ENGL 220: Milton
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ENGL 220 - Lecture 9 - Paradise Lost, Book I
Chapter 1. Introduction: Paradise Lost [00:00:00]
Professor John Rogers: In the invocation to Book Nine of Paradise Lost, Milton describes – and it’s wonderful to see this representation of this process that, I think, we’ve been wondering about – he describes the process by which the heavenly muse inspires, and he says inspires nightly, the composition of his epic. He explains that the subject for his heroic song – and of course, we’ll be getting to Book Nine later, but it’s relevant for our discussion today – Milton explains that the subject for his heroic song, the subject of the Fall of man, “pleas’d me long choosing, and beginning late…” – pleased me long choosing and beginning late. We know very well Milton decided to write an epic poem at a very early age, but his decision to write an epic poem, some epic, long predated his sense of what exactly that epic was going to be about. He was long in choosing the subject of his heroic song and, as we know from all of – and we’ve encountered a number of them – all of those protestations of delay Milton began his epic late.
We last left the poet in the 1640s. Areopagitica, you’ll remember, was written in 1644. The story of Adam and Eve and of the fall of Satan may strike us – having read or about to read Paradise Lost – may strike us as a natural subject for Milton to have chosen for his epic poem. After all, this is an extremely pious Puritan. But as late as the 1640s, this was not at all the epic subject that Milton was intending to use. Milton – and we know this – Milton was a political revolutionary, and when he anticipated writing the great poem, he consistently imagined that it would be a poem on a nationalist theme. Milton’s would be an epic demonstrating the origins and the heroic achievement of his own nation, England; or maybe he’d be thinking a little broadly of Britain, which is England, Scotland and Wales. In this respect it would resemble Spenser’s Faerie Queene, or perhaps more importantly, Virgil’s Aeneid – other nationalist epics.
Now Milton at the same time – we’re talking about the 1640s – had been contemplating writing a play. That was supposed to be a tragedy that, in some manuscript drafts that we still have today – in some manuscript drafts, he titled this prospective tragedy Paradise Lost and in other drafts Adam Unparadised. Actually all of these early drafts – these notes, these outlines for this tragedy that actually never seems to have gotten written – are included in the Tyco [copy center] packet. But by the time Milton begins writing his epic, he abandons his plan for a nationalistic poem, a nationalist poem, and decides instead to use the subject matter that he had been intending for that prospective tragedy, Paradise Lost. So the reasons for this really enormous shift in plans, and the enormous shift in subject matter, are worth exploring.
Milton had devoted nineteen years to the world of politics. A lot has happened since the exuberant optimism of the political spirit that we see in a tract like Areopagitica. In 1649, the great Puritan Revolution reached an unspeakable climax. A minority government of revolutionary Puritans had effectively taken control of the state. The radical Puritan Parliament voted to execute the tyrant – what they considered to be the tyrant, King Charles I – and to establish its own government. Milton participated with extraordinary enthusiasm and considerable zeal in the establishment of England’s new, non-monarchic government, initially a commonwealth and then what we can think of as a republic. He had been the foremost propagandist for the Puritan side. He had not only written really quite daringly on behalf of the execution of this particular king, but he wrote another pamphlet, Eikonoklastes (which is included in the Hughes edition), which is a shocking defense of just regicide in general – not just in England, but as a kind of political principle.
Milton probably around this time, around the time that he was writing and finishing the regicide treatises, began to lose his eyesight. This is in the earliest years of the commonwealth government. Nonetheless, even blind, Milton served the new regime as both a state licenser – and I won’t even get in to the irony of the fact that Milton seems to [laughs] actually become the licenser, the licenser of printed text that, of course, he had seven or eight years before so utterly abhorred in Areopagitica. He seems to have had some work as the state licenser, but also more importantly (and this was a much bigger commitment) as the nation’s Latin secretary, which means that he would compose and translate all of England’s correspondence with the governments on the continent into and from Latin. Up until this period, the early 1650s, Milton was a devoted contributor to the ideal Puritan notion of this government, and it was really the height of his political idealism.
Fast forward a few more years. By the end of this decade, by the end of the 1650s, Milton could see, as could others, fairly clearly that what we can think of as the imminent collapse of the republican government. The majority of Englishmen were calling for the return of their nation’s rightful monarch. It wasn’t long before the revolution failed and the Stuart monarchy was restored. The son of the executed king, who had been in exile in France, was returned to the throne in England; and so at the Restoration – as it’s called, the restoration which took place in 1660 – the Puritan revolutionaries, the revolutionaries like Milton who had devoted their labors to the success of this utopian ideal of the Puritan commonwealth, experienced a humiliating and bitter defeat. A lot of Milton’s friends, a lot of Milton’s comrades, were hanged and quartered. Milton himself was jailed and jailed for having written the regicide treatises, we have to assume, and it seems to have been solely the influence of some important friends that kept Milton from being held in prison indefinitely. It’s entirely imaginable that Milton could have been executed for his writings on behalf of the killing of King Charles.
So it’s at this point – this is after the revolution has failed that Milton begins to write his epic poem: it’s at this point that Milton chooses to write an epic, not on a nationalist theme as Virgil had done or as Spenser had done. There was simply no nation worth writing about. All of Milton’s labors in the cause of liberating England from the tyranny of monarchy had in some way – could be construed as having been useless. All of Milton’s expectations that England might actually be transformed, and they were glorious expectations, into something like a Puritan utopia or even a Puritan paradise – all of that had been destroyed. It’s at this point that Milton chose for the subject of his epic poem the subject of the tragedy that he’d been contemplating for so many years. The epic was going to treat the Fall, the Fall of Adam and Eve from their blissful state in Eden, but also the fall of the rebel angels after their failed revolution. There’s a continual analogy running through Paradise Lost, and it’s a very troubling one, that associates the paradise that man lost with the utopian government that England lost. Of course, perhaps even more troubling is the satanic parallel as well. You’ll want to think about why Milton seems so aggressively to invite the association of the failure of the just revolution of the Puritans, and of course that’s how he would see it, with the failure of the unjust revolution of the rebel angels under the guidance of Satan.
Chapter 2. Paradise Lost: A Powerful Defense against Lateness [00:08:56]
Milton began writing his epic poem too late to celebrate a virtuous political realm. It’s too late for this to be a political poem, but Paradise Lost is late for all sorts of reasons. It’s late for some personal reasons as well. Milton had been, as you know, anticipating writing this poem since he was at least nineteen years old. He didn’t even begin to fulfill what we can think of as his epic promise until he was nearly fifty years old, until he had actually lost the use of his eyes, until he could no longer read, and until he could no longer use a pen to write. Finally, Milton’s poem is late by virtue of the simple fact that it’s written in the form of an epic. An epic might have seemed [laughs] like a great idea when Milton was nineteen, but by the time Milton gets actually around to writing it, it’s an entirely superannuated, utterly outdated form. There’s, of course, the undeniable fact that the greatest epics, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and then The Aeneid, were all written in a heroic literary past that would have struck anybody as irrecoverable; but even the modern practice of epic writing, or romance epic writing, had basically entirely fizzled out by the end of the sixteenth century, when the Italians I’m thinking of, Tasso and Ariosto, were writing. There had been a half century that had passed since any great modern epic or romance epic had even been produced. There would have been a prevailing sense, and Milton has to have been sensitive to this, that it was simply too late to write an epic of any kind on any subject. Milton began his epic poem late.
It’s in relation to all of these forms of lateness that we can best understand the opening invocation of Paradise Lost. So look at the first lines of the poem. This is page 211 in the Hughes. Harold Bloom has written, and I think he’s absolutely right, that Milton begins Paradise Lost with a powerful defense against lateness. You can think of it as this reaction to the problem of lateness that accounts for one of the invocation’s most distinctive features, and that’s the repetition of the word “first.” You actually have the word “first” appearing six times in the first thirty-three lines of Paradise Lost. We’ll do a little catalog of them: “Of Man’s First Disobedience and the Fruit” – that was line one, of course. Line eight: “That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed…” Line nineteen: “Thou from the first / wast present…” Go down to line twenty-seven: “Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from thy view.” Line twenty-eight: “say first what cause.” And line thirty-three: “Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?” Milton is alerting us to the significance of the word “first” in the very first line, in this wonderful act of violating the laws of iambic pentameter.
Now the rhythm of a true line of iambic pentameter – and there are, of course, hundreds, maybe thousands of such lines in this poem – a true line of iambic pentameter would run like this. You know this: “da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA,” an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable, and that little pattern repeated five times. With this iambic template in mind, with this little paradigm in our head, we may feel metrically constrained to read the first line of this poem like this: “Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit” – “da-DA-da-DA-da-DA…” It sounds stupid. It should sound stupid. It’s impossible to get away with such an awkward reading, but that’s the reading that the metrical form is pushing us into producing. The problem with my awkward, metrically proper reading of that first line is that the word “first” insists on being accented, and it screws up the template: “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit,” and so Milton is rebelling against an implicit law of poetic meter in the very first line of what, of course, we know will be this extraordinarily self-conscious poem. You could think of this as the poem’s first – by no means its last – its first act of poetic disobedience.
Chapter 3. “First”: A Strategy of Retrospective Anticipation [00:13:44]
Now the word “first” begins to take on a much bigger range of significances than we might at first think. When Milton instructs his muse, “Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from thy view,” there’s something more here than the primary sense of the word, which is just “first in sequence.” Milton, of course, is instructing the muse to explain first, before she gets around to explaining anything else, what caused Adam and Eve to fall. That’s just the simple sequential sense of “first,” the first that comes before second, third and fourth; but there’s something more radical here than the ordinal or sequential sense of “first.” “First” can also mean “earliest”: Milton’s describing his muse now, at the present moment of the writing of the poem, to be the first one perhaps ever to explain the cause of the Fall, to be the first to tell the story of the loss of paradise or, I don’t know – to be the first poet ever to write an epic poem. Milton’s constructing – it’s a remarkable and impossible strategy here, and it’s one we can call a strategy of retrospective anticipation and it’s a type of… Of course, this retrospective anticipation can only be a fiction. One can never come before something that, of course, has already happened, but this fiction of an impossible firstness is something that Milton is working very hard to accomplish here.
We know this. Milton has already indulged this fantasy of coming before something that’s already happened. We recognize this desire to anticipate an already existing narrative, from what? From Milton’s first major poem, the Nativity Ode. Milton directed the heavenly muse in that poem, you’ll remember, to prevent – to come before – the three wise men who were hasting to the manger with their gold and their frankincense and their myrrh: “O run, prevent them with thy humble ode… / have thou the honour first, thy Lord to greet.” I suggest that we can hear echoes of that same youthful competitiveness in Milton’s first major poem in these opening lines, in the beginning of the great epic of Milton’s maturity. Milton wants to write an epic that in some ways comes before, or prevents, the great epics of Homer and Virgil. It’s safe to say that this is no easy feat.
As presumptuous [laughs] as that desire is, to come before Homer or to come before Virgil, it’s by no means the final sense, I think, of Milton’s ambitious drive to be first. Milton invokes the same heavenly muse here who inspired Moses, that shepherd. Look at line eight: Moses, “that shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed.” It’s almost as if – could this be? It’s almost as if Milton wants to narrate the events of the Creation and the Fall with the same kind of firstness that Moses did. Milton would, of course, have assumed that it was Moses who had written the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, and to prevent, or come, before Moses is an act of prevention or anticipation far more dangerous than mere literary competitiveness. What’s Milton doing here? We could see him as actually vying with scripture. Implicit in this invocation is a truly remarkable claim that this poem is the product of the same divine authority that had informed and inspired the writing of the Holy Bible.
Now Milton doesn’t want simply to be an epic poet like Homer and Virgil. That’s – no sweat with that one! Milton wants to be a divine prophet like one of the great Hebrew poets of the Old Testament. This is why he’s continually placing the imaginative origin of the poem back to the very dawn of time, perhaps even back before – if you can imagine such a time – before the very dawn of time. Milton wants to create the illusion that he’s predicting, or that he’s prophesying, the actions recounted in the poem, as if Milton were prophesying what of course we know to be already past. This is the strategy of retrospective anticipation.
Now Milton can make this implicit claim for a prophecy because he’s being inspired by none other than the divine spirit that had inspired Moses to sing of divine creation: “how the Heav’ns and Earth / rose out of Chaos” – this is already an outrageous claim, but Milton dares to go even further. Not only is this the same muse who had inspired Moses to write about the Creation, this heavenly spirit was actually present at the moment of creation. Look at line seventeen:
Of all of the appearances of the word “first” in these opening lines, this is the “first” that has to bear the most weight. The spirit to whom Milton is praying was the actual vehicle through which God created the universe. This is the spirit through whom God fashioned the world out of chaos. This is the spirit that Moses says, in the first Book of Genesis, that moved upon the face of the waters at the time of creation. Milton goes beyond the image of this creation, this creative power provided for us by the King James translation of the Bible or by any English translation of the Bible in Milton’s time. He looks back even further. Milton goes back to the Latin version of the Bible which translates the Hebrew word for moved as incubabat. That’s Jerome’s translation. Incubate is the strange Latin word, and it’s a verb – of course, as we know – it’s a verb typically used with relation not to spirits but to gestating birds, and it literally means “to brood.” To incubate means to brood or to sit on one’s eggs until they hatch. And so Milton’s Holy Spirit, the creative force behind the entire universe, actually sat brooding on the vast abyss, sitting on the waters of chaos just as a mother dove might sit on her eggs.
Think of what Milton’s asking us of here. He’s asking a lot. He’s asking us to imagine God, or perhaps this is God’s creative spirit, as some sort of feminine being laying the universal egg and brooding over it until it bursts forth with new life. This is a risk. Milton’s treading an extraordinarily fine line between the tremendous beauty of this image, on the one hand, and its potential impiety or just grotesquery on the other. No sooner has Milton conjured this already unbelievable image of a kind of maternal creation than he reverses all of the gendered categories that he’s just established. He adds to this image that is perfectly, sufficiently filled with grotesquery as it is – he adds this next phrase: “and mad’st it pregnant.” How do we even begin to appreciate this amazing imagery here? In portraying the deity, I would think, if I were to write an epic poem – I would feel that I would be expected to stay within the fairly narrow parameters of religious decorum. Milton had no precedent for this. There’s no precedent for this depiction of a god or a holy spirit as a kind of hermaphroditic being. I think it’s safe to say that we’re intended to be shocked, maybe even repulsed, by this remarkable description of the deity; and so I’m hoping you feel something of a shock of these lines, “and mad’st it pregnant.” Milton is taking a huge aesthetic risk here.
Chapter 4. Paradise Lost: Radical Theology [00:23:14]
Whatever you’re reading, it’s always worth thinking about and considering what the motives might be for such extraordinary literary risk taking. This image of the curious process by which the heavenly spirit creates the universe is absolutely central to this poem, and it’s central to the poem for two reasons. It’s central to Milton’s theological vision that will soon establish itself throughout the poem, and it’s also, I think, central to his poetic vision, his vision of what a poem is or should be. This shocking image, this impossible-to-imagine image of a brooding impregnation, establishes the foundation for two of this poem’s most daring elements. The first is the radical theology, and the second is this poem’s equally radical and equally daring original verse form.
Let’s take the first thing first, the radical theology. I’m only able to talk about a small component of Milton’s theological daring here. It’s with this image of a brooding impregnation that Milton announces the presence in his poem of his most potent, what I think is the most interesting, theological innovation that he comes up with here. It seems to be the case that Milton rather late in his life has become a monist. He embraces the heterodox idea of monism, sometimes called animist materialism or vitalism, which is essentially a denial of any distinction between the body and the soul. The principle of monism had just introduced itself in England around the mid-1640s, around, it’s been argued, the time that Milton’s writing Areopagitica, and it met with all sorts of opposition. Orthodox scientists, orthodox Christians – everyone agreed in the seventeenth century that matter, or substance or body, was entirely separate from and distinct from the immaterial, the incorporeal, stuff called spirit or soul. So orthodoxy is definitively dualist. There are two types of stuff [laughs]: immaterial stuff and matter or body; but Milton insisted that there’s no such thing as an immaterial spirit, that that was a contradiction in terms. Everything that we call soul or spirit, even God himself, for John Milton is bodily. Spirit is merely a kind of bodily form of energy, and God at the beginning of time infused this energy into the entirety of the material world at the Creation.
So physical life, physical matter, for the mature Milton is never lifeless or dead. All matter contains within it something like a “potency of life”; that’s Milton’s phrase. It has a capacity for action, actually a capacity for motion, and, just as books can take on a life of their own in Areopagitica, so all matter for later Milton. Even what we think in our vulgar ways to be inanimate objects – even they seem to have within them something like a potency, a potency of life or an infusion of divine spirit. Of course, the human body is the supreme example of the spiritually infused corporeal substance. It’s infused with divine spirit. And this is a huge problem in the seventeenth century. Milton’s contemporaries were endlessly conjecturing where it is exactly in the body that the soul resides. Some of you may know that Descartes, the great French philosopher and Milton’s slightly older contemporary, had decided that the soul resided in the pineal gland of the body, the soul managed [laughs]to govern the body from this tiny, little place in the – where is the pineal gland? I think it’s in your brain, the back of your head. Thank you. Keep that in mind.
The soul for Milton though isn’t distinct from body. It is the body. The soul infused its power throughout the entirety of the bodily frame, and so body and soul in Milton’s incredibly moving, and I think really beautiful, vision almost becomes indistinguishable. All of this monistic philosophy, I think, is implicit in the image of divinity’s impregnation of the vast abyss. Milton’s God doesn’t, as we learn from Genesis, doesn’t fashion the matter of chaos with his hands. He impregnates it with spirit, and he gives it a potency of life. As you’ll see in Book Seven, the book of the Creation, he gives it a liberty to organize itself into the order of the created world – a freedom to create itself.
Chapter 5. Paradise Lost: Thoughts Unconstrained by Grammar [00:28:25]
That’s one consequence of Milton’s image of a brooding impregnation. There’s a second type of potency that’s also established in with this image, and that’s the potency of the kind of verse that Milton is writing in Paradise Lost. It’s been argued, and I think there’s something to this, that Milton’s monism is closely connected to his implicit theory of poetry. There’s no question that the shock experienced by the first readers of Paradise Lost had next to nothing to do with the content of this poem, which might strike us as shocking in itself. We would think that Milton’s contemporaries might be aghast that such a sympathetic portrait of Satan could be used at the beginning of the poem. No, the most immediately shocking aspect of the poem was its style, and we have to look at the actual poetic form by which this poem is constructed because the poetic form is absolutely integral to its meaning. If you’re not taking notes in this lecture, you have to write down at least one sentence. You must write this down because this will be the most important thing I say all morning: Milton’s Paradise Lost is the first narrative poem in English that didn’t rhyme.
Milton wrote his epic in lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter or what we call, and what Milton would have called, blank verse. Up to this point in literary history, only verse written for the theater had been written in unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter, in blank verse. This is the verse form, you’ll recognize it, in so many of the long speeches of characters in the plays of Marlowe and of Shakespeare. Those are plays though, and all English narrative poems, including all of Shakespeare’s narrative poems, they had all been written in rhyme, either long verse paragraphs of rhymed heroic couplets or in intricately rhymed stanzas. For most readers in Milton’s time, rhyme was actually constitutive of poetry, and Milton’s lines of unrhymed verse here may well have not seemed poetry at all. It was shocking.
There seems to have been something of a kind of outcry about the style of Paradise Lost. Look at page 210 in the Hughes. It’s in response to what seems to have been an aesthetic reaction to the poem that the printer of Paradise Lost asked Milton, went back to Milton and asked him to append a note to the book’s second printing – to append a note that explains why the poem rhymes not. People can’t deal with this poem until they [laughs]can get a handle on the fact that it doesn’t rhyme. So Milton writes this and adds it, appends it, to all subsequent editions of the poem. This is what Milton tells us:
Milton brings to his critique of rhyme that same – and this is familiar – the same political rhetoric that he had brought to his critique of monarchy in the regicide treatises. You can also hear Satan’s critique of the tyranny of heaven in this account of the rhyme as well. Like kingship, rhyme is a custom. It’s an invention of a barbarous age which a blind and ignorant population will accept only to its own vexation, hindrance, and constraint. It’s always Milton’s duty – this is the reason that he was put on this earth: to liberate a people from any such constraining customs. It’s the rhetoric of liberation that – this is the rhetoric that permeates all of Milton’s political prose.
While Milton decided against writing an explicitly political nationalist poem, he did see himself as writing a poem that performed some kind of political function. It performed its revolutionary function in a much more subtle, though, and a much more insinuating kind of way. And so at the end of this note on the verse Milton claims that Paradise Lost:
It’s a wonderful metaphor. It’s as if Milton is thinking of the poem as if it were a human body, and the rhyme words at the end of the typical heroic couplet – the two lines that rhyme at the end, and then another two lines with a different rhyme at the end of those two lines – these lined rhymes of the poems by his contemporaries, his competitors: the rhyme words function as shackles. I think that’s the image here. They’re manacles that confine the otherwise vulnerable and tender flesh of the body of the poem. Rhymes are barbarous forms of constraint that impinge upon the true freedom of the body of the poem. Milton explains here in the middle of the note that’s why other cultures have rejected rhyme:
So Milton refuses to force his poem to make sense through the barbarous mechanics of rhyme, which for Milton reduces all of the spirit, all of the life of a poem or of a line, simply to that jingling sound at the end of the line. And so in Milton’s verse here, sense or meaning is variously drawn out from one verse into another. Sense, the very spirit of meaning, is infused throughout an entire line rather than being singled out and separated or segregated to the end of the line in the form of the rhyme word.
Sense in Milton’s poetry functions a lot like soul or spirit does in Milton’s theology, and so Milton’s note on the verse clues us into this intimate connection between his radical poetics of blank verse, on the one hand, and his radical theology of monism on the other. You can see from the handout that I’ve given you – I hope you can see from the handout that I’ve given you a quotation here from Milton’s Christian Doctrine, yes, in which Milton describes the process whereby God actually impregnates the human body with soul: “Nor did God merely breathe that spirit into man, but moulded it in each individual and infused it throughout.” The divine soul is everywhere in the Miltonic body, the human body. Of course, that means that all human acts are sanctioned by God including – maybe most importantly, the sexual act is given the highest form of divine approval imaginable. Milton wants us to think of the sense of his verse as being similarly infused; the poem is similarly infused throughout with some kind of soul or spirit or divine energy throughout the entirety of a verse paragraph.
Milton refuses in Paradise Lost to constrain a thought, or to confine it, to a grammatical unit of sense. A grammatical unit of sense is never identical to a line in Milton’s poem. Sense doesn’t simply end at the end of a ten-syllable line. Now most rhymed poems in Milton’s day were end-stopped lines of verse. An end-stopped line is one in which the grammatical unit of sense stops precisely at the end of the line. The next line of verse picks up a different thought and the next one after that, and so on. You can actually see the mechanics of end-stopped verse quite clearly in the rhymed version of Paradise Lost that, admittedly, the great poet John Dryden wrote. This was supposed to be the libretto for an opera. Dryden seems to have gotten permission from the old, blind poet Milton himself because Dryden felt that the public had an interest in reading Paradise Lost but they couldn’t deal with the fact that it didn’t rhyme; so Dryden set out on this remarkable project of making the whole thing rhyme, and I invite you to read Dryden’s efforts. They’re really quite remarkable. It’s not unlike what the Turner Broadcasting Network does with old movies, colorizing them in order to make them more palatable to a modern audience.
You’ll notice that every line of the passage from Dryden here concludes with a comma or a period, because every line constitutes its own syntactical unit of meaning. Milton’s poem – this is a statistical fact, I don’t know who came up with it – Milton’s poem has far fewer end-stopped lines than the verse of any other poet. Milton’s lines, we say, are enjambed: they run in to one another, and a syntactical unit for Milton is continually spilling out. It’s bursting out of the line and infusing itself into the next line, and then into the next, and into the next. I don’t know who came up with this statistic but I love it: nearly three out of every five lines in Paradise Lost are enjambed – they embrace the practice of enjambment. The meaning or the sense of a verse paragraph is diffused throughout a series of lines. I think that Milton intends for us to think of the verse in Paradise Lost as he wanted us to think of books in Areopagitica: the lines of Milton’s poetry are not absolutely dead things, but they do contain within them a potency of life.
So Milton imagined that his own verse was to be read and experienced something like a body. Of course, it’s a body that enjoys an extraordinary degree of freedom, and this is a freedom that’s infused into the Creation when the Holy Spirit impregnates the vast abyss. This is also the freedom enjoyed by surely, hands down, the most remarkable of all of Milton’s corporeal creatures, and those are the angels. I imagine it sounds strange to hear that Milton is asking us in some way to think of the lines of his poetry as if they were the bodies of angels, but the notion of corporeal freedom is so central to Milton that it actually makes sense in some ways that Milton would want to attribute it to all of the most original and the most daring elements of his poem. This is an argument that’s been developed really quite brilliantly by a great Milton critic, William Kerrigan.
A lot of Book One is given over, as you know, to those magnificent catalogs of the names of the fallen angels as Milton names the demons, the fallen angels, and catalogs the names that they assumed when they ascended to earth and took on the form of pagan deities. Look at line 423 in Book One. I’ll bet you, even if you’re reading this for the second or the third time, you were surprised again when you came to this point. Milton’s been noting that some of the pagan deities that the fallen angels eventually became were male and some were female. It’s here that Milton for no [laughs] explicit, or no apparent, reason at all – it’s here that he provides a little theoretical digression on the stunning flexibility of angelic bodies. In the context it is a little gratuitous. Line 423:
Clearly, the angels have bodies here. They’re made of matter just as human beings are, but their bodies aren’t compounded of separable elements. They don’t have joints and limbs or organs or flesh. They’re nothing but a strangely embodied form of pure spirit, corporeal spirit: a spirit that’s been infused through a loosely circumscribed shape.
Now we learn later that the fact that these spirits can “either Sex assume” actually comes in rather handy, as the angels are permitted to experience a form of sexual union that far exceeds the miserable coition that creatures like us are forced to perform, the coition “founded on the brittle strength of bones,” Milton writes. Milton’s angels in an act of sexual union are fully smooshed together. They are un-individuated, if that makes any sense, in the act of sexual union. There is the unutterable sexual rush that can only come about through total corporeal enjambment.
Now this little discussion that Milton’s given us here on the ambisexuality of his angels, not unlike perhaps the ambisexuality of his God, seems to have little to do with the discussion at hand of the heathen deities, but I think it has everything to do with Milton’s understanding of his own verse, which he has freed from the bondage of rhyming just as angels are freed from the manacles of joints and limbs. Milton’s not only writing in a poetic style that he thinks is politically motivated and ideologically motivated, and he is doing that, but the style of Paradise Lost is also powerfully eroticized for Milton. In its amazing malleability of form, having dismissed the manacle of rhyme, the poem is teeming with the same kind of erotic energy – this is, I think, Milton’s fantasy for the poem – the same energies that charge that image of books in Areopagitica.
So let’s look at an example of how this might actually happen, a way in which the verse actually seems to generate this sensation of bodily freedom. Just look at the first line of the poem: “Of Man’s First Disobedience and the Fruit.” We think at first, because before we read this poem we were so used to reading end-stopped lines of verse, like the lines of verse that all of Milton’s contemporaries were disgorging – we assume, I think, after the first line that the line should be pronounced like this: “Of Man’s First Disobedience and the Fruit” – and implicitly, “of the fruit of the Disobedience,” as if the line was actually: “Of Man’s First Disobedience and its Fruit,” meaning the fruit of the disobedience. We read “fruit” naturally, here, as if it meant “result” or “consequence.” We don’t find this out until we get to the next line, that the “fruit” at the end of the line is only a kind of temporary resting place. It’s a provisional ending. It’s not a rhyme word, and so it doesn’t constitute the end of a unit of sense as a rhyme word would in most heroic couplets.
The sense of the sentence pushes us on to the next line, which alters our view of the meaning of the word “fruit:”: “Of Man’s First Disobedience and the Fruit / of that Forbidden Tree.” The word isn’t figurative. It turns out to be literal, real fruit, and we realize now that we’ve only partially understood the sense of the word “fruit.” The combination of our readerly experience of these two lines – first, the figurative reading that comes from our habits of reading end-stopped verses, and now the literal meaning of “fruit” that comes from this newly acquired habit of reading enjambed lines – it’s the experience of both of these cognitive sensations that provides us with a true signifying experience of what Milton can do with a word like “fruit,” which is obviously going to be a loaded one in the poem.
Look at another instance of the malleability of this verse a few lines down:
Now at first, I think Milton seems to mean that the shepherd, Moses, inspired by the muse, first taught the Israelites how the heavens and earth rose out of chaos in the beginning. It was Moses who came up with this phrase, Milton thought, “in the beginning.” Those are the first words of the Book of Genesis; but Milton has clearly placed this little phrase, this adverbial phrase “in the Beginning,” in an awkward place. He frees himself – this is an insight that William Kerrigan has also had – he frees himself from the strictures of conventional syntax, and he places that phrase “in the Beginning” at the beginning of the line, very strangely and very awkwardly before the “how”: “in the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth.” He’s done this because he wants to permit this phrase to do more than simply modify the verb “rose.” We can also see in this phrase “in the Beginning” – we can see it applying to the end of the preceding clause, “That Shepherd who first taught the chosen Seed / in the Beginning.” “In the Beginning” can modify the verb “taught” as easily as it can the verb “rose.” It can either verb assume, just as Milton’s angels can “either Sex assume.”
There’s an important point, I think, that’s being made with this second possibility. Milton needs to imagine the narrative of the Creation as if the narration itself were taking place in the beginning, as if poetic creation could be a first in the same radical way that the creation of entire universe is obviously a first. This is a strategy called double syntax, the notion that “in the Beginning” can modify one verb or the other. It’s just this kind of rhetorical trick that Milton uses – so many rhetorical tricks like this that Milton will use throughout the poem – that led Dr. Johnson to say in utter exasperation, but admiration, that “Milton wrote no language”: this isn’t English [laughs] that Milton is writing here.
Milton’s language doesn’t have the same kind of headlong rush that most declarative English sentences have. We’re continually being prevented from reading the text to get to the end. We’re prevented from rushing to the end of the sentence, or to the end of the poem, because at least as far as the – well, you can understand why. As far as the plot goes, we know how it’s going to end. We know, of course, that Adam and Eve are going to eat the stupid fruit; but Milton is developing a style – and he’s working really hard to do this – that works to resist our drive to get to the end of the story. It’s through a mechanism of an entirely new kind of verse that Milton weaves into the metrical fabric of the poem, a new perspective on that old theological problem of human free will and divine foreknowledge. Can it be said that we actually chose to sin or to eat the apple if God had known all along how the story would end, or that we would do this thing in the first place? That’s the conundrum that on some level we’ve all confronted and has been confronted since time began; but Milton knows that if this poem is going to be successful, we cannot as readers be permitted to think the story had to be what it was. We can’t be permitted to think that the story had to turn out the way it did. We need to think that the actions in the story were in some way free and absolutely, perfectly undetermined. We need to get at the story of the Fall from the perspective of its beginning rather than from the perspective of its ending.
And so Milton infuses this angelic freedom, and he infuses this bodily liberty, into the actual body of the verse itself, of course, to make a point. He’s incorporating his style, a radical, original style, into the essential argument of the poem. He permits his own unconstrained indulgence in poetic enjambment. He permits enjambment to become the verbal medium. This is the pulsating vehicle for his precious theology of free will and for his politics of liberty.
Okay. That’s the end. I want to remind you a final time to look at your Spenser, the cave of Mammon episode, as well as Dr. Johnson’s brief comments on Sin and Death.
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