ENGL 220: Milton

Lecture 12

 - The Blind Prophet


This lecture focuses on the invocation to light at the beginning of Book Three of Paradise Lost. Milton’s factual and figurative understanding of his blindness is traced through his letters, Sonnet XXII, and the later epic Samson Agonistes. Particular emphasis is placed on the transformation of blindness in the corpus from a spiritual punishment to a poetic gift. The implications of biographical interpretations of literature are also touched upon.

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ENGL 220 - Lecture 12 - The Blind Prophet

Chapter 1. Introduction: Milton’s Blindness [00:00:00]

Professor John Rogers: It’s not until Book Three of Paradise Lost that the poet explicitly reveals to us, to his readers, the fact of the physical handicap that might reasonably be thought to render impossible his composition of the poem. It’s not until Book Three, until after Milton presents his heroic portrait of Satan and his heroic portrait of the fallen angels when he establishes the fact of his blindness. So I’m going to be devoting this lecture to Milton’s representation of his blindness and especially to the invocation of light with which Book Three begins, because I’m absolutely convinced that a feeling for the phenomenon of Milton’s blindness is crucial to any real understanding of this poem, certainly, but also of this poet. One of the questions that I want here to pursue is the question of why Milton – with the exception of an oblique, and it’s really a very oblique, reference in the opening invocation – why Milton waits until now, until the third book of his epic, to divulge his blindness to his reader.

Milton began to lose his eyesight around 1646. This is when he’s in his late thirties and he was entirely blind by February of 1652, and that was at the age of forty-four. According to one of the earliest biographers – and really usefully and wonderfully, Merritt Hughes includes in the back of the Hughes edition most of the earliest biographies of Milton. They make for fascinating reading. These are sketches of the poet written very shortly after Milton’s death. According to one of these biographers, Milton subjected himself to a range of medical procedures in order to cure, or at least to forestall, the darkness that was about to set over him. He imbibed a lot of potent medicines – obviously they were ineffective – and he endured the indignity of that procedure that was most commonly deployed in the seventeenth century for the treatment of any serious disease, and that was the process of bloodletting. We have to imagine that, as was the case for other men and women who underwent some onset of blindness, small incisions would be made in the skin around Milton’s eyes and a quantity of blood would be drained at regular intervals in order to empty the body of the harmful toxins, or its “ill humors,” that were believed to produce this terrible malady.

The medical community, of course, was not able to forestall the failure of Milton’s eyes and so, as I said, Milton was blind by 1652. Milton would never see his fourth child, a daughter born three months after the onset of total blindness. He would never again see the face of his wife, Mary Powell, when she died three days after the child’s birth; nor could he witness the death of his only son, John Jr., which occurred six weeks after that. And finally, Milton would never see the face of Katherine Woodcock, the woman he married four years later and who soon herself died in childbirth, nor would he ever see the face of Elizabeth Minshull whom he married nine years after that.

Why did Milton go blind? Reasonable conjecture leads us to think that it was either glaucoma or cataracts, but of course our business here has nothing to do with the real causes of Milton’s blindness but with Milton’s literary figuration, his representation of the causes of his blindness. I am convinced that one of the most powerful determinants in Milton’s late writings is Milton’s drive to ascertain and then also to justify the cause of his loss of sight. I think you have throughout the late writings really a proliferation of explanations and justifications of his blindness, and they really fill Milton’s writing throughout the entire period from 1650 to his death in 1674.

Chapter 2. How Milton and His Contemporaries Interpreted His Blindness [00:04:47]

First let us consider how Milton’s contemporaries interpreted his blindness. Milton’s world fell into total darkness a little less than a year after he finished his great and really quite daring political treatise, the First Defense of the English People, which was published in 1651. This was the last of Milton’s regicide treatises. It was written in Latin because the new commonwealth government had commissioned John Milton to justify the unprecedented act of regicide to the entire European community, which is why Milton didn’t write it in English. Milton was responsible for explaining to all of Europe why the English people had beheaded their king and why they had set up a new government on what Milton considered to be idealistic non-monarchic principles. Now most of Milton’s readers on the continent were appalled by England’s action and appalled especially by Milton’s defense of England. It was widely thought – not only on the continent but also by a lot of Milton’s fellow Englishmen – it was widely thought that God himself had blinded Milton specifically for his writing against the king. Milton was the subject of a number of sermons that were delivered from the pulpits by conservative Anglican churches, and the sermons pointed to Milton as an example. Milton was an example: “Look what happens to those who lift their hand against God’s anointed king. Look what happened to Milton. He was punished with blindness for writing his defense of the regicide.”

It’s in response to just this type of common accusation that Milton writes that lovely sonnet to his friend, Mr. Cyriack Skinner. This is on page 170 in the Hughes. This is the sonnet in which Milton insists, just as he will in the Second Defense of the English People, that his blindness has nothing whatsoever to do with an act of God. In the poem to Cyriack Skinner, Milton’s been totally blind for about three years now, and he begins the sonnet to his friend like this: “Cyriack, this three years’ day these eyes, though clear / to outward view of blemish or of spot, / bereft of light thir seeing have forgot.” Milton writes repeatedly throughout this period that despite his blindness, his eyes appear – and this is incredibly important to him – they appear to outward view to be perfectly healthy. He continually clears himself of any wrongdoing by insisting that his eyes are clear of blemish or of spot – or any sign, that is, I have to assume, of sin or of corruption or blame. So far from being robbed of light by God, his eyes have simply – and isn’t this a lovely metaphor – his eyes have simply forgotten how to see. You’ll remember how important, how redemptive actually, the idea of forgetting had become to Milton in Paradise Lost.

Now, Milton goes even further in the sonnet in exculpating himself. Look at line ten. This is where he claims that he is supported by his conscience, his knowledge that he willingly sacrificed his eyes for the patriotic goal of political liberty. Milton is talking of his eyes here: “[I] lost them overplied / in liberty’s defense, my noble task, / Of which all Europe talks from side to side.” He ruined his eyesight with the tireless labor that he devoted to writing that first defense of the English people. Milton sacrificed his eyes for the freedom of his countrymen, the noble task for which he was compensated. He was compensated with the talk of all of Europe, he was a celebrity. According to this formulation, Milton has knowingly and willingly bought fame as a political liberator with the noble, sacrificial payment of his eyes.

Now, this is the claim that Milton’s making publicly in these poems in this period and in the prose treatises. It’s a claim for the nobility of the tragic condition that he finds himself in, and so in all of Milton’s public poetry and prose Milton asserts his blindness as a point of pride. He even goes so far in the Second Defense of the English People to claim that his blindness is actually a sign of God’s election; God has chosen him, and it’s an incredibly beautiful image, the image of Milton’s eyes being covered by heavenly wings, by angel wings, almost as a favor. He’s continually asserting publicly that his blindness is a sign of strength.

But we have a more private and a more personal consideration of his blindness in a letter that Milton wrote to his friend, Dr. Leonard Philaras, the Athenian, and this was in the [course] packet. In the more private venue of the personal letter, Milton seems in some ways to lower his guard, and he makes a powerful and moving plea for a cure because he’s writing to a doctor. Look in the packet. This is around page sixty in the packet. The original page number is 722, I believe. Milton’s articulating here for the doctor the history of his loss of sight and the nature of his condition: “It is ten years, I think, more or less, since I noticed my sight becoming weak and growing dim, and at the same time my spleen and all my viscera are burdened and shaken with flatulence.” After this account of intestinal discomfort, Milton then describes the mist that began to appear in his left eye; Milton’s left eye was the first one to fail. Then a few sentences down he describes the failure of the right eye:

The other eye also failing slowly and gradually over a period of almost three years, some months before my sight was completely destroyed. Everything which I distinguished when I myself was still seemed to swim, now to the right, now to the left. Certain permanent vapors seemed to have settled upon my entire forehead and temples which press and oppress my eyes with a sort of sleepy heaviness especially from mealtime to evening.

In this letter to the doctor, Milton associates the onset of his blindness with the onset of a gastrointestinal complaint, and in doing this he’s following the common wisdom about the causes of blindness, which was usually attributed in the scientific community of the seventeenth century to a digestive problem. For Milton, his most oppressive pain burdened his forehead and his eyes in the hours following the noontime meal, and the pain in his head corresponded to a pain in his gut, which occurred presumably in the same hours following the noontime meal, as his entire frame was shaken with a violent flatulence. This is the theory of how this kind of digestive ailment caused blindness: the digestive vapors that Milton or anyone who was going blind was not able to expel successfully through normal digestion and the normal process of the passing of wind – these vapors were trapped in our poet’s body. They began gradually to rise up to his head over a period of many months or even years where they settled into the sockets of his eyes. Eventually they clouded over his eyes and cut off all access to light from the outside. Another way of putting this: the affliction that would alter forever the last quarter of Milton’s life had its ultimate cause in the process of digestion. Milton’s greatest misery was quite simply the consequence – and he may have believed this – the consequence of something he ate.

Now, you probably have no doubt guessed why I’m emphasizing this particular figuration of Milton’s blindness as an irrevocable change that follows the ingestion of food. The story of Milton’s blindness as he represents it brings us so perilously close to the story of the Fall, which is, of course, another narrative that imagines the inalterable and terrible effects of something eaten. One critic, William Kerrigan, in his brilliant analysis in the book The Sacred Complex has called Paradise Lost the story of an evil meal. It’s important in the poem that Adam and Eve fall at noon. The forbidden fruit is their noontime meal, and it’s possible that Kerrigan is right in aligning the dynamics of the loss of paradise with the logic that Milton employs in describing the loss of his sight. When Adam falls in Book Nine of Paradise Lost – and these are the lines that are behind me on the board here – we have a description of the almost physiological response of the earth to the sinful transgression of Adam: “Earth trembl’d from her entrails, as again / in pangs, and Nature gave a second groan.” It’s as if Milton has transposed on to the entire earth the digestive pains that were the consequence of his own noontime meal, as if the flatulent earth were responding sympathetically somehow to the violent shaking of Milton’s own entrails.

Now, we’re left at the point that we’re so often left: what’s the point of all of this? What’s at stake, or what might be at stake, in this connection between Milton’s own postprandial groaning and moaning and the even more poignant post-lapsarian groaning of Adam and Eve and the entire earth? Now the connection between these two phenomena, I believe (if there is one), involves transgression. The physical deterioration that visits human beings after the Fall comes as a direct consequence, of course, of their transgression of divine law. It’s possible that we have buried in this narrative of Milton’s own physical deterioration a related narrative of a kind of transgression and punishment. I assume that it has already become clear to you that this will be one of those [laughs] lectures that I’m giving over entirely to perfectly shameless biographical speculation. It’s one of the great joys, and I take it to be one of the great privileges, of being able to lecture on Milton in this format rather than in a seminar format, because of course if this were a seminar you could (and you would be right to) ask me for my proof.

How do I know what Milton was thinking? And of course I have no proof [laughter] but I know what I believe. I’m willing here and now to share with you these things that I believe actually quite passionately. My own belief is that on some level Milton may not have convinced himself when he wrote in the second defense – or Milton may not have convinced himself when he wrote in that sonnet to Mr. Cyriack Skinner – that he had willingly sacrificed his eyes for the good of his country or that God had permitted his blindness as a sign of his special election, covering his eyes with angel wings. It’s possible that what you have in a letter like the letter to Leonard Philaras is something like a submerged expression of guilt. Maybe Milton’s enemies were right; maybe Milton was to blame with his transgressive challenges to every conceivable form of authority. Maybe Milton was to blame for his blindness, the affliction that God visited upon him for his crimes.

Now this, of course, is just one way to understand the extraordinary attention that Milton gives to his blindness in the invocation to Book Three of his epic.

Chapter 3. Light and the Creation Account: Comparing Milton and The Book of Genesis [00:17:35]

Turn to page 257 in the Hughes. Milton continues in Paradise Lost – this is written well over a decade after the onset of blindness – Milton continues to defend himself from the imputation of blame. The muse Milton invokes here is not the traditional muse of the classic epic or even the heavenly muse that Milton seems to have fashioned in the first invocation. It’s now exactly that power from which Milton has been excluded by virtue of his blindness – light: “Hail holy Light, offspring of Heav’n first-born, / Or of th’ Eternal Coeternal beam / May I express thee unblam’d?”

Let me just stop right there. “May I express thee unblam’d?” Milton is exposing a fear at the very beginning here of some imputation of blame or guilt. He’s not even sure how to address this inspiring light. The first seven lines of this invocation are not just the most –and they are, but they are not simply the most impenetrable lines in the entire poem. They are among the most difficult lines of poetry ever written. It’s always worth asking why a passage of poetry is so impossible to wrap your brain around. What’s at stake here in this difficulty? Why this struggle, and why must Milton struggle with such awkward metaphysical categories in order simply to address properly the power of light?

I think it’s understandable that Milton would call the power of light “offspring of Heav’n first-born.” According to Genesis, light is the first thing that is created at the moment of God’s fiat lux: “let there be light,” that great commandment. But the problem really arises in line two when Milton conjectures that the beam of light he’s addressing wasn’t born or wasn’t begotten at all, it wasn’t created; that it might actually be co-eternal with the eternal Father himself. This, I think, is a much more dangerous possibility. Milton asks to be enlightened by a light that might be as old as the Father. This runs utterly counter to the creation account in Genesis. Could this light be one of the Father’s rivals? There’s a fear here that the ambition of this bid for paternal light is presumptuous, perhaps it’s even satanic. Satan of course in the next book, Book Four, will have his invocation to light.

Now, the light Milton addresses has been around forever. Look at line eight of this opening invocation. This is on the next page:

[B]efore the sun,
Before the Heavens thou wert, and at the voice
Of God, as with a Mantle, didst invest
The rising world of waters dark and deep,
Won from the void and formless infinite.
Thee I re-visit now with bolder wing,
Escap’t the Stygian pool, though long detain’d
In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
With other notes than to th’ Orphean Lyre
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…

Milton’s giving us a picture of himself as proud. Clearly, he’s proud that he’s returned from the descent into hell that he seems to have made during the composition of the first two books of his epics. He himself has escaped the Stygian pool, and such a re-ascent is hard and rare; but we’ve just had represented before this at the very end of Book Two, just lines before this, Satan’s own escape from the Stygian pool and Satan’s own detainment in his obscure sojourn through chaos. There’s a remarkable identification that Milton is bringing himself very close to: an identification between Milton and Satan. There lingers in this relation the idea that Milton has brought upon himself some guilt, some blame perhaps, for having sung of hell and having sung of chaos at all.

Milton, of course, can’t make this connection explicit, but there lurks the possibility, and I grant you that it’s an irrational possibility, that Milton has done something wrong – I don’t know how else to read these lines – by flying through utter and through middle darkness during his composition of the first two books of Paradise Lost. I know this doesn’t make sense: it’s almost as if Milton’s flight through darkness had been responsible for the literal, visual darkness that is the condition of his blindness, which he is describing now to us for the first time. It’s this possibility, I think, the idea that Milton has brought his blindness on himself over the course of [laughs] the composition of the poem, which of course isn’t the case – it’s this possibility that, I think, accounts for the delay in Milton’s mention of his loss of sight, the delay until this moment in the poem. It’s as if the guilt for his blindness in some impossible way lay in the composition of this very poem, as if the transgression that called down the wrath of the heavenly Father had been Milton’s glorious and heroic treatment of Satan; as if it were Milton’s ambitious attempt to supply the angelic prehistory to the Book of Genesis, to the creation account that we get in the Book of Genesis, that had brought this wrath upon him. Milton preempted, he prevented, Genesis.

He continues his address to the light:

[T]hee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sovran vital Lamp; but thou
Revisit’st not these eyes, that roll in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quench’d their Orbs,
Or dim suffusion veil’d.

Like so many [laughs] of the lines in this invocation, these lines are violently crammed with an almost unbearable pathos. “Thee I revisit safe” – but thou revisit’st not these eyes: it’s impossible to read these lines and not feel that Milton is in some way accusing the deity of injustice. It’s as if Milton were challenging the holy light to revisit Milton, just as Milton is revisiting the holy light. He structures this challenge – it’s the logic of a quid pro quo here. He’s seeking compensation for his loss but the compensation that he’s looking for isn’t forthcoming.

At least, it’s not forthcoming yet. Line thirty-two: “nor sometimes do I forget / those other two equall’d with me in Fate, / so were I equalled with them in renown…” Here he lists the famous blind bards, the blind prophets of the Western tradition, asking the muse of light to repay him for his fate, the fate of blindness, with fame and renown: the renown or fame enjoyed by blind Thamyris and blind Maeonides – Maeonides is Homer – and Tiresias and Phineus. Milton knows perfectly well that each of these figures had been blinded as some sort of punishment for a crime, at least according to most of the legends surrounding them. Each of these seers was thought to have been blinded for aspiring to an intimate knowledge of the godhead. Even as Milton is asking God to elevate him to the status of their equal and an equal to Homer, sharing an equal renown and an equal fame, he’s implicitly acknowledging that terrifying possibility, and it really is terrifying, that his blindness, like theirs, is the result of his own transgression: his punishment for trespassing on divinity.

But this acknowledgment – if it is, and I think it is – this acknowledgment of guilt only takes place between the lines, below the surface of the invocation. For the most part Milton is struggling to clear himself from any imputation of sin or crime. From lines forty to fifty, the strategy of this invocation shifts again, and Milton catalogs the losses that he has endured through the loss of his sight. When before had a poet represented himself in such heartbreaking lines?

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;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off…

A few poets have been willing even [laughs] – well, after Milton, to subject themselves to this kind of absolutely pathos-filled self-representation. For exposing himself in all of his vulnerability Milton has everything to lose here, and for exposing himself in all of his vulnerability Milton asks for something in return. He asks to be recompensed for these extraordinary losses. I am [laughs] absolutely convinced that there’s a way in which this request is not irrational. It’s completely reasonable. Because he has bathed himself in a pathos, I think, that’s almost too painful even to read, we as readers are willing [laughs] to grant him anything he wants. There’s a kind of naked emotional logic governing our experience of these lines.

Let’s look at the moment at which Milton asks for the payback. This is line fifty-one: I have lost all these things, in other words, “so much the rather thou Celestial Light / shine inward, and the mind through all her powers / irradiate, there plant eyes…” Milton is demanding for his pains the inspiration of the heavenly muse. God owes him this, and so Milton is remarkably undoing the logic of sin and punishment that he had inherited in his understanding of his blindness, and he’s restricting it as something entirely different. He’s turning it into a logic of loss and compensation. Milton has sacrificed his sight. He has lost almost everything, and so much the rather lets God repay him for that loss, what is once again his noble self-sacrifice. You have Milton reworking here the rhetoric of guilt. His blindness becomes important not because it’s a sign of punishment or of blame or of spot or of blemish, but it’s a guarantee of the inspirational success of the poem. This is like a promissory note, his blindness is, for his poetic reward – the fact that this poem will have been inspired by the heavenly muse.

Oh, this is wonderful. Turn to the very last page of Hughes, of the Merritt Hughes edition. This is page 1044. This is one of the earliest biographies of Milton written in the seventeenth century. It’s an anonymous one, and it gives us some remarkable details about this man’s life. Some of them are so astonishing there’s no way they could have been made up. The anonymous writer at the top of page 1044 is describing Milton’s daily habits as he was composing Paradise Lost and the later poems. Milton, it seems, would dictate the most recent installment of Paradise Lost in the morning. So this is what we learn: “[H]e, waking early”– and you’ll see this wonderful admiration of the dear, Puritan Milton – “waking early, as is the use of temperate men, had commonly a good stock of verses ready against his amanuensis came…” The amanuensis is the secretary, the young man who would come to Milton’s house – and there were a number of them – who would take down dictation. Milton seems to have composed the poem at night in his sleep, which, the biographer continues: “which, if it happened to be later than ordinary, [Milton] would complain [if the amanuensis or the secretary got there too late Milton would complain] saying he wanted to be milked.”

This absolutely [laughs] stunning biographical detail is italicized here presumably because it’s a quotation – that’s a form of noting a quotation; but the italics seem to me at least to indicate as well that this is an extraordinary privileged moment in this biographical text. It’s a scandalous little tidbit if it’s true. We have in here an extraordinary image of Milton’s understanding of his own poetic output, and if this isn’t true, what we do have here at the very least is an incredibly close and intimate reading of this very invocation that we’re focusing on. Having filled himself up with a stock of verses the night before, Milton could imagine himself as a source of spiritual and poetic nourishment. Milton could imagine himself the distinctly feminine source of this nourishing poem, as if by a process of identification so complete Milton could imagine himself in the role of the maternal muse who feeds the poet as she inspires the thoughts that move harmonious numbers. It’s not the muse only but the poet, too, who can be milked.

Now, God the Father tells the Son – this is in the dialog between the Father and the Son later in Book Three – that at the end of time there won’t be a Father and a Son because God shall be “All in All.” A related form of a kind of absolute internalization and absolute identification is at work, I think, in this incredibly moving cry to be milked. The muse has so completely inspired the poet, so completely transferred her power to him, that it’s almost impossible to tell who is who or who is feeding whom. When Milton in the invocation requests that the muse, the holy light, feed on thoughts, we have a moment of confusion that would only seem to guarantee that the transference of power has actually taken place. It doesn’t matter whether these thoughts belong to the muse or to the poet. These thoughts are “All in All.”

You have other guarantees as well in Book Three of Milton’s having filled up at the fount of heavenly inspiration, and these moments of guarantee [laughs] come in in extraordinarily unexpected places. Look at Book Three, line 576. In the Hughes Edition this is page 272. On his way from hell to earth, Satan stops at the sun, which is, of course, the source of earthly light, and Satan watches as the sun dispenses light to all of the little stars of heaven. This is how Milton’s astronomy works:

Where the great Luminary
Aloof the vulgar Constellations thick [of course, the “great Luminary” is the sun],
That from his Lordly eye keeps distance due,
Dispenses Light from far…

Now, this “great Luminary,” the sun, dispenses light to the surrounding stars. With this image you have a clearly demarcated model of a particular kind of power relation. This is the powerful sun’s unilateral inspiration of the stars.

But look what happens next. This is the stars:

… [T]hey as they move
Thir Starry dance in numbers that compute
Days, months, and years, towards his all-chearing Lamp
Turn swift their various motions…

The stars are filling up here with the light of the sun and they’re behaving just as Milton’s thoughts do when he’s been inspired, when they have been inspired by holy light. They’re filled with the capacity of a kind of free will, and they turn themselves in starry dance. Milton is very carefully reworking in this passage, this astronomical passage, the key words of the invocation that we’ve been looking at: “move”and “numbers.” He projects his image of the inspired composition of the poem onto the enormous screen of the entire cosmos. And, just as in the invocation, the actual mover, the agent behind the action of inspiration, is uncertain. They “turn swift their various motions” or are turned by his magnetic beam. We don’t know who’s turning what. It’s “All in All.”

It’s at this moment of uncertain agency that Milton really [laughs] gives us something truly amazing, and I ask your indulgence here. You will know that it’s indisputable, the point that I’m about to make, but I think it’s shocking: the sun warms the universe just as the holy light will warm the poet. That much, I think, is clear; but Milton’s figuration of this process, this process of infusion, is truly one of the most surprising moments in the poem for my money. This process of infusion replicates on the grand scale – okay. Well, let me read it first:

[That] beam, that gently warms
The Universe, and to each inward part
With gentle penetration, though unseen,
Shoots invisible virtue even to the deep…

This process of infusion replicates on the grand scale of the entire cosmos the rhythms of the intimate human act of coital ejaculation. You simply can’t deny that that’s what’s happening here. Milton may give us a cosmic image of the process of inspiration but this is a process by which the universe, and by association the poet himself, has been feminized and transformed mysteriously into something like the maternal muse herself. Milton tells us at the beginning of the invocation that the light to which he prays was present at the creation. Maybe that light was the same as that identifiable with the heavenly spirit in Book One who “dove-like, satst brooding on the vast Abyss / and mad’st it pregnant…” And maybe Milton here in Book Three is imagining himself the glorious recipient of this remarkable act of divine impregnation. He’s no longer the vulnerable male poet whose poetic potency, just like his sight, can be cut off at whim, “from the cheerful ways of men / cut off”. He’s a body impregnated by God. The universe is a body impregnated by God and perhaps even indistinguishable at some point from God. He’s a figure impervious to punishment or pain.

The psychic processes and strategies that I’ve been describing here are clearly operating at the level of fantasy. This is wish fulfillment. It’s certainly not logic. There’s no moment in Paradise Lost at which the poet will actually present a logical statement concerning this wish to be absolutely infused with divinity, to be so divine that he would be invulnerable to punishment or to be so divine that he would be invulnerable to the physical humiliation of blindness. You don’t have anything like an explicit statement to that effect in Paradise Lost, but there is elsewhere in Milton and I want to draw you to this now. There is such an articulation in another poem.

Chapter 4. Blindness Explored in Samson Agonistes [00:39:09]

This is what many scholars believe was the last poem that Milton wrote, Samson Agonistes, and so I’m going to ask you to turn to page 553 in the Hughes to this passage in Samson Agonistes. Even though we don’t read the Samson Agonistes until the end of the semester, I want to look at this small section of it now since it engages the problem of blindness with as much pathos and with as much force as anything that Milton ever wrote.

So Samson you know. Samson is the biblical hero whose strength was bound up in his hair. Samson was blinded by the Philistines after his hair had been shorn by his treacherous wife, Delilah. Milton calls her “Dah-lee-lah.” Look at the Hughes. This is line eighty of Samson. Milton has his hero, Samson, bewailing the fact of his blindness: “O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon, / irrecoverably dark, total eclipse without all hope of day!”At this point it’s wonderful: Samson begins to echo Milton from the invocation that we’ve been looking at, the invocation to Book Three of Paradise Lost. Here’s Samson:

O first created Beam, and thou great Word,
“Let there be light, and light was over all”;
Why am I thus bereav’d thy prime decree?
The Sun to me is dark
And silent as the Moon,
When she deserts the night,
Hid in her vacant interlunar cave.
Since light [try to follow this logic] so necessary is to life,
And almost life itself, if it be true
That light is in the Soul,
She [the soul] all in every part…

Samson’s feeling his way here toward Milton’s theory of monism, the idea that the soul is diffused throughout every part of the human body. Since the light of the soul is diffused throughout every part of the body, why, Samson asks:

Why was the sight
To such a tender ball as th’ eye confin’d?
So obvious and so easy to be quench’t,
And not as feeling through all parts diffus’d,
That she might look at will through every pore?

These [laughs] are extraordinary lines. These are among my most favorite lines in all of Milton. Samson is questioning the wisdom and the justice of God’s admittedly – who can deny it? – God’s extremely peculiar configuration of the human body. You read this and you realize that Samson is really on to something here. Why didn’t, we ask with Samson, God implant the sense of sight in human beings just as he implanted the sense of touch or feeling? Why isn’t sight like touch, diffused through all parts of the body “that she might look at will through every pore?” Milton’s pushing here toward a fantasy of physical invulnerability, imagining an alternative – this is science fiction – an alternative model of bodily configuration that would render impossible the all-too-easy quenching of the tender eyeballs.

In the context of Samson Agonistes, in this particular speech of Samson’s, we have to write it off as a kind of morally suspect complaint. This is the faithless questioning of the justice of God’s creation. Milton doesn’t permit himself in Paradise Lost, at least not explicitly, to impugn the wisdom behind God’s creation of the all-too-vulnerable human body, but he does fashion for us there a fantasy in Paradise Lost. It’s a lot like Samson’s fantasy of a body exempt from harm, free from disability, and that is, of course, the body of the angels. And so the last passage that I’m going to ask you to look at is on page 331 of the Hughes edition. This is Book Six, line 344, and the narrator here is the Archangel Raphael. Raphael’s explaining to Adam why the angels in the war in heaven can’t be permanently wounded or harmed. Now we already know that angels – we’ve already learned this – that angels when they please can “either sex assume” or both, but Raphael gives us even more information about these perfectly fantastical figures. Their bodies have been constructed along precisely those lines that Samson was proposing. Their vital functions are diffused through every part.

So look at the bottom of the page. This is line 344.

[F]or Spirits that live throughout
Vital in every part, not as frail man
In Entrails, Heart or Head, Liver or Reins, [these angels]
Cannot but by annihilating die;
Nor in thir liquid texture mortal wound
Receive, no more can then the fluid Air:
All Heart they live, all Head, all Eye, all Ear,
All Intellect, all Sense…

The body of each and every angel has been created “All in All.” No sensory power or important function has been confined to a tender ball or a delicate orb or a particular organ. These angels are all eye. They have the power of sight diffused throughout their entire bodies, and we can only imagine that they can – just as Samson had fantasized – that they can see through every pore; and so the Miltonic angel enjoys the state of absolute sight and absolute inspiration and absolute oneness with God that Milton is bidding for on some level in his complex and ambitious invocation to light in Book Three.

Now, Milton isn’t finished articulating for us the impossible process of his poetic inspiration, the miracle by which the blind poet is compensated for his blindness with the vision of things invisible to mortal sight. Especially as we will see in the invocation, or the quasi-invocation, to Book Seven of Paradise Lost, the poem will continue to voice doubts that this process of inspiration has actually occurred; but you have in the figure of the Miltonic angel a literalized image, an embodiment, of Milton’s most ambitious fantasy for his poem. It’s an unrealistic fantasy for himself, of course, but it is an ambitious fantasy and a genuine one, I think, for his poem. We know that the body of the poet, of course, would never undergo its much desired, much fantasized metamorphosis into the body of an angel. Milton’s would never become a body perfected, rendered impervious to humiliation and darkness, but the body of the angel may in the end be an entirely appropriate image for Milton’s fantasy of the body of the poem. It’s this perhaps peculiar idea that I’ll leave you with today: we’ll grant that Milton is right, that he was inspired by God to write this poem. If he is right, then the body of this epic really is very much like the angelic body. It is infused, and we have to believe it’s infused in every part, with the spirit of God. It’s nothing less than all heart, all intellect, and – and this is an extraordinarily resonant word for Milton – all sense.

Okay. That’s the end of this lecture. Let me remind you that when you read Book Three for next time, you will also look at the passages from The Christian Doctrine that are assigned on the syllabus.

[end of transcript]

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