divine" in his dream. So marked is his preference for the organ of sight that he even represents the "liquid Lapse of murmuring Streams" as what he saw.

Yet with an alternation characteristic of the poem, Adam's next impulse reasserts his analogy to Eve. Seeking a creature with an answering face, he searches among all

Creatures that liv'd, and mov'd, and walk'd, or flew,
Birds on the branches warbling: all things smil'd,
With fragrance and with joy my heart o'erflow'd.
Myself I then perus'd, and Limb
by Limb Survey'd…. ……
But who I was, or where, or from what cause,
Knew not;

First stopping to survey himself, Adam's attempt to find an answering reflection of life does not then focus, as does Eve's, on his own image, although his motive seems the same: to find a living being who will return his gaze and fill his void. Moreover, his attempts like Eve's are at once enabling and impairing; although he immediately perceives his difference from the creatures who smile back at him, and thus passes more spontaneously from the Imaginary to the Symbolic stage, his difficulty in locating the Law's source—the Father himself—is actually greater than hers. Attempting to answer the questions that also trouble Eve, "who I was, or where, or from what cause," he appeals to the Sun and Earth: "ye that live and move, fair Creatures, tell / Tell, if ye saw, how came I thus, how here?" Eve's affinity both with the sounds of creation and her own body is, taken as a whole, inadequate; but Adam's sense of difference and alienation is, if anything, more so. The natural response of neither is sufficient to identify themselves or their creator; without direct revelation from God to Eve through his voice, to Adam through his vision, both would be come idolaters either of Mother Goddess or Father Sun.

Thus, these narratives show Adam and Eve erring in related but inverse directions. Adam attempts to "read" nature sheerly through tactile and visual stimuli and through analytic comparisons that allow him more rapidly to develop his symbolic consciousness. He questions his existence through rational contemplation, which allows him to conclude that his being is "Not of myself; by some great Maker then, / In Goodness and power preeminent." Eve is also led to make comparisons but relies more on auditory sensations and on analogies rather than differences between inner and outer, higher and lower forms: her interest in the lake is prompted by the fact that it seems both a "liquid plain" and "another Sky." Yet if Adam is led by his sight, both physical and rational, into a more immediate entrance into the rational-symbolic order, Eve is equally adept in intuiting that her existence is alternately material and spiritual, just as the watery elements of earth and sky are alternately watery plain and fluid heavenly expanse. Neither Adam nor Eve is able to perceive the Deity unaided; God must intercept both Adam's confused search ("thus I call'd, and stray'd I knew not whither,") and Eve's pining with "vain desire." Adam is more dramatically depicted as seeking and conversing with his Maker, but only in a dream, and dream and voice are generally regarded as equivalent modes of prophetic knowledge. In any case, these modes reverse in books 9 and 10, where God speaks to Eve in a dream, to Adam through the prophetic voice of Michael.

Since analogy as well as difference is stressed in these scenes, it is not surprising that the first decree of the "shape Divine" is strictly parallel, if gender specific. The Father names Eve "Mother of human Race" and Adam the "First Man, of Men innumerable ordain'd / First Father." Following this, it is true, Adam is explicitly instructed in the uses and prohibitions of his garden, initiating a dialogue between Adam and his creator not later granted Eve. We must assume, however, that Adam instructs Eve in their joint authority over Eden, since Eve unequivocally considers the garden her responsibility, and since God declares both "authors to themselves in all." Most significantly, neither Adam nor Eve knows God by any name more explicit than "Whom thou sought'st I am," an obvious variant of the Mosaic "I am that I am." Adam's question concerning intimate address, "O by what Name, … how may I / Adore thee," is never answered; Adam and Eve are to know the "author" through whom they become authors of mankind only through verbs of being and through spontaneous dialogue, listening, response, and vision. The Puritan poet carefully resists any suggestion of Adam's priestly functions in regard either to divine worship or to the prohibitions this authority could sanction. Nor is God's fatherly instruction of Eve actually less than of Adam, even if it occurs offstage. As Adam describes his first sight of her to Raphael,

With "Heav'n in her Eye" Adam must acknowledge Eve his sister as well as spouse, "one Flesh, one Heart, one Soul." The name he gives her, "Woman," is not her name in the personal but only in the generic sense; Adam has wit enough to recognize his own species. Eve's name is no more "Woman" than Adam's is "Man"; titles are hardly names. It is only by a considerable distortion of the text, then, that Froula claims that God "soothes Adam's fears of female power … by bestowing upon Adam 'Dominion' over the fruits of this creation through authorizing him to name the animals and Eve." Far from subtracting from her female power, Eve's auditory response to the symbolic order forms a necessary complement to Adam's visual mode.

Yet even if we can assert that Adam lacks the complete authority over Eve that Froula claims he has, and if, by now, it is clear that their difference is one of degree and not of kind, a final charge of the feminist critique of the hierarchy of Edenic desire remains to be addressed. Eve's more guided transition from the Imaginary to the Symbolic stage, her greater reliance on the intuitive, responsive ear as opposed to Adam's rational, active eye, appear in fact to suggest that Milton, like Freud, traces a "progress in spirituality" that places the female sex on a lower evolutionary rung. And this objection could in fact be supported, had not the Christian poet set a much higher value than Freud upon the primacy of the Imaginary, which for him performs an intuitive, wholistic communion with the body of a universe he insists is divine, and had not Eve's greater access to this communion actually granted her a source of authority fully equivalent—and hence potentially even superior—to Adam's. In this respect Froula, too, must accord Eve abilities that are more than merely complementary; she remarks that while "Adam's need to possess Eve is usually understood as complemented by her need for his guidance, [yet] … Milton's text suggests a more subtle and more compelling source for this need: Adam's sense of inadequacy in face of what he sees as Eve's perfection."

However, Froula sees Adam's "alienation from his body" and even from God not as parallel to the sense of inadequacy Eve also feels, but as the direct cause of his subjugation of her. This view is challenged by the fact that Eve's ability to arrange thoughts and words, not merely domestic delights, clearly surpasses Adam's in a way that he finds both sustaining and inspiring. In highly cadenced and evocative blank verse, she turns her love for him into what James Turner calls an "aria," eighteen lines that have "the grace and recapitulative pattern of an Elizabethan sonnet." The author and not merely the singer of the piece, her voice is as authentic as her verse original; she creates a form that claims Adam as the demystified object of her own desire. Not Adam's "coy mistress" forever eluding him on the banks of an Edenic Umber, she is the sonneteer praising him because "With thee conversing I forget all time." Inverting Marvell's clever carpe diem to his lady, this lady seizes the day and the object of a desire to which she is also subject. Hierarchy is undermined by role reversal, which, as Turner notes, blurs "the usual division of faculties into 'male' and 'female' ; … [Milton's] Eve is more logocentric and intelligent than the conventional treatment, and his Adam, even in his prime, more emotionally susceptible."

Yet the implications of Eve's invention are broader still. She concludes her aria with a question suggested by the theme of her composition; tracing the course of an Edenic day, its "seasons and thir change," she wonders what the purpose of the most mysterious of these changes, the procession of "glittering Star-light," might mean: "But wherefore all night long shine these, for whom / This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes?" Adam is immediately aware both of the skill of her song and the importance of this question; addressing her as "Daughter of God and Man, accomplisht Eve," his reply supplies "manly" balance to her poetic skill as he offers a "hymn" to God's providence. Yet neither here nor elsewhere does his authority silence Eve; it only complements hers. Further, his conjecture that the stars "shine not in vain" is in turn supplanted by a higher authority, and what this authority reveals combines as it elevates the male and female responses to creation. Before informing them of the several possible arrangements of the universe and even hinting at the possibility of life on other planets, Raphael cautions that although experiential knowledge may at times exceed abstract, all forms of knowledge, in fact all life, are ultimately relative. Each should "Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid," but instead invest their energies in affairs closer to hand—not because of any divine prohibition or even because of the threat now posed by Satan, but because human understanding like the human body itself will be refined by obedience, so that in "tract of time" the human couple may become "Ethereal, as wee." At this point they would enjoy not only the intuitive understanding of the angels, but also their fully unencumbered sexual freedom, which can "either Sex assume, or both." Yet Raphael also acknowledges that their present state is not lacking sufficient perfection that they might then actually prefer to continue their earthly existence; no simple value can be attached to the process of "rising" in and for itself.

However, Raphael's final, private discourse with Adam also offers the most problematic representation of the poem's hierarchy of desire. Although seeming to agree with Adam in his opinion of Eve as "resembling less / His Image who made both, and less expressing / The character of that Dominion giv'n / Oe'r other Creatures," he adds that Adam's ambivalence as to whether Eve corresponds to this, or to his other view of her "As one intended first, not after made / Occasionally," lies in his own perceptions, not in Nature. Yet Raphael never precisely reveals what "Nature" dictates concerning Eve's role; he simply warns against "attributing overmuch to things less excellent" (emphasis supplied). Since these "things" refer neither to Eve nor to her accomplishments per se but only to her "fair outside," Raphael suggests that Adam can best appreciate and guide her by weighing her merits against his. Even this vaguely patriarchal advice must, however, in turn be weighed against its broader context, one in which the entire discussion between Adam and Raphael mirrors those previously initiated between Adam and Eve. As the prelude to Eve's sonnet included a didactic statement of obedience, a summation of the Pauline doctrine of headship—"what thou bidd'st / Unargu'd I obey; so God ordains, / God is thy law, thou mine"—so Adam now mimics Eve's procedure in conversing with Raphael. A statement of submission is followed by a tribute to Raphael's sensory powers—a tribute that similarly bestows the powers of the subject on their object. Just as Eve had deferred to Adam by attributing her rich sensory experience of Eden, her "nursery," to his presence, by her example Adam now demonstrates his humility (which is also his authority) by granting Eve his first-born prerogatives of Wisdom, Authority, and Reason. The result of this exchange is simultaneously to exalt masculine and feminine dignity; Eve is its synthesis for him as he had been it for her. She now becomes a vision of masculine virtue in feminine form: "Greatness of mind and nobleness thir seat / Build in her loveliest."

Still, like Raphael, the reader cannot immediately evaluate the full meaning of this transference, let alone how patriarchal, antipatriarchal, or even uxorious its assumptions may be, until it is tested against the background of Edenic gender relations as a whole. Here for the third time we have observed Adam and Eve performing a similar interchange, Eve responding, Adam recapitulating and interpreting her more spontaneous activity. She first questioned the purposes and motions of the stars, a query that Adam elaborates and poses to Raphael, while a little earlier she had narrated her experience of creation to Adam, a story that so delights him that he then adopts it as a means of entertaining the angel. On the third occasion Eve set another pattern by first acknowledging the principle of marital headship, then giving Adam a verse account of the experiential value, greater than all of Eden, she found in his company; she made her gifts, her perceptual and poetic skill, a supreme tribute to him. Later Adam gives Raphael a similar acknowledgment of his "official" superiority, then adds an experiential account of the supreme value of his conversation, a "process of speech" that figuratively synthesizes and transcends "masculine" and "feminine" gender traits. His compliment in fact paraphrases the very words that Eve had used to express her love for him. He tells Raphael,

For while I sit with thee, I seem in Heav'n
And sweeter thy discourse is to my ear
Than Fruits of Palm-tree pleasantest to thirst
And hunger both.

While Adam recognizes Raphael's differing "Grace Divine" as superior just as clearly as he sees that Eve's difference from himself can imply some relative superiority or inferiority between them, at the same time he can do no better than follow her example. While for Eve "Nor grateful Ev'ning mild, nor silent Night / With this her solemn Bird, nor walk by Moon, / Or glittering Star-light mild, without thee is sweet," now for Adam no fruits of Eden can supply the sweetness of Raphael's words. Significantly, their theoretical affinities here reverse, since Adam is more domestic and Eve more astronomical in her metaphors.

Whatever this reversal may mean in the abstract, the concrete result is the same. As in the Father's relation to the Son, submission merits exaltation and, more importantly, reciprocity. Orders exist to be broken and transformed: as in the "one first matter" Raphael describes, energy and light flow both upward and downward. Anything more rigid or circumscribed would disturb the harmonious intercourse of the universe, as Raphael in response acknowledges:

In this exchange, the discourse of "rational delight" is made the simultaneous prop and leveler of hierarchies; Adam can scarcely be as superior to Eve as Raphael is to himself, and yet his graceful deference merits acknowledgment of angel and man as "fellow servants" enjoying God's "Equal Love." In contrast, duplicitous self-promotion leads Satan, like Adam and Eve after their fall, to bestiality. Nor is their postlapsarian descent depicted as the effect of a divine curse upon those who exceed hierarchical boundaries, but merely as the natural and immediate outcome of Adam's failure correctly to apply Raphael's advice. Instead of skillfully weighing Eve's gifts with his, which would include balancing her more accurate interpretation of Raphael's instruction against his equally accurate intuition about Satan's most likely strat egy, Adam is distracted by a temporary loss of face that he fails to see has little or nothing to do either with his true authority or with Eve's true love for him. Atypically yet fatally, his regard for her sense of responsibility toward her garden, her determination, and her well-reasoned (if over-confident) acceptance of trial as a concomitant of Edenic life makes him lose his ability to direct and guide the admirable qualities that, unmodified, like both their garden and his own desire, "tend to wild." Yet if his error perhaps increases Eve's all-too-human liability to err, it cannot be said to produce her fall unless all we have seen of her, including God's pronouncement that both were created "sufficient to have stood," is rendered meaningless. Rather, Adam's failed conversation with Eve, his temporary but not-yet-tragic loss of appreciation for their radical relativity, becomes truly tragic only when Eve, like Adam overvaluing her momentary victory, chooses to forsake successful conversation not merely with Adam but with herself and her God. Indulging in a "process of speech" that is actually a process of rationalization, she begins to dream of synthesizing and supplanting Adam's gift for abstract understanding with her own for intuitive thinking and experimentation. Inevitably, this self-centered desire for rising leads her to overvalue the fallacious "evidence" of the wily serpent/Satan. Then and only then does she develop a sinful appetite for what is neither properly hers nor Adam's, the seemingly effortless but ultimately illusory ascent that throughout the poem is shown to be the essence of all descent.

Yet finally, the eternally authentic and not exclusively Edenic power of innocent desire is confirmed both because and in spite of loss of Eden. Self-knowledge and recognition of difference, the basis of both growth and exchange, are reestablished as the proper and in fact only channels of true union and communion between spiritual beings. And while both before and after the Fall this union is only temporary, this is because it must first be temporal, the result of free and rational choice in time, the mark of "Grace Divine." It is not God alone who raises his creatures "deifi'd" by his communion to "what highth thou wilt," but Adam can merit and Raphael bestow this same equality. By precisely the same means, the human genders may alternately exalt one another, so that ideally each is fit both to initiate and "to participate / all rational delight". Further, their capacity to do so directly follows from the fact that Eve is not the body to Adam's head nor the senses to his intelligence; as experience, beauty, hearing, Eve is analogous not merely to Christ, but to the poet himself. Milton can conceive her function in this way because he conceives poetry, like reason, as the necessary but not sufficient condition of Grace. Its sufficient condition depends neither exclusively upon Adam's more visual and analytic understanding nor upon Eve's auditory and intuitive imagination, but upon a process of "weighing" and blending both. This process of harmonizing her gifts with his is what Raphael recommends to Adam after showing him how dialectically to sift through his motives, andwhat allows Eve to initiate their recuperation after the Fall. Then, significantly, Eve again spontaneously intuits the necessity of weighing and accepting responsibility, while Adam's self-righteous sense of" the betrayal of his "higher" functions (as well as his emotional confusion) leads him into a momentary loss of all hope and even all remembrance of Raphael's subtle lessons.

Thus the question of "whence true autority in men," in Milton's universe one among many variants of the question of "whence true autonomy," can be accurately resolved only by at once refining and broadening our understanding of the universal basis of "Union or Communion," that semimysterious conversation in which difference, including the ultimate difference between God and his creation, is resolved in an act of complementarity inseparable from simultaneous Other and self-reflection. Autonomy hence becomes a metonymy of male and female gifts and desires that, in perfect balance, generates the synecdoche of divine intercourse and human marriage alike. Raphael counsels Adam (and his heirs) not to upset the balance of this exchange, which by resting upon an unstable and thus freely adaptable form of reflexivity, can achieve a liberating potential that is neither moderate nor conservative but extreme. Because in this system hierarchy is dependent upon temporal interpretation and initiative, not upon innate "natural dispositions," the inner harmony of its balance is at once subject to radical alternation and role reversal and to radical joy, the true analog of the heavenly union revealed/concealed behind Raphael's rosy blush, "Love's proper hue." Yet behind even this disguise are demystified glimpses—of an original sexual union precedent to original sin, of the unencumbered embraces of the angels, "Union of Pure with Pure/Desiring," and of the mutual glorification of the Father and Son, whose balanced energies produce the spontaneous desire to exalt and multiply the Other, the universal desire that "to fulfill is all … Bliss."

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546


Muir, Kenneth. John Milton. London: Longmans, Green, 1955, 196 p.

Defends Milton against the attacks of modern critics.

Wilson, A. N. The Life of John Milton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, 278 p.

Offers a detailed literary biography, with excellent historical context.


Bowra, C. M. "Milton and the Destiny of Man." In From Virgil to Milton, pp. 194-247. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1967.

Discusses epic form in Paradise Lost.

Broadbent, John (ed). John Milton: Introductions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973, 344 pp.

Offers a variety of essays on Milton and seventeenth century culture.

Corthell, Ronald J. "Milton and the Possibilities of Theory." In Reconsidering the Renaissance, edited by Mario A. Di Cesare, pp. 489-99. Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992.

Comments on recent theoretical approaches to Milton.

Daiches, David. "Some Aspects of Milton's Pastoral Imagery." In More Literary Essays, Edinburgh, London: Oliver & Boyd, 1968, pp. 96-114.

Examines the influence of Greek and Latin bucolic poetry on Milton's work.

Empson, William. Milton's God. London: Chatto and Windus, 1961, 343 p.

Analyzes the theology of Paradise Lost.

Friedman, Donald. "Harmony and the Poet's Voice in Some of Milton's Early Poems." Modern Language Quarterly, VOL. XXX (1969): 523-34.

Discusses Milton's creation of his poetic persona in poems before Paradise Lost.

Frye, Northrop. "Literature as Context: Milton's 'Lycidas.'" In Comparative Literature, pp. 44-55. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.

Uncovers the mythic framework of "Lycidas."

Kermode, Frank. The Living Milton. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968, 179 p.

Collects influential examples of Milton criticism.

Knight, G. Wilson. "The Frozen Labyrinth: An Essay on Milton." In The Burning Oracle: Studies in the Poetry of Action, pp. 59-113. London: Oxford University Press, 1939.

Finds Milton's poetry to be chillingly forbidding.

Lewalski, Barbara K. "Milton on Women—Yet Once More." Milton Studies, VOL. VI (1974): 3-19.

Discusses the limitations of feminist criticism of Paradise Lost.

McCarthy, William. "The Continuity of Milton's Sonnets." Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. LXXVII, No. 2 (January 1977), pp. 96-109.

Finds patterns in Milton's sonnets related to his career as a poet.

Patrick, J. Max and Roger H. Sundell (eds.) Milton and the Art of Sacred Song. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979, 154 p.

Includes essays on Christian language and thought in Milton's poetry.

Samuel, Irene. "The Development of Milton's Poetics." Publications of the Modern Language Association, VOL. LXXXXII, No. 2 (March 1977): 231-40.

Comments on Milton's attitudes to the art of poetry.

Shawcross, John. Milton: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970, 276 p.

Collects 18th and 19th century critical responses to Milton's poetry.

Steadman, John M. Milton's Biblical and Classical Imagery. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1984, 258 p.

Identifies classical and scriptural motifs in Milton's poetry.

Tillyard, E.M. Studies in Milton. London: Chatto & Windus, I960, 176 p.

Presents essays on subjects ranging from Paradise Lost to Milton's humor.

Untermeyer, Louis. "Blind Visionary: John Milton." In Lives of the Poets, pp. 170-92. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959.

Traces biographical influences on Milton's poetry.

Wilding, Michael. Dragon's Teeth: Literature in the English Revolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987, 286 p.

Includes several new historicist essays on Milton's poetry and politics.

Additional coverage of Milton's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Literature Criticism, VOL. 9; Discovering Authors; World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography 1660-1789; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 131, 151.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial

Milton, John (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))