ENGL 220: Milton
- Paradise Lost, Books XI-XII (cont.)
In this final lecture on Paradise Lost, Book Twelve’s justification for the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden is examined alongside the Genesis account. The nature of Milton’s God, whether literal or liberal, is examined at length. The poem’s closing lines are closely read, with substantial attention paid to Milton’s final, complicated take on the poem-long consideration of Providence and free will.
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ENGL 220 - Lecture 20 - Paradise Lost, Books XI-XII (cont.)
Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]
Professor John Rogers: Samuel Johnson in The Life of Milton – and that’s The Life of Milton included in the packet, but I’ve also included this on the handout – Dr. Johnson wrote that Paradise Lost is one of those books which the reader admires and lays down and forgets to pick up again. We’re used to this. We’ve read enough Johnson to recognize characteristic curmudgeon-liness when it comes to the subject of Milton, but I think there’s something to this idea that we forget to take Paradise Lost up again after we’ve lain it down, because to say that Paradise Lost is not exactly a page-turner is simply to say that we’re already familiar with the plot. We know, of course, how the story ends, and there’s nothing for us, in terms of the plot at least, to anticipate with all that much eagerness.
Our foreknowledge of the story’s end works continually, I think, to reinforce our sense of God’s foreknowledge of the end of the story. Of course, foreknowledge of any kind makes the end seem inevitable, and I think the inevitability of an ending puts Milton – this idea puts Milton in a terrible bind. Any sense of the inevitability of the Fall really makes – it just makes hash, it makes nonsense, of the notion of any strong feeling of Adam’s and Eve’s free will. If we’re disappointed with the ending of Paradise Lost, then I think it’s safe to say that Milton, too, is deeply troubled by the implications of an end. It’s for all of these reasons that we can say that Paradise Lost is obsessed with the problem of its own ending.
Now, we remember that Milton had devoted enormous sums of energy as a young man in anticipating his own end. He was continually looking ahead to the writing of a poem that “aftertimes would not willingly let die” – you’ll remember that sentence from The Reason of Church Government. In the 1640s, he looked ahead to a political future in which the reformed government would usher in the reign of Christ at the end of time, and his early poems are filled with brief lyric narratives of anticipation. I’ll just enumerate a few of those, or I’ll remind you of them. The Nativity Ode had anticipated a few times the apocalypse. Comus had anticipated – well, had anticipated the apocalypse as well, but it also anticipated the eventual marriage of the Lady. Lycidas anticipated, among so many other things, the undying fame of the poet. Adam, too, in Books Eleven and Twelve – Adam seems continually to be anticipating an ending like the speaker of The Nativity Ode. Adam’s always looking ahead to the Christian millennium, or the apocalypse. He’s jumping ahead of himself, and Michael is always chiding him for this enthusiasm. It’s as if Michael’s job is to put the brakes on Adam’s anticipatory excitement.
Given that role that Michael plays, I think it’s all the more remarkable that it’s Michael – this is our killjoy archangel who’s often just as bad as Adam in his own eagerness to jump ahead of himself as he tells the story – that it’s Michael himself is the angel of apocalypse from the Book of Revelation, as we learned from David’s lecture on Friday. The Book of Revelation is the book from which Milton has taken, or has lifted, this character, Michael. Perhaps because of his role in Revelation, the Michael of Paradise Lost seems incapable of keeping himself from the onrush of expectation as he narrates, in what I suppose should be chronological order but isn’t, the story of future history. So Michael will narrate the story of the apocalypse four – count them, four – times over the course of the last books, once in Book Eleven and three times in Book Twelve. In all of his eagerness to imagine the final fulfillment of history, Michael seems almost in some way to be parodying Milton’s own tendency, especially his own youthful tendency, to offer those prophetic narratives of anticipation.
Chapter 2. The Christian Doctrine: Milton’s Theological Treatise [00:04:37]
Now, Michael’s focus in the last two books is essentially on God’s providential control over the actions of the descendants of Adam and Eve, and so it’s not too difficult to see why these books just structurally are so troubling. Milton is in the incredibly awkward position of trying to reconcile divine providence with the notion of free will. This has been his challenge all along, and this is also the subject of a lot of Milton’s musings in the theological treatise that he wrote at the same time that he wrote Paradise Lost, The Christian Doctrine. I’m going to have you turn in your Hughes to page 984 in The Christian Doctrine. Milton devotes an entire chapter to the problem of the seeming incompatibility of divine providence and human free will, and he finds himself continually knocking up against the representation of the providential God that he finds in the Bible.
So this is Christian Doctrine, page 984. This is where Milton tries to carve out a space for free will in the face of so much contrary evidence in scripture. This is on the top of the right-hand column. I believe this is – yes, this is also on the handout. Okay. Milton’s speaking about divine providence, which is obviously on some level a sensitive subject, maybe a sore subject, for such a strong believer in human free will. He’s quoting here the scriptural accounts of what he calls the voluntary actions of the deity, those moments in which God is acting out of his own inscrutable will. So here we have Milton writing very systematically:
Now, why [laughs] would Milton do this? Why would he cite these scriptures? From Milton’s point of view, and actually from the point of view of a lot of seventeenth-century Christians, these would have to be bone-chilling statements of the absolute divine control over our lives. The verses from scripture that Milton’s quoting here seem to admit of nothing like free will; they conjure an image of God who controls us as a puppeteer would control his puppets, and surely this has to make Milton nervous.
After quoting instances of divine action that seem clearly, I think, to counter the idea of the power of human free will, Milton adds this. It’s utterly sublime: “In this, however, there is no infringement on the liberty of the human will; otherwise man would be deprived of the power of free agency…” [laughs] “Otherwise”: [laughs] it’s slightly loose logic but it’s extraordinarily heartfelt. Milton is telling us once again that “it has to mean what I know it should mean.” It wouldn’t make sense otherwise. So he faces head on the most recalcitrant passages of the Bible, and he simply forces them to mean what he needs them to mean. This is precisely the challenge that Milton is confronted with in Books Eleven and Twelve. The Bible had already written the story of man after the Fall, and for most of Eleven and Twelve, Milton is really forced to amplify – he’s pretty constrained here – to amplify and elaborate on the chapters in Genesis – this is chapters 4 through 11 in the Book of Genesis–that really speed through generations of experience in the course of a few pages.
Chapter 3. Milton, The Book of Genesis and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve [00:08:58]
Now, the most important biblical text to my mind that Milton has to confront is the Genesis account of the expulsion. This is the moment at which Adam and Eve are actually forced to lose their paradise, and this is, of course, the moment that’s heralded – the loss that’s heralded in the poem’s title; and so I think we have to assume that this moment has a privileged position in Milton’s poem. This is the text as it appears in Genesis, and I’ve also included this on the handout. This is all we learn about the expulsion from Genesis:
By any standard, I think, that we could comfortably identify as Miltonic, this text portrays a God that’s unjustifiable. We’ve seen this argument before, though. You’ll remember Satan – Satan had accused God of jealousy when Satan was tempting Eve. Satan was telling Eve, “God doesn’t want you to eat the fruit because he doesn’t want you to become a god like him, a being with the superior knowledge of good and evil.” And we, of course, rally to dismiss Satan’s claim as yet another example of his tendency to lie and to deceive; but Satan is [laughs] – it seems that Milton’s Satan has only gotten this idea from the words of God and the Book of Genesis itself. What kind of god does Genesis portray here if not that of a vulnerable and, in some way, desperate deity who does in fact punish man out of a degree of jealousy and maybe even vengeance? God here has to force Adam and Eve out of the garden to keep them from encroaching on any more of his privileges or of his territory, to keep them from achieving the state of immortality that only God himself enjoys.
Now as you can imagine, this biblical passage has been troubling to generations of readers of the Bible and especially biblical scholars. The sixteenth-century theologian Calvin, when confronted with this passage, was really forced to conclude that God was speaking ironically here – he doesn’t actually mean what he’s saying. Well, you have to say something when you’re dealing with a passage like this, but Milton’s incredibly scrupulous here. He feels compelled to reproduce this very dark Genesis text in his own story of the expulsion. Look at Book Eleven of Paradise Lost, line ninety-three. In the Hughes Edition it’s page 435. This is God speaking:
Milton depicts a god in this passage who has all of those, and maybe even then some, [laughs] anthropomorphic qualities of the Yahweh of so much of Genesis. God here is distinctly human in personality, and he’s able without hesitation to intervene in the lives of – in the affairs of man in order to effect his desire for punishment. I take this to be precisely a type of god that Milton is trying to counteract or to do away with throughout so much of The Christian Doctrine, a god whose all-encompassing will just steamrolls right over the free will, the free agency, of human individuals.
But nonetheless we have this passage in the poem and you can – it’s not hard to see that the moment of expulsion is a crisis moment in Paradise Lost. It’s not only that point at which paradise gets lost; it’s also that moment, I think, in which Milton is most hard pressed to depict a god whose actions are justifiable, whose behavior can be reconciled with all of the claims of reason that Milton wants to hold him to. It’s because the moment of the actual expulsion is such a crisis that Milton provides us with an alternative understanding of it, and this, I believe, is the conversation between the Father and the Son at line forty-five of Book Eleven, page 434 of the Hughes. The Son has just pleaded with the Father to show some mercy on the repentant Adam and Eve and the Father – it’s wonderful – argues that he would like, in fact he’d love, to be merciful, but there are some things that are simply out of his control. Adam and Eve will have to leave the garden, and the justification that God gives for their departure I think is truly extraordinary. So this is line forty-eight of Book Eleven:
And we suddenly have a rationale for the expulsion that’s really completely opposed to the account of the expulsion that begins at line ninety-three and completely opposed, of course, to its original in the Book of Genesis. Where did Milton get this? He’s made this up. Suddenly Milton has a god behaving really very differently. God is saying, “Well, I’d love for them to stay in paradise, but you see there’s nothing I can do. I established this natural law in Eden whereby the pure, immortal elements of paradise necessarily, inexorably expel and purge anything that’s foul or tainted; and because, of course, the fallen bodies of Adam and Eve are actually foul and tainted, the atmospheric mechanisms already in place in paradise are in the process as we speak of purging them from the garden.”
The lines are beautiful and they’re shocking. Milton puts in God’s mouth an explanation for the expulsion of Adam and Eve that really deliberately runs counter to the explanation in the Book of Genesis and, I think, completely contradicts the one that God himself had given so publicly to the assembly of angels about fifty or so lines later. It’s an explanation that completely counters the image of the jealous and vengeful God that Milton inherited from scripture. Milton is really wresting this poem away from its source in scripture and he’s pushing it toward an entirely new genre. This is something much closer to what we would think of as science fiction, I think, than any kind of anthropomorphic biblical narrative.
Milton is taking a tremendous risk, and to embark on such a fanciful flight of myth-making at such an incredibly important moment has to be seen as consequential. I think that Milton is taking this risk for the purposes of his theodicy, his need to justify the ways of God to men. Here at last is an image of the god who expels Adam and Eve from the garden for an entirely justifiable, rational reason. Here at last is an image of a god who’s not at all the evil puppeteer who deliberately forces the movements of his human creatures. It’s an entirely benign – it’s almost an impersonal – god who willingly subjects himself to the law, to the law of nature, and to the natural moral processes of nature that are inevitably at work in the garden.
Chapter 4. Milton’s Conflicting Accounts of Key Moments in Christian History [00:17:57]
This, of course, isn’t the first time that we’ve encountered the force of contradiction in Paradise Lost. Throughout the poem, Milton has been opposing competing notions of God, opposing accounts of crucial events. You’ll remember Raphael’s account of creation in Book Seven in which Milton had opposed the literal, the anthropomorphic, story of Genesis with his own really wildly original, incredibly beautiful story of something like a natural self-creation. There are two accounts, as I mentioned in the last class, of Noah’s flood in Michael’s own history lesson. Events are continually being related twice and sometimes even three times in Paradise Lost, and the purpose of these narrative repetitions, I think, has nothing to do with Milton’s desire to make this poem impenetrable or just confusing. Milton is on something like a systematic level, I think, juxtaposing the poem’s official theological reading of events with an alternative – what we could think of as a naturalistic or maybe a more rational reading of events. He’s struggling to represent a more palatable, a more rational, alternative to the arbitrary anthropomorphic deity who is so capable of jealousy and these all-too-human motives that he finds in the Book of Genesis.
Up to this point in Milton’s poem, we really haven’t known what to do with a lot of these conflicts and contradictions that the poem was presenting us with. Conflicting accounts of key moments in Christian history just seemed to be held in suspension in the text. It’s often difficult to discern how we’re supposed to interpret the relation between opposing views, or among opposing views. I think this is a problem that we’ve been confronting all along: is one version right and the other version is wrong? Is one version a satanic perspective on these events and the other is a divine view? What’s the point of all of these oppositions and conflicts?
Well, if those are the questions that we’re asking, it’s safe to say that Milton in his magnificent genius has already anticipated those questions. I think here in the last books of the poem, Milton is struggling, and to some effect, to make some kind of sense of this problem. Michael presents a theory of reading that on some level can account for some of the confusions of Paradise Lost: it’s the theory of scriptural interpretation known as typology, and it had been around for centuries. According to the typological interpretation of Christian history, characters and events in the Hebrew Bible, which Christians called the Old Testament, are seen as types of characters and events in the New Testament. This mode of reading became a way for Christian readers of the Bible to reinterpret everything in the Hebrew scriptures, and to appropriate the Hebrew scriptures, as an anticipation of the Christian truths that would be revealed, they believed, later in the gospel. This was a central way in which Christians could assert some kind of superiority over Judaism in light of the fact that Judaism had this awkward but nonetheless incredibly significant temporal priority over Christianity.
So typology becomes a big deal. Look at Milton’s dealing with the typological perspective in Paradise Lost, Book Twelve, line 312. This is page 461 in the Hughes. Milton looks at the Old Testament figure of Joshua – and he’s not making this up. There’s a long tradition of thinking of Joshua as a type of Jesus. Joshua represents in this reading an early version of the Jesus that Christians come to call Christ, and the full significance of Joshua’s life can’t have been revealed in his own lifetime or actually during anyone’s lifetime in the Old Testament. The full significance of the Old Testament type isn’t known until the emergence of the New Testament anti-type, the anti-type being the Christian fulfillment of the Hebraic type. In this case, the anti-type is the birth of Jesus. Christian exegetes were constantly mapping out elaborate systems of types and anti-types as they read the Bible. There’s a very interesting book on Milton’s use of typology by William Madsen, M-a-d-s-e-n, called From Shadowy Types to Truth.
Look a little further up on page 461. This is Michael’s actual theory of typology, line 300 of Book Twelve. In the typological view of history, true meaning emerges over time by means of an historical process, and this is how Michael articulates it:
Christian history obeys a process whereby the shadowy types of the Old Testament are eventually revealed in all of their truth in the New Testament. Old Testament law gives way to New Testament faith, and the laws of the flesh start to yield to something like a faith in the spirit. That’s the message here, and Michael presents this with the official theological understanding of the significance of Christian history. This is really the official doctrine of the revelation of all of the types and anti-types that Michael has given us in this whirlwind history of life after the Fall.
Michael’s also doing a lot more than that. Michael’s theory of reading biblical history, I think, is also something like a theory of reading this very poem. He’s giving us an interpretative key, I submit, to some of the most difficult aspects of Paradise Lost. The history of civilization that Michael offers us is filled with moments of seeming repetition. Joshua appears in the Old Testament, but he seems to point ahead to the new Joshua, Jesus, in the New Testament. These typological repetitions are closely related, I think, to the narrative repetitions that we have in Milton’s poem, narrative repetitions like the competing accounts of the creation or the competing accounts of the expulsion. These are things that we’ve looked at. And the theory of typology works to make sense, on some level, of some of the differences and some of the conflicts among these repeated narratives in Milton’s story.
Now, we have been confused. We may have been confused about what to do with the poem’s competing accounts of various moments of Christian history. This is where the theory of typology comes in. The old-fashioned anthropomorphic images of the deity, the images that Milton inherits in large part from the text of Genesis, begin to look like shadowy types, the shadowy types of the Old Testament. The more modern, what we could think of as something like the quasi-scientific, rational explanation in the poem of certain events begins to emerge as something like a type of – as a new kind of truth. The shadowy types of Milton’s scriptural literalism – and there’s no question that that’s an important component of this poem – maybe they yield to the truths of the more scientific, the more naturalistic side of Milton’s imagination.
It’s not exactly the case that one version is wrong and the other version is right. We could think of one version as being an early, literalist understanding of an event and the other as a later, more rational, more sophisticated understanding of an event – an entirely natural as opposed to a supernatural account of the forces at work in the world. I think you can see Milton inviting just this type of typological reading of his own poem at the conclusion of Paradise Lost.
Let’s look at the poem’s final simile and just take a moment to be grateful that Milton has decided to give us a final simile after all of [laughs] what we’ve been through with Michael. Okay. This is line 625 of Book Twelve, page 468 in the Hughes. Now we’ve already had two anticipatory narratives of the expulsion so far, and I’ll just remind you of them. In the literalist narrative, God explains that the expulsion will occur by means of Michael’s actually shoving Adam and Eve out of the garden; but you’ll remember also that more naturalistic, that quasi-scientific version of the story in which God explains that Adam and Eve are going to be ejected out of Eden by means of some certain atmospheric pressures. Here at the end of the poem, we have what I take to be the actual representation of the real event. This is taking place on the literal level at the present moment of the story and on the literal level of the Genesis account, line 625.
So you have these anthropomorphic beings, the cherubim – these angels, these armed angels descend to earth to effect God’s punishment of man; but no sooner has Milton given us this literal Genesis-based description of the expulsion than he embarks for a final time on a simile that really throws everything that he’s just written into question. The cherubim have descended. They’re:
Pay attention to what Milton is doing here. He’s juxtaposing the descent of the angels with the ascent of the rising mist. The angels who are “gliding meteorous” are being likened to the mist that’s rising and that also glides. Through this antithesis he signals, I think, to the reader that there are something like two competing perspectives on this horrible but consequential event of the expulsion. There’s the literalist, the anthropomorphic image of the descending angels, and then you have something like the naturalistic image of the vapors and the mists of Eden that will eject Adam and Eve by means of a kind of atmospheric reaction. It’s as if God’s expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden were such a terrible event – and certainly it is for us after our many weeks-long investment now in Milton’s story of Eden – so terrible that Milton is compelled to suggest some explanation of it that actually absolves God of any jealousy or any vengeance, any of those things that the Genesis account invites us to attribute to God. You can see Milton struggling to make this event more compatible with his theodicy, more compatible with what we can think of as the naturalistic side of his imagination.
So where has Milton taken us in this beautiful simile? Here at the end of Book Twelve, he’s returned us to one of the most beautiful similes of the entire poem. That was the simile with which he had ended Book One of Paradise Lost. The beginning of Paradise Lost also features a laborer, you’ll remember: the belated peasant who sees, or dreams he sees, fairy elves at twilight.
Chapter 5. God’s Divine and Eternal Providence [00:31:45]
Now, Milton began Paradise Lost with the claim that he would assert eternal providence and justify the ways of God to men. It may very well have seemed at the beginning of the poem that the idea of God’s providence – of God’s foreknowledge, foreseeing – was going to be completely at odds with the idea of man’s free will. A god who knows what’s going to happen in advance – and I know I’ve made this argument a number of times – simply isn’t justified on some level – this is certainly what a lot of Milton’s contemporaries thought and generations of readers of the Bible before Milton thought – simply isn’t justified in setting up a paradise that he knows isn’t going to last, that will have to be lost. But if we were struck by the difficulty of Milton’s theodicy when we began the poem, that’s because we had no idea then just how far Milton was going to be able to push our conception of God and our notion essentially of divine providence.
The whole idea of divine providence has undergone an amazing transformation over the course of Paradise Lost, and it makes its final appearance in the poem’s final lines. Michael has just escorted Adam and Eve to the eastern gate of paradise, and then he’s disappeared – “Thank God,” we say! Just before Adam and Eve leave Eden forever, they look back:
This exquisitely beautiful and quiet ending has always teased the readers of Milton’s poem. Our puzzlement, I think, derives from the opposition here of ideas that really seem entirely at odds with one another. Adam has just been presented by Michael with a powerful vision precisely of the workings of divine providence in the universe. We’re not surprised to see Adam and Eve departing the garden “with Providence thir guide” given what we’ve just learned from Michael; but in the light of the presence of this guide, the final two lines of the poem always seem so difficult to understand: “They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow, / through Eden took thir solitary way.”
The eighteenth-century critic and classical editor Dr. Richard Bentley was surely not the first reader to be puzzled by these lines, but he was the first reader to spell out the difficulties of these last two lines. Look here on your handout. Dr. Bentley had found the conclusion of the poem so conflicted that he suggested that Milton couldn’t possibly have been responsible for them. Once again, the lines as they appear in our text are clearly the garbled product of the confused secretary to whom Milton was dictating. So look at the handout – this is near the bottom third of the text. Bentley asks how the expression of the last two lines can be justified. I’m going to quote Bentley here:
It goes without saying that Bentley gets everything almost consistently wrong when he talks about Milton, but you have to give him this: he’s an amazingly astute reader of poetic tension and poetic contradiction. It’s an awfully good question: how can it be that Adam and Eve are wandering at the same time that they’re guided by Providence? Milton is able to pack into the final lines of Paradise Lost really the central question of the entire poem: how can it be that human beings are free, free to wander, if there’s a providential force out there that seems to determine their movements? In other words, how can God’s foreknowledge be squared or be reconciled with man’s free will?
This is a problem that has been gathering ground fast at our heels throughout our reading of Paradise Lost. It’s here at the end that Milton makes a final attempt at resolution, a final attempt – this is his last chance – at reconciliation. Milton tells us that “[t]he World was all before them, where to choose / thir place of rest…” It seems on a first reading that the guiding power of Providence will assist them in their choice of a place of rest, but of course it’s more complicated than that. The word “providence” in this sentence can, I think, also be the object of the verb “to choose.” Adam and Eve are not only choosing a place out of their own free will; it’s also possible that they’re also choosing Providence.
I think this possibility, this secondary syntactical possibility, is a really daring and radical move on Milton’s part. Even the most absolute certainties of divine foreknowledge, this enormous institution of God’s providence – even that can be subsumed within the all-encompassing power of the human capacity to choose freely. Adam and Eve not only have a paradise within them happier far; perhaps they also have a Providence within them, and surely that is happier far as well.
You’ll notice on the bottom of the handout that Bentley proposed that the last lines of Paradise Lost be rewritten. So he gives us what he assumes [laughs] must have been what Milton actually dictated but had gotten mis-transcribed. Bentley wants to do away with all of the ambiguity, and he suggests these lines as an alternative: “Then hand in hand with social steps their way / Through Eden took with heavenly comfort cheered” [laughter] You have to hand it to him. Of course, it goes without saying that he’s a terrible poet, but you can see what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to reconcile the entire poem with a much more familiar Sunday-school image of divine providence.
Bentley is just so much more orthodox than our Milton. He wants to imagine a god who’s still capable of offering assistance and consolation but also punishment from above, a god who’s still capable of intervening in the realm of nature. Milton, I think, wants very much to resist that. The world of Paradise Lost by the end is an almost entirely secular world. The new world order that this great religious poem has prepared us for is on some level the secular world of modernity, our world. Adam and Eve are solitary here at the end of the poem because there’s no longer a personal – an anthropomorphic deity who’s in a position to intervene in their lives. Now they may drop some tears in leaving paradise, but they leave behind that shadowy type of the personal arbitrary deity from the Book of Genesis. They are free now, as Milton is free, to choose Providence – by which I mean they can choose an alternative image of providential guidance, an alternative understanding of that.
Now, Dr. Bentley also takes issue with the term “wandering” here because he assumes that the word “wandering” has to have its evil, fallen connotations, as it did for Adam in Book Ten. “Wandering steps” for Dr. Bentley are necessarily erratic steps since after the Fall, of course, the whole concept of wandering and all the freedoms that wandering implied have become suspect. But now at the end of the poem, Milton’s attempting to reassert the innocent meaning of the word “wander.” All of the doctrinal structures of the poem have been internalized by Adam and Eve by the end of the poem, and on some level this was the point of Michael’s history lesson. It was his attempt to compel their internalization of Providence. Wandering can be seen as sanctioned now and as innocent now because wandering is predicated on something like an internalized providential guide. And we knew this had to be the case: Eve was right all along. Wandering is in the end perfectly allowable in Milton’s universe. We get to the end of this biblical epic not with prophecy, but we end the poem in the mode of romance wandering. This is an ending that’s not an ending at all. Milton successfully resists the drive to closure.
Now, we didn’t know, of course, when we started reading the poem just what Milton could have meant by his desire to assert divine providence, to assert eternal providence. “I may assert Eternal Providence, / and justify the ways of God to men,” he told us in the first invocation, but the significance of this claim becomes clearer by the time we get to the end of the poem. We move from a shadowy type of the claim closer to something much more like its truth. There’s a sense in which Milton’s claim to assert eternal providence may find its ultimate meaning – this is one critical conjecture, and I’m quite taken with it – in the original, the root, sense of the word assert. The verb to assert, and you can see this from the bottom of the handout, comes from the Latin verb asserere, “to remove from service, to declare a slave free.” Milton is declaring the slave, Providence, free.
I’ll conclude here with a consideration of what that alternative meaning of the verb assert might actually portend. There’s the obvious arrogance in this assertion that Milton on some level is assuming the role of a slave-master, a slave owner placing Providence in the role of a slave. That’s identifiably Miltonic, I guess, but there’s another sense in which Milton can be seen as asserting divine providence, asserting eternal providence. He’s liberating a conception of Providence that has been enslaved and silenced by orthodox Christian theologians. It’s as if the notion of Providence had been enslaved by the literal-minded doctrinaire readers of Genesis. Milton wants us to know that it is our good fortune as readers of Paradise Lost that we have John Milton – John Milton, like some wandering knight in a chivalric romance – to come to the rescue.
You’ll remember the note on the verse that Milton had appended to a later printing of Paradise Lost, explaining why his poem didn’t rhyme. Milton told us there that he was saving poetry from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming. Milton was liberating poetry from a type of enslavement, but Milton is trying to save us as readers, too, I think – to save us from our enslavement, freeing us from the shackles of what he takes to be are the shackles of religious orthodoxy, from normative social and poetic conventions, and to save us from the shackles of the tyranny of literary tradition. He has attempted in Paradise Lost to free us finally from the troublesome and modern bondage of literary reading.
Okay. I’m going to end the lecture on Paradise Lost there, but I have a word to say about the reading for after the Thanksgiving break. Do give yourself some time with the first two books of Paradise Regained. You won’t be the first to think – if you think this – that Milton is writing in shackles when he writes his sequel to Paradise Lost; but you have to give yourself a little bit of time to appreciate the severity of this poem, its uncompromising aesthetic discipline, because only by doing that will you develop what I know will be your ultimate affection for its delicious peculiarities. Okay. Have a good break.
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