ENGL 220: Milton
- Paradise Regained, Books III-IV
In this second lecture on Paradise Regained, the three temptations are examined and Milton’s unusual departure from their account in the Gospel of Luke is discussed. The poem’s tacit assertion of the superiority of knowledge and ethics over action is probed. Considerable time is spent examining the Son’s rejection of classical literature. Finally, Book Four’s allusion to the riddle of the sphinx serves as a springboard to a consideration of the poem’s Oedipal elements.
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ENGL 220 - Lecture 22 - Paradise Regained, Books III-IV
Chapter 1. Introduction: The Notion of Identity in Paradise Regained and Paradise Lost [00:00:00]
Professor John Rogers: I’m actually going to continue here one of the discussions that I had begun in the last lecture, which involved the matter of the relationship of this poem, Paradise Regained, to the earlier epic, which we have to acknowledge is in so many ways the more ambitious poem, Paradise Lost. I want to look at the way in which Milton uses this new poem, Paradise Regained, to explore the larger problem of identity and in a lot of ways, the identity of Milton himself: Milton’s identity as an obedient son of God, Milton’s identity as a poet. All of this gets worked out over the course of the poem. Each of the characters in Paradise Regained, Satan and the Son – each of them is involved in an elaborate process, and it’s really a process that spans the entire poem, of trying to figure out who the other one is. On top of that, each of them is trying to figure out who he himself is – or who he himself has been, in the Son’s case.
I don’t know what page this is on, but it’s in Book One, lines 355 and 356. This is the Son speaking to Satan, and I think it’s an extraordinary thing for the Son to say. The Son says to Satan: “Why dost thou then suggest to me distrust, / knowing who I am, as I know who thou art?” Of course, we are – how can we not be? – inclined to assume, because this is the Son of God after all, that there’s something more meaningful about this statement than actually is the case. What does the Son know? The Son does know that Satan is his enemy and that Satan is to be identified with that serpent from the Protoevangelium, the prophecy back in Genesis whom it will be the Son’s job to destroy. The Son knows that, and Satan knows that the Son is his enemy and that it will be the Son’s job as the Messiah to destroy him.
But this is still just a partial knowledge, and it’s remarkable, the extent to which Milton doesn’t let on just how partial this knowledge is. We don’t know until the end how little the Son and Satan actually understand about themselves and about each other. And so I think the Son is actually wrong in some way at this early point in the poem to claim that he knows who Satan is, because his is, of course, just a partial knowledge. Satan doesn’t know fully who the Son is, and the Son doesn’t know fully who Satan is. Each of them on some level knows who the other is, but neither of them knows who the other has been – I’m hoping that will make more sense by the time we get to the end of our period here.
Chapter 2. Who Is John Milton? [00:03:48]
Okay. So what little action, what little drama this poem affords us – and we have to confess it is relatively little – involves just this struggle, this intellectual struggle to understand one’s identity. I think that the search for identity represented in the poem in a lot of ways is a reflection of, or something like a narrative version of, Milton’s own attempts – and we’ve been tracking this for a long time now – Milton’s own attempts to identify himself. So one of the questions I think at stake here is who is John Milton? Who is this man? Who is this man who dared to rewrite scripture in his twelve-book epic poem Paradise Lost?
I think this poem is everywhere trying to answer that question, and it begins answering it at the very opening. Look at the beginning of Paradise Regained. This is page 483 of the Hughes.
Obviously Milton is drawing our attention to the earlier achievement, the epic that had begun with that prepositional phrase, “of man’s first disobedience.” So the poet very carefully wrings a variation on that phrase in the forced line of the new poem, and the new phrase is “by one’s man firm obedience.” This little modulation reflects, of course, the change of subject matter.
But look at the way in which Milton has – this is unbelievable to me – look at how he has characterized his authorship of the earlier poem: “I who erewhile the happy Garden sung.” Now just pause for a moment and think about what kind of [aughs] way that is to refer to the magnificent epic achievement that is Paradise Lost. Milton’s alluding – he hasn’t made up this convention – he’s alluding in these lines to the opening of Virgil’s epic, The Aeneid, and also to the beginning of Spenser’s romance epic, The Faerie Queene; Spenser, of course, was himself alluding to Virgil. Virgil and Spenser had begun their vast and ambitious literary project by identifying themselves to the readers, and so each of them in his way began their huge poems like this: “I, the poet, who had sung of happy gardens, who had been content writing pastoral poems – diminutive, little pastoral lyrics – I’m now embarking on an epic, and an epic, as you all know from having read Homer, is a poem that treats of heroism and of war. I have graduated to epic ambition.” That’s how Spenser began The Faerie Queene and that’s how Virgil before him had begun The Aeneid. By the time we get to the Renaissance, this is really the standard way of introducing your epic poem.
Okay. That’s fine. But what sense is there to Milton’s beginning Paradise Regained this way? [laughs] He should have done this before in Paradise Lost. What sense does it make for Milton to begin this poem with that conventional epic opening? Milton had already written his epic. Not only had Milton already written his epic, but he had written his diminutive, little pastoral lyrics long before that – I’d say maybe thirty years before the publication of Paradise Regained. Lycidas, Comus, L’Allegro, and Il Penseroso – those were Milton’s pastoral poems. Those were the poems in which he sang the happy garden, but to identify Paradise Lost as a simple pastoral about a happy garden is obviously on some level to get it wrong. I think there’s everything riding on the fact that Milton has misidentified the nature of his Paradise Lost. This is going to be the working assumption of the rest of this lecture: that Milton on some level – and I know this sounds far-fetched – but Milton has repressed the epic content of his epic poem.
Now, you’ll remember that last time we saw how Satan in Paradise Regained had repressed the fact that it was, in fact, the Son of God who had brought him to the brink of destruction during the war in heaven. He had repressed a crucial fact about that war, perhaps the most crucial fact about that war. Well, on some level the speaker of the poem, Milton’s narrator – we can call him Milton – joins Satan in this act of repression, and the speaker of this poem has repressed the fact of the war in heaven as well. It’s as if he had forgotten that Paradise Lost was an epic, something more than a poem merely about a happy garden, because an epic necessarily features the epic subject of war. Paradise Lost can’t be identified merely with Book Four, our introduction to the Garden of Eden, needless to say.
It’s not just that Paradise Lost featured that lush, extraordinarily beautiful style of poetry that Milton feels in some way he has to resist in Paradise Regained. It’s not just the lure of the rich, classical style that was so tempting there. It’s also the fact that Paradise Lost represented, gave us an image of, heroic actions, the heroic actions of its characters. Its characters actually did something, a fact that we didn’t know we were supposed to appreciate so much when we were actually reading the thing; but now that we’re reading Paradise Regained, the fact that the characters [laughs] actually act and do in Paradise Lost takes on a new meaning. The very fact of all of that action that had been represented in Paradise Lost has become something of a problem by the time we get to Paradise Regained.
Chapter 3. The Three Temptations of the Son of God by Satan [00:10:31]
Now, we remember that when Milton in those early poems was considering his problems of career and of vocation, he was consistently imagining a tension between those two parables in the Gospel of Matthew that posed the question of action, the question of work. The parable of the talents – this lecture in some way will be something like a review session for the whole semester up to this point – suggested that hard work and initiative were absolutely essential for the Father’s approval, while the parable of the workers in the vineyard gave us a different understanding. It suggested in some way that the Father approves of the individual who is willing merely to wait to be called to work. The conflicting, or what seemed to be the conflicting, implications of those two parables were worked over in dozens of earlier poems and in prose treatises, and they’re reworked here in Paradise Regained again, much later in Milton’s career. They’re reworked in the three temptations that the Son of God undergoes at the hand of Satan in Paradise Regained.
So this for me is one of the most amazing and most surprising aspects of Satan’s temptation of the Son of God in this poem. In Paradise Lost, Satan had tempted Eve to be disobedient, and it was clear to everyone that this was a kind of temptation to evil. But the situation in Paradise Regained – this is a much more complicated poem. It’s infinitely more complex, the nature of these temptations. Satan in this poem is tempting the Son not to act disobediently but, on some level, actually to act virtuously or to exhibit what strikes us as virtuous behavior.
Now, the cardinal virtues, you’ll remember from an earlier discussion of Comus, are faith, hope, and charity. In Milton’s account – and it’s ingenious – Satan tempts the Son with those virtues, but he does it in precisely the reverse order. He tempts the Son to an act of charity and then to an act of hope and then an act of faith. Now, just think of what Milton does to the original story in Luke. Okay: so the Son is hungry after forty days of fasting in the wilderness. Now in the account from the Gospel of Luke, Satan responds to the Son’s hunger by tempting him to turn this stone into bread. He’s tempting him to provide himself with something to eat.
Well, Milton goes way beyond that, and in Paradise Regained Satan doesn’t merely tempt the Son of God to eat something himself. That would be far too easy for the Son to resist. He asks the Son to turn the stone into bread so he can perform the virtuous, the charitable, act of feeding the hungry and of feeding the poor. “We are starving here,” a disguised Satan tells the Son, and, in a magnificent line that strikes me as perfectly prophetic of the vegan movement of the late twentieth century, Satan says sublimely, “We here / live on tough Roots and Stubs.” This is the kind of – I don’t know if you get those emails that I get from a woman named Anastasia Curley from the Yale Sustainable Food Project, but I think of her [laughter] with those updates from what’s happening at the farm when I read this line, “We here live on tough roots and stubs, and we’re asking for your help.” That’s what Satan says, and it’s this temptation, the temptation to virtuous action, that the Son has to resist. It’s not a simple temptation to gluttony in any way as it seems to be in the Gospel original. Satan is tempting the Son – what? – to exhibit a little humanity, to do the right thing.
Milton’s father, John Milton, Sr., had pressed the young Milton to stop reading at home and to begin doing something. His father was pressuring Milton to perform the virtuous action of a clergyman, and it was just this form of virtuous action that Milton, of course – and we remember this – was continually resisting. He insisted repeatedly that he wasn’t ready yet, he wasn’t ready to start acting. “It’s too soon,” we found him continually protesting. “I’m not ripe yet.” He was constantly explaining to that paternal authority that he had in some way internalized the fact of his unripeness.
Of course, it seems to be something just like the voice of Milton’s father, which is nothing other than Milton’s own conscience, that constitutes the essence of the next temptation. That’s the temptation to accept the worldly kingdoms from Satan as Satan’s gift. It’s the second temptation which really takes up the bulk of the poem. Milton takes this verse from the Gospel of Luke and explodes it into hundreds and hundreds of lines. It stretches from the middle of Book Two to the middle of Book Four, and it’s here that Milton really most powerfully distorts his scriptural source. He takes what you could think of as a kind of brief, throwaway temptation from the Gospel of Luke, and he expands it into a set of several sub temptations. They’re genuine temptations, and in a lot of ways, he’s imported the notion of these temptations from his favorite canto of The Faerie Queene, the cave of Mammon canto from Book Two.
So Milton takes his cue from Spenser and transforms this second temptation into a catalog of all of those activities, all of those seemingly virtuous activities, that he had himself devoted his life to. This massive and seemingly endlessly elaborated second temptation reads something like Milton’s autobiography. He explores, with what I take to be an almost painful precision, the central drives and the impulses of his very being. Satan tempts the Son of God with wealth. He tempts the Son of God with revolutionary political commitment with the promise of military success. He offers Jesus the entire Parthian army to help him regain the throne of David, because of course everybody knows Jesus will eventually regain the throne of David. He tempts the Son with empire. He offers to give him the empire of Rome since the current emperor, Tiberius, is so old and corrupt anyway, and he tempts him finally with all of the beauty and all of the wisdom and all of the fame associated with classical Athens. In short, Satan tempts the Son with just about everything that was ever important to our John Milton. It’s almost as if Milton had deliberately structured the second temptation as something like a review session for the Milton exam. You have an entire career narrated here.
So in the temptation to wealth – and I’ve given you a sense of the dates but it’s also on your handout – in the temptation to wealth you have the protestations of action and of merit, that guilty defensiveness that you saw in the lyrics of the 1630s and in that Latin poem, Ad Patrem, that Milton had written to his father. In the temptation to political commitment or the temptation to intervene politically, you have Milton’s new commitment, the commitment of in the 1640s – the decade of his prose – to apply his literary energies to the goal of the Puritan Revolution, the desire to reform the corruption of church and state. In the temptation to Parthian military glory, you can hear Milton’s conviction in the regicide treatises of 1649 and thereabouts, his conviction in the importance of destroying with force, by actual military power, the unlawful tyranny of Charles the First. In the temptation of the Roman empire, you have reflected the faith that Milton seemed to hold in the early 1650s, at least, in the almost unlimited, utopian potential of the Puritan commonwealth: the hope – and it turned out to be a crazy and perfectly irrational hope -that an empire governed by the virtuous Puritan saints might actually be able to precipitate the millennium, or the apocalypse, at the end of time. In the last part of Satan’s second temptation, you have Satan’s absolutely delicious and completely irresistible offer of literary fame and classical wisdom in the form of classical Athens. Clearly, this last addition to the second temptation – that is the thing that persists throughout Milton’s career. It obviously spans his entire life.
So Milton alludes to and recycles in the elaborated second temptation all of the virtuous commitments and all of the disciplined decisions that he had been making himself over the course of the last forty years. He presents them – and this is what’s so brilliant – he presents them in a form that the hero has to resist. They’re temptations that the hero has to resist. The voices in his head that had come to him through the mechanism of conscience – or God or John Milton, Sr. or someone authoritative – all of those authoritative voices are now crystalized in the person and the shape of Satan. Satan is tempting the Son of God with a version of essentially all of the virtuous behavior that Milton’s father had pressured Milton with.
Now, it’s usually clear that the Satanic version – and this is almost always clear – that the Satanic version of the temptation is an evil, or at least a questionable, rendition of the virtuous action that Milton himself had over the course of those years felt obliged to perform, but it’s not always perfectly clear to me as a reader why it is that all of Satan’s arguments are faulty, or why it is we have to dismiss them necessarily as evil. It often seems that the Son of God is rejecting modes of action and types of virtuous commitment that Milton himself actively embraced – which is just a way of saying there’s nothing that Milton is not willing to question in this poem. He’s struggling to reinterpret, in some way, his entire career, as if to purify it of anything like a self-interested motive. It’s as if he’s systematically reviewing and scrutinizing every move, every type of action that he had been engaged in over the years, in order to purify his own past by differentiating it in some way from its Satanic double, from a dark version of his own virtue.
Okay. Let’s turn to page 510 in the Hughes. This is Book Three, line 224. This is a good example of the way in which Milton will cast as a Satanic temptation the voice of virtuous conscience that had plagued him as a younger man. So Satan asks, “If you have such hopes to be the savior of your nation – and of course you do – why don’t you hurry up and act? Come on. Do something.” Look at line 224:
Satan’s saying, “Oh, I know why you’re hesitant to act. You’re too busy lingering in all of your deep thoughts. You’ve spent all of your life at home and you’ve never ventured out. You’ve never sallied forth to do something in the world.” Milton has incorporated into Satan’s temptation a piercing critique of his own tendency, that early tendency, to wait – to anticipate rather than to act. Satan tempts the Son with the wisdom of John Milton, Sr.: “You’ve spent most of your life in private at home, reading. Why in God’s name don’t you do something?”
Now, let’s jump ahead to the final moment of the second temptation, which is another of Milton’s additions to the story that has absolutely no basis in scripture whatsoever. Of course, its absence from Milton’s biblical source should only draw our attention all the more to its importance. This is the temptation to the intellectual fame represented by classical Athens in Book Four. Turn to Book Four, line 240. Satan displays before the Son all of the cultural wealth of ancient Athens, and at line 240 he invokes Athens, “the eye of Greece, Mother of Arts / and Eloquence.” This Athens, the “Mother of Arts,” seems to possess within it all of the classical learning that Milton himself had been addicted to as a young man as he spent those years after college in studious retirement at his family’s house.
Look down at line 281. Satan urges the Son to read all of these great classical texts. This is just getting so close to home. Satan says to the Son: “These here revolve, or, as thou lik’st, at home.” This is amazing. It’s as if Satan were imagining something like a lending library, and nothing could be more tempting to Milton. The Son could actually think about, read, and ponder these works in the privacy of his own home. This line here [laughs] convinces me that Milton himself had an enormous book collection. The books were his – he read them at home after he was in college. He wasn’t merely reading them in a nobleman’s house or a friend’s copy or in some version of a library. Milton must have read at home, until:
This temptation to immerse himself in pagan literature at home, of course, is the temptation in Paradise Regained that has to be most difficult for Milton to imagine resisting. Of course, I think it’s the most difficult temptation for us as readers to encounter. It’s impossible, in fact, to read the Son’s response to Satan’s temptation here without wincing, without wincing at the pain that had to have accompanied Milton’s writing of it. This is the Son who becomes unbelievably puritanical at this point in a stereotypical sense – this is the top of page 523, line 322 of Book Four. The Son says to Satan:
The Son dismisses literature – he dismisses all of secular learning as mere toys fit for children. You can hear something like the voice of Milton’s father here accusing Milton of childishness. You can also see hear the important association of literature with the domestic sphere, the space of the home – the sphere of experience that’s governed not by the child’s father but by the child’s mother. It’s important, I think, that Athens is very carefully figured by Milton as the mother of arts, because this kind of learning is presented and represented in Milton’s poem as a maternal inheritance. It’s just this maternal inheritance that the Son has to resist – because what’s his purpose here in this poem? It’s perfect sole obedience to the Father. The Son’s rejection of classical learning really parallels Milton’s own as he writes this very poem. On some level he’s describing for us what he himself is doing. He’s obviously resisting classical literature, or at least allusion to classical literature, throughout Paradise Regained. This poem is almost – and of course, I can only say “almost” – it’s almost scoured of any classical references whatsoever.
Well, the exquisitely abstemious Son of God resists this most tempting of temptations just as he has resisted all the others. This is the big gun that Satan has just pulled out, and Satan understandably is beside himself with frustration. Look at line 366, top of page 524: Satan is “quite at a loss, for all his darts were spent…” Satan has nothing else to ask but this astonishing question at line 372. Look at Satan’s question at line 372: “What dost thou in this World?” In other words, “You have rejected every form of action, and I can’t imagine that you’re actually willing to do anything. This is ridiculous. Can you do anything but say no?” Satan asks the Son.
What, of course, Satan doesn’t understand yet is that this poem isn’t about action. It’s not about doing, but on some important level it’s about knowledge. Particularly, it’s about self-knowledge and it’s the problem of knowledge that really comes to the fore at the third and final temptation, which goes like this: “If you are, as you claim, the real Son of God, then prove it,” Satan challenges the Son. So the third temptation is essentially a paternity test. It’s a test in his faith in who his father is. Satan’s coming to the point where he has to learn once and for all exactly who this Son is, and it’s here that Satan takes the Son to the top of the pinnacle – the Father’s house, the top of the temple – to prove that he is, in fact, a Son of God. Satan is going back, he’s returning once again to that proclamation that the Father had made at the baptism, “This is my beloved Son.” He has to figure out once and for all what that meant.
So look at page 527. This is Book Four, line 515, Satan to the Son:
The relation of past and present, the relation of who I was to who I am, is finally presented here explicitly. This is the big question, and it’s here that the extent of what we can think of Satan’s repression becomes almost unbearable for me to witness. Satan insists that the Son of God is a term that can be used indiscriminately to describe all of God’s human and angelic creatures, and he’s right. It was used pretty much indiscriminately throughout a lot of Paradise Lost. Satan is incapable here of acknowledging to himself the identity of this Son of God, this opponent, with that Son of God – the Son of God, the so-called only begotten, the first begotten, in heaven way back when: that Son of God whose favor in the eyes of the Father had, of course, motivated Satan’s fall from heaven in the first place and had motivated the rebellion.
Satan brings the Son to the top of the temple and he asks the Son to cast himself down. It’s incredible the degree to which this climactic moment in this poem reworks that climactic moment in the other poem – from the war in heaven in Paradise Lost. It’s as if unconsciously, Satan is trying to re-stage that fall from heaven perhaps, in some sort of fantasy way, to have it have a different outcome – that terrible moment at which the Son had successfully maneuvered Satan and the other rebel angels into casting themselves down from heaven. It’s as if this were a desperate attempt to redo a traumatic moment in the familial past. Satan tempts the Son to call upon the Father to lift him up, since it is written in scripture that angels will rush to the aid of the Son of God. In essence, if you are in fact the Son of God, prove it! Call upon the Father to help you.
It’s at this point in Milton’s text that absolutely everything that we’ve been discussing comes to a head. It’s a remarkable convergence. Look at line 560 on page 528: “To whom thus Jesus. Also it is written, / Tempt not the Lord thy God; he said, and stood. / But Satan, smitten with amazement fell…” The Son of God performs no action here other than quoting a verse, a verse from the Book of Deuteronomy, and then stands, or maybe actually just remains standing. He refuses to honor Satan’s request, and he exhibits his complete and total obedience to the Father by quoting the Father’s word, by quoting scripture: “Tempt not the Lord thy God.”
It’s at this point, and it is not before this point, that the truth of the Son’s identity becomes evident to Satan, I think. I think this is also the moment at which the truth of the Son’s identity becomes apparent also to the Son. On one level Jesus merely means, don’t tempt the Lord thy God; don’t tempt the Lord to help you if you don’t really need his help, if you can do it on your own. But at the very moment that the Son quotes the Father’s scripture, it’s almost as if the meaning of this scriptural verse changes before our very eyes. “Tempt not the Lord thy God” comes also to mean – maybe by the time he’s gotten to the God part – it comes also to mean, perhaps, “Don’t tempt me because I am in some way the Lord thy God.” At this very moment of absolute obedience, the Son is rewarded with the knowledge that he is not only the Savior or the Messiah – he’s known that – but he’s rewarded with the knowledge that in some sense he is God himself.
It’s an incredible moment, and it’s at this moment that it’s as if this poem’s repression of Paradise Lost, the earlier poem, has been lifted. The repression that has obscured the identity of this Son of God with that Son of God, the Son of God who was actually responsible for driving out Satan from heaven in the first place – the repression evaporates. As soon as the reality of the situation asserts itself once again, it’s amazing: Satan falls headlong to his destruction. It’s as if all of these pieces of the puzzle are suddenly fitting together, and finally the identity of this Son of God with that Son of God in Paradise Lost is established. It seems to me that everybody in the poem is surprised, even the heavenly angels.
Look at line 605 of Book Four. This is where the angels are singing in praise of the Son. I’m convinced that it’s only now that they realize who this guy is, which means who this guy had been. So the angels tell the Son in this heavenly hymn, and they’re speaking of Satan here:
This is the first moment that this poem has acknowledged the Son’s agency in the war that was represented in the earlier poem. Finally, the connection between Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained is established.
Look at that last line that I just read, line 608. You have something like the visual indication of the conjunction of the two poems. Their titles are compressed into three words. Both titles are compressed into three words: “regain’d lost Paradise.” I think it’s one of the greatest, most exciting revelation scenes in all of Western literature. The entire phenomenon of recovered memory – the recovered memory, for example, of years later of past traumatic abuse – is obviously one that only really began to assert itself later in the twentieth century, or in the early ‘90s with Oprah and Roseanne, although you probably don’t remember Roseanne’s recovered memory. But Milton was representing just this phenomenon, the phenomenon of recovered memory, in 1671, and he represented it on an unbelievably huge scale. It’s not just the revelation of a character’s identity. It’s the identity of an entire text. What is that text? The text is only the greatest poem ever written in English that is brought to light at this moment. The Son by resisting the Satan’s temptation has regained lost paradise but Milton has regained Paradise Lost and allowed us to regain Paradise Lost.
Remember at the beginning that it seemed that Milton had actually forgotten the epic content of his poem: “Oh, I was just writing some pastoral and I called it Paradise Lost, but now – eureka! ” It’s like an enormous bolt of lightning hits him and he remembers. He remembers that Paradise Lost was, in fact, an epic and according to Milton it’s this revelation which is the moment at which man is redeemed. This is the moment at which paradise is regained, and the Son proves his identity through the simple quotation of scripture – nothing imaginative, nothing fancy. He’s quoting the Bible: “Tempt not the Lord thy God.” Milton proves his own obedience to God by his composition of a biblical epic that is virtually untainted by the ornaments of classical literature.
So it is at this moment [laughs] of proof that everything in Paradise Regained is permitted to change. As soon as Milton describes Satan’s fall, he allows himself to embrace – and we’re so happy for this – to embrace a poetic mode that had been completely suppressed up to this point, and this is the sublime mode of epic grandeur. All of a sudden we have not one epic simile, but we have two, and it’s as if we’re breathing oxygen again. Milton compares the Son’s victory over Satan to Hercules’ defeat of Antaeus, Antaeus being the figure who gained his strength from his mother, the earth, every time he touched the ground. Milton, of course, is also figuring the victory of Christianity over the maternal arts of Greece.
Chapter 4. Oedipus and the Sphinx’s Riddle [00:42:33]
Finally, at line 572, Milton compares Satan to the Theban sphinx. Look at line 572:
Now, Milton doesn’t mention here who it was who found out and solved the riddle of the sphinx. He doesn’t mention who it was who impelled the sphinx to cast herself headlong from the Ismenian steep. Like Satan who has repressed up to this point the name of who it was who had caused him to hurl himself from heaven, Milton – in a kind of interesting and really related way – Milton is repressing the name of that classical hero here; but of course we know. We know who solved the riddle of the sphinx and we know that the Son of God is implicitly being compared to him: it was Oedipus. It was Oedipus who was able to answer the riddle posed by the sphinx, and it was Oedipus whose answer pressed the sphinx to cast herself off that high precipice.
What was the sphinx’s riddle? Some of you will remember. The riddle was, what creature goes first on four legs, then on two legs, and then finally on three legs? And Oedipus’ ingenious answer was “man”: because man is born to crawl on all fours, initially, then grows up to walk on two legs, and ends his life as an old man with a cane, or what amounts to three legs. Before this simile, Satan had asked the Son a riddle, essentially, and the riddle was: who are you? The Son’s answer to that riddle was – it was kind of, “I am the Lord thy God.” Oedipus’ answer to the riddle of the sphinx was “man,” and it’s been one conjecture, and I think it’s a very strong one, that the truth of the Son’s identity in Paradise Regained involves, in some way, a combination of those two answers. The Son of God is both God and man, and you could see Milton using these classical illusions in some way to encode the mysterious truth of the Son’s identity and to encode the mystery of the incarnation.
Now there is, of course, much more to the story of Oedipus than Milton is alluding to in this simile. Oedipus is most famous for having killed his father and then having married his mother. Since Paradise Regained is a poem that is everywhere concerned with repression, with all of those things that it refuses to acknowledge, it’s surely not too far-fetched to imagine the relation of Milton’s poem to that most obvious aspect of the classical story of Oedipus. This is, after all, the classical myth that became for Freud the dominant myth of repression. Milton, by the way – this is a conjecture from a brilliant Freudian reading of Milton by a critic named William Kerrigan – Milton was one of Freud’s favorite poets, and it’s been argued that Milton in a lot of ways in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained provides Freud with some of the intellectual tools by which he developed the complicated notion of the Oedipus complex.
In any case, I think you have in Paradise Regained as powerful a representation of repression as anything that you could find in the pages of Freud. So in Sophocles’ famous tragedy, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus kills his father and moves in with his mother, Jocasta, the Queen of Thebes. I don’t want to suggest – this is what I’m willing to repress here – that Milton’s interested in the sexual element of the Son’s relation to his mother, although of course we know that Milton does have an interest in incest: think of Satan, Sin, and Death in Paradise Lost. But Milton’s very much interested, I think, in the fact that Oedipus killed his father. There’s a very real sense in which the Son’s defeat of Satan in Paradise Regained is a literary rewriting of the hostility, the simmering resentment, of John Milton, Jr. to John Milton, Sr. Above all things, the Son resents the temptation to act in a way that the public world values as important. Milton’s laying to rest once and for all – his father is already dead – but once and for all the censorious, judgmental voice of his father.
We might even be able to say that he has hereby in some figurative way killed his earthly father. His patricide is closely related to what is happening at the actual narrative of the poem when the Son of God realizes at that extraordinary moment that he himself is God. The Son of God identifies with God, with the Father, and by means of that identification in some way displaces or renders unnecessary – we could say even kills – the father. When the Son internalizes the authority of the Father and actually becomes on some level the Father himself, it’s as if the Father as a meaningful, external reality were dead.
Well, critics have always been puzzled and astounded by this ending of Paradise Regained. After the moment of the Son’s victory over Satan on the pinnacle, the entire poem seems to shift gears. All of a sudden, this is the Milton we recognize and love. All of a sudden the quality of the verse begins to revert back to that rich, densely textured style of Paradise Lost. The Son himself, on the level of plot, is rewarded for his victory with the beautiful assistance of angels who come to feed him and Milton, too. On the poetic level, as a poet, Milton is rewarded. He’s successfully resisted the poetic lushness of Paradise Lost up to this point, and he’s permitted for his pains to return to that lush and extravagant style. He’s acutely aware of the new direction, I think, that the poem is taking at this point.
Look at the last line of the poem: “hee unobserv’d / Home to his Mother’s house private return’d.” The Son is rewarded for his efforts in good, Oedipal fashion with the mother. The Son has proven himself victorious in the Father’s house, the temple, and it’s only after that victory that he can reassume the pleasures of the domestic sphere, the space of the mother. I think that Milton’s ending is also Milton’s best description of what it is that actually happens in the remarkable conclusion to this remarkable poem. He has renounced so much in his composition of Paradise Regained. He has forsaken his love of wandering verse. He’s forsaken all of that learned allusiveness for a highly disciplined, austere, and severely repressive style and, just as the Son in the poem is rewarded for his obedience to the Father with the return to his mother’s house, Milton is rewarded for his own literary submission to the austere style of the Father’s gospel.
It’s almost as if, retrospectively, Milton can now be said to have earned the right to have written Paradise Lost. He can identify himself now as someone who was entitled to have written Paradise Lost. Milton was rewarded at the end of the poem with the triumphant return to the imagery, the wisdom, and the beauty of his beloved classics, and he justifies to himself and to his reader how it is he can be a dutiful Christian poet who can also at the same time indulge at will in the great pagan classics. He’s proven himself to the heavenly father and he can now – it’s as if he can read and write as freely as anything that he was able to imagine way back in 1644 in Areopagitica. The ending, the last line of this poem, is so incredibly beautiful – this quiet, exquisite ending – and when we read that the Son of God returns home to his mother’s house, we have an image, I think, of a similar return on the part of the poet. Milton is returning – almost but not entirely unobserved – to the paradise of Greece, mother of arts and eloquence.
Okay. We are in for the home stretch. We have four more things to do. Friday we will all be meeting in LC 102 [Yale classroom] – is that right? Yes, in LC 102. Instead of sections, we will be meeting as a group – this is the size of the section actually – as a group in LC 102. You have to begin to prepare yourselves for the final poem, Samson Agonistes. Make sure that you all have read it all. It’s not very long, but it’s pretty friggin’ intense. Read it all by Monday’s class. Okay.
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