Samuel Johnson (essay date 1781)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “From The Lives of the English Poets,” in The Critical Response to John Milton's Paradise Lost, edited by Timothy C. Miller, Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 103-13.

[In the following excerpt, which originally appeared in his nine-volume work on the lives of the English Poets, Johnson examines the epic's defects—claiming that we do not readily identify with the human protagonists and noting that “none wished it longer than it is”—as well as its greatness, saying that “in reading Paradise Lost we read of universal knowledge.”]

I am now to examine Paradise Lost, a poem, which, considered with respect to design, may claim the first place, and with respect to performance the second, among the productions of the human mind.

By the general consent of criticks, the first praise of genius is due to the writer of an epick poem, as it requires an assemblage of all the powers which are singly sufficient for other compositions. Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason. Epick poetry undertakes to teach the most important truths by the most pleasing precepts, and therefore, relates some great event in the most affecting manner. History must supply the writer with the rudiments of narration, which he must improve and exalt by a nobler art, must animate by dramatick energy, and diversify by retrospection and anticipation; morality must teach him the exact bounds, and different shades, of vice and virtue; from policy and the practice of life, he has to learn the discriminations of character, and the tendency of the passions, either single or combined; and physiology must supply him with illustrations and images. To put these materials to poetical use, is required an imagination capable of painting nature, and realizing fiction. Nor is he yet a poet till he has attained the whole extension of his language, distinguished all the delicacies of phrase, and all the colours of words, and learned to adjust their different sound to all the varieties of metrical modulation.

Bossu is of the opinion, that the poet's first work is to find a moral, which his fable is afterwards to illustrate and establish. This seems to have been the process only of Milton; the moral of other poems is incidental and consequent; in Milton's only it is essential and instrinsick. His purpose was the most useful and the most arduous: “to vindicate the ways of God to man;” to shew the reasonableness of religion, and the necessity of obedience to the divine law.

To convey this moral, there must be a fable, a narration artfully constructed, so as to excite curiosity, and surprise expectation. In this part of his work, Milton must be confessed to have equalled very other poet. He has involved in his account of the fall of man, the events which preceded, and those that were to follow it; he has interwoven the whole system of theology with such propriety, that every part appears to be necessary; and scarcely any recital is wished shorter for the sake of quickening the progress of the main action.

The subject of an epick poem is naturally an event of great importance. That of Milton is not the destruction of a city, the conduct of a colony, or the foundation of an empire. His subject is the fate of worlds, the revolutions of heaven and earth; rebellion against the supreme king, raised by the highest order of created beings; the overthrow of their host, and the punishment of their crime; the creation of a new race of reasonable creatures; their original happiness and innocence, their forfeiture of immortality, and their restoration to hope and peace.

Great events can be hastened or retarded only by persons of elevated dignity. Before the greatness displayed in Milton's poem, all other greatness shrinks away. The weakest of his agents are the highest and noblest of human beings, the original parents of mankind; with whose actions the elements consented; on whose rectitude, or deviation of will, depended the state of terrestrial nature, and the condition of all the future inhabitants of the globe. Of the other agents in the poem, the chief are such as it is irreverence to name on slight occasions. The rest are lower powers [6.221-223]; powers, which only the control of omnipotence restrains from laying creation waste, and filling the vast expanse of space with ruin and confusion. To display the motives and actions of being thus superiour, so far as human reason can examine them, or human imagination represent them, is the task which this mighty poet has undertaken and performed.

In the examination of epick poems much speculation is commonly employed upon the characters. The characters in the Paradise Lost, which admit of examination, are those of angels and of man; of angels good and evil; of man in his innocent and sinful state.

Among the angels, the virtue of Raphael is mild and placid, of easy condescension and free communication; that of Michael is regal and lofty, and, as may seem, attentive to the dignity of his own nature. Abdiel and Gabriel appear occasionally, and act as every incident requires; the solitary fidelity of Abdiel is very amiably painted.

Of the evil angels the characters are more diversified. To Satan, as Addison observes, such sentiments are given as suit “the most exalted and most depraved being.” Milton has been censured, by Clarke, for the impiety which, sometimes, breaks from Satan's mouth; for there are thoughts, as he justly remarks, which no observation of character can justify, because no good man would willingly permit them to pass, however transiently, through his own mind. To make Satan speak as a rebel, without any such expressions as might taint the reader's imagination, was, indeed, one of the great difficulties in Milton's undertaking; and I cannot but think that he has extricated himself with great happiness. There is in Satan's speeches little that can give pain to a pious ear. The language of rebellion cannot be the same with that of obedience. The malignity of Satan foams in haughtiness and obstinacy; but his expressions are commonly general, and no otherwise offensive than as they are wicked.

The other chiefs of the celestial rebellion are very judiciously discriminated in the first and second books; and the ferocious character of Moloch appears, both in the battle and the council, with exact consistency.

To Adam and to Eve are given, during their innocence, such sentiments as innocence can generate and utter. Their love is pure benevolence and mutual veneration; their repasts are without luxury, and their diligence without toil. Their addresses to their Maker have little more than the voice of admiration and gratitude. Fruition left them nothing to ask, and innocence left them nothing to fear.

But with guilt enter distrust and discord, mutual accusation, and stubborn self-defence; they regard each other with alienated minds, and dread their creator as the avenger of their transgression. At last they seek shelter in his mercy, soften to repentance, and melt in supplication. Both before and after the Fall, the superiority of Adam is diligently sustained.

Of the probable and the marvellous, two parts of a vulgar epick poem, which immerge the critick in deep consideration, the Paradise Lost requires little to be said. It contains the history of a miracle, of creation and redemption; it displays the power and the mercy of the supreme being; the probable, therefore, is marvellous, and the marvellous is probable. The substance of the narrative is truth; and, as truth allows no choice, it is, like necessity, superiour to rule. To the accidental or adventitious parts, as to every thing human, some slight exceptions may be made; but the main fabrick is immovably supported.

It is justly remarked by Addison, that this poem has, by the nature of it subject, the advantage above all others, that it is universally and perpetually interesting. All mankind will, through all ages, bear the same relation to Adam and to Eve, and must partake of that good and evil which extend to themselves.

Of the machinery … by which is meant the occasional interposition of supernatural power, another fertile topic of critical remarks, here is no room to speak, because every thing is done under the immediate and visible direction of heaven; but the rule is so far observed, that no part of the action could have been accomplished by any other means.

Of episodes, I think, there are only two, contained in Raphael's relation of the war in heaven, and Michael's prophetick account of the changes to happen in this world. Both are closely connected with the great action; one was necessary to Adam, as a warning, the other as a consolation.

To the completeness or integrity of the design, nothing can be objected; it has, distinctly and clearly, what Aristotle requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is, perhaps, no poem, of the same length, from which so little can be taken without apparent mutilation. Here are no funeral games, nor is there any long description of a shield. The short digressions at the beginning of the third, seventh, and ninth books, might, doubtless, be spared; but superfluities so beautiful, who would take away? or who does not wish that the author of the Iliad had gratified succeeding ages with a little knowledge of himself? Perhaps no passages are more frequently or more attentively read, than those extrinsick paragraphs; and, since the end of poetry is pleasure, that cannot be unpoetical with which all are pleased.

The questions, whether the action of the poem be strictly one, whether the poem can be properly termed heroick, and who is the hero, are raised by such readers as draw their principles of judgment rather from books than from reason. Milton, though he entitled Paradise Lost only a poem, yet calls it himself heroick song. Dryden petulantly and indecently, denies the heroism of Adam, because he was overcome; but there is no reason why the hero should not be unfortunate, except established practice, since success and virtue do not go necessarily together. Cato is the hero of Lucan; but Lucan's authority will not be suffered by Quintilian to decide. However, if success be necessary, Adam's deceiver was at last crushed; Adam was restored to his Maker's favour, and, therefore, may securely resume his human rank.

After the scheme and fabrick of the poem, must be considered its component parts, the sentiments and the diction.

The sentiments, as expressive of manners, or appropriated to characters, are, for the greater part unexceptionably just.

Splendid passages, containing lessons or morality, or precepts of prudence, occur seldom. Such is the original formation of this poem, that, as it admits no human manners, till the Fall, it can give little assistance to human conduct. Its end is to raise the thoughts above sublunary cares or pleasures. Yet the praise of that fortitude, without which Abdiel maintained his singularity of virtue against the scorn of multitudes, may be accommodated to all times; and Raphael's reproof of Adam's curiosity after the planetary motions, with the answer returned by Adam, may be confidently opposed to any rule of life which any poet has delivered.

The thoughts which are occasionally called forth in the progress, are such as could only be produced by an imagination in the highest degree fervid and active, to which materials were supplied by incessant study and unlimited curiosity. The heat of Milton's mind might be said to sublimate his learning, to throw off into his work the spirit of science, unmingled with its grosser parts.

He had considered creation, in its whole extent, and his descriptions are, therefore, learned. He had accustomed his imagination to unrestrained indulgence, and his conceptions, therefore, were extensive. The characteristick quality of his poem is sublimity. He sometimes descends to the elegant, but his element is the great. He can occasionally invest himself with grace; but his natural port is gigantick loftiness. He can please, when pleasure is required; but it is his peculiar power to astonish.

He seems to have been well acquainted with his own genius, and to know what it was that Nature had bestowed upon him more bountifully than upon others; the power of displaying the vast, illuminating the splendid, enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating the dreadful; he, therefore, chose a subject on which too much could not be said, on which he might tire his fancy, without the censure of extravagance.

The appearances of nature, and the occurrences of life, did not satiate his appetite of greatness. To paint things as they are requires a minute attention, and employs the memory rather than the fancy. Milton's delight was to sport in the wide regions of possibility; reality was a scene too narrow for his mind. He sent his faculties out upon discovery, into worlds where only imagination can travel, and delighted to form new modes of existence, and furnish sentiment and action to superious beings, to trace the counsels of hell, or accompany the choirs of heaven.

But he could not be always in other worlds; he must sometimes revisit earth, and tell of things visible and known. When he cannot raise wonder by sublimity of his mind, he gives delight by its fertility.

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 assistance. The garden of Eden brings to his mind the vale of Enna, where Proserpine was gathering flowers. Satan makes his way through fighting elements, like Argo between the Cyanean rocks, or Ulysses between the two Sicilian whirlpools, when he shunned Charbydis on the “larboard.” The mythological allusions have been justly censured, as not being always used with notice of their vanity; but they contribute variety to the narration, and produce an alternate exercise of the memory and the fancy.

His similes are less numerous, and more various, than those of his predecessors. 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.

Of his moral sentiments it is hardly praise to affirm that they excel those of all other poets; for this superiority he was indebted to his acquaintance with the sacred writings. The ancient epick poets, wanting the light of Revelation, were very unskilful teachers of virtue: their principal characters may be great, but they are not amiable. The reader may rise from their works with a greater degree of active or passive fortitude, and sometimes of prudence; but he will be able to carry away few precepts of justice, and none of mercy.

From the Italian writers it appears, that the advantages of even christian knowledge may be possessed in vain. Ariosto's pravity is generally known; and, though the Deliverance of Jerusalem may be considered as a sacred subject, the poet has been very sparing of moral instruction.

In Milton every line breathes sanctity of thought, and purity of manners, except when the train of the narration requires the introduction of the rebellious spirits; and even they are compelled to acknowledge their subjection to God, in such a manner as excites reverence, and confirms piety.

Of human beings there are but two; but those two are the parents of mankind, venerable before their fall for dignity and innocence, and amiable after it for repentance and submission. In their first state their affection is tender without weakness, and their piety sublime without presumption. When they have sinned, they shew how discord begins in mutual frailty, and how it ought to cease in mutual forbearance; how confidence of the divine favour is forfeited by sin, and how hope of pardon may be obtained by penitence and prayer. A state of innocence we can only conceive, if, indeed, in our present misery, it be possible to conceive it; but the sentiments and worship proper to a fallen and offending being, we have all to learn, as we have all to practise.

The poet, whatever be done, is always great. Our progenitors, in their first state, conversed with angels; even when folly and sin had degraded them, they had not in their humiliation, “the port of mean suitors;” and they rise again to reverential regard, when we find that their prayers were heard.

As human passions did not enter the world, before the fall, there is, in the Paradise Lost, little opportunity for the pathetick; but what little there is has not been lost. That passion which is peculiar to rational nature, the anguish arising from the consciousness of transgression, and the horrours attending the sense of divine displeasure, are very justly described and forcibly impressed. But the passions are moved only on one occasion; sublimity is the general and prevailing quality of this poem; sublimity variously modified, sometimes descriptive, sometimes argumentative.

The defects and faults of Paradise Lost, for faults and defects every work of man must have, it is the business of impartial criticism to discover. As, in displaying the excellence of Milton, I have not made long quotations, because of selecting beauties there had been no end, I shall in the same general manner, mention that which seems to deserve censure; for what Englishman can take delight in transcribing passages, which, if they lessen the reputation of Milton, diminish, in some degree, the honour of our country?

The generality of my scheme does not admit the frequent notice of verbal inaccuracies; which Bentley, perhaps better skilled in grammar than poetry, has often found, though he sometimes made them, and which he imputed to the obtrusions of a reviser, whom the author's blindness obliged him to employ; a supposition rash and groundless, if he thought it true; and vile and pernicious, if, as is said, he, in private, allowed it to be false.

The plan of Paradise Lost has this inconvenience, that it comprises neither human actions nor human manners. The man and woman who act and suffer are in a state which no other man or woman can ever know. The reader finds no transaction in which he can be engaged; beholds no condition in which he can, by any effort of imagination place himself; he has, therefore, little natural curiosity or sympathy.

We all, indeed, feel the effects of Adam's disobedience; we all sin, like Adam, and, like him, must all bewail our offences; we have restless and insidious enemies in the fallen angels; and in the blessed spirits we have guardians and friends; in the Redemption of mankind we hope to be included; in the description of heaven and hell we are, surely, interested, as we are all to reside, hereafter, either in the regions of horrour or of bliss.

But these truths are too important to be new; they have been taught to our infancy; they have mingled with our solitary thoughts and familiar conversation, and are habitually interwoven with the whole texture of life. Being, therefore, not new, they raise no unaccustomed emotion in the mind; what we knew before, we cannot learn; what is not unexpected, cannot surprise.

Of the ideas suggested by these awful scenes, from some we recede with reverence, except when stated hours require their association; and from others we shrink with horrour, or admit them only as salutary inflictions, as counterpoizes to our interests and passions. Such images rather obstruct the career of fancy than incite it.

Pleasure and terrour are, indeed, the genuine sources of poetry; but poetical pleasure must be such as human imagination can, at least, conceive, and poetical terrour such as human strength and fortitude may combat. The good and evil of eternity are too ponderous for the wings of wit; the mind sinks under them, in passive helplessness, content with calm belief and humble adoration.

Known truths, however, may take a different appearance, and be conveyed to the mind by a new train of intermediate images. This Milton has undertaken, and performed with pregnancy and vigour of mind peculiar to himself. Whoever considers the few radical positions which the scriptures afforded him, will wonder by what energetick operation he expanded them to such extent, and ramified them to so much variety, restrained, as he was, by religious reverence from licentiousness of fiction.

Here is a full display of the united force of study and genius; of a great accumulation of materials, with judgment to digest, and fancy to combine them: Milton was able to select from nature or from story, from ancient fable or from modern science, whatever could illustrate or adorn his thoughts. An accumulation of knowledge impregnated his mind, fermented by study, and exalted by imagination.

It has been, therefore, said, without an indecent hyperbole, by one of his encomiasts, that in reading Paradise Lost, we read of universal knowledge.

But original deficience cannot be supplied. The want of human interest is always felt. Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions.

Another inconvenience of Milton's design is, that it requires the description of what cannot be described, the agency of spirits. He saw that immateriality supplied no images, and that he could not show angels acting but by instrument of action; he, therefore, invested them with form and matter. This, being necessary, was, therefore, defensible; and he should have secured the consistency of his system, by keeping immateriality out of sight, and enticing his reader to drop it from his thoughts. But he has, unhappily, perplexed his poetry with his philosophy. His infernal and celestial powers are sometimes pure spirit, and sometimes animated body. When Satan walks with his lance upon the “burning marle,” he has a body; when, in his passage between hell and the new world, he is in danger of sinking into vacuity, and is supported by a gust of rising vapours, he has a body; when he animates the toad, he seems to be mere spirit, that can penetrate matter at pleasure; when he starts “up in his own shape,” he has, at least, a determined form; and, when he is brought before Gabriel, he has “a spear and a shield,” which he had the power of hiding in the toad, though the arms of the contending angels are evidently material.

The vulgar inhabitants of Pandaemonium, being “incorporeal spirits,” are “at large, though without number,” in a limited space: yet in the battle, when they were overwhelmed by mountains, their armour hurt them, “crushed in upon their substance, now grown gross by sinning.” This, likewise, happened to the uncorrupted angels, who were overthrown the “sooner for their arms, for unarmed they might easily, as spirits, have evaded by contraction or remove.” Even as spirits they are hardly spiritual; for “contraction” and “remove” are images of matter; but if they could have escaped without their armour, they might have escaped from it, and left only the empty cover to be battered. Uriel, when he rides on a sun-beam, is material; Satan is material when he is afraid of the prowess of Adam.

The confusion of spirit and matter, which pervades the whole narration of the war in heaven, fills it with incongruity; and the book, in which it is related, is, I believe, the favorite of children, and gradually neglected as knowledge is increased.

After the operation of immaterial agents which cannot be explained, may be considered that of allegorical persons, which have no real existence. To exalt causes into agents, to invest abstract ideas with form, and animate them with activity, has always been the right of poetry. But such airy beings are, for the most part, suffered only to do their natural office, and retire. Thus fame tells a tale, and victory hovers over a general, or perhaps on a standard; but fame and victory can do no more. To give them any real employment, or ascribe to them any material agency, is to make them allegorical no longer, but to shock the mind by ascribing effects to nonentity. In the Prometheus of Aeschylus, we see violence and strength, and in the Alcestis of Euripides, we see death, brought upon the stage, all as active persons of the drama; but no precedents can justify absurdity.

Milton's allegory of Sin and Death is, undoubtedly, faulty. Sin is, indeed, the mother of death, and may be allowed to be the portress of hell; but when they stop the journey of Satan, a journey described as real, and when death offers him battle, the allegory is broken. That sin and death should have shown the way to hell, might have been allowed; but they cannot facilitate the passage by building a bridge, because the difficulty of Satan's passage is described as real and sensible, and the bridge ought to be figurative. The hell assigned to the rebellious spirits is described as not less local than the residence of man. It is placed in some distant part of space, separated from the regions of harmony and order by a chaotick waste and an unoccupied vacuity; but sin and death worked up “a mole of aggravated soil,” cemented with “asphaltus;” a work too bulky for ideal architects.

This unskillful allegory appears to me one of the greatest faults of the poem; and to this there was no temptation but the author's opinion of its beauty.

To the conduct of the narrative some objections may be made. Satan is, with great expectation, brought before Gabriel in Paradise, and is suffered to go away unmolested. The creation of man is represented as the consequence of the vacuity left in heaven by the expulsion of the rebels; yet Satan mentions it as a report “rife in heaven” before his departure.

To find sentiments for the state of innocence was very difficult; and something of anticipation, perhaps, is now and then discovered. Adam's discourse of dreams seems not to be the speculation of new-created being. I know not whether his answer to the angels reproof for curiosity does not want something of propriety; it is the speech of a man acquainted with many other men. Some philosophical notions, especially when the philosophy is false, might have been omitted. The angel, in a comparison, speaks of “timorous deer,” before deer were yet timorous, and before Adam could understand the comparison.

Dryden remarks, that Milton has some flats among his elevations. This is only to say, that all the parts are not equal. In every work, one part must be for the sake of others; a palace must have passages; a poem must have transitions. It is no more to be required that wit should always be blazing, than that the sun should always stand at noon. In a great work there is a vicissitude of luminous and opaque parts, as there is in the world a succession of day and night. Milton, when he has expatiated in the sky, may be allowed, sometimes, to revisit earth; for what other author ever soared so high, or sustained his flight so long?

Milton, being well versed in the Italian poets, appears to have borrowed often from them; and, as every man catches something from his companions, his desire of imitating Ariosto's levity has disgraced his work with the Paradise of fools; a fiction not in itself ill-imagined, but too ludicrous for its place.

His play on words, in which he delights too often; his equivocations, which Bentley endeavours to defend by the example of the ancients; his unnecessary and ungraceful use of terms of art; it is not necessary to mention, because they are easily remarked, and generally censured; and at last bear so little proportion to the whole, that they scarcely deserve the attention of a critick.

Such are the faults of that wonderful performance, Paradise Lost; which he who can put in balance with its beauties must be considered not as nice but as dull, as less to be censured for want of candour, than pitied for want of sensibility.

Through all his greater works there prevails an uniform peculiarity of diction, a mode and cast of expression which bears little resemblance to that of any former writer, and which is so far removed from common use, that an unlearned reader, when he first opens his book, finds himself surprised by a new language.

This novelty has been, by those who can find nothing wrong in Milton, imputed to his laborious endeavours after words suitable to the grandeur of his ideas. “Our language,” says Addison, “sunk under him.” But the truth is, that, both in prose and verse, he had formed his style by a perverse and pedantick principle. He was desirous to use English words with a foreign idiom. This in all his prose is discovered and condemned; for there judgment operates freely, neither softened by the beauty, nor awed by the dignity of his thoughts; but such is the power of his poetry, that his call is obeyed without resistance, the reader feels himself in captivity to a higher and a nobler mind, and criticism sinks in admiration.

Milton's style was not modified by his subject; what is shown with greater extent in Paradise Lost may be found in Comus. One source of his peculiarity was his familiarity with the Tuscan poets; the disposition of his words is, I think, frequently Italian; perhaps, sometimes, combined with other tongues.

Of him, at last, may be said what Jonson says of Spenser, that he “wrote no language,” but has formed what Butler calls a “Babylonish Dialect,” in itself harsh and barbarous, but made by exalted genius and extensive learning, the vehicle of so much instruction and so much pleasure, that, like other lovers, we find grace in its deformity.

Whatever be the faults of his diction, he cannot want the praise of copiousness and variety; he was master of his language in its full extent; and has selected the melodious words with such diligence, that from his book alone the Art of English Poetry might be learned.

After his diction, something must be said of his versification. “The measure,” he says, “is the English heroick verse without rhyme.” Of this mode he had many examples among the Italians, and some in his own country. The earl of Surrey is said to have translated one of Virgil's books without rhyme; and, besides our tragedies, a few short poems had appeared in blank verse, particularly one tending to reconcile the nation to Raleigh's wild attempt upon Guiana, and probably written by Raleigh himself. These petty performances cannot be supposed to have much influenced Milton, who, more probably took his hint from Trissino's Italia Liberata; and, finding blank verse easier than rhyme, was desirous of persuading himself that it is better.

“Rhyme,” he says, and says truly, “is no necessary adjunct of true poetry.” But, perhaps, of poetry as a mental operation, meter or musick is no necessary adjunct: it is, however, by the musick of metre that poetry has been discriminated in all languages; and, in languages melodiously constructed with a due proportion of long and short syllables, metre is sufficient. But one language cannot communicate its rules to another; where meter is scanty and imperfect, some help is necessary. The musick of the English heroick line strikes the ear so faintly, that it is easily lost, unless all the syllables of every line cooperate together; this co-operation can be only obtained by the preservation of every verse unmingled with another, as a distinct system of sounds; and this distinctness is obtained and preserved by the artifice of rhyme. The variety of pauses, so much boasted by the lovers of blank verse, changes the measures of an English poet to the periods of a declaimer; and there are only a few skilful and happy readers of Milton, who enable their audience to perceive where the lines end or begin. “Blank verse,” said an ingenious critick, “seems to be verse only to the eye.”

Poetry may subsist without rhyme, but English poetry will not often please; nor can rhyme ever be safely spared, but where the subject is able to support itself. Blank verse makes some approach to that which is called lapidary style; has neither the easiness of prose, nor the melody of numbers, and, therefore, tires by long continuance. Of the Italian writers without rhyme, whom Milton alleges as precedents, not one is popular; what reason could urge in its defence, has been confuted by the ear.

But, whatever be the advantage of rhyme, I cannot prevail on myself to wish that Milton had been a rhymer; for I cannot wish his work to be other than it is; yet, like other heroes, he is to be admired rather than imitated. He that thinks himself capable of astonishing may write blank verse; but those that hope only to please, must condescend to rhyme.

The highest praise of genius is original invention. Milton cannot be said to have contrived the structure of an epick poem, and, therefore, owes reverence to that vigour and amplitude of mind to which all generations must be indebted for the art of poetical narration, for the texture of the fable, the variation of incidents, the interposition of dialogue, and all the stratagems that surprise and enchain attention. But, of all the borrowers from Homer, Milton is, perhaps, the least indebted. He was naturally a thinker for himself, confident of his own abilities, and disdainful of help or hindrance: he did not refuse admission to the thoughts or images of his predecessors, but he did not seek them. From his contemporaries he neither courted nor received support; there is in his writings nothing by which the pride of other authors might be gratified, or favour grained; no exchange of praise, nor solicitation of support. His great works were performed under discountenance, and in blindness; but difficulties vanished at his touch; he was born for whatever is arduous; and his work is not the greatest of heroick poems, only because it is not the first. [Notes have been dropped.]


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Paradise Lost John Milton

The following entry presents criticism of Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost. See also John Milton Literary Criticism, Paradise Lost Literary Criticism, and John Milton Poetry Criticism.

Milton's great blank-verse epic poem, which retells the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and their fall from paradise, has been hailed since its initial publication as one of the towering achievements of English literature. The poet John Dryden, writing in 1677, called Paradise Lost “one of the greatest, most noble, and most sublime poems, which either this Age or Nation has producd,” and others from William Blake to W. H. Auden have used it as a source of inspiration for their own writing. The work has also provoked more negative criticism than any other acknowledged classic: Samuel Johnson called the language of the poem “harsh and barbarous,” Sir Walter Raleigh declared the work consisted of “dead ideas,” and T. S. Eliot claimed Milton's style in the epic would have a harmful influence on English poetry. Despite the controversy sparked by the poem, however, it continues to be one of the most widely read and discussed works of English literature, with a reputation for greatness surpassed only by Shakespeare's plays. Critics have found the narrative poem rich with meaning on its many levels: political allusions, cosmology, use of language, Biblical content, characterization, use of the traditional epic form, moral and spiritual meanings, and philosophical implications. And all commentators on the poem, including its detractors, have marvelled at the range of subjects it treats, which include the universe, human physiology and psychology, the forces of nature, God and other celestial beings, and human reason and freedom.

Plot and Major Characters

The poem begins by declaring its subject—“man's first disobedience” and the consequences that ensued from that act—and invokes a “Heav'nly Muse” to aid the poet that he may assert Eternal Providence and “justify the ways of God to men.” The first action takes place in hell, where Satan and his followers have recently been defeated in their war against God. They decide to take a different course of revenge by entering a new world that is to be created. Satan alone undertakes the journey to find this place. He travels across chaos, which is the great gulf between hell and heaven, until he sees the new universe. God sees Satan flying towards this world and foretells the temptation and Fall, clearing his own justice and wisdom from imputation by explaining that He has created man free and able enough to have withstood his tempter. Meanwhile, Satan enters the outer reaches of the new creation. He flies to the sun, where he disguises himself as a cherub and tricks the angel Uriel into showing him to man's home. He finds Adam and Eve in their happy state and becomes jealous of them. He overhears them speak of God's commandment that they should not eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and so plots to seduce them to transgress. Uriel warns Gabriel and his angels, who are guarding the gate of Paradise, that some evil spirit had escaped hell and entered here in the shape of a good angel. Gabriel appoints two strong angels to look over Adam and Eve, lest the evil spirit should do some harm to them as they sleep. They find Satan at the ear of Eve, tempting her in a dream. The next morning Eve tells Adam of her troubling dream. God sends Raphael to warn Adam and Eve about Satan, and to render them inexcusable by telling them of their free will and the enemy at hand. On Adam's request, Raphael recounts to them the story of how Satan came to be as he is; how this favored angel waged war against God in heaven, how the Son, Messiah, cast him into hell, and how Satan persuaded his legions to follow him. He describes the war in heaven and the triumphant return of the Son after battle. Raphael goes on to explain how the world was created so mankind could replace the fallen angels. Satan returns to earth, and enters as a sleeping serpent. The serpent finds Eve alone and speaks to her in flattering tones. He explains that he learned speech and reason, neither of which he knew before, by tasting of a certain tree in the garden. Eve asks him to bring her to that tree, and finds it to be the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. The Serpent uses his wiles and arguments to induce her to eat. Eve is pleased with the taste, and deliberates a while whether to take it to Adam or not. She brings him the fruit and tells him what persuaded her to eat it. Adam is at first amazed, but he resigns himself because of his love for her and eats also, thereby joining her in her fate. As a result, their innocence is lost, they become aware of their nakedness, and they begin to accuse each other. The guardian angels return to heaven, saddened by man's failure, and the Son of God descends to earth to judge the sinners, and sentences them accordingly. God instructs his angels what alterations must take place on earth and in heaven because of what has transpired. Adam laments his fate as he begins to understand his fallen state. He rejects Eve's consolation, but she persists and he forgives her. She proposes they commit suicide, but Adam reminds her of God's promise that her offspring will wreak vengeance on the serpent. God sends Michael and his cherubim to dispossess the pair from Paradise, but first reveals to Adam the future events until the Great Flood that will result from his sin. Michael says also that the Seed of woman shall be the Savior who it was promised shall redeem mankind. Adam takes comfort in these later revelations. He rejoins Eve, who in her gentle sleep has regained quietness of mind and a sense of submission. Adam and Eve are sent away from Paradise, and a flaming sword is placed to guard the gates behind them.

Major Themes

Paradise Lost reflects, on its most transparent level, the poet's major concern to justify God's way to men, to assert God's mystery, and give dramatic voice to the events we read about in Genesis. But the poem goes much deeper, and it has been read in a number of ways by critics: as a political allegory that deals with the issues of freedom that Milton had concerned himself with during the Revolution; as an unorthodox depiction of the Christian God and his treatment of humankind; as a thesis on predestination; and as a study of the epic hero in a Christian context. Critics interested in the political dimension of the work have read the poem in many different ways. Some see it as Milton's commentary on the events during and after the English Revolution: Milton, the advocate of a righteous cause who saw that cause destroyed and corrupted by evil forces, mourns the loss and looks for redemption not in this world but the next. Other readers have viewed Satan, for example, as “an unsuccessful Cromwell,” and have compared Satan's failed rebellion to that of Oliver Cromwell. There are of course familiar Biblical themes in the poem, including downfall and regeneration, and the triumph of good over evil. Scholars have pointed out also that the theme of loss pervades the poem, and this is underscored by images of darkness; the hope of regeneration is emphasized by references to light. Some others of the myriad thematic concerns include the interaction of male and female aspects (the sun's rays against the earth are a model for the union of Adam and Eve); the interrelation of love and war (the Son leads the angels into battle and also shows the greatest love in his self-sacrifice); the boundlessness of God's power and capacity (depicted in the recurring references to and sense of vastness in the poem); pride (embodied in Satan); loss of innocence; the power of poetry (depicted in Eve); and the beauty of creation (often seen in the nature imagery).

Critical Reception

No poem in the English language has earned such extremes of praise and censure as Paradise Lost. It was very well received upon publication of the first edition in 1667. By the end of the seventeenth century, the poem was thought of in England and Europe as one of the great epics and a major work of literature and was generally admired for its boldness and originality as well as its exalted theme and rousing language. Appreciation of the poem, particularly of its epic features, continued into the eighteenth century. Many critics noted also the defects in the work, including Milton's personal intrusions into the poem, the badly wrought allegorical characters, and the excessive display of learning. Samuel Johnson's in 1781, for example, asserted that the poem “lacked human interest” and that we read the poem for “duty rather than pleasure,” but acknowledged the poem's loftiness and extraordinary imaginativeness. Blake admired Satan's energy and spirit of rebellion, remarking that Milton “was a true Poet and of the Devil's Party without knowing it,” spawning a great deal of interest in the character of Satan. Some critics have suggested that Satan is the true hero of the epic: he is the one with the most memorable lines, whose character is most fully developed and interesting, and with whom we almost cannot avoid having sympathy. Many readers have admired the spirit energy of rebellion that pervades the character. Others, however, have taken pains to point out that for Milton to make Satan the hero of the epic would be to contradict his own theology, and that while he finds Satan interesting, he does not admire him. As a Biblical epic, it is pointed out, Paradise Lost is an interpretation of Scripture, and God is the central figure.

The Romantic critics of the nineteenth century turned to considerations about the relationship between Milton's life and mind and his art. They also admired Milton as a revolutionary, with some like Percy Shelley extending Blake's notion of Satan as a glorious rebel. Later nineteenth-century critics generally held the poem in high regard, remarking especially on what many considered to be Milton's flawless rhythm and diction.

Critical opinion of the poem in the twentieth century was extensive, with literally hundreds of books being produced about the poem's every nuance. Early twentieth-century commentators noted Milton's humanism and his intellectual heritage that informed the work; others admired his knowledge of physical nature reflected in the poem. In the 1930s, the poem was criticized by a number of prominent thinkers, including T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and the critic F. R. Leavis, who argued that Milton's style was rigid and lacking in sensuousness. Others defended Milton, with some predicting that the tide of criticism against Milton's style would disappear with the disappearance of the “modernist” poetic movement that spawned it. This seems largely to have been the case, and critical appreciation of Milton in the latter half of the twentieth century tended to acknowledge the epic's inherent greatness while pointing out its weaknesses. In the late twentieth century scholarship on the poem moved in innumerable directions, with, for example, feminist scholars examining Milton's treatment of women, Freudian critics trying to understand it in terms of the Oedipal nature of Milton's art, and deconstructionists applying to it the theories of Jacques Derrida. That critics of every generation have found and continue to find in the poem so many subjects so worthy of debate is a testament to its mystery and complexity and a clear indication of its profound importance to world literature.

William Vaughn Moody (essay date 1899)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “From The Complete Poetical Works of John Milton,” in The Critical Response to John Milton's Paradise Lost, edited by Timothy C. Miller, Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 192-95.

[In the following excerpt, which originally appeared in his edition of Milton's poetry, Moody praises Paradise Lost as one of the greatest poems and declares that it is the epic's style which is its surest claim to enduring admiration.]

As for his poetry, Milton must be thought of first and last as a master stylist. Keats is more poignant, Shakespeare more various, Coleridge more magical; but nobody who has written in English has had at his command the same unfailing majesty of utterance. His is the organ voice of England. The figure suggests, too, the defect of his qualities. His voice is always his own; he has none of the ventriloquism of the dramatic poets, none of the thaumaturgy by which they obscure themselves in their subject. Milton is always Miltonic, always lofty and grave, whether the subject sinks or rises. Through him we come nearest to that union of measure and might which is peculiar to the master poets of antiquity, and it is through a study of him that the defects of taste incident upon our modern systems of education can be most surely made good.

Paradise Lost is the last great episode in the movement of imagination of which Ariosto and Tasso in Italy, Camoëns in Portugal, and Spenser in England, are exemplars. With one of these, indeed, Camoëns Milton stands in a peculiarly interesting relation. The Lusiad of Camoëns treats of the voyages of the famous Portuguese navigators; its theme, therefore, is taken from recent, almost contemporary, history. The theme, however, is treated, one may say, centrifugally, the imagination of the poet circling out in such a way as to invest it with all manner of religious and mythopoeic suggestion. Milton, on the other hand, starting with a great religious and mythic theme, impressed upon it, consciously or unconsciously, the traits of the Puritan revolution in England.

For not only are the theology of the poem and its doctrine of social relations entirely Puritan, but, as has often been remarked, its chief figure and real hero, Lucifer, is the embodiment of that very spirit of revolt against arbitrary authority which swept Charles I. from the throne. Roughly speaking, Satan is an unsuccessful Cromwell, refusing to bow before the tyranny of irresponsible might, and Jehovah is a triumphant Stuart, robed in the white light of omnipotence. The theology and the politics of the poet are at variance, and this fact introduces into much of the poem an unconscious insincerity. The words of the rebel angel have an intense eloquence, and the account of his doings and of his domain a persuasive vividness and majesty, which contrasts oddly with the pedantic woodenness of many of the passages consecrated to the Deity. It was largely in the attempt to overcome this paradox by which his villain insisted upon being his hero, that Milton lost himself in those long disquisitions that make some of later books of the poem rather dreary reading.

Perhaps another fact contributing to the same result was that the writing of Paradise Lost was, as Taine suggests, really a feat of anachronism. Milton was producing a cosmology in an age of psychology. The whole tendency of Puritanism had been to make men look within, to fix attention upon the individual spirit and its responsibilities; Bunyan's Grace Abounding was therefore the significant book for the times, significant at least, for one half the nation; the other half was drifting fast toward the spirit of pure criticism. It is not strange, under these conditions, that Milton felt a constant temptation to abandon the picture for the sermon. His solemnly avowed intention to “justify the ways of God to men” was in the end a serious drag upon him.

There lurked in the subject another difficulty. The title Paradise Lost, although it suggests the central point about which the action moves, does not adequately suggest that action itself. The fall of man from innocence is only the point of convergence for a cosmic drama, the theatre of which is all space, and the time of which extends far back into the abyss before Time was. In this unimaginable vastness the earth hangs a mere drop, and the little drama of the Garden of Paradise dwindles necessarily almost into insignificance. Milton was never able to overcome this fault of perspective; however much he lingers over the human pair he is never able to centre our interest there. It is as if our eyes, accustomed to the glooms of Hell and glories of Heaven, had lost their power to see the temperate small sights of earth with keenness.

When all deductions are made, however, Paradise Lost remains for us one of the greatest of poems. With the exception of Beowulf, which by its language and subject lies remote from every-day appreciation, it is the only English poem with sufficient largeness of theme and breath of treatment to deserve the name of epic. It is of course not an epic of the Homeric type, springing spontaneously in an unlettered age from the imaginative life of a whole nation; but granted the age of sophistication in which it was produced, it did in a remarkable way seize and draw together the imaginative elements of English thought. The Bible was in Milton's day the centre and substance of that thought. It was for many years almost the only book accessible to the nation at large, and that too at a time when intellectual curiosity was profoundly stirred by the impulses of the Renaissance. The stories of the Bible, its cosmology, its chronology, its imagery, had sunk into the tissue of English thought like a rich and sombre dye. When Milton adopted the story of Genesis as his subject, he was seizing the true epic instinct upon material genuinely national,—much more national than the story of King Arthur or any of the historical British kings could have been, because not only the belief but the passion of the race was engaged by it.

Unfortunately for one part of Milton's appeal, the fabric upon which he wrought had in it elements of decay of which no one of his generation, and he least of all, had an inkling. As we have come to apprehend more clearly the essentials of religious truth as distinguished from its accidental outlines, one great hold which the poem had over the minds of readers has failed.

But in this case “less is more.” Our fathers saw in Paradise Lost a system of irrefragable truth such as we cannot see, but as a consequence of this falling away of the veil of dogma, we see in it qualities of beauty which escaped their pious gaze. No crash of systems can drown its noble music, and the fading away of dogma leaves the splendor of its symbolism only the more essentially worthy of regard. Then, too, as we get farther away from the conditions which gave the poem birth, its human meaning takes on a pathos which the very sternness of their belief prevented our forefathers from seeing.

It is style, both in the broad and in the narrow sense, which gives Paradise Lost it surest claim to enduring admiration. Everywhere there is an indefinable distinction of thought and image; the imagination speaks with a divine largeness of idiom. Or if not quite everywhere,—if Christ's marking off of the creation with golden compasses, if the description of Sin and Death as guardians of the gates of Hell, if the cannonading of the celestial armies in Heaven, are instances of unplastic imagination,—these exceptions serve only to throw into relief a myraid other pictures of commanding vitality and splendor. It is questionable whether any other poem except the Divine Comedy affords so many unforgettable pictures. Milton's blindness which at first thought might be deemed crushingly against him here, really helped him. Cut off forever from the light of the sun, he turned his imagination passionately in upon the memories of color and form which he had carried with him into darkness, and took delight in giving to the obscure shades of hell and the vague glories of heaven a startling concreteness and actuality. And these pictures, almost without exception, possess a quality very rare in the history of imagination, a quality which can only be hinted at by the abused epithet “sublime.” Even the pictures of Dante, placed beside them, have an everyday colloquial look. Milton's all “dilated stand like Teneriffe or Atlas.” De Quincey was right in declaring that the pervading presence of this quality gives Paradise Lost its unique worth, and makes of it a work which, if lost, could not be guessed at from the work of other minds. And to match this quality in the manner of thought there is everywhere present a corresponding quality of expression, a diction and a rhythm so large that they seem made for more than mortal lips to tell of more than earthly happenings, yet so harmoniously adjusted to their task that their largeness is felt less than their justice. William Blake, in one of his prophetical books, says that Milton's house in the Spiritual Kingdom is Palladian, not Gothic. Palladian it is, and in this century we have dwelt by preference in the Gothic house of mind, loving the wayward humor of its adornment, the mysticism and confusion of its design. But from time to time we must purify our vision with the more ample and august lines of the house which Milton has builded.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

A Maske [Comus] 1637

Lycidas 1638

Epitaphium Damonis [Damon] 1640

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

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

Paradise Regain'd: A Poem in IV Books. To Which Is Added Samson Agonistes 1671

The Sonnets of John Milton 1883

The Reason of Church-Governement 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 Parlament of England (essay) 1644

The Judgment of Martin Bucer, Concerning Divorce Written to Edward the Sixt, in His Second Book of the Kingdom of Christ, and Now Englisht, Wherin a Late Book Restoring the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce Is Heer Confirm'd and Justify'd By the Authoritie of Martin Bucer (essay) 1644

Tetrachordon: Expositions upon the Foure Chief Places in Scripture, Which Treat of Mariage, or Nullities in Mariage (essay) 1645

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

Joannis Miltoni angli Pro populo anglicano defensio, contra Claudii Anonymi [A Defence of the People of England] (essay) 1651

Joannis Miltoni angli pro se defensio contra Alexandrum Morum ecclesiasten, libelli famosi, cui titulus, regii sanguinis clamor ad coelum adversus parricidas anglicanos, authoren recte dictum [Second Defence of the People of England] (essay) 1654

The Readie & Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (essay) 1660

Of True Religion, Haeresie, Schism, Toleration, and What Best Means May Be Us'd against the Growth of Popery (essay) 1673

The Works of John Milton. 18 vols. (essays, history, and poetry) 1931-38

C. S. Lewis (essay date 1942)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “From A Preface to Paradise Lost,” in Milton: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by Arthur E. Barker, Oxford University Press, 1965, pp. 92-100.

[In the following essay, which originally appeared in his highly influential full-length treatment of Paradise Lost, Lewis calls Satan “the best drawn of Milton's characters” but insists that the poet did not admire his creation.]

Before considering the character of Milton's Satan it may be desirable to remove an ambiguity by noticing that Jane Austen's Miss Bates could be described either as a very entertaining or a very tedious person. If we said the first, we should mean that the author's portrait of her entertains us while we read; if we said the second, we should mean that it does so by being the portrait of a person whom the other people in Emma find tedious and whose like we also should find tedious in real life. For it is a very old critical discovery that the imitation in art of unpleasing objects may be a pleasing imitation. In the same way, the proposition that Milton's Satan is a magnificent character may bear two senses. It may mean that Milton's presentation of him is a magnificent poetical achievement which engages the attention and excites the admiration of the reader. On the other hand, it may mean that the real being (if any) whom Milton is depicting, or any real being like Satan if there were one, or a real human being in so far as he resembles Milton's Satan, is or ought to be an object of admiration and sympathy, conscious or unconscious, on the part of the poet or his readers or both. The first, so far as I know, has never till modern times been denied; the second, never affirmed before the times of Blake and Shelley—for when Dryden said that Satan was Milton's “hero” he meant something quite different. It is, in my opinion, wholly erroneous. In saying this I have, however, trespassed beyond the bounds of purely literary criticism. In what follows, therefore, I shall not labour directly to convert those who admire Satan, but only to make a little clearer what it is they are admiring. That Milton could not have shared their admiration will then, I hope, need no argument.

The main difficulty is that any real exposition of the Satanic character and the Satanic predicament is likely to provoke the question “Do you, then, regard Paradise Lost as a comic poem?” To this I answer, No; but only those will fully understand it who see that it might have been a comic poem. Milton has chosen to treat the Satanic predicament in the epic form and has therefore subordinated the absurdity of Satan to the misery which he suffers and inflicts. Another author, Meredith, has treated it as comedy with consequent subordination of its tragic elements. But The Egoist remains, none the less, a pendant to Paradise Lost, and just as Meredith cannot exclude all pathos from Sir Willoughby, so Milton cannot exclude all absurdity from Satan, and does not even wish to do so. That is the explanation of the Divine laughter in Paradise Lost which has offended some readers. There is a real offence in it because Milton has imprudently made his Divine Persons so anthropomorphic that their laughter arouses legitimately hostile reactions in us—as though we were dealing with an ordinary conflict of wills in which the winner ought not to ridicule the loser. But it is a mistake to demand that Satan, any more than Sir Willoughby, should be able to rant and posture through the whole universe without, sooner or later, awaking the comic spirit. The whole nature of reality would have to be altered in order to give him such immunity, and it is not alterable. At that precise point where Satan or Sir Willoughby meets something real, laughter must arise, just as steam must when water meets fire. And no one was less likely than Milton to be ignorant of this necessity. We know from his prose works that he believed everything detestable to be, in the long run, also ridiculous; and mere Christianity commits every Christian to believing that “the Devil is (in the long run) an ass.”

What the Satanic predicament consists in is made clear, as Mr. Williams points out, by Satan himself. On his own showing he is suffering from a “sense of injur'd merit” (I, 98). This is a well known state of mind which we can all study in domestic animals, children, film-stars, politicians, or minor poets; and perhaps nearer home. Many critics have a curious partiality for it in literature, but I do not know that any one admires it in life. When it appears, unable to hurt, in a jealous dog or a spoiled child, it is usually laughted at. When it appears armed with the force of millions on the political stage, it escapes ridicule only by being more mischievous. And the cause from which the Sense of Injured Merit arose in Satan's mind—once more I follow Mr. Williams—is also clear. “He thought himself impaired” (V, 662). He thought himself impaired because Messiah had been pronounced Head of the Angels. These are the “wrongs” which Shelley described as “beyond measure.” A being superior to himself in kind, by whom he himself had been created—a being far above him in the natural hierarchy—had been preferred to him in honour by an authority whose right to do so was not disputable, and in a fashion which, as Abdiel points out, constituted a compliment to the angels rather than a slight (V, 823-43). No one had in fact done anything to Satan; he was not hungry, nor over-tasked, nor removed from his place, nor shunned, nor hated—he only thought himself impaired. In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, he could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige. And his own prestige, it must be noted, had and could have no other grounds than those which he refused to admit for the superior prestige of Messiah. Superiority in kind, or Divine appointment, or both—on what else could his own exalted position depend? Hence his revolt is entangled in contradictions from the very outset, and he cannot even raise the banner of liberty and equality without admitting in a tell-tale parenthesis that “Orders and Degrees Jarr not with liberty” (V, 789). He wants hierarchy and does not want hierarchy. Throughout the poem he is engaged in sawing off the branch he is sitting on, not only in the quasi-political sense already indicated, but in a deeper sense still, since a creature revolting against a creator is revolting against the source of his own powers—including even his power to revolt. Hence the strife is most accurately described as “Heav'n ruining from Heav'n” (VI, 868), for only in so far as he also is “Heaven”—diseased, perverted, twisted, but still a native of Heaven—does Satan exist at all. It is like the scent of a flower trying to destroy the flower. As a consequence the same rebellion which means misery for the feelings and corruption for the will, means Nonsense for the intellect.

Mr. Williams has reminded us in unforgettable words that “Hell is inaccurate,” and has drawn attention to the fact that Satan lies about every subject he mentions in Paradise Lost. But I do not know whether we can distinguish his conscious lies from the blindness which he has almost willingly imposed on himself. When, at the very beginning of his insurrection, he tells Beelzebub that Messiah is going to make a tour “through all the Hierarchies … and give Laws” (V, 688-90) I suppose he may still know that he is lying; and similarly when he tells his followers that “all this haste of midnight march” (V, 774) had been ordered in honour of their new “Head.” But when in Book I he claims that the “terror of his arm” had put God in doubt of “his empire,” I am not quite certain. It is, of course, mere folly. There never had been any war between Satan and God, only between Satan and Michael; but it is possible that he now believes his own propaganda. When in Book X he makes to his peers the useless boast that Chaos had attempted to oppose his journey “protesting Fate supreame” (480) he may really, by then, have persuaded himself that this was true; for far earlier in his career he has become more a Lie than a Liar, a personified self-contradiction.

This doom of Nonsense—almost, in Pope's sense, of Dulness—is brought out in two scenes. The first is his debate with Abdiel in Book V. Here Satan attempts to maintain the heresy which is at the root of his whole predicament—the doctrine that he is a self-existent being, not a derived being, a creature. Now, of course, the property of a self-existent being is that it can understand its own existence; it is causa sui. The quality of a created being is that it just finds itself existing, it knows not how nor why. Yet at the same time, if a creature is silly enough to try to prove that it was not created, what is more natural than for it to say, “Well, I wasn't there to see it being done”? Yet what is more futile, since in thus admitting ignorance of its own beginnings it proves that those beginnings lay outside itself? Satan falls instantly into this trap (850 et seq.)—as indeed he cannot help doing—and produces as proof of his self-existence what is really its disproof. But even this is not Nonsense enough. Uneasily shifting on the bed of Nonsense which he has made for himself, he then throws out the happy idea that “fatal course” really produced him, and finally, with a triumphant air, the theory that he sprouted from the soil like a vegetable. Thus, in twenty lines, the being too proud to admit derivation from God, has come to rejoice in believing that he “just grew” like Topsy or a turnip. The second passage is his speech from the throne in Book II. The blindness here displayed reminds one of Napoleon's utterance after his fall, “I wonder what Wellington will do now?—he will never be content to become a private citizen again.” Just as Napoleon was incapable of conceiving, I do not say the virtues, but even the temptations, of an ordinarily honest man in a tolerably stable commonwealth, so Satan in this speech shows complete inability to conceive any state of mind but the infernal. His argument assumes as axiomatic that in any world where there is any good to be envied, subjects will envy their sovereign. The only exception is Hell, for there, since there is no good to be had, the sovereign cannot have more of it, and therefore cannot be envied. Hence he concludes that the infernal monarchy has a stability which the celestial lacks. That the obedient angels might love to obey is an idea which cannot cross his mind even as a hypothesis. But even within this invincible ignorance contradiction breaks out; for Satan makes this ludicrous proposition a reason for hoping ultimate victory. He does not, apparently, notice that every approach to victory must take away the grounds on which victory is hoped. A stability based on perfect misery, and therefore diminishing with each alleviation of that misery, is held out as something likely to assist in removing the misery altogether (II, 11-43).

What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything. This doom he has brought upon himself; in order to avoid seeing one thing he has, almost voluntarily, incapacitated himself from seeing at all. And thus, throughout the poem, all his torments come, in a sense, at his own bidding, and the Divine judgement might have been expressed in the words “thy will be done.” He says “Evil be thou my good” (which includes “Nonsense be thou my sense”) and his prayer is granted. It is by his own will that he revolts; but not by his own will that Revolt itself tears its way in agony out of his head and becomes a being separable from himself, capable of enchanting him (II, 749-66) and bearing him unexpected and unwelcome progeny. By his own will he becomes a serpent in Book IX; in Book X he is a serpent whether he will or no. This progressive degradation, of which he himself is vividly aware, is carefully marked in the poem. He begins by fighting for “liberty,” however misconceived; but almost at once sinks to fighting for “Honour, Dominion, glorie, and renoune” (VI, 422). Defeated in this, he sinks to that great design which makes the main subject of the poem—the design of ruining two creatures who had never done him any harm, no longer in the serious hope of victory, but only to annoy the Enemy whom he cannot directly attack. (The coward in Beaumont and Fletcher's play, not daring to fight a duel, decided to go home and beat his servants.) This brings him as a spy into the universe, and soon not even a political spy, but a mere peeping Tom leering and writhing in prurience as he overlooks the privacy of two lovers, and there described, almost for the first time in the poem, not as the fallen Archangel or Hell's dread Emperor, but simply as “the Devil” (IV, 502)—the salacious grotesque, half bogey and half buffoon, of popular tradition. From hero to general, from general to politician, from politician to secret service agent, and thence to a thing that peers in at bedroom or bathroom windows, and thence to a toad, and finally to a snake—such is the progress of Satan. This progress, misunderstood, has given rise to the belief that Milton began by making Satan more glorious than he intended and then, too late, attempted to rectify the error. But such an unerring picture of the “sense of injured merit” in its actual operations upon character cannot have come about by blundering and accident. We need not doubt that it was the poet's intention to be fair to evil, to give it a run for its money—to show it first at the height, with all its rants and melodrama and “Godlike imitated state” about it, and then to trace what actually becomes of such self-intoxication when it encounters reality. Fortunately we happen to know that the terrible soliloquy in Book IV (32-113) was conceived and in part composed before the first two books. It was from this conception that Milton started and when he put the most specious aspects of Satan at the very beginning of his poem he was relying on two predispositions in the minds of his readers, which in that age, would have guarded them from our later misunderstanding. Men still believed that there really was such a person as Satan, and that he was a liar. The poet did not foresee that his work would one day meet the disarming simplicity of critics who take for gospel things said by the father of falsehood in public speeches to his troops.

It remains, of course, true that Satan is the best drawn of Milton's characters. The reason is not hard to find. Of the major characters whom Milton attempted he is incomparably the easiest to draw. Set a hundred poets to tell the same story and in ninety of the resulting poems Satan will be the best character. In all but a few writers the “good” characters are the least successful, and every one who has ever tried to make even the humblest story ought to know why. To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash; the Satan, the Iago, the Becky Sharp, within each of us, is always there and only too ready, the moment the leash is slipped, to come out and have in our books that holiday we try to deny them in our lives. But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action. But the real high virtues which we do not possess at all, we cannot depict except in a purely external fashion. We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves. His whole inner landscape is one we have never seen, and when we guess it we blunder. It is in their “good” characters that novelists make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations. Heaven understands Hell and Hell does not understand Heaven, and all of us, in our measure, share the Satanic, or at least the Napoleonic, blindness. To project ourselves into a wicked character, we have only to stop doing something, and something that we are already tired of doing; to project ourselves into a good one we have to do what we cannot and become what we are not. Hence all that is said about Milton's “sympathy” with Satan, his expression in Satan of his own pride, malice, folly, misery, and lust, is true in a sense, but not in a sense peculiar to Milton. The Satan in Milton enables him to draw the character well just as the Satan in us enables us to receive it. Not as Milton, but as man, he has trodden the burning marl, pursued vain war with heaven, and turned aside with leer malign. A fallen man is very like a fallen angel. That, indeed, is one of the things which prevents the Satanic predicament from becoming comic. It is too near us; and doubtless Milton expected all readers to perceive that in the long run either the Satanic predicament or else the delighted obedience of Messiah, of Abdiel, of Adam, and of Eve, must be their own. It is therefore right to say that Milton has put much of himself into Satan; but it is unwarrantable to conclude that he was pleased with that part of himself or expected us to be pleased. Because he was, like the rest of us, damnable, it does not follow that he was, like Satan, damned.

Yet even the “good” characters in Paradise Lost are not so unsuccessful that a man who takes the poem seriously will doubt whether, in real life, Adam or Satan would be the better company. Observe their conversation. Adam talks about God, the Forbidden Tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars, and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds, and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve. Now listen to Satan: in Book I at line 83 he starts to address Beelzebub; by line 94 he is stating his own position and telling Beelzebub about his “fixt mind” and “injured merit.” At line 241 he starts off again, this time to give his impressions of Hell: by line 252 he is stating his own position and assuring us (untruly) that he is “still the same.” At line 622 he begins to harangue his followers; by line 635 he is drawing attention to the excellence of his public conduct. Book II opens with his speech from the throne; before we have had eight lines he is lecturing the assembly on his right to leadership. He meets Sin—and states his position. He sees the Sun; it makes him think of his own position. He spies on the human lovers; and states his position. In Book IX he journeys round the whole earth; it reminds him of his own position. The point need not be laboured. Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace “all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.” Satan has been in the Heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan. It may be said that Adam's situation made it easier for him, than for Satan, to let his mind roam. But that is just the point. Satan's monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament. Certainly, he has no choice. He has chosen to have no choice. He has wished to “be himself,” and to be in himself and for himself, and his wish has been granted. The Hell he carries with him is, in one sense, a Hell of infinite boredom. Satan, like Miss Bates, is interesting to read about; but Milton makes plain the blank uninterestingness of being Satan.

To admire Satan, then, is to give one's vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography. Yet the choice is possible. Hardly a day passes without some slight movement towards it in each one of us. That is what makes Paradise Lost so serious a poem. The thing is possible, and the exposure of it is resented. Where Paradise Lost is not loved, it is deeply hated. As Keats said more rightly than he knew, “there is death” in Milton. We have all skirted the Satanic island closely enough to have motives for wishing to evade the full impact of the poem. For, I repeat, the thing is possible; and after a certain point it is prized. Sir Willoughby may be unhappy, but he wants to go on being Sir Willoughby. Satan wants to go on being Satan. That is the real meaning of his choice “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n.” Some, to the very end, will think this a fine thing to say; others will think that it fails to be roaring farce only because it spells agony. On the level of literary criticism the matter cannot be argued further. Each to his taste.

Helen Gardner (essay date 1948)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Milton's “Satan” and the Theme of Damnation in Elizabethan Tragedy,” in Milton: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by Arthur E. Barker, Oxford University Press, 1965, pp. 205-17.

[In the following essay, originally published in English Studies in 1948, Gardner considers the character of Satan, responding to other critics' assessments of him and determining that Milton developed the figure dramatically throughout the poem and “expended his creative energies and his full imaginative powers in exploring the fact of perversity within a single heroic figure.”]

We are all familiar with the progeny of Milton's Satan and the effort of most recent criticism has been directed towards clearing the Satan of Milton's poem from his associations with the Promethean rebel of romantic tradition. But the question whether Satan had any ancestors has hardly been raised, or has been dismissed by reference to the devil of popular tradition, or by an allusion to the heroic figure of the Old English Genesis B. The late Mr. Charles Williams, in an essay on Milton which seems likely to become a classic, and Mr. C. S. Lewis, building, as he delighted to own, on Mr. Williams, destroyed, one hopes for ever, the notion that Satan had grounds for his rebellion.1 But when we have agreed that Satan's “wrongs” which “exceed all measure” exist only in Shelley's generous imagination, and that it is easier to draw a bad character than a good, and have assented to the statement that Satan's career is a steady progress from bad to worse and ends with his complete deformity, we still have no explanation of why the Romantic critics stood Paradise Lost on its head, or why the “common reader” finds the imaginative impact of the first books so much more powerful than that of the last, or why, as one re-reads the poem, the exposure of Satan's malice and meanness seems curiously irrelevant. There remains always, untouched by the argument, the image of enormous pain and eternal loss. It is out of key with the close of the poem, which does not drive it from our memory, nor absorb it.

“From hero to general, from general to politician, from politician to secret service agent, and thence to a thing that peers in at bedroom or bathroom windows, and thence to a toad, and finally to a snake—such is the progress of Satan,” writes Mr. Lewis, and he rightly declares that there is no question of Milton's beginning by making Satan too glorious and then, too late, attempting to rectify the error. “Such an unerring picture of ‘the sense of injured merit’ in its actual operations upon character cannot have come about by blundering and accident.” We can parallel this account of the career of Satan, but not from Iago and Becky Sharp, whom Mr. Lewis cites as examples of bad characters who are more interesting than their virtuous opposites. From a brave and loyal general, to a treacherous murderer, to a hirer of assassins, to an employer of spies, to a butcher, to a coward, to a thing with no feeling for anything but itself, to a monster and a “hell-hound”: that is a summary of the career of Macbeth. From a proud philosopher, master of all human knowledge, to a trickster, to a slave of phantoms, to a cowering wretch: that is a brief sketch of the progress of Dr. Faustus. With varying use of mythological machinery, this theme of the deforming of a creature in its origin bright and good, by its own willed persistence in acts against its own nature, is handled by Shakespeare and Marlowe, and with great power, but in a purely naturalistic setting, by Middleton and Rowley in The Changeling. It is on the tragic stage that we find the idea of damnation in English literature before Paradise Lost. “Satan,” writes Mr. Williams, “is the Image of personal clamour for personal independence.” He is in rebellion against “the essential fact of things.” The same can be said of Faustus, of Macbeth, and of Beatrice-Joanna, and it is particularly interesting to notice that in Macbeth and The Changeling the dramatists have altered their sources to bring out the full implications of the theme.

The devil was a comic character in the medieval drama; in the Elizabethan period he virtually disappears in his own person from the greater plays. But what Mr. Lewis calls “the Satanic predicament” is there, and it appears in the tragic, not the comic mode of vision. The terrible distinction between devils and men in popular theology lay in the irreversibility of the fall of the angels. Unlike men the fallen angels were incapable of repentance and so for them there was no pardon. As Donne puts it: “To those that fell, can appertaine no reconciliation; no more then to those that die in their sins; for Quod homini mors, Angelis casus; The fall of the Angels wrought upon them, as the death of a man does upon him; They are both equally incapable of change to better.”2 Donne recognizes that some of the Fathers thought that “the devill retaining still his faculty of free will, is therefore capable of repentance, and so of benefit by this comming of Christ”;3 but this is exactly the point which Aquinas denies and Donne assents to his view. Aquinas decides that the fallen angels cannot repent, since, though they know the beginnings of penitence in fear, their free-will is perverted: “Quid-quid in eis est naturale, totum est bonum et ad bonum inclinans, sed liberum arbitrium in eis est in malo obstinatum; et quia motus virtutis et vitii non sequitur inclinationem naturae, sed magis motum liberi arbitrii; ideo non oportet, quamvis naturaliter inclinentur ad bonum, quod motus virtutis in eis sit, vel esse possit.”4 In the tragic world of Faustus and Macbeth we find presented to us in human terms this incapacity for change to a better state. It never occurs to us that Macbeth will turn back, or indeed that he can; and though Marlowe, in this more merciful, as he is always more metaphysical, than Shakespeare, keeps before us the fact of Faustus's humanity by the urgings of the Good Angel, yet to the Good Angel's “Faustus, repent; yet God will pity thee,” comes at once the Bad Angel's response: “Thou art a spirit;5 God cannot pity thee”; and to Faustus's

Who buzzeth in mine ears, I am a spirit?
Be I a devil, yet God may pity me;
Yea, God will pity me, if I repent.

comes the confident statement of the Bad Angel: “Ay, but Faustus never shall repent”; to which Faustus gives a despairing assent: “My heart is harden’d, I cannot repent.”6

In the three plays mentioned, along with this incapacity for change to a better state, or repentance, go two other closely related ideas. The initial act is an act against nature, it is a primal sin, in that it contradicts the “essential fact of things,” and its author knows that it does so. It is not an act committed by mistake; it is not an error of judgment, it is an error of will. [The act is unnatural] and so are its results; it deforms the nature which performs it. The second idea is the irony of retributive justice. The act is performed for an imagined good, which appears so infinitely desirable that the conditions for its supposed satisfaction are accepted; but a rigorous necessity reigns and sees to it that though the conditions are exacted literally, the desire is only granted ironically, and this is inevitable, since the desire is for something forbidden by the very nature of man. …7

It is not suggested that there is any direct relation between these three plays, in the sense that one was inspired by the others; nor is it suggested that when Milton drew his Satan he had these great tragic figures in mind. What is suggested is that Satan belongs to their company, and if we ask where the idea of damnation was handled with seriousness and intensity in English literature before Milton, we can only reply: on the tragic stage. Satan is, of course, a character in an epic, and he is in no sense the hero of the epic as a whole. But he is a figure of heroic magnitude and heroic energy, and he is developed by Milton with dramatic emphasis and dramatic intensity. He is shown, to begin with, engaged in heroic and stupendous enterprises, and again and again in moments of dramatic clash; rousing his supine followers, awaiting his moment in the great debate, confronted with Sin and Death and Chaos itself, flinging taunt for taunt at his angelic adversaries. But most strikingly he is presented to us by the means by which the great Elizabethan dramatists commended their tragic heroes to our hearts and imaginations: by soliloquy. Milton gives to Satan no less than five long soliloquies in Eden, three in the fourth book and two in the ninth.8 In them he reveals to us “the hot Hell that always in him burnes,” and recalls again and again

the bitter memorie
Of what he was, what is, and what must be

It is in them that the quality which makes Satan a tragic figure appears most strikingly, and it is the quality Mr. Lewis makes weightiest against him: his egoism.

“Satan's monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament,” says Mr. Lewis. The same is true of the great tragic heroes of Shakespeare, and this capacity of theirs to expose relentlessly the full horror of their situations is just what makes them the heroes of their plays.9 The predicament of Claudius is direr than Hamlet's, but Shakespeare pays little attention to it; Malcolm is the righteous avenger of a horrible crime, but the sympathy we feel for him we take for granted. We are held enthralled instead by the voice of Hamlet, defining for us his “bad dreams” or that of Macbeth telling us of solitude. If we are to complain that wherever he goes, and whatever he sees, Satan finds nothing of interest but himself, and to compare him unfavourably with Adam, who can converse on topics of general interest such as the stars, what should we say of Lear, who finds in the majesty of the storm or the misery of the naked beggarman only fresh incentives to talk about the unkindness of his daughters? If we can say of a speech of Satan's that “it fails to be roaring farce only because it spells agony,” we can say the same of Macbeth, complaining at the close of a career of murderous egoism that he has no friends, or of Beatrice-Joanna, “a woman dipp'd in blood” talking of modesty. Satan is an egoist and Satan is a comic character in exactly the same way as Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Lear are egoists and comic characters. “O gull! O dolt!” cries Emilia to Othello. We do not pity him the less because we assent.

The critical problem of Paradise Lost seems to me to lie here. We are concerned with Satan in a way that is quite different from the way we are concerned with Adam and Eve. In Mr. Lewis's treatment this is quite clear. He uses all his skill to make us regard Satan as a despicable human being, discussing him in terms of “children, filmstars, politicians, or minor poets”; but he uses equal skill to make us realize we must not regard Adam in this way. If he is right, as I think he is, in pressing a distinction between our attitudes to the two figures, he poses an acute problem for the reader of Paradise Lost, and appears to convict Milton of the artistic failure involved in a mixture of kinds.

The distinction I feel I would express in rather different terms. Adam and Even are representative figures, and the act they perform is a great symbolic act. The plucking of the apple is not in itself imaginatively powerful; its power over us springs from its very triviality; the meaning and the consequences are so much greater than the image of a hand stretched out to pluck the fruit. The temptation and fall of Eve is profound in its psychological analysis, but it lacks the shock of dramatic situation. As Mr. Lewis says: “The whole thing is so quick, each new element of folly, malice, and corruption enters so unobtrusively, so naturally, that it is hard to realize we have been watching the genesis of murder. We expect something more like Lady Macbeth's ‘unsex me here.’” In other words the situation is not dramatically exploited, lingered on. The scenes between Adam and Eve are deeply human, but they lack the terror, and the dreadful exaggeration of tragedy. The quarrel is only too sadly life-like, but it does not appal us, as does the spectacle of Othello striking Desdemona. In the ninth book and the books that follow, Milton is tracing with insight, with humanity and with humility the process in man through sin to repentance. The progress is steady and ordered; what is said is fully adequate to the situation, appropriate but not astounding. But Satan's defiance of God is not expressed by a symbolic gesture; in his rebellion the act and its meaning are one. And in the earlier books, and indeed wherever Satan appears, what is said goes beyond the necessities of the narrative, because Milton was writing as a tragic artist obsessed by his imagination of a particular experience, and exploring it with the maximum intensity. The experience might be called “exclusion.” Wherever he goes, whatever he looks at, Satan is perpetually conscious of this. His exclusion is self-willed, as is the exclusion of Faustus, Macbeth and Beatrice-Joanna. Like them he gazes on a heaven he cannot enter; like them he is in the end deformed; like them he remains in the memory with all the stubborn objectivity of the tragic.

If it can be accepted that Satan as he is conceived and presented to us is a tragic figure, it is possible to suggest another explanation for the Romantic misconception of the poem than a dislike of Milton's theology. The early nineteenth century was greatly concerned it would seem with tragic experience; its great poets wanted to be “miserable and mighty poets of the human heart.” All of them attempted to write tragedy, but, with the possible exception of The Cenci, they produced nothing that is admitted to be fully tragic. It was also a period remarkable for penetrating and subtle Shakespearian criticism, but for a criticism which lost a sense of the play in its discussion of the psychology of the characters, and which tended to minimize in the tragic heroes the very thing that made them tragic and not pathetic, the evil in them. In the criticism of the period Hamlet is “a sweet prince,” Lear “a man more sinned against than sinning.” Hamlet's savagery and Lear's appalling rages are overlooked. Lamb turned from the stage because he could not bear the cruel comedy of King Lear, nor the sight of Desdemona in Othello's arms. Realized intensely in the mind, divorced from his action in the play, the tragic hero was reshaped. It is of the essence of tragedy that it forces us to look at what we normally do not care to look at, and have not invented for ourselves.10 The failure either to write or to appreciate tragedy in the Romantic period springs from the same cause: the Romantic poets' pre-occupation with themselves, and their lack of capacity to submit themselves to the “mystery of things.” The famous passage in which Keats defined Shakespeare's quality as “Negative Capability” goes to the root of the matter. But “Negative Capability” is as necessary to the spectator and critic of tragedy as to its creator. The tragic is destroyed when we identify the hero with ourselves. Just as the Romantic critics tended to see the heroes of Shakespeare's tragedies as more admirable, more tender, more purely pathetic than they are, so feeling Satan's kinship with the tragic hero they sentimentalized him and made him conform to their limited conception of tragedy. Because he was to be pitied, they minimized the evil in him, inventing wrongs to explain and excuse it.11

The present age is also not an age of great tragic writing, though there are some signs of a revival of the tragic spirit. Its best poetry is symbolic, and its criticism, in reviving for us the medieval tradition of allegory, tends towards an allegorical interpretation of all art. Mr. Lewis, in exposing Shelley's misconceptions, has inverted the Romantic attitude, for the effect of his chapter on Satan is to make us feel that because Satan is wicked, and wicked with no excuse, he is not to be pitied, but is to be hated and despised. Shelley saw in Satan the indomitable rebel against unjust tyranny, and while regretting the “taints” in his character excused them. Mr. Lewis, who thinks more harshly of himself and of human nature than Shelley did, exposes Satan with all the energy and argumentative zeal which we used to hear our European Service employing in denouncing the lies of Goebbels and revealing the true nature of the promises of Hitler. Both Shelley's passionate sympathy and Mr. Lewis's invective derive from the same fundamental attitude: “It is we who are Satan.” As often happens with plural statements, this is a merely verbal extension of the singular; that is to say it is infected by an egoism that distorts the proper function of the tragic. When we contemplate the lost Archangel, we should not be seeing ourselves in heroic postures defying tyrants, nor weighing up our chances of ending in Hell, any more than, while we watch the progress of Lear, we should be thinking how ungrateful other people are to us for our goodness to them, or resolving to think before we speak next time. Though Shelley and Mr. Lewis are on different sides, they agree in taking sides. Neither of them accepts the complexity of the emotion which Satan arouses.

The tragic is something outside ourselves which we contemplate with awe and pity. Aristotle began the perversion of tragic theory when he suggested that the terror we feel is a terror that the same fate may befall us. Aristotle was a philosopher and a moralist, and, like many of his kind since, wanted to make tragedy safe and useful. But tragedy does not exist to provide us with horrid warnings. “Pity,” said Stephen Dedalus, expanding the cryptic Aristotelian formula, “is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.”12 We accept the justice by which the tragic hero is destroyed. Indeed if it were not for the justice we should have no pity for him. The acceptance of the justice makes possible the pity, and the pity calls for the justice without which it would turn to loathing. But the cause must be secret in tragedy; it must be felt within the facts exposed; what is hateful in the tragic world is that Eternal Law should argue.

The unity of tragedy is destroyed if the critic makes himself either the champion of the hero or the advocate of Eternal Law. Tragedy “arrests the mind” as the sufferings of others do, but as our own do not. But in life the arrest is short, for we are involved in the necessity of action. As spectators of tragedy we are released from our perpetual burden of asking ourselves what we ought to do. To use tragedy either as a moral example or as a moral warning is to destroy the glory of tragedy, the power it has to release us from ourselves by arousing in us the sense of magnitude and the sense of awe. Wordsworth, the most untragic of great poets, saw something of the nature of tragedy when he wrote,

Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark,
And shares the nature of infinity.

Tragedy may present us with a “false infinite” but it has that nature. It is permanent “with such permanence as time has.” Like the rock in Mr. Eliot's The Dry Salvages,

Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a sudden course by: but in the sombre season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.

The figure of Satan has this imperishable significance. If he is not the heroic rebel of Shelley's imagination, neither is he merely an “unerring picture of the ‘sense of injur'd merit’ in its actual operations upon character.”

But if Mr. Lewis's view seems like an inversion of Shelley's, Mr. Williams's is not very unlike Blake's. What Blake perceived in Paradise Lost was a radical dualism, which was perhaps the inevitable effect of treating the myth in epic form. Among the many difficulties inherent in the subject was the difficulty of knowing how much to include in the direct action and how much to put into relations. It was impossible for Milton to begin where his tragedy Adam Unparadised was to have begun, in Paradise; the direct action would have been insufficient to fill the epic form. Even as it is, Paradise Lost is overweighted with relations. Epic tradition forbade him to begin at the beginning with the exaltation of the Son. Possibly his decision to begin with the moment when Satan lifts his head from the burning waves was inevitable once he had decided against the dramatic form in which he first conceived the subject. But the effect of beginning there, and of the whole of the “Prologue in Hell” is to make the action of the poem seem to originate in Hell, and to make the acts of Heaven seem only the response called out by the energies of Hell. However much Milton contradicts this later and asserts the overriding Will, the structure and design of his poem contradict and fight against his intention. The parallel, so often praised, between the silence in Hell, and the silence in Heaven reinforces the feeling of dualism, since contraria sunt aequalia, and Satan and the Son seem balanced against each other, as Blake saw them to be, while the priority of the scene in Hell seems to make Heaven parody Hell rather than Hell Heaven. Mr. Williams's statement that “the Son is the Image of Derivation in Love, and Satan is the Image of personal clamour for personal independence” is not unlike Blake's assertion of “the contraries from which spring what the religious call good and evil.” It suggests at least that Milton made Satan too important in the scheme of his poem.

Perhaps the problem which Paradise Lost presents to the critic has its origin in Milton's own change of mind over the form in which he was to write his masterpiece. He first chose the subject of the Fall of Man as suited to a tragedy, and we know that he not only planned the disposition of his material in dramatic form, but actually began the writing. His draft Adam Unparadised provides Lucifer with two soliloquies: in the first he was to “bemoan himself” and “seek revenge upon man”; in the second he was to appear “relating and consulting on what he had done to the destruction of man.” The first soliloquy was therefore to have been mainly expository, and in the second Lucifer was to take over the duty of the classical messenger and relate the catastrophe. The strict concentration of classical tragedy would have prevented Lucifer from usurping on the main interest, and his predicament, however much he “bemoaned himself,” would have been subordinated to the whole design. Why Milton changed his mind we do not know, and he set himself a problem of extraordinary difficulty in choosing to treat this particular subject in epic form. He had somehow to fill the large epic structure, and it is difficult to see how else he could have done it than by expanding Satan's rôle. But it is possible that he turned away from tragedy because his interest had radiated out from the true centre of the action, the Fall itself, and his imagination demanded the larger freedom of the epic. Certainly the fact that Phillips remembered seeing the opening lines of Satan's first soliloquy as part of the projected tragedy suggests that Milton's conception of Satan began to form early, and it may have been that the writing of this first soliloquy showed Milton that the tragic form would not allow him to develop his conception as fully as he wished to. But whether the decision to begin his poem with Satan in Hell was simply the inevitable result of enlarging his action to make it sufficient for an epic, or whether it was Milton's interest in Satan that led him to abandon tragedy for epic, and he therefore naturally began with Satan, the figure of Satan, originally conceived dramatically, is developed dramatically throughout, and Milton expended his creative energies and his full imaginative power in exploring the fact of perversity within a single heroic figure. In this, as in much else, he is what we loosely call an Elizabethan, sacrificing simplicity of effect and strength of design to imaginative opportunity; creating the last great tragic figure in our literature and destroying the unity of his poem in doing so. The dualism which Blake found in the poem's thought, and which in Mr. Williams's analysis seems to dictate its design, is certainly there in its manner. The strong emotions of pity and terror do not mix well with the interest, sympathy and “admiration” which we feel for the heroes of what Mr. Lewis has called “the secondary epic,” and, with the possible exception of Hazlitt, no critic of note has done justice to both Satan and Adam as artistic creations. The subject demanded an “infernal Serpent”; instead Milton has given us “a lost Archangel.” There would be no difficulty if Satan were simply an Iago; the difficulty arises because he is a Macbeth.


  1. See The English Poems of Milton, with a preface by Charles Williams, (World's Classics) 1940, and C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, 1942.

  2. LXXX Sermons, 1640, p. 9. A recent reading of Donne's Sermons for another purpose has impressed upon me how often Donne provides the comment of a theologian or a moralist upon the tragedies of his contemporaries.

  3. Ibid., p. 66.

  4. S.T., Supplement, Q. XVI, Art. 3.

  5. Spirit here as elsewhere in the play means evil spirit, or devil.

  6. All quotations from Dr. Faustus are from the edition of Dr. F. S. Boas, 1932. The point that Faustus is presented to us as incapable of real repentance, though like the devils he knows the beginnings of penitence in fear and “believes and trembles,” is obscured if we accept, as Dr. Boas does, the suggestion of Mr. H. T. Baker (Modern Language Notes, vol. XXI, pp. 86-7) and transfer to Faustus the close of the Old Man's speech in Act v, scene i (p. 161). In this most touching scene the Old Man makes a last appeal to Faustus to remember his humanity:

    Though thou hast now offended like a man,
    Do not persever in it like a devil;
    Yet, yet, thou hast an amiable soul,
    If sin by custom grow not into nature.
  7. Donne supplies us with a comment on the “omnipotence” of Faustus, the “kingship” of Macbeth and the “marriage” of Beatrice-Joanna, when he says: “For small wages, and ill-paid pensions we serve him (Satan); and lest any man should flatter and delude himselfe, in saying, I have my wages, and my reward before hand, my pleasures in this life, the punishment, (if ever) not till the next, The Apostle destroyes that dreame, with that question of confusion, What fruit had you then in those things, of which you are now ashamed? Certainly sin is not a gainfull way; … fruitlesness, unprofitableness before, shame and dishoner after.” LXXX Sermons, p. 65. [EDITOR'S NOTE. In the pages omitted here, Miss Gardner discusses Faustus, Macbeth, and Beatrice-Joanna, in the plays instanced above.]

  8. In spite of the explanatory and anticipatory element in these soliloquies, their general effect, particularly in the two longest, IV, 32-113 and IX, 99-178, is quite different from the effect of the soliloquies of villains such as Richard III or Iago. In them we are conscious of activity of intellect and atrophy of feeling; here, as in the soliloquies of Hamlet or Macbeth, the plans announced are less important than the analysis of the hero's predicament.

  9. Henry James puts this well in the preface to The Princess Casamassima, London, 1921, p. viii. “This in fact I have ever found rather terribly the point—that the figures in any picture, the agents in any drama, are interesting only in proportion as they feel their respective situations; since the consciousness, on their part, of the complication exhibited forms for us their link of connection with it. But there are degrees of feeling—the muffled, the faint, the just sufficient, the barely intelligent, as we may say; and the acute, the intense, the complete, in a word—the power to be finely aware and richly responsible. It is those moved in this latter fashion who “get most” out of all that happens to them and who in so doing enable us, as readers of their record, as participators by a fond attention, also to get most. Their being finely aware—as Hamlet and Lear, say, are finely aware—makes absolutely the intensity of their adventure, gives the maximum of sense to what befalls them.”

  10. It may be suggested that the success of The Cenci, compared with other tragedies of the period, is partly due to the fact that the story was not invented by Shelley. He plainly felt some of the “superstitious horror” which he tells us the story still aroused in Italy, and was fascinated by the portrait of Beatrice.

  11. In the preface to Prometheus Unbound, Shelley compared Satan with Prometheus and declared that Prometheus is the “more poetical character” since he is “exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandisement, which, in the Hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest.” He thought that the character of Satan “engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs, and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure.” When he wrote the preface to The Cenci, Shelley had abandoned the notion that moral perfection made a character poetically interesting, and acknowledged that if Beatrice had been “wiser and better” she would not have been a tragic character, but he speaks again of the “casuistry” by which we try to justify what she does, while feeling that it needs justification. When he compared Milton's God and his Devil in A Defence of Poetry, Shelley declared Satan was morally superior on the grounds that his situation and his wrongs excused in him the revengefulness which is hateful in his triumphant Adversary. In all these passages one can see Shelley's feeling that the Hero is a person whose side we take. The theme of a nature warped by suffering injustice, and repaying crime with crime, is certainly tragic when handled with seriousness and moral integrity as in The Cenci, though it slides all too easily into the sentimental absurdities of the Byronic outcast, and it is always in danger of shallowness. It is the tragic formula of an age which does not believe in original sin, and thinks of evil as not bred in the heart, but caused by circumstances.

  12. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, chapter v.

    [EDITOR'S NOTE. Miss Gardner's interpretation of Paradise Lost is further developed in her forthcoming volume in the series of Alexander Lectures, University of Toronto. See the items listed with the preceding essay; and on some other literary models see W. Blissett, JHI, XVIII (1957), 221-32; R. M. Bottwood, CJ, XLVII (1952), 183-6; E. E. Kellett, London Quarterly and Holborn Review, CLXIV (1939), 88-99.]

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Klemp, P. J. Paradise Lost: An Annotated Bibliography. Magill Bibliographies. Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, 1996, 249 p.

Bibliography with descriptions of secondary sources organized by subject and individual book in the epic.

———ed. The Essential Milton: An Annotated Bibliography of Major Modern Studies. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989, 474 p.

Bibliography of secondary criticism on Milton, with a section devoted to works on Paradise Lost.


Barker, A. E, ed. Milton: Modern Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965, 483 p.

Collection of essays by noted critics that provide stimulating introductions to the works or highlight significant issues in Milton scholarship; includes articles on Paradise Lost by Douglas Bush, A. B. Chambers, C. S. Lewis, and Irene Samuel.

Blamires, Harry. Milton's Creation: A Guide through Paradise Lost. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1971, 308 p.

Escorts the reader through the text, providing general notes on the poem, clarifying difficult passages, and offering detailed analyses of crucial passages.

Broadbent, J. B. Some Graver Subject: An Essay on Paradise Lost. London: Chatto and Windus, 1960, 303 p.

Claims that, from a historical point of view, Paradise Lost is a reactionary work, and also that Milton presents his subject matter in an intellectual rather than a mystical manner.

Burden, Dennis. The Logical Epic: A Study of the Argument of Paradise Lost. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967, 117 p.

Examines how Milton treats his subject matter in light of the constraints presented in his source materials, and argues that in writing his poem Milton had to scrutinize the Bible with an eye to its rationality and logic.

Bush, Douglas. Paradise Lost in Our Time. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1957, 117 p.

Four essays originally delivered as lectures discussing the reaction against Milton in the mid-twentieth century, and exploring the work's religious and ethical themes, characters and drama, and poetical texture.

DiCesare, Mario A. “Paradise Lost and the Epic Tradition.” Milton Studies I (1969): 31-50.

Examines some of the ways in which Milton, following Virgil, modified the epic tradition.

Empson, William. Milton's God. London: Chatto and Windus, 1961, 249 p.

Influential study that paints a grim portrait of God in Paradise Lost.

Fish, Stanley Eugene. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967, 361 p.

Argues that “the uniqueness of the poem's theme—man's first disobedience and the fruit thereof—results in the reader's being simultaneously a participant in the action and a critic of his own performance.”

Fixler, Michael. “The Apocalypse Within Paradise Lost. In New Essays on Paradise Lost, pp. 131-78. edited by Thomas Kranidas, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Suggests that Milton based Paradise Lost on an elaborate systematic transformation of the Apocalypse or Revelation of St. John.

Frye, Northrop. The Return of Eden. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965, 151 p.

Essays discussing the epic structure, style, and themes of the poem.

Gardner, Helen. A Reading of Paradise Lost. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965, 131 p.

Detailed reading of the epic with discussions of Milton's creation of an intensely dramatic universe, the poem's extraordinary scope of space and time, and Satan as a tragic figure.

Kermode, Frank, ed. The Living Milton: Essays by Various Hands. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960, 179 p.

Collection of essays by distinguished scholars, many of which are frequently reprinted; includes essays on Paradise Lost.

Kranidas, Thomas, ed. New Essays on Paradise Lost. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. 180 p.

Important volume of essays with articles by Stanley Fish, John T. Shawcross, and A. B. Chambers.

Leonard, John. Naming in Paradise: Milton and the Language of Adam and Eve. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, 304 p.

Study of the poem's language.

Lindenbaum, Peter. “Lovemaking in Milton's Paradise.” Milton Studies VI (1975): 277-306.

Asserts that Milton's emphasis on Adam and Eve's lovemaking before the fall encourages readers to view sexual love as the “sum of prelapsarian bliss” and appreciate the complexities in Adam's decision to disobey God because of his love for Eve.

Lewis, C. S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. London: Oxford University Press, 1942, 143 p.

One of the most important and original works of Milton criticism that touches on various subjects, including the poem's solemn tone, Christian orthodoxy, Eve's pride, Adam's uxoriousness, and Milton's God;. Lewis claims also that the final two books form a “grave structural flaw.”

MacCaffrey, Isabel Gamble. Paradise Lost as “Myth.” Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959, 229 p.

Argues that Milton uses the myth of the cyclic journey to portray humanity's movement from an original state of glory (creation) to exile (the fall) and back to God (redemption).

Martz, Louis L. “Paradise Lost: The Journey of the Mind.” In The Paradise Within: Studies in Vaughn, Traherne, and Milton. New Haven, CONN: Yale University Press, 1964, pp. 103-67

Claims that Paradise Lost is concerned with “a renewal of human vision” and that the epic's narrator looks toward a recovery of paradise.

Rajan, Balachandra, ed. Paradise Lost: A Tercentenary Tribute. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969, 140 p.

Volume of critical essays including contributions by noted critics such as Northrop Frye, Arthur E. Barker, and Hugh MacCallum.

Raleigh, Sir Walter. “Paradise Lost: The Scheme.” In Milton. pp. 77-125. London: Edward Arnold, 1900.

Claims that Milton in the poem “serves Satan,” and says that while the poem does not concern modern readers “it is not the less an eternal monument because it is a monument to dead ideas.”

———“Paradise Lost: The Actors. The Later Poems.” In Milton. pp. 126-174. London: Edward Arnold, 1900.

Considers that the poem's epic value comes from Satan's character and achievement, argues that Milton bases his universe on political rather than religious principles, sees Milton's God as a “Whimsical Tyrant,” and praises Milton's power of style despite his pedantic treatment of abstract thought.

Ricks, Christopher. Milton's Grand Style. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963, 154 p.

Offers a detailed analysis of the style of Paradise Lost, and answers critics who have called the language of the work monotonous, ritualistic, and unsubtle.

Steadman, John. Milton's Epic Characters: Image and Idol. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959, 343 p.

Explores the intellectual background of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regainedwith particular emphasis on problems of characterization.

Steadman, John. Epic and Tragic Structure in Paradise Lost. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976, 189 p.

Asserts that Milton beautifully accommodates the temptation story to an ideal of the epic form, and that he invests the traditional heroic poem with Christian matter and meaning.

Stein, Arnold. Answerable Style: Essays on Paradise Lost. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1953, 166 p.

Important general study reprinted in numerous volumes of critical essays. Stein discusses, among other things, the character of Satan, the war in heaven, grotesque imagery, the archetype of the garden, and the cosmic and domestic drama of the epic.

———“Imagining Death: The Ways of Milton.” Milton Studies XXIX (1992): 105-20.

Examines Milton's thoughts on death as revealed in Paradise Lost and other works.

Summers, Joseph H. The Muse's Method: An Introduction to Paradise Lost. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962, 227 p.

Introductory reading of Paradise Lost with each chapter offering a different method or approach toward the epic. Summers includes a textual analysis of the opening lines, an examination of the uses of grotesque parody and comedy, a discussion of the definition of “good” or “Perfection,” and a discussion of the centrality of the “Two Great Sexes.”

Tillyard, E. M. W. Studies in Milton. London: Chatto and Windus, 1950, 176 p.

A frequently reprinted study that considers such themes as the Fall, Adam and Eve's disobedience, the couple's reconciliation, and the character of Satan.

Additional coverage of Milton's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1660-1789; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 131, 151; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most—studied Authors, Poets; Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vols. 9, 43; World Literature Criticism.

Arthur E. Barker (essay date 1949)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Structural Pattern in Paradise Lost,” in Milton: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by Arthur E. Barker, Oxford University Press, 1965, pp. 142-55.

[In the following essay, originally published in Philological Quarterly in 1949, Barker discusses how in Paradise Lost Milton moved away from a Virgilian ten-book, five-act structure to a twelve-book form that ultimately serves to reduce Satan's power over the poem.]

Milton, as Professor Thompson has said, “realized that form is determined not by rule or precedent but by the thought to be expressed. Hence he adapted the pattern of the epic to his own ends, and wrote as a creative artist.”1

From its opening invocation Paradise Lost invites attention to this process of adaptation and transcendence. The initial statement of the threefold subject (disobedience and woe, till restoration) immediately suggests specific comparison with the opening statement of the Aeneid (Troy fall and wandering, till the new city be founded). This suggestion is reinforced periodically throughout; so also is the opening invocation's adventurous claim to no middle flight above the Aonian mount, no mere description of the loss and restoration of an earthly city. And one of the chief pleasures of the student of Milton has always been to watch, under the guidance of skilled commentators from Addison to Professor Thompson, how Milton expressively modifies the conventions and the pattern of epic to suit the meanings of his theme.

So guided, most of us readily agree with Addison's observation that Paradise Lost does not fall short “of the Iliad or Aeneid in the beauties which are essential to that kind of writing”; and it is to be hoped that the tradition so established may somehow be continued in spite of the difficulties of increasing unfamiliarity with Milton's classical models. The process of adaptation was in fact one of Milton's chief instruments of expression. Each of his important poems assumes as one of its points of departure a tradition of interpretation and a convention of form, and in each of them successful communication depends very largely on a recognition of likeness as the basis for expressive variation. Nor is this the case merely with conventional detail. It may be doubted whether the total force of Paradise Lost can ever be felt by a reader who does not recognize how its total pattern reproduces while modifying and modifies while reproducing the total pattern of the Aeneid.

It is not difficult to win from a modern reader half of this recognition. But when one has shown that the Aeneid has indeed a significant structural pattern—six Odyssean books of wandering balanced by six Achillean books of war and establishment, three distinct movements of four books each, six groups of two books apiece, with the structural weight so made to fall on a series of prophecies of glory to be won from apparent failure—when one has indicated by simple arithmetic the controlling structural pattern of Virgil's epic and has turned to Milton's awareness of it, one is almost certain to be met by the complaint that Milton does not imitate it adequately. Before long one is likely to find oneself dealing, like Professor Thompson on another occasion2, with the implications of Addison's remark that the tenth book of Paradise Lost “is like the last act of a well-constructed tragedy, in which all who had a part in it are drawn up before the audience, and represented under those circumstances in which the determination of the action has placed them.” Are not the succeeding books, it is asked, superfluous, or at any rate (as Addison notes) “not generally reckoned among the most shining books of the poem”? And does not this mean, among other things, that Milton's imitation of the Virgilian pattern is inadequate?

It is difficult to convince a modern reader that Milton's intention was not merely to copy but to adapt the Virgilian pattern, to use the classical models as bases for variations which would assist in the expression of the Christian theme. The paradox of the Christian theme is itself difficult enough to express convincingly. Milton already found it so. But it is perhaps just here that the comparison and contrast with Virgil may be of most effect. We have at any rate a suggestive point of contrast in the attitudes of the two poets towards their work. The Roman poet on his death-bed, we are told, gave direction that his beautifully patterned epic should be burned; the blind Milton, in the year of his death, produced a “revised and augmented” edition of his poem, correcting errors in spelling and punctuation and even tinkering with its division into books in order to change what the title-page of 1667 had described as “a poem written in ten books” into “a poem in twelve books.” This tinkering is Milton's last recorded comment on his poem.


At first sight this change in numeration seems of little moment. Editors usually draw our attention to the fact that, by the simple process of dividing roughly in half the two longest of his 1667 books, Milton accomplished a redivision ever since regarded as perfectly just. The change involved no shifting about of material whatsoever, and only the slightest of additions. Four lines were added at the beginning of the new book VIII to provide the appearance of a new departure; they indicate, it is said, no change in direction; our first parent is merely represented as guilty of a momentary lapse of attention in the middle of Raphael's lecture. Similarly, five lines were added for the beginning of the new book XII (and the Argument was slightly revised); Michael is merely made to pause for a moment in his partially illustrated address, “betwixt the world destroy'd and world restor'd.” That is all. Milton has perceived that a poem which invites comparison with the ancient epics, and particularly with Virgil, ought to have twelve books, not ten.

It seems a strangely retarded perception. Someone should ask at least for once the eminently simple-minded question. “What cause … ?”

With almost any other poet, though blind, this question might well be left unasked. English Renaissance poetry is a major field of bibliographical activity because of infinitely numerous revisions of more extensive importance than this. Yet the meticulousness with which the blind Milton revised Paradise Lost for the 1674 edition, with the absence of any other major changes of any kind, suggests the desirability of contemplating even this shred of evidence as to the author's intention in a poem so vast and variously interpreted. And there are two characteristics of Milton's major poems which suggest that the question may not be unprofitable. One is his habit of using a conventional form as a point of departure; the other his architectonic skill. Both depend in considerable measure for their success on simple clarity in the initial massing and division of material.

The effect of balance more or less characteristic of any work of art frequently arrives in Milton at a mathematical plainness almost suggestive of the counting of lines. We need not suppose that his muse worked quite so mechanically or laid so lowly a burden on herself; but Milton's mind operated at ease only when he perceived in or imposed on his material a precise mathematical division of some sort. No doubt such precision gave him a much-needed sense of security and control. At any rate, it is certainly a fact (of which I once tried to make something …) that much of the force of the “Hymn” of the Nativity Ode and also of Lycidas is derived from the modulation of three equally and precisely balanced movements, similar in figurative (or structural) pattern, yet evolving a cumulative effect through variation. At the other end of Milton's career, Samson Agonistes, it is well known, consists of five perfectly regular and almost mathematically equal “acts,” each reproducing and developing towards its completion the basic pattern of trial and triumph in defeat. Milton did not always reach such precision. The genre of Comus could perhaps hardly have sustained such rigorous definition as is possible in other forms, though its much revised structure deserves closer analysis from this point of view; implicit in Paradise Regained there is such a structural pattern, though handled in a way unusual with Milton. But it is obvious that this simple effect of balance was of importance to him, and one can sometimes watch him striving to impose a pattern of exact balance where none perhaps existed. A large example (upon which I have commented at length elsewhere) is to be seen in his attempt in Defensio Secunda in 1654 to see in his controversial activity a consistent threefold pattern; in the 1640's, he says, he perceived that there were three species of liberty; the chronological blocks of his prose deal with them in an orderly and (it is implied) predetermined sequence. It is curious that a mind so bent on well-balanced hinging should feel it desirable to change the book divisions of its major production after a seven-year interval.

The habit of taking as an expressive point of departure some traditionally fixed or even highly conventionalized form (sonnet, masque, elegy, epic, tragedy), and the instinctive habit of dealing with poetic material in clearly defined and precisely balanced blocks held together and given extension by their reproduction of some basic pattern, are not of course merely Miltonic habits. They are only more obvious in him than they are generally in the poetic art of the Renaissance—or of any highly conscious creative period. They contribute to one of the uses of poetry which was of the utmost importance to him. As Professor Woodhouse and Professor Tillyard among others have indicated, Milton's major poems seem to have performed a cathartic function for the poet himself: each seems in its creation a process whereby the poet resolves a paralysing tension. This is obvious in the cases of Lycidas and Samson Agonistes; and, properly handled, the obvious need not divert us for long from the poem to the poet. It would seem that in moments of tension Milton found a secure point of departure in the fixity of some traditional form (and, of course, though it is not in question here, some traditional complex of ideas), and that the precise balancing of blocks of poetic material afforded him a secure and regularized channel within which to resolve the tension by the working out of variations.

Does this generalization hold for Paradise Lost as well as for Lycidas and Samson Agonistes? If one's first (though not one's final) observation about “a true poem” is that it is “a composition and pattern,” why did Milton in 1674 find himself dissatisfied with the composition and pattern implied by the division of the material of Paradise Lost into ten books? Is it possible that the simple redivision into twelve books (“differently disposed,” as Edward Philips tells us, “… by his own hand, that is by his own appointment”) indicates that the process of resolution had not quite clarified itself when Milton published the poem in 1667, that subsequently he saw in it a pattern which the ten-book division tended to obscure?


The original ten-book division immediately suggests comparison with the drama. It inevitably recalls Davenant's projected structure for Gondibert. It also implies that the structure of Paradise Lost owes much to the neo-classical theory, formulated by the Italians and of great force among Milton's English predecessors, which closely associated the tragic and the epic forms and resulted in a long series of abortive five-act epic experiments.3 The relation of Milton's theory to this tradition deserves closer attention; the redivision of Paradise Lost seems at first to suggest that he never quite made up his mind as to whether “the rules of Aristotle herein are strictly to be kept, or nature to be followed. …”

However that may be, the 1667 edition of Paradise Lost presents a firmly organized five-act epic, perfectly exemplifying what were thought to be the Aristotelian requirements for structure. It successfully achieves what Sidney had earlier attempted, and it certainly out-Gondiberts Davenant. Its plot is seen at a glance to consist of five “acts” (with appropriate “scenes”), and the cumulative effect of these acts is exactly what Davenant said it should be.

Act I presents Satan's revival in Hell, and the council's sketching out of the plot against man with Satan's voyage to the universe; books 1 and 2. (Throughout, in order to reduce the exposition to the very nadir of simplesse, Arabic numerals will be used to indicate the books of 1667, Roman for those of 1674.) Act II, having opened with a scene in Heaven firmly focussed on the curve of Satan's flight, carries him to earth and leads to his first attempt to put the plot in operation; books 3 and 4. Act III, with that freedom which is one of the recognized advantages of epic, returns us in actual time to events in the past, the war in Heaven and Satan's defeat; books 5 and 6. In terms of formal development—the subject of actual and apparent time is far too complex for attention here—it gives a decided turn to the plot's development: Satan is twice temporarily defeated. Act IV is the crucial act. It consists of books 7 and 8: book 7, Raphael's account of the Creation and the colloquy on astronomy and woman, now known to us as books VII and VIII; and book 8, the book of the Fall, known to us as book IX. This act decisively changes the direction of the action: Satan has at last succeeded; and this “counterturn” is confirmed by the final act, books 9 and 10. Act V presents the immediate consequences of the Fall (book 9, now known to us as X), and the scriptual vision of misery, Michael's prophecy, with the expulsion from Paradise (book 10, now known to us as XI and XII).

The ideal formal requirements for five-act epic set forth in the Preface to Gondibert could hardly be more adequately fulfilled. Says Davenant:

The first Act is the general preparative, by rendring the chiefest characters of persons, and ending with something that looks like an obscure promise of design. [So in Paradise Lost Satan, and the first sketch of the design against man which provides the poem with its plot.] The second begins with an introducement of new persons [God, the Son, the angels], so finishes all the characters [Adam and Eve], and ends with some little performance of that design which was promis'd at the parting of the first Act [Satan inducing Eve's dream of evil]. The third makes a visible correspondence in the underwalks, or lesser intrigues, of persons [Satan's conflict with God], and ends with an ample turn of the main design and expectation of new [Satan's temporary defeat in Heaven, from which, as we know, he has already partially recovered]. The fourth, ever having occasion to be the longest [so indeed it certainly is in Paradise Lost, 1667] gives a notorious turn to all the underwalks [the Creation], and a counterturn to that main design which chang'd in the third [Satan's successful achievement of man's fall]. The fifth begins with an intire diversion of the main and dependent Plotts [the penitence of Adam and Eve, the Son's intercession, Satan's return to hell—though perhaps here alone Milton faults in his design], then makes the general correspondence of the persons more discernible [Michael's implied commentary on the action], and ends with an easy untying [in Paradise Lost, uneasy tying?], of those particular knots which made a contexture of the whole, leaving such satisfaction of probabilities with the Spectator as may perswade him that neither Fortune in the fate of Persons, nor the Writer in the Representment, have been unnatural or exorbitant.4

It seems a pity that the Satanic interpreters of Paradise Lost have not generally been familiar with the five-act epic theory, or with Davenant's preface, or with the 1667 edition, when such satisfaction of probabilities might have been theirs. For the implications of the ten-book division of the poem are too plain to need much comment. The five-act structural emphasis comes down heavily on the crucial fourth act: Satan's successful counterturning of God's creative design when man's fall is accomplished. The “main design,” artfully left doubtful at the end of the first two acts, and given a “turn” at the end of the third, receives its definitive pattern through the counterturn at the end of the fourth (book 8, or IX). What follows in the final act, the vision of unending earthly misery and the expulsion from Paraside, serves only to make clear the pattern of woe which makes the contexture of the whole.

Was it Milton's aim in the redivision of the poem in 1674 to shift this weight of emphasis from the book of the Fall, and so to offset the not merely dramatic but tragic implications of the counterturn in what looked like Act IV? The redivision does not change the actual structure of his poem in any way. Does it, however, by suggesting a different structural pattern, bring out implications muted in the earlier division?


A poem is not, in spite of Davenant and neo-classicism, a “building”; it moves in time, it does not stand in space. Yet a poet may not unjustifiably say, with Davenant, “you may next please, having examined the substance, to take a view of the form, and observe if I have methodically and with discretion disposed of the materials.…” Under some circumstances he may even be justified in imitating some of the architectural tricks, so popular in the seventeenth century, whereby an appearance of considerable extension is given to an unavoidably narrow edifice.

If the term “baroque” is applicable to Milton, it can certainly be used to describe the most obvious effect he achieved by turning books 7 and 10 into books VII and VIII and books XI and XII. Did he remember at this point, one wonders, the baroque illusion which offsets the narrowness of the Laudian chapel at Peterhouse (where flowing curves along the short horizontal much extend the facade) or the great curve of the collonade of St. Peter's? However that may be, the effect of the redivision in this respect is no mere illusion. It gives to the material of his poem following the defeat of Satan in Heaven an appearance of extension equal to its actual original weight in number of lines. The total number of lines in the last four books of the original poem is some three hundred—but only some three hundred—less than that of the first six books. The division of this material into six books gives the poem the just balance demanded by the treatment its theme has received. It is the ten-book division which, in this respect, is an illusion. Is the five-act pattern an illusion also?

The division into twelve more than modifies the five-act scheme. By presenting an arrangement reminiscent of Virgil's it induces a pattern of emphasis very different from that examined in the preceding section. Obviously the twelve books of 1674 fall into six groups of two books each. The first three groups remain as they were, with the decision of the action left temporarily in the balance. But the fourth group now presents, not the Creation and Fall (7 and 8), but the Creation and Adam's progressive understanding of his situation through his colloquy with Raphael (old 7 become VII and VIII). The fifth group now presents in combination Adam's fall and penitence (the second half of old Act IV with the first half of old Act V; old 8 and 9, new IX and X). And the sixth the vision of human misery, and Michael's prophecy of the Messiah with the expulsion (old 10 become XI and XII).

The shift in grouping is so simple, involving as it does mere numbering, that the importance of the result may pass unrecognized. The mind of a responsive reader does rest, consciously or unconsciously, at the end of each book of a long poem, and at the end of each pair. The reader is induced so to rest in Paradise Lost by the invocations and the new departures in subject matter in the first three pairs of the poem. This rhythm will be continued to the end. In the 1667 arrangement the mind will come to rest on the Fall and the expulsion; looking backward, it will see its rests at the ends of the first three groups as premonitions of these events. In the 1674 version, it will come to rest on Adam's understanding of his situation (and of love), reached under Raphael's direction, on the contrition of Adam and Eve and their hope of mercy, and consequently on the Messianic prophecy of final victory as well as on the expulsion from Paradise.

As one looks back over a poem in which the rests have come as they do in the 1674 division, one sees that the structural stress has throughout fallen with increasing weight on the foreshadowings of the Son's ultimate triumph, on the operations of the divine mercy and love. It is here that Paradise Lost reproduces while modifying the large structural pattern of the Aeneid, with its steadily repeated prophecies of Roman glory. The correspondence is not exact. How could it be? But the expressive reminiscence is clear in 1674, as it was not in 1667. Indeed, whereas the prophecy sounded most clearly by Virgil at the end of books two (Creusa), four (Mercury), six (the Sibyl), and eight (Vulcan), dies away in the fury of the struggle with Turnus, the prophetic note of Paradise Lost swells from the ambiguity of Satan's view from the steps that link Heaven and Earth, and of the scales seen aloft, through the victory of the Son in Heaven to Michael's final prophecy. Moreover, in the new pattern, implications lost in the tragic structure of 1667, are underlined for the memory. One example must suffice. We are in error when we see the discourse on love at the end of book VIII and of the fourth group merely as prelude to and motivation for the Fall; it is also prelude to man's restoration and to the reconciliation of Adam and Eve at the end of book X and of group five. Adam in fact falls in imagination when he speaks wildly of Eve's beauty in book VIII; he is restored to sanity by the intervention of Raphael before the book ends. When at the end of the next two-book group we come to rest on the reconciliation of Adam and Eve, we shall look back across the Fall, not so much to Adam's imaginative lapse as to the sanity Raphael taught. And we shall look forward to Adam's restoration to something more than mere sanity at the end of the two-book group to come.

Such is Milton's discretion in the new disposition of his materials. The purpose of the redivision is to reduce the structural emphasis on the Fall of man and to increase the emphasis on his restoration. And this shift in emphasis is underlined by other structural effects of the redivision which combine to shift onward the poem's centre of gravity.


The ten books of 1667 will divide in but two ways: into five “acts” and into two blocks of five. The twelve books of 1674 (such is the force of simple arithmetic) divide in three ways.

Like the Aeneid, the Paradise Lost of 1674 consists of three movements of four books apiece. As with the “Hymn” of the Nativity Ode and with Lycidas, the three movements develop variations on a basic pattern. Virgil's first movement of four books turns upon Dido (and Creusa); his second carries Aeneas from Carthage to the moment when Turnus is about to attack, by way of the Sibyl; his third describes the war with the Latins. No correspondence to this pattern of three large and equally balanced movements is suggested by the ten-book division of 1667. In 1674 the three movements are clearly defined: one turns upon Satan, one upon the Son, one upon Man. The curve of the first is defined by Satan, reviving and frustrated, of the second by the Son as avenging justice and as creative love, of the third by Adam's fall and restoration. The rests at the ends of the first two movements fall upon the scales seen in heaven and on the delicate balance of Adam's original perfection, of the third on the balance to be made up at the last.

Each of these movements pauses and turns, as do Virgil's, upon its centre. It is not merely the direction of Satan's actual flight which changes between books III and IV; the apparent revival which has brought him to the verge of heaven's light now becomes a clear process of degeneration marked by God's comments, Satan's soliloquy, and his discomfiture in the garden. So the second turns with the Son from avenging justice to creation. So the third turns from sin through penance towards regeneration.

However one looks at the structure of Paradise Lost in its new division, attention is focused firmly on one point, variously indicated from different angles. The ten-book division presents a five-act structure, and that structure is tragic. Its centre, if it has one, lies between books 5 and 6; that is to say, in the midst of the War in Heaven, with evil at its most arrogant height. But that centre is an illusion which obscures the halving of the poem by actual number of lines. The redivision of 1674 presents a poem which in structural pattern, however viewed, hangs self-balanced on its centre. That centre is between books VI and VII, with evil on the one hand frustrated, and on the other creation and recreation. Every structural subdivision in the poem is so aimed.

Is the new absent-mindedness of our first parent, one wonders, after all so insignificant, as he

Thought him still speaking, still stood fixt to hear;
Then as new wak't thus gratefully repli'd … ;

or Michael's medial pause? And is it wholly a flight of fancy to see the simple redivision as changing a tragic pattern into the three-fold pattern of a divine comedy, underlining the intention expressed in the opening invocation by throwing into clearer relief the adaptation and modification of the Virgilian pattern?

Yet it would not be true to say that by the simple act of redivision Milton has repudiated the theory of the five-act epic. Five acts can still be readily discerned in the 1674 poem, though they are not the same as those of 1667. Milton makes no sacrifices; to be “still closing up truth to truth” is for him the golden rule in epic structure as well as in theology and arithmetic. The first two “acts” remain unchanged: books I and II, Satan's revival and the sketching out of the plot; books III and IV, his arrival in Paradise and the failure of his first attempt. But Act III is no longer simply books V and VI, the war in heaven and Satan's defeat; it is now the whole of Raphael's reminiscential narrative, with the commentary, books V to VIII, in the actual time-scheme of the poem one day. Act IV is now books IX and X, the Fall and its consequences ending in penitence, in the actual time-scheme one more day, while Act V has become books XI and XII (old 10), man's misery and redemption or, in terms of Adam himself, the process of regeneration, the work of but another day.

In this dramatic scheme the new Act III provides a most “ample turn of the main design and expectation of new,” but the turn is no longer in Satan's temporary defeat at the hands of avenging justice; it is in the operations of creative love as it acts purposefully, and in Adam's progressive recognition of its meaning. Act IV, still the crucial act, no longer gives “a counterturn to that main design which changed in the third,” for its end is no longer Satan's success but man's penitence and reconciliation; it therefore underlines the turn of Act III and prepares for the final victory to be prophesied in Act V.

The dramatic and epic structural patterns are thus brought into exact alignment by the simple redivision of 1674. Paradise Lost is in fact the consummate example of five-act epic structure. Its author's final tinkering clarified its beautifully coherent epic pattern on the Virgilian model and adjusted its drama to leave with the reader a much deeper “satisfaction of probabilities.”


Did Milton succeed through this redivision in changing “those notes” to epic? That is another question. It is with structural pattern that we have been directly concerned throughout, and with intention as it expresses itself in structural emphasis, not with execution. We have indeed been dealing with an imitation of an imitation several times removed, and with the shadow of a fictional skeleton. The substance (and indeed the actual shape) of the fiction remained quite unchanged in 1674. But the change does alter the light in which it appears, and may suggest that it is at once less questionable and more questionable than has sometimes been thought.

Milton, it is clear, was by no means unaware of what has been called “the unconscious meaning” of Paradise Lost. It may be that in 1667 he was not quite aware of it, or that for some reason or other he was then much inclined towards it; it is certainly emphasized by his having written in ten books. But the 1674 renumbering indicates his consciousness of Satan's power over the poem, and (if it was not simply a trivial toying) the new disposition was meant to strengthen Satan's chains. Its motive was to shift the poem's emphasis and its centre in a way that would point more clearly to its stated intention. Paradise Lost was always meant to be a poem whose beginning is disobedience, which middle is woe, and whose ultimate end is restoration. It may be that the intention was clouded in 1667, or that Milton's view of restoration was obscured. The 1674 revision is at any rate an effort to clarify the poem's ways.

It is also clear that Milton's control over his vast material never wavered, though he may not always have been clear as to what he was doing or had done with it. He renumbers his books; he does not change his argument. The masses have been set in their places, though they have not been properly identified. And yet one must pause. If the disposition of the masses was patient of a tragic pattern of structural interpretation in 1667, the unmoved masses remain patient of it after the tinkering of 1674. If they were patient of a Virgilian patterning in 1674, they were already so in 1667. No amount of arithmetical ingenuity can obscure this fact. One must read both poems and see both patterns, for the two patterns suspend the theme between the horns of a paradox. This is the chief function of its structure.

Among the Miltonic virtues we have lately been taught to question—from organ music and amplifying imagery to simple honesty—architectonic skill is not yet numbered. Every interpreter, of whatever colour, will allude to it, even if it be only of purpose to imply in passing that this is a virtue typical of rigid Puritan neoclassicism. Both the devoted enthusiast and the iconoclast underline his claims to consistency and therewith his claim to having raised his great argument to a solid architectural height. The enthusiast would see him as a noble Colossus, last of some titanic race of Renaissance poets, towering in splendidly integrated certainty above the New Atlantis and the mutable flood engulfing it. The iconoclast chooses to see him either as inflexibly imposing his rigorous and suffocating will on paradise, or as hypocritically pretending to an assurance which nevertheless only reveals the confusion of his motives. Milton has, to be sure, himself invited such interpretations; but it might be better if we ignored them and saw him more often (as Carlyle saw a lesser poet) as one “carrying a bit of chaos about him … which he is manufacturing into cosmos.” He is not profitably to be identified with any of these monsters of our distraught imagination—or of his own.

Nor are his great poems, for all their regularity of structure, to be regarded as rigidly static compositions of the architectural order appropriate to Victorian tombs and monuments. They are works of poetic art, the pattern of their evolution in time beginning usually as a reminiscence of some pattern established in the past, and nearly always controlled by easily recognizable structural balance, but always in process of development through conflict and resolution towards a harmony which is dynamic because it is the result of tension released in a creative act. This harmony they by no means always perfectly achieve, less frequently than Milton himself wished to believe. Nor need they so achieve it. They do not represent or express or entomb an unutterable perfection; they indicate a direction in which perfection may be achieved. At their best they pause, like Michael, betwixt a world destroyed and world restored; and the creative act for poet and reader often comes afterwards, while the poem is “thought … still speaking,” like Raphael.

Paradise Lost (Professor Bush has made one certain) is to be regarded as no mausoleum of decayed classicism. It is rather to be read as a metaphor of spiritual evolution. Its structural pattern is neither rigidly fixed nor shifted; it is shifting. The firmness with which Milton defines his structural blocks serves chiefly to sustain the Christian paradox on which the metaphor is hinged. It would seem that in the redivision of 1674 Milton underlines the direction of the shifting. Whatever the cause, it indicates what Professor Thompson himself has so well illustrated: he remained intent on the perfect adaptation of the pattern to the end.


  1. Essays on Milton, 1914, pp. 83-4.

  2. “For Paradise Lost, XI-XII,Philological Quarterly, XXII (1943), 376-82.

  3. On this theory before Milton, see R. H. Perkinson, “The Epic in Five Acts,” Studies in Philology, XLIII (1946), 465-81.

  4. Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, ed. Spingarn, II, 17-18.

    [EDITOR'S NOTE. For other comments on the structure and patterns of Paradise Lost, see E. E. Stoll, UTQ, III (1933-34), 3-16; B. Rajan, “Paradise Lostand the Seventeenth Century Reader, 1947; A. S. P. Woodhouse, UTQ, XXII (1952-53), 109-27; R. Colie, JWCI, XXIII (1960), 127-38; J. B. Stroup, TSL, VI (1961), 71-5; H. F. Robins, JEGP, LX (1961), 699-711; O. B. Hardison, Jr., The Enduring Monument, 1962; on classical models and principles, C. M. Bowra, From Virgil to Milton, 1945; D. Bush, CJ, XLVII (1952), 178-82, 203-4; J. Richardson, CL, XVI (1962), 321-31; K. Svendsen, PQ, XXVIII (1949), 185-206; J. M. Steadman, SN, XXXI (1959), 159-73; on the dramatic element, J. H. Hanford, SP, XIV (1917), 178-95; R. Durr, JAAC, XIII (1955), 520-26; D. Knight, SAQ, 63 (1964), 44-59.]

Geoffrey Hartman (essay date 1958)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Milton's Counterplot,” in Milton: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louis L. Martz, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, pp. 100-108.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in ELH: A Journal of English Literary History in 1958, Hartman claims that there are two plots in the epic that work to contrapuntal effect and which serve to emphasize God's remoteness and power.]

Milton's description of the building of Pandemonium ends with a reference to the architect, Mammon, also known to the ancient world as 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'ægæan

(Paradise Lost I, 740-6).

These verses stand out from a brilliant text as still more brilliant; or emerge from this text, which repeats on several levels the theme of quick or erring or mock activity, marked by a strange mood of calm, as if the narrative's burning wheel had suddenly disclosed a jewelled bearing. Their subject is a Fall, and it has been suggested that Milton's imagination was caught by the anticipation in the Mulciber story of a myth which stands at the center of his epic. Why the “caught” imagination should respond with a pastoral image, evoking a fall gradual and cool like the dying of a summer's day, and the sudden, no less aesthetically distant, dropping down of the star, is not explained. One recalls, without difficulty, similar moments of relief or distancing, especially in the cosmic fret of the first books: the comparison of angel forms lying entranced on the inflamed sea with autumnal leaves on Vallombrosa's shady brooks, or the simile of springtime bees and of the dreaming peasant at the end of Book I, or the applause following Mammon's speech in Book II, likened to lulling if hoarse cadence of winds after a storm, or even the appearance to Satan of the world, when he has crossed Chaos and arrives with torn tackle in full view of this golden-chained star of smallest magnitude.

The evident purpose of the Mulciber story is to help prick inflated Pandemonium, and together with the lines that follow, to emphasize that Mammon's building is as shaky as its architect. This fits in well with the plot of the first two books, a description of the satanic host's effort to build on hell. But the verses on Mulciber also disclose, through their almost decorative character, a second plot, simultaneously expressed with the first, and which may be called the counterplot. Its hidden presence is responsible for the contrapuntal effects of the inserted fable.

The reader will not fail to recognize in Milton's account of the progress of Mulciber's fall the parody of a biblical rhythm: “And the evening and the morning were the (first) day.” The thought of creation is present to Milton, somehow associated with this fall. Moreover, the picture of angry Jove blends with and gives way to that of crystal battlements, and the imperturbability of the summer's day through which the angel drops:

                                                  from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summer's day;

while in the last part of his descent an image of splendor and effortlessness outshines that of anger or ignominy:

                                                            and with the setting Sun
Dropt from the Zenith like a falling Star.

In context, of course, this depiction is condemned as mere fabling, and there is nothing splendid or aloof in the way Milton retells the story:

                                                                      thus they relate,
Erring; for he with his rebellious rout
Fell long before; nor aught avail'd him now
To have built in Heav'n high Tow'rs; nor did he scape
By all his Engines, but was headlong sent
With his industrious crew to build in hell.


Yet for a moment, while moving in the charmed land of pagan fable, away from the more literal truth in which he seeks supremacy over all fable, Milton reveals the overwhelming, if not autonomous drive of his imagination. Mulciber draws to himself a rhythm reminiscent of the account of the world's creation, and his story suggests both God and the creation undisturbed (Crystal Battlements … dewy Eve) by a fall which is said to occur later than the creation, yet actually preceded it. Here, surely, is a primary instance of Milton's automatically involving the idea of creation with that of the Fall. But further, and more fundamental, is the feeling of the text that God's anger is not anger at all, rather calm prescience, which sees that no fall will ultimately disturb the creation, whether Mulciber's fabled or Satan's real or Adam's universal Fall.

Milton's feeling for this divine imperturbability, for God's omnipotent knowledge that the creation will outlive death and sin, when expressed in such an indirect manner, may be characterized as the counterplot. For it does not often work on the reader as independent theme or subplot, but lodges in the vital parts of the overt action, emerging from it like good from evil. The root-feeling (if feeling is the proper word) for imperturbable providence radiates from many levels of the text. It has been given numerous interpretations in the history of criticism, the best perhaps, though impressionistic, by Coleridge: “Milton is the deity of prescience: he stands ab extra and drives a fiery chariot and four, making the horses feel the iron curb which holds them in.” Satan's fixed mind and high disdain are perverted reflectors of this same cold passion, but doomed to perish in the restlessness of hell, and its compulsive gospel of the community of damnation. So deep-working is this spirit of the “glassy, cool, translucent wave,” already invoked in Comus, that other poets find hard to resist it, and, like Wordsworth, seek to attain similar virtuosity in expressing “central peace, subsisting at the heart Of endless agitation.” Milton's control is such, that even in the first dramatic account of Satan's expulsion, he makes the steady flame of God's act predominate over the theme of effort, anger, and vengefulness: in the following verses “Ethereal Sky” corresponds to the “Crystal Battlements” of Mulciber's fall, and the image of a projectile powerfully but steadily thrust forth (evoked in part by the immediate duplication of stress, letter and rhythmic patterns) recreates the imperturbability of that other, summer space:

                                                            Him the Almighty Power
Hurl'd headlong flaming from th'Ethereal Sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire … 


One of the major means of realizing the counterplot is the simile. Throughout Paradise Lost, and eminently in the first two books, Milton has to bring the terrible sublime home to the reader's imagination. It would appear that he can only do this by way of analogy. Yet Milton rarely uses straight analogy, in which the observer and observed remain, relative to each other, on the same plane. Indeed, his finest effects are to employ magnifying and diminishing similes. Satan's shield, for example, is described as hanging on his shoulder like the moon, viewed through Galileo's telescope from Fiesole or in Valdarno (I, 284-91). The rich, elaborate pattern of such similes has often been noted and variously explained. Certain details, however, may be reconsidered.

The similes, first of all, not only magnify or diminish the doings in hell, but invariably put them at a distance. Just as the “Tuscan Artist” sees the moon through his telescope, so the artist of Paradise Lost shows hell at considerable remove, through a medium which, while it clarifies, also intervenes between reader and object. Milton varies points-of-view shifting in space and time so skilfully, that our sense of the reality of hell, of its power vis-a-vis man or God, never remains secure. Spirits, we know, can assume any shape they please; and Milton, like Spenser, uses this imaginative axiom to destroy the idea of the simple location of good and evil in the spiritual combat. But despite the insecurity, the abyss momentarily glimpsed under simple event, Milton's main effort in the first books is to make us believe in Satan as a real and terrible agent, yet never as an irresistible power. No doubt at all of Satan's influence: his success is writ large in religious history: which may also be one reason for the epic enumeration of demonic names and place-names in Book I. Nevertheless, even as we are closest to Satan, presented with the hottest view of hell's present and future appeal, all suggestion of irresistible influence must be expunged, if Milton's two means of divine justification, man's free will and God's foreknowledge of the creation's triumph, are to win consent.

These two dominant concepts, expressed through the counterplot, shed a calm and often cold radiance over all of Paradise Lost, issuing equally from the heart of faith and the center of self-determination. The similes must persuade us that man was and is “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (III, 99), that his reason and will, however fiercely tempted and besieged, stand on a pinnacle as firm and precarious as that on which the Christ of Paradise Regained (IV, 541 ff) suffers his last, greatest, archetypal temptation. They must show the persistence, in the depth of danger, passion or evil, of imperturbable reason, of a power working ab extra.

This they accomplish in several ways. They are, for example, marked by an emphasis on place names. It is the Tuscan artist who views the moon (Satan's shield) from the top of Fesole or in Valdarno through his optic glass, while he searches for new Lands, Rivers, Mountains on the spotty globe. Do not the place names serve to anchor this observer, and set him off from the vastness and vagueness of hell, its unnamed and restless geography, as well as from his attempt to leave the earth and rise by science above the lunar world? A recital of names is, of course, not reassuring of itself: no comfort accrues in hearing Moloch associated with Rabba, Argob, Basan, Arnon, or sinful Solomon with Hinnom, Tophet, Gehenna (I, 397-405). The point is that these places were once neutral, innocent of bloody or holy associations; it is man who has made them what they are, made the proper name a fearful or a hopeful sign (cf. XI, 836-39). Will Valdarno and Fiesole become such by-words as Tophet and Gehenna? At the moment they are still hieroglyphs, words whose ultimate meaning is in the balance. They suggest the inviolate shelter of the created world rather than the incursions of a demonic world. Yet we sense that, if Galileo uses the shelter and Ark of this world to dream of other worlds, paying optical rites to the moon, Fiesole, Valdarno, even Vallombrosa may yield to the tug of a demonic interpretation and soon become a part of hell's unprotected marl.

Though the figure of the observer ab extra is striking in Milton's evocation of Galileo, it becomes more subtly patent in a simile a few lines further on, which tells how the angel forms lay entranced on hell's inflamed sea

Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th'Etrurian
High overarch't imbow'r; or scatter'd sedge
Afloat, when with fierce winds Orion
Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves o'erthrew
Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursu'd
The sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
From the safe shore thir floating Carcasses
And broken Chariot Wheels


A finer modulation of aesthetic distance can hardly be found: we start at the point of maximum contrast, with the angels prostrate on the lake, in a region “vaulted with fire” (298), viewed as leaves fallen seasonally on a sheltered brook vaulted by shade; go next to the image of sea-weed scattered by storm, and finally, without break of focus, to the Israelites watching “from the safe shore” the floating bodies and parts of their pursuers. And, as in music, where one theme fading, another emerges to its place, while the image of calm and natural death changes to that of violent and supernatural destruction, the figure of the observer ab extra becomes explicit, substituting for the original glimpse of inviolable peace.

Could the counterplot be clearer? A simile intended to sharpen our view of the innumerable stunned host of hell, just before it is roused by Satan, at the same time sharpens our sense of the imperturbable order of the creation, and of the coming storm, and of the survival of man through providence and his safe-shored will. Satan, standing clear of the rout, prepares to vex his legions to new evil:

                                                                      on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he stood and call'd
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans't
Thick as Autumnal Leaves … 

but the scenes the poet himself calls up mimic hell's defeat before Satan's voice is fully heard, and whatever sought to destroy the calm of autumnal leaves lies lifeless as scattered sedge. The continuity of the similes hinges on the middle image of Orion, which sketches both Satan's power to rouse the fallen host and God's power to scatter and destroy it. In this “plot counterplot” the hand of Satan is not ultimately distinguishable from the will of God.

A further instance, more complex still, is found at the end of Book I. Milton compares the host gathered in the gates of Pandemonium to bees at springtime (768 ff). The wonder of this incongruity has been preserved by many explanations. It is clearly a simile which, like others we have adduced, diminishes hell while it magnifies creation. The bees are fruitful, and their existence in the teeth of Satan drowns out the sonorous hiss of hell. Their “straw-built Citadel” will survive “bossy” Pandemonium. As Dr. Johnson kicking the stone kicks all excessive idealism, so Milton's bees rub their balm against all excessive demonism. But the irony may not end there. Are the devils not those bees who bring food out of the eater, sweetness out of the strong (Judges 15: 5-19)?

It may also be more than a coincidence that the most famous in this genre of similes describes the bustle of the Carthaginians as seen by storm-exiled Aeneas (Aeneid I, 430-40). Enveloped in a cloud by his divine mother, Aeneas looks down from the top of a hill onto a people busily building their city like a swarm of bees at summer's return, and is forced to cry: “O fortunati, quorum iam moenia surgunt!”—o fortunate people, whose walls are already rising! Then Vergil, as if to dispel any impression of despair, adds: mirabile dictu, a wonder! Aeneas walks among the Carthaginians made invisible by divine gift.

Here the counterplot thickens, and we behold one of Milton's amazing transpositions of classical texts. Aeneas strives to found Rome, which will outlast Carthage. The bees building in Vergil's text intimate a spirit of creativity seasonally renewed and independent of the particular civilization. The bees in Milton's text represent the same privilege and promise. Aeneas wrapped in the cloud is the observer ab extra, the person on the shore, and his impatient cry is of one who desires to build a civilization beyond decay, perhaps even beyond the wrath of the gods. An emergent, as yet invisible figure in Milton's text shares the hero's cry: he has seen Mammon and his troop build Pandemonium, Satan's band swarm triumphant about their citadel: despite this, can the walls of creation outlive Satan as Rome the ancient world?

All this would be putative or extrinsic if based solely on the simile of the bees. For this simile, like the middle image of Orion vexing the Red Sea, is indeterminate in its implications, a kind of visual pivot in a series of images which act in sequence and once more reveal the counterplot. Its indeterminacy is comparable to Milton's previously mentioned use of proper nouns, and his overall stylistic use of the pivot, by means of which images and words are made to refer both backwards and forwards, giving the verse period unusual balance and flexibility. The series in question begins with the trooping to Pandemonium, and we now give the entire modulation which moves through several similes:

                                                            all access was throng'd, the Gates
And Porches wide, but chief the spacious Hall
(Though like a cover'd field, where Champions bold
Wont ride in arm'd, and at the Soldan's chair
Defi'd the best of Paynim chivalry
To mortal combat or career with Lance)
Thick swarm'd, both on the ground and in the air,
Brusht with the hiss of rustling wings. As Bees
In spring time, when the Sun with Taurus
Pour forth thir populous youth about the Hive
In clusters; they among fresh dews and flowers
Fly to and fro, or on the smoothed Plank,
The suburb of thir Straw-built Citadel,
New rubb'd with Balm, expatiate and confer
Thir State affairs. So thick the aery crowd
Swarm'd and were strait'n'd; till the Signal giv'n,
Behold a wonder! they but now who seem'd
In bigness to surpass Earth's Giant Sons
Now less than smallest Dwarfs, in narrow room
Throng numberless, like that Pigmean Race
Beyond the Indian Mount, or Faery
Whose midnight Revels, by a Forest side
Or Fountain some belated Peasant sees,
Or dreams he sees, while over-head the Moon
Sits Arbitress, and nearer to the Earth
Wheels her pale course, they on thir mirth and dance
Intent, with jocund Music charm his ear;
At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds.


The very images which marshall the legions of hell to our view reveal simultaneously that the issue of Satan's triumph or defeat, his real or mock power, is in the hand of a secret arbiter, whether God and divine prescience or man and free will. In the first simile the observer ab extra is the Soldan, who as a type of Satan overshadows the outcome of the combat between pagan and christian warriors in the “cover'd field.” The second simile is indeterminate in tenor, except that it diminishes the satanic thousands, blending them and their war-like intents with a picture of natural, peaceful creativity, Sun and Taurus presiding in place of the Soldan. “Behold a wonder!” echoes the mirabile dictu of Vergil's story, and prepares the coming of a divine observer. The mighty host is seen to shrink to the size of Pigmies (the third simile), and we know that these, the “small infantry,” as Milton had called them with a pun reflecting the double perspective of the first books, can be overshadowed by Cranes (575-6). The verse period then carries us still further from the main action as the diminished devils are also compared to Faery Elves glimpsed at their midnight revels by some belated Peasant. From the presence and pomp of hell we have slowly slipped into a pastoral.

Yet does not this static moment hide an inner combat more real than that for which hell is preparing? It is midnight, the pivot between day and day, and in the Peasant's mind a similar point of balance seems to obtain. He is not fully certain of the significance or even reality of the Fairy ring. Like Aeneas in Hades, who glimpses the shade of Dido (Aeneid VI, 450-5), he “sees, Or dreams he sees” something barely distinguishable from the pallid dark, obscure as the new moon through clouds. What an intensity of calm is here, reflecting a mind balanced on the critical pivot, as a point of stillness is reached at greatest remove from the threats and reverberations of hell! But even as the man stands uncertain, the image of the moon overhead becomes intense, it has sat there all the time as arbiter, now wheels closer to the earth, and the Peasant's heart rebounds with a secret intuition bringing at once joy and fear.

The moon, clearly, is a last transformation of the image of the observer ab extra, Soldan, Sun and Taurus, Peasant. What was a type of Satan overshadowing the outcome of the real or spiritual combat is converted into a presentment of the individual's naive and autonomous power of discrimination, his free reason, secretly linked with a superior influence, as the moon overhead. The figure of the firmly placed observer culminates in that of the secret arbiter. Yet this moon is not an unambiguous symbol of the secret arbiter. A feeling of the moon's uncertain, changeable nature—incorruptible yet spotty, waxing and waning (I, 284-291; II, 659-666; see also “mooned horns,” IV, 978, quoted below)—is subtly present. It reflects this series of images in which the poet constantly suggests, destroys and recreates the idea of an imperturbably transcendent discrimination. The moon that “Sits Arbitress” seems to complete the counterplot, but is only the imperfect sign of a figure not revealed till Book IV. Thus the whole cycle of to and fro, big and small, Pigmies or Elves, seeing or dreaming, far and near, joy and fear, this uneasy flux of couplets, alternatives and reversals, is continued when we learn, in the final lines of Book I, that far within Pandemonium, perhaps as far from consciousness as hell is from the thoughts of the Peasant or demonic power from the jocund, if intent music of the fairy revelers, Satan and the greatest of his Lords sit in their own, unreduced dimensions.

We meet the Peasant once more in Paradise Lost, and in a simile which seems to want to outdo the apparent incongruity of all others. At the end of Book IV, Gabriel and his files confront Satan apprehended squatting in Paradise, a toad at the ear of Eve. A heroically contemptuous exchange follows, and Satan's taunts finally so incense the Angel Squaddron that they

Turn'd fiery red, sharp'ning in mooned horns
Thir Phalanx, and began to hem him round
With ported Spears, as thick as when a field
Of Ceres ripe for harvest waving
Her bearded Grove of ears, which way the wind
Sways them; the careful Plowman doubting stands
Lest on the threshing floor his hopeful sheaves
Prove chaff. On th'other side Satan
Collecting all his might dilated stood,
Like Teneriff or Atlas unremov'd:
His stature reacht the Sky, and on his Crest
Sat horror Plum'd; nor wanted in his grasp
What seem'd both Spear and Shield: now dreadful deeds
Might have ensu'd, nor only Paradise
In this commotion, but the Starry Cope
Of Heav'n perhaps, or all the Elements
At least had gone to rack, disturb'd and torn
With violence of this conflict, had not soon
Th'Eternal to prevent such horrid fray
Hung forth in Heav'n his golden Scales, yet seen
Betwixt Astrea and the Scorpion sign,
Wherein all things created first he weigh'd,
The pendulous round Earth with balanc'd Air
In counterpoise, now ponders all events,
Battles and Realms … 


The question of Satan's power does not appear to be academic, at least not at first. The simile which, on previous occasions, pretended to illustrate hell's greatness but actually diminished hell and magnified the creation, is used here just as effectively against heaven. Milton, by dilating Satan, and distancing the spears of the angel phalanx as ears ready for reaping, creates the impression of a balance of power between heaven and hell. Yet the image which remains in control is neither of Satan nor of the Angels but of the wheatfield, first as its bearded ears bend with the wind, then as contemplated by the Plowman. Here the counterplot achieves its most consummate form. Paradise Lost was written not for the sake of heaven or hell but for the sake of the creation. What is all the fuss about if not to preserve the “self-balanc't” earth? The center around which and to which all actions turn is whether man can stand though free to fall, whether man and the world can survive their autonomy. The issue may not therefore be determined on the supernatural level by the direct clash of heaven and hell, only by these two arbiters: man's free will, and God's foreknowledge. The ripe grain sways in the wind, so does the mind which has tended it. Between ripeness and ripeness gathered falls the wind, the threshing floor, the labour of ancient ears, the question of the relation of God's will to man's will. The ears appear to be at the mercy of the wind, what about the thoughts, the “hopeful sheaves” of the Plowman? The fate of the world lies between Gabriel and Satan, but also between the wind and the ripe ears, but also between man and his thoughts. Finally God, supreme arbiter, overbalances the balance with the same pair of golden scales (suspended yet between Virgin and Scorpion) in which the balanced earth weighed at its first creation.

Frank Kermode (essay date 1960)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Adam Unparadised,” in The Living Milton: Essays by Various Hands, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960, pp. 122-42.

[In the following essay, Kermode contends that the basic theme of Paradise Lost is the recognition of lost possibilities and says that to embody this theme Milton exhibits life in a “great symbolic attitude” and not through explanations of how and why.]

Miss Rosemond Tuve, in her magnificent and too brief book, has persuasively expounded Milton's treatment in the minor poems of certain great central themes. They lie at the heart of each poem and govern its secondary characteristics of imagery and diction; given the theme, the poet thinks in the figures appropriate to it, and in every case the theme and the figures have a long and rich history. ‘The subject of L'Allegro is every man's Mirth, our Mirth, the very Grace herself with all she can include’;1 the Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity proliferates images of harmony because its theme is the Incarnation. I now take a step of which Miss Tuve would probably not approve, and add that beneath these figures and themes there is Milton's profound and personal devotion to an even more radical topic, potentially coextensive with all human experience: the loss of Eden. In the Hymn there is a moment of peace and harmony in history—the ‘Augustan peace’, which looks back to human wholeness and incorruption, as well as forward to a time when, after generations of human anguish, the original harmony will be restored. The same moment of stillness, poised between past and future, is there in ‘At a Solemn Musick’, for music remembers as well as prefigures. In Comus too there is presented that moment of harmony, of reunion and restitution, that prefigures the final end, and in Comus as in the others there is an emphasis on the long continuance of grief and suffering; for in the much misunderstood Epilogue Adonis is still not cured of his wound and Venus ‘sadly sits’. Only in the future will Cupid be united with Psyche and the twins of Paradise, Youth and Joy, be born. Lycidas tells of disorder, corruption, false glory as incident to life here and now, with order, health, and the perfect witness of God to come. All of them speak of something that is gone.

Paradise Lost deals most directly with this basic theme, the recognition of lost possibilities of joy, order, health, the contrast between what we can imagine as human and what is so here and now; the sensuous import of the myth of the lost Eden. To embody this theme is the main business of Paradise Lost; thus will life be displayed in some great symbolic attitude and not by the poet's explanations of the how and the why. His first task is to get clear the human experience of the potency of delight, and its necessary frustration, and if he cannot do that the poem will fail no matter what is added of morality, theology or history.

My difficulty in establishing this point is that some will think it too obvious to be thus laboured, and others will think it in need of much more elaborate defence. What is rare is to find people who read Paradise Lost as if it were true that the power of joy and its loss is its theme; and though it is true that for certain well-known and important reasons Milton's poem is not accessible to the same methods of reading as Romantic literature, it is also true that this is the theme of The Prelude and that we can do some harm by insisting too strongly upon differences at the expense of profound similarities. Anyway, I think I can make my point in a somewhat different way by a reference to Bentley, and in particular to his observations on the last lines of Paradise Lost, stale as this subject may seem.

Adam, hearing Michael's promise of a time when ‘Earth / Shall all be Paradise, far happier place / Than this of Eden’ (xii. 463-5) is ‘replete with joy and wonder’ (468) and replies with the famous cry of felix culpa:

                                                            full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By mee done and occasiond, or rejoice
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring … 


Michael says that the Comforter will watch over and arm the faithful; Adam, benefiting by Michael's foretelling of the future (in which ‘time stands fixt’ as it does in the poem) has now all possible wisdom (575-6); and Eve is well content with her lot. And thus matters stand when Eden is closed, and Adam and Eve move away

The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie

(xii. 646-9)

‘Why’ asks Bentley, ‘does this distich dismiss our first parents in anguish, and the reader in melancholy? And how can the expression be justified, with wandring steps and slow? Why wandring?

Erratick steps? Very improper, when, in the line before, they were guided by Providence. And why slow? even when Eve has professed her readiness and alacrity for the journey:

                                        but now lead on;
In me is no delay.

And why their solitarie way? All words to represent a sorrowful parting? when even their former walks in Paradise were as solitary as their way now; there being nobody besides them two both here and there. Shall I therefore, after so many prior presumptions, presume at last to offer a distich, as close as may be to the author's words, and entirely agreeable to his scheme?

Then hand in hand with social
steps their way
Through Eden took, with heavenly comfort cheer'd.’

Bentley assumes that he has exact knowledge of Milton's ‘scheme’, and quarrels with the text for not fitting it. He seems to be forgetting God's instructions to Michael—‘so send them forth, though sorrowing, yet in peace’ (xi. 117), and also Adam's knowledge of the events leading up to the happy consummation; yet it remains true that if Milton's ‘scheme’ was simply to show that everything would come out right in the end, and that this should keenly please both Adam and ourselves, Bentley is not at all silly here; or if he is, so are more modern commentators who, supported by all that is now known about the topic felix culpa, tend to read the poem in a rather similar way though without actually rewriting it, by concentrating on Milton's intention, somewhat neglected in the past, to present this belated joy of Adam's as central to the whole poem. There is, of course, such an intention or ‘scheme’; the mistake is to suppose that it is paramount. It is in fact subsidiary, Paradise Lost being a poem, to the less explicable theme of joy and woe, which has to be expressed in terms of the myth, as a contrast between the original justice of Paradise and the mess of history: between Paradise and Paradise lost. The poem is tragic. If we regard it as a document in the history of ideas, ignoring what it does to our senses, we shall of course find ideas, as Bentley did, and conceivably the closing lines will seem out of true. But our disrespect for Bentley's Milton, and in this place particularly, is proof that the poem itself will prevent our doing this unless we are very stubborn or not very susceptible to poetry. The last lines of the poem are, we feel, exactly right, for all that Adam has cried out for pleasure; death denounced, he has lost his Original Joy. The tragedy is a matter of fact, of life as we feel it; the hope of restoration is a matter of faith, and faith is ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen’—a matter altogether less simple, sensuous, and passionate, altogether less primitive. We are reminded that ‘the conception that man is mortal, by his nature and essence, seems to be entirely alien to mythical and primitive religious thought’.2 In the poem we deplore the accidental loss of native immortality more than we can applaud its gracious restoration.

One of the effects of mixing up Milton with the Authorized Version, and of intruding mistaken ideas of Puritanism into his verse, is that it can become very hard to see what is made absolutely plain: that for Milton the joy of Paradise is very much a matter of the senses. The Authorized Version says that ‘the Lord God planted a garden’ (Gen. ii. 8) and that he ‘took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and keep it’ (ii. 15). But even in Gen. ii. 8 the Latin texts usually have in paradisum voluptatis ‘into a paradise of pleasure’—this is the reading of the Vulgate currently in use. And the Latin version of ii. 15 gives in paradiso deliciarum. Milton's Paradise is that of the Latin version; in it, humanity without guilt is ‘to all delight of human sense expos'd’ (iv. 206), and he insists on this throughout. Studying the exegetical tradition on this point, Sister Mary Corcoran makes it plain that Milton pushes this sensuous pleasure much harder than his ‘scheme’ as Bentley and others might conceive it, required. For example, he rejected the strong tradition that the first marriage was not consummated until after the Fall, choosing to ignore the difficulty about children conceived before but born after it. For this there may be an historical explanation in the Puritan cult of married love; but it could not account for what has been called Milton's ‘almost Dionysiac treatment’3 of sexuality before the Fall; Sister Corcoran is sorry that she can't even quite believe the assertion that ‘in those hearts / Love unlibidinous reignd (v. 449-50).4

In fact Milton went to great trouble to get this point firmly made; had he failed no amount of finesse in other places could have held the poem together; and it is therefore just as well that nothing in the poem is more beautifully achieved.

Why was innocent sexuality so important to Milton's poem? Why did he take on the task of presenting an Adam and an Eve unimaginably privileged in the matter of sensual gratification ‘to all delight of human sense expos'd’? There is a hint of the answer in what I have written earlier about his view of the function of poetry. Believing as he did in the inseparability of matter and form, except by an act of intellectual abstraction, Milton could not allow a difference of kind between soul and body; God

                                                            created all
Such to perfection, one first matter all,
Indu'd with various forms, various degrees
Of substance, and in things that live, of life;
But more refin'd, more spiritous and pure,
As nearer to him plac't or nearer tending
Each in thir several active Sphears assignd,
Till body up to spirit work, in bounds
Proportiond to each kind. So from the root
Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves
More aerie, last the bright consummat flowre
Spirits odorous breathes: flowrs and thir fruit
Mans nourishment, by gradual scale sublim'd
To vital Spirits aspire, to animal,
To intellectual, give both life and sense,
Fancie and understanding, whence the Soule
Reason receives, and reason is her being,
Discursive or Intuitive; discourse
Is oftest yours, the latter most is ours … 

(v. 471-89)

An acceptance of Raphael's position involves, given the cosmic scale of the poem, a number of corollaries which Milton does not shirk. Matter, the medium of the senses, is continuous with spirit; or ‘spirit, being the more excellent substance, virtually and essentially contains within itself the inferior one; as the spiritual and rational faculty contains the corporeal, that is, the sentient and vegetative faculty’ (De Doctrina Christiana I. vii). It follows that the first matter is of God, and contains the potentiality of form,5 so the body is not to be thought of in disjunction from the soul, of which ‘rational’, ‘sensitive’ and ‘vegetative’ are merely aspects. Raphael accordingly goes out of his way to explain that the intuitive reason of the angels differs only in degree from the discursive reason of men; and Milton that there is materiality in angelic spirit. It is a consequence of this that part of Satan's sufferings lie in a deprivation of sensual pleasure. Milton's thought is penetrated by this doctrine, which, among other things, accounts for his view of the potency of poetry for good or ill; for poetry works through pleasure, by sensuous delight; it can help ‘body up to spirit work’ or it can create dangerous physiological disturbance. Obviously there could be no more extreme challenge to the power and virtue of his art than this: to require of it a representation of ecstatic sensual pleasure, a voluptas here and only here not associated with the possibility of evil: ‘delight to Reason join'd’ (ix. 243). The loves of Paradise must be an unimaginable joy to the senses, yet remain ‘unlibidinous’.

If we were speaking of Milton rather than of his poem we might use this emphasis on materiality, on the dignity as well as the danger of sense, to support a conclusion similar to that of De Quincey in his account of Wordsworth: ‘his intellectual passions were fervent and strong; but they rested upon a basis of preternatural animal sensibility diffused through all the animal passions (or appetites); and something of that will be found to hold of all poets who have been great by original force and power …’ (De Quincey was thinking about Wordsworth's facial resemblance to Milton). And it would be consistent with such an account that Milton also had, like Wordsworth, a constant awareness of the dangers entailed by a powerful sensibility. This gives us the short reason why, when Milton is representing the enormous bliss of innocent sense, he does not do so by isolating it and presenting it straightforwardly. He sees that we must grasp it at best deviously; we understand joy as men partially deprived of it, with a strong sense of the woeful gap between the possible and the actual in physical pleasure. And Milton's prime device for ensuring that we should thus experience his Eden is a very sophisticated, perhaps a ‘novelistic’ one: we see all delight through the eyes of Satan.

I shall return to this, and to the other more or less distorting glasses that Milton inserts between us and the voluptuousness of Eden; but first it seems right to say a word in general on a neglected subject, Milton's varying of the point of view in this poem. He uses the epic poet's privilege of intervening in his own voice, and he does this to regulate the reader's reaction; but some of the effects he gets from this device are far more complicated than is sometimes supposed. The corrective comments inserted after Satan has been making out a good case for himself are not to be lightly attributed to a crude didacticism; naturally they are meant to keep the reader on the right track, but they also allow Milton to preserve the energy of the myth. While we are hearing Satan we are not hearing the comment; for the benefit of a fallen audience the moral correction is then applied, but its force is calculatedly lower; and the long-established custom of claiming that one understands Satan better than Milton did is strong testimony to the tact with which it is done. On this method the devil can have good tunes. Not only does his terrible appearance resemble an eclipse which ‘with fear of change / Perplexes Monarchs’ (i. 598-9), but his oratory can include sound republican arguments—God is ‘upheld by old repute, / Consent or custom’ (639-40). This sort of thing makes its point before the authorial intervention corrects it. Milton even takes the risk of refraining from constant intervention and Satan-baiting in the first book, where the need for magnificence and energy is greatest. It is the second that the intense persuasions of the angelic debaters are firmly qualified; the speech of Belial is a notable case, for it is poignantly and humanly reasonable, but hedged before and behind by sharp comments on its hollowness and lack of nobility. We may find this argument attractive, but we ought to know that it has a wider moral context, and this the comment provides. At the other extreme, when God is laying down the law or Raphael telling Adam what he needs to know, the presentation is bare and unambiguous not because there is nothing the author wants to draw one's attention to but because these are not the places to start on the difficult question of how the reader's senses enhance or distort the truth; it is when the fallen study the deviousness of the fallen that corrective comment is called for, but even there sense must be given its due.

Of all the feats of narrative sophistication in the poem the most impressive is the presentation of the delights of Paradise under the shadow of Satan. He approaches out of chaos and darkness; a warning voice cries ‘Woe to th'inhabitants on Earth’ (iv. 5); he is ‘inflam'd with rage’ (9) as he moves in on calm and joy; and the consequences of the coming encounter are prefigured in the terminal words of lines 10-12: Mankind … loss … Hell. Before him Eden lies ‘pleasant’ (28); but we are not to see the well-tempered joys of its inhabitants before we have studied, with Uriel in the sun, the passionate fact of Satan, marred by ‘distempers foule’ (118), a condition possible only to the fallen. He fares forward to Eden, ‘delicious Paradise’ (132); distemper and delight are about to meet. A good deal is made of the difficulty of access to Eden; not, I think, because Satan would find it difficult—he ‘in contempt / At one slight bound high overleap'd all bound’ (180-1)—but because we must find it so; we are stumbling, disorientated, with Satan into an unintelligible purity:

                                        And of pure now purer aire
Meets his approach, and to the heart inspires
Vernal delight and joy, able to drive
All sadness but despair: now gentle gales
Fanning thir odoriferous wings dispense
Native perfumes, and whisper whence they stole
Those baumie spoils. As when to them who sail
Beyond the Cape of Hope, and now
are past
Mozambic, off at Sea North-East winds
Sabean Odours from the spicie shore
Of Arabie the blest, with such delay
Well pleas'd they slack thir course, and many a League
Cheerd with the grateful smell old Ocean smiles.
So entertaind those odorous sweets the Fiend
Who came thir bane, though with them better pleas'd
Than Asmodeus with the fishie fume,
That drove him, though enamourd, from the Spouse
Of Tobits Son, and with a vengeance
From Media post to Egypt, there fast bound.


This passage is preceded by praises of the colours of Paradise, and of delights directed at the senses of hearing, touch and taste; here the sense of smell is predominant, and Milton provides a remarkable association of fallen and unfallen odours. What becomes of the scents of Eden? They decay, and another smell replaces them, as Death himself will describe:

                                        a scent I draw
Of carnage, prey innumerable, and taste
The savour of Death from all things there that live … 
So saying, with delight he snuffd the smell
Of mortal change on Earth.

(x. 267 ff.)

At first Milton uses a lot of force to establish a situation lacking entirely this evil smell. ‘Of pure now purer aire’—we are moving into the very centre of purity, delight and joy, where no sadness could survive save irredeemable hopelessness (a hint that even this purity cannot repel Satan). The breezes carry scents which betray their paradisal origin: ‘baumie’ is a key-word in the life-asserting parts of the poem, being used in the sense in which Donne uses it in the ‘Nocturnall’, as referring to the whole principle of life and growth; compare ‘virtue’, meaning natural vitality, in the same parts. The simile of the perfumes drifting out to sea from Arabia Felix refers to this breeze-borne odour, but also, with a characteristic and brilliant syntactical turn, to its effect upon Satan, the next topic treated; ‘as when’ seems at first to refer back, then to refer forward. This effect is helped by the Miltonic habit of boxing off formal similes with fullstops before and after. Satan checks himself at this influx of sensual delight; but we are reminded, with maximum force, of the difference between Satan and the sailors, by the emphatic ‘Who came thir bane’. And this dissonance prepares us for the fuller ambiguities introduced by the reference to Asmodeus, a lustful devil who was driven away from Sarah by the stink of burning fish-liver. Why does Milton go about to fetch Asmodeus into his verses? The point is not the one he explicitly makes, that Satan liked the smell of Eden better than Asmodeus the smell of fish-liver; anybody who believes that will believe all he is told about Milton's sacrificing sense to sound, and so forth. The point is partly that Satan is also going to be attracted by a woman; partly that he too will end by being, as a direct consequence of his attempt upon her, ‘fast bound’; but the poet's principal intention is simply to get into the context a bad smell. The simile offers as an excuse for its existence a perfunctory logical connection with what is being said; but it is used to achieve a purely sensuous effect. As soon as we approach Eden there is a mingling of the good actual odour with a bad one, of Life with Death.

Another rather similar and equally rich effect is produced by another very long sentence, iv. 268-311. From the dance of ‘Universal Pan / Knit with the Graces’ (286-7) we pass on to negative comparisons between Eden and other gardens. All the negations work at an unimportant level of discourse; they are denials of similarity which would not be worth making if they did not imply powerful resemblances. Eden is not the vale of Enna, nor Eve Proserpina, nor Satan Dis, nor Ceres Christ. Though Daphne was saved from a devil by a divine act, her grove was not Eden, and though ‘old Cham’ protected in another garden the ‘Florid Son’ of Amalthea, this does not mean that the garden of Bacchus was the same paradise as that in which another lover of pleasure, almost divine, was, though inadequately, protected. In their unlikeness they all tell us more about the truth of Eden; yet it is upon their unlikeness that Milton is still, apparently, dwelling when his Satan breaks urgently in; they are all

                                        wide remote
From this Assyrian Garden, where
the Fiend
Saw undelighted all delight … 


Whereupon, having included the undelighted Satan in the enormous, delighted scene, Milton goes on, still without a full period, to an elaborate account of Adam and Eve. …

Joy and Woe, the shadow of one over the other, the passage from one to the other, are the basic topic of the poem. We turn now to Adam unparadised, to Joy permanently overshadowed by Woe, light by dark, nature by chaos, love by lust, fecundity by sterility. Death casts these shadows. It is not difficult to understand why a very intelligent Italian, reading Paradise Lost for the first time, should have complained to me that he had been curiously misled about its subject; for, he said, ‘it is a poem about Death’.

                                        For who would lose
Though full of pain, this intellectual being?

(ii. 146-7)

Belial asks the question, as Claudio had done; it is a human reaction, and most of the time we do not relish the thought of being without ‘sense and motion’ (ii. 151); nor can we help it if this is to be called ‘ignoble’ (ii. 227). In the same book, Milton gives Death allegorical substance, if ‘substance might be calld that shaddow seemd’ (669); for it is all darkness and shapelessness, a ‘Fantasm’ (743), all lust and anger, its very name hideous (788). The only thing it resembles is Chaos, fully described in the same book; and it stands in relation to the order and delight of the human body as Chaos stands to Nature. So, when Satan moved out of Chaos into Nature, he not only ‘into Nature brought / Miserie’ (vi. 267), but into Life brought Death, and into Light (which is always associated with order and organic growth) darkness. At the end of Book ii he at last, ‘in a cursed hour’ (1055), approaches the pendant world, having moved towards it from Hell through Chaos; and the whole movement of what might be called the sensuous logic of the poem so far—the fall into darkness and disorder, the return to light and order—is triumphantly halted at the great invocation to Light which opens Book iii. But the return is of course made with destructive intent. We see the happiness of a man acquainted with the notion of Death but having no real knowledge of it—‘So neer grows Death to Life, what e're Death is, / Som dreadful thing no doubt’ (iv. 425-6); and then, after the long interruption of Books v-viii, which represent the everything which stretched between life and death, we witness the crucial act from which the real knowledge of Death will spring, when Eve took the fruit, ‘and knew not eating Death’ (ix. 792). The syntax, once again, is Greek; but we fill it with our different and complementary English senses: ‘she knew not that she was eating death’; ‘she knew not Death even as she ate it’; ‘although she was so bold as to eat Death for the sake of knowledge, she still did not know—indeed she did not even know what she had known before, namely that this was a sin’. Above all she eats Death, makes it a part of her formerly incorruptible body, and so explains the human sense of the possibility of incorruption, so tragically belied by fact. The function of Death in the poem is simple enough; it is ‘to destroy, or unimmortal make / All kinds’ (x. 611-2). There is, of course, the theological explanation to be considered, that the success of Death in this attempt is permissive; but in terms of the poem this is really no more than a piece of dogmatic cheering-up, and Milton, as usual, allows God himself to do the explaining (x. 616 ff.). From the human point of view, the intimation of unimmortality takes priority over the intellectual comfort of God's own theodicy, simply because a man can feel, and can feel the possibility of immortality blighted.

Milton saw the chance, in Book ix, of presenting very concretely the impact of Death on Life; and it would be hard to think of a fiction more completely achieved. The moment is of Eve's return to Adam, enormously ignorant and foolishly cunning, ‘with Countnance blithe. … But in her Cheek distemper flushing glowd’ (ix. 886-7). This flush is a token of unimmortality; and then, since ‘all kinds’ are to be affected, the roses fade and droop in Adam's welcoming garland. He sees that Eve is lost, ‘Defac't, deflowrd, and now to Death devote’ (901). He retreats into Eve's self-deception; but all is lost.

The emphasis here is on all; from the moment of eating the fruit to that of the descent of ‘prevenient grace’ (end of Book x and beginning of xi) Adam and Eve have lost everything, and are, without mitigation, to death devote. If one bears this steadily in mind the tenth book is a lot easier to understand; it seems often to be misread. Adam, ‘in a troubl'd Sea of passion tost’ (718) cries out ‘O miserable of happie!’ (720) and laments the end of the ‘new glorious World’ (721). He feels particularly the corruption of love:

                              O voice once heard
Delightfully, Encrease and multiply,
Now death to hear!


and sums up in a couplet using the familiar pseudo-rhyme: ‘O fleeting joyes / Of Paradise, deare bought with lasting woes!’ (741-2). He has knowledge of the contrast between then and now, but of nothing else. Deprived of Original Justice, he is now merely natural; hence the importance of remembering that he is here simply a human being in a situation that is also simple, and capable of being felt naturally, upon our pulses. Deprived as he is, Adam finds life ‘inexplicable’ (754); knowing nothing of the great official plan by which good will come of all this, his speculations are by the mere light of nature. Rajan made something of this in his explanation of how Milton got his heterodox theology into the poem—mortalism, for example, is not very tendentious if proffered as the opinion of a totally corrupt man.6 But, much more important, Adam is here for the first time true kindred to the reader. The primary appeal of poetry is to the natural man; that is why it is called simple, sensuous and passionate. When Eve proposes that they should practise a difficult abstinence in order not to produce more candidates for unimmortality, or Adam considers suicide (x. 966 ff.) we should be less conscious of their errors than of their typicality. Whatever the mind may make of it, the sensitive body continues to feel the threat of unimmortality as an outrage:

                                        Why is life giv'n
To be thus wrested from us? rather why
Obtruded on us thus? who, if we knew
What we receive, would either not accept
Life offerd, or soon beg to lay it down,
Glad to be so dismisst in peace.

(xi. 502-7)

Michael's treatment of the same topic that the Duke inflicts upon Claudio in Measure for Measure can only strengthen such sentiments:

                                                            thou must outlive
Thy youth, thy strength, thy beauty, which will change
To witherd weak and gray; thy Senses then
Obtuse, all taste of pleasure must forgo,
To what thou hast, and for the Air of youth
Hopeful and cheerful, in thy blood will reign
A melancholly damp of cold and dry
To weigh thy spirits down, and last consume
The Baum of Life.

(xi. 538-46)

Whatever the consolation offered by Death—no one would wish to ‘eternize’ a life so subject to distempers of every kind—it is not pretended that this makes up for the loss of the ‘two fair gifts … Happiness / And Immortalitie’ (xi. 56-8). Most criticism of the verse of Book x and xi amounts to a complaint that it is lacking in sensuousness; but this is founded on a misunderstanding of the poem. Paradise Lost must be seen as a whole; and whoever tries to do this will see the propriety of this change of tone, this diminution of sense in the texture of the verse.

A striking example of this propriety is the second of the formal salutations to Eve, Adam's in xi. 158 ff., which I have already discussed in connection with v. 385 ff. Here Adam sees that Eve is responsible not only for death but for the victory over it; as she herself says, ‘I who first brought Death on all, am grac't / The source of life’ (xi. 168-9). This paradox, considered as part of the whole complex in which Milton places it, seems to me much more central to the mood of the poem than the famous felix culpa, because it is rooted in nature, and related to our habit of rejoicing that life continues, in spite of death, from generation to generation. Yet Adam is still under the shadow of death, and his restatement of the theme Venus-Eve-Mary is very properly deprived of the sensuous context provided for Raphael's salutation; and since the second passage cannot but recall the first, we may be sure that this effect was intended.

There, is indeed, another passage which strongly supports this view of the centrality of the paradox of Eve as destroyer and giver of life, and it has the same muted quality, casts the same shadow over the power and delight of love. This is the curious vision of the union between the sons of Seth and the daughters of Cain (xi. 556-636). The Scriptural warrant for this passage is extremely slight, though there were precedents for Milton's version. Adam rejoices to see these godly men united in love with fair women:

Such happy interview and fair event
Of love and youth not lost, Songs, Garlands, Flowrs
And charming Symphonies attachd the heart
Of Adam, soon enclin'd to admit
The bent of Nature … 


And he thanks the angel, remarking that ‘Here Nature seems fulfilld in all her ends’ (602). He is at once coldly corrected; these women, against the evidence of Adam's own senses, are ‘empty of all good’ (616), and nothing but ill comes from the ‘Sons of God’ (622) yielding up all their virtue to them. Milton remembered how much of Pandora there was in Eve. From women Adam is taught to expect woe; but, more important, this change in the divine arrangements means that the evidence of the senses, the testimony of pleasure, is no longer a reliable guide:

                                        Judge not what is best
By pleasure, though to Nature seeming meet … 


Paradise Lost is a poem about death, and about pleasure and its impairment. It is not very surprising that generations of readers failed to see the importance to Milton's ‘scheme’ of Adam's exclamation upon a paradox which depends not upon the senses but upon revelation; I mean the assurance that out of all this evil good will come as testimony of a benevolent plan

                                        more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness.

(xii. 471-3)

The senses will not recognize that out of their own destruction will come forth ‘Joy and eternal Bliss’ (xii. 551). In that line Milton echoes the Comus Epilogue—Joy will come from the great wound the senses have suffered, but it is a joy measured by what we have had and lost. And the sense of loss is keener by far than the apprehension of things unseen, the remote promise of restoration. The old Eden we know, we can describe it, inlay it with a thousand known flowers and compare it with a hundred other paradises; throughout the whole history of loss and deprivation the poets have reconstructed it with love. The new one may be called ‘happier farr’, but poetry cannot say much more about it because the senses do not know it. The paradise of Milton's poem is the lost, the only true, paradise; we confuse ourselves, and with the same subtlety confuse the ‘simple’ poem, if we believe otherwise.

Shelley spoke of Milton's ‘bold neglect of a direct moral purpose’, and held this to be ‘the most decisive proof of the supremacy of Milton's genius’. ‘He mingled, as it were’, Shelley added, ‘the elements of human nature as colours upon a single pallet, and arranged them in the composition of his great picture according to the laws of epic truth; that is, according to the laws of that principle by which a series of actions of the external universe and of intelligent and ethical beings is calculated to excite the sympathy of succeeding generations of mankind.’7 This passage follows upon the famous observations on Satan, and is itself succeeded by and involved with a Shelleyan attack on Christianity; and perhaps in consequence of this it has not been thought worth much attention except by those specialized opponents who contend for and against Satan in the hero-ass controversy. Theirs is an interesting quarrel, but its ground ought to be shifted; and in any case this is not the occasion to reopen it. But the remarks of Shelley I have quoted seem to me substantially true; so, rightly understood, do the much-anathematized remarks of Blake. I say ‘substantially’ because Milton himself would perhaps have argued that he accepted what responsibility he could for the moral effect of his poem, and that in any case he specifically desiderated a ‘fit’ audience, capable of making its own distinctions between moral good and evil. Yet in so far as poetry works through the pleasure it provides—a point upon which Milton and Shelley would agree—it must neglect ‘a direct moral purpose’; and in so far as it deals with the passions of fallen man it has to do with Blake's hellish energies. And however much one may feel that they exaggerated the truth in applying it to Milton, one ought to be clear that Shelley and Blake were not simply proposing naughty Romantic paradoxes because they did not know enough. Indeed they show us a truth about Paradise Lost which later commentary, however learned, has made less and less accessible.

With these thoughts in my mind, I sometimes feel that the shift of attention necessary to make friends out of some of Milton's most potent modern enemies is in reality a very small one. However this may be, I want to end by citing Mr. Robert Graves; not because I have any hope of persuading him from his evidently and irrationally powerful distaste for Milton, but to give myself the pleasure of quoting one of his poems. It is called ‘Pure Death’, and in it Mr. Graves speculates on a theme that he might have found, superbly extended, in Milton's epic:

We looked, we loved, and therewith instantly
Death became terrible to you and me.
By love we disenthralled our natural terror
From every comfortable philosopher
Or tall grey doctor of divinity:
Death stood at last in his true rank and order.(8)

Milton gives us this perception, but ‘according to the laws of epic truth’; which is to say, he exhibits life in a great symbolic attitude.


  1. Images and Themes in Five Poems by Milton (1957), p. 20.

  2. E. Cassirer, An Essay on Man (1944), pp. 83-4.

  3. Harris Fletcher, Milton's Rabbinical Readings (1930), p. 185.

  4. Paradise Lost with reference to the Hexameral Background (1945), pp. 76 ff.

  5. See W. B. Hunter, Jr., ‘Milton's Power of Matter’, Journal of the History of Ideas, xiii (1952), 551-62.

  6. B. Rajan, Paradise Lost and the Seventeenth Century Reader (1947), Cap ii.

  7. A Defence of Poetry, in Shelley's Literary and Philosophical Criticism, ed. J. Shawcross (1909), p. 146.

  8. Collected Poems (1959), p. 71.

Don Cameron Allen (essay date 1961)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Descent to Light,” in The Harmonious Vision: Studies in Milton's Poetry, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970, pp. 122-42.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology in 1961, Allen suggests that Paradise Lostshould be thought of as an allegory about allegory and sees the movement in the epic as similar to that in the myths of Orpheus and Hercules, as the characters descend into darkness before ascending to light.]

Though the English Protestants of the seventeenth century were, to their ultimate spiritual distress, so devoted to the literal interpretation of the Bible that they considered it the primary and superior reading, their affection for the letter and the historical sense did not prevent them from searching the text for types and allegories. This practice, of course, bore the taint of popery and hindered the full powers of the fides divina; yet it often yielded excellent results and enabled one to skirt the marsh of a troublesome passage. Though not addicted to the allegorical method, Milton was no stranger to it. He might scorn Amaryllis and Neaera, but he could spend an occasional moment of leisure with what Luther called “these whores of allegory.” The latter books of Paradise Lost and the tragedy of Samson proved that he was quite a talented typologist, who could find foreshadowings of the great Advocate of Grace in the biographical records of the advocates of the Law. More than this, Milton, unlike many of his contemporaries who were inclined to be universal in their analogical researches, made fine discriminations between types because he believed in what we might now call “typological evolution.”

An example of Milton's interpretative discretion is his refusal to accept—although in this he was contrary to theological opinion—the patriarch Aaron as a full type of Christ. He contended that this first priest simply adumbrated the priestly offices of Jesus.1 When he came to this conclusion, Milton was flatly correcting the assertions of the Anglican prelates; but on another similar occasion he was mentally flexible enough to correct himself.2 Since he also believed in a dynamic typology that changed as the sacred history was unrolled, he was quick to admit that symbols valid before the Law3 were afterwards worthless.4 He could also insist on the gradual revelation of types and symbols because he believed that the thunder and trumpets' “clang” on Mt. Sinai proclaimed, among other things, a new form of typology and established Moses, who was, in a guarded sense, “the Divine Mediator” and “the type of the Law,”5 as a master typologist. This evaluation had more than human worth because it was Jehovah who instructed Moses so that he could teach this mode of interpretation to men.

Ordaine them Lawes; part such as appertaine
To civil Justice, part religious Rites
Of sacrifice, informing them by types
And shadowes, of that destind Seed to bruise
The Serpent, by what meanes he shall achieve
Mankinds deliverance

(PL, XII. 230-35).

These words are placed in the mouth of the Archangel Michael, who at this moment is manipulating the magic lantern of holy shadows and who is also an experienced exegete skilled in all four senses. Shortly after speaking this gloss, he announces that the main purpose of the Old Testament is to prepare the sons of Adam for a “better Cov'nant, disciplin'd / From shadowie Types to Truth, from Flesh to Spirit” (XII. 302-303). The mighty angel thus suggests that man can ascend (as humbled Adam has ascended from the Vale of Despond to the Mount of the Visions of God) from the darkness of sin and ignorance into the light of truth, from the shadow of type and symbol into the white blaze of the eternal literal.

It must be confessed that typology, even at its finest, is little more than hindsight prophecy; it points surely to the Advent, but it is best understood when the Word is made Flesh. Allegory—a game that even Jehovah plays6—is, in Milton's somewhat reluctant opinion, a possible form of revealed knowledge. This knowledge may be useful in some instances and not in others. When, for example, Moses urges the Israelites not to plow with an ox and an ass, Milton, who has been searching Deuteronomy for divorce evidence, perceives that the Hebrew lawgiver has the Miltons in mind,7 an interpretation that speaks better for a sense of mystery than for a sense of humor. In his poetry Milton uses allegory with somewhat better artistry than a modern reader might imagine. An illustration of this skill appears when he shows Satan, orbiting in space and viewing the margin of Heaven and the angelic ladder of which “Each stair mysteriously was meant” (III. 516). By reminding us that Jacob's ladder had allegorical force, Milton prepares us for Raphael's subsequent description of the scala perfectionis, “the common gloss of theologians.” There is likewise poetic irony resident in the fact that Satan, who is totally without hope, is permitted to see what will be interpreted as Adam's way of assuming angelic nature.

In general Milton probably defined allegory as a downward descent of knowledge, a revealing of suprarational information that enabled the humble learner to ascend. Raphael's well known comment on his account of the celestial battles (V. 570-76; VI. 893-96) and Milton's open admission that he can only accept the six days of Creation allegorically (VII. 176-79) make the Miltonic conception of allegory plain. For the poet, allegory is the only means of communication between a superior mind aware of grand principles, such as the enduring war between Good and Evil, and a lesser mind incapable of higher mathematics. It is essentially a form of revelation, or, as Vaughan would put it, “a candle tin'd at the Sun.”

To burnish this observation, I should like to point to events within the confines of the epic that could be called an allegory about allegory. This sacred fiction begins to be written in Book II when Satan, leaving Hell for Eden, retains, except for his momentary ventures into several forms of symbolic wildlife, the literalness of satanship, never putting on the ruddy complexion, the horns, hoof, and tail by which he was recognized in the allegorical world. The celestial messengers, however, are real creatures and stay feathered and decorous so that Adam, unlike his sons, does not “entertain angels unawares.” It is otherwise with Satan's strange relative, Death. At first he “seems” to be crowned and to shake his ghastly dart; actually, he is a vast black shadow, formless, not “Distinguishable in member, joynt, or limb, / Or substance” (II. 668-69). He is by no means the symbolic person who writes the dreary colophon to all human stories or who is stonily portrayed in ecclesiastical monuments. Once he has crossed his bridge into our world, he is better known. Although he is “not mounted yet / On his pale horse,” we are familiar with his “vaste unhide-bound Corps” and we understand his hearty hunger for whatever “the Sithe” of his companion Time “mowes down” (X. 588-606). The bridge between the two worlds is a convention of infernal histories; but in Paradise Lost, it could also be called the Bridge of Allegory.

There is no doubt that at times Milton read the Scriptures for meanings other than the literal one, but he also was aware, thanks to a long tradition, that the pagans had a glimmer of Christian truth. Their lamp was scantily fueled and the wick smoked, but with proper adjustments it could be made to give off a “pale religious light.” It took almost four centuries to light this lamp in the Church; the pagan philosophers and their idolatrous legends had first to be suppressed. Then, taking over the methods of the same heathen brethren, the Christian scholars began searching the mythology for physical, moral, and spiritual notions that had been bequeathed to men by the sons of Noah. The moral commentaries of Bishops Fulgentius and Eustathius on pagan literature encouraged others to unshell these truths, and in Renaissance England Chapman, Bacon, Reynolds, Sandys, Ross, and Boys searched the pagans for what had been better revealed in the Bible or was narrated in the Books of Creation. All of them were infected to some degree with the current confidence in a universal philosophical system, a disease nourished by earlier mystagogues such as Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Agostino Steucho, and best known to us in the fine clinical case of Theophilus Gale. Given the virulence of the epidemic, we are, consequently, not surprised when the daemon from “the threshold of Jove's Court” touches on it.

He tell ye, 'tis not vain or fabulous
(Though so esteem'd by shallow ignorance)
What the sage Poets taught by th' heavenly Muse,
Storied of old in high immortal verse
Of dire Chimaeras and enchanted Isles,
And rifted Rocks whose entrance leads to Hell,
For such there be, but unbelief is blind

(Comus, 512-18).

After reading this speech in Comus, we understand why the mythological remembrances in Paradise Lost are sometimes more than ornamental, why their submerged moral or spiritual meanings enable them to consort with and support the braver Christian myths. The multicolored phoenix, first underwritten by Clement of Rome as a Christ symbol, adorns Milton's own adventual allegory: the descent of Raphael through the air, “a Phoenix, gaz'd by all” (V. 272). Eden, expressed in vegetable grandeur, is quickly seared with evil foreboding when Milton likens it to the meadows of Enna, those sinister fields “where Proserpin gath'ring flow'rs / Herself a fairer Flow'r by gloomy Dis / Was gather'd” (IV. 269-71). When Milton compares Adam and Eve to Deucalion and Pyrrha (XI. 8-14), even we do not need a whole series of pious mythologizers to make the point; and foolish Pandora hardly needs the testimony of a Father as old as Tertullian8 to inform us that she is the pagan half-memory of silly Eve (IV. 712-19). Milton is quite conventional in permitting pagan legend to lend its soft biceps to Christian power. His method of searching for metaphoric support in heathen culture also enables him to stand aside from the other characters of the epic and act as a commentator on the pre-Christian world from the vantage point of a postclassical man. Among the various pagan figures with whom Milton plants his poetry, two rise above the rest; they are the poet-theologian Orpheus and the demigod Hercules. Both are attractive to him because of their Christian meaning.

From the flats of the first Prolusion through the latter ranges of Paradise Lost, Milton accents the legend of Orpheus in a way that suggests self-identification. The Greek hero was praised in antiquity and by men of later ages for softening the human heart and turning it through his higher magic to the useful and the good.9 Christian as these achievements were, Orpheus, as Milton knew, enlarged them by singing of Chaos and Old Night and by teaching Musaeus the reality of the one God. St. Augustine, a Father beloved by Milton when he agreed with him, complained that Orpheus' theology was very poor stuff;10 but other primitive theologians from Athenagoras onward hailed the Greek as unique among the unelect in explaining divine matters as a Christian would.11 There is, as I have said, little doubt that Milton thought of the murdered poet as one of his own grave predecessors, and this view was probably enhanced by that of the Christian mythologists who described Orpheus as a pagan type of Christ.12

Clement of Alexandria is the first to bring both harrowers of Hell together, although his comments are actually an angry rejection of pagan complaints about Christian imitativeness. He brands the Christian doctrines of Orpheus as spurious and mocks the alleged majesty of his songs; then he turns with a “not so my singer” to praise the new Orpheus, who tamed the lions of wrath, the swine of gluttony, the wolves of rapine.13 Religious Eusebius makes a similar comparison in a more kindly fashion:

The Saviour of men through the instrument of the human body which he united to his divinity shows himself all saving and blessing, as Greek Orpheus who by the skillful playing of his lyre tamed and subdued wild animals. The Greeks, I say, sang of his miracles and believed that the inspired accents of the divine poet not only affected animals but also trees who left their places at his singing to follow him. So is the voice of our Redeemer, a voice filled with divine wisdom which cures all evil received in the hearts of men.14

The history of Orpheus as a pagan type of Christ can be traced for many centuries;15 by Milton's time it was such a part of the symbolic fabric of Christianity that one had only to think of “lyre” to say “cross.” It is, for example, Orpheus who comes into John Donne's mind when he writes in “Goodfriday,” “Could I behold those hands which span the Poles, / And tune all spheares at once, peirc'd with those holes?” This is the occasional image of Christ on the lyre, but the open comparison is conventionally stated for us by Giles Fletcher:

Who doth not see drown'd in Deucalion's name
(When earth his men, and sea had lost his shore)
Old Noah; and in Nisus lock, the fame
Of Sampson yet alive; and long before
In Phaethon's, mine owne fall I deplore:
But he that conquer'd hell, to fetch againe
His virgin widowe, by a serpent slaine,
Another Orpheus was the dreaming poets feigne.(16)

Thus Christians hallowed Orpheus for his half-success as a saviour of men and for his frustrated attempt to lead a soul out of Hell's darkness.

Tatian, in his Oration Against the Greeks, had argued that Orpheus and Hercules were the same person;17 Milton would hardly say this, though he found in the demigod foreshadowings of both Samson and Christ. His admission of the Christian Hercules to his pantheon begins with the “Nativity Ode,” where we are shown the infant Jesus “in his swaddling bands” ready to control the snaky Typhon and the rest of “the damned crew.” It is Hercules, too, who is praised in The Tenure of Kings for his suppression of tyrants,18 a superb Miltonic exploit; and he is recalled in the twenty-third sonnet for his rescue of Alcestis from the dark floor of Hell. He was, of course, attractive to Christians for other reasons. Begotten by Jove of a mortal woman, he early chose the right path, eschewing “the broad way and the green”; and, according to the almost Christian Seneca, “Jove's great son” devoted his whole life, in the best Stoic manner, to the conquest of his passions and the suppression of vice.19 His major exploits were against the forces of darkness. We first hear of him in the Iliad (V. 397) as he strikes Hades with his “swift arrow” to leave him in anguish among the dead. No wonder that he thrice descended into Hell with somewhat better fortunes than those of Orpheus.

When Milton read the Orphic poems, he read the one that praises Hercules as a human saviour, but the comparison between Christ and Hercules, like the comparison between Christ and Orpheus, had been made before Milton's birth. “Ipse Christus verus fuit Hercules, qui per vitam aerumnosam omnia monstra superavit et edomuit.”20 The analogy was firmly established across the Channel, where Hercules Gallus was a stern rival of Francus, by d'Aubigne's L'Hercule Chrestien,21 a moral prose on the labors Christianly read. This book inspired the Hercule Chrestien22 of Ronsard, who advises his reader to swim a little below his surface:

Mais ou est l'oeil, tant soit-il aveugle,
Ou est l'esprit, tant soit-il desreigle,
S'il veut un peu mes paroles comprendre,
Que par raison je ne luy face entendre,
Que la plus-part des choses qu'on escrit
De Hercule, est deve a un seul Jesuschrist.

Chaplain Ross, a good Scot, can put it bluntly: “Our blessed Saviour is the true Hercules.”23

There is little question that these two pagan Christ-types were congenial to Milton not only for their Christian grace notes but for their reflection of Miltonic ideals. Both heroes were received in the “sweet Societies / That sing, and singing in their glory move,” because, as Boethius made clear,24 they early chose the proper ascent to Heaven. Their accomplishments and their exploits were the sort that Milton himself might read in his own book of hope. But there is more to it than this. Hercules and Orpheus were types—not so good as Moses or Enoch, of course—of the strong Son of God and the Singer of the New Song. The event in their story that tied the hard knot of analogy was their descent into the darkness, their triumphs or half-triumphs in Hell, and their return into the light and, eventually, to the holy summits. In this process of descent and ascent, of entering the dark to find the light, the two halves of the coin of allegory were united.


The visual imagery of Paradise Lost depends to some extent on verbs of rising and falling, of descent and ascent, and on contrasts between light and darkness. These modes of expression coil about the demands of the central theme as the serpent coils about the forbidden tree so that we may be urged to abandon the horizontal movement of human history for the vertical motion of the spiritual life, the dark nothingness of ignorance and evil for the light of ultimate truth and reality. The descent of Milton into the darkness of Hell before he rises to the great “Globe of circular light” is a sound Christian rescript. “Descend,” says St. Augustine, “that you may ascend.” “Descende ut ascendas, humiliare ut exalteris.”25 Christ's double descent—first into the flesh and then into the dark Saturday of Hell—furnished those who humbled themselves with a map of Christian progress. One goes down in humility into the dark so that one may ascend in triumph to the light. Satan and his squires know this course well enough to pervert it.

When the black tyrant, who has been “Hurl'd headlong” down, addresses his companions, he pretends, contrary to fact, that the descent was voluntary and a preparation for ascension. “From this descent / Celestial Virtues rising, will appear / More glorious and more dread than from no fall” (II. 14-16). Satan's prideful qualification is enough to make the word rising ironic; but his falsehood is not only believed but seconded by the deluded Moloch, who describes with desperate wit the millions that “longing wait / The Signal to ascend” and boastfully asserts “That in our proper motion we ascend / Up to our native seat: descent and fall / To us is adverse” (II. 55-77). Moloch's knowledge is no better than his grammar, for he, like his fellows, has gone about it the wrong way. He has already ascended in pride; been guilty of a “sursum cor contra Dominum,”26 and so he has “frozen and fallen like a flake of snow.”27 The literature of the Church knows all these phrases for the fate of the prideful aspirant; it tells us that those who descend in humility arise to those heights. “Unde Satan elatus cecidit, fidelis homo sublevatus ascendat.”28 The humble ascend to the light; the proud enter the depths, the “caligo tenebrarum densissima.”29 For those in hope of seeing the light that Satan truly detests, the road is easily followed, because both roads, as Bernard of Clairvaux puts it, are the same:

The same steps lead up to the throne and down; the same road leads to the city and from it; one door is the entrance of the house and the exit; Jacob saw the angels ascending and descending on the same ladder. What does all this mean? Simply that if you desire to return to truth, you do not have to seek a new way which you do not know, but the known way by which you descended. Retracing your steps, you may ascend in humility by the same path which you descended in pride.30

Augustine's descent in humility is paralleled by Bernard's descent in pride, because both are dark ways that lead upward to light. Had Milton's Adam been humble in obedience, he would have ascended, as Raphael, who had read the Church Fathers,31 made plain (V. 490-505). But Adam sacrificed his prospects of angelic perfection for the immediate rewards of romantic love; even then, however, his subsequent humility guarantees his ascension. The demons also talk of ascending, but “self-tempted,” they are secure in their fall. The bitter pride and the prideful unrepentance that governs them is embossed by Satan in his soul-revealing soliloquy:

O foul descent! that I who erst contended
With Gods to sit the highest, am now constrain'd
Into a Beast, and mixt with bestial slime,
This essence to incarnate and imbrute,
That to the hight of Deitie aspir'd:
But what will not Ambition and Revenge
Descend to? who aspires must down as low
As high he soar'd … 

(IX. 163-70).

Satan, in other words, knows the rules. In time his legions will rise far enough to occupy the middle air, but they will not advance into the “precincts of light.” Depth and dark are really their “native seat.” Their master is very honest about this, admitting, as he returns from the grand seduction, that he finds descent “through darkness” an easy road (X. 393-98).

It is darkness, as well as descent, even though it is “darkness visible” that plagues the newcomers to Hades. They sit in the gloom, as Gregory the Great tell us, “inwardly dark amidst the everlasting darkness of damnation.”32 Behind them are “the happy Realms of Light” (I. 85), which they have exchanged for a dreary plain, “void of light” (I. 180). Once they were famed as God's “Bright-harness'd Angels”; now they spend their time plotting how to “affront” God's holy light “with thir darkness” (I. 389-91), confounding “Heav'n's purest Light” “with blackest Insurrection” (II. 136-37). In alternate moments they console themselves with foolish or violent plans for an escape to light (II. 220, 376-78), but Satan, who has read the sixth book of the Aeneid, reminds them that “Long is the way / And hard, that out of Hell leads up to Light” (II. 432-33). In Satan's church—and theology informs us that he has one—this might be called the diabolique of darkness; the counter-Church opposes to this opaqueness the sublime metaphysic of light.

We need not scratch through the Bible or the smaller gravel of the theologians to find the moral interpretation of the blackness of Hell, of the mind of evil, or what Milton's Jehovah calls the “dark designs.” The Christian conscience is fully aware of the dark symbols. Ignorance, sin and sinner, damnation, Hell and its provost are festooned with black against a midnight ground, and the speculations of Beatus Jung are seldom required to expound the Christian tradition. Opposed to this night of negation is what might be called the tenebrae in bono which is consonant with the descent in humility and is explained by the divine darkness that even Mammon knows.

This deep world
Of darkness do we dread? How oft amidst
Thick clouds and dark doth Heav'n's all-ruling Sire
Choose to reside, his Glory unobscur'd,
And with the Majesty of darkness round
Covers his Throne; from whence deep thunders roar
Must'ring thir rage, and Heav'n resembles Hell?
As he our Darkness, cannot we his Light
Imitate when we please?

(II. 262-70).

If these were not English devils, we would put this down to conscious humor; but the absence of jest is proclaimed when Pandaemonium is lighted with sputtering gas lamps that badly imitate Heaven's essential light. The dark with which God mantles himself is as different from Hell-dark as Hell-fire is from Heaven's blazing cressets. Moses, who ascended Mt. Sinai to enter the dark folds of God's light, could lecture the swart Mammon in hermeneutics.

Though Orpheus and Hercules enter the dark and arise to the light, the basic Christian idea of the dark god in the divine night is a totally different concept. For the ancients, light was the essence of existence and the sun shone in their temples, bathing the clear gods in bright gold. Death was the greatest of horrors, not because it deprived one of limb and motion but rather because it extinguished the mortal world of light. Dying Antigone weeps because never again will she see the holy light (879-80), and her lamentation is heard again and again in Greek tragedy.33 Light was life, and it was also wisdom. For Plato φωs is the means by which men who live in the realm of shadow almost place their hands on the unknown and unknowable.34 The Roman stoics soothed themselves with the same consolation of light; hence Seneca can remind the suffering Helvia that “The gleams of night” enable one to commune with celestial beings and keep one's mind “always directed toward the sight of kindred things above.”35 The Christians, too, saw Jehovah as a bright God, the Father of Lights, and in his human manifestation, the Lux Mundi,36 but they also knew him as a god in darkness,37 assuming his cloak of clouds.38 The figure of a darkened god visible only in the soul's night demanded an explanatory inscription on the entablature.

The Christian doctrine of the light in darkness begins when Philo Judaeus, the stepfather of exegesis, interpreted Exodus 20:21. The broad cloud on Mt. Sinai, he writes, is the allegory of Moses' attempt to understand the invisible and incorporeal nature of Jehovah;39 it is also, in a more general sense, the symbolic exposition of the process by which the contemplative mind tries to comprehend the immaterial.40 More than a century later, Roman Plotinus compared man's perception of common experience to wandering through the statues of the gods that crowd the outskirts of a temple.41 The luminous soul has, truly enough, descended into darkness42 when it has entered the flesh, but it still provides an inner light.43 Once it has reached its limit this light is also changed into an obscurity;44 but this limit does not blind the inner sight by which one may ascend to the light in the shadows (ελλαμψ[b.iota ]s η ειs τо sκоτоs), the spiritual habitation which is the goal of the wise.45 Philo, accounting for the experience of Moses, and Plotinus, elaborating on the light metaphysic of Plato, offered to western man an esoteric explanation of divine light: it hides itself in the dark and one must enter the cloud to find it.

Milton, who had only the rudimentary chronology of his age to guide him, would probably think of Plato as a contemporary of Moses. He would certainly accept the Pseudo-Dionysius, the great exponent of this philosophy, as the disciple of St. Paul and the coeval of Philo. He would, consequently, assign all these similar doctrines to the first Christian era. The facts, as we now know and as I intend to relate them, were otherwise, and it is Gregory of Nyssa, whom Milton was reading before he wrote An Apology, who was the precursor of the Areopagite and who brought this doctrine into the fold of the Church. Gregory invented the poignant oxymoron “bright darkness” (λαμπρssγυsφоs),46 a trope that haunts the rhetoric of mystics ever afterward. In his Life of Moses he is troubled by the god who first showed himself in light and then in a dark shroud. He sought and found a solution for this strangeness. The Logos is first seen as light, but as one ascends, it becomes dark because one realizes that it surpasses ordinary knowledge and is separated from mortal comprehension by the tenebrae.47 This is why Moses first saw God as light. Becoming more perfect in understanding by putting aside false knowledge of the divine, he passed from the primary light of the Logos, which dissipates impiety, into the divine dark. In this night, his mind, rejecting “the simple aspects of things,” was fixed in a stasis of contemplation so that here he saw the true light where God is.48 In this way Gregory wrote out the Christian explanations of the dark experience which the person who called himself Dionysius would some centuries later make an intrinsic part of Christian knowledge.

The light metaphysic of the Pseudo-Dionysius also owes much to Origen's doctrine of the double vision obtained through the eyes of the sense and the eyes of the mind. In order that the external eyes of men may be blinded, Origen writes, and that the inner eyes may see, Christ endured the humility of incarnation. By this descent, he, who healed the blind by miracle, blinded our external eyes so that he could cure our inner sight.49 The Pseudo-Dionysius begins his Mystical Theology with the request that he may be allowed to ascend to those oracles where the mysteries of theology are seen in a darkness brighter than light.50 He yearns to enter the “divine darkness”51 where the human handicap of seeing and being seen is removed and all forms of external perception are blinded in the sacred darkness that is inaccessible light.52 For him … when the searcher has arrived at its limits, which are complete negation, he will see at last without veils.53 The Pseudo-Dionysius supports this doctrine with the example of Moses, who penetrated into “the cloud of unknowing” by closing his human eyes to all the vanities of mortal knowledge.54 Moses, it is true, did not see God's face but only the divine place;55 nonetheless, his intellectual eyes, like those of the supercelestial Intelligences and Seraphim,56 were cleansed of the “mass of obscurity.”57

After the tenth century the vogue of the Pseudo-Dionysius and his doctrine was enormous. Hilduin, John Scot, Hincmar, Radebert, John of Salisbury, Sarrazin, Hugo of St. Victor, Albert the Great, and St. Thomas found spiritual fascination in his writings.58 The excitement of the Middle Ages was shared by the members of the Florentine Academy, by Ficino, who translated the Areopagite and wrote his own De Lumine, and by Pico della Mirandola, who discovered in the Pseudo-Dionysius a fellow exotic. But the light metaphysic of this fifth-century Greek was particularly illuminating to those who followed the upward mystic road, to John of the Cross, Ruusbroec, Tauler, and Suso, all of whom walked the way marked out by Richard of St. Victor59 and St. Bonaventura. The manuals of the latter saint are rubricated with the paradoxical notion that to see one must become blind: “Excaecatio est summa illuminatio.” One must search, says Bonaventura, for the night of light, but only those who have found it know what it is.

Jacob's ladder is placed on these three levels, the top reaching Heaven and so is Solomon's throne where sits the king wise and in peace, lovable as the most precious husband and most desirable. Upon him the angels desire to look and the love of holy souls yearns for him just as the stag seeks fountains of water. Hither in the manner of fire, our spirit is made skillful by a most fervent desire for the ascent but is carried by a wise ignorance beyond itself into darkness and delight so that it not only says with the bride: “We will run after thee to the odor of thy ointments,” but also sings with the prophet: “and night shall be my light in my pleasure.” What this nocturnal and delightful illumination is no one knows unless he tries it, and unless grace is given divinely no one tries it; and no one is given it unless he trains himself for it.60

The same mode of expression is found in Dante, who like Virgil and Milton descended into Hell, who went into the dark in order to see the light. The poetic allegory comes at the beginning when Dante leaves the forest of this world and having endured the night with piety prepares to enter the dark downward path so that he may ascend to the triple circle of final illumination.

Ma poi ch'io fui al piè d'un colle giunto,
Là dove terminava quella valle
Che m'avea di paura il cor compunto,
Guardai in alto, e vidi le sue spalle
Vestite già de' raggi del pianeta
Che mena dritto altrui per ogni calle.
Allor fu la paura un poco queta
Che nel lago del cor m'era durata
La notte ch' io passai con tanta pièta

(I. 13-21).

Milton's poetic realization of the themes of descent and ascent, of the necessity of entering the dark in order to see the light, of the descent of light itself so that men may see, and of the inner eye that knows only when the exterior sight is gone, is constantly before us as we read him. These themes were carried to exorbitant excess by the mystics, but we must remember that in spite of the emphasis given them by this nervous faith they have a simple Christian provenience. It is in the plain sense, which seems nowadays to be extravagant, that Milton puts them to use. The descent of humility comes before us as early as the “Nativity Ode” when we are told how the Son of God forsook the “Courts of everlasting Day” to choose “with us a darksome House of mortal Clay.” The same theme comes forward again when Christ is assured that he will not degrade his nature “by descending” to assume that of man. “Therefore thy Humiliation shall exalt / With thee thy Manhood also to this Throne” (PL, III. 303-14). On the human level the poet seeking perfection rises from the day of “L'Allegro” and enters the night, “the high lonely Tow'r,” of “Il Penseroso.” Thus he, too, enters the dark, as Moses did, in order to reach the dawn and the “Prophetic strain.” As Milton leaves the light of the first poem that reveals only the “aspects of things,” Orpheus lifts his head, but in the night of the second he hears the singing of both Orpheus and his son Musaeus. It is in darkness, too, that fallen Adam descends so that the day of fleshly surrender be followed by the night of remorse and humility; through this course, the father of men ascends to God, first, in prayer and, then, in vision.

The theme of the inner eyes, so comforting to the blind man, makes its appearance as early as the Second Defence,61 where Milton compares his blindness with his opponent's spiritual dark: “mine keeps from my view only the colored surfaces of things, while it leaves me at liberty to contemplate the beauty and stability of virtue and truth.” Samson Agonistes, if it is the last work, almost depends on this idea. At the bottom of despair Samson, “a moving grave,” doubts that “light is in the Soul” (92) and sees only “double darkness nigh at hand” (593). But Samson's night becomes day when in the complete negation of himself he yields humbly to the “rousing motions in me” (1382); then the Semichorus can sing:

But he though blind of sight,
Despis'd and thought extinguish'd quite,
With inward eyes illuminated
His fiery virtue rous'd
From under ashes into sudden flame


We must turn, however, to Paradise Lost, and especially to two of its invocations, to find all of this in flower.

The epic opens with the great address recalling Moses' ascent from the low vale to the summit of Sinai to enter the clouded light that awaits him. The experience of “that Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed” reminds Milton of the brook of Siloa which flowed into Siloam's pool, “fast by the Oracle of God,” where Christ healed the blind man, curing at once both the inward and the exterior eyes. The types of both Old and New Testament are then personally read as the poet prays for the ascent toward light. “What in me is dark / Illumine, what is low raise and support; / That to the highth of this great Argument.…” Prayer is itself the humble act, preface to Milton's descent into the dark underground of Satan's province.

It is possible that Milton begins in Hell because he who met Casella “in the milder shades of Purgatory” began there. There is, however, a difference between the two poets and their purposes. Dante enters Hell (although the allegorical process of conversion and Christian education is a reader's requirement) because the literal demanded it. Milton's descent is an artistic voluntary. In moral sense Dante descends that he may ascend; he enters the dark to find the light. In doing so he takes Milton by the hand, but the reason is doctrinal rather than poetic. Having explored the dark bottom of pride, Milton rises toward the light. The preface to Book III recounts this ascension:

Thee I revisit now with bolder wing,
Escap't the Stygian Pool, though
long detained
In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
With other notes than to th'Orphean
I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,
Taught by the heav'nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend,
Though hard and rare

(III. 13-21).

Milton, like Moses, sees the “Holy Light,” but like the great type of the Redeemer he must descend to his “Native Element.” Light, however, is given the inner eye, and, like Vaughan's Nicodemus, he can “at mid-night speak with the Sun!” It is more than sixteen hundred years after the typified event; yet the English poet joins himself to the procession, heathen and Christian, of those who acted in the great allegory of faith, who descended to ascend, who entered the darkness to see the light.


  1. Church Government, Works (New York, 1931-38), III, 202-205; hereafter I shall cite only volume and page.

  2. Hirelings, VI, 55, 58; Christian Doctrine, XIV, 311.

  3. Christian Doctrine, XVI, 191.

  4. Ibid., XVI, 197.

  5. Ibid., XVI, 111.

  6. Ibid., XV, 145.

  7. Doctrine and Discipline, III, 419; Colasterion, IV, 265.

  8. Liber de Corona, Patrologia Latina, II, 85.

  9. J. Wirl, Orpheus in der englischen Literatur (Vienna and Leipzig, 1913). Milton's orphic imagery has been studied by Caroline Mayerson, “The Orpheus Image in Lycidas,” PMLA, LXIV (1949), 189-207. The Columbia Index may be consulted for Milton's references to Orpheus.

  10. Contra Faustum, PL, XLII, 282; De Civitate, XVIII. 14.

  11. Legatio pro Christianis, Patrologia Graeca, VI, 928.

  12. Fulgentius, Philosophi Mythologiarum libri tres (Basel, 1536), 77-79; Berchorius, Metamorphosis Ovidiana Moraliter (s.l., 1509), fol. lxxiii; Boccaccio, Della Genealogia degli Dei, [Illegible Text] Betussi (Venice, 1585), 87; dell'Anguillara and Horologgi, Le Metamorphosi (Venice, 1584), 357, 387; Comes, Mythologiae (Padua, 1616), 401-402, 548; Ross, Mystagogus Poeticus (London, 1648), 334-37.

  13. Cohortatio ad Gentes, PG, VIII, 56-57.

  14. Panegyric to Constantine, PG, XX, 1409.

  15. Lampridius informs us in his life of Alexander Severus (a work cited by Milton in Of Reformation) that this Emperor erected shrines to Abraham, Christ, and Orpheus: see Historiae Augustæ Scriptores (Frankfurt, 1588), II, 214. Antonio Bosio has a chapter on why Christians compared Orpheus and Christ in Roma Sotterano (Rome, 1630). For an account of the Orpheus-Christ metaphor in Spanish literature see Pablo Cabanas, El Mito de Orfeo en la literatura Española (Madrid, 1948), 153-76.

  16. The Poetical Works, ed. F. Boas (Cambridge, Eng., 1908), I, 59-60. One of the earliest English comparisons is found in Gavin Douglas: see Poetical Works, ed. Small (Edinburgh, 1874), II, 18. Wither objects to these comparisons in A Preparation to the Psalter, 1619 (Spenser Society, 1884), 77-78.

  17. PG, VI, 885.

  18. Op. cit., V, 19; for other references to Hercules see the Columbia Index. The Samson-Hercules-Christ identification is explored by Krouse, Milton's Samson and the Christian Tradition (Princeton, 1949), 44-45.

  19. Dial., II. 2. 2; see also Apuleius, Florida, 14, and Servius on Aeneid, VI. 119-23. The moral mythologers who read Christ into Orpheus also found the same connections between Christ and Hercules: see Fulgentius, 32, 39-42; Boccaccio, 210-14; Gyraldus, Hercules, in Opera (Leyden, 1696), I, 571-98; Alciati, Emblemata (Leyden, 1593), 50-54, 505-508; Valeriano, Hieroglyphica (Basel, 1556), fols, 23v, 109v, 247v, 386; Comes, 272-74.

  20. G. Budé, De Asse et partibus (Paris, 1532), p. lxix.

  21. Oeuvres, ed. Reaume and de Caussade (Paris, 1877), II, 226-31. Annibal Caro writes the Duchess of Castro: “Sotto il misterio d'Ercole si dinota Cristo, il quale estrinse il vizio, come Ercole uccise Cacco” (Lettere Familiari [Padua, 1763], I, 253).

  22. Oeuvres, ed. Vaganay (Paris, 1924), VI, 137-45.

  23. Op. cit., 169.

  24. Consolations, III, met. 12; IV, met. 7.

  25. Sermo CCXCVII, PL, XXXIX, 2313-14; Confessiones, IV. 12; De Civitate, VII. 33; Enarratio in Psalmos PL, XXXVII, 1596-1600, 1606.

  26. Sermo XXV, PL, XXXVIII, 168.

  27. In Job, PL, XXXIV, 875.

  28. Cassiodorus, Exposition in Psalter, PL, LXX, 1036.

  29. Anselm, Liber de Similitudinibus, PL, CLIX, 664-65.

  30. De Gradibus Humilitatis, ed. Burch (Cambridge, Mass., 1940), 176.

  31. For patristic comments on the perfectibility of an unfallen Adam, see Hugo of St. Victor, De Vanitate Mundi, PL, CLXXVI, 723; St. Thomas, Summa, I. 102. 4; Pico della Mirandola, De Hominis Dignitate, ed. Garin (Florence, 1942), 104, 106; J. Donne, Sermons, ed. Potter and Simpson (Berkeley, Calif., 1953-60), II, 123, VII, 108.

  32. In Ezechielem, PL, LXXVI, 1290.

  33. See also Sophocles, Aias, 854-65, Oedipus Col., 1549-51, and Euripides, Iph. Aul., 1281-82, 1506-1509.

  34. Republic, VI. 508-509, VII. 518; Phaedo, 99; see J. Stenzel, “Der Begriff der Erleuchtung bei Platon,” Die Antike, II (1926), 235-37.

  35. Ad Helviam, VIII. 5-6; see also Plutarch, De Genio Soc., 590 B.

  36. Psalms 36:9, 104:2; Wisdom, 7:21-25; I Timothy 6:16; I John 1:5.

  37. Exodus 20:21, II Chronicles 6:1, II Samuel 22:12, Psalms 18:11-12, 97:2, Job 22:14.

  38. Ezekiel 1:4, Revelation 1:7.

  39. Vita Mosis, I. 28.

  40. De Poster. Caini, 5.

  41. Enneads, VI. 9, 11, 8-22.

  42. Ibid., IV. 3, 9, 23-29.

  43. Ibid., V. 3, 17, 27-37.

  44. Ibid., IV. 3, 9, 23-26.

  45. Ibid., II. 9, 12, 31; I. 6, 9, 22-24; see M. de Corte, “Plotin et la nuit de l'esprit,” Etudes Carmélitaines, II (1938), 102-15.

  46. In Cantica Canticorum, PG, XLIV, 1000-1001. It should be noted that Tertullian prior to his polemic against Montanism describes an “obumbratio mentis” as a preface to divine knowledge; see Ad Marcion, PL, II, 413, and De Anima, ed. Waszink (Amsterdam, 1947), p. 62 and notes. Ambrose considers the tenebrae as a requirement of the prophetic state: De Abraham, PL, XIV, 484.

  47. Op. cit., PG, XLIV, 376-77.

  48. In Cantica, ibid., 1001.

  49. Contra Celsum, PG, XI, 1476.

  50. Op. cit., PG, III, 997.

  51. Ibid., 1000.

  52. Epistolae, ibid., 1073.

  53. T.M., ibid., 1000-1001.

  54. Ibid., 1001.

  55. Ibid., 1000.

  56. De Coelesti Hierarchia, ibid., 205.

  57. De Divinis Nominibus, ibid., 700-701; see H. C. Peuch, “La Ténèbre mystique chez le Pseudo-Denys,” Etudes Carmélitaines, II (1938), 33-53.

  58. P. G. Théry, “Denys au moyen age,” Etudes Carmélitaines, II (1938), 68-74.

  59. Benjamin Minor, PL, CXCVI, 52.

  60. Breviloquium, Opera Omnia (Florence, 1891), V, 260.

  61. Op. cit., VIII, 71.

B. Rajan (essay date 1964)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Language of Paradise Lost,” in Milton: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louis L. Martz, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, pp. 56-60.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1964 as a introduction to his edition of the first two books of Paradise Lost, Rajan surveys other critics' responses to the style of the epic and claims that the work's diction, sound, and imagery contribute to the poetic result of a lucid surface whose depths are charged with meaning.]

Paradise Lost has not one style but several, as Pope was among the first to recognise. There is, at the simplest level of discrimination, an infernal style, a celestial style, and styles for Paradise before and after the fall. But the infernal style itself differs both mechanically and actually, in the heroic preparations of the first book, in the “great consult” in Pandemonium and in Satan's encounter with Sin and Death. The other styles reveal similar and substantial differences of application. In these circumstances it may seem irrelevant to talk of the poem's style at all, but the word, though deceptive, is not wholly beside the point. With all its variations, the language of the poem has a basic homogeneity and in fact one of the pleasures of reading Paradise Lost is to discover the wide differences the language can accommodate, without imperilling its unitive power. In this sense also the poem makes alive a basic quality of the reality which it celebrates.

Sublimity is a quality usually conceded to Paradise Lost, though it is argued that the sublimity is monolithic, that its price is petrification and that the style marches on irrespective of what is inside it. But perspicuity is not ordinarily associated with the poem, the general impression being that its syntax, its erudition and its latinised usages combine to invest it with a pervasive obscurity. Mr. Eliot is typical in observing that “the complication of a Miltonic sentence is an active complication, a complication deliberately introduced into what was a previously simplified and abstract thought.” Although this is from the 1936 essay, we also find Mr. Eliot, in his 1947 recantation, still proclaiming that Milton's style is personal rather than classic, that its elevation is not the elevation of a common style, that in Milton “there is always the maximal, never the minimal, alteration of ordinary language” and that as a poet, Milton is “probably the greatest of all eccentrics.” Similarly, Mr. Leavis observes: “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.” …

Fortunately all generalisations about Paradise Lost (including those that offer themselves as truisms) have to encounter and survive the text. The following lines from the ninth book are quoted not only because the syntax is uniformly unorthodox, but also because the unorthodoxy is maintained at a crisis in the action, in other words, under conditions of potentially maximum irrelevance:

From his slack hand the Garland wreath'd for Eve
Down dropd, and all the faded Roses shed:
Speechless he stood and pale, till thus at length
First to himself he inward silence broke.

It should not be necessary to point out how the first inversion sets in motion the succession of linked a's that makes “slack” a reality in the sound and pace of the verse, or how the wreathing of the e sound in “wreath'd for Eve” is made more vivid by the placing of “Eve” at the climax of the line. The plummeting force of “Down dropd” is created both by the inversion and by its dramatic positioning (which the previous inversion has made possible). These departures from the normal word-order indicate how the syntax is being manoeuvred to create a pattern of impact rather than a logical or grammatical sequence. In this context “all the faded Roses shed” is surprising only in analysis. Within the poetry itself, it spreads out of the numbness of “Down dropd,” so that Adam's paralysis seems to be measured by the manner in which it passes out into nature, withering the roses with the same shock that withers him. The image succeeds precisely by not calling attention to itself, by being shaped into the situation, into the inert downward movement. The next inversion places “Speechless” at the beginning of the line; both the stressed position and its anchoring by “stood” (the alliteration is, of course, purposive) charge the word with the surrounding sense of deadness. We are made aware that Adam's speechlessness is not ordinary consternation but the mental surface of his “inward silence.” The separation of “speechless” and “pale” by “stood” (a favourite Miltonic device) is similarly functional; both in the syntax and in the reality being enacted, the inner condition is precedent and decisive. “Pale,” we must also remember, was a stronger word to Milton's contemporaries than it is to us. The suggestion here is of the pallor of death. One recalls the “shuddring horror pale” of the fallen angels and the “pale and dreadful” light of their damnation. In this context, “till thus at length” is creatively ambiguous; the grammatical coupling with “he inward silence broke” is deliberately weakened by the inversion of the fourth line and this enables the emotional link with “Speechless he stood” to become active in the total movement. “First to himself” delays and defines the climax. Adam is not soliloquising. Rather, he is seeking to achieve a response out of the momentary paralysis of his being, to create out of inward silence a ground for interior debate. The movement and tension of the poetry, charged with meaning beneath the lucid surface, shape and intensify this reality. Diction, syntax, sound and imagery contribute purposefully to the poetic result.

This analysis has been pursued in some detail to indicate that the poetry of Paradise Lost can bear and will respond to a far greater pressure of interpretation than it normally receives. It also suggests that “the complication of a Miltonic sentence” is a creative rather than an “active complication” if indeed it is a complication at all; the true aim seems to be the playing of metrical against grammatical forces to form and embolden the emotional line. This conclusion is not limited to the “simpler” kind of writing that has been analysed; the following lines present a characteristically different surface but are modelled by essentially similar forces. The quotation is from one of those passages in the third book where God the Father turns a school divine, though according to some of our better scholars, he speaks more like a seventeenth century rhetorician, an ideal student of Puttenham and Peacham.

                                                                      Man disobeying
Disloyal breaks his fealtie, and Sinns
Against the high Supremacie of Heav'n
Affecting God-head and so loosing all,
To expiate his Treason hath naught left,
But to destruction sacred and devote,
He with his whole posteritie must die:
Die hee or Justice must; unless for him
Som other able, and as willing, pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death.
Say Heav'nly Powers, where shall we find such love,
Which of ye will be mortal to redeem
Mans mortal crime, and just th' unjust to save?
Dwels in all Heaven charitie so deare?

One is expected to note such touches as the manner in which “high supremacie” recalls I, 132, tying the human sin to the angelic. Less obvious, but equally part of the underlying network, is the exact premonition in “But to destruction sacred and devote” of the truth which breaks into Adam's inward silence (IX, 901) as he faces the finality of Eve's sin. The irony of “Affecting God-head and so loosing all” has a sardonic validity in itself but the punishment is also measured by the presumption and the legal matching of the two is part of the poem's concept of justice. Some may find the use of the images of kingship curious, but Milton's view that the only true monarchy is that of Heaven (XII, 67-71) is not only consistent but republican. In any case the imagery, with its legalistic undertone, makes possible the intensification of disobedience into disloyalty and finally into treason, thus dictating the measured and monolithic verdict: “He with his whole posteritie must die”. One notes how the quasi-rhymes bind the judgment together and how the crucial words “He” and “die” stand dramatically at the beginning and end of the line. Then comes the concentration, the sudden swoop of emphasis, as these terminal words are driven and fused together, with both the inversion, the emphatic “hee” and the brief almost ferocious power of the movement, joining to assert the law in its angry finality. Everything is to the purpose now. The semicolon after “Die hee or Justice must” reinforces the compulsive strength of “must” and once again the inversion strengthens the impact. At the same time the strong medial pause coming after an auxiliary verb creates a sense of expectation, of basic incompleteness; the movement in its clenched decisiveness dictates the relaxation into the lines that follow. The body of the verse begins to react to the awareness of a law transformed by charity. Though the language of “Som other able, and as willing” remains legalistic, the fluent movement of the verse, the suggestion of infinite love in “willing” escapes from and redefines the merely legal. In the next line, the two tendencies are forced into creative collision. “Death for death” states the law in its sterile absoluteness, an absoluteness reflected fully in the conclusive, hammer-like movement. But in “rigid satisfaction” the organic word plays against and undermines the mechanical. The legal content of “satisfaction” engages with “rigid” and with “death for death”, locking itself into the circle of crime and punishment. But the overtones of life and growth in the word point securely to a higher satisfaction, a reality beyond the exactions of the law. The line is a fortress which only love can enter but the language in erecting it has also breached it. The relaxation of the movement is now both logical and organic. One need only note the way in which the two uses of “mortal” preserve the legal equivalence while opening the way into the wider paradox of “just th' unjust to save”. In terms of the “rigid satisfaction” the balance is inequitable but the poetry has established a higher reality. It has created a world in which charity becomes an imaginative fact as well as a theological principle. This is an achievement of peculiar difficulty since sensuous imagery is forbidden by the circumstances, and the animating forces must therefore be those of syntax, and of word-play precisely and imaginatively controlled. Given these limited resources the result is a triumph of considerably more than craftsmanship.

These two widely different passages suggest both the variety of Milton's style and the criteria to which the style is answerable. That the verse will bear considerable scrutiny is evident and in fact the most difficult temptation to reject in modern criticism is that which seeks to establish complexity, irony, ambiguity and paradox as controlling qualities of Milton's writing. It is not merely convenient but reassuring to suggest that there is one right way of using poetic language and that Milton's poetry like all poetry, can be found true to that way. To deny the complexity of Paradise Lost would of course, be perverse; but that does not mean that complexity should be regarded as a principle shaping the local life of the language. The complexity of Milton's epic is less one of surface than of reverberation. It arises not so much from the immediate context, as from the connection of that context to other contexts and eventually to the context of the whole poem and of the cosmic order drawn into and recreated within it. Svendsen is right in arguing that “the basic mode of Paradise Lost is ambivalence” and paradox and irony are equally vital in its total effect. But these qualities operate through the poem's structure rather than its texture. The surface is not characteristically complex, and the resources of diction, syntax and imagery cooperate to clarify and intensify, rather than to qualify the main thrust of the poetry. Coleridge understood this when he observed that “the connection 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.” A more recent critic, Professor Wright, describes Milton's style as “unusually clear and forceful” while MacCaffrey begins a perceptive discussion by stating: “elevation, not breadth is the principal dimension of epic. Unity and elevation demand that there should be a single—even, in a sense, a simple—effect produced in the reader, and this end is not to be accomplished by a style with a verbally complex surface.”

All this is clearly as it should be. If the style is to develop its primary (and symbolic) qualities of sublimity, of propulsive power, of designed and inexorable movement, it can only do so through a deliberate simplicity of surface. The other qualities which matter are not sacrificed and indeed are realized to a far greater extent than in any other poem of this magnitude. They live, however, not so much on the surface, as in the weight of qualification, connection and commentary which the whole poem places behind every point on its surface. Milton's observation that poetry is more simple, sensuous, and passionate than rhetoric is surely not meant as an attempt to confuse us about the predominant qualities of his verse. The style is capable of “metaphysical” effects or more correctly, it can frequently draw the metaphysical into the heroic; but it remains heroic and not metaphysical. The distinction is important not only in terms of decorum, but as an indication of how to read the poem, of how to respond to its impact and its tactics. The present writer is frankly not appalled by the discovery that there is more than one way of using poetic language or that Milton is Milton because he is not Donne. The open society of poetry ought to have room for the excellences of both.

Michael Fixler (essay date 1969)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Milton's Passionate Epic,” in Milton Studies, Vol. 1, 1969, pp. 167-92.

[In the following essay, Fixler shows that Milton conceived Paradise Lost as a form of devotional celebration, a revelation and praise of God and his mysteries.]

I grateful to the anonymous reviewer who recently in the Times Literary Supplement called for a study of Paradise Lost that would show it to be not only a logical epic and a deliberate epic, but a passionate epic as well. May I here offer a partial installment of an essay in this direction, covenanting with my audience for its later more complete fulfilment, though probably in a context where Milton's passion would be seen as an aspect of his whole sense of what poetry was for, how it worked, and how its energies originated. The immediate occasion for the reviewer's wish was a notice of Ernest Sirluck's excellent lecture in which at a crucial point Sirluck quoted from The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce a sentence with some relevance for the problem of the justice of God's ways with men. “The hidden wayes of his providence we adore & search not; but the law is his reveled wil.” Milton, Sirluck suggests, declined “to seek final refuge in mystery.” In Paradise Lost he deliberately undertakes to justify God's ways by questioning them first, and in so doing I gather it is meant that he turned his back on the alternative option, to magnify and exalt the ways of God to men.1

I propose to disagree with what I take to be Sirluck's undeveloped suggestion, for the alternative he apparently thinks was excluded by Milton's intention to justify God is not in fact incompatible with that intention. It is only necessary to see Milton's purpose, as deliberately indicated as anything else we know about Paradise Lost, in larger terms than may be narrowly inferred from the stated argument. As Sirluck shows, the epic in every respect was deliberately conceived, but we have not exhausted the possibilities of what Milton meant to do when we can determine the full nature of the theological problems involved in justifying rationally or poetically God's Providence and Man's free will. The poem itself, and Milton knew it, was a symbolic action. The doing of it was part of its meaning, and the thrust of that part of the meaning was not in the direction of logic or dialectic, but in the direction of worship and adoration, much as a Christian devotionally affirms his faith in “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The poem, in short, is indeed an argument, but no less a song of praise, a formal act of adoration celebrating the mystery of God's ways; and as such it is by the nature of its devotional energy more than an epic; it is a passionate epic. I do not hope to be able to demonstrate this fully now, only to begin.2 For the time being, what I wish to show is that Milton conceived Paradise Lost as a form of devotional celebration that involved three separate assumptions. The first one concerned the relationship of poetry to worship; the second concerned the relationship of poetic inspiration and energia to that disciplined enthusiasm which Milton thought of as the fiery spirit of prayer which with prompt eloquence flowed from his own lips, as it did from the mouth of his creature Adam, “in Prose or numerous Verse”; and the third concerned the nature of that audience for whom the poem in its devotional character was intended.

The last assumption needs a moment's consideration now though it is most relevant to the end of my discussion. If the poem has a complex character the distinctiveness of its elements reaches into all sorts of consequences. What the argument of the poem justifies in a rational or dramatic sense wears another aspect than that which is adored, namely, the mystery of the hidden ways of God's Providence; and by a kind of mimetic principle the celebration of that mystery takes place at a level of symbolic action and meaning that is intentionally obscure, designed, as Bacon wrote of “Poesy Parabolical,” or allusive poetry, to retire and obscure the mysteries of religion and policy. In Neoplatonic poetics much was made of the decorum of mystic obscurity, though the techniques of mystery were not essentially thought of as being occultly mystifying, being rather treated as an art of evoking specific things most people would not quite grasp except vaguely or as the commonplace images of mythology. The point of such techniques was to discriminate those unworthy to understand from those who were worthy. If we cannot hear, said Milton of the hidden harmony of the spheres, the fault is in ourselves and not in the stars. The story Pythagoras told of that music, he went on, was an allegory, for neither the poets nor divine oracles ever “display before the eyes of the vulgar any holy or secret mystery unless it be in some way cloaked or veiled.”3

Such language as the young Milton used here is implicitly or metaphorically sacramental, and reminds me of Robert Frost's revelation at the end of Directive that inasmuch as his poem concerned a mystery its comprehension was a kind of sacramental test, a chalice with which to drink from the waters of life, but hidden “Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it, / So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.” There is, in effect, I shall try to show, a similar revelation in Paradise Lost, and its point is to discriminate two kinds of audience. The manner of the revelation is proper to the poem's devotional character and specifically concerns the mystery which sacramentally the poem celebrates, a mystery ultimately reducible to the mystery of election, that arbitrary Will whereby God so created things as to save some and to damn others. But neither the revelation nor the implicitly devotional character exists within the poem as a layer of allegory, as we understand that term to mean a distinctive and alternative pattern of autonomous significance. Rather these meanings are a matter of the poem's depth, an extension toward the outermost ranges of evocative suggestiveness of the primary, essential significance of Milton's work.

In several places in Paradise Lost what is ordinarily implicit is made explicit, and in one passage in particular the effect is perceptibly odd enough to make readers sometimes wonder whether there might not be some textual error, an instance of oversight or confused reference on Milton's part. I want to use the passage as a clue, the end of a thread unravelling which may help us to see more plainly the whole implicit character of the poem, especially since it stands in some relationship to Milton's explicit intention, which as we know was to “assert Eternal Providence / And justify the ways of God to men.” Both dramatically and by a kind of prolepsis this argument is amplified in the third book as Satan wings his way toward Eden, watched from above by God, who foretells the consequences, exculpates himself, and accepts the Son's offer to redeem mankind. At the conclusion of this divine exchange the angelic chorus is heard for the first time in the poem singing in adoration and praise of the Father and the Son. Then at the very end of the choral passage there is a startling shift in pronoun so that the worship is no longer described from an outside perspective, in terms such as “Thee Father first they sung,” but from within as by a worshipper, moved by the Son's promised atonement.

                                                            O unexampl'd love,
Love nowhere to be found less than Divine!
Hail Son of God, Savior of Men, thy Name
Shall be the copious matter of my
Henceforth, and never shall my Harp
thy praise
Forget, nor from thy Father's praise disjoin.(4)

Verity's note on these lines illustrates the trouble a reader has to take in order to digest the meaning. First he suggests that possibly Milton meant to represent the chorus of angels speaking as one individual. But this is not very convincing, so he reluctantly admits a possibility which evidently strikes him as a little puzzling, that Milton might himself be speaking, or rather, we should say, singing with the creatures of his own poetry.5

I think there is little reason to doubt this is Milton's voice in its own poetic identity, the same, for example, that imaginatively joined “the Angel choir” in the induction of the Nativity Ode, and that in the “high-raised phantasy” of At A Solemn Music both visualized and heard the angel's worship with which mankind had once been concordant, and with which it would be at last once more concordant when all would be restored, men and angels worshipping together, singing “in endless morns of light.” To explain the passage in Paradise Lost it is only necessary to postulate that within the context of the poem Milton saw time telescoped into the instant of adoration, so that imagining that primordial moment when human destiny and divine love were fixed was like imagining that moment when in the restoration of all things he, John Milton, would find himself worshipping among the saints and angels, again singing in endless morns of light. Nor was the idea as remote from Milton's sense of possibilities as the antipodes of Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. There had been indeed a time when the imagination of that worship was so forcibly immediate, so wrapped up with his hopes for the Church's total reformation, that he could anticipate shortly the translation of his heavenly worship into the earthly form of his poetic calling or vocation, as he did in both Of Reformation and Animadversions, where in outbursts of euphoric and extemporary apocalyptic prayer he described the role he would play as a poet in the consummation of the purified Church. The first perspective in Of Reformation was visionary, beginning with an image of himself “amidst the Hymns, and Halleluiahs of Saints … offering at high strains in new and lofty Measures to sing and celebrate thy divine mercies, and marvelous Judgements”; and ending with the conceit that somehow the Millennium had come and with it the Marriage Supper of the Lamb wherein the saints would be rewarded by worshipping “in supereminence of beatific Vision progressing the datelesse and irrevoluble Circle of Eternity,” while the rest, the damned, would be separated from them and cast into Hell. The view was much the same in Animadversions where again he promised to “take up a Harp and sing” to God “an elaborate Song to Generations.”6

Notwithstanding some abatement of enthusiasm, this assumption that his worship would be consummately an extraordinary kind of devotional poetry seems to have been very much a part of the picture in The Reason of Church-Government, when Milton surveyed the literary possibilities available to the sacred poet, concluding that all were means by which God might be served, whether with respect to Christian edification or with respect to devotion. By assimilating the latter to poetry he appeared to add an ingredient to Renaissance poetics not wholly novel, but certainly rarely realized as fully as it was to be later in Paradise Lost. The poet, Milton wrote, was like the pulpited minister, his function being to teach and “to celebrate in glorious and lofty Hymns the throne and equipage of Gods Almightinesse, and what he works, and what he suffers to be wrought with high providence in his Church. …”7 Clearly this is the theoretical context for the passage where Milton set himself singing among the angels, and in a broader sense it is also the justification for the view I take that Paradise Lost is as much a devotional poem as it is an epic. The poem itself, the copious matter of his song, as Milton referred to it in the angelic chorus, was to be a praise of God and of his name. And when he referred to his song I take it he meant not only his poem, but, with the word “henceforth,” all of his poetry, as if in a ceremonial act of self-consecration he was rededicating himself to the purposes of divine worship, renouncing every literary ambition which would not serve ad majorem Dei gloriam.

Worship, to be sure, was in Puritan terms a very broad concept, being, in fact, as Milton described it, everything that as the love of God expressed faith, or the knowledge of God.8 Consequently on a strictly literal basis the argument of Paradise Lost, as it relates to the knowledge of God and his ways, may be described as Milton's faith itself; but the expression of it, as something offered before both men and God, may be described as an act of worship. However, in an even more precise degree the poem is an act of worship in a way that any pious action indiscriminately is not, or even in a way other kinds of devotional poetry are not. Most devotional poetry is meditational and the forms of meditational poetry generally represent various kinds of self-absorbed communion with God. So far as such poetry acknowledges readers it allows itself to be overheard. But Paradise Lost as a publicly directed devotional work involves its readers, or possibly intends to involve some of its readers, as if they were implicitly participants in a common worship, or, in short, as participants in an extraordinary act of extemporary liturgical service. It is true that we do not think of liturgies as being either poetic or didactic in their primary significance, but certainly devotional orders of worship may be edifying even while they are most ceremonially sacramental.

In fact Puritan liturgies were both aggressively edifying and self-consciously experimental, the dislike of the formal, prescribed liturgy being the source of one of the most zealous of all Puritan causes. Milton early testified to his zeal in this respect, and apparently as he grew older he also found uncongenial even the small degree of liturgical formalism the Puritans were obliged to accept in order to sustain any regular kind of worship. At least this is how I interpret the conjunction of his vehement dislike of set prayers and his eventual withdrawal from participation in all real church services. Whether he would have abandoned congregational worship, the public profession and testimony to faith, if he had not an alternative public devotional channel peculiar to his own talent and calling, may be fairly asked. It seems to me that the intensity of Milton's self-consecration in the angelic chorus is some indication that he had indeed confronted the options and made a deliberate choice, as deliberate as the one he had made as a young man when he offered himself as a poet to the service of God, but this time it was in recognition that poetry was for all intents and purposes his whole worship, the most perfect public expression of his faith.9

The fact that the gesture was made within a chorus of angelic worship is, moreover, quite striking. It could, for example, have been made at the beginning in the invocation to the poem, as its predecessor had been made in the induction of the Nativity Ode. It was as if Milton chose the chorus to emphasize the nature of true worship as he most ideally conceived it in the words of At A Solemn Music—“Aye sung before the sapphire-color'd throne / To him that sits thereon.” Worship, when it could at last be the worship of the glorified Saints, would be an eternal effluence “of sanctity and love,” a happiness that “may orbe it selfe into a thousand vagancies of glory and delight, and with a kind of eccentricall equation be as it were an invariable Planet of joy and felicity.” If the poets, as Sidney said, sang of a golden world, as against the brazen reality of the historians, why should not Milton as a liturgical poet take his pattern from the image of beatific and fully perfected worship presented in the Apocalypse? But in doing so he was guided by a distinction between visionary and real worship that I think would have been fully evident to him; namely, that the visionary worship of the Apocalypse celebrated a mystery whose nature was only shadowed forth in human experience, a mystery concerning the nature of the end, which like the beginning would be a separation of heavenly souls from the damned.10

Then shall thy Saints unmixt, and from th' impure
Far separate, circling thy holy Mount
Unfeigned Halleluiahs to thee sing,
Hymns of high praise.

(VI, 742-45)

These are the words of the Son going off to triumph in the War in Heaven, casting his eye typologically past Armageddon. In this perspective he looks more immediately past the Fall, past his own Incarnation, past his human trial—of which again the War in Heaven is the type—past, in short, the whole mixed condition subsequent to the spontaneous generation of evil.

As Sirluck rightly observed, Milton's theology and poetry “divide mankind into three groups,” rather than merely two, the saved and the damned. Between the pre-elected saints, and those who damned by God damn themselves, there is the bulk of mankind, each individually possessing in some degree a sufficient measure of prevenient grace to save himself from the consequences of original sin. For that large, indeterminably broad class of sinners who might be saints, worship as it might ideally be practiced on earth was also a means of evangelical edification, something doctrinal, something which might prove to be a call “To Prayer, repentance, and obedience due” (PL III, 191). But the apotheosis of worship, or visionary worship in its Apocalyptic images, was conceived in terms of the ultimately absolute separation of saints and sinners, when there would be manifest the perfect circularity of the mystery that Paul preached to the Romans: “For whom he did foreknow he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son. … Moreover, whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”11 This arbitrary separation, this glorification, as well as damnation, would be part of the mystery of the hidden ways of God's Providence, which, Milton said, “we adore and search not.” True, the mystery has a tragic, problematic aspect as the setting for the whole moral quest, but to suggest that the argument of the poem concerns only the moral quest, the justification that edifies at the expense of the adoration of the mystery, would, I think, only give us half of Milton's intention.

Sirluck believes that Milton declined “to seek final refuge in mystery,” refused, in short, mainly to justify God by magnifying and exalting his ways. His decision “determined the nature of his poem—the substance, the form, the temper and the approach; a poem that should be doctrinal to a nation; a fully deliberate epic.” I cannot really disagree with this, but it seems to me preferable to look at the work as an affirmation that went beyond God's unsatisfactory logic and the whole labyrinthine maze of theological problems concerning fate, foreknowledge and free will. I suggest that on a superior plane Milton saw God's ways as being ultimately justified in mystery, that is to say at a point beyond comprehension though not beyond apprehension. Indeed Milton makes this point in a passage in Paradise Lost that works at the level of cryptic allusiveness I referred to earlier, a level proper to the fact that what is being intimated or obscurely revealed as a mystery expresses the whole logic-defying paradox of the felix culpa. Being a symbolic rather than a discursive statement the passage also suggests the mimetic principle whereby the mystery of God's justice becomes incorporated into the mystery of harmony itself. For unless he thought he could tap “the hidden soul of harmony,” as Milton called it in L'Allegro, I do not believe he would have imagined himself capable of writing Paradise Lost.12

I have touched on this passage lightly elsewhere, but since it concerns an act of mystic worship, it is more integral to my argument here, and I would like to go more deeply into it now. In a sense the action represents the real beginning of the matters in the poem. As Raphael relates the War in Heaven, he starts, without referring to it, with the occasion at which evil is conceived, for as soon as the Father has proclaimed the begetting of the Son, Sin also is engendered. It was then that the hosts of heaven were to confess the Son as Lord, being happy in obedience, “United as one individual Soul / For ever happy”; or damned without end if disobedient. “All seem'd well pleas'd, all seem'd, but were not all,” Raphael says, in words which can only allusively remind the reader that Satan at this point would have conceived Sin, though he did not give birth to her until his open declaration of defiance at the first rebellious council. Whereupon there follows a concert of worship of the kind apparently customary during heaven's devotional hours. But now the chief worshipper, next to the Son himself, feigns adoration and in being false implicitly holds within him the whole train of evil and idolatry which was to follow. That a new element has entered the common devotions is hidden from all save God, and the worship thus has a distinct implicit meaning for him, as its movement seems in part to work counter to his will and yet within the divine purpose, resolved and reconciled in a pattern intended to be neither quite understood by others, nor yet to be quite altogether inapprehensible, if only as a harmonic design.

That day, as other solemn days, they spent
In song and dance about the sacred Hill,
Mystical dance, which yonder starry Sphere
Of Planets and of fixt in all her Wheels
Resembles nearest, mazes intricate,
Eccentric, intervolv'd, yet regular
Then most, when most irregular they seem:
And in thir motions harmony Divine
So smooths her charming tones, that God's own ear
Listens delighted.

(V, 618-27)

What God is listening to is a choral service affirming, in a way he alone understands, the felix culpa, figured within the harmony of the discordia concors. The mystic dance of worship is at once an image of fully harmonic but indescribable celestial motions and a figure for the moral resolution of the problem of justice in the ineffable beauty of the music of God's hidden ways.13

This orbing into “a thousand vagancies of glory and delight … with a kind of eccentricall equation” was the worship to which Milton himself aspired when he looked forward to joining the heavenly chorus as “an invariable Planet of joy and felicity.” But the type of such worship, as Milton saw it, was not only an image of beatitude, but even more significantly an image of divine justice. And indeed this is in a general way the origin of the image of the celestial choral dance in Plato—as a harmonic symbol of justice.14 I would distinguish the difference between the symbolic intimations of this figure in Paradise Lost and God's explicit statement of the justice of his case in Book III as the difference between poetry and logic or rhetoric, even though when God explicitly justifies himself he speaks in Miltonic pentameters. Poetry, Milton said in Of Education, was the pre-eminent or crowning attainment in that course of learning whose object was “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 neerest by possessing our souls of true vertue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.” Poetry was pre-eminent, being “more simple, sensuous and passionate”15 than its nearly related colleagues rhetoric and logic. I take it that he meant poetry was direct, intuitive, and intense, with intensity or passion referring to the poetic rapture animating the whole poetic process in the direction of the imaginative movement most natural for him, the soaring flight or the ascent to the heavens. Poetry, as the language of symbolic accommodation, Milton seems to imply, is the closest intellectual apprehension we may have of God and his ways, the highest intuitive point in the scale of human intelligence.

Consider for a moment Raphael's allegory of the earthly plant whose flower gives off a spiritual effluence.

                                                            So from the root
Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves
More aery, last the bright consummate flow'r
Spirits odorous breathes.

(V, 479-82)

The spirituality at the furthermost reach is a quality of understanding or knowledge beyond the reach of discursive intelligence and within the pale of that intuitive apprehension of things peculiar to angelic minds. Adam, and presumably all men to the extent of their regeneracy or likeness to God, may aspire to sublime their understanding to this point, and such knowledge would ultimately be beatific, constituting both knowledge (faith) and ineffably joyful worship. The promise of the felix culpa is thus that Adam will in beatitude overgo even the original condition of his primal nature, the model on which God created him:

                                                  a Creature who not prone
And Brute as other Creatures, but endu'd
With Sanctity of Reason, might erect
His Stature, and upright with Front serene
Govern the rest, self-knowing, and from thence
Magnanimous to correspond with Heav'n,
But grateful to acknowledge whence his good
Descends, thither with heart and voice and eyes
Directed, in Devotion, to adore
And worship God Supreme.

(VII, 506-15)

Man, who is created in the similitude of God and the angels, by virtue of that similitude or magnanimity, that knowledge of his correspondence with heaven, is enabled to correspond or commune with heaven; for in knowing himself he knows God, and in knowing God he worships him. Thus magnanimity, or the knowledge of one's spiritual grandeur in the likeness to God and his angels, was effectively the knowledge also of one's communion with God and the angels.16

As early as the third Prolusion Milton had affirmed that the road through self-knowledge was the way to know “those holy minds and intelligences whose company” the spirit “must hereafter join.” And if he took the opportunity, as Northrop Frye once remarked, to practice poetic elegies on every fresh corpse that came his way, it seemed less a lugubrious morbidity than a feeling for occasions whereby he might project himself into the conceit of the blessed soul's destination. He found the way there, in fact, by every route imaginable, in poems and exercises as different as Il Penseroso, At A Solemn Music, the Nativity Ode, Prolusion VII, Ad Patrem, Lycidas, Epitaphium Damonis, and At A Vacation Exercise. In the last, particularly, he identified his aspiration as being in effect a quest for his ideal poetic theme, “some graver subject,”

Such where the deep transported mind may soar
Above the wheeling poles, and at Heav'n's door
Look in.

And here the mythological conceit of “what unshorn Apollo sings,” like the choral dance of the Muses in Il Penseroso, was a figure for the highest poetic theme, the mystery of beatific worship.17 Considering the frequency of his allusions to that theme, their preeminence in regard to all his aspirations, how deliberately ought Milton to have stated his devotional intentions with respect to his major work? If he was not likely to abandon his faith in the glorified reward of the saints as an inexpressible worship, a transcendence of poetry and music, would he be likely to forget that men were created to adore God, and that his calling as a poet was to a form of service that was in the very image of Man's first and last end, the glory of perfect worship?

Every aspiration led him on in that direction, even when worship meant a service to God on the level of that lowly race, “where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” Worship was the first of God's commandments, to love him with all one's heart and might, and to Milton this meant the exercise of that zeal which signified the sanctification of God's name, the consecration of what was called energia, poetic passion or forcibleness. Zeal, he wrote, begging “leave to soare a while as the Poets use,” was a “substance … etherial, arming in compleat diamond,” and ascending the heavens in a “fiery chariot drawn with two blazing Meteors figur'd like beasts … resembling two of those four which Ezechiel and S. John saw.” Zeal, he proclaimed, was the very essence of his own proper humor, a fiery grace of temperament, God-given that he might become an incandescent instrument to arouse righteousness in others. And zeal, as it scourged the enemies of faith, was also itself the very energy of faith, arousing everywhere the spirit of prayer by whose motion the general worship of God was animated. From the same stock of apocalyptic imagery as the fiery chariot of zeal came the figure Milton evoked in his prose hymn in Animadversions, where the spirit of prayer mantling England was associated with the Son of Man in the midst of the golden candlesticks about to restore the pure service of his worship through the work of those of his servants who tended the holy oil and fed the ever-burning lamps of devotion.18

This spirit of prayer was the Puritan Pegasus, the personification of the holy spontaneity which animated the purest kind of worship, that of extemporary prayer. The practical worship to which radical Puritans especially aspired (as against the visionary worship that governed their ultimate aspirations) was above all extemporary, like that of Adam and Eve unfallen, whose orisons were

                                        each Morning duly paid
In various style, for neither various style
Nor holy rapture wanted they to praise
Thir Maker, in fit strains pronounct or sung
Unmeditated, such prompt eloquence
Flow'd from thir lips.

(V, 145-50)

Later, after the Fall and contrite in heart, Adam and Eve pray by virtue of prevenient grace, with devotion

                                                            which the Spirit of prayer
Inspir'd, and wing'd for Heav'n with speedier flight
Than loudest Oratory.

(XI, 6-8)

Their prayers arrive personified before the glowing golden altar of God, which more generally represents the fiery nature of the divine love that reciprocally kindles the fire of zeal in his worshippers. It was this fiery, elemental, almost quintessential quality in the spirit of prayer that probably suggested to Milton its relationship to poetic inspiration and poetic rapture, for the latter, like the spirit of prayer, was also an aspiration toward the love of God. In and beyond its fourth stage or degree, poetic rapture, the so-called furor poeticus, was identified in Neoplatonic poetics with a quintessential fire betokening the experience of the love of God, which correspondingly as the object of zeal was the fulfilment of the first commandment. Hence when Milton spoke of his ambition to create a work inspired “by devout prayer to that eternall Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge and sends out his Seraphim with the hallow'd fire of his Altar to touch and purify the lips,”19 he was describing very concretely both the essence of the highest poetic rapture and the devotional gesture with which he opened the Nativity Ode, bidding his spirit join its “voice unto the Angel Choir, / From out his secret Altar toucht with hallow'd fire.”

The nature of that fiery spirit may perhaps be illustrated by a passage in Ad Patrem, Milton's apologia justifying for his father's benefit his own choice of a poet's career. Underlying the poem was, of course, his need to identify his gifts with the Puritan idea of a spiritual vocation, and so his object was to insinuate the virtual identity of poetry and prayer. Yet so allusively was the matter framed that it has not been hitherto remarked that the mythological trappings of this part of the poem clothe what Milton chose to treat as a Christian mystery, namely the ascent to ultimate beatific vision.20 The vision itself, merely touched on here, is of a kind with the powerful climax we find in Lycidas, and again described at the conclusion of the elegy for the dead Diodati, whom he imagined in his spirit enacting “the immortal marriage where hymns and the ecstatic sound of the lyre mingle with the choric dances of the blessed, and festal throngs revel under the thyrsus of Zion.” In the poem to his father the same beatific climax is aproached through a sequence of poetic degrees, last in which is the vision of “that day when we return to our own native Olympus and the fixed ages of changeless eternity have begun.” The progression to this point had been through four stages that strongly suggest each level in the hierarchy of the raptures of poetic inspiration, moving quickly through the first three: the kindling of the poetic power in its original afflatus as a heavenly seed in the human mind, mythologically associated both with the Muses and with Prometheus; the poetic power by which the higher gods bind the darker, chthonic forces in men and nature, associated with Orpheus and Dionysus; and the prophetic rapture of the Apollonian furor. Finally there is evoked the fourth rapture of heavenly Love, which often took on an Apocalyptic form and here appears as the Olympian worship of mythologized saints. Imagining their communion in that rapturous millennial apotheosis, Milton said to his father, “we too shall move with golden crowns through the spaces of heaven, blending sweet songs with the soft notes of the lyre, so that the sound shall ring through the starry vault from pole to pole.”

The meaning of this ascent was, I think, supposed to be precisely fixed by a glancing reference to a conviction that in the poetic flight itself, as in the instantaneous heavenward winging of the spirit of prayer, beatitude is in some measure touched. Thus if Milton imagined the ascent by way of the poetic raptures to be in some sense a recapitulation of the imaginative stages in the contemplation of beatitude, he also apparently conceived the poetic ascent as a progressive intensification of the powers of spiritual insight, inspired by a motion which was at once an impulse to pray and an impulse to know. The origin of that impulse was metaphorically a celestial influence, an emanation like that from beyond the Empyrean, blending, as it were, the virtues of Urania and the Holy Spirit, but also investing it with the quality of what Puritans called the spirit of prayer. “Even now,” Milton concluded the passage, “the fiery spirit who circles the swift spheres is himself singing in harmony with their celestial music, his immortal melody.”21

In the elemental system of universal correspondences that all this development appears to presuppose, fire is the purest and highest element in the harmonic tetrachord of the basic elements, corresponding to the music of the spheres, which tonally is the fourth or top note in the tetrachord of universal musical essences: those of the harmonic well-tuned strings, the concordance of a harmonious body and soul, the harmony of a just state, and finally the fourth harmony of the celestial spheres. By the same token fire corresponds with the fourth and highest of the poetic raptures, the love of God, so that the fiery spirit of prayer circling the heavens like a Neoplatonic daemon of celestial influence is one and the same with the inspiration of visionary poetry. These “mystic” implications, it should be said, are compressed within an allusiveness that seems the vaguest mythological furniture, so that at first, in a casual reading, nothing more than the mythological enhancement of poetry's dignity seems intended. While we might well miss the point of it all, one wonders whether the elder Milton, as his son's quite real and specific reader, knew what the young Milton was talking about, or whether here, as in Paradise Lost, the possible expectations of actual readers shaped poetic intention and poetic self-definition far less than an imagination of some other, more insubstantial audience.

So we return to the question of Milton's audience, and it should be seen that now this has become a matter of considerable significance. Other points at issue in determining the nature and intention of Milton's epic can possibly be resolved by referring to the poem's obvious formal comprehensiveness. The epic genre was encyclopaedic, encompassing in its scope of meaning the expression of all knowledge,22 while Milton himself made the point that such comprehensive knowledge was preeminently crowned by two objects, the knowledge of God, i.e., of his nature and of his ways, and the knowledge of his true worship. On this basis one could readily proceed to reconcile the argument that Paradise Lost was conceived deliberately as justifying God in faith with the argument that just as deliberately it was conceived as an act of worship. There is a difficulty obstructing too simple an accommodation of these views, however, and it is nicely isolated by Sirluck's concluding judgment that Milton's intention in justifying God's ways was to write “a poem that should be found doctrinal to a nation.” My view, on the contrary, leads me to reach for quite another proof-text, the one from the invocation to Book VII, when as a suppliant to the Muse Milton asks Urania to govern his song, “and fit audience find though few,” topping off that specification with a request that she drive far off a motley crew, presumably representing a type of unworthy reader.

Since these gifts belong to Urania, the sister of Eternal Wisdom, the Muse whose influence emanates from the Empyrean, and whose sphere is the outermost boundary between earth and God's heaven, presumably those she was asked to exclude would represent readers of unsanctified understanding, possibly without enough grace to respond to Milton's own fervor. In biblical language, these would be the men of Belial (the least zealous of the fallen angels), whose demonic name in Hebrew signifies lewdness or little spiritual understanding. Years earlier, in the Reason of Church-Government, Milton digressed from his proper subject to divulge unusual things of himself, and became aware that he was after all writing “in the cool element of prose, a mortall thing among many readers of no Empyreall conceit.”23 Let me press this point for a moment, for if I read the early passage correctly, the readers who do possess a touch of Empyreal conceit are those he might with more propriety expect to find in the fiery Empyreal element of poetry, rather than in the cool element of prose.

And the invocation of Urania distinguishes readers into two classes, not those three which would separate mankind in terms of saints, sinners, and all in between who possess an indeterminable degree of prevenient grace. Whether we may regard as saints and sinners the two classes of readers Milton distinguishes in the poem should emerge, I think, from a close reading of the highly allusive texture of the passage. But at least in the context of visionary worship that Milton elsewhere describes there are only two imaginable divisions of mankind, and only one class of participants are imaginable in visionary worship, which takes place “from th' impure / Far separate.” Even in the mortal condition, as Milton wrote in Areopagitica, where the wheat could not be separated from the tares, where worship was in fact mixed, a symbolic gesture was customary as in some form the fitness of each for sacramental participation was tested so that all might not be spiritually in jeopardy. What radical Puritans objected to in state-enforced conformity was that such conformity as much inhibited the right to exclude the unworthy from sacramental worship as it constrained the righteous to participate in the impurity of an indiscriminate communion. Hence exclusion as a sacramental necessity suggested even to Milton an imaginable occasion when the rigor of force might be required in religion. “We read not,” Milton wrote, “that Christ ever exercised force but once, and that was to drive profane ones out of his temple.”24

In Paradise Lost such a ritual gesture of exclusion is implicit in the request to Urania. But it occurs here and not elsewhere because of Urania's special relationship to the gift of “Empyreall conceit,” or regenerate understanding. And Urania herself is made to preside over this section of the poem, the account of Creation, because Creation is a metaphor for spiritual procreation, wherein, as Milton once wrote, the minister begets “a number of faithfull men, making a creation like to God's, by infusing his spirit and likenesse into them, to their salvation, as God did into him.” Moreover, the communication of this evangelical ardor, this zeal, was an act of a sacred, solemn, and sanctifying nature, expressing the very essence of worship, namely the implicit conviction that to sanctify life was to renew God's creation. As Mircea Eliade suggests, the meaning of the ceremony, ritual, or holy story which re-creates the mythic origins of things is a sacramental repetition of the cosmogony, a symbolic way of affirming the identity of the here and now with the primordial mystery of holiness.25 For Milton that primordial moment was of a piece with the eschatological moment, and hence the repetition of the cosmogony, as if by an exquisite mythic instinct, is in Paradise Lost placed halfway between the beginning and the end. “Half yet remains unsung,” Milton noted in his invocation; and in that context he recalled as well the original mystery which preceded even Creation when, as he addressed Urania,

Thou with Eternal Wisdom didst converse,
Wisdom thy Sister, and with her didst play
In presence of th' Almighty Father.

(VII, 9-11)

Urania (“The meaning, not the Name”) was to Milton an intellectual and spiritual force, perhaps a personification of that ethereal spirit encompassing the spiritual influence of all the other celestial spheres. She represented the boundary between the created universe and the immutable heavens, the region toward which regenerate human understanding invariably aspired, as if to sublime itself into the spirit of prayer and the spirit of wisdom; that is, as if to sublime itself into something wholly quintessential and angelically intuitive. Hence Urania was to be approached with fervor, and at the same time with an awareness of the spiritual danger attending the flight into her realm.

There is an aspect of devotion which is attended by terror, and indeed without this numinous dread it is perhaps unlikely that the passionate experience of the holy can be fully sustained.26 For Milton such dread seems to have been identified with the possible desecration of his gift, “that one Talent which is death to hide,” and in the figurative form of mythology he seems to have associated it, as in Lycidas, with the dismemberment of Orpheus, the sacred poet who had served Apollo's temple but was torn to pieces by demonic furies. The invocation to Urania stresses the elements of safety and danger in the experience of first having breathed “Empyreal air,” and then of being with “safety guided down” by the Muse to his native element; though like Bellerophon, who had been punished for aspiring to see Heaven, he as a poet had probed divine mysteries. Now he went on

Standing on Earth, not rapt above the Pole,
More safe I Sing with mortal voice, unchang'd
To hoarse or mute, though fall'n on evil days,
On evil days though fall'n, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compast round,
And solitude; yet not alone, while thou
Visit'st my slumbers Nightly, or when Morn
Purples the East: still govern thou my Song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though
But drive far off the barbarous dissonance
Of Bacchus and his Revellers, the
Of that wild Rout that tore the Thracian
In Rhodope, where Woods and Rocks
had Ears
To rapture, till the savage clamor drown'd
Both Harp and Voice; nor could the Muse defend
Her Son. So fail not thou, who thee implores:
For thou art Heavn'ly, shee an empty dream.

(VII, 23-39)

The passage recalls the invocation in Book III, when having reascended from the underworld where imaginatively “With other notes than to th' Orphean Lyre” he had consorted with devils, Milton then addressed Holy Light: “thee I revisit safe” (III, 21).

However easily we may read these lines in terms of an oblique personal allusion to his isolation in the England of Charles II, there seems to me no doubt that at a more profound level, what the Lady in Comus intimated was the true Orphic power, or the “flame of sacred vehemence,”27 is responsible for their strange forcefulness in evoking both serenity and the terrifying murder of Orpheus. I suggest Milton's deeper meaning may be determined by the play in the thrice repeated use in the invocations of the word “safety,” which in English translates what is expressed by the Latin salus and the Greek soteria, namely, salvation. This meaning would account for the fact that the passage expresses with such singular gravity a numinous dread centered not only on the flight into the Empyrean but aroused also by what is literally a holy terror of communion with the profane. For salvation is only within the Body of Christ, the true, or Mystical or Invisible Church. As Milton knew it to be dogmatically stated: Nulla salus extra ecclesiam, there is no salvation or spiritual safety outside of the Church; and hence only within a true communion of spiritual understanding may the heavenly mysteries be shared. “Good men,” he once wrote years earlier, “dare not against Gods command hold communion … in holy things” with sinners. “And this will be accompanied with a religious dred of being outcast from the company of Saints, and from the fatherly protection of God in his Church, to consort with the devil and his angels.”28

Thus while the poem as an offering of evangelical edification acknowledges the great middle ground of readers, to whom sufficient prevenient grace is accorded for them to rise or fall by their own understanding and will, at its most intense personal moments the poem for Milton was a devotional gesture of a sacramental character, implicitly welcoming the communion of the saints, but closing itself off from the spiritual participation of those who were not meant to be saved, and therefore were not meant to understand.29 The element of implicit meaning suggested by the use of the word “safety” as salvation has the effect of postulating a relationship between Milton and his ideal audience which is somewhat like that of a liturgical celebrant and his congregation.

Indeed it would seem that this meaning was clearly recognized by Andrew Marvell who, in writing most of his commendation of Paradise Lost around the theme of the dangers the poem courted, congratulated Milton specifically on the technical accomplishment whereby he sustained the decorum of sublimity. Marvell's point was that in so doing Milton insured the spiritual safety of himself and his proper readers.

That Majesty which through thy Work doth Reign
Draws the Devout, deterring the Profane,
And things divine thou treat'st of in such state
As them preserves, and thee, inviolate.

It is interesting to note how elsewhere in his poem Marvell manages to suggest that Dryden, who tried to exploit Paradise Lost by turning it into a heroic play, was somehow the wrong kind of reader. Who might have been the right kind of reader? The answer is suggested in the contrast afforded by the story of how Thomas Ellwood read the manuscript of the poem, asking the one thoughtful pious question which was Ellwood's only recorded comment. “Thou hast said much here of Paradise Lost, but what hast thou to say of Paradise Found?” To which Milton did not directly reply, but took the matter sufficiently to heart and wrote Paradise Regained.30 Clearly, if anyone was qualified to belong among the fit audience though few it was the Quaker Ellwood, whose cultural and aesthetic responses were probably not up to those of the common seventeenth-century reader of heroic poetry, to say nothing of John Dryden.

But as a Quaker Ellwood knew that faith was expressed by a spontaneous motion of the spirit, that its aspirations were visionary, and that worship was a wider concept than anything merely confined between church walls. Faith went out into the world where it encountered moral tragedy and doubt, the trial of despair, but armored with the intensity of zeal. Only when faith was triumphant and there was no further need to justify God's ways and magnify or adore his Providence might a man return to his peace, as the chorus says at the end of Samson Agonistes, with “calm of mind, all passion spent.”


  1. Times Literary Supplement review of Ernest Sirluck's “Paradise Lost”: A Deliberate Epic (Cambridge, 1967), February 8, 1968, p. 134. (The reviewer alludes as well to Dennis Burden's book, The Logical Epic [Cambridge, Mass., 1967]). Sirluck, p. 28, was quoting a passage found in The Complete Prose of John Milton (henceforth designated as CPW), ed. Don M. Wolfe (New Haven, 1953-), II, 292. That Milton regarded the mystery of Providence as a subject proper to be considered and celebrated in a public context is suggested by his very first venture into polemical prose, Of Reformation, which opens with him reflecting on “these deep and retired thoughts … of God, and of his miraculous ways, and works, amongst men.” The tract, which in one sense may be said to be about the revelation of the mystery of God's providential dealing with England, appropriately ends with a formal act of adoration. CPW, I, 519, 613-17.

  2. In another study I undertake to show that as an act of worship Milton's epic is not an epic as anyone else had ever imagined the genre before, since it has an implicit “mystic” form identified with the Revelation of St. John, the scriptural work traditionally associated with the mystery of Providence. See “The Apocalypse Within Paradise Lost,” to appear in a volume of essays on the tercentenary of Paradise Lost, edited by Thomas Kranidas and to be published by the University of California Press.

  3. Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, II; Works, ed. J. Spedding (New York, 1870), VI, 204-05. On Neoplatonic poetics, see, for example, Leone Ebreo, The Philosophy of Love, trans. F. Friedeberg-Seeley and J. H. Barnes (London, 1937), pp. 110-14; and, closer to Milton's milieu, Henry Reynoldes, Mythomystes (1632). Relevant studies are those of Rhodes Dunlap, “The Allegorical Interpretation of Renaissance Literature,” PMLA, LXXXII (March, 1967), 39-43; and Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (New Haven, 1958), particularly ch. 1. For Milton on Pythagoras, see Prolusion II, CPW, I, 235-36.

  4. PL III, 410-15, my italics. All quotations from the English poems are from John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. M. Y. Hughes (New York, 1957).

  5. Paradise Lost, ed. A. W. Verity (Cambridge, 1936), II, 439.

  6. CPW, I, 616, 706.

  7. Ibid., 816-17.

  8. The Christian Doctrine, I, i; Prose Works, ed. J. A. St. John (London, 1848-1881), IV, 12-13.

  9. On Puritan liturgies, see Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (London, 1948). Milton's withdrawal from public worship is recorded by John Toland in the Life. See the Early Lives of Milton, ed. Helen Darbishire (London, 1965), p. 195. See also Elegy VI to Charles Diodati, accompanying the Nativity Ode; and Milton's Letter VIII, (CPW, I, 326-27), also to Diodati, concerning the relationship of his spiritual destiny to his aesthetic quest. Finally, there is the sacramental significance of Milton's covenanting with his readers in the Reason of Church-Government, partially perceived by Ernest Sirluck in “Milton's Idle Right Hand,” JEGP, LX (1961), 767-69. In the Christian Doctrine (II, iv; Prose Works, ed. St. John, V, 42-45), individual vows publicly undertaken for special reasons are classed as a form of worship and the non-performance of them as a kind of sacrilege. The word sacrament originally meant a religious vow. It was generally true that the Puritans regarded any solemn act of public dedication or commitment as a form of divine worship—witness the Solemn League and Covenant of the Puritan Revolution and the Mayflower Compact (cf. Horton Davies, p. 86). Both Milton's covenant in the prose and his affirmation in the chorus of Paradise Lost assume, therefore, the character of solemn acts of sacramental self-dedication and partake of the character of worship.

  10. Seriatim: Reason of Church-Government, CPW, I, 752; and Sir Philip Sidney, The Defense of Poesie, in Literary Criticism, Plato to Dryden, ed. A. H. Gilbert (New York, 1940), pp. 412-13. On the visionary worship of the Apocalypse, see my study “The Apocalypse Within Paradise Lost.

  11. Sirluck, A Deliberate Epic, p. 20, and PL, III, 173-202; Romans 8:29-30.

  12. Sirluck, A Deliberate Epic, p. 28; L'Allegro, l. 144.

  13. I discuss this passage briefly in “The Apocalypse Within Paradise Lost,” in much the same sense as does Joseph Summers, as a kind of metaphor for Milton's poetry itself. Summers, I think rightly, intimates that the dance represents “what Milton perceived as most glorious in the ways of God as well as … what he intended and achieved within his own poem.” The Muse's Method (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), p. 85.

  14. For Plato music and dancing were mimetic, representing most directly the harmony discernible in the sight of the starry courses and inferentially known to govern the universe. The dance as well as the experience of music were means by which men participated in heavenly or divine harmony and came to know it. To be sure, harmony was a comprehensive term for Plato, but among the attributes of the divine perfection which it represented, and which were to be imitated, was divine justice. Hence in a state where there were just laws, there, correspondingly, dances would be taught that in a pure manner imitated the heavenly dances. See Laws II, (40-41) on pedagogic and religious dances, and the Timaeus (47), where the whole Creation is figured as a dance of intelligences who are identified with the stars. Knowledge or the experience of this celestial harmony of the heavenly intelligences, Plato wrote, was to be applied to “the causes of our own intelligence which are akin to them, the unperturbed to the perturbed.” To this passage might be compared Milton's description of his epic plans, which, among other things, would serve “to allay the perturbations of the mind, and set the affections in right tune.” Milton apparently proposed this object in terms of what immediately followed, or by means which celebrated “in glorious and lofty Hymns the throne and equipage of Gods Almightinesse, and what he works, and what he suffers to be wrought with high providence in his Church.” This literary and devotional program, with its calculated effect on the reason and the emotions, is, of course, a synopsis of a kind of mimetic literary harmony that not only imitates God's hidden harmony (the harmony of his ways) but functions as worship. Hence as worship and in the confidence assumed by the act of imitation it serves to justify God's ways. The imagery of the program Milton described in the Reason of Church-Government, like the image of the mystic dance in Paradise Lost, assimilates the Platonic idea of the celestial harmonies to the image of the choral worship which in the Apocalypse gives the notion of heavenly harmony a totally different turn. Yet it was the Apocalyptic harmony which Milton quite early came to consider as the type or the abstract of all harmony, describing the heavenly worship as a disciplined but free concord of the kind “which with her musicall cords preserves and holds … together” all parts of all “sociable perfection in this life” (The Reason of Church-Government, CPW, I, 751-52). Compare also PL V, 175-78, where the seven planetary bodies in their spheres “move / In mystic Dance not without Song.” In the history of the idea of the sacred choral dance Christ, or the Son with his angels, became the center of the dance, replacing Apollo as the leader of the Muses in the cosmic dance of worship. Patristic and later references are extensive. See Hugo Rahner, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, trans. Brian Battershaw (London, 1963), pp. 67-68, 150, and C. A. Patrides, Milton and the Christian Tradition (Oxford, 1966), p. 43. John Colet, for example, describes the communion service as “a chorus, and more radiant sacred dance” led by Christ, and calls this a figure of the type used in Scripture to express the heavenly mysteries. In Two Treatises on the Hierarchies of Dionysius, ed. J. H. Lupton (London, 1869), pp. 59-60.

  15. CPW, II, 366-67, 403.

  16. Concerning Milton's sense of magnanimity and its significance much more might be said by way of argument, since most critical discussions of what Milton meant by magnanimity generally refer it to the Nicomachean Ethics and assume it to be a secular virtue. Milton used the word frequently and almost invariably in the sense he defined in the Christian Doctrine, as the reflection of the measure of the regenerate soul's likeness to God. Thus the concept of magnanimity was the basis of Milton's thinking concerning self-knowledge as well as the basis for the variable degrees of regenerate understanding which he apparently believed distinguished even the saints. What he meant by magnanimity also related to the quality of his spiritual egotism, for the term describes his sense of possessing within himself a very large share of the divine intelligence. In addition to Scripture, which declared Man to be created in the divine image, a likely source for Milton's concept of magnanimity is the Timaeus (29-30), where God's goodness is described as moving him to create others who would “be so far as possible like himself.” On magnanimity, see Of Reformation and the Reason of Church-Government, CPW, I, 571, 842; and the Christian Doctrine, I, iv; II, ix; ed. St. John, IV, 59; V, 94-95. In the last text magnanimity is also treated as the source of zeal, while its ultimate object is described as beatitude. Cf. Augustine, “For to teach a man how to love himself was this end appointed, whereunto he refers all his works for beatitude.” City of God, X, iv; trans. J. Healy (London, 1945), I, 276.

  17. Prolusion III, CPW, I, 247. Milton had a hierarchical view of significant poetic themes, just as he had a hierarchical view of poetic genres and of so many other things. The highest form of poetry was an expression of the highest reach of human knowledge, which was “to know anything distinctly of God, and of his true worship” (Reason of Church-Government, CPW, I, 801; and cf. Prolusion VII, CPW, I, 291). Ralph W. Condee, in “The Structure of Milton's ‘Epitaphium Damonis’,” SP, LXII (1965), 577-94, discusses Milton's hierarchical gradation of poetic themes and genres in relation to the structure of the elegy for Diodati.

  18. On worship and the love of God as the first commandment, see Deut. v, 7 and the Mosaic gloss in Deut. vi, 4-5. See Areopagitica, CPW, II, 515, for the reference to the “immortal garland.” On zeal and Milton's temperamental humor, and on zeal in relation to the spirit of prayer, see An Apology, CPW, I, 900, 936-43; and Animadversions, CPW, I, 706-07.

  19. The Reason of Church-Government, CPW, I, 821. On the furor poeticus, the seminal text is Plato's Ion, 543; its Renaissance treatment may be seen in Marsilio Ficino's In Platonis Ionem, vel de furore poetico, Opera Omnia (Bale, 1561), pp. 1281-84; In Convivium, pp. 1361-62; and In Phaedum, pp. 1257-59. A good general summary of the Neoplatonic concept of the poetic rapture is that of Frances Yates, in The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century (London, 1947), pp. 80-84. Miss Yates shows the poetic furor to have been figuratively conceived as a series of successive raptures mounting by stages under the guidance of the Muses who involve the soaring spirit in their dance. The association of the poetic rapture with the first commandment seems to have been what Peter Martyr had in mind when he suggested in his Commonplaces that poets ought to use their powers to celebrate and worship God “with all their mind, with all their heart and with all their strength.” Peter Martyr is cited by Lily Campbell, “The Christian Muse,” The Huntington Library Bulletin, 8 (1935), 32.

  20. The fusion of apocalyptic and Platonic conceptions of the ascent to beatitude, which is incidental in this poem but constant in Milton's poetry, is more extensively illustrated in Robert Greville, Lord Brooke, The Nature of Truth (London, 1641), a short treatise at the heart of which is a discussion of the scale of ascent to beatitude. Lord Brooke's work was animated by the purest apocalyptic enthusiasm, and Lord Brooke himself was greatly admired by Milton, who eulogized him in the Areopagitica (CPW, II, 560). The translation of Ad Patrem (and also of Epitaphium Damonis) used here is that of Douglas Bush, in his edition of The Complete Poetical Works of John Milton (Boston, 1965).

  21. Cf. the image in the Timaeus (37), where the anima mundi circling with the motion of the physical universe and drawing to itself the rational aspirations of human souls suggests what seems to be Milton's idea of the drawing together of rapturous inspiration and the circling spirit. The whole subject of the meaning of the Spirit for Milton should be studied, I believe, against the background of those Neoplatonic ideas analyzed with great skill by D. P. Walker in Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella (London, 1958). Walker's section on Telesio seems particularly relevant. But at the same time what must be taken into account in considering Milton's conception of the Spirit is the fact that in Milton's work Puritanism and Neoplatonism fused. Consider, for example, the following passage from the Reason of Church-Government (CPW, I, 841-42), which illustrates Milton's zeal, its relationship to his sense of magnanimity, and its reliance on the elemental systems of correspondences peculiar to Neoplatonic theories of psychology and poetic energia. The passage does not mention the Spirit but obviously has great bearing on any consideration of it. “And if the love of God as a fire sent from Heaven to be ever kept alive upon the altar of our hearts, be the first principle of all godly and vertuous actions in men, this pious and just honouring of ourselves is the second, and may be thought as the radical moisture and fountain head, whence every laudable and worthy enterprize issues forth. And although I have giv'n it the name of a liquid thing yet is it not incontinent to bound it self, as humid things are, but hath in it a most restraining and powerfull abstinence to start back and glob it self upward from the mixture of any ungenerous and unbeseeming motion. … How shall a man know to do himselfe this right, how performe this honourable duty of estimation and respect towards his own soul and body? which way will leade him best to this hill top of sanctity and goodnesse above which there is no higher ascent but to the love of God which from this self-pious regard cannot be asunder?”

  22. See Northrop Frye, The Return of Eden (Toronto, 1964), ch. 1.

  23. CPW, I, 808. My italics.

  24. Areopagitica, CPW, II, 564; Of Civil Power, in The Student's Milton, ed. F. A. Patterson (New York, 1957), p. 876.

  25. Animadversions, CPW, I, 721; Eliade, “Cosmic and Eschatological Renewal,” in The Sacred and the Profane, trans. W. R. Trask (New York, 1959); and “The Regeneration of Time,” in Cosmos and History, trans. W. R. Trask (New York, 1959).

  26. The term “numinous dread” was given currency by Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. J. W. Harvey (London, 1957), who identified it as intimately associated with the psychic experience of sanctity. Cf. Milton's induction to his rapturous apocalyptic prayer in Of Reformation, “O Sir, I doe now feele my selfe in wrapt on the sodaine into those mazes and Labyrinths of dreadful and hideous thoughts.…” (CPW, I, 613).

  27. Ll. 793-99. See also the concluding paragraph of Milton's passionate declamation at the end of the Readie and Easie Way where he invokes an Orphic religious power that might enable him to “raise of these stones … children of reviving liberty.” Student's Milton, p. 914.

  28. Reason of Church-Government, CPW, I, 841. The O.E.D. records a meaning for safe related to salvation, but not one for safety. Instances of the use of safety in the sense of salvation can be found in John Owen's treatise Of Communion, Works, ed. W. H. Goold (Edinburgh, 1862), II, 44-45, and in an elaboration of a Scriptural text by Lancelot Andrewes, who spins out the multiple possibilities of the words soter, salus, and safety. The passage is quoted by T. S. Eliot in his essay on Andrewes, which is reprinted as an introduction to The Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes, ed. and trans. F. W. Brightman (New York, 1961), p. xvi. The Smectymnuan Stephen Marshall also punned on the word, but in a different sense. In a sermon preached before the House of Commons Marshall turned the political catch-phrase, salus populi suprema lex into Salus Ecclesia suprema lex, recovering for safety in the second context its original spiritual sense. See Meroz Cursed (London, 1641), p. 18. A similar play seems evident in two instances in Samson Agonistes, the first being the Chorus' phrase in its hymn to God, concerning men “such as thou hast solemnly elected, / With gifts and graces eminently adorn'd / To some great work, thy glory, / And people's safety” (ll. 678-81); and the second being Samson's words concerning Dalila, to whom he had betrayed his “most sacred trust / Of secrecy, my safety, and my life” (ll. 1001-02).

  29. Milton's conception of the meaning of such a thing as regenerate understanding can only be lightly touched on here. But see the Christian Doctrine, II, ii: “The treasures of wisdom [i.e., knowing the will of God] are not to be rashly lavished on such as are incapable of appreciating them.” Prose Works, ed. St. John, V, 11.

  30. The History of the Life of Thomas Ellwood (1714), in The Student's Milton, p. xlviii.

Barbara K. Lewalski (essay date 1974)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Milton on Women—Yet Once More,” in Milton Studies, Vol. VI, 1974, pp. 3-20.

[In the following essay, Lewalski responds to a feminist study of Paradise Lost that looks at the work in terms of sociological role definitions and asserts that such analyses are limited in their ability to assess the true complexity of Milton's treatment of women and the universality of the poem's concerns.]

It was bound to happen sooner or later—a feminist analysis of Milton on women. So bad, though, has been Milton's press on the “woman question” that the exercise might have seemed hardly worth the trouble, a merely ritual beating of a very dead horse. However, Marcia Landy's article, recently published in Milton Studies,1 does not merely resurrect the stereotypes of Milton the misogynist importing his own domestic problems into his poems, or Milton the Puritan necessarily echoing and reaffirming the paternalistic ethos and values of the Judeo-Christian tradition. She recognizes at the outset that a great mythopoeic writer reworks and re-creates the myths he inherits, out of “his own consciousness and … the consciousness of his time.”2 Nevertheless, her analysis of familial roles and relationships in Paradise Lost, culminating in a description of Milton's Eve as a submissive and dependent wife relegated to domestic tasks and valued chiefly for her procreative role, seems to me to miss what is most important in Milton's presentation of the “two great Sexes [which] animate the World” (VII, 151).3

Professor Landy begins with a short list of distinguished women Miltonists—which could have been much extended—and then calls attention to the anomaly that none of them has yet attempted a feminist analysis of his work. Of course it may be true, as the article implies, that our consciousnesses have not been raised far enough to permit us to relax the posture of scholarly objectivity imposed by a male-dominated critical climate, so as to be able to treat the poem from the vantage point of female experience. I suspect, though, that it is not so much naiveté about the necessary limits of scholarly objectivity that has deterred us from this enterprise (Miltonists, men and women alike, have always been ready enough to create Milton in their own images) so much as a different set of theoretical and methodological assumptions about how we experience, and what we value in, poems and especially this poem.

My own reservations concerning feminist critiques generally and this article in particular emerge from the following presuppositions. (1) After assenting readily enough to the proposition that our perceptions of art are necessarily affected in important ways by race, class, or sex, I would yet affirm the capacity of great art to transcend these lesser categories of human experience and speak to our common humanity. Which of us, male or female, old or young, black or white, rich or poor, does not understand and respond to King Lear's agony on his heath? On this score, a feminist analysis of Paradise Lost, with its nearly exclusive emphasis upon the image and role of woman in the poem, may do real violence to a woman reader's imaginative experience of and response to everything else that the poem contains—Satan's rebellion, Adam's intellectual quest, the idyl of Edenic life, the heroism of Abdiel, the glorious vitality of the Creation scene, and much more. (2) Feminist criticism often seems prone to substitute sociological for literary analysis. Though the article in question incorporates considerable literary detail, still the categories imported from sociology and anthropology—the analysis of family roles—provide a very partial set of terms for approaching the portrayal of Adam and Eve in the poem. It will not surprise any of us, surely, to discover that Milton, like everyone else in his era, thought in terms of hierarchy and of the patriarchal family. But an analysis centered almost exclusively upon the language and postures of family relationship necessarily imposes a conventional and somewhat distorted framework for examining Milton's re-creation of the myth of the first man and woman. To see that re-creation clearly requires a sensitive literary analysis of speech, scene, and action in the poem. (3) Great poets of necessity mediate their visions of human experience through the categories available to them, but if we read perceptively we will not be tempted either to condemn them or to condescend to them on that account. We will not, because they are gloriously and supremely right about the most essential things, presenting us with a vision of the human condition which astonishes by its profundity even though the categories through which it is rendered may be outmoded. Homer of course presented the Trojan War against the backdrop of Olympus and all those now defunct gods, but no one has known or shown more fully the utter futility, the pointless brutality, the moral deterioration attendant upon protracted warfare. (The Iliad should perhaps be made required reading for presidents and Pentagon officials.) Dante of course perceived his universe in Ptolemaic and Thomistic categories, but no one of any age has shown more vividly or analyzed more trenchantly the modes, varieties, and postures of human evil—particularly those of the intellectual order. And Milton of course accepted the categories of hierarchy and the natural inferiority of woman, yet his reworking of the Adam and Eve myth has explored with remarkable incisiveness and profundity a basic human predicament. Each character is shown to bear full individual responsibility for his or her own choices, his or her own growth (or lack of it), his or her own contribution to the preservation and perfecting of the human environment; but at the same time, each experiences to the depths of his soul the need for the other, the inescapable bonds of human interdependence. And the truly surprising thing about Milton's portrayal of Eve is that he has examined this dilemma as carefully in regard to the woman as to the man. Indeed, I am tempted to say that few writers of any era—including our own—have taken women so seriously as Milton does, as multifaceted human beings with impressive intellectual and moral powers and responsibilities.

That apparently outrageous statement will take some proving, and I will begin with a few clarifications regarding Eve's role and activities in Eden. The point here is that, far from being relegated to an exclusively or primarily domestic role, Eve in the ideal (prelapsarian) human marriage is shown to participate fully in the entire range of human activities. That the division of labor along sexual lines is a concomitant of the Fall is more than hinted in Book IX, when Eve's proposal that they undertake separate gardening tasks as a means to greater efficiency is shown to lead directly to the Fall. The Edenic condition is a life of sharing and partnership in almost all activities: for Adam, Eve is “Sole partner and sole part of all these joys” (IV, 411). To be sure, Eve does prepare and serve the noonday meal when Raphael pays his visit (they didn't share the cooking—or rather, the selection, pressing, and setting forth of the fruits from the abundance Edenic Nature provides). But Eve is not off about these tasks while the gentlemen talk about higher things—the dilemma of the modern hostess. It is all accomplished in the moments from Adam's first view of the approaching angel to the time of his arrival in Eden. Nor does Eve withdraw for the washing-up while the gentlemen have their port and cigars: it is curious that many readers (including Professor Landy) seem not to notice that Eve is present throughout almost the whole of the series of lectures Raphael provides to satisfy the first couple's intellectual curiosity about their world. She is thus as fully instructed as Adam is about the substance of the universe—“one first matter all”—and the curiously fluid conception of hierarchy this monism sustains, according to which angels and men are seen to differ in degree only, not in kind, and human beings are encouraged to expect the gradual refinement of their own natures to virtually angelic condition (V, 470-505).4 (How much more fluid, then, the hierarchical distinctions between man and woman?) Eve is present also for the epic account of the War in Heaven and all the vicarious insights that story provides about the nature of evil, of temptation, of obedience and fidelity. Again, she is present for the account of the Creation—graphically described, as Michael Lieb and others have shown,5 in terms of the imagery of human sexuality—and therefore is led, as Adam is, to apprehend that sexuality as participation in God's divine creativity. She departs only when Adam poses his astronomical question—and then not because the men wish her gone (her grace “won who saw to wish her stay” [VIII, 43]), nor yet because of any incapacity: “Yet went she not, as not with such discourse / Delighted, or not capable her ear / Of what was high” (VIII, 48-50). In part she leaves for dramatic convenience so that Adam may discuss his marital problem with Raphael, and, as the poet insists, she will receive all the information later, from Adam's account. The prelapsarian educational curriculum, then, is precisely the same for the woman as for the man—ontology, cosmology, metaphysics, moral philosophy, history, epic poetry, divine revelation, physics, and astronomy. And the method is the same except in regard to the last-mentioned topic—though Adam does indeed take the initiative throughout by asking the lecturer leading questions. This identity of educational experiences for the sexes was hardly a conventional concept in the mid-seventeenth century, though it is entirely consonant with Milton's sense of marriage as, in its essence, human companionship and partnership.

Fully shared work in and responsibility for the human world is hardly a seventeenth-century (or even a twentieth-century) commonplace either, yet it is central to Milton's rendering of the Edenic life. As I have argued in more detail elsewhere,6 both Adam and Eve are images of God “the sovran Planter” in that they must preserve, cultivate, sustain, and raise to higher levels of perfection the world which has been made for them. This labor, though not arduous, is absolutely essential since the highly cultivated garden, made as all things are from the materials of chaos, will revert to wilderness without constant creative ordering. Adam observes in Book IV (623-32) that the couple can barely cope on a day-to-day basis with the “wanton growth” of the garden, to maintain it in a condition of ordered beauty; indeed, at times it is marred by “overgrown” paths and “unsightly” blossoms strewn about. Later Eve makes the same point: the work is “Our pleasant task,” yet “what we by day / Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind, / One night or two with wanton growth derides / Tending to wild” (IX, 207-12). The narrator also testifies to the truth of this description—“much thir work outgrew / The hands' dispatch of two Gard'ning so wide” (IX, 212-13)—though both expect the task to be easier when they have progeny to share it. The point, however, is that Eve, far from being confined to her bower and her domestic concerns while Adam forges forth in the outside world, is imagined to share fully with her mate in the necessary work of that world.

She shares as well in all the other duties and pleasures, all the other kinds of human self-expression and creativity that the poem records. Not least among these is the delight of simple human conversation and dialogue, the constant, ongoing discussion with Adam about the flood of new observations and experiences that bursts in upon them day by day—whether the mystery of the stars shining at night, or the sudden challenge of hospitality for an angelic guest, or the untoward occurrence of a bad dream, or whatever. Eve participates with Adam also in “naming” the lesser orders of creation, thereby showing her comprehension of their natures, her rightful dominion over them, and her command of the human power of symbolization. That Adam named the animals and she the plants is indicated when she laments the leaving of her beloved flowers, “which I bred up with tender hand / From the first op'ning bud, and gave ye Names” (XI, 276-77). She names a lesser order of creation than Adam (hierarchy again), but she shares in the activity, a point unperceived by many critics, including Professor Landy, who take Adam's supposedly exclusive naming function as evidence that poetry and the arts of language are for Milton a masculine prerogative.7 But Eve's command of the arts of language is evident throughout the poem. She is no mean rhetorician, as her graceful, ritualistic addresses to Adam demonstrate—as does, in another mode, her skillful argumentation in the marital dispute. She is a poet as well, composing each day with Adam those divine poems and praises of God which they both in “various style” and in “fit strains pronounct or sung / Unmeditated.” As the narrator observes, “prompt eloquence / Flow'd from thir lips, in Prose or numerous Verse, / More tuneable than needed Lute or Harp” (V, 146-51). Eve is also a poet in her own right: nothing in Milton's epic is more artful, melodious, and graceful than the love lyric she addresses to Adam (IV, 641-56) which begins, “Sweet is the breath of morn.” To be sure, it is not in the highest genre of poetry according to the common Renaissance scale or Milton's own, but of its kind it is superb.

Enough has perhaps been said to establish the point that Eve, though perceived as Adam's hierarchical inferior, is not relegated to the domestic sphere, nor her creativity confined to her maternal role; rather she—“accomplisht Eve” (IV, 660)—shares and participates in the full range of human activities and achievements. But Professor Landy's further point about Milton's emphasis upon Eve's maternity as that which is somehow necessary to validate her sexual relation to Adam8 ought to be confronted directly. On this issue, two observations may be made. In the first place, it should be observed that Adam is as constantly and honorifically addressed in terms alluding to his paternity of the human race as Eve is in relation to her maternity: such language is not intended to limit either one to the confines of the familial role (the inadequacies of the sociological analysis become clearest here) but rather to insist upon the honor and dignity shared by both as progenitors of the entire human race. The narrator constantly refers to them in such terms, thereby relating himself and his readers to them as their descendants. They are “our Grand Parents” (I, 29); Eve is “our general Mother” (IV, 492); Adam is “our first Father” (IV, 495) or again “our great Progenitor” (V, 544). Similarly, in his epithalamion to them—“Hail Wedded Love” (IV, 751-75)—the narrator in his emphasis upon their progeny adopts again the perspective of one of their descendants, besides of course conforming to the norms of the genre. Raphael, who addresses Eve in the striking phrase foreshadowing the later Ave to the Virgin—“Hail Mother of Mankind” (V, 388)—addresses Adam in similar terms—“Sire of men” (VIII, 218). And while Eve recalls that when she was first presented to Adam she was promised that she would “bear / Multitudes like thyself, and thence be call'd / Mother of human Race,” Adam similarly recalls that in his own first moments after creation a divine voice referred to his role as patriarch: “Adam, rise / First Man, of Men innumerable ordain'd / First Father” (IV, 296-98). These terms are not sociological or anthropological role definitions, but praises of the human participation in the superabundant divine creativity.

Second, the text of the poem does not sustain the assertion that the recognition of Eve as mother is prior to and sanction for her roles as lover and spouse. She is certainly not so presented to the reader, who first sees Eve as a young girl on her honeymoon, her hair disheveled in wanton ringlets, engaged in “youthful dalliance” and casual love play with her husband (IV, 304-40).9 Nor is she so perceived by Adam, who in his long argument with God urges and demonstrates most forcefully his need for a mate—not for progeny but for companionship: “Of fellowship I speak / Such as I seek, fit to participate / All rational delight” (IV, 289-91). And when he claims her as his wife after she makes a move to turn from him back to her own “wat'ry image,” he does so in terms of his desire for her as companion and lover: she was made of his flesh and bone that she might be “Henceforth an individual solace dear; / Part of my Soul … My other half” (IV, 486-88). God in establishing their marriage sets forth the same order of priorities: commending Adam for his sound argument and agreeing to his request, God observes, “I, ere thou spak'st, / Knew it not good for Man to be alone,” and he promises to bring to Adam “Thy likeness, thy fit help, thy other self” (VIII, 444-50). Also, Eve records that when the divine voice wooed her from the contemplation of her own image in the pool it promised first that she would “enjoy him / Whose image thou art,” and only then that she would bear “Multitudes like thyself” and be called “Mother of human Race” (IV, 472-75). And even that last reference, in context, is not so much an emphasis upon her maternity as such as upon her opportunity now to exchange illusory images for true ones, which she can bring into substantial existence.

This emphasis upon marriage as human companionship is precisely what we should expect from the Milton of the divorce tracts, those remarkable documents which argued for divorce on grounds of incompatibility, precisely on the assumption that the prime end of marriage, as defined authoritatively in the Genesis story, is human companionship. The argument seemed both preposterous and scandalous to Milton's contemporaries, who had learned from the Church Fathers, the medieval scholastics, and most of the Protestant theologians that marriage was instituted primarily for progeny and the relief of lust (in recognition of which priorities the various Protestant countries permitted divorce or annulment for impotence, adultery, or desertion) and only secondarily for mutual help and assistance.10 But Milton insists that the Genesis account bears out his own emphasis upon the companionship of the mind and spirit as the chief end of marriage:

What his [God's] chiefe end was of creating woman to be joyned with man, his own instituting words declare, and are infallible to informe us what is mariage, and what is no mariage … “It is not good,” saith he, “that man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him.” From which words so plain, lesse cannot be concluded … then that in God's intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and the noblest end of mariage; for we find here no expression so necessarily implying carnall knowledg, as this prevention of lonelinesse to the mind and spirit of man. … And indeed it is a greater blessing from God, more worthy so excellent a creature as man is, and a higher end to honour and sanctifie the league of mariage, whenas the solace and satisfaction of the mind is regarded and provided for before the sensitive pleasing of the body. And with all generous persons maried thus it is, that where the minde and person pleases aptly, there some unaccomplishment of the bodies delight may be better borne with, then when the mind hangs off in an unclosing disproportion, though the body be as it ought; for there all corporall delight will soon become unsavoury and contemptible.11

It is true that Milton sets forth his argument for divorce almost entirely from the standpoint of the needs and rights of the husband. But it is also evident that despite Milton's acceptance of the commonplace of female subordination in the natural hierarchy, he did not make of women either sex objects or mother figures. Indeed, the passage quoted and the entire drift of the divorce tracts show him to be as convinced as even a modern feminist might wish that the dispelling of these particular stereotypes of woman is of the first importance to the happiness of the male sex.

To come now to what is of basic significance in Milton's reworking of the myth of Adam and Eve—his exploration, on the one hand, of each individual's personal responsibility for his own choices, for the direction of his own life; and on the other hand, of the powerful emotional, psychological, and spiritual bonds which make man and woman inextricably interdependent. In the course of this exploration, Milton's treatment of the archetypal woman achieves extraordinary depth and dimension.

Before and after the Fall, both Adam and Eve show some disposition to avoid or lessen the tensions involved in hard choices or the guilt attendant upon wrong choices by appealing to the fact of their interdependence to cast responsibility upon each other. But the poem permits this rationale to neither of them: each is “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (IV, 99), and each must assume responsibility for his own choices. Adam is lightly satirized on several occasions as he pronounces the time-honored male complaints about women as the source of all difficulties and problems and then is roundly rebuked for his foolishness by whatever heavenly visitant is on the scene at the time. In his still unfallen state Adam complains to Raphael (who assumes for the moment the role of the first marriage counselor) that the passion he feels for Eve tends to unsettle his judgment of her qualities and her nature in relation to his own and concludes that the fault is somehow Eve's (or Nature's): she has been made too fair, or Nature has made him too weak by taking too much from his side in making her. But Raphael will have none of it: the angel does not assume that the tension and difficulty Adam is experiencing are out of place in Eden, but rather “with contracted brow” he places the responsibility for dealing with them squarely on Adam's shoulders: “Accuse not Nature, she hath done her part; / Do thou but thine” (VIII, 561-62). This tendency in Adam is strengthened after the Fall and is expressed in several tirades against Eve and all womankind. Nothing in Milton's treatment of the first human couple is more sharply perceived than the inevitable transformation—when the pressure of suffering and guilt make the heroic posture impossible to sustain—of the self-sacrificing romantic hero ready to die with his lady into a cad ready to denounce that same lady before the bar of God's judgment in an effort to excuse himself. Eve on that occasion was “not before her Judge / Bold or loquacious” and her simple confession—“The Serpent me beguil'd, and I did eat” (X, 160-62)—contrasts impressively with Adam's garrulous complaints against both the woman and the God who gave him to her:

This Woman whom thou mad'st to be my help,
And gav'st me as thy perfet gift, so good,
So fit, so acceptable, so Divine,
That from her hand I could suspect no ill,
And what she did, whatever in itself,
Her doing seem'd to justify the deed;
She gave me of the Tree, and I did eat

(X, 137-43)

But he is not indulged in this blame-shifting: the stern judge insists that he had no business making her his God, nor yet (given her general inferiority to him) his guide in this momentous matter. Later, in the exchange with Michael, Adam shows that he still has not learned his lesson, as he comments on the daughters of Cain, “But still I see the tenor of Man's woe / Holds on the same, from Woman to begin” (XI, 632-33). Michael, however, gives such misogynist platitudes short shrift, retorting sharply, “From Man's effeminate slackness it begins” (XI, 634).

Eve just after the Fall is also ready to shift her guilt to Adam, observing that he should have forbidden her absolutely to go off to work by herself: “Being as I am, why didst not thou the Head / Command me absolutely not to go, / Going into such danger as thou said'st” (IX, 1156-58). Many critics who write about the marital dispute take the same tack, assuming that what was finally required of Adam should all else fail was a flat command. But this is to miss the point badly: as marriage is conceived in Eden, Adam is Eve's superior and appointed guide, but not her lord and master. Eve is no dependent child-wife: her choices are and must be freely her own, and she bears adult responsibility for them, even as Adam does for his.12 Adam is accordingly indignant at Eve's words, as a flagrant misrepresentation of the terms of their relationship:

I warn'd thee, I admonish'd thee, foretold
The danger, and the lurking Enemy
That lay in wait; beyond this had been force,
And force upon free Will hath here no place

(IX, 1171-74)

Indeed, what came to be required of Eve during the marital dispute was not at all childlike dependence but a level of maturity which she (like most of her progeny) could not quite manage in the heat of disputation—the ability to give over an erroneous position without seeking to save face, the grace to admit and be persuaded by the better arguments, and the willingness to eschew too hardy adolescent adventure-seeking in response to counsels of prudence. Adam also needed more maturity than he was master of in the dispute—notably, the capacity to stand up to prolonged emotional pressure without caving in before it.

We are given early on a model of how Adam's leadership should properly function, so as to preserve and enhance Eve's freedom of choice, personal growth, and adult responsibility. This is at the scene of Eve's presentation to Adam when she turns from him back to the fairer image of herself in the water, and Adam proceeds to urge his claim to her firmly and rationally, on the grounds of her origin and nature, and his love. The alternatives thus sharply posed permit Eve to make her choice—to advance from the sterile condition of self-admiration, “pin'd with vain desire” (IV, 466), to human relationship and love, and on the basis of her new experience to adjust her scale of values, recognizing the superiority of wisdom over beauty. In terms of this model we can see what went wrong in the marital dispute. Adam not only ceased to press his own case forcefully and rationally under the pressure of Eve's dismay, but at length he virtually sent her away, supplied with a rationale for going which she had not thought of for herself:

But if thou think, trial unsought may find
Us both securer than thus warn'd thou seem'st,
Go; for thy stay, not free, absents thee more;
Go in thy native innocence, rely
On what thou hast of virtue, summon all,
For God towards thee hath done his part, do thine

(IX, 370-75)

This is a serious abnegation of Adam's proper leadership role: he ought not to command Eve, but neither ought he to argue her case for her. It is as if he had said on that earlier occasion, “If you really want to go back and stare at yourself in that pond, go ahead; it might turn out to be a useful experience.” The result is that instead of enhancing Eve's freedom of choice Adam has restricted it, for in the charged emotional climate of their dispute—offered this new reason for going and hearing the reiterated emphatic directive, “Go”—Eve could hardly make another choice if she wanted to. She is still responsible for her choice for all that, though Adam has unintentionally made it much harder for her to choose rightly. Her uneasiness about the decision is reflected in the fact that she seeks at once to place responsibility for the decision upon Adam:

With thy permission then, and thus forewarn'd
Chiefly by what thy own last reasoning words
Touch'd only, that our trial. when least sought,
May find us both perhaps far less prepar'd,
The willinger I go—

(IX, 378-82)

It must be emphasized, however, that Milton's Eve is not foredoomed to fall before Satan's wiles because her intellectual powers are comparatively weaker than Adam's. Abdiel apparently had no great reputation as an intellectual giant among the angels, but he did very well in his debate with Satan by holding fast to the main point. In Eve's case, Milton has taken some pains to devise the temptation sequence so as to demonstrate that she was intellectually “sufficient to have stood.” We see evidence of this sufficiency in her wry comment upon Satan's fulsome flattery: “Serpent, thy overpraising leaves in doubt / The virtue of that Fruit, in thee first prov'd” (IX, 615-16). She is evidently enjoying the flattery, but she is perfectly aware that it is flattery, and that the element of falsehood might indeed call into question the “virtue of that Fruit.” She does not take the warning from this that she should, but intellectually her perception is quite sound. Later, when she first discovers that the tree the serpent spoke of was indeed the forbidden tree, she shows that she understands clearly the basic principle needed to withstand Satan's subsequent argument—the fact that the tree lies under the special and direct prohibition of God (and hence outside the law of reason), whereas in all other matters Adam and Eve are guided by the law of reason:

But of this Tree we may not taste nor touch;
God so commanded, and left that Command
Sole Daughter of his voice; the rest, we live
Law to ourselves, our Reason is our Law.

(IX, 651-54)

Satan's entire strategy from this point forward is to confuse the two categories of law which Eve here distinguishes so precisely—to develop, that is, a plethora of reasons and rational arguments demonstrating the probable harmlessness of the tree and the probable benefits to be gained from eating its fruit. But such rational considerations are in this single case quite beside the point, as Eve had perceived clearly enough in the speech cited. In testimony to her soundness at this point in the poem, the narrator uses the epithet “yet sinless” to describe her—for the last time. She is soon brought by Satan's magnificent rhetoric and her own unruly desires to lose her hold on this clear distinction, permitting herself to be bedazzled and deluded by those arguments. But my point is that among the many complex factors involved in Eve's fall, one which is specifically excluded is insufficient intellectual power. Milton has taken great care to present the first woman as having faculties “sufficient” to make free and responsible choices—always for Milton the precondition for any practice of or growth in virtue.

In another genre and in the setting of the fallen world Milton portrays a girl who successfully resists a highly intelligent tempter—and indeed overmatches him in intellectual argument. The Lady in Comus is no one's favorite Miltonic character, I suppose, but she certainly displays woman's sufficiency to meet the challenges of life and to make free and responsible choices. At the time of her temptation this Lady is also without her appointed male protectors, her brothers, though quite without her intention or fault. Moreover, this Miltonic Lady has a firmer intellectual grasp of the realities of life in the “blind mazes of this tangl'd Wood” (181) than have her brothers: the Platonizing Elder Brother, serenely confident of the power of Chastity, tends to confuse his sister with Diana the huntress, invulnerable to harm and able for all conquests (420-46); the fearful Younger Brother is convinced that she is helpless alone and certain to be ravished (393-407). The Lady, though, is quite aware that she is not invulnerable, but she knows also that she may rely with confidence upon her own virtue and the aid of heaven to withstand such trials as may present themselves. While lost, she decides her course of action by a rational appraisal of the options available to her: she follows the noises heard in the dark wood though she perceives them to be “the sound / of Riot and ill-manag'd Merriment” (171-72) because she must ask directions of someone; and she accepts the disguised Comus' offer of shelter because she has no grounds for distrusting the supposed shepherd, and because it seems that she could not be “In a Place / Less warranted than this or less secure” (326-27). But she is neither naive nor credulous: she knows that in the dark wood and in the human condition one cannot know all the circumstances bearing upon such decisions, and her prayer as she follows Comus indicates an awareness that there may be difficulties to come: “Eye me blest Providence, and square my trial / To my proportion'd strength” (329-30).

In her long debate with Comus, the Lady claims only to be able to preserve her mind inviolate: “Fool, do not boast, / Thou canst not touch the freedom of my mind / With all thy charms” (662-64). She is not proof against violence, nor against the forces of natural sensuality represented by Comus, which have power to “immancle” her body “while Heav'n sees good” (665). But to preserve the freedom of her mind in intellectual debate with Comus is no mean feat, especially since many critics of the poem have been so thoroughly bedazzled by his “dear Wit and gay Rhetoric” (790) as to suppose that he wins the debate, or at least finishes in a draw.13 The Lady's debating strategies differ from those of her opponent, to be sure, but an examination of her speech and of Comus' response to it reveals clearly enough that the victory is hers. She meets the first point, the issue of the nature of Nature, by denouncing with keen logical incisiveness the “false rules prankt in reason's garb” (759) which Comus derives from his eloquent description of a Nature so lavish and excessively abundant in her productivity as to require man's incessant and prodigal rifling of her ever-burgeoning stores of goods and beauties. The Lady did not require the instruction of modern ecologists to perceive that this is an absurd description of the postlapsarian world, that Nature did not intend that “her children should be riotous / With her abundance” (763-64), and that indeed,

If every just man that now pines with want
Had but a moderate and beseeming share
Of that which lewdly-pamper'd Luxury
Now heaps upon some few with vast excess,
Nature's full blessings would be well dispens't
In unsuperfluous even proportion,
And she no whit encumber'd with her store.


I think we may agree that the Lady wins this point. The other issue, the value and power of Chastity and Virginity, she simply refuses to debate with Comus, for the same reason that Christ counseled against casting pearls before swine, or Socrates remarked the futility of describing to a sensual man the higher joys of the intellectual life14—the sheer incapacity of the hearer to understand the argument. But the Lady is stirred by her subject to display something of that “flame of sacred vehemence” (795) which, she asserts, would characterize her praise of “the sage / And serious doctrine of Virginity” (786-87), should she deign to undertake the topic. And however the reader might understand the specific import and the merit of her subject, she makes her point with Comus. He confesses his sense that “some superior power” sets off her words, bathing him in a “cold shudd'ring dew” (801-02), and, conscious of defeat, he gives over the debate and turns to force. Of the strength and sufficiency of this woman's intellect and character, I think we can have no doubt.

Milton does then examine at length the inescapable, individual challenge of responsible choice as it affects women as well as men, insisting that (whatever the mitigating personal or social circumstances) each is sufficient to meet whatever trials may come. But he examines also, with equal care, the strong bonds of human interdependence. Adam and Eve create problems for each other, even in Eden, yet each needs the other to achieve anything resembling a human life, or to experience that life as worth living. Adam makes this point forcefully in his own case: although he is given Eden and all the earth as his domain, he yet finds himself unsatisfied and so pleads with God for a mate. Arguing that he is neither a beast able to find companionship with other beasts, nor yet a God sufficient unto himself, he articulates man's great need of human fellowship—“By conversation with his like to help, / Or solace his defects” (VIII, 418-19). Adam's fall, as we know, is chiefly motivated by his sudden, overwhelming consciousness of loneliness and misery in a world lacking his beloved companion:

How can I live without thee, how forgo
Thy sweet Converse and Love so dearly join'd,
To live again in these wild Woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and
Another Rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart.

(IX, 908-13)

Eve has a similar awareness of her need of Adam, for she knows she would still be staring at her image in the pool had not the divine voice brought her to him—“There I had fix't / Mine eyes till now, and pin'd with vain desire” (IV, 465-66). She expresses this awareness also in her beautiful love lyric, which catalogues all the sweet delights in Eden and then culminates in the statement that none of these “without thee is sweet” (IV, 656).

The Fall intensifies their need for companionship and mutual help. Eve, recoiling before Adam's fierce rage—“Out of my sight, thou Serpent” (X, 867)—gives expression to the desolation and aimlessness her life must have without him in these sad new conditions:

                                                            bereave me not,
Whereon I live, thy gentle looks, thy aid,
Thy counsel in this uttermost distress,
My only strength and stay: forlorn of thee,
Whither should I betake me, where subsist?

(X, 918-22)

Adam's necessity to her (and hers to him) is again evidenced after their reconciliation, as his reasoned critique of her recommendation of sterility or suicide as means for saving their progeny from woe clarifies for them both the divine plan for salvation—penitence, and reliance upon the redeemer to be born of Eve's seed. Indeed, despite Adam's harsh denunciations of Eve and of all womankind under the impetus of his terrible misery, Eve is, if anything, shown to be even more necessary to Adam than he to her. For although their reconciliation with each other and with God is in the final analysis made possible by the removal of the “stony” from their hearts by “prevenient Grace” (XI, 3-4), Eve is the human agent of Adam's salvation, bringing him from the utter hopelessness and immobility of despair to some capacity for thought and action. Without her, he must have remained groveling on the ground, helpless and hopeless, driven into an “Abyss of fears / And horrors … out of which / I find no way, from deep to deeper plung'd” (X, 842-44). It is Eve's persistent admissions of guilt, pleas for forgiveness, and expressions of love that revive in Adam those feelings and emotions which bind him to his kind and make life seem again endurable. Eve's behavior breaks through the syndrome of mutual recriminations into which they were heretofore locked, thus making reconciliation possible. Moreover, in her offer to plead with God to transfer upon her the entire sentence of punishment, she echoes the Son's offer to die for man—an inadequate human type of the divine heroism to be sure, but yet the immediate cause of the “redemption” of Adam from his self-destructive anger and despair.15 Much as he valued intellect, Milton did not forget the superiority of love in the Christian scale of values, and in his reworking of the Adam and Eve myth it is the woman who is made a type of the Messiah's redemptive love.

In that unforgettable final scene, as Adam and Eve “hand in hand with wand'ring steps and slow, / Through Eden took thir solitary way” (XII, 648-49), we are again reminded of the depth of our need for each other on this “subjected Plain” as friends, lovers, husbands, and wives. And the verbal paradox of the last lines—“hand in hand,” “solitary”—underscores again the basic human dilemma Milton has pointed up with such honesty and clarity in his re-creation of the myth of the first man and woman: on the one hand, the capacity and responsibility of both Adam and Eve for “solitary” choices defining the direction of their own lives, and on the other, their intense need of each other to give that life human shape and to make it endurable. The complexity and profundity of this view of the human condition is matched by few writers, even among those more enlightened about the matter of woman's equality. If our rightful contemporary concern with this equality prevents some readers from perceiving or responding to the Miltonic vision, that is surely unfortunate. Happily, though, great poets have a way of rising like phoenixes from whatever ashes are left in the wake of social and intellectual revolutions, so no doubt it will not be long before we can all again read Milton for what is of enduring importance rather than what is historically conditioned in his conception of man and woman.


  1. “Kinship and the Role of Women in Paradise Lost,Milton Studies, IV, ed. James D. Simmonds (Pittsburgh, 1972), pp. 3-18.

  2. Ibid., p. 5.

  3. All quotations from Milton's poetry are from John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York, 1957).

  4. For further development of this point, see Irene Samuel, Dante and Milton (Ithaca, N.Y., 1966), pp. 146-62.

  5. The Dialectics of Creation: Patterns of Birth and Regeneration in “Paradise Lost” (Amherst, Mass., 1970), esp. pp. 56-78; Joseph Summers, The Muse's Method (London, 1962), pp. 112-46.

  6. “Innocence and Experience in Milton's Eden,” in New Essays on “Paradise Lost,” ed. Thomas Kranidas (Berkeley, 1969), pp. 86-117.

  7. “Kinship and the Role of Women,” p. 7.

  8. Ibid., pp. 9-11.

  9. Professor Landy's argument seems to invest the term “matron” as it appears in Milton's poem with a somewhat misleading sense: “The first human kiss recorded is placed on Eve's ‘Matron lip,’ and this identification as mother seems to precede that as spouse.” Of course the Latin etymology is clear enough, and Milton often played on etymological meanings, but the OED indicates that from its first recorded use in English (1375) to Milton's own time the term “matron” meant simply “married woman.”

  10. See Ernest Sirluck, ed., “Introduction” to Complete Prose Works of John Milton (New Haven, 1959), II, 137-58. To be sure, Milton could and did cite notable Protestant Reformers—chiefly Bucer, Calvin, Fagius, Pareus, and Rivetus—as authorities for some parts of his argument, but the total view of marriage and divorce as set forth by Milton was far outside the mainstream of contemporary opinion.

  11. The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, in Complete Prose Works, II, 245-46.

  12. This point has been argued cogently and persuasively by Stella P. Revard, “Eve and the Doctrine of Responsibility in Paradise Lost,PMLA, LXXXVIII (1973), 69-78.

  13. See, e.g., Don C. Allen, The Harmonious Vision (Baltimore, Md., 1954), pp. 24-40; E. M. W. Tillyard, Studies in Milton (London, 1960), pp. 87-96; and Cleanth Brooks and J. W. Hardy, eds., Poems of Mr. John Milton (New York, 1968), pp. 215-23.

  14. Matthew vii, 6; Plato, Republic, IX, 581-86.

  15. This link between Eve's speech and the Redeemer's is noted by Summers, Muse's Method, pp. 176-85. Cf. PL III, 236-41 and X, 932-36.

Louis L. Martz (essay date 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Power of Choice,” in Poet of Exile: A Study of Milton's Poetry, Yale University Press, 1980, pp. 3-19.

[In the following excerpt from his full-length study of Milton's poetry, Martz discusses the importance of the notion of choice in the epic, pointing out that for Milton human dignity depends on the power of choice—which includes choosing to err as well as make amends for errors.]

Adam and Eve, before the Fall, have all our basic psychological qualities: they are “frail” in the sense that their power of choice may wrongly choose; choice is difficult because “wandering thoughts” and passions and the wild work of fancy are all part of the broad field in which human choice must operate. Adam and Eve find it difficult to choose rightly because they are so “unexperienc't”; their descendants find it difficult to choose because they have so much experience, see so many possibilities, dangers, and advantages. Yet in Milton's universe the power of choice is essential to man's perfection and man's happiness, whether fallen or unfallen. That is why the words “choice” and “choose” ring throughout Paradise Lost, from the opening words of Satan, “and in my choyce / To reign is worth ambition though in Hell …” (1.261-62) through the words of God declaring “Reason also is choice,” on to the famous closing lines where Adam and Eve must learn “where to choose / Thir place of rest” (12.646-47).1

As in these instances, so in book 8 these crucial words are placed in an emphatic position, at the end of a line, when Adam recalls the divine prohibition in the very phrase that Satan has used in book 1:

                                                            Sternly he pronounc'd
The rigid interdiction, which resounds
Yet dreadful in mine eare, though in my choice
Not to incur … 


The power of choice, then, is essential to Milton's view of the dynamic, progressive, eternal expansion of God's goodness; by warning and experience man must learn to manage the gift of freedom, and seek his happiness beyond the limitations of the flesh.

Nothing could stress the essential humanity of Adam and Eve more strongly than the scene that opens book 9, after Satan has uttered his Euripidean, or Senecan prologue to the tragedy of the Fall (99-178). Here Milton brings our grand parents closer to us than we have thus far seen them. This is not done suddenly: it has been a gradual process from their first appearance in book 4. The more we see of them and the more we hear them talk, the more they seem like us. In book 5, for example, Adam and Eve have already begun to drop the formal modes of address that marked their speeches in book 4. When Adam sees the angel approaching his door he calls to Eve, who is within “due at her hour” preparing dinner,

Haste hither Eve, and worth
thy sight behold
Eastward among those Trees, what glorious shape
Comes this way moving … 
                                                            But goe with speed,
And what thy stores contain, bring forth and poure
Abundance, fit to honour and receive
Our Heav'nly stranger … 


Eve is amused at Adam's abrupt and excited concern for her “stores” and she answers in a leisurely and stately way (one can imagine her quiet smile):

                                                            Adam, earths
hallowd mould,
Of God inspir'd, small store will serve, where store,
All seasons, ripe for use hangs on the stalk;
Save what by frugal storing firmness gains
To nourish, and superfluous moist consumes:
But I will haste and from each bough and break,
Each Plant & juciest Gourd will pluck such choice
To entertain our Angel guest, as hee
Beholding shall confess that here on Earth
God hath dispenst his bounties as in Heav'n.
          So saying, with dispatchful looks in haste
She turns, on hospitable thoughts intent
What choice to chuse for delicacie best … 


Thus Eve shows her command of the household affairs, using her reason wittily to pun before going forth to exercise her power of choice in the preparation of that elegant vegetarian meal.2

The sense of comedy here, enforced by Milton's own quiet wit in regarding this pastoral feast—“No fear lest Dinner coole”—is carried on in the early part of book 9, where, though Milton has said that he must now change his notes to tragic, the first act of his tragedy might well be described as a domestic comedy. Here at the outset the grand titles of address are completely dropped, and Adam and Eve are introduced simply as the “human pair.” “And Eve first to her Husband thus began,” without any of those words about “My Author and Disposer,” “Unargu'd I obey,” and so on, such as we heard in book 4. Eve opens her speech here in what might be called a normal wifely fashion: “Adam,” she says, quite informally—

                              Adam, well
may we labour still to dress
This Garden, still to tend Plant, Herb and Flour.
Our pleasant task enjoyn'd, but till more hands
Aid us, the work under our labour grows,
Luxurious by restraint; what we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,
One night or two with wanton growth derides
Tending to wilde.


We must believe that Eve is truly concerned about her work here, and not simply fishing for a compliment, for Milton's whole account of life in Paradise has stressed the importance of this element of labor.3 Milton is placing a special stress upon the words of Genesis where God says to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it,” along with the later statement that “the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it,” with man's duties clarified by the statement that before this “there was not a man to till the ground” (Gen. 1:28; 2:5, 15). Eve's concern for the results of their “labour” of dressing and re-dressing is one of the problems raised by the whole Creation's “wanton” tendency to be fruitful and multiply, even to the extent of “tending to wilde.” Nature's vitality, whether in vegetation or in man and woman, is not easy to “subdue” and keep in reasonable order.

The point has been clearly made in book 5 as Milton describes the angel's approach to Adam's door:

                                        through Groves of Myrrhe,
And flouring Odours, Cassia, Nard, and Balme;
A Wilderness of sweets; for Nature here
Wantond as in her prime, and plaid at will
Her Virgin Fancies, pouring forth more sweet,
Wilde above rule or art; enormous bliss.


Here again the words “wantond” and “wilde” give the clue to the inherent problem: things unconfined and unrestrained tend to become “luxurious”, tend to run beyond the rule and art of reason. Man's duty is to bring these “Virgin Fancies” of nature under the control of reason, for fancy, we recall, can make “wilde work”. Eve is therefore completely right to show concern over the way in which their labors seem ineffective. Adam himself has explained to Eve the importance of their labor in book 4, as they retire to their blissful bower:

          When Adam
thus to Eve: Fair Consort, th' hour
Of night, and all things now retir'd to rest
Mind us of like repose, since God hath set
Labour and rest, as day and night to men
Successive, and the timely dew of sleep
Now falling with soft slumbrous weight inclines
Our eye-lids; other Creatures all day long
Rove idle unimploid, and less need rest;
Man hath his daily work of body or mind
Appointed, which declares his Dignitie,
And the regard of Heav'n on all his waies;
While other Animals unactive range,
And of thir doings God takes no account.


The word “account” tells us to take the divine “regard” on all man's ways in two senses: God holds man's ways in high regard, with affection and respect—but also, the eye of God is watching all man's ways, and will take account of how he performs his appointed tasks. Therefore, Adam adds, at dawn “we must be ris'n / And at our pleasant labour,” which he then proceeds to describe with exactly the conditions that are worrying Eve in book 9:

                                                            to reform
You flourie Arbors, yonder Allies green,
Our walks at noon, with branches overgrown,
That mock our scant manuring, and require
More hands then ours to lop thir wanton growth … 


There again is the word “wanton”, along with the witty play on the Latin base of manuring—working with the hands, for such work is surely needed: “Those Blossoms also, and those dropping Gumms, / That lie bestrowne unsightly and unsmooth, / Ask riddance, if we mean to tread with ease …” (4.630-32).

Thus Eve is right to be concerned over the results of their labor, and right to consider ways of improving its effect:

                                                            Thou therefore now advise
Or hear what to my mind first thoughts present,
Let us divide our labours, thou where choice
Leads thee, or where most needs, whether to wind
The Woodbine round this Arbour, or direct
The clasping Ivie where to climb, while I
In yonder Spring of Roses intermixt
With Myrtle, find what to redress till Noon … 


She suggests this division of labor because, she adds, when they are together they waste too much time in looking at each other and smiling and talking, and thus “th' hour of Supper comes unearn'd” (9.225).

“To whom mild answer Adam thus return'd,” maintaining something of that earlier formality of address, along with some measure of masculine condescension:

Sole Eve, Associate sole,
to me beyond
Compare above all living Creatures deare,
Well hast thou motion'd, wel thy thoughts imployd
How we might best fulfill the work which here
God hath assign'd us, nor of me shalt pass
Unprais'd: for nothing lovelier can be found
In woman, then to studie houshold good,
And good workes in her Husband to promote.


Adam sounds here as though he had observed hundreds of women: clearly Adam is becoming Everyman. But, he adds, life in Eden is not supposed to be so arduous. It is quite all right for us to look and smile at each other while we work; and then he makes man's first strategic error, for he goes on to say:

But other doubt possesses me, least harm
Befall thee sever'd from me; for thou knowst
What hath bin warn'd us, what malicious Foe
Envying our happiness, and of his own
Despairing, seeks to work us woe and shame
By sly assault … 


Considering this danger, then, Adam advises,

                                                            leave not the faithful side
That gave thee being, stil shades thee and protects.
The Wife, where danger or dishonour lurks,
Safest and seemliest by her Husband staies,
Who guards her, or with her the worst endures.


Here again, Adam is speaking with the voice of Everyman in the daily world, foreshadowing his decision to eat the apple and with her the worst endure. Eve in her reply becomes Everywoman, too, as she withdraws to her earlier mode of formal address:

               To whom the Virgin Majestie of Eve,
As one who loves, and some unkindness meets,
With sweet austeer composure thus reply'd.
               Of spring of Heav'n and Earth, and all Earths
Lord … 


She goes on to say that she knows all about this enemy, for Adam has told her about Satan, and she has overheard the warning of the departing angel. Thus she is shocked to think that Adam would mistrust her:

But that thou shouldst my firmness therfore doubt
To God or thee, because we have a foe
May tempt it, I expected not to hear … 
Thoughts, which how found they harbour in thy brest,
Adam, missthought of her to thee
so dear?
               To whom with healing words Adam reply'd.
Daughter of God and Man, immortal Eve … 


I do trust you, he says, I do, but—and then he flounders into a very unconvincing argument: I am only trying to prevent the dishonor that lies in the fact of being tempted. Then he tries a stronger point, which one wishes that he had tried first. I cannot get along without you, he says, I will be stronger in your presence: “I from the influence of thy looks receave / Access in every Vertue, in thy sight / More wise, more watchful, stronger …” (9.309-11). And now Milton tells us very plainly what he is about, for by his introductory phrasing he places the scene in our own world:

               So spake domestick Adam in his care
And Matrimonial Love, but Eve, who
Less attributed to her Faith sincere,
Thus her reply with accent sweet renewd.
                    If this be our condition, thus to dwell
In narrow circuit strait'nd by a Foe,
Suttle or violent, we not endu'd
Single with like defence, wherever met,
How are we happie, still in fear of harm?
.....Fraile is our happiness, if this be so,
And Eden were no Eden thus expos'd.


This is not what Adam has been saying: they are not confined to a narrow circuit; they can go anywhere together. And this idea that they are made, or ought to be made, to meet temptation singly—this represents, as Milton's whole poem before this has made clear, a misunderstanding of the nature of the universe, where nothing stands alone, but everything lives best in the linked universe of love, with respect for those above and care for those below. This is why Adam at last replies “fervently,” exclaiming:

O Woman, best are all things as the will
Of God ordaind them, his creating hand
Nothing imperfet or deficient left
Of all that he Created … 


The meaning of Eden, he says, has nothing to do with this idea of complete personal independence. The freedom of the will, Adam goes on to explain, exercises its power of choice within a universe of interdependent and mutual responsibility: “Not then mistrust, but tender love enjoynes, / That I should mind thee oft, and mind thou me” (9.357-58). “Mind” here does not mean simply “obey”, but rather means “Pay attention to,” “be mindful” of one another's best interests and advice. Then Adam goes on to make the choice very plain: “Wouldst thou approve thy constancie, approve / First thy obedience;” (9.367-68) that is, obedience to what is clearly Adam's wish and best advice. He leaves it up to her to choose, saying: “But if thou think” (and clearly he does not think so)

                                                            trial unsought may finde
Us both securer then thus warnd thou seemst,
Go; for thy stay, not free, absents thee more … 


Adam seems to be telling her that if she thinks that staying together, not seeking trial, may create a sense of false security, then it is better for her to go, since she will be staying with him against her will.

To some readers Adam has seemed weak here, but the question is highly debatable, for it may well seem that Adam is only carrying out here the view of the workings of free will that the poem has over and over again explained to us and to Adam. He has made it plain that he does not wish her to go; he has asked for her obedience to this wish. His respect for human reason makes it impossible for him to detain her by force and his love for Eve makes it impossible for him to speak more harshly. It is true that later on, after the Fall, in that unpleasant scene of domestic bickering, Eve snaps back at Adam with the bitter reproach:

                                                  why didst not thou the Head
Command me absolutely not to go,
Going into such danger as thou saidst?
Too facil then thou didst not much gainsay,
Nay, didst permit, approve, and fair dismiss.
Hadst thou bin firm and fixt in thy dissent,
Neither had I transgress'd, nor thou with mee.


But here she is angrily distorting the effect of Adam's earlier speech, where Adam seems to hope that by this evidence of his respect for her intelligence, she will come round to his point of view:

Go in thy native innocence, relie
On what thou hast of vertue, summon all,
For God towards thee hath done his part, do thine.


With this meagre compliment, Adam reminds Eve that her part is to be mindful of Adam's best advice. And Adam still seems to hope that Eve will choose to take his advice.

“So spake the Patriarch of Mankinde,” says Milton, but the Patriarch soon suffers the fate of his sons:

                                                                                but Eve
Persisted, yet submiss, though last, repli'd.
                              With thy permission then … 


Has he really given her permission to go? It would be more accurate to say that he has given her permission to disobey his wishes if she chooses to do so, and this is exactly the permission that God himself allows the freedom of the will. God, to be sure, has laid down his commandment absolutely, but it is not, I think, valid to argue from this that Adam should have been equally absolute. Even in Milton's day, the relation between husband and wife could not have been regarded as precisely analogous to the relation between God and man. Of course we think of Milton's earlier statement in book 4:

Hee for God only, shee for God in him:
His fair large Front and Eye sublime declar'd
Absolute rule … 


But this at once is followed by the passage where he adds that Eve's “subjection” must be “requir'd with gentle sway.” It is this gentle sway that Adam is attempting to exert here, but Eve, insisting on her own right to choose, makes the wrong choice. That is, the consequences prove her wrong, but neither of them can possibly know that she will fall. And we notice that Milton does not, as she departs, subject Eve to any very strong condemnation. Instead, he describes her situation and her beauty in terms that draw our strong sympathies toward her unprotected state, her utterly innocent beauty, her earnest work, her good intentions. She means no harm, and she really does have the welfare of her garden at heart. Anyhow, she is not going far—only to that rose garden over there, yonder, as she says: they can see the spot from where they are standing.

Now, as she ominously withdraws her hand from her husband's hand, Milton surrounds her with a fragrant cloud of pagan myths—all of them concerned with attractive, beneficent spirits and deities of nature:

                                                  and like a Wood-Nymph light
Oread or Dryad, or of Delia's Traine,
Betook her to the Groves, but Delia's
In gate surpass'd and Goddess-like deport,
Though not as shee with Bow and Quiver armd,
But with such Gardning Tools as Art yet rude,
Guiltless of fire had formd, or Angels brought.
To Pales, or Pomona, thus adornd,
Likest she seemd, Pomona when she
Vertumnus, or to Ceres in her Prime,
Yet Virgin of Proserpina from Jove.


Everyone has felt an ominous undercurrent here, as in the phrase “Guiltless of fire,” the allusion to Pomona and her persistent wooer, Vertumnus, or the oblique reference to the sorrows of Ceres, through the loss of her daughter to the prince of Hades. But the dominant effect of all these myths is quite favorable to Eve: Delia is Diana, and by using twice the unusual name Delia, Milton reminds us of her birth, along with Apollo, on the pure and sacred island of Delos. Pales, ancient Roman goddess of flocks and herds, was a beneficent deity, worshipped by rites of purification. As for the story of Pomona, Milton has given the allusion an ominous twist by referring to the time when, he says, she “fled Vertumnus.” Yet in Ovid's Metamorphoses this is quite an amusing and harmless story, where Pomona provides a true original for Milton's Eve:

Gardens and fruit were all her care; no other
Was ever more skilled or diligent. Woods and rivers
Were nothing to her, only the fields, the branches
Bearing the prosperous fruits. She bore no javelin,
But the curved pruning-hook, to trim the branches,
Check too luxuriant growth, or make incision
For the engrafted twig to thrive and grow in.
She would not let them thirst: the flowing waters
Poured down to the roots. This was her love, her passion.
Venus was nothing to her … 

But all the rustic gods try to win her, especially Vertumnus, who tries every possible disguise, every possible verbal manoeuvre, for over a hundred lines of Ovid, with no effect at all on the cool maiden. So at last, in desperation, he throws off his latest disguise

                                                            and stood before her
In the light of his own radiance, as the sun
Breaks through the clouds against all opposition.
Ready for force, he found no need; Pomona
Was taken by his beauty, and her passion
Answered his own.

[Met. 14.624-34,767-71, trans. Humphries]

Such is the atmosphere of purity and harmlessness that Milton gives to Eve.

When the poet bursts out in his own voice with his commentary, he cannot bring himself quite to blame her, though it looks at first as though he is going to do so: “O much deceav'd, much failing, hapless Eve,” he cries, but then the sentence bends over the line, in Milton's metamorphic way and assumes a different meaning, for it appears that the poet is saying only that she is deceived in thinking that she will return to Adam by noon, in time to have Adam's lunch ready. Her failing, we see, is her failing to return to Adam as she now promises:

And all things in best order to invite
Noontide repast, or Afternoons repose.
O much deceav'd, much failing, hapless Eve,
Of thy presum'd return! event perverse!
Thou never from that houre in Paradise
Foundst either sweet repast, or sound repose … 


Notice that Milton does not say “perverse woman” but simply “perverse event,” that is to say, outcome contrary to her and Adam's expectations. Thus the poet's sympathy and pitying admiration play over the figure of Eve as she works among her roses:

                                                            them she upstaies
Gently with Mirtle band, mindless the while,
Her self,

(that is, not attentive to herself, with all her mind focused on the flowers)

                              though fairest unsupported Flour
From her best prop so farr, and storm so nigh.


Then, as we watch the serpent crawling “Among thick-wov'n Arborets and Flours … the hand of Eve,” we realize that her gardening labors have already produced here an effect that, Milton says, surpasses the “feigned” gardens of Adonis, or the Gardens of King Alcinous in the Odyssey, or that true garden described in the Song of Solomon. Finally, to cap the climax of this mood of sympathy and admiration, Milton brings forward his greatest tribute to the beauty of the earth, as tended and inhabited now by fallen man and woman:

As one who long in populous City pent,
Where Houses thick and Sewers annoy the Aire,
Forth issuing on a Summers Morn to breathe
Among the pleasant Villages and Farmes
Adjoynd, from each thing met conceaves delight,
The smell of Grain, or tedded Grass, or Kine.
Or Dairie, each rural sight, each rural sound;
If chance with Nymphlike step fair Virgin pass,
What pleasing seemd, for her now pleases more,
She most, and in her looks summs all Delight.
Such Pleasure took the Serpent to behold
This Flourie Plat, the sweet recess of Eve
Thus earlie, thus alone; her Heav'nly forme
Angelic, but more soft, and Feminine,
Her graceful Innocence, her every Aire
Of gesture or lest action overawd
His Malice, and with rapine sweet bereav'd
His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought … 


The effects of this great pastoral moment seem to be double. First, it throws our sympathy overwhelmingly toward Eve: so beautiful, so talented, so innocent: how unfair it seems that she should be permitted to undergo temptation by such an adversary, whose hypocrisy we know that she can never penetrate. Even Uriel, the regent of the sun, we recall, could not penetrate the disguise of that youthful cherub in book 3. At the same time the comparison suggests that Satan's design will not be wholly successful. He has not utterly destroyed God's Paradise of Delight, since the poet here still delights in these man-made scenes of farm and village, and in feminine beauty, almost as much as he delights in this imagined garden and in Eve herself.

The same kind of sympathy is thrown toward Adam before his fall, and thus much argument has raged over whether or not Adam is justified in his anguished, intuitive, passionate decision to eat the fruit and die with Eve:

How can I live without thee, how forgoe
Thy sweet Converse and Love so dearly joyn'd … 


Yet the poet, in his abstract assertions after the Fall, and in his picture of the painful bickering of Adam and Eve, leaves no doubt that we are supposed to condemn them both. The trouble is that Milton's sympathetic presentation makes it difficult to condemn them very firmly. As Waldock sees the problem: “the poem asks from us, at one and the same time, two incompatible responses. It requires us … with the full weight of our minds to believe that Adam did right, and simultaneously requires us with the full weight of our minds to believe that he did wrong. The dilemma is as critical as that, and there is no way of escape.” Exactly, this is the effect of book 9, but Waldock then goes on to see this as, in some sense, a failure in Milton's total design: “Paradise Lost cannot take the strain at its centre, it breaks there, the theme is too much for it. … if the net effect of all [Milton's] labour is to justify man's ways against God's ways: well, that was one of the risks, inherent in the venture, that he did not see.”4

But it is hard to believe that Milton, long choosing and beginning late, after a lifetime of theological study and speculation, did not understand all the risks of his venture. It seems too easy a way out to say that Milton's unconscious sympathies have led him to give a more favorable portrait of Adam and Eve than he meant to give; or that his desire to write an interesting poem led him to undermine his theological purpose; or that Milton was not really interested in the Fall so much as in portraying human nature as he knew it.

The two incompatible responses that Waldock describes result from Milton's ultimate, climactic presentation of the problems inherent in the power of choice. With Eve, vanity, ambition, and the illusions fostered by Satan lead to her disastrous choice; but such tendencies to wild are part of her perfection: she must learn by experience, since warning has not sufficed, to manage herself better, to use her reason more wisely. With Adam, passion for Eve has overcome his reason; and he too must now learn from experience to use his reason with better effect. What Milton is stressing above all is his view that there is not a break between the unfallen and the fallen state; there is a continuity implicit in the irresistible diffusion of God's goodness. God's plan was to make us as we are. Thus Eve's unruly tendencies, Adam's commotion strange, and that domestic argument where Eve chooses to go off alone—such things do not represent a couple fallen before the Fall, but a couple perfectly human before the Fall, truly the “human pair.” By its constant emphasis on man's “perfection” before the Fall, the poem asks us to revise and expand our easy notions of what constituted that original innocence and perfection.5

Strong emotions, Milton implies, are a part of man's perfection. The tug and pull of two reasoning minds, the disagreement between two individuals who both possess the freedom of the will—this too is part of man's perfection, for how could freedom otherwise exist and how could life be of the slightest interest without that freedom? All these qualities, Milton makes clear, must of course be kept under the gentle sway of reason—but then, as Milton insists in that remarkable parenthesis of book 3, “Reason also is choice.” Strange as it may seem, the problem of making the right choice, the problem of the right exercise of freedom, is shown to be as difficult before the Fall as it is afterwards. We must remember the chief point of that heavenly dialogue in book 3: that the power of choice remains essentially the same in man, whether before or after the Fall. Before the Fall, Milton's God insists, man was made “sufficient to have stood”; after the Fall, Milton's God still insists, man has “what may suffice.” Man's power of choice will be renewed by grace, and the universal link of love will be made evident to man through his knowledge that the Son of God became man and died to save mankind.

Milton's view of Adam and Eve, from the moment of their creation, emphasizes the growing, kinetic, dynamic quality of their awareness. They are born in a state of perfection which involves the ability to learn from experience and instruction. Thus Eve in book 4 is led by the divine voice to leave her “watry image” and to look upon Adam, and then, as she turns to flee, she is brought back by Adam's plea to her proper place as Adam's mate. Milton's view of man's “perfection” is never static or passive: man's dignity depends upon the power of choice, which inevitably includes the right to err as well as the right to make amends for error. To Milton man's “perfection” lies in man's ability to grow, however painfully, in wisdom and understanding.


  1. Milton's theme of “choice” is the basis for the illuminating explorations by Leslie Brisman in Milton's Poetry of Choice and Its Romantic Heirs (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973). For the importance of “choice” in the poem see the careful study by Jon Lawry in The Shadow of Heaven, chapter 4: “‘Most Reason is that Reason Overcome’: Choice in Paradise Lost.

  2. See the similar interpretation by Arnold Stein in The Art of Presence: The Poet and Paradise Lost (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), pp. 99-101: for his subtle interpretation of the following argument between Adam and Eve see pp. 112-21.

  3. See the studies by Evans and Lewalski noted above (chapter 6, n. 7). For the idea that Eve is “not sincere” in her suggestion, see Tillyard, Studies in Milton, p. 17.

  4. A. J. A. Waldock, Paradise Lost and Its Critics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947), pp. 56-57.

  5. See the studies of Evans and Lewalski noted above (chapter 6, n. 7).

Joan Malory Webber (essay date 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Politics of Poetry: Feminism and Paradise Lost,” in Milton Studies, Vol. XIV, 1980, pp. 3-24.

[In the following essay, Webber claims that Milton, however awkwardly and imperfectly, breaks new ground when he raises issues concerning women's rights and importance.]

In the highly delicate investigation of the relationship between politics and poetry, epic makes an obvious, though exhausting, field of inquiry. Traditionally, epic is described as a mingling of history with myth. Whatever this formula may actually mean, its effect is always that we are pulled in two ways, between a concern for the facts of the story (where was Troy? and when?) and a response to the universality of its symbols (Troy is any dying civilization). In epic we cannot have the one without the other: if Troy does not mean something, it does not matter where it was; if we do not know its actual history, we cannot be sure that our way of using the symbol is legitimate. Our uncertainty and ignorance in these matters are reflected in criticism's disarray.

One of the most blatant problems concerns the political orientation of the genre. We have a tendency to think of epic history (or politics), as well as myth, as conservative of a cultural past. Yet these materials may just as easily be instruments for social change. In fact, every major Western epic is revolutionary with respect to human consciousness.1 Most significant poetry can make some analogous claim, but the epic purports to summarize its own culture, praise it, and at the same time subvert it, pointing the way to something higher.2 Obviously an epic is not a tract, or a piece of socialist realism: even Milton, when he wrote Paradise Lost, had given up present hope for communal action, concluding that minds must change themselves before the world can change. The political poet's task is neither to man the barricades nor utterly to transcend his own time, but to speak through, challenge, and transform the political materials and symbols of his time so as ideally to facilitate communal fostering of human possibilities, or to enable the individual person to resist the moribund or tyrannical state.

In its deceptively Homeric simplicity,3 its apparent Christian moralism, its obvious personal involvement, and its relative nearness to our own time, Milton's epic poetry is conducive to easy stereotyping that allows us to approach it with distorting preconceptions. The difficulty of suspending disbelief when entering Milton's world should give us pause. We think of him as a poet of the past, yet in the great division that we make between the medieval and the modern age, Milton has to be considered a modern. To read him is to confront the central realities of our own culture, and we tend to react against some of those realities without recognizing that Milton himself is doing the same thing.4 Studying the story of Adam and Eve, one is led to Milton's divorce tracts or Areopagitica, and from there to more modern documents on divorce and free speech. Then we attack Milton with weapons which he himself gave us the power to create by being among the first to recognize these issues.5 With regard to cultural context, Milton's poetry puts us in a particularly difficult position. Because he himself was among those who first saw and helped to define the problems of our age, it is hard to put his ideas into historical perspective or to establish an aesthetic threshold to allow disinterested enjoyment of his art. He does not represent an antiquated part of our culture, as many unwary readers suppose. He anticipates our whole culture, with all its self-defeating conflicts, and asks us to choose change. Yet he speaks from a time that was itself a most unclear, ungainly, and mutilated mixture of ancient and modern ways, when nothing that we have now, including our problems, could have been taken for granted.

Despite the three hundred years between then and now, Milton almost makes possible an understanding of what it would be like to read a modern epic. Nothing else in our literature prepares us for the naive intensity of many readers' involvement in this poem. Almost everyone is either for or against Paradise Lost (or both at once); many see their own causes reflected or distorted in it. Its wholeness defeats argument, a fact which in itself breeds discontent. And so, because his issues are so contemporary, we find an easier course in detaching them from the poem and from the historical literary contexts which may not justify Milton, but do explain him.

In this essay, I wish to examine the role of women in his epics, from the particular perspective of Sandra K. Gilbert's recent analysis of the charge that Paradise Lost is misogynistic and patriarchal.6 I choose this topic because it is politically far-reaching. Milton did not select our myth of origins only because he was a Christian concerned with the problem of evil. He believed that successful marriages (which he called fit conversations) are crucial to individual happiness, to the well-being of the state, and, indeed, to the right understanding of the world. Furthermore, Western epic is a genre notable for its extensive, significant attention to women characters. Yet, as women consider the poem, disagreement increases as to its value for them, based on interpretations of Milton's attitude, or the attitude expressed in the poem, toward women's place in life, and the nature of the system of growth and meaning that defines “women's place.”7

Gilbert's essay, typifying the opposition, argues that “because the myth of origins that Milton articulates in Paradise Lost summarizes a long misogynistic tradition, literary women from Mary Wollstonecraft to Virginia Woolf have recorded anxieties about his paradigmatic patriarchal poetry.” She believes that the poem tells the story of woman's secondness and otherness, her consequent fall and exclusion from heaven and poetry, her alliance with Satan, Sin, and Death. Hence women readers have allayed anxieties by “rereading, misreading, and misinterpreting Paradise Lost.8 In developing her argument, Gilbert lumps together women's reactions to Milton with their reactions to patriarchal poetry in general, and she implies that their responses are to ideas that really are in the poem.

Paradise Lost certainly is a story of otherness, and of alienation. In explaining the ways of God, or perhaps in coming to terms with them, Milton shows that in his mind alienation is a necessary risk, and perhaps even a necessary fact, of Creation. But to think of the story as featuring Eve's particular alliance with evil is surely to distort the myth, and to ignore the historical context (not of misogyny, but of revolution) from which the poem came. It may well be that in trying to adjust the perspective for a more accurate political reading, I will sometimes appear to be submitting the cause of women to that of humanity: that is a familiar and often justifiable charge against men who would rather consider any other rights than those of women. Yet the opposite risk is to let the literature of our common humanity be needlessly sacrificed. In this instance, it must be remembered that we are dealing with the seventeenth century, when almost no politically radical woman could or would have dissociated herself from men regarding the issues of religious and secular freedom which were then being fought out. Furthermore, Milton's sense of the direction in which humanity has to move is generally one which prepares the way for feminist thinking. When he did raise issues involving women's importance and women's rights, he was awkwardly and imperfectly breaking ground.

Gilbert does not acknowledge either the seventeenth-century or the epic context of Paradise Lost, or the context of Milton's own life and writings. As opposed to critics like Barbara Lewalski, whose findings she appears to think are “academic,”9 she sets out to consider not only “Milton's own intentions and assertions” but also the “implications of Milton's ideas for women.”10 At best such a separation of language from effect indicates a deep distrust of, or lack of concern for, Milton's use of words. And because Gilbert limits her territory to Paradise Lost, together with familiar platitudes about Milton's domestic life, she cannot adequately examine what his ideas and their implications are. More perhaps than most, revolutionary poets have to be read as a whole. The context of Milton's life and works has everything to do with every part of his writing. The prose tells us how to read the poetry.11 Most important of all, Paradise Lost precedes and is incomplete without Paradise Regained.

Margaret Fuller wrote in 1846 that Milton was one of the fathers of her own age, a true understander of liberty, justice, marriage, and education, a father whose achievement still far outdistanced that of America, his child.12 No doubt revolutionary fathers are as hard to accept as any other kind, but at least their inclination is to force rejection of patriarchy and conservative patriarchal systems, not to espouse them. When he wrote Paradise Lost, Milton was a fifty-two-year-old ex-convict who had narrowly escaped execution for opposing the restoration of Charles II at a time when most of his compatriots were changing their politics or taking shelter. The poem Milton had once intended to write was the old story of King Arthur. In choosing to write Paradise Lost instead, he could not and did not merely shift from one sort of patriarchy to another. We do not, of course, have his own explanation for the change. But it is apparent that he was abandoning a story that features one-man rule, an aristocratic society, and sex roles so stereotyped that their validity had already been challenged in poetry that Milton knew well.13 The form and content of biblical epic, in Milton's handling of them, are layered with complexities and implications that exploit and overturn their traditions, while using them to orient and enlighten the knowing reader.

As a rewriting of the Bible in the late seventeenth century, Paradise Lost had to satisfy orthodoxy or fall under censorship.14 In a superficially convincing way it appears as a bulwark of conservatism. Yet, even to read the Bible in English had not long before been an uncertain right. The orthodox King James Bible owed everything to Tyndale's formidably influential translation, with its pugnacious marginalia emphasizing political interpretation and application. Milton's primary tenets, stressed over and over throughout his revolutionary prose, are self-control, self-knowledge, and internal freedom, in total opposition to what he calls external things. Since for him it was absolutely impossible that God could ordain any law contrary to human good, the external authority of the Bible always supports the inner promptings of the human spirit, even when, by our lights, he has to wrench the text to make this happen.15 A double tension of this sort, between external control and inner conviction in Milton's own life, and between his inner convictions and some of the doctrines set forth in the Bible, informs all his involvement with the Bible, both in poetry and in prose.

The form of Paradise Lost is not only biblical; it is also epic. And, as previously indicated, Western epic traditionally undermines itself, providing criticism of the culture it is supposedly designed to admire. Just as Homer's poems implicitly criticize the Greek religious system, so do Milton's attack the Christianity of his peers. Moreover, in the Renaissance, the Bible itself was considered to be an epic: for translators like Tyndale it was the epic story of the chosen people, of whom the English nation was the contemporary realization. The fusion of Bible story with epic form very much increased the historical pertinence of Milton's poem, as at the same time the two elements radicalized each other. The Bible is famous for its denial of the decorum and aristocratic focus that epic had preserved,16 and the history of biblical interpretation had long served as a tool for reinterpretation of epic. Epic, on the other hand, in its own history demonstrates cultural relativism; and in its character it shows how to undercut the reigning culture while seeming to praise it. Paradise Lost takes every advantage of its complex tradition's capacity to appear to be doing one thing while actually achieving something else.

At least one further significant element in this history ought to be mentioned. Foxe's Book of Martyrs, second only to the Bible as a best-seller of the age, had long promoted that idea that the Bible is the epic story of the chosen people of whom the English are the contemporary representatives.17 Like the Bible, Foxe stressed the value of the lives of ordinary men and women, and, by recording the tortuous changes of religion that took place throughout the sixteenth century, increased the Puritan sense that individual conscience is more trustworthy than any reigning monarch. The failure of the revolution necessitated one more shift in emphasis: the chosen people themselves had broken their commitment. In Paradise Lost Milton says that true heroism requires patience, martyrdom, and loneliness.18 No reigning monarch, no one leader or party, can be trusted, only the just, self-knowing solitary being.19 Such a belief has obvious appeal to all men and women who find themselves victimized, and at once suggests one reason why women, who have always had to work by indirection and in isolation, still find value in the poem.

Renaissance artists were very fond of “turning pictures,” optical illusions which change foreground with background in a seemingly arbitrary way, to emphasize completely different scenes from different perspectives.20 It is thus, I think, with the limited Old Testament God of Book III of Paradise Lost, a figure who may be ironically modeled after Homer's Zeus,21 and who has appeared to many readers, including Gilbert, as the autocratic designer of the conservative politics of heaven.22 Surrounding this figure, as background or foreground, is a much ampler idea or power, a force for life that is neither anthropomorphized nor sexed, and to which even the God of Book III defers by giving the scepter and the power to his Son, who is to bring all creation into this greater unity, when “God shall be all in all” (III, 317-41). This is the bright and fluent source imagined in terms of light and fountain at the beginning of Book III:

Hail holy Light, offspring of Heav'n first-born,
Or of th' eternal Coeternal beam
May I express thee unblam'd? since God is Light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from Eternitie, dwelt then in thee,
Bright effluence of bright essence increate.

(III, 1-6)

All precedence and place here become mysterious. Between Satan's extensive maligning of his anthropomorphized God, and Milton's own portrayal of such a limited and inimical figure, is this luminous Being completely surpassing or encompassing the realm of ordinary human meaning. The syntax makes it possible to conceive of this Being as a God beyond God, certainly beyond rational expression. To the extent that any version of deity is anthropomorphic, one might say that he is not yet deity in this sense.

The God who is a character in Book III and elsewhere in Paradise Lost, self-justifying, dictatorial, and judgmental as well as splendid, roughly corresponds to the Christian idea of God in the Old Testament.23 No doubt seventeenth-century readers accepted such a figure more easily than we do today. But Milton does not accept him, nor is this God satisfied with himself. He is in process toward full realization of the higher state imagined in the images of light. The only way to achieve that condition is by abnegation of title and rank. In illustration of that necessity, God gives the power and the scepter to his Son, but it is anticipated that at the end the scepter will simply become unnecessary: all life will be one with God. While the language, that “God shall be all in all,” is biblical, and while the Bible is ordinarily understood to demonstrate that the more primitive Old Testament view of God yields to the New Testament sense of a God possessed of the more “feminine” qualities of love and mercy, this dramatic presentation of the change is Milton's own.

Although the words “Father” and “Son” refer to important concepts in the poem, the reality is very far from being simply a male patriarchal system, and not only because it is unusual for the patriarch to surrender his power voluntarily, foreseeing the end of all rule. The Son is begotten of the Father, out of time and out of any known sexual meaning. He then serves the Father as means of creation and separation, and also as a force for unity. Milton did not believe in the Holy Ghost as a distinct and equal part of a Trinity.24 The Spirit, who seems interchangeable with God, the Son, and the Muse, is a symbolic, androgynous creative power. The extensive language of fertility and creativity everywhere in the poem prevents a conclusion that heaven is simply asexual. Nor is it the case, as Gilbert claims, that the female is excluded from heaven.25 Wisdom and Understanding, for example, are female powers that existed in heaven before all Creation (VII, 1-12), although not necessarily named and bounded. Ordinarily, however, the descriptions of reproduction and creativity are so expressed as to prevent the sexes from falling into contraries. Both male and female muses are invoked. The angels “can either sex assume, or both; so soft / And uncompounded is thir Essence pure” (I, 424). When Adam questions Raphael about sex in heaven, Raphael blushes and declares, without reference to male or female characteristics, that sex is superior there because flesh presents no impediments (VIII, 618-29). Male and female are aspects of Creation, like light and dark, which grow more distinct the farther they are removed from heaven. And as heaven itself, in God's evolving process, moves closer to unity, its gradations may be expected to fall away with time.

In an interesting essay which Gilbert cites, Northrop Frye discusses the applicability to Milton's poetry “of the two great mythological structures” of our heritage—one, ruled by a male father-god, which dominates our culture from “the beginning of the Christian era down to the Romantic movement,” and the other, centered on a mother-goddess, which has more frequently been influential in modern times. Frye traces in Milton a basic adherence to the father myth, the conception of a male creator superior to created nature, and the assumption that in all natural things male reason is superior to female imagination, even though that creative imagination is what the poet requires. Nature can be led upward toward the divine, or downward with the demonic: Eve, as representative of nature, has affinities both ways. But Frye also indicates, quite apart from Eve's partial association with the demonic, that she is given an unusual amount of independent power in the poem. “The father-myth is an inherently conservative one; the other is more naturally revolutionary, and the revolutionary emphasis in Milton shows how near he is to the mythology of Romanticism.”26

Frye's essay rightly indicates that, rather than merely contributing to a long tradition of Christian misogynism, as Gilbert believes, Milton drew upon a much deeper, more primitive set of oppositions which Western culture had for thousands of years colored in a way that now seems prejudicial to women. Milton is obviously not only reworking this tradition but preparing it for its demise in the anticipated final unification of all things in God. Yet it is important in his poetry; it represents to him the way in which life has chosen to work itself out, for good and for ill. It is also an essential part of the epic line within which he is working, and so something needs to be said of it and of the problems which it presents for women readers.

As a great deal of our literature and mythology shows, the human mind, conscious or unconscious, has a strong tendency to group all experience, all phenomena, into opposites: up-down, day-night, sun-moon, reason-imagination, strength-softness, creating-nurturing, heaven-earth, and male-female.27 Although most people who discuss the subject are quick to point out that the terms male and female are intended symbolically rather than literally (Jung believed that each person contains both elements), still women through the ages have always been associated with these “female” characteristics. Further, since men have been the thinkers and the writers, the female characteristics have often acquired connotations both of otherness and of evil, as men have projected their fears and fantasies upon the other sex. These patterns are extremely clear in the treatment of women in epic poetry.28 On the one hand, there are women who guide and inspire, although their roles are externally passive compared to those of men, who seek, wage war, conquer, and find. Such women are Penelope, Beatrice, and Gloriana. On the other hand, there are witch-women, who seek to beguile, seduce, distract, and corrupt, such as Circe, Armida, and Duessa. All other epic women, with a very few exceptions, belong somewhere on the spectrum between these extremes. In some very real sense, men are associated with process and women with goals: women can deceive because they know, and compel because they are. Some epic writers, particularly those who include warrior women in their stories, raise women to a position of greater equality of function, but men and women are almost always seen as fundamentally different from each other, as they are in Milton.29

Part of Milton's task in justifying the ways of God to men is to explain why these differences exist. One question we would ask now is whether they do, whether indeed men and women are dissimilar, but for Milton such separations are a necessary aspect of Creation itself. Creation is by contraries; things are defined only by their opposites; self requires other. As soon as there are opposites, there is the potentiality for conflict even though Creation's end is a higher unity. Milton's God, who contains all opposites, shows conflict within himself:30 when these differences are externally realized, the possibility of problems is realized as well, and the problems themselves make possible growth and change. Everything in the epic portrays a universe in process: that is a large part of the explanation of God's ways. Even God, in Milton's view, could not make instant perfection. In addition, Milton is changing the terms of epic and the traditional ways of looking at reality. The extraordinary power of the poetry is its ability to celebrate simultaneously so many different ways of thought and being, both the God of Old Testament righteousness and the New Testament God of change, contraries and their dissolution, inequality and equality between men and women.

Eve reflects every female potentiality that could enter the mind of a Renaissance epic writer and Christian humanist. Placed in the chain of being in a position officially subordinate to Adam's, she combines the opposite epic functions of witch and inspiration, being both Adam's downfall and his means of recovery. As Northrop Frye shows, she contains and reflects all the values associated with the mother-goddess, as well as the demonic associations that the Renaissance made with that cult. And she is a strong, human woman. Since even—or especially—today, women are struggling with just this problem of the multiple roles and definitions that have been thrust upon them, and which, with varying attitudes and in varying combinations, they perceive in themselves, Milton's Eve does generate intense feelings of identification. The first acts of her life portray a familiar dilemma: she wants to reflect upon herself, to look at herself in a pool and gain self-knowledge, but in order to know herself she is required to turn her attention to Adam, an alien other. The whole relationship between Adam and Eve, in fact, is affected by this stress between self-sufficiency and mutual need. As I will show a little later on, either posture, overindulged, becomes destructive, and balance is hard to maintain.

Traditional epic poetry, like the Bible, is patriarchal. Superficially, at least, it has to do with battles, journeys, conquests, the founding of nations. Ordinarily no problem and no success in epic occurs independently of women. Yet despite the near equality of warrior women, as exemplified most outstandingly by Britomart in Spenser's Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost is the first epic in which the active heroic role is shared equally between the sexes. Despite Britomart's obvious worldly equality, her goal is to find Artegall and marry him. Paradise Lost is the first epic whose scene is, in effect, the home, woman's traditional sphere, rather than the world of warfare and quest outside. Adam is called “domestic Adam” (IX, 318); when he shows signs of interest in places far removed from home, Raphael chastises him. Eve, in turn, has no supernatural or witchlike powers with which to tempt Adam or initiate the subsequent process of restoration. Although their weaknesses and their strengths differ, they are equally fallible; their epic battle is in large part their struggle to recognize and support each other's humanity. Many critics have pointed out in contrast the satirical, mock-heroic tone of Milton's treatment of Satan's “heroic” journey to Eden and of the epic warfare between the angels. It is one of the most remarkable things about the poem that seemingly insignificant domestic quarreling, set side by side with traditional epic endeavor, achieves such obvious, overwhelming importance. Human relationships are at the center of cosmic loss and gain.

Thus, while in most epics marriage or some analogous union is a symbol of the fulfillment for which the hero strives, in Paradise Lost marriage is a main subject and theme of the poem. Although the setting of Eden seems far removed from ordinary life, much that happens there is commonplace. The poem traces the lives of a man and woman from their first courtship through their first great disillusionment to their acceptance of life in the world that their descendants and Milton's readers know. Contrary to Gilbert's idea that Eve is a “divine afterthought,”31 she is from the beginning an essential part of the whole design of growth and change achieved through opposition, which involves risk. The first test laid upon both Adam and Eve, when they are created, is to recognize that they need each other as they exemplify that large pattern of opposites without which nothing in the world, or even the world itself, could exist. Definition is in relation to something or someone else: to recognize one's incompleteness is an essential sign of self-knowledge. So God was pleased with Adam when Adam expressed a longing for a companion, although not when Adam allowed himself to be dominated by desire and need.

Milton had an obvious dislike for the courtly tradition that reifies woman (and man too) by making her an object of adoration. Adam's disposition to do this falsifies both Adam's and Eve's positions, and prepares her for the false adulation of the serpent. Romanticized married love, relatively new in the Renaissance, was the preferred Puritan model:32 recognition of the woman as helpmeet released her both from the decorative, idealized courtly role and from her more common treatment as household drudge, and gave her an everyday value and importance that she would not have again for a long time.33

Adam and Eve are often spoken of in language that implies absolute equality. Adam asks God for an equal, one who can share “all rational delight,” and is granted “thy likeness, thy fit help, thy other self” (VIII, 450), whom Adam sees as “Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self / Before me” (VIII, 494). Eve, upon her creation, is less sure of Adam's importance to her, and shows preference for her own image reflected in a pool before she is persuaded that she is part of Adam's soul, and, as he tells her, “My other half” (IV, 488). Both Adam and Eve are majestic, made in the image of God, and free.

At the same time, in this many-faceted scheme of things, the sexes are different: men are suited to “contemplation and valor,” women to “softness” and “sweet attractive grace.” This is a summarizing of traditional epic virtues, as they are personified in Odysseus and Penelope, or Prince Arthur and Gloriana. “Sweet attractive grace” is the equivalent of the powers that enable Beatrice to bring Dante out of hell. Sweetness is a capacity for love which Adam said was lacking in him before Eve was created; grace is the capacity for salvation; and attractiveness is the quality that attracts or draws, making it possible for two to become one. We see frequent signs of Adam's or Eve's particular qualities turning up in the other: just as Adam acquires sweetness, Eve demonstrates the power of contemplation.

In addition to all these complex reformations of biblical and epic material, the reader is required to see Adam and Eve as symbolic reflections of the great contraries of the universe—sun and moon, earth and sky, reason and imagination. The act of Creation results in such contraries, which, however, are to be restored to wholeness in God by being raised to a fuller unity than they originally enjoyed. Creation is essentially divisive: heaven and earth were made by what Milton calls God's “divorcing command”34 that sorted out the warring but indistinguishable elements of chaos. That is, Milton here thinks of the word “divorcing” as expressive of a positive act: only divorce could create coherence. Yet inherent in that word also is the recognition that Creation began with imperfection, that it consisted in separating rather than in uniting, and that the Creation therefore remains unfinished, caught up in a progress toward a higher unity.

Adam and Eve, two parts of a theoretically inseparable whole, were in this sense divorced at the moment of Eve's creation, and, god-like as they are, their harmony is possible only because of disjunction. Milton's justification of God is that Creation is good, that inherent in creation is this divorcing process, which is in itself some sort of fortunate fall. Milton is quite clear that divorce in our modern sense was not invented for Adam and Eve.35 They are above, or prior to, that, but they feel the strain of their twoness. Even Eve's words, “unargued I obey,” by calling attention to the possibility of argument, both demonstrate and deny the strain.

Thus, although Milton says that his divorce tracts are not intended for this couple, we cannot help seeing in their marriage an illustration of what he means by both the best and the worst of wedded bliss. Marriage for him is a covenant, like that between man and God, and the covenant can be broken by spiritual or intellectual disagreement and incompatibility. When adultery is the only permissible reason for divorce, and the risks of adultery are so much greater for women than for men, it is easy for the man to control the marriage and his own freedom. Milton argues that the physical bond is much less important than the spiritual one, and that as soon as spiritual attunement is denied, the marriage is ended. Although he did not conceive of marriage without a dominant partner, he did suppose that this role might be taken by the wife, if she should exceed her husband in wisdom, and that either wife or husband could initiate divorce.36

In the divorce tracts, Milton asks that marriage be removed from control of any ruling hierarchy, religious or civil, and placed in the power of the partners themselves. In theory, at least, this action would give the woman a legal means to remove herself from the power of paternal authorities and to negotiate equally in the matter of her own destiny. Milton's poem also makes it obvious that the reality of divorce affects day-to-day marital relations. Since marriage is based on mutual consent, unchangeable disagreement constitutes divorce. When Eve decides that the pair should work separately for a few hours, Adam cannot force her to change her mind. Since she is determined to go, a refusal of permission would constitute at the very least an opening of the way to divorce. Later, Adam could divorce Eve on any number of grounds, but he chooses to abandon himself to her.37 In the recriminations which follow, they see that they have broken covenant with God, themselves, and each other, but as Eve took the first step away from the marriage, she now is first to try to repair the damage, and Adam, while pretending opposition, follows her all the way.

It is no mere lip service (Gilbert's term)38 that Milton offers to matrimony. For him it is the basic, central figure of the way the world is, and of the way it could be—sometimes in a pattern of higher and lower status, sometimes in a balance of equals, sometimes stressing the separateness of the partners and sometimes their unity. For him the epic goal was the wholeness that marriage offers, figured also in every part of the universe that grows through its many opposites, and figured ultimately in the visionary time when “God shall be all in all.” The challenge that confronts us now is whether it is possible to retain that ideal, perhaps the only remaining idea that makes poetry out of life, while reaching beyond the particular poetry that seems to promote male dominance. While accepting this dominance, Milton himself searched beyond it as much as anyone in his age.

Eve and Adam were meant to move upward through the chain of being, free of death, until they reached the status of angels, and, eventually, without suffering death, to become one with God. Their destiny as free agents required them to be educated, and for this purpose God sent Raphael to teach them. Among the many remarkable attributes of Paradise Lost is its pervasive didacticism. The four central books of the poem are devoted to the education of the first man and woman. Both Eve and Adam listen to and absorb all that Raphael has to tell them, understanding with equal aptitude, as Milton tells us.39 When Eve leaves before Raphael does, her departure serves several purposes, the most important of which is probably that it leaves Adam free to discuss her with the angel, in the section where he is told, but does not really admit, that he is an excessively doting husband.40

Adam and Eve are both gardeners in this poem, a conception not without precedent, although Milton did choose to avoid the familiar division of labor according to which Adam delves and Eve spins. In her additional responsibilities for the household, Eve may be a prototype for the modern woman who fulfills her profession and is expected to do the dishes as well, or, more pleasingly, a forerunner of the Renaissance lady who presided over the great house and its surrounding villages. In any case, Adam is out of place here, nervously asking her to bring out her best stores for Raphael, and having no idea how food is preserved in Paradise. Since Eve's work is more comprehensive than his, it is understandable that she is the one who becomes preoccupied with the problem of their labor; Milton himself appears to agree that she has some reason for her concern.

Eve's cosmic association is with physical nature, which legitimately concerns the couple in their immediate day-to-day obligations, as well as in their thoughts about their descendants. Adam's association is with sky, which is supposed to make him more aware of God, but which also gives him a penchant for abstract speculation and generalization, and often makes him seem abstracted and ill at ease with ordinary life. Although both attend to lectures, Eve is more responsive to dreams: the work of reeducating her after the Fall thus is much less laborious than that of teaching Adam, who has to have everything explained to him. These are aspects of the traditional opposition between the minds of men and those of women. But both the way in which they are educated together by a tutor and the way in which they set forth together as travelers into an unknown world emphasize the opportunities which were at least sometimes available to both men and women in the Renaissance, and perhaps never again with quite the same balance of excitement and fear.

I have saved the problem of Satan for last, because it involves the most crucial issues for Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained in our time. Gilbert sees him romantically, commenting on his enormous attractiveness, especially to women, because he expresses their own need to rebel. But as most readers have noticed, Satan loses almost all his attractions after the opening two books of the poem, nor is there ever justification for describing him either as “a handsome devil” or as a “curly-haired Byronic hero.”41 Gilbert also sees him, more correctly, as a lover of incest and an artist of death. Here, more than anywhere else, it is important to recognize that for Milton God represents life. Because Satan has rebelled against life, he can love only himself and death (two objects which finally amount to the same thing). Gilbert does see women as being caught in a trap if they turn from God to Satan, but the attractiveness that she ascribes to Satan is more imaginary than she, and some of her authors, realize.

Satan is a perfect example of a patriarchal, domineering figure. His reason for rebellion is that he is totally threatened by God's decision to hand over the scepter to the Son. Abdiel's argument that the Son's new role will enable all Creation to be more closely united in God expresses exactly what Satan fears, that his own status must be lost or shared. He prefers hierarchy in hell to unity in heaven, and he tries to convince Eve of the rightness of his own distorted perspective. Satan is that odd kind of rebel who reacts against change: consequently, any reader who, like some of the romantics, wants to use him as a model has to misread and misinterpret Milton in order to do it.

Another point of importance: in all of Milton's poems there are patterns of resemblances, and in seeing affinities between Eve and Satan, Gilbert has merely selected one thread of this pattern in Paradise Lost. Satan also resembles the poet and God;42 Eve resembles Sin, Satan, Adam, the earth, Mary, and God. Milton, like everyone else in the Renaissance, is concerned with correspondences; they are a way of ordering experience. He is characteristic of his time also in believing that sin easily disguises itself as virtue, that evil and good so greatly resemble one another that it is difficult to choose the right path. In emphasizing likenesses between Eve, Adam, himself, and Satan, the poet wants to show that they do exist, that they are a constant danger, and that they can be overcome. Awareness of the danger may help us to avoid being surprised by sin.

Roland M. Frye's recent book, Milton's Imagery and the Visual Arts, provides valuable information not only about the traditional nature of these parallels, but also about the choices Milton made. In deciding how to portray Satan at the moment of the temptation of Eve, Milton rejected the possibility of “a serpent with the torso and head of a man,” by means of which he could easily have created a “curly-haired Byronic hero.” He also chose not to portray a woman-headed serpent, possibly with Eve's own face, a device extremely popular in the iconographic tradition. Such a figure would stress Eve's self-love, and give credence to Gilbert's argument for an incestuous undertone in the connection between woman and serpent. But, as Frye notes at this point, Milton “was not an antifeminist and could scarcely have put a ‘lady visage’ on his Tempter without seeming to some readers to invite an identification of the devil with woman.”43

Imagination, allied with darkness and the muse, seems to Milton particularly vulnerable to invasion by Satanic elements. There is darkness in God also—Milton makes that very clear: from a cave near the throne of God both darkness and light proceed, and Satan himself, after all, is of God's creation. Just because the faculty of imagination is not always subject to reason, it is more suspect than reason, but it is not therefore inferior. Milton suspects his own poetic gift: possibly it is something of his own invention and not of God. He will not therefore deny or suppress it, but it may be that he stresses imagination excessively because he works in an irrational medium.

The most important and interesting element in this train of thought is the growth, in the Renaissance, of attention to subjectivity and to knowledge for its own sake. These are mirror images of each other: to be lost in oneself, Narcissus-like, may be to lose oneself; one may also become lost in the stars. Both activities are seen in the Renaissance as gifts which may be misused. Contemplation of self may lead to holiness or self-worship; contemplation of the stars may be a way of praising God's works or of trying to play God. As always, Adam's and Eve's vulnerabilities are opposite to one another. Eve's subjectivity makes her open to self-adulation; Adam's interest in the stars and his tendency toward idolatry make him forgetful of himself. Both lead to loss of accurate seeing of relationships. Satan exemplifies both extremes. The birth of Sin and his incest with her demonstrate his perverse self-love; his mastery of technology warns of the possible results of Adam's innocent speculations about outer space. Milton may have wished that these tendencies in human nature, both for good and for evil, could be shut off, but he knew better. They lead to alienation in our world, in any case.

Satan's alienation is absolute because he has carried to a perverse and absolute extreme the opposing tendencies manifested in Eve and Adam. Choosing self-love over love of life (an untenable paradox), his aim is to oppose God with himself, but God is the only standard to which he can apply. He argues that heaven and hell are both within, but has to choose God's standards (the norms of life) for definition. He wishes to make the world his empire, and does, by profaning it: everything is defined by its usefulness to him in his efforts to turn it against its true character in God's world. Thus he is unable to know either himself or the world, and becomes a totally alienated being.

The tendencies that destroy Satan are rejected by Eve and Adam as they choose each other and God (or life) over their own selfish and power-seeking propensities. Thus they have within them the possibility of paradise, even though it is apparent at the end of Paradise Lost that they must experience alienation henceforth as a way of life. Eve's unselfish recognition and acknowledgment of her need for Adam begins to save both of them from the negative tendencies in themselves. Previous scholars have observed the bold paralleling of Eve with the Son, at the end of Book X and the opening of Book XI, as both offer to accept all responsibility for human sin.44 Frye too notes that Eve's compassionate and decisive role in the redemptive process has few precedents.45 Yet sending Adam and Eve out alone, hand in hand (a detail apparently original in Milton) into the world,46 Milton was not satisfied, and Paradise Regained is an attempt to deal with the central problem raised but not solved in Paradise Lost: what to do about subjectivity and alienation.

Subjectivity is seen in Paradise Lost as a female characteristic, and external knowing as a male one. Eve's first act is to contemplate herself, and Adam's to contemplate the heavens. Neither characteristic is in itself morally tarnished. In fact, both conventionally lead to knowledge of God. But they can also lead to individualism, another quality by which we now define the Renaissance and both praise and lament our own age. Modern readers often criticize the childlike natures of Adam and Eve. But Milton's first man and first woman are like that just because they have not yet fallen into self-consciousness and alienation, which are necessary to individualism as we know it. Renaissance thinkers clearly recognized that spiritual fragmentation and decay are allowed and even fostered by individualism. Milton had to consider this postlapsarian condition, which had become so evident in his time. The fear and fascination surrounding the problem are exemplified in Satan, who resembles numerous other Renaissance figures in the boundless energy with which he will address himself to any self-serving and ultimately self-destructive goal. He cannot be saved because he cannot submit himself to a larger whole.

If Sin is seen as female, so, obviously, is Mary in Paradise Regained, to whom Eve is often compared in Paradise Lost, and who traditionally is given the role of second Eve to Jesus' second Adam. She is the nurturing woman who helps Jesus to know himself, and helps to keep us from thinking of Jesus as either incomplete or aggressively masculine. In the poem he departs from and returns to his mother's house. His main activities in the poem (which, like Paradise Lost, rejects traditional epic action) are learning to know himself and rejecting the world that Satan has to offer. The poem says that he descended into himself (PR II, 111): it is the first epic in which subjectivity is made so explicit; and he names correctly the false worldly lures with which Satan would seduce him. Thus he repairs the damage done to self by Adam and Eve, and acknowledges the damage done to the world. Obviously, also, he combines the qualities of Adam and Eve which had been distinguished in their creation.

The sterility of both internal and external narcissism is well portrayed by Satan. Jesus' only recourse is to reject everything that Satan has to offer, as Satan had rejected everything of God. And one may read the poem as prophetic of the despair of the twentieth century, which has followed the Renaissance into a subjectivity now devoid both of God and of faith in anything. Satan and Jesus are two major aspects of modern consciousness, but one may conclude by feeling that there is nothing to choose between them. It is of course immensely important to recall that, as incarnation of the Son, Jesus is to represent and further the goal of reuniting all things in God. Satan has become devoted to holding in stasis the outward-moving, still hierarchical forms of Creation, turning them into grim parodies of themselves: thus an angel becomes a devil, and men and women become sex objects to one another. The Son's (and now Jesus') work is to carry all things beyond their separateness, into a fulfillment in perfect unity.

Jesus has rejected external things and power politics. Yet the “yes” that he says to life as symbolized by God, the “yes” that he says thereby to his own sense of wholeness, gives him the power to walk on water, stand on air, and be ministered to by angels. It also enables him to return to his mother's house instead of being dashed to pieces on the rocks. So a necessary connection between male and female may be restored here in a pattern of reciprocity that attempts to correct both the old patriarchal values and the medieval values of knight and lady. Standing on the pinnacle of his father's temple,47 Jesus repeats the effort of Paradise Lost to reject patriarchal symbol and hierarchy. Learning from and in turn enlightening his mother, he restores the original pattern from which courtly love was derived.

Paradise Regained appears to be a poem of worldly rejection that prepares the way for romanticism by teaching descent into the self and admitting the total corruption of the world. Milton believed that humanity's only hope was in the subjective faith of the lonely man or woman. But it must also be remembered that Jesus, in appearing to reject everything the world offers, rejects only Satan's secular world. Under that tarnished surface, Milton believed, could still be found the perfect Eden of Eve and Adam, and human relationships based in natural love. In the atmosphere of doubt, fear, and greed in which the poem takes place, the role of Jesus must to a large extent appear negative. Mary's faith in the nature behind appearances, and her ability to make a link between the physical and the spiritual, are easy to miss in the context of the duel between Satan and her Son. But, as Michael has already insisted to Adam, the duel involves no exercise of power. Jesus rejects all of the so-called masculine values. His return to his mother's house is an affirmation of the new Adam, the new man.


  1. For documentation of this point, see Joan Webber, Milton and His Epic Tradition (Seattle, 1978).

  2. If Homer's poems celebrate the prowess of Greece and detail the military culture, they also question (perhaps deny) the sanity of the Trojan War. The Aeneid describes both the founding of Rome and the huge price that had to be paid for it. Tasso tells of a city (Jerusalem) that had to be destroyed in order to be saved. Camoens describes the utter decadence that overwhelms new lands after they have been discovered and claimed for Portugal. Spenser, Milton's immediate predecessor, in his romance epic presents the profound inadequacies of courtly love. The epics do not describe a better way. In fact, they do not utterly reject the world that they have, but in seeing its limitations they prepare the way for advance.

  3. By these words I mean to suggest the large-scale sculpturing and the spare story line that so totally distinguish Milton from most of his predecessors. This apparent clarity is deceiving, but its artistic provenance is quite legitimately Homeric.

  4. It is commonplace to speak of the English Civil Wars as the watershed between the medieval and the modern world, and to recognize thinkers like Descartes as the fathers of modern consciousness. It obviously follows that a poet like Milton, who lived through the Civil Wars on the rebel side, might also be seen as having helped to shape our world. See Jackie Di Salvo, “Blake Encountering Milton: Politics and the Family in Paradise Lost and The Four Zoas,” in Milton and the Line of Vision, ed. Joseph A. Wittreich, Jr. (Madison, Wis., 1975), pp. 143-84. On this point in general see also Christopher Hill, Milton and the English Revolution (New York, 1977).

  5. Milton's genius for seeing the underlying issues in contemporary controversies, and for seeing issues of freedom where others had been unwilling to look, enabled him to pioneer the work of freedom on many different fronts. Rather than concern himself with the degree of liberty appropriate to Baptists, Levellers, or Quakers, as others were doing, he examined the validity (for him the necessity) of free expression. Rather than assume the divine sanctity of marriage, he examined it as a human institution entirely dependent for its success on the enduring compatibility of two fallible human beings. This almost unique ability to grasp the essentials of a problem makes us wonder why he could not trace out all the implications in the same way we ourselves would do it. Such an attitude not only shows a lack of appreciation for the magnitude of the achievement; it is also ahistorical.

  6. “Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections on Milton's Bogey,” PMLA, XCIII (1978), 368-82. Gilbert's focus is on the reactions to Paradise Lost of a number of (mostly nineteenth-century) women writers, but she indicates that they are reacting to a conservative, patriarchal, misogynistic poem. In other words, she is not just representing what she regards as their point of view: she believes them to be right. While her essay does summarize some very persistent complaints about Milton, it also badly misrepresents both Milton and many of her authors, and probably ought to be answered point by point on their behalf. However, such a direct attack would dilute concentration on the most essential issue of how to read Milton. In the present essay I have tried, in fairness to Milton's own style of argument, to speak to that underlying issue. In the course of this endeavor, I do not mean to argue that Milton was not in some sense a “patriarchal” poet: he lived in the seventeenth century, and it seems pointless to complain that he was of his age. It is much more worthwhile to celebrate the extent to which, by transcending his time, he enabled us to ask for freedoms that he himself could not yet imagine.

    Some examples of Gilbert's misreadings of Milton are that in Paradise Lost a solitary Father-God is the only creator of all things, that Adam speaks for Milton (and for God), that the Fall is responsible for human generation, that Adam's fall is more fortunate than Eve's, that spirits are all masculine, that Satan is a handsome devil throughout much of Paradise Lost, that Satan “explores” his own secret depths, and that he is concerned with liberty and justice. Both in her reading of Milton, and in her analysis of women writers, Gilbert makes the mistake of assuming that a character's viewpoint can be identified with the author's. For example, although Charlotte Brontë's Shirley has a low opinion of Milton's characterization of Eve, Milton is first on the list of authors whom Charlotte recommended to her sister Emily, ahead of Shakespeare, about whose morality she has reservations, and far ahead of Pope, whom she says she does not admire; see Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (London, 1908), p. 85. For more accurate readings of these writers, one should look at the works themselves, as well as at those of other critics, as, to take one example, Stuart Curran, “The Siege of Hateful Contraries: Shelley, Mary Shelley, Byron, and Paradise Lost,” in Milton and the Line of Vision, ed. Joseph A. Wittreich, Jr. (Madison, Wis., 1975), pp. 209-30.

  7. Previous writing on this subject includes Marcia Landy, “Kinship and the Role of Women in Paradise Lost,Milton Studies, IV, ed. James D. Simmonds (Pittsburgh, 1972), pp. 3-18; Barbara K. Lewalski, “Milton on Women—Yet Once More,” Milton Studies, VI, ed. James D. Simmonds (Pittsburgh, 1974), pp. 3-20; Di Salvo, “Blake Encountering Milton.”

  8. Gilbert, Abstract, p. 357. Lewalski's fine essay, referred to in my previous note, anticipates much that I have to say here and obviates some of Gilbert's arguments, such as the idea that Eve's creativity is only in motherhood, while Adam is the poet and intellectual.

  9. Gilbert, “Patriarchal Poetry,” p. 369.

  10. Ibid., p. 381, n. 8.

  11. On this point, see Northrop Frye, Five Essays on Milton's Epics (London, 1966), pp. 94ff.

  12. In “The Prose Works of Milton,” Papers on Literature and Art (New York, 1846), pp. 38-39.

  13. I am thinking especially of the mockery of the courtly codes in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and, with more thoughtfully directed point, in Spenser's Faerie Queene, where the sexism of the Arthurian world is made apparent.

  14. On the problem of censorship, see Hill, Milton and the English Revolution, chap. 29, “Paradise Lost.”

  15. For the most famous examples of Milton's practice, see his use of the biblical texts on divorce in the divorce tracts.

  16. One might bear in mind this antithetical tradition in considering Sandra Gilbert's attack on Milton's “masculine” Latinity. The question of whether Milton was or was not a Latinate poet is still, oddly enough, very controversial; some of the scholarship is summarized in my book The Eloquent “I”: Style and Self in Seventeenth-Century Prose (Madison, Wis., 1966), pp. 287-88. Northrop Frye argues that “simplicity of language is a deep moral principle to Milton,” and that he was “the first great English writer to fight for semantic sanity” (Five Essays on Milton's Epics, pp. 122-24). In fact, heroic language is subverted in Paradise Lost, just as heroic ideas are, until what finally emerges is the stripped style of Paradise Regained.

  17. William Haller, Foxe's Book of Martyrs and the Elect Nation (London, 1963).

  18. IX, 31-32, in The Works of John Milton, II (New York, 1931), hereafter cited as CM. Future references will be to this edition and will be given in the text.

  19. Abdiel is the obvious model of the fully formed heroic individual. The acceptance of the isolated person as heroic model occurs in Milton from necessity of his age, not from conviction. The concept of individualism is new in the Renaissance, not even fully articulated, yet the dangers of individualism inherited by our age are already apparent to Milton, as they were to a long line of subsequent antidemocratic English thinkers, and this problem will be a central issue in my discussion. For Milton, individualism is a means to a communal end.

  20. On this see, for example, Rosalie Colie, “My Ecchoing Song”: Andrew Marvell's Poetry of Criticism (Princeton, 1970), “Visual Traditions,” pp. 192-218.

  21. I am extending a suggestion made by Northrop Frye, who suggests that God's self-justifying speech in Book III is modeled on the speech of Zeus at the opening of the Odyssey; see Five Essays on Milton's Epics, p. 105.

  22. Gilbert, “Patriarchal Poetry,” pp. 368, 375.

  23. For discussion and bibliography, see my “Milton's God,” ELH, XL (1973), 514-31.

  24. Christian Doctrine, in Complete Prose Works of John Milton, VI (New Haven, 1973), ed. Maurice Kelley, I, VI, “Of the Holy Spirit,” pp. 281-98. This edition is hereafter cited as YP.

  25. “Patriarchal Poetry,” p. 373. As so often, here Gilbert accepts the word of a character, in this case disgruntled Adam, who after the Fall imagines that heaven contains male spirits only.

  26. Northrop Frye, “The Revelation to Eve,” in Paradise Lost: A Tercentenary Tribute, ed. B. Rajan (Toronto, 1969), p. 46.

  27. For discussion and bibliography, see Robert Ornstein, The Psychology of Consciousness (New York, 1972), p. 67.

  28. Webber, Milton and His Epic Tradition.

  29. For women now the question of how to make use of this extensive literature is extremely perplexing. Women are not in agreement as to the validity of these sexual distinctions. Nor can one be sure to what extent the literature creates or merely reflects them. If the stereotypes ought not to be perpetuated, then how does one deal with the literature?

  30. See Don Parry Norford, “‘My other half’: The Coincidence of Opposites in Paradise Lost,” MLQ, XXXVI (1975), 21-53.

  31. “Patriarchal Poetry,” p. 371.

  32. See William Haller, “Hail Wedded Love,” ELH, XIII (1946), 79-97; William and Malleville Haller, “The Puritan Art of Love,” Huntington Library Quarterly, V (1942), 235-72; C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (London, 1953).

  33. Hill, Milton and the English Revolution, p. 119. Research on this subject has yielded controversial evidence. For a somewhat different interpretation, see Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (New York, 1977), p. 202.

  34. John Milton, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, YP, II, 273.

  35. Tetrachordon, YP, II, 665. Christopher Hill speculates interestingly on Milton's possible influence, and lack of influence, on Charlotte Brontë, who compares blind Rochester to Milton's Samson. Like Milton, Rochester lives long enough to gain a happy marriage. The divorce that Milton could envisage “still seemed impossible two centuries later”; see Milton and the English Revolution, p. 140.

  36. Tetrachordon, p. 589: “then a superior and more natural law comes in, that the wiser should govern the less wise, whether male or female.” It is apparent throughout the tracts that Milton addresses himself to both men and women; the title of his initial tract begins, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce Restored to the good of both Sexes.

  37. Eve committed idolatry in worshiping the tree, and to Milton idolatry was a more serious offense than adultery. But Adam committed idolatry in worshiping Eve.

  38. “Patriarchal Poetry,” p. 374.

  39. In allowing Eve an education equal to Adam's, Milton certainly departs very far from the usual practice of his day: only a few aristocratic women were ordinarily privileged to learn so much. Since this episode of the poem is central, it seems strange that critics continue to believe that Eve has been denied the benefit of Raphael's instruction. This is a different kind of misreading from that which Gilbert claims women have had to exercise.

  40. It also shows us, as Arnold Stein points out, that when Adam has other things on his mind, he is not so concerned about Eve's spending time alone in the Garden (The Art of Presence: The Poet and “Paradise Lost” [Berkeley, 1977]).

  41. Gilbert, “Patriarchal Poetry,” p. 375. Gilbert ascribes this unlikely epithet to T. S. Eliot, on the authority of Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence (New York, 1973). I have not found the source in Eliot.

  42. On these intentional parallels, see William Riggs, The Christian Poet in “Paradise Lost” (Berkeley, 1972).

  43. Milton's Imagery and the Visual Arts (Princeton, 1978), p. 168.

  44. Lewalski, “Milton on Women—Yet Once More,” p. 19. Joseph Summers, The Muse's Method (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), pp. 176-85.

  45. Milton's Imagery, p. 294.

  46. Ibid., pp. 314-15.

  47. The act of standing on the pinnacle of the temple, which concludes the series of temptations in Book IV of Paradise Regained, is meant to recall the opening of Paradise Lost, in which Milton says that the Spirit prefers “Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure” (PL I, 17-18).

Balachandra Rajan (essay date 1983)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Paradise Lost: The Uncertain Epic,” in Milton Studies, Vol. XVII, 1983, pp. 105-19.

[In the following essay, Rajan argues that Paradise Lost is a mixed-genre poem whose primary genre of epic undergoes revisionary treatment in Milton's hands and holds that the work seeks its identity between possibilities of epic and tragedy, or loss and restoration.]

The problem of the genre of Paradise Lost seems to have been a problem from the day the poem was published. Dryden may have said that “this man … cuts us all out and the ancients too,”1 but it did not take long for the caution of the critic to make its inroads on the generosity of the poet. In the preface to Sylvae (1685) the objections are stylistic—to the “flats” among Milton's elevations, to his “antiquated words,” and to the “perpetual harshness” of their sound. But eight years later, in the Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire, the qualifications become more substantial. The earlier objections are repeated, and Milton's lack of talent in rhyming is added to them. But we are also told that Milton's subject “is not that of an heroic poem properly so called. His design is the losing of our happiness: his event is not prosperous like that of all other epic works; his heavenly machines are many and his human persons are but two.”2 In the dedication to his translation of the Aeneid (1697) Dryden begins by saying that “a heroic poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest work which the soul of man is capable to perform.”3 Homer and Virgil are sovereign in the genre. “The next, but the next with a long interval between was the Jerusalem.4 Spenser would have had a better case than some continental claimants to the succession “had his action been finished, or had been one.” Milton's title would have been less suspect “if the devil had not been his hero, instead of Adam; if the giant had not failed the knight, and driven him out of his stronghold, to wander through the world with his lady errant; and if there had not been more machining persons than human in his poem.”5 Dryden, it will be observed, gives his objections force by both repeating and extending them. To earlier statements about the unfortunate outcome and the excess of heavenly machinery in Paradise Lost he now adds the suggestion that the action, the epic propriety of which may be dubious, is in any case centered on the wrong hero. The persistence of crucial objections and the adding of related ones thus come to constitute a platform from which the genre of the poem can be interrogated.

Much can be discerned from Dryden's platform. The unfortunate outcome exposes Milton's poem to consideration as tragic rather than epic. If Satan is the hero, he is the hero within an antiquest that invites us to view Paradise Lost as anti-epic or parodic epic. Addison's response to Dryden argues that no hero was intended but suggests Christ, if need be, as the hero. This defense of the poem converts it into a providential epic, but one which engages the human only at its periphery.6 It thus undermines one of Dryden's objections but only at the cost of underlining another. The Romantic reinstatement of Satan as the hero is, of course, not an endorsement of Dryden. It attacks the question of what the poem is by suggesting that there is a poem other than the official poem in which the real nature of Milton's accomplishment is to be found. Generic uncertainty is compounded by viewing Paradise Lost as an act of creative subversion in which the true poem overthrows the establishment exercise.

The two-poem theory, in turn, has ramifications which continue into the present. We can simply reverse the Romantic valuation and regard the true poem as the official one. The true poem can then stand in relation to the false as icon does to idol, or as reality to parody within an antithetical universe.7 We can regard the two poems as confronting each other creatively or as A. J. A. Waldock would have it, locked in destructive conflict.8 It can be argued that the two poems only appear to be two and that it is the purpose of reader education to bring them into concurrence.9 Finally, like A. S. P. Woodhouse, we can think of the two poems as engaged with each other through a double protagonist, each functioning within a different genre.10

It may be that the course of criticism after Dryden is misguided and that, as John M. Steadman proposes, Milton is writing an “illustrious” epic fully compatible with Italian Neo-Aristotelianism, while Dryden's criticisms are made from the vantage point of a Neo-Aristotelianism that is distinctly French.11 Certainly neither Aristotle nor the Italians prescribe a fortunate outcome for the epic. But Milton published Paradise Lost in 1667, when Italian Neo-Aristotelianism was hardly representative of current critical trends. We are accustomed to these gestures of obsolescence in Milton, which include the imaginative adoption of a slightly antiquated model of the universe. The voice of the outsider is also a voice from the past, a voice disowning if not excoriating the triviality of the present. Nevertheless, the history of reading Paradise Lost points to real difficulties which are not disposed of by a more accurate generic assignation. A poem which may be two poems initially or finally, in which there are three possible heroes and even the possibility of two heroes rather than one, is not a poem about which one can be certain.

Some of the problems of placing Paradise Lost are interestingly suggested by William Willkie in a preface (1757) to a heroic poem of his own. Willkie is writing about the difficulties of reconciling the untrue with the true, or historical, in an epic poem. Spenser accomplishes this reconciliation through the evasions of allegory. Willkie then notes (remembering Dryden) that in Paradise Lost “persons in machinery overshadow the human characters” and adds (remembering Addison) that “the heroes of the poem are all of them immortal.” Paradise Lost escapes a requirement that looms over epic poetry by being “a work altogether irregular. … The subject of it is not epic, but tragic. … Adam and Eve are not designed to be objects of admiration, but of pity. … It is tragic in its plot but epic in its dress and machinery.”12

Willkie may be the first critic to recognize that Paradise Lost is not only a mixed-genre poem but a mixed-genre poem with a different protagonist for each of its primary genres. It is true that given Aristotle's views of the importance of plot, the identification of the epic with “dress and machinery” relegates it to a status in Paradise Lost which is peripheral rather than central. It is also true that Willkie describes Paradise Lost as “altogether irregular,” though he does so in an age which was beginning to admire irregularity; the observation does not mean that the poem is to be reproached for its generic lawlessness. Nevertheless, Willkie's remarks do broach the question of whether it is necessary or even desirable to locate Paradise Lost unambiguously within any single genre.

It may be argued that the difficulties surrounding the generic assignation of Paradise Lost are difficulties encountered by the reader rather than difficulties to which the author admits. That does not make the difficulties any less real, but it may be instructive to look at some of the ways in which the poem announces itself and at the related proposition that the poem always knows what kind of a poem it is. Paradise Lost treats itself as “adventurous Song” in the first book (13), as “sacred Song” in the third book (29), as “Song” of which the “copious matter” is the Son's name and arts (III, 412-13), as “Song” related to “celestial song” in the seventh book (12, 30), and as “Heroic Song” in the ninth book, but only after the audience has been advised that the forthcoming notes of the song will be “Tragic” (6, 25). These descriptions are not so divergent as to render reconciliation difficult, but they certainly do not suggest resolute consistency in the poem's classification of itself. They suggest rather the desire to have the best of several worlds, which is characteristic of a mixed-genre poet.

In the poems that precede Paradise Lost, Milton's attitude to inherited genres is powerfully revisionary. We console ourselves by describing it as a strong case of tradition and the individual talent or by saying, as John Reesing does, that Milton strains the mold but does not break it.13 The Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity, in describing itself as both a hymn and an ode, may be initiating Milton's career with a mixed-genre announcement.14 In Comus the poet makes use of the antithetical dispositions of a genre new enough to be open to experiment in order to construct a staging ground for issues and confrontations which we have come to call Miltonic. Lycidas directs the capacity of the pastoral for protest into a protest against the pastoral genre itself. In each case Milton identifies certain propensities of the genre as giving the genre its way of achieving understanding and then reorganizes the form around those propensities. In each case the ordering power of the genre is made to compass a higher degree of inclusiveness than the genre has hitherto accommodated. We can expect these creative habits to continue as Milton comes to his most inclusive undertaking.

A primary characteristic of the epic is inclusiveness. When Aristotle differentiates tragedy from epic, he does not do so on the basis of the outcome, the agent, or the emotion excited by the literary work. His concern is with the manner of presentation and the magnitude of the action.15 The tragic action should confine itself as far as possible to a single circuit of the sun. The epic action can be longer, and a month is extended to a year by Italian critics. While the longer action can sustain itself by an adequate proliferation of incident, the epic, as it graduates from the tale of a tribe to the statement of a civilization, tends increasingly to sustain itself by cultural omnivorousness as much as by narrative complication. The epic and the encyclopedic are thus brought into convergence. In a late epic the encyclopedic interest will involve consideration of the uses of the past, including the past of the epic genre itself. When the generic inheritance is codified to the extent of seeming petrified, the consideration can be revisionary and can extend—as is arguable in Milton's case—into a revisionary treatment of the whole past. A genre can also be enlarged and thus freed from impending exhaustion of possibilities by incorporating into it the possibilities of another genre not hitherto digested. Mixed genres are thus a natural deliverance from the constraints of a genre which it is necessary to use and which has already been used too heavily. In an epic, such absorptiveness can be particularly felicitous since it is clearly the literary application of a principle on which the epic has increasingly been based. An encyclopedic epic should include a generic compendium.

Studies by Rosalie Colie and more recently by Barbara Lewalski have drawn attention tellingly to the generic inclusiveness of Paradise Lost.16 Lewalski's suggestion that the various genres in the epic are means of accommodation to the reader, or of the narrator within the poem to the auditor, also responds to a problem that arises when we think of the epic as a generic compendium. The encyclopedic substance of an epic is a matter of what it contains; the generic variety is a matter of how what is contained is conveyed. Multeity of genres is most convincingly called for when the area of exploration is sufficiently inclusive to require more than one style of mediation or access. God's creation, as a fully comprehensive poem, is also a poem that engages us in an adequate variety of relationships. Any mimesis of the perfect original should be similarly rich in means of accommodation or opportunities for engagement.17

Nevertheless, it should not be assumed that the purpose, or even the designed purpose, of generic multeity is always to contribute to the overall harmony, to show how many styles of discourse lead us to the one Word, or to the unifying capability that is the “one word” of the poem. Multiple genres can provide the ingredients for subversion as well as for synthesis. Their purpose may be to show not the overall concord but the fragmentation of any single style of understanding that unavoidably comes about when the fictive is brought into engagement with the actual. I am not suggesting that Milton's use of mixed genres was governed by this principle or that it proceeded to this point irrespective of the original principle by which it was governed. But on the other hand it is not easy to argue that his poem is the unperturbed implementation of a “great idea” or “fore-conceit,” as the Creation is in the seventh book of Paradise Lost. A blueprint for the epic must have existed in the author's mind, particularly if, as Allan H. Gilbert long ago argued,18 the poem was not written in the order in which it unfolds. But the blueprint cannot have been unaffected by the stresses and strains within the poem and by the poem's reconsideration of itself during the deeply frustrating decade of its formation.

If many genres are to be fitted together harmoniously in a poem, they must be subject to a primary genre which is unambiguously proclaimed and clearly dominant. When a primary genre is subject to revisionary treatment and when its status is further undermined by another genre asserting a claim to primacy, the subordinate genres are as likely to reflect this central confrontation as to soothe it.

In The Reason of Church-Government (1642), Milton was asking himself “whether those dramatic constitutions wherein Sophocles and Euripides raigne” were not “more doctrinal and exemplary to a nation” (YP, I, 812-15) than the epic undertaking by which he was fascinated.19 We know from Edward Phillips that Paradise Lost began as a tragedy and that Milton showed Phillips the first ten lines of Satan's address to the sun as the planned beginning of the drama he intended to write.20 The draft of “Adam unparadiz'd” in the Trinity manuscript shows us the dramatic nucleus in which Paradise Lost began. Even though the poem moved away from the nucleus it continued to remain engaged to its origins.

The ten books of the first edition of Paradise Lost, read as five acts of two books each, are tragic in several of their dispositons. In the fourth act the Creation is undone by the Fall. The fifth act gives us the tragic aftermath of the fourth, the expansion of evil into space and its extension into history. The repentance of Adam and Eve, sandwiched between two huge movements of destructiveness, simply does not have the importance which the twelve-book version succeeds in winning from it. It is true that Christ's victory is the climax of the third act, but this matters less when Satan's victory is so effectively dominant in the fifth.

If this reading of the tragic weight of the ten-book structure is not erroneous, we can regard the twelve-book version as designed, among other things, to take corrective action. The creative forces are underlined slightly in the poems contest of energies. Christ's presence in the poem is strengthened by the division of the poem into three parts, each consisting of four books, with Christ the protagonist of the four central books. Two victories of light—the Battle in Heaven, and the Creation—are juxtaposed at the center of this central part. The repentance of Adam and Eve is given greater weight. Having said this much, it becomes important to add that the degree of corrective action is slight. It may be that no more could be done, since the poem had been in print for seven years. It may also be that Milton did not wish to do more.

Arthur E. Barker rightly observes that the twelve-book version does not supersede the ten-book one, that one must read both poems and be aware of both patterns, and that the poem is suspended “between the horns of a paradox.”21 For such a paradox to exist, the poem's primary genres must be in contest with, rather than concordant with, each other. The poem does not seek the assimilation of one genre by another or even, to quote Coleridge's famous phrase, “the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.”22 Rather it seeks to navigate between genres, remaining responsive to the current of each without surrendering to the pull of either.

Such a hypothesis seems natural when we remind ourselves of the poem's antithetical world, the embattled contraries between which the choosing center is suspended, as the poem itself is suspended creatively between competing claims on its identity. It is not simply a mixed-genre poem but a poem of which generic uncertainty may be a keynote. Critics may be understandably reluctant to admit uncertainty at the heart of a poem. A work of art thus divided is considered to be in a state of civil war. But creative indeterminacy can also be read as a sign of the authentic rather than the chaotic. Two powerful patterns of possibility contest with each other, as they do in reality. The outcome will shift from moment to moment. The poem's obligation is to draw the field of force and not to delineate the local and interim settlement.

Against this hypothesis it can be argued that Aristotle treats tragedy and epic as concordant genres.23 The manner of presentation and the magnitude of the action are important but not fundamental differences and certainly not differences that might place either genre in potential conflict with the other. When Thomas Hobbes tells us that “the heroic poem, dramatic, is tragedy,” he is carrying convergence a step further. He does so in proceeding to the masterfully sterile conclusion that “there can be no more or less than six kinds of poetry.”24 The Italian critics avoid Hobbes's overwhelming simplicity, but, as Steadman shows, they do not on the whole regard tragedy and epic as divergent.25

This objection has force. It can be partially countered by arguing that even though the Italian critics may not have seen tragedy and epic as divergent, they did recognize the creative potentiality of divergent genres. If God's creation is the perfect poem, its mimesis may consist not only of simulating its variety (which includes generic variety) but also of simulating the manner in which the first poem triumphed over its own divisiveness. Creation, we must not forget, was won out of chaos, from equal energies implacably opposed. The best poem may be that in which the center succeeds in holding against the maximum of centrifugal force. Like Milton's universe, such a poem is continually threatened by its contents. Tasso seems to be advocating a poetics of contrariety on this model when he argues that “the art of composing a poem resembles the plan of the Universe which is composed of contraries.” He goes on to maintain that “such a variety will be so much the more marvellous as it brings with it a measure of difficulty and almost impossibility.”26 Guarini is less given to the tour de force than Tasso. In defending tragicomedy, Guarini considers it as a third genre arising from two genres which are divergent, but not so divergent that they cannot be creatively mingled. Each genre tempers the other so that the overall composition corresponds more fully “to the mixture of the human body which consists entirely in the tempering of the four humors.”27

There is thus some sanction in Renaissance criticism for divergent genres curbing each other's excesses, or divergent genres being made to submit to the cohesive force of the poem. Milton's poem can be viewed from both prospects, but like any deeply creative achievement it has to go beyond the gestures towards it that are made by critical theory.

As has been indicated, Milton equivocates mildly about the kind of song he is singing when he links Paradise Lost to that particular word. The varying epithets are not difficult to bring together, but the variations remind us to be cautious in our classification of the poem. No more than a reminder is needed, since the poem at its very outset, in announcing the compass of its subject, is also conveying that announcement through a vivid drama of contesting genres. The opening lines of Paradise Lost have been commented on in great detail and from what may seem every possible perspective,28 but their status as a generic manifesto still remains to be examined. In attempting the unattempted Milton may have been attempting an unattempted mixture.

Milton's virtuosity in stating the subject of the whole poem before the predicate of its initial sentence isolates the first five lines spectacularly from the narrative flow. The minidrama of these lines is therefore all the more effective in counselling us not only on what the poem is to be about but also on how it is to be experienced. From the beginning the tragic weight accumulates, reinforced by the alliterative joinings and by the alternative scansions of the first line. If the dominant stress falls on “Mans,” we are reading a poem somberly homocentric in its allocation of destructiveness. If it falls on “First” we are reading a poem of the gestation of evil, with the alliterative movement through “First,” “Fruit,” and “Forbidden” compounding the inexorable growth.29 “Tree,” “tast,” and “mortal” are the origin of this growth, though dramatically they are arrived at as its climax, the tragic center of the darkening song. “World” and “woe” sound the dimensions of a universe of tragedy. Nothing so far has restrained the onward movement, the accumulation of sorrow. The prospective genre of the poem—tragedy—has been uncomprisingly and, it would seem, irrevocably stated. Yet on the basis of a text from the Book of Romans (v, 19) a countermovement launches itself, generating itself from the previous movements by virtue of the coupling between man and “greater Man.” There is even a counter-alliteration, responding to the massed alliterative linkages of destructiveness, affirming the victory of the light in “Restore” and “regain.” This is what one might say on a superficial reading. A reading more open to the poem's reality would recognize that the relationship between human tragedy and providential epic is more complex than the simple overcoming of one genre by another. It is possible to say, by adjusting one's mind slightly to the impact of the opening, that the epic retrieval stands at the horizon of the poem, while the tragic gestation (to which the bulk of the first five lines are given) unavoidably dominates its stage. It is possible to reflect on the distancing force of “till” and ask if the deliverance at the horizon is more than potential. How far does the tragic actuality frustrate and even nullify the epic promise? It is certainly true, as the mind moves with the poem in its unfolding, that we cannot avoid passing through the tragic proliferation before arriving at the genre that might contain it. The two genres are, in fact, inexorably entangled by the powerfully staged drama of the poem's syntax. The poem does not choose between affiliations. It forms itself out of the contest between them.

Paradise Lost presents itself not only as a mixed-genre poem but as a mixed-genre poem of deep generic uncertainty. It has to be uncertain because the very history that it seeks to understand has, perhaps fortunately, not yet found its genre. The poem seeks its identity between contesting possibilities, as does that human community which is both the poem's subject and its audience.

Though the contest of primary genres in the opening lines of Paradise Lost has been examined, not every genre in those first five lines has been identified. Between the accumulating onslaught of the tragic, “Under her own waight groaning” as the twelfth book says of history (539), and the restorative encirclement of the providential, there is the muted phrase “With loss of Eden.” The residual alliteration with “World” and “woe” attaches this part of the line to the tragic momentum. The loss can be taken as the sum of our sadness, the distillation of everything that has gone before it in the sentence. But the half-line is also an entry into a possible triumphant future, that Ithaca which the highest of heroes may regain. The phrase stands between two worlds, distanced from itself by the poem's initial onslaught of destructiveness and distanced again from itself by the postponing force of “till.” The curiously nondescript language suggests the absence, or rather the residual and unavoidably veiled presence, of what the phrase invokes. It can no longer be known in its own right but only through the genres of loss and seeking.

In the days when it was fashionable to distinguish between the real and the nominal subjects of Paradise Lost, Paul Elmer More observed that the real subject of the poem was Paradise.30 The remark is neither naive nor tautological. The strong affinities of Eden with Arcadia, the Golden Age, and the pastoral strain in the Bible not only establish it in the landscape of memory, including literary memory, but also affiliate it to a third genre, the pastoral. The three genres, in turn, affiliate themselves to the three main locales of the poem, so that we can think with caution but without injustice of a tragic Hell (including human fallenness), an epic Heaven, and a pastoral Paradise. Since the forces in the universe of Paradise Lost converge so powerfully upon its choosing center, one can argue that the pastoral understanding plays a crucial part in the poem's declaration of itself.

John R. Knott, Jr., skillfully underlines the otium of Paradise, its “grateful vicissitude,” the harmony of man with nature, and the harmony of nature with itself.31 Cities in Paradise Lost are not statements of civilization. Babel and Pandemonium tell of their pride. The world is likened once to a metropolis “With glistering Spires and Pinnacles adornd” (III, 550), but it is viewed thus by Satan in the image of the desirable. Little is said of the metropolitan amenities of Heaven except that its shape is “undetermined,” that it is adorned with opal towers and battlements of sapphire (II, 1047-50), and that the dust of its main road is gold (VII, 577). It is Satan, not God, who lives in what might metaphorically be called a palace, a superstructure built on a structure of pyramids and towers “From Diamond Quarries hew'n, and Rocks of Gold” (V, 754-61). Heaven is most frequently spoken of in pastoral language, possibly as an accommodation to Adam, who is unfamiliar with city life, but more probably to indicate the continuity between the celestial and the unfallen.

Yet though the ideal order of Paradise Lost has extensive pastoral elements and though the poem can be poignantly pastoral in its nostalgia, the “happy rural seat of various view” (IV, 247) does not always open out into pastoral prospects. The weeping trees that are spoken of in the next line suggest a place haunted by tragedy as well as by creative plenitude. There is much foreboding in the language of Paradise—in the wantonness of its energies, the “mazy error” of its brooks, and in its surpassing of that “fair field” where the “fairer flower,” Proserpina, was gathered (V, 294-97; IV, 268-72; IV, 237-40). More important, Paradise is not a place of tranquility, of fragile but deep peace before the gathering storm. In its nature it is free from the burden of the past, but in its nature it is also singularly subject to the anxieties of the unprecedented. Nearly everything that happens in Paradise happens for the first time, so if one's response to life is not the result of a pre-existent, celestially implanted program, it can only come together and manifest a pattern through a series of related improvisations. Baffling dreams, angelic visitations, and discussions with the author of one's being on the need of the self for an otherness seem part of the normalities of Paradise.

“Is there no change of death in Paradise?” Wallace Stevens asks. “Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs / Hang always heavy in that perfect sky.”32 In the stasis of perfection, all change is the death of perfection. Yet not to change is to perpetuate the permanence of lifelessness. Milton provides for change in Paradise that is quite other than the “change of death,” thereby adroitly satisfying the second of Stevens's desiderata for a supreme fiction: “It must change.”33 In his repeated use of the figure of the dance in describing ideal order, he advises us of a perfection consummated in motion rather than memorialized in stillness.34 Motion must include alteration in one's state of being as well as alteration in one's place, and this alteration takes place, as Raphael suggests, by the working of a body up to spirit, “in bounds / Proportioned to each kind” (V, 478-79). Such evolution cannot take place by standing still on an ontological escalator. In a world in which the perfection of the human species includes the power of free choice—a power the importance of which is underlined by the enormous cosmic price which the divine is prepared to pay to keep it in being—there must be a steady succession of opportunities for self-formative choosing. It is hard to believe that Adam and Eve, if they had not eaten of the apple, would have lived happily ever after as creative gardeners.35 The Appleton estate in Marvell's poem subversively mimeticizes the world from which it withdraws. Milton's Garden, in its crises, makes itself continuous with that future which is to become its tragic legacy. It is no accident that the images Michael uses to characterize progress in history correspond to the images Raphael uses to characterize upward evolution on the ontological scale (V, 996-98; V, 575-77; XII, 300-304). In the first place, the equivalence makes evident the restoration of the status quo ante. By making himself eligible for the continuing intervention of “supernal grace,” man is able to stand as he once did “On even ground against his mortal foe” (III, 179). In the second place, the statement of equivalence, made through figures of progress with which we are not unfamiliar, joins the prelapsarian and postlapsarian worlds. The status of man is radically different, and his commitment to destructiveness requires the steady application of a counterforce that no longer lies within his natural capacity. But if the conditions for that counterforce are brought into being, the two worlds can reflect each other in their opportunities and challenges. The pastoral idyll never quite existed. The Garden was fully itself only in creative dependence on a shaping principle beyond itself. It was not a place of withdrawal but of change and growth built on evolving interrelationships with the entire structure of reality which surrounded it. What was lost was not the Garden but that creative possibility which the Garden embodied and promised.

This excursion into the poem suggests how it responds to those stresses and balances which the first five lines urge so compellingly on our reading of what follows. The pastoral statement does not exist by itself. It is annexed in the first place to a tragic unfolding through which we are obliged to make our way in order to measure what is meant by “loss of Eden.” It is attached in the second place to a providential counter-poem through which the lost possibilities can be recovered and fulfilled. In fact, its location and attachments are suggestive of the created world in Paradise Lost, suspended from Heaven by a golden chain and connected to Hell by a causeway. What the pastoral center comes to mean depends on how it is oriented. As a generic claim, it must yield to those more powerful claimants which seek possession of the structure of things.36 The drama of genres which the first five lines enact is thus singularly accurate in prefiguring not only the generic character of the poem but the disposition of real forces which that character represents.

One of the unusual strengths of Paradise Lost is the poem's capacity to reconsider itself. It can indulge in “tedious havoc” and then excoriate it (IX, 27-33). It can describe the fall of Mulciber in language of limpid beauty and then pull us back from our involvement with a “Thus they relate / Erring” (I, 738-48), leaving us to wonder whether the event is being questioned or whether language itself is being rebuked as falsification. It propounds huge structures of elaboration and ornament to arrive at the “upright heart” in its unadorned authenticity. It uses the past with lavish erudition and overgoes it with competitive zest, largely to underline the obsolescence of what it invokes. It appoints Michael, the leader of the angelic battalions, to preach the politics of nonviolence and the primacy of the interior victory. Some of these dismissals are designed to educate the reader and to instruct him in discriminating truth from its cunning resemblance (see YP, II, 154). Others arise because the poem, in charting the progress from shadowy types to truth, endows itself with a history that to some degree mirrors the history it interprets. But we are also looking at a poem that is endeavoring to achieve its identity and which, as the opening lines have promised, will form itself among contesting generic possibilities. It must not only make itself but justify what it makes against the challenges of an era of deep change. Since its attitude to the inheritance is so powerfully revisionary, honesty demands that it also be self-revising.

In the fifth book of Paradise Lost Adam and Eve, after a troubled night, do not simply address the Almighty in prayer. Rather they participate in a prayer which the whole creation offers to its maker out of the way in which it moves and lives. The prayer is Vaughan's “great hymn / And Symphony of nature,” the ardent music of “the world in tune.” It is also Herbert's “something understood,” a structure of relationships which the mind experiences as the ground of its being.37 “Firm peace” and “wonted calm” are its consequences (V, 209-10). We are told that Adam and Eve have previously made their “unisons” in “various style” (145-46). The plentitude of innocence offers more than one way of access and relationship. The “unmediated” art of the person praying (148-49)38 may even find the opportunity to invent a genre.

At the end of the tenth book, Adam and Eve pray again. The first prayer preceded the descent of Raphael. The second precedes the descent of Michael. The world has changed, and a lost structure of possibility, borne away as in the real world on the flood of history's disappointments, has also taken with it its proper language. The new desolation calls for the unadorned, the concentration on what is primary. Many poems have an energy of destitution within them, waving their leaves and flowers in the sun so that they may wither into the truth of themselves.39 In Paradise Lost that destitutive energy is launched by an immense act of original destructiveness. From the moment that Adam and Eve eat the apple, much in the poem is rendered obsolete, including some of its literary genres. In these stern dismissals lies a great deal of the poem's authenticity as well as its weight of sadness. But the world remains before us and remains capable of yielding us its language. If Paradise Lost is an uncertain epic, it is uncertain not because it is confused or vacillating, but because it is clear about how it must form itself.


  1. Early Lives of Milton, ed. Helen Darbishire (London, 1932), p. 296.

  2. Of Dramatic Poetry and Other Critical Essays, ed. George Watson (London, 1962), II, 32, 84-85.

  3. Ibid., II, 223.

  4. Ibid., II, 232. For futher statements on the sovereignty of Virgil and Homer in the genre, see II, 167; II, 195. Spenser (II, 150; II, 83-84) is Virgilian. But Milton, though Spenser's “poetical son” (II, 270), is Homeric rather than Virgilian (II, 150).

  5. Ibid., II, 233.

  6. Milton, The Critical Heritage, ed. John T. Shawcross (London, 1970), p. 166.

  7. John M. Steadman, Milton and the Renaissance Hero (Oxford, 1967); Balachandra Rajan, “The Cunning Resemblance,” in Milton Studies, VII, ed. Albert C. Labriola and Michael Lieb (Pittsburgh, 1975), pp. 29-48.

  8. Paradise Lostand Its Critics (Cambridge, 1947).

  9. Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1971).

  10. The Heavenly Muse, ed. Hugh MacCallum (Toronto, 1972), pp. 176-94.

  11. Epic and Tragic Structure inParadise Lost” (Chicago, 1976).

  12. William Willkie, “Preface to the Epigoniad,” in Milton 1732-1801, the Critical Heritage, ed. John T. Shawcross (London, 1972), p. 240.

  13. Milton's Poetic Art (Cambridge, Mass., 1969), p. 49. See also p. 135.

  14. For the poem as a hymn see Philip Rollinson, “Milton's Nativity Poem and the Decorum of Genre,” in Milton Studies, VII, pp. 165-88. For the poem as an ode, see David B. Morris, “Drama and Stasis in Milton's Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity,” SP, LVII (1971), 207-22. For the poem as both, see Hugh MacCallum, “The Narrator of Milton's On the Morning of Christ's Nativity,” in Familiar Colloquy: Essays Presented to Arthur Edward Barker, ed. Patricia Bruckmann (Salzburg, 1976), pp. 179-95. Milton's reference in The Reason of Church-Government to “magnifick Odes and Hymns” (YP, I, 815), suggests that he may have thought of the two genres as strongly related to each other. The relationship may well be in the manner envisaged by Nehemiah Rogers, who writes of hymns as “special songs of praise and thanksgiving” and of odes as containing “doctrine of the chiefe good, or mans eternall felicitie” and as being made “after a more majesticall forme, than ordinary” (A Strange Vineyard in Palaestina: in an Exposition of Isaiahs Parabolical Song of the Beloved [London, 1623], pp. 8-9).

  15. Poetics, 1449b, 1459b.

  16. Rosalie Colie, The Resources of Kind: Genre Theory in the Renaissance, ed. Barbara K. Lewalski (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1973); Lewalski, “The Genres of Paradise Lost,” paper read at the Modern Language Association Meeting, San Francisco, Dec. 28, 1979; cf. Lewalski's essay in this volume.

  17. Tasso describes the writing of a poem as “a work almost godlike that seems to imitate the First Maker” (Discourses on the Heroic Poem, trans. Mariella Cavalchini and Irene Samuel [Oxford, 1971], p. 97). For the creation as the perfect poem see also S. K. Heninger, Jr., Touches of Sweet Harmony (San Marino, Calif., 1976), pp. 290-94.

  18. On the Composition of “Paradise Lost” (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1947).

  19. “Milton's “whether” reflects the continuous controversy about the status of epic and tragedy relative to each other. The Renaissance and, more emphatically, Dryden found epic the higher of the two genres. But Aristotle (Poetics, 1402a) had declared in favor of tragedy.

  20. “The Life of Mr. John Milton,” in Early Lives of Milton, pp. 72-73.

  21. “Structural Pattern in Paradise Lost,” rpt. in Milton: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Arthur E. Barker (New York, 1965), p. 154.

  22. Biographia Literaria, XIV.

  23. Poetics, loc. cit.

  24. “The Answer of Mr. Hobbes to Sr. Will. D'Avenant's Preface before Gondibert,” in Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, ed. J. E. Spingarn, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1908), II, 54-55.

  25. Epic and Tragic Structure in “Paradise Lost.”

  26. Discourses on the Heroic Poem, p. 78.

  27. “The Compendium of Tragicomic Poetry,” in Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden, ed. Allan H. Gilbert (New York, 1940), p. 512.

  28. Among the examinations are David Daiches, “The Opening of Paradise Lost,” in The Living Milton, ed. Frank Kermode (London, 1960), pp. 55-69, and Joseph Summers, The Muse's Method (London, 1962), pp. 11-31. Book-length studies of the invocations include Anne D. Ferry, Milton's Epic Voice (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), and William Riggs, The Christian Poet in “Paradise Lost” (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1972).

  29. In asking some seventy students to read this line, I have found that 45 percent put the dominant stress on “Mans” and 45 percent put it on “First.” The remainder put it on the third syllable of “disobedience.” Of those stressing “Mans,” the great majority were men. Of those stressing “First” the great majority were women.

  30. Shelburne Essays, quoted by E. M. W. Tillyard, Milton (London, 1930), p. 283.

  31. Milton's Pastoral Vision (Chicago, 1971). The phrase from PL “grateful vicissitude” (VI, 8), describes the alternation of light and darkness issuing from a cave within the mount of God. It is used by Summers (Muse's Method, pp. 71-86) as emblematic of Paradise.

  32. “Sunday Morning,” in Harmonium (New York, 1923), p. 92.

  33. Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (Cummington, Mass., 1942), p. 21.

  34. Summers, Muse's Method, pp. 85-86.

  35. See, for example, Barbara K. Lewalski, “Innocence and Experience in Milton's Eden,” in New Essays on “Paradise Lost,” ed. Thomas Kranidas (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969), pp. 86-117.

  36. Knott observes (Milton's Pastoral Vision, p. xiv) that “the very conflict of modes, epic against pastoral, seems to doom Eden in advance.”

  37. Vaughan, “The Morning-watch,” in The Complete Poetry of Henry Vaughan, ed. French Fogle (New York, 1964), pp. 176-77. Herbert, “Prayer” (1), in The Works of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (Oxford, 1941), p. 51.

  38. Since the poet cannot attain a prelapsarian oneness with creation, his verse in PL, IX, 24 is “unpremeditated” rather than “unmeditated.” The word has specific and intriguing echoes in the “unpremeditated art” of Shelley's skylark and in the “unpremeditated, joyous energy” which Yeats finds in the statues of Mausolus and Artemisia at the British Museum (Autobiographies [London, 1955], p. 150).

  39. The thought is from Yeats, “The Coming of Wisdom with Times,” in Collected Poems (London, 1950), p. 105.

Diane McColley (essay date 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Eve and the Arts of Eden,” in Milton and the Idea of Woman, edited by Julia M. Walker, University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 100-19.

[In the following essay, McColley argues that for Milton, Eve is the embodiment of poetry, as “she personifies poesy in her work, in the imagery associated with her, and in the method of her vocation.”]

Near the end of Book 4 of Paradise Lost, we come upon a multilayered image. Innocent Adam and Eve, in the innermost, flower-decked, awe-encircled bower, sleep in one another's arms. Squatting by Eve, Lucifer turned Satan turned toad pours poison into her ear in the form of “Vain hopes, vain aims, inordinate desires / Blown up with high conceits engend'ring pride.” Standing over Satan, the archangel Ithuriel, searcher-out of truth, touches him “lightly” with his spear, causing him literally to be “blown up”—as is fitting for the father of gunpowder—into his own shape, an inadvertent frog-prince or reverse Orgolio, for “no falsehood can endure / Touch of Celestial temper, but returns / Of force to its own likeness” (4.807-19).1

The literalness of Satan's exposure by the literalization of conceits; his explosion at the touch of truth; Milton's literal reading of Genesis; and his attention everywhere to the letter of language—etymology, metaphoric roots and branches, connotations spelled and dispelled, links of sense (as image) with sense (as significance)—beg us to reconsider the modern notion that the meaning of literature has little to do with the words. Ithuriel, with his more vocal companion Zephon, has been instructed to “Search through this Garden; leave unsearched no nook” (4.789). He is therefore a figura of the reader, and his searching and disclosing comments on the critic's calling, which is to search every nook of the poem and, using the tempered spear of interpretation “to [which] must be added industrious and select reading, steady observation, [and] insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs,”2 to free the text to do its work.

Ithuriel's spear contrasts to Satan's, also presumably of celestial temper, but misused to prop the “uneasy steps” of “unblest feet” (1.295, 238): a figure of limping prosody on unhallowed grounds; and Satan's spear contrasts also to Moses' rod, which struck water out of rock, and Aaron's, which flowered. It becomes the wand he holds before his pseudo-decent steps while he is disguised as an inquisitive cherub, which like Comus's charming rod can only disable. It is a staff of unlife.

Satan throughout is a cautionary kinetic emblem for the act of interpretation. We can use the spear of criticism to free the text, or we can pour venom, distempers, phantasms, and high conceits into it. “Throughout,” William Kerrigan comments, “Milton associates Satan with violence to inward parts.”3 And whenever there is a rape of the text, Eve gets the worst of it. Whenever we appropriate the poem for our own textual politics, we exploit Eve as text object. She is the receptacle of our inordinate desires, sexual frustrations, marital discontents; vain hopes, yearning dreams, unattained ideals; patronizing tolerance for her pretty, wifely officiousness, her feminine whims, her bustling household economy, or whatever we think we do well to put up with in those around us; matronizing resentment for the endowment of less dignity than Adam's and less power than God's; acclaim for poaching God's sole reminder that “it is he that hath made us and not we ourselves”; anger for millennia of hierarchic thinking; helplessness. It is part of the poem's work to elicit these feelings so that we can recognize them and take due action. But it is an even larger part to help us recognize and love goodness, of which unfallen Adam and Eve are both brimfull. How is it that we find so much fault with them and miss so much grace? If we let our modern habit of looking for base motives obscure their goodness, their “Truth shall retire / Bestuck with sland'rous darts, and works of Faith / Rarely be found” (12.535-37). The cure is to exercise a principle of interpretation Milton calls “candor: whereby we cheerfully acknowledge the gifts of God in our neighbor, and interpret all his [her] words and actions in a favorable sense”—unless he [she] attempts to “seduce or deter us from the love of God and true religion.”4 The antidote for “sland'rous darts” is the celestial temper of Ithuriel's spear.5

Those actions which enter into a woman, rather than issue out of her—let us hope Milton thought—defile not. The action that issues out of Eve in Book 9 and ushers in murder, war, cruelty, malice, fraud, disease, and death contrasts utterly to the acts that issue out of her before that choice is made. We see in her the ability to make it, but unless we see in her also the ability to choose joy we turn food to wind and lose the means Milton offers to repair the world we know and the selves we are as he says his and our aim is.6

There is a curious lack of faith in, and even desire for, undefiled joy in the modern world, a sense that a life of rampant blessedness would somehow be less interesting than one providing opportunity for, or tolerance of, or warfare against, every vice. For Milton sin was defect and inanition. People who think that perpetual paradise (or what may be regained of it) would be dull must not only be undelighted by sensuous and erotic pleasures, as Joseph Summers and Edward Le Comte and others have richly declared,7 but must not much care for music, gardening, angels, children, ethically considered scientific inquiry, the glory of the Lord, the funniness of animals, good government, good care of the whole earth, or conversation of the most felicitous reciprocity, dense with poetic shoots. Adam and Eve have plenty to do and be, without “vain hopes, vain aims.” Yet it seems to me that on the whole more attention has been paid to Satan than to Adam and Eve and more to what is wrong with Eve and Adam than to what is right with them. And one of the things that is right with them is that they are splendid artists, blithely engaged in acts that are pregnant with all the arts that do not hurt the earth, nor the community, nor the soul, but, contrariwise, enhance them all: poetic speech, music, the rudiments of dance and dramatic play, and, in the form of horticulture, all visual and fruitful beauty-making. God's sculpturing of Adam and Eve, and the jewel-tones of his Garden, wrought with the luminous detail of a van Eyck painting (4.236-66, for example) portray God as Artifex and his human images as artists, as all of these Edenic arts show them to be. In all of them, Eve takes at least equal part with Adam, and often she takes the lead. Does the fact that Eve's questing imagination is subsequent or rather precedent to Adam's tempered reasoning, both needs it and feeds it, make it any less vital to the poet who intends his song to soar above the Aonian mount?

I should like therefore to consider Eve's part in the arts of Eden, beginning with what I perceive as her role as the embodiment of Milton's defense—and, at her fall, his critique—of poesy.

While Eve in Book 8, attended by graces and amoretti, visits bud and bloom that “touched by her fair tendance” gladlier grow, Adam attempts to tell a not very sympathetic “Interpreter Spirit” how he feels about her. She is a handmade present from God, his “last, best gift,” but God may have subducted “more than enough” from him. He is in charge of her, but he is “transported.” He knows that her mind is “less exact,” yet “Greatness of mind and nobleness their seat / Build in her loveliest,” yet these things “subject not”; their union is “Harmony” (8.528-605). Their courting dance patterns forth similar transpositions: “she turned … I followed her … she … approved … I led her.” Heaven and earth also join to approve: Heaven sheds “selectest influence,” Earth gives “sign,” airs fling rose, fling odors from the spicy shrub, “the amorous Bird of Night” sings spousal (8.507-19).

The pattern echoes an analogous equi-vocation and union in Of Education: “Logic” (which is also “well-couched”) will “open her contracted palm into a graceful and ornate rhetoric … To which poetry would be made subsequent, or indeed rather precedent, as being less subtile and fine,” (“less exact”) “but more simple, sensuous, and passionate,” and decorum will teach “what religious, what glorious and magnificent use might be made of poetry, both in divine and humane things.” That equivocation in turn echoes Sidney: “For poesy must not be drawn by the ears; it must be gently led, or rather it must lead; which is partly the cause that made the ancient-learned affirm that it was a divine gift.”8

Milton may have felt much as Adam did, as he couched his argument in the amazing beauty of his sensuous verse—or hers who brought it nightly to his ear. The relation between the “less winning soft” but “manly” grace and wisdom of his stern fable and the delight of verse “adorn'd / With what all Earth or Heaven could bestow” (4.479-90, 8.482-83) is a delicate marriage. The marriage of Adam and Eve tropes its reciprocities. As you can see, I find Milton's poesy and his istoria to be “one flesh.”

Eve embodies and performs a great many properties and processes that Milton elsewhere attributes to poetry itself, or to himself as poet. These properties belong both to poesy, or the art and craft of making poems, and to poetics, or the gnosis and praxis of interpreting poems, since for Milton one Spirit “who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge” touches both. Milton did not write tracts called Poetics or A Defense of Poesy. But Eve, the special carrier of fancy, which is both subsequent and precedent to understanding, figures forth Milton's own art. The images associated with her and her work are conventional metaphors for poetry. Her accounts of her creation and of her dream manifest the function of imagination in discerning and choosing good. Her bucolic songs of praise are allied to the legendary Arcadian origins of poetry and to Milton's youthful intention to follow those “who never write but honor of them to whom they devote their verse, displaying sublime and pure thoughts, without transgression.”9 Her temptation and fall represent the abuse of poesy by a politic libertine and the divorce of verse from truth: Satan has replaced his limping feet with redundant coils, making intricate seem straight (9.504, 632), and by erecting his argument on a false base debases poetry to propaganda and devises reductive criticism. Eve's final going forth rejoined to Adam and refreshed by propitious dreams mimes the renovation of the imagination that art can provide and its reunion with reerected reason, so that humankind may carry seeds of goodness even into a world of woe.

In considering Eve as poesy I do not wish to allegorize her or her work, but to see her as a speaking portrait of the artist. One of the habits of mind that Milton revises in Paradise Lost is that allegorizing of Scripture that makes Adam reason, mind, or soul, Eve passion, sense, or flesh, and the Garden abstract moral virtue.10 Adam and Eve are each whole human personages developing in all the ways humans do in relation to each other and to God, nature, angels, art, and experience; and the Garden burgeons and beckons as gardens do, needing and repaying real care.11 However, in those manifold relations, Eve especially figures forth poetic graces and poetic imagination, the work of the faculty of fancy, which shapes the representations of the senses into significant forms (5.104-5), as poems do.

It is her work that most startlingly metaphors the poetic process: startlingly, because no one else had shown Adam and Eve working before the Fall, much less imagined Eve singularly engaged in acts of creative stewardship and design as a regular part of her life, producing—like illuminated texts—“thick-wov'n Arborets and Flow'rs / Imborder'd on each bank, the hand of Eve” (9.436-37).12

In the Renaissance, the art of poesy was habitually troped by the art of gardening. Anthology means either knowledge of flowers or flowers of knowledge. Titles of collections proliferate Arborets and Flowers: Poetical Blossoms, The Garden of the Muses, A Hundredth Sundry Flowers, The Arbor of Amity, Underwoods, A Posy of Gilliflowers, Hesperides, A Paradise of Dainty Devices, A Bower of Delights, The Shepherd's Garland, Flosculum Poeticum, to name a few. Puttenham and Shakespeare use the trope of gardening for the relation of art to nature; Spenser describes contrasting bowers that epitomize degenerative and regenerative art; Herbert, Donne, and Marvell wreathe poetical garlands.13 Sidney says that “Christ vouchsafed to use the flowers” of poetry14 and later Christopher Smart would say that “flowers are peculiarly the poetry of Christ.”15 Herbert writes “And so I came to Phansies Medow strow'd / With many a flower” and, in “The Flower,” “now in age I bud again … and relish versing.”16 Milton himself calls his yet-unwritten poems “no bud or blossom,” joins other poets to strew the laureate hearse of Lycidas with flowers cast by the Sicilian muse, offers “some Flowers and some bays” of verse to the marchioness of Winchester, makes his Genius a keeper of Arcadian groves, and like Herbert compares the return of his poetic inspiration, in Elegy V, to the reviving earth in spring, who twines her hair with flowers powerful to charm.

Eve is specifically responsible for buds and blossoms in Paradise Lost (8.40-47, 9.424-33, 11.273-81). Even though Adam and Eve were joined and enjoined by God to dress as well as keep the Garden, it was unheard of before Milton to show them gardening, and especially to make Eve a gardener even more committed and original than Adam, and so a figura of the poet's own work; and equally unheard of to join her in naming the creatures by having her name the flowers (11.277): naming, until then, had been Adam's prerogative.17 It implies knowing, and so being able to aid, the natures of God's creatures. And the natures of flowers are of some consequence in Paradise Lost. On “the bright consummate flow'r / [That] Spirits odorous breathes” depends all nurture: “flow'rs and their fruit, / Man's nourishment, by gradual scale sublim'd … give both life and sense, / Fancy and understanding, whence the soul / Reason receives, and reason is her being, / Discursive, or Intuitive” (5.481-88). Raphael is being quite literal. Flowers work up to fruit, fruit nourishes the bodily senses, those feed fancy and understanding, and these reason. The crossing over from body to spirit, if such a distinction may be made at all, occurs at the bridge of fancy. But flowers are consummate as well as prevenient, their “spirits odorous” a figure of prayer and they of poetry, which is both subsequent and precedent to reason, nourishing the soul and nourished by it.

Anyone who tries to write, or even read, may recognize in Eve's naming, nursing, propping, pruning, watering, selecting, supporting, and adorning the actions of this work that “under our labour grows” (9.208) and in her plea for freedom and a little solitude a condition she shares with Milton in his solitary lucubrations and independent-minded literary practice.

The analogy between Eve's art and the poet's own is like the sun: obvious to all eyes, and so sometimes not regarded. Almost everything she does or says before the Fall allies her to Milton's craft in some way. Her first speech is about looking into a mirror. When poetry is not a garden, it is often a mirror: a Speculum Humanum, a Mirror for Magistrates, a Muses' Looking-Glass, a “mirror held up to nature to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image.”18 But Milton cautions us against using poetry only as a mirror. Eve, stretched on the flowery bank of Eden's mirror, at first sees only herself, as we too are prone to do, but when she knows that the reflection is her own image she (not unhesitatingly) joins her fanciful nature (but Milton has exalted fancy to conjunction with understanding) to Adam's wise one. Janet Knedlik has characterized Satan's mental state as an “utter inability to imagine … that he could be truly changed by anything external to himself.”19 The fallen angel is, indeed, unable to imagine freshly at all; he merely projects his present states or deconstructs what others imagine. His undelighted broodings frame Eve's tale of her mirror and of her choice to let herself be enlarged by someone outside herself. (This virtue of openness to enlargement is also the source of her vulnerability, and of the text's. She will later credulously allow herself to be reduced by someone outside herself, as interpreters may reduce the text in their commentaries.) In choosing to be enlarged, Eve does not “exist to, for, and from herself,” as Christine Froula thinks she ought to do,20 but she does not feel herself impaired or breached by her expansion until Satan fathers upon her a poetic of Eve for Eve's sake. Every character in the poem has the choice of being fostered or not by “God's uncontroulable intent,”21 as does the poet; and the reader has the choice of being nourished or not by the incalculable enlargements the poem offers.

Eve personifies poesy in her work, in the imagery associated with her, and in the method of her vocation. She identifies the voice that calls her from her mirror simply as “a voice.” Adam says she was “Led by her Heavenly Maker, though unseen, / And guided by his voice” (8.485-86). But the narrator speaks of the day “the genial Angel to our Sire / Brought her” (4.712-13). Did Milton nod? Or does the equi vocation echo Milton's in vocation of both the Holy Spirit and the Celestial Muse?

Led by God or his messenger, Eve is divinely wrought and brought, but not fixed and finished: God gave man, as Raleigh says, to be his own painter.22 As a wife she is, like a Muse, or a poem a-making, incalculable, surprising, much beyond expectation, notable for having a will of her own. Adam learns that his image or other half is not just his image, has much to give, can enlarge and change him, is not for him (though she becomes for Satan) a text object to be possessed and exploited but a nigh-overwhelming bliss, almost too beautiful to bear, like “amourous delight” or Monteverdi's music or Milton's poem. She needs, as Adam will say fancy does, Reason well erect if harmony, not only solo voice and audience, is to survive; but she is also an erector of reason; his, but not all his, as Milton says his poesy is not all his, but “Hers who brings it nightly to my Ear” (9.47).

Eve's divine origin and calling put her at the crux of present discourse about poetic authority and the nature of inspiration. In her exchange with Edward Pechter in Critical Inquiry, Christine Froula says with some asperity, “Mr. Pechter apparently imagines that I take the Holy Spirit to be an actual entity.”23 The exchange delineates a watershed in literary studies between those who treat poems strictly as historical artifacts and those who find that art and language can be numinous. If Milton's Holy Spirit—whom he asks to “raise and support” his poesy as Eve stoops to support her roses—is a fiction, it pretends to confer a preposterous authority. But if his invocations report experiences of God tested on his own pulses, they claim no poetical prelacy, but an access Milton insisted was equally available to all who seek it, however great or humble their tasks.

Milton again intimately links Eve to his own calling in a love song to Adam that echoes his invocations by its form and imagery: especially the image of the nightingale, whom in his first sonnet Milton had adopted as his poetic emblem. In his invocations, Milton wanders night and morn “where the Muses haunt / Clear Spring, or shady Grove, or Sunny Hill” (3.27-38)

Then feed[s] on thoughts that voluntary move
Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful bird
Sings darkling, and, in shadiest Covert hid
Tunes her nocturnal note.


Eve sings her nocturn as she and Adam move hand in hand toward a bower collaboratively wrought by God and Eve, whose “thickest covert was inwoven shade” of those most poetical flowers, laurel and myrtle, and whose nuptial bed Eve has decked with flowers and garlands. Her song “with thee conversing I forget all time,” lauds “All seasons and their change”:

Sweet is the breath of morn … 
 … sweet the coming on
Of grateful Ev'ning mild; then Silent Night,
With this her Solemn Bird and this fair Moon,
And these the Gems of Heav'n, her starry train:
But neither breath of Morn, when she ascends
Nor charm of earliest Birds, nor rising Sun
On this delightful land, nor herb, fruit, flow'r
Glist'ring with dew, nor fragrance after showers,
Nor grateful Ev'ning mild, nor silent Night,
With this her solemn Bird, nor walk by Moon,
Or glittering Star-light, without thee is sweet.


Eve's speech, with its gracious, dancelike measures,24 repeats the rhythms and imagery of Milton's own state: less happy than hers, except when, like her, he is touched and enlightened from beyond himself.

                                                            Thus with the Year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of Ev'n or Morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summer's Rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine … 
So much the rather thou Celestial Light
Shine inward … 

(3.40-44, 51-52)

Before they enter the bower, Eve and Adam say a prayer that begins “Thou also mad'st the Night.” Those archetypal critics who see Eve and femaleness associated with darkness and the moon and think she must therefore inevitably fall must read that prayer differently than I do, and Milton's relation to the Muse who brings his poem “Nightly” to his ear. And Eve's question, just after her song, about the stars—“for whom / This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes?”—is, similarly, often alleged as egocentric questioning of the divine economy, and so a foreshadowing of her fall. But an interest in stars is the province of Urania, the Muse of astronomy and of Milton, who links “harmonious numbers” to cosmic harmony. And Eve's question elicits from Adam a brief defense of the arts as he celebrates “celestial voices” with “heavenly touch of instrumental sounds / In full harmonic number joined / [that] lift our thoughts to Heaven” (4.682-86).

Just as remarkable as Milton's giving Eve a part in naming is the fact that in their unfallen conversations he gives Eve and Adam almost an equal number of lines. He neither makes Adam the dominant proprietor of Edenic language, nor Eve either a figure of the female vice of loquacity—even in her conversation with the Serpent—or an emblem of the virtue so often exhorted to women, silence, except when she refrains from interrupting her husband's eager after-dinner inquiries of a communicative space-traveler. In their unfallen conversations, she has almost an equal voice—217 lines to Adam's 230—a semitone, one might say, apart. Their verbal conversation is “meet” in innumerable interinanimating ways: hers more adventurous, playful, sweet, charming, questioning; his graver, explanatory, sequential and consequential upon hers. Each is sufficient in both reason and spontaneous grace, but in proportion due; together their words resonate like part music, to the enhancement of both.

When Raphael arrives and Adam requests a feast, Eve's reply (5.321-30) recapitulates Milton's claim of spontaneity in his art and his statements about decorum and “various style.” She then considers “What choice [things] to choose for delicacy best, / What order, so contriv'd as not to mix / Tastes, not well join'd, inelegant, but bring / Taste after taste upheld with kindliest change” (5.333-36). The passage, thick with puns, calls attention to its own language. “Contrive” derives from Tropos, style or figure of speech; “inelegant” means, literally, not choice: from eligere, select; “kindliest” hints at “the kindly fruits of the earth”25 and at the decorum of poetic kinds. Milton, also long choosing, also gathers, orders, tempers, changes, and disposes kinds in answerable style.

In her dream, Eve experiences in fancy the operations of evil without doing evil, as the poet must do to depict evil without being corrupted by it; and Adam's explanation of the relations of reason and fancy (5.100-121) makes fancy both subsequent (or subordinate) and precedent (or provident) to reason, which is but choosing. When she goes off to practice the art of gardening as usual, having persuaded Adam not to let the Foe destroy their artistic liberty, she is much like the poet who continues to sing though “with dangers compast round, / And solitude; yet not alone …” (7.27-28) as long as the Spirit whose Temple is the upright heart is with her, and like poetic imagination, whose stay not free absents it more.

But, as Sidney says, “that which being rightly used doth most good, being abused doth most harm. … For I will not deny that a man's wit [or a clever fallen angel's] may make poesy infect the fancy with unworthy objects.”26 Satan is nearly rapt from his evil by Eve in naked innocence figuring forth good things; instead he infects her fancy, and she Adam's, and “So is that honey-flowing matron eloquence apparelled, or rather disguised, in a courtesan-like painted affectation … with figures and flowers extremely winter-starved.”27 Satan divorces the signifier from the signified, makes words an autonomous language-game in which he feigns a trivial and tyrannical patriarch; and he psychologizes the inclination for forbidden fruit and its alleged power that he has projected into Eve as a “need.” Language becomes an instrument for deception and exploitation, an implement of rape, rather than an instrument for the pleasure of discovering and nurturing goodness. Eve, thus abused, poisons Adam; Adam, thus diseased, whores Eve; the result is fratricide.

“But what, shall the abuse of a thing make the right use odious?”28 It is not Eve's imaginative freedom that causes her wild work, but her corruption: a corruption made possible by the receptivity that is, like that of poetic language, a rich virtue when rightly used. As a part of the process of her regeneration, her fancy is the faculty that receives separate divine attention, in a healing dream that reconnects the fancy to the Word. As Adam and Eve set forth from the Garden with the task of erecting the infected will and taking goodness in hand, neither is subsequent or precedent. Like Sidney's art and nature, and like Milton's shaping intent and shapely text, Adam and Eve go forth hand in hand, bearing the seeds of an infinite progeny.

The metatext of Ithuriel's spear, wherein we are invited by kinetic mimesis to stand as angelic interpreters or squat as Aristophanic landfrogs, is surrounded by concentric scenes all of which also touch in some way on the nature and uses of imagination. Most of them also present to ours with great delicacy and intimacy the mutuality of paradisal marriage. In the nearest sphere, before Eve's dream, she and Adam make love festively, by connubial rites, and after it by honesty and solace. In the next, they pray. Before their evening prayer, Adam discourses on the nature of their work, and after their morning prayer they set out to do it. In the evening, Eve says or sings a love song to Adam, and in the morning Adam says or sings a love song to Eve. Before that, they entertain a fallen angel unawares, and after, they entertain an unfallen one awares. And, lest anyone in Milton's audience think any of the arts intrinsically irreligious, both angels indulge in feigning along the way. Satan sits like a cormorant—who are a dime a dozen and all sit the same way—and misreads the Garden without delight. Raphael arrives as a phoenix—of whom there is only one—feigning in play, for sheer pleasure, gaz'd on by all the fowls, and reads God's book of creatures with charity and candor. Raphael sails on steady wing, upheld by buxom air, in contrast to Satan's sudden sprawls: one artist hand in hand with nature, the other opposed and subject to fatuous falls (2.927-42, 4.194-204, 5.266-74).

These concentric passages contain every sort of imaginative exercise, with Eve's dream and Adam's explanation of what imagination was made for at their center. They demonstrate that no art or pleasure is forbidden that does not deceive, exploit, or enslave, and that imagination can be an antidote against evil as well as a means to apprehend goodness. Ithuriel's action discloses Satan, as the dream itself might have done, to free Eve; the poison Satan pours into her ear might have been a mithridate against further nocence. And that pattern recapitulates the poem. In it, Milton gives us innocent goodness in all its rich and various beauty; he shows it blighted; he shows it beginning to be restored; and he hands us the threads of continuance.

Framing the dream, Milton embodies creativity in the two most interesting and intimate of human mutual activities, sex and prayer. The fact that the prayer may be sung further links the two, for procreativity and creativity had in the Renaissance firm philosophical connections, especially with regard to music.

The question is still sometimes belabored whether unfallen Adam and Eve, in the vulgar phrase, “had sex” in Paradise Lost. The problem is that if Paradise is in good working order, everything including Adam and Eve is presumed fertile, so that every sexual union should produce issue: those “more hands” that Adam and Eve, artists and gardners, metonymically look forward to. But if conception had occurred before the Fall, Cain would have been born without original sin. There are several objections. According to Genesis, Cain was conceived after the expulsion. Even if we read Genesis 4:1 retrospectively, we are left with the difficulty that the murder of Abel is surely the archetypal effect of the archetypal sin. If it were not, Cain's sin would have stood “in the following of Adam,” as the Ninth Article of Religion puts it, rather than “the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness.” Milton is quite clear about rejecting the Pelagian heresy that denies the corporate nature of sin.29 Therefore, Cain was not conceived in the course of the nuptial embraces Milton's Adam and Eve enjoy in their flower-decked, nightingale-serenaded bower (4.736-75).

This either-or dilemma—that either Eve and Adam remained virgins and only embraced allegorically, as the Fathers thought, or Cain was conceived in Paradise—Milton apparently regarded as a false one. The idea that every divinely sanctioned sexual act produces offspring is classical, not scriptural. Every sacrosanct rape by a pagan god begets a hero, or a troublemaker, but the mothers of scriptural heroes—Isaac, Samson, John the Baptist—often had to wait through years of married barrenness to bear them. If Adam and Eve had not fallen, Eve would probably have been bloomingly pregnant most of the time, and each child a new burgeoning microcosm of tenderness, beauty, wit, talent, and unexpected views. But although she might produce a child every solar year, I see no reason to suppose that Eve was not connected to the cycles of the moon or that there might not have been a period of sheer amorous delight before the first conception, in aid of the other purposes of marriage Milton lists first30 and in preparation for the beginning of new life.

Nevertheless, wedded love is the “true source of human offspring,” a “perpetual Fountain of Domestic sweets” in that way as well as in the multifloriate pleasures of erotic mutuality; and in his apostrophe to it, Milton with his celestial spear dispels the vain imaginings of prurient hypocrisy. This passage is balanced, on the other side of the dream, by Adam's aubade and his discourse upon good and bad uses of imagination, concluded with a kiss of peace.

In the two scenes before and after the dream, Adam and Eve turn toward each other. In the two scenes before and after that, they turn together toward God to pray. Since in the act of prayer Adam and Eve become poets and singers, they are figurae of the unfallen artist and exempla of the regenerate one, inventing and performing the genre that Sidney calls “that lyrical kind of songs and sonnets: which, Lord, if He gave us good minds, how well it might be employed, and with how heavenly fruit, both private and public, in singing the praises of the immortal beauty, the immortal goodness of that God who giveth us hands to write and wits to conceive; of which we might well want words, but never matter; of which we could turn our eyes to nothing but we should ever have new budding occasions.”31

Although I have argued lengthily that Eve was right to defend the exercise of creative freedom even if it meant being sometimes on her own and at risk,32 I do not want to overstress her separate and singular talents. Eve as monody is a fresh and astonishing creature of her author, but Adam and Eve as harmony are the core of the world. The art form in which that harmony most fully resounds is their evening (4.724-35) and morning (5.153-208) prayers.

Milton's warm-toned drawing forth of Adam and Eve together in prayer before the Fall is almost without precedent; but glimmers of such a life appear in a few rare visual depictions. An engraving by Nicholaes de Bruyn, after Maerten de Vos, illustrates the Admonition; but Jan Theodor de Bry's version of the same original has as its inscription the first verse of Psalm 117: “O praise the Lord all ye peoples, praise him all ye nations,” all nations being incipient within Adam and Eve.33 And an illustration bound into English Bibles in the mid-seventeenth century identifies a similar image as the Institution of the Sabbath.34 Original righteousness, though not as popular as original sin, is at least acknowledged in these unusual representations, which are part of the early seventeenth-century impulse that Milton's account of richly joyous Edenic activity brings to its fullest consummation.

Mutual spontaneous prayer—two people together visibly and audibly opening their souls to God—is perhaps the most intimate and risky of human activities. It almost inevitably increases love, and in baring themselves to the Spirit, the pray-ers bare themselves in “holy rapture” to obvious, vulnerable growth of soul. If you add music—and, echoing the Prayer Book rubrics, Milton tells us that the prayers of Adam and Eve are either “pronounced or sung”—the opportunity for heavenly interchange is redoubled. Milton's yoking together of the act of prayer and the act of love, “whatever Hypocrites austerely talk,” is perfectly natural, and is supported in the case of sung prayer by Renaissance theories of music. For the eternal verities of pitch and measure link music mathematically to the mystic Dance of the cosmos and to the divine forms in the mind of God, and so set the affections in right tune. And, for Galileo and Kepler, the pleasure of music was akin to the pleasure of lovemaking. For they saw musical proportions as corresponding to the “proportion due” of male and female. In one of his letters, Kepler, explaining the geometry of music, says, “Non puto me posse clarius et palpabilius rem explicare, quam si dicam te videre imagines illic mentulae, hic vulvae.” Galileo said that the interval of the fifth produces “such a tickling and stimulation of the cartilage of the eardrum that, tempering the sweetness with a dash of sharpness, it seems delightfully to kiss and bite at the same time,” and Kepler that “the progeny of the pentagon, the major third and the minor third, move our souls, images of God, to emotions comparable to the business of generation.”35

The mutuality of their love and the goodness of the whole creation form the theme of the evening prayer of Adam and Eve, when “both stood, / Both turn'd, and under op'n Sky”—which Raphael will call God's Book—“ador'd / The God that made both Sky, Air, Earth, and Heav'n / Which they beheld, the Moon's resplendent Globe / And starry Pole” (4.720-24). The exactness of “resplendent” images their own relation to God as Artifex and that of the creation for which they speak. The moment is the more dramatic when we recall that in Vondel's version of the story, Adam leaves Eve in order to pray, “and in my solitude / Give thanks to [God] for thy companionship,” thus allowing Satan to find Eve alone.36

The abrupt beginning, “Thou also mad'st the night,” suggests a psalm-verse that could have begun their earlier unrecorded morning prayer, “This is the day that the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (118:24): one appointed for Easter and so known to Milton in numerous jubilant settings. Here, Adam and Eve rejoice in each other and in their coming children.

Their morning prayer is both more liturgical and more explicitly connected with Milton's work as a poet. It is an “unmeditated” canticle based on the Song of the Three Children from the apocryphal portion of the Book of Daniel, which is the morning canticle in the Book of Common Prayer called the Benedicite, and on Psalm 148, said or sung at Evening Prayer on the thirtieth and thirty-first of every month. Both sources call upon all of nature, from angels to cattle to creeping things, to praise the Lord. They reappeared in the metrical psalters set to authorized church tunes, bound into sixteenth- and seventeenth-century prayer books; in numerous harmonized versions of these printed for home use; and in entirely different translations and settings such as George Wither's, set for two voices by Orlando Gibbons,37 and George Sandys's, set by Henry Lawes “to new Tunes for private Devotion: and a thorow Base, for Voice, or Instrument” and published in 1637, shortly after Lawes's collaboration with Milton on the Mask Presented at Ludlow-Castle. Lawes also published selected psalm settings “for three voices and a thorow-Base” with an equal number by his brother William as a memorial to him, prefaced by commendatory poems including Milton's sonnet to “Harry … that with smooth air couldst humour best our tongue,” in 1648: the same year that Milton contributed a series of metrical psalms in which he uncharacteristically confined his muse to the common meter needed for the common tunes. Lawes's two-part settings are singable by anyone and his viol, or wife, or child, or any two or more people; other settings provide a range of musical difficulty and interest reaching to the polychoral polyphony of the Chapel Royal.

Psalm-singing was a major national pastime in Milton's day.38 Nearly all of his first readers would have some experience of it—not only in the hearing, but in the doing—to bring to their reading of the canticles of Adam and Eve. They, of course, are accomplished artists, but even the singing of simple harmonies available to the youngest or newest singer can give a taste of the pleasure and sense of communion that psalm-singing affords. Milton suggests that sung prayer, spontaneously embellished in various style, is one of the inexhaustible felicities of unfallen or regenerate life; and he illustrates its possibilities by incorporating the effects of music into words, as his admired Mazzoni observes in Dante,39 a process that is the inverse of the Renaissance composer's practice of incorporating the effects of words into music.

Some of the musical treatment of words that informs Milton's verbal treatment of music may be found in Adrien Batten's setting of Psalm 117,40 the psalm attributed to Adam and Eve by the inscription of de Bry's representation of them praying before the Fall. Batten's word-painting includes close weaving of four vocal lines (which would have required an amicable Cain and Abel for the inner parts), each voice having a comfortably small range, to achieve the serene harmonies suitable to the text; use of moderate polyphony on “all ye nations”; tender and beseeching harmonic changes on “merciful kindness”; strong unanimity on “for his truth endureth”; and melisma extending “forever and ever.” As is usual in Renaissance music, one must ignore the bar lines and time signatures and attend to the ways the musical line is responsive to the words: within the steady pulse of “strictest measure even” the phrasing shifts back and forth between common or earthly time, in twos and fours, and triple or “perfect” time on words naming the attributes of God. “His merciful kindness” enters in triple time; “is ever more and more towards us” reverts to common time; “the truth of the Lord” is in triple time; but the two kinds of time, the earthly fours and the heavenly threes, flow together as fluidly as temporal and eternal activities may be supposed to do in Eden.

Milton's hymn is, we might say, the proposed archetype of the scriptural hymns it spontaneously elaborates. Adam and Eve are not, like the Three Hebrew Children, in a fiery furnace; but they have just had their first taste of evil, in Eve's dream, and we the readers have spent two books in hell and more in the hell of Satan's self. The three children in the fiery furnace, refreshed by a wind an angel brings, can still praise fire. And as we are refreshed by the wind of the Spirit that blows through these joyful lines, we are also aware of the misuse the fallen angel makes of the creatures they invoke. He has used the sun and a treetop as spying posts, entered the Garden through mists and exhalations, and winged and walked the earth as a bird, a tiger, a lion, and a toad; he will become a snake that lowly creeps: all “not nocent yet.” And like the Psalmist, Adam and Eve, in their closing petition, recognize the need for “God's merciful kindness.”

The imagery of their song partakes of textural and prosodic as well as thematic musical interest. The recurrent figure denoted by the words “Circle,” “Circlet,” “crown,” “Sphere,” and “Perpetual Circle” links earth's creatures to the cosmic mystic dance and suggests the “perfect measure” that in Renaissance notation is denoted by a circle. But the measure varies, like Batten's, to suit the words: Within the steady pulse of decasyllabic lines, if you count only the major stresses, God is described in triple time, as

Unspéakable, who sít'st above these Héavens.

“In these thy lowest works” shifts back to iambs. Angels have varied meters, then at line 164 we are back to earth decidedly in fours:

On Éarth join áll ye Créatures to extól
Hím first, hím last, hím midst, and without énd:

with three firm stresses concerning God within the line. The five wandering fires get more regular pentameter, and “His práise, who out of Dárkness call'd up Líght” gets three primary stresses. The four elements that in quaternion run get four-beat lines until the exhortation to ceaseless change, in which they vary. “Hail universal Lord” invites three accents; and the concluding lines move from earthly to heavenly time in a way that prosodically restores the tranquillity for which they plead.

Rather than rhyme, there is a closely woven harmony of similar sounds: dawn, morn, prime; praise, rise, sky, flies; frame, then, seem. Often this close weaving is onomatopoetic, providing verbal tone painting: “Ye Mists and Exhalations that now rise”; “wet the thirsty Earth with falling showers”; “Fountains and yee, that warble, as ye flow, / Melodious murmurs”; the swoop of “ye Birds / That singing up to Heaven Gate ascend” (and how pleasant to know that Adam and Eve knew their Shakespeare); the syncopation of syntax against line at “mix / And nourish all things, let your ceaseless change / Vary. …”

In the act of prayer, Adam and Eve become poets and singers, and so figurae of the poet and of the mutual spontaneous prayer Milton preferred to a fixed liturgy: both poet and worshipper should be freely responsive to the indwelling Spirit, though they may use established genres within whose structures spontaneous art can always find new budding occasions. As Milton's celestial patroness “inspires / Easy [his] unpremeditated verse” (9.23-24), so for Adam and Eve “neither various style / nor holy rapture wanted they to praise / Their Maker, in fit strains pronounced or sung / Unmeditated; such prompt eloquence / Flow'd from their lips, in prose or numerous Verse, / More tuneable than needed Lute or Harp / To add more sweetness” (5.146-52). Imagine doing that. Could anything be more engaging than the mutual, spontaneous production of poetry and song, made possible by shared rapture and established structure? Milton leaves it to our imaginations to figure out how two people linked in happy nuptial league can unanimously compose spontaneous songs, even when blessed with union of mind “or in [them] both one soul”: whether by antiphonal verses or mutual infusion by the celestial muse;41 but no doubt in Paradise, even more than in Sidney's Arcadia where improvised poetic exchanges often occur, such acts of spontaneous composition would be endlessly diverse and interesting. If the Fall had not interrupted their courses, Adam and Eve—prime artists with God's image and the Holy Ghost fresh within them—might have continued to compose in various style, increasing voice parts as their tribe increased to something like—on grand occasions—Michael Praetorius's setting of the Benedicite, which begins with two voice parts—Adam and Eve as it were—and increases to five hundred voices, human and instrumental, gathering in all the voices of creation with copious opportunities for word-painting, all these voices growing more delicately harmonious as they increase, while the refrains expand to cosmic resonance and the word “Domino” receives increasing tenderness.

In spite of its Venetian origin, I see no reason why Adam and Eve should not be imagined or we encouraged to make such music; Milton had no objection to letting “the pealing Organ blow / To the full voic'd quire below, / In Service high and Anthems cleer, / As may with sweetnes through mine ear, / Dissolve me into extacies / And bring all Heav'n before mine eyes.”42 Unfallen or regenerate, the whole human family might “join thir vocal Worship to the Choir of Creatures wanting voice” (9.198-99) as secretaries of God's praise. Surely to do so in the various style, the fluid responsiveness, and the exfoliation of the life of words characteristic of Renaissance music and of Milton's verse proliferates endless pleasures and by literally joining hearts to heaven nourishes this resplendent globe.43


  1. Quotations from Paradise Lost are from the edition of Merritt Y. Hughes (New York, 1962).

  2. From The Reason of Church Government Urged Against Prelaty, in The Student's Milton, ed. Frank Allen Patterson (New York, 1930), p. 526. All quotations from Milton's prose are from this edition, hereafter cited as SM.

  3. William Kerrigan, The Sacred Complex (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), p. 245.

  4. John Milton, De Doctrina Christiana, in SM, pp. 1070 and 1066.

  5. Perhaps I should mention that at the time of writing this section I had not read John Guillory's interesting (and puzzling) emblematic use of Ithuriel's spear as poetic principle in Poetic Authority: Spenser, Milton, and Literary History (New York, 1983), pp. 148-51.

  6. John Milton, Of Education, in SM, p. 726.

  7. Joseph Summers, The Muse's Method (London, 1962); Edward Le Comte, Milton and Sex (New York, 1978).

  8. John Milton, Of Education, p. 729; Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Forrest G. Robinson (Indianapolis, 1970), p. 72.

  9. John Milton, An Apology for Smectymnuus, in SM, p. 549.

  10. J. M. Evans discusses allegorical readings in “Paradise Lost” and the Genesis Tradition (Oxford, 1968), pp. 69-99. Milton selectively retains many connotations from these readings, but discards implications that set nature against spirit or mythologize Adam and Eve. For a contemporary allegorizing treatment of the Genesis story see Troilo Lancetta's Scena Tragica d'Adamo e d'Eua (Venice, 1644).

  11. On the abundant significance of literal gardens and gardening in relation to literature, philosophy, and religion in the English Renaissance, see Charlotte F. Otten, Environ'd with Eternity: God, Poems, and Plants in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (Lawrence, 1985).

  12. “Hand” as handwork may pun on “hand” as handwriting or “character.”

  13. George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie (London, 1589), pp. 308-13; Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale 4.4; Spenser, The Faerie Queene II.12 and III.6; Herbert, “A Wreath”; Donne, “La Corona”; Marvell, “The Coronet.”

  14. Sidney, p. 51.

  15. Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno, l. 506, in the edition by W. H. Bond (London, 1954), p. 106.

  16. George Herbert, “The Pilgrimage” and “The Flower,” in The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. C. A. Patrides (Totowa, 1975), pp. 151 and 172.

  17. In the visual arts, however, Eve is sometimes present at the naming; see for example A Thirteenth Century Breviary in the Library of Alnwick Castle, intro. Eric George Millar (Oxford, 1958).

  18. Hamlet 3.2.

  19. Janet Knedlik, “Medieval Metaphysics and Temporal Process in Milton's Paradise Lost,” a paper presented at the Nineteenth International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, 1984.

  20. Christine Froula, “When Eve Reads Milton: Undoing the Canonical Economy,” Critical Inquiry, 10 (Dec., 1983), 328.

  21. Samson Agonistes 1754.

  22. Sir Walter Raleigh, The History of the World (1614), p. 35.

  23. Christine Froula, “Pechter's Specter: Milton's Bogey Writ Small,” Critical Inquiry, 11 (Sept., 1984), 173. Professor Froula's work is an extraordinarily honest exhibition of the intention to read Paradise Lost from the point of view of a feminist sociology of religion, asserting for example that “Adam fashions a god that is invisible to Eve in order to master her” (p. 173).

  24. In a broad sense (not the technical, prosodic one) Eve's poem is a rondeau, which originates in dance; and it perhaps suggests the form of a round dance in which the partners circle in opposite directions, then return to join together.

  25. From the Litany, prescribed to be used at least three times a week, in the Book of Common Prayer.

  26. Sidney, p. 59. Milton echoes Sidney's words, with regard to marriage, in Tetrachordon, SM, p. 673: “what doth most harm in the abusing, used rightly doth most good.”

  27. Sidney, p. 81.

  28. Sidney, p. 60.

  29. Milton, De Doctrina Christiana, 1.11.

  30. That is, “a mutual help to piety” and “to civil fellowship of love and amity; then, to generation …,” Milton, Tetrachordon, pp. 657-58.

  31. Sidney, p. 80.

  32. In Milton's Eve (Urbana, 1983), especially chap. 5.

  33. The engraving by de Bruyn is part of a creation series available in the Print Room of the Reiksmuseum, Amsterdam (inv. no. A22380). The de Bry (with the inscription, backwards, in French) is in the Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Cat. nr. I/B635, and is reproduced in F. W. H. Hollstein, Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Engravings, and Woodcuts, ca. 1450-1700 (Amsterdam, 1949-), 4:27.

  34. William Slatyer (compiler) and Jacob Floris Van Langeren (engraver), STC 22634.5. Photograph reproduced by permission of the British Library.

  35. Both Galileo and Kepler are quoted in D. P. Walker, Studies in Musical Science in the Late Renaissance, Studies of the Warburg Institute, 37 (London and Leiden, 1978), pp. 32 and 53-54.

  36. Joost van den Vondel, Adam in Ballingschap (1664), trans. Watson Kirkconnell, in The Celestial Cycle (Toronto, 1952), p. 462.

  37. George Wither, The Hymnes and Songs of the Church (London, 1623).

  38. For an account of this movement see Nicholas Temperley, Music of the English Parish Church (Cambridge, 1979), chap. 3.

  39. Giacopo Mazzoni, On the Defense of the Comedy of Dante: Introduction and Summary, trans. Robert L. Montgomery (Tallahassee, 1983), p. 58.

  40. Batten (1591-1637?), “O Praise the Lord,” from John Barnard's First Book of Selected Church Musick (1641), available in a modern edition by Anthony Greening in The Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems, compiled by Christopher Morris (Oxford, 1978).

  41. Possible performances of this passage have been suggested by Joseph H. Summers, in The Muse's Method: An Introduction to “Paradise Lost” (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), pp. 75-83, and Louise Schleiner, The Living Lyre in English Verse from Elizabeth through the Restoration (Columbia, Mo., 1984), pp. 134-36.

  42. Il Penseroso 161-66, in SM, p. 29.

  43. This essay was written with the help of a grant from the Research Council of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. A portion of it is reprinted, with permission, from Milton Quarterly.

Michael Wilding (essay date 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Thir Sex Not Equal Seem'd’: Equality in Paradise Lost,” in Of Poetry and Politics: New Essays on Milton and His World, edited by P. G. Stanwood, Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1995, pp. 172-85.

[In the following essay, Wilding argues that in Paradise Lost Milton is less concerned with the issue of sexual equality than with the revolutionary aim of achieving total human equality, “of restoring us to that still unregained blissful seat.”]

The first description of Adam and Eve is a crucial passage for our understanding of Paradise Lost:

… but wide remote
From this Assyrian Garden, where
the Fiend
Saw undelighted all delight, all kind
Of living Creatures new to sight and strange:
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 their looks Divine
The image of thir glorious Maker shone,
Truth, Wisdome, 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,
Hee for God only, shee for God in him:
His fair large Front and Eye sublime declar'd
Absolute rule; and Hyacinthine Locks
Round from his parted forelock manly hung
Clust'ring, but not beneath his shoulders broad:
Shee as a veil down to the slender waist
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Dishevell'd, but in wanton ringlets wav'd
As the Vine curls her tendrils, which impli'd
Subjection, but requir'd with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best receiv'd,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet reluctant amorous delay.
Nor those mysterious parts were then conceal'd,
Then was not guilty shame: dishonest shame
Of Nature's works, honor dishonorable,
Sin-bred, how have ye troubl'd all mankind
With shows instead, mere shows of seeming pure,
And banisht from man's life his happiest life,
Simplicity and spotless innocence.(1) (4.284-318)

Not surprisingly, this description is provocative, confrontational, argumentative, and fraught with ambiguity. How could it be otherwise? Twenty-five years ago Helen Gardner wrote of book 4, lines 296-99, “No lines have, I suppose, been more quoted and quoted against Milton than these. But all that is Milton's is the unequivocal firmness and clarity with which he states the orthodox view of his age.”2 Twenty years earlier, similarly troubled by the passage, Balachandra Rajan had resorted to a similar explanation: “It typified the deepest and most impersonal feelings of the time.”3

Yet in so many of his beliefs Milton the revolutionary challenged “the orthodox view of his age” and “the deepest and most impersonal feelings of the time.” Is it likely he so passively accepts them here? The male supremacist, anti-egalitarian, and absolutist sentiments are proclaimed with an extraordinary brusqueness, yet “the unequivocal firmness and clarity” ascribed to them by Helen Gardner are upon examination remarkably lacking. The passage is permeated with equivocation and uncertainty in its repetition of “seem'd” and “seeming”:

In naked Majesty seem'd Lords of all,
And worthy seem'd … 
.....                                                             … though both
Not equal, as thir sex not equal seem'd.

(4.290-91, 295-96)

The sense of false appearance in “seem'd” is reinforced by Milton's use of “seeming” in the clearly unambiguous sense of deceit only twenty lines on: “With shows instead, mere shows of seeming pure” (4.315). At so crucial a passage, why does Milton offer “seem'd”? Why not “as thir sex not equal was,” if that was what he meant? Why is the unambiguous avoided?4

If “thir sex not equal seem'd” and if “seeming” is false, does that mean that their sex was equal? The uncertainties of “seem'd” spread elsewhere. To find Adam and Eve described as “seem'd Lords of all” makes us wonder whether they were really lords of all, and ask what weight does “Lords” carry from a revolutionary who had supported the abolition of the House of Lords. Is “Lords of all” the same as “Lords of the World” (1.32), or is it a more excessive version? Even stranger is the terse proclamation of “Absolute rule” (4.301) from an intransigent opponent of absolutism.

This first description of Adam and Eve is problematical, of course, because, as commentators have recurrently pointed out,5 it is presented through Satan's perceptions:

 … this Assyrian Garden,
where the Fiend
Saw undelighted all delight, all kind
Of living Creatures new to sight and strange:
Two of far nobler shape … 


Marcia Landy's reading is hence questionable when she writes “we are told by the narrator, lest we misunderstand, that Adam and Eve are ‘not equal, as thir sex not equal seem'd.’”6 This is not something told us by the narrator, but something perceived by and mediated through Satan's prejudiced vision. His sight is darkened, “undelighted,” and distortive; it “seem'd” that way to Satan. It would make sense that Adam and Eve “seem'd Lords of all” to Satan with his preoccupations about authority, that he should see their relationship as political and inegalitarian, that he should see Adam as absolutist, and that he should offer a political interpretation of the way Eve's hair

                                                             … in wanton ringlets wav'd
As the Vine curls her tendrils, which impli'd


Again there is ambiguity. The image “implies,” but does not clearly state. This is apt since the image of the vine and elm traditionally represents mutuality, reciprocity, and fertility, but not subjection, as Peter Demetz and Todd H. Sammons have scrupulously demonstrated.7 If subjection is an implication it is a false one—one taken by Satan or the careless fallen reader. It is a suspect political authoritarian interpretation analogous to the way Adam's “fair large Front and Eye sublime declar'd / Absolute rule.”8

If we take the description of Adam and Eve as recording Satan's interpretative vision, then we can suggest that Satan is projecting a political, hierarchical hell onto an Eden that is something other. At the beginning of book 4 we were told

                              … for within him Hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step no more than from himself can fly
By change of place. 


At the end of his encounter with Adam and Eve, Satan's soliloquy suggests just such a habit of projection, demonstrated in the opening words in which he literally projects hell onto Eden: “O Hell! what do mine eyes with grief behold” (4.358), and he goes on to relate to Adam and Eve in a political, hierarchical way, offering them “League” and a reception in hell of “all her Kings” (4.375,383).9 That Satan's thinking is absolutist, tyrannical, Milton spells out explicitly in a voice unambiguously narratorial:

So spake the Fiend, and with necessity,

The Tyrant's plea, excus'd his devilish deeds.


The vision of an inegalitarian, hierarchical, and absolutist paradise, then, we can interpret as a Satanic vision.10 This is what Satan imports from hell, and this is what he turns paradise into. The perceived unequal relationships are not ideal but proleptic of the postlapsarian human condition. The seeming inequality, the seeming lordship, the declared absolutism, the implied subjection—these are all from hell and all to come on earth. But the true paradise is to be deduced from the opposite of Satan's vision, the paradise to come from the negation of the negation.11 This reading can be supported both by significant absence and by explicit evidence in the poem.

The absences first—some already remarked by previous commentators. Aers and Hodge ask, “‘Absolute rule’ for instance: does Adam really have that? To the horror of the orthodox he does not claim it in the crucial exchange with Eve before the Fall.”12 And Marcia Landy remarks of Milton's treatment of Adam and Eve's postlapsarian quarrels that “in spite of his psychological insight into the ways in which mental conflict is acted out, he does not see their struggle as arising from the stringent boundaries of hierarchy, with male dominance and female subordination, which make conflict inevitable.”13 Significantly, the absolutism and hierarchy are not features of the dramatized dynamic of Adam and Eve's relationship.

We might have expected the alleged hierarchical relationship of Adam and Eve to be spelled out in the authoritative account of creation given by Raphael, but again it is most significantly absent:

Let us make now Man in our image, Man
In our similitude, and let them rule
Over the Fish and Fowl of Sea and Air,
Beast of the Field, and over all the Earth,
And every creeping thing that creeps the ground.
This said, he form'd thee, Adam,
thee O Man
Dust of the ground, and in thy nostrils breath'd
The breath of Life; in his own Image hee
Created thee, in the Image of God
Express, and thou becam'st a living Soul.
Male he created thee, but thy consort
Female for Race; then bless'd Mankind, and said,
Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the Earth,
Subdue it, and throughout Dominion hold
Over Fish of the Sea, and Fowl of the Air,
And every living thing that moves on the Earth.


Authority over fish, fowl, and beasts is spelled out here; but there is no mention of “Lords of all” and no mention of “rule” or “dominion” by mankind over mankind, or by one sex over another. Mary Nyquist remarks that the reference to Eve here is “meagre,”14 as indeed it is. But it is importantly non-discriminatory, unlike the Satanic observations of book 4, and the meagerness, the very absence of comment, is in itself significant. As the Diggers declared in The True Levellers Standard (1649), “Man had domination given to him, over the beasts, birds and fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, that one branch of mankind should rule over another. And the reason is this. Every single man, male and female, is a perfect creature of himself.”15 Domination is explicitly limited to “beasts, birds and fishes” here on the basis of absence in Genesis. Milton perpetuates that significant absence in Raphael's Genesis-based account, and reasserts the interpretation in Adam's comments on Nimrod:

O execrable Son so to aspire
Above his Brethren, to himself assuming
Authority usurpt, from God not giv'n:
He gave us only over Beast, Fish, Fowl
Dominion absolute; that right we hold
By his donation; but Man over men
He made not Lord; such title to himself
Reserving, human left from human free.


The model for human society is “fair equality, fraternal state” (12.26) which Nimrod has rejected for “Dominion undeserv'd / Over his brethren” (12.27-28). How then could Adam's “fair large front” legitimately declare “Absolute rule”?16

Marcia Landy acknowledged that Adam's assessment of Nimrod “might seem to argue for egalitarianism. It certainly argues against externally imposed dominion by king or overlord. Yet the equality of fraternity is qualified throughout Paradise Lost by the idea of merit.”17 Certainly there is a hierarchy of merit in Paradise Lost, but this is something very different from a fixed hierarchy of birth, rank, caste, or class, and in in no way conflicts with egalitarianism. The confusion of these different sorts of hierarchy has caused considerable problems in interpreting Paradise Lost, especially in those feminist readings that have too readily accepted the Satanic rigid hierarchy.18

The hierarchy of birth, caste, rank, or class which rigidly fixes its components and allows little or no change, which is predetermined, is one that institutionalizes privilege, power, and inequality. Admiringly defined by C. S. Lewis, it is a system represented by Satan, a model for postlapsarian earthly dynasties, for monarchical, feudal, imperial, and class structures.19

The hierarchy of moral and spiritual development that Milton has Raphael describe in book 5 is entirely different. A “curiously fluid conception of hierarchy,” as Barbara Lewalski characterizes it,20 it is a dynamic model of alchemical circulation and continual refinement.21 There is no fixed inequality. It is open to everything to ascend spiritually. This is the divine hierarchy, one of process and ascent, not rule and repression.

To whom the winged Hierarchy repli'd.
O Adam, one Almighty is, from whom
All things proceed, and up to him return,
If not deprav'd from good, created all
Such to perfection, one first matter all,
Indu'd with various forms various degrees
Of substance, and in things that live, of life;
But more refin'd, more spiritous, and pure,
As neerer to him plac't or nearer tending
Each in thir several active Spheres assign'd,
Till body up to spirit work, in bounds
Proportion'd to each kind. So from the root
Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves
More aery, last the bright consummate flow'r
Spirits odorous breathes: flow'rs and thir fruit
Man's nourishment, by gradual scale sublim'd
To vital spirits aspire, to animal,
To intellectual, give both life and sense.
Fancy and understanding, whence the Soul
Reason receives, and reason is her being,
Discursive, or Intuitive; discourse
Is oftest yours, the latter most is ours,
Differing but in degree, of kind the same.
Wonder not then, what God for you saw good
If I refuse not, but convert, as you,
To proper substance; time may come when men
With Angels may participate, and find
No inconvenient Diet, nor too light Fare:
And from these corporal nutriments perhaps
Your bodies may at last turn all to spirit,
Improv'd by tract of time, and wing'd ascend
Ethereal, as wee, or may at choice
Here or in Heav'nly Paradises dwell.


As Raphael makes clear, this is a dynamic, evolutionary process. It is a flowing scale of ascent, not a fixed hierarchy. It utterly subverts any fixed political or social or gender roles.22

Moreover, the unequivocal inapplicability of fixed gender roles is clear when we relate this passage to what we were told in book 1 about spirits:

For Spirits when they please
Can either Sex assume, or both.


Since Adam and Eve may “at last turn all to Spirit” and since “Spirits when they please / Can either Sex assume, or both,” any assertion of gender hierarchy is ultimately unsustainable.

The concepts of sexual inequality and absolute rule are introduced so brusquely and indeed brutally into the portrayal of Paradise that the reader might expect they would be active concepts in the presented relationship of Adam and Eve in the events leading up to the Fall.23 Strikingly, this is not so. Nor is equality an issue in Satan's temptation. His strategy is to flatter Eve, to suggest her unique superiority—“who shouldst be seen / A Goddess among Gods, ador'd and serv'd / By Angels numberless” (9.546-48), “no Fair to thine / Equivalent or second” (9.608-9). Only after Eve has eaten the apple does she raise the issue of equality, considering whether to share her knowledge with Adam

… and give him to partake
Full happiness with mee, or rather not,
But keep the odds of Knowledge in my power
Without Copartner? so to add what wants
In Female Sex, the more to draw his Love,
And render me more equal, and perhaps,
A thing not undesirable, sometime
Superior: for inferior who is free?


“She is feeling inferior for the first time,” Dorothy Miller remarks of these lines.24 Eve only expresses this sense of any inequality when she is fallen. This suggests that inequality is a part of the fallen world, projected by Eve when she herself has fallen.25

And now in the fallen world, confusions abound. Marcia Landy remarks, “The speech portrays the idea of equality as confused in Eve's mind with dominance. She errs, like Satan, in confusing hierarchy and equality of affection.”26 But Landy too readily accepts a pejorative account of Eve:

By violating boundaries and moving to adopt more power through Satan's offers of equality, power, and authority, Eve identified herself as a deviant. In other words, her resistance to subordination is invalidated and stigmatized through its association with the archetypal subverter, Satan. Are we to consider Eve's rebellion and the rebellion of all women against subordination as evil?27

The issue is more tangled than that. Firstly, Eve undoubtedly errs in eating the apple. Secondly, equality is not an issue in her temptation: it is an explanation, a rationalization, that enters afterwards. Indeed, it can only enter later if, as I have suggested, inequality was not the reality of the paradisal relationship but rather something that “seem'd” the case in Satan's distorted and evil perception.

So although Eve in falling is stigmatized through her association with Satan, this in no way stigmatizes the egalitarian impulse. Once in the fallen, Satanic world the question “for inferior who is free?” is a valid one.

The complicating factor, of course, is that though Satan uses the rhetoric of egalitarianism in rousing supporters for his rebellion, his own motives are profoundly unegalitarian. As Joseph Wittreich puts it, “Satan's strategy is to employ a rhetoric of equality through which he would bring all creation under subjection.”28 Satan's handling of the issue of egalitarianism shows all his political and oratorical shiftiness:

Will ye submit your necks, and choose to bend
The supple knee? ye will not, if I trust
To know ye right, or if ye know yourselves
Natives and Sons of Heav'n possest before
By none, and if not equal all, yet free,
Equally free; for Orders and Degrees
Jar not with liberty, but well consist.
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? … 


Equality is a part—and only a part—of Satan's rhetoric, but never of his social practice. His rhetoric is a serpentine display of confusion and contradiction. Orders and degrees certainly do jar with liberty.29 That is why those observations of “thir sex not equal seem'd,” “Absolute rule,” and “implied subjection” conflict with a true vision of Paradise and alert us that there is a Satanic rhetoric intruding. Satan plays hypocritically with a rhetoric of egalitarianism but acts as an absolutist monarch and sets up a patriarchal dynasty with Sin and Death. About this there are no ambiguities. The narratorial voice denotes him firmly as “Monarch” (2.467) and “Tyrant” (4.394). It is essential to stress, however, that Satan's use of the language of equality in no way discredits the concept of equality. Indeed, his lack of egalitarian practice serves to confirm egalitarianism as a good: “fair equality” (12.26). To reply at last to Marcia Landy, No, we do not have to consider the rebellion of all women against subordination as evil. But Satan is a bad model. Satan's “rebellion” was an attempt to establish tyranny, authoritarian rule. Human rebellion for the good is a rebellion against the Satanic authoritarian, an attempt to “Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat” (1.5) by following the way of Christ:30 a model, indeed, that Eve does follow, her “On mee, mee only” (10.832) echoing Christ's speech (3.236). Social subordination is a Satanic practice introduced by the Fall. But it was not present before the Fall, nor does Milton present Eve as rebelling against it, for it is not shown as present.

The issues of equality and masculine rule are raised again in the judgment and punishment episode in book 10. Again, the passages are fraught with ambiguity. And it is this ambiguity I want to continue to stress. There is certainly a male supremacist, authoritarian, inegalitarian reading prominent in the poem, as numerous critical accounts testify; but at the same time the ambiguities and contradictions and cross-references serve to undermine and deconstruct this reading. They do not do so to the extent of utterly canceling it; but they certainly qualify and challenge it, demonstrating that there was a tension and a debate, which the poem embodies and expresses.

In the judgment there is a wavering between whether Adam treated Eve as his “superior, or but equal.” Do we read these as alternatives, or as equally unacceptable parallels in God's view?

To whom the sovran Presence thus repli'd.
Was shee thy God, that her thou didst obey
Before his voice, or was shee made thy guide,
Superior, or but equal, that to her
Thou didst resign thy Manhood, and the Place
Wherein God set thee above her made of thee,
And for thee, whose perfection farr excell'd
Hers in all real dignity: Adorn'd
She was indeed, and lovely to attract
Thy Love, not thy Subjection, and her Gifts
Were such as under Government well seem'd,
Unseemly to bear rule, which was thy part
And person, hadst thou known thyself aright.


The floating possibility is that seeing Eve as superior was wrong, as opposed to seeing her as “but equal.” If Adam had seen her as “but equal” then his own inner rationality should have allowed him to make a better judgment of what she proposed.31 Again there is the “seem'd,” complicated further by a play on “unseemly”: “her Gifts / Were such as under Government well seem'd, / Unseemly to bear rule, which was thy part.”

And what might seem a firm resolution of the ambiguity here, that Eve was “Unseemly to bear rule, which was thy part” dissolves again when we come to Eve's punishment:

                                         … to thy Husband's will
Thine shall submit, hee over thee shall rule.


How is this a punishment, if it was already the case before the Fall? Nowhere does Milton say the husband's rule over the woman was reiterated.32 It is not presented as a reassertion, but as a punishment in parallel with “Children thou shalt bring / In sorrow forth” (10.194-95). And if submission to the husband's will is a punishment for eating the apple, then before the Fall such a submission of man to woman did not apply. In the paradisal state, man and woman, then, lived in equality. But why is it all so ambiguous? In a legalistic episode of judgment and punishment, we might have expected clarity and scrupulous unambiguity. Yet ambiguity permeates the episode, as it does the whole expression of sexual equality.

The assertion of women's equality was contentious in the seventeenth century as it is today. The moves towards freedom and equality for women had scandalized the ruling classes: Clarendon expresses his horror at women and the lower orders preaching in church.33 But Milton is not only writing about gender equality. He is writing about something that was much more revolutionary and subversive: equality, human equality. This was a truly subversive doctrine, and its developing expression in the late 1640s had provoked the full repression of the bourgeois revolutionary state. The levellers, the diggers and such like were extirpated with a fervor never applied to extirpating royalists.

As Christopher Hill continues to remind us, “Milton wrote under censorship, and was himself a marked man, lucky not to have been hanged, drawn and quartered in 1660. Two of his books were burnt. So he had to be very careful how he said things he wanted to say.”34 Assertions of egalitarianism could only be made carefully and obliquely. Like the assertion that Paradise was communist, that there was no private ownership, also in book 4, it can only be inserted glancingly, in passing, amidst other issues:

Hail wedded Love, mysterious Law, true source
Of human offspring, sole propriety
In Paradise of all things common else.


The issue of common ownership emerges in a discussion of human sexuality. Similarly, the issues of sexual equality rapidly lead on to “sweet reluctant amorous delay” and “those mysterious parts” (4.311-12). Within one contentious issue, human sexuality, Milton involves another contentious issue, egalitarianism and common ownership.

This is not to undercut the issue of gender equality at all. It is not undercut in the poem. But it is firmly attached to that more inclusive and revolutionary aim of achieving total human equality, of restoring us to that still unregained blissful seat, of liberty without orders and degrees, without discrimination, with all things common.


  1. All quotations from Milton's poetry follow Hughes.

  2. Helen Gardner, “A Reading of Paradise Lost” (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 8.

  3. Balachandra Rajan, “Paradise Lost” and the Seventeenth-Century Reader (London: Chatto and Windus, 1947), 66.

  4. David Aers and Bob Hodge have noted the “seem'd”s but conclude “these doubts or equivocations are not dominant, and the passage basically supports a male supremacist reading” (“‘Rational Burning’: Milton on Sex and Marriage,” MS 13 [1979]: 23). Julia M. Walker, “‘For each seem'd either’: Free Will and Predestination in Paradise Lost,MQ 20 (1986), examining Milton's use of “seem'd” in relation to free will and predestination in Paradise Lost, suggests:

    Throughout the poem, Milton uses “seems” in three different ways: first and most simply, “seems” is used to mean a false appearance, a seeming not an actual reality; second, and more ambiguous, “seems” is used as “appears” but without a clear judgment about reality; … finally and most confusingly, “seems” is actually equated with some form of the verb “to be.”

    And she attributes “thir sex not equal seem'd” to his hypothetical “some form of the verb to be” (20). This is an unconvincing redefinition. Cf. also Stephen M. Fallon, “The Uses of ‘Seems' and the Spectre of Predestination,” MS 21 (1987): 99-101, and Julia M. Walker, “Free Will, Predestination, and Ghost-Busting,” MS 21 (1987): 101-2.

  5. See for example Diane Kelsey McColley, Milton's Eve (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1983), 40, and Gardner, 81.

  6. Marcia Landy, “‘A Free and Open Encounter’: Milton and the Modern Reader,” MS 9 (1976): 17.

  7. Peter Demetz, “The Elm and the Vine: Notes Toward the History of a Marriage Topos,” PMLA 73 (1958): 521-32; Todd H. Sammons, “‘As the Vine Curls Her Tendrils': Marriage Topos and Erotic Countertopos in Paradise Lost,MQ 20 (1986): 117-27.

  8. Aers and Hodge, 22. “One might wonder whether ‘declar'd’ (4.300) undercuts the whole speech on male rule since these signs may only ‘declare’ absolute rule to the fallen Satan, who does not know what Raphael told Adam, ‘that Great / Or Bright infers not Excellence’” (8.90-91). Nonetheless Aers and Hodge see “these doubts or equivocations” as “not dominant.”

  9. Michael Wilding, Dragons Teeth: Literature in the English Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 227.

  10. Dennis H. Burden's model of “the Satanic poem” contained within Paradise Lost is useful here. See his The Logical Epic: A Study of the Argument of Paradise Lost (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967), 57ff.

  11. “Milton's stridently masculinist ‘Hee for God only, shee for God in him,’” as Mary Nyquist has categorized it, can perhaps now be resituated as Satan's stridently masculinist sentiment. It has worried readers as far back as Richard Bentley, who proposed emending it to “Hee for God only, shee for God and him.” See Mary Nyquist, “The Genesis of Gendered Subjectivity in the Divorce Tracts and in Paradise Lost,” in Re-membering Milton, ed. Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), 107; Dr. Bentley's Emendations on the Twelve Books of Milton's Paradise Lost (London, 1732), 15.

  12. Aers and Hodge, 22.

  13. Landy, 23.

  14. Nyquist, 117.

  15. See Christopher Hill, ed., Winstanley: The Law of Freedom and Other Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), 77.

  16. Of course, when we turn back to book 4, “Absolute rule” is not explicitly applied to man ruling over woman: the context seems to imply it, but the expression is ambiguous and evasive. It is an appropriate Satanic suggestion, inexplicit, insinuating. It can always be plausibly denied and interpreted as applying only to “beast, fish, fowl”—though male supremacism is the prime Satanic implication.

  17. Landy, 9.

  18. Landy, passim; William Shullenberger, “Wrestling with the Angel: Paradise Lost and Feminist Criticism,” MQ 20 (1986): 74: “The doctrine of woman's subordination is explicit in the text”; Virginia R. Mollenkott, “Milton and Women's Liberation,” MQ 7 (1973): 101: “Milton treated the subject of female subordination in the most objective fashion possible, not with egotistical gratification but because his view of a hierarchical universe would allow no other concept”; Ricki Heller, “Opposites of Wifehood: Eve and Dalila,” MS 24 (1988): 190. The hierarchical, gender-discriminatory model is, of course, endemic in non-feminist readings such as, for example, Joseph H. Summers, The Muse's Method: An Introduction to “Paradise Lost” (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962):

    The inequality of man and woman is imaged as clearly as is their perfection. It is not only modern ideas of the equality of the sexes which may make this passage difficult for us; the democratic assumption that ideally every individual should be self-sufficient and our tendency to define “perfection” as eternal self-sufficiency complicate our difficulties further (95).

  19. C. S. Lewis, A Preface to “Paradise Lost” (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1942), 72-80.

  20. Barbara K. Lewalski, “Milton on Women—Yet Once More,” MS 6 (1974): 6.

  21. On the alchemical, see Alastair Fowler in The Poems of John Milton, ed. John Carey and Alastair Fowler (London: Longman, 1968), 704; and see also Michael Lieb, The Dialectics of Creation: Patterns of Birth and Regeneration in “Paradise Lost” (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1970), 229-44.

  22. Cf. Marilyn R. Farwell, “Eve, the Separation Scene, and the Renaissance Idea of Androgyny,” MS 16 (1982): 13: “Thus, anyone who at one point represents the natural and material world is not bound to remain at that level. Theoretically then, Eve has the potential to grow into more wisdom and spirituality.”

  23. The sheer blatancy of the inegalitarian and absolutist ideas expressed in the vision of Adam and Eve in book 4 has inevitably shocked readers. And this very brusqueness and brutality may well be interpreted as Milton's strategy for shocking readers into reassessing their attitudes. Stanley Fish's model for reading Paradise Lost could well be applied here: “Milton consciously wants to worry his reader, to force him to doubt the correctness of his responses and to bring him to the realization that his inability to read the poem with any confidence in his own perceptions is its focus” (Surprised by Sin: The Reader in “Paradise Lost” [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1967], 4).

  24. Dorothy Durkee Miller, “Eve,” JEGP 61 (1962): 546.

  25. Oddly, Diane K. McColley puts it the other way: “Equality in any case is a fallen concept—the legal recourse of a race not much given to rejoicing in the goodness, much less the superiority, of others—needed to rectify injustices that no one in a state of sinless blessedness would consider committing” (“Milton and the Sexes,” in The Cambridge Companion to Milton, ed. Dennis Danielson [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989], 159).

  26. Landy, 21.

  27. Landy, 19. The parallels between Eve and Satan are stressed in Sandra M. Gilbert, “Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections on Milton's Bogey,” PMLA 93 (1978): 368-82, and King-Kok Cheung, “Beauty and the Beast: A Sinuous Reflection of Milton's Eve,” MS 23 (1987): 197-214.

  28. Joseph Wittreich, Jr., Feminist Milton (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1987), 90-91. And see John M. Steadman, “Satan and the Argument from Equality,” in his Milton's Epic Characters: Image and Idol (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1959), 160-73.

  29. Satan's argument is hampered by the fact that he particularly wants to avoid equality among his own faction, and therefore has to turn aside for a moment to explain (789ff.) that “Orders and Degrees Jarr not with liberty.” He is not very explicit on the subject, et pour cause. The passage is one of those where (rightly and inevitably) an element of grim comedy is permitted. (Lewis, 76)

    Mollenkott, however, writes, “It is … generally true that ‘Orders and Degrees jar not with liberty'” (101).

  30. Wilding, 226; Fredric Jameson, “Religion and Ideology,” in Literature and Power in the Seventeenth Century, ed. Francis Barker et al. (Colchester; Univ. of Essex Press, 1981), 329.

  31. Cf. Dennis Danielson, “Through the Telescope of Typology: What Adam Should Have Done,” MQ 23 (1989): 121-27.

  32. Cf. Maureen Quilligan, Milton's Spenser: The Politics of Reading (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983), 237: “Her punishment is not merely to bear children in pain, but to (re)submit to her husband's will”; and see also James Grantham Turner, One Flesh: Paradisal Marriage and Sexual Relations in the Age of Milton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).

  33. Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon, The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (Oxford, 1704), 3:32.

  34. Christopher Hill, “Samson Agonistes Again,” Literature and History, 2d ser., 1 (1990): 24. For a full discussion of the topic, see “Censorship and English Literature,” in The Collected Essays of Christopher Hill: Writing and Revolution in Seventeenth-Century England (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1985), 1:32-71.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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