ENGL 220: Milton
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ENGL 220 - Lecture 16 - Paradise Lost, Books VII-VIII
Chapter 1. Milton’s Theory of Monism [00:00:00]
Professor John Rogers: In Book Five of Paradise Lost, Milton’s theory of monism – that’s the theory of the “one first matter” that we looked at last time – the theory of monism, or vitalism or animist materialism, there are a number of terms for it, arises in the context, you’ll remember, of a discussion about digestion. I’ll just remind you: Adam simply asked Raphael how it was that angels could eat human food, and Raphael responded with his radical claim for a continuum of matter and spirit in God’s universe. The process of digestion was no more suggestive or important to the Archangel Raphael than, of course, it was for Milton himself. You’ll remember that letter to the famous Dr. Leonard Philaras in which Milton had explained that it was his bad digestion that he believed was largely responsible for his blindness. Milton’s digestive theory of blindness was actually a perfectly reasonable medical hypothesis in the seventeenth century. Theorists of digestion were continually arguing that unescaped gases could easily rise up in the body.
But Milton’s own adoption of this theory served a particular and, I think, an important purpose. Nearly every – actually this is a point that’s made most brilliantly in a book that I think Matthew Valdiviez [a graduate student] has. It’s by Michael Lieb. Please hold up the book because it’s a great book. It’s called The Dialetics of Creation. Thank you for reminding me that I’m indebted to Lieb for this point: nearly every important event in Paradise Lost is represented in some way or another as a process of digestion. Raphael tells Adam – the archangel says, “Knowledge is as food.” Adam must therefore ingest knowledge temperately just as it’s his obligation to ingest food temperately and, of course, in moderation.
But it’s not just knowledge: everything is digestive in Paradise Lost. The process that we looked at last time, the transformation of Adam and Eve into angels, was going to be, as you remember, the product of a virtuous digestion; but so, too, will the expulsion of the rebel angels be, their expulsion from heaven when the Son of God drives them out with his chariot of paternal deity. They are essentially eliminated as waste. They’re purged from the space of heaven. Milton fills his account of that expulsion with really all of the scatology that he can muster, and even the Last Judgment will be described in terms of a process of digestion. The saved will be assimilated into the body of God, into the body of the universe, and the damned at the end of time will be excreted into hell.
I think Milton’s transforming a lot of these absolutely central events in Christian history into something like scenes of digestion for a very good reason. By turning these moments into little or big digestive episodes, Milton’s able on some level – although this might sound irrational – to rationalize Christian history. The process of digestion was of extraordinary interest in the seventeenth century, and scientists were fascinated in it because digestion, like a lot of other processes in the human body, seems to work without our own conscious knowledge and certainly without our own control. Digestion is a self-enclosed system that seems to obey its own natural laws rather than responding to an exercise of our will. Milton imagines so much of Christian history as scenes of digestion in a way, I think, because he needs to imagine them as occurring without the deliberate manipulation of the heavenly Father or in some way beyond the Father’s control. I think Milton is continually fending off the Calvinist image of an arbitrary and punitive deity. So the fall of the rebel angels, the Fall of man, the Last Judgment – all of these events are perfectly reasonable, natural and, at least from one important perspective in the poem, reasonable, natural, and also organic consequences of freely willed, self-determined human behavior or creaturely behavior. This is important for Milton: they’re not examples of God’s skittish and arbitrary punishment of his creatures, and that distinction is arising everywhere in Paradise Lost.
Chapter 2. Paradise Lost Book VII: The Book of Creation [00:05:09]
Now Book Seven is the book of creation. Here more than anywhere we would expect, I think, a representation of the extraordinary degree of power and control that the heavenly Father is able to exercise. What is the Creation, after all, if not an arbitrary display of the Father’s omnipotence? Milton knows that that’s the case, but at the same time that he celebrates that, he’s also struggling to represent it otherwise; and so he charges even the Creation itself with this same cluster of images involving digestion. Look for example – this is the top of page 352, Book Seven, line 234. I think this is one of the most – it’s puzzling, and for a lot of readers it’s one of the most physiologically suggestive of all of the natural processes that seem to be described in Milton’s poem. The Holy Spirit – and the Holy Spirit is an interesting entity for Milton. It seems to be something like Milton’s name for a principle of energy behind a lot of natural processes, a divinely sanctioned principle of energy. The Holy Spirit inseminates chaos. This is Milton:
Raphael describes the Holy Spirit’s stunningly – and we’re getting used to this – stunningly ambisexual behavior in brooding over and then, of course, inseminating the fluid mass of the abyss. This is the process, you’ll remember, that actually supplies chaos with that vital power of motion, the vital power of warmth and virtue that’s so consequential for Milton’s theory of monism.
These are all ideas that Milton discusses in a theoretical frame in chapter seven of Of Christian Doctrine. There are seven days of creation, and Milton has a kind of numerological bent, and so it will be on Book Seven of Paradise Lost in which the Creation is discussed and chapter seven of Of Christian Doctrine in which the Creation is discussed. It’s this step – this inseminating step, in which all of creation is filled with the goodness of God – that really goes to the heart of Milton’s theodicy. Because of this infusion of divinity – because of it, everything that God creates, every natural thing, must on some level be naturally good, necessarily good. I think this much makes sense.
But Raphael also describes a moment in the Creation that, I think, is a little more difficult for us to reconcile with what we know or what we feel that we know of Milton’s monism. Look how this same passage continues. This is line 237:
The Holy Spirit “downward purg’d / The black tartareous cold Infernal dregs / Adverse to life.” The Holy Spirit doesn’t merely infuse chaos with vital virtue and vital warmth. It purges something from chaos, too. It’s this strange digestive moment in Milton’s text that has left students of Milton’s theology and students of the poem scratching their heads in bewilderment, and it’s for some reason. Milton is usually so precise and really every word and every image can almost always be accounted for – but dregs? This is the question: where did these dregs come from? Why are there any dregs in the inseminated space of chaos that actually need to be purged? Think of the logic of Milton’s creation. God’s infusion of vital virtue and vital warmth should have completely filled the matter of chaos with spirit and life. At least theoretically, all matter should be steeped with spirit and energy and, according to all of Milton’s theories of this vitalist universe in the Christian Doctrine, there shouldn’t be anything in Milton’s creation, technically, that’s adverse to life. This really is crucial for Milton’s understanding of how the universe is put together and it’s crucial, too, for his theodicy, but these dregs here are simply – there’s no other way to read them: they are dead and they are inert.
I’m going to be applying some pressure to these lines because what we have here is a moment of some metaphysical incoherence, and it’s metaphysical incoherence at the very heart of Milton’s account of the creation. This incoherence is announced with that wonderful word, “dregs,” that Milton weighs down so much. He weighs it down with well, four contiguous adjectives: “black,” “tartareous” – what an awkward line – “black tartareous cold Infernal dregs.” I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these lines, and I’ve also written about this problem, and so I’m going to ask that you to permit me a little digression – not that you really have a choice, but I’m just announcing to you this fact that I will be digressing now.
What I’m going to do is give you my theory, my pet theory, of Milton’s tartareous dregs. I’m convinced here that Milton is participating in a contemporary conversation involving one of his pet subjects and one of his favorite subjects, which is that of digestion. This is a debate – and certainly it’s not Milton’s debate, this is one that he inherits – it’s a debate about those indigestible elements of food known as dregs in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, also known as tartar. I’m going to give you a little bit of information about the Renaissance philosophy of tartar, if you can believe it there is such a thing, because I think it provides a good example of just the kind of seemingly cockamamie contemporary philosophical world that a lot of early modern intellectuals inhabit.
The key figure in the science of dregs and tartar is the sixteenth-century German philosopher Paracelsus. Literally, tartareous dregs are simply the residue, the sediment, produced by wine and vinegar. We still have a substance – and if you cook you are familiar with this – a substance made of vinegar sediments, and it’s called cream of tartar. Well, Paracelsus had actually developed an entire philosophy which had as its center his understanding of these tartareous dregs, so tartar for Paracelsus was the stuff that hardened into stones within the gallbladder and within the kidney. This was the explanation for gallstones or kidney stones, and tartar was also the same material that formed a hardened yellowish substance that we still call, of course, tartar of the teeth. Milton in the seventeenth century would have called it “tooth tartar,” and more commonly it was known as “tooth stone.” For Paracelsus, if there’s any natural substance on this planet that can be identified unequivocally with evil, it is tartar, and I mean metaphysical evil. Given the import of this matter, Paracelsus was prompted to ask the same question that we are all [laughs] prone to ask when we’re squirming on the dentist chair as we’re having our teeth cleaned: where in the hell does this stuff come from? Paracelsus’ answer to this question was a theological one, which is why I think Milton was so interested in it, although Milton eventually had to reject it altogether.
Now of course, I’m not suggesting that the central intellectual context for understanding this part of Paradise Lost is the history of dentistry or the history of oral hygiene. Nonetheless we have a moment of Milton’s engagement with a contemporary theory, however seemingly off the wall. This is the theory of tartar, which was easily as theological and philosophical in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as it was dental: okay, so for Paracelsus, tartar originates in the food we eat, and the tartar that ends up on your teeth is simply the indigestible, unassimilable parts of that food. For a lot of Paracelsus’ contemporaries this was an incredibly troubling theory. A lot of Milton’s contemporaries said so, and so they had to reject completely the Paracelsian theory – you can guess why – because Paracelsus’ theory implied, of course, that tartar had been created by God – it’s part of the natural world – and that God was somehow responsible for the origin of evil in his creation. And so you have philosophers and theologians in the seventeenth century weighing in on the tartar question, on the origin of dregs. Of course, for the most part they’re obliged to attack Paracelsus.
The entire tartar controversy and all of the things that this controversy suggests about the nature of divine justice – all of this, I think, gets compacted into this one truly extraordinary line: “black tartareous cold Infernal dregs.” Milton is using this incredibly striking and strange sequence of words at this point in his creation account because he wants to open up the question for his contemporary audience – it’s, of course, lost on us – the question of the nature of divine justice. Milton, I think, in Book Seven is relatively torn about the kind of God that he wants or that he needs to represent in the poem. Is Milton’s God the punitive and arbitrary God – something like an anthropomorphic deity, a God capable, as Paracelsus had suggested, of actually creating evil? Or is he a God from a slightly later deistic perspective, a God that we can identify with the more rational or the more natural processes implied in the theory of monism in which everything in God’s creation is just necessarily infused with divinity and therefore good and alive and in some way capable of virtue?
This is the type of question that Milton is asking throughout Book Seven of Paradise Lost. One of the ways that Milton stages this problem is by turning for inspiration to competing sources of authoritative knowledge. Milton has, on the one hand, the authority of scripture. You can see that although scripture tells us a lot of things, one of the things that it seems authoritatively to tell us is that it gives us a representation of the anthropomorphic, punitive deity – at least in the Hebrew Bible. Milton also has to support this view more or less the authority of a philosopher like Paracelsus who had an image of a similar although differently configured image of a punitive deity capable of creating evil.
But what kind of authority does Milton have for representing the other kind of deity: the force of life, or the energy, that might actually be much more rationally recognizable or accessible to a seventeenth-century scientific contemporary of Milton’s? Well, we don’t have scientists in the seventeenth century, technically. We have natural philosophers: so what is the basis of authority for contemporary natural philosophy? The question of authority and authoritative knowledge is central to the middle books, not just Book Seven but to all the central books of Paradise Lost. Raphael is presenting Adam and Eve with something like a quick education in universal knowledge, and the basis or the authority for this knowledge is constantly under question in these books because so much of Raphael’s discourse has no foundation – and this makes Milton nervous – has no foundation in scripture whatsoever. The Bible simply can’t be counted on as an exclusive source of universal knowledge, and so Milton has no choice but to turn to other forms of authority and one of them is science or natural philosophy.
And so Milton at the beginning of Book Seven invokes the muse of science, the muse of astronomy, at the beginning. So look at the invocation. This is page 345 of the Hughes, the opening lines. It’s here in Book Seven and only here that Milton names his muse, and the muse turns out to be Urania. Without question, of course, she’s a feminine presence here. In the muse’s earlier incarnations in Books One and Three, there was some uncertainty as to whether the Heavenly Spirit was a masculine figure capable of impregnating chaos and who will now impregnate Milton’s mind, or whether the heavenly Spirit was a feminine spirit, a feminine power that “dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss” or similarly sat brooding on the brooding mind of the poet. But Book Seven is all about birth. It’s all about generation and creation, and Milton requires for this book, I think, an unequivocally feminine muse, a maternal muse who was there when the world was born and who will serve here now as the nurturing mother of Milton’s own poem.
Now Milton – who’s committed, of course, to the truth of the Bible and similarly committed, at least in part, to a lot of the truths coming out in the world of natural philosophy – Milton’s on shaky ground as he describes the creation. His invocation is filled with something like – and it seems absolutely authentic – a fear of religious error. Look at line nineteen. Milton conjures the fear of falling off Pegasus – Pegasus, the flying steed of poetry, “erroneous there to wander and forlorn.” Book Seven, especially this invocation, is the focus for an enormous amount of Milton’s poetic anxiety. You can measure the degree of Milton’s poetic anxiety here by the reappearance of that figure that Milton has called on throughout his career at moments of intensest fear, or intensest isolation, and that’s the figure of Orpheus. Orpheus’ mother was the muse Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. She had been incapable of saving her son when he was dismembered by the followers of Bacchus, the Bacchae. Milton implores Urania here at the beginning of Book Seven to outdo Calliope and to spare him the fate of Orpheus. Look at line 30:
Now, Urania is the traditional name for the patroness of astronomy. If this muse of astronomical wisdom is not truly governing Milton’s song – if she’s nothing more than the projection of Milton’s most outrageous poetic ambitions – then Milton will have no authority backing the poem’s extraordinary claims to knowledge. Milton is, I think, really going on a limb in Paradise Lost as he’s claiming what is essentially the status of divine truth for thousands of lines in this poem that really have no foundation in holy scripture at all. Think of what we’ve just read that I haven’t spoken to at all: book Six, the story of the war in heaven, is a story that doesn’t, in effect, appear in the Bible. There’s a sense in this allusion to Orpheus that this poetic endeavor of Milton’s is attended by really the profoundest risks. Milton implores the muse, “so fail not thou,” as Calliope had failed, of course, Orpheus. Behind this cry lurks a kind of nagging fear that Urania, too, may turn out to be an empty dream: the fear that Urania, just like Calliope, will turn out to be nothing more than a convenient fiction dreamt up by a desperately ambitious poet.
But there’s another reason that Milton is invoking a feminine muse here. He wants in this next section of the poem to establish a new perspective for this book of universal knowledge, and he’s relying on a new muse to liberate him in some way from the strictures of the orthodox forms of knowledge that are sanctioned seemingly so unequivocally by the Bible. Milton’s struggling to balance the dominant theological discourse with this new discourse, this new language of science or natural philosophy. So what you have in Book Seven is a really startling opposition of essentially competing forms of knowledge and competing images of authority. Milton will invariably – how can he not? And he does this authentically: he acknowledges the validity of a scriptural account of a natural phenomenon, but he will only do so in order to set the scripture aside at some point and begin to explore an entirely different perspective, an entirely different account, of the same phenomenon.
Let’s look at an example of this at the bottom of page 355. This is Book Seven, line 387. Look at what Milton does with the Genesis account of creation. Here we have the fifth day of creation; this is when the God of Genesis creates fish and fowl. Milton begins the account here with a dutiful and humble transcription of Genesis, and in some cases the verse is actually a word-for-word transcription of the King James translation, in some cases the Geneva translation. You can see the King James translation in the footnotes. Sometimes Milton will normally fiddle with just a couple of words to make the Genesis text fit into the metrical scheme of his blank verse. Look at line 387:
And so on and so forth all the way up to 398: “And let the Fowl be multipli’d on the Earth.” These lines have to be – and they’ve certainly been cited as such since the eighteenth century – they have to be the flattest, the least interesting lines in the entire poem. One of Milton’s first editors, this is on the handout, Dr. Bentley, had actually argued that these lines were so bad that they just needed to be deleted from the text altogether. Bentley’s thesis was [laughs] an ingenious one: that Milton actually isn’t responsible for these lines at all. According to Dr. Bentley, sometimes the amanuensis – the young man who would act as secretary and take down the next installment of ten lines or fifteen lines or whatever – would just [laughs] start making things up or didn’t hear Milton properly. A lot of the lines that Bentley most disliked were to be dismissed for just this reason, that they clearly had nothing to do with Milton’s own composition.
Bentley asked this question, and it’s a good question: why should Raphael be so tied up to the letter in Genesis, Raphael who makes this narrative thousands of years before Genesis was writ? Not a bad question. Dr. Bentley reasonably asks, “If Raphael came before Moses, long before Moses, why is he quoting Moses?” Why indeed? What might be the significance of Milton’s being tied up to the letter in Genesis? Milton begins his account of the fifth day of creation by paying homage to the scriptural source for his own creation account, but that’s, of course, not where Milton ends. Look at line 399. After Milton has exhausted – thank God! – he’s exhausted his bald versification of the King James Bible, he lets loose with an entirely new representation of creation. Listen to this:
Milton takes the austerity of Genesis and amplifies it with some of the lushest, most luxuriant verse in all of Paradise Lost. I urge you all to read these lines out loud in the privacy of your homes. So much of this poem has to be experienced in your mouth, I’m convinced, before it can fully be appreciated. This is, in fact, how Milton experienced it. He experienced it sonically because he was blind and wasn’t able to read it on the page. This particular description of the fish and fowl continues for another perfectly amazing forty lines. It’s an extraordinary tour de force.
The sounds of water of which Milton speaks at line 300 here are, of course, the bodies of water that are suddenly filled with an enormous variety of aquatic life forms; but the sounds that emerge forthwith in this passage are also the sounds of this amazing burst of imaginative poetry. The verse here explodes with a kind of sonic energy that had been entirely repressed, or suppressed, during Milton’s lifeless adherence to scripture: “And Shoales / Of Fish that with thir Fins and shining Scales” – Milton’s swimming here. He’s loving every moment of it – you know it– in a sensual, alliterative verse that almost completely drowns out our memory of the bland King James English of the previous lines. This demonstration of poetic strength coincides with Milton’s new sense of the strength, or a new sense of a force, behind creation. He takes the masculine image of God’s verbal command from Genesis, “And God said,” and he replaces it with an alternative feminine conception of creation that places the power of creation in Nature herself.
In his description of the first schools of fish, Milton, I think, is subscribing or can be seen to subscribe to a new and daring school of thought. Look at the sixth day, line 450. Milton begins – and we’ve seen him do this before – he scrupulously follows the Genesis text. This is Genesis: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind, and it was so.” Milton reproduces the scriptural description nearly verbatim, but he very scrupulously omits that final clause from Genesis, “and it was so”; because he wonders well, how was it so? The Genesis account of creation is clearly inadequate here because it relies on some mystical or some magical fulfillment of the Father’s divine command. Genesis refuses to provide a rational or something like a natural explanation for how the creation of “cattle and creeping thing” came to be so.
Now in the years of the Scientific Revolution in the later years of the seventeenth century, the Genesis account of creation was coming under a lot of scrutiny and the phrase “And God said” was increasingly seen as – this is inadequate, this is an insufficiently believable form of natural causation. There was a pressure felt by a lot of intellectuals to imagine another form, a more naturalistic force or power of causation, at work, and this is exactly what Milton himself does. He replaces the biblical phrase “And it was so” with a spectacularly naturalistic drama of what we can think of as self-creation. Look what Milton does.
Invoking a Mother Earth – of course, this Mother Earth obeys the Heavenly Father’ but Milton, by invoking her, is performing an operation similar to the strategy that he had performed in the invocation. He’s countering the entirely masculine force behind the Genesis creation with a new feminine presence. The female earth may just demonstrate her initial obedience and subordination to the Father, but after this humbling of herself, she’s empowered to produce – and she does this on her own – all of the innumerous living creatures. Milton’s imagining here a female authority distinct from the authority of the Father who’s issuing these verbal commands. He depicts this new source of creative power by drawing on a literary authority quite distinct from the Book of Genesis. The image of the earth opening up her fertile womb actually comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Interestingly, this comes from the section of the Metamorphoses that describes life after the flood: Deucalion’s flood, seen by Christian readers in Milton’s day as a classical version of Noah’s flood. So it’s a fallen phenomenon that Milton is placing well before the Fall.
But what Milton does after this point in this passage doesn’t even have an authority in Ovid. Look at line [laughs] 463. Milton begins to represent what may have seemed to less courageous poets as utterly unrepresentable. This is the actual birthing of these living forms, the emergence of cattle and creeping things from the fertile womb of the living earth, line 463. This gets me: “The grassy Clods now Calv’d.” The grassy clods of earth are actually opening up and giving birth to calves. It’s an amazingly daring sequence of five words. It’s a spectacular image of creation.
You’ll note at the bottom of the page that Merritt Hughes tells us – and I love this about Hughes, that he gives us this footnote – that the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had singled out just this image, the image of the tawny lion, as unworthy of Milton’s gifts as poet. You can see what offended Coleridge and what presumably also offends Merritt Hughes. There is more than just a little breach of decorum in this image of a lion wiggling his bottom in order to free his hinder parts. Milton’s not only portraying the lion’s attempt to give birth to itself, which is no small feat as it paws its way out of the earth’s womb. He’s also depicting something like a liberation of sexual energy. There’s an emblem of the erotic charge that Milton is giving so much of this nonscriptural material in Book Seven of Paradise Lost. When the lion springs “as broke from Bonds,” there’s a sense that Milton is representing his own springing from the confining bonds of a scriptural tradition that is insufficiently literarily inspiring. It’s also a liberation fully akin to his poetic escape, we’ll remember, from the tyranny, the bondage, of rhyme.
Chapter 3. Paradise Lost Book VIII: Reasserting the Subordination of Woman to Man [00:36:09]
Now, throughout so much of Paradise Lost, the lines of hierarchical authority seem to be incredibly clearly drawn, but in Book Seven Milton begins to experiment a little more freely with forms of authority and images of hierarchy that actually counter more of the orthodox notions that he finds in the Bible – or in fact, that he finds in the culture at large. The book itself is inspired by a distinctly feminine muse, and in its description of creation, there’s a significant degree of autonomy granted to this feminine power, the Earth – this new phenomenon, the Earth. Now Book Eight would seem in a lot of ways to put an end to this, what would seem to be a provisional or momentary celebration of feminine energy. In fact, Book Eight seems to reassert the subordination of woman to man that had characterized our first glimpse of Adam and Eve in Book Four. You’ll remember that it’s in Book Eight that Adam recounts for Raphael the request that he had made to God for a partner, some fellow human. He specifically asked God for an equal. This is Book Eight, line 382: For “[a]mong unequals what society / Can sort, what harmony or true delight?” Adam asks.
But God didn’t seem all that interested in granting Adam’s request for an equal partner, and Raphael’s continually urging Adam to remember his superiority to Eve. He mustn’t mistake Eve’s beauty for nobility or wisdom or equality, and of course, that has been Adam’s tendency. Raphael famously contracts his brow when Adam shows a tendency to idolize his wife, and whenever the conversation turns to Adam’s relation to Eve, Raphael expresses a fixed and inflexible opinion on the matter of sexual hierarchy. One sex clearly has a priority over the other.
But Book Eight is also concerned with another kind of hierarchy, the hierarchy of the heavens: the relations of the heavenly bodies. Raphael and Adam also in Book Eight discuss at considerable length the relative position in space of the sun and the earth and the moon. Does the sun travel around the earth, which remains fixed at the center of the universe as the medieval Ptolemy had argued, or does the earth revolve around the sun as the early modern Copernicus and then later Galileo had theorized? Adam, of course, isn’t certain, though it certainly looks to him, as it looks to us, as if the sun moves around the earth. Now Adam’s uncertainty here is only reasonable but [laughs] the remarkable aspect of this dialogue is that the Archangel Raphael isn’t certain either. Raphael doesn’t really know which way [laughs] the planets revolve even though he has spent much of this very morning on his flight from heaven to earth, where presumably he had some opportunity to observe the workings of the heavenly planets. It appears that God has made it difficult even for the angels to discern the hierarchical structure of the cosmos. There’s an illegibility about hierarchy built in to the system.
Of course, by the mid-seventeenth century the jury was still out as to whether the universe was heliocentric or geocentric, and Milton wasn’t alone in expressing some uncertainty. You could say, and it has been said, that it was wise of him to hedge his bets; but there’s a lot more going on in the discussions of astronomy than just a serious desire to get to the bottom of a difficult contemporary scientific question. There’s way too much made of Raphael’s confusion here and his uncertainty about cosmic hierarchy. The sun and the earth, or the sun and the moon, are deliberately gendered here. Milton uses the traditional gender assignments of these heavenly bodies that he inherits from the Latin language, and he holds to them scrupulously throughout the poem. The sun is always masculine, and the earth and the moon are always feminine. The controversy about the priority of the heavenly bodies is, in some way, Milton’s reformulation of the controversy about the priority of the sexes. The field of astronomy provides Milton with something like a scientific discourse about the sexes, an alternative source of knowledge that permits him to counteract the more traditional and more theological account of the sexes, assimilable from his culture but also from the Bible.
Look at page 366 in the Hughes. Raphael’s certainty about sexual hierarchy in the human sphere seems to give way to nothing but doubts and uncertainty as soon as that hierarchy is extended to the cosmic sphere. Science provides a different kind of space: this is a discursive space for a more liberated, a more open-ended discussion of sexual politics. It provides Milton with an opposing source for the knowledge about the sexes, a knowledge that seemed so complete and so sewn up from the theological point of view implicit in the Genesis account. So on page 366 – this is Book Eight, line 148. Raphael is beginning to grow exceedingly speculative here, and he dares to conjecture that there may exist out there in the cosmos other suns and other moons:
The two great sexes here that communicate their light do so with an equal brilliance. The greatness of one isn’t emphasized here, at least in these lines, at the expense of the other. You’ll remember with Adam and Eve in our first description of them in their naked majesty – they were lords of all and, presumably, equally lords of all. When Raphael conjectures that some creatures might actually live on these infinitely distant other suns and other moons, he’s pointing to an alternative conceptual world in which the relation of the two great sexes might be configured altogether differently.
Raphael concludes the discussion at line 159, and he suggests essentially to Adam that it’s not Adam’s place – Adam should just cool it – it’s not his place to pursue these grand questions of heavenly organization. So this is Raphael: “But whether thus these things, or whether not, / Whether the Sun predominant in Heav’n / Rise on the Earth; or Earth rise on the Sun…” Raphael’s just telling us it simply doesn’t matter, and he suggests a decisive – if such a thing makes sense – a decisive uncertainty about whether the predominant sun rises on the earth or whether the predominant earth rises on the sun. One Milton critic, John Guillory, has been absolutely right, I think – he’s the best reader of this, the whole problem – in suggesting that we can hear behind these lines the brooding question of sexual hierarchy. Is the man on top or is the woman on top? Is the masculine sex predominant, or could it be that the feminine predominates? When speaking about the sexes in the language of human relations, Raphael is utterly definitive about who predominates over whom, but when he’s speaking the language of science he seems baffled – and it’s lovable. His confusion in the scientific realm can be seen to force us to reconsider his certainty about relations in the human realm, in the ethical realm.
Now none of this is to say that Milton is a feminist or even that Milton is a proto-feminist. The question of what Milton actually believes about the priority of the sexes is really, I think, too difficult to discover or extract simply from a reading of the text. This poem is far too filled with contradictions to give us anything like a clear road map to Milton’s own beliefs, if it could even be said that he or any of us actually have firm and fixed beliefs about such huge and consequential matters as the relation between the sexes. But it is, I think, possible to see that Milton is struggling in some way to keep in suspension the competing sources of knowledge that address this crucial question in Paradise Lost, the question of the relation between the sexes. Milton’s poem is – we can’t deny this – is a far more theological poem than it is a scientific one, but Milton will nonetheless use the language of natural philosophy, the language of science, to open up some of the pressing questions that his theology seems to have closed down. You can see Milton willingly placing himself in the role of Raphael at just those moments when the archangel is discussing astronomy. It’s as if Milton, just like that affable angel – and don’t you love it that Milton lets us know that Raphael is the affable angel, quite unlike the Michael that we will meet in the last two books? – as if Milton, just like Raphael, were throwing his hands affably up in the air in complete uncertainty and telling us, the readers, “I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to these big questions. You decide.” Okay.
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