ENGL 220: Milton

Lecture 11

 - The Miltonic Simile


Milton’s characteristic use of simile is explored in Books One and Two of Paradise Lost. Particular attention is paid to how Milton’s similes work to support, undermine, and complicate both the depiction of Satan and the broader thematic concerns of the poem, such as the ideas of free will and divine providence. The critical perspectives of Geoffrey Hartman and Stanley Fish are incorporated into an analysis of Satan’s shield and spear and the simile of the leaves.

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ENGL 220 - Lecture 11 - The Miltonic Simile

Chapter 1. Introduction: Similes in Paradise Lost [00:00:00]

Professor John Rogers: Everyone agrees that the epic similes in Paradise Lost are different from the epic similes in any other epic poem, and everyone agrees – I’m just going to be presenting to you a sense of critical consensus here – everyone agrees that the similes are in some way absolutely essential to an understanding of this remarkable poem. Everyone agrees that what Milton is doing in the similes is educating the reader, the reader of this poem. He’s introducing the reader to a mode of vision different from the vision typically permitted him from within the poem’s more or less straightforward, linear, narrative boundaries. The similes enable us to see something about the story that the rest of the poem doesn’t enable us to see. I think that it’s fair to say that everyone agrees on that, and that’s not nothing but that’s pretty much where the agreement ends. Milton’s similes are notoriously difficult as you no doubt have already experienced. The poem seems unusually self-conscious about the role that its similes play.

So think of the article on Milton’s similes by Geoffrey Hartman. Hartman describes Milton’s tendency in Paradise Lost, and he takes this term from Coleridge: the tendency to stand ab extra, to stand from outside. Milton’s looking in at his own work from a distance, according to Coleridge and then Hartman. Hartman associates this image of Milton’s standing ab extra with the figures in so many of those similes who seem also to be standing ab extra. I think Hartman is absolutely right to note that it’s this aspect of Milton’s similes that sets them entirely apart from the similes in any other epic poem.

Everyone should have a handout. Does everyone have a handout? Yes, okay. So this is my first point. There’s always, and I think this is nearly invariable – there’s an element in Milton’s similes that stands outside the framework of the basic comparison. In Book One alone there are four primary instances of what we can think of as this primary simile dynamic. We can call these the observer similes, and you see that they’re listed on the handout. First we have the “Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,” and the pilot stands ab extra, from outside, in the simile. The simile is there ostensibly to compare Satan with the great sea beast, leviathan. In the comparison of Satan’s shield with the moon is the figure of the Tuscan artist, the Tuscan artist being Galileo. Galileo appears in the simile but actually seems to be unnecessary for the general purposes of the comparison. Then we have the simile of the fallen leaves, which compares the fallen angels to fallen leaves, and in that simile we have the image of the Israelites. Milton calls them the “Sojourners of Goshen,” and they’re standing outside the general parameters of the comparison. In each of these cases the figure who stands ab extra, from outside, is an observer, an observer looking in and interpreting the action before him and an observer in a position presumably to make some kind of moral judgment on the action taking place.

Chapter 2. Similes in Paradise Lost: Satan’s Shield Compared to the Moon [00:03:36]

Okay. First of all, let’s look at the simile that compares Satan’s shield to the moon. This is Book One, line 283. This should be in the Hughes, page 218. Okay:

He scarce had ceas’t when the superior Fiend [that’s obviously Satan]
Was moving toward the shore; his ponderous shield,
Ethereal temper, massy, large and round,
Behind him cast; the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views
At Ev’ning from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new Lands,
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe.

Let’s try to take this apart. As I see it, the official function of this simile is to give us a sense of the size of Satan’s shield and thereby to give us a sense of the size of Satan himself. Satan’s shield is as big as the moon – this is the most common form of simile, epic or otherwise, and it can be schematized. Well, I’m going to write on the board, “shield equals moon,” and you can schematize it with, let’s say, “A equals A’.” A’? You get it, something slightly different from A. That kind of makes sense, but there’s more, of course, here than the moon to describe Satan’s shield. It’s a much more elaborate simile than that: “the broad circumference / hung on his shoulders like the Moon whose Orb / through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views. All of a sudden a third element has been injected in to the comparison. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the question of simply the size of Satan’s shield, and we realize that we have to redraw the schema into which we fit this simile. So it’s not merely “A equals A’.” It’s “A equals A’ X,” and X here would be Galileo, the Tuscan artist. The X of course doesn’t announce its purpose within the logical context of the simile. One of the labors of reading Paradise Lost is the reader’s obligation to supply the analog for the X, and this poem is filled with such X’s.

So, what is it? What is it, we ask, in the action of the poem that this X could be analogous to? It’s a good question, and I think it still stands unresolved in the general understanding of this poem. What does this observer ab extra represent? Milton’s similes always seem overstuffed. They’re overdetermined. They always mean or signify far more than they’re supposed to if their job is simply to make a comparison. There’s never been any agreement, so far as I can tell, as to who it is we’re supposed to be imagining the outside observer to be, and there are all sorts of conjectures. There is the reader. There is God. There’s Milton. There are a number of possibilities.

Now, this particular simile conjures for us an image of someone trying to get a fix on Satan’s shield, and there’s the suggestion here of an attempt to get a proper perspective on this huge character, Satan. By extension we have our attempt as readers to arrive at an understanding of the first two books in general. I think it’s easy to see why Milton would have wanted to do this. There’s no question that it’s Satan who in these first two books completely overwhelms our imagination. He’s without question the most compelling figure, certainly, in the first two books and, I think, arguably in the entire poem. This fact is a continually troubling phenomenon both for Milton and, of course, for Milton’s readers. It only stands to reason, I think, that Milton would want to inscribe within this poem the problem posed by this extraordinarily compelling characterization of Satan. How are we supposed to see Satan? How are we supposed to arrive at some kind of proper moral discernment of Satan’s being? This is the type of question that these similes are continually raising.

But we have further to go with this simile. So initially the ponderous shield is of an “ethereal temper,” we are told. It has been tempered in a celestial fire in ether, and it was the ether of the ethereal heavens that had always been thought – throughout the Renaissance and long before, of course – to be the most perfect substance imaginable. The moon, too, was widely believed to be a perfect sphere of fiery ether. Like the sun, it was thought to be a perfect heavenly body and, as you probably know, it was Galileo though – the Tuscan artist, the Italian astronomer – who disproved just that assumption in 1610 when he published the Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger). So with his optic glass, his telescope, Galileo was able to discern spots on the orb of the moon. It turned out to be a spotty globe just like the earth. The moon seemed to contain all of the geological imperfections [laughs] of earth. Suddenly, looking through the optic glass, one could see valleys, it seemed to have rivers, and there were mountains. It could no longer be said that the moon was perfect. It was no longer a fiery heavenly body. It was no longer, after Galileo, of an ethereal temper.

It’s in this light that the introduction, I think, of Galileo in this simile starts to make a little more sense. If we had been thinking – and some of us may well have been thinking and we were right to think provisionally – that Satan was a character that we could actually identify with, if we had been thinking that Satan was in any way a perfect character with some sort of justifiable claim – these thoughts are now being corrected by the means, by the mechanism, of the simile. Like the moon, Satan may look beautiful, but upon a closer scrutiny that beauty begins to yield certain metaphysical flaws.

Okay. That’s one way to read the simile, one way to make sense of this mention of the X, the Galileo figure. That’s a moral reading of Paradise Lost that I’ve just given you; but of course, it’s only a partial one because we haven’t gone further enough. It’s not simply that Galileo represents the admiring observer of Satan who is finally able to arrive at a just sense of his moral spots and imperfections. It’s more complicated than that. Galileo himself is viewing the situation from a fallen and an unperfect, uncertain perspective. Galileo’s only using, of course, his telescope in the first place because his human capacity for vision is insufficient to see the truths of the heavens. The unfallen Adam certainly didn’t need a telescope to discern a lot about the heavenly bodies. Further complicating the picture, Milton places this scene of observation with extraordinary care at the moment of evening. You’ll be noticing as you read and reread the poem just how many crucial moments in Paradise Lost occur at evening or twilight, that privileged moment between day and night in which objects in our field of vision may be visible, but they’re nonetheless indistinct and indeterminate. They’re blurred.

So, Galileo here is struggling to get the proper visionary fix on the moon at a point in the day when there are no absolutes. We’re in between absolute day and absolute night, light and dark. Milton pushes this image even further into indistinctness with an instance of his famous deployment of the conjunction or. It has been argued, and I think this is a brilliant point, that the most important word in Paradise Lost is or, the conjunction. We’ll be talking about why that’s the case, but you’ll get a little sense of it here: “the Tuscan Artist views… / from the top of Fesole, / or in Valdarno…” Well, on some level we’d kind of like to know which it is, either on the top of a mountain or in a valley – the Valdarno, the valley of the Arno River in Italy. The place names may seem just superfluous here, something additional that has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual purpose of the comparison, but Milton’s uncertainty or the narrator’s uncertainty as to whether Galileo has stationed his telescope at the top of a mountain or deep in a valley raises an important question about the status, literally the status, of the observer here. It’s not just that Satan or the moon or whatever it is that we’re looking at seems indeterminate until we get a proper look at it. It’s so much more complicated than that. We don’t even know where it is we’re supposed to be looking from, and the choice between Fesole and Valdarno that Milton gives the reader is crucial here. The fact of the proliferation of possible perspectives is just as important, and I would think it’s actually even more important, as any single seemingly proper perspective.

Okay. This is only the first mention of Galileo in the poem and, as you will see if you’re careful in looking at your footnotes in the Hughes, appears two other times within the later similes in the poem, always in a simile. You have on the handout the other mentions in Paradise Lost of Galileo. It would be a wonderful paper topic, an examination of all of the Galileo similes. I think it stands to reason to assume that this figure of Galileo is of some importance to Milton and the workings of the poem. Galileo is the only contemporary personage, the only seventeenth-century figure, even so much as mentioned in Paradise Lost. The rest of contemporary history, including all of the stormy events leading up to Milton’s own beloved Puritan Revolution, in which Milton himself, of course, had participated – all of that has been at least at the literal level, at the explicit level, expunged from the poem.

Galileo’s important. Milton had written in Areopagitica that he had actually met Galileo on his journey, when Milton was a young man and Galileo was a very old man, through the continent. When Milton met him, Galileo would have been old and blind, not unimportant to the later Milton, and Galileo was under house arrest at his home in Fiesole. He’d been imprisoned for his intellectual daring and affirming the Copernican view that the earth orbited around the sun. He had rebelled against the supreme authority of the Roman Catholic Church, and in this respect, he provides the poem with something like an earthly version of the arch-rebel Satan of course: Satan who rebels against the supreme authority of the heavenly father.

Well, that makes sense, kind of, that Milton had clearly admired the astronomer. In calling him here the Tuscan artist, in some respects we can see him forging an identification between himself as a literary artist and Galileo as a scientific artist. The rebellious artist Milton and the rebellious astronomer Galileo are continually threatening to lapse into some sort of identity with Satan himself. Suddenly, the distinctions that the simile works so hard to establish are beginning to erode. Not just that, but the moral certainties that may have seemed distinct when we contrasted the ethereal heaven with the spotty and the imperfect nature of Satan and of the moon – those, too begin to seem fairly hazy. The simile sets out to establish the moral polarities between good and evil, but it then works almost systematically to undo that understanding. The perspective is an evening perspective rather than a perspective of total illumination. The similes are continually working to unleash – and they’re really quite unruly in this respect – to unleash the moral and the theological confusion that so much of the rest of the poem seems really quite eager to pin down and to fix.

Chapter 3. Similes in Paradise Lost: Satan’s Spear Compared to the Mast of a Ship [00:17:05]

That was the Galileo simile. That’s how big Satan’s shield was: well, how big is Satan’s spear? Milton compares it to the mast of a ship. This is line 292 in Book One, the bottom of page 218 in the Hughes. This is a simile that Stanley Fish brilliantly describes as central to a certain temporal procedure common in Milton’s verse; Fish is interested in the temporal process of reading in general. It’s this extraordinary insight that he gives us: we can only read one word at a time, we can only read one line at a time. Fish argues that the simile has no choice but to unfold over time, and so in the example about Milton’s spear, we read first that – this is line 292, this is how Stanley Fish’s reading goes: “His Spear, to equal which the tallest Pine / hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the Mast / of some great Ammiral [or flagship].” An “Ammiral” is a big warship.

Now we may assume, having read only that much of the simile, that Satan’s spear is as tall as the mast of the ship, not a small spear. And so we adjust our minds to accommodate – because presumably we weren’t imagining Satan to be that big – to accommodate this sense of Satan’s tremendous physical magnitude. Surely, Satan is bigger than anything we had been assuming, but the simile continues. As soon as we read the next lines, we’re struck with the possibility – and surely it’s just a provisional possibility, but we’re struck by the image that Satan’s spear is actually quite small. His spear “were but a wand / he walkt with to support uneasy steps.” If only for a moment, Satan suddenly seems old and frail. This is an image of an old man with a cane. We have to adjust our understanding of his physical size one more time, and of course necessarily his moral magnitude would be adjusted as well in our interpretation.

Needless to say, we’re not done. The simile isn’t telling us that Satan’s spear is as small as a wand because what we have is a syllogism here. Satan’s spear is to the tallest pine what the tallest pine is to a little, bitty wand. Finally we realize that Satan’s spear [laughs] is of an unimaginable proportion. Just as soon as we crowded our imagination already with the image of the spear the size of a Norwegian pine, which took a certain imaginative leap on our parts, we realize that Satan and his spear are immeasurably larger even than that. The simile pushes the size of the spear clean out of our rational comprehension, and it’s this process that is, according to Stanley Fish, the point of the simile. The circuitous, logical route that we had to take in order to arrive at this new sense of Satan’s size has everything to do with our status as temporally bound, temporally constrained readers.

The genius of Fish’s reading of Milton’s similes is to understand the particularly time-bound nature of Milton’s verse. So first we read that Satan’s spear is big. Then we read, or at least we think we read, that Satan’s spear is small, and then we realize over the course of this reading process that Satan’s spear is unimaginable, and we realize that our time-bound mode of knowing is ultimately inadequate to understand anything about the inscrutable truths of eternity: this is according to Fish. We can’t know anything certain about the eternal and the immortal world of Paradise Lost except through these faculties we have and those are uncertain, imperfect, fallen human capacities of reading. Milton wants the reader to know that she’s fallen, we are all fallen, and any problem that we have in understanding the theology of heaven and hell is our problem as fallen readers. Fish imagines Milton as always on some level slapping the reader’s wrist, reminding the reader of his or her fallen-ness, that there’s a constant pedagogical correction going on.

That was Stanley Fish. The other great critic of the Miltonic simile for my money takes a completely different tack, and that’s Geoffrey Hartman who makes an argument that might even be thought to contradict Fish’s argument, although actually Geoffrey Hartman wrote his piece first. Hartman’s image of the simile isn’t temporal the way Fish’s was. It’s spatial. For Hartman, the Miltonic simile actually permits the reader something like the perspective of eternity, a divine perspective, and of course, this is exactly what Stanley Fish had told us was impossible. The rhetorical strategy that Milton uses to give us this perspective of eternity is what Geoffrey Hartman called Milton’s counter-plot. Like Fish, Hartman is most interested in the similes of the first two books, the similes that provide some kind of window onto the world of Satan, and he focuses on the simile actually that follows the simile of Satan’s shield that we’ve been looking at; it follows the simile of the spear that Fish had analyzed.

Chapter 4. Similes in Paradise Lost: Simile of the Leaves [00:22:38]

This is the simile of the leaves. I’m going to ask you to look at line 300 of Book One, page 219 in the Hughes. Satan has roused himself from off the burning marl, and he stands in order to call up his fallen minions, to rouse them to acts- great acts of heroism.

… he stood and call’d
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbowr; or scatterd sedge
Afloat, when with fierce Winds Orion arm’d
Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves o’erthrew
Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry,
While with [this thing doesn’t end] perfidious hatred they pursu’d
The Sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
From the safe shore thir floating Carcasses
And broken Chariot Wheels; so thick bestrewn
Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,
Under amazement of thir hideous change.

For me the [laughs] absolutely shocking fact of this simile is that its primary purpose is merely [laughs] to describe the number of angels who are prostrate on the burning lake of hell. They lie entranced, thick as – how many angels were there? They lie “thick as Autumnal leaves that strew the Brooks / in Vallombrosa”; but Milton will pursue this simile with such a relentless drive – it’s exhausting – that by the end of it, I think we’ve probably forgotten its role in merely illustrating the quantity of angel forms.

Now the angels lay as thick as the sedge on the Red Sea coast when Pharaoh–Milton uses the Latin Busiris for “Pharaoh”–with all his Egyptian army chased the Israelites across the Red Sea after God – and this is the story told in Exodus 14 – parted the Red Sea to allow the “Sojourners of Goshen,” the Israelites, to cross. Satan’s described initially here as the wind god Orion, a classical figure who vexed or tossed the waves of the Red Sea, just as Satan is rousing and inspiring his fallen host of angels; but Milton continues to complicate the simile. He quickly complicates our identification of Orion with Satan, which wasn’t arrived at that easily to begin with. Satan may be like the wind, Orion, but Orion here is also seen as vexing and destroying the Egyptians whose carcasses wash up on the shores of the Red Sea, and the Israelites, having crossed the Red Sea safely, look on at this destruction from the safety of their shore.

Think about it. Something’s gone awry in this simile. The wind, Orion, had initially represented the heroic general of his troops, Satan – Geoffrey Hartman would describe this as the plot of the simile; but this wind, Orion, begins immediately to destroy the evil Busiris, the Egyptian Pharaoh: a figure that biblical history had long associated with Satan and had considered to be an earthly version or a type of Satan. So you have a wind god who is identified with Satan destroying Pharaoh, who is also identified with Satan, just as he attempts to destroy God’s faithful. And it’s this final movement of the simile, according to this ingenious argument by Geoffrey Hartman, that Hartman calls the counter-plot. Embedded within the explicit plot of the simile is a secret, a kind of buried narrative, and it’s a hidden story that illustrates Satan’s self-destruction. It illustrates Satan’s self-destruction even as the main narrative of the simile portrays Satan’s heroism. The plot around the simile is glorifying the heroic Satan here, and Hartman ingeniously locates throughout a number of Milton’s similes this same dynamic of a redemptive counter-plot. It’s as if there is a subterranean, figurative movement at work in the simile that’s continually reminding us, according to Hartman, of the calm efforts of divine providence on behalf of us, of good Christian men and women – some ultimate divine control over the evil actions of Satan.

Now the genius of Hartman’s argument about the counter-plot was that when Hartman floated this argument in the late ‘50s was that it enabled us to understand – not us, we weren’t born then, but it enabled readers of Milton to understand for the first time something like the theological purpose behind a lot of the most fascinating and extraordinary rhetorical effects of the poem. And Hartman made sense of the seemingly chaotic and confused movement of the narrator’s imagination here. This counter-plot continues to reinforce, according to Hartman, our faith in the two most important elements of the poem’s theology: and that’s man’s free will or Milton’s doctrine of free will on the one hand, and Milton’s insistence on the importance of divine providence on the other hand – God’s foreknowledge. Through the dynamics of the counter-plot, the similes reassure us of what Hartman calls the “graceful coexistence of free will and divine providence.”

Let’s move on. Neither of these critics – neither Fish nor Hartman discusses one of the most celebrated aspects of this last simile that we’ve looked at, and I have a little hunch that there’s a reason for their neglect. This is the initial part of the simile that describes the leaves: “thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks / in Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades / high overarch’t imbow’r.” At least since the eighteenth century, these lines have been singled out for their beauty and, considering that Milton is describing the hideous demons under Satan’s control, the pastoral elegance of this little simile really catches us off guard.

There’s naturally a lot of pressure on Milton to make this part of the simile beautiful and striking because he’s echoing not just one epic poet, but essentially he’s echoing just about every epic poet. Homer and Virgil and, well after them, Dante and innumerable others have all applied the simile of the leaves or some version of it to describe the numberless-ness of the dead. This is on your handout. In The Iliad, as you can see, the warrior Glaucus uses the simile of the leaves to dismiss the importance of genealogy. “Why does it matter what family I’m from?” he asks Diomedes. “Very like leaves upon this earth are the generations of men.” There’s a kind of organic continuity that men partake of just as the natural world does. Virgil alludes to just this passage in Homer when he describes the entrance of a whole crowd of people in to the underworld as “the falling of leaves in the early frost of autumn.” This is where Milton gets the “autumnal.” Finally, Dante alludes to this image of the Virgilian underworld in The Inferno when he describes the descent of humanity, the evil seed of Adam, into the Christian hell. It’s Dante who first supplies the notion of fallen-ness, the theological notion of fallen-ness, to this idea of the fact that the leaves have fallen because of course Dante, unlike Homer and Virgil, is a Christian and has access to the Christian myth of the Fall.

And so it would seem to be Dante’s use of the image that has a primary influence here on Milton, but, as we might expect, there is a complication in the way that Milton uses this particular image. Vallombrosa is a place in Italy that Milton had actually visited as a young man. He visited Vallombrosa when he was introduced to Galileo in Fiesole. Vallombrosa literally means “shady valley,” and I think it recalls Galileo’s shady place, Valdarno, another valley. As you know, in classical literature the dead are referred to as shades, but here in Milton’s simile “shades” merely means “shade trees.” It refers solely to trees, and Vallombrosa is the place “where th’ Etrurian shades / high overarch’t imbow’r.” If these trees are still supplying shade, embowering the entire valley of Vallombrosa, the leaves haven’t all fallen, of course. They’re only in the process of falling. I think this is an important distinction because what you have here in the middle of this simile in Milton’s account of hell is an image of a bower. This is a little paradise, a paradise on the verge of being lost as the shades lose their leaves. The leaves are about to fall but they haven’t yet fallen. I think it’s the imminence of their fallen-ness that lends this image its incredibly powerful emotional intensity and also, I think, its beauty.

Now, the simile concludes with the strong sense of a hideous change – and you will recognize this pattern again and again in Milton – the hideous change undergone by the fallen angels. But what we have here is an image of the beauty of that change, the beauty of the fact that the leaves are falling. Both Hartman and Fish argued that the rhetorical strategies of Milton’s similes work to reinforce the theological categories of good and evil. They argue that the similes are supposed to reassure us that there is a divine good that ultimately overwhelms the evil represented by Satan; but neither of these critics was able to discuss directly Milton’s aestheticization of the Fall in the lines on Vallombrosa. That’s because it’s here where the rigid polarities between light and dark and good and evil, all of these absolute oppositions, begin to collapse. Milton opens up a shady space for something approaching a kind of moral relativism where black and white theological categories simply don’t apply. Of course, this is only provisional but the shady space exists nonetheless. He returns us to the lowly perspective that Galileo had when he set up his telescope in that other valley, Valdarno, and it’s this lowly vantage point that’s beautiful in part because it’s a fallen perspective, not in spite of the fact that it’s a fallen perspective.

Chapter 5. Hartman and Fish: Theories of Similes in Paradise Lost [00:34:18]

I think now we can see why these lines about the autumnal leaves are so difficult for us to incorporate into a moral reading or a theological reading of the poem. They’re invariably cited as among the most beautiful and exquisite lines in Paradise Lost but on some level they’ve proven the bane of scholars because they can’t be squared with any of the poem’s theological message. This is the remarkable thing about so many of Milton’s similes: they’re always bursting out of whatever critical or theological constraints that we work so hard to impose on them. So for Stanley Fish, Milton is always reminding us of our fallen-ness as readers and we’re continually being encouraged to submit all of our uncertainties and all of our doubts to the power of faith. God is in control of the universe and if the poem seems – not that Stanley Fish believes in God, but nonetheless his Milton certainly does – God is in control of the universe. If the poem seems momentarily to suggest otherwise, that’s simply Milton’s way of reminding us of the extent of our fallen-ness. Geoffrey Hartman’s theory had a similar tendency to align the poem with a kind of a religious orthodoxy. The similes are for him instrument in the poem’s larger agenda to reinforce our faith in the coexistence of free will and divine providence – difficult, huge concepts.

Hartman’s absolutely right to insist that no theological concept is as important to Paradise Lost as free will on the one hand and divine providence on the other. We can say that, but I wonder if it’s possible even for these similes to convince us of the easy coexistence of these two incredibly important theological categories, free will and divine foreknowledge. Long before Milton had begun to [laughs] tackle the problem, Christians had for centuries, for millennia, puzzled over the logical inconsistency between these two concepts. We all have our version of trying to wrestle with this: if God knows what you’re going to do tomorrow, to what extent does it make sense to say that what you do tomorrow you do freely? Milton, like a lot of orthodox Christians, will insist when he’s speaking theologically that God’s foreknowledge has no causal effect whatsoever on the future, and so it doesn’t actually impinge on our free will. God the Father will make a similar argument in Book Three. The conclusion reached in Book Three is that God has foreknowledge but he isn’t interested in actual predetermination or some type of divine action that literally compels the behavior of human creatures. So it’s possible, presumably, to say that Adam and Eve actually had no choice, they had no choice when they decided to eat the fruit, and even though God knew that of course – no, [laughs] I said exactly the wrong thing. This is the confusion – “wandering mazes lost”! – that the problem of free will and foreknowledge puts us in. Even though God knew exactly what Adam and Eve would do – that they would eat the fruit – we still have to be able to say that they ate the fruit freely out of their own free will.

Now, scholars are ingenious in their ability to skirt absolutely the central conundrum of Providence that this poem raises and which it raises so insistently and really refuses to let go of; but that doesn’t mean that the problem just goes away. I can’t help but feel that within the context of the [laughs] actual story of the Fall, the Fall of Adam and Eve, that the idea of divine providence isn’t actually all that comforting. The very idea of divine providence, when it’s injected into the story of Adam and Eve’s perfectly disastrous choice to eat the apple, seems to arouse in a lot of us feelings of injustice. What would we call this now? This is entrapment. Why did God place the stupid fruit in the garden in the first place if he knew in advance that Adam and Eve were going to eat the thing? The very idea of Providence in this context can, in fact, assume a kind of menacing force that seems to compel men and women to their evil actions regardless of their technical possession of this capacity that we feel very comfortable calling free will.

So, Hartman and Fish have forwarded two perfectly ingenious theories of Milton’s similes, and they’ve had a tremendous impact, rightly, on generations now of readers of Milton. They’ve taught us how to appreciate what’s strangest and most remarkable about Paradise Lost, but I simply cannot agree with their suggestion that Milton’s similes work in any meaningful way to strengthen our belief in the Christian idea of the coexistence of free will and God’s foreknowledge. I am not convinced that the poem’s radical and most subversive and most exquisite rhetorical effects, these amazing similes, present us with anything like a simple and unambiguous religious message. Paradise Lost as a whole clearly wants us to believe that God has foreknowledge and it also clearly wants us to believe that we have free will, but the similes seem just as often to open up and to question the poem’s doctrinal conclusions. The similes work not to sew everything up but make it impossible for us to maintain anything like the official position on a moral distinction between heavenly good and satanic evil. Milton’s interest in moments of blurriness and of visual indistinctness suggest that the distinction between good and evil is actually never that clear.

Chapter 6. Similes in Paradise Lost: Simile of the Belated Peasant [00:40:34]

Okay. We have time for another simile, the last simile of Book One. This is page 231 in the Hughes. This is the simile of the belated peasant that Hartman describes. Satan and the fallen angels are entering the magnificent structure of Pandemonium, and at one instant all of the angels shrink in order to fit in to the building, however big it is. It’s obviously too small for the angels to fit there in their proper dimensions. Look at line 779 of Book One:

[They] in narrow room
Throng numberless, like that Pigmean Race
Beyond the Indian Mount, or Faery Elves,
Whose midnight Revels, by a Forest side
Or Fountain [Well, which is it? This is another important or] 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 jocond Music charm his ear;
At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds.

Now, the purpose of this simile is to evince the indistinctness and the confusion produced by our vision of the fallen angels. We can only imagine the fallen angels with a kind of dim uncertainty just as the belated peasant sees, or perhaps he only dreams he sees, the dance of fairy elves by a forest side.

Now, so many scholars of Milton are under some sort of pressure to reconcile everything in Milton’s universe to a single theological message, but I think there’s something in this simile that resists our alignment of all the things that the peasant sees with the satanic world of unmitigated evil, of the fallen angels. There’s a difference between fairy elves and hideous demons, I submit, and with the phrase “sees or dreams he sees,” Milton’s alluding to Virgil’s Aeneas who descends to the underworld and catches a glimpse of the shade of his dead lover, Dido – or he thinks he catches a glimpse of the shade of his dead lover, Dido. The Virgilian echo gives this passage in Milton an unmistakable pathos and an undeniable beauty. As with the passage on the falling of the leaves there’s a kind of elegiac tone that works to undo, or at least to challenge, our theological certainty. As we’ve noticed, all of these similes have these observer figures and this one does, too. There’s a second figure here standing ab extra, and that’s the moon hovering overhead: “while over-head the Moon / sits Arbitress.” We’re naturally invited to question what force is it that this moon represents. Now you may remember what Geoffrey Hartman had argued that the moon represents the power of divine providence, and there’s a lot of ways in which this reading makes sense. An arbitress is a judge and she would seem to oversee the justice in this world. The question of providential justice is of course of primary significance to Milton’s poem, but Hartman goes on to say that the moon, which reminds us of a calm and perfect sense of Providence, also works to guarantee the principal of free will.

So, this is my question to you: how complete and perfect is the image of Providence that hovers moonlike over the pages of Paradise Lost? I think Milton is encouraging us in these similes to question, really to wrestle with, the theological certainties that the rest of the poem labors to establish. The uncertain status of divine providence here, I think, is made clear by its figuration as a moon. So I’m going to conclude here by reminding you what you already know. We have already seen a moon in Book One. The moon was compared to Satan’s shield, and Milton was preparing us then for this radically ambiguous status of this providential moon. It was Galileo’s job, you’ll remember, with his telescope to detect the otherwise undetectable spots and imperfections in this seemingly, but only seemingly, perfect moon. I’m convinced that it’s the reader’s job to apply the same degree of critical scrutiny, a kind of Galilean critical scrutiny, to the image of Providence that will be elaborated, as you will see, at extraordinary length in Book Three of Paradise Lost.

So, for next time you’ll read Book Three. You will focus, however, on the opening invocation. Please do read all of the other selections as well. You will have sonnets and little bits of prose. We’ll be talking about Milton’s blindness.

[end of transcript]

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