In 1936, with the Spanish Civil War begun and world war on the horizon, the distinguished Scottish scholar and editor of Donne, H.J.C. Grierson, gave a series of lectures on Milton and Wordsworth, which began by addressing the attacks on Milton that T.S. Eliot and his acolytes were mounting. The revival of interest in metaphysical poetry, which Grierson had done so much to stimulate, had prompted critics to discuss the connection between form and content in poetry: ‘The favourite phrase is “unified sensibility”. We are told a little pontifically that this unified sensibility was disturbed by the great influence of Milton, so that the natural medium of our thought has become exclusively prose.’ Grierson must have smelt reaction in Eliot’s royalist rejection of Milton’s republican poetics.
The revival of interest in English republicanism in recent years might be thought to have stimulated interest in Milton, but here Thomas Corns, editor of A Companion to Milton, sounds a warning note. This collection of essays, he writes, appears at a time when Milton’s standing with a wide readership appears ‘altogether more insecure’. In the US students prefer to study contemporary literature, while in British universities modular curricula – an academically indefensible reform – make it possible to avoid studying Milton. But even if Milton is ignored by many students, the academic study of his verse and prose ‘has never been healthier’, according to Corns. The anxiety, however, must be that this great prophet of English liberty no longer speaks to a readership beyond the academy, and thus that Eliot’s attempt to sideline Milton and the values he embodies has partly succeeded. And if Milton is ignored, so, too, are the classical foundations on which his republicanism stands. As Martin Dzelzainis argues in an essay on his republicanism in the Companion, he drew on Sallust and Roman law for his account of the ennobling effects of liberty. One phrase in Milton’s History of Britain – ‘from obscure and small to grow eminent and glorious commonwealths’ – appears to be taken directly from Sallust’s rendition of a speech by Cato in which he tells the Senate not to ‘suppose that it was by arms that our forefathers raised our republic from obscurity to greatness’. Cato’s message can be felt throughout Milton’s writing, where the good angels are polemicists whose swords are symbolic of pens, printing presses, pamphlets.
It is perhaps difficult to read Milton’s narrative in Paradise Lost in this way – we visualise the Archangel Michael’s two-handed sword not as the double lever on a printing press, but simply as a sword, while we see ‘chaos’ and the ‘abyss’ physically, as part of outer space. Yet Milton, the adept student of Spenser, was designing a flexibly symbolic – rather than rigidly allegorical – system, a way of shaping history and politics that Defoe sought to popularise in his prose, and one which needs to be examined in the light of Milton’s prose writings.
Take that word ‘abyss’, which appears near the beginning of Paradise Lost:
And chiefly thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples th’upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou knowst; thou from the
first Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast abyss
And mad’st it pregnant.
At the beginning of his Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio Secunda, or Second Defence of the English People, which Barbara Lewalski, in her biography, oddly calls his ‘least attractive work’, Milton gives thanks to God chiefly for three reasons. The first, in George Burnett’s 1809 translation, is
that I was born in those times of my country, when the effulgent virtue of its citizens – when their magnanimity and steadiness, surpassing the highest praise of their ancestors, under the inspection of God first implored, and under his manifest guidance, setting examples and performing deeds of valour, the greatest since the foundation of the world – delivered the Commonwealth from a grievous domination, and religion from a most debasing thraldom.
Burnett’s translation of the phrase ‘virtus eximia’ as ‘effulgent virtue’, rather than ‘outstanding’ or ‘extraordinary virtue’, seems rather precious, but he was thinking, I would suggest, of light coming out of darkness at the Creation. Milton is remembering this passage when he begins Paradise Lost with an account of God creating the world, an account which he repeats twice later in the poem: in Book Three, ‘Confusion heard his voice, and wild uproar/Stood ruled,’ until at his second bidding ‘darkness fled,/Light shone, and order from disorder sprung.’ And in Book Seven, God is again shown dove-like on the abyss:
His brooding wings the Spirit of God outspread,
And vital virtue infused, and vital warmth
Throughout the fluid mass, but downward purged
The black tartareous cold infernal dregs
Adverse to life: then founded, then conglobed
Like things to like . . .
It is not only the foundation of the world that is referred to here, but the foundation of the English Commonwealth out of political chaos. The word ‘abyss’, which appears 19 times in the poem, represents at one level the state described by the phrase ‘gravi dominatione rempublicam’ in The Second Defence. The word gravis, as well as meaning ‘heavy’, can also mean ‘pregnant’, so the abyss on which the dove of the Holy Spirit broods, making it ‘pregnant’, is analogous to the ‘gravi dominatione’ which the republic suffered. The word also occurs in Book One of the Aeneid – ‘regina sacerdos Marte gravis’ (‘a princess of the royal blood pregnant by Mars’) and Virgil goes on to say that one of the twins the priestess Ilia is pregnant with – Romulus – will found Rome.
Milton knew that the poem he was dictating to his amanuensis would be scrutinised by the recently restored monarch’s Licenser of the Press, so he coded the English people’s formation of a republic as the creation of the ‘heavens and earth’. The idea passed the censor by, just as it has passed by many readers, but it was nonetheless Milton’s founding intention in composing his epic. As David Norbrook shows in his seminal study Writing the English Republic, the language of chaos and creation briefly took on optimistic overtones during the Commonwealth, but with its disintegration the images became despairing. The Grand Concernments of England Ensured, an anonymous pamphlet which appeared in 1659, shows that the image of the Commonwealth as being created from a void was a current one: ‘you have made England, Scotland, Ireland, A Chaos without form and void, and I doubt your Omnipotency will never speak the word for such a creation, as any honest man shall say when he hath looked upon it, that it is very good.’
The authorities were concerned, though, by a related image in Book One which describes Satan’s obscured glory:
as when the sun new ris’n
Looks through the horizontal misty air
Shorn of his beams, or from behind the moon
In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
According to Milton’s early biographer, the Irish republican John Toland, Charles II’s Licenser for the Press regarded these lines as subversive, and wanted to suppress the whole poem.
Immediately after the passage in which he imagines God hatching the universe out of the abyss, Milton asks:
what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert eternal providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.
This invocation mirrors the opening of The Second Defence, where he describes how he ‘accepted, of those very deliverers of the country, and by general consent, the part spontaneously assigned me; namely, to defend publicly (if anyone ever did) the cause of the people of England, and thus of liberty itself’. At the bedrock of Milton’s imagination is a belief in God, and a certainty that republics are divinely ordained and that he has been sent to justify and vindicate them (the ts in these lines of verse seem to vibrate with his certainty, like taut, plucked strings). In Paradise Regained, his shorter, much neglected, plain-style epic, Milton again addresses God, saying:
Behold the kings of earth how they oppress
Thy chosen, to what highth their power unjust
They have exalted, and behind them cast
All fear of thee, arise and vindicate
Thy glory, free thy people from their yoke.
Milton uses the words ‘justify’ and ‘vindicate’ to refer to a desired state that is about to be reached. In Samson Agonistes, Manoa, Samson’s beloved father, says that God will not long defer to ‘vindicate the glory of his name’. Lewalski argues that in his early tracts Milton works out a poetics of satire that justifies invective as what he terms ‘sanctified bitternesse’. He aligns it with Biblical prophecy and gives the words ‘justify’ and ‘vindicate’ the additional sense of ‘argue for this chosen art form (be it verse or prose)’. Rereading Paradise Lost recently, I felt that Milton’s use of ‘happy’ and ‘happiness’, too, has another level of meaning, which is generally thought to have been added to the words in 1725, when Francis Hutcheson invented the phrase ‘greatest happiness for the greatest numbers’, later adapted by Bentham. The words, in Milton’s usage, have a general, public application which speaks for his unrelenting social activism. They are touched or toughened by Gesellschaft.
As well as drawing into his poetry the vocabulary and images he uses in his polemics, Milton also moulds innumerable quotations from his vast reading in English and several other languages into verse that seems effortlessly self-sufficient and sublime – verse that appears to transcend sources, borrowings, allusions, other than the clearly Biblical. Noting that no writer before Milton had fashioned himself ‘quite so self-consciously’ as an author, and also that he nowhere refers to his Catholic grandfather or more distant ancestors or seeks to trace a family tree, Lewalski points to the fact that he begins his story with his father, a Protestant ‘self-made bourgeois scrivener’. Milton’s verse, conceived in the high lonely tower of his visionary intellect, appears to have an effortless autonomy. Like Samson, he resembles ‘that self-begotten bird’, the phoenix, when in fact he is, as Hazlitt pointed out, ‘a writer of centos, and yet in originality scarcely inferior to Homer’.
This patchwork quilt effect or, to use a favourite image of Hazlitt’s, this melting of scrap metal into statues, can be seen if we consider the repeated images of ugly, dissonant noise in Milton. In an account of the building of the Tower of Babel in the last book of Paradise Lost, the Archangel Michael describes how ‘a jangling noise of words unknown’ replaces the ‘native language’ of the denizens of the now fallen world. As Alistair Fowler’s notes in the magnificent – if underhistoricised – Longman edition show, the phrase ‘jangling noise’ is taken from Sylvester’s 1613 translation of the Huguenot poet Du Bartas’s The Divine Weeks and Works: ‘A jangling noise not much unlike the rumours [uproar]/Of Bacchus’ swains amid their drunken humours’. This is the direct source of the phrase, but Milton is also drawing on a speech made by the Princess of France in Love’s Labours Lost: ‘Good wits will be jangling; but, gentles, agree/This civil war of wits were much better used/On Navarre’. The word ‘jangling’ is associated in Milton’s imagination with civil war (the phrase ‘jangling opinions’ appears in his 1641 pamphlet Animadversions). A word closely associated with it is ‘jarring’, which he also uses several times, for example in An Apology against a Pamphlet, of 1642, where he remarks: ‘And how to break off suddenly into three jarring notes, which this comforter hath set me, I must be wary, unlesse I can provide against offending the eare, as some musicians are wont skilfully to fall out of one key into another without breach of harmony.’
These lines from Book Two which describe the doors of Hell opening are both a musical transition from one key to another and an acoustic representation of cannonfire and the clash of arms:
on a sudden open fly
With impetuous recoil and jarring sound
The infernal doors, and on their hinges grate
Milton is considering the aesthetic problem of how to shift style without breaking the harmony – or how to appear to break the harmony while really maintaining it. He hated what he called ‘barbarous dissonance’, which he linked with drunken Royalist revellers, just as he linked the ‘flashy songs’ which ‘grate’ on ‘scrannel pipes’ in Lycidas with Royalist bishops and priests. In Samson Agonistes the ‘popular noise’, ‘hideous noise’ and ‘universal groan’ are ways of encoding the London crowd’s spontaneous groan at the executions of the regicides, and in Book Seven Milton imagines ‘the barbarous dissonance/Of Bacchus and his revellers . . . the race/Of that wild rout that tore the Thracian bard/In Rhodopè’. Here he is remembering the regicides’ executions (they were hanged, drawn and quartered), and the period immediately after the Restoration when he was arrested and was himself in danger of execution. In March 1660, just two months before the Restoration, an anonymous pamphleteer linked Milton with the most notorious regicide traitors, and suggested that ‘when he is condemned to travel to Tyburn in a Cart, he will petition for the favor to be the first man that ever was driven thither in a Wheel-borrow.’
Milton knew he was a marked man, but tried desperately through his pamphlets to persuade General Monck and other military and political leaders to maintain the republic. Laura Lunger Knoppers’s essay in the Companion on Milton’s late political prose offers a detailed and lively account of this period when, in Milton’s symbolic code, England fell from being a happy republic into a jangling fallen monarchy. In late February 1660, Milton had published a pamphlet called The Readie and Easie Way to establish a Free Commonwealth in which he aimed to show ‘with what ease we may now obtain a free Commonwealth, and by it with as much ease all the freedom, peace, justice, plentie that we desire’.
But by March that year Milton realised that the republican General Monck, who had addressed the restored Parliament and told them that bringing back the King would mean arbitrary power and the return of the prelacy, had now become a kingmaker. As Knoppers shows, political events in March 1660 did not move in the direction that Milton had hoped. Monck, as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, kept the remaining republican sympathisers in the Army under control, preventing any remonstrance by his officers against Charles Stuart, or ‘any single-person rule’, on the grounds that they should not meddle with civil authority. By mid-March, Monck appears to have bowed to the popular will to bring back the King; on 19 March, he accepted a letter from the King and was secretly giving advice that would lead to the Restoration. In a revised version of The Readie and Easie Way, which appeared early in April, Milton hoped to remind the General of his republican principles and so persuade him to save the state:
A king must be ador’d like a Demigod, with a dissolute and haughtie court about him, of vast expence and luxurie, masks and revels, to the debaushing of our prime gentry both male and female . . . to the multiplying of a servile crew, not of servants only, but of nobility and gentry, bred up then to the hopes not of public, but of court offices, to be stewards, chamberlains, ushers, grooms, even of the close-stool . . . a single person . . . will have little els to do, but to bestow the eating and drinking of excessive dainties, to set a pompous face upon the superficial actings of State, to pageant himself up and down in progress among the perpetual bowings and cringings of an abject people, on either side deifying and adoring him.
Charles II entered London on 29 May 1660, in a triumphant parade led by three hundred cavalry in cloth of silver. This royal triumph, John Leonard notes in a clever essay on ‘self-contradicting puns’ in Paradise Lost, is evoked in Book Five:
Meanwhile our primitive great sire, to meet
His godlike guest, walks forth, without more train
Accompanied than with his own complete
Perfections, in himself was all his state,
More solemn than the tedious pomp that waits
On princes, when their rich retínue long
Of horses led, and grooms besmeared with gold
Dazzles the crowd, and sets them all agape.
There is a republican pun on ‘state’ here, and Leonard also notes that Milton, who was hiding in a friend’s house in Bartholomew Close, would have heard the roar of cannons and the crowds shouting ‘God Save the King!’ How typical of Milton, Leonard says, to mock it all ‘with one naked man’.
It is typical, too, of Milton to re-create the scene by remembering a passage from Macbeth, an echo scholars have missed. After murdering Duncan, Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth that his grooms woke up briefly and cried ‘God bless us!’ and ‘Amen’, as if they ‘had seen me with these hangman’s hands’ – that is, hands bloody after disembowelling someone who is being executed for treason. Lady Macbeth then angrily asks Macbeth why he carried the daggers from the chamber, and tells him to take them back and ‘smear/The sleepy grooms with blood.’ He refuses, and she angrily says that she will do it:
If he do bleed,
I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal,
For it must seem their guilt.
As she says this, Macduff and Lennox begin their drawn-out knocking on the castle gate.
Milton remembered this great dramatic moment, when, blind and vulnerable, he composed his epic under the new state. The passage in Book Five says that Charles will be, as his father was, a man of blood, and also remembers the fate of the regicides. As Lewalski points out, Cromwell’s adviser Hugh Peters was executed as a regicide because he promoted ‘regicide before the fact’. This was a dangerous precedent for Milton: he had written The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates after the execution of the King in 1649 to ‘reconcile men’s minds’ by defending the general proposition that it is lawful to execute a tyrant. As Milton imagined those gilded grooms besmeared with blood, he would have been remembering the sufferings of his regicide friends on the scaffold. He would also have been remembering his experience of prison, and the decision by the Commons to select 20 notable non-regicides for rigorous punishment short of death. Milton’s name was floated briefly on 18 June, but not seconded; several of his powerful friends, including Marvell and Sir William Davenant, whom Milton had saved from execution as a Royalist conspirator under the Commonwealth, helped to rescue him. The recollection of images from Macbeth might also contain a trace of subconscious regicide guilt.
Milton may have had the regicide executions in mind earlier in Paradise Lost, when in Book One he describes Moloch:
horrid king besmeared with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of drums and timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard.
Again Milton emphasises noise, which he invariably associates with kings and their followers. The pamphlet he attacks in The Second Defence of the People of England was called Regii sanguinis clamor ad coelum, adversus parricidas anglicanos, or The Clamour of the Royal Blood to Heaven against the English Parricides, and this title is implicit in these lines from Book Six describing the war in heaven:
now storming fury rose,
And clamour such as heard in heaven till now
Was never, arms on armour clashing brayed Horrible discord . . .
The ‘clamor ad coelum’ becomes ‘clamour such as heard in heaven’ (and the internal rhyme on ‘armour’ places responsibility on the Royalists as rebels against Parliament): the noise is an evil intrusion.
Milton is fascinated by horrible discord: as well as appearing in Paradise Lost, the phrase ‘barbarous dissonance’ is used in the much earlier masque Comus, where the ‘wonted roar’ fills the air with ‘barbarous dissonance’ until there is ‘an unusual stop of sudden silence’. Although Milton often sees dissonance as the expression of an uncivilised Royalism, the music of his verse from time to time requires a heavy-metal reverberation to be set against its soaring munificence. He must occasionally throw a spanner in the works and listen to its clatter as the wheels of his mighty style grind and falter. That is what happens in these lines from Book Two:
so eagerly the fiend
O’er bog or steep, through straight, rough,
dense, or rare,
With head, hands, wings, or feet pursues his way,
And swims or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flies.
The crammed, recalcitrant, jarring, heavy stresses express Satan’s struggle, so that when the metre returns to normal iambics in the last line, the monosyllabic nouns and their rhythm seem clean and refreshed, tingling like the silence after loud noise or that ‘unusual stop of sudden silence’. To achieve this effect, however, barbarous dissonance or ‘clamour’ is first necessary, and so Milton has to integrate Satan’s evil and barbaric energy into his metre. In theological terms this strategy embodies the idea of good coming out of evil, while in classical republican ideology it represents a version of the Machiavellian idea that popular tumults give a republican constitution its animating spirit. Thus the devil’s party has a place within an overall structure. There are times when Milton appears to represent Satan as his secret sharer, and, as Stephen Fallon argues in the Companion, he can hesitate between a heroic self-conception, ‘as unparalleled spokesperson of God’, and the fear that by over-reaching he has forfeited God’s favour.
That fear and the anxiety that he is shadowing Satan’s actions can be felt in the witty, tragic, elevated and personal verse paragraph ‘Hail holy light’, which opens Book Three of Paradise Lost. Here, Milton presents himself as having flown, like Satan, ‘through utter and through middle darkness’, and having climbed back up the ‘dark descent . . ./Though hard and rare’. This echoes that impacted moment when Satan struggles through ‘straight, rough, dense, or rare’, and reascends ‘though hard and rare’. But there is another, especially poignant Satanic echo in Book Two, where ‘adventurous bands’ of fallen angels ‘With shuddering horror pale, and eyes aghast/ Viewed first their lamentable lot, and found/No rest’.
In the image of eyes that find ‘no rest’, Milton anticipates the opening paragraph of Book Three, where, addressing ‘holy light’, he writes
Revisit’st not these eyes, that roll in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn.
Here, the Milton who was taught by the heavenly muse to ‘venture down/The dark descent’ is creating a shadowy parallel with the ‘adventurous’ fallen angels whose watchful eyes that find no rest are mirrored by Milton’s sightless, rolling eyes that ‘find no dawn’. The echoic language and cadence intensify the misery of his blindness, and communicate his fear that his over-reaching ambition has cut him off from God’s favour and put him in Hell with the fallen angels. This tragic sense of isolation – ‘wisdom at one entrance quite shut out’ – is beautifully and ironically expressed by the adjective ‘darkling’, used of the nightingale’s song: ‘as the wakeful bird/ Sings darkling’. Here the surface melody as well as the tender diminutive effect and the pun on ‘darling’ obscures the rage, barbarity and chaos of King Lear:
For you know, nuncle,
‘The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long
That [it] had it head bit off by its young.’
So out went the candle, and we were left darkling.
In picking up the Fool’s lines, Milton is sending another coded message from his pitch-dark prison, as well as launching the word ‘darkling’ into poetic diction so successfully that its original tragic context has been all but erased. When Milton says that instead of the ‘book of knowledge fair’ his sightless eyes are presented with a ‘universal blank/Of nature’s works to me expunged and razed’, he is thinking not just of a book with blank pages, but of the heath in Lear. He uses the phrase ‘blasted heath’ from Macbeth in Book One, and it’s clear that Shakespeare’s tragedies are embedded in his imagination and are used by him to represent his personal experience as hellish and desperate.
Recently, I’ve been pondering why Milton represents chaos in Book Three as ‘ever-threatening storms . . . blustering round’, and then immediately compares Satan to a vulture walking on ‘this windy sea of land’, where – lovely image – ‘Chineses drive/With sails and wind their cany wagons light’. The answer, I think, can be found in The Second Defence, where Milton attacks his Royalist enemy Alexander More, supposed author of The Clamour [or Cry] of the Royal Blood to Heaven against the English Parricides. Answering this ‘very effective polemic’, as Lewalski describes it, Milton dismisses More as the ‘barren windy egg’ (‘ovum hoc irritum & ventosum’) from which issued ‘that flatulent cry of the royal blood’ (‘ex quo tympanites iste clamor regii sanguinis prorupit’). These are the robust English phrases which the unnamed translator uses in the Bohn edition of the prose, though ‘flatulent cry’ is more literally ‘tympany’, which means ‘swelling’. The image of Satan as vulture is an adaptation of Eikonoklastes, where Milton attacks Charles I for ‘so greedily pursuing the six members into the house of commons’, where he ‘had not the forbearance to conceal how much it troubled him that the birds were flown. If some vulture in the mountains could have opened his beak intelligibly and spoke, what fitter words could he have uttered at the loss of his prey?’
The connections between the prose and the verse underline time and again what a relentlessly historical narrative Paradise Lost is, and point to the need for an edition of the epic which will detail the historical events it draws on and interprets, as well as mapping the historical geography of the poem: its antipathy to the North, associated with Charles raising his standard at Nottingham, with Scotland and with Strafford’s Yorkshire. Satan’s association with ‘glistering spires’ implies Royalist Oxford, and Pandemonium is the Divinity School in the Bodleian Library, where the Royalists held their parliament after fleeing London. When Milton describes Adam and Eve as ‘Godlike erect, with native honour clad’ he means by ‘native’ to present them as heroically English, and when he calls Eden the ‘happy garden’ he is echoing Richard II, set on the brink of an earlier civil war. In his famous speech, the dying John of Gaunt calls England
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men . . .
Gaunt calls England ‘this earth . . . this teeming womb of royal kings’ and Milton echoes him in Book Seven when he says that earth’s ‘fertile womb teemed at a birth’. Milton substitutes ‘Innumerous living creatures’ for Shakespeare’s kings, but draws on his patriotism to shape his own vision of a free England, also adapting one of Gaunt’s images of ‘insatiate’ cormorants to describe one of Satan’s disguises.
That vision is complicated by the way in which he moves immediately from the patriotic ‘native honour clad’ to an image of Adam that is troubled by history:
His fair large front and eye sublime declared
Absolute rule; and hyacinthine locks
Round from his parted forelock manly hung
The relatively rare parted forelock was worn by Milton and by Oliver Cromwell, whom Milton praised at first, but then failed to write an elegy for, so extending the silence about Cromwell he had maintained during the last months of the Protectorate. As Dzelzainis shows in the Companion, Milton was hostile to the rule of any single person, and reproved Venice and the Dutch Republic for failing to exorcise every vestige of a single person ‘from their bodies politic’. That hostility can be felt in the emphatic, trochaic placing of ‘Absolute’ at the beginning of the line, and in the three strong stresses on the percussive monosyllables of ‘fair large front’. Milton is reliving the anxieties he allowed to infiltrate his apparent panegyric of Cromwell in The Second Defence, where he enjoins Cromwell not to allow liberty ‘to be violated by yourself, or in any one instance impaired by others’. Earlier in this passage, he praises Cromwell for rejecting those proud titles which are admired by the vulgar (this becomes the ‘tedious pomp’ that waits on princes in the ‘grooms besmeared with gold’ passage). He then goes on apparently to praise Cromwell by stating ‘What is a title but a certain definite mode of dignity? Your achievements surpass every degree even of admiration, and much more do they surpass even title; – they rise above the popular atmosphere of titles, as the tops of pyramids hide themselves in the clouds.’ Continuing, he remarks that the title of king would be ‘unworthy the transcendent majesty of your character’. This seems to be unambiguous praise, but the two mentions of pyramids in Paradise Lost both refer to Satan. In Book Two he springs upward ‘like a pyramid of fire’, and in Book Five he comes
to his royal seat
High on a hill, far blazing, as a mount
Raised on a mount, with pyramids and towers
From diamond quarries hewn.
The image of the pyramid associates Satan with ‘impious Pharaoh’, over whose realm – Milton means England – a ‘pitchy cloud’ of locusts are ‘warping on the eastern wind’. The locusts, for Milton, must be symbols of royal favourites and courtiers, and his anxiety about Cromwell’s rule and his increasing use of monarchical symbols towards the end of the Protectorate finds complex expression in the figure of Satan.
Milton remembered his injunction to Cromwell not to violate liberty when he composed the speech in which Samson laments that he is unable to serve his nation:
these redundant locks
Robustious to no purpose clustering down,
Vain monument of strength.
The idea that his locks – now he is locked in prison – are ‘redundant’ places his power in the past. The Commonwealth, by the time Milton composed this passage, was also in the past: it had faltered when Richard Cromwell, who succeeded his father as Lord Protector, lost his nerve in April 1659. As Sharon Achinstein shrewdly notes in the Companion, the description of Samson’s locks is prefigured in a passage in Areopagitica, where Milton imagines ‘a noble and puissant Nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks’. As Achinstein suggests, Milton has mixed feelings about Samson, who is invoked in this image of postlapsarian sexual excess, as Adam wakes in shame:
So rose the Danite Strong
Hercúlean Samson from the harlot-lap
Of Philistéan Daliláh, and waked
Shorn of his strength.
Adam and Eve are also, just before this, implicitly compared to Antony and Cleopatra (both pairs of lovers ‘couch’ on flowers) – this makes them equally strong, equally ‘puissant’. Adam and Eve are both compared to Samson after he is shorn – ‘they destitute and bare/Of all their virtue’: it’s another mutually martial, but defeated image, like that of Antony and Cleopatra after the battle of Actium, and like the image of the English nation in Areopagitica. The verb ‘shorn’ also picks up the image of Satan, who is like the eclipsed sun ‘shorn of his beams’. In both cases the verb is placed emphatically at the beginning of the line in order to demonstrate the weakness of a certain kind of masculine power.
Milton is often perceived as a misogynist, but, as Achinstein shows, he argued in Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce for marriage as ‘an apt and cheerfull conversation’. He advocated a spiritual, companionate relation between the sexes, and his views on marriage, Achinstein states, may be seen as representing a ‘step forward’ for women. It could be argued that the male/female image of the nation in Areopagitica represents this idea of mutually sustaining power, an idea implicit, as Fallon shows in the Companion, in the opening lines of Paradise Lost, where the spirit both broods on and impregnates the abyss, thus combining male and female roles. This is analogous, Fallon argues, to Milton’s role as the author of the poem: he dictated it early in the morning to his amanuensis, complaining that he ‘wanted to be milked’. He was thus mother and father of his text, ‘the passive receptacle of inspiration and the active ancestor of eternal providence’.
The link between Samson’s ‘redundant’ locks and the disintegration of the Commonwealth demands that we consider the role of Richard Cromwell as well as that of General Monck. Richard’s accession, Knoppers shows, was warmly received by a broad section of the gentry. He met various challenges, such as the republican backlash in Parliament in 1659, with combined tact and forcefulness, but faltered under a barrage of propaganda for the ‘Good Old Cause’ that temporarily united sectarians, republicans and politically active elements of the Army. Samson’s locks are compared by his father Manoa to ‘a nation armed’, a ‘camp’ of faithful soldiers, but this ennobling, idealised image is offered just before Samson’s death in the ‘hideous noise’ of the temple’s destruction. In the earlier description of Samson’s locks as robustious ‘to no purpose’, we glimpse the Army divided against itself as the country slides back towards monarchy.
Just over twenty lines after Manoa’s remark, Samson says that his ‘dark orbs’ will yield ‘to double darkness nigh at hand’. This alludes to the autobiographical passage at the start of Book Seven describing the dangers of Milton’s life under the Restoration, where he is fallen on evil days and evil tongues, in ‘darkness, and with dangers compassed round’. Both lines emphasise the proximity of a danger he can’t see, its claustrophobic nearness. The double d sounds in ‘double darkness’ and ‘darkness . . . dangers’ are one example of the way Milton’s ear is again and again drawn in fascinated repulsion to that hard dental. This is again apparent in Samson’s long speech at the beginning of the drama, in which he rages against his blindness and captivity:
Blind among enemies, O worse than chains,
Dungeon, or beggary, or decrepit age!
Light the prime work of God to me is extinct,
And all her various objects of delight
Annulled . . .
I dark in light exposed
To daily fraud, contempt, abuse and wrong.
The ds and ls fight a battle for dominance here, while the name ‘Dalila’ (part symbol, as Cedric Brown has argued, of Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s wife) is implicitly ghosted in ‘delight’ and ‘dark in light’, which prepare for the great pentameter’s crashing ds: ‘O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon’ – where the clanging repeated adjective gives way to healing iambics. A few lines later the l in ‘blaze’ fights back – ‘Let there be light, and light was over all’ – then darkness and death become dominant again in the strong verbs ‘confined’, ‘quenched’, ‘diffused’, until in the last line of the speech there is near equilibrium, slightly biased to the l that signifies light – ‘Their daily practice to afflict me more’. This uneasy equilibrium is evident in the opening line of Samson Agonistes – ‘A little onward lend thy guiding hand’ – where d dominates. But in the closing line – ‘And calm of mind all passion spent’ – l is dominant, and this allows, subliminally, for a hope that in the future a voice might again say ‘Let there be light.’ Also in the last line of Paradise Lost – ‘Through Eden took their solitary way’ – the consonant Milton prized above all others, the l in the centre of his name, stands out. The prophetic confidence evident in these endings imbued everything Milton wrote, and can be felt slightly earlier in Paradise Lost when the Archangel Michael surveys the experience of defeat, as Christopher Hill has described it, and says that those who have been conquered and enslaved by war shall ‘with their freedom lost all virtue lose’. The garden of liberty seems irretrievably and emphatically lost at this point, until Michael prophecies that ‘the one just man alive’ will return and redeem the world:
One man except, the only son of light
In a dark age, against example good,
Against allurement, custom, and a world
Offended . . .
As we know, Milton did not believe in the rule of one man, so the one just man must be Christ at the Second Coming. But, as with Samson, it is difficult not to feel the pressure of Milton’s identification with ‘the only son of light’ in a dark age of custom and temptation.
In Milton’s verse and prose, the affirmation of unshakable principle combines with what the Lady in Comus calls ‘sacred vehemence’. The invective he justified as ‘sanctified bitterness’ becomes the ‘enormous bliss’ which he sings in his verse – both rise out of that holy rage. It may be that post-imperial guilt makes many readers nowadays reluctant to participate in his soaring, architectonic genius, as he builds the nation and affirms its liberties:
Encompassed by such countless multitudes, it seems to me that, from the columns of Hercules to the farthest borders of India, that throughout this vast expanse, I am bringing back, bringing home to every nation, liberty, so long driven out, so long an exile; and as is recorded of Triptolemus of old, that I am importing fruits for the nations, from my own city, but of a far nobler kind than those fruits of Ceres; that I am spreading abroad among the cities, the kingdoms, and nations, the restored culture of citizenship and freedom of life.
Triptolemus, or Trioptolemus, was sent by Demeter to teach humanity how to use agriculture. He was given a chariot drawn by dragons in which he rode through the air scattering seeds on the inhabited earth. It is this benign, organic idea of liberty, in which ideas are the seedcorn of the commonwealth, that Milton celebrates in his writing. This prose passage shows that nearly a decade before he began Paradise Lost, Milton was planting the garden of liberty with fruits for his and other nations. In the original Latin, the phrase translated as ‘to the furthest borders of India’ reads ‘ad extremos Liberi Patris terminos’ (‘to the furthest borders of Father Liber’). Liber is the Italian god who makes all manner of seeds fertile. Milton is punning on ‘liberty’ here, and by using fruit, he chose a primary symbol so tactile it can mislead readers into a simple sensuous realism that defeats his intellectual purpose. This, perhaps, is the real dissociation of sensibility, one that takes place in the minds of those readers for whom liberty is an abstract concept, and an apple is simply an apple. However, these new studies of his life and work should make us all revisit Milton’s verse and prose with bolder wing, in order to appreciate the heroic manner in which his unified sensibility affirms what he regarded as the ideal polity.
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